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What Does ‘Corporate Culture’ Look Like in Distribution?

By Bridget McCrea

In the first three articles in this 4-part tED Magazine series (Why Your Distributorship Needs an Excellent Corporate Culture Now, 8 Ways to Develop an Excellent Corporate Culture, and How NAED Members Develop and Hone their Corporate Cultures, 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 article, we’ll dig even deeper into what corporate culture really translates into at the distributor level and show how one company has committed to a superior, employee-oriented culture.

Ask the typical manager or business leader what he or she thinks about the importance of corporate culture, and most will quickly jump on the bandwagon and start spewing out the different, culture-related strategies that their companies use. Dig a little deeper, however, and you may find that manager to be a little “light”; on the details and truly unaware of exactly what culture means and how to implement it at the distribution level.

“I’d say most distributors have an unsettling ping in their guts about their current corporate cultures,”; says Dirk Beveridge, founder of Chicago-based UnleashWD and author of INNOVATE! How Successful Distributors Lead Change in Disruptive Times. “It really is a critical topic, and one that needs to be tackled head-on.”; The challenge, states Beveridge, is getting leaders and managers onboard with the mission. “It comes down to making the hard decision that says, ‘I’ve walked into this place and tolerated the culture, but it’s not what I want it to be,'”; says Beveridge. “They need to get furious with it, but in a good and meaningful way.”;

From Frustration to Solution
To begin turning that frustration into a productive strategy, Beveridge says electrical distributors must first understand that – like it or not – the company is going to have a culture. Good or bad, that culture will shape everything you do – from hiring to training to selling to customer service, and beyond. “If you’re going to have a culture anyway,”; says Beveridge, “why not make it intentional, productive, and positive?”;

Once a company has committed to changing, enhancing, or upgrading its corporate culture, Beveridge says the next step is to establish a definition of common beliefs and values. Involve your entire leadership team in this effort and drill down into what your company truly believes in, what it stands for, what it wants to accomplish, and what it wants to create. “Really articulate those beliefs that you stand for,”; says Beveridge. At Chicago-based Berlin Packaging, for example, Beveridge says the company’s common beliefs include, “Anything is possible,”; “Creating customer thrill,”; “Impacting the customer,”; and “Our own suppliers are our own next income [stream].”; “As an industrial distributor, it’s easy to see what they believe in, and it’s becoming their customer’s favorite story,”; says Beveridge, who worked with the packaging distributor to hone and finesse its corporate culture around that belief. “From there, the company was able to get like-minded people together who want to make that belief a reality.”;

[Here’s a link to Beveridge’s recent podcast, Berlin Packaging Proves That Distribution Can Be Sexy:  How To Build a Profitable Business Though a Culture of Mutual Obligation]

After the beliefs have been defined, look closely at the common behaviors needed to support those beliefs. Ask yourself questions like, “What will it take to succeed?”; and “What values, behaviors, activities, and actions must be embedded in our system in order to achieve this success?”; From there, you can establish a baseline for common sets of behaviors across the organization – all of which tie into the company’s overall culture, mission, and goals. “All job functions, levels, and titles will have to mobilize to make this happen,”; says Beveridge.

Walking the Walk
One way to take corporate culture out of the company playbook and into the office, showroom, warehouse, or field is by creating an environment of accountability. In other words, simply saying that your distributorship has a certain culture isn’t enough; you have to hold all leaders, managers, and employees accountable to the process and procedures that lie behind the cultural veil. “To create an intentional culture, distributors have to require accountability,”; says Beveridge. “This is an area where companies tend to fall down and run into challenges.”;

In many cases, company owners and managers can lead the charge on the accountability front. By making themselves accountable to, say, a certain level of extreme customer service, for example, leaders are showing their employees that they’re truly committed to the company’s culture. “When leaders – particularly those working in third- or fourth-generation family-run firms – demonstrate the same behaviors that they expect from their workers,”; says Beveridge, “it goes a long way in supporting and enhancing a distributorship’s culture.”;
Culture also extends out into the employee recruitment and hiring component, where distributors have historically hired based on skillset and competency, according to Beveridge. And while those two attributes are important, he says a third screening tactic should be employed:  the individual’s ability to help maintain and build intentionality within the company’s culture. “Hire for fit,”; Beveridge says, “with an eye on surrounding yourself with aligned individuals who will be accountable to the culture that you set forth.”;

It’s About the People
As you’ll read about in the accompanying case study on Van Meter, Inc., a good corporate culture that makes individuals want to come to work for your company 8+ hours a day is truly people-centric. Beveridge agrees, and says that companies looking to shore up an existing culture or create a new one should ask themselves questions like:  Are we thinking enough about our employees in this exercise? Are we paying attention to the environment that we’re asking them to work in? Are we factoring in solid coaching and ongoing training? And finally, are we helping our employees achieve full potential?

“If you answered ‘no’ to any of these questions, it’s time to rethink your cultural strategy and put more emphasis on the machine that drives your company:  your people,”; says Beveridge. “That’s the piece that will really help you start connecting the dots and creating a culture of innovation, change, and success.”;


Walking the Walk:  Corporate Culture in Action at a Distributorship

When Rick Lorenzo started reading through tED Magazine’s latest series on creating a successful corporate culture, a light bulb went on above his head. As an employee-owner and an automation support specialist at Van Meter, Inc., in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Lorenzo thought about his firm’s corporate culture and realized that other NAED members could probably borrow a page or two from its playbook.

“Our company is a shining example of how a great culture works,”; says Lorenzo, a Baby Boomer who has been with the firm for 19 years, and who plans to retire on September 30. “Our culture allowed me to give seven months retirement notice so we could hire my replacement with time for training and mentoring before I leave. I don’t know of any other employer that is farsighted enough to encourage giving as much notice for retiring without fear of being let go early.”;

Lorenzo, who started his career designing controls for the food processing, dairy, beverage, and pharmaceutical industries, says 100 percent employee-owned Van Meter simply oozes a family-oriented culture that makes people want to stay on board, involved, and engaged in the firm’s success. “When I first interviewed here just over 19 years ago, I immediately wanted to be a part of it,”; says Lorenzo. “As the company has grown [from 279 employees then, to a current 400], it’s remained a great place to work. In fact, I’m sorry that I’m retiring.”;

In addition to being employee owned, Van Meter has taken other steps to create a solid corporate culture. In 2008, for example, the firm’s new corporate office was built with all individual offices situated in the middle of the building floors. “None of our leaders have windowed offices or rooms,”; says Lorenzo. “That gives everything a more ‘open’ feeling and invites everyone to collaborate and work with one another.”;

Van Meter also encourages employees to volunteer at least 16 hours of their time (“Most of us go over that allotment,”; says Lorenzo) to community and charitable causes. The company also gives back to the community in its own ways. “We had a big flood here seven years ago and our entire downtown was under water,”; recalls Lorenzo. “We weren’t interested in benefitting from our customers’ woes, so we gave back 10-20 percent of the extra profit to the community.”;

Van Meter also has a work-life balance in place that includes both maternity and paternity leave – the latter of which helped Lorenzo considerably in his own personal life. “A year and a half after I started I became the single parent of 10-year-old and 2-year-old daughters,”; says Lorenzo. “Around December I started to get worried about potential vacation days, but our company has a lenient policy that basically says we can take extra time off as long as we get the work done. That gave me great peace of mind.”;
Finally, to keep its 400 employee owners up to date and engaged, Van Meter holds monthly “celebrations”; to discuss its business wins, community involvement, sales numbers, goal attainments (or, misses), future aspirations, new opportunities, and other important items. “We set some pretty high sales goals every year and most of the time we hit them,”; says Lorenzo. “I credit our overall drive, culture, and family-like approach with making that happen.”;

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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