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Winning the Culture War

By Tom Kaiser

Make your workplace one where your team has fun, and your back

Any engaged business leader wants his or her company to be a positive environment where employees are happy, customers pick up on the good vibes and turnover is minimized. Much has been made about the Apples, Facebooks and Googles of the world with their everyday-is-casual-Friday, impromptu Nerf gun wars, Ping-Pong tables and built-in ball pits. But how does a workplace keep up with the Jonses down the street without breaking the bank and turning your facility into the adult equivalent of a McDonalds PlayPlace?

The answer is found looking beyond the noise of “this business does x” and “that business gives employees y” and instead focusing on what a business and its employees can achieve with a positive company culture.

Taking an innovative approach to fostering its culture, Maine’s Port Harbor Marine focuses on employee benefits, recognition programs, training, education and an open dialogue with its employees. One of Boating Industry’s Top 100 dealers, Port Harbor won our “Best Place to Work” recognition in 2012, as well as a state-specific best place to work award in 2011.

“For the amount of money [our crewmembers] make, they pass a lot of different companies on their way here that they could work for the same or more money and probably not have a lot of the stress,” said Port Harbor president Rob Soucy. “Thankfully they do [work here], because there’s obviously something beyond the paycheck that they enjoy, and I think one of the things is that we care for them, we get to know them on a personal basis.”

Defining culture

A business with a positive company culture is an environment where consumers and employees know the company’s core values, employees are appreciated and managers feel comfortable knowing that the right thing will be done when they’re not looking. In short, a company’s culture is its personality, both inside its four walls and to the outside world.

Google – Zurich

Google – Zurich

Nobody can discount the importance of having fun at work, but company culture is not created by amenities. The real secret at some of the world’s most innovative companies isn’t the proverbial Ping-Pong table, but the atmosphere of openness where employees feel relaxed, everyone’s opinion is valued and supervisors can feel confident that the team has their back. This requires a philosophical, not necessarily financial, investment in your working environment, your staff and, if you’re at the helm of the ship, your own management style.

Culture is typically defined by values, priorities and communication – not just what happens, but also how it happens. Once an organization has defined its core values, consistency is crucial, as any guidelines lose their value as soon as they stop guiding a group’s everyday decision-making.

Generational differences are another key factor, as the Millennial generation — what many companies are aiming for with their new-age amenities — becomes an ever-larger portion of the working population. A group as large as the Baby Boomers, Millennials (18-34) are often labeled as an entitled generation, yet their general willingness to please superiors and be treated like equals means a custom-tailored working environment can make them a highly motivated group.

The Port Harbor Marine way

At Port Harbor Marine, Soucy put an outsized effort into shaping his 65-employee organization’s culture after he and his two siblings took over the family business. After completing succession planning with Spader Business Management, Soucy became the company’s president in 2007. While he always envisioned moving to the top of the ladder, succession planning taught him that it’s one thing to want it, and another to possess the skills and motivation to be a team leader that inspires and energizes employees.

Port Harbor Marine

Port Harbor Marine

“Between my two brothers and I, I think we’re all very capable of doing this role,” Soucy said. “They actually said I would probably be the best person to do it, and that was something the three of us decided on.”

Port Harbor has six locations throughout Maine, with its flagship located at the end of Spring Point in South Portland. The organization was named one of the 2011 Best Places to Work in Maine.

Soucy attributes the Best Places awards to a variety of factors, first and foremost caring deeply for employees, paying attention to their family or personal needs and attempting to treat everyone fairly.

“We’re not the highest paid place around, we’re not the lowest paid place around, we may not have the greatest set of benefits, but I think at the end of the day, we represent a pretty decent and fun place to work,” he said.

Culture is a major focus of the organization that starts at the beginning of the year with a meeting where the team discusses its vision, mission and values for the coming year.

The company adheres to four key values: teamwork, ethics, quality and success. Crewmembers (Port Harbor eschews the term employee) are expected to know what those are, what they mean and why they have them. Those business goals persist throughout the year, while its permanent values are prominently displayed for both customers and the team.

“I’m always trying to keep them engaged and feel like they have ownership of not necessarily the company, but their career, their role, what they do,” Soucy said. “It’s not just a one-time campaign where we’re going to say we’re going to have our vision and mission and values and talk about it at this meeting and get a nice poster and put it up on the wall … it’s a commitment.”

As the business grew, it became challenging to spread the culture from its South Portland headquarters throughout the organization’s five other locations, an ongoing project for Port Harbor’s leadership.

“As good as I think we are at doing some of this stuff, we’ve still got a long ways to go,” Soucy said. “There are a couple stores that are close and a couple stores that are, you know, still working very hard at it.”

Aside from participating in Maine’s Best Places program, a project of the Society for Human Resource Manage, Maine State Council and Best Companies Group, Soucy also recommends the Marine Five Star Dealer Certification process — both included employee surveys that were very useful.

One thing that came up through Port Harbor’s certification process was that its crewmembers wanted to be better informed on what was going on in the company. That sentiment was the impetus to revive quarterly meetings at each location.

Digging deeper than company-wide meetings, Port Harbor also started a series of more intimate meetings it called the dealer council, an employee focus group where Soucy would spend one day per quarter with employees from each location to discuss various agenda items, and to analyze strengths and weaknesses without any fear or retribution.

“The idea was that it would generate a bunch of conversations between our crewmembers,” he said. “We ran it for a couple of years and got a lot of good feedback — we implemented some minor changes … that I probably wouldn’t have ever known about as an owner.”

Make a plan, adhere to it

Rec Boat Holdings

Rec Boat Holdings

Creating a culture where employees advance your brand identity, and where your customers know what kind of treatment to expect, is easier than ripping up a corner of your show floor and installing a ball pit. Create a plan not just of where you hope to take your business, but the style with which you hope to get there.

Do you reward a team member because they’ve been there a certain amount of time, or because they did something that reflected your organization’s stated values? How do you want service techs to handle a sticky situation when there’s no manager standing close by? Should your employees aspire to spend the rest of their career at your organization? If so, what attainable and affordable things could encourage that type of highly valuable loyalty?

Some employee benefits require a minimal financial investment. Expanding its preexisting retail boat club, Port Harbor granted employees of two years or more membership into the program.

“One of the toughest questions I always got from an employee was, ‘Can I use a boat?’” said Soucy. “If you have six or seven employees, it’s probably not a big deal, but when you have 60, 70, 80 employees, it’s a challenge. If you say yes to one, you have to say yes to them all.”

After working with MarineMax to figure out the details of the plan, tweaking his insurance and adding a few more boats to the fleet, the employee boat club has been regularly utilized by 15 to 20 percent of the company’s staff.

More important than any benefit, however, Soucy says it’s the leadership’s job to set a positive tone that permeates through the organization.
“Every action tells a story, so if your people see you down and out or see you stressed, guess what’s going to happen: they’re going to think something’s wrong,” he said. “I say this all the time in my 20 group, because they think sometimes I’m out there a little bit, but you’ve got to be upbeat, you’ve got to engage your crewmembers … because how you are, they’re going to respond in kind.”

For more on company culture, see this Q & A with Christophe Lavigne, vice president of engineering at Rec Boat Holdings, on creating a positive office environment. 


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