On a recent episode of the Wholesale Change show, I mentioned that a distribution CEO had recently told me, “You can’t build a culture on Zoom!”
Not long afterwards, the President and CEO of Johnstone Supply emailed to disagree. So, we invited him on the show to discuss how the national HVACR distributor does it.
Pre-pandemic, Tisera was touring Johnstone’s many branches around the country with a goal to unify around a strategic plan. Before he could touch base with each location, the pandemic shut everything down.
Tisera wasn’t sure how the member-owned cooperative would respond to the crisis. By June 2020, Johnstone had not only recovered, but saw its largest month in company history. Tisera credits the company’s Member owners for the results but believes the changes he made to band the locations together throughout the pandemic have helped to equip Johnstone to face the coming year better than it had been pre-pandemic.
Here are Tisera’s three recommendations for other distributors looking to make virtual teams successful, manage employees remotely, and reduce work that does not add value:
Double Down on Communication
When COVID hit, Tisera responded by making massive shifts in how he managed internal communications, shifting his efforts toward channels like Zoom meetings, phone calls and newsletters.
“Our focus on communication is higher than ever before, and we’ve figured out a lot in the last eight months that we hadn’t figured out during the last 10 years. It’s introduced a speed of change, which is good for all of us,” Tisera said.
Structure intentional virtual meetings – For the first four months of the pandemic, Tisera instituted a weekly all-associates meeting that he’s since cut back to biweekly. He made sure to include fun surveys and had a heavy dose of associate recognition, focused on the company core values. He’s noticed that the chat feature on Zoom empowers and encourages associates to participate more in the recognition of others and the discussion. For Johnstone, meetings have become a regular update on the company’s performance, where they can reinforce the company’s core values, learn about how each department delivers company success and feature completed LEAN projects.
Encourage internal sharing – Johnstone members responded to the crisis by creating multiple new processes like curbside pickup and new forms of delivery. To support this innovation and ensure members could share best practices, Tisera set up Microsoft Teams for cross-branch discussion and has seen locations support each other in new ways.
Write better newsletters – Tisera increased the frequency of the company’s newsletter from quarterly to monthly. He expanded the circulation to include owner groups as well as the traditional audience of corporate and distribution center employees. He intentionally features the company’s strategic plan with examples celebrating the work of specific owners.
Embed Core Values
When Tisera joined Johnstone Supply, there were unwritten company core values that the leadership team were able to articulate, however, the company didn’t have them written down. Months before the pandemic hit, there was a campaign to communicate and reinforce core values. Since the pandemic and going remote in the Corporate office, it’s become even more urgent to center Johnstone’s values on how work gets done and people interact with each other.
Recognize good work – As a cooperative that operates 445 storefronts with 93 different owners, Johnstone has a culture of entrepreneurship. Tisera saw branches develop new customer-serving processes quickly early in the pandemic, especially as some states or cities shut down businesses. One owner was talking about setting up a version of curbside pickup for years, and in two days set it up at the beginning of the pandemic. Also, about 80% of the company is now using a texting utility to connect and communicate with contractors, from none three years ago.
Tisera said: “When we have three or four people from different functions and locations working together, we make a point of connecting that to our values. Through engagement and working as one team, we can often develop an innovative improvement to something that hasn’t changed for 30 years.”
Singling associates out and recognizing them for their work has become a highlight in company meetings and newsletters and has created positive energy around the company’s core values.
Streamline onboarding – Johnstone’s previous onboarding process was always done in person, but because so many people were traveling, it was almost never done in the same way. COVID has allowed the company a chance to take a step back and develop its story around its history and core values and record it for virtual sharing with all new associates. Tisera has also prioritized having virtual coffee with all new associates.
“It’s not a business meeting. People are talking about their dogs and cats and what sports they like and their families. It’s something that’s been needed from the beginning, and it’s been one of the best investments of my time.”
Increase Communication and Restore Tired Messy Processes
Since the pandemic, Tisera has been able to use the lack of travel as an opportunity to find places where the company can be more efficient. He’s worked hard to multiply the time he spends on the phone with his top 30 suppliers, as well as with branch owners. In 10 months, he has spoken to his top 30 suppliers and all of the Members in the cooperative (his customers) at least two and sometimes three or four times. In the prior year and a half, that number was one or two times.
Johnstone also has rallied around the LEAN campaign the company began in 2019 to reduce non-value-added work. Since the pandemic, they’ve sped through 150 projects, eliminating unnecessary paper and filing cabinets and slashing travel time by hundreds if not thousands of hours. By surveying both customers and members, the company has also replaced many manual procedures with automated processes.
“Sometimes you have to crack things open and ask, what can we do differently, and what can we make faster, better and with higher quality? Sometimes that means eliminating things people don’t care about.”
Embrace remote work – A branch-based business such as Johnstone relies on its counter and warehouse operations making it hard to allow many employees to work from home. But Tisera has been impressed by what people can get done from home. In many cases, more work at Johnstone is getting done with fewer people, and they’re coming up with ways to be more productive.
“Our Corporate office associates have a fresh new perspective on what is important to the end customer, and I’m thrilled about how many paper-elimination and spreadsheet-automation processes that have been put into place. And in our Distribution Centers, there have been a large number of safety and productivity projects that have resulted in a massive reduction of non-value-added travel time. If one DC invents a project, the other five DCs are copying it, so LEAN is the gift that keeps on giving. We continue to encourage LEAN through employee recognition during our all-associate meetings and monthly newsletters. It’s helped our company quite bit,” he said. Ultimately, Tisera has leveraged the pandemic to care for the foundation of his company through intelligent adaptation. “I don’t think these changes brought on by COVID are ever going to stop. I actually think they have become the core of what we do.”
Ian Heller is the Founder and Chief Strategist for Distribution Strategy Group. He has more than 30 years of experience executing marketing and e-business strategy in the wholesale distribution industry, starting as a truck unloader at a Grainger branch while in college. He’s since held executive roles at GE Capital, Corporate Express, Newark Electronics and HD Supply. Ian has written and spoken extensively on the impact of digital disruption on distributors, and would love to start that conversation with you, your team or group. Reach out today at firstname.lastname@example.org.