Jeanie Diamond had no intentions of joining her husband’s company, SED International Holdings Inc., back in 1980. But just a few months into it, he drafted her.
“He pulled me in here — it was not by choice,” she says. “I think we were in business five months when he said to me, ‘You’re in the army.’”
She reluctantly joined the business, which had about seven employees at that time. Over the next 23 years, they worked extremely hard to keep that small-company feeling, even as the business crossed different revenue milestones. Then in 2003, her husband passed away, and Diamond took over as chairman and CEO of the business.
“That was my biggest challenge,” she says. “But you know, you become a stronger person when you have to. [I overcame it] by my SED family, by the company. … It was definitely coming in here in the morning — you can’t not be happy.”
The business did $371.7 million in net sales in 2004, her first full year at the helm. Last year, the company, which provides computer hardware, wireless communications, consumer electronics and e-business solutions, did $478.7 million, but she says the keys to her successes, both now and 29 years ago, are still the same: create and foster a close-knit, family atmosphere and always be willing to listen, communicate and change when necessary.
“It’s communication with your employees and your vendors and your customers,” she says. “I think that’s the key to all industries. It’s a respect for one another. It’s a common goal in the company. Here at SED, it’s a family feeling when you walk through the doors.”
Create a family culture
Back in 1980, it was easy to have a family culture because with only a few employees, they pretty much were family. They ate lunch together, and as the company grew, Diamond saw her employees grow up and have children and progress in life.
“You just grow together,” she says. “You have your dream. You work hard, but there’s also a fun atmosphere here.”
Now that she has about 370 employees, she can’t eat lunch with all of them every day, but there are other ways to build a culture so that employees feel like family to each other.
Start with something as simple as your name. Do you prefer people to call you by a formal name or title?
“It’s never Mrs. Diamond — I think I’d faint,” she says. “It’s Jeanie.”
For instance, if someone called Diamond “Mrs. Diamond,” she wouldn’t be OK with that, and her response would quickly show people how she wants to be related to.
“I don’t turn around — you’ve got to be kidding,” she says. “That’s my mother-in-law, who’s not here anymore.”
By not requesting formalities when people refer to you, that’s the first step. Next, look at your space. At SED, everything is open. In fact, only the chief financial officer and Diamond have private offices, but they’re rarely even in their offices.
“When you have this open atmosphere, you can’t help but walk across the room and say, ‘Hey, I need help,’” she says.
Once you have an open space, then you have to look at how you emphasize titles.
“I’ve always had a saying that a lot of us have titles [like] vice president — I have a glorious title today of CEO and chairman — but I’ve always said, ‘Leave your titles in the parking lot,’” Diamond says. “Come in here without the titles, with one goal, and that’s to grow the company, to achieve and to be proud of what we do and what we’ve created.”
One way to de-emphasize titles is to have a casual dress code. SED encourages casual dress, and with everyone in jeans, everyone pretty much looks alike. It’s harder to look down on someone if they’re dressed just like you.
Next, it’s important to encourage people all the time. For example, each day Diamond starts by looking at a sales report. If she sees that someone did particularly well the day prior, then she makes sure to tell them so.
“If I see a salesperson — whether it’s a really a new hire or someone that’s been with us for a year or two or three — and they’ve had a great day, I’ll tell them, ‘You’ve had a great day, congratulations,’” Diamond says. “It’s a pat on the back. It’s not rehearsed; it just happens.”
When you encourage people, then it lets them know that you care about them, so they’re more likely to come to you when they have a problem. Because Diamond takes time to do that, they know that she will also be there for them when trouble strikes.
“Whether it’s a personal problem or something about a dealer or customer of ours that needs special help, I’m always there to listen and try to do my best to solve it,” she says.
That lets people know that she’s just as much a part of the team as they are, and it helps foster the family atmosphere.
When you’ve taken the time to do all of these things, you have to bring new people into it as quickly as possible to make them feel comfortable.
“If you’re here for a day or 30 years, we’re here to help one another and communicate,” Diamond says.
When new employees are hired, Diamond brings sandwiches in and has lunch with them in the conference room. She tells them about how the company started and how it grew and even why her husband chose Atlanta as opposed to other locations. She also shares the company’s goals and encourages them to come and talk to her anytime.
“We sit around the table for a good hour,” she says. “They get to know me, and I get to know them, and they’re comfortable.”
Be open to change
A few years ago Diamond noticed that with more offices across the hemisphere, it was harder for people to know each other and have that close-knit environment. Seeing a problem, she knew something had to change, so she started instituting weekly phone meetings so people would at least be talking to each other. Then quarterly, all the managers come to Atlanta, and twice a year, the managers from Latin America come to the headquarters. Having these meetings helps bridge the distance gap, but it required change.
“This is something that when you run a company you’ve got to realize, and you’ve got to make changes accordingly,” Diamond says.
A lot of times, you may look at change as bad, but she takes a different approach.
“Sometimes change is good,” Diamond says. “Sometimes you can’t be stuck in the mud. For whatever reason, you have to listen to what the sales managers are saying. They’re running the sales floor. They have the true communication with the customers. We all have to listen to their needs and sometimes change what you’re doing.”
Listening is absolutely crucial, and without doing that, Diamond doesn’t think your business will get far.
“I can’t understand how anybody could not listen if they care about the company, if they want to achieve, if they want to grow,” she says. “How can you not listen? The executives really don’t make it happen. It’s all of the employees that make it happen. It’s not only the salespeople. It’s the warehouse people. It’s accounting. It’s credit. You’ve got to listen to what they need. We all have a common love, and that’s the company, and if you don’t listen to one another, then how can you make it better and how can you grow a company?”
Change can be a crazy process, but it all starts with recognizing that you don’t know it all.
“Not one person knows it all,” Diamond says. “We have to learn from one another and basically, that’s my style. Encourage people to speak up and give us their opinions. You never know. You could have a new salesperson, and he could come up with a great idea for marketing or for another department. You just never know. Everyone has their talents.”
When people bring up new ideas, don’t be afraid to try them. She has an upper management meeting every Monday afternoon, and at that meeting, they discuss any new ideas that have come up. If it’s something that doesn’t have a lot of downside if it didn’t work out, then they move ahead with it. For things that have a larger financial impact, then they discuss them more.
“In this company, it doesn’t take a month or two months to make a corporate decision,” she says. “We look at opportunities, we sit around the table, we talk about them and how it would fit in. Can our warehouses handle this? Can we train our people? Can we bring new people into this? And we make a decision.”
It’s also important to make these decisions fast so employees don’t get nervous.
“A bunch of upper management sitting together behind locked doors every day, that creates problems,” she says.
Once you’ve decided to make a change, then it’s important that you communicate that to your employees. Diamond likens it to parents telling their children that they have to move.
“Let’s say they’re in Buffalo, N.Y., and they have their friends and relationships and family, and the parents decide they’re moving to Texas,” she says. “It depends on how you present it, and if you have the communication and you’re all on the same page, you can make this voyage very nice. But if you sit down and you’re gloom and doom, and, ‘Oh my God!’ then the end result is not so hot.”
Just as those parents present the move as something good for the kids, you have to show your employees how the change will benefit them specifically and how it will help the company, as well.
“It’s usually something positive to help them grow, too, so usually they’re agreeing with us,” she says. “It’s not where we’re saying, ‘We’re closing the office down.’ We’re not. It’s change to help them grow.”
Regardless, you also have to recognize that some people won’t like the change, so you’ll have to demonstrate patience yourself so they don’t freak out as much.
“Change is good sometimes,” Diamond says. “You can grow from change. I don’t have a problem with change. A lot of people do. Change the color of the walls in someone’s house, and they freak out. As long as there’s peace and health, the rest of it is so what — change, it’s not a big deal.”
As you move forward with the change, you’ll get feedback from customers, vendors, salespeople and other employees. Use that feedback to determine if it’s working. For example, when SED started a rewards program, the feedback was all positive and customers and salespeople loved it, so they decided to keep the program. But sometimes you’ll get mixed feedback, and when you do, it’s time to sit down again.
“Sit down and talk about it and say, ‘Does it really matter?’” she says. “Let’s keep going with it and see what happens. For some people, it takes a bit longer to buy in to something, so you give it a chance.”
While these ways have worked well for SED, Diamond recognizes there are other ways to successfully grow a business. Whichever you choose, you can’t deny the success that Diamond has seen in watching SED grow from a start-up to a powerhouse.
Says Diamond, “A lot of people are doing it their way, and it’s better, but this is what we believe in, and this is what I believe in, and this is how we grew the company.”
How to reach: SED International Holdings Inc., (770) 491-8962 or www.sedonline.com