Randy Velarde was uncomfortable a few years ago with what he was seeing in his financial reports. The president of The Plaza Group, a petrochemical marketing firm he founded in 1994, was used to seeing double-digit growth.

The company had hit a plateau in terms of moving forward in sales and volume, and he realized something had to be done.

While it was happening during the recent economic downturn, that alone did not account for the disappointing growth. Besides, Houston wasn’t hurt much when the housing bubble burst. The Greater Houston Partnership reported that the downturn in the city was short and shallow, and the region began recouping its job losses sooner than most.

So what was going on?

Velarde knew that the company had a very strong foundation. After all, 15 years of impressive growth didn’t happen by chance. It was time for an in-depth look. Velarde, some of his key managers and the board of directors decided to spend a couple of days off-site studying the James Collins and Jerry Porras book entitled, “Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies” as their guide.

What they came up with were five statements that had been the company’s core values, and would still be, but with new emphasis.

“We spent a great deal of time going through ideas and arriving at what are the five core values of our organization,” Velarde says. “The idea is that as you move forward, because the core values have clearly been a part of your past success, do your best to continue to live by those core values that have brought you such great success.”

Since that time, sales growth has resumed the trajectory that The Plaza Group was used to in its early years, with more than 35 percent growth over the last four years. Sales for 2011 were $273 million, 38 percent over 2010 revenue.

“I couldn't be more proud of our entire organization embracing, living and breathing our core values,” Velarde says.

Here’s how he and his team went about defining the company’s core values, taught employees to embrace them and created a feedback system that ensures the core values are a top priority.

Getting to the core

The term foundation is a key one when a company considers its core values. Those values not include operation procedures, business strategies or even cultural norms. They do include those basic tenets that are so fundamental that they survive the most strenuous challenges from any source. So analyzing your foundation will give you insight into areas such as how you treat people, how you make decisions and how you value honesty and integrity.

For The Plaza Group, with its 15 years of operation behind it, this was the solution it needed.

“I think there is a maturation process for any business,” Velarde says. “I think after 15 years, this was the correct tonic for where we were. If you are just starting out, I don't know if it would be. Everybody conducts themselves with their own set of core values individually. But that may not be the most important element, depending on where you are at in business. It may be a case where you need capital instead.”

He ruled out a need for capital and focused on what had been driving success. The process of defining your core values is simple, yet it takes considerable time to get it right. Where it can become time-consuming is when you weed out what values you have had that brought you success — from those values you hope you could possess.

“It really is a very long process because Collins and Porras walk you through arriving at your core values and want you to make sure that they’re not those values you wish you had,” Velarde says. “It’s about spending the time necessary to make sure you determine those values that are a part of your DNA and have been a part of your DNA — and again not what you wish you were but what are those core values.”

If the analysis is on the right track, you will be able to focus your microscope on what’s inside your DNA.

“It’s one of those moments when you realize what are those things you want best to live by, of course, knowing that at some point in time you may make a mistake — we’re all human — but you want to ensure that your entire organization understands what is your DNA,” Velarde says. “It's not just a plaque you put up on the wall.”

Velarde and his group settled on five as a good number for the values.

“I think we wanted to arrive at a number that was not too big that the whole organization would say, ‘Wow, that's an awful lot.’ You didn't want one but you didn’t want 10. By picking five I think we were very comfortable.”

When the team was finished with its assignment, it had found five realistic and embraceable core values for the company: to be honest and forthright, to treat people with respect, courtesy and professionalism, to provide exceptional service to customers and suppliers, to be opportunistic, and to be financially responsible.

Each value should be reviewed as to its history and importance to the organization. This effort calls for insight and introspection.

Velarde notes that it was clear to the team that the company has never been in a corporate lawsuit with suppliers or customers, that fact sunk home the idea of being honest and forthright.

“That's what I would call a good accomplishment given our litigious society,” he says. “I think it speaks to honesty and forthright. What does that mean? Well, there have been conflicts, there have been matters in which one party feels one way and the other the other, but there is a way to manage that and be successful. I've never been in a room with people with black robes on.”

If exceptional customer service isn’t the top of your list, it should be. Treat every customer as a platinum-level customer.

“They are your very best customer,” Velarde says. “There is no distinction, there's no screen that comes up when the phone call comes in showing they're a platinum color or a silver color or a gold color. Treat every one of your customers with the highest level of service that the company can offer.

“For every one of these core values, we spent a lot of time wordsmithing it,” he says. “The quality of being nimble was something that was at least proposed. I think we all agreed that opportunistic was a little more specific. But it does include an element of nimbleness: being able to move swiftly, more quickly than competitors because of your size and your lack of overwhelming bureaucracy.”

Leading by example is a process

Getting employees to follow core values that have been a part of your company doesn’t seem like a difficult task. However, it’s not just something like hanging framed copies of your core values on the walls.

“I think leading by example is the best way, and it’s a process,” Velarde says. “It not only includes me but our managers and our board of directors. Employees will observe the commitment and embrace these values at each level, which I think is very positive in terms of establishing their own level of conduct.”

Each core value can be demonstrated by an example. One incident that happens with some frequency in business transactions is a dispute over an invoice. A short case history of the event, when told to employees, will demonstrate how a core value led to a satisfactory and successful outcome.

“I have many examples of where a supplier has undercharged us,” Velarde says. “If you kind of said, ‘Well, they will never know; we’ll pay the lower price and make more profit,’ that’s not following the core value of being honest and forthright.”

By following the core value and informing the supplier of the error, it is leading by example, and goes far in developing a deeper relationship with the supplier.

“Your team should say, ‘You know what? We are advising you of an error, that we owe $100,000 more than invoiced,’ and I can tell you that there is nothing more impressive to a supplier. They’ll say, ‘Wow!’ In big companies, a lot of things go unnoticed, maybe for a very long time or even forever. But now you’ll be noticed.

“Every time you call back to your core values is essential to your company’s personality and your company’s culture.”

With management focused on calling back to the company core values by setting examples, the focus will cascade down through the organization and each core value becomes strengthened as part of the company culture.

Check adherence to values

In a competitive market, feedback is often seen as some of the most critical data you can obtain to help you succeed. Monitoring how well your employees are performing is an important part of your operation, and a logical place to start is with a team from the heart of the company.

Once Velarde had the five core values in his toolbox and management was all squared away on its role to lead by example, a core values team was formed to observe the pulse of the organization.

“My key managers begin every meeting with a question: Are we abiding by our core values?” he says. “And I have my own core values team I meet with about every 60 to 75 days to make sure that we’re doing well with our core values.”

A team made of four members of folks in the trenches, as Velarde calls them, is composed of representatives of the customer service, supply chain and accounting department and the commercial team.

“You want to make sure you have a finger on that pulse,” he says. “In some companies, managers may just tell you what you may want to hear. I want to make sure that this is a part of every level of the organization.”

The core values team concerns itself with both positive and negative feedback, lauding the cases where a core value was followed with a successful outcome and expressing concern over potential violations of core values.

“Are you living by them?” Velarde asks. “Where have there been mistakes? Yes, there is a mistake here and there, but is there a trend? Maybe there is a violation — you know, where the organization or an individual may not have been in concert with your core values, and that’s OK; mistakes are made.

“But what you want to do is nip in the bud anything that may resemble a trend. There's no harm in a mistake; we are all human. We’re not perfect, but make sure there is no bad seed growing within the organization, violating your honesty, your financial responsibilities.”

Some issues can be resolved by just going to your manager to expose an issue. For larger issues, you can establish a formal corrective action process. There are multitudes of ways that can be used, depending on the situation.

Matters such as the earlier mentioned invoice error are brought up by the team to show an example of a core value guiding employees to successfully handle a sensitive error.

“If you do every one of those core values correctly, success is at the end of the road,” Velarde says. “The kind of growth we have experienced has been in conjunction with our entire organization embracing our core values.”

How to reach: The Plaza Group, (713) 266-0707 or www.theplazagrp.com

The Velarde file

Born: Albuquerque, N.M.

Education: University of New Mexico, with a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering; master of business administration degree from Baldwin-Wallace College. I was with Shell Chemical at the time, and I had been transferred to Cleveland.

What was your first job?

I was sanding and stripping furniture for my godfather, who was in the refinishing business. I recall that vividly; talk about hard work. I think I was a teen. It was a great experience, though. Hard, hard work. At that time, my godfather had a great team that enjoyed the camaraderie, and it impressed me.

Whom do you admire in business?

I must say that Andrew Liveris has done a terrific job with Dow Chemical Co. as chairman, president and CEO. He’s been a great example of a leader who has been through some challenges and has absolutely navigated his way very well through those challenges. He’s done a remarkable job of steering the ship so it is well-positioned.

What is the best business advice you ever received?

My first boss at Dow Chemical Co. was a very strategic thinker. He impressed upon me the value of the detail that one could go through to manage a sales territory. There was a great deal of strategic thought that went into it. His strategic thinking example has stayed with me. I learned something very important from him.

What is your definition of business success?

I have found that the greatest satisfaction in leading a business is getting the buy-in from the team, your team, and that strategy is not only your business strategy but also your core values. With that buy-in, knowing that if everybody does their job, excellent results are almost inevitable. The success happens to be the end result of such a strategy executed and the embracement of core values by your organization. The results don’t lie, and following a very strong strategy with an incredible team that embraces your core values leads to those results.

Published in Houston