There are a lot of windows through which an organization’s likelihood of success can be gauged: strategy, innovation, community involvement. For Steve Meadows, it all comes down to a healthy company culture.
Meadows sees just that in Wichita’s Berry Companies, where he’s president of operations.
“It’s a great place to be, with a culture that’s really healthy and fun to work in. Berry Companies puts a huge amount of investment in the importance of the employees and the culture they’re living in. If we take care of the employees, they’ll take care of the customers.”
The culture is not only healthy, but unique. With eight operating divisions, each in the equipment industry, some might expect Berry Companies to see itself as a “parent organization.” But authority is decentralized, with each division operated and managed independently. And so the company website describes the firm as “an administrative support group that provides IT, accounting, data processing, payroll, insurance, marketing and financial services to each of our eight operating divisions.”
Meadows counts himself as fortunate to play a steward’s role for seven of the eight Berry Companies' divisions. “I’m traveling a lot. Each one has a general manager, and I make sure those general managers are doing well, that their divisions’ culture is healthy, that they’re building support structures so they can continue to grow the business. Sometimes we feel we can do it all as a general manager, but we have to grow the people around us. We can’t do it all ourselves.”
When Meadows got into the equipment business as a young man, it wasn’t as someone who was necessarily earmarked for a rise to the executive level. He joined Berry Companies’ KC Bobcat division in 1997 as “the guy they could just send to do things” – work in the wash bay, provide yard help, occasionally drive a truck.
Yet for all its lack of glamour, something about the equipment business just clicked for Meadows. Previously, after a period of time as a self-described “lost soul,” he was a janitor with the local school district and two stints in the airline industry, both of which ended in layoffs. “They were just jobs. You were just there for the paycheck. It wasn’t fun, there wasn’t passion.” In contrast, being hired by KC Bobcat was “a life-changing experience.”
“They told me you could work as much as you want, and they had a bonus system. At the time we had two kids in diapers and we were looking for ways to make some money. The bonus system really spoke to me.” But for all the pragmatic virtues offered by his new company, there was an emotional connection as well. “I really loved it. The people, the equipment business – it was fun. The opportunity to work hard and get paid back in a bonus was awesome.”
Meadows worked his way up in the KC Bobcat organization and eventually moved up to the “administrative support group” known as Berry Companies. He credits a series of general managers who supported him along the way, as well as a good friend who came up with him at KC Bobcat, where they taught each other as they went.
But he also credits his own ability to remain focused on the task at hand at all times.
“A lot of times we want to think about the next thing, and we get so worried about that. We’ve got to focus on what we’re doing and do a really good job of that.”
And so today when he looks for potential, he looks first for someone putting effort into their current position, but also “someone with a desire to learn and grow, to learn the ins and outs from the more senior people, asking the right questions, always willing to jump in and lend a hand. Those people stand out.”
Berry Companies is walking the walk when it comes to a healthy culture that invests in its employees – in the form of both a management intern program and a leadership development program.
The management intern program puts those identified with potential on the road for nine months, working the rental counter for two weeks, working in service, and all the while learning the different departments and the different cultures. “In the end, if everything works right, you’re going to get some offers.”
But the real gem among the company’s people development initiatives is the leadership program. Participants are nominated by the divisions, with up to 20 per class. They meet for six modules spread out over nine months, starting in the fall and running through the spring, in one of the eight cities with a Berry Company division.
“The cool thing about this is that we [the executives] teach the classes ourselves. I’ll teach a section; Walter Berry, the CEO, teaches another; our Chief People Officer Stephanie Farley teaches another.” In addition, the classes participate in business simulations run by PriSim. “You get to see how decisions you make affect the numbers and affect the business.”
But for all the purely educational value of the leadership development program, the greater benefit may be in the relationships that are built. “We get an opportunity to be with the students and get to know them in a way we wouldn’t usually do, and they get to know us. It’s one of the ‘secret sauces’ of the Berry Companies.”
Though there is still much to look forward to in his career, Meadows looks back with gratitude. He sees his college years as a failure, albeit one he was able to turn into a success. “I didn’t graduate in the normal way. I was asked not to return – I had some grade problems, some academic problems. But once I had kids, I knew I had to get this done. It sure would’ve been easier to do it in the normal way.
“I was able to find a company that I love, and it made a difference in my life. Each time I had an opportunity to advance, I felt I couldn’t believe they were going to let me do this. I had some fear that I wouldn’t be good enough, but I just needed to work hard and learn enough to do it. Even in my current position – I’m going on nine years, but hopefully I can be a good enough people person to support our people and our customers.
“I’m very thankful to have found an industry that matched my personality and my talents.” That degree of gratitude may be the ultimate testament to the power of a healthy company culture.