Culture Vultures

CEOs who attended Correct Craft’s leadership conference said they were motivated to change their own companies’ cultures
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The presentations were conversational but informative, with industry leaders discussing the successes and failures of their cultures. 

The presentations were conversational but informative, with industry leaders discussing the successes and failures of their cultures. 

A two-day gathering on corporate culture in the boating industry concluded with attendees using words such as “inspiring” and “terrific.” The 2020 Correct Craft Culture Summit, held Jan. 14-15 in Orlando, Fla., was a TED Talks-like event that included a stage, two white chairs and multiple presenters who spoke about the cultures in their respective companies. Correct Craft underwrote the costs of the event and subsidized hotel rooms for attendees.

Being planned since last June, the summit brought together leaders from across the industry, including CEOs from boatbuilders and equipment manufacturers, association heads, engine builders, retailers, yacht brokers and human resources personnel.

“For a few years now, part of our vision has been helping other companies with their cultures,” says Correct Craft CEO Bill Yeargin, who spearheaded the event. “We’ve seen how powerful it can be, not just with our people and organization, but with financial results. I wanted the people in the room to see that culture is not an expense but an investment with a huge return. We wanted to change their paradigms.”

Culture Equals Financial Results

The two-day summit was divided into sessions, with Yeargin opening the conference speaking about what corporate culture is and how it works at Correct Craft. He was followed by Kris Carroll, CEO of Grady-White Boats, who gave a detailed account of how culture works at the North Carolina builder, often including off-the-record details about successes and failures. Regal CEO Duane Kuck then spoke about the culture at his company and how it has contributed to the family builder’s success for more than 40 years.

Paul Singer, president of Centurion and Supreme, led a session on how he built the cultures at boatbuilders he has been involved with over the years. Correct Craft acquired the Centurion and Supreme brands in 2018.

“Paul is an excellent example of how improving culture can impact finances,” Yeargin says. “In just two years, he’s led an incredible transformation of those two brands. We’ve literally paid out more in bonuses to their employees in the last two years than the company made in the previous two decades.”

Yeargin says he invited direct competitors to the summit because he wanted to make sure the message of culture moves throughout the industry. “Every ounce of me believes this is powerful stuff,” he says. “I wanted the attendees to leave seeing that they could not only make the lives of their employees better, but also their businesses.”

Soundings Trade Only attended the second day of the summit, and the enthusiasm in the room was palpable. Attendees spoke openly — with “authenticity,” as one person put it — and often with emotion about aspects of their businesses they wanted to improve after hearing the speakers.

“I will use some aspects of this immediately,” said Gus Blakely, vice president and division head of marine for Suzuki Motor of America. “But I could see a lot of these concepts not just helping our culture, but driving bigger change across the industry.”

Ron Huibers, recently retired president and CEO of Volvo Penta of the Americas, agreed with Blakely, saying that a handful of companies lifting their cultural values could also prompt other marine businesses to change theirs.

“Collectively, if we all improve the industry culture, it could impact the workers we attract,” Huibers said. “These workers could see that the boating industry is a pretty cool place to work. We have to remember that while we compete against each other, we’re actually competing against other industries. If we can align the industry culture, the collaboration could help everyone.”

While the concept of culture may sound “soft and esoteric,” Yeargin says, Correct Craft executives broke theirs down into a pyramid, presented the second day. The process of coming up with the pyramid, which put “Building Boats to the Glory of God” at the apex, took many months to finalize. The lower “pillars” included people, performance and philanthropy, with values and goals under each category.

“There are many words out there,” Carroll told the group during her presentation about creating a pyramid. “Keep it simple.”

The Correct Craft team  had planned the event since June. Kris Carroll and Duane Kuck (center) gave keynote addresses. 

The Correct Craft team  had planned the event since June. Kris Carroll and Duane Kuck (center) gave keynote addresses. 

An Employee Book Club

Dana Russikoff, co-founder of SureShade, now a Lippert Components company, said Carroll’s advice resonated with her. “I’m going back to our team and give them some key words that they need to stick with,” she said. “This summit will help me better articulate where SureShade was in terms of culture, how it already aligns with Lippert’s culture and how we can build on that.”

One executive admitted that his company had no mission statement, much less the more complicated pyramid. He vowed to get to work with his team on developing one. An equipment manufacturer said he will use parts of the summit with his sales team, while also building his own pyramid.

Yeargin quoted business writer Peter Drucker, who said: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The summit also involved some soul-searching for executives, who admitted that they do not necessarily adhere to another Yeargin favorite: “Be a learner, not a knower.”

“That will apply not just to me, but to everyone on my team,” said Eric Braitmayer, president and CEO of Imtra. “We need to continue to educate ourselves on new techniques and trends. You can always get better, but the only way to do that is by bringing in new information.”

Braitmayer said he believes Imtra already has a “good culture,” but some of the things he learned at the summit will be helpful. He also believes that if the 35 companies that attended improve their cultures, it could have a ripple effect across the industry. “If it leads to improving the experiences of our customers, it will have a significant impact,” he said. “I saw the excitement of the younger HR people at the conference. They’ll go back to their companies on fire.”

Scot West, managing director of Ronstan International, said his company had recently undertaken an “an intentional exercise” to define its culture, but he planned to take it “to the masses” at Ronstan to implement it.

Forcing the Tide Up

“My reading consumption will be dramatically higher than the last two years,” West said, referring to the “be a learner” phrase. “I’m thinking of starting a Ronstan book club, not just for my executive team, but for anyone in the company who wants to play.”

West said the point about a company’s purpose and value impacting its culture was helpful. “If you can get everyone in the company feeling a sense of purpose to make a positive difference,” he said, “any cost and investment in culture will be paid back. Bill’s point about spending the right amount for culture and watching your dollars go up was well taken.”

Everyone at the summit praised Yeargin and his team for organizing the event. “I really appreciate their generosity to envision this event and invest in the industry,” Braitmayer said. “If a rising tide lifts all boats, they definitely forced the tide up.”

“This is exactly what our company needed right now,” West said. “We may have some detractors in the company who might call this ‘soft stuff,’ but when you’re looking at a company that has grown from being in financial trouble to $600 million a year in sales, you have to admit there’s something there.”

Aside from the compliments, Yeargin knew the summit was a success because hardly anyone pulled out their phones for the two days. “When they start checking their phones for email or their Facebook page, you know you lost them,” he says. “I didn’t see any of that.” 

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue.

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