Ed Opler Featured

7:00pm EDT February 28, 2007
When Ed Opler took over his family’s business four years ago, his first step was to overhaul the culture of World’s Finest Chocolate Inc. For decades, the company, which produces candy bars for fundraising campaigns, had centralized the decision-making processes with the few executives at the top of the corporate ladder. Opler has since done his best to keep his 250 employees in the loop and give them a stake in the success of the $100 million company. Smart Business spoke with Opler about how to create a culture based on openness and communication.

Share your success. This is in no way negative, but in the days when my grandfather started this business, he was purchasing the pencils that everyone used. It was that level of control in decision-making, and that worked for a long time.

He started a business from scratch and did extraordinarily well and created a brand, and I give that an incredible amount of credit. But today, to have a consistent work force and people who want to come back to work and come back to work every day, in order to really be competitive, you have to have everyone thinking about their impact on the business, not just coming to work and working.

A key thing is to make sure everyone in the business can be impacted, no matter what their role is. If their role is sanitation in the plant, as a company, we look at that as a key part of our business, and if we’re successful in delivering a high-quality product on time and at the right cost, then everyone will share in the benefits of that.

Evaluate yourself. Since I took over the business four years ago, we’ve really tried to open up with all the employees to communicate much more about the strategy, where we’re headed, why we’re going there and what it means for them.

A big part of what I do is giving them their expectations and letting them go to it versus every decision coming from senior management. If we can do that, we’ll be a lot more successful than if three or four are making all the decisions.

When I came in, we spent a chunk of time really defining who we are and what it is we do well. All levels in the organization were involved, and in that process, people were kind of forced to think about what they do well and what they do not do well. How often do you really think about that?

Through that process and involving a bunch of people, we got a buy-in into what we do well and what we don’t do well, and when we communicated from there, we decided how we were going to proceed for the next five years. In that process, we exited a chunk of businesses that we felt weren’t strategic or sustainable, we communicated that, and when we did, it made a lot more sense.

Be consistent. Communicating, being consistent and what I’ll call facing reality are huge to any company. Doing so makes it a lot more clear to the employees as to what it is we’re doing and why, and so when decisions are made, if you stay consistent with those decisions, you build credibility and you can hold people accountable because they then know how things interrelate.

We went out last year and made an acquisition, which was the first time we had done so in 50 years. When we did that, we could connect the dots as to why that made sense for us as opposed to a random opportunity that came along.

We were consistent in terms of what that would do for our core business and what our core skill sets could do to be successful in that acquisition.

Because of that consistency over the last four years, people bought into the acquisition right away, even though it was a massive change for the company. Through repetitive communication of the same message, we’ve been able to absorb change in a way that was a lot less overwhelming for people.

Change is obviously hard and, as my dad says, nobody likes change but a baby with a wet diaper, but if you go through change with one communication once, it’s whatever the flavor of the day is. If you go through change and it’s a multiyear approach, which is what we had said we were going to do, then as those changes come people can absorb them.

Face reality. The most challenging thing is sticking with your decisions and making sure you face reality. It’s so easy, and occasionally I still find myself getting caught in thinking, ‘It will be a rosier picture tomorrow.’

You have to almost train yourself to say, ‘No, let’s take a hard look at it again.’ You can always plan for the worst-case scenario, but I don’t mean even that. It’s really finding out what the real likelihood of something happening is and then adjusting your plan to that.

That’s a really hard thing for most people to do. You don’t want to face it. It’s easier not to. With bad news comes tough decisions, but you can face those things and you can plan and prepare.

That’s something that’s been difficult for our organization to do, yet we’ve done it, and it’s really begun to pay off. It was so opposite our culture, which was to say, ‘Well, this year didn’t go great, so next year, we’ll just grow 15 or 20 percent.’ That’s just not realistic year after year.

If you don’t look deep all the time, something fairly large is going to jump up and bite your company because you just didn’t face it. It’s not that you couldn’t find it or couldn’t face it, you just decided not to.

That has manifested itself at our company, and it’s not an uncommon tendency. It’s all about knowing specifically what your plan is and communicating it, and then beyond that, measuring it consistently enough to see the red flags before it’s too late.

HOW TO REACH: World’s Finest Chocolate Inc., www.worldsfinestchocolate.com