Everyone has dreams of calling the shots. But a company CEO does more than tell everyone else what to do. He or she may be responsible for the livelihoods of hundreds of employees and must not only be concerned with the big picture and the bottom line, but also with every facet of the business. In short, they must have a working knowledge of the functions of the company’s rank and file—the lifeblood of every enterprise.
To underscore this, we’re highlighting a few of our BE 100s CEOs who have paid homage to their workforces by experiencing some of their day-to-day tasks. But the photograph doesn’t tell the whole story. Read on to see just how well these leaders understand their industries and the people who count on them most.
Stephen L. Hightower, CEO, Hightowers Petroleum Co. (Photo: Larry Hamill)
STEPHEN L. HIGHTOWER
The Pipeline to profits
Since he started selling fuel wholesale in 1981, Stephen L. Hightower has done business with some of the top names in corporate America, including Duke Energy, General Motors, and Delta Airlines. As CEO, he grew the Franklin, Ohio-based Hightowers Petroleum Co. by 45% while competing against some of the top oil companies in the world.
“Most of those high-profile customers used to buy from the major oil companies,” says Hightower, who outsources his contracts to shipping fleets. “Our nimbleness and ability to adapt to our customers’ needs is our forte. We move quicker, our overhead is a lot less, and when we provide value-added services, we can do it a lot less expensively than any of the big oil companies.”
Hightower says he gives his 28 employees bonuses throughout the year, not just at year-end. At the same time he doesn’t believe that additional compensation will necessarily make an employee a better worker. He believes that an employee’s loyalty and work ethic is built at the most inopportune times; for example, when they’ve had a death in the family; when a child, parent, or grandparent becomes ill and needs caretaking; or when someone is going through a divorce. “Things happen every day in people’s lives. Being sensitive to them and the situation creates that loyalty back to you,” he says. “They remember it and they remember it very deeply.”
Damian Mills, CEO, Mills Auto Group (Photo: Greg Plactha)
Geared Toward Growth
When he opened up his first car dealership in 2005, Damian Mills, CEO of Mills Auto Group, was better situated than most new franchisees. As a participant in the Ford dealer development program, he was able to acquire the dealership in two years rather than the standard six. By 2006, he added a Chrysler dealership in Fort Mills, South Carolina, to the mix.
Yet, when Chrysler filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and threatened to terminate agreements with dealerships, Mills couldn’t manage the turmoil—at least not on his own. He was concerned not only for the auto groups’ key managers who had uprooted their families and relocated to help lead the companies, but also for the approximately 90 workers who were working there before he took over.
He decided not to lay off anyone and to consolidate positions that opened up through attrition. “I was determined to keep my key people with me. I felt like my biggest asset was having capable, qualified, talented people,” says Mills. Instead he enlisted his employees to come up with innovative ways to reduce expenses without affecting jobs or the company’s 401(k) match. As a result of some of those ideas, Mills was able to keep his Chrysler dealership, added another Ford/Lincoln shop, plus Nissan, Chevrolet, and Fiat dealerships, and increased revenues by 52% between 2009 and 2010. “When you get people involved in the process they kind of surprise you. We were able to bounce back because of the flexibility and resilience of our people.”
Warren Thompson, CEO, Thompson Hospitality Corp. (Photo: Kevin Allen)
SERVING UP SMILES
Warren Thompson, CEO of Thompson Hospitality Corp., has had food on the brain since he raised, produced, and sold hogs at the age of 12. Today, he heads a company that owns 21 retail franchises and manages 550 contract locations in schools, hospitals, and corporate dining centers.
Thompson, who projects generating revenues of $390 million in 2011, realizes the importance of a good customer experience. “We try to hire attitude. We can teach skills and develop skills, but the person has to have the right attitude,” he says. “We have to have people in our business who smile by nature.” Thompson Hospitality Corp. was be industrial/service Company of the Year in 2010.
Thompson is an advocate of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act signed into law by President Barack Obama, despite his claims that it will likely increase healthcare costs for his company by 10%. Thompson offers subsidized benefits to all his employees but is concerned that not everyone can afford it. “[Reform is worth it] because today I can walk into one of my cafeterias in Mississippi and I may have two or three employees with diabetes and no health insurance. How do I say to that worker, ‘I want you to smile every day and be happy,’ when she is worried about how she’s going to get her insulin?”
G. Jean Davis, CEO, UNIBAR Services Inc. (Photo: Ara Howrani)
G. JEAN DAVIS
“If you surround yourself with good people and provide a clear vision of where you want to go and what’s in it for them, you can be successful,” says G. Jean Davis, CEO of UNIBAR Services Inc. UNIBAR is a provider of meter reading, meter installation, and land surveying for utilities and cable companies.
She’s found success not only for her company, but also in training blue-collar workers and treating them well. “I am pleased when I see young people without a formal education develop. You bring them in, you teach them, they are eager to learn, and you look up one day and you’ve got an executive,” says Davis. “But I’m not soft. I want excellence, and there is no excuse for not doing anything when we’ve given you the resources to do your job.”
And when they do the job, Davis makes sure the company rewards them for it. After Hurricane Katrina, UNIBAR found shelter in dormitory housing for its Louisiana workers, bought them clothing, and asked utilities customer Entergy Corp. to pay them full-time for working as guides to people who came into the city. The company also invests in training workers to ensure that its 2,000 employees in 14 states learn the most current safety guidelines as the industry transitions to remote meter reading. “We give as much as we can to the employees,” she says. “They work hard for you if you treat them well.”
Michael V. Roberts, co-CEO, Roberts Bros. Properties L.L.C. (Photo: Greg Kiger)
MICHAEL V. AND
STEVEN C. ROBERTS
Michael V. and Steven C. Roberts say they try to make employees feel as though they’re stakeholders. “This isn’t a job—it’s a part of their lives. They are here more hours than with their families,” says Michael.
The Roberts brothers, co-CEOs of the Roberts Bros. Properties L.L.C. , own a majority stake in 12 hotels, several broadcast radio and television stations, and, until recently, several wireless communications towers. But their empire started out in their hometown of St. Louis, where they now own three city blocks in the downtown district. They’re also responsible for building shopping centers, schools, and residential housing in blighted urban communities. “We go into urban areas because everyone else has tended to abandon them to a degree,” says Steve. “Why not go in and make a difference?”
Steven C. Roberts, co-CEO, Roberts Bros. Properties L.L.C. (Photo: Greg Kiger)
While they could afford to do business from the new 25-story, glass tower in downtown St. Louis, which they’ve just completed, they instead insist on keeping their offices on Martin Luther King Highway down the street from where they grew up. Whether they are physically moving furniture and cleaning rooms side-by-side with cleaning staff, or sitting next to employees in training sessions, Michael says that their continued involvement in the company boosts employee morale. “We make sure that everyone here becomes family and acts like it. That is part of the genesis of our success.”
Getting laid off in 2007 was one of the best things that ever happened to Meka Udoh. As a way to make up with the idle time on his hands, the California native and friend Joel “Shake” Zela launched 2DopeBoyz.com, a music site that started as a way to share their thoughts on new music but has since grown into a successful online brand that also hosts artist showcases and benefit events.
With Meka’s snarky commentary and Shake’s humorous Photoshop skills at the fore, the site now boasts over a million unique visitors a month and has the distinction of being part of the Complex Media Network, which has helped the duo make a living off of blogging about what they love—music. As Black Blogger Month continues, BlackEnterprise.com catches up with Udoh to get his take on growing a brand online and the benefits of working with an ad network. ⎯Starrene Rhett
2DopeBoyz stands out because…
We’ve never fallen into that ideal that either posting a video of two idiots in the ghetto fighting or being financially backed by a major label, then have the audacity to claim we’re “documenting the culture” would make us successful or influential. Shining a light to the under-the-radar [artist] was more important to us than a Gucci Mane shout out. The site was started when two friends with vastly different musical tastes decided to start a site to spotlight what we liked, and by the grace of whatever deity watches over us it became a success.
People trust the 2DopeBoyz brand because…
We’ve tried not to be something we’re not. We have no need to reach a certain quota with our backers, which gives us the liberty of posting anything from Jay Electronica to the latest video game preview.
The biggest mistake I ever made in business was…
Being too nice sometimes. I’m still having problems with that today.
What I learned from that was…
You’ll never be universally liked, and some people only tolerate you simply because you’re in possession of something they don’t have and/or require.
I realized blogging was a business when…
I was actually able to use the revenues from it to take my family out to dinner, which was something no day job gave me the luxury of doing.
The importance of a good ad network is…
Great when you decide you don’t want to work a day job anymore.
Networking has helped me to…
What’s networking, really? Glorified self-promotion? Talking to a bunch of people with the hopes they’ll be able to put you in a position that’s better than your current one? The only times you really see that kind of stuff actually work these days are on crappy “reality” shows. If anything, building your name and reputation works even better than trying to advertise yourself amidst a sea of other people doing the same thing.
Building a brand is important because…
I hate when people talk about “building a brand.” It’s not a “brand,” it’s a reputation. If what you do is reputable, then your peers will see, respect and in some cases envy it.
Having a good business partner means…
They’re as equally willing to risk everything to be successful as you are.
The best piece of business advice I ever got was…
Never give up, not matter how bleak it may be.
I measure my success by…
How proud my family is of me, and right now they’re very proud of me.