When Todd Rosencrans was busy immersing himself in the music culture of the early 1980s, it never occurred to him that he was building a culture for his future business, Jet Pak Electric, a New York-based electrical contractor and custom designer/installer with 80 employees. “I was an art rocker in self-produced, self-managed bands in San Francisco and New York,” Rosencrans said. “I had eight years of fun, and I acquired the necessary building blocks for establishing Jet Pak’s company culture. I learned how to schedule, how to accommodate eccentric personalities-very important in the high-end of this business-how to be flexible enough so that if you bend, you won’t break.”
As a live performer, Rosencrans said, you learn to “prove it every night” and be true to your principles, habits consistent with a company culture that can help foster a brand in the marketplace. “A small business should reflect the owner’s principles,” he said. “You have to differentiate yourself from the competitors, and if your culture is valid, that leads to increased profitability. We’re unusual in that we do a lot of super high-end custom electrical work, and at the same time we do some low voltage work, through lighting control systems and structured wiring. So I wanted to figure out how to work better with the AV companies on the job.”
Rosencrans was doing electrical work, and playing in a band, when he met his first employee, project manager Gregg Doyle. Doyle was upgrading a studio in New York’s Hit Factory, preparing it for a Ramones session, when the two met.
“Since then, I’ve built the company on a core group of employees,” Rosencrans said. “You can’t change people’s values, so you try to hire those with similar values. You’ll make missteps, but you have to be sure that there are people representing you in the way you want.” In addition to a top benefits package, “cool vehicles” for management, and laptops and cell phones, Jet Pak’s culture incorporates an employee-written policy handbook and a flexible scheduling policy.
“There comes a point where your culture will be tried through adversity,” Rosencrans said. “When our director of operations, Dino Costa, took off several weeks due to a family illness, everyone else stepped up, without raises, to fill in. It was the right thing to do, and inspirational to see.”
Big on education, Rosencrans is a believer in manufacturer and CEDIA training. “I also continue to hire consultants from the AMA to teach supervisory skills, how to transition from co-worker to supervisor. It’s incredibly valuable. Some people fall prey to this month’s management guru, and that’s fine. But if you don’t have a foundation, you’re building on sand and you’ll collapse.”
Make sure you align your company culture with your business strategy, advises Meldron Young, a human resources practice consultant for AMA, the American Management Association.
“In customer service driven industries where there is a lot of innovation, the culture you want to design is one of creativity,” he said. “Allow for mistakes; you can’t have a culture where people can’t try different things. Tie compensation, including team-based compensation, to innovation, even if an idea doesn’t go well.” Benefits, Young said, are not what drive business strategy and culture in an innovative field. “You have to encourage people with promotion from within, assigning job titles for being innovative.” Circulating the stories about “heroes” within the organization, early pioneers, is another tool for inspiring employees and ingraining ideas about what elicits success and who created it, he said. “From the customer service side, you should create a company culture where you stay in contact with your clients, becoming valuable to them by anticipating their future needs as new products come out,” Young said.
Smaller companies have a distinct advantage, he said, as they can more easily create a culture that allows them to be flexible to changes in the marketplace. The key is to target select, recruiting people who are going to fit the culture.
“Small companies can be wonderful environments to be in,” Young said, “but with family-owned businesses, where there are no shareholders and no real accountability, the owners may be very emotionally tied to the company, continuing to roll the ship the same way. They should bring in a neutral party with a clear vision and objective opinions, someone with a fresh set of eyes.”
For Aspen Automated Lifestyles, Bountiful UT, that someone was director of operations Darin Hicks. Launched as a one-man electrical contracting business in 1987, Aspen eventually shifted into low voltage and the owner added a partner.
“I came on in 1990, when the company was doing about $1.2 million in annual sales with 8 employees,” said Hicks, whose accounting degree, MBA and experience in the franchise world rendered him an attractive hire. When I joined this company, they opened themselves up to scrutiny, and gave me a wide berth.”
Aspen created a company culture by converting an accounting package, organizing project management and by instituting drug-use and other employee policies.
“I let six people go, and hired others,” Hicks said. “Four people remained at the end of the day, including two installers and the owners. That became the core of our company culture.”
With 12 employees, Aspen remains small. “Everybody is a part of our success or failure,” Hicks said. “You can’t hide, you’ve got to perform. We’ve put in profit sharing to reward our faithful techs in the field, and we’ve put in a stronger training program and reviews with longtime employees and the new junior installers to get their input.”
The company also remains conservative, he said. “We’ve never had debt, or a line of credit. Our goal is to appropriately double, triple and quadruple our business, much of which is in the Park City area.”
Hicks, who admittedly knew little about the custom installation business before joining Aspen, has attended CEDIA classes on companies that have “climbed the mountain.” “We’re evolving into designers and consultants,” he said. “Profit margins on products erode as universal concepts of plug-and-play make the technologies easier. We’re trying to niche ourselves into a design role, and we’ve upgraded our design capabilities to CAD. A couple of our newer techs have Microsoft certification.”
Aspen will continue to install and pull wire, Hicks said, but he wants to be prepared to go beyond that. “Company culture is a moving object, and we’ve got to be movable, too.”
Media Systems, Boston is 19 years old, but its culture changed dramatically in 1990.
“The company was originally formed as a division of Regional Retailer Tweeter ETC., as a vehicle for selling expensive stereo equipment to the affluent,” said president/CEO Mitchell Klein. “There were four of us when we spun off into an independent company. Now we have grown to 44 employees, seven of whom work from our Palm Beach, Florida, office, and we’ve morphed into delivering dreams.”
The Media Systems mission statement and ten supporting beliefs, have remained entrenched since 1990, he said. “One of our core values has always been to provide an environment that enables people to grow personally and professionally. As out leadership role in CEDIA proves out, education is fundamental to growth and we cross-train our staff so people don’t get pigeon-holed into careers they may wish to springboard from.”
Staff events are part of the cultural landscape, Klein said. “We’ve taken the entire staff to each of the last three CEDIA Expos in Indianapolis and have stayed on to hold our annual company Le Mans (go cart) race. We also have season tickets, for staff, to Celtics and Bruins games.” The perks are an important strategy for fostering interaction between employees, he said. “It blasts the office stereotypes, so it’s never, ‘the dummy in warehousing’ or ‘the bum in accounting.’ It gives employees an opportunity to get to know everyone else in order to foster empathy, mutual support, and create a solid team approach.”
Klein believes many employees need to change jobs every two to three years, and the goal, he said, is that they change positions without leaving the company.
“Preventing burnout is critical. We don’t schedule weekend work, with some emergency exceptions,” Klein said. “Family is important. Staff wear pagers, but it’s not abused. And we’ve gone to an alternating Friday off schedule, giving employees a predictable personal day off.” “Nurturing individuals and families is an important piece to keeping valued employees,” he said. “On the other hand, you can’t create a company of mavericks; you need policies. Part of the frustration is that there are always people who feel they are entitled to more, no matter how much we give.”
Klein has plans to implement programs to enhance company culture, not to improve it. “We will have a new employee orientation program that will complement our ongoing training efforts, which provide our staff with a regular dose of company values,” he said. “We also plan to provide season symphony memberships, helping the local arts programs while growing staff exposure to Boston’s cultural opportunities.” Altering the corporate culture for pure profitability would be a tough call, he said. “I don’t know that we would change. We are a service company, number one. What would you change, unless you’re doing something wrong? We do it right, and the key is finding and hiring the right people and training them from there.”
Karen Mitchell is a writer in Boulder, Colorado.