Focusing on the long haul Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2009

A year ago, as the nation’s economic backslide began to pick up speed, AmeriQuest Transportation Services was a company that had just about everything in order. The provider of fleet management services, which generated $500 million in sales last year, was nearly on pace to meet its sales plan.

“We were just a little behind our plan, and we were also building some new products and offerings,” says Doug Clark, the company’s founder, president and CEO.

Taken at face value, AmeriQuest seemed to be positioned well for an economic downturn. But when Clark reviewed the company’s strategy with his management team, they became concerned that they were looking at the future with a magnifying glass instead of binoculars. Short-term gains would mean nothing if the long-term health of the company wasn’t secure.

Clark and his team soon found themselves at a crossroads.

“The question we had as a team was whether we should continue to invest in these products and offerings, or do we stop and therefore (affect) our ability to make plan,” Clark says. “In the end, everybody took the long view, and we came to a consensus that we should be investing in the people necessary to make our company have better offerings and more strategic offerings.”

The decision to focus on long-term goals ultimately cost AmeriQuest a chance to make plan. But as the calendar pages turned, it became clear to Clark that the long-term move was the right move.

“Our team took the long view, they were hurt in the short term because they did not make plan and our bonuses weren’t what they usually are,” he says. “But it was absolutely the correct thing to do, because we started to reap the benefits in the first quarter of this year. Everybody hung in there, did more with less and kept their eyes on that long view.”

Over the past year, Clark’s challenge has been to maintain that long-range view and build it into the culture at AmeriQuest, while maintaining a realistic outlook for his employees as the daily news reports continue to bombard everyone with economic horror stories.

Build a sturdy stool

The culture at AmeriQuest is supported by a four-legged stool: transparency, collaboration, trust and confidence. They’re four principles you need to cement in the minds of your people during prosperous times, so that they’ll have the right mindset during trying times.

“Transparency and collaboration build trust among the working group, and through those three endeavors, everybody has a high degree of confidence,” Clark says. “With that resulting confidence, you will come into work with the attitude that we will persevere and we will win.”

Construction of that organizational stool needs to begin in your office, with the help of your management team. You need to decide how you want to communicate and also model the values that you want your employees to embrace.

“You have to start at the top,” Clark says. “I’d like to believe that the people who work with me in this organization truly believe that there are no hidden agendas, that there is nothing being kept from them and we are transparent. Ultimately, the culture is embedded by doing what you say you are going to do, and that keeps filtering down through the organization. The management team builds collaboration by ensuring that there are not walls being built between divisions, and that helps build trust.”

At AmeriQuest, transparency and collaboration are enabled through a great deal of in-person contact between top management and the employees in the field. The company has four offices: the headquarters in Cherry Hill, N.J., and additional offices in the Chicago area, McLean, Va., and Coral Springs, Fla., in addition to sales staff dispersed throughout the country. Clark and his management team maintain consistent contact with the other offices either by logging air miles or getting on the phone. But maintaining open lines of communication is the key.

“It’s particularly challenging when you’re not all in one place,” he says. “But we spend a lot of time on conference calls or in face-to-face meetings just trying to accomplish what we set out to accomplish. We’re a fast-moving organization, so we need that constant communication among us.”

It can be tempting to look for an easy solution to communicating, particularly in the current economic climate, when there is so much else you could concern yourself with. But Clark says now, more than ever, is the time when your people need to see you and hear from you.

There is no way around it: Promoting and maintaining your cultural principles is going to involve a lot of hard work from many different people.

“There is no one silver bullet for this,” Clark says. “It’s blocking and tackling to maintain the culture. It doesn’t come from books or once-a-year meetings where you tell everyone that this is the culture you’re going to have. It’s every day, you have to live it and adhere to it. And if you’re not adhering to it as part of the team, you should be called out on it.”

Part of communicating is modeling the right behavior. In tough financial times, when sales might be lagging and customers are hesitant, it can become easy for people to begin playing the blame game when a sale falls through or an account dries up. That is a recipe for cultural disaster. To build a collaborative culture, you need to set an example, from the top, that demonstrates a willingness to shed light on internal conflicts.

“If there is a dispute, I don’t take one person’s word for it,” Clark says. “I bring everyone who is affected into the decision circle. Everybody knows that. They know that if they have a complaint about someone or something, we’re not going to whisper down the lane. We’re going to address it and meet it head on.

“The other part to that is I try not to let things linger. If there is an issue out there, if it is a morale issue or a financial issue, we try to explain where we are and why we’re doing what we are doing. We want to communicate our reasoning with everyone. They might not end up agreeing with it, but at least they know the reasons why we’re going down a particular avenue. It’s all about continual reinforcement through your actions and words. That is how a culture is created and sustained from the top.”

Be a realistic cheerleader

With negative economic news seemingly at the top of every news broadcast and on the front page of every newspaper business section, you might feel like you’re swimming upstream in the fight to salvage your employees’ collective morale.

Swimming against the current might not always represent the best course of action.

You need to instill in your employees a belief that they and the company will endure, that times will get better and the revenue streams will pick up speed at some point. But you can’t overcompensate for bad news by attempting to slant your employees’ perception of reality.

Clark says you need to accentuate the positive whenever possible, but you also need to give your employees the straight scoop when the news isn’t as good, otherwise you’ll lose credibility and the stability of your culture will suffer.

“Part of a leader’s job is to be something of a cheerleader but not to the point of being unrealistic,” Clark says. “You need to cheerlead by conveying that you will continue to do the right things and this will all pass at some point. I tell my people that if we all co

ntinue to do the right things, we’ll be in a position to take advantage of things when the economic tide does turn.”

Remaining positive while conveying a realistic outlook requires a balancing act, especially when you and your team have to clean up after a mistake or perform a course correction.

“The key to the balancing act is that, on a macro basis, you say that your company is still doing well, that we’re still profitable or whatever positive points you have that you can accentuate. But if you have to say something that is negative, do it in a way that conveys disappointment without destroying confidence.”

Acknowledge mistakes and shortcomings without deflating the people involved even more than they already are. Instead of harping on what went wrong, use negative incidents as teachable moments and opportunities to reinforce a team-first mentality.

“If somebody missed their numbers or quotas or whatever or if there is bad news somewhere else along the line, a lot of times people will beat themselves up worse than you or I could beat them up,” Clark says. “For you to sit there and tell them they missed their numbers this month, that’s really not the right way to manage in good times or bad times. However, in bad times, it’s particularly important to create a dialogue during which you can find some solutions to correct the problem, whatever it might be.

“That doesn’t mean that you can just tell someone, ‘You did a bad job, but that’s OK,’ and pat them on the back. In a situation where a person already recognizes that they haven’t accomplished what they were supposed to accomplish and there is already negativity in their thought process, you need to acknowledge the problem, then work together with the people involved to correct it. Look at what you need to do moving forward. Don’t look back at what you’ve already done.”

Take the long view

When taking a long-range view that looks past the potholes immediately ahead, Clark goes back to a lesson he picked up from the published works of business mogul and Google investor Ram Shriram: The head of a company has to work on the business, not in it.

You’ve hired people to take care of the day-to-day operations. Your job is to make sure that those people are put in the best possible position to carry out their daily and weekly tasks by ensuring that the company is in the best possible position to succeed when times are good and endure when times are trying.

“Positioning the business to weather a down economy is something that falls onto senior management,” Clark says. “That is a major responsibility of senior management in any company. You need to look to the future and what you think the future is going to hold, then act accordingly.”

Acting accordingly means using the information at your disposal to paint the most accurate long-range picture that you can. If the projections say revenue will begin to swing upward, you might make preparations for additional hires or reduce travel restrictions. If projections aren’t as positive, you might need to rein in spending.

“Entering the fourth quarter of 2007, I was really advising our management team to enter 2008 in almost a hiring freeze,” Clark says. “The last thing you want to do is hire in January and lay off in August. That turned out to be the right advice, but more importantly, the management team followed that advice. That is why we need to get out of the details of the company and take the visionary view.

“In the end, your decisions will probably be driven by three things: cash, employees and customers. You want to accumulate cash, keep your good people and keep your good customers. That should be your focus in this economy.”

How to reach: AmeriQuest Transportation Services, (800) 608-0809 or www.ameriquestcorp.com