This simple phrase encompasses Swisher’s approach to building and running a business, an approach that has helped United Feeds grow and prosper.
Swisher founded his feed sales company in 1956 with two employees and $25,000, borrowed from family members. Today, United Feeds not only sells hog feed, it also researches, produces and transports hog feed with the help of approximately 450 employees in nine feed mills, eight storage facilities and two research farms throughout the Midwest and Asia.
According to Swisher, he couldn’t have done any of it without his employees.
“I am unbelievably proud of the people we have in this company,” he says. “I really believe that I maybe only have one skill, and that skill has been able to sort of identify and procure and keep these individuals.”
That’s not an easy task. Simply finding the right people can be daunting, something Swisher has learned over the years through trial and error.
“One of the things I learned very quickly is that it is the people that make the difference,” he says. “I cut my teeth on hiring people that were capable of getting the job done and those that weren’t, and it became very obvious to me that I needed to hire the people that were the very best, and for specific tasks.”
Now during interviews, Swisher and his hiring managers look for the right skill sets.
“We have seven Ph.D. swine nutritionists, and this is a long way from where I started,” Swisher says. “I have a degree in agriculture with a major in animal nutrition, so I don’t mean that what they do is absolutely foreign to me, but at the same time, they have skills that I don’t have and are recognized for them. To tell you that we have the very best nutritionalists in the country I believe, is a fair statement.”
But to be successful at United Feeds, employees need more than just the right skills. They also need intangible qualities, things that don’t appear on a resume, such as honesty and integrity.
“And industry,” Swisher adds. “You’ve got to have somebody that’s a self-starter. The person that needs somebody to look over their shoulder to do a job really does not fit in with us, and he does not do well.
“We have been told that we have a flat organization, and it’s not as flat as it once was, but we do not have very many supervisors for the number of people that we have because we really rely on people to do their own jobs and do them without supervisors.”
Swisher understands that while he is interviewing a prospective employee, that person is also interviewing him, evaluating the company to see whether it’s a good fit. So he ensures that there are plenty of perks to attract the best employees, and one of the biggest is just as intangible as integrity and industry.
“In order to attract those people, you have to allow them to do their jobs,” Swisher says. “You have to allow them to be ethical. You cannot have an organization that has any intent of not being ethical. But it’s really that same thing absolutely all the way through the company, that people are proud of the fact that this is an honest, ethical company. I think that is critical. And [that has] led to success, allowing employees to use their skills to the fullest.”
Once it gets employees in the door, the company makes every effort to keep them happy. Swisher offers many of the traditional benefits, such as health insurance and a 401(k) plan, but he also offers less-common benefits.
For example, every employee, from the person running a mixer to the highest manager, reaps the benefits of the company’s success through an Employee Stock Ownership Program. And 170 employees in upper-level positions in management, research and sales have the option to purchase unlimited company stock above and beyond the ESOP.
In the beginning, Swisher says, the ESOP was a way to get people to join his business.
“When I started the company, I had two employees,” he says. “And when you think about it, here’s this guy and he’s got an idea and he’s going to start this company, saying, ‘Come to work for me but I don’t have any money.’ How would you like to put your wife and your child’s future in the hands of this person that has no money, right?
“So I basically said, ‘If you come with this company, I will give you part of the company.’ And I did. And then, as we grew, it just appeared to be a really great thing for anybody that came with us.”
The plan not only benefits employees financially, it motivates them in their jobs.
“To me, it gives people knowledge of the company, what’s going on in the company, everyone gets the financial sheet, everybody knows what we’re doing, how we’re doing it,” Swisher says. “We make great efforts to explain to everybody what our next steps are, what we’re planning on doing, what are our goals, what are our strategies. In their instance, they’re taking a look at this as how they benefit personally out of their stock or out of the ESOP.”
But despite the benefits, there is a drawback to offering an ESOP.
“[It] puts tremendous pressure on the management of this company,” says Swisher. “I’m not just risking my money. To be responsible and risk other people’s money is a whole different thing, and it’s much harder. You’re holding the future, the retirement of these people in your hands. But the other thing is, if you don’t take risks, that stock will not grow. And we need to grow at an average at least of the S&P 500 for this to be a good thing for those employees.”
So when Swisher wants to make a big decision or take a risk, no matter how calculated, he seeks advice from his employees.
“We have a board of directors that is comprised primarily of division heads of the company, and we have four divisions, and so we have those four heads, plus financial, to make up the board. But then in each division, we have people that we’re going to go to when we have to make a decision, particularly when it pertains to that division.”
Giving employees a voice in the company not only entices the right people to join United Feeds, it also encourages them to stay. In upper-level positions, the company’s turnover rate is less than 1 percent.
Swisher’s secret for keeping turnover so low? Just treating employees right.
“I really think just because of the way this company functions how it values the individuals and the people that we have selected, the 401(k), the stock value of the company, the atmosphere that is created in this organization that’s how we keep it down,” he says.
The downside to low turnover is that employees who have been on the job for 10 or 12 years may fall into a rut or become bored. To avoid that, Swisher works at keeping employees engaged and interested in what they’re doing and where the company is going.
“I think that for such a basic kind of an industry and you can’t hardly get any more basic than feeding animals we need to continue to reinvent ourselves,” he says. “I don’t care what industry anyone is involved in, it will continue to evolve. And my contention is that we have in the past and will continue to reinvent ourselves approximately every decade.”
And working toward the latest reinvention, United Feeds has entered into various joint ventures with research labs and universities, studying new enzymes and bacteria and how they may improve the company’s product.
“And with those joint ventures, one of the most interesting things about them is that they extend our intellectual capital,” Swisher says. “This one company [we’re working with] on the bacteria is formed, owned and run by two bacteriologists. And we don’t have any of those on our staff. So all of a sudden, now we have access to their knowledge and information that we did not have before. “This is how we have made this industry interesting to our employees, and I think it is also the fact that we continue to change and grow.”
No matter how the company changes, one thing will remain the same: Swisher will focus on his employees, because “a company is really a shell,” Swisher says, “a hollow shell until you put people in it. So it is the composition of those individuals that really make the company.” How to reach: United Feeds, http://www.unitedfeeds.com or (800) 328-9909