It really bothers Jennifer Rosenberg, president of Acorn Distributors Inc., when she doesn’t make it around to each department every day to say hello and acknowledge all 110 employees.
“It’s something I try very hard to do because I want to see the distribution center employees, and that’s just as important as walking back to the purchasing department or the accounting department,” she says.
She admits that it anguishes her when she’s running late or is swamped with meetings and can’t make her daily rounds.
“At the end of the day when I am walking out, it’s always the first thing on my mind: Did I see everyone?” Rosenberg says. “And it really bothers me if I didn’t get a chance to acknowledge everybody in the building that day.”
Rosenberg doesn’t try to greet everyone because she is a people pleaser or a micromanager checking up on employees, or even because she’s the boss’s daughter.
It was her father, Al Wachter, now vice president of Acorn, who introduced her as a teenager working at the janitorial and food service equipment and supplies house to the practice of greeting every employee every day.
The difference now is that Rosenberg, who purchased 52 percent of the business in 2005, knows why she is so keen on giving salutations.
When she was a teen, it was all about starting off on the right foot. Now it is affirmation that she has the support from her team members who no longer see her as just the boss’s daughter but as the high-energy leader who inspires them to exceptional service.
Here’s how she met the challenge of being a leader in her own right who had to gain the respect of her employees.
Take the wheel with a firm plan
When you enter the field of company ownership, planning your exit strategy is probably the farthest thing from your mind. But Wachter, who was the sole owner of the company from 1999 to 2005, started thinking about a succession plan as soon as he took the wheel.
He needed to make sure there was somebody coming in behind him to operate the company as a family business. At the time, Rosenberg was working somewhere else, and her brother, who was working for the company, would decide after a few years to leave.
“You have to have a passion for the industry; he didn’t have that passion,” Rosenberg says. “There’s no animosity between us, but if you don’t have a passion, you’re not going to be successful. We all work so hard and put in a lot of hours, and if you don’t love what you are doing, you’re not going to go home a happy camper at the end of the day.”
So Wachter was successful in drawing Rosenberg, who was then a food broker, back into the company, but not necessarily to be the leader.
“When I started, I was just a salesperson, given a territory and told, ‘Go out. Sink or swim,’” she says. “But I needed to prove myself to the employees to earn their respect. I shouldn’t have expected that because of what my last name was. That was meaningless to me, and I didn’t want to be treated any differently than any other employee.”
A new leader joining a company wants the support of the employees. It boils down to whether they think they can follow because of respect or just because you are the leader. And in a family business, starting at the bottom may just be the best place to begin to gain support, to show employees you have paid your dues.
“You want their support,” Rosenberg says. “If employees don’t believe in you, why are they going to help you? I came in as a salesperson in our purchasing department. Those people knew a lot more than I knew, and I needed to learn from them.
“And if they didn’t have the trust and confidence in me that I was looking out for their best interests, why are they going to support me? Why are they going to help me learn what I need to make sure that I know every facet of the business to run it someday?”
Hitting the pavement pays off
In a number of family businesses, family members are automatically brought into the business whether or not there’s a need for them or whether they have the qualifications for the position or not. They may even enjoy tenure regardless of how well or how poorly they do their job.
But Rosenberg was intent on getting across a different message, one that would level the playing field: “I am not any better than any employee, and no employee is any better than I am.”
Starting at the street level (sales) was her preferred place to begin, especially in the distribution business, she says.
“You need to start with sales and learn the business, because if you don’t learn what goes on in the street and what your customers expect — you don’t have a business without your customers,” Rosenberg says. “Then you want your employees to have your back. I did that, and I proved myself, just as any other employee would do — not because I was part of the family.”
It worked, because Rosenberg put the effort into it.
“They saw how hard I worked,” she says. “They saw that I was out there hitting the pavement, knocking on doors, opening new accounts, educating customers that we train our sales people not to be order takers but sales consultants.”
It wasn’t long before Rosenberg found out that the different jobs she was learning around the company would help her wear different hats.
“On the sales side, employees see what I do for customers,” she says. “They see that I’m out there bringing in new business and growing existing business. They also see the relationships that I have built with customers.
“On the inside, it’s taking interest in what they are doing and working with them on projects, showing them that you’ve invested a lot in your employees; they are your biggest asset. Without them, you wouldn’t have the ability to go out and get customers.”
Don’t worry about whether or not you’ve arrived
If you’ve paid your dues to learn how to lead a company, there should be a point where you are respected and trusted — and seen as a leader in your own right. And if you can pinpoint when it happened, it might not have really happened yet.
For Rosenberg, there was no lightbulb moment. She once was asked if she knew when she had obtained buy-in and support from the employees.
“I couldn’t give an answer,” she says. “I don’t know when it was. I thought to myself, ‘Maybe I should ask one of the managers who has seen me literally evolve into my role,’ but I don’t remember when the lightbulb went off — when it was like, ‘OK, I feel that I have a good relationship with everyone here.’
“I think it takes time, but it’s one of those things; you’ve got to start off on the right foot. And I was lucky that I started off on the right foot.
“I think as long as you are working to your best ability, and you are truly learning the business, people know who is working hard and who is not working hard — and who is playing the system and who is not playing the system.
“You can’t fool people, especially employees who work with you day in and day out. It’s obvious you are in it for the right reasons. I think you just need to be yourself.”
There is one certain way to learn whether you have arrived: take time off.
“When I was on maternity leave, I remember getting emails with comments like, ‘We miss your energy around the building!’” Rosenberg says. ●
- Take the wheel with a firm plan.
- Hitting the pavement pays off.
- Don’t worry about whether of not you’ve arrived.
The Rosenberg File
Name: Jennifer Rosenberg
Company: Acorn Distributors Inc.
Education: University of Cincinnati. I graduated with a degree in history. I didn’t complete a minor in business, but I took a lot of business classes. For some reason, I really loved art history. I took an art history class my freshman year and I said, ‘Wait. I really like this.’ And everybody said, ‘What are you going to do with it, teach?’ I said ‘No, I’ll probably go into sales.’
What was your first job, and what did you learn from it?
I used to come in on Saturdays when I was a little girl and empty the garbage cans and my dad would give me a dollar. When I was 16 or 17, I worked at a clothing store called Chico’s at a local mall. It was a small boutique clothing store but I was very hands-on as far as with the customers trying things on and accessorizing them. I would blow other people’s sales away there. I learned the art of sales and taking care of a customer.
Who do you admire in business?
There are a couple of women that are in my industry, in our buying group, who are probably 20 to 25 years older than me, and their stories are very similar to mine as far as coming into their fathers’ businesses. And they are looking at me and saying, ‘I was you 20 years ago.’ I see where they have gone, and I see that’s maybe where I’m going to be in 20 years. And my dad has really been my role model as a businessperson. I’ve learned an incredible amount from him, and I am still learning every day.
What is the best business advice you ever received?
When I first got into the business and people were asking me, ‘Are you going to take over,’ I couldn’t answer that question. I was just learning in the beginning. And I remember asking then, how will I know if this is for me or not? They would say, ‘It’s when you don’t like what you are doing 51 percent of the time.’ That is something that has always stuck with me. As I mentioned earlier, if you don’t have passion, you are not going to be successful. I think you learn that pretty quickly — if you’ve got that passion or not.
What is your definition of business success?
A strong team, because without great employees, and a strong team behind you, you can’t be successful on your own. It takes an army. And I’ve got an awesome army behind me. We don’t have employees who have just been here six months, two months. We don’t have a revolving door. We have long-standing employees. From the hourly employees up to salary … and it’s not just in one department. It’s pretty clear throughout the building that we have a lot of loyal employees.