(0:00:01) KL: When you hear the word risk, does it scare you or excite you?
(0:00:09) Intro: Welcome to the Behind the Billboard Podcast, a living, breathing, interactive conversation about getting better as a leader, a team and as a person. We believe that success is all about people and we are on a mission to help you grow. Here is your host, Kris Lindahl.
(0:00:22) KL: Today’s episode has a really special bonus. So Jennifer Smith, the CEO of Innovative Office Solutions was scheduled to be here and she brought her husband who is the CFO, Brooks Smith. This episode is so incredible. There are so many things that you are going to learn about risk and luck and really how to scale a business but also on how to focus on the people and creating the best culture in the world. I hope you enjoy this episode as much as I did. Enjoy.
(0:00:55) KL: This is the first time that I get a power duo together so I am really thrilled. You have so much amazing stuff to share. Both of you. I have followed your journey from the beginning and it has been really fun to watch. So, what I want to start with is for you to take us back to even prior to Innovative Office Solutions forming. What happened at the beginning?
(0:01:13) JS: The beginning of my journey really started when I was a teenager and I worked for my dad. My dad was an entrepreneur and he had an office products company in the small town of Northfield, Minnesota. That is where I learned all about entrepreneurship. It was great. I worked there on the weekends but I never ever dreamt that I would be in the office products industry because I was going to be a shoe buyer for Dayton Hudson Marshall Fields. I did end up being that for a time but then ended back up in my dad’s business.
(0:01:44) KL: How about you Brooks?
(0:01:46) BS: Well, I am a recovering attorney and a recovering accountant. I practiced and did tax law for eight or nine years before buying into a medical device company. Jennifer and I worked together in that for maybe two or three years and then she started her office company and I continued to run the medical device company. Both businesses were very successful and by 2009 we decided to sell one of them and work together full time.
(0:02:20) KL: I love it. So I have a question for you. So you mentioned growing up and being in office supply when your passion really was working for Dayton’s. There are always clues along the way and we look back now and there were certain things that we did. Maybe it was athletics that you did or something someone said to you that changed your mind about entrepreneurship and what you wanted to do. What clues were there along the way?
(0:02:42) JS: Well, probably one of the clues was… I was just giving a speech to the business school at Loyola State. What came into my mind as I was talking to these kids was one of my early on days of how do you know that you are an entrepreneur? That it is in your blood? This was kind of a funny story. I was a freshman in college and wanted to go to Mazatlán because everyone was going to Mazatlán but I had no money. I had no money and I did not have a tan. I figured I would figure out a way to get there. I went to a tanning booth salon. I knew I was going to find the money somehow. There was this big sign out front that said you could rent the tanning bed. I rent the tanning bed in my dorm room. It ran 24/7 and I ended up bringing three people to Mazatlán. So, early on I knew that I was an entrepreneur. It was just in your blood. If you fast-forward for when I actually did work for Dayton’s and I was the shoe buyer but I ran that department like it was my own. If you have that spirit and you are willing to take risks and do the different traits of an entrepreneur, it was just a natural progression that I ended up owning my own business someday.
(0:03:45) KL: That is so funny. Did you end up going to Mazatlán?
(0:03:47) JS: I did! Three people I brought. We made that much money.
(0:03:50) BS: Including me!
(0:03:51) JS: And I brought him! We weren’t married yet.
(0:05:43) KL: This is kind of funny, but I ran a spring break and had a pretty similar start where you mention you bring three people and you go for free, something like that. That was how a lot of it worked. I was in charge of Mazatlán for five years. All the way through college that was really my job.
(0:04:12) JS: So funny. It was probably your trip I went on. Who knows?
(0:04:15) BS: Soon after that they put a policy in place for the dorms that you couldn’t bring tanning beds in there.
(0:04:17) KL: Yeah, I didn’t do that part. I went the other side of it. I love the entrepreneurship. That is always why I ask those questions about the clues along the way. There are so many things that we look back on. Especially as we grow and evolve, not only professionally but personally. There are certain things that start to show up more than once. I love that. Brooks, what about you? What clues did you have along the way that kind of led you to where you are today?
(0:04:43) BS: I came from a little different background. My parents were both in education so I didn’t really ever have that opportunity or have that background to do that other than my grandfather was one of the founders of Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Smith. He was actually the Smith in that. It kind of skipped a generation but learning more about what he did and how he became this business tycoon always intrigued me I just never really had an outlet to express it until I met Jennifer so.
(0:05:18) KL: That is amazing. It is such a bonus that you are both here. Thank you so much. So we look back to when you first purchased your father’s business. I am familiar with the story, but maybe some of the people listening don’t know that story. What led you to purchasing your father’s business, and then what happened like right after you purchased it?
(0:05:37) JS: Sure! So my dad had sold off like 90% of the business. He had sold it off because he was really in sales. He was an amazing, amazing sales person but he didn’t really want to run a business so what happened was my mother got terribly ill and I had to help my family. Life happened and that is how I got into the business. Right at the same time where my dad had sold the business, they wanted to sell it to get out so it was perfect timing. I was able to walk in in my twenties and basically get this business for almost nothing.
(0:06:08) KL: I think they almost ended up paying us for it.
(0:06:12) JS: Seriously. But what happened was, you don’t know what you don’t know. I came in with all of these ideas. I had worked at Dayton’s and how you did business was electronically. This was back in the early nineties but I came back and looked as this industry and it was archaic. It was five part invoices. Salesmen went to people’s offices and picked up orders so I had this vision of being able to use the internet which today it seems like a no brainer but back then that wasn’t heard of. Early on, we would bring these discs into the computer so that our two computers could talk and that was how we would do orders. We were way ahead of our time back in the early nineties, but I was in my twenties and I didn’t know any different. Little did I know all of the salespeople would quit because they thought their jobs were going to be eliminated. I learned lessons early on but I grew that company very fast from about a million to twelve million in a year and a half. It was a crazy, crazy start to being an entrepreneur. That is for sure.
(0:07:15) KL: Hyper growth like that brings a whole separate set of challenges. What types of things started to show up from the challenge side of things growing that fast?
(0:07:22) JS: Well, growing up that fast I actually ended up selling that business. It was actually really scary being in my twenties and being in charge of fifty people’s lives and I thought my industry was going to go a different direction so I thought it was the perfect time to sell and thought it was the best thing for all of the people. I actually sold that business to one of the big boxes of the time. I learned a very important lesson doing that too that helped me launch Innovative today.
(0:07:47) KL: When you say you learned an important lesson, what was that lesson?
(0:15:50) JS: Well, it was the adaptability and flexibility of being a small independently run company versus going to a big, big corporation. You learn those lessons and what your customer experience really looks like and when you can’t provide the customer the experience you envision, then you know you are in the wrong place.
(0:08:10) KL: When you are working for another company, I know there are probably some business leaders that are listening that don’t own their business. Sometimes there are that other set of challenges where you don’t feel like you have the control. So how long were you at the company after you sold?
(0:08:23) JS: Two years.
(0:08:24) KL: What were some of your biggest frustrations with no longer owning the company and going to work for a big box retailer?
(0:08:29) JS: Well, what happened was… and it wasn’t a retailer. It was just a big box at the time. They didn’t have the retail stores. They do now, but they didn’t. But, my biggest challenge was where they put me. Where they put me was in charge of operations and that was probably the thing I am the worst at. If you fast-forward to today, that wasn’t a bad experience. It was just an experience that I wasn’t very good at. If you fast forward to Innovative today, I started a company that didn’t have inventory because I was very bad at it when I was in a big company and that was what I was directed to manage. I would have done things very differently, and when you are in a very big corporation and you don’t have the backing of the CEO, that was very frustrating to me because I always had this entrepreneurial spirit and I would come up with these visions and I come up with them all of the time but if you don’t have someone to support them that was a distracter for me.
(0:09:20) KL: When you worked for that big box company what lead them to believe you should be in operations?
(0:09:24) JS: I think that was the position that was open so that is what I got.
(0:09:32) KL: I ask those things because I think there are a lot of people that can learn from that. You can’t just put people in positions.
(0:09:35) JS: No. I was put in a position where it was a union warehouse and these people had been in the union before I was born. I was a twenty some year old woman in charge of union warehouse. It was not my specialty. I am just saying that right now.
(0:09:54) KL: It has been a big portion of our world where you were in an industry that was pretty male dominated. How does that work for you?
(0:09:57) JS: It still is. It is actually awesome because I am different. I have never seen that as a challenge, even when it was the union warehouse. It was something that I took full on and it wasn’t my specialty but you still took it as a challenge. Being a woman in this industry again, there are not many of us, so I use it to my advantage, not a disadvantage.
(0:10:16) KL: Our leadership team, we were talking right before this, is all female. They beat me up every day.
(0:10:20) JS: I know. I love that! It is fantastic.
(0:10:22) KL: I wouldn’t trade that for anything. They are amazing. Okay, so Brooks. You sell the company. You are working for the big box. What are you doing at that time?
(0:10:30) BS: I think I had probably just left public accounting and had bought a, it was actually a medical device company that my next door neighbor’s brother had started out of his garage. He was a sales guy. He was making these devices and he would go out on the road and sell them. He said, you know, I really need someone to run the company on a day-to-day basis. At that time I was probably working 60-70 hours a week. We had two young kids. I thought I could probably do this with a much more flexible schedule and work just has hard but if I needed to take some time off or bring a kid to a sporting event or something, I could do that. I decided to invest and we actually took part of the investment from the office supply company she sold and rolled it into this medical device company. I kind of made the leap myself at that point.
(0:11:22) KL: This built up to a great story. I can see where it is going. So 2001 is when you founded and opened Innovative Office Solutions. What sort of conversations were you two having? What led you up to the point where you were like “lets do this?”
(0:11:36) JS: So that is interesting. If you fast-forward, I am now working at the medical device company with Brooks. I had left the big box. It was great. We were having a great time. We were growing this company. And then all of the sudden, the company that I sold to started to go bankrupt. Okay? So all of the sudden I had old employees who… and everybody who worked for us at the medical device company worked for me in one of the previous office supply places. And so all of the sudden I had twenty people that said, “We do not want to work for another big box. Would you open up again?” It is June of 2001 and I thought, wow, if I blank slate and I could do this whole thing over, what would I do different? So everybody would buy online. Now, again, in 2001 people still didn’t buy over the internet. When we opened our company, only one person had a cell phone. Just to put it in perspective.
(0:12:32) KL: A car phone.
(0:12:36) JS: Like a big one! Right? I wish this was on T.V. But anyway, we had the chance to open up a business that had a different distribution model. Had a different customer service model. We were going to be focused on technology. We felt like we were going to change the world if we could nail those three opportunity gaps in the market place. So that was June and then 9/11 happens and I had guaranteed peoples salaries. It really set us back. It was paycheck to paycheck. Literally, one month, thank God somebody got a furniture job and we got a 50% down payment. It was that tight.
(0:13:08) BS: To go back to your question in as far as us talking about should we do it or not. I don’t think we had any moment where we kind of looked at each other and were like, “Yeah lets go for it.” We knew the opportunity was there. We vetted the opportunity but maybe not all of the risks. We hired these twenty-one people. My favorite story is we hired a driver because we hired a driver and he showed up the first day and he was like, “Where is my truck?” And we were like, “Well, we didn’t think about that.”
(0:13:40) JS: He literally delivered office products out of his wife’s station wagon for the first month.
(0:13:48) KL: I love that. That is amazing. So 9/11 hits. When that was going on what sort of things were you doing to try to get some revenue through the door?
(0:13:56) JS: You had to inspire the people who worked for you. You had to say, “We all have to come together or this is not going to work.” So you had to be very transparent. This is hard. You people made this risk but we have to make this work together and you have to get out there and sell. We had to pull together and we all knew where we stood. We knew we could make a difference. They believed in the vision at the time and we got through it.
(0:14:23) BS: We did have an angel investor. It doesn’t seem like a lot now but back then it was an enormous amount of money for us to keep afloat and we were able to pay him back and have a nice return on his money.
(0:14:38) KL: Yeah. Jennifer you mentioned transparency, which is a huge thing in leadership to be transparent with the company you are leading. Transparency is everything. If you can’t get in front of your company and really share what is going on you are not going to get people to follow behind you. I love that you mentioned that because I think people listening will benefit so much from that. So, you get through 9/11. At what point did you actually start to feel some momentum that you were getting out of the hole that 9/11 put you in?
(0:15:05) JS: It was a couple years before we really felt comfortable because we just started off in a hole. Those first couple of month before 9/11 we were growing immensely but once that hit no one wanted to change anything and you just went backwards so much. It took a good couple of years before the momentum started to really… You could take a breath.
(0:15:27) KL: During that time was the stress level to the max? Were you sleeping? Was there doubt or did you always believe it was going to work?
(0:15:33) JS: I never have a problem sleeping so that is not an issue for me. If I don’t get my sleep it is not good.
(0:15:40) BS: I was the money guy so I had some sleepless nights.
(0:15:43) JS: He shielded me from it so it was fantastic. I never thought it was going to go under. I never even had that thought. It was just not an option for me at all.
(0:15:52) KL: I haven’t met many successful entrepreneurs that thought it was going to be over. Even when you look at 30,000 feet, probably everyone was betting against you, like, “How is this ever going to happen?” So you have a couple of years. So, Brooks, you are not quite in the business yet? You said 2009 was when you started being the CFO?
(0:16:09) BS: I acted as the CFO from day one but I was also running the medical device company so split a little bit. Not in the day-to-day, but definitely involved.
(0:16:19) JS: But when 2009 happened, again, now you have to take all of your learning from what happened in 2001 and what did that look like? And now we are right. I started the company with twenty-one people. Just to put it in perspective, we have twenty-five people now and we are doing fourteen, almost fifteen million. We had nowhere to cut. You had to say, “Okay we know where we started and we know we got through that. What is going to happen with this huge recession that is coming?” It is going to hit us hard and it is going to be awful is what everyone was saying. We had no place to cut so we still had to grow. That was really our tipping point and we took a look and said, “What is our competition going to do?” They are going to cut their high paid people, which are usually their top performers. They are not going to invest in their brand and they are not going to invest in technology. So we did all of those things. If you fast forward to the end of 2009, I have fifty people. So, I doubled the number of people we had and that is when our tremendous growth happened. When people would come into the office and they would go, “Oh, the parking lots are half full.” We would just say, “Take a news diet. Don’t look at what is going on out there. We have the opportunity to sell to every single person that we meet.” It just went off from there.
(0:17:32) KL: Doubling the company and the recession. Brooks hasn’t slept in a couple of years.
(0:17:39) JS: Probably not. That’s why I had to bring him on fulltime so he could shield me from all of the cash flow worries.
(0:17:45) KL: So, now you are into the recession. This is like the second whammy. You have learned a ton from the 2001 experiment. I don’t want to say experiment but you literally get in and two or three months later 9/11 happens. That is incredible. This is why I love your story because this isn’t easy stuff to get through. So you have doubled your sales force and then do the sales immediately follow or what happens next?
(0:18:14) JS: We grew 70% that year.
(0:18:15) KL: Wow. In 2009?
(0:18:17) JS: 2009. And then 2010 we grew fifty on the seventy. 2011 grew fifty on the fifty. Those three years were our explosive growth years.
(0:18:26) BS: If I can just comment about the 2007 and 2008 and really from the beginning we build our business on a lot of small to medium size businesses. We had thousand of customers that you had probably never heard of and so it wasn’t until 2009, or maybe it was 2010 when we had an opportunity to get the State of Minnesota contract with we had built up such a good reputation with those small to medium size customers that it was kind of building some momentum so when we got that opportunity to get the state business we had a lot of experience and a lot of references and we were able to win that business and one of the reasons we really catapulted in that year.
(0:19:11) JS: It put us on the map.
(0:19:12) KL: Wow. That is so interesting, so in 2009 you double your sales force and went 70% up. 2010 and 2011 it sort of continues. What is the size of your sales force in those following years? Is the sales force staying at fifty or are you growing?
(0:19:34) JS: Oh, that wasn’t just the sales force. That was the entire company. We do have fifty salespeople today but back then we probably had fifteen to eighteen I would guess.
(0:19:46) KL: So did you ever stop hiring? When you scaled up in 2009, did you continue to…?
(0:19:52) JS: Yeah, if a good salesperson comes your way you always hire them. Always. The other part of the growth is we had to constantly reinvent ourselves. You also fast forward to 2009 and the other great thing I should tell you is we sell over four hundred thousand items but one item is in decline and it effects everything we do. 5-7% decline is just on our current customers because one item isn’t being bought. Can you guess what that is?
(0:20:22) KL: Probably paper.
(0:20:24) JS: Paper. So if you are not using paper you are not using toner. That is fifty percent of an independent office product dealer’s revenue in the day. So we have had to reinvest ourselves along the way. For example, one of our really fast immerging categories is facilities. It’s like at least they can’t take toilet paper away from you. Right? You still have to use that. But toilet paper, paper towels, chemicals, things like that. We have six different categories today when in 2001 we only started with two. That is another reason for our growth because we have had that reinvention.
(0:20:57) KL: So you kind of have a hedge against some of it because you have those different categories. I love your point about toilet paper. I’m not saying that it is ever not going to go away. Other counties maybe they don’t use as much. But that is super smart because I think that there are so many people listening that are going to benefit from that. When you have one product or one niche and as the economy changes that no longer becomes the product.
(0:21:21) JS: Right. When you talk to other business owners they are asking about your story and it is like what is your paper? What if your paper was gone? Do you have a backup plan? What do you look like? Have you diversified? I just think that is so important.
(0:21:31) BS: I think in the same token, we look at what is the next paper for us? What is the office of tomorrow going to be total dependent on and how do we get involved in that product or service?
(0:21:43) KL: Have there been some other ones between 2009 and now that have already shown up and that you have had to address?
(0:21:50) JS: We added workplace branding. Which is anything like a t-shirt, a coffee mug, or anything that has your brand on it. That just went hand in hand with what our customers were asking for. In the AV and the technology. Those are two more recent categories we have opened.
(0:22:08) BS: And also, of course, furniture. The cube farms that you used to find in offices have gone away and are much more collaborative. The furniture that we sell is looking at how people are working today and how are they working together and with technology. They are not just sitting at a cube looking at a screen.
(0:22:26) JS: We have glass walls that are demountable. You didn’t have that when we first started. It was just cubes and a chair and a desk and a file. You know? That was it.
(0:22:34) KL: I have been in so many office buildings where that office furniture just sits there. No one even uses it. Just tons of it.
(0:22:39) JS: It is so fun to go into offices and refresh their work spaces because they have to retain and attract top talent and you cant do that in a dull work environment anymore.
(0:22:52) KL: We have been a client for quite some time now. You were selling products but now things are becoming more about solution based. It is very similar to how we run our organization. Tell me a little bit about the evolution where you were like we sell product to now we sell solutions.
(0:23:13) JS: Our name is Innovative Office Solutions so we always had that vision. Kind of like we were talking about before with the transparency. If leaders can throw out an incomplete vision it is kind of like a piece of Swiss cheese and have your people fill up the holes. That is kind of how it has happened for us and how we have reinvested ourselves. It is the people who have worked for us that have said, “Hey our clients need this.” I have always had the vision of selling solutions it was not until 2009 or 2010 we actually started doing that process and not selling on price but selling on the solution based. Our people have driven that.
(0:23:50) KL: I will give you a good example. We had a customer a couple of years ago that we were kind of on the fence about were we going to keep them or not. We maybe had some service issues or something wasn’t working 100% right. So we tried to make those all right, and then we went out to the customer because it seems like everything we were trying to do just didn’t work out. So we said, “What can we do to help you run your business better?” They basically came back and said we have this widget that is not involved in our business but we need it and we are bringing it into our stores all over the country and we don’t have room to store it.” And we were like, “Maybe that is something we could help you with.” So, we ended up storing this widget and distributing it to their customers all around the county. So it was really asking that questions like how can we be a resource and then figuring out if there is a niche to develop there.
(0:24:41) JS: And now we have a division for it.
(0:24:42) KL: Sometimes those things just show up and you accommodate the customer.
(0:24:47) JS: And then other customers need that same service.
(0:24:50) KL: It is rare that a need is specific to one customer. Okay. So, you mentioned an incomplete vision. I am 100% true visionary. I totally get the incomplete vision. Crazy ideas all over the place and having to have people all around you to close them up. But I have found a lot of leaders have these incomplete visions and do not have these people around them to finalize their thoughts or to fill in those blind spots and finalize that. So what do you do if you do not have enough people around the complete the vision? Like when you look back to the early days?
(0:25:25) JS: I think it is more that leaders are scared to put an incomplete vision out there. I think the people are there. I think it is the opposite you have to think you are perfect so you can’t put something out there. I learned early on to surround myself with people that are different than me. Like the numbers guy here right. What he does for me is amazing. It is a different skill set than I have so you have to surround yourself with that piece of the puzzle.
(0:25:52) BS: I think you have really done a really good job too, Jenn. We have a really good leadership team but she is involved in a lot of women’s owners groups or women’s presidents groups that share ideas and maybe they can bounce an idea off and maybe you just need that perspective outside of the organization.
(0:26:12) JS: I think it is so important to always be learning and to be able to go outside of your comfort zone. Brooks just mentioned the WPO. It is the Women’s Presidents Organization. I just got back from Boston last week and we were at MIT and Harvard and it was amazing. But to have that and to be able to bring it back to my leadership team it is just sparks so many new ideas. It is an amazing resource so I always challenge leaders that I meet that they find group that is meaningful and always, always be learning.
(0:26:44) KL: It is fascinating what you can learn outside of your circle I love that you mention to always be learning because it is about being a student first. I have met business where I say are starting to stall or maybe decline a little bit and typically it is because the leadership team or the person leading the organization things they have it all figured out. You never want to get to a point where you think you have got it all figured out and I absolutely love that. So. You have these amazing people and you have built this incredible business and I have experienced it from both sides and I love everything you are doing. There had to be a way to get these people. We had talked about it before we went live here. But, what things do you put people though before you hire someone?
(0:27:34) JS: We hire and fire to our core values. It is the cultural piece. I think you can always teach someone a skill but they have to fit into your culture. Culture is really important to Innovative. I kind of describe it as we have a very intentional culture and there is a line that people just know that if you go below that line, they self police it which makes it so much easier to do my job if people know where that line is.
(0:28:02) BS: I am still learning.
(0:28:03) JS: He is my biggest issue
(0:28:07) KL: Right on the edge at all times.
(0:28:08) JS: If you ask the people that is what they would say, too. I think that you can have an intentional culture or a dictorial culture and there are different pluses and minuses but ours is very intentional.
(0:28:20) BS: What comes to mind is top down leadership and bottom up leadership and that is something that has always stuck with me. The core values and you mention hiring and firing to those core values. We have listeners right now that may have core values or may be thinking about core values or maybe they have the wrong core values. You said you ought to have ten core values. I had mentioned at my company we didn’t have any core values. We copied someone else’s and put them on the wall, like, this is what we stand for. We had no idea what we were doing. For someone who doesn’t either have core values or have the right core values. What should be the first step that they take?
(0:28:54) JS: We brought in the entire company and got serious about core values again like I said; I had ten of them because I must have read it in some business book.
(0:29:02) KL: When did you first get serious about them?
(0:29:03) JS: it was probably around 2004 or 2005 and the company was smaller but we brought everybody in and I had a coach that came in. Again I believe in outside people coming in to help you because it was her expertise. She really wanted to see if our values aligned so we came up with these values and again for some reason I thought I had to have ten and if you don’t hear them and if people are not living and breathing them they are the wrong ones. I think bringing in some exercises from the whole entire company helped me get some that actually stuck.
(0:29:46) KL: The other part of core values is they are not always the same. They change. Your company has evolved over time from what it was in 2004 so how many times have you redone or modified your core values?
(0:30:00) BS: We have modified them three times over the last seventeen, almost eighteen years. Once we started to hire and fire to them those core values became crystal clear if they were right of they were wrong. I will give you a story about hiring drivers. Drivers are the brand ambassadors. They are the people that see our customers every single day so it is really important to get the right drivers and we were kind of going through some. Our retention rate is very high. It is in the nineties, but our drivers we were kind of going through and then we started to hire and fire to core values and one of the core values is inspire smiles. You ask a driver how the last time they inspired smiles. He is either going to look at you like, “Lady, you are crazy. Why are you asking me that questions?” Or they light up and they give you an example and those are the drivers that we hire. It was just taking the guesswork out of it from that point forward. That one question made our whole organization so much more efficient. When you have the right ones that is when the magic that happens.
(0:30:57) KL: You have something I have read the last couple of years online which is the culture book. What inspired that? Why did you decide to do that?
(0:31:04) JS: That is a great question. Culture, again, to me is very important. I never want to have that big box feel. It is something as a leader I work on everyday. I used to hire every single person that came in the door. As you grow you have to let go of things but you wanted to make sure your story was being told. So that culture book was totally an internal piece that made sure the story was being told correctly and then it just grew from there and we would have it out on the counter and it would disappear. Then we realized our customers were taking these culture books. Every time a customer or prospect would come in they would take this book. Now, we print so many of those and it is part of our differentiation. They all love looking through it each year. Now our people make the book. It is a phenomenal piece for us but it was not born for that purpose it morphed into that.
(0:31:56) BS: One extension we have of that is we have probably fifteen to twenty tours go through our location every week. Jen mentioned the different categories that we have but we really like to have people come in and see and witness what those are. Part of the tours that we do we have a culture wall now. We have the culture book now, which is a fifty-page book or whatever, but we have this culture wall. So in a short period of time you can tell a customer or a potential employee about your culture the wall.
(0:32:30) KL: So you mentioned tours. I was fortunate enough to be able to do a tour there it was really well put together. What led you two to decide tours should be a part of your business model?
(0:32:40) JS: We have open houses every other year where we invite customers in and it is a big production and I had one of my leaders they were manned at the door to say goodbye to people. She decided to ask people, “What was your favorite part of the tour?” And that favorite part of the tour was we had just launched our facilities division with the toilet paper and everything and so you wanted into that show room and you had paper towel dispensers and the paper machines so you could touch and feel it and people said, “We loved seeing it because we didn’t understand what you meant by the facilities division.” People love to see it. They love to touch and feel it. That is how the tours were born.
(0:33:22) KL: You have also won awards for best place to work for seven years in a row. Congratulations!
(0:33:27) JS: Thank you!
(0:33:30) KL: That is unbelievable. What types of things are you doing in the workplace that allows you to achieve that award year after year?
(0:33:36) JS: Why don’t you talk about the workouts because you do them.
(0:33:40) BS: One of the biggest things is, seven or eight years ago, we had a personal trainer that came into our house and it was great that we got the chance to do that but it would be really great if more of our employees had the chance to do that so we started to bring the personal trainer into work and the workout was, you know began, and so probably at one time we had thirty of forty employees over the lunch hour working out and I think it is a little more sporadic now but that culture was kind of born from bringing that personal trainer in. Now one of our employees is a personal trainer and she leads those workouts.
(0:34:17) KL: How often do you do those workouts?
(0:34:19) BS: There is a workout every lunch. Some of them are videos and some of them are live led. We are just completing, in one of our locations, completing a new workout facility.
(0:34:30) KL: Congratulations. That is not an easy award to get year over year.
(0:34:35) JS: It is my favorite award to get those because it is the people voting for it. They are voting for it and they are saying what is important to them.
(0:34:40) BS: I think the benefits and things you provide are important but also one of the things that really goes into it is, is it a workplace where ideas are shared and are valued by employees and not just swept under the rug but they are an integral part of the evolution of the company.
(0:34:59) KL: If you are doing something so effective for yourself why wouldn’t you bring it into your business? I have watched, and even with myself when I look back on the early days of personal development and I thought all of these different coaches I had outside of the industry were helping me so much yet early on I wasn’t bringing in any of that into my business and that really stuck with me that you just mentioned that. I think as leaders we can all be better. There are certain things that we gain from outside of our business that we could bring back into our business that would help everyone in our organization. Okay so there is something that you mentioned, it is ROL, which I absolutely love because I feel like it is kind of the way that I have lived. Tell me a little bit about ROL, where it came from and what it is in entrepreneurship.
(0:35:35) JS: Right. So it is Return on Luck. I got that from Jim Collins books and I saw him speak and it just stuck with me that, wow, when an opportunity comes your way I think entrepreneurs have this knack of saying, “You have to go for this.” You have to know when those lucky opportunities are coming your way. Sometimes good luck or bad luck. Right? 2009 this huge recession. Did I look at it as good luck or bad luck? I looked at is as there are going to be opportunity gaps in the marketplace that we have to go after and hopefully we picked the right ones. So that was where it is not good luck but you make it into what you want to. Right? If you want to create your own luck, you have to swim in that pond. I think that those things have been really instrumental to our growth over the years. We have been able to seize those opportunities when they were in front of us and capitalize on them.
(0:36:37) KL: ROL. For those of you listening, write that down. There are so many times in my career I was in the right place in the right time and I chose to be lucky when others didn’t make that choice.
(0:36:50) BS: I think over time too you learn how to maybe dip your toe in the water and go, “Yeah, lets go for it,” or, “Let’s run away really quickly.” You do have to kiss a few frogs out there but you can’t be afraid to take that chance.
(0:37:04) KL: What really stuck with me is 2001 for you and then 2009 where everything you learned from 2001 you went like all in in 2009 and I feel like as leaders we all have these opportunities and these pivotal moments in our career where history sort of repeats itself in some form or another. I love that you went through that and when it came up again it was a little bit different but it still showed up a challenge. So every other competitor or everyone else is that space is pulling back and cutting and not adding people and you jump and double and things go up 70%. I love that ROL because it is so true with so many successful entrepreneurs where they are like, they just keep getting lucky, but it is a choice you are in that place to get there. It is really, really, really smart. Something else that I have followed along with and I think it has really attracted me to your organization is the stuff you do outside of the business and the giving back aspect. I have learned any really successful organization has a big heart and a passion for making a difference in the community. I know you do a lot of different things. I have read a lot about this in sports foundation. Tell me a little bit about the things you are doing to give back outside of your organization.
(0:38:17) JS: Yeah, definitely. The In Sports foundation was actually founded by our son in college so it is a super cool story and as a mom it is just near and dear to my heart. That organization has helped over thirty thousand kids so far either get in the game or stay in the game so it is a really cool way to be able to give back. We do a lot of business in the k-12 space so we do a lot of business with schools and we give back through this In Sports foundation through the school that we serve and it is a really, really neat program where they do goal setting and healthy eating and then we help pay some scholarships for the sports.
(0:38:53) KL: How do you identify who qualities or what teams or cities do you partner with?
(0:39:00) JS: We have a website so people can contact us through that but it is also through some of the schools we are already in our salespeople are in there so they know we have these programs to offer. That is a cool and fun circle to connect the dots with. The kids are usually on a free or reduced lunch program. We have one half time person in this organization so it is not a big one but that is how we vet the kids.
(0:39:23) KL: Job well done. I love supporting and watching businesses that get the full circle of giving back and making a difference. You mentioned free and reduced lunch and I found something out from another friend of mine is doing amazing things in another community and I couldn’t believe that 60% are on free or reduced lunch in the community.
(0:39:41) JS: It is way more than you would think.
(0:39:44) BS: Even in very affluent communities there is still need.
(0:39:47) KL: I couldn’t believe it. I was shocked it was that high. So you have this In Sports foundation. What is the vision for this organization right now?
(0:39:44) BS: It originally evolved as a hockey foundation because our son played high school and college hockey so it was to help kids get into hockey and then we kind of recognized there was a need within the public school system and then really try to focus down on what is the message. I think the message is if we continue to help kids get involved in athletics because we as leaders of the organization look to… we obviously hire to our core values, but we also like to hire those who have been involved in athletics or extracurricular activities because it shows teamwork and goal setting and things like that so I think if we can continue to evolve, the overall message is to help kids become productive citizens whether or not they become a high school or college athletes. At least hopefully they have learned some of those skill sets.
(0:40:55) JS: When we first started the three-year goal was to help ten thousands kids so we are super excited to have helped over thirty.
(0:41:07) KL: You mention hiring athletes and teamwork and it is what we live for. We learn so much through athletics growing up. I look back to my early years of playing sports. Leading an organization and being part of an organization and having people are the same challenges you have in sports so I honor you and your son and everyone who is part of that foundation because that is a huge commitment to make. With that organization what are some things you have learned from doing that?
(0:41:33) JS: What I have learned as a mom is I let Max make some mistakes along the way. It was fabulous and you knew he was going down a path and you have to let him try that and he will go, “Oh.” He is a lot like me. If you have ever done strength finders, he has futuristic in his top five and so do I so we have visions all of the time. He was taking this organization and he was trying to do so many things but I let him try that so it was a really funny learning experience for me to watch. Here is a young leader going into a business and you let him fail a couple of times. Not too bad or anything. You know what I mean? It was the best lesson for me to watch that play out.
(0:42:16) BS: I think one of the things I have learned is obviously it has an impact on the kids and it impacts different kids different ways and hopefully they learn some great skills and some great life lessons but also the employees and the friends and other people that have been involved in it are getting as much or more out of that because a lot of times people are afraid to volunteer because they don’t know is it worthwhile or is it waste of their time or is it something they are going to be good? It is a really simple concept but they can get involved and they can see how it can make a difference. They want to do it more and they want to get more people involved.
(0:42:56) KL: If someone wants to get more involved what is the website?
(0:43:00) JS: Insports.org
(0:43:01) KL: I love what you are doing there and congratulations to your son, Max. That is so awesome.
(0:43:04) JS: Thank you.
(0:43:06) KL: The other thing you mentioned and I wrote down here is you wanted him to fail a little bit and I’m sure you have those same feelings with the people in your organization as well. That is where you learn, right? It is from those moments. What are some of those things you have learned along the way where you looked back and maybe failed and maybe it was big maybe it was small and now looking back it was a pivotal moment for you to grow as a leader.
(0:42:31) JS: When I look at hiring people and you make a hiring mistake those are some of the biggest mistakes I have made. Sometimes you are like, “I have to put people who are way different from me for different experiences,” and when you do that and you are not hiring to culture it has got me every single time. Every single time you think I would learn. You think you would get rid of these people faster and you don’t do that either even though you know it is not working out. It is just one of the hardest things I have had to face as a leader is learning the hiring and the firing and making sure you have the right team.
(0:44:10) BS: No one likes to fire someone but if you find there is not a good fit there you are putting the rest of the organization and your credibility as a leader and your core values at risk by not living up to those and making those tough decisions when they need to be made.
(0:44:26) KL: We always say in our organization that we are responsible for all of the families within our organization but also the community and past clients and we have all of these families that every single decision they make can impact everyone. All of them. I am the same why. I feel like I have so many of the same characteristics that you do Jennifer. I want the best for everyone. So, I will interview someone and I will only see how I think we can help them I wont see the weaknesses or where they don’t fit. Early on when I didn’t have the core value lens to see exactly why I was bringing people on, every single time, the same thing, it never worked out and I wanted to believe in them so bad but they didn’t want to believe in themselves. It is really difficult and I love that you share that because I think everyone listening can get a lot from that and getting some sort of formal plan to hire people because no matter who it is you have your blind spots and you get tunnel vision and you might not be able to see some of those weaknesses and in interviews, most people bring their best presentation so you don’t get a true understanding for who they are that is where those core values are so critical.
(0:45:36) JS: One of the things to share with you on that. If we are hiring a customer service or driver or whomever we are hiring we have people in different departments after they make it through the vetting process with their manager. They have to all give them the thumbs up. So our hiring process is a little longer but it is really beneficial in the long run.
(0:46:00) KL: Having some sort of multistep process is critical because anytime you have one person whoever it is in charge of hiring someone and not getting a second opinion or third opinion. It rarely works out. Every once in a while you get lucky because you have the right talent. But the odds are when you have one person who is assessing someone you need to get multiple opinions. I think this is the past that I love the most out of everything that we got to talk about today, and you mentioned it earlier, Brooks, the other organization that you have been apart of. I love female leadership. I truly believe in that to the highest level and I have watched all of these different awards in all of these different organizations and it is just incredible to watch everything you have done especially in a male dominated industry. What have you learned along the way from all of these organizations you have been a part of and how have they helped you find who you are today?
(0:46:50) JS: I touched on it earlier. I love learning. One of our core values is learn, teach, grow. You learn it and then you teach it and then hopefully it grows the whole organization. For me there are so many things I have learned from these groups I am in that I have brought into the outside learning into the organization that have made us who we are today. I so strongly believe you have to associate yourself with a group of people that is outside of your industry so you are able to keep the learning going.
(0:47:22) KL: This is something that I have never actually been able to do but I am going to attempt to do it now. Brooks, what sort of growth have you seen in Jennifer through the years of these different organizations that she has been a part of?
(0:47:33) BS: I think the biggest one is confidence. Obviously, when you are starting out as someone who is in their twenties, you hope you are doing the right thing but you are probably second-guessing yourself quite a big so what I have seen over the last five to ten years is Jennifer’s confidence as a leader grow a lot. Especially when you start to reach out the other who are starting out and you tell them some of the lessons you had and really being humble and being like, “I made mistakes and I will continue to make mistakes, but I learn from those mistakes.” I think, again, number one is her confidence as a leader.
(0:48:13) JS: Thanks, honey!
(0:48:14) KL: That was really fun to do! I have actually never got the opportunity to do that. So you have talked a lot about culture and I have seen couples in the same organization and you have maintained really good culture. That it sort of balancing act when you have both that are in the same industry. How have been able to keep culture with both of you in the business?
(0:48:33) JS: This one is a challenge because everyone loves Brooks. He is the parent that you go to. Right? We have that balance. It just seems to work. If you have talked to anyone in our organization they love to see when we kind of banter a little bit because he kind of tries to push the envelope. You might think it would be the other way but I try to keep it under control.
(0:49:03) BS: There is a fine line too because like good parents you don’t want to undermine the other one. You need to support and you need to back up and I definitely joke around and they see the lighter side or the fun side but you never cross that line. I will defer to Jennifer if she has a strong opinion on something and we will come to an agreement and we will find out what is best because you need to be in harmony even if it is not on the same note.
(0:49:32) KL: In leadership in general, if you have different leaders that are saying different things it can cause chaos and people start to get dizzy and there are things going on in your organization that is not great. I wanted to ask that because I have seen both sides of that in different organizations that I have been apart or I have traveled around the country and seen. I have seen really good culture and I have seen where it is just chaos at all times. So you are growing it at a really good pace and you have a really healthy company with great culture so what is on the horizon? What is next for your company right now?
(0:50:03) JS: That is the big question right now, isn’t it?
(0:50:04) KL: I love it! I mean, without disclosing the blueprint, what are you most excited for?
(0:50:08) JS: Well, there are a couple of things that are on the horizon. We are acquisition mode so that is really fun.
(0:50:17) KL: What kind of companies are you looking at?
(0:50:20) JS: Looking at companies just like we are but in different geographies, so that is one. The different categories that I mentioned before and we are also looking at maybe branching out and going into some of those categories with just that specialty with organization and see how we could fold them into the bigger picture. That is really fun. The other thing is, and Brooks mentioned this a little earlier. We have about fifteen to twenty tours a week and almost nine times out of ten they want to talk about the culture. They want to culture book. They want to know how to get that. So we are doing a lot of innovation in and around culture and how we can bring that solution to companies.
(0:50:56) KL: Oh! That is really good. I like that. That is really smart. Whoever’s idea that was that was a good one.
(0:51:03) BS: We haven’t exactly finished the blueprint yet.
(0:51:07) KL: No, she’s a visionary. I am sure you haven’t.
(0:51:08) JS: It is out there. It is a piece of Swiss cheese and I need my team to fill up the holes.
(0:51:11) KL: That is a need for almost every company I have seen. Final thoughts for business leaders that are listening right now and are trying to get to that next level. What recommendations would you have for someone? Whether they are just an emerging business leader or someone who is at a really high level of success and they are trying to get to that next level?
(0:51:33) JS: I really like to challenge leaders to make sure they are working on their business and not in it. You cannot scale if you are still working in it. I used to enter checks and enter orders and you have to let that stuff go if you are going to scale your company so really challenge how much time are you working on your business versus in it.
(0:51:52) KL: Great advice. How about you, Brooks?
(0:51:54) BS: Well, I think we were talking a little bit about this before but leadership and I think the leaders of today… You know the leaders of the old day led from the top and I think now the leader needs to lead and they needs to know what is going on on the ground level. Not to contradict what Jennifer said about working on your business and not in it, but you still have to understand what issues are they having and how can you help them solve it so they can be more productive and efficient and happy in what they are doing.
(0:52:26) KL: Having a pulse for your organization is critical no matter what level you are at. I just want to thank both of you. I am glad you are both here. This was amazing. Thank you so much for being part of the Podcast. I think our listeners are going to get so much from this and congratulations on all of your success.
(0:52:40) JS: Thank you!
(0:52:42) Exit: If you loved this episode give us a great review. Subscribe and share us socially so we can spread the word and build the community of difference makers. If there is a leader who inspires you, send your suggestions for future guests to Kris’s team at behindthebillboard.com so we can get better.
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