Jack Ouellette Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2007
Forty years ago, Jack Ouellette learned a lesson that still sticks with him today. As a squad leader at the U.S. Military Academy, Ouellette was responsible for a group of cadets when an officer arrived for inspection. One cadet in his charge was poorly prepared, and the inspecting officer, while complimenting Ouellette on his own appearance, nonetheless slapped him with a heavy load of demerits because of the offending cadet’s sloppy presentation. The experience taught Ouellette — who today is president and CEO of American Textile Co. — how much his own performance as a leader hinged on the performance of those around him. And even now, Ouellette places a premium on selecting the right people for his company, a manufacturer of bedding products that posted more than $40 million in revenue last year. Smart Business spoke with Ouellette about the value of intensive interviews, leveraging the talent of employees and the importance of saying thank you.

Look for character and energy in potential employees. The real secret to any business is having good people in your organization, and that may be a standard answer that people would give. But if you get good people with good character and let them do what they are best suited to do, that’s how your company grows, that’s how wonderful things happen.

The most difficult one is character. It’s hard to determine, but it’s one that I look for. It’s in things they say and in the experiences they relate. The converse is also true, probably in spades. You get the wrong person, the wrong fit, things don’t get done and you take a step back. I look at energy about the person, and you try to gain that about a person by reading the resume and checking their references and just in their way, their intensity.

Interview intensively. We have people here who are pretty good at interviewing. That’s why it’s really good to be able to get kind of a 360-view of them, by having lots of people in the organization we respect giving them a view. It’s not an exact science, but we have a high success rate.

We’re in the 90 percent range by going through this process as far as finding someone we’re satisfied with that works out. We interview seriously and in depth, and that means it’s several people in the interviews.

We’re really focusing on two things: Are they the right people for us, and are we the right company for them? If those two don’t match, it’s not good.

Don’t forget to thank people. We have a bonus structure for our executives that is tied to the performance of the company, but there’s also one other thing that we spread liberally, and that’s thank you. I hope that doesn’t sound trite, but we recognize people for their accomplishments and we single them out.

We have an event where, every time we hit a specific sales goal, we will call our company employees together and we will recognize someone who has helped us get to that goal. For example, every time we hit a $5 million sales figure, we’ll call everybody together and recognize a person or a couple of people who have exemplified teamwork and how that has benefited the company.

Everybody knows what our goals are, and this is the kind of performance we want to see. Thank you goes a long way, and it’s a matter of keeping your eyes open and seeing the people who are working hard and who are extending themselves, and making sure you’re extending yourself as well. There are a lot of things that, as you grow, if you don’t watch, you’re going to lose them.

Serve the company. There’s one guiding principle, and that is the CEO is here to serve the company; the company’s not here to serve the CEO. If that focus is maintained, you’re looking in the right place.

You can really get off track if you think the other way around. You see a lot of high-profile CEOs and they get paid an enormous amount of money and they get a lot of compliments for what they’ve done, and you know damn well that’s not all them, that it’s maybe even the people who their predecessor assembled for them. I love the idea that people who are actually coming up with the great ideas are getting recognized.

Use your employees to help make decisions. When major decisions are arising, why not use the talent pool you hand-picked? So I love to get their input. Sometimes it’s painful, because you’re saying, ‘This is what I recommend,’ and everyone’s saying ‘Well, that’s too bad.’

Maybe there’s something I missed, so it’s back to the drawing board. I really believe that’s important. It’s important to get everybody to the best decision possible. It’s also important to help people stay motivated. People like to be part of the decision-making, and it gives them a great deal of satisfaction.

Provide clear direction and the right tools for success. It’s our culture here that we are interested in making certain that people are given a very clear direction, that they’re given the appropriate tools to move in that direction, and that we reinforce positive behavior. Ultimately, if those things don’t work and the fit’s not there, then there’s no sense trying to make it fit. From our point of view, the most productive people get the results we want and the self-esteem at the same time.

HOW TO REACH: American Textile Co., (412) 948-1020 or www.americantextile.com