Coaching & Facilitation Stories
What a difference a year makes!”… Dave Laforce, CEO/owner Newport Furniture Parts, Newport VT.
Dave and his partner Larry were completely frustrated. They dreaded going to work and it was affecting both personal and professional relationships. Not only were they were losing money, but customers were increasingly frustrated, as orders were generally late… often by months. People described the environment there as “uncomfortable, unhappy, stressful, and generally non-communicative.” It’s a small town so families, friends, and neighbors were affected, and it became a downward spiral as no one, including the owners, wanted to work there. Dave and Larry ran out of possibilities; they just didn’t know what to do to make it better.
Jump ahead one year later almost exactly. Dave reports, “I look forward to getting to work and taking on the challenges in front of us. The possibilities seem endless.” The culture is now open, communicative and people are sharing their ideas and creating possibilities all the time. Leadership is more broadly shared, everyone is taking responsibility and people are holding each other accountable in a positive, constructive manner. The change is so tangible that the community can feel the difference. The company has become a family.
What led to the change? The critical change occurred when Dave proactively sought out help and, as the saying goes, “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear;” in this case, teachers appeared. Dave looked into retreats, seminars, and workshops… anything that might help. Then he was introduced to Jeff Howe and Patrick O’Brien. The key to making major change was Jeff and Patrick’s mantra “people first, processes second.”
“Most companies have the answers within them,” Jeff Howe notes, “but they just aren’t good at communicating under stress. People have been taught that they have to solve their own problems – and that leads to isolation, loneliness, limited options, and depression. Often people just freeze and do nothing.” The first step in making change of any kind is in sharing responsibility and leadership through communication, collaboration, and coordination. “Patrick and I simply provided the tools and the coaching that helped Newport achieve what they needed to do.”
(Note: the above took place in 2012. In 2013 Newport had the most profitable year in their 50-year history.)
“We couldn’t have done it with out Jeff Howe’s help.”… Doug Fletcher, CEO/owner Maine Wood Concepts, New Vineyard Maine, in receiving the 2013 Maine Manufacturer of the Year Award from Governor LePage.
Maine Wood Concepts, formally Maine Wood Turnings, was a multigenerational wood products company fighting the good fight; trying to save a wood products company in an industry devastated by foreign competition. Literally hundreds of wood turning mills had closed in the previous years. But the Fletcher’s are a creative group, and not one to back down from competition. Instead they knew they needed to change and adapt. So as volumes dropped in traditional product lines, they added new ones, and bought equipment at auctions and closures that gave them new capabilities. And they added a rough mill that increased their control over their resource. They weren’t frivolous; they stayed frugal and strategic.
But these additions caused organizational challenges. Managing a much wider array of products and customers started stretching the seams of the business. Stuff started falling through the cracks and accumulating. Stress started building up as well and company performance was affected. To find help Doug attended seminars, workshops and industry meetings to seek information and help. Through his networking he was introduced to Jeff Howe of Dovetail.
“People deserve the same kind of care and organizational strategy as the equipment,” notes Jeff, “but companies often ignore that part of the business.” It is really common to hear the comment today that, “people are our biggest problem.” In reality people are your greatest asset. Jeff helped Doug create some of the organizational systems that help motivate and coordinate all staff. These included a clear organizational structure with agreed on roles and responsibilities for everyone; a clear wage and incentive system that could be shared with all; and performance reviews that are constructive and support growth. But most of all Jeff coached leaders on the communication tools and processes that support collaborative problem solving and shared responsibility by all. The net was an increased human capacity to adapt and change. As a result, not only did Doug address his current issues, but he also gained the confidence in his team to buy and integrate another very large product line the next year, with great success.
“We had most of the pieces, Jeff brought in a completely new way of thinking about the organization and guided us in putting them in the right place to achieve a level of success I never imagined could be possible.”… Eric Bloomquist, owner Colonial Craft.
Colonial Craft almost had it all, good people, good customers, growth, and profitability. But growth was causing stress, and profits weren’t keeping up with sales. Eric also had dreams. He loved having a company that could make a difference in people’s lives and a positive impact on environmental issues; and he dreamed of doing more. Monthly gain sharing had been in place for all employees for a number of years, but never paid out. Annual profit sharing was in place but shrinking, as other demands for capital increased and profits didn’t.
With Jeff’s guidance sales grew more strategically; systems were put in place to shrink lead times and inventories by two-thirds; and profits tripled, gain sharing became commonplace and maximized, and profit sharing grew similarly. Social and environmental issues grew in focus as well, as the company became MN handicapped employer of the year, WI environmental company of the year, and a Midwest finalist in the prestigious Ernst-Young Int’l Entrepreneur of the Year Award. The company became one big, happy, crazy family. “You always try to find someone to help you that can think outside the box," said Bloomquist, “Jeff doesn’t have a box!”
“We ended up looking at our markets and products very differently.”… Kathy Juckett, CEO/Owner, Telescope Casual Furniture, Grantham NY.
Although a critical part of the company’s long history, over the years wood furniture had slowly declined in real numbers and as a proportion of company sales… as “plastic” and metal materials dominated. Low cost foreign competition practically finished it off after the turn of the new century. So the company began seeking marketing help to find new products and new markets that would utilize their existing wood resources and equipment. They were introduced to Jeff Howe of Dovetail.
Jeff introduced a new way of measuring success (the contribution margin), a new way of looking at markets (the product positioning map), and a new way of looking at their company strengths (innovative leaders). As a result they introduced a new line of wood chairs that competed directly with low cost competition, and grew sales by over 40% the first year. “We needed a new perspective and the willingness to rethink our assumptions,” reported Kathy. “Once we took that leap we had the skills to implement the changes. Jeff had a way of painting the picture so clearly and in ways I had never thought of before. There were a number of “ahah” moments.”