Rich Wilson had to find the right mix so the culture at CertaPro Painters could go beyond a flat finish

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When Rich Wilson joined CertaPro Painters in 2003, the company was taking in about $50 million a year in sales. That doesn’t seem like a bad number, but the residential painting franchise company had become stuck at that level, and there wasn’t much reason to believe it was going to change anytime soon.

As he started to talk to people to learn more about how the 50 employee, 340 franchisee operation worked, Wilson discovered there was an intense focus on how things were done at the company. The problem was that it rarely got beyond that foundational level of dialogue.

“They were great at creating pictures and eloquent language around how to get a lead or produce a job or hire a painter,” says Wilson, the company’s president and CEO. “But they had no relevance to what the franchisees needed to inspire them to grow. They were more concerned about writing policies and procedures about how to do mundane things in the field. They weren’t connected to the goals and aspirations of the franchisees.”

When Wilson joined the company, he was brought in with a very clear mandate.

“I wasn’t brought in to maintain,” Wilson says. “I was brought in to grow the business. In the first meeting I had, I asked them to rate the group dynamic on a scale of one to 10. We were at a 4.6, which was really bad.”

The culture had to change and Wilson used two words to define how he wanted it to happen: Results matter.

“We should know how our franchisees are doing versus their goals versus the marketplace versus competition,” Wilson says. “We need to find ways to inspire them to grow and then have programs that will actually help them facilitate that growth. So it was a sea change and a culture shift.”

Wilson wanted both employees and franchisees to think big.

“We needed people who had the competency, commitment and skills to be able to execute our vision of growth,” Wilson says. “They bought a franchise or came to work for us because they wanted to grow a business. If they just came in to replace an income or just be complacent and good with the status quo, I didn’t want them on the team.”

 

Sort out your players

Wilson may have drawn a line in the sand with employees at CertaPro, but he says he didn’t join the company with the intention of firing people.

“There were people who repelled the message that results matter and there were people who embraced it,” Wilson says. “Ultimately, with the people who embraced it we worked together to build a program that would drive the company forward.”

Wilson wanted to hear what was on everyone’s mind. He wanted to give those with concerns a chance to express them rather than just show them the door.

“I can look at a report and go, ‘OK, here are my conclusions,’” Wilson says. “But what really matters is the people who have to carry out the execution of all that. I need to understand where they are coming from. I may not agree with it, but I do need to listen and understand.”

About 40 percent of the staff did not buy in and left CertaPro within the first four to six months of Wilson’s arrival.

That’s a lot of turnover, and Wilson made sure to let others know every time someone decided to leave the organization. It wasn’t about criticizing people who were leaving; it was more about Wilson wanting employees to see transparency at every turn.

“In the absence of information, people think the worst of everything,” Wilson says. “So if I just had a conversation where someone was exiting the company, I’m going to be on the phone to at least my direct reports, and then I’m going to tell them to get on the phone with their direct reports immediately. Quick communication helps the culture.”

What also helps is letting those people who won’t buy into your plan leave, even if you think you can eventually get them to come around.

“If I think, ‘OK, I just need to keep this person for another day, another quarter, another month, whatever — that’s the wrong move,’” Wilson says. “I’m doing the wrong thing for the company and for that person. Who wants to have a job that really in your gut, you know you’re on the way out?”

This process, while difficult at times, gave Wilson an opportunity to move forward and build a plan with the people who were excited about the company’s growth strategy.

“I could come up with the best MBA plan in the world from Harvard Business School and say this is what we need to do and this is what we’re going to do,” Wilson says. “That’s not going to work anywhere near as well as the plan that the people who have to execute it actually participate in creating.”

 

Lead with a steady hand

Wilson had an objective in his mind from day one of what CertaPro could achieve in terms of profitability and when that goal could be achieved.

“I had an idea, a hypothesis of what the vision should be,” Wilson says. “But that was shaped and is still being shaped today through experience. The vision is an aspirational one, but you have to be willing to adapt to the environment and other opportunities and present them.”

In other words, the great idea you come up with today may not look as good to you six months down the road.

The thing that needs to remain steady for the sake of yourself and your employees is your strategic direction. So when Wilson wanted to focus on results at every level of the organization and engagement about how to drive those results, the strategic approach had to remain consistent.

“It’s a big deal when you change your strategy,” Wilson says. “We’ve altered it twice since I’ve been here in 10 years. When you start to respond with a knee-jerk reaction, you come across as muddled and no one knows where you’re going. It’s impossible for everyone to row in the same direction.”

One thing Wilson tries to do that has been helpful is being concise when talking about what CertaPro does.

“I give speeches all the time,” Wilson says. “The key is being able to passionately and genuinely describe your company in five to seven minutes. Being very clear on what the values of the company are, what the mission and vision are and what the objectives are. People use those words interchangeably, but I can tell you all four of them and I’m pretty certain 85 percent of the company can do the same. My goal would be to have 100 percent.”

Consistency will also prove helpful to you when you have to make a decision others don’t agree with, but you feel is in the best interests of the organization.

“I believe very strongly in collaboration and I don’t believe in top-down management,” Wilson says. “I want feedback, and I want most people to agree with where we are going.

“However, it is the CEO’s job to make a decision. If 30 percent or even 60 percent of people don’t agree with that decision, but you believe strongly it’s where you need to go, stand firm. Your job is to be the compass. If you’re not sure and you hesitate, obviously you’re not.

“You lead through influence, not power. If it’s in the best interest of the franchisee, and they are inspired to go in the direction you want them to go, they will go there. It’s the same thing with an employee. You could be lazy and say, ‘You’re going there because I pay your paycheck.’ But it’s so much better to inspire them to go where you want them to go.”

 

Don’t rest on your laurels

Wilson’s collaborative culture paid immediate dividends. The company grew by an average of 23.5 percent from 2003 to 2007.

“We were crushing it,” Wilson says. “But if we were arrogant enough to think that what allowed us to crush it from 2003 to 2007 was going to get us through 2008 and 2009, we would have failed dramatically. I always caution people to be very careful to not become arrogant and think you’re the best because of what you did yesterday.”

The team did adapt and the growth at CertaPro has taken off once more. Sales totaled $227 million in 2012. There are plans to have 50 new franchise locations opened across North America by the end of this year and Wilson wants to hit $500 million in sales by 2016 and $1 billion by the end of the decade.

“When people from outside the company come in and experience our company today, whether they are prospective employees, prospective franchisees or even customers, what they’ll comment on is our culture,” Wilson says. “It’s a culture of performance, of collaboration and of very hard work. But it’s also a fair amount of fun.”

 

Takeaways

  • Think before you act.
  • Limit your surprises.
  • Keep trying to get better.

 

The Wilson File

Name: Rich Wilson
Title: President and CEO
Company: CertaPro Painters

Born: Frankfort, Germany

Education: History degree, Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pa.

What led you to choose history? I was going to be a premed major, and I didn’t do very well in organic chemistry. I do love reading and I’m still an avid reader, so that’s why I fell back on history.

What was your first job? My first paid job was landscaping and farm work. I cut lawns and baled hay for $2.15 an hour.

Who has had the biggest influence on your life? Probably my mom. She died when I was 20 after a horrible divorce. She had brain cancer, but she really held it together for my two siblings and I. In terms of tenacity and temerity, she found a way to live until my college graduation.

What is your favorite book? “Atlas Shrugged,” by Ayn Rand. It’s about self-determination, rugged individualism and getting stuff done yourself and not counting on the government.

What person would you like to meet? It would probably be Gandhi. The courage he had to face down the British Empire was phenomenal. He inspired so many people like Martin Luther King Jr. I’d love to understand the thought process and the mettle that it took to embark on what he did. It was incredible.