A policy of candor Featured

9:50am EDT July 22, 2002

J.F. “Jeff” Keeler Jr. lists his home phone number on his business card.

He also doesn’t mince words about how he entered the “ditch digging” career that set him on a path to becoming chairman and CEO of The Fishel Co., a $150 million privately held business: “I married the boss’s daughter,” he says without blinking an eye.

Keeler’s refreshing frankness, however, is nothing new to those who know and work for him.

  • On a monthly basis, Keeler sends employees a letter telling them how much profit the company has made — or how much money it has lost.

  • In a cash profit-sharing plan, the company divides among its employees — whom Keeler calls teammates — one-third of its before-tax profits. When he first did that in 1984-85, employees received a bonus of one week’s pay annually; this year, bonuses could top eight weeks pay.

  • When Keeler developed “Vision 2000,” a strategic plan outlining the company’s goals, he shared it not only with employees but with major clients.

Keeler’s demeanor is just as open in one-on-one dealings. Without hesitation, he gives matter-of-fact answers to the most pointed questions.

What has been the scariest moment of his business career? Having a Fishel teammate seriously injured or killed. “Getting that phone call — I go to funerals, visit with families,” he says. “That’s happened — not often, but it’s happened a time or two.”

What is one thing most people don’t know about him? “I was dyslexic as a child,” he says. Keeler was behind in grade school and junior high, but has learned to overcome the problem. “I don’t look at it as a disability; I’m just a slow reader,” he says.

Keeler expects Fishel teammates to be as open and enthusiastic as he is. Celebration bells in all the company’s offices are rung for accomplishments, from making a sale or finishing a project to personal mileposts such as family additions.

Keeler’s openness explains how he develops such innovative ideas to lead The Fishel Co., which provides utility contracting for energy and information systems.

I’m a sponge for business knowledge,” Keeler says, noting he gets many of his ideas from organizations he’s joined, such as the Chief Executive Organization and Columbus President’s Organization, of which he is president. He also serves as a board member of the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce.

Furthermore, Keeler gets ideas from other company boards on which he serves: Bank One, Davon Corp., AirNet Systems Inc., Metatec Corp., Ruscilli Construction Co. Inc. and Sports Imports Inc.

“One reason I go on a board is, I feel I have something to offer, but I also have the opportunity to learn,” he says.

His knowledge has garnered the respect of others in the business community.

“Jeff should write a textbook on management because he knows more principles of good management than the people who write the books and spend their life studying good management,” Roger Blackwell, a marketing consultant and Ohio State University business professor who has authored several books, says in Keeler’s Hall of Fame nomination form.

Jack Ruscilli is equally impressed.

“It has been Jeff’s forward thinking that has taken The Fishel Co. well beyond ‘the world’s greatest ditch digger,’” Ruscilli says in Keeler’s nomination form.

Keeler is quick to stress the role of teamwork in getting the 63-year-old Fishel Co. where it is today.

“One thing I’ve done is surround myself with people who are smarter than I am in their own special area. I brag on my officers, but they have people working for them who are equally as good. I also am blessed with the best board in the United States of America,” he says with conviction.

His motives for success are opportunities to improve and the challenge to be the best in his business. Every team, he says, has its own motivator, depending on its mission and vision.

“I don’t have to be the leader in every situation,” he says. “I think you only recognize that with age and maturity. It goes back to hiring people that complement your experience and hiring people that are smarter than you are. Then I step aside and yield and follow their lead.”

Joan Slattery Wall (jwall@sbnnet.com) is a reporter for SBN.