Steve Burns Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2007
Steve Burns and his team came up with a five-year plan for Wheaton Van Lines Inc. to reach $95 million in revenue by 2007, but the plan was way off the mark. Instead, Burns, chairman, president and CEO of the moving company, watched as the moving needs of the military pushed the government affairs end of his business into a boom, and Wheaton hit that goal in 2005. Suddenly, Burns’ job was to reorganize the company plans to keep symmetry in all of his departments while restructuring goals at the $170 million company. Smart Business talked with Burns about balancing growth and listening to employees.

Balance the structure to grow. Our business is made up primarily of several different groups, and at a meeting, I tell the executive committee that in order to go forward, we need to keep a good balance between those.

And then I give the high-water marks of where I want each of those to be. Then I let them then discuss the formula for balancing each section of growth, and we make our goals from that.

We don’t want to become too reliant on one section of business. Over the last few years, the group that’s grown the most is military, so we had to revise our goals and understand that’s a little bit larger segment, but we have to be mindful of growing the others.

You never want to stifle one section of business because something else is successful. We just keep saying, ‘Let’s get a little bit more in balance here.’ We never want to cut back; we want to work on growing the other segments faster.

We let our executives feel individually responsible to figure out how to keep that balance. One of the things we do is have quarterly checks to see how we’re doing on that balance.

We give each department head the independence to make the decisions how to get that job done. When you have the right to make those decisions and are held accountable by the other groups, that makes them want to come to work and they have a participatory interest in the company.

There is some competition that comes with that. It’s never to the detriment of the team, but I want them to be able to set the pace, and brag and say, ‘Gosh, look at me,’ a little bit.

Update the plan before adding new people. At the end of every year and the beginning of the next, we revise our five-year plan. Once we do that, we have each of the vice presidents go to their managers and say, ‘What will be needed to reach these goals?’ Then we can add people or do other things to match those results. Then they can come back and indicate that, ‘We have this need for more people because of this new goal.’ And they can indicate what these people will do and give us a solid job description.

Have a cup of coffee with employees. We have a once-a-month ‘coffee with the chairman’ meeting where I get up and tell them what’s going on and take questions. It’s something that they look forward to, and I do, too.

We acknowledge birthdays and anniversaries, we talk about new developments in the industry, and I let them know where I’m going to be in the next month and if we have anybody coming into town.

Then we acknowledge recent superior performance and then I open it up to questions. And I also ask my vice presidents and others to also stand up and give presentations on recent moves.

It gives everyone a chance to see what they’re a part of so they don’t come to work and just say, ‘We’re just going to do whatever Steve tells us to do.’ We have a suggestion box that they can put ideas in, and I answer those at that time.

I give them answers right there. I tell them, ‘We’ll look at this, or this is my answer for right now.’ I deal with all of them so everyone knows what I’m thinking and what we’re planning.

Really listen. I think the ability to truly listen is the most important quality. You have to convey to whatever group you’re speaking with that you’re listening and you don’t have some preconceived notion of how you’re going to answer them.

And once you’ve listened to their side of the story, give direction or feedback. Let them know if what they’ve said is acceptable or not, and then listen again. I always make eye contact with them. I reassure them that I will replay back to them what they told me.

I always ask follow-up questions, and if we end the meeting and something has to be decided, I get back to them in the time I tell them that I’m going to.

Lighten up. I think the hardest thing is probably not to take yourself too seriously; there are some ramifications to that. One is if you put yourself on a pedestal, you start to think that just because you have been successful that you can take everything for granted, or that you have all the right answers.

Success breeds success, but it can also breed complacency. Humor to me is a great release. There are people around the office that I go and just talk to and joke with, and you can ask them what they’re hearing. And when you have that ,it allows people to be a little more open and to bring up new things and they know they can do that without retribution.

The other thing that is important is that you have to admit your mistakes. I’m very free to admit that decisions are made that didn’t have the results we anticipated, and I’m sorry for that result, and we’ll move on. Be willing to adapt to that mistake.

In conversations with people I tell them, ‘If you don’t think my idea is right, let me know.’ And usually what I like to do is let everybody speak first, listen to their ideas and oversee the discussion rather than me leading the discussion and telling them, ‘These are the ideas we’re using.’

HOW TO REACH: Wheaton Van Lines Inc., (800) 932-7799 or