Putting Culture First

Putting Culture First

Melinda and Kurt discuss Kurt’s philosophy of building an intentional culture as the first and most important step in building a strong, successful brand and customer experience. AmeriLux International is a value-adding distributor of multiwall and corrugated polycarbonate sheet products, PVC sheet and liner panels, and steel coil. With offices in De Pere, Wisconsin and Shanghai, China, AmeriLux sources and distributes materials from and to companies around the world.


Melinda: Kurt Voss, welcome to Coffee and CEOs.
Kurt: Without a good culture, you don’t have a brand to sell. Culture serves as a multiplier, where if you have a bad culture, it’s a divisor.
Melinda: For people who are not familiar with AmeriLux, can you tell us a little bit about the company?
Kurt: Sure, love to. We started from scratch in 2004, and we brand ourselves as a value-adding distributor of different products. Most of those products end up in some sort of a building and construction application, although not a hundred percent of them do.

By value-adding, we mean that we do more than just distribute product. Meaning, put them on shelves in high quantities and distribute them in lesser quantities. We typically add some value to everything that we distribute. Everything from cutting a polycarbonate sheet to size, to length, to full-blown manufacturing, assembling, fabrication work related to our products.

So our focus is taking out as many links in the value chain as we can for our customers that happen to incorporate our product into their, whatever they’re doing.

Melinda: I’m sure that’s contributed to some of the growth that you’ve experienced over the last, would you say 10 years or so, you’ve had a pretty awesome growth story. Can you share some of the things you feel maybe contributed to that growth?
Kurt: Well, I’d like to, to think that it has to do with, uh, CEO leadership, but, uh, it’s probably not the case.
Melinda: [laughing] I’m sure it has something to do with it.
Kurt: But, well, I think it’s a combination of things. I think that we did a lot of things right early on, almost subconsciously. And as we grew into ourselves and into our company, we became a lot more intentional about doing those things even more and really focusing on those things.
Melinda: In a presentation I saw you give recently, you said, “Great culture equals great employee engagement. That employee engagement leads to great customer experiences.” Can you tell me a little bit about how you went about defining your culture? And maybe some of the inspiration for some of your core values?
Kurt: Sure. Well, I would say that I always believed that culture was important. You know how it is when you start a business from scratch, you have a lot of people wearing a lot of different hats and you’re scrambling from … in every aspect of the enterprise—managing cash flow, finding new customers, continuing to always modify your value proposition to make it something that the marketplace wants.

At a given point in time, after we had had a fair amount of success, we thought it’d be a good idea to be more intentional about that. So we went about the process of defining who we are and figuring out, you know, what things we’re doing right and then be more intentional about continuing to do those things as opposed to do them just because they came naturally to us.

We came up with 10 values, and then a couple-of-paragraph explanation of each one of those. And a couple of things we tried to do. One is, we didn’t want it to be Harvard MBA speak. We want it to be AmeriLux speak.

Melinda: Mm-hmm.
Kurt: So we wanted it to have people think of, for lack of a better way of saying it, “AmeriLuxisms.”
Melinda: Yeah.
Kurt: And so, uh, we started with … when, when we rolled this out, we rolled it out, not only to our employees, but also to everyone that we dealt with. We would go to our customers and first say, “This is how we choose to succeed.” Our culture statement is entitled, “This is how AmeriLux chooses to succeed.”
Melinda: Yeah.
Kurt: And so, first of all, we gained a recognition of that, but then an agreement on that, that this is how we choose to succeed … do you agree that you want us to succeed in that way? And we didn’t have any case where our customer would say, “No, no, no. That’s not how we determine success.”

And so, then, we went about the process of, as we continued to do business together, look at ourselves and our relationship with that lens on to make sure that we were being good at that way, in addition to some abstract, “Yeah, we’re doing a good job together.”

Melinda: Yeah, that’s powerful.
Kurt: And as we went about quantifying that, and boiling this notion of, that is typically abstract—culture—into something that’s concrete—“And this is how we choose to succeed, together”—and then looking at ourselves that way, I thought that, I think that’s very powerful and continues to be.
Melinda: Yeah. Can you talk to me a little bit about how you would advise, maybe, a peer who wants to focus more on operational efficiency, or driving sales, or other things maybe, and not so much on culture?
Kurt: Mm-hmm. Well, first of all, to be clear, I think that there’s a lot of important things that business enterprises need to do to be successful. So I’m not here to say that any one of those things aren’t important. I’m saying that culture is the most important. And I’ll tell you why.

If you compare it to say, strategy, and one of the things that I’ve talked about is that a good culture trumps good strategy. Now, to be clear, you want to have both, obviously. But culture is one of those things that no matter what other important management or, important aspect of managing an enterprise, culture is one of those things that will bring any one of those things up. Whereas, the converse is not necessarily true.

So if you compare a company that has an absolutely, very perfect strategy, but they don’t have a very good culture, compared to a company that really isn’t really good at strategy yet, but they’ve got a dynamic culture in all the ways that you would define that—companies with good cultures become companies that have good strategies. Whereas, the same isn’t necessarily the case where a company with a good strategy, somehow that leads to a better culture. So, if you take any key item that you have to deal with when you’re running a business, if you have a good culture, that culture is going to enhance that and make it better.

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