Tough times bring out the company culture

How to maintain a positive work-force despite
hard economy


photo by Isaac Bonnell

Company culture can make or break a business, said Bob Brim, CEO of Dealer Information Systems. But what is company culture? “A culture develops based on a common set of rules — that’s all culture is,” Brim said.


Probably the last thing most CEOs are worrying about right now is their company culture.

There are revenue goals to be met and forecasts to examine and new customers to attract. But how the company goes about all of those tasks will affect the company culture, which will then affect future actions.

“A good manager will consider what he is doing to the company culture, but so many managers don’t understand the process. They never think about it,” said Bob Brim, CEO of Dealer Information Systems (DIS).

Some managers might not know how to define “company culture,” however, much less understand it. Culture can be everything from the company’s accounting practices to Hawaiian shirt Fridays to customer service.

“Culture is no different in business than it is in any organization,” Brim said. “A culture develops based on a common set of rules — that’s all culture is. A group comes together and agrees to abide by the rules. But there’s a critical mass involved — you have to have a certain number of people in an organization before a culture develops.”

Brim helped create the culture of DIS when the company formed in 1980. He and two other founding members sat down and wrote three principles that they wanted to guide the company. First, provide good service at a reasonable price to their customers. Second, be a positive influence in their industry. And third, make DIS a positive place to work.

“That’s in our employee manuals and we preach it constantly,” Brim said. “Most companies would say, ‘Yeah I believe in that.’ But it’s how you define it, how you practice it every single day and in every single decision that makes it a rule that everybody understands is important to the management. And if it’s important to the management, it’s important to me as an employee because that is how I keep my job.”

Every culture is defined in some way — and in a company it’s typically defined by the founder. If those rules lead to a successful company, then that culture will continue, Brim said. He points to IBM as an example.

“A lot of their culture still dates back to the founder. He set a very strong example and set of rules that defined that company for 50 years,” Brim said. “That perpetuates itself as long as the people who come into the company during that period and learn those rules continue to pass them on to the next generation of workers.”

You might say some companies seem to lack a definite culture because they lack consistency in decision making, but that too is a culture, Brim said.

“Those companies usually aren’t very successful because people aren’t sure what’s going to happen next, so they are constantly passing decisions to the highest level to find out what direction they should go this time,” he said. “That’s a culture — it’s not a very successful one, but it’s a culture.”


Changing the culture

As ingrained as the company culture becomes, it can still be changed, albeit slowly. Sometimes a shift comes from the inside in the form of new leadership, or from the outside, like the government limiting executive pay for those corporations receiving bailout money.

“Culture has a tendency to change over time depending on who’s in charge,” Brim said. “The people who originally set up the rules did so based on their own beliefs and experience and certain things are important to them. Well, the next guy who comes along and takes charge of the company may have a different set of experiences and beliefs, so he’s going to emphasize different things. That’s just a natural progression.”

Culture can also take a drastic swing if the company is bought or merges with another company. Two cultures must then blend into one, and that can be a rough transition to make. But the key is to keep the employees in mind.

When CH2M HILL bought VECO USA in 2007, the transition to a new corporate culture went smoothly, said Ken Marzocco, who oversees the downtown office of CH2M HILL. In fact, one of the biggest differences between the two companies — that CH2M HILL is employee owned — has been the most influential in creating a new culture.

“When the company was acquired by CH2M HILL, the employees were all given shares in the company,” Marzocco said. “So now you get to see how the financials are, you see how much the executives are paid and you get to vote on the board of directors. It creates a culture where everyone wants to see the company do well.”


Guiding the culture

Though it can take years to change a company culture, it is still vulnerable to sudden shifts. For example, a new leader shouldn’t make drastic changes right away, Brim said.

“Companies have been ruined by leaders coming in and trying to change it overnight,” he said. “And the CEO is not a big enough rudder to turn the ship — you got to have the rest of the organization onboard in order to turn the ship.”

That is why Bob Pritchett, president and CEO of Logos Bible Software, regularly asks employees, “What would make Logos a better place to work?”

“The company culture is made up of all the people who are a part of it,” Pritchett said. “Our goal is that the culture is one where there are direct conversations about meeting employee needs. Employees are what set a company apart from other companies and it’s relatively inexpensive to do small things to make this a better place to work.”

The answers Pritchett receives to his question range from simply getting new chairs to installing a mini bike shop in the office to encourage bike commuting. The bicycle repair shop has been a popular addition, especially since at least 20 employees consistently commute via bike, said IT manager Jim Straatman, who first asked for the bike tools.

It’s the little things like this that help a company culture develop into more than just a set of rules in the employee handbook.

“For the most part we have the traditional Northwest tech company culture: casual dress code, hours are flexible and beverages are free,” Pritchett said. “But we try to not let policy get in the way of employees doing their jobs. We try to not create policies, but rather empower people to make decisions on their own.”

And so far, that has been a winning company culture for Logos.

Related Stories