Growing pains Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2007

Many business leaders believe that growth problems are good problems to have. But for Brian Oken, that doesn’t make the problems any less substantial.

“Businesses go through cycles,” says Oken, president and CEO of Ventura Transfer Co., a bulk handling and transportation company. “We’re having a lot of fun, and we’re doing a lot of things really well, but we have grown considerably over the past couple years, and we’re feeling that.”

Oken says with increased volume, the standards of performance VTC has set for itself — especially those regarding customer service — are being challenged. With annual revenue of about $18 million and growing, he adds that while maintaining simplicity is important, solving new problems means creating new solutions, and that requires employees who are willing and able to grow along with the company.

Smart Business spoke with Oken about the perks of being a trusting leader and the importance of employee feedback.

Q: How would you describe your leadership style?

Trusting. I like my people to pursue their own agendas while staying in touch with the company’s vision and strategic plan. In order to do that, you’ve got to trust them. Sometimes they hang themselves, and sometimes they become real heroes, but you’ve got to give them that latitude. You can’t constrain them, and I try to push that through the organization. We’re a company that lives by standards of trying to be a great place to work. Talk is cheap, and it’s much harder than it appears, but at the foundation of that is trust and respect.

Q: How do you build trust and what are the benefits?

Integrity and credibility are everything. Right now are challenging times for us. Our business has had very good growth over the past two or three years, and it’s definitely strained our capabilities and our managers’ typical ways of doing things.

At times, that credibility has been challenged. To be able to fall back on, ‘I’ve never lied to you, I’ve never deceived you, I would never manipulate you, you might not like what you hear’; you have to have that credibility, and we try to push that through the organization.

We’re in business for profits. Whether you’re a private company or a public company, you’re looking for a return for your shareholders, and you’re always looking for incremental improvement and to make sure you’re still a healthy, dynamic organization. All these things are done for two reasons: One is because they’re our core values and our beliefs, and they also generate return. Our customers are happier, our team members are happier, and our financial performance reflects that.

Q: How do you communicate your vision to your team?

We’re a private company that has full disclosure among our people, so when we go through the planning process, our financials are keeping score. Are we winning the game, are we losing the game, or are we just treading water? When we have a planning session, everybody is invited, and everybody knows what’s at stake.

After the planning meeting, during which the plan is developed and approved by the board, every month, we have my direct reports sit in front of a room. Imagine a classroom, and they’re all sitting by the chalkboard, and we fire at them the objectives of the plan, and it’s up to them to demonstrate results. This is the one time we’re very firm about, ‘We’re not interested in hearing about effort. What have you given our customers that they didn’t have 30 days ago?’

Q: How much feedback do you get during that process?

To be honest, I wish I got more. In business today, there is a feeling among many employees that they’re afraid to ask questions, afraid to bring up thoughts or observations because they feel like they’re going to come across as being stupid or seem like they’re not in touch. I really respect the people who stand up and say, ‘I have a question,’ and bring forth some insight.

You have one person who is providing the vision, then you have the executive team, and then you have all these other people. All these other people are the guts of the business. Their brains are full of ideas. They have tremendous insights and observations on what’s going on with our business and our customers, and most companies don’t solicit that. We really try to solicit that. We try to bring it to the surface, and I wish that we had more.

We have the traditional suggestion boxes and anonymous e-mails, but more than anything, I’m trying to be around them and trying to get them to give me their insights, whether it’s in traditional meetings or just in general conversation. The questions I get are great. They’re usually far better than anything I can anticipate.

HOW TO REACH: Ventura Transfer Co., (310) 549-1660 or