Fuel for thought Featured

7:42am EDT August 30, 2006
When Kathy Lehne started a wholesale petroleum business at the age of 23, not many believed she would succeed. But Lehne’s company, Sun Coast Resources, has prospered under her leadership, and 21 years after she founded it, is nearing $1 billion in revenue.

Lehne started Sun Coast because the petroleum distributor she was working for closed its Houston office, and she didn’t want to leave her home state. And she knew the petroleum business and was determined to succeed on her own, no matter what her critics said.

“In 1985, the wholesale petroleum business was dominated by men,” says Lehne, president and CEO. “I’m sure I created quite a stir when I started Sun Coast back then, and I doubt very few thought I would be successful. My vision was to do the best I could, to give it 100 percent commitment, and I never permitted the possibility of failure to cloud my thinking.”

Although Lehne faced her share of challenges starting and growing the business, she learned as she went.

“There have been all sorts of challenges over the years,” says Lehne. “In the beginning, it was banking alliances and supplier credit lines — the life blood of any starting company. Securing adequate office space, meeting payroll and establishing the many internal functions of finance, accounting, operations, IT, sales credit, dispatch, safety and marketing were all new to me and offered a real challenge.”

Today, Lehne has overcome the challenges of a start-up and says that the keys to her long-term success are based on knowing how and when to delegate, excelling at customer service and communicating honestly and consistently with employees.

Know when to delegate
Lehne says that the most important thing she can do as a leader is simple: Just lead. And to be a good leader, you need to be able to take a step back from the company and look at it as a whole.

“Any leader needs to be able to communicate their vision and earn the respect of their staff,” says Lehne. “They must have control over their operations but be willing to delegate effectively while monitoring the progress of every business unit.”

The majority of Sun Coast’s management team has been with the company for years, many since the very beginning. Lehne says that these key people are a large part of her success, because she tells them her vision and goals for the organization and then trusts them to communicate her message to the employees under them.

“(Delegation) is the single most important factor in achieving success,” says Lehne. “Hiring professional, competent people with the skill sets and the temperament to get the job done and then giving them the authority to make it happen is critical to succeeding in this business.”

Lehne realizes that she can’t do everything herself and that it is in Sun Coast’s best interest for her to oversee everything but let her managers take charge of the daily operations. To ensure managers are competent and loyal, Lehne likes to hire people she knows.

Trusting someone she’s only spoken to a few times in an interview to run her business makes her uneasy. When you know someone outside of work, she says, you are more likely to get a true picture of that person because he or she is not trying to impress you.

But although Lehne has a lot of trust in the members of her management team and places a large amount of responsibility upon them, she says that leaders should never completely remove themselves from any aspect of the business. It is essential to hold employees accountable for what is going on in the company.

“Delegation without accountability ... can lead to disaster,” says Lehne, who holds managers accountable by setting goals for the organization.

If they don’t meet those goals, then they failed that task. By holding managers accountable, they, in turn, hold their employees accountable.

And since it is management’s job to oversee and evaluate employees, she leaves the hiring decisions up to them.

“I am intimately involved in the hiring decisions of our top managers, but for other positions, I leave it up to the discretion of each specific manager, since they are the ones that will ultimately be responsible for the results,” says Lehne.

Service the customer
Lehne says that one of thing that has set Sun Coast apart from the competition is customer service.

“My strategy has always been to figure out what prospects and customers wanted and to provide the products and services faster, cheaper and better than my competitors,” says Lehne. “Customer focus and superior service has been the primary reason for our success.”

Any company can excel at customer service if it is willing to put time and money into doing so. Lehne has put a lot of both into Sun Coast, and it is an investment that has served her well.

“Sun Coast has added the physical and human resources required to take service from ordinary to extraordinary,” says Lehne. “By offering on-time delivery service 24/7/365 and backing it up with an unconditional guarantee ... we have been very successful in attracting new business and retaining our existing accounts, as well.”

A large part of Lehne’s investment in customer service involves hiring enough employees and continuously training them so that they are up-to-date with the technical aspects of Sun Coast and its products, as well as with customer service skills. By having an adequate number of employees, Lehne ensures that her customers are being served around the clock.

“The company runs 24/7,” says Lehne. “Our trucks run 24/7. There are people here in the office 24/7. Salespeople are required to answer their phones 24/7. The same with department heads. So if a customer needs something, that’s all we’re about is delivering the product to the customer and making sure the customer is taken care of. That’s just what we do.”

Sales associates receive extensive, ongoing training to improve their customer service skills and are encouraged to attend educational programs on their own. Also, every employee is educated on what everyone else in the company does, which helps employees better service the customer because they know every aspect of the business.

Keep employees in the loop
Another secret to Lehne’s success is Sun Coast’s culture, which she says evolved over time and is a result of hiring people she knows or referrals from employees and openly communicating with them.

“Sun Coast’s culture is based on the belief that people are the key ingredient in our success,” says Lehne. “Moreover, our culture is based on mutual respect, teamwork and a strong sense of family.”

Lehne views her employees as her extended family, which she says creates a certain level of trust in the organization and creates a culture where people feel comfortable around one another. By having a family-like atmosphere where employees feel respected and appreciated, employees are much more likely to stay with Sun Coast and be motivated to work together to better the organization.

“Happy employees are productive employees, and you can’t force happy; they either are or they aren’t,” says Lehne.

To create and maintain a family-like atmosphere Lehne holds nothing back from her employees and informs them in a constant and consistent manner of what is going on in the company. That lets them know that they are valued and an important part of the company.

“Every company is no more successful than its parts — its human resources parts — and we understand that basic principle very well,” says Lehne. “Without a well-informed work force, employees will fill in the blanks themselves around the water cooler. This leads to rumor, speculation, misunderstanding and frustration. Communicating effectively and frequently just makes sense.”

To ensure that the communication is doing good, not harm, Lehne sends out a consistent message.

“If I give my staff conflicting signals or signs of weakness, it could have a negative impact on morale and results,” says Lehne. “I need to give a consistent message to all of my management team while establishing guidelines and goals for each one separately, as well.”

And that means making sure that all managers know the overall goals of the organization and how their role fits into it. It is then up to those managers to effectively communicate the goals of the organization to their employees and keep them on the right track.

“Communication must be positive and constructive, because we all make mistakes,” says Lehne. “Our goal is to eliminate costly errors and unproductive activity. And effective communication goes a long way in staying on the right track.”

Lehne makes it a point to stress to employees through verbal and written communication what is happening and to encourage questions and suggestions. She provides motivational seminars on a variety of personal and professional topics, noting that people have lives outside of work. If their personal lives are in order, it is more likely that their professional lives will fall into place, as well.

Finally, Lehne stresses that honesty is essential in building a good culture, as well as in succeeding in business in general. You can grow fast by being dishonest, but success won’t last without the trust and respect of those involved with the business.

“A leader must be able to earn the confidence of customers, employees, suppliers and business partners to really make things operate smoothly,” says Lehne. “I think by being honest and having integrity over the years we have developed that reputation. ... We treat our people right. We take care of our customers. We couldn’t be the size we are today without that.”

HOW TO REACH: Sun Coast Resources, (800) 677-3835 or www.suncoastresources.com