Larry Abbott makes good decisions by getting close to his people Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2010

Larry Abbott was stepping into a world far different than the one he was used to. But it was that unfamiliarity that brought him out from behind his desk and into a freezer suit, ready to bear the frigid confines of the freezers at Abbott Foods.

“It takes a unique individual to come into work at 9 o’clock every night,” says Abbott, the now retired president and CEO of the food distributor. “Many of them are getting in freezer suits and getting into a freezer where it’s 10-below zero and working like a son of a gun. You see it and you learn.”

Abbott sold the 450-employee company to Sysco Corp. in 2002 and is now president of Abbott Management Group, a firm that seeks to help small businesses grow and become profitable. But back when he was at Abbott Foods, he found the occasional night shift quite educational and helpful in his ability to successfully lead the business.

He learned about such things as the poor lighting that employees faced in the freezers and how difficult that made it to figure out whether a box contained lobster tails, french fries or something else entirely.

“You see it and you learn, ‘Golly, we need more lights in the freezer,’” Abbott says.

He also learned that some packages weren’t marked clearly when they were delivered by the suppliers.

“I came out of there and I had all kinds of tough conversations with some of our suppliers,” Abbott says. “I said, ‘Jeez, if you want us to pick the right stuff and get the right stuff to the right customer, you need to mark the cases better.’”

Abbott could have very easily stayed in his office and worked the normal 9-to-5 schedule and received memos on potential problems that were going on at night. But it wouldn’t have hit him as hard and the problems wouldn’t have been as clear as they were when he stood shoulder to shoulder with his night crew.

“You go out and you rub shoulders with them when you can,” Abbott says. “Spend time with people in your sales crew. Go out and ride with them in the car once in awhile. Call on key customers. Show them that you care. You’ve got to show them that you will treat them like a part of the family and not just a cog in the wheel.”

As Abbott Foods grew from $800,000 in sales in 1970 to $240 million in sales when the company was sold in 2002, Abbott’s leadership style grew too.

“You had to show a little bit early every morning and leave a little late every afternoon or evening,” Abbott says of his mindset in the early days. “You had to be willing to jump in and help wherever it was needed. As you get a little larger, those responsibilities are to think more strategically and work collaboratively with senior management to develop a mission statement and vision as to where we all want the company to go.”

Those efforts put Abbott’s company in a position to be sold to Sysco. These days, as president of Abbott Management Group, he focuses on helping smaller businesses repeat his success and grow in sales and profits.

One of the key messages that Abbott touts to anyone he speaks to is that as the CEO, you can’t do it all by yourself.

“Your mission statement and your vision statement and your strategic plan can’t be developed solely by the CEO,” Abbott says. “If it is, you’ll have a heck of a time selling it to everybody down below. If you do that, then what you’ve got is a bunch of yes-people down there.”

That’s not what you want. So you need to be out talking to your people, and every once in awhile, you need to get down in the trenches and experience what they go through working for you.

“You’ll find it’s not the easiest thing in the world out there,” Abbott says. “They’ve got problems too.”

Work with them to make sure they are aware of your plan and show them that it’s not really your plan but everyone’s plan.

“Show them how their work makes a difference and reward them when they do well,” Abbott says. “They want to do what’s right. You just need to tell them what’s right and how to do it and give them the right tools to do it and then their financial motivation takes over and you drive the organization where you want to go.”

How to reach: Abbott Management Group, (614) 459-9480