It’s not everyday that the founders of a company go around and make employees ice cream sundaes. However, that’s exactly what Bob and Marcie Zlotnik did for their employees at StarTex Power, an energy reseller. The co-founders got an ice cream cart and bought supplies for sundaes and served employees decadent treats at their desks.
The Zlotnik’s strive for StarTex Power to be one of the best energy service providers in the industry and to do that, they focus on a corporate culture that fosters employees who enjoy what they do and provide great customer service.
“One of our philosophies is that in order to be a superior customer service company, you have to have superior employees,” says Marcie Zlotnik, chairman and co-founder. “In order to have superior employees, you really have to have an environment that fosters a great working culture.”
By focusing on a corporate culture that gives back to employees and promises to deliver energy service without surprises, the company saw annual revenue of $407 million in 2010.
“When we started, we were focused on customer service,” says Bob Zlotnik, president, CEO and co-founder. “In our industry, there is a lot of competition. We decided to sell by doing people right.”
That business model has helped the company achieve rapid growth since being founded in 2004.
Here’s how the Zlotnik’s use a strong corporate culture to grow StarTex Power.
Define your culture
Privy to the fact that numerous energy resellers don’t tell their customers everything they need to know or everything that they are being charged for, Bob and Marcie decided that they would deliver exactly what they promised.
“Energy is a very complex product and there’s a lot of different ways you can present it and a lot of different ways you can sell it,” Bob says. “We’ve always taken the view that we weren’t going to surprise our customers. So when they entered into an agreement with us, they got what they thought they got. With some of our competitors, they didn’t necessarily get what they thought they were going to get.”
That focus on service translated into creating a corporate culture that employees found helpful to their jobs.
“The key is corporate culture,” Marcie says. “I think that’s really where it starts. If you don’t have a place where people want to come to work, where they want to do their best, your end product will not be the best. Without the best product, in the end you won’t be successful.”
Part of offering the best product is being able to deliver things to a customer that the customer actually values and things they can’t get anywhere else.
“We’ve always compared ourselves to Southwest Airlines,” Bob says. “They take a lot of pride in their corporate culture and how they treat their customers and employees. They are running a lot of ads about bags fly free, no change fees, and we started thinking, ‘We need to do some of those same things.’”
Offering products or services that the competition isn’t is a good start, but you have to make sure that your employees enjoy the work you have for them. If employees don’t think they are contributing to something worthwhile, they won’t do their best and your company will suffer.
“You want to make sure you have employees that have passion,” Marcie says. “It’s not about paying people the most amount of money. Certainly as a start-up you can’t do that. It’s about really caring about people. The more you trust people, the more they want to do well for you.”
You have to set an example and show that you value your employees at all levels.
“You need to understand that it’s not about you,” she says. “It’s really about the people and your employees. As you build your employees and you show them what success is, they want to do that. They want to follow the lead. You’ve got to do whatever it takes.”
As you develop employees and hire new ones from varying backgrounds, you have to make sure each and every employee understands the culture within the organization.
“When we see those employees coming from other companies, they’re very much trained to not go outside their department, to not talk to people that are more senior and we are really insistent about breaking down those types of barriers,” she says. “That creates inefficiency. If you want to go talk to a senior manager with a good idea, go, don’t stop, do it.”
Defining your corporate culture is critical for success. You have to show employees that your company cares about them.
“People have to feel that their ideas are welcome, that they can have a long-term track to success and that they are truly part of the company,” Marcie says.
Creating a corporate culture that empowers employees and contributes positively to your company will only work if you put in the effort to make it work.
“It’s really the ideas and the time and effort that’s put in that people appreciate,” Bob says. “It’s really not the money. Marcie and her group in HR, a lot of what they do is the thought and effort that I think people appreciate.”
Thought and effort can go a long way toward building a strong team and developing the results you want to see in your company.
“To me it’s the little things that you do,” Marcie says. “It took a lot of hard work to not just develop a corporate culture, but to feed it and make sure it continues.”
Once you find a culture that works best for your company and your employees, you have to work continuously to keep it.
“The key is when you try to create that culture, you can’t back down from it,” Bob says. “For instance, there was some debate on whether to have a TV in the break room, but the promise was made, so we have a TV set being installed in the break room.”
Part of keeping a corporate culture alive is making sure that it stays consistent with everything your company does.
“You know when you walk in the office and the culture feels different,” Marcie says. “You can’t get away from it. It’s about being vigilant.”
Bob and Marcie give their employees much more than just a TV to watch. They implemented an employee stock-option program to give employees a bigger incentive to do well. They also make the work environment fun and rewarding by putting on different competitions, activities and programs.
“Most people say when they walk in the office that it looks so much fun and so lively,” Marcie says. “When we were smaller, we had a company scavenger hunt. When we hit a certain mark we put a $100 bill on everybody’s desk. Just outside of my office we have a wall and…when employees have been here for six months…I ask that they take a star and they decorate it to reflect their personality. It shows how we are all individuals that make up the company.”
From personalized decorations to scavenger hunts, ice cream parties, and various friendly competitions, the employees at StarTex Power work hard and play hard.
“You’ve got to be flexible,” Marcie says. “The way that Bob and I came out of work and the work environment that we were raised in is not going to work with today’s group. If you’re not flexible, you’re going to wake up one day and realize, ‘Why are we not communicating with our employees?’”
To keep in touch with their employees and to make sure that everyone in the company is staying happy, StarTex Power administers surveys and does research to gauge what employees are feeling.
“It turns out that the Gen Y group is a different group,” Marcie says. “I read any article I can find on Gen Y and from what I have researched, I found out Gen Y likes team competition and peer recognition. So what we have done is tailored our rewards. That’s how we determine the different things that we do by researching. You don’t know what you don’t know unless you seek guidance from those that do know.”
You have to make use of the resources available to you today. Read articles about other businesses and their practices and look online to see what experts are saying about corporate culture and today’s work environment.
“There was a recent Fortune magazine that talked about the best places to work,” she says. “I pulled that and read every one of them to see what new ideas there are. You have to read. Read about best-places-to-work companies and see what they are doing.
“If you don’t ask, you’re never going to find out. Don’t be afraid to ask, throw things out there. There is so much information and so many companies that are on the forefront of a strong corporate culture that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. But it certainly is about reading and you’ve got to embrace it.”
That research and application of their findings has given StarTex Power recognition and won them awards for being one of the best places to work.
“When you do that, you start getting third-party validation,” she says. “In an industry with so many competitors, people are kind of looking for that. By being a Better Business Bureau Pinnacle award winner, by being a J.D. Power award winner, it really gives the customer the feeling that, ‘Hey, I may not of heard of this company’s name, but they have a great reputation and they do right by their customers and their employees.’”
Make employees comfortable
No matter how effective your corporate culture is at providing your employees with an enjoyable work environment, a CEO must make a commitment to get to know his or her employees and make sure they are getting what they need.
“You have to listen,” Marcie says. “You have to develop a relationship where people feel comfortable telling you the good and the bad, where there’s open communication and where you’re flexible.”
It’s easy to overlook the impact that a conversation with an employee can have. You have to connect with your employees.
“It’s being a person,” she says. “It’s being able to walk around the office and saying hello to people. Know as many people’s names as you can.”
You have to be visible and available to employees in order to create a relationship and make them feel comfortable coming to you.
“It’s going and pulling up a chair next to them and sitting down and talking with them,” she says. “I don’t think people see us coming down the hall and say, ‘Oh my God, the bosses are coming.’ If they have something to say they are comfortable talking.”
If you can open up to employees and speak with them on a personal level, it can make a huge difference in the work environment.
“You’re not any better than they are and you’re not any worse than they are, you’re just like they are,” Bob says. “Don’t expect things from them that you don’t expect from yourself. I show them that I’m a nice guy and I think that they believe that I have concern for them and if people view that you’re concerned about them, I think they feel open that you’ll try to help them.”
Getting to know your employees also means getting to know their jobs and what it is they do to help the business.
“The other thing is that we know their business, we know what they are doing,” Marcie says. “If you can go by somebody’s desk and see what they’re doing and be able to say, ‘Hey, have you tried this?’ You get a lot of respect out of that. Bob and I are here to make our employees look good. It’s not about me winning. I’d rather turn around and make it feel like they won. That’s how you develop a good corporate culture.”
HOW TO REACH: StarTex Power, 713-357-2800, or www.startexpower.com
The Zlotnik File
Co-founder, president and CEO
Co-founder and Chairman
Born: Marcie – Montreal, Quebec; Bob – El Campo, Texas
Education: Both attended the University of Texas at Austin. They both received BA’s in accounting and Bob has an MBA in finance.
What was your first job and what did it teach you?
Bob – My first job was working for my dad at a family business. I cleaned the bathrooms and mopped the floors. I learned that there was a lot of benefit to owning your own business but there is also a whole lot of hard work. And I knew that I didn’t want to spend my life cleaning the commode.
Marcie – My first job was as a day camp counselor. I took away from that that you can do an average job but you don’t get anything out of it. You don’t have to sign up to be the coordinator of the play or a swim counselor, but that’s how you get the passion is by doing those other things.
What is the best business advice you have ever received?
Marcie – You’ve got to know your business.
Bob – Even when things are going bad, you have to stick to your principles.
What is your favorite or most fun event that you have done for your employees?
Marcie – My favorite was the scavenger hunt. I didn’t tell people what we were doing. I told them to bring jackets, bathing suits and I even told them we were going to a concert one day so they wouldn’t catch on. We got limos to take them around the city to do a scavenger hunt. All the departments were mixed up and people had so much fun.
Bob – My favorite was serving the ice cream because I think it took the employees by surprise to see us making sundaes.