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Five Tips for Business Success

How a furniture maker's triumph translates to import/export.


Five Tips for Business Success
Photo by Laurel Delaney, licensed to About.com, Inc.

When I want to kick back and take it easy for a couple of hours, one of my favorite pastimes is to frequent a used-book store that has a fabulous, nearly hidden, section of old used books. On my latest excursion, for a buck, I picked up “Business As Unusual: The People and Principles at Herman Miller” by Hugh DePree (1986). The book explores the times at Herman Miller, the furniture giant, before and during Hugh DePree’s run as president and chief executive officer. In this article I’ve selected five out more than a hundred principles-in-action that DePree implemented at Herman Miller and how they relate to running not just an import/export business but any business.

Hugh DePree retired from Herman Miller in 1980, after more than forty years at the helm of the company. He led the company from a small, family-owned business to a large, publicly held corporation. His dedication at the front of the book reads, “For the people at Herman Miller, so that we can remember where we have come from.” That leads to my first inflection point on this article.

1. Never forget where you came from. As you wrestle with your import/export business and slowly grow it to where you want it to be, never lose sight of your beginnings, from how you did everything on your own to fretting about meeting payroll. It will keep you sane and humble at the same time. As you bring more people on board, they will have a better understanding of what you went through to arrive at where you are at.

2. Treat all your employees as stakeholders and allow them to serve as inspectors of quality at your firm. A quotation from the book reads: “Many years ago at Herman Miller we decided we needed ‘principal inspecting.’ No piece could be shipped unless my father, D.J., my brother, Max, or I had inspected and initialed it.” An initial in yellow crayon meant quality and responsibility (refer to front cover of book as shown). As the book says, now, almost every employee owns stock in the company, and many people initial Herman Miller’s products. What inspection process do you have in place at your company? Is it working?

3. Spread responsibilities for quality and management across the entire enterprise. In 1949, DePree attended a meeting sponsored by the Grand Rapids Furniture Manufacturers Association. The speaker’s topic was Enterprise for Everybody. DePree was enamored by the presenter’s content and ended up asking him to serve as a consultant to Herman Miller to teach the principles he outlined in his presentation. That consultant was Dr. Carl Frost. They all soon came to know him as Jack. And so Jack began to teach the Scanlon Plan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scanlon_plan), an innovative strategy for managing an organization. That plan teaches a business owner how to involve all employees in the decision-making process, with key points outlined as follows:

• “People throughout the organization have to be individually identified as resources who can accomplish the objectives of the organization."

• “People then have to have the opportunity to participate, to question, to initiate, to be innovative, and to become responsible."

• “People need equity; therefore, Herman Miller needs an understandable way of sharing the financial benefits that will accrue through participation.”

And so the change began at Herman Miller–bringing everyone at the firm closer together.

4. Practice self-awareness. As DePree says, “Those who make great demands on themselves, who make an investment of themselves in their work, know they can make a difference. And they can convince others that their efforts, too, can make a difference.” Such self-awareness is the beginning of leadership.

5. The international connection. When Herman Miller took interest in expanding internationally, it went the licensing arrangement route. Back then, there was no way the company could finance its own way into Europe, for example. The goal was “to find a partner with whom our chemistry was good, someone who also had the financial resources, who had the manufacturing facilities, who understood the European market, and who would translate our design program faithfully.” That was achieved. Later, the company assigned a manager to ensure the licensee appointments were carried out. Later in the book, DePree says had the company not gone to Europe in 1956 and if it had then decided not to expand into the international arena, “Herman Miller probably would have remained a relatively small company with low, easily achievable goals.”

Although this book was published more than two decades ago, there are many practical tips in it that can be applied now to your import/export company and to life in general.

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