Face to face Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2007

Everything was fine with a product line at AddisonMcKee Inc. until Joe Eramo decided to add more bells and whistles to it to make it more high-tech.

“It was the absolute wrong decision,” says Eramo, president and COO of the company’s North American operations.

Eramo knew he had to own up to the mistake, and then quickly get people back on track. He visited with customers and looked at what the competition was doing, and then he updated employees.

“I had to motivate by the fact that this is where the marketplace is going, and if we don’t move fast, we are going to lose market share,” he says.

The company, which designs, manufactures and supplies technologies for automotive, aviation, truck and shipbuilding requirements, posted North American revenue of about $30 million in 2006.

Smart Business spoke with Eramo about how to communicate with employees.

Q: How did you establish your company’s culture?

We relocated a year ago, and during that relocation, I started a lunch with the president [program], where I would meet and have lunch every two weeks with a group of five to 10 employees. It started with the relocation, but then we would get into other business topics.

We’ve resurrected those meetings, and every other month, I’m meeting with a group of five to 10 employees, discussing any topic they want to talk about. I’ll give them an update of what is going on from my perspective, but I want to know what’s important to them and what they think I need to know.

In the months I’m not doing it, one of the VPs of the company is meeting with a group of five to eight employees and is trying to do the same thing.

We do casual days on Friday. We do have people who work from remote locations. It’s something we wouldn’t have done five years ago, but now we accept we have to be more flexible.

Q: How do you get employees to let their guard down?

I’m on the floor almost every day. I’ve changed my leadership style from maybe being hands-on to being close to the action. When I was hands-on, I was probably too involved in running the business and not involved enough in improving or growing the business.

I need to be close to the action, and I need to know what is important with our customers and employees and know what is going on in the marketplace, but I can’t be so hands-on that I’m not spending my time improving and growing the business.

Because I am close to the action, they know me. I stop and ask questions and encourage it’s OK to say we are doing something wrong and to face up to certain things. I tell them there isn’t a single question they can’t ask.

Q: How did you learn to be less hands-on?

It was a change of mindset. We all recognize that’s the problem, and it’s something we may have risen to where we are today because we were good at running the business, and it’s hard to let go. By bringing in good people, those good people are only going to stick around if you empower them to run the business. I certainly recognize that. If you need me to make a decision, then I don’t need you.

Q: How do you find good employees?

We set it as a goal three or four years ago that we wanted the dream team in our industry. We felt if we had the best players, then we would win the game. We set out to find the dream team, some of which was industry-related people with industry experience.

Then we went outside the industry. We wanted people who didn’t know anything about us. For example, our global marketing director did not come from this industry, and that was a specific goal. We wanted somebody to market this company completely different than this industry has ever seen.

There are certain positions in here where we want the best from this industry, and there are certain positions in this business where we specifically wanted someone without any industry knowledge and with a clear, fresh, new look on how we market ourselves.

Q: How do you know if a potential employee will fit with your company?

That gets into the skill set of reading that person. Have we been fooled before? Sure. Everybody goes through that and has been fooled.

We have a number of rounds and a number people involved in the interview process and are looking for different things, but sometimes asking the same questions. Do we get the same sort of responses, and is it consistent? Is this person true to what they are saying across the board?

HOW TO REACH: AddisonMckee Inc., (513) 228-7000 or www.addisonmckee.com