When a major workers’ compensation insurance provider pulledout of Florida, George Bushong made some shrewd moves to protect his professional employer organization, AdministrativeConcepts Corp., from going out of business
In fact, the moves paid off so well, they created a whole differentkind of problem astronomical growth.
Because so many PEOs closed in Florida after the loss of workers’ compensation insurance, ACC gained customers from thecompanies that shut down.
From 2001 to 2002, ACC grew from $54 million to $104 million inrevenue, then climbed to $128 million in 2003 and $176 million in2004.
“That put a tremendous amount of pressure on us internally,”says Bushong, who serves as chairman. “We were in chaos for acouple of months. We had a tremendous amount of growth in ajust a short period of time. Quite frankly, we didn’t handle it well.
“We did the best we could, and we tried to keep the service levelas high as we could keep it, but we were falling short in a numberof areas. There was a wealth of people that had worked in leasingcompanies who were now out of business, and we were able topick up some of those people and it started to ease the pain.”
Now at more than $300 million, Bushong says the company’sgrowth would have stalled long ago without delegating responsibilities and building a culture of communication.
Here’s how Bushong distributed power and used an open cultureto manage his high-growth company.
In order to grow the company to $100 million, Bushong knew hewould have to delegate some of his responsibilities.
“That becomes obvious as you reach that level,” he says. “Youcannot possibly be hands-on in every area of the company likemy wife [Sarah Peel, who serves as president] and I were thefirst three or four years.”
Bushong said there wasn’t an exact moment when he realized heneeded to delegate more, but he started to notice he and two othervital employees became overwhelmed with the daily operationsand began to see the need for help.
“There was the three of us all shell-shocked working 12 to 14hours a day, and we were desperately looking for people to fillsome of these positions,” he says.
Bushong said he knew whom he could trust to delegate tothrough trial and error. He would delegate a number of responsibilities and see how much the person could handle. Those thatcould handle a heavy workload showed they bought in to the company’s growth strategy, allowing the employee to move up theranks.
“You have to allow people to do as much as they can do,” he says.“I think that the perfect scenario is, if you are overwhelmed, is tooverwhelm somebody else, and then sort out what you have totake away from them to make it bearable.
“That scenario can create a little bit of confusion for a few weeks,but it also gives a person a good idea of what they can do if theyhave to. It gives you an idea of just how far that person can go andwhat it is going to take to get them to the next step.”
While Bushong believes in pushing great workers to the limitto see what they are made of, it’s important that you keep an eye on them to know when they’ve become overwhelmed.
“Really good people will overwhelm themselves if you turn themloose on a job because they want to do as much as they can tokeep pushing themselves,” he says.
“I happen to be from Kentucky, so I know about horses. A thor-oughbred the reason it is a thoroughbred is because it will literally run itself to death. If those tracks were 10 miles instead ofone and a quarter, all horses would be dead by the time the raceis over.
“The thoroughbred human being will also run itself to the edge.It is up to a manager to be able to pull it back before the heartattack or nervous breakdown. But also, let a person expend themselves to the point where they realize what they can do.”
Bushong allowed the maximum amount of leeway he couldwhen it came to employee mistakes during growth, realizing errorsmight occur on a more consistent basis when a person’s workloadincreased from newly delegated responsibilities. In addition, it’shard to find experienced employees in his industry.
“If somebody has been with you a couple of years, we would goway over the line, be it personal problems, absenteeism, whatever the problem might be, we would go way, way over the line,” hesays. “But, there was a line that it just could not continue. But wewere not quick to get rid of people, nor are we today.”
Bushong says if he didn’t delegate responsibilities, the companywould have stalled way short of its potential.
“We would have been stuck at $50 million or $60 million and,every time we grew above that, if I was still doing everythingmyself, we would lose customers off the end because of the service model,” he says. “It certainly wouldn’t be anything like it wastoday. I don’t think we would have gone much past where we wereat $50 million or $60 million dollars.”
Walk, talk and listen
Because Bushong pushed employees to their limits, it was important he established a culture where workers could communicate ifthey became overwhelmed.
“The people that failed here were the people who wouldn’t askfor help,” he says. “They became overwhelmed and tried to hidethe overwhelmed mistake and would not ask for help. It gets to thepoint where a person just walks out the door, and they don’t wantto talk to you again because they don’t want to face you with someof the mistakes they have been making. There was always theopportunity to say, ‘I need help.’”
To build a culture where employees communicate with management, you need to keep in touch with employees by walkingaround and asking questions.
“I am, by nature, a communicator,” he says. “Some managers arenot. If a person is not, it is difficult to breed the kind of culture wehave here. It is painful for some people to just stop and say, ‘Hello’to an employee they don’t know well. You get friends in the company, but a lot of times the management is so aloof that the people,the ground troops if you will, that make the business run are sointimidated it is hard to develop any kind of rapport.
“I’ve also made myself available and was willing to hire any kindof help that was needed. I was willing to take work off people andplace it other places. But it was up to the employee to communicate.”
To maximize the benefits of communication, you can’t simply beseen around the office asking questions, but you must actually listen to the answers.
“Our office for years and years was casual,” he says. “I still like tothink it is, and I still know everyone in the building. I am not abovewalking back to our payroll department and seeing a girl that lookslike she is wired up and asking her, ‘You look like you are overwhelmed, are you having a bad day?’ It may be something personal, and they will talk to you about that, and that’s fine. Or, it may besomething that has to do with work and something we want tohear. It’s all about communication.”
Proving to employees you are listening will also establish a flexible company that can drive change as well as help retain employees by allowing them to advance in the organization.
For example, if an employee in the payroll department wanted to move into the finance department because he or she felthis or her skills were a better fit there, then the employeeknows, because of the culture, that it is an opti on.
“People here understood we were quick to listen to themabout moving,” he says. “There has been a lot of shuffling.People here are comfortable with the idea that could happenand people need to broach it if they are interested, or we wouldbroach it if we thought the skill set would fit someplace better.”
Bushong says any time you have communication, it is goingto benefit growth. “Everything that builds morale and makespeople feel comfortable in that company contributes togrowth,” he says. “More importantly, it contributes to a company I like to be in. I love to walk through this company andsay ‘hi’ to every person in it.”
The open communication and the company’s environmenthave set Bushong up for the future. He recently hired TeresaDick as CEO, which he called his single greatest act of delegation. Bushong says the two will have their differences, but heis going to get out of the way and let her do her job. Dick saysshe sees great potential for growth because of the foundationalready in place at the company.
“The culture that George and Sarah built where there wasopen communication, and everyone did believe they had to bea voice to make us successful is just a reality,” Dick says. “WhatI wanted to do when I first came in was to fine-tune whatGeorge and Sarah put in place. Everyone was motivated, had aheightened sense of excitement and wanted the company togrow, but there was a need for structure, as far as consistency,processes and policies to look long term.
“We have the intent to grow, but we needed to take a deepbreath and make sure the foundation was very firm so that,when we start with the aggressive growth that we want, as wegrow into new markets, we are ready for the growth. That’swhere a lot of PEOs have made the mistake they want togrow too fast and haven’t stopped to make sure they can.”
While ACC may be taking a breath, Bushong says he seesplenty of growth ahead using the basic tools and methods thatdrove the company to where it is today.
“This is a billion-dollar company waiting to happen, and wehave a five-year plan to do that,” he says.
HOW TO REACH: Administrative Concepts Corp., (941) 744-1317 or www.accpeo.com