Building trust

If you work for Bob
Shallenberger, you’d better
be able to think for yourself. Shallenberger, who runs
Highland Homes Inc. with his
partner, John Cavanagh, gives
his employees full autonomy,
and once the goal is set, he
doesn’t want to have to OK
your plan to accomplish it.

“I might do that for my 9-year-old children, not for a project
manager,” he says.

The founding partners’ goal
was not to become billionaires
but to build the best company
they could. And in doing so,
they’ve grown Highland
Homes from a $4 million company in 2004 to 2006 revenue
of $16.5 million.

Smart Business spoke with
Shallenberger about why you
should think twice during the
hiring process and why you
always have to keep your

Q. What are the keys to
your success?

The main key to our success
is we outwork everybody. I
learned a long time ago that
you only get so many hours in
the day. We can’t all work 20
hours a day. But what we can
do is stretch the hours and
stretch the day. We can multi-task to get a couple things
done simultaneously.

One thing we’ve done is set
the tone for working hard and
finishing and completing tasks.
We lead by showing everyone
how to work hard, rather than
telling everyone.

The guy who tells you how
hard he’s working is trying to
convince you he’s working
hard. The guy who’s working
hard doesn’t have to tell you because you know. Lesson
No. 1: Look out for that.

Q. How do you build trust
with your employees?

We have agreements with
the people who work for us.
Like, ‘I’ll go get lunch,’ or, ‘I’ll
get this done for you next
Wednesday.’ A lot of time, people will want me to look at
plans or figure out if what
they’re doing is right.

I may or may not have the
time to do it, but if I tell them
I’m going to get it done
by a certain time, I have
to keep that agreement
because I want them to
do the same for me.

If I let them down, I
don’t have much of a leg
to stand on later on,
when I say, ‘Hey, you
said you’d have this done
Friday at 2 p.m., and
here we are at 3 p.m.’
They can say, ‘Well, two
weeks ago, you said the
same thing, and you let
me down.’

We encourage people
to renegotiate before the
deadline. If you’re supposed to have something
done Friday at 2 p.m.
and it’s Thursday at 1 p.m.,
and at that particular second,
it dawns on you that there is
no way you can keep that agreement, don’t wait until 2 p.m.
Friday. Let us know right then
and there.

Q. How do you create a
strong company culture?

We walk the walk; we’re
not hypocritical. I don’t
make everyone wear
Highland shirts all the time
and then not wear one
myself. On the flip side of the coin, nobody wears suits
and ties here unless they
want to. Then they’d probably get harassed.

The culture is a lot about
where we’re going and how
it is. We have a formal informality. People will say please
and thank you, but they
might be wearing
Birkenstocks. You’ll never
see anybody in here in a suit
or tie or dresses or skirts,
unless they went to court
that day.

Q. What is the biggest challenge in running a business?

Hiring people because people are the hardest thing to investigate upfront. We’re a
smart enough beast that we
can hide emotions, we can lie
and other people wouldn’t
know sometimes.

We’ve learned not to try to
hire rookies and make them
into stars overnight.

On the flip side of the coin,
if you can afford and have the
patience to nurture or train
someone who has no experience at all but has the desire,
then you should. But if you
need a great salesperson, if
you need to turn out 50 sales
right now, you’ve got to go
hire one. You can’t take a
chance. Whatever that costs,
it costs.

Q. How do you make sure
you’re hiring the right person?

We’re not so arrogant to
think, ‘Wow, we’re really cool.’
They’re not just coming here
because we’re really cool
because they’re coming from
somewhere else.

We always have the ‘chick’
analogy here; we laugh about
it. If there’s a really hot chick
and she’s going to go out with
me, I’ve got to wonder. If I
think she’s only coming on to
me because I’m really cool,
there’s something else to it.

Is it because she just got
dumped by her boyfriend?
What’s the deal? Because I
want to know what the
whole deal is, but if you just
say, ‘Wow, it’s just because
we’re cool,’ you’re lying to

There’s always another side.
We’ve made some bad hires of
people we thought were going
to be phenomenal because we
didn’t question some things we
should have questioned.

HOW TO REACH: Highland Homes Inc., (314) 863-2845 or