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Building chemistry Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2008

Bill Mays was confident he had the necessary skills to be a successful business owner. And when he founded Mays Chemical Co. Inc. in March 1980, his wife, Rose, was standing right there beside him to offer her support.

But it’s the ability to garner support from the people that you want to work for you and the community that you call home that can make the difference between success and failure.

“You reach out, and you take a chance,” says Mays, who serves as chairman, president and CEO. “It’s selling yourself and selling your company and selling what someone wants to buy.”

It’s also making clear that just because you started the company and hold the top position in the organization, you were not blessed with all the right answers to make it work.

“I want to listen to your thoughts and ideas and discuss these,” Mays says. “I want other managers to listen and pay attention. Employees respect that. We don’t have all the answers. We’ve been reasonably successful, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some ideas or some ways in which things can be done better. You have to keep the dialogue open.”

For example, it was through this open communication that Mays learned that many of his employees did not carry life insurance outside the company.

“We said one of the things we’ll do is raise the minimum level of insurance so that it’s three times salary up to some amount so at least the family of these employees know this is a benefit they can get if they ever should have to use it,” Mays says. “It’s a two-way street. You have to look out for employees just like they are looking out for the company. They have to see some benefit to going the extra mile versus, ‘It’s just a job, and I’m working from 8 to 5.”

This philosophy of collaborative leadership has helped Mays Chemical grow from a one-man operation that hit $1 million in sales in its first year to $100 million in sales in 1995 and $165 million in 2007. The 167-employee specialty chemical company serves customers in the food, pharmaceutical, beverage and automotive industries.

While generating money is obviously a primary goal to grow the business, it’s just as important that you continue to hone your skills for attracting and retaining excellent employees.

“You develop a reputation that treats employees fairly, gives them opportunities and compensates them in a reasonable fashion,” Mays says. “We’re not going to put the Fortune 100 out of business. But we can, as a small business, certainly provide an atmosphere where employees feel wanted and empowered.”

Do more than just listen

The best way to empower employees is to be a good listener and consider their point of view, both when they bring you problems and when they come with new ideas.

“The employee needs to feel that they are going to be able to learn and grow and develop and that their decisions and activities are going to enhance their growth,” Mays says. “What I try to do is empower my senior management and all the employees to say, ‘Hey, if you do your job right and we all do our jobs, then we’ll continue to grow, and you’ll be able to develop and grow and have more responsibility.’

“I have people in the warehouse that come in and say, ‘What if we did this differently?’ or, ‘Why don’t we have trucks that come at certain times?’” Mays says. “I’ll say, ‘That doesn’t sound too bad. Let’s ask the warehouse supervisor why we don’t do it this way.’ Maybe there is a good reason. Then again, maybe there isn’t.”

It seems simple, but the act of taking a walk to get a firsthand look at the situation your employee is describing can make a big difference.

“Being sympathetic and willing to take actions like that, they look at senior management at Mays as being approachable,” he says. “It’s the interaction with the employee base that makes the difference. It’s not just coming into my office and shutting the door, and you don’t see me until I want something or something goes wrong. I walk through the warehouse and look at what’s going on. I ask them, ‘Why is this?’ or, ‘Can we do this better? Are you guys up to date? Are we getting loads out?’ It’s those kinds of things.”

The regular interaction helped clue Mays into the gradual change in acceptable workplace attire.

“Interacting with them, I know them by name, and I go out and make comments about what they are wearing today,” Mays says. “We moved from where we were pretty sticky on coat and tie to where today’s environment is that just is not what happens. Today, it’s be neat, be clean. If that means it’s jeans, OK, have the jeans clean and pressed.”

You also need to be a good listener when your employees bring you problems that fall outside of company business.

“There are different degrees of problems and situations,” Mays says. “People go through divorces. People have personal kinds of tragedies in their lives. It’s not just when you’re dealing with it from a business perspective. But it’s from a human perspective.”

Mays says his employees are free to take care of personal issues that come up in the course of a day or week without fear of being looked at negatively by the company.

“If somebody needs to take a kid to the doctor or needs to have time off to attend a school conference, we don’t make a big deal out of that,” Mays says. “We just say, ‘Hey, get the work done.’ If that means you come in on Saturday or stay later than normal hours, so be it. We don’t get employees taking undue advantage of that flexibility.”

When you show your employees you really care about their well-being, they are likely to return the sentiment.

“We send cards to our employees as they celebrate their anniversary,” Mays says. “I personally sit down with a group of them when they complete two years, five years, 10 years. Take them to dinner; say, ‘This is your time. Talk to me. Whatever you want to say, it’s just us here.’ They feel like, ‘Hey, he didn’t have to do that.’ All of that contributes to the atmosphere and sincerity when other senior managers do the same kind of thing.”

Always be looking

One of the best ways to ensure that you get top people to come work at your company is to always be looking for new hires, whether you have an immediate need or not.

“I keep four to five business cards with me all the time,” Mays says. “You look for them in places you wouldn’t expect to find them. We just hired one that graduated in December that was a direct result of a talk I made at Bloomington last year. We made a job offer, and he’ll start in the next couple weeks. Be responsive when approached. You never know when the opportunity or

a vacancy might occur.”

Mays referred to a young female employee who suddenly had to leave the company because her husband took a job in Texas.

“It’s something that 90 days ago, that wasn’t even an opening,” Mays says. “She wasn’t unhappy. It was her spouse that was getting this opportunity.”

If you’re always looking for people, when those unexpected situations arise, you’ll be in a better position to respond.

When you bring candidates in for an interview, make sure they talk to several of the people for whom they’ll be working.

“It’s not just my opinion, but there are five or six others that are involved in that process,” Mays says. “The future employee has to impress all of them or most of them or else he’s not going to get the nod.

“You get different perspectives. Like I’m biased about certain things; there are certain things that I have been exposed to. Somebody from the liberal arts area may have been exposed to a different set of circumstances and may see a different quality that I may have missed. There are always four or five different interviewers for an employee.”

Once the best candidate is identified and brought on board, get him or her with an experienced employee who can show him or her the ropes.

“It’s a two-way street,” Mays says. “They get a chance to not only take pride in helping an employee, they develop friendships and they get to see other characteristics that they might consider appropriate for friendship outside the company.”

Those bonds can ultimately come back to help the company. “People tend to look out for each other,” Mays says. “If someone is ill or sick today, other employees will step up and do that work and say, ‘Hey, I’ll take care of this. I’ll stay a little longer. You go on home and pick up the kid.’ I’ve seen that happen time and time again.”

Show your human side

Success in business is not always just about finding ways to generate more revenue or figuring out how to sell more widgets from one year to the next. If you want enduring growth and a culture to support it, you need to be mindful of your place in the community you call home.

“Develop relationships in the financial community,” Mays says. “Develop relationships in the education community. It’s not always what I say, but it’s what other folks say about me and the company. Whether it’s Indiana University, where I have three degrees, or whether it’s from some other institution or charity, we underestimate the benefit of doing public service.”

Mays says his company gets many more requests for charitable support than he can accommodate, but he still responds to each and every request.

“Obviously, we can’t make financial contributions to every good cause out there,” Mays says. “We indicate, ‘We’re sorry, we can’t do this at this point, but perhaps next year.’

We’ll get back responses that say, ‘I really thank you for considering this request. We send out so many, and we never hear back.’”

Encourage your employees to support the community through toy collections or book drives or another charity that has special meaning to them. Promote group activities to help them feel like they are part of a family at your company.

“We give turkeys out on Thanksgiving,” Mays says. “No big deal, but it was amazing how many e-mails I got thanking me for that little gesture. It didn’t cost the company an arm and a leg to do that. And they didn’t have to take it. They could donate it to charities and several did.”

The proof that Mays is doing it the right way is reflected in the number of employees who will step up during off hours to make sure the job gets done.

“We have employees that will actually come in on Saturday or Sunday to get a shipment out or to get something ready or get paperwork ready,” Mays says.

“We pay them a little bit for that, but there are other organizations that, in fact, would love to have the conscientiousness of an employee that says, ‘Hey, it’s very important that the company looks good and that we get this shipment out. It’s job security for me because if we don’t do this and we lose this customer, I could be out of a job.’

“It’s instilling the fact that it’s a team effort, and the more successful the company is, the more benefit for everybody on the team.”

HOW TO REACH: Mays Chemical Co. Inc., (317) 842-8722 or www.mayschem.com