I am fired-up! I’ve been to Ann Arbor, MI and it’s a neat college town. But the reason I’m fired up is visiting and learning from a fired-up company that’s based there. Called “the coolest small company in America” by Inc. magazine, Zingerman’s Community of Businesses opened up their operations to 90 of our clients and we saw an incredibly strong brand in operation, learned how a truly shared vision can power that brand and support it with passion and excellence in execution and learned how a company can grow through diversification and shared risk.
First a caution and a strong opinion. Some remodelers are very linear in thinking and feel that their business learning only comes directly from other remodelers. They are partially right in that we can learn so much from our peers who have already conquered some of the hurdles we face.
But if you want to propel your company forward, if you want to think beyond the edge, if you want to beat tomorrow’s competitors before they even arrive, you have to be learning from the very best in whatever industry they arise. This takes a higher form of thinking because their challenges will not be exactly the same as yours and their solutions must be adapted to our industry. But the payoff can be grand.
Back to Zingerman’s, a community of 32 businesses doing $35 million in annual sales selling premium food products in Michigan’s doubly recessed economy. They started as a deli and have progressed to mail order, restaurants, a bakehouse, a creamery and a training arm. Here are just a few of my takeaways:
They’ve developed a well-defined philosophical infrastructure that allows them to align all their staff and all their systems and their culture. Their mission, vision and guiding principles elevate their daily work from drudgery to significance. As the stonemason said (and Zingerman’s repeats), “I’m not just laying stone, I’m building a cathedral.” And they’ve made this philosophy very simple and very learnable. This shared philosophy becomes more than critical in aligning 32 businesses, each of which is expected to support the brand.
Training of each employee is paramount. Each carries a paper pocket-sized “passport” with what they need to learn in their job and what they need to learn about Zingerman’s and as they learn it through formal class or mentoring, it gets checked off. This training includes the philosophical differences that support the brand as well as the metrics that support the business plus the learning that each needs in their job.
The original business had two partners and as they add new divisions to their community, it is run under the corporate umbrella by an additional managing partner who might be a long time employee who has proved their mettle or may be someone new like a chef. The starting of a new business goes through rigorous vetting and must fit the company’s mission and vision. The new partner buys into the new business. This is a business that grows through new ventures that are aligned with the original venture.
There is a triple bottom line and all get measured. They aspire to great food, great service and great finance. They are open book but will tolerate the long financial nurturing of individual businesses financially but must hit the mark on food and service.
The monitoring of key activities leading to success in each business has been made very simple and is monitored on a daily basis during the morning huddle and posted on a large white board that every staff person can see. These metrics are not static but are changed as needed.
We visited their bakehouse, creamery, and a restaurant, eating all the way. We questioned lots of staff to see if what we had learned was really in operation and indeed, it was.
I have to end with a personal experience of the Zingerman’s difference. During dinner at one of their restaurants, a waitperson named Sharon came by to ask if I was “finished enjoying.” What a nice subtlety. Then she asked if I wanted coffee. I said I’d love some decaf but only if she gave me her phone number to call at midnight if I was still awake because it’s not unusual to have regular coffee substituted. She laughed. But soon I was laughing because between the coffee cup and the saucer was a napkin with her name and phone number on it. Needless to say, I didn’t need it.