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Abdicating the throne Featured

8:00pm EDT July 31, 2008

Gary Reeve has been in business for too long to expect that he’ll ever have it all figured out.

“There is always something unknown that is going to pop up,” Reeve says. “Even though you plan so much or so well, there is always going to be something that you don’t have control over.”

Five years ago, it was the cost of insurance that skyrocketed after the terrorist attacks in the United States. More recently, it’s

been the rising cost of fuel that has forced companies, such as MMS — A Medical Supply Co., to tighten their budgets.

Reeve, the co-owner, president and CEO of MMS, says the key to good leadership through uncertain times is having the ability to respond to a situation both promptly and without panic.

This is much easier to do when you share the leadership of your business. By spreading the responsibility for running your company to others, you open the door to a wealth of solutions you may not have come up with on your own.

“You can have the greatest quarterback in the world, but if you don’t have a team, that line will never protect him,” Reeve says. “Business is no different. If you have a good team surrounding you, a lot of problems are handled long before they hit management.”

Reeve has taken MMS from a $35 million company in 1996 to $336 million in 2007 and now has 450 employees.

As the company has grown, he has not only had to assess how involved he should be with day-to-day problems but also whether the people under him are the right ones to keep the company moving forward.

The key to managing through such growth is to stay in touch with what your business needs. By doing so, you’ll know which of your employees have what it takes to grow with you.

“In some cases, you’re going to have to end up rocking the boat,” Reeve says. “You make some decisions and you move ahead.”

Here’s how Reeve abdicated many of his day-to-day responsibilities to focus on long-term strategic decisions and used his own knowledge of his people to figure out where they fit in the big picture.

Don’t try to be a hero

One of the employees who perhaps had the most difficult time adjusting to the significant growth at MMS was Reeve.

“I was actually running myself ragged,” Reeve says. “I handled the insurance, banking, sales, operations, purchasing of equipment, negotiating our leases, and our acquisition team was really one person. I couldn’t keep up anymore. It was impossible. That’s where I had to be flexible.”

One of the first steps was to hire Tom Harris as his executive vice president.

“Tom came on board, and I shifted a tremendous amount of things to Tom,” Reeve says. “At this point, my job is much different than it was five years ago. I still handle our leases, and I do a lot of the financials and still have relationships with the banks, but it’s much different on the day-to-day stuff.”

The hard part for Reeve was staying away from many of the tasks that had been his responsibility.

“It’s relatively easy to pass it off, or at least, it was for me,” Reeve says. “The hard part was staying away. Once I passed it to Tom, then it was hard for me not to say, ‘Wait a minute, you ought to be doing this,’ or, ‘I would do [it] this way.’ That was probably the most difficult thing. To keep telling myself, ‘If I get involved, then I might as well not even have given it up. If I’m going to continue to do all those things, it doesn’t mean we still can’t sit down.’”

As the CEO, you may have to literally remind yourself that you have other employees and a management team and a staff for a reason. It’s not all on you to make your company go, and once you delegate, you have to let your people do their jobs.

“If you really want to give something up, you have to let somebody else go with it or else they will never attain the ability to even do it,” Reeve says.

And just because you’re turning over a task or two to another person, as the CEO, you still have every right to ask questions and be in on the discussion of key issues.

“You’re always going to be there,” Reeve says. “If I see us wavering from where we’ve all agreed to go, at that point, it doesn’t mean I won’t say something. There are always two roads to get to the same place.”

Shifting responsibility is a gradual process and works better if you don’t just dump a job on another person without any support or orientation to the new duties.

“You work with them a little in the beginning, and as you go along, you just go ahead and, more or less, give them the responsibility and back away,” Reeve says. “It’s a continuing process. We try to empower people to make a lot of their own decisions. If they make bad decisions, you rein them in. But if they are making good decisions, we’ve empowered them to move ahead.”

Show you are flexible

Once his own role in the company was more clearly defined, it was time for Reeve to figure out who among his employees had what it took to be part of his growing and evolving business.

“You’ve got some loyal employees that helped you grow from one level to the next, and they either have to be let go or have to be moved into different positions,” Reeve says. “We’re almost like a family company. Initially, it was very difficult for us.”

Some people were allowed to continue on, resulting in mistakes being made along the way.

“That’s probably one of my shortcomings,” Reeve says. “I probably give them too many chances. In some cases, I’m being critical of myself, and I knew the decision had to be made, but I just wanted to give them another chance — and then I wanted to give them another chance.”

If you do it right, it’s OK to give people a chance to prove themselves. One of the best ways to do this is by witnessing the the failure to demonstrate the initiative to improve.

“If that person wants to be in that department and doesn’t really show that they want to grow, there’s no way we can,” Reeve says. “If that person shows a little initiative, it’s looked at, and they’ll be given opportunities to grow.”

Oftentimes, an employee just isn’t in a role that suits his or her talents and needs to work in a different area.

“You sit down with the party that you are having the problem with and lay out what’s going to be happening,” Reeve says. “There’s opportunity for everyone. We’ve taken service reps and they’ve become our star salespeople.”

You’ll have a better awareness of what your employees can and can’t do if you get out of your office regularly and talk to them.

“I will have lunch in the employee lunchroom probably three days a week,” Reeve says. “Communication is important in any company so everybody knows where you’re headed and what you’re doing.”

The idea is to instill in your employees that you want their input and their feedback about how the company operates.

“By nurturing that flexibility, everybody is always looking for a better alternative,” Reeve says. “If somebody comes up with something that’s a little different, you don’t slam it and say, ‘God, how stupid is that idea?’ If they come up with an idea, let’s discuss it and talk about it. Maybe the next time you come to a meeting, give us all a set of those ideas in advance so we can do a little thinking before the meeting.”

If it becomes clear that a given employee is not going to fit and is not capable of filling a role in the company’s future, you need to be honest and make a change.

“If that salesperson doesn’t have the desire to go out on their own, maybe that person, for whatever reason, doesn’t have some of the skill sets to do that or the discipline or personality or self-confidence to do that,” Reeve says. “Maybe there will be somebody else who has all the skill sets, and they will move very smoothly right into it.”

Reeve says it’s tough when you’re talking about an employee who has been with the company for a long time. He says he felt the respect among his staff for giving second and third chances to personnel searching for a new role.

“But I think had I gone further, I think I would start losing respect,” Reeve says. “Sometimes, if you’ve given too many chances, at some point, they have to step up and do something.”

Show that you care

One of the ways you gain respect and the buy-in of your people is to show that you care about them as people in addition to the fact that they work for you. At MMS, there is Employee Appreciation Day.

“We have little cards made up, and all the managers get them and they are supposed to write a little note to all their employees,” Reeve says. “In it, we’ll throw in a little gift card. We try to make all our employees feel important because they are.”

Part of feeling appreciated is being kept in the loop about what’s happening. MMS makes use of its marketing department to communicate not only to media and people outside the organization but also to its own employees.

“One of their functions is to take the information in the newsletter and make sure that employees understand what is happening,” Reeve says. “It’s no different than it is for advertising. We work with our own employees and make sure they understand what we’re doing, so nobody is in left field and they don’t know.”

By being open and communicative, you can help break down the barriers that may exist between you and your employees.

“A lot of times, the problem with being the head of a company is everybody treats you a little bit different,” Reeve says. “You build a trust level with certain people.”

Have your managers sit down with employees in groups and discuss company strategy. Set goals and objectives and implement bonus plans for employees who strive to meet those targets.

“A manager will sit down with employees and say, ‘OK, what do we need to do within our own group or department?’” Reeve says. “All those goals and objectives will be in a master plan to help the company continue to grow. ... People know there is a difference between when you are genuine and when you aren’t. Try to do things with the employees in mind as well as the bottom line.”

As far as analyzing his own role in the company, Reeve says he will always be his own worst critic.

“I think I’d be a terrible judge of myself,” Reeve says. “I won’t say it’s bad. But I try to do things well. I work harder to do things than I’d ask somebody to do for me.”

But in his new, more team-oriented role, there is an adage that Reeve tries to live by.

“Pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered, so don’t try to take on too much,” Reeve says. “Because that can bring you a whole new set of problems.”

HOW TO REACH: MMS — A Medical Supply Co., (314) 291-2900 or www.mmsmedical.com