Fresh start Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2009

When Bill Wilkinson bought GreenLeaf in 1993, the produce distributor was wilting fast. One of the previous owners had died, and the company hadn’t been the same since. Service was poor, customers were leaving and GreenLeaf was on the verge of bankruptcy.

And Wilkinson, recently retired after a successful career in the hotel industry, wanted a new project.

“I insisted on the high standards GreenLeaf had and put those back in place,” he says.

“We made it perfectly clear to people around that they could trust us. We didn’t have much in the way of a management team. But the people who were going to be running the produce business now, they had to be honest and straightforward — no monkey business — disciplined into doing what was right.”

Wilkinson’s focus on rebuilding GreenLeaf has resulted in healthy revenue growth — from about $4 million in 1993 to $54 million today.

Smart Business spoke with Wilkinson about how to add an air of professionalism to your business and why investing in your employees pays dividends.

Communicate constantly. Do it, and do it often. We talk on a regular basis. We have leadership meetings on a regular basis where we discuss all kinds of issues that come up and how we’re going to handle them.

Our leadership meetings are every Monday at 1 p.m. Our general manager chairs the meeting. All the things we have going on are reviewed and voted on. The various department managers report on where they technically are on things. The other various department managers report on how training is going with their employees. So everybody knows what’s going on.

If somebody is stuck, the employees who are reporting to them get together and then discuss the issues. Then they solve the problem. There is very little mystery in any of these businesses.

Train your work force. Any training is good training. We do a lot of training — both with management staff and with all the staff at different levels.

When I started with GreenLeaf, everything was done by hand. We began to build on the needs of the company, and you’ve got to have computer skills. So we’d bring people in and have formal teaching methods to help people pick up the skills.

We have a book club. Employees, the managers take a book and they will all read a chapter of it. One of the employees, the managers will lead a discussion about what they learned that week in the book.

They make recommendations themselves. For example, our general manager went off to Stanford for a course. He came back and reported on how he was trained and what he learned at Stanford. It takes them and builds their skills, builds their self-confidence. It opens their minds to a different way of doing things.

They discuss it in relation to their work, and they basically wind up living it.

Be a coach. We build incentives in jobs, so they get paid for performance. So they can do quite well in their jobs, and there is performance accountability at all levels. So they know they can get paid well.

You have the mechanics of evaluating productivity and measuring that kind of thing, so we can judge performance that way. It’s just accountability and management. If they’re not performing, the numbers show it.

If we have an employee who is stuck, who isn’t performing, we help them. We coach them. Most people want to do a good job, and they want to be associated with people who do a good job. At the same time, you want to be compassionate and understanding.

You find yourself with employees who don’t know what to do, so they avoid the doing. In that case, you just sit down with them. You don’t reprimand them; you coach them. You treat everybody like they want to do a good job, because people do want to do a good job.

You have to coach them privately. Give them a hand, then ask them what they may be having a problem with. Say they don’t know how to buy a truck. So you sit down and work with them and say, ‘Well, you get bids and make sure they’re the same. You check the references,’ and things like that. And they learn.

If people who get a new job don’t do well, then we coach them. If that coaching doesn’t work, we replace them.

Create an enjoyable workplace. Employees should be treated nicely. If there is a problem at GreenLeaf, they will get an airing and a decision will be made. If, indeed, something has been done unfairly, it will be undone and done fairly.

I used to walk around and know all employees on a regular basis. I don’t know them as well as I used to. But they understand they’re going to be treated fairly, and they expect it. If not, they are going to say something about it and we’re going to get it sorted out. You bring in their supervisor and you’ve got to take them aside and say, ‘Listen, I don’t know how you worked at the last place you worked, but here we don’t treat people that way.’

When you start in the produce business, you’re working on a cold loading dock or in a refrigerator in the middle of the night. It’s not glamorous work. Even the employees who are working in the refrigerator, they’re treated very well. It makes it a positive, cheerful place to work.

How to reach: GreenLeaf, (415) 647-2991 or