Al Crawford, Chairman and CEO, Bankers Healthcare Group Inc.
When Al Crawford visits Disney theme parks, he’s thrilled by the rides, the theatrics and the entertainment. But what really leaves him in awe are the park’s employees.
“I’m absolutely amazed by an organization like Disney,” says Crawford, chairman and CEO of the Southwest Ranches, Fla.-based Bankers Healthcare Group Inc. “I’ll walk through their parks and I’ll ask, ‘How do they handle this? How do they control everything?’ … For just one park, you wonder how do you get the right people being responsible?”
At the time they founded BHG in 2001, Crawford and his partners didn’t have to worry about any of these questions. Among the three of them, they had all the skills they needed to launch a successful venture on their own.
As president, Robert “Bobby” Castro, was “the guy who brings the business in” and “makes it rain.” His brother Eric Castro —BHG’s COO and the “glue” between the three founding partners — put the systems in place to help the company scale. Then there was Crawford, who handled finances and built the balance sheet for the company, which provides financial services to medical professionals.
“One of the unique things about the company was that you didn’t have to go out there and hire people to do things that you didn’t know how to do, because the original three owners had expertise and experience in really all areas,” Crawford says. “So you didn’t rely on anybody else. You knew that you had the experience and that your partners had brought a tremendous amount to the table to get the job done and to grow the company.”
But as growth accelerated, so did the demands on the three partners. Soon enough, the notion of doing it all was feeling more like a burden than a joy. Like the Disney parks, they needed to assemble a team of people who could run the organization’s day-to-day operations and could be trusted to make decisions and take care of customer needs independently, so that the owners could focus on expansion. Yet this was easier said than done.
“When you’re doing everything yourself, you know there’s accountability,” Crawford says.
“As we grew, one of the challenges has been letting go of those reins and finding people who had the passion and dedication that we did in all three areas.”
Recognize when you need help
Flash back to 2005, the three owners were drowning in the responsibilities of day-to-day business. They no longer had the time and resources to run the company on their own. But when you’ve been handling certain parts of your business independently for years, it’s hard to recognize when it’s time to delegate some of your job to other people.
One way to gauge whether you need to reallocate some responsibility is by asking, “Can I take a vacation?” For instance, whenever partner Bobby Castro was out of town, it showed up in the bottom line.
“It was where you just couldn’t handle it all by yourself, and the fact that you were trying to handle it all by yourself was actually hurting the company,” Crawford says.
“I could tell you when Bobby was on vacation because there would be a drop in originations, which is unacceptable when you’re looking at $15 million of small ticket $100,000 loans on a monthly basis. All of a sudden Bob’s on vacation so we do $7 million that month because he was gone for 10 days. We can’t have that. We’ve got to have other people that, though maybe not as good as Bobby, are close.”
Another question to consider is how many hours are you working? Working nights and weekends may be necessary when starting out, but 60-hour workweeks may not be the best use of time for the CEO of a growing business.
As the head of finance, Crawford found himself struggling to juggle too many tasks while also trying to finance business growth. COO Eric Castro faced a similar dilemma.
“Eric was close behind me in saying I can’t build all of these systems myself,” Crawford says. “I need to hire people, and we need to grow proportionately.
“So I had to grow my section — I can’t run around talking to banks for the rest of my life, because I’m also trying to handle accounting. We’re trying to handle legal. And I need to be a little more grounded. Consequently, I need some people who can do what I’m doing and do it just as well and not drop the ball.”
In the end, each of the partners felt the strain differently and independently. But acknowledging that they needed to let go of the reins was a critical step in preparing the company for the next stage of growth.
“As your plate starts to grow beyond an average of eight to 10 hours a day and you truly to see growth from a P&L standpoint — you’re making money and you’re becoming more profitable — you need to put the money out and start to mentor somebody,” Crawford says.”
“From a real microeconomics look, as the tasks become so vast that you find yourself just about getting to none of your to-do list, it’s time to find somebody who can start to take some of those tasks.”
Reset your priorities
Delegating responsibility to other people is a relief for some leaders, but incredibly difficult for others. Either way, it helps to start small.
As Crawford and his partners began unloading some of their mounting job responsibilities, they handed off their lowest priority items first.
“If I made a list of everything I had to do today, there’s probably a bottom 10, 15 or 20 percent that somebody else could do,” Crawford says. “And they could do it just as efficiently as me. If I’m just running around in circles and constantly trying to catch up, constantly not getting to things, I’d be better off and more efficient doing the bigger things better and allowing somebody else to do that bottom 20 percent.”
Instead, take that bottom 20 percent and give it to a new employee, who can give it his or her utmost attention.
“Give it to the person who is looking to ride something in that department and let them make it their top priority, so all of the stuff on your list is always getting high priority,” Crawford says. “You’re getting effective representation if it’s customer service stuff. Your customers are being serviced better.”
If it’s taking you two or three days to get back to a client or customer, ask yourself if there’s an employee who could take the task of following up on phone calls or even an entire account. A new person will also be excited and eager to get back to them, Crawford says.
“Maybe they are not dealing with you, but that’s OK,” he says. “Because dealing with you is really hurting the relationship because you haven’t gotten back to them in three days. That type of delegation makes the whole organization better, when you can take a look at your list and say, ‘What am I not doing well here?’
“Delegate that to someone who’s anxious, who’s looking to climb, looking to grow within your organization, and they make it No. 1 through 5 on their list, so it gets done extremely well.”
Help new people learn the job by staying close to them — literally. As Crawford began delegating to new leaders, he frequently had them in his office or next to his office to shadow and learn from him. He also confesses that finding the right people tends to be a process of trial and error.
“It’s no different than a professional baseball team or a football team,” Crawford says. “They can go out there and they can literally go after what they think is going to be the best quarterback in the country. And he can be a flop.
And just because someone has pedigree or experience doesn’t mean that he or she is going to be a success.
“We’ve had people who we’ve hired that have been tremendous,” he says. “We’ve had people that we’ve hired who we thought were going to be tremendous who were horrible. And then we’ve had people who we hired that we cultivated, homegrown and have become superstars.
“It’s finding the right candidate with the right degree, the right experience and the right attitude that you bring in and put in close proximity to you. You look for them to just really absorb everything you’re doing. You try to share what you’re doing, and you look to grow them into your spot, honestly, so they could replace you.”
Find people like you
Since 2001, BHG has grown from its original three partners to 150 people. And as a result, Crawford doesn’t see the “young, aggressive, talented person” anymore. Instead, most of the hiring decisions are pushed down to different department heads, who are given the freedom to hire, fire and mentor the people who work within their area.
“We use that model where you’re counting on people who you’ve trained, people who are moving up the corporate ladder, and they have earned the respect of their peers, earned the respect of the owners,” Crawford says. “Now they’re making the same decisions that you were making two or three years ago, and they’re looking to grow that department by implementing the same type of strategy.
“So they’re going to find that person. They’re going to find a person that fits with them, and they’re going to mentor that person in the same way.”
As people become more independent, they’ll take on larger roles in the company and eventually their own disciples. This tiered mentoring ensures that new leaders are continually being developed at all levels of the organization.
“It’s important for me, Bobby and Eric that people within your department respect you and they look up to you, and your personal traits and business traits appeal to them,” Crawford says. “If we can get that out of the individuals that work for our department heads, it’s a home run because they’re the people that have to do the entire day’s work with their peers.”
Furthermore, managers in the company can be more effective because they’re able to surround themselves with people who share their working style, whether it’s fun and laid-back like the BHG marketing department or more structured like in accounting. For example, the company’s lead treasurer, Angela, is always one of the first to get to work and last to leave, so she looks for this work ethic from everyone in her department.
“I can guarantee that she’s going to surround herself with people who are like her,” Crawford says. “It’s going to run in straight contradiction to her if you’re coming in at 9 a.m. and you’re leaving at 5 p.m. You’re taking an hour and a half for lunch … It’s just not going to work. Angela probably works longer hours than I do. So if you’re in her department, you’re probably going to log some hours. And she’s got to hire. She’s got to fire.”
Hiring and mentoring people who share your values is important, but it doesn’t mean you want to fill your company with a bunch of “yes-men” either. That’s why Crawford always abides by the rule to hire intelligent people who are passionate about keeping the business innovative and thinking for themselves.
By developing and mentoring new leaders for the company, the partners grew BHG to $155 million in revenue in 2011, making the company a staple on Inc.’s list of fastest-growing companies, with six appearances in the last seven years. The company also received the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2012 Award in the Financial Services category in Florida — evidence that the new generation of leaders is carrying on the vision of its owners.
“We love to hire people that are smarter than us, that can bring ideas that we’re not bringing and that can just really push the envelope,” Crawford says. “In the future, we have the right people in place to challenge us daily, to come up with new products, to bring better solutions to the customer. And with those solutions, you’ll see a growth in business.” <<
How to reach: Bankers Healthcare Group Inc., (866) 297-4664 or www.bhg-inc.com
- Recognize when you need to transfer responsibilities
- Delegate some duties to a new employee
- Encourage managers to hire and mentor people like them
The Crawford file
Chairman and CEO
Bankers Healthcare Group Inc.
Born: Troy, NY
Education: BA from Gettysburg College, 1984
On being a worry wart:
I’ve been told that, ‘Geez Al, you worry a lot’; and it’s interesting, because Bobby [Castro] – he doesn’t worry. He’s so type A. The glass isn’t half full with Bobby. The glass is 7/8 full. And so that’s been a real help for me, because I’m a positive person. But a positive person can still worry about what’s coming around the corner.
What’s the best piece of business advice you’d give to another leader?
I don’t think it’s bad to worry and to be concerned that the world changes daily now. You have to be concerned. There are so many things that don’t last forever. For me it’s been a trait of always looking over my shoulder to see what might be coming at us from behind us and worrying about that, yet still not dwelling on that.
You’ve got to be positive. You’ve got to be thinking outside of the box. And I think the two traits go well together, where you’re willing to push on your people and willing to push on yourself…because nobody wins the Super Bowl every year.
On trusting your partners:
It’s trust in what they’re bringing to the table to the company. I’m dealing with two brothers who are 66 percent. People say to me, are you ever concerned about that? Could you be voted out? It’s not even a thought. They trust my opinion. They respect my opinion when it comes to growing the company, being the CEO of the company. And I feel the same exact way about them as individuals.
On loving what you do:
We’ve never been interested in even looking at a sale of the company because to sell the company and then have a non-compete clause and have to do something else – we like what we’re doing. To a point that might be not a good thing because maybe there’s a time where every company should be sold, but for us, it’s kind of like; well, what else would we want to do?