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.”

Harness your creativity

Focus groups have become a much bigger part of the way things are done at Step2 under Quinn’s leadership.

“We went from three focus groups in 2014 to 11 in 2015, so one almost every month,” Quinn says. “We had moms and kids coming in. We had that energy in the building to unlock what she’s looking for and have her be really brutal in giving us feedback in what we’re thinking about creating. We’re not asking her to be nice.”

One of the biggest mistakes leaders make in trying to connect with customers is passing off responsibility for product creation. If you’re a product company, you need to be involved because that’s where you make your money, or you miss opportunities to make money.

“I’ve never missed a line review meeting at this company,” Quinn says. “One of the things we did was we had not looked at the stickers and decals we’re using on our kitchens for a long time. It had become an afterthought. We create this inspiring kitchen then we send it to the graphics department and use this tried and true color palate that we’ve been using for 20 years and slap the stickers on.

“We had one focus group that came in and the only thing we changed was the stickers and decals. The feedback confirmed for us that the consumer in her mind almost felt that the kitchens were completely different products based on the importance of the decals. It’s looking at that level of detail.”

In 2016, stickers will not be used at all as the company has found other methods to incorporate features into Step2 products. Quinn says you can’t be afraid to make changes and you certainly can’t use cost as an excuse to not make changes to your product.

“People become so cost conscious that they stop inspiring the consumer because all they are worried about is product cost,” he says. “There’s plenty of money for us and plenty of money for the retailers if we design the product well. If we don’t design it well, then neither one of us are going to make a lot of money.”

The key to taking full advantage of the creativity within your employees is to unleash it within a structure.

“You have to give people guardrails,” Quinn says. “It’s not freedom without any sort of constraint. You give them clearly defined guardrails and then you get out of their way. I’m not a Darwinist, but at least in this example, I believe you let the best products rise to the top and then surround that product with activation and investment. Limiting the categories doesn’t have to limit creativity.”

A great first year

The privately held company recorded its highest sales in company history in 2015 at $180 million and Quinn is confident a foundation has been set to keep growing in 2016. After a year on the job, he feels like he’s found a home at Step2.

“I was really touched that the associates threw me a party for my one-year anniversary,” he says. “They had every associate come out and we had cupcakes and it was really nice. I didn’t ask them to do it or tell them when my anniversary was. They just did it.”

When you give people an opportunity to be part of your company’s growth, they’ll jump at the chance.
“I work for them; they don’t work for me,” Quinn says.

Takeaways

  • Building trust often takes time.
  • Let people do what you hired them to do.
  • Structure doesn’t have to limit creativity.

The Quinn File

NAME: Christopher Quinn
TITLE: president and CEO
COMPANY: Step2 Co.

Born: Rio de Janeiro

Education: Bachelor’s degrees in Spanish and economics, Denison University; MBA in marketing, University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business.

What did you want to be when you grew up? I wanted to be an airplane pilot. I considered going into the U.S. Air Force, but I didn’t have the eyes to do it.

Who has been the biggest influence on your life? It would have to be my father, Paul Quinn. I come from multiple generations of business people. He has been an incredible influence. I’ve had great mentors in the business and also supervisors who haven’t been as inspiring. You have to learn from all walks of life.

If you could speak with anyone from the present or past, with whom would you want to speak with? Jesus Christ. I would be unbelievably humbled to meet him. I would ask him about how challenging the world has become and how violent a place it has become. Why do we have so much instability in the world?

Quinn on the durability of Step2 products: If somebody is selling my product at a garage sale and that product is still being used and the consumer is engaging with it, it may be missing a piece like a handle or a faucet or something, but that’s an opportunity to create a positive impression with a consumer.

We have a 1-800 number that consumers call all the time. Now we’re utilizing those connections to get new emails, to get new relationship management information so we can come back to that consumer and engage them when we come out with the best and brightest new products.