Inspiration for innovation

Manco’s sales force waited patiently for their CEO to begin the sales meeting. Instead, Jack Kahl’s sons and several other company leaders entered the room wearing brightly colored jockey’s silks.

A lone bugler blared as the executives walked to the front of the room and positioned themselves as if they were climbing into the starting gate for a race.

“Then the lights went out,” continues Jack Kahl, whose company manufacturers adhesive materials. “And everyone was wondering what’s going on. (That’s when) the movie began — the (1973) Belmont. It was the third race, and (Secretariat) wins by 31 lengths. It just thrills the whole damn room.

“From there we went on to talk about (how) we’re going to be very best we can be, and we’re going to kick some serious butt while we serve the customer. And the place went nuts. It was ballistic.”

Kahl later passed on a copy of the tape to his mentor Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart. And while Kahl may be famous for his antics — shaving his head or swimming across the pond outside Manco’s Avon headquarters after the company meets its sales goals — his place in history as a master of corporate innovation is assured.

“You’ve just got to dare,” he says. “You’ve got to do things. Some people are daring. Some companies create a daring environment. But most companies kill it. They absolutely destroy the ability to take risk because of policy manuals or the leaders.

“And they don’t let the people think. They don’t let them dare take a chance outside the norm. Most companies self-limit.”

According to Kahl, when people focus on innovation, they typically look only at the product.

“That’s not innovation, that’s the result,” he says. “What I really see as innovation’s root is the culture that you create in the company. You say, ‘Got an idea? Go ahead. I’ll support you. Try it.’ That is the real root of innovation. The practice of that is what got us here.”

For Kahl, the goal is to create an atmosphere, a culture through which the free flow of ideas can occur. And he does more than just talk about it. When the Manco structure was built, Kahl insisted the offices have 10-foot ceilings.

“And when (contractors) came in, they start telling you how much (that extra space) costs you to pay for extra air conditioning,” Kahl says. “I said, ‘I don’t care.’ When you want to think expansively, you want to be in a place where you have a sense of airiness around you. So create the environment around you or around all the people to do the things you want to do.”

Inspirational signs (“Take great care of all ideas for one of them may be king”) and lamp posts with street names including Innovation Lane and Imagination Drive adorn the floors and walls of the corporate office.

“I think it all starts with a bit of childlike quality of curiosity,” Kahl says. “You don’t want to get completely grown up to lose all the curiosity and experimentation that happens from what children do — all the things that kids do on an everyday basis that adults get almost taken out of them by the business world, and school, and everything else.

“I think entrepreneurs are the guys that make it through and become the window breakers of the world. They don’t let the status quo keep them within those bounds. There’s a mischief-maker in me, and I figure if it’s good for me, then I should treat others the same way and let them have some fun.”

Some of those “others” are Manco’s vendors.

“Innovation not only has its root in trust here,” Kahl says. “It has its root in trust with your vendors, who you approach the same way. And your customers. The best customer innovation we’ve ever attained in this company, not because they’re the biggest, but because they have the best ability to work with, is Wal-Mart.”

He says that company has a similar culture of being willing to give its people the chance to try new ideas.

“That open system transfers information up and down within their family before it ever goes to another family. They’re constantly collecting and sharing and supporting. So are we. When this culture meets this culture, you have made quite a graft.”

However, when the Manco culture meets a culture that is closed or structured, “We’re not able to integrate or graft onto that culture. We may be able to sell them something, but we really never develop anything. It’s like there’s no relationship formed. There’s just a business transfer of goods.

“With other companies, you find this awesome explosion of imagination.”

For Kahl, imagination is the key.

As visitors throttle down Just Imagine Drive (the street Kahl had renamed), the first thing they encounter before turning down the driveway leading to Manco’s world headquarters is a sign reading: “You are now entering the land of imagination. From this point, turn your imagination on.”

That is the world Jack Kahl has created.

Daniel G. Jacobs ([email protected]) is senior editor at SBN.