This company also has a Director of First Impressions (the receptionist to you and me), and Guardians of Client Contentment.
You cannot be serious. What is this – a circus?
No, this is a serious logistics business that has grown from nothing, using a redundancy payment of $20,000 Aussie Dollars less than 10 years ago into a company with revenues in excess of $10 million, with warehousing the equivalent size of about 5 football fields, and which recently took its 600,000th order.
Well, I was one of a lucky few to sit in on an interview by Karen Miles with Alan Higgins, the owner of Markitforce, in Sydney this week and in this article I’m going to share what I learned.
Alan Higgins had a tough start. He didn’t shine at school. He wanted to be a fireman but failed the medical. He worked at anything he could to earn his keep – barista, barman, golf caddy, on the garbage trucks, as a forklift operator, stacking bricks (10,000 per day). And after a few years he was retrenched and received a redundancy payout of $20,000.
Fuelled by the confidence to keep backing himself, and with plenty of positive reinforcement from close friends and family, he decided to take the plunge and set up his business. And early on, he took the slightly mad decision to turn down a serious job offer – General Manager of another company, with security, the company car and the rest of it – when he and his wife were expecting their first child.
Alan brings energy to every day. He thinks he might have ADD. He loves the adrenalin rush of sport and activity. Having fun is his natural style: ‘It’s a serious business but we have fun doing it’. He’s not the loud, door-slammin’ type – but everyone knows when he’s quietly pissed about something. He knows his strengths, and his weaknesses, and what he likes and doesn’t like doing. So he finds people who like the things he doesn’t, and who are good at them, and creates the right role for them.
He describes himself as ‘off the scale competitive’. When I asked him about that, as he doesn’t seem like the typical win at all costs, aggressive, competitive type, he thought about it and agreed that the key driver is to be the best that he and his company can be (rather than beating others). I think he is really competing with his own standards and expectations, and would probably love it if his competitors raised their game and gave him a better run for his money … as long as he still won out, of course.
Alan loves to be in the moment, really present with the people he is with (clients, staff, family, friends, team mates) or engaged in whatever he is doing at the time.
His attitude is to say yes when his instincts tell him to, then to find ways of delivering. His staff know that no two days will be alike – he will probably spring a surprise on them at any time, with some new challenge to solve so that the company’s promises can be met.
He is action oriented – stand-up meetings, fast decisions, make things happen. He now has two general managers (both young women incidentally) who respectively are people oriented and scientific. He has other people who know how to bark, so that he doesn’t need to pretend that he’s any good at that kind of thing.
I asked him about his love of being ‘in the moment’ and whether this affected his ability to look ahead and have a future focus. Interesting. After thinking for a moment he agreed that planning and goal setting did not come naturally to him – ‘I’m not a natural planner but it seems to work when I do it!’ – nevertheless he has a massive belief in the importance and effectiveness of doing these things.
With the help of his coaches, he developed goals in 2001 that have, somewhat to his surprise, come true. He now updates his plans and goals regularly. He believes in having clear intentions, writing them down, telling other key people what they are, and in making himself accountable to them. So his competitive spirit won’t allow him to publicly come short of the personal best that he has targeted.
He knows exactly what the company is all about. Its culture and values have to reflect fun (of course), integrity, honesty, it’s real, it’s groovy (& they all know what they mean by that), and we are accountable – to each other and to our customers.
He asks staff to write down 101 life goals – and of course, he reads through them looking for gems and for ways that he can help them to achieve their goals. One wanted to be there when her grandchildren had their first day at school – he made it happen. Another wanted to kiss her husband at the top of the Eiffel Tower on their anniversary – he helped to make it happen.
So far so good. Then Karen Miles asked him a beauty: Do you ever stuff up, and if so how badly? And here we saw just how honest Alan Higgins is, as well as his sense of humour. He shared the fact that things go wrong all the time, and some of his examples.
As soon as mistakes are recognised, they go into solution mode and do everything possible to put it right – of course, sometimes it’s too late and this is impossible. All the same, he is honest with the client throughout and makes it good one way or another. The client who was the victim of the biggest error he could think of is still a client now, two years down the line, as a result (and because they know that even after this mistake Markitforce are better than the alternatives).
For himself, he reckons his most regular mistakes are in hiring people who talk a good game but don’t deliver. As he doesn’t micro-manage it can take a while before it becomes clear that someone is not walking their talk. So now he involves others before committing to hiring, as they sense things that he doesn’t.
How does he keep people? Not everyone likes an informal atmosphere, a fun-loving boss, unpredictability and hard work. As Alan says, some people are in the wrong seat, on the wrong bus, heading in the wrong direction. He sees their distress and ‘sets them free’! He reminds his people that he is the only one who has to be there – everyone else can walk away if it’s not for them, but he can’t: he just has to make it better and solve the problem.
With the right people he says that the key thing is to keep them fully engaged. Everyone gets high quality performance reviews every 6 months. They are treated as equals, in partnership with Alan towards making the company successful. There are no ivory towers. He walks round the warehouse when he’s there, and meets new people personally. Induction packs have a personal message from him, and business cards with imaginative job titles – like ‘Action Man’ or ‘Rap Artist’. He texts ‘happy birthday’ messages to everyone at 6am on their birthday, including many people who are no longer with the company. He gives people challenges. And he winds people up! Like the very blokey warehouse manager who got lovey dovey, romantic messages on his anniversary, with the desired result – he got right on the phone. ‘Alan! You’re a poof!’
For someone who did no more than ‘all right’ at school it strikes me that Alan Higgins is a bright, very keen learner. He has a massive and sustained commitment to business and life coaching – not only with Shirlaws who provide everything he needs at a local level, but also from gurus in various disciplines. He is a natural networker, and is constantly being exposed to new ideas and ways of working. He is a raving fan of the ‘Entrepreneur Organisation’ with 3,000 members worldwide, and which arranges a stimulating new speaker every month.
And he is an excellent time manager. Nowadays he never works on Mondays, and only guarantees to show up at the office one day per week – he will be out meeting clients, networking, walking round the business or whatever seems more interesting and productive. He only reads emails on Thursdays. Every part of the business has stand-up meetings of 10 minutes – at odd times like 10.07 am so that it’s memorable, and people stick to it.
What are his future goals?
To walk away from this within 5 years. He aims to have a payday and – you guessed it – have some fun. He wants to be able to spend as much time as he can with his family as the kids grow up. Then he wants to pay attention to startups, new entrepreneurs, maybe some non-executive directorship work, maybe help small online businesses to become successful by providing say 40 warehouse people to manage their stock and logistics.
Oh yeah. And he’s thinking of giving everyone their day off on their birthdays. Except of course that they will be woken up at 0600 by his birthday greeetings text arriving, so they should make full use of the day!
Markitforce is based in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia. Visit http://www.markitforce.com.au
If you would like help in creating a motivating, real, productive climate in your workplace – contact me. This has always been a big theme for me. I have studied other companies who show the same kind of spirit. I have owned a company myself, and proved that these ideas work – after all, I had to pay everyone’s wages every month so if they didn’t I was in serious trouble! And I have helped many other teams and companies to transform their working environment, the way they communicate with each other, the way they are led, and the way they deal with problems.