Openness, trust and support – solid armor to battle a downturn

Winning Workplaces Success Stories – IRMCO

Openness, trust and support – solid armor to battle a downturn

The road to a winning workplace can begin in an unusual way. In the mid-1980s, suffering from the cancer from which he would eventually die, William O. Jeffery, III committed his final years to making the company he owned and ran a better place for his people, and its products better for his industrial customers. Out went the oil and animal fat-based lubricants IRMCO had made for decades. In came much more environmentally friendly, water-based products.

As he overhauled his product line, so, too, did Jeffery remake the way management dealt with its employees. “He got extra-focused on people,” recalls his son and IRMCO’s current CEO, William C. “Jeff” Jeffery, who runs the 22-employee Evanston, IL, company, with his brother, Bradley. A key first step was to put in place what is now commonly referred to as “open book” management – sharing all financial details, except payroll, on a regular basis with all employees.

Opening the books, especially with an employee profit sharing plan in place, clears away any employee feeling that the company is a piggybank for the owners. “Employees can see what is available for my brother and me to take out,” says Jeff, who represents the fourth generation of family owners. “When they see during tough times that we aren’t taking money out, they understand that we are all in this together. It helps create good will.” Don’t just take his word for it. General manager Jennifer Kalas, who worked at two other industrial companies before IRMCO, notices something different. “People are aware of what’s going on, the budget, where the money is being spent,” she says. “People take ownership.”

The culture of openness, trust, and cooperation has evolved under the brothers Jeffery through other programs. The brothers use the metaphor of the wolf pack – “the only perfect team in nature,” says Jeff – to build teamwork and information sharing. Monthly “wolf pack” meetings of all employees provide a forum for business updates, question answering, and nominations for the “lone wolf” award for exceptional work. At the end of each quarter, the winner is drawn from a hat and presented with $250 of “wolf dough” that must be spent on some kind of celebration.

The teamwork idea extends to intra-departmental cross training, where a “redbook” of job tasks and responsibilities is provided to – and is expected to be understood by – all employees. The flexibility has been an important asset in allowing IRMCO to manage through the good times and bad. As general manager Kalas points out: “In the good times, we don’t have to add more people, so that in the bad times we don’t have to lay them off.”

In fact, heavily dependent upon hard-hit auto industry suppliers, times have been rough for more than a year for IRMCO. But, the company has adapted, buttressed by the undercurrent of employee-management goodwill. IRMCO even has managed to make money without draconian actions such as layoffs or the elimination of core programs. Yes, a salary freeze is in place. And, an open-ended tuition reimbursement program, which some employees took advantage to further their education and leave, has been long since replaced. Now, IRMCO searches for state job training grants to fund half of the tuition cost, and, just as important, is targeting specific skill improvements at IRMCO – thereby, more closely aligning the interests of employees and IRMCO. Still other programs, such as a $250 wellness bonus for demonstrated improvement of mind or body, remain intact.

While a lot of his customers are “getting crushed,” Jeffery leaves no doubt that there is a clear line connecting his company’s relative success and its legacy of trust and support. “We are nimble and creative, with smart people communicating and working together.” Sounds like a howl from a wolf pack.