Customer-driven Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2008

Terrie Gilligan manages what she calls “the Ritz-Carlton of paving companies.”

While her $20 million asphalt paving and maintenance business seems worlds away from the luxury hotel chain, Gilligan says her focus on customer service is just as big of a priority as it is to Ritz-Carlton.

The owner, president and CEO of Parking Area Maintenance Inc. instills that philosophy in her 100 employees, touting the idea that a good reputation can help a company sustain sales, even in a down economy.

“It’s so important that your employees realize they’re representing you,” Gilligan says. “When our customers contract with us, they know our employees will be professional.”

Smart Business spoke with Gilligan about how to instill a sense of “ownership thinking” in your employees.

Q. What does it take to grow a successful company?

The employees of the company are so important. You can go out and buy all the metal you want, but if you don’t have the key people in place to operate the company, it doesn’t matter.

Another key thing is our core values. We live by our core values every day. If you were out on a job site, and you were to ask one of our employees, they should know what they are.

Q. How did you communicate that to your employees?

We have quarterly meetings where we get together with all the employees, and last fall, we implemented ownership thinking.

Ownership thinking means it’s not just me having to worry about everything. It’s letting everybody in the company worry about everything. I used to take everything on myself, and now, we share all the information and all of the responsibilities.

We actually opened up our books to all the employees, and they were put on a bonus plan as to how we do in 2008. It’s a flat incentive across the board, down to the field laborers. We’re projecting it to be about $3,500 per employee.

Q. How did you implement this ownership thinking?

We’ve always shared information with everybody. One of our core values is teamwork, and another is continuous improvement, so it was a no-brainer for us to go ahead and implement this.

We sat down with our employees, explained it to everybody and compared it to their mortgages and their checkbooks. We said, ‘This is the way a profit-and-loss statement works, and this is the way a balance sheet works.’ Everybody really embraced it.

We explained the company’s financials for the last five years and where we wanted to go with the company. I had another meeting where we touched on the economy and said, ‘We all have to look at these things because we have to be competitive.’ The response was great.

Q. How did you get employee buy-in?

I felt if my employees were out in the field or if they were on the executive team, they deserved the same amount because everybody’s contributing to this.

About 50 percent of our field employees are Hispanic, and they said, ‘We’ve always thought we were owners.’ We brought in an interpreter to help us implement this, and those employees were so excited about it and still are.

If you share the information with your employees, they take it upon themselves to look out for the company as a whole.

Q. How has that benefited your company?

Everybody’s looking out for everything. For example, I have lunch with our employees of the month. Through those lunches, they’ve told me about waste within the company. One of them went to pick up a bolt for a piece of equipment and never realized it cost that much.

We also have a suggestion box in our break room. Our HR director checks it once a week, and we get eight to 10 suggestions a month. We respond to them on whether we implemented it or why we couldn’t implement it. They need to know that you saw the suggestion, and that you’ve given it consideration. If you don’t do that, they will think it has gone upon deaf ears.

As long as you give employees the kind of environment where they feel their suggestions are welcome, you will get ideas from them that you didn’t even think about — even down to the toilet paper we buy for our office or equipment we really don’t need. For the last six months, it’s saved us from laying off individuals because we’ve been able to cut costs in other areas.

Q. How can other companies grow through ownership thinking?

Case studies say it’s not about compensation; the two top things employees look for are being included in things and being recognized. ... It’s got to be in your culture and in your core values.

If you don’t take care of your clients, by giving them not just value-added services but extraordinary service, I don’t think that you can grow a company. And, if you don’t treat your employees well, they’re not going to treat your clients well.

HOW TO REACH: Parking Area Maintenance Inc., (813) 880-9400 or