Adam Coffey is not a fan of the CBS TV series “Undercover Boss.”
He doesn’t believe in the concept of a show that features a CEO working side by side with his or her employees without ever being recognized as the boss.
“It’s criminal that a CEO could hide from his employees and they don’t know who he is,” says Coffey, president and CEO at WASH Multifamily Laundry Systems. “If I go into any of my offices, every single employee knows who I am. As the leader, you have to get outside of your comfort zone if you’re not comfortable doing that. You need to find a way to get comfortable. In order to be successful, you need to engage with your people.”
Employee engagement played a big part in Coffey’s ability to turn around a business that had fallen behind the times when he arrived in 2003. In those days, WASH had about 60,000 locations and kept track of each of them on 3-by-5 index cards.
Today, the company has 25 branch offices across the U.S. and Canada and 65,000 locations where more than 4.5 million people do their laundry every week. And here’s another fun fact: WASH processes more than 1.7 billion quarters each year.
At the new WASH Multifamily Laundry Systems, technology is an integral part of the company’s operations. This includes smart card payment systems, Web-enabled remote laundry monitoring and a FixLaundry mobile app that allows residents to scan a barcode on a broken machine to request service.
It’s all led to a business that has doubled its revenue in the last five years to reach $450 million and 850 employees. None of it would have been possible if Coffey had kept his employees at a distance.
“You need to ride with your people, understand what they do for a living and understand their challenges,” Coffey says. “A lot of the good ideas in an organization come from these people. So you need to be able to plug into them as an equal or as a peer, not as a CEO to a subordinate. Somewhere in there, you’ll find success.”
All in the family
When Coffey first arrived at WASH, he didn’t know a lot about the company or the industry that it operated in. So he traveled around the country to meet his employees and soak in their knowledge to make it a better business.
It’s a ritual that he maintains to this day.
“Every year, I travel to every city and I talk to every employee,” Coffey says. “I let them know everything I know. There are no secrets in our company. They know how much revenue we have, what our earnings are, what our challenges are and what our goals and objectives are for the year. So I make them part of our company.”
When it was founded, WASH was known as Web Service Co. and had one employee and 50 Westinghouse automatic washing machines. The company incorporated in 1953 and Coffey believes it has remained a family operation, even though the company is now led by a man who is not related to the company’s founding family.
“We started as a family business and today, we’re still a family,” Coffey says. “The family no longer owns us. They’re out of the business. But the family is 850 employees. Collectively as a unit, I develop my people and I work with my family. Now it’s kind of fun.
“At this stage, what was driven by me in the beginning is now driven by the employees. I can sit back almost like a proud papa and watch my organization feed on itself as it continues to grow and as our people reach new heights professionally in their careers. They are engaged and they are doing more. That culture is what makes companies successful.”
One of the biggest fears that employees have when change is put on the table is how it will affect them.
Coffey works hard to convey an attitude of collaboration over micromanagement.
It comes from recognition that the most valuable resource in most organizations is not the hardware.
“People are the heart of your company,” Coffey says. “So it’s working with people, inspiring people, giving them an opportunity for personal growth and making them part of something. It’s also saying thank you.
“A lot of times, executives can become closed off from the people in the trenches. It’s unfortunate when that happens. But when it does, you lose touch with what is the reality? What is the customer’s reality? What is the employee’s reality? What’s going on day to day in all of these jobs that are being performed by people in the organization?
“When I saw a job classification, I saw people. I knew what those people did for a living. I understood what their challenges were. It gave me a bigger sense of reality very quickly to where I could assess what the challenges were that we faced.”