When Camille Cheney Fournier was 10 years old, she was already well established as a vital part of the family business.
“We used to have three-part commissions, and we had to tear them and get them all sorted out,” she says. “I was pretty little, because I remember I couldn’t reach far enough to put the checks in numeric order.”
But even in such a seemingly small role, she learned a valuable lesson that has stayed with her through the years and helps her as she now leads the family business, SWS Re-Distribution Co. Inc., as owner and CEO.
“It takes everybody to make the business work,” Fournier says. “It really does. Some of those tasks that I was doing, like putting checks in numerical order or sorting salesmen commission reports, all that had to be done, and somebody had to do it. It was something that even a kid could do so that the employees at the office could do something they had the skill to handle.
“It goes to show that there are so many jobs at a company, and they’re all important, and they’re all needed, and they all need to be appreciated.”
By encouraging teamwork and valuing every job at the company, which sources and redistributes food service products globally, people know how important their roles are. This has helped employees work together to increase efficiencies internally as well as for their customers, which has allowed the organization to grow from $159.3 million in revenue in 2006 to $253.5 million in 2009.
“Without everybody doing their part, it doesn’t work,” she says.
Hire and train team-oriented people
For Fournier, having the right type of people who will be willing to work collaboratively with other team members and customers has been critical to the company’s growth over the past few years. That happens by making sure she hires the right people.
“You have to have the right people that care and are proactive and ask questions that go beyond what is just expected,” she says.
It starts in the interview process by clearly laying out how SWS operates and what the company’s philosophies are regarding customer service, teamwork and collaboration.
“By talking to them, you can really feel that they would be the right person,” she says. “If they ask good questions in the interview process, they’re probably going to be a questioning kind of person to begin with.”
The questions people ask can vary depending on the job, but she says that if they ask about how people stay sharp in their positions and how they make sure they do the best work possible, no matter what the situation, that can be an indication of a good fit.
Once hired, cross-training them is critical to success.
“Staying sharp is really important,” she says. “We try to diversify through the type of job that each person has so their job is broken up a little bit more, they have a little bit different responsibilities so that when they come back to one that may be a little bit more monotonous, they can still be sharp doing that task.”
For example, a customer service person would primarily spend his or her day taking orders from customers and helping those customers build their truckloads of various products. The customer service people may take several of those orders and work with the customers back and forth to make the loads as efficient as possible, but they may also have to take a timeout and check someone else’s order to make sure that other customer service person made his or her order the correct way and in the most efficient manner possible.
“It’s kind of like a puzzle,” she says. “If you have a different set of eyes look at it, all of a sudden you go, ‘Oh, this could be done a little bit differently,’ so they make suggestions.”
Additionally, someone may pull an order for a customer, but then someone else will come through and check to make sure it’s all correctly pulled.
“We try to break up different people’s responsibilities, and then we throw someone in a totally different area of the company to do another task to show them what they’ve done is related to another area of the company, too.”
This approach to training helps not only avoid problems and errors, but it also eliminates silos from being built because employees are constantly doing tasks outside their main area and seeing every aspect of each order from different points of view.
“It’s nice for different areas of the office, whether you’re in customer service or accounts payable or accounts receivable or shipping or purchasing to understand how it all fits together,” she says. “When you understand that, you understand how important everything you do is and how important it is to do it correctly.”
While this approach helps the company, it also helps the employees, as well. As they learn different roles and aspects of the business, it makes them more versatile. One manager started in customer service and then went to shipping and then accounts receivable before landing her management position.
“She knows it from the ground up,” Fournier says. “We try to promote from within, because our business is somewhat complex, and it helps if our employees truly understand all the different aspects.”
Help employees build customer relationships
The greatest compliment that Fournier has received from a customer is that her team is always able to find solutions to any kind of situation or problem that a customer faces.
“Part of it starts within getting all of the people that work in your company to realize how important each of their areas of the company are and that we all make up a cog in the wheel to make it all work,” she says. “It’s important for me to meet with the customer and listen and understand what their needs are and be able to come to them with good proactive solutions and proactive ideas about what they might want to change in the future. It’s important that everybody in my company understand how important they are in making our customer satisfied and happy.”
This started with looking at how trucks were loaded. A typical truck will hold 26 skids of a product, but by being creative, SWS employees can get 35 or 36 skids on a truck.
“When they’re training, they go out and actually see the loads going out,” she says. “What we explain is, ‘This is a heavy product, and it can have something stacked on it. This is a light product, and it cannot, but it can go on top of something. This is really tall.’
“Just to understand what you’re selling when you’re sitting in an office is so important to being able to be a really good partner with your customer.”
One manager took the initiative to create a chart of which products were light, heavy and stackable to give to customers so that the customers could then maximize their orders as well to save money.
“It’s really being proactive,” Fournier says. “I’ve got a great group of people being very proactive that work here.”
That same manager also pulls her customers’ order history so she can see what their needs are and how fast they move through certain products and uses that information to make suggestions to them about what could be a good add-on to their order to create more efficiencies.
“You also have to know what your customers’ sales are and what their needs are and how fast they go through their products, because turns on the inventory is also a very important factor for the customer,” she says. “They have to be able to turn the merchandise fast enough that they want to get as much on the truck as possible so they’re not having to buy another truckload sooner because they’ve run out of a product.”
Beyond looking at their order histories, you also have to communicate with your customers. Fournier and her employees meet with customers over the phone and Internet daily and weekly and also meet with them in person two or three times a year.
“[It’s] communication — meeting with them and talking to them and finding out what their problems are and their concerns and working on solutions to correct any of the problems that their company is facing,” she says.
When she meets with them, she asks them what they like and dislike about different products that they’re currently using, but she also asks what they would like to see changed or made differently.
The approach of trying to save the customer money and time has built strong relationships that have helped fuel the company’s growth.
“We’re all on the same team trying to do the same thing,” Fournier says. “That’s a large, important part of our business — that everybody realized that we’re all on the same team. It’s not just my company that’s a team. The customers are part of the team. The end users are part of the team. We’re all in it together, and if the whole group of everybody isn’t happy and satisfied and saving money and working well, then we’re missing something, and we need to re-evaluate because that’s our job.”
How to reach: SWS Re-Distribution Co. Inc., (972) 466-9720 or www.swsco.net
The Cheney Fournier file
Camille Cheney Fournier
owner and CEO
SWS Re-Distribution Co. Inc.
Born: Dallas — born and raised; I’m a fourth generation.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in textiles and clothing, University of Texas at Austin
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a buyer in a clothing store. University of Texas didn’t have fashion merchandising — the closest thing they had was textiles.
What’s the best advice you’ve received?
Tell the truth, even if they don’t want to hear it. That’s probably the best. Always tell the truth, always be honest. You have to be fair — that’s another one.
What’s your favorite board game and why?
Monopoly because I like the strategy of trying to buy the different properties. I like the strategy of the different combinations of properties you can buy in your little portfolio. ... I think games keep your brain sharp, and it’s entertainment, and it’s distracting. It’s kind of like going on a mini-vacation, and it takes your mind off of what is going on in your life, and then you’re fresh to come back to it. It’s just like reading. When I read, I usually read fiction, because when I read, it’s a release and I enjoy it, and then I can come back to reality and life and have a fresh perspective. It’s important to have enough down time that you’re always positive and sharp in your business or your family or whatever you’re doing in life.
What’s your favorite book that you’ve read?
Recently, ‘The Kite Runner.’ I’ve read several books that I liked lately. ‘The Help’ was good, too. They’re just different. It’s real interesting to see different people’s perspective. ‘Same Kind of Different as Me,’ that’s probably one of the better books I’ve read.
When the announcement came in November 2008 that DHL would discontinue its Express domestic services in the United States, there was a lot of uncertainty.
The division was asked to reduce its operating costs from $5.4 billion to below $1 billion, a decrease of more than 80 percent. Ground hubs would be closed and stations reduced from 412 to 103. It called for the loss of 9,500 jobs.
The one certainty was the end result of all the changes: return DHL Express USA to the company’s core competency of international shipping.
Difficult decisions are usually made when you’re going through a restructuring process. But as details are fleshed out, you and your employees can’t lose sight of the future.
Jack O’Neill understands this. As vice president of operations, he oversees all Express operations in the United States, including, air, hub, gateway, security, customs, engineering, fleet and customer. He led operations through the realignment, which included relocating its hub in Wilmington, Ohio, to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.
Additionally, O’Neill had to ensure his 2,300 operations employees stopped thinking about domestic products and services and learned the world of international shipping. In understanding the new direction, the company assumed the philosophy that every employee was a salesperson there to meet customer needs.
To accomplish the task, O’Neill used communication, education and reinforcement of the message and culture.
“It’s really an education. It’s awareness, it’s training, it’s making sure that everybody is engaged in understanding what it is we’re trying to provide to our customer base, what is the real priority and the objective of the organization,” he says. “With that, you engage each and every employee in every facet of the company and make them understand … everything that they do impacts the customer experience.”
The realignment was a major change for the organization, so management’s top priority was getting employees on board.
It should be no surprise that when you’re taking on a large initiative, communication is imperative from the beginning to the end.
“Even when you think you’ve overcommunicated, you probably haven’t communicated enough,” says O’Neill, who spends time in the field every week talking to employees.
O’Neill and the senior leadership team attacked communication from every angle. There were e-mails and bulletins, town-hall meetings and personal conversations. They found the best way to communicate employees’ roles in the realignment was in person because it allowed for providing clear information and receiving feedback.
“You really need to define the objective and your objective really needs to be crystal clear for that message to be concise,” O’Neill says. “If there’s any ambiguity in that objective or any ambiguity in the way you present that, the audience is going to have a hard time interpreting it and understanding it. Then you get mixed learnings or understandings out of that message.”
If multiple members of your leadership team are speaking to employees, you must make sure that the same message is being communicated.
Before conducting town-hall meetings, O’Neill and his team met to discuss their message about international shipping and customers. The company’s communications team helped craft the message and included a set of questions expected to be asked and answers of how to respond.
When you’re tackling complex issues, you need to be prepared and honest with your communication.
“Sometimes it’s a tough message, but you need to deliver those tough messages and be upfront about them,” O’Neill says. “In doing that, you gain the trust and confidence of your employees that you’re being forthright.”
Direct employee conversation is twofold, though. Town-hall and staff meetings are not just about what you want to say but what employees want to communicate.
O’Neill has been in town-hall meetings where employees can’t get enough questions in and others where the audience is silent. If he doesn’t get any questions right away, he starts talking informally about a topic that interests that particular group and asks for their advice.
“Once you ask them for advice on a question that relates more importantly to them, they begin to talk and open up about what we can do to help them,” O’Neill says. “Once that conversation starts to go, you generally get people feeling more comfortable, you get them feeling at ease, because they really feel like you’re there to learn something about them and how you can help them.”
Knowing employees are the crucial link to customers’ wants and needs and that employees need to be properly educated and equipped to do their jobs, O’Neill and the senior leadership took the feedback from the town-hall meetings and discussed it as a group. To better organize the information, they would provide the feedback to a point person who would consolidate it. O’Neill and the other executives would then prioritize the ideas as “easily actionable” or “needs more research.”
“It’s important if you really want the people to engage and rally around the organizational pride, in our case international shipping, you have to provide that closed-loop feedback cycle,” O’Neill says. “If you’re going to ask the employees for suggestions, we need to make sure we circle back and implement them or tell them why we’re not going to do it and make sure they understand the logic behind that.”
Once its determined if the idea is actionable or not, the feedback is either communicated by the direct supervisor or the senior leadership team in the next town-hall session.
“We communicate not only current events but, ‘These are some of the things we’ve heard from you, and these are some of the things we’re doing about it,’” O’Neill says. “It gets the ownership and buy-in that we really are listening to them. It’s one thing to listen; it’s another thing to really hear and understand what they’re saying.”
In communicating with employees, you need them to rally around the change.
As part of DHL’s realignment, all Express USA employees went through training to become a certified international specialist. Everyone from the front-line employee to the senior management team was required to attend classroom and online sessions geared toward international shipping, trade facilitation, processing shipments and clearance activities — all things that, at the end of the day, can affect customer service.
“Each and every employee needs to rally around their roles, what their responsibility is, how it aligns with the overall objective and how they really do impact the customer even though it may not be clearly visible,” O’Neill says. “(Training) is something we have undertaken that helps us make sure that everybody understands their role in satisfying the customers’ needs.”
The senior leadership team was actually the first to go through the certification, as should your team if you’re implementing a crucial companywide program.
“If we go through it first, we get a chance to assess the training and (evaluate) it,” O’Neill says. “By doing that, we can make sure that training is going to deliver what we really want it to deliver as an organization. What were our priorities when we first said we need to develop and deploy that training? Does it, in fact, meet those objectives?”
The second reason for the leadership team to partake in training is employee buy-in.
“You really have to walk the talk; as a leader, it’s one of the traits that is most critical,” O’Neill says. “If you deploy a major training platform and the senior leadership team doesn’t go through it, it sends an indirect message that it’s not that important. If you go through it, you send a couple of messages. One, you sponsor that training because you went through it yourself. Two, you send a critical message that it’s important for the organization to have that training.”
Along those same lines, the Express division’s training staff trains operations managers, supervisors and directors to deliver some of the programs to their employees.
“We support that, because it does make the training more believable,” O’Neill says. “If a manager delivers training, that manager has to support that training. He also knows what message has been delivered with that training with his employees versus a trainer coming in that works for another function. The messaging might not be the same as what the manager might deliver. Something might be skipped; something might be missed.”
The final aspect of company training is testing. O’Neill, along with every Express employee, had to score a 98 percent to become a certified international specialist. The test included questions like shipping requirements to clear customs and international capitals — essential information needed to send a customer’s package.
“Testing gives us knowledge of whether or not the employee really understands,” O’Neill says. “Do they have the information, and did they really hear it and understand it? Do they know how to apply it on their job? If you test them and they fail the test, then chances are, they’re not going to do their jobs the way they were intended to be done. What that means is we’re going to have delays in shipment processing. We’re going to have delays in service. Our customers aren’t going to appreciate that too much.”
You can communicate and you can educate, but that doesn’t mean employees understood the message.
“We think people hear what we say or interpret what we write, but it’s not necessarily the case,” O’Neill says. “You really have to listen carefully to see if people have gotten the message. If somebody hasn’t gotten the message, they’re going to create their own message and usually that’s not the message we want them to give. Listening and having some feedback mechanisms to make sure the message is clear and everybody does what needs to be done is crucial.”
How do you make sure employees heard what you said? You ask them point blank.
“‘What are our priorities? What are we focused on?’” O’Neill says. “You have to ask them those types of questions to make sure that the message has been heard.”
And you have to constantly reinforce your message. When O’Neill went into the organization a year and a half ago, employees couldn’t tell him the company’s core competency. Today, without hesitation, they say international shipping.
Another way to validate that your message has been heard is engaging with employees in their work. O’Neill and his senior leadership team spend days on the road with their couriers visiting customers or sitting next to customer service agents in the call center.
“We get to experience firsthand what our front-line employees are doing, and does it really support the message that we delivered?” he says. “Does it support the direction that we need to go in? Does it support the training we provided them? You really have to inspect what you expect.”
Because there can be a disconnect between top management and lower-level employees, O’Neill has found his staff members are appreciative when he spends time with them and they’re willing to share feedback on what can make their job easier and the tools they can use to better serve the customer.
If you’re spending time with your employees, though, the main thing to look for when it comes to whether or not they understood your message is engagement.
Since the realignment, DHL Express USA has seen more engagement from customers and employees. The business has stabilized and is actually growing. Returning to its core business has meant an improvement in services, which has translated into greater customer retention and growth. For employees, it has given them a sense of confidence in a strategy moving forward.
“The employee that is engaged in the organization has an interest in it,” O’Neill says. “You can tell when somebody is just doing a job because it’s a job, and that’s OK. But we really want people to be engaged in the organization. You know they’re engaged if they’re asking questions. You know they’re engaged if they’re performing the job the way they were trained to do the job. You know they’re engaged if they have a good relationship with the customer. Once again, that customer touch point is so critical, so it’s those types of things that we really try to observe.”
How to reach: DHL Express USA, (800) 225-5345 or www.dhl-usa.com
The O'Neill fileJack O'Neill
Vice president of operations
DHL Express USABorn: Saugus, Mass.
What was your first job?
The first job I ever had was actually a salesman in an electronics department of a department store. It was an interesting job for me, because I never sold anything nor did I know anything about electronics at the time.
What did the experience teach you?
I learned that sales and marketing are critical to success. In this department store in the electronics group, we sold a set of stereo headphones, and we used to sell them for $9.99. They were low quality; it was the cheapest set of headphones we had. We couldn’t sell them. We couldn’t get them off the shelf.
We were having a sale one weekend, so we thought we would put an ad in the paper and try to get them sold for $5.99 and deplete our inventory. In printing the ad, a mistake was made. The mistake said this was a set of stereo head phones, normally sold for $19.99 on sale for $15.99. Oddly enough, the first day of the sale — we must have had 80 sets of these headphones in the store — they flew off the shelf. Customers came in; they thought they were getting a great bargain.
The whole positioning of how a consumer hears a message to me was definitely one of the learnings I took out of that role and that particular experience I had.
What is your favorite part of your job?
I enjoy being on the front line. I don’t enjoy sitting in business meetings. I don’t enjoy that part of the job; I know it’s a necessity. I’m an operations person at heart. I grew up in the business unloading trucks as my first job within the logistics industry. I really have appreciation for the front-line employee and what they do for the organization.
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger” opined the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The recent recession killed off many companies, and inevitably, the next one will kill more, an economic cycle as harsh and as inescapable as droughts on the Serengeti plains.
So, for both survivors and casualties, what did we learn that will make us stronger and more conditioned to survive the next one? We learned (if we needed to) that spending $1.22 million to redecorate your personal office doesn’t actually improve your company’s performance.
We discovered that however expensive your public relations firm, billing your company’s shareholders for your private jet in order to go panhandling to the taxpayer is never going to get you good press. We found out that many of our formerly friendly bankers, who we trusted to help our businesses, turned out to have been incapable of helping their own.
We learned who our friends were. Not just our suppliers and customers but, most importantly, those within the businesses we manage. We discovered who were the strong and who were the weak; we leaned on the rocks and flushed out the whiners, heard those who complained that they hadn’t had a pay raise or a bonus and listened to those who knuckled down and realized the only way to be paid more was to help the company generate more business.
But the most important lesson I learned was that however important a culture of good leadership at all levels is in the good times, it is absolutely critical in the bad.
Leadership is the single most important factor in any organization. It is the deciding factor between mediocrity and excellence, between success or failure. Those managers who had led their departments well before the recession, who had built strong teams, whose people exuded strong morale, whose staff were loyal to them and the company, who understood the aim and what was necessary to achieve it, who were prepared to make the tough decisions, were the ones that fared best when times got rough.
Those who had just gotten by in the happy years, their performance unnoticed or their attitude not addressed, were the ones overwhelmed by the difficult decisions and the changed circumstances.
Creating such a climate requires an ongoing commitment from the very top. The right people need to be hired, they need to be trained and they need to be allowed to flourish. They need to be mentored and their innate abilities developed. Being ultimately responsible for the company’s performance, it is my job to ensure that this happens. When things are going well, when it seems as if we can do nothing wrong, it is easy to compromise in the interest of priorities — “Let’s not worry about training; people can learn on the job.” Bringing in a weak manager whom you have doubts about simply to fill a role or failing to ensure that a manager has all of the tools he or she needs to do the job backfires when in a recession because that manager is incapable of inspiring his or her team to excel.
All of this needs to be put in place now, both to take advantage of the better times and in preparation for the next recession. The grass on the plains may be getting greener, the water holes filling up and the rivers flowing again, but the hyenas are still out there. Only by preparing can one stand the best chance of being strong and fit enough to survive when the drought returns, as it inevitably will.
Julian K. Hutton is president of Merlin Hospitality Management, where he oversees the company’s Hotel Management and Distressed Asset Management operations, drawing on 20 years experience in the worldwide travel and hospitality industry.