How Carl Camden streamlined Kelly Services to deal better with the recession Featured

8:01pm EDT March 31, 2012
Carl Camden Carl Camden

Carl Camden’s company finds jobs for people. That in and of itself could have served as a buffer against most recessions.

As the economic crisis caused untold numbers of positions to vanish at companies all across the country over the past four years, you might have thought that Kelly Services Inc., which Camden leads as president and CEO, would have had an increased demand for its services as people looked for employment and companies living hand-to-mouth looked for short-term staffing solutions.

But this wasn’t just any recession. This recession’s impact was so severe and hit so many companies across virtually every industry; it took a big bite out of Kelly Services as well. People needed jobs, but companies weren’t looking to hire, even for temp positions.

The company had to cut 1,900 positions as it lost money for the first time in its history.

“Our sales went down by a third during the recession,” Camden says. “The demand for our services was actually sinking with the recession. The whole definition of what we were as an industry changed. In coping with the recession, we had to open new product lines, new services, new types of relationships with customers.”

Camden and his leadership team had to fundamentally restructure Kelly Services as a more centralized organization, renew his employees’ focus on customer service and ensure that multiple lines of communication were accessible to everyone in the company, so that everyone was able to speak with upper management and stay informed on the progress of the changes the company was implementing.

At the same time, Camden had to react to the recession’s fallout, while maintaining a proactive approach regarding what Kelly Services would look like, and operate like, after the recession.

Form a plan

 

First responders in an emergency, such as a natural disaster, say their training takes over in a crisis situation. They immediately know what steps need to be taken first and what gets moved to the top of the priority list.

CEOs aren’t completely unlike first responders when dealing with a financial crisis that threatens their business.

As the recession deepened in late 2008 and early 2009, Camden and his team surveyed the situation and immediately recognized that the company needed to reduce expenses and get more efficient — with an eye toward maintaining those efficiencies after the recession.

“You first have to reduce your expense space, obviously,” Camden says. “But one of the things we tried to do in that time when we were reducing our expense space was to do it in a way that yielded structural advantages to the company, advantages that could remain as something permanent as we came out of recession.”

The solution that Camden’s team formulated was to shut down several branch locations and transfer those capabilities to a central location.

“We could then serve more customers and do it anywhere they happened to be,” he says. “They’re not reliant on a branch within the network. It was an opportunity to reduce costs and an opportunity to increase our services while we did that.”

Camden likens it to how banks have evolved. Several decades ago, banks were entirely based on a brick-and-mortar infrastructure. Now, banks offer more services to consumers, but with fewer branches.

“Growing up when I did, you had banks every two or three blocks,” he says. “Today, you can drive for quite a while without seeing a bank branch, because we do more banking with ATMs and call centers. We were able to centralize a significant part of our business in much the same way, decreasing the number of our branches while increasing the number of services we provide to our temporary employees and customers by using automated systems, online service centers and call service centers.”

In a time of head-count reductions and major change, morale can trend downward in a company. However, those who survive the cutbacks and are willing to adapt to the organizational changes can actually become more productive in the short term. Camden relied on that uptick in production to help expedite the transition for Kelly Services.

“People get very focused very quickly on what it is going to take to survive and do well and keep the customers happy,” Camden says. “I think a time of extreme economic turbulence is a better time to make the changes we made because people put aside petty territoriality or the belief that we’ve always done it this way so we should always do it this way and get a lot more focused on what needs to be done right now.”

But you can only ride that wave for so long. Those who survive the cutbacks will initially exhibit relief that they’re still employed and a willingness to do whatever it takes to keep their jobs. In any time of upheaval, there will still be an element within the company that is resistant to change, and if those who were initially on board with the change don’t see a long-term point to what is going on, over time more and more of them will become skeptics, and then outright cynics. Some can’t stay with the company.

“Of course, there is going to be some resistance,” Camden says. “There always is. Any time you are asking someone to change the nature of their job, there is always resistance because people like things to stay the same. Every time you go through a big change, you’ll have, within the normal array of responses, some people who have to leave the company because they don’t want to do what is going to be required.

“Eventually, some of those people might come back because they figured it out and understand it,” he says. “But the notion that you can make everybody wholeheartedly embrace the change is not an effective notion because they don’t, they won’t and you waste a lot of time trying to convince the ones who don’t want to believe in what you are doing. You’re better off letting them leave, and maybe they’ll come back.”

Make change interactive

If your employees are going to see a long-term benefit to the changes you are making, you need to get them involved with the change. You need a culture in which their opinions are valued and mechanisms within the company that allow your employees to share their ideas and concerns.

Camden, as a general principle, doesn’t like business meetings. But as the recession tightened its grip, he held more meetings to begin facilitating discussions that helped improve the flow of information throughout the company. Out of those meetings, Camden and his leadership team developed and emphasized a policy to solicit input from throughout the organization, on all topics.

In any time of change, employees are going to be primarily concerned with the future of their jobs, and if they retain their positions, how their job description might be altered. But employees will also be concerned with what type of company they’re going to be working for in the future.

“That is why we really opened up the company and asked people to start sending us their ideas, big and small,” Camden says. “We received lots of great ideas, many perhaps not sweeping in nature, but all contributing to an ability to simultaneously reduce our expense ratio and build more capability.

“They were as small as ways to change the time that cleaning crews are working and as big as the types of travel we engage in, and how we might be able to hold meetings across different geographies in a manner other than face to face, using more electronic types of communication. Even as the economy starts to recover, I still see a strong desire for people to have more contact with each other, but while having fewer face-to-face meetings.”

One of the ways Camden has bridged the communication gap without herding all key members of the company into the same room is by using social media platforms. Kelly Services utilizes both external, public platforms, such as LinkedIn and Facebook, and custom-made internal platforms specific to the company’s needs. Camden says social media has not only increased his ability to get messages out to the entire company, it has also improved the ability of individuals to directly address another individual within the company, making communication more of a personal matter.

“The social media platforms really promote themselves,” Camden says. “I find that the over-50 and under-30 people are the two groups that are most quickly growing in the use of social media. They’re the ones who let all of their fellow employees know what is going on. With no promotion, it’s on a nice, rapid adoption curve inside the company. Personally, I find myself able to communicate with thousands of Kelly employees via social media platforms, whereas if I had engaged them via traditional hierarchical methods, I’d be communicating to a much smaller number of people, and probably using typical, boring speeches.”

Set the stage

If you are going to increase your accessibility via different communications platforms, you also have to remember that you are being watched, all the time. As the leader of the company, everyone else is going to take reaction cues from you in a time of uncertainty. If you are panicky, other will panic. If you are calm, others will remain calm. If you dodge questions, others will fill in the blanks, often with inaccurate information.

“Your tone matters,” Camden says. “People are listening to your tone as much as, if not more so, to what you are saying. Staying calm is not incongruent with having a sense of urgency. People are looking for whether you remain calm and have a perspective on how we’re going to find our way out of the situation.”

Along with that, as you pilot your company through the change, your people are going to be looking for indications that your words follow your actions. If you don’t adhere to the mission and core values of the company in your behavior and the decisions you make, you will add to the feeling of instability and damage your ability to achieve buy-in with your employees.

“They will be looking to see that you are not changing who you are just because of the financial contingencies of the moment,” Camden says. “You have to maintain a sense of real transparency, because people don’t want to be surprised. If they read about it in a magazine before you tell them what is going on, the result is going to really suck for you as a leader. You need to step up and be as transparent and quick in your communication as you can.”

The organizational change and communication strategies implemented by Camden and his leadership team have helped aid in Kelly Service’s recovery. The company posted $4.95 billion in 2010 revenue, up from $4.31 billion in 2009.

“In a crisis, one part of my job is to assure the investment community and the banking community, along with the customer community, that all was going to be fine, and not only that, it was going to get even better,” Camden says. “But the second part of my job has been internal. To send an internal message, a culture message, to make clear what it is we are migrating to so that the response to a crisis is seen not just as a reaction but rather a proactive opportunity to take steps toward a set of improvements. You want to focus everyone not just on where you are, but what you are evolving into, what you are in the process of becoming.”

How to reach: Kelly Services Inc., (248) 362-4444 or www.kellyservices.com

The Camden file

Born: Dover, Del.

Education: Bachelor’s degrees in psychology and communication, Southwest Baptist University, Bolivar, Mo.; master’s degrees in communication and clinical psychology, Central Missouri State University (now University of Central Missouri), Warrensburg, Mo.; doctorate degree in communication, The Ohio State University

Camden on soliciting critical feedback:

You keep around yourself unpleasant people who tell you that you are messing up. Actually, I'm kind of serious about that. I often tell HR that I am not going to promote somebody because they never disagree with me. You don't want to have people high up in the company who haven’t found at least one thing you're doing that is stupid. You have to have a group of people around you who are willing to challenge you.

Camden on tuning out negative news during the recession:

You can’t disassociate the two. What you have to make clear is how does what is happening in the outside-of-the-walls part of the world influence or link to what you do. To try and separate the two and say, "Don’t worry about the man behind the curtain."  Not many people are that great in compartmentalization.

You have to say, "This is how what we are doing affects us." I would say there are a whole lot of people out there who are desperate for jobs, and are looking to us to enable them to live the way they want to live. We have to step up our game to help those people find the ability to make a living. So I would disassociate myself from the realities of the economy, I would create a sense of urgency around it, in the sense of the good we can do in people's lives.