All in the family Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2008

Craig Weatherwax was the class clown in high school, and he continues to use his sense of humor to create a fun family atmosphere at Oceanside Photo and Telescope Inc.

“I do a lot of hands-on, on-the-floor experience with my employees,” says the owner, president and CEO of the $17 million, 22-employee retail camera, telescope, binocular and microscope company. “We try to keep it on a first-name, friendly basis. There’s a lot of kidding and joking that goes on. It makes it fun to go to work.”

Smart Business spoke with Weatherwax about how to create a feeling of family among your employees.

Q. How do you create a fun team environment?

Lead from the top. We try to evaluate everybody as a group, reinforce how departments are doing as a whole and make employees understand that we’re all in this together.

It’s the, ‘This is a marathon, not a sprint’ concept. You can’t get hung up on the bad days, but understand that in the long run, it’s all going to work out.

If your employees see that you take a personal interest in the growth of the business and that you like it and like being with them, that’s something you can’t instill in somebody; it has to come from the heart.

Q. How do you model that culture?

It’s not contrived; it comes naturally. You can tell if people are happy with what they’re doing, and it’s important that people are happy at work. I try to express that and let them make fun of me because you’ve got to give as well as take.

You can’t belittle employees or think less of them. They’re human beings, they have feelings, and you have to be aware of that. A happy employee is a good employee.

Q. What are the benefits of a fun work environment?

Everybody pulls for everybody else. You have your sibling rivalries a little bit like you do in a family, but it’s all done in fun. The family relationship allows people to help others with product knowledge or with how to handle a certain situation as opposed to being competitive and cutthroat.

Q. What are the keys to being a hands-on leader?

A lot of what you do as a leader is to set the tone for the workday. If you’re having a bad day, you maintain that within yourself and exude a feeling of confidence and patience. You can make a good day better or a bad day worse just by how you handle situations and problems.

Q. How do you get better at being confident and patient?

Look at the big picture. Some people get hung up on the specifics of a particular event and fail to look at the big picture. It comes with time.

If you take a step back and focus on the business as a whole as opposed to the specific incident that’s happening, it makes it much simpler to try to have that patience and exude that confidence.

Q. How do you balance being a hands-on leader and knowing when and how to delegate?

Experience. Evaluate each individual situation. Surrounding yourself with good people is important; there’s no substitute for a good staff. Sometimes, you rely on them more than you ever know.

Don’t lose sight of the big picture, and never put yourself too far above the rest of the people because you’re all working toward the same end goal. A lot of people think that you can go into business,

create a business model, and that’s as far as it goes, but being able to be there on a day-to-day basis allows you to make the kind of changes that you need. You can’t sit in a big office and expect things to work smoothly.

Communication is the most important thing you can do to be able to understand and listen to your employees and the people in the chain of command. Listening is an under-rated talent. A lot of people forget that the people down below have a better understanding of what makes your business grow and be successful.

You have to have an open mind to be able to understand and listen to what they have to say. Having preconceived ideas might hinder your ability to listen effectively. If you listen to them with an open mind, it makes a huge difference.

Q. What are the benefits of listening to employees and having open communication?

It helps you understand the building blocks of the business and allows you the ability to change. Many businesses get static in their growth potential because they don’t listen. The employees then, because they’re working with the customer on a day-to-day basis, have a better understanding of what the customer wants, and what the customer wants is going to make your company grow and change in today’s environment of constant change.

HOW TO REACH: Oceanside Photo and Telescope Inc., (800) 483-6287 or www.optcorp.com