At the end of each year, Charles Gusmano throws a huge party for his 365 employees. With guests, he typically hosts around 1,000 people for games, food and prizes that include car giveaways. Gusmano welcomes the expense as an opportunity to show his employees he recognizes their hard work.

“Even though businesses are slower than they’ve typically been, everybody’s off from the high, if you want to call it that — despite that we’re doing more for our employees than we’ve ever done before,” says Gusmano, who is co-founder, president and CEO of Southern Waste Systems LLC.

By furthering a supportive, caring company culture, Gusmano has grown SWS from one facility to 10 in a decade.

Smart Business spoke with Gusmano about how to keep employees motivated in tough times.

Interpret change. When you lead by example and you treat people right — starting from the top of an organization — you are going to have a successful company no matter what. To get into business examples, it’s staying on top of change and things that are happening around you.

I think business is kind of like a unicycle. You’re either peddling forward or peddling backward. There’s really no standing still. You’ve got to keep your managers and everybody focused on moving forward.

You’re kind of guiding the ship and being stern and holding them accountable. At the same time you’re making a lot of quick moves. Sometimes people don’t understand that and they get nervous. My job is to keep them focused, to explain to them that change is good in some ways and we have to make these moves if the company is going to stay and survive.

Show you care. We serve our customers, and I also want to believe that we serve our employees. What I instinctively grew up with, the family values, those little things, the ‘thank yous’, the ‘we really appreciate the hard work,’ the pat on the back — I want that instilled throughout the company from the top down.

So on a daily basis what I find myself doing is going around patting everybody on the back, (saying) ‘How’s everything going?’ and bringing out all the positive things.

Instinctively, I try to be in a different facility or two every week, so at the least, the employees know that I’m there and I’m active and I’m accessible. A lot of them do know that I have an open-door policy and that they can get in touch with me any time, day or night.

Lend an ear. When you listen, you’d be surprised what comes out of that. I do that quite often whenever I go to a facility. I’m always talking to the people that are out on the ground. You talk to those people — that’s where you get most of your information from. Those are the guys that really know how to make your company better and what you can do to improve it and what the real problems are. As you go up the chain of command it kind of gets diluted. So I make it a point even to my managers to make sure that they are really hands on enough and that I get information on my end that’s factual.

Be a resource. Everybody is having a hard time with something, whether it’s in their family, whether it’s financial — it could be a bunch of different reasons. I try to help whoever we can, and sometimes it’s a dollar value and a dollar value can do it, and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s just meeting that person somewhere and lending them an ear or giving them advice or steering them in the right direction or just showing them that you’re there, showing them that you care, giving them my phone number and if you have any problems call me.

When anxiety is high, productivity is down. When that individual is wondering how he is going to pay his rent or he’s going to be out on the street, what do you think he’s thinking about when he comes to work? He’s not thinking about that. He’s thinking about how he’s going to get the money to pay his rent. I take that off the table and that guy knows that ‘All right, I’m OK right now. I can come to work as the best person at work.’ And he’s going to perform to the best of his ability.

How to reach: Southern Waste Systems LLC, (888) 800-7732 or

Published in Florida