How Kim Yost used small wins to fashion a new direction for Art Van Furniture Featured

8:01pm EDT May 31, 2012
Kim Yost Kim Yost

The recession was going in the Dumpster.

No, not just figuratively — it was physically going to be thrown in the Dumpster.

On a windy day in the fall of 2009, Kim Yost, then the newly named CEO of Art Van Furniture Inc., carried a large sign bearing the word “recession” to a large waste disposal bin at the back of the main warehouse.

“I literally threw it in the Dumpster,” says Yost. “I then went back to the Dumpster several months later and threw the word ‘no’ into it.”

Yost did it because Art Van needed to get its momentum back. Like countless businesses across the country, the home furnishings retailer was sagging under the weight of the recession. Like countless businesses across southeast Michigan, Art Van’s problems were exacerbated by a local economy that wasn’t in great shape even before the recession. The faltering economy was compounding the crisis – acting as a refrigerator dropped on top the piano that Michigan businesses were already carrying on their backs.

When it is an arduous grind to merely slow the rate of damage, most business leaders are not just going to feel the result when looking at their balance sheets. They’re going to see it and hear it in the attitude of their employees.

Despite a decades-long reputation as one of the region’s and country’s leading home furnishings retailers, Art Van wasn’t immune to the recession’s effects, at the cash register, sales floor or the water cooler. It was up to Yost to make a series of bold moves to re-energize all 2,600 employees at Art Van, in spite of the economic environment in which the business was operating.

“We had to get the organization to go in a completely different direction,” Yost says. “The first thing we had to do was get our attitude completely to the point where we were no longer going to participate in the recession. I went out and publicly announced across the entire organization that the recession was over at Art Van, and we had to take our minds, our hearts and our business in a new direction.”

As Yost fashioned a new direction for Art Van, he kept one overarching belief in mind: small wins in the short term can generate big wins in the long term.

Seize the opportunity

Taking over as CEO in the October 2009, Yost was able to find a potential win simply by turning the page on his calendar. November means Thanksgiving, and Thanksgiving immediately precedes Black Friday and the Christmas shopping season.

“We immediately attacked the possibility of breaking an all-time company record for Black Friday sales in 2009,” Yost says.

Yost wanted to turn the Black Friday sales mark into a universal company goal. He wanted to create a companywide buzz around breaking the record. And, above all, he wanted his employees to leave the thunderclouds of the recession outside, bringing a sunny disposition inside the walls at every Art Van location.

“What we did were three things,” he says. “We started to act and perform as if the economy was terrific, as if we were back in the early 2000s. We developed our flier, our television campaign and the look of our stores to consistently resemble what we did in the early 2000s — say, the year 2001. From a marketing point of view, that was what we did when the economy was at its best.

“Second, we had a series of sales contests and sales promotions internally to encourage everybody to break the record. We were moving in a new direction, so we had to get that small win really early. The last thing we did was we created a game book. I have been playing sports since I was young, and I had a history in my professional career of creating game books that are unique. So we put together a Black Friday record-breaking game book for November 2009 and used that as our checklist.”

There were 32 steps the company needed to complete in order to break the record. Yost and his leadership team educated the work force on each step, what it would take to address each step and, in turn, break the sales record.

The methodical and comprehensive approach to staff motivation had the desired effect. Not only did Art Van’s associates focus on breaking the Black Friday sales record, they stepped up their game overall. Art Van broke the sales record, and the momentum from the campaign carried over to ensuing big-sale days.

“In November 2009, not only did we eclipse our company record, we did it again the day after Christmas, which is another very important sale date,” Yost says. “Then on New Year’s Day, which is another very big-event promotion for us, we broke another record. So by the time we had Black Friday, the day after Christmas and New Year’s Day, we were now creating momentum.”

After the rapid-fire success of the three sales events, the seeds for a long-term culture shift had been planted. It was up to Yost and his leadership team to feed and water the seeds until they started to sprout, then bloom, then bear fruit. Yost sent his team to all Art Van locations to recap the success of the campaign and illustrate a plan to sustain and increase the momentum moving forward.

“The leadership went out to all our stores and went through detailed discussions on how we were able to change the momentum,” Yost says. “We showed videos centered on inspiration and motivation, our tactics and strategies, we went over the success of the three promotions and what it took to do it. We literally spoke to every employee about what we were trying to accomplish.”

Write the book      

The information exchanged at the on-site meetings helped to produce the company’s first annual game book. The offspring of the game book used to launch the Black Friday sales campaign, Art Van’s first annual game book, “Clarity of Purpose,” took the motivational concepts used to spur the success of the sales campaign and extended it to motivate employees to accomplish the company’s goals for the whole year in 2010.

“In the three years that we have now been going in a different direction, we have produced three annual game books — one for 2010, one for 2011 and one for 2012,” Yost says. “Every single person in the organization was aligned behind the business plan. We re-enacted that same business plan for our 2011 game book, ‘The Next Level,’ and for 2012, which is called ‘Act Now.’ So we have made three separate roadmaps to success for each of the past three years.”

The game books for each year have been written by Art Van’s 16-member executive leadership team through a collaborative process. Each book outlines a series of specific initiatives that will receive the lion’s share of the company’s resources.

“We only have three resources that we can put into motion: time, money and effort,” Yost says. “Those key initiatives get all three of those resources for 12 months. We build on it, we communicate on it, we execute on it. But the focus has been that all 16 of us worked with collaboration to identify those key initiatives, and more importantly, to develop initiatives right throughout the organization, getting absolute alignment from stock room to board room, putting us all on the same path.”

Art Van has 2,600 direct employees, but once you factor in external support staff that also needs alignment on the vision and goals of the company — such as those who work for the company’s advertising agency, suppliers and key product providers — the number is closer to 3,000, according to Yost. That means the messages in Art Van’s annual game books have to reach a vast audience working at many different locations both inside and outside the company’s hierarchy.

“When you make the decision to park the recession in the Dumpster, as we did back in the fall of 2009, you make the decision to embark on a new course,” Yost says. “That means you have to get everybody marching alongside you. It takes a lot of heavy lifting, and a lot of triggering and communication, to get people to where they need to be.”

Yost and his team launched Art Van Television to help increase the profile of the company’s strategy. The in-house television network broadcasts in all Art Van locations, keeping employees updated on company events and promotions, and other information pertinent to the strategic direction of the company.

“We have over 100 50-inch flat-panel television screens all across our organization,” Yost says. “We are now able to broadcast all of our daily happenings to the organization in real time. Special events, activities, different promotions we are working on, the launch of our brand promise, which is a new program we just launched for our new brand initiative. All of that is communicated daily on AVTV. The screens are all throughout our corporate office, our distribution network and our 40 stores. All employees get exposed to it on a daily basis.”

Get interactive

Conveying your strategic plan and objectives comprises a large part of what it takes to point your company in a new direction. But it’s not the whole story. You need to give your employees a chance to have their say. If you don’t give your employees at all levels and locations a chance to voice their opinions and offer feedback, you can’t expect total engagement in the future direction of the organization.

When he began to fashion Art Van’s new direction in late 2009, Yost didn’t want to just physically prod his work force to sell more. He wanted to mentally stimulate them to think about how things could work better – how internal systems could improve, how new promotions could bring customers into the stores, how Yost and his leadership team could do their jobs more efficiently and effectively.

The answer for Yost wasn’t just about more sales and marketing muscle. It was about a better attitude and thousands of employees coming to work each day empowered to do their best work.

“If you’re going to aim your company in a new direction, you first need to capture the minds and hearts of your team,” he says. “That is why I literally needed to park the word ‘recession’ in the Dumpster. It was because we needed to change our vocabulary. We needed to get rid of words like ‘no’ and embrace change. And it’s all going to start with the leadership.”

As the leadership goes, so goes the rest of your company. You and your leadership team have to be the ones to set the example, develop the proper attitude, reach out to employees and keep the dialogue moving. If you don’t lead from the front, you can’t expect anyone else to step up and do it.

“We have a saying here that goes, ‘Speed of the leader, speed of the team, quality of the leader, quality of the team,’” Yost says. “We, here at Art Van and as leaders overall, get the team we deserve. As much as I’d like to give you the magic bullet that you can put to any business and it will miraculously start to improve, it is all about leadership. Every day, our leaders come to work inspired and motivated to take their teams to the next level.

“To have leadership that is motivated and inspired, you have to have them winning. When they are winning, it’s much easier to keep the momentum, and then you have to challenge them, every day, every week, every month. Another thing we say around here is ‘Winning isn’t everything, but wanting to is.’ There can be no complacency. You have to want to win every day.”

How to reach: Art Van Furniture Inc., (586) 939-0800 or www.artvan.com

The Yost file

Born: Red Deer, Alberta, Canada

Other projects: Yost is the author of “Pumptitude: Pump Up Your Attitude and Gain Altitude,” available at www.pumptitude.com.

Yost on managing growth: Speed wins, slow loses. But you have to have controlled and profitable growth, and each organization has a different ability to adapt. What I’ve found so terrific about our team is that this is a team of very fast and quick-adapting individuals. We have 91 leadership-level individuals, including sales managers and store managers. They enjoy the speed and the tempo.

But you can get to a point where you have to judge how much your team can absorb and execute to the degree of quality, and you have to pace yourself. This is a marathon, not a sprint. You do that by giving them achievable goals within short term ranges, and give them the ability to relish the success of that goal — maybe a bit of a breather — and then you get on to the next one.

If you are in dense enough forest, you have to give your team the ability to get a little bit of a clearing. They catch up, get organized and regroup, and make another little clearing. Then you let them catch up and regroup, and they hit the forest again, and so forth. So we have been very careful to watch our tempo and manage our speed, to manage out some of the things we have done to balance out the execution.

Yost on how the recession has changed the business world: I tend to refer to this recessionary time as the ‘brave new world.’ It is not going to go away even in the distant future, and we need to embrace the fact that it is here now and it exists, and so instead of going out of business, we need to go out for business. We have gained market share over the last three years consecutively, we have nine quarters of same-store sales increase, and nine quarters of consistent market share growth.