High energy Featured

11:14am EDT April 22, 2005
Lou Joseph is a bundle of energy.

The former collegiate wrestler who is president and CEO of The Brewer-Garrett Co., a mechanical services and systems firm, has your attention at all times while making his points about the importance of people to the success of his organization. To him, he's the coach, the employees are his star athletes and the championship match with the competition is in full swing.

He gestures and raises his voice to near-shouting levels to drive his points home, and there is no mistaking that he believes in everything he says and does and in what it takes to succeed.

"You need people, programs and technology," says Joseph. "You find the best people, you provide them with the resources and tools they need - the program - so they have them in their arsenal, and you have to provide the best products to the clients because they deserve the best every time. With technology, you need to invest in tomorrow today."

Joseph is always in that near-frenzy athletes work themselves into before a big match, and he has little tolerance for those with no work ethic or ambition to accomplish great things.

"The faint of heart need not apply," he says.

He has surrounded himself with people who have similar traits and whom he trusts. His strategy is to provide an environment that quality people will be attracted to and thrive in, thus propelling the entire organization forward. He wants everyone thinking about growth.

Joseph started with the company in 1982 as a sales rep heading up the newly created service division. Brewer-Garrett at that time was a small, $4 million company. He steadily moved up through the ranks and was named president in 1991. By 1992, he was the sole owner of the company. This year, he expects it to do more than $50 million in revenue.

Some of his early experiences with the company formed the basis for what his vision is today.

His first office was in the basement of an old building on Scranton Road in the Flats. It was cold, there were bars on the window and he was located next to the furnace.

Joseph learned that creating a good environment was part of keeping people motivated about coming to work. In selling service contracts rather than construction contracts, he learned the value of long-term relationships and the importance of good people.

The early years
Even before becoming president, Joseph noticed problems with how the company was doing business. There was too much focus on short-term, one-time contracts and not enough focus on building relationships.

"I was writing $1,000 and $2,000 service contracts," says Joseph. "The others were talking about $50,000 and $100,000 construction jobs. They always said my sales didn't even pay the taxes on their contracts."

His vision was that selling low-cost service contracts that build relationships with people will ultimately lead to high-dollar construction contracts. That commitment to building relationships rather than getting the quick sale paid off, and today, it is a key part of everything Brewer-Garrett does.

"Everything is based on relationships," says Joseph. "I got to know people - really got to know them. I like to do that with my clients and prospective clients. I care about more than just the one hour we are doing business. I want to know about their lives, their trials and tribulations, their ups and downs.

"It helps allow me to identify their needs and solve their problems. It's what it's all about. To sell service contracts, you have to understand their business."

The other problem Joseph identified early on was that the company was one-dimensional, only doing small HVAC design jobs.

"In order for us to survive, I thought we needed to be multidimensional," he says. "You need to have a bunch of different skill sets. Why not do sheet metal and piping? Don't just design it, design it and install it. All these associated things were subcontracted out. Now we do them all in-house. We're now a single source solution."

Joseph was influencing the company's direction long before he took over as president. He wasn't shy about sharing ideas and solutions and was always suggesting changes to the partners who owned the business. He was steadily promoted, but not everybody was an ally. Joseph negotiated a position onto the board of directors and in his first meeting convinced the board to release the company's CFO -- who had an ownership stake - because he didn't share the same vision for the company.

The action resulted in a lawsuit that was settled in 1991. Shortly after that, Joseph became sole owner of the company after buying out the last partial owner.

Freed from the constraints of sharing control, Joseph was able to implement his vision for the company. Joseph knew Brewer-Garrett could be a lot more than it was; it just needed the right solutions.

"I saw a phenomenal opportunity," says Joseph. "Brewer-Garrett was a diamond that needed polished."

The vision
"I watched the evolution of a company with no direction," says Joseph. "It was run by great engineers and they were great people, but they didn't have a plan. I'm a fanatic. I plan to work and work the plan. I plan to it, commit to it and then execute it and do whatever it takes.

"They had never done a business plan. They had a couple of big, solid clients, and that scared the hell out of me. If you are depending on one or two clients, the minute that client goes away, what do you have?"

He emphasized relationship-building and focused on service contracts that brought repeat business and served as a lead-in to more sales. A construction contract was lucrative but wasn't long-term.

By selling service contracts, Brewer-Garrett was able to develop relationships with clients and become a consultant for a variety of building needs. When these clients needed a major construction project, they trusted Brewer-Garrett to do them because of the relationships established through the service contracts.

Joseph had already convinced the previous ownership to move to a new facility in Middleburg Heights a few years before becoming sole owner, and the new location reflected the emphasis on environment that he saw as key to attracting the people he needed to take the company to the next level.

"The environment wasn't there," says Joseph. "I didn't like the facility. There were bars on the windows, it was dark, the business was getting robbed every other month and people were getting their cars stolen. How can you attract top people with that environment? We had to make a commitment to a facility. I wanted to move out."

Joseph bought 4.5 acres of land in Middleburg Heights and had a 50,000-square-foot facility constructed to upgrade the image of the company and help recruit new talent to keep the company growing.

"I built the facility knowing we were the only company like ours that had anything like it," says Joseph. "It looks like a professional building. We can attract professional people, and I think we need to do that. If I bring someone in, I can show them I made a commitment to the people in these walls.

"I wanted a fitness center where they could work out and I wanted a full kitchen where they could eat. Because they spend so much time here, I wanted to make it better for them."

There are also lockers and a sauna in both bathrooms, and Joseph now has a core of people who come in early to work out together and then share breakfast in the kitchen. People from different departments mingle, solve problems and develop a mutual respect for each other.

It's all part of Joseph's commitment to what he calls his extended family at the company. Family is emphasized because taking care of employees is the first step to taking care of customers, he says.

"I want and encourage employees to bring their families here all the time," says Joseph. "It's not at all a diversion; it enhances the environment. When a son walks into the room, you can see a twinkle in the father's eye. That's a good thing, not a bad thing. It goes back to creating the right attitude."

The right attitude has to come from the top. Joseph says that as a leader, every day you have to put on your game face before you enter the building. You can't be up or down because that will leave people wondering where you stand on any given day. Consistency is key to building relationships with employees and customers.

"You can't fake attitude," says Joseph. "You have to be positive. You have to have attitude and a value system that is beyond reproach. I always have to be up. When I walk in in the morning, I put on the happy face and do the deal."

Brewer-Garrett has a large room on the second floor of its facility that it uses for training sessions with which Joseph tries to instill the right attitude into employees. He admits to occasionally standing on a table when trying to make an important point during a training session.

And employees are sent to conferences and seminars to keep current on the latest technology so they can better understand customers' needs and how to provide solutions.

"Nothing is more important than education," says Joseph. "You have to educate to be the best. You have to have the proper systems to have continual growth. You have to sell efficiencies and guarantee it."

Give the employees a good environment and the tools they need to do the job, and a large part of the business will take care of itself.

"Over a period of time, we have developed something special," says Jeff Zellers, vice president of Brewer-Garrett. "We have an organization with an entrepreneurial spirit. The key to this thing is that everyone feels they are part of the decisions and take ownership."

With everyone involved, the company can achieve more because it isn't up to just one person at the top.

"For us to be effective, Lou shouldn't be making all the decisions," says Zellers. "Lou is most effective when the decisions are made by the people closest to the project."

This environment wasn't instantly created. Joseph had been able to effect change in the areas of the company he touched, but when he took full control, there was work to be done to transform the culture into one focused on service and growth.

"There were some people that didn't share the vision," says Joseph. "I invested time in everybody. It didn't happen overnight. I knew what they could and couldn't do. I needed to spend som e time with everyone. If they don't buy in, then they buy out. I give them a chance and put an objective in front of them and make sure they understand it. They have to accept that is the way we do business. Otherwise they become like a disease in the organization.

"The people that don't fit in stick out like a sore thumb. In many cases, we didn't have to fire them, they just leave. But you owe it to them, the ones that don't fit, to tell them that they will be successful, it's just not going to happen here. Then you help them with the job search, their resume or whatever they need. At every level in the organization you have to be focused on getting to the next level. We have to focus on what we are doing."

Everyone in the company knows exactly what is expected of them, and they pay attention because their salary is tied directly to job performance.

"Every employee is on an incentive program," says Joseph. "We have operational awards and financial incentives that focus on growth."

Each employee has a job description with specific requirements that they help write. There are basic responsibilities plus additional growth-oriented criteria that determine bonuses. Employees are formally reviewed twice a year to discuss how they are doing but often get informal feedback on a regular basis. The more goals that are met, the more the employee earns.

"Job descriptions can become a gray area," says Joseph. "I want to make them very clear. The associates need to understand their part in the process. It helps them understand their role within the organization. At the managers level, it's important, but it's more important at their level."

Leading by example
Lou Joseph built Brewer-Garrett by building relationships. Relationships with employees give insight into what motivates them and what tools they need to do their jobs better. Relationships with customers lead to a better understanding of their business and how the company can better solve them.

Clients were complaining to Joseph about rising energy costs and asking what could be done, so he created the Energy Services Group to help clients figure out how to be more energy-efficient. The result has been five consecutive years of winning the Governor's Award for Energy Efficiency for work the company has done for clients.

Joseph can't do everything on his own, so he has committed to getting the right people to support his vision.

"The most important ingredient to success is people," he says. "People tend to forget that. I have to stay out in front of them. I will always be out walking around to be visible.

"Being a leader is having a vision. When the herd goes left, it's harder to have the guts to go right."

Joseph has been going against the herd all along. When those at other HVAC engineering firms were casually dressed, he was wearing a tie and encouraging everyone around him to do the same to present a more professional image. When competitors were doing business out of run-down, turn-of-the-century buildings, he was building a new facility to attract better employees and present a better space for customers to visit. Other companies balk at providing anything more than what employees need to do the job; Joseph provides a workout room and sauna. Others focused on big dollar construction contracts, while he built relationships with smaller service contracts.

The results have proven Joseph right. Revenue has grown about 300 percent since he took over the company. The company has opened offices in other cities as it does more regional and national work.

Continued growth is a challenge, but one Joseph readily accepts. With the emphasis he places on people who can continue to develop long-term relationships for the company, recruiting is key.

"It's hard to find the right people," Joseph says of the outer offices. "Every day, that's why I'm recruiting nationwide. I've got 10 to 12 recruiters looking for people. It's very difficult. You have to have attitude, integrity and leadership, and that's a pretty tall order.

"We have to work harder with the other offices and make sure the systems are in place to support them. They have to get the same answers from everyone. We send managers down there often and communicate often. It is more difficult and it has impeded growth, but we planned for that.

"If you have a good system, it helps. We have a standard business system, a standard management system and standard training everyone has to go through. There's standard technical training for the field people. It goes a long way toward making a consistent organization. It helps develop the attitude and culture you need."

Creating a culture that fosters growth is critical.

"If you are not growing, you are dying," says Joseph. "We are growing. Two years ago at our Christmas party, I looked at the audience and said, 'I understand there is a recession going on. I choose not to participate. Who's with me?' All the hands went up. We don't win all the time, but we win a lot more than we lose. When we lose, we learn from it.

"We get together and dissect it. We are critical of ourselves. We look in the mirror often and, consequently, we have been extremely successful."

Empowering the employees with a clearly defined responsibility and decision-making power doesn't mean Joseph isn't involved, it just means there is a great deal of trust and respect within the organization. Managers consult with each other as well as with Joseph to make sure the best course of action is chosen.

"They are smart enough to get my two cents on it," says Joseph. "They are working on a large project right now, and you can bet I'll be involved. It's a conduit to me being in the loop of communication. When someone makes decisions, that's a powerful thing, and they are careful with it.

"I can count the times I've had to give edicts at Brewer-Garrett on one hand. What does that tell me? I've got the right people."

And it all hinges on building relationships.

"Don't make it about you," says Joseph. "Put your people in the light. You need to be out front, but credit needs to go to them. Part of having a vision is you need to be a good listener and know what they want and what they are doing. Learn what makes them tick. Understand what motivates them. Ask questions and listen to them and formulate what you need to do or go get to get the desired results.

"Leaders today have to have personal integrity - that's top of the list. You have to be positive. Stay focused. But most of all, have fun."

How to reach: The Brewer-Garrett Co., (440) 243-3535 or www.brewer-garrett.com