Moral compass Featured

8:00pm EDT August 28, 2006
 Equity CEO Steve Wathen volunteers with the Boy Scouts, so when he discusses his company’s values statement, it’s no surprise that words like “honest” and “integrity” pop up.

Wathen founded his company in 1989, and today, its 85 employees provide construction, development, property management and real estate brokerage services through offices in Worthington and Cincinnati.

The company has grown 55 percent over the last two years, with 2005 revenue of between $25 million and $35 million.

Smart Business spoke with Wathen about how he lives his company’s values statement.

What impact do business owners have on corporate values?
The characteristics that a CEO exhibits become the culture of the company, since they’re in a leadership, mentoring and modeling role, things like perseverance, hard work, positive attitude in the worst of circumstances and setting the proper example.

Being the moral compass for the company is very important. CEOs can type a values statement, but unless they live it by example as a witness to their employees, then they’re not going to be very effective in creating a successful culture.

Integrity is the first characteristic, not always living in the gray area but a real black-and-white, absolute integrity. The employees have to know that whatever the CEO says is the gospel truth, that’s what’s going to happen, that’s how they’re going to be treated. It defines the culture, so the CEO has defined it for the whole company.

When someone carrying an Equity business card says, ‘We’re going to do this,’ they’re binding our company to it. Without integrity, everything disintegrates. If you don’t trust what your boss says, you’ll be a pretty unmotivated person.

Absolute integrity to the internal and outside audience is critical.

How can a CEO establish a values statement?
The CEO, just by the way they live and their behavior, is building a values statement, whether they publish it or not. A few years back, we decided to publish ours. My exec team and I sat around in a room and had a brain dump of all the words that describe Equity, not only how it is today but the way we want it to be 10 years from now.

We basically came up with a list of words: transparent, honest, integrity, focused, persistent, ambitious, hardworking, excellence, quality, challenging, personal growth, balanced, fun, servant leaders, empowering, love, kindness and caring, and honor God. Then we wrote sentences around it to create a values statement.

When I hand out my business card, I also hand out another card that has our values printed on it. When we issue business cards, they have a little pile of these other cards as well. We urge employees to wear their values on their sleeve.

We communicate our values to everyone. It’s published in all of our proposals and is the foundation of a relationship with a new customer. If you don’t align on the values level, there’s really not going to be a sound premise for you to do business going forward.

What advice would you give CEOs of growing companies?
Never compromise your integrity. It will cost you money to preserve your integrity. You should never value the dollars over what you represent and stand for. In the long term, it pays off hugely.

I’ve got to believe the converse is true: If you don’t display that kind of integrity, that’s got to come back to bite you at some point. We have seen the benefits of always conducting ourselves with absolute integrity.

You have to be a student of your financials all the time, whether you are debt-free or not. That’s terribly important. The thing that ultimately defines a business failing or a business succeeding is in those financial statements.

If something is going awry there — the ratios are getting out of whack — those are warning signs for the future. You can kill your company by not watching that. At the same time, you can plan your success in those financials, too.

A CEO has to have his head way out in to the future. If you spend too much time thinking about today, you’re going to screw up. My head has to be at least two years out, and most of the time, on average, I’m thinking about stuff that’s a year away.

You’ve got to deal with issues, e-mails, problems, but whenever you find yourself back in the trench dealing with today, you have to pull back out very quickly, and get your head back out there in the future. That’s an absolute key to success: If you’re ambitious and you want a lot for your company — lots of growth and opportunity — you have to be out there.

HOW TO REACH: Equity, (614) 802-2900 or www.equity.net