NW Hero Thinks Out of the Box and Takes On a Leadership Challenge

Lauren interviews Richard Brown President BoxMaker to learn how a NW leader creatively takes on a common leadership challenge in an unconventional way with surprising and very unintended results.

A leader must wear many different hats: strategist, coach, mentor, sales person and financial analyst are but a few. I believe of equal or even greater importance is the role of leader as CCO, or Chief Communication Officer. In this case, I’m referring to how well a leader does in his or her internal communication with employees.

This month’s local hero is Richard Brown, president of The BoxMaker, headquartered in Kent, Washington. The BoxMaker, which this year celebrates its 35th year in business, provides custom packaging design, manufacturing, and fulfillment services in the Pacific Northwest. Richard and I met in the company’s new sunny and stylishly designed experience center.

In this interview, Richard and I discuss his own leadership philosophy, the approach he takes in his role as Chief Communication Officer, and the impact this approach has made at The BoxMaker.

My interview with Richard is just one in my series of stories on local leaders, called NW Heroes. Links to other articles in my NW Heroes series are at the end of this article.

Lauren: How long have you been with The BoxMaker?

Richard Brown: I’ve been with The BoxMaker just about thirteen years. I got to know Dave Hill and Dave Taylor, the owners and founders, when my then-employer had an interest in acquiring their business. Dave and Dave made it clear pretty early on that they didn’t want to sell their business. But, they liked the idea of hiring somebody who could potentially run it for them, which is what I eventually ended up doing in my current role as company president. I enjoy Dave and Dave so much. They’re very informal, bright and giving people, and just excellent to work for.

I got to know you through our mutual friend and colleague, Lucas Mack at 4th Avenue Media. I heard he was doing some work with you on an internally distributed video series. I’m really interested in the whole idea of the role of a leader as CCO and it sounds like your video series is a great example of that approach. How did this whole project evolve?

I reached out to Lucas because we knew we needed video content for external distribution. In the process of talking to Lucas about leadership challenges, one day I happened to tell him, “You know, one of the most complicated things to do is figure out how to communicate the same business information to 185 people in seven buildings and six cities all in the same way at the same time. Nobody wants to read more email.” Lucas brought up the Chief Communication Officer role, and he said, “Well, you know what you’re talking about could easily work for a quick weekly video segment for your internal staff.” As soon as he said that, I thought, “Oh my gosh, how am I going to write a script and record video… every week?”

I bet you were thinking, “One more thing to do!”

Yes, and…every week? But it has worked out to be one of the best leadership decisions I have ever made.

Tell me a little bit about some of the symptoms of disconnect that you were seeing and feeling from your dispersed team members.

Culturally, people felt disengaged and unaware. They didn’t know the plan, much less the result. We had tried other methods. I would write a very simple synopsis of business results each month, maybe six to eight bullet points, and we would post them to various lunch rooms. But without commentary, it didn’t have a lot of meaning. Then you have the manufacturing environment, and also we have all of our own logistics here. At any one time, we have 20 trucks and drivers out on the road. More than a third of our co-workers don’t even have business email. So even that method of communication doesn’t work. Even people on different shifts in the same building would have heard different things. If I conveyed something to the supervisory staff, then each of them had their own interpretation. When I spoke with co-workers, I was surprised how different the communication was than what I had intended.

Sounds like that game of telephone that we played as kids! It seems like everybody talks about engagement as a positive thing. What were you seeing in terms of disengagement?

Lack of participation by people – not feeling that they mattered. I believe everybody in the company does something that can have value, otherwise, they wouldn’t be here. But I didn’t really get the sense that they understood how their job connected to a client or to something value-added. We were making investments and they didn’t really understand why, much less support it, which is what ultimately we would want. I want every co-worker to be able to tell our story the way that we intend it to be told. We do a lot of tours here, anywhere from three to six tours a week and have a lot of people coming through. You would just see real inconsistency among co-workers and how they handled tours, how they supported clients, what they thought of as a service, or how they even described our services to other co-workers.

So, was this at all levels? The classic case is a disconnect with the person on the floor or in the field, but it sounds like you were hearing it from middle management and sometimes higher level management?

Yes, and turnover had begun to increase. The economy was coming back and people could find other jobs, so we were also seeing good people leave.

So tell me about your video series. I believe it’s called Inside the Box, correct?

Yes, it’s a weekly video show that is linked from within a co-worker newsletter that comes out every Monday morning. We’ve been doing it for about two years.

Most co-workers see it the day that it comes out, which is one of the beauties of using video.

So what do you do with people who don’t have access to company email?

A lot of the production teams will have a quick safety meeting or staff meeting on the day the video is released in order for co-workers to see it. We’re actually about to allow co-workers to sign up to view it on a personal device if they want to. There are a lot of co-workers who don’t have email that would like having Inside the Box sent to their personal device.

How long are the segments?

A typical full episode is 2-3 minutes, and it will have two segments inside.

So I’m guessing you must produce a bunch of these at the same time, right?

Yes, we film three or four at a time, with Lucas and his staff from 4th Avenue Media.

And who decides content?

I make the final choices on content but between Lucas and the 4th Avenue Media team and The BoxMaker team, we have a running set of segment ideas. I ask co-workers to submit ideas at the end of every episode, and I get a lot of email from co-workers saying “Hey, I’d really love to know more about this, can you bring it up as a topic on Inside the Box?” And they’ll see it in relatively real time, because those ideas get elevated to the front of the list of the segments.

In the email version, we have a regular wellness segment and a segment called “Co-Workers Caught Doing Right.” Co-workers nominate their peers when they’re caught doing something exceptional from a service standpoint. They get recognized with a story and photo and then they also get a special T-shirt. It’s very visible to other co-workers that somebody was caught doing something right and they want to be caught, too, so to speak.

So you know people are opening it and watching it because you could see that in your tracking software. People are writing and saying, “I want to know more…,” so obviously they’re watching and thinking about it. What else are you seeing in terms of reactions and also the impact on issues of engagement and turnover?

I don’t know that I could attribute it all to Inside the Box, but the turnover is going down. For the most part, the way I see it show up is when I interact with co-workers. Every year we have a barbecue at each of our plants. We had about 140 people at the one I attended here in July. Co-workers routinely came up and told me how much they liked Inside the Box. They like knowing what’s going on and they like the fact that we’re very transparent about what the results are. There was a group of co-workers that all wore their “Caught Doing Right” shirt and then took photographs together.

So they were the past awardees over the length of the series. Did they decide to do that on their own?

Yes, it was pretty cool. And, there was a co-worker satisfaction survey that also went on with that barbecue, and there was a lot of feedback in the survey about the value of Inside the Box.

Do you formally measure job satisfaction engagement levels and if so, how do you do that?

We haven’t in the past, except by talking to people. We hired Ann Graham last year and she’s the first true Human Resource Manager in the company’s history. Ann has been hired to improve recruiting, retention and engagement. Those are really the key areas for her. She’s already having an impact, so I think that she’ll be incredibly valuable to the company going forward.

Do you see a difference in your millennial age worker, and if so, how does something like this address them?

You know, I do see a difference with millennials. I don’t think that they can be characterized in a single fashion; and that’s probably one of their defining differences.

One thing I see is that with this group of co-workers is that meaning is incredibly important to them. They want to know that what they do and how they spend their time working has meaning. It’s not that other age groups don’t want that, but this group seems to really have a significant focus on it, and they would take or leave the job based on its meaning – more freely than what I’ve seen in the other groups. Not to overgeneralize, but the ones we’ve seen over the last few years are fine being mobile when finding a new opportunity and looking for something that fits their passion. If they don’t feel that the company is providing them a good opportunity to deliver meaning, they’ll move on.

Speaking of meaning, what is The BoxMaker’s purpose or “WHY” in life?

Ultimately, the company’s “Why” is to provide opportunity, an opportunity for co-workers. We also believe that by helping businesses improve through great packaging and eliminating the handling costs associated with packaging we create more economic opportunity for more people.

Dave and Dave, and myself, are all very entrepreneurial in nature and we don’t think that business is a bad thing. So it provides an awful lot of opportunity for people when done correctly.

Packaging is a great medium for doing that. We get to interact with all kinds of businesses and all sizes of businesses. It’s amazing. Right now we’re launching a new brand called Fantastapack and it’s a completely online custom packaging business. It’s entirely focused around small business, solopreneurs, maybe a department within a larger company, someone who has an Etsy store or a Saturday market business. Or, they could be a sizeable business but this is their first try in packaging or displays. So we’re bringing them a new business that allows them to create beautiful custom packaging completely online.

It’s amazing how much new technology flows into the packaging industry, new substrates, new methods of productions. There’s a lot of innovation involved.

How do you think being a leader who is good at the role of Chief Communication Officer impacts the company’s ability to innovate?

For example, what’s your thought in terms of innovation and taking advantage of opportunities like the online custom packaging? How do you go from seeing that opportunity to actually pulling off this new offering?

It actually goes back to the owners. Dave Hill had a saying from the first time I met him “Do Something Different.” And around here, people talk about “DSD.” You know, as a packaging company, The BoxMaker has been different from the beginning, in that we are half-manufacturer, half-distributor. A lot of companies play on both sides of that fence but they’ll be 90/10 and we are almost exactly 50/50. That means that we’re often in a position of displacing an item that we could manufacture with an item that we don’t make but resell for someone else.

So, if the right item for a client’s application is something made by another company, we will introduce and deliver that product instead of the one that we make. That can be very challenging internally, because we have managers who are tasked with growing these different divisions and they’ll watch an item that we’re producing with great margin. Everything’s going great and then we displace it with some new innovative product that comes on the market.

That takes sales from them and potential margin from the company. So what’s the driving force in terms of making that decision to say, “Hey, Mr. or Ms. Customer, we’ve been making this product for you but we think this other company’s product is even better for you.”

It comes from that mantra of “Do Something Different,” and one of the things that we do differently is we constantly show clients new ideas. We’re tasked with continually earning their business. So, our sales staff, design staff and everybody else, they all know we can’t rest on our laurels. The pack that we designed six months ago might have been brilliant then, but if a new product has come out that could displace it, why wouldn’t we want to be the one to show it to the client? That’s our job.

I think that with a culture of doing something different, the company has been agile in nature. Our clients will bring things up and say, “Would you be willing to do X?” – and we have willingness. Our disposition is to try and figure out how to do it. And we can put funding behind it and lots of different resources.

A great example would be seven years ago when we picked up a very large packaging client. While we were on the tour being awarded the business, the client says, “So, where will you do the fulfillment business?” And I said, “The fulfillment business?” I wasn’t aware that were doing any fulfillment at that point. In my previous company, we did some fulfillment so I had an idea what that involved.

By the time we finished the tour, I had convinced the client that we could do the fulfillment in our foam division, because fulfillment is a lot of hand assembly of parts, pick-and-pack kind of an operation, and the client had enough confidence in us to try. I went to Dave and Dave and I said, “Hey, I’m going to start a fulfillment division and here’s how we’re going to do it….” And today, the fulfillment division is 10% of sales.

To your earlier question – do co-workers know that’s how we operate? Yes. Change is hard in any environment but our co-workers are conditioned to the idea that we’re looking for the opportunity to change.

Tell about how you look for people. You’ve now got a person who is tasked with finding and recruiting good people. I’m guessing you’re not looking for anybody who’s just fogging the mirror?

No! Ann is doing a good job early on. I’m looking for good people all the time, whether it’s in a retail store, a seminar, or a trade show, or in a sales call. And I’ve hired a lot of people who I’ve interacted with over the years that have come here and had good careers; and many of them continue to work for us. I think that the willingness to do things differently and to innovate helps with this need for meaning for all co-workers. Especially that millennial group that we’ve spoke about earlier, for whom meaning is number one in their decision making process.

We talked about this room (the experience center – a conference room and new product display area) earlier and why this room became necessary from a selling stand point. But actually this room is also intended to create a different impression for potential co-workers, because the area they formerly entered into the building looked like a very old-school, boring manufacturing environment and they really weren’t drawn to work here.

Yes, impressions start at the front door.

That was it. Before we put this in, some probably canceled their job interview from the lobby.

A few years ago, I was really having a hard time with the culture of the company. Although I had started in the company leading sales for one business unit, I didn’t come in running the company. It was a progression over the last 13 years. But, starting in 2007, I started to be the day-to-day leader of the company. So here I was, maybe in 2011, bemoaning the culture. And there was a reckoning that I own the culture, I am the culture. I could complain all I want, but the reality is, it’s mine. I’m responsible for the things that are going well with the culture and the things that aren’t, and I really need to take a much more active role and ownership of co-worker culture.

I think that CCO could also stand for Chief Culture Officer as well as Chief Communication Officer.

That’s true.

Is there anything that I should have asked you and I didn’t?

What’s it like to be a star of a weekly TV Show?

Haha… yes! What was it like seeing yourself on video?

It was very uncomfortable! Public speaking is fine for me, especially if I’m talking about something I’m passionate about. But the idea of being on camera every week and having a script was not something I was crazy about at first. The whole thing has really evolved. I’m much more comfortable and I’ve managed to get a lot more of my team on screen.

We get very good feedback about that. Not that they didn’t like hearing from me, but they want to see their peers and other parties in the company. It really gives us an opportunity to highlight so many people that do great work and it’s often un-scripted now.

Now there is a consistent flow. We give praise to the 4th Avenue Media team, they made it simple. So I tell many business leaders that I interact with to consider video in ways and places they can’t even imagine doing it.

It’s good that when you started all this it wasn’t a natural thing for you. There’s something to be said for seeing someone who is genuinely who they are and not a multimedia star getting up there because it’s very real.

Right, I wasn’t an on-screen personality.

Millennials are really good at sniffing out stuff that’s not authentic.

Oh, if you’re not authentic? Yes!

It’s a great model for them to see you as a leader taking on something new and out of your comfort zone and embracing it just saying, “Okay, this is just a journey, I’m gonna be as good as I can be, maybe not as good as I’d like to be at first.” Because if you waited until you’re perfect at it, you probably would never have…

It would never have happened. I don’t know if I could ever be perfect at it.

And you probably don’t want to be nor does everyone want you to be…perfect. Just be yourself!

And on that note…THANK YOU RICHARD!