Karen Barbour already had a loyal client following in the surety business when she decided to start the Barbour Group in 2002. She formed her own agency in order to “run with” her ideas.
She has dedicated herself to advocating for her clients and helping her employees. She has also worked to influence state legislation, including helping pass an amendment for the Small Business Administration bond program to increase aid to small businesses needing bonding.
“I love to get involved, I love the social entrepreneurial side of my business,” Barbour said. “I’ve got a great team of people in Maryland that push me, drive me to make a difference.”
Smart Business sat down with Barbour to learn more.
What was the greatest challenge in the first year or two?
In 2002, we (the nation) were just getting over 9/11. The construction industry wasn’t as good as it could have been. A lot of the money that was used for construction spending was being diverted into Homeland Security, so federal projects were being cancelled. It was a lean year. In 2002 to 2003 it was getting better, but the biggest obstacle was finding staff, finding a place to put my business and finding out how to market my agency.
What traits do you look for in employees as you’re going through the interview process?
Personally, I’m not a micromanager. I like to find people who are leaders for themselves, self-starters who need little supervision, that can take the ball and run with it. If they make mistakes, I don’t mind, as long as they understand their mistakes, apologize and learn from them. It’s the best thing.
Are there any keys to how you go building the culture of an organization?
I think, as a small business, the best benefit you offer is your flexibility. I’m a good employer for (people with family issues) because I will give them time to take care of that situation and work with them, because I went through the same process. Getting that flextime is a great benefit for people who really want to work hard, who need a job, who want to give their all, but need some time off to help out in a family situation. I think I can entice a lot of good, hard-working people that way.
How do you motivate your employees to excel?
That’s really tough. I tell them “You define your job description, you tell me what you want to do, and if I can support that I will.” So far, that’s been pretty good. You don’t want to push people out of their comfort zone, so when you see them at the end of their comfort zone you need to hire another person. Your current staff is just not going to facilitate the work.
What are your keys to building and fostering strong relationships?
As a bonding agent, you know everything and anything about your client. You know their personal finances, how they spend their money, what they spend their money on. You know about their children, their home situation, how they run their business. You have to keep that very confidential. And you have to sometimes give them advice, show them that you are their advocate and bring people from outside their company to help them.
There’s no need to hard sell, my clients really appreciate it, and as a result, they’ve been able to grow their business. So I just don’t provide a piece of paper, I actually underwrite in a way that’s going to help them grow their business and I’m an advocate for them.
That’s why I started my business, as well, so I could be legislatively active and not worry about my paycheck, who signs it if I’m going against the grain of their political bent.