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Cube Culture

by Editorial Staff--South Jersey Biz
The past five years have not been kind to the asphalt industry, as a slump in construction and tight municipal and state budgets have depressed the need for paving and other supplies. Yet, West Collingswood’s American Asphalt Co. didn’t need to lay off even one of its 125 workers, according to Dave Sulkin, director of business development and marketing.

Sulkin attributes that durability to the company’s corporate culture and high employee morale—an approach to business that keeps both workers and clients satisfied.

“The corporate culture that exists here is an environment that I would think most would want to participate in,” Sulkin says. “Most [people] would want their work environment to look like this work environment. We run on a core set of values that are wrapped around professionalism: doing the right thing, swallowing hard when it’s tough sometimes, and just doing it because it’s in the spirit of client relationships.“

Words like “culture” and “morale” may seem like the touchy-feely domain of management paperbacks, but they can pervade every aspect of a company and can translate into hard numbers when it comes to productivity and client satisfaction. Dress codes, office hours, an approach to collaboration, a mechanism for sharing employee ideas and feedback—these are all tools that can define a strong, productive corporate culture, or a weak, counterproductive one.

There are no right or wrong answers in terms of dress codes and flex hours, but what’s important is that you have a defined corporate culture, according to Kathleen Pereles, an associate professor in the department of management and entrepreneurship at Rowan University’s Rohrer College of Business.

“If you don’t have a defined culture, then you sort of slip into one without thinking about it,” Pereles says. “Then it may be consistent, but it’s consistently poor, and it may not be what you want your organization to represent.”

American companies, she notes, “can’t compete with low-cost production: We have too many environmental, too many anti-discrimination, too many occupational and safety regulations—all things we don’t want to get rid of, but things which do, in fact, raise the cost of production,” she says.

What companies need to do is make their human resources more productive.

“Organizational culture, that is, buying into the culture, gives us a way to do that,” she says.

Bob Savar, the owner of World Wide Web Communications, a web design and software solution company in Cherry Hill, has found that the rules won’t be uniform for all employees.

“We’re a web development company and a technology company, so, on the one hand we have programmers who are very detail-oriented and pretty much keep a very strict regimen with production schedules and timelines and deliverables,” he says. “On the other hand, we have web designers and graphic artists who are more of an artistic culture.”

When it comes to work ethic, though, the consistency is undeniable—one reason most of Savar’s 16 employees have been with the company for 10 years or more. “The culture is kind of that people are pretty much on their own,” he adds. “They treat their jobs as if they have a stake in the company. These are not jobs; these are occupations. We don’t need to be on their case; they don’t need a lot of supervision.”

That’s one benefit of strong morale. Another, says Sulkin, is that workers leave a positive impression with clients. “It’s about the client experience,” he says. “It’s about the touches you make with the client and how that goes, so absolutely when morale is good, that client experience becomes good, which should translate into business opportunities.”

One element that can help establish a culture is a mission statement. Pereles says mission statements for all companies, from the smallest local business to major corporation, should include five elements: the ultimate objective of the organization, why that objective is important, who benefits if the objective is met, the values of the organization, and the strategies the company will use to meet its objective.

Savar says World Wide Web Communications’ mission statement is important to the company. “Whenever I hired somebody or interviewed somebody, I wanted to share the mission statement,” Savar says. “It’s not my mission statement; it’s the mission of the company. I wanted them to understand that we are a client-centric site, and that most of our business came in as a result of word of mouth and repeat customers, and that it was really important to make sure that the customer is always right.”

Another factor is a set of corporate values—such as giving back to the community, offering the fastest service, or providing the best prices. Pereles notes that local businesses often are more involved in the local community, sponsoring Little League teams or volunteering, because they want to be part of that community and make it stronger. “That’s a value,” Pereles says. “They’re saying, ‘We live here, too, and therefore we want to help build our community.’”

A third practice that can impact employee engagement is management’s willingness to solicit input from employees. Savar says staying on top of new technologies is vital to his business, and doing that involves getting input from employees throughout the company.

“Our designers and programmers are always looking for new technologies; we’re always trying to be a little ahead of the game,” he says, adding that ideas come from employees of all levels.

American Asphalt Co. regularly holds meetings designed to collect input and feedback. Those meetings aren’t structured, don’t have an agenda, and go across company lines to encourage thoughts, opinions and ideas. Management then acts on the ideas that it likes.

Pereles notes that workers want to be valued, and appreciation from management can go a long way.

“I think that we, as American business owners, expect our employees to care about the work they do in our organizations,” she says. “And we need to demonstrate that we care about them.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 1, Issue 12 (December, 2011).
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