Sum of the parts Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2010

When Snap-on Inc. acquired ProQuest Business Solutions in late 2006 and formed Snap-on Business Solutions Inc., there were a few challenges. Departments were performing the same tasks and the new people needed to learn the acquiring organization’s culture and processes.

“The core problem was you take these two stand-alone businesses and you put them together, and now you have obviously some areas of overlap, which typically you would not accept,” says Tim Chambers, who was named president of the newly formed entity in early 2009.

“A lot of that was in our sales channel. You could have two people calling on the same customer and they are now from the same company. We went about a process of declaring that we were moving to one sales organization and that one sales organization was going to represent the entire product portfolio.”

Snap-on had a “who we are” statement, that defined the mission, vision and core beliefs of the company as a whole, but as Snap-on Business Solutions, there wasn’t that one unifying document that defined the operations of the company for its 850 employees.

“When I got here, a lot of the integration had just started, so the combined entity actually needed to get clarity on what their mission was,” he says. “The person who was appointed to drive these pieces of business together was new to the Snap-on side and had been at the acquisition for a year, so relatively new, and there wasn’t a unifying mission that had been created for the combined entity.

“The first few months we worked really hard on getting a mission — what are the key deliverables? Why does it make sense that these two businesses are together, what is the value proposition? So that was the piece we worked on really hard initially. I would say that was the first two to three months.”

Talk to people

For those first two to three months, Chambers spent a lot of time traveling and visiting sites and talking to employees.

He would talk to a cross section of about 10 to 15 people, keeping it small enough so there could be meaningful dialogue. At every meeting, Chambers heard the same thing over and over.

“It was pretty clear that we hadn’t described a clear path to our future,” he says. “Almost immediately, whether it was discussions with our associates or whether it was out talking to our customers, we needed to very quickly come to a conclusion on what it is we were all about.”

You have to be honest and answer as many questions that you can. In Chambers’ case, it was difficult because he was still learning the ropes.

“On a very high level, since I was still learning, I shared with the organization and our suppliers why the corporation made the decision to put these two businesses together,” he says. “Philosophically, what was the driver in driving this together from Snap-on’s perspective.”

Chances are, you won’t have any problems with getting honest feedback, which Chambers found out firsthand. But you still have to create an atmosphere conducive to open conversation.

“It’s about the environment you create,” he says. “Before the meeting, I asked them to think about things that they wanted me to talk about so they could submit questions to me in advance so they are anonymous.

“I think the fact that it can be anonymous, that is a very nonthreatening environment. It’s relatively small, and they’re not asking me questions. I’m asking them questions, so you somewhat provoke the conversation.”

Sometimes you are going to get questions or comments about something on such a specific level that you won’t be able to answer accurately, but you still have to address it.

“I have to table the issue and say, ‘OK, I don’t know the answer to that, but I am going to follow up on it and you should get a response to this issue,’“ he says. “That’s typically the toughest for me is that sometimes the questions are (so) very focused on their particular work that they do that its beyond my scope.”

When he was asked about why the two organizations came together, the answer was on such a high level that he had to break it down. You have to simplify ideas and answers for front-line employees because they may not be able to understand the big-picture idea just as you have trouble relating to their day-to-day job.

“To make it more clear, you have to have a fairly good understanding of the organization and how we create value,” he says. “After you understand how we created value and how the organization operates, I think the best way to create clarity is to utilize real-life examples. The group of people you are speaking to, there is probably an event or a circumstance that has happened recently that you could use as a learning experience. You talk about that experience and how that might have been implemented.”

Chambers’ meetings with customers were somewhat similar to those with employees, but he did look for slightly different information.

“We’ll have a discussion about our performance, and that’s usually what I talk about is how are we performing as an organization and meeting (their) needs,” he says. “Where internally, I’ll specifically want to talk about the things that are going well and then the most critical things we need to change.”

When you put yourself out there after a major change like an acquisition or merger, you have to be prepared for anything from both customers and employees. You can be put on the spot at any time, and a minor slip-up can turn into a major problem.

“You are very vulnerable,” he says. “That’s part of getting good feedback is put yourself in a position where you are vulnerable.”

While you want to be asked questions, you want to ask them, as well. Just lecturing to people can cause them to tune you out.

“Communication is two ways, and you can deliver an idea, but you also have to listen in return that it can be repeated,” he says. “You do that with questions.

“After you deliver an idea, you can formulate questions to gauge the comprehension or clarity or the fact that it made sense.”

Evaluate data

So, you’ve pounded the pavement and collected information from customers and employees. You might be tempted to keep going because you feel that you still don’t have enough data to reach your goal, but you have to stop eventually.

“In all business planning, you never have 100 percent,” he says. “At some point, you just have to say that this is good for now.”

Through talking with people, you have an idea of the outsider’s perception of a change and, in Chambers’ case, what an acquisition meant for his company. You also have gathered what is working well in your organization and what can be improved. Eventually, Chambers stopped collecting information after three months because his visits started to produce the same information as previous stops around the country.

“There are themes that come up that are very consistent, although they may be said different ways and the words used are different,” he says. “There are themes that start to emerge. Those are themes that you start to need to address in a more urgent matter.

“The information that I was getting was consistent with the information that I had received before. There was a consistency to what I learned and therefore that suggested where we needed to focus.”

All of thi s information can be overwhelming, which is why you have to rely on your management team members to sort through the data.

They can be a part of collecting the data, but they definitely have to be part of sorting through the data.

“I would strongly suggest it’s not an individual effort,” he says. “It does take a team to pull this together. Having multiple viewpoints is constructive. In many cases, you will find alignment. Where there are points of disagreement, that’s really where you exert your leadership.”

Just like you had to create an environment for customers and employees to feel comfortable talking to you, you have to do the same when trying to get input for your management team.

“You have to be open to input — having a relationship or building a relationship with your leadership team such that they can come talk to you about issues without reprisal,” he says. “Such that when you are faced with issues that it is about getting the team together to drive through the alternatives and vet the process and get to a conclusion. I think it’s somewhat consistency, too, that you constantly perform in a way that the team has an expectation of how you will operate.”

To keep the disagreements at a minimum, you and your team all have to be on the same page as to what information is important.

“If you have a shared body of knowledge, most people come to the same conclusion,” he says. “Discourse usually happens when you are working from different sets of data.

“If you can get folks with a common base of knowledge, most people come to the same conclusion.”

When there is a disagreement, you need to ask what would be the alternative to what the group is proposing. If there is still disagreement, you as the top leader have to step in and decide.

“I don’t think it’s about voting,” he says. “I don’t think consensus is a fantastic management tool. Ultimately, if there is a disagreement, it needs leadership to break or to get the resolution.

“I would just say that it’s proven in business that consensus building can’t be your leadership tool.”

Once Chambers and his team collected the information and evaluated it, they put the mission on paper and began communicating it. While they were communicating bits and pieces of it during the three months, they continued to get buy-in after that time. Like most changes in business, it’s a continuous process.

“You have to educate around it,” he says. “What does it mean, and more importantly, what does it feel like? So when people aren’t living that document, you need to take action. You have to intervene and explain to people why that doesn’t fit with Snap-on culture. Then use those examples as educating opportunities where in Snap-on we expect people to behave this way or take these types of actions. ‘There were alternatives in front of you, and you chose this path. In the Snap-on world, we would have liked you to pursue a path that looked more like this.’

“So it’s really a constant process of education and reaffirming what a positive behavior looks like.”

How to reach: Snap-on Business Solutions Inc., (330) 659-1600 or http://sbs.snapon.com