Richard Cottingham Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2007

Richard Cottingham sees no reason to micromanage his employees. Instead, the president of the $39.8 million Cottingham Paper prefers to spell out his company’s goals and let his 81 employees do their jobs. When you hire employees with independent spirits and the attitude and work ethic to be good decision-makers, you don’t need to be a micromanager, says the leader of the disposable, industrial and chemical products company.

Smart Business spoke with Cottingham about how he successfully manages his company.

Perform assessments. Over the years, we’ve tested (potential employees). You can have them take (an assessment test) on a computer and get an immediate answer. It gives you a full report and shows the applicant’s strengths and weaknesses. The weaknesses are things that you’re going to have to work with them on.

You don’t make your entire hiring decision just on that test, but it helps eliminate a number of people that are applying for the job that just aren’t going to make it.

Follow your instinct. You still have to interview and you’ve got to get a gut feeling for somebody. If you have a gut feeling that somebody would do well but they bomb on the test, then they did a snow job on you in the interview.

You’ve got to feel comfortable with them because if you don’t, you hired the wrong person.

None of this is precise. If anybody could ever figure out how to hire a great salesman every time, they’d be a millionaire.

Have faith in your employees. They know that I have trust in the job they do. That goes back to not micromanaging. I always tell my supervisors they have to think like an owner: ‘If you owned this company, what decision would you make?’

Establish a standard. We’re going through a process now that we haven’t done in a long time. We’re setting up standard operating procedures, and it’s very important to do or I wouldn’t be doing it. Without standard operating procedures, people will just make a decision on their own that could be costly or might not be the right decision.

We’ve been doing this for about a year. It’s not an overnight deal. We’re using in-house people to write up the procedures. They put down who’s accountable for implementing the procedures. ... With the standard operating procedures, everybody should do it totally right.

We share it with them as we get it done. You have to do it a little bit at a time because they have to understand it. If you overflood them with information, then it’s going to go in one ear and out the other.

The benefits are that there shouldn’t be anymore questions of, ‘How do I do this?’ It cuts out mistakes. You can do everything 98 percent right and 2 percent wrong, and guess what gets the most attention? We’re just trying to eliminate that 2 percent as much as we can. It’s never going to be 100 percent, but at least it will be better than it was.

Listen to your customers. We do surveys and customer visits where we get feedback. We ask them, ‘What are we doing right and what other things would you like to see that we’re not doing?’ Another question is, ‘If you were going to choose your perfect distributor, what would they be doing for you?’

You need to be prepared to sometimes get negative feedback. That’s what you want, though, because if you don’t get that kind of feedback, you can’t correct things.

Anytime somebody responds on a survey, it’s always personal to them. It doesn’t mean your entire company is wrong; it could be just one episode.

For example, if you go out to dinner and get a waiter or waitress that doesn’t treat you very well, chances are you’re not going to go back there. Out of 10 waiters and waitresses, nine of them might have been great. You just got the one that was bad and guess what? They just lost a customer.

It can take five years to get an account and 30 seconds to lose one. You’ve got to keep telling your people that.

Be the customers’ choice. Customers have a number of people they can buy from. They make a decision to buy based on a lot of parameters: price, variety, service.

When it comes down to making that decision, I want the customer to choose Cottingham. We have to convince the customer that we’re the best out there.

How many employees actually come in contact with your customer? Here, it’s sales, customer service and our drivers. You’ve got a lot of other support staff that still have to do their job in order for that customer to be happy. We train that all the time.

It only takes one person in this company to mess up and upset the customer.

Join a networking group. Almost all of the people in the groups I’ve been with are in different businesses, but what I’ve found out is almost all the problems are common to all of us.

When you’re running your own company, it’s sometimes lonely at the top because you have nobody to talk to. One thing that’s good about (networking) is you find out you’re not alone.

Hit the road. It took me years before I took two weeks of vacation because I felt guilty. After I hired my current CFO, I felt comfortable that she could handle pretty much everything if I was gone for two weeks.

It’s in your mind; you think you can’t be gone for two weeks. But when you do go, guess what? Nothing happens. You’re only a phone call away too. Just do it and you’ll find out that maybe they had the best sales week of the year.

HOW TO REACH: Cottingham Paper (800) 870-5441 or