Adam Coffey is fond of comparing the company he took over more than seven years ago, WASH Multifamily Laundry Systems LLC, to a World War II battleship.
“It was a World War II battleship that went out to sea in 194,7 and it never came home,” Coffey says. “Over the 60 years it had been running, everything still worked. The teak decks were beautiful and the brass was as shiny as it was on day one.”
The problem Coffey saw was that under this shiny exterior, there was a company that was hopelessly behind the times.
“The infrastructure and technology, everything was outdated,” says Coffey, the 500-employee company’s president and CEO. “At that time, the company had around 60,000 locations that it conducted business in. They literally kept track of every one of those locations on 3-by-5 paper index cards.”
Coffey traced this lack of progress back to the laundry service company’s founding family. He praised them for building such a strong business based on core values and beliefs. But he looked at the family’s next generation of leadership and saw a lack of drive to bring the business into the 21st century.
And that was making it pretty tough for the company to grow its profits.
“Over the 10 years prior to my arrival, revenue had grown by about $75 million to $80 million over what it had been,” Coffey says. “So they added about $80 million of revenue, but they weren’t making one more dime in profit.”
Coffey wanted to change that. But he had been recruited to the company and so he didn’t want to come in and cast aside all the history and heritage that the business had been built upon over the past 60 years.
“We wanted to modernize it, drive change, but at the same time, embrace the best parts of our culture without destroying it,” Coffey says. “We wanted to keep the uniqueness of the firm that it had had in being a larger family-owned and operated business where everybody felt like they were the piece of some gigantic puzzle and were respected and listened to and cared for.”
Set the right tone
Coffey didn’t know a lot about WASH when he joined the company and that was a good thing.
“The best part of being an outsider for me was I was a blank canvas,” Coffey says. “I had no preconceived notions about what I was going to find at the company. I knew they provided coin- and card-operated laundry equipment to apartment communities with common-area laundry rooms. I knew they did a lot of service calls. I knew they collected a lot of quarters.”
He also learned pretty quickly that the company was a bit behind in its technology. Beyond that, he was a novice. And that was the way he liked it.
Because it was going to make his trip to the company’s 28 markets across the country a whole lot more interesting.
“I carried around a banner with me as I went from city to city,” Coffey says. “Every time I conducted a meeting, I had the employees sign my banner with a permanent marker.”
The banner idea was a hit with employees, but these meetings weren’t just for show. Coffey wanted to get to know the people in this company he was now leading and learn from them what it would take to get it moving forward again.
So before he headed out on his tour, he composed not an e-mail, but a letter that he wrote and mailed to each and every one of his employees. He introduced himself and explained that he was going to be visiting their location. He referenced the company’s history and explained that he wanted to help and not hinder their efforts. And he closed the letter by explaining how important their feedback was to him.
“What you have to say is going to be heard and it’s going to be listened to,” Coffey wrote in the letter. “It doesn’t mean that everything you say is going to be adopted. But I’m going to be a sponge and you’re going to teach me about this company.”
Coffey wanted employees to have complete assurance that it wasn’t going to be his way or the highway when it came to making changes in the business.
“I knew some of the executives I had exposure to early in my career didn’t listen,” Coffey says. “They didn’t know the real world. There was a disconnect and they were out of touch. So I tried to add the personal touch. I tried to let them know, ‘Hey, I’ve walked in your shoes. I’ve understood your challenges and you’re going to help me effect change in this organization.’”
As he arrived at each location, Coffey did indeed take the time to meet with employees at all levels on the organizational chart.
“I spent time in each of the major job classifications that existed in the company,” Coffey says. “So I was out riding with the service techs. I was out collecting from machines with collectors. I was working in the plant with the people who do the refurbish work. I was traveling with the sales team. I talked to the people about their jobs. I observed the processes that they followed and the things that they did. I asked them about their challenges. I talked about their desires and their future plans and what they thought about how they could improve and modernize their business.”
What he began to see was that the people out in the field had become severely disconnected from the corporate office.
“What I found was people in the trenches were thirsty for leadership,” Coffey says. “It’s far more important to be a better leader than it is to be a better manager. I can surround myself with people who are smart. I can hire people who know the latest methodologies for managing a piece of the process or a business. But I can’t necessarily get all my employees to follow me unless I get out there and inspire them.”
If you’re not inspiring your employees and you’re not being clear with them about what they should be doing, they are wasting their time and your time.
“If you’re not communicating with them, they are expending energy every day and they are expending it in different directions,” Coffey says. “They may be doing what they think is right. They may be doing what they’ve been told by local leadership or management. But they are all expending energy. The job of a leader is to harness all of that energy and get it to move in unison like a flock of birds or a school of fish.”
Build a solution
As Coffey met with his people and got to know them, he tried to isolate themes. He wanted to note the things he was hearing or seeing over and over again.
“When I watch someone do a job and they tell me and I only hear it once, I’ll tend to discount it,” Coffey says. “But when I hear it 10 times from 10 different people, I start to see a trend.”
The wooden boxes containing index cards in company trucks were definitely a trend.
“They pull the first card out,” Coffey says. “‘Oh, I have to go here.’ They go there and they write on the back of it, ‘Joe was here on this date.’ They stick it at the end of the card catalog and they pick out the next card. ‘Oh, here’s where I’m going next.’ When you look at that over time with 60,000 plus locations, you’re losing business during the year, you’re gaining new businesses. Where do you take out this card? Where do you put in that card? How do you do that when you’re a human?”
Coffey knew that technology was the answer. He knew that GPS and electronic routing systems would make the work of his employees infinitely easier. But he still refused to take the approach of mandating anything when it came to change.
“I could have walked in and said, ‘You know what, this is the product we’re using,’ Coffey says. “But going to an enterprisewide system is one hell of a huge task and undertaking for my company. So what I wanted was buy-in from key constituents. We brought in all the manufacturers. I let the team decide what the best product or solution was for our company.”
The result was employees picked the same solution that Coffey would have selected. But because they worked through the process and came to a conclusion on their own, it earned a whole lot more support than if it had been a mandate.
“Assemble a team,” Coffey says. “Get some key stakeholders and bring some people in and present the problem. Let them be part of the solution. Then instead of one person selling this solution, I wind up with a dozen people selling this solution. They are part of it, they own it and they go back and become my local champions of change.”
Don’t fear change
If you want change to be embraced in your business, you can’t fear it and you can’t let your people fear it.
“There’s one myth that I’ll bring up that I’d like to dispel,” Coffey says. “Ideal organizations are stable and orderly. That is so far from the truth, it’s not even funny. A progressive company that is managing change and constantly working to improve itself is hardly ever stable and orderly. There will be growing pains. You have to communicate what the expectations are.”
You have to explain to people why you’re pursuing change and how the changes are going to help your people do their jobs more effectively. And if you’re the one that fears change and is holding back your business, you need to get over it.
“Don’t be content,” Coffey says. “If it weren’t for seeking change and looking for other opportunities and pushing the envelope and taking a risk now and then, I’m not a successful CEO. Force yourself to get outside your own comfort level and work hard to push yourself to achieve even more.”
The big things you change garner a lot of attention. But you take the time to talk to people and get to know them so that you can address the small things too and build an organization that is truly effective from top to bottom.
“You get your ’57 Chevy, you don’t paint it before you do the body work,” Coffey says. “You don’t do the interior while the frame is still being grinded on. There has to be some type of methodical approach. You have to recognize the totality of the job and then break it down into pieces that are appropriate and then break it down into the order that is appropriate.”
It’s that approach that had Coffey feeling perfectly comfortable when he arrived on board at the company with very little knowledge of the business. He had no fear of the unknown and that put him in a great position to learn from his people.
“A lot of times, executives can become closed off from the people in the trenches,” Coffey says. “It’s unfortunate when that happens. But when it does, you lose touch with what is the reality? What is the customer’s reality? What is the employee’s reality? What’s going on day to day in all of these jobs that are being performed by people in the organization?
“When I saw a job classification, I saw people. I knew what those people did for a living. I understood what their challenges were. It gave me a bigger sense of reality very quickly to where I could assess what the challenges were that we faced.”
Coffey’s efforts and energy are paying off. After growing by only 1 percent in the three years before his arrival, the company has grown 32 percent in the past three years and earned a profit of 9 percent in 2010 alone with revenue of $231 million.
“Good ideas come from everywhere in the organization,” Coffey says. “You need to create a culture where that person at the bottom of the line can have an idea and it can be a good one and it doesn’t have to be owned by you.”
How to reach: WASH Multifamily Laundry Systems LLC, (800) 421-6897 or www.washlaundry.com
The Coffey File
Born: Chicago. I grew up in southeast Michigan.
Education: La Salle University, Philadelphia
Coffey’s path to success: I left home at 17 and went into the service. I cobbled together a business degree over time. I was in the U.S. Army for four years. I was a radar repairman and I worked in missile defense systems and radar stations.
At General Electric, I started off as an engineer and then crossed over to business after I finished a degree program through General Electric at the famous [John F. Welch Leadership Development Center] in Crotonville, N.Y., which was a great place to learn to run a business. I learned public speaking. It was Jack Welch and his speech writer who taught the class.
What one person in history would you like to meet and why?
The one person I’d want to sit down with is Jesus Christ. In the entire world, no matter what your religious beliefs are, no one disputes the man lived and no one disputes the man made an impact on mankind as a whole. I would like to learn from the man. Why am I here? What is my purpose?
If you want to talk business people, I have been fortunate to sit down with a lot of the country’s leading business people. What I tend to find is that CEOs and presidents are inside of everybody. There is no special boy’s club or girl’s club that you need to belong to to become president.
Some people get there through an Ivy League education and work their way up. Some people tend to work their way up from the bottom as I did. There’s no reason anybody out there can’t become a CEO or a successful person.