People power Featured

8:00pm EDT April 26, 2006
Often in business, it is the intangibles that determine success.

A good first impression can lead to a job offer; the right sense of humor can land an important contract. And a company’s culture can support and encourage growth, which is exactly how it is at AIT Worldwide Logistics, an Itasca-based third-party logistics company.

Steve Leturno and co-founder and co-owner Dan Lisowski started AIT in 1979 with just four employees — the two of them and their wives. Twenty-six years later, the company has 720 employees and 2005 revenue of $300 million.

This success, the founders say, is a direct result of AIT’s focus on three people-centered things: communication, training and promoting from within.

Mass communication
At AIT, open communication begins at the top — all employees are encouraged to share their ideas and concerns directly with the owners.

“With us, it starts with our accessibility,” says Lisowski. “We’ve had the luxury of growing the company from when it was just Dan and Steve to the company today. It started out with just the two of us, and it was easy in those days — if you had a problem, if you had an issue or an idea, you came and you talked to Dan and Steve.”

Today, the founders encourage that same small-company openness in many ways. First, they share an office, just as they did in the beginning, so employees don’t need to track them down and arrange special meetings to speak with both of them.

In addition, they ensure that employees and managers aren’t hung up on the company hierarchy.

“It’s not the type of environment where if somebody goes over their supervisor, heads are going to roll for it,” Lisowski says. “We tell the supervisors that we don’t want to see that. Ideas start everywhere, so if somebody has an idea, somebody has an observation, let’s hear about it, let’s talk about it, let’s make the company better.”

The founders also ensure that employees have access to them by maintaining their presence in the company headquarters.

“We’re here every day,” says Lisowski. “I walk around the building a number of times a day just to say hello to people and see what’s going on so people know us and feel comfortable with us.”

Finally, the founders make sure that employees understand from their very first month with AIT that Lisowski and Leturno are open and available for chats by meeting with new employees to discuss company culture and history.

Cultural training
Beginning a new job is never easy — besides dealing with new job responsibilities and new co-workers, there is also a new culture with its own quirks and nuances to learn. To help facilitate integration into the company, Lisowski and Leturno host monthly meetings for all new hires.

“We tell them the story of AIT and tell them that 26 years ago, we were just a couple guys from the Chicago suburbs, much like they might be, and we had an idea,” says Lisowski. “We wanted to serve our customers well, we wanted to treat our employees right and we wanted a business for ourselves. We really tell them the story of AIT and how we began, and I think that that really goes a long way.”

In addition, they take care to emphasize the importance of the individual employee within AIT.

“I think one of the things I like about our training is we try to make them aware that each and every one of them can make a difference,” says Leturno. “Our product is service. (There are) a number of steps that have to be carried out successfully in order for a shipment to be delivered on time. (If) any one step in the process that fails, we have a service failure that affects our customer.

“So every person, it doesn’t matter if you’re the first one to touch the shipment or the last one to touch the shipment, they have to do the job. And we try to stress that with the people right from the very beginning — it doesn’t matter what your position or role within the company is, you affect the total quality product that we have.”

After their initial orientation, new hires are turned over to their managers for further training in a very informal process. Simply by working closely with their department and supervisors, new employees begin to absorb the culture and learn what is acceptable and not acceptable and what the company’s values and beliefs are.

This also helps develop and establish mentoring relationships throughout the company.

“Everything that we do is about mentoring, but it may not be a big formalized process,” says Leturno. “But that’s the way people learn in this business. There’s trial and error, but that’s costly to the customers.”

So new employees work closely with their supervisors for the first six to 12 months of their employment.

“Our industry is pretty straightforward — you’re picking freight up and you’re delivering freight,” Leturno says. “But then there’s all these twists that are thrown into the process, and if you’ve never experienced it before, you don’t necessarily know what to do. That’s where these new employees can go to their supervisors, and (the supervisors) can mentor them to sort of get through that first-time experience without too many problems. It’s mentoring, and it’s on-the job training as well.”

There are also formal training programs. When new, large clients sign on, sometimes the company needs more employees to ensure the job is done right. That’s when Lisowski and Leturno open up AIT University.

“There’s been a time or two where we’re hiring groups of people, maybe five to 10 people at a time, where they go through an intensive two-week orientation/training process,” says Leturno. “Most of these people are from outside of our industry. We might get them through a college recruitment. It’s almost like it’s an AIT university course that we’re trying to offer them, so they not only learn the company, but they’re also given an overview of the various departments that are important in running a forwarding company.”

After orientation and training, the group of new employees is broken up into singles and pairs, and they rotate through departments. This not only gives new employees a hands-on understanding of what each department does and where it fits within AIT, it also gives supervisors a good understanding of where each employee’s talents lie.

After a month or two, the rotations end and each employee is assigned a permanent post. Not only does this help assimilate new employees into the culture and develop well-rounded employees, say the founders, it’s also led to many of the “students” becoming supervisors or managers within a very short time.

But once employees are up and running in their positions, training doesn’t end. At AIT, it’s continuous.

There is a section of the company’s intranet called AIT University that houses the answers to frequently asked questions and the solutions to common problems employees encounter. In addition, the co-founders are developing and considering implementing a program that would test employees’ knowledge on a monthly basis.

Once a month, each employee would receive an e-mail containing 10 questions relevant to his or her department and position. Employees would have to answer the questions and send them back. They would receive confirmation as to whether their answers were correct, and if they were incorrect, there would be an explanation about why the answer was incorrect and what the correct response was.

“Some people will say it’s kind of a testing,” says Leturno. “It is a testing, but it is more than that — it’s an education process. ... All this is meant for us to identify weaknesses that we might have in servicing the customers. You tabulate those scores and you work this on a continual basis, and then what’s going to happen over the course of a year or two is you’re going to get an entire group of employees that will be more knowledgeable and better able to help our customers.”

Because AIT invests so much time and energy into training and educating its employees, it works hard to ensure that they stick with the company. Lisowski and Leturno attribute their low turnover rate — 46 percent of employees have been with the company five years or more — to one simple rule: Treat people like you want to be treated yourself. And that doesn’t mean just the best employees — it means all employees.

“Not everybody that comes in is going to be a superstar, but you work with them,” says Lisowski. “You be honest and upfront with them, and you tell them what the positives and what the negatives are, and you do it in the right way. You really can turn people and develop some long-term employees just by being honest and upfront with them.”

Internal talent
Because of its well-trained and loyal employees, AIT has expanded over the years into the international market, serving more than 4,000 clients worldwide with more than 330 international service centers. Not bad for a company that started in a single sublet office.

And this growth has established a sort of circle of benefits for AIT. Company growth is made possible and supported by the employees, and the employees are, in turn, supported by the company’s growth.

“Because of this continual growth, there are opportunities,” says Leturno. “People want to know that if they do a good job, it’ll be recognized and it’ll be rewarded. And because Dan and I are so involved with the day-to-day goings on, people’s accomplishments are recognized, and the growth allows us to create additional opportunities within the company.”

Lisowski and Leturno have established a clear hire-from-within policy at AIT.

“We don’t go to the outside when a new job is created; I mean, we do on occasion, but we first look within, because we feel that promoting people from within is a very positive motivator and way of saying thank you for that job that you did,” says Leturno.

Together, these three people-centered culture components — communication, training and promoting from within — have helped AIT not just survive but thrive.

“When people work at a company, they want to know that they’re appreciated,” says Leturno. “They want to know that their ideas and opinions are appreciated and listened to and that they can actually make a difference. And that is really how we have grown (AIT), through the people. It’s a people business.”

How to reach: AIT Worldwide Logistics, www.aitworldwide.com or (800) 669-4248