Conveying change Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2007

When Susan Webb took over as the president and CEO of the Jervis B. Webb Co. four years ago, the state of the company was kind of like an old Johnny Carson monologue bit from “The Tonight Show”:

“Jervis B. Webb was really decentralized.” “How decentralized was it?” “It was so decentralized, some customers didn’t even know they were dealing with a Jervis B. Webb business.”

When Webb assumed the top post at the Farmington Hills-based company that was founded by and named for her grandfather, it was a loosely tied group of specialty businesses, each with its own operations wing, its own customer base, and in many cases, its own name.

“People in other companies would tell us, ‘I didn’t even know such-and-such a company was a part of Jervis B. Webb,’” she says.

With no strong central unit governing the various businesses, it was difficult to control costs and keep the company stable across the board. Webb says revenues fluctuated widely among the various businesses and keeping all of them focused on a single vision was nearly impossible.

A more centralized company would be much simpler for customers to follow and would allow the company to pool its resources to come up with the best possible solutions for customers. The company would also be able to cross-train employees within several business segments, giving it greater flexibility in reacting to market shifts and changing customer needs.

Major changes were needed at the 1,000-employee manufacturer of custom material-handling and conveying systems. It would require a large cultural and operational upheaval that would put a lot of stress on the company and the workers within. But Webb says the future of the company depended on it.

Corralling the company

The first step in Webb’s plan was to perform a comprehensive analysis of the company, its cost structure, markets, production capacity, competitive landscape and its leadership. From that analysis came a list of more than a dozen initiatives aimed at pulling Jervis B. Webb together under a central umbrella.

“We created a strategy with 12-plus initiatives and then executed it,” Webb says. “We went through an evaluation process during the execution phase and, when necessary, adjusted the course.”

But putting a plan on paper was only the tip of the iceberg. Webb had to get every employee in every facet of the businesses — which generate a total of approximately $250 million in revenue annually — to buy in to the plan. Constant, open and honest communication was essential as Webb pulled the reins on businesses that were used to roaming free most of the time.

“From the beginning, we talked to our employees to get their understanding and commitment,” she says. “We gave feedback about our progress, explaining the changes and discussing the expectations we had for each other.”

Webb conveyed a sense of urgency to her employees, letting them know that the changes needed to begin right then. She says she wasn’t attempting to alarm them, but realized that people aren’t going to become motivated to change unless they are prodded.

Still, the centralization of the company created a sense of uneasiness among many of Jervis B. Webb’s longtime employees.

“It was very worrisome,” Webb says. “We do have long-term employees, and the decentralized type of structure had been in existence for so long, then here was a huge upheaval that was like being turned inside out and upside down. It was just one of those things where communication was so important because I knew in my heart we had to make these changes and they were going to be unpleasant for people.”

Webb says you need to meet with employees many times during a period of drastic change, lay out exactly what it is you are planning to do, and then listen to the questions and comments they have in response.

“This change allowed us to develop a stronger synergy among us for working together to reach common goals,” she says.

The change helped the entire company to improve its methods of communication. In the past, consistent communication throughout Jervis B. Webb’s businesses wasn’t a high priority, but Webb says the need for communication during that period got the company’s leaders into the habit of communicating.

“That constant communication is something that we just found so necessary,” she says. “Maybe in years past it wasn’t, but we learned about it going through the change, and many businesses now realize the more communication you have, the better.”

Improving innovation

When you refocus your company along a new, centralized theme, your customers don’t necessarily see it. They don’t see the improved internal communication, the streamlined processes or the revamped culture. What they see, Webb says, is a better product. If they don’t see a better product, everything you did within the company loses its point.

An important part of the recentralization of the company was improving the culture of innovation. By drawing all of the company’s businesses together, Webb formed channels that allowed ideas to cross-pollinate, bringing together the best concepts and methods to allow the company’s idea-makers to find the best possible solutions for customers.

Webb began building a new innovation culture by creating an example herself. As with every other aspect of the company’s recentralization, it came down to clear, concise and consistent communication.

“You have to go and reach out to others,” she says. “You have to be the first to initiate contact, asking others what they see, what is of concern. I think (communication) needs to be kept as simple as possible, and I am a student of communication that says it needs to be repetitive.”

The newfound emphasis on face-to-face meetings has become an important part of promoting innovation. While Internet conferencing and e-mail allow for a degree of interaction and debate, Webb says there is no substitute for having someone present an idea to a group in person, and then opening the floor to discussion.

“Obviously, that type of one-on-one and two-way interaction is preferred, but it might not always be feasible in a larger company. But you need to have some small group discussion.”

Honest, clear communication breeds trust. Webb says that if an employee thinks you are taking a genuine interest in his or her idea, they will start to believe that you have a genuine interest in how they can help the company.

If you must remain tight-lipped while considering an idea or forming a new plan, say so.

“People are so pleased when you can tell them something,” she says. “The hardest thing that ever happens to us is when we’re going through a period where we just don’t know anything and we can’t tell anybody anything. That’s so hard for all of us, but you can say that you don’t know, too. It’s honest.”

As the company’s engineers develop and cultivate ideas, they document and review them through an operating procedure instituted by Webb. Every idea, no matter how humble its beginnings, is documented and submitted for review by a more experienced member of the engineering staff, who then works with the less-experienced members to refine the idea.

Webb says there are very few, if any, throwaway ideas. If your company values innovation, every potential innovation must be seriously reviewed.

“Our engineers use this (review procedure) to identify and document their ideas and how they work, even ideas that might have started with a napkin sketch,” she says “We want to lock in our Webb ideas, and they really can come from anywhere. That’s why we have teams of less-experienced people working with more-experienced people.”

Listening to customers

As part of refocusing the company, Webb created a renewed focus on listening to customers and implementing their ideas in new products.

Though Jervis B. Webb is in the relatively uncommon position of producing exclusively custom-made products and solutions, Webb says the importance of listening to customers is universal in business.

“You have to build confidence and be very connected with the customer to understand their needs. It would be very horrific if we just worked on our own and put in something that they were not happy with, or something that wouldn’t work. Customers are always looking for improvements, so we have to talk about what they want.”

In addition to having engineers and managers travel to customers’ facilities, Webb also invites customers to her company’s facilities. She says it allows her employees to gain more familiarity with customers’ needs while giving customers a sense of familiarity with how Jervis B. Webb does business.

“When you think about a customer, you have to know what their requirements are,” Webb says. “In some cases, we have customers with very specific specifications and standards. Others are looking for expert material-handling consultation.

“In each of those cases, it involves a possible sale for Webb, so we have engineering and project management meetings at their facilities. We can see where the equipment will be installed. We also invite them to our plants where they can see their systems being made and they get a sense of quality and value. We also take them to customer installations so they can see how other customers’ systems work.”

Webb views customer relationships as essential to the outside-the-box thinking that will prevent a business from stagnating. In an ever-changing marketplace, she says a stagnant company is a company with no future.

If you can’t meet a customer’s needs, someone else will, and your customers will become their customers. That’s why you must be vigilant about maintaining productive working relationships with the people who use your products and services.

“Every day we wake up, it’s a new reality,” says Webb. “It’s not a matter of what we did in the past was wrong, but every day things change and we have to come up with new ideas.

“One of the things we are finding with our customers is that they are much more price-conscious than they used to be. So a customer will come to you with their needs and wants, but you have to find a way to do it that’s cost-effective. If you can’t, maybe someone else can. So it becomes very important to meet those customer needs.”

HOW TO REACH: Jervis B. Webb Co., www.jervisbwebb.com