Sweat the details Featured

7:00pm EDT February 28, 2007

Joseph M. Carroll nearly went out of business 100 times in the first decade after starting Hudson & Keyse LLC.

He founded the debt resolution agency in 1986 as a one-person operation, and by the mid-’90s, realized that to truly achieve success, he needed to learn to trust other people to handle the daily operations.

“When you’re wearing 50 different hats, you don’t have a lot of time for strategic thinking,” he says.

Bringing more managers on staff gave Carroll, president and CEO of Hudson & Keyse, the freedom and time he needed to focus on strategic issues, fueling the agency’s growth. The company has grown revenue 880 percent in the last five years and plans to add 30 employees to its 130-person work force this year.

Smart Business spoke with Carroll about why a CEO has to know what’s going on in the company and why every employee should be treated with respect.

Q: How involved in the day-to-day operations should a leader be?

A leader should be very involved in day-to-day. The strength is in the operations. It’s really all about your core competencies, and if your core competency is collecting debt, then that needs to be the hub around which everything flows. If your core competency is building cars, then that’s what you need to focus on.

The CEO or president should be the prime motivator to make sure those competencies are constantly being refined, improved. He or she is the person who sets the tone for rest of the company.

Q: How do you do that?

I’m constantly reminding people that the details are really what are important as the key to keeping people focused and honest. That shows that we’re really paying attention to what puts a paycheck in our pocket.

A CEO or leader really needs to understand exactly how everything is working at every level. You need to be able to trust the people who are managing those processes for you, but at the same time, you need to make sure things are working the way you envision they will be. Because in the end, you’re the last line of defense.

That’s the prime role of a leader: It’s not to be a rock star or rule by personality; it’s to make sure the business is running the way it should be. If you really don’t know what’s going on under the hood, I don’t know how you could do that.

Q: How do you empower employees?

By creating a culture of performance and accountability, you empower everyone to do their best. Our philosophy around here is everyone is an expert at what they do, and they can become experts if they aren’t already.

If you create a culture like that and people feel they have ability to excel on a long-term basis, you end up with a very motivated, stable, satisfied work force.

Q: How do you create that culture?

We treat everyone with respect, from the chief operating officer all the way down to a clerical employee who started last week. Everyone who works here understands that the company’s success is a reflection of how successful each person is in their particular job and with each particular task.

That’s how we train people; that’s how we assess performance. We let each employee know and fully believe that ultimately the company’s success is dependent upon their ability to do their job well.

On the recruiting end, we look for employees in management and nonmanagement who have a track record in our industry. We look for people who have stable work histories — who have been with prior employers for more than five years. We look for people who want to make a career out of what they do, or someone who has ground away at a large company for a lot of years.

Although they’ve been successful, they want to have larger impact. It’s hard to have that impact working for a Chase or a Discover or a Bank of America.

Q: How does your vision for the company change over time?

We all pick and choose what our competencies are when we build our businesses. The key is as you grow and evolve, remind yourself why you succeeded in the first place.

It’s easy to lose sight of what made you successful. For example, if you’re in the mortgage loan business, your core competency had better be in originating mortgage loans. If it’s not, eventually there will be a train wreck.

Your competencies can change over time as you make strategic changes. But inherently, that’s what you need to build your business on: What you do best and what makes you different from everyone else.

HOW TO REACH: Hudson & Keyse LLC, (800) 654-5391 or www.hkllc.biz