Spokes on a wheel Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2007

When you call Quality Plywood Specialties Inc., don’t expect to leave a voice mail. Michael A. Jankowski, president of the wholesale wood product distributor, doesn’t allow it. If you call before 8 p.m., a helpful employee will answer the phone. After 8 p.m., an answering service takes over, and you’ll receive a call back the next morning.

“You can call it the new way of doing business with voice mail, but the old way is that people want to talk to people,” Jankowski says. “They will deal with the companies that they can actually talk to somebody.”

Jankowski says providing exceptional customer service has helped him grow his 60-employee company to $23 million in annual revenue.

Smart Business spoke to Jankowski about why employees should understand their role in the company’s success.

Q: How do you empower and motivate employees?

You do that by forming a cohesive team, in terms of every employee being an equal part of a spoke on the wheel. Whether they’re a warehouse employee, a driver, a salesperson, a manager or an accountant, they have to feel as if they are equal spokes on a wheel. When they understand that — that their job is just as important as anybody else’s — they take on responsibility. That’s the empowerment, where they take responsibility for their actions rather than just being here and being a number.

Q: How do you make sure employees understand their role on the wheel?

We give them a lot of information. We don’t just say, ‘Here’s the end of the month totals — now we’re done.’ We analyze the month; we give them information they need to see how they directly impact the bottom line of the company.

If a driver has a good safety record and gets their deliveries out, they can directly correlate that with the revenue coming in, which, in turn, produces money for the company, which, in turn, puts money in their pocket. That’s an analogy for just one position. They understand the direction of the company.

Q: What has been your greatest challenge?

My greatest challenge has been to balance my personal life with a business life. I have a very supportive wife who has supported me through the growth of the company over the last 14 or 15 years. I have to balance my passion for business with my need to service my customers and employees with my personal

life. At times, my personal life gets short-changed. That’s my biggest challenge: To remember that I have a wife of 32 years, and I have to be there for her — not just be at work all the time.

Q: How do you create that balance?

First, you have to realize if you’re going to own a company, you have to spend the time that’s necessary to make it profitable. It’s not an 8 to 5 job. It’s whatever the business requires and whatever the customer requires.

If you’re not willing to do that or if you don’t have the support of your family structure — if you have a wife who says, ‘You can leave at 8 a.m. and come home at 5 p.m. — you’re not going to be successful, and you really shouldn’t get into owning a business. If you have the support from the home front, then the business end of it is going to be much easier.

Q: What have been your keys to success?

I’ve been in the industry since about 1975, and I’ve been involved in management and ownership since the early 1980s. Understanding the industry is the first key to success. If you understand what you want to get into, then your odds of success are greatly magnified over somebody who says, ‘That looks like a fun thing to get into, let’s try it.’

The second aspect of it, which is probably equally important, is the employees. Without the right employees in an organization, you’re going to fail. You can’t do it yourself as an owner. In most industries, it’s just not a one-man operation. If you’re going to expand, you have to have the right employees.

Q: How can a CEO become an industry expert?

If you’re going to get into an industry, you’d better work in that industry first. You’ve got to understand the ins and outs and idiosyncrasies of an industry before you decide to be an owner and start your own business. It’s like starting a restaurant. Sure we’ve all been to restaurants, but how many of us really understand how to run a restaurant?

If somebody wants to start a business, they should do everything they can to research that industry they want to get into and work in the industry. I think you need to work for some of your competitors before you can really understand how the industry works. Pay your dues.

HOW TO REACH: Quality Plywood Specialties Inc., (727) 572-0500 or www.qualityplywoodspec.com