Bobby Harris, President and CEO of BlueGrace Logistics, discusses the talent gap, entrepreneurship, the importance of keeping employees happy, and more.
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A quick look at the comments on GlassDoor, a website where employees and former employees anonymously review companies, tells you all you need to know about BlueGrace Logistics: "Greatest place to work." "This is a company that truly encompasses the 'Work Hard, Play Hard' mentality. I have been with the company a little over a year, and I can't say enough good things." "BlueGrace has an amazing culture that I have never experienced before. Everyone seems happy to work here and loves what they do." That kind of culture starts at the top with BlueGrace President and CEO Bobby Harris. Inbound Logistics sat down with Harris to learn more about creating a corporate culture that continuously motivates and challenges employees.
IL: What differentiates BlueGrace's corporate culture from its competitors?
One thing that is different at BlueGrace is that we put our employees almost above our customers. We believe in employee satisfaction first, because if we have a bunch of happy employees—and we do!—we create happy customers. If my employees are happy, my customers are happy—every time.
We do just about everything to engage employees. For example, we have a beer party every Friday and we recently brought in a bouncy house. We want work to be a lot of fun, and we truly care about our employees. I constantly solicit their feedback. Once each week, I send out one question for employees to answer anonymously through a third-party service.
We acquired shipping and transportation company U.S. Transportation Consultants (USTC), based in Baltimore, in 2013. When we asked the question, "On a scale of one to 10, how happy are you at work?" the BlueGrace Florida office averaged 9.3, which is world class; scores lower than nine are below average. But in the new Baltimore office, scores were much lower, averaging 8.5. Why?
After the acquisition, these were our employees from the first day, and they're scared. One employee had been with USTC for 29 years, and wondered, 'What's this crazy kid doin'?' The Florida employees looked at the Baltimore people, who had more experience, and wondered, 'Are they going to replace us?' As a company trying to merge two cultures, we had to get out in front of it.
IL: BlueGrace Logistics has awarded more than 57 franchise locations across the United States, and you provide each franchisee with the technology and service offerings necessary for success. How do you decide on franchisees?
When interested companies come in, we meet and kick the tires a little bit, then decide if we want to take it any further. Obviously, we're much more excited when someone comes in and they either have a book of bids or have expertise in the industry because they start much quicker and they have a reputation we can check.
Some potential franchisees that come in can move freight, but just can't do it real well—they don't have the technology and they want to hire some people but they don't know how to train them. They want instruction, and they want more structure, but still want to own their own business. So we fold them in. They're still entrepreneurs; they just gain a lot more stability.
IL: About 20 years ago, Inbound Logistics started the Hire A Vet program. Does Blue Grace participate in any such programs?
Yes, we're actually big in that area. I'm a military brat, so hiring veterans has always been near and dear to my heart. We give preferential treatment to vets—or seek them out—for several reasons, but most importantly, it's the right thing to do. These men and women make excellent employees. If you give me a choice between a 25-year-old, just out of college, living at home with no responsibilities who wants to know the perks of the job, and a disciplined vet who's also 25 years old and just came back from Afghanistan, the vet will win nine times out of 10.
We also give military veterans a discount on franchises. They make good franchisees and good operators.
IL: That helps to motivate vets. How do you give other employees roots and make them invested in what they're doing?
You have to make things interesting for employees to keep them around, or another company will steal them away for a five-percent raise. The most essential thing you do as an organization is get your employees into the natural flow of what they like to do. That's especially true for the top performers because they know there are people like me who'll hire them in a heartbeat. And they can almost write their own paycheck.
IL: Employees want to know that they're accomplishing something. Do you think that's particularly satisfying for people in this industry?
Yes, people in supply chain management are making companies more competitive, saving them money, helping them deliver better customer service, or analyzing a failure somewhere, and helping them work around it. What a bright future for those people who know what they want to do out of high school. They want to be supply chain wizards and they get crankin' right out of the gate.
IL: In terms of offering practical solutions or being problem solvers, supply chain managers deal with failure every day. They get it right 98 percent of the time.
But it doesn't matter to the other two percent.
IL: The talent gap in our industry has come to the fore recently. Many companies are bringing talent in from offshore. Others have implemented executive management programs to fast-track young talent. What's your take?
I believe in those types of training programs. It's just too hard to recruit, and to think we're going to find a bunch of awesome people younger than 30 in supply chain management who are just waiting to get the next job. You've got to have a farm team, so what these companies are doing is a smart move.
IL: Inbound Logistics recently co-sponsored a program with the Institute for Supply Management called 30 Under 30, to showcase the rising stars in supply chain management, and set them up as an example for other people to see and follow.
I saw that. I'm going to try and hire everyone who is on that list!
IL: We get a finder's fee for every one of them…
That's fine. Trust me, they're worth whatever the cost.