Bill Mechling Featured

7:00pm EDT December 31, 2006
Bill Mechling likes to tell the story about the janitor who was on his hands and knees, scrubbing the floor in the vehicle assembly building of NASA. Someone came into the facility and asked the man what he was doing, and he said, ‘I’m working to put a man on the moon.’ That’s the kind of forward-thinking attitude that the president and CEO of Columbus-based CenBen USA, parent company of Central Benefits Mutual Insurance Co., wants his 475 employees to have. Smart Business spoke with Mechling about how attitude and relationships play a vital role in how he manages his $51 million, third-party administration business.

Find the right stuff. When we go through our interview process, we’re looking for attitude and character more than anything else. ... What we have found is that if you hire attitude first, you’re going to get a group of people that are going to be more focused on the needs of the customer and are going to be better able to get along in the corporate environment.

We can teach them what they need to know, and it’s always a plus getting someone that already has some experience, but it’s attitude first, and that’s what we’re looking for.

People are so smart today. They’re so knowledgeable about the world, and they can learn a lot of things. If you have a person with a solid attitude, the sky’s the limit.

Lead by example. Don’t ever ask someone in your organization to do something that you’re not willing to do yourself.

I’ve been here for 23 years; my car’s still one of the first in the parking lot in the morning and one of the last to leave at night. I want my people to see it.

Go out in the field. I do not like to look over people’s shoulders, although I do have a penchant for wanting to be in front of the customer as much as I can. I like to find out whether we’re performing, not by looking over my people’s shoulders but by asking the customer how we’re doing.

I don’t like to sit behind a desk and think I know what’s going on. I would much rather have a personal conversation with an individual and look them in the face than send an e-mail or talk on the phone.

Same with a customer: I encourage my people to get out in front of the customer because that’s where you learn. You don’t learn anything sitting behind a desk.

If you’re going to progress as an organization, you’d better be listening to your customer. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come back from a customer full of ideas — and not just for products or how to service them better — but how to run my own organization.

I always encourage my people that when they’re sitting down with a customer or vendor, they have a tablet and pen with them, jot down ideas, bring them back and let’s talk about them because we don’t have a corner on smarts. A lot of good companies out there are doing things well, and we can learn from each and every one of them.

Be a vendor partner, not an adversary. A lot of people that I’ve run across have always tried to squeeze vendors until they squeak.

I want my vendors to make a little money, and I want us to be a profitable piece of business for them because I want them to be a partner. If I come back and ask them to do something unique for us, I want them to be able to do it.

There are a lot of companies that have gone by the wayside. I want my key vendors to be around. You’re not going to keep a vendor around long if you’re squeezing them so tight that they can’t afford to stay in existence.

And you’re not going to give them any opportunity to do any kind of research and development and better themselves if they’re operating on a shoestring.

Keep pace with change. As you’re going through change, if you’re focusing on those key aspects that are going to impact the customer the greatest, you can manage and you can keep those balls in the air. When you start adding balls to it, you’re liable to drop them all, so we maintain a very strict focus.

This year we’re actually getting out of some businesses that we have historically been in because they’re not the focus that we want to pursue. We’re narrowing our scope a little bit because we know what our customers want out of us, and we’re going to focus on just those things.

Build customer relationships. It’s more than just simply having them buy your product and pay you, and then you perform the service. When you are doing something that’s key to a customer, if you don’t do it correctly, it can cost them money, and it can cost bad will.

You have to stay on top of your customers and know their needs. I try to go beyond that: I’ve been to some of my customers’ sons’ basketball games and played in their high school fundraising golf outings. I do those kinds of things to stay in front of them (so they) know that we want to be part of them and that we want to have a long-term relationship.

Have a simple mission and a clear plan. We try purposely to make our mission statement very easy to remember. We stress to our people that we want to be measured by our customers and not by what we think.

Overcommunicate with your employees what your mission is and what your goal is so everybody’s pulling in the same direction, and everybody’s got that focus on the customer.

That’s what business is all about. It’s not about making money; it’s about servicing the customer. If you do it well, then your company will be profitable.

HOW TO REACH: Central Benefits Mutual Insurance Co., (614) 797-5200 or