A Wall Street 'Numbers Guy' Learns a Better Way: Build an Evergreen Company
Bob Schwartz, SuperSuds
June 01, 2021
I founded our Evergreen® laundromat business, SuperSuds, in 1996. Having come from a career on Wall Street, I launched the company as a numbers guy. I saw opportunity in a $6 billion fragmented industry, consisting mostly of mom-and-pop stores, to grow a regional business through paced acquisitions over time. The metrics were all promising for developing professionally run stores, and I jumped in.
I quickly realized what I had known theoretically in my finance career—there’s a big difference between being an investor and being an operator. I had never managed people, and I was learning as I went.
Fast forward ten years, and I was loving the entrepreneurial journey and the fulfillment of owning and operating the business. I recognized what a great opportunity our SuperSuds model represented if we continued to grow. But I also realized that to grow as I envisioned, I needed to focus on operational excellence—to really dig in and create processes to move us forward. It was at that point that I re-read Jack Stack’s The Great Game of Business (GGOB). It was an eye-opening re-introduction to the principles of open book management.
The implementation of GGOB in 2016 transformed SuperSuds into an open-book, values-driven organization and has propelled us to disrupt our industry. Values-based customer service carried out by team members via intentional, right actions stemming from a shared vision has become our secret sauce.
Our vision is to create an environment where our customers actually look forward to doing their laundry. We do that through our unique customer service experience, which makes a lasting and positive impact on our employees, our customers, and the communities we serve every day.
We have developed our approach to customer service over the years through key learnings from leaders across other industries who have cracked the code—think Ritz-Carlton and Chick-fil-A—but also from ideas generated from our own team. Together, these practices and holistic orientation toward serving or customers drive us toward our vision.
And while we’re incredibly proud to tout that vision on our website, we understand that achieving that goal is only possible when our team lives it every day through consistent actions aligned with our values. We call these right actions “The SuperSuds Way”—specific steps that are each tied to one of our six core values and which, together, create a better customer experience. Because at the end of the day, if our customers aren't getting a good experience, they're not going to come back. Any one of our approximately 20,000 competitors can put in new equipment; what truly moves the needle forward, and creates a lasting competitive advantage, is the way our team engages with our customers.
For instance, one of our six core values is “Go Above and Beyond to Create a Community of Loyal Customers.” The action, or “SuperSuds Way,” connected to this value is an approach we call LAST: Listen to the problem with empathy; Apologize with sincerity; Solve the problem; and Thank the customer for his or her business. Importantly, employees have monetary discretion to solve the problem, when required; they don't have to call a manager or promise to send a refund check. The customer receives a refund, sees their problem solved, and is thanked for their business. The team member is empowered by taking an action aligned with our values and helps us achieve our vision by adding one more satisfied customer to our loyal community.
Through this and other actions within the SuperSuds Way, we have created a road map of specific steps team members can follow. Rather than encouraging employees to abide by a generic value, which might be subject to interpretation from person to person, we are offering a clear, direct action to take today to help the team achieve success. Right actions repeated over time result in behavioral change in employees and across the organization, as these steps become second nature.
To ensure team members continue to take right actions, we’ve implemented systems to recognize and reward employees who are living our values. When a team member takes an action that leads to great customer experience, they get positive feedback, which then reinforces future actions. How do we learn about those actions? We gather feedback from customers through surveys, online reviews, questionnaire cards at our stores, website comments, and an 800-number. We also solicit direct feedback from other employees who notice when a colleague has done something to highlight.
Every week, we gather our key 60-plus employees for a virtual Huddle, during which we share financials and provide team members the opportunity to offer “shout-outs” to their colleagues. If an employee gets a shout out, he or she can spin a wheel right there for a prize. Anyone who gets a shout-out is also entered into a drawing at our monthly meeting, when we report our numbers and do a big spin for a much heftier prize.
In addition to these opportunities for peer- and customer-feedback, I personally send out value cards every week to recognize employees who are going above and beyond through actions they are taking.
While I appreciate the opportunity to recognize team members, I believe that long-term success in achieving our vision is the result of bottom-up support. We created these values as a team, and we will only thrive if every member of the team takes daily actions that reflect our shared commitment. I can’t dictate adherence to values. As Jack Stack says, “people support what they help create.”
As we continue to build the business together, our team takes pride in the financial impact of our shared vision. In a flat-line industry that does not show much growth over time, sales in our original stores have increased about 20 percent in the four years since we implemented GGOB, and our EBITDA is up 50 percent. I believe these results reflect all of the daily actions we take, the financial transparency we share, and the vision we strive toward to create a unique experience for our customers. I can’t wait to see where we go from here.
Bob Schwartz is Managing Member and President of SuperSuds.