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Leading the charge Featured

7:00pm EDT January 26, 2009

The calendar could not have flipped to 2009 fast enough for Art Dauber.

Between the economy going in the tank and the recovery efforts from damage caused by Hurricane Ike, 2008 was not the best of times at American Electric Technologies Inc.

But you wouldn’t have known it by talking to Dauber, the company’s chairman, president and CEO. If he had any anxiety about whether his company would make it, he made sure his 500 employees couldn’t see it.

“You have to take the fear out of the crisis,” Dauber says.

Total sales at the provider of power delivery solutions were $55.7 million for 2007. That was up 22.6 percent over 2006 sales, and he anticipates another increase in 2008 sales.

Smart Business spoke with Dauber about how to get buyin from your employees, in both good times and bad.

Q. How do you earn the employee loyalty that will help you through a crisis?

You don’t have to be the first one to work, but you almost have to be the first one to work. You don’t have to be the last one to leave, but almost the last one to leave.

You can’t have any special things that you get that the other person doesn’t get. The benefits are the same, the cars are the same. There are no big expense accounts.

I go to their meetings and listen to both their business and personal problems. We all meet out in the hall about 11:30, and whoever goes to lunch, from vice president to hourly employee, we all go to lunch together.

On a social basis, it’s almost a flat organizational structure. There isn’t any, ‘You’re the president, I can’t do that.’

Live the life. You can’t have a story that is different from how you live. People will talk to other people. It’s much easier to tell people to be here at 8 in the morning when you show up at 7. It’s much easier to tell people an hour is enough for lunch when you take an hour for lunch.

I wouldn’t even accept a private parking spot. I get the best parking spots every day because I’m in early.

Q. When a crisis hits, how do you keep people calm?

Be fearless. People have to know that you are fully committed. In a military organization, when the captain says, ‘Follow me up the hill,’ you’re not sitting at the bottom of the hill saying, ‘Hey, tell me how things worked out.’

With Ike, I was here before the wind stopped blowing. I may be the leader, but I share the same values as they share, and they know they can count on me.

Be 100 percent truthful. I gave them an overall plan to how we’d respond, how we’d focus on the business and how we may have to change.

If they followed that plan, there weren’t a bunch of things they would have to worry about. You went from a bunch of concerned people before the meeting to people who were smiling when they left the meeting realizing that life would change a little bit, but they would survive.

Q. How does establishing that culture translate to the business?

Set the image of whatever it is you are trying to do. Entrepreneurs have to come up with a philosophy of how they want to be recognized and then operate in that mode.

Some may want to be the most creative engineers. Some may want to be the lowest cost supplier. However they want their company to be perceived, they have to live that, not just say it.

It’s how you make your decisions. We have a sense of fair play in how we conduct our businesses.

I have to make sure employees feel engaged and that there is no job that is more important than another one. I can show how any job we have will impact others if someone stops working it.

Make sure everybody understands that their contribution is important to the organization as a whole and how their contribution fits into the organization.

Q. How do you ensure that employees understand that?

I was a teacher at the University of Pennsylvania. My students had to be on their toes because they knew I was going to turn to somebody and ask a question. If they tuned out, they would be embarrassed. They all know it if they are in one of these meetings.

Let’s say we were talking about the financial crisis. I’ll turn to a guy and say, ‘Why don’t you give your experience about the 1980s?’

When any meeting I have is over, I will go around the table and, one at a time, ... ask for their opinions and ask if there is anything else to add. Make sure everybody has their say and that everybody stays awake.

If you get people focused on the right direction and they really care about what the company is doing, they can generate an enormous amount of positive energy to the success of the business.

HOW TO REACH: American Electric Technologies Inc., (713) 644-8182 or www.aeti.com