The successful flooring retailer I interviewed this month confirmed my belief in the power of character. McCool's Flooring Outlet, operated by Doug McCool and his parents, consists of three branch stores in central Indiana. I've known Doug for a number of years, and have followed his company's growth. During our interview, Doug listed many factors that contributed to their success. I agreed that all contributed. But after our discussion, I ruminated on what is the center force of McCool's that yields such success? Upon further reflection, I decided that it comes down to the stakeholders' character.
Now, that's not to say that capital, can do and customers are not essential. However, I suggest that their effectiveness depends on how the company's founders and current operators apply them. Character, therefore, directs and underlies everything else. We can think of character as the company's foundation, while the other factors form the structure - figuratively, the "building's" walls, roof and wiring.
Characters and foundations come in firm and infirm varieties. If a foundation has too little cement mixed with the sand, even thought it has already set, it will dissolve under water pressure. Similarly, when a company has an infirm character, economic pressures may dissolve that character. If that character crumbles, the structure cannot hold itself up.
By contrast, a firm character ensures that enough cement is in the mix to keep the foundation firm. Customers then can predict the stakeholders' actions, no matter how hard that "financial rains" may beat upon the foundation. Customers, then, remain loyal and refer friends. Thus, the company grows in both good times and bad. Hard Work and Ingenuity Breed Success
The McCool story demonstrates how the owner's character influenced the other stakeholders - specifically, employees, vendors and customers. Doug's father, Virgil McCool, started his flooring business in Kokomo, Ind. His character drove him to work two jobs. During the days, he worked on the assembly line at the local Chrysler plant. Evenings and weekends, he worked as an apprentice carpet installer. For six years, he worked part-time to learn all he could about carpets.
Then in 1967, he started his own floor covering business. He kept the assembly-line job while he sold carpet to friends. They liked his dependability, and demand for Virgil's services grew. Soon, he was stocking carpet rolls inside a 30-by-40-foot pole barn on his property. Weather permitting, he'd cut the carpet outside on the driveway. Virgil sold, measured and installed carpet, and his wife Carole managed the business.
Another of Virgil's character traits excited him to give all of his Chrysler co-workers a good deal on carpet. However, he found that talking to them during coffee breaks wasn't effective advertising. One day, he got an idea from the assembly line, where transmissions passed by on hooks. On one of these hooks, Virgil hung a sample of the carpet he was selling, along with a tag showing the price, his name and phone number. His samples traveled the plant. Sometimes they came back with swatches cut out. Other times, they didn't come back at all. Increasingly, co-workers decided to purchase from him.
Eventually, Virgil and Carole opened a small store (although Virgil still kept his job at Chrysler). For some 20 years, they grew the company. After their son Doug graduated from college, he joined the company at their invitation. With his help, they immediately established a second store located nearby the first. They bought a truckload of remnants and opened the doors. The store was only 1,200 square feet in size, but it met their needs. Two years later, in 1990, the family designed a building in which they could consolidate the two branches. The building encompassed 12,000 square feet and included a showroom, warehouse and offices. Situated near their first store's location, it kept their customers coming.
From 1987 to 1992, they grew the company nearly 1,000 percent - fully 10 times the size it had been six years earlier! In 1992, INC Magazine recognized McCool's Flooring Outlet on its list of the 500 Fastest Growing Small Businesses. In fact, McCool's was the fastest growing flooring business in America for that period.
In 1994, the McCools opened a store about 40 miles south of Kokomo, in the Indianapolis suburb of Carmel, Ind. Doug and his wife, Carmen, took over that store. Virgil retired from Chrysler to help Carole manage the Kokomo store. By 2000, they'd outgrown the Kokomo building. So, they added another 40,000 square feet next door. Three years later, they opened a third store in Fishers, Ind., another suburb about 15 miles southeast of Carmel. Doug said a major purpose to that move was to maximize their investment in advertising.
Vision, Leadership and ‘USP'
I asked Doug why they succeeded. "The family trusts our father's vision," he replied. "It's easy to follow someone who is excited and optimistic about the future."
Indeed, Virgil's optimism had led them from a single, modest store to a 52,000-square-foot mega-store, plus two other stores. That's vision!
"You've often mentioned your father's vision," I remarked to Doug. "But what exactly is your company's vision?" It so happens that the McCools committed that vision to paper several years ago. It is as follows:
It is our vision to be a common household name, recognized as the best place to purchase flooring, developing trust through the demonstration of God's Presence and Divine actions in our lives and in our business.
Wow, that's what I call a lofty vision. I asked Doug how it has it governed the business. He explained that his parents excelled at both leadership and management. "My father is the visionary, and my mother is the manager," he said. "He goes a 100 miles an hour, and she is his brakes."
Leadership, I can safely say, is the second aspect of their character. Virgil led by envisioning that he could serve every family in Kokomo better than rivals could.
Doug tells it this way: "We were not afraid to market our business. Even with no money to advertise, we'd go to church or a restaurant and spread the word about our business. In order to become a household name, we had to constantly market the company and ourselves.
"It started in the Chrysler plant with carpet samples on the hook."
Further, Virgil led by considering every stakeholder's needs before making a decision. "My parents make it clear that it's OK to disagree," he explains. "Everyone has that sense that all decisions are made after considering what's best for everyone and their families." Employees, who feel that depth of concern, tend to follow with a full heart and willing hands.
The third element that flowed from the owners' character was the company's "USP," or Unique Selling Proposition. It follows the vision. They established their brand in Kokomo and the Indianapolis suburbs by persistently promoting their USP, and consistently providing superior customer service. The public learned what they stood for.
"We were not afraid to show the personality of our family - it's part of our brand," Doug explained. "For 19 years, we had a local radio call-in show, where we talked about floor coverings and our family. One day, the DJ said, ‘Be nice to Doug. His girlfriend broke up with him today.' Concerned people called in to comfort me. Later, my wedding was a community event."
He won't admit it, but Doug has become a mini-celebrity in his community. Customers and non-customers alike have watched him and his children grow up. (Check out the family pictures on their Web site, www.McCools.com.)
To protect their family, Doug emphasized, "We are a family-first business. We live our values. At the same time, we nurture the business, because we know without a good business our family would suffer."
"What's been the biggest challenge to developing your business?" I asked.
"Continually sharing our vision and goals with salespeople and warehouse people - getting everyone on the same page," he replied. "We talk about it all the time. My Father, Vigil, says we have to run to the top of the ladder just to get some employees to step up to the first rung. Employee buy-in is crucial. And now, some employees are more ‘McCool' than the McCools."
By living by what they preached in their vision and USP, the McCools influenced the actions of all stakeholders. Such harmony of mission and actions brings storeowners more inner peace. In addition, they leave a legacy.
In sum, I see three manifestations of the owners' character: Leadership, USP, and Vision. Those initials - L.U.V. - refer not to romantic love, of course, but workplace "luv" or love - essentially, a commitment to the growth of another. I don't think it's a stretch to say the McCools love their employees, vendors and customers.
Their story reminds us that passion for work naturally flows when we find meaning in it. If not right now, I hope that one day you, like Doug, can say, "We love what we do. If it's not fun or exciting, it's time to quit. We love sharing our vision: stay true to family and God, and it will work out. People know what we stand for. I love this work. It's an opportunity to meet challenges, to share with long-time friends and meet new people."
What could be better than that?