Ralph Scozzafava had just walked off the plane, but he already knew Furniture Brands International Inc. had a safety problem at one of its factories in Mississippi.
“The guy that picked me up at the airport had some dried blood on his pants from one of our key associates on the production line that had just cut their finger and been brought to the hospital,” Scozzafava says.
Unfortunately, safety wasn’t the only concern for Furniture Brands when Scozzafava arrived in early 2008.
“We were low on cash and we had a pretty big debt balance and really some liquidity questions and concerns,” says Scozzafava, the company’s chairman and CEO. “We also had declining margins and increasing administrative costs to the point where our operating margins were approaching zero and ended up negative very quickly. There were a lot of things happening at the same time, all taking us to a very difficult place.”
But before he could address any of those concerns, he had to get people in the company to realize that there was, in fact, a problem that needed to be addressed. The furniture retailer has 6,500 employees in the United States and 2,000 more employees abroad.
“A lot of folks just thought, ‘Hey, we’re going through a bit of a rough patch,’” Scozzafava says. “If we don’t tell people where we are, in a lot of cases, they just don’t know. So it’s informing. We have a problem here. It’s an issue. We have to change, and we have to change intelligently and quickly.”
It was time for Scozzafava to start talking and get everyone moving on the changes that needed to be made.
Start a dialogue
One of Scozzafava’s most pressing concerns, in addition to making the company safer for employees, was that he needed to generate some cash for Furniture Brands. The company was losing a lot of money.
“We had over $300 million in debt, we had $27 million in cash, and we were losing money on the operating line,” Scozzafava says. “You don’t last long with a business of our scale if you’re doing that. So the big thing for us was to generate cash.”
In this type of situation, you can’t just go to your people and say, ‘Hey, we need to generate more cash.’ You need to show them what they can do as an individual or as a group to help you solve your problem.
“If they don’t have line of sight, ‘What do I need to do to help?’ you’re not going to get the full engagement that you really want to get,” Scozzafava says.
In other words, spare the corporate lingo and Wall Street clichés when you’re speaking to your employees.
“Use words you would use with your family,” Scozzafava says. “Relate some interesting stories. Try to make things sticky if you can. The state of the union address as told with your best formal English doesn’t help. If you use every business cliché in the book, you’re not sincere. If they feel like you’re not sincere, if it feels packaged, they’re not going to listen. It’s not going to be compelling.”
Scozzafava needed to get his employees engaged in coming up with a solution for the company’s cash concerns.
“I tell our folks, ‘I’m going to tell you everything I can as fully and clearly as I can as many times as I need to so you fully understand,’” Scozzafava says. “And then I’m going to ask lots of questions so you can do the same with me. If you have that kind of dialogue, there’s really nothing up anybody’s sleeve.”
It has to be a dialogue, meaning two-way communication, and the best way to achieve that is to get out of your office.
“You’ve got to penetrate the organization,” Scozzafava says. “My direct reports will feed me info that is good, informative and interesting. But if I want to know about the supply chain, I’m going to go down on the factory floor and talk to a lot of people. If I want to know how our retail stores are doing, I’m going to go to retail and I’m going to ask a lot of questions and visit 10 stores.”
And if you want to know about a possible safety concern, you’re going to go visit one of your factories.
“I went on the factory floor and saw what we were doing and how we were operating the equipment and I knew we had a safety problem,” Scozzafava says.
Scozzafava discovered that multiple factors were leading to the cash issues. Safety problems were caused by improper use of equipment and were affecting product quality. This was affecting the margins and ultimately leading to the problem with the cash.
It’s the kind of information that you can only get when you approach your research with an open mind.
“The temptation is I want to bucket things,” Scozzafava says. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I’ve observed a situation and the knee-jerk reaction is to say, ‘Oh, that’s just like …’ and name a situation, something you’ve gone through before. When you do that, sometimes you miss it all together. Most of the time, you get it close, but you miss the nuance and you really can’t get a good clear assessment.”
As you begin to generate dialogue and ideas to make your company better, you need to create accountability to make sure that the ideas are investigated and implemented if they turn out to be viable.
Safety was one of Scozzafava’s biggest worries with his business.
“What are the safety ideas?” Scozzafava says. “We’ll put them on a bulletin board. Those ideas have initials next to them. Who gave us the idea? They have a date of when we’re going to evaluate it and get it solved and when we’re going to implement it.”
An idea was raised to install sewing tables in one of the factories that could be raised or lowered to help eliminate repetitive motion injuries.
“When are we getting the tables in?” Scozzafava says. “When is it getting installed? When is it finished? It’s about the idea, evaluating the idea and putting people in place who are accountable. Put their names next to the task and then finish the job.”
When you create ideas or metrics for employees to live by, they need to be ideas that are objective in nature like the sewing tables.
“There are certain things that you can measure very well,” Scozzafava says. “Those are very data-oriented things that you should use as the core of what you measure. The things that become matters of opinion, if you make that a focal point of what you’re doing and lots of people give their points of view, you’re going to struggle. Cut-and-dried measures are always the best.”
Work with each department on what it specializes in and help the department come up with measurable goals that help the company.
“So for example, 2008, we’re here to generate cash,” Scozzafava says. “But we’re also going to work on building our brands, and that’s the work the marketing people will do. We’re also going to work on getting more efficient in our factories. That’s the work the supply chain people will do. You can go down the road. The finance team has to centralize finance and accounting and accounts receivable and accounts payable and credit. That’s the work they have to do. So there’s the singular big goal we’re all working on and then there are pieces within the company that individual groups do to make us better.”
You have to keep pushing the importance of initiatives and making sure accountability is part of all of them.
“You think you’re saying it enough, because you’re thinking about it all the time and you’re talking to your direct reports or your executive team about the same subject all the time,” Scozzafava says. “So that repetition is something you just assume is going through the organization. And it’s not. One of the things I’ve learned is you have to tell them, you have to tell them again, you have to tell them what you told them, you have to ask if they understand it, tell them again, have them repeat it, quiz them.”
So if you think you’ve delivered your message enough after all that, you might want to do it just one more time to be sure.
When you ask employees to help make your company better and they step up and do just that, you need to show them that you appreciate their efforts. By doing so, you increase the odds that others will follow their lead.
“Good people want to do well,” Scozzafava says. “They want to be part of a winning team. If they see their peers somewhere else within the company performing very well and being recognized and rewarded for that performance, they typically not only want to mirror that, they want to do better. If you get the right people and treat them right and tell them what they need to do and listen to the ideas they have, it’s powerful.”
You can show your appreciation in a number of ways. There are the gift cards and cash bonuses that all employees are grateful to receive. But your ability to show appreciation and gratitude can also go a long way toward helping your business be successful.
“When you have the title, until they meet you, there is always going to be some kind of trepidation,” Scozzafava says. “People want to get it right or they want to make a good impression. If they see you as a regular person, if you get information and you do something positive with it and you’re not looking around trying to zap somebody or catch somebody, pretty soon they understand what your intention is. If it’s a positive intent, they’re going to share more and more with you.”
Scozzafava’s ability to get people to buy in to his effort to turn things around at Furniture Brands is showing some signs of success. While net sales dropped from $1.7 billion in 2008 to $1.2 billion in 2009, the steady loss of cash seems to have been stopped. And safety on the job is better than it’s ever been before.
“It all goes back to the build, win, deliver, grow strategy,” Scozzafava says. “[Employees] know that’s what has taken us from losing $400 million in 2008 to losing over $100 million in 2009 to making money through the first three quarters of . They know if we stick to that strategy, if we’re aggressive and prudent about how we change, differentiate and do things better, we’re making the problem go away.”
The key is to stay focused on helping your employees help you.
“If you expend your energy and feel spent, you’re probably not doing enough within the organization to drive the kind of morale and camaraderie and high-performance culture you want to create,” Scozzafava says.
How to reach: Furniture Brands International Inc., (314) 863-1100 or www.furniturebrands.com
The Scozzafava file
Chairman and CEO
Furniture Brands International Inc.
Born: Danbury, Conn.
What was your first job?
I worked for my dad; he was in the refrigeration business. One guy, one truck. Probably from age 6 to 7, I knew all the tools in the toolbox. I could wire things, run pipes, weld, I could do a lot of stuff. I haven’t done it recently. But give me the stuff, I’m sure it would come back.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Hard work and common sense. My uncle said if you can just master those two things, you’ll be successful in anything. He was an entrepreneur who did very well and had no education and those were the two pieces.
If you could sit down with anyone in the world, past or present, who would it be and why?
I’d like to have dinner with my dad.
Scozzafava on public speaking: I’m real big on bullet points. I’ll have slides without many words on them. I may have a little scrap of paper in my hand that may have 6 or 7 thought starters on it. Each message that I’m trying to get across, I try to have an accompanying story.
I try to make it engaging. I draw people out of the audience a lot. I’ll call people by name and I’ll ask them to stand up and talk about things so that the message is what I’m going to call multi-medium. Part of it’s on the screen, part of it’s in a video, part of it’s a story from Ralph, part of it’s a story from the audience. You have a lot of different stimuli coming at you.