Get the most from yourself, your company and your people.
By William Atkinson
Thousands of management books are available that can provide excellent information on how to run a business successfully. However, most tend to focus on specialized and coordinated philosophies and strategies. What is often lacking are books that share the accumulated wisdom of successful managers who have learned some keys to success that don’t fit neatly into specific categories.
With this in mind, four NPCA leaders share some practices that have helped them over the years.
Dan Houk, president and CEO of Wilbert Precast Inc., Spokane, Wash.
“I have spent some time thinking about employee relations – how I treat employees and how to get the most out of them,” he says. “I learned quite a bit about my management style from a book called StrengthsFinder.”
One thing Houk realized that he has done over the years, without thinking too much about it, has been to find what is best in people and bring out these strengths, rather than trying to change them and get them to mirror his own personality and style. “In other words, I let them manage and work with their own styles,” he explains.
“After a year or so, once I have learned their particular styles and strengths, I try to work with them and encourage them to become even stronger.” He has found this more successful than hammering on the little things that they may not do as well. He may even shift their responsibilities so that they can avoid the things they don’t really do as well.
“I think this may be one of the reasons that we keep our management people as long as we do. Most of our managers have 23 to 27 years of employment, and most of our office staff has between 10 and 27 years with us.”
Certainly, Houk will fire people if it is necessary. However, it takes a lot to get fired. It usually relates to an attitude problem. “If someone has abilities with a good attitude, I always try to find a place, even if it involves restructuring,” he explains. “I have even given some people demotions over the years, because they just couldn’t do what I was asking them to do. Rather than fire them, I put them in new positions where I felt they could thrive.”
Houk also likes to focus on diversification and change in his company. One thing he has done over the past 30 years has been to constantly diversify into new products that he has identified as being a need in the marketplace. “We continue to move forth with confidence that we will continue to find other new products and grow our business by offering more categories of products to customers to choose from,” he explains.
In addition, he always likes to look at change in general. “We are not a company that remains idle,” he says. “If we have always done something a certain way, that becomes suspect. We want to take the time to consider new ways of doing things. In sum, we don’t cherish the status quo. We challenge it all the time.”
Brent Dezember, president of StructureCast, Bakersfield, Calif.
“We always try to be a customer-focused company,” he says. “We have developed a long-term plan and strategy to achieve this.” Management also creates short-term plans and reviews them on a regular basis.
Key to this strategy are daily meetings designed to identify problems that are occurring with projects. Each day, Dezember participates in a management huddle, an operations huddle and a sales huddle, all designed to keep people focused on goals and targets and to address any issues that have arisen. On Mondays, each huddle may last 30 minutes. On the other days, they are usually 15 minutes or less.
In the management huddle, the team reviews project budgets and any customer issues. “We discuss anything that is ‘bad news’ from the day before or something that is not according to plan,” he says.
The production huddle also looks at glitches. “For example, 100% of our products are custom,” says Dezember. “We have found that if someone in the yard makes a decision on the fly about a product outside of the huddle, in most cases it is going to end up being wrong.”
The sales huddle is almost always focused on customers and how the company can be different from its competitors.
“Work night and day to get the best people you can find,” he suggests. “You can’t soar with lemmings. You can only soar with eagles.” Dezember has found that if you run a measurement-centered organization, not everyone is going to fit in, and not everyone is going to perform the way you need. “I am always looking for good people,” he says. “In fact, I always look for people who are better than I am.”
When hiring for a management position, there are a minimum of five interviews. “We have set questions on each of those five interviews, so applicants have to pass a hurdle each step of the way,” he says. The first two interviews don’t even focus on the job. Dezember wants to find out what kind of person he is dealing with. “There are a lot of phony people out there, and most people in an interview will try to sell themselves to you,” he explains.
As a result, in the first interview, he doesn’t even let the person ask any questions. “We have 20 questions, and we don’t deviate,” he says. “If they start to ask us questions, we don’t invite them back to a second interview, no matter how qualified they may seem to be.” During the second interview, he tells them that he wants them to ask 20 questions. If they don’t ask 20 questions exactly, they aren’t invited back for a third interview. “We have found that people who do well in the first two interviews tend to end up being the best managers,” he says. “In most cases, we try to interview five people to find one person.”
Eric Barger, president of C.R. Barger & Sons Inc., Kingston, Tenn.
It is OK to look to other, more experienced precasters for advice and guidance. “There is always someone in another part of the country who is doing something you have probably not heard about,” Barger explains. He has found that it makes sense to call other precasters out of his competition geography and ask them how they make a certain product, or how they handle a certain situation. “You can learn 40 years of information in two hours doing this,” he says. “This week alone, I talked with three different precasters.”
If you can’t read and/or understand your own financial statements, learn to do so. “A lot of precasters don’t know how to do this, and I was one of them at one time,” he admits. “However, since then, I have learned how to do this.” One way he recommends learning how to do this is to find another precaster whom you trust, particularly one who is successful and knowledgeable on the business end. “This person can go through and show you what to do and what to look for on financial statements,” he says.
What gets measured gets done. Barger has found that if you consistently track certain goals, people learn that you’re paying attention to these and begin to pay attention, too. These can involve production goals, sales, delivery times and efficiency levels. “We don’t measure everything, but there are five or six things that we monitor on a regular basis,” he says.
Be involved at all levels of your company. “I sweep floors every now and again in my plant,” he says. “I was brought up this way. It’s good to sweep every once in awhile, and it’s good to deliver every once in awhile. It’s a good way to hear what’s going on, and you can stay current on what is going on in the company, instead of being isolated in an office.”
Steve Rodgers, general manager of Contractors Precast Corp., Davidson, Md.
“I have been involved in this business for over 40 years,” he says. “I have always believed that you have to provide a quality product, superior service, and you have to be able to meet contractors’ schedules.” To do this, he has found, you have to really be involved in their operations to understand what they need, when they need it and how they need it. “These things help you to develop long-term relationships with customers, and, over time, you may actually end up in a way running their businesses for them,” he says.
Along the same lines, it is also important to be organized if you want to get things done correctly and in a timely manner. “We get a set of plans, schedule production and so on, and we follow these,” he explains.
It is also very important to try to keep your good employees. “You need a staff that really understands what they are doing,” he says. To achieve this, you need to develop positive working relationships with key people. Rodgers tries to keep them happy. In addition, as they move up the ladder, it is important to continue to reward them. “We have turnover among lower level employees, just like everyone else,” he says. “There are always people who will change jobs for 10 cents more an hour. However, we tend to be successful in retaining our key people.”
William Atkinson, Carterville, Ill., is a freelance writer who covers business and safety issues.