Mark Pentecost knew it was time to work on the substantial growth his company, It Works!, was experiencing — and stop putting out fires all the time. The health and wellness company, whose flagship product is called the Ultimate Body Applicator, grew from $29 million in revenue in 2010, to $45 million in 2011, to more than $200 million in 2012.
There were growing pains along the way, but Pentecost, president and CEO, prefers to think of them as high-class problems.
“I think you get caught in the weeds putting out fires all the time instead of being at 10,000 feet, seeing what’s going on,” he says. “It was how to connect the departments. We were growing so quickly. We were adding 10 or 12 people to a department and all of a sudden we were becoming too many departments instead of one team.
“I had to make sure the focus was crossing over and that people were spending time together as a team.”
Pentecost set out to find ways to ensure crossover between departments. One device he settled on was an informal company get-together called fire pit talks.
While certainly not a revolutionary idea — the term “fireside chats” goes back to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s days — it offered a tool to fire up team members while they were in a relaxed, casual setting.
But there was one rule that made it different. The participants, usually the lead figure from each department, were not allowed to talk about anything in their departments — they could only talk about ideas they had for other departments.
“So that made it OK to leap across departments and say, ‘Hey, have you ever thought about this with your supply chain? Or have you thought about this with your marketing team? Social media, I know you guys are doing this, but what about … ?’” Pentecost says.
The fire pit talks put It Works! back on track, and emphasized how critical teamwork was.
“It led to being one team, and now as we see challenges, we are trying to pick up on them,” Pentecost says. “In the last couple of years we have added so many more people, and we have had to do more processes — which sometimes is painful and isn’t fun.
“You’ve got to have a process for everything you do. Your operations people say, ‘Let’s just walk over and do it,’ and your vision people say, ‘I’ve got to wait for the process.’ So there are those kinds of growing pains. For me, it’s fun. It’s exciting how to put those together.”
Here’s how Pentecost makes it all come together with his team of 60,000, who serve more than 400,000 customers through direct sales.
Instill one team, one mission
It takes a strong teamwork structure and a leader with vision — and hopefully experience — to make a company successful.
Pentecost found that his 16-year career as a high school teacher and basketball coach gave him the foundation to understand what makes up a team.
“In business, I found I did the same thing I did with coaching,” he says. “First you have to get the right people on your team in the game. It’s kind of like that Good to Great proverb: You’ve got to get the right people on the bus and get them in the right seats. Then you’ve got to have a great game plan, keep people focused and inspire them to see the vision that you have.”
The company uses a cross-interview process through other departments to help make sure new hires fit into the team.
“Even though you are coming into the supply chain, or you’re coming in as a programmer or maybe you are coming in as a customer service representative, or whatever level that you are coming in, what we are learning here is that not only is it your resume and your talents, but it is also how you interact with the whole team,” Pentecost says.
A part of Pentecost’s game plan for It Works! to reach its first $100 million in sales was to use a sports-like technique. He designed a jersey for employees at the headquarters, as well as in the field, and staffers added the motto, “One team, one mission.”
“This led to monthly events that focus on what we are doing,” he says. “At them, there is a lot of passion, energy. It may be a jersey one month, or bracelets that we wear the next month, and we all really get behind pushing that. I wouldn’t call it, ‘rah, rah;’ I would call it just inspiring people to be connected that way.”
Even splitting employees into two teams to help a common purpose, such as raising funds for a charity, helps build teamwork — and does not become divisive.
“I do worry about that, but, to me, I look at it from when I was coaching basketball, I had 12 on my team,” Pentecost says. “But in the stadium there might be 8,000 to 10,000 people. So to me, it is unifying them as a fan of our company and unifying them with the same focus, the same message that somebody would have watching their team. That’s worked well for us so far.
“For me, the coaching part was innovating, doing it your own way, having a good vision, focus, keeping people focused and then building a great team. That has been our magic formula for success, especially in the last few years. Our growth has been amazing.
“I feel like coaching was really just a prelude to being the CEO,” he says.
Brainstorm and build upon an idea
When Pentecost was first using the fire pit talks to smooth out the wrinkles in the teamwork fabric, he also realized it offered a time for brainstorming, which not only resulted in some great ideas but also helped build the feeling of team ownership.
Anyone can bring up an idea, and even Pentecost tosses out a few.
“I will see a commercial on TV, and I’ll say, ‘Hey, what do you think of this crazy idea?’ And then I let them take off from there. We like to have a crazy idea. Something that might be really crazy but you throw it out there.
“I find some of our best stuff comes from someone saying, ‘This might be really dumb or this might be really crazy,’ and then it ends up being ‘genius.’”
The gatherings provide a platform for these conversations and no one feels threatened, and everyone has fun.
“To be able to laugh at something or be able to say, ‘Well, that’s crazy but what if you took it over here,’ we may end up way far away from where it started but with a great idea that helps the company.”
Even ideas such as moving the company are fair game at the fire pit chats. Originally located in Grand Rapids, Mich., the company moved to Bradenton, Fla., a little over two years ago.
“Sometimes in the middle of winter for some reason, people didn’t enjoy coming to Grand Rapids,” Pentecost says. “We all laughed about it because we had about 25 families in our management at that point. I remember the bank saying you would lose half of your management in such a move.”
The decision was made and 100 percent of the management moved to Florida.
“We moved 25 families from Michigan — we were already a tight group,” he says. “We had to find schools together, we had to find churches together, we had to find golf leagues and softball, and where the kids play altogether, so it made us tighter. As we added people to that, we made sure that we all clicked.”
Consider those who helped along the way
Teamwork and competition is not all about winning, although winning the championship is certainly a goal worth seeking. It’s the middle ground that needs to be considered.
Pentecost is careful to point out that while a leader is often a competitive person, the leader must learn that his or her greatest strength is also the greatest weakness.
“I can be so competitive that I have blinders on to what is going on to the side of me, and so it’s been a great strength,” he says. “It’s realizing it’s not just getting to the end line. I used to set a goal — it’s finishing, it’s winning the championship or it’s having another championship year, where now I am realizing it’s that process in between.
“When I was teaching, I was in the teachers’ union,” Pentecost says. “I didn’t understand what was going on. Now that I have been on both sides of the fence, it really helps me understand a lot of the troubles and views different people may have.”
In short, it’s not forgetting the people along the way who helped in the pursuit.
“It’s how you take care of your people at the office,” Pentecost says. “It’s the victories that you celebrate together as a team. It’s the change that you can really make in your community.” ●
- Impart the theme of one team, one mission.
- Brainstorm and build upon an idea.
- Consider those who helped along the way.
The Pentecost File:
Name: Mark Pentecost
Title: President and CEO
Company: It Works!
Birthplace: I was born in Holt, Mich., which is near Lansing. I started teaching just outside Grand Rapids and loved the area, so when we started our business I was living in that area.
Education: I got my teaching degree from Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich.
What was your first job and what did you learn from it? I had a lawn care business. At one time I was mowing about every yard on our block. I learned how to be your own boss and do a good job. I learned that if you messed something up, if you ran over a hose, you had to repair it and take it out of your profits. I definitely would say now I am frugal with money as far as not wasting it. It’s being smart, being prudent with my team.
What is the best business advice you ever received? I think for me, it was, “Never give in, never give up.” I look back at 13 years of It Works!, and I remember a couple of times that someone called us and said maybe we should quit putting money into it, that it was going to ruin us — we had financed it ourselves, and we just kept thinking we had the vision and we had to have faith in what we’re doing. The reason for our success is that we just never gave up or gave in. We stayed with the values that we thought were right and we were just like that little train, we were just going a little more, little more.
Who do you admire in business? I think I would take a little from a lot of people. I look at Warren Buffett. He really studies the numbers of the business and what they do. I look at Donald Trump and the branding that he has done. I look at someone like Mark Cuban who bootstrapped himself and didn’t come from money but was able to create that. I love John Maxwell with his study on leadership and leading. I think probably more than ever I realize how important that is in this world today. We are under a magnifying glass so you have to be real. I think it has been a case of taking a little from quite a few and try to take the good and put that in our own.
How do you define business success? That’s a great question because that changes. In the beginning when I started the company, it was all on the bottom line, being profitable and being able to pay your bills and your employees. Sometimes I tell people I don’t have a high IQ — I have high grit. We just stuck with something and didn’t let it go. To me that’s what business is. It’s that grit of getting in there and even though we didn’t have a silver spoon, you can create that. We truly are in a country that if you’ve got high grit, you can accomplish anything. If you had told me I would be teaching for 16 years, then I was going to own a golf course and a ranch, and I was going to own a company in the Inc. 500 and sales were going to be in the multimillions yearly and international, I would’ve thought, man, that sounds like something you read in a book. But we’ve done it ourselves and we are just getting to it. I mean the story is not complete yet.