Sports have always been a big part of Matt Kaulig’s life.
Back in the 1990s, he was the quarterback of the football team at the University of Akron and earned the Harry “Doc” Smith Award as the team’s most outstanding freshman. These days, he’s the owner of Kaulig Racing and partners with NASCAR driver Blake Koch to compete in the NASCAR XFINITY Series.
“That’s what I love about business,” Kaulig says. “It’s like a sport. You keep score and see how you’re doing, not only on topline revenue, but on your bottom line and your profitability. You see what your revenue is every year and see how you rank against other companies in your field. You just keep trying to get better.”
As Kaulig and Koch seek to make their mark in the world of auto racing, Kaulig has built LeafFilter North Inc. to become one of the nation’s leading gutter protection companies. The company he launched in his basement back in 2005 has grown to 31 offices across the nation and expects to finish 2016 with $105 million in revenue. LeafFilter has about 350 employees and 350 subcontractors that make up its team.
“We’ve been very calculated and careful about our growth,” says Kaulig, the company’s founder, president and CEO. “You always hear about companies that are just rock star companies and they explode with growth — and then they are gone. And you say, ‘What happened to them?’ We don’t want to be that company. We want to have continuous, steady growth and be here forever.”
Kaulig has made a concerted effort to focus on what his company does best and not obsess over what competitors are doing or how they are doing it.
“There are a lot of different ways to be successful, even in the gutter protection industry,” Kaulig says. “I don’t know if our way is the best way to do things. But it’s the way we do it.”
Keep it all together
One challenge that all leaders face when their business expands beyond a single location is the need to find a new way to communicate with a larger and more decentralized team.
“When you’re a small company, you talk to all the employees all the time,” Kaulig says.
That was obviously easy to do when LeafFilter was based in Kaulig’s house. It wasn’t that much more difficult when the company added locations in Columbus, Pittsburgh and Toledo.
“Those offices are close and I could drive there if I needed to,” he says. “Then we expanded to Maryland, Virginia and Cincinnati. Those aren’t so close.”
In order to stay connected with everyone in the company, no matter where they might be located, Kaulig made an investment in technology. Each office in the LeafFilter organization has “big, huge plasma TVs” to access the company’s state-of-the-art video conferencing system.
“Every Monday night, I do a 15-minute video to recognize the top performers in the country and to let everybody know what’s going on in the company and here at corporate,” Kaulig says. “I talk about our top-performing offices and employees. Once a week, people get to hear from the CEO about what’s happening.
“While I can’t physically be in each location, myself and our managers are able to speak with everybody on a daily basis if we need to. It’s facetime that we get without having to jump on a plane and be in 31 different cities.”
Technology is a big part of the solution to building a cohesive team. So is recruiting.
“You have to become a great recruiter and a great interviewer,” Kaulig says. “You’re not able to lead until you find the right people. Once you’ve recruited them and you get them in front of you, you have to do a great interview and sell them on the opportunity. Then it’s up to your leadership to do the onboarding, welcome them and get them excited about being a member of the team.”
These components build off of each other and combine to foster a stronger workplace culture. If everyone understands what’s happening in the business and what the major goals and priorities are, they are more easily able to share the company’s direction and its needs when they speak with potential newcomers to the organization.
Recruiting is important for any growing business that has these additional roles that need to be filled. Perhaps even more important to the strength and health of your workplace culture, however, is the opportunity you provide existing employees to advance in your organization when those opportunities come about.
“We try to promote from within,” Kaulig says. “We have 31 offices and we’re getting ready to open several more branch locations. We like to give people that are already in our organization and are talented and working hard the opportunity to be promoted and move up. That’s one way to continue to build a winning team is to develop people from within your business. It’s a great way to motivate and reward people for their efforts.”
Support leadership development
The ability to find people who have both the talent and the desire to lead is not always easy. That can prove to be a challenge when you have a growing business and the need for more leaders.
“It’s a different set of skills to identify those people that would make a great leader,” Kaulig says. “Plenty of people want to be managers and want to be promoted or become a leader, but they don’t have the skills to do it. The person has to have the desire to be promoted and then we as a company have to identify them as being promotable and work with them to develop the skill set to be a manager.”
Being a leader is about more than just working hard.
“When you’ve got an employee, let’s say a sales representative, he’s going out and making sales and doing what he does best,” Kaulig says.
“He has a sales manager who is managing the activity. Once you become the leader or the coach, you’re the one leading other people. You’re managing and leading other people more than you’re managing and leading yourself. That’s a tougher transition to go from employee to manager.
“A very key point in any organization is to develop people from employees to managers or employees to leaders. As employees grow in the company and climb the corporate ladder and become a manager and then a regional manager and then a vice president, that’s a different set of skills that they need to develop as they are getting promoted. As an employee, they may only need one set of skills. If they become a manager, it’s on that person to develop another set of skills to become the best manager they can be.”
It’s also important for you as the CEO to create an environment where training is available and growth is supported in order to allow the people who want to advance the opportunity to maximize their potential for the betterment of the company.
In 2010, LeafFilter’s growth was strong and the company was preparing to open offices in St. Louis and Atlanta. Kaulig was reminded that it takes a great deal of time, effort and energy to keep a business on a strong growth trajectory.
“We were really growing as an organization,” Kaulig says. “We had some success opening branch locations that were very successful right away. We took for granted a little bit how difficult it is to start a business in a new city just because of the success we had with some of the other locations.”
The difficulties were relatively minor as LeafFilter adapted and continued to grow. But it was a good opportunity to get refocused on some of the key components of the company’s growth strategy.
“We took a step back and said maybe we do need more regional managers,” he says. “These things don’t run by themselves. I don’t want to say we struggled, but maybe we did take for granted how difficult it is to have so many offices nationwide.”
Make it fun
Culture is a critical factor in any company’s success and Kaulig has taken steps to give employees at LeafFilter a great place to work, no matter where their office is located.
“Our employees are like my customers,” Kaulig says. “If you have happy employees, you’re going to have happy customers. I put a lot of money and effort into just a great work environment for our employees.”
This includes an outdoor courtyard with umbrella tables and couches where people can sit for lunch or just take a break during the workday.
“I have a commons area right off of our lobby that has a full kitchen and vending machines and a couple of big-screen TVs where people can watch TV with comfortable couches and chairs,” Kaulig says. “People can not only take a break, but they can go to socialize. It’s just an absolutely beautiful space. You want to create a great place.”
Kaulig believes LeafFilter can be a $300 million company with more offices in the U.S., as well as Canada. The company plans to make its debut north of the border in January with a new office in Toronto.
In the meantime, Kaulig will continue to focus on making LeafFilter the best it can be for his team.
“People spend all day at work,” he says. “You might as well give them a great place to spend that time while they’re doing a great job.” ●
How to reach: LeafFilter North Inc., (800) 290-6106 or www.leaffilternorth.com
- Find ways to stay in touch with your team.
- Create an environment where leaders can be developed.
- Know what it takes to become an effective leader.
The Kaulig File
NAME: Matt Kaulig
TITLE: Founder, president and CEO
COMPANY: LeafFilter North Inc.
Education: Marketing Management degree, University of Akron
What was your very first job? I worked in a brake parts manufacturing facility just working on one of the machines. That was my first year in college and that’s what I did in the summertime to make money for the following school year. It was not a fun job.
Who has been the greatest influence? My parents have been a huge influence in my life. My mom was always so supportive and so phenomenal attitude-wise. And my dad was an executive at a brake parts company for years. He was my CFO for several years here at the company. Both in business and in life, my parents, Bob and Debbie, have been the most influential people in my life.
How does the NASCAR team fit into what you do? I have a 15,000 square-foot race shop down in North Carolina. I have 20 employees and then LeafFilter as our primary sponsor. It’s been a phenomenal thing for LeafFilter to be part of that because it gives you another team to root for when we race on those NASCAR tracks.
Most of the tracks that we race at, we have an office nearby. A lot of employees from our Chicago office will go to the track and have their LeafFilter racing gear on. They are able to cheer on their company’s race car on the track. It provides for a great team environment and team atmosphere.