Growing pains Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2007

In 2001, Christopher Cole and Jim McCarthy formed Intelligrated Inc., a supplier of integrated material handling systems, services and products. The company started out of a rented building and had 17 employees, the majority of whom had worked together before and knew how to work as a team.

But as business started booming, the company needed more employees to complete the work. The work force swelled to more than 500 people, and Intelligrated has added 150 people in the last two years alone.

The rapid expansion pushed them into a new office and manufacturing facility in London, Ohio, and five other offices across the country for sales, engineering and support.

While growth is good, it also presents its own set of challenges.

“When we started, it was easy, we knew everybody,” says Cole, Intelligrated’s CEO. “Now, it’s difficult to keep that close, small-company feel.”

With a rapidly increasing number of employees who are now spread across multiple locations, Cole has had to change his leadership style and many company processes to match the larger structure of the company.

Here’s how he has conquered some of his biggest challenges as he’s taken Intelligrated to new levels of success.

Growth requires planning

In order to grow, you must develop a plan for growth and what kind of employees you need to achieve it.

Cole mapped out a plan and put together a budget of how many people the company needed. It is difficult to project how many people you will need at a certain time, but he has tried to have enough people to perform the jobs the company is committed to while not having so many people that they don’t have work to do.

“We’re looking as far into the future as we can, always with the idea that we don’t hire to peaks but to the consistent growth curve,” Cole says.

The type of employee you hire is also important. Intelligrated looks for people who are happy, want to be part of a team, have a passion for the business and can share that with the customer.

“You have to like working with other people,” Cole says. “Find people who can work with others and get enjoyment out of seeing other people succeed.”

Cole says you’re not always perfect with hiring, but it’s easy to spot problems, mainly through reference checks.

Potential hires at Intelligrated also interview with several people, and those executives then complete an online survey regarding the candidate.

“If you get the people together and ask them the question, the reactions of some are going to change the minds of others,” Cole says. “If you do it in a blind survey, you get a much better raw impression of what everybody thinks. If areas come up that look like they might be issues, you can probe deeper to make sure either those impressions are wrong, or if they send up a red flag, you move on and find somebody else.”

Employee referrals are useful when hiring, and Intelligrated pays a bonus to employees who bring in new hires.

“People don’t want to recommend people to come to work in their company unless they believe they’re going to fit in and be good,” Cole says. “The best source of finding people is our own people. The person they’re bringing in, because they know someone inside, it’s easier for them to have a mentor to get a faster start.”

While Intelligrated takes its time hiring the right employee, sometimes that employee just doesn’t fit.

“You think every time you hire someone that it may take an adjustment time, and that they’re going to work out,” Cole says.

But that isn’t always the case. He says it’s better to let someone go sooner rather than later, but it’s natural to want to give someone time to succeed after you’ve made an investment in him or her. The company tries to give every new employee as much support as possible through its various orientation programs as well as requiring supervisors to meet individually with employees each quarter to make sure they are working toward the right goals.

If someone is not performing, you need to step in and help. “See if there is something you can do to change the job or change them to a different job that will make them successful,” Cole says. “At the end of the day though, they might be better off finding a different career.”

The demands of rapid growth can also overwhelm some of your original core employees. These people helped you reach your initial goals, but they may not be the ones to get you to your new goals.

This has happened a few times at Intelligrated, and Cole has worked with those employees to figure out where they could add value to the company.

“When you have an employee performance problem, the natural tendency is to hope it will get better,” he says. “It doesn’t get better until you confront it. Do it in a non-emotional, factual way, and then work to improve the performance. If it still doesn’t happen, then help that person find a different career where they can succeed.”

Integrate new employees

In a growing company, new employees are constantly coming in. These employees not only need to learn their job but integrate into the company’s culture and learn to work with other employees.

“By hiring people with different backgrounds and skill sets, we learn new things and ideas and don’t become stagnant by just talking to ourselves,” Cole says. “It takes new blood in an organization to help stimulate that.”

When employees arrive at Intelligrated, they get an initial orientation on the basics, such as benefits and job expectations. After two or three months, employees participate in a “Welcome to Intelligrated” program, where they learn the company’s inner workings.

“It’s after they’ve been here long enough to know what they’re doing and their department does, and they know quite a lot about the company but not everything,” Cole says. “It’s after those months that people have a lot of questions or don’t know somebody who they see every day but is not part of their department.”

Training courses like the ones Intelligrated conducts allow employees to interact with each other and form relationships.

“It’s both a huge productivity and satisfaction boost,” Cole says. “People know a lot more people in the company, even if they don’t work with them. If they have a question, they have contacts who they can ask.”

Supervisors also go through a training course to learn about personality types so they can better communicate to others. This has helped the team become stronger.

Cole says new employees need to know they are a productive member of the team, even if they are not part of the original group that got the company’s growth going, and to prove that they are, Cole gets them involved in projects soon after they start.

“It’s tough to come and join a group that is already working together,” Cole says. “We’ve taken steps to welcome new people and to learn from them. You’re not the new person very long because there’s always someone else who’s newer.”

Welcoming new people can be as simple as introducing them to other employees. An e-mail is sent out when a new employee joins Intelligrated, which includes a brief bio and photo, so everyone has a bit of information on the new hire.

“We try to get it publicized so people know who’s coming in and it’s not just, ‘Gee, who are you?’” Cole says.

Change with the times

One of the biggest challenges of a growing company is the strain it can put on the culture, whether it’s simple communications or just building relationships with those that work for you.

“We had a culture with the core group, and the key is sustaining that as we bring new people in, learning what they can bring and adding that to what we’re doing without losing the passion and ability to have fun and delight customers,” Cole says.

As the company has grown, he has developed more means of recognition and rewards to show appreciation to those doing a great job. In smaller companies, it’s easier to recognize each employee personally for a job well done, but it’s harder in a larger company. Intelligrated has also developed regular celebrations to acknowledge successes, which has helped employees feel like part of a winning team and motivated them to reach goals, including reaching sales of $100 million in 2006.

Communication is another challenge that faces high-growth organizations, and you need to change the way you communicate as more employees are added to the mix.

“When we were small, I was sure everyone knew what the vision was,” Cole says. “As we’ve grown, I have to work constantly at communicating with employees, in person and in groups, to make sure everyone knows how we are doing, what we need to do better on, and to make sure that everyone is part of the process. It’s spending less time doing things myself and more time communicating the vision.”

Cole says time spent with employees changes in a growth situation, from personal, one-on-one meetings to larger company meetings so you can communicate to more people at one time.

Getting feedback and listening to employees is also key in making sure everyone is headed in the right direction.

“You need to listen twice as much as you think you need to and communicate twice as frequently with all employees,” Cole says. “It’s making sure that you’re getting out and seeing enough customers and different parts of the organization and listening to input from different sources. It’s important to get a diverse amount of input, not just from the same handful of folks.”

Getting out of your office, visiting and walking around are ways to get to know employees and customers and find out what is on their minds.

“Talk to the people who don’t directly report to you and as many customers as possible,” Cole says. “Your customers are the window to how well your organization is performing.

“I walk around and people see me or Jim or the management team, and we travel to job sites and to customers, so that as many people as possible can see that the vision is common throughout the company, what we’re doing and can join together and make us more successful.”

Cole also attends training classes with employees, and tries to sit with people he doesn’t know so employees know that he wants to get to know them and hear their ideas.

“You have to make an effort to get out and meet other people,” he says. “I wish I knew everybody as well as I know some of the people, but I work hard at it.”

You cannot touch every aspect of your organization, so it is important to train your managers to carry your vision and culture down through the organization. Communicate and make sure they understand your vision, and share as much information as possible.

Cole meets monthly with his management team, and then individually for assessments. He also meets quarterly with all employees to discuss company projects. During these meetings, he also talks about the overall direction of the company and reinforces his message.

Even as he and the company have evolved to face the challenges of growth, there’s more expansion on the horizon for Intelligrated. Cole hopes to add at least 200 more employees over the next three to five years, reach revenue of between $400 and $500 million, and add new products to meet customer needs.

And while rapid growth can bring on complicated challenges, he relies on a simple piece of advice to survive.

“Surround yourself with the smartest, best people and work hard on articulating a vision of what is possible and where you’re going,” he says. “Learn from your mistakes and never let them get you down. Keep forging ahead.”

HOW TO REACH: Intelligrated Inc., (513) 701-7300 or www.intelligrated.com