Christopher Quinn restored trust and unleashed creativity to drive Step2 Co. to record sales

When Christopher Quinn arrived as president and CEO at Step2 Co. in January 2015, he could feel the tension.

“When I came in, there was a perception I was going to be the flavor of the month,” Quinn says. “We had a number of associates who were in shell shock with all of the changes that had taken place at Step2. We had multiple ownership and leadership changes over the last four years. Rightly so, it created a silo mentality. People were just trying to protect their jobs.”

Quinn had previously served as executive vice president of North American operations for New Balance Athletic and prior to that, chief customer officer at Folgers Coffee, a division of Procter & Gamble.

Now he was tasked with restoring trust to a company known for manufacturing durable preschool and toddler toys, a company that had become the world’s largest rotational molder of plastics. It had a proud history, but there had been so many changes in such a short time that employees had lost the camaraderie and spirit of teamwork that made it a great place to work.

“There wasn’t a lot of candor in the company,” Quinn says. “We weren’t able to speak about tough issues. So one of the things I had to do was build trust. It was a situation where you move quickly to build trust before you move quickly to make big operating decisions.”

The company of about 800 employees also had its share of concerns from a product development standpoint. But those concerns couldn’t be addressed until Quinn earned some trust and convinced employees that he wasn’t just the next leader to come and go in the blink of an eye.

Establish trust

One of the first things Quinn did upon taking the job at Step2 was to get out and meet as many people as he could.

He scheduled monthly town hall meetings, launched a blog called Chris’ Corner and set up CEO breakfasts that would be held with people at various levels in the company.

“You want to create a strategic road map for the company where everybody understands what the strategic priorities are and can connect to them,” Quinn says. “We created a monthly role model leader award that defined what role model behaviors look like and then we highlighted a team or an individual that exemplified those skills.

“We did an associate engagement survey. I think a big lesson is trust is such a sensitive and fragile commodity in running a business. As a new leader, you have to invest tremendous energy building trust. You must be authentic, genuine, transparent and honest about how tough it is.”

As Quinn was getting to know people, he also began to talk about the challenges the company faced. And in his view, those challenges were daunting.

“I was honest that our performance was terrible in 2014 and it was going to take the whole team’s effort to turn the company around, not just the CEO,” Quinn says. “It was about creating alliances and forcing different people to attend meetings that they hadn’t attended before.”

Quinn wanted to break down the silos and get people to trust each other and talk to each other.

“When they stopped wondering why these other people were showing up at their meeting, they started to get more comfortable with sharing and being more transparent about their priorities,” he says. “Part of that was getting back to metrics. I published the management team’s goals and objectives for the entire organization.”

Unleash your potential

Quinn firmly believed in the team he had in place and its ability to make a quick turnaround. All he had to do was unleash the potential that each person brought to the table.

“What we did in the past was we said, ‘Here’s your capital expenditure budget. Design up to that amount,’” Quinn says. “What we did was to say, ‘Challenge the CapEx budget that we’ve had. Come to us with so many great concepts so that we can go to our board of directors and garner investment behind big ideas.’ And they came up with some great ideas. It’s one of the best design teams in the industry. They unlocked some great product concepts.”

One of the problems in the past was Step2 was trying to sell around as many as 10 different product categories.

“The new idea was to focus on three core categories,” Quinn says. “So instead of being mediocre across 10 categories, let’s be really famous across the three categories we were already known for in the consumers’ mind. A specific example is kitchens.”

As Quinn looked at the kitchen toys that Step2 manufactured and sold, he noticed that the average selling price kept going down.

“The reason is we kept relying on big retailers to sell our product,” Quinn says. “When you don’t innovate, you get more price pressure to be a better value for consumers. If something is not new and exciting, then you’re competing on price and you’re not competing on value. So we came in and challenged the team to think about kitchens like Starbucks did with coffee. Instead of giving it away for 99 cents like gas station coffee, how do we come up with a $4 frappucino?”

Quinn wanted his product development team to narrow its focus, but within that narrower focus, he wanted them to put their creativity to use and come up with products that would wow customers.

“We can come up with a kitchen that costs more than $350 that has play value,” he says. “It has to be distinctive and it has to be very inspiring for the consumer to want to make that investment. That’s as expensive as a real stove. But we came up with a product that is bigger and has features that none of our competitors have.”