This week I met an entrepreneur who is looking to expand his company significantly. They are a well known brand in their region and have been around for long enough to have had a strong amount of press, both locally and in several national business publications. That coverage has typically centered around their amazing company culture, employee onboarding, training, and overall positive business approach.
When he launched, he decided that treating employees with respect, empowering them, and insuring their human dignity was the most important thing a business owner could ever do. That’s how he continues to operate his company to this very day. Employees have strong benefits, profit sharing, growth opportunities, education credits, and more. He wants them to know that once they are part of his company, they are now one of the owners right next to him. Expectations are set high and employees are expected to hold one another accountable. To keep their word. To support one another. To show up every day and deliver.
His culture building techniques have been so widely embraced that hundreds of CEO’s have visited his company to learn more about his practices. To figure out the magic behind why so few of his employees leave. And why if they do leave, he normally knows well ahead of time and can prepare. His hiring, training, and managing practices are not unique. They are a mashup of what hundreds of famous business people have preached from podiums and video cameras and books for years. The difference is that he actually practices them in real life, as opposed to pontificating.
And company culture saved his business when all was almost lost.
As I have written about, sometimes there are a small sliver of companies that fail (I estimate around 1%) that were successful, well run and managed, profitable, scaling, and in growth industries that simply found themselves in a disaster situation where they failed for no reason of their own. His business was all of the above and a rapid sequence of events outside his control simultaneously ripped his business apart. The kind of situation where your jaw drops just listening to it and you’re amazed the person is still standing.
When everything seemed the darkest. Two weeks out from missing payroll for the first time ever. Less than a month before he estimated they would need to declare bankruptcy. After he had already told all his employees that they should get their resumes in order immediately. He decided to do one final act of defiance against failing…
He wrote a letter. The letter outlined the proud history of the company, the series of events that lead to the current dire situation, what needed to happen if the company was to survive, an apology to his customers that he couldn’t do more, and to let them know it had been an honor to serve them for the past years. While he hold onto a fleeting belief that maybe a miracle could happen, the primary reason was to simply write them all a goodbye note and thank them for the memories. He loved his company, he loved his employees, and he loved his customers. He wanted to write the final chapter on his company before the press got to write their version.
What happened next is a scene out of every underdog movie ever. (Cue the triumphant music…) He knew some people would respond. He expected some calls. Some emails. Some visitors stopping by. What he got was nothing short of incredible. As he sat in front of me recounting the story, I could see the tears he was holding back. It’s been a handful of years, but he still can’t believe the kindness he received.
Hundreds and hundreds of people emailed, called, texted, or showed up in person. They offered support of every kind imaginable from buying more from his company (including buying more than they needed) to helping him find financing to referring everyone they knew to buy from him as well to even addressing these outside forces that were crushing his business at that moment (such as calling his bank demanding they extend him financing). His business doubled that first month and continued to grow for the next six months straight. By the end of the year he was profitable and stable again. He had gotten his miracle.
Except, it wasn’t a miracle. It didn’t come out of nowhere. It wasn’t supernatural. It came out of years and years of doing the right thing. Of treating everyone that he came across with respect, dignity, and warmth. Of giving back twice what he got in return. Of putting people and company culture ahead everything no matter what. It was the one thing he would never compromise on. It turned out, his customers had noticed. His employees were so well trained, professional, and satisfied in their work that they brought that over into every interaction with customers. They treated customers with the same level of warmth and respect that they got from him. Because of this, his customers, partners, employees, and friends felt like his business was family. That it was such a violation of right and wrong for him to have to go out of business for a serious of unfortunate events. That is was too disgusting of a thought to not fight for something they saw so rarely in the business world. Almost as if his customers felt they needed his company to keep existing to retain their faith that a business that behaves like his can thrive in this country.
It turned out that great company culture was an amazing insurance policy.
The kind of policy you can’t buy. It has to be earned.