Forty years ago, Jack Ouellette learned a lesson that still sticks with him today. As a squad leader at the U.S. Military Academy, Ouellette was
responsible for a group of cadets when an officer arrived for inspection. One cadet in his charge was poorly prepared, and the inspecting officer,
while complimenting Ouellette on his own appearance, nonetheless slapped him with a heavy load of demerits because of the offending cadet’s
sloppy presentation. The experience taught Ouellette who today is president and CEO of American Textile Co. how much his own
performance as a leader hinged on the performance of those around him. And even now, Ouellette places a premium on selecting the right people
for his company, a manufacturer of bedding products that posted more than $40 million in revenue last year. Smart Business spoke with Ouellette
about the value of intensive interviews, leveraging the talent of employees and the importance of saying thank you.
Look for character and energy in potential
employees. The real secret to any business
is having good people in your organization,
and that may be a standard answer that
people would give. But if you get good people with good character and let them do
what they are best suited to do, that’s how
your company grows, that’s how wonderful things happen.
The most difficult one is character. It’s
hard to determine, but it’s one that I
look for. It’s in things they say and in the
experiences they relate. The converse is
also true, probably in spades. You get
the wrong person, the wrong fit, things
don’t get done and you take a step back.
I look at energy about the person, and
you try to gain that about a person by
reading the resume and checking their
references and just in their way, their
Interview intensively. We have people
here who are pretty good at interviewing. That’s why it’s really good to be able
to get kind of a 360-view of them, by having lots of people in the organization we
respect giving them a view. It’s not an
exact science, but we have a high success rate.
We’re in the 90 percent range by going
through this process as far as finding
someone we’re satisfied with that works
out. We interview seriously and in depth,
and that means it’s several people in the
We’re really focusing on two things:
Are they the right people for us, and are
we the right company for them? If those
two don’t match, it’s not good.
Don’t forget to thank people. We have a
bonus structure for our executives that
is tied to the performance of the company, but there’s also one other thing that
we spread liberally, and that’s thank you.
I hope that doesn’t sound trite, but we
recognize people for their accomplishments and we single them out.
We have an event where, every time we
hit a specific sales goal, we will call our
company employees together and we
will recognize someone who has helped
us get to that goal. For example, every
time we hit a $5 million sales figure, we’ll
call everybody together and recognize a
person or a couple of people who have
exemplified teamwork and how that has
benefited the company.
Everybody knows what our goals
are, and this is the kind of performance we want to see. Thank you goes a
long way, and it’s a matter of keeping
your eyes open and seeing the people
who are working hard and who are
extending themselves, and making
sure you’re extending yourself as well.
There are a lot of things that, as you
grow, if you don’t watch, you’re going
to lose them.
Serve the company. There’s one guiding
principle, and that is the CEO is here to serve the company; the company’s not
here to serve the CEO. If that focus is
maintained, you’re looking in the right
You can really get off track if you think
the other way around. You see a lot of
high-profile CEOs and they get paid an
enormous amount of money and they get
a lot of compliments for what they’ve
done, and you know damn well that’s not
all them, that it’s maybe even the people
who their predecessor assembled for
them. I love the idea that people who are
actually coming up with the great ideas
are getting recognized.
Use your employees to help make decisions. When major decisions are arising,
why not use the talent pool you hand-picked? So I love to get their input.
Sometimes it’s painful, because you’re
saying, ‘This is what I recommend,’ and
everyone’s saying ‘Well, that’s too bad.’
Maybe there’s something I missed, so
it’s back to the drawing board. I really
believe that’s important. It’s important to
get everybody to the best decision possible. It’s also important to help people
stay motivated. People like to be part of
the decision-making, and it gives them a
great deal of satisfaction.
Provide clear direction and the right tools
for success. It’s our culture here that we
are interested in making certain that
people are given a very clear direction,
that they’re given the appropriate tools
to move in that direction, and that we
reinforce positive behavior. Ultimately, if
those things don’t work and the fit’s not
there, then there’s no sense trying to
make it fit. From our point of view, the
most productive people get the results
we want and the self-esteem at the same
HOW TO REACH: American Textile Co., (412) 948-1020 or