Finding alignment Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2009

When Gary Marowske bought back FLAME Heating, Cooling & Electrical, it was not the same company he left two years earlier.

In 1998, a utility company bought the company, founded by Marowske’s father, Robert. The purchase was part of a roll-up of three HVAC contractors.

But the new owners didn’t prune the three cultures.

“They just let everybody do what they wanted to do,” says Marowske, who was let go along with his father. “[When] I bought the company back, we still had three different cultures.”

So he reclaimed control to get the 60 employees back on the same page with a clear set of core values, which included traits like integrity, professionalism, safety and compassion.

“One of the first things you have to do is get everybody on the same bus,” says Marowske, now president of the company, which reported 2008 revenue of $9.3 million.

Smart Business spoke with Marowske about bringing your employees together under a consistent culture.

Articulate your values. [Your company values] depend on what the leader’s values are, because the leader’s values end up being the corporate values. If the leader doesn’t believe in them, he’s not going to live them.

Every leader of an organization has some kind of vision, whether it’s written down or in their head, as to where they want it to go and what they want it to look like. When they walk in their office in the morning, how do they want the surroundings to be? How do they want their customers to be treated? You can work from there.

It just starts with attitude from the top, setting examples and communicating with people, ‘Here’s what it’s going to be.’ The people at the top have to believe in them. If they got all these things and the owner comes in, says, ‘We want to do it this way, but I don’t really need to because I’m the boss,’ that’ll never work. That top person has to set an example, and he’s got to be unwavering in doing the right thing.

Live what you preach. We have a whole-company meeting every other month where everybody comes in and we give them a state of union. When we handed these core values out, we changed the way we do things. We bought a flag and we do the Pledge of Allegiance. When we started doing that, it really changed the tone of the way we’ve done our meetings.

We had little business-card-sized things, one side’s got our core values and the other side’s got our vision and mission and they’re laminated. And we’ve got big posters in key areas of our business. And then whenever we have a gathering of four or more of our employees, somebody reads the vision and the mission statement.

The more you share with the employees, the more you post it around your office or you communicate it and have it on whatever you’re doing, the better off you are.

You communicate those and you just start living them. You just have to act in your beliefs.

We were debating whether we should require our technicians to have a certain tool. We sat there and we looked at our core values. Does this it make us professional? Yeah. It shows we have integrity in the way we’re going to check and do service in our customers homes so we’re not just guessing. It increased safety. It made us a leader in the industry. It could make us more responsive.

So we take a look at each of the core values and say, ‘How does it match up? Does it help us?’ And that’s how we made a decision.

Squelch rumors that contradict your values. It took a long time with department meetings before they went from just being a gripe session to being productive, and people realized that management wasn’t the enemy. [It takes] constant communication.

You have to say, ‘Now, here’s the truth. Here’s what we’re doing.’ And then you have to make sure to set the example and ensure because some are still skeptical: ‘Yeah, they say they’re going to do this. They’re not going to do it.’ You have to make sure that the pendulum swings way over so everybody understands what you’re doing and that it’s going to happen.

We’ve divided our whole company into four teams without any managers. Every Wednesday, a different team meets with one person in charge of training. They just have an open discussion. Sometimes maybe somebody heard something and rumors get started. It’s a great way to squelch any rumors and get right down to the truth.

Get rid of skeptics. There’s a part in the movie, Patton, where the troops are all backed up and aircraft are coming down striking them with bullets. Patton’s in the back of his jeep and he says, ‘What’s the problem here?’ He drives up to the front, and there’s a gypsy with a mule blocking the bridge. They’re trying to coax the mule out of the way and all of a sudden he just pulls his pistols out, shoots the mule, and they push it over the bridge. All of a sudden, everything’s moving.

Sometimes you get that one person that doesn’t want to change and it causes you more problems. You need to shoot the mule. It also sets an example, too. The people say, ‘This really is going to happen. They really are serious about it.’

After a while, other people come and tell you, ‘So-and-so’s really not pulling their weight.’ They’re fine in the meeting, and then you hear later they’re out in the parking lot griping about everybody.

We had to shoot a couple mules. They just didn’t want to go with the flow. Finally I just walked in one day and I said, ‘You’re not part of the team. It’s time we parted ways.’

The problem is, you’ll never know [if they’d eventually buy in]. You can’t second-guess your judgments all the time.

The sooner you do it, the better. Everybody else knows who they are, and every day you wait, they lose more respect for you for not doing it.

How to reach: FLAME Heating, Cooling & Electrical, (888) 234-2340 or www.flamefurnace.com