tsw_logoMaintaining workplace cultures in steadily growing businesses and providing outstanding customer service were the themes of the afternoon sessions during Winning Workplaces’ 2007 Top Small Workplaces Conference & Celebration in Chicago on October 4, 2007.

“Keeping Your Culture When Your Business Grows,” moderated by Wall Street Journal small business reporter Kelly Spors, featured Andrew Burns, CEO of Illinois-based Emmett’s Tavern & Brewery Company; Nicolas Thomley, President & CEO of Minnesota-based Pinnacle Services, Inc.; and Matt Bowen, President & CEO of Massachusetts-based Aloft Group, Inc. Together they addressed the question, “How do quickly growing organizations sustain their unique ethos despite the growing complexity in their business?”

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Emmett’s Tavern CEO Andrew Burns responds to a question from the moderator.

Bowen suggested that to measure where your culture is headed, it is necessary to put some benchmarks in place. In the case of his firm, which provides brand consulting and communications guidance, his core values are creativity, openness, daring and confidence. “After 11 years, those elements are still the litmus test of how our culture is doing,” he said.

“Our culture quickly started to create itself,” joked Thomley, whose enterprise, which provides housing services to people with developmental disabilities, grew from just Thomley and his former partner to 150 people in less than six months. “When we slowed down a bit from that rapid growth, I focused on creating a fun company,” he added. This focus came from the nature of the work (employees being in contact with seniors who are often in ailing health and people with disabilities) and the fact that Pinnacle is a young company. Levity has emerged in the form of an arcade for employees and holiday parties in which workers have donned sumo wrestler suits and become the subjects of caricature artists’ drawings.

Burns, who with the help of his family has owned and operated four restaurants in suburban Chicago over the last decade, places family values at the core of the Emmett’s culture. He makes it a point to meet with each new hire every Tuesday to put a face to the business, and to describe the customer experience the restaurant strives to achieve and how they fit into that pursuit. In an industry with a 74 to 130 percent turnover rate, Emmett’s has used this approach to consistently outperform the industry.

As each of the leaders’ business has grown, what is the main strategy they advocate to help decision makers at attendees’ firms keep their cultures in check? They explained as follows:

  • Burns: Form an employee council or other group representative of all staff that is encouraged and empowered to tell the leadership frankly how the culture is doing.
  • Thomley: Leaders who are in a business that’s doing well enough that they can transition from overseeing day-to-day operations to focusing on growth opportunities should also use their time at this stage as “chief culture monitor.”
  • Bowen: Develop one or more activities geared around the main cultural values. For instance, as creativity is a central tenet at Aloft Group, the leadership developed a monthly, all-employee event called the “Staff Storm” where everything from clients to outside-the-box questions are openly discussed.
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Headsets.com CEO Mike Faith and St. Louis Staffing President Keith Jacob take a question from the audience.

The concurrent afternoon session, “Extreme Customer Service,” showed attendees how three customer-focused businesses connect employee engagement with satisfied, loyal customers and business success. Panelists included Mike Faith, President & CEO of California-based Headsets.com; Greg Wittstock, Founder and CEO of Illinois-based Aquascape, Inc.; and Keith Jacob, President of Missouri-based St. Louis Staffing. John Brennan of Bank of America moderated the session.

Wittstock, answering Brennan’s question of how the leaders define great customer service, said that because his company supplies water gardening systems to retailers, his definition is helping their customers succeed at building, selling and retailing water features. He said Aquascape’s customer service became “extreme” when the leadership realized they needed to substantially step up their involvement with these retailers – not just providing them product to sell but the tools to build a good business, including setting up financial operations and how to hire, train and motivate their workers.

At Headsets.com, Faith said that exceptional service for them equates to a core value they’ve coined “Customer Love.” He said the business was doing “OK” as a discounter of headsets until he had an epiphany one day and realized that he and his employees needed to go to the extreme to acquire new customers and keep them happy because they’re ultimately responsible for the elements of his employees’ livelihoods, including their food, mortgages, continuing education, hobbies and children’s activities. The approach has proven successful, making the 52 employee firm a major player in the $2 billion U.S. headsets industry.

Although Jacob’s organization, a staffing agency that provides light industrial workers with employment options, is 12 years old, he said his customer service didn’t really become extreme until just a few years ago. At that time, their third-largest customer went bankrupt and left the agency with almost $200,000 worth of uncollectible debt.

In deciding as a company, which had only six employees at the time, to forge ahead and work to pay off the debt, Jacob said he realized he could serve two audiences well: client organizations in the St. Louis area to whom he was supplying workers, as well as their temporary associates. In giving especially great service to the latter group, he provided the former group with workers who tended to perform better and, thus, stay longer at their job sites. The results of this focus have been employee and revenue growth by a factor of three.