Larry Lanham Featured

10:26am EDT June 19, 2006
Posted on the walls of Polymer Packaging Inc. are signs that ask, “What is the good business reason for doing this?” Larry Lanham, founder, president and CEO of the North Canton-based business, wants his employees to keep this simple, thought-provoking question in mind throughout their workday. When a situation arises, if employees can determine a valid answer to this question, they have the power to pursue it. This corporate culture of empowerment has helped Lanham’s 110 employees make good decisions and enabled them to grow the flexible packaging manufacturer from $40 million in 2005 revenue to an expected $54 million in 2006. Smart Business spoke with Lanham about how he manages change and how he’s leading his company into the future.

Establish expectations.
It starts in the hiring process. The most important thing is communicating the company’s expectations of the employee.

Management here truly feels that if an employee is either terminated or doesn’t work out, it’s management’s fault, not the individual employee’s fault.

In the interview, if you explain the expectation levels you have for that particular individual within the company, then that normally sets the tone for that employee moving forward.

Challenge potential employees.
We want them to look at us as closely as we’re looking at them to make sure that this is the type of team environment that will fit their personality and lifestyle as well as ours.

We believe in having passionate people here who take ownership in their jobs, and that requires a special individual. We consider our company a club of sorts where membership is to be valued, and it’s not given nor received easily.

Create a team, not a family.
A lot of small companies call themselves a family, and we really don’t. We call ourselves a team because in a family atmosphere, it’s very difficult to make changes on your team if you have family members.

If everyone views everyone else as a team member, and if one team member is lacking a bit, it’s up to the rest of the team to help bring them up to speed. If they can’t be brought up to speed, it’s not nearly as difficult to make a change in a position if you’ve got team players as opposed to family members.

It doesn’t mean that we don’t love our employees; it means that’s the expectation level, and they’re going to be a contributor and a team player.

Have the right stuff.
People are starving for leadership, even bad leadership; they’ll take that in place of none. It’s critical that organizations have strong leadership and a strong belief system and philosophy — and that they ask their people to mirror that.

That’s what works for us. We have a culture here to which everyone subscribes, and we try to make sure that they do before we make the hire.

Handle problems.
One thing that separates you from your competition is how well you handle problems. Whenever you have a human element, you’ve got the opportunity for error.

We sometimes say, ‘Our products are made in Canton, Ohio, not Heaven.’ All businesses have problems, but what separates us from our competition is how we handle our problems.

So many times, people don’t take on the responsibility of their problem, try to blame the problem on other factors, and don’t stand behind what it is that they’re producing. Our first and foremost response is, ‘Mr. Customer, your problem will be taken care of 100 percent.’ Whether that means we take 100 percent of it back or replace 100 percent of it, whatever it is that should be done, will be done.

We do what we say we will do; that’s terribly important. There are so many people today who just don’t do what they say they are going to do, and we really hammer that home, particularly in the sales, follow-up and expediting functions. The result of that is confidence in the relationship between supplier and customer.

Deal with change.
That has a lot to do with whether or not you embrace change philosophically. In our company, we do. We actually look forward to change and constantly promote change.

We’ve always been a company that’s been extremely flexible. We’ve prided ourselves on our flexibility and attribute a lot of our success to the flexibility that we’ve been able to maintain. It’s difficult to maintain flexibility if you have an unwillingness to change.

Everybody from the top on down recognizes that if you want to stay on top of technology and have the latest innovations, that is going to require that you’re willing to embrace change.

We believe that if you’re standing still, you’re going backwards. If you really believe that, then you fully recognize that change is going to be an everyday occurrence, and you needn’t be fearful of it.

Make deliberate decisions.
We don’t want to confuse change with anything that’s considered to be flippant. On the other hand, there’s nothing worse in business than stagnation, particularly in the decision-making capacity. I would prefer to see a decision made that may even be a wrong decision, as opposed to no decision being made.

It’s been my experience that there are few decisions that you make that are 100 percent black and white, so that if you do make an error in your first decision, typically you have opportunities to make adjustments and massage it back into a right decision. When you have no decision, you’re stagnant. You’re standing still, and you have no opportunity to be flexible.

Get the right people on the bus.
There’s an adage out of the Jim Collins book, ‘Good to Great,’ which I absolutely love. To paraphrase it, the old adage that people are your most important asset turns out to be wrong. People are not your most important asset; the right people are.

In that same book, there was a whole analogy created around having the right people on the bus. If you’ve got the right people on the bus, the bus can take a detour, but you’re still going to get to where you want to go.

If you don’t embrace change, if you don’t have the right people in place and if you’re stagnant, you’ll never get to where you’re going.

Move forward.
You want to keep looking ahead, and the only way you can do that is if what you did yesterday is going to be good for tomorrow. That means our concentration of efforts is always focused on growth and future opportunities, as opposed to trying to make up for lost ones that weren’t proper from the beginning.

HOW TO REACH: Polymer Packaging Inc., (330) 649-6000 or www.polymerpkg.com