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How NAED Members Develop and Hone their Corporate Cultures

By Bridget McCrea

In the first two articles in this 3-part tED Magazine series (Why Your Distributorship Needs an Excellent Corporate Culture Now and 8 Ways to Develop an Excellent Corporate Culture, we explored the concept of creating a great corporate culture and heard some strong strategies for doing this from a handful of management experts. In this final article we’ll look at how NAED members are tackling the corporate culture challenge and developing core values, missions, and environments that make people really want to spend the bulk of their waking hours there and still come back for more the next day.

Cultivating the “People Machine”
The NAED members we interviewed for this article all agree that building a strong culture is a core component of overall business success in today’s competitive market. With the labor market tightening up and the economy continuing to pick up, electrical distributors need to be developing cultures that recognize, embrace, and reward shared values, standards, attitudes, and beliefs that literally embody the organization’s goals. 

“If you’re not incorporating culture into your distributorship’s formula for long-term success, you’re not going to get anywhere in this ‘people’ business,” says Doug Borchers, vice president at Dickman Supply in Sidney, Oh. “We don’t make products and we don’t have any huge technological advantages. Nobody else can make the machine that we’re developing here; industrial distribution is a true people machine.”

Now, machines and technology are pretty predictable compared to human machines, which require a certain level of nurturing, honing, and support to produce the best results possible. It’s not enough to just “plug them in” to positions and hope that they meet or exceed performance expectations. “If you don’t work to build out your corporate culture, and if you don’t have the right people in place who want to come to work every day,” Borchers says, “then you are not going to achieve long-term success in this industry.”

To develop its corporate culture, Dickman Supply has put a lot of emphasis into becoming the “go to” source for information and support within its respective markets. “We’re the people who have the answers,” says Borchers, who adds that the distributorship tends to have higher costs of doing business compared to its competitors. “We have a high number of technical specialists who can answer questions for our customers. We’re also first to market on a number of initiatives that we’re involved in.” If a customer has a need that Dickman Supply can’t address, for example, the company will consider creating a new division and/or hiring the appropriate individuals to address that need.

“As a result, we have a lot of small divisions and a lot of specialists in place,” says Borchers. “That, in turn, helps us attract more people who want to come to our organization because they know this is a fun and focused organization to work for. When you’re leading-edge, people want to work for you.” Borchers says that the distributorship’s corporate culture has been honed over the years and developing it has come with its own set of challenges. Early on, for example, he says the company didn’t do a very good job of communicating with its “up-and-coming” employees.

“We had a lot of good up-and-coming workers, but we’d fill positions based on pecking order or because we thought he or she would be a good fit,” says Borchers. “Deep down, we actually had the up-and-comers slated for another opportunity down the line, but we didn’t communicate that to them. They wound up feeling slighted when it came to promotions and other opportunities.” In retrospect, Borchers says the management team should have more clearly communicated its future plans.

“We’ve since tried to rectify that, knowing that good workers – and Millennials, in particular – want to climb up through the organization quickly,” states Borchers. “Along the way they want to know where they stand. You can address that need through good communications.”

It Starts with Your Leaders  
As former NAED Chair and current vice president and chief financial officer (CFO) at BJ Electric Supply, Inc., in Madison, Wis., Maureen “Mo” Barsema sees corporate culture as an extremely important aspect of running an electrical distributorship. She says the culture of the company begins at the leadership ranks, where managers and executives set the tone with the way they carry themselves through their voice, actions, and body language. 

“The way these leaders convey themselves is the ‘cover of the book’ that everyone will pick up and read,” says Barsema. “Leaders instantly set the tone of the company as ethical, honest, professional, fun, dedicated, hard working, experienced, creative, brilliant, and driven.” And while that sounds straightforward enough in theory, actually getting everyone on the same page and working toward a common cultural goal isn’t always easy.

“One can only hope the contents of this ‘book’ compliments the same virtues within others so that the culture ‘cocktail’ can be spread both within the company and outside of the organization,” says Barsema. “The culture sets the tone not only internally, but also for your external image to customers and vendors.”

According to Barsema, team building is another important aspect of culture. “Last I knew, no one runs a company alone,” she notes. “We practice human relations with every single thing we touch.” In comparing the electrical distributorship to a professional sports team, Barsema says the way the team plays offensively and defensively is something learned over time, but it takes a group of human beings to come together to produce a winning culture. 

“One of the most important ingredients to include in your team-building and corporate culture is this:  thoughts expressed always matter,” Barsema advises. “Learn from each other, support one another and create a team solution.  You’ll find this makes an incredibly strong culture within and without.”

It’s Not the Size of the Paycheck that Counts
Developing a strong corporate culture is an ongoing effort at K/E Electric Supply Co., in Mt. Clemens, Mich., where Rocky Kuchenmeister, general manager, says the firm’s “Team K/E” initiative is specifically centered on creating an atmosphere of teamwork and collective success. For example, the company’s bonus structures are based largely on teamwork and team-centric efforts, both throughout different departments and across different branches. The family-owned firm also uses a “Family First” approach that helps workers attain the kind of work-life balance that keeps valued staff members happy and loyal.

“When it comes to culture, we don’t just talk the talk. We walk the walk,” says Kuchenmeister. “When family situations arise, we give employees the flexibility to manage those issues and take care of their family lives. That way, when they come to work for us, they’re 100 percent committed to us, as opposed to having to deal with problems at home.” He says these employee-oriented strategies have been in place at K/E Electric for at least 20 years.

The distributorship’s teamwork-oriented activities stretch outside of the workplace and include regular get-togethers, events, and even an annual holiday party. “A lot of companies have moved away from corporate holiday parties, but every year we still all get dressed up and go out to banquet hall to celebrate together,” says Kuchenmeister, whose team then posts the “fun” photos on the company’s Facebook page. This simple move helps spread the word to others about K/E Electrics “fun” culture and has even helped the distributorship attract new employees.

To electrical distributors that aren’t convinced of the value of putting time and money into their cultures, Kuchenmeister says now is the time to switch gears and put some effort into the exercise. “Look up the reasons why people stay with a company or leave it for another opportunity. It’s not usually because of how much they’re getting paid,” he says. “People leave because they don’t like their bosses and/or the people who they’re working with. If you create this culture in your workplace that people want to be a part of, your best employees will stay.”

McCrea is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at bridgetmc@earthlink.net or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.


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