Barry Shevlin is a straight-talker. If something’s going wrong at Network Liquidators, he’s not going to skirt around the issue. You won’t hear him elaborate about the difficulty of addressing a particular challenge or use flowery executive speechcraft he’s going to discuss the problem with the people involved, and then they’re going to find a solution.
Shevlin has built a business based on communication. Everyone is expected to report problems, but not without a possible solution. And everyone’s input has the same weight, no matter where they are on the corporate totem pole.
The 80-employee company, which sells computer network equipment, has experienced revenue growth of nearly 1,000 percent since 2002. Sales figures have doubled each year and are expected to reach $50 million in 2007.
Smart Business spoke with Shevlin, CEO of Network Liquidators, about how to improve communication in your company.
Q: What are the keys to a successful acquisition?
I hear people say all the time how important it is that the organizations have complementary cultures, and that the cultures are super-important in an acquisition being successful.
The key is really communication. You can overcome differences in culture with strong communication, not just at the company level, but in every department throughout the organizations that will be merging. You need to have them understand what things could change, and then you open up the floor for suggestions from them. That lets them be part of the process.
Q: How do you motivate people?
We motivate our employees in two ways. We feel everybody here is compensated pretty fairly, that’s always part of the equation. Also, the environment is enjoyable to work in. Working for a growing company is fun.
We take our open-door policy pretty seriously. You’ll hear us say a lot that we take no pride in authorship. You never know where the next good idea’s going to come from, so when we’re asking for everyone’s input, we mean it.
When someone brings us a problem, we ask them to bring us a suggested solution as well. It gets them to think a little bit differently, makes them become more of a part of the process that way.
Q: How do you benefit from that buy-in?
The best examples probably relate to the software that we use that runs the company. We’ve actually written our own operating system. It handles everything here from purchasing equipment, receiving equipment, inventory management, managing quotes, to sales orders. It’s a complete enterprise system.
Anytime someone brings us an operational issue, we want them to suggest a change to that platform that will help fix that problem or reduce the time it takes for a particular product or project. We’re typically releasing a new version of that software with some of those features on a weekly basis. So they can come to us with a suggestion today, and there’s a good chance they’ll find some type of written feature in our software in place in a week or two.
Getting them to think that way was the challenge. Eventually, you get people who realize if they bring us a problem or issue and also bring us a solution that there’s a high potential that that solution is going to become written into our software. That’s got to be gratifying on the individual level.
Q: How do you communicate your vision to employees?
Candidly, that’s not something I’ve been good at in the first couple years. Over the last year, I’ve made a real effort to improve that. It starts with having monthly companywide meetings that bring everybody up to speed on our direction and progress.
I’m never afraid to openly discuss problems and call them problems, so that everybody knows that we’re aware of them or addressing them. I always get a kick out of people always referring to things as challenges. People don’t fix challenges; people fix problems.
Q: How did you develop those skills?
I worked on it by making a commitment to have these meetings. It’s not something I’m willing to say, ‘I’ll get back to it next month’ because I’ve done that before.
I’ve been good about it over the last year, and I need to make sure I continue to do that. It’s just discipline.
Q: What pitfalls should a CEO avoid?
The first one is indecisiveness. Don’t be afraid to make a wrong decision it’s going to happen. Indecisiveness leads to procrastination, which can be very dangerous in today’s environment.
Things move at a quicker pace today than they did 10 or 20 years ago. We pride ourselves on being able to make decisions quickly. If we have to make another decision down the road to counter it, so be it.