Tugboat Institute @O.C. Tanner: Let's Get a Little Better Every Day

Chauncy Gardner, Tugboat Institute

October 25, 2022

O.C. Tanner was founded on the twin pillars of beauty and kindness, and both were abundantly in evidence last week at Tugboat Institute® @O.C. Tanner, in Salt Lake City. With nearly 100 Evergreen® CEOs gathered in person, and more joining us virtually, O.C. Tanner CEO Dave Petersen and his executive team invited us in for a close look at their extraordinary Evergreen company. It was a wonderful three days of learning, connection, and celebration.

An exemplar of all things Evergreen, but none more than People First, O.C. Tanner was an exceptional host. People First is not only the foundation of their culture and philosophy, but it is also literally their business. 

O.C. Tanner was founded in 1927 by Obert Clark (O.C.) Tanner. A philosophy professor at the University of Utah, Obert believed deeply in the dignity and worth of people. The importance of employee recognition and celebration was far from a commonly accepted notion at the time, but Obert intuited its value and became an early champion, both in practice and by trade.

Obert got his start selling seminary graduation pins and class rings, part-time, working out of the back of his car. In its first 43 years, his company grew from $0 to $12M in revenues, making rings, celebratory pins and, eventually, employee service awards. Guided by his dedication to beauty and kindness as well as his commitment to creating a superior product, O.C. developed the motto that is still often repeated today; “let’s get a little better every day.”

For the next 30 years, the company evolved and grew, creating new service awards programs and extending their offerings to include recognition awards. During this time the company expanded significantly, in terms of revenue, products and services, and number of employees.

The past 20 years, under Dave Petersen’s leadership as President and then CEO, have marked the greatest period of innovation the company has known thus far, first by making the significant shift from being primarily a manufacturing company to becoming a leading software solutions company. They also built a state-of-the-art, automated distribution center to deliver complex product combinations right to the desk of the customer manager and, importantly, they created the O.C. Tanner Institute to advance the understanding of People First recognition and awards.

Today, O.C. Tanner serves over one thousand clients across 180 countries and delivers 5.3 million awards annually from offices in Salt Lake City, Canada, England, Singapore, Australia, and India. The company has been recognized as one of Fortune’s 100 Best Places to Work and was awarded the Shingo Prize for Excellence in Manufacturing. In spite of this enormous growth and innovation, O.C. Tanner remains a company and a community that is defined by the spirit and values of its founder, putting People First, pursuing beauty and kindness in all things, and staying private forever.

Our week of learning kicked off with a celebration on Tuesday evening, and on Wednesday morning, we dove into two days of workshops and presentations on-site at O.C. Tanner’s incredible Salt Lake City campus. Dave Whorton and Dave Petersen opened the two days with a Fireside Chat, in which they visited the history of the company, Dave Petersen’s personal journey to leadership, and how the Evergreen 7Ps® come to life at O.C. Tanner. Through the rest of the day and all of the following day, we were able to visit with and learn from key O.C. Tanner executives, who presented on topics ranging from Strategy Evolution, to Community Impact, to Corporate Governance, to the People First culture of O.C. Tanner. We also spent time with the Director of the O.C. Tanner Institute, who shared insights about the importance of culture to employee engagement and fulfillment, something that is critical to all Evergreen companies. Finally, we spent time each day in workshops, talking and thinking about some of the big issues we all face, including building thriving cultures in our organizations and planning for the future.

As unique, powerful, and important as it is, the value of gathering our tribe is not limited to the learning we all share when we come together. From the first evening, the energy and excitement at reconnecting with friends and peers was palpable. To honor the importance of these connections and friendships, in the evenings we celebrated our special community with two fantastic dinners, one of which was held at the Utah Olympic Park

Standing at the top of the Olympic ski jump, many of us were humbled, struck by the courage, optimism, hard work, and tenacity it takes to become an Olympic athlete. A great many dream of it, some try for it, and only a few, extremely talented and dedicated individuals are able to make it a reality. In some ways, the same could be said of the Evergreen CEO; it is not an easy path, but when grounded in a deep belief in purpose, a willingness to work hard and stay in it for the long haul, and a steadfast dedication to making the world a better place, it can become a reality. 

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