Well-oiled machine Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2008

A couple of years ago, Sam Simon was trying to close a deal with a major fuel supplier. A number of Simon’s employees had put many, many hours into the deal — strategizing, negotiating and crunching the numbers.

But no matter how the numbers looked, the deal just didn’t make sense for the other company. So Atlas Oil Co. — the fuel distributor, which Simon founded and leads as the chairman and CEO — lost out.

After watching months’ worth of work go up in smoke, the Atlas employees who worked on the deal were understandably disappointed and the company’s overall morale took a short-term hit.

But the one person who didn’t sulk was Simon. He knew that if Atlas — which earned $1 billion in revenue in 2007 — was going to pick itself up and dust itself off, the employees needed to emerge from the doldrums of defeat, as well.

That’s why following the bitter defeat, Simon still took his team out for a victory dinner.

“They worked hard, they worked a lot of hours, we spent a lot of money on that deal and did everything possible,” he says. “I took them out, we had some great wines, and we actually celebrated. I told them that we did everything possible and that these things will come back to us.”

Simon believes that no company will succeed over the long haul without a positive culture rooted in teaching and teamwork. That’s the type of work environment he has built since the inception of Atlas in 1985.

Building and maintaining that type of culture takes hard work and relentless communication, but above all, it takes a strong foundation of core values and the ability to look down the road.

“That’s what I always tell our people, that we need to continue to focus on our long-term strategy and core values,” Simon says. “If we do that, we’ll be in a better position than a lot of companies out there.”

Lay the foundation

“You have to talk to them until they puke.”

That’s Simon’s philosophy on communicating with his employees. Without constant communication — even to the point of overcommunication — from the top, the vision and values of your business will never take root with your employees, and by extension, your company’s culture won’t flourish.

“You have to continue to make sure they understand your vision, then you have to constantly continue to train them to do the same thing,” Simon says. “It’s like in boxing, if you want to get better, you train and go running. It’s tough when you have pains, but that is part of the growth. No pain, no gain.”

From their first day on the job at Atlas, new employees are immersed in the culture of the company by Simon and his senior management team. Simon spends four or five hours with each new class of employees during their orientation. The orientation is the same, no matter the job title of the new hire.

“Everybody comes in when they are new and they have to go through the five-hour training,” Simon says. “It doesn’t matter who it is or what job, this is the orientation they go through. It’s a lot of time and a lot of work, but you have to do it. It’s not sexy, people don’t see the money coming in right away, but this is one of the things that sustains long-term companies.”

Atlas focuses their employees on a set of core values that provides the basis for the company culture:

Have passion for what you do.

“If you are delivering a load of fuel, if you are selling to a customer, you have to have the passion to do it well,” Simon says. “You have to be hungry and love what you do.”

Focus on the customer.

“A lot of people forget that without customers, none of us would be here. We sometimes forget in business that customers are the people who pay our paychecks, so we have to show them the utmost respect as we go out and do our jobs.”

Be solution-driven.

“There are always going to be problems, always going to be issues and things that are not working, but our team has to have solutions for our customers.”

Have pride in your image.

“Image doesn’t just mean that the facilities are looking right, that the delivery trucks are looking good, but that our employees having all the paperwork that goes out to customers, that they’re polite and honest. If you have a phony system, people will see it automatically. That’s why you must have pride in what you do.”

Grow or go.

“It’s very key that you continue to improve yourself, continue to handle your challenges well. Everybody has challenges, be they economy or customer challenges. Things change, and that is why you must continue to grow in training, education, being a little aggressive on certain things. If you are not growing and improving every day, you are going to be left out.”

During orientation, new hires are shown a collection of real-life examples of Atlas embracing each of those values and why each value is integral to the success of the company. After orientation, Simon and his managers continue to hammer away at those values with a philosophy of open communication.

“I’m a walking person, I go around and talk to people and they can come to my office,” he says. “Anybody can walk in, and we encourage that. If people are looking for ideas or a solution, we want to deal with that right away. That is how we’ve grown to a billion-dollar company.”

Enable success

Simon says that too many businesses today are driven by the bottom line, to the point that the CEO worries more about keeping the finances healthy over keeping the culture healthy.

While you have to make money to stay in business, the only way you are going to have a truly healthy business is to strengthen the

link between your people and your culture and values.

“I am not a short-term person,” Simon says. “I am a long-term strategy person. Everyone looks at budgets; everything is about budgets. Leaders of businesses spend 50 percent of their time on their budgets. But the budget is only numbers that you put into a computer, so you know that you can spend this much or that much.

“If people see the long-term strategy, it will pay off. People need to see that you are willing to give them the tools to succeed, that you are willing to give them the education and training, that you want to work with them and care about them.”

Employers want employees who are willing to embrace the long-term vision and core values of the company. Simon says employees want employers who will give them the resources to not only do their jobs well but also further their careers in the process. That means management must enable success by backing employees with the best tools of their trade — and ongoing training.

“There is an investment in everything you do, so I am a big believer in investing in people,” he says. “When people see that you are willing to take them to the next level, that is my biggest success. When I see our team of people and how they have grown through the company, that is what makes me smile. They did it, and I gave them the tools and the opportunities to do it.”

Success isn’t just material or monetary. Simon says you must remember that true success to many people includes personal enrichment and professional achievement.

“Success doesn’t just mean more money in their pockets and a bigger house,” he says. “Success means they become better people, they got more out of their careers than when they first arrived here. That is really what success is.”

Hire the right people

Learning the culture begins in earnest for Atlas Oil employees when they start orientation. But the process begins beforehand.

The human resources department works with the managerial team at Atlas to identify the people who mesh the best with the company’s core values. The Atlas HR team and managers have come up with a uniform set of questions asked of every job candidate, regardless of what position the candidate has applied for.

“We all want to interview the same way,” Simon says. “Then we make sure our core values are listed, and when we talk in the interview, we set up different questions and see how they answer. Based on those answers and how they mesh with our core values, we can tell if they have it or they don’t. Everyone has to go through this. Everyone has to get hired through that system.”

Simon says playing matchmaker between people and jobs is one of the most difficult tasks there is in business management. It can require a significant investment of time and resources to make the right hire. But he says it’s worth it, because making the wrong hire can cost you much more.

“We spend a lot more effort on the hiring side of it, but even then, we all make mistakes on the hiring side,” Simon says. “It’s probably the most difficult thing we have. That’s why we have a uniform set of questions to go off of.”

Once hired, employees have to live up to expectations.

Simon does not want excuse-makers on his team. In the struggling Michigan economy, he says it’s easy to blame shortfalls on the government and other outside factors. But if someone constantly points fingers instead of trying to figure out ways to perform better, it’s a sign that the employee might not be motivated to achieve in the face of adversity.

“As I said before, you have to stay hungry,” Simon says. “There are people out there who are not hungry. They complain and always talk about things in the economy.

“I don’t let any of my team members talk to me about the economy. You know what happens, they’ll just go and blame the economy for everything. They won’t try harder. I tell my people that it’s not just about the economy, that the economy will give you opportunities, too. If you have a great foundation and great people, this can be your time to shine, even when everybody else is having problems. The companies having the problems didn’t spend the money to make a great foundation in the first place.”

Atlas did find a chance to shine recently. The company rebounded from their failed oil supplier deal of several years ago to make another deal earlier this year. This one, Simon says, was even better than expected.

“An animal gets eaten because a faster animal is hunting it,” he says. “One of my big sayings is that the big don’t eat the small, the fast eat the slow. Business is all about take your time, but hurry up. Take the time to understand what you are doing and get it right, but get going and get it done.”

HOW TO REACH: Atlas Oil Co., (800) 878-2000 or www.atlasoil.com