Ganesh Iyer headshot

Lead with Kindness and Optimize Rather Than Maximize Profits

I spent my career working for a large, multi-national, public company, until very recently. It was a very positive experience and shaped me into the person and leader I am today. Five years ago, driven by a desire to lead and grow a smaller, private business by focusing on people, I left this large company and became CEO of Etnyre International, a smaller, private, family-owned, American company. With the help of a great team, a great board, and the family itself, in four years we have grown Etnyre by more than 50% in revenues. As I reflect on this, I feel that it has been a profound learning experience; however, this achievement and my own learning were not centered around how to grow a company or how to run a business. They were around the expression of kindness and improving the lives of people by doing good.

Many business leaders are aware of Milton Friedman’s 1970 New York Times article, A Friedman Doctrine. In it, he states that “there is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception and fraud.” We can argue about the “only one social responsibility” part of this statement, and many have, but less attention gets paid to the second part, “so long as it stays within the rules of the game […] without deception and fraud.” This is especially true since the early 1980s, when the common understanding of this doctrine focused primarily on shareholder return at all costs. Jack Welch of General Electric epitomized this kind of leadership, and was in fact, declared the Manager of the Century by Fortune magazine. His tactics certainly did maximize shareholder return, but with a leadership style that was not compassionate and at the expense of tens of thousands of jobs.

Personally, I disagree with this message of Friedman’s doctrine and with leaders who embodied it or continue to do so. Profit is important, and undeniably, no company, private or public, should de-prioritize it. What I believe is that the primary focus of a company should be taking care of all its stakeholders, rather than just its shareholders. In addition to its shareholders, the four main buckets of stakeholders for any company are its customers, members (employees), suppliers, and community. And when you take care of these four groups, the natural result will be of maximum benefit to shareholders as well.

This philosophy and focus on kindness and doing good was welcomed by all at Etnyre. Together, we worked on transforming our culture to focus on all our stakeholders. This transformation led to significantly improving our metrics with respect to safety, customer delivery performance, quality, and other business measures. This in turn enabled us to deliver strong financial performance and provide very good compensation and benefits for our members and strong dividends for our shareholders in a period of high uncertainty, especially during the global pandemic.

As we continue to evolve as a company, we are learning and implementing new ideas. Influenced by Jim Collins’ Good to Great, we created our own flywheel. In the center, we placed our Purpose, which is Improving Lives. This is why we exist and why we do what we do. Surrounding this, the perimeter of the flywheel shows how we do this. We design and build superior products and components, which allows us to attract customers and distributors. With our customers and distribution, we work to provide strong support and therefore build brand loyalty. This in turn leads to optimizing (not maximizing) profits. These profits allow us to reinvest in our business and improve more lives, internally and externally.

The point is that even while focusing on our Purpose and not on Profits, we are naturally optimizing profits and returning great results. Now, what does optimizing profits really mean?

Here is an example of this. We have a significant backlog of customer orders in our company today. We could easily move up to 55+ hour workdays for our members should we want to fulfill all the orders. We would produce more and we would maximize profits, at least in the short-term. However, that’s not a decision we are making. Our factories do a lot of heavy metal fabrication, which is hard, exhausting work. It’s physically draining, and we have to think about the safety of our members. When people work more than 40-45 hours a week, they lose judgment, are unable to focus on quality, and more critically, tend to get hurt much more often. Additionally, their family lives suffer, they become unhappy, relationships weaken both at home and work, and eventually, they quit, thereby increasing turnover and impacting the morale of the team. Given this causation, very deliberately and intentionally, we have chosen to keep work hours down and have accepted lower profits instead in the short term. We believe that in the long term, for all the reasons above, treating our people with kindness will ultimately yield better results across every measure.

Besides intentionally limiting our work hours, we have also introduced many new efficiencies. These include redefining our business processes and implementing lean manufacturing. This initiative was not driven by aspirational profits, but rather by a desire to make our people’s lives easier, to give them a greater opportunity to be productive and voice their opinions. These introductions have led to significant improvement in business performance and have allowed us to grow both organically and through acquisitions.

To return to my original statement about my greatest learning at Etnyre, I have learned and proven that doing good with acts of kindness can go a long way. It can lead to greater success personally and professionally. Improving lives yield profits, which is a wonderful confirmation of my Evergreen® path.

Now, one may argue that this philosophy may be easier to implement in a private company versus a public one. To this I will say, unless you try, you wouldn’t know. I do recognize that decades of tacit agreement that business success and kindness are not appropriate partners may make that path very difficult in many public companies. However, that shouldn’t limit one taking a new direction. What is key is the belief and conviction in taking this path to make this world a better place for everyone.

Mike Olsen Headshot

Partnering with Customers to Innovate and Thrive

If you are looking to stay relevant in the ever-changing tech industry, innovation is key. Too many tech companies begin with a great idea, have initial success, and then fade away as their product or service becomes irrelevant. Proctorio understands this well, as we had the right timing and product when we launched the first AI remote proctoring solution ten years ago. It was ground-breaking at the time, but we know we’d be long gone if we hadn’t found ways to stay relevant.

To keep our business flourishing, we believe in staying up with the times and listening to feedback from our users. Every successful company should make it a practice to do this, yet it is not the norm. This is why we launched Proctorio X, our user conference, in 2019. We have been iterating and growing it ever since (aside from a year off due to COVID).

Every year, we invite people to join us for an exclusive three-day event in beautiful, sunny Arizona. The idea is to create an atmosphere that expresses our culture and values. As an Evergreen® company, we aim to do everything possible to help our communities thrive. As such, we strive to be equitable and sustainable in all that we do. These are the two drivers that shaped our thinking as we built Proctorio X.

In order to get the right people in the room and ensure that they are engaged and ready to share, we knew we had to make the event special. Once a client receives an invite to the event and books their flight, we take care of the rest. This starts with the electric car service to the beautiful hotel, the curated meals, as well as the planned events. We also host a special event for the attendees’ ‘plus ones’ so they feel included. It’s our way of saying thank you for trusting Proctorio. The attendees are a mix of customers, vendors, and partners, who interact with our products and services from their own, unique perspectives. Many attendees work at universities worldwide.

Our goal at Proctorio X is to learn and grow as much as possible, and we can only do that when diverse thoughts and opinions come together. That’s why we offer many learning opportunities during the conference, including breakout sessions where attendees can engage with our team and products and brainstorm together.

For example, we host “Meet the Engineers” where our team can show how the product is evolving based on feedback. Our engineers and product designers are right there in the room, so people can ask any questions. To make it easier to find the person you want to speak with, we have a unique system where the Proctorio team wears a specific color t-shirt to represent their role in the organization. We tell everyone, if you have a question for someone in sales, look for a blue t-shirt. If you need to talk to an engineer, look for a red one.

One of the products that has evolved through this process is our alternate identity solution called GreenKey. This change grew out of a need we perceived that was on the rise; when a test taker is transitioning and needs to update their government-issued identity documents, the process can be difficult and time-consuming. This can cause problems for test takers trying to access exams under their dead names. However, with GreenKey, a multi-factor verification process, they can take exams without the worry of having proper government issued documents, all while protecting the integrity of the exam. Originally this product was just designed as a security solution for the Proctorio results center, protecting the security of the recorded exam content from unauthorized access. Based on feedback from clients, it was suggested at a Proctorio X event that the same multi-factor authentication could be used to speed up the test taker identity check process. GreenKey was born out of conversations with our clients and can be found on Amazon today.

Proctorio X is a substantial investment but it’s necessary for the improvement and development of new technologies in our company. At Proctorio, we go all in, leading with our values. We believe that finding ways to innovate, stay ahead of the curve, and be better than the competition is not just a goal; it is the key to our success.

summit golf carts mountains

Tugboat Institute Summit 2023: Celebrating Ten Years

Ten years. Ten extraordinary years. Last week, in Sun Valley, Idaho, Tugboat Institute® members gathered to celebrate ten years of Tugboat Institute and the Evergreen® movement. Our week together week gave us the opportunity to pause and reflect on what we, as a community, have built together in this time. It was powerful, thought-provoking, and joyous; we have an enormous amount to celebrate.

As we always do when we gather, first and foremost, we learned together. The 18 Tugboat talks that were shared covered topics that touched both the philosophical and logistical ways we lead as well as the personal and family issues that are equally critical to our success. It was a lot to process in a short amount of time and we will be unpacking the profound wisdom that all our speakers shared for quite some time.

On the occasion of our ten-year anniversary, our founder and CEO, Dave Whorton, kicked the week off with a talk entitled On Time. He invited us to consider both the relatively short and incredibly long timeframe of our world and of humanity. In this context, he discussed the strategic advantage for Evergreen companies of their inherent, long-term view that is wholly unique to them. This long-term view that can easily span decades enables Evergreen businesses to 1) compound the growth of not only their capital but their people, culture, brands, innovations, and know-how for decades and generations, 2) avoid net zero-sum games that are endemic to VC backed, PE owned and public companies, and 3) have a higher consciousness in their relationships, including public expressions of love for their colleagues and customers.

Our slate of speakers was a fabulous mix of Tugboat members and wonderful friends and supporters of Tugboat, both old and new. On the first day of talks, member speakers included Mac Harman, of Balsam Brands, who is one of Tugboat’s very first members, John Montgomery, of Bridgeway Capital Management, Jeff Cook, of ARCO, Allen Serfas, of Assistance Home Care, and Katie Hopkins, of Truck Centers Inc. Mac and Jeff spoke about their journeys from founding to building their companies as well as the Evergreen mindset that guided them and that has proven to be their greatest strategic advantage. John spoke inspiringly about the work Bridgeway’s foundation has done toward ending genocide worldwide. Allen spoke about a problem we almost face at some time – talking to our aging parents about care. And Katie shared her learnings about the advantages of partnership with one of their most important suppliers. These member speakers were joined by Madeline Levine, a practicing psychologist, author, and founder of Challenge Success, Peter Boumgarden, PhD, a professor at Washington University’s Olin Business School, Stephen M. R. Covey, author of The Speed of Trust and Trust & Inspire, and renowned artist Phil Hansen. Madeline and Phil are a longtime friends and supporters of Tugboat and the Evergreen movement. Madeline spoke about the importance and challenge of fostering resilience in young people, whether family or colleagues, while Phil inspired us to consider constraints as a source of creativity and to avoid self-limiting beliefs. Peter offered a framework and tools to improve productivity and efficiency as we organize our precious time. And Stephen M.R. Covey spoke about the style of leadership – trust and inspire – that aligns with the Evergreen mindset and that will be key to success in the modern age.

On the second day of talks, we again welcomed both member speakers and speakers who joined us from a variety of areas of expertise. Member speakers included Ben MacAskill of Awesome, Carrie Van Winkle Greener of Pappy & Company, Oscar Gonzalez of Northgate Markets, Val Hollingsworth of Hollingsworth & Vose, Mel Gravely of TriVersity Construction, John Gavan of KPFF, and John Garrett of Community Impact. Ben shared the work his company has been doing, in partnership with the Library of Congress and others, to preserve historic photographs. Carrie, Val, and Oscar shared different aspects of their experiences growing up and working in and alongside their family businesses, including expanding the brand reach of the company, innovating for the long term, and lifting up their families and their communities over generations. And Mel, John, and John came together for a powerful panel discussion about the steps they are taking in their own spheres of influence to advance the conversation about the rights gaps and how we can build our individual awareness and take action toward elevating all races in our work. These members were joined by Jim Gilmore, co-author of The Experience Economy, Dr. Allan Mishra, Founder of DareToBeVital and a leading orthopedic surgeon at Stanford University Medical Center, and, in a pre-recorded talk, Howard Behar, former President and Director of Starbucks and a longtime friend and supporter of Tugboat. Jim invited us to consider what business we are really in, as we consider how today’s economy has evolved from the early days of human industry. Howard shared two stories, of two Jims, that illustrate the power and importance of putting People First. And Allan invited us to consider how to make the best use of our time on this earth, and to feel energized and vital in our lives.

Needless to say, the talks inspired us, provoked new ideas, and sparked conversations amongst us that will continue to evolve for a long time. The profound depth and variety of wisdom within our community continues to define and underscore the powerful magic that happens when Evergreen leaders gather. The atmosphere of vulnerability and authenticity that emerges when Evergreen leaders gather allowed us all to have real, authentic conversations that help us understand and help each other.

Outside of the incredible learning this week provided us all, it also afforded us the opportunity to celebrate. We celebrated old friendships, we celebrated new connections, we celebrated a group art project that left many moved, and we celebrated the beauty and the magic of Sun Valley.

After 10 years of serving Evergreen companies, we are confident in the future, given what we know about these largely unseen and underappreciated Evergreen companies and their leaders and owners. They deserved the celebration, and our team did, too.

Cody Nath headshot

Supporting Community and Business Through One People First Initiative

The story I want to share with you today starts with the convergence of two separate stories, that happened to intersect at just the right time. One is the story of the evolution of my company, Refined Technologies Inc (RTI), and the other my introduction, through a friend, to a sector of society that needs attention. Both stories are grounded in the People First mindset that I try to bring not only to my work, but to my life in general.

First, a bit about RTI. RTI is an oil and gas service business. We go into refineries, petrochemical plants, and other hydrocarbon producing facilities and we help them clean their equipment when it is time for turnaround and maintenance. RTI has evolved over the years. Initially, we were a chemical business; we sold chemicals to the refineries who used them to do the cleaning themselves. Then we saw an opportunity, and we became a service business; we started bringing in our own teams to do the cleaning for them. When companies shut down part of a refinery to clean the equipment, they can’t just shut down production, so our clients were having to bring in temporary facilities to keep the work going while the cleaning was taking place. Finding temporary facilities is complicated, and our clients did their best–with uneven results. It’s important to do this work right, or it can become a safety issue. Eventually, we perceived an opportunity and a need to rent and install the temporary facilities ourselves. In this newest phase of our business, we have evolved from a light asset business to a heavy asset business, so in addition to the cleaning work that we continue to do, we now need to store, maintain, track, certify, and inventory all our equipment. Our team is growing quickly, and like many of you, we are finding it challenging to fill all our open positions in today’s labor market.

As all this was happening at RTI, I became involved in an initiative that a friend had started in Kansas that has to do with fair-wage work for incarcerated people. I was inspired by the work they were doing to support this marginalized population, so I got involved in a prison reentry ministry. The essence of this work aims to solve the enormous challenges incarcerated people face as they reenter society. They are at a massive disadvantage.

In Harris County, Texas, which is the Houston area, there are approximately 15,000 men and women released from state prison each year. That’s in just one county. This does not include federal prisons, so the true numbers are staggering. As I got involved in this work, I learned that there were organizations doing a variety of reentry services, but those organizations were not able to offer enough services to even come close to meeting the demand.

In Harris County, when prisoners are released, they are dropped at the Greyhound bus station, given $50, and told not to recidivate. The odds are stacked against them, to say the least. In 2017, with a group of friends, we started a nonprofit that provided reentry services. We named the organization CrossWalk Center, positioning ourselves as a metaphorical crosswalk, looking to help formerly incarcerated individuals get from one side to the other safely. It immediately became obvious that in order to make the transition back to society successfully, you need housing, you need support, and you need employment, so that was our focus.

As I was working on CrossWalk, at RTI, we were growing. We had just started this maintenance business and needed a lot of people to maintain the equipment we had acquired. Unemployment in Texas was, and still is, very low. It’s reported at 3%, but in reality, it’s essentially zero. We were struggling to find employees for the new jobs we had created. We had a revolving door of temporary employees, coming in, working for a while, and then failing drug tests and leaving. We were trying to run a business that was safe and reliable. It wasn’t working. It finally occurred to me that maybe my work with CrossWalk could intersect with my work at RTI.

I sat down one day and talked with one of our supervisors in the maintenance department and asked if he would consider hiring ex-offenders. He had recently been ordained a minister and he said, absolutely. So, in January of 2018, we hired our first CrossWalk guy – Smitty. Smitty was 51 years old and had done 25 years in prison. He wanted to work. To say that the experience was a success is an understatement; Smitty is still on our team today, and now works as a supervisor.

Since bringing Smitty on board we have learned a lot. We didn’t get it all right from day one, but we are doing it with consistency and repetition now. Today, we have about 40 team members who have come through this program. Many, though not all of them, have become involved in a ministry program. That is not a necessary part of it, but we have found that it is necessary that they find some higher reason for living. Whether it’s God or family or something else, it’s about making the decision to change your life.

Aside from being able to offer an important opportunity to these individuals, we have also seen great results from a business standpoint. This has become an invaluable addition to our business and created an aligned and differentiated culture and team. Our turnover rate is less than 10%, and we’ve been able to successfully grow and scale this new arm of our business.

We are working with local businesses now, trying to help other employers implement programs like ours. Together, we hope to find jobs for 500 formerly incarcerated individuals in the greater Houston area this year. There’s a process to follow and education is a big part of the conversations we have with these other Houston businesses. You can’t just go down to the bus station and start hiring people. It works best when you work with a partner organization, whether it’s a ministry or not, who can educate and support this population. Partner organizations help with a robust interview process that helps you select the people who are most likely to have success, stay clean, and be dedicated employees. It’s a work in progress, but it’s growing, and we are thrilled.

Today, I am a major advocate for second-chance employers. What started out as a ministry passion project has opened my eyes to a big problem in society. We are facing a huge hiring crisis, in the $20/hour jobs as much as the more executive level jobs across the country. At the same time, there are 19 million people with felony records in the US. The unemployment rate for ex-felons, unlike 3% for everyone else, is somewhere around 45%. There is no reason to believe that is going to improve anytime soon. Why shouldn’t we try to solve both problems at once? Solving the problem of how to help ex-offenders can become a real solution to a business problem. We took a calculated risk, and it’s been a great success.

If I have one piece of advice for the Tugboat Institute® community that I have learned from this experience, it’s this: if you are interested in being in business for the long term and you care about your communities, which I know you do, why wouldn’t you consider this as a possible solution to both your problem and to a growing problem in our society? It has huge potential to be a win-win for everyone.

Gary Kunkle Headshot

Don’t Assume They Know!

As I began working with several Tugboat Institute® members over the past year, I saw a pattern. Even the best run Evergreen® companies experience the same challenge: the need to routinely and clearly speak their Purpose and plan deep into their organizations.

Failing to deeply and clearly communicate is one of the most common opportunities for improvement from among the 50 growth practices covered in the Tugboat Evergreen Growth Training Series. Left unaddressed for long periods, this communication deficiency can significantly hinder organizational performance, eat away profits, and undermine the firm’s long-term full-growth potential.

Each day employees throughout the organization, down to the lowest levels, are required to make decisions. Many of those decisions require deviating from normal standard operating procedures, if there are any, and applying a bit of creative experimentation. A customer has a unique problem, a package needs special handling, there may be a better way to execute an important task. The CEO or President needs to be certain that when employees take such initiative, their actions and desired results are highly consistent with what their Evergreen company is striving to achieve and aligned with its Purpose and growth plan. Otherwise, employees are likely to make decisions and take risks that are not in the best interest of the enterprise. This causes entropy, which essentially means sub-optimal efficiency created by a significant variation between what is being done and what you want done for the long-run good of the firm. This can, in turn, destroy productivity, waste resources, and shrink margins.

The good news is that addressing this critical issue is fairly straightforward. Evergreen companies must focus on the core components of effective communication: clarity, frequency, and reach. The Purpose and plan must be clear, easily understood, and consistently reiterated to embed them into the collective memory. It is not enough for the Purpose to be hung on the walls and printed on t-shirts, although that might be a start. Purpose and plan, need to be discussed everywhere: annual meetings, team meetings, strategy offsites, the newsletters that go out, holiday events, etc. Remind, remind, and remind again. And they don’t just need to know what they are; they also need examples of what they look like in action, or how they play out in the activity of the team. From the first hour a new employee goes through on-boarding, they need to be enculturated with Purpose, and they must be reminded over and over throughout their working tenure with the company. These consistent and repetitive interactions cascade the message from the leadership team down to the lowest level employees.

Fortunately, implementing effective communication strategies does not require exorbitant financial investments. The primary costs are time and attention, particularly at higher levels of the organization. If your Evergreen company is small, this is the place to start. The potential returns on this investment are substantial.

To further enhance communication efforts, for Evergreen companies that are larger and have the means, hiring an experienced and dedicated specialist can be a prudent move. This individual would be responsible for managing and ensuring the consistent dissemination of these critical messages throughout the organization, thereby maximizing their impact. This step can set you on your way to removing one of the obstacles that stands between you and optimized Paced Growth.

The significance of effective communication in an Evergreen organization cannot be overstated. It bridges the gap between the executive leadership team's strategic decisions and the decentralized implementation of those decisions throughout the company. By clearly articulating the company's Purpose, as well as the growth plan, and continuously reinforcing them through conversation, companies can mitigate entropy, enhance productivity, safeguard margins, and significantly increase their odds of long term, profitable growth.

Is this a problem in your organization? Take the first step to find out; look outside of the leadership team and evaluate how well your Purpose is understood and brought to life by every member of your organization. Recognizing the importance of effective communication is critical to unlocking the full potential of Paced Growth, and fostering a culture of shared Purpose.

Justin Erickson headshot

The Strategic Advantage of Evergreens in Making Acquisitions

Harbor Foods was founded by my great-grandfather 100 years ago. We are an independent food distributor primarily servicing 6,000 restaurants and convenience stores up and down the West Coast. Today, we have about 1,200 employees in multiple locations, and we are growing both the geographies we serve and the size and complexity of our company. As the fourth-generation leader of Harbor, I feel that it is my task to look toward the next 100 years; what do we need to do now to ensure that we are in a strong position to endure?

At Harbor, we have employed many strategies to grow, evolve, and expand our business. Organic growth is an important strategy for us, in places where we have the capacity to grow. We are also working to grow in terms of capital investment; we buy new facilities when possible, which we then lease back to the business. Our investment in real estate assets helps us diversify and strengthen our company. But perhaps the most significant and effective way we have and can continue to grow is through acquisitions. In large part, this is a great fit for a company like ours because the structures we need for new territories and markets – including experienced team members, trucks, distribution centers, and customers already in place. Our culture of being an Evergreen® company in an industry built by families and independent entrepreneurs gives us a strategic advantage in acquiring other like-minded family companies.

To understand why this is so, it is first necessary to understand the food distribution industry. It is relatively small, and although there have been a few giants in our space for a long time now, including Sysco and US Foods, many in the industry are independent and family owned, like we are. Over the years, it has not been unusual for independent regional companies like ours to come together to form share groups and buying groups, and to learn from each other. Sometimes we even team up to serve customers with a national or international geographic footprint. Brands like Subway are a great example of this; we serve them in Washington, while another independent distributor might serve them in Florida, and we align our model to provide national distribution with the service of a local family business. As a result of the collaborative nature of our space, my great-grandfather, my grandfather, my father, and now I have built strong relationships with companies who might be our competitors in some ways, but who are mostly friends.

Although I joined Tugboat Institute® recently, we have always been deeply Evergreen. The way we run our company is rooted in caring for our people and the communities we serve. Although not every family business is run this way, it is not uncommon, and we share values with many of the other small food-distribution business leaders we have connected with over the years. They know us, we know them, and we trust each other.

Despite this shared long-term, Evergreen orientation, there are times when one of the companies in our space decides to sell. Usually, they come to a point where the next generation doesn’t want to take over the business, so the owner is forced into a position where they have to sell, even if they don’t want to. When those owners look at their options, we are an attractive possibility. A few go into ESOPs, but we compare very favorably to the big, public companies that are also looking to acquire. They like the possibility of selling to us for a few reasons.

First, we are Evergreen, independent, and family-owned, which feels a lot more like what they’re used to. Second, our focus on people, on creating great workplaces, and on culture helps them feel good about selling their business too, because they care about their employees and want them to be in good hands. Finally, even though sometimes the public companies are offering more money, most owners in this position decided long ago that money was not their absolute top priority. They know that if they sell to Sysco or US Foods, they might just shut down their little company, flip the customers into an existing operation, and dissolve the culture completely. It means more to these owners to sell to a company who is going to preserve their legacy rather than just to the highest bidder. This is not true of every seller of course, but for the ones who have run their businesses in an Evergreen way themselves, they are often willing to make it possible for us to acquire them, even if that means selling at a discount in terms of multiples of EBITDA or helping finance the acquisition.

In November, we acquired a company in Modesto, California. They were a fourth-generation business like us and had just reached 101 years. Their culture was built on the Evergreen principles. We became the new owners of MTC Distributing, yet they remained a 100+ year old family business – an Evergreen company. Interestingly, the messaging around our Evergreen culture and mindset as a reason to sell to us came not just from me, but also from the owner we bought the company from. I have known him for about 15 years, and over that time, we have spent time building a relationship with one another. I felt like he thought of me as his own son, taking over the family business.

Our Evergreen strategic advantage in making acquisitions occasionally extends beyond the world of the small, family businesses. In 2019, we bought the Seattle branch of Food Services of America. They were on track to be acquired by US Foods, but the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) stepped in and required that some of their branches be divested, to prevent them from completely dominating the markets. We put in a bid, which is more formal than the process we normally follow for acquisitions, and we were competing with the giants. The FTC was very involved in the sale, and we got to fly back to Washington DC and present our plan to a committee at the Trade Commission. They loved our story. They saw that we were going to create jobs, take care of people, and improve our communities. The FTC got final approval of the buyer for this deal, and they chose us, which was an incredible affirmation of the Evergreen mindset, even in the eyes of the FTC. I have to say that I have felt way better about the FTC’s involvement in deals since this experience.

As I look to the future, I am happy that our experiences making acquisitions are proving effective. I expect that this will remain a leading strategy for Harbor as we set the foundation for our next 100 years. I am even more pleased that this experience affirms our commitment to doing things the right way, putting People First and taking care of our communities. As my fellow Evergreen leaders know, the markets do not always, in the short term, reward those who elect to follow a path grounded in values. But for the Evergreen leader, doing things the right way is the path to long term success.

Pierre Trapanese No Man's Land

When What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

I know many of you in the Tugboat Institute® community are familiar with Doug Tatum’s No Man’s Land. For those who are not, here is a brief explanation.

As companies move to scale, they almost universally reach a place where they become “too big to be small, and too small to be big,” often between 150 and 200 employees. To survive, they need to take the leap and build toward becoming a larger, more complex organization. To do this, they must build the structures to support this new version of themselves. This is expensive, and further complicated by the fact that the investment is required before the new systems and processes can start generating the revenue and profit that will support them. Especially for an Evergreen® company that is committed to growing from its own fuel and not taking on outside investors, this can feel like a leap of faith.

I think about reaching No Man’s Land like this– it’s when you get to the point where, what got you here, won’t get you there. In 2018, we unknowingly found ourselves deep in No Man’s Land in a rapidly deteriorating business; the faster we grew, the faster we lost money. We were completely unprepared.

By 2018, Northland Controls, which supplies commercial security systems and solutions, had already been in the midst of No Man’s Land for two years, but far too busy to realize we were in trouble. In fact, we kept doubling down on what got us here. Superficially, our customers were the Who’s Who of Silicon Valley and we were growing. Under the hood, our employees were stressed, our quality was deteriorating, we were missing deadlines, our bank was nervous, and our best customer called to ask what was going on.

The response from my team? “Don’t worry, we’ve got this.” But we didn’t have this at all.

In the short-term, we focused on what we knew– working hard and executing flawlessly. Our tactics were our strategy. It was enough to stop the bleeding and buy us some time, but it did not get us out of the inflection point. Fortunately, I had long ago put together a board of outsiders to advise me. My board, having a more objective perspective, took a stand. It was time to make some changes.

As I considered what would be required for us to make these changes, the reality that what got us here would not get us there was impossible to ignore. The most challenging part was taking a hard look at my team and understanding that, although we couldn’t have built Northland to where it was without certain key players, those same key players were not the ones who could lead us into our future. I had to let go of some very senior people, who had become friends and to whom I owed a great deal. I lost sleep over the decision, and it was as difficult as I imagined, but as soon as it was done, I knew it was the right move.

We began implementing our plans in 2019 and were thrilled to see positive results by June and July. Serendipitously, in June of 2019, I had the good fortune of seeing Doug Tatum speak at Tugboat Institute Summit. He gave me the courage and the understanding to push through with the moves we had been making with confidence. To have language for what we were experiencing was an immense help and a relief. We began adding the extra layers we had planned for, we implemented much needed processes and policies, we were growing again, and we were starting to see profits move toward a place where we could, once again, fully support our team, our plans, and our activity. By December 2019, we had definitively broken out of No Man’s Land. We were thrilled!

And then, in March of 2020, Silicon Valley, our customer base, and the rest of the world, shut down. We work in the commercial real-estate space; with people no longer going to offices, no one was installing security. We were right back in No Man’s Land. This hit us hard, but as an Evergreen company committed to taking care of its people, we made the commitment to hunker down and preserve the team.

Our industry was slow to recover. For 18 months, people largely continued to work from home and our customers remained conservative and quiet. Despite our commitment to keeping our team whole, we did eventually have to lay off a small number of people, which was painful and felt like a setback. Nonetheless, we knew we were back in No Man’s Land, and we had no choice.

The second time through No Man’s Land was easier; we had a greater awareness of what it meant, and we were able to rely on the tactics we used a few years earlier. Entering into 2022, we decided to invest in “overhead” functions so that we could step up to the next level and build a buffer between us and No Man’s Land. Thanks to our careful management of cash throughout the pandemic, we were able to grit our teeth and invest $4 million in uncovered overhead. We invested in sales and marketing, continuous business improvement, HR, finance, and IT teams. We added extra layers of operational management so we could scale the people who were doing the work. And it worked; we had a great year, going from 250 people generating $78M in 2021 to 310 people doing $95M in 2022. This despite losing $2M as a result of the uncovered overhead investments. Our people and customers were happy, we were working through supply chain issues and our customer base being in a recession (the high-tech world), and we had the capacity to keep growing without stressing our employees and infrastructure going forward. We made it through No Man’s Land– again!

As I look back on our growth over the past four years, I am encouraged by the numbers. We started our first push through No Man’s Land with about 250 people. We maintained at 250 as we held tight through the pandemic. Today, despite our recent layoffs, we are a team of 300, we have absorbed the uncovered overhead costs, we are performing better than ever, and we are focusing on profitability and cash reserves.

This journey out of No Man’s Land is hard. After having been through it twice, I understand why people sell their businesses. It’s hard work, it’s a big responsibility, and a founder may worry, like I did, that they may not be qualified to take it to the next step. Why risk losing everything – again – when the alternative is selling and being able to tell yourself that someone with the funds to make the leap and who promises to maintain the culture is now in control? It’s an easy narrative to assuage the conscience while walking away with a pile of money.

Being part of Tugboat helped us tremendously. It gave our team the language, perspective, vision, and perseverance that allowed us to break through No Man’s Land, twice. When we needed to, we were able to prioritize preserving the company over profits. And our focus on the long term gave us the patience we needed to watch this all come to fruition.

Ann Rhoades headshot

Build Your Own Internal “United Way"

Life is full of surprises, not all of them good ones. If you run a company, you likely have had employees at every level encounter life crises that have temporarily affected their ability to survive, not to mention do their jobs. As a co-founder of a People First company, we wanted our team to find a way to help them, so we did.

When we started JetBlue, for my co-founders and me, a primary objective was to create a company with a culture of caring for its people and customers alike. Every aspect of the company is tied to this value, but one program in particular has contributed powerfully, in both concrete and philosophical ways, to communicating this mission, and that is the JetBlue Crewmember Crisis Fund (JCCF).

The mission of the JCCF is to assist crew members and their immediate families by providing short term support in times of crisis when other resources are not available. We started it 20 years ago, in the very early days of JetBlue when we were still a small company with 100 employees; we wanted it to be in our DNA right from the start. JetBlue made an initial contribution of $10,000 to get it started, and it has grown with us. Today it contains millions of dollars.

The JCCF grows through contributions from the JetBlue team. There are three primary avenues through which these donations come in. The first is direct, regular deductions from payroll. Employees are introduced to the program as early as the recruiting phase, and when they onboard, we hand them the forms to enroll. At the moment, about 53% of the employees, who now number over 26,000, participate in payroll donations to the JCCF. This is the most significant avenue for contributions to the fund.

Another common source of donations is a portion of bonuses. Management in particular has been very generous with this type of donation, which has helped the fund grow significantly. Finally, we have some employees who just cannot afford to give part of their pay, so they participate in fundraising, donating their time to organize events which benefit the fund. Fundraising events are typically organized by groups of employees, although JetBlue has grown large enough to have a fundraising committee now which helps with larger events. But many are still quite small scale.

For example, last year a group of teammates organized an ice cream social. They got a company to donate the ice cream, sold it for two or three times what it cost, and were able to raise over $1000. Another group organized a rooftop social. It was a happy hour, they had raffle prizes, and people paid a certain amount to attend. In addition to raising money for the JCCF, the event provided an opportunity for the team to get together socially and have fun. It’s been too long since we have all been able to get together, so everyone was thrilled by the opportunity. It was a wonderful event and raised over $5000.

You may think, JetBlue is a very large company, and mine is very small–how could I make this effective? Through our work starting and advising companies of all sizes, we can tell you that small companies can absolutely do this too. The strategies may look a little different, but they can be just as effective.

In small companies, alternate strategies are effective, especially in the early days. One powerful possibility is for employees to donate unused vacation days, which then get moved directly into the fund from the accruals. Fundraising can be effective in smaller companies as well. If you are willing to be creative, you can grow a significant fund, even if your team is small. At JetBlue, we ran a year-round raffle, with prizes that included things like spending a day with Don, our CEO, or tickets to sporting events. Small companies can absolutely do this too!

Regardless of your size, there are several important things you must get right as you set this up. Right from the start, your objective and your process must be transparent and extremely clear. First, you get the legal document to set up a 501C, and then you write the rules, clarifying very precisely what specific types of crises are eligible for grants. It’s a charity, so you need to send out an annual report to everyone who participates, so they can see how their contributions are being used.

As you build out the application process, you need to ensure that someone or a small group has administrative oversight of the program, but it’s not complicated – it’s not an add to staff. At JetBlue, an Office Manager has overseen the fund since its inception. Since it has grown so large, she does now spend almost half her time on it, but when it was small, it was much less. Then you establish a board. Today, JetBlue’s JCCF board is 14 members, though we started with just five. They are all A players, they are all respected people whose managers have recommended them, and they come from every area of the company. They meet once a month to review applications, and sometimes convene emergency meetings when there is an urgent need.

For the JCCF, common situations that create a crisis-level need include divorces and crew members who suddenly find themselves single parents responsible for the entirety of their rent or house payment. Natural disasters are also a common cause for crisis-level need. Health issues can also quickly become a crisis in a family.

All requests are reviewed by the JCCF board. The board’s job is to ensure that our process is uniform and fair and that we look at each application through the same lens.

Last year, for example, JetBlue had many crew members who were affected by hurricanes. They lost their homes, or their homes were heavily damaged. It was a year of high need; we received a total of 580 applications for funding, and we were able to grant 373, or 64% of them. That year we gave out $1.3M in grants, but we had actually collected $1.67M. In addition to the regular contributions that many of our team members make, when the crisis hit, many management members stepped up and gave significant amounts, and some board members chose to donate part of their cash comp to the fund. It seems that the generosity of our team always manages to keep up with and even outpace the need – that’s how much everyone cares for our team at JetBlue.

If you do this right and define the criteria carefully, you’ll see that once you have established your program, you are able to fund between 60%-70% of applications. People learn quickly what is appropriate to ask for and what is not.

Since its founding in 2002 the JetBlue Crewmember Crisis Fund has awarded close to $11M in grants. It is clearly important for practical reasons, but it is also an important way JetBlue communicates to the team what kind of a company they are. It’s a core value to take care of their people, and as we built this, we wanted to be sure we communicated and lived that value in everything we did. When you join the team, JetBlue will take care of you.

Mark Bernhardt headshot

How We Increase the Odds of Acquisition Success

Burgess & Niple (B&N) is a 111-year-old engineering and architecture firm. Over the years we have done more than a dozen acquisitions. I joined the company in 1997, and as I came up through the ranks and made observations from where I sat, my impression was that many of our acquisitions didn’t take very well. It seemed that the companies we acquired were kept at arm’s length and never really became part of B&N, or it took years for integration to occur. It took me some time to understand it, but it’s clear to me now that the reasons behind these unsatisfactory results could help drive future successes: culture and staff engagement.

As an Evergreen® company, B&N’s culture and values are paramount. Being a professional services firm, we don’t make widgets. Our people are our greatest asset, which is why Talent is one of the top priorities outlined in our Strategic Plan. When I took over my role of President & CEO in 2019, we had not completed an acquisition in a decade. As we prepared for the first acquisition under our new leadership team, we sought to increase our odds of success by focusing on cultural alignment and engaging more staff in the process through what we have termed our “integration partners” program.

It starts when we are vetting a company to see if we think they would be a good fit to acquire. We dig into all the financial details and technical capabilities of course, but we have added another layer to perform a deeper level of cultural due diligence. This starts in a joint Visioning Session with leadership from both firms. We are big fans of Simon Sinek, and in this session, we talk about our Why, our Purpose, and what we can achieve together post-acquisition. We also use a cultural assessment tool that is shared with the new team before we go into the meeting. This tool has 20-30 cultural characteristics that are aggregated into different categories. The B&N team and the leadership at the firm we plan to acquire complete the assessment and then we evaluate cultural compatibility together. This helps us identify where we have the most in common and where the soon-to-be-acquired employees are likely to see and feel the greatest differences. 

As we move forward with the acquisition, we start to lay the groundwork for assigning integration partners to reinforce cultural compatibility. Each person in the newly acquired firm is paired up with a B&N employee. Typically, a new employee’s integration partner is someone in a similar role, and often someone who has been through an acquisition as an employee of a company acquired by B&N. We dig into their staff’s resumes and develop a partner list as the first step. The B&N employees are then contacted and asked if they want to support the integration. We have found this is a great way to engage a wider cross-section of the firm in an acquisition and in our broader strategic planning goals. 

We coach the B&N employees who agree to help on how the process will work and ask them to introduce themselves within a week or so of announcing the deal. Initially, they have calls about once a month and check in to share a bit about how long they’ve been with B&N, their experiences at the firm–both good and bad–and let their partners know that they are available as a resource. They help them with technical and policy questions, but most important are all the pieces that are not written down, like the cultural norms, and how we speak to and behave with one another. We also use these partners to collect important feedback about the onboarding experience. I, or someone from the leadership team, checks in after a few months have gone by. What is it like to be acquired by B&N? What works well and what needs to be improved? Our hope is that they form a relationship, and while we do not require that they keep it going for a specific amount of time, I know there are some people who still meet quarterly, even three years later, just to check in.

Aside from honoring our culture and improving employee retention, this process helps us become stronger and more competitive. We are a mid-sized engineering firm with 470 employees spread across the country. We are often competing with publicly traded firms with thousands of employees. Our model is made up of a network of small offices, which sometimes have as few as 10 or 20 people. If we want to go after big projects, we need to bring in resources from all around the company to make one big, virtual team that can go head-to-head with our larger competitors. As we onboard the new employees, we encourage the integration partners to pull their partners into projects, which gets everyone working in the trenches together, creates trust, and makes us all feel that we are one team. This has been a highly effective program for accelerating that kind of teamwork and assimilating people into the culture and various projects quickly and effectively.

This is similar in some ways to assigning new employees a mentor, but it’s different because the integration partner is always a peer. It’s not about training; it’s about getting to know someone and helping them find their place at B&N, and then stay on as a significant contributor. It’s important for new employees to have someone who is not a supervisor in this role; new employees do have supervisors and oversight, but this is a different kind of relationship.

Our acquisitions typically range in size from very small–about 10 or so–to upwards of 40 people, so this program does require the investment of some time and attention. Even though so many people are involved, this program is relatively simple and easy to run. It creates so much value that any costs associated are far outweighed by the benefits. Each time we learn more and continue to integrate acquisitions more effectively. It’s been a wonderful tool for strengthening our culture and growing our team and our capabilities in a culturally aligned and Evergreen way.

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A Fresh Perspective in Leadership can be Powerful, if it Meets a Few Important Criteria

It is not uncommon for a company founder to be an operator. Nor is it unusual for leadership through the early years, while a company is setting its foundation and solidifying its identity and strength, to draw from the operators who have worked there since the beginning. But at a certain point, as a company grows, scales, and moves into its next phase, a leader who sees things through a different lens can bring new insight and help a company expand in ways it may not have seen before. A few critical pieces need to line up to make this a success: the new perspectives this person brings must solve problems that have been identified, his or her mindset must be in line with the values of the company, and the new leader must take the time to learn the business inside and out.

I like to think that I met these criteria and brought a fresh perspective to Performance Contracting Group, Inc. (PCG). My education and degree in finance as well as my experience and time as a professional baseball player brought two very unique perspectives to a company that was growing fast. My perspectives and how they would enhance the leadership of the company didn’t happen overnight; I first had to learn what I didn’t know to be an asset to PCG.

I joined PCG 20 years ago as they undertook the task of helping build out the finance department. I had no experience in construction. Up until that point, and for the better part of my career there, PCG had been run by operators who had come up through the trades or had a background in construction management. That made sense as the company set its foundation in pursuit of operational excellence. When I came on board, they were growing into their next phase, both in terms of complexity and geography. They were at the point where it made sense to complement the deep operational experience with financial expertise.

I did not step directly into executive leadership; that is an important part of this story. I spent almost ten years working in our branch offices as I worked to gain exposure to the various business units within the company. My mentors guided me in my own career path all while teaching me the business inside and out. And my background in finance allowed me to help the company and fellow employee owners understand the value and benefits of being 100% employee owned, something we are very passionate about today.

Over time, and through many conversations, questions, and connections, I came to understand how to see our operations through the eyes of all employees, no matter what their responsibilities were – what we did, how we did it, what the drivers of the company were, etc. I learned an enormous amount about construction, and I learned even more about the most important aspect of it all – PCG’s identity and purpose.

At PCG, we are in the construction business, but we are about people. With our ESOP and our People First orientation, we value relationships and connections above all else. This is what sets us apart from our competitors. Ultimately, we are more people-centric than product-centric, and you can’t understand us as an organization if you don’t understand that. This is where I think my background as an athlete helped make me a good fit.

Playing baseball in college and then in the minor leagues, I learned lessons that define how I view any sort of cooperative effort. On a great team, whether it’s on a field of play or inside a business, it’s critical to understand the shared values and goals, as well as the connection points that help you achieve them. It is recognizing that there are a lot of different skills you need to play a lot of different positions. You need quality, high performing people who are talented in their own respects. You need to bring all those people together to compete to win.

An example at PCG where a different perspective can facilitate big change is an initiative that is currently underway. PCG is in the process of realigning and reorganizing a 35-year organizational structure. Our branch operations were split between two divisions, a structure that served the organization well and led to its success for many years. But to continue to grow and best serve our clients we needed a change. With my unique perspective, I felt it was important to leverage the entire organization. I wanted to find a way to create more of a One Company approach. One team. The internal walls we had built up over time no longer provided value to our identity and purpose and they were not helping our clients reach their goals. We are working to break those walls down, we are collaborating more, we are connecting more, and we are asking ourselves what value and solutions we can bring to our clients across the country. We are working as one unified team.

In the time I have been with PCG, we have grown from a $500M company to an almost $2.5B company. Today, we have over 9,000 employees. With that kind of growth come a great many challenges across the board. I like to think I bring a different perspective to the table as a leader, because I can straddle the fence between the finance and operations side of the business, all while being a team player. In any company it’s important, but often extremely difficult, to identify areas of weakness and be willing to work to improve them. With my different perspectives, I hope I am able to identify some blind spots or some areas we need to look at closely.

Above all else, I took the time to learn the culture of Performance Contracting. I joined PCG in 2003, became President in 2019, and then CEO in 2020. By this point, I had deep experience in, connection with, and understanding of the company and its values, which happen to align with my own mindset. It’s about recognizing that every single individual plays a critical role in the value we bring to our employees and our clients. It’s recognizing, acknowledging, and lending appreciation and gratitude that makes us who we are. It takes everybody–our corporate departments and our branch operations–rowing in the same direction, unified around our culture and a drive to improve and strengthen PCG for future success. I hope that as a leader, I have made space for that to happen.