Letter From Sun Valley: How Two Days with the Tugboat Institute Changed Me and My Company

Stephane Fitch, Fitchink

July 13, 2015

I recently wrote in the Evergreen Journal about a phrase that crossed my mind as I drove from the airport in Boise, Idaho, to Sun Valley to spend a few days at the Tugboat Institute Summit 2015 in early July. The phrase is from a proverb in the King James Bible, and my old boss, Steve Forbes, has taken it as his motto: “With all thy getting get understanding.”

I can honestly say I came away from the Summit with an extraordinary number of fresh ideas, insights and perhaps even some of that rarefied understanding. And I wanted to write a personal note about the experience for Tugboat Institute members who weren’t able to attend, as well as for other business owners who’ve been on the fence about joining the Institute. If, like me, you’re intrigued by the Evergreen concept and by the Institute’s events, I hope this note will fuel your curiosity and prompt you to join and participate in the future.

As a writer and a bureau chief at Forbes for 12 years, I spent half my working life learning about, writing about and critiquing—often in acid terms—other people’s businesses. Now, I’m a business owner anxiously bootstrapping his way through year five of running a firm upon which an increasing number of families depend for their livelihood. How much understanding did I get at Forbes? I can cheerily admit it: not nearly enough.

For somebody like me, the Summit was manna. This was an intimate group, a collection of 70 people—mostly fellow CEOs and thought leaders—who arrived ready to unplug from their workaday responsibilities and speak openly and freely in a collegial environment. No press. No entourages. Just a community of businesspeople who, whether their businesses’ revenues were $5 million or $1 billion, all wanted to help one another figure out how to run an Evergreen business in a world that sometimes only seems to value go-for-broke ideals.

The theme of this year’s Summit: People First. It’s one of the 7P’s that Evergreen companies consider sacrosanct. The Summit was stacked with speakers to answer every question that has ever plagued me about how to create a healthier company of employees.

How could I do better at hiring and motivating great people? Here was Quest Nutrition president Tom Bilyeu to explain how he makes interviews really meaningful. How should I get employees to care about the bottom line? Here was SRC Holdings chief executive Jack Stack to explain how he opens his books to his people—and relies on them to help him keep his P&Ls and balance sheets healthy. How should I keep my most senior people from getting poached by competitors or leaving to start their own firms? Here was Zingerman’s Community founder Paul Saginaw to explain how he encouraged his former deli employees to cofound a dozen businesses that have expanded the Zingerman’s empire.

How should I help my people balance their work lives and their family lives? Here was noted psychologist David Surrenda to explain how to make the limited number of hours we get with our families count more. What would a workplace that gets the most out of employees look like? Here was author and Great Place to Work founder Robert Levering to talk about how it isn’t really about the perks, but rather about trust.

And on and on. There’s an art to learning, of course. To prime our neurons, readying them to absorb the flurry of mind-bending ideas, Tugboat CEO Dave Whorton pulled out all the stops. On the first evening, Dave got Tugboat Institute cofounder Chris Alden, a master puzzler, to put together a series of scintillating riddles that my teammates and I had to work together intensely to solve. The next day, after an intense morning of workshops, Dave had champion mountain biker Rebecca Rusch and world-famous mountaineer Ed Viesturs lead us on a challenging trail ride or hike in the heat. It was all in good fun, but the intensity was real. We were being pushed out of our safety zone, all the way to that unsettling edge where old assumptions look a little less safe and learning becomes possible.

By dinner on our second night, I was deeply inspired. As singer-songwriter Caitlin Canty played her guitar and sang, I looked around the room and made eye contact with a few of the extraordinary people I’d been spending time with. I realized these weren’t just fellow businesspeople—they were new friends. They were people I would look forward to seeing again and again in future years. It was a moment I will never forget.

One of the most exciting developments took place on the third day. In an informal discussion led by Dave’s team, we talked about how members of our Tugboat Institute community could end up becoming a source for one another of not only wisdom, insights and inspiration, but also permanent capital: Evergreen backing Evergreen.

When I first encountered Dave, I was intrigued by his description of the ideals of Evergreen business. Putting people first? Pacing growth? Seeking pragmatic innovations? Emphasizing private ownership? I hadn’t realized there were many serious businesspeople who still valued such things. And as Dave explained his plan to make the Tugboat Institute a touchstone for such business owners, I was electrified.

It so happened my own firm had received a takeover offer from a much larger, established firm just weeks before Dave and I met. I was uncomfortable with the notion of selling, yet I had felt enormous pressure to take the deal as a way of ensuring our continued rapid growth. Two weeks after meeting Dave, I rejected the offer. My firm is doing fine—and I’m a new member of the Tugboat Institute. We’ll use the lessons I’ll learn from my fellow Tugboat members at future Summits in Sun Valley and other events to keep the company on a sustainable, Evergreen path.

Remember that proverb snippet that was running through my head en route to the Summit? Since returning from Sun Valley, I’ve looked up the full quote: “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.” In the wake of the Summit, I’m more sure than ever that I’ll never consider a buyout offer. I don’t need an acquirer’s money to overcome the challenges my firm faces. It’s new wisdom that will ensure my firm’s survival. And someday I hope to share my own hard-won wisdom with both my firm’s senior management and with new friends from other Evergreen companies.

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