Hot Chocolate and Rivets

The profound story of business done well


The doorbell startled us. Late night guests are not common in our quiet neighborhood. I opened the door cautiously and saw two men bundled in snow gear. Before the door even cracked, one man interjected, “Listen, we don’t want any trouble, but we’re in a rough spot and just looking for some honest work. You need someone to clear your sidewalk?”

The biggest snow storm of the year hit Denver that morning—and brought with it a lesson in differentiating good from great.

Sixteen inches of powder heaped up in our yard and barricaded the cars lining our street. The duo at my doorstep averted eye contact, snow shovels poised at their sides. They pitched their snow removal services. After a brief negotiation, we shook on the deal and I returned inside to find cash, feeling quite pleased with my actions.

When opportunity presents itself, I love hiring folks. It breathes of dignity to provide a fair wage for hard work. I stepped outside and paid the men, quickly stepping back into the warmth of our home. But looking across the living room, I saw Alli rushing to heat a pot of water.

“It’s freezing outside, Chris,” she said. “Let’s at least share a cup of hot chocolate.”

Later that month, I visited Steve and Jim, two friends who lead a small manufacturing business in north Denver. Sandwiched between a rail yard and tire depot, their nondescript warehouse looks much less remarkable than what takes place inside. While touring their facility, they explained how their team converts stacks of sheet metal—what looked like an oversized stack of paper—into massive fans that improve the efficiency of machinery.

They shared about the steel-and-rivets nature of their business, but it was clear their success had little to do with metal fabrication. They succeeded because of how they cared for their people. With an average tenure of 15 years, this warehouse acted more like second home than a factory.

“My dad had a simple philosophy when he started this business,” Steve said. “‘Let’s pay people well, give them great benefits and really get into their lives.’”

When Steve and Jim talked about the men that worked on the shop floor, their energy intensified. They liked manufacturing, but they loved their people. The hard-nosed crewmen roaming the warehouse floors were not just workers. To Steve and Jim, they were friends, peers, and fathers.

Jim summarized their leadership approach. “Here’s what we believe: Walk beside the foul-mouthed. Treat them well. Invest in their lives over a long period time …and watch what happens.”

And over time, great things did happen because of how they militantly defended their culture of dignity and respect. They didn’t use gimmicks to achieve organizational excellence. They just remained fastened to treating people right. And the results told a story: Business was good, work wasn’t just for the weekend, and their people thrived.

Steve and Jim operate by a simple premise: The best way to do business is to hire hard workers and unleash them to use their abilities. But their special sauce is how they care. And that’s what I missed with the shovelers. Paying them for snow removal was fine, but it was the cup of hot chocolate that made it great. When we shared the warm beverages with our late-night guests, a smile lit up their faces, starkly contrasting with the cold night air. A sincere drink of worth for two men parched for it.

Originally posted at Smorgasblurb.


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