Eastern Shore Forest Products and Atlantic Traffic Safety talk talent, expansion and customer experience.
Running a business can feel like a test of mental and physical strength. Growing one is an act of courage, because it means pushing boundaries, thinking outside the box and driving forward every day—you never stop pushing. It takes resilience and grit. And, it also takes a sense of humor many days. Meet two Deeley Insurance Group clients, Eastern Shore Forest and Atlantic Traffic Safety. In this Growing Forward series, they share their business expansion stories.
Eastern Shore Forest Products – It’s All About the People
It’s called the daily huddle and it happens in the morning for 10 minutes at every Eastern Shore Forest Products facility. “Managers meet with direct reports, and we talk about what we’re going to accomplish for the day,” says Tom Johnson, president of the 38-year old company based in Salisbury, Md. “Everyone walks away each morning knowing the game plan.”
Communication is a main focus for the growing forest products company. Eastern Shore Forest Products makes mulch, biomass fuels, soil, firewood, animal bedding and other forestry products. “We’re one of the few companies in our industry that starts with a standing tree harvested by our own personnel, produces a product, and delivers it directly to retail stores for resale,” Johnson says.
In the last three years, the company has opened two new shavings facilities in Maine and Texas, along with a bundled firewood operation in Federalsburg, Md. Most of its recent growth has been in the area of retail consumer products, many of which you can buy nationwide in garden centers and chain stores like Tractor Supply.
With a wide geographic spread in operations, maintaining a consistent positive culture with open communication is an inevitable challenge. “We’re learning how to communicate with people when you can’t speak to them face to face every day” says Johnson, relating that the daily huddle is evolving, and the company has added additional communication tools to link the various facilities with home base.
Technology has been key: voice, email, text, video. “We’ve been very fortunate to attract really great people that buy into our philosophy of doing whatever it takes and are able to communicate that to their direct reports,” Johnson adds.
Every employee has some contact with a supervisor every day. This fosters consistency and keeps lines of communication wide open.
“If you have five people working on a line and they don’t know what each other are doing, that creates a problem,” Johnson says of why team meeting and communicating in a range of ways helps support productivity, quality and, ultimately, growth. “Here, person 1 on the crew knows what person 5 will do today, and then they can support each other.”
Word of mouth is the best recruiting tool Eastern Shore Forest Products has, Johnson says. “We have a high level of integrity, we take care of our people, and that has been very helpful with attracting talent. We get folks who come to us and ask, ‘Do you have any openings?’ I had one guy tell me the other day, ‘I’ve been trying to get into your company for three years.’ Some positions are that way—and you know you’re doing something right when you have folks who are trying to get in.”
What generates this fan-like interest in Eastern Shore Forest Products among people who have yet to step through its doors? In a word, culture. But there’s many pieces to that, including how employees are involved in problem-solving and participate as a team. “We adopted 5 S across our company which has allowed us to become better organized in operations and has made everyone feel more prepared for their job duties,” Johnson says of the LEAN method that involves creating consistent systems and procedures. It’s a mindset of “everything has its place.”
The company also wants employees to bring their ideas for improvement to the table.
“We’re always looking for new, better ways to do things, and the end-goal here is to produce the best products for our customers,” Johnson says.
Additionally, the company places a high value on keeping its personnel safe and has recently hired a safety resource director who is focused on making sure employees stay safe on the job. “We’ve always prioritized safety here, but those efforts were headed up by various managers,” Johnson says. “Now we have a dedicated person that oversees safety initiatives.”
That includes following up on equipment certifications to be sure operators are properly trained and licensed, as well as staying up on safety regulations and assuring proper safety supplies are on site at all times. “I don’t want anyone here to go home with an injury,” Johnson says. “Many companies don’t have a dedicated safety resource person, but we felt there was no way to run our business without that position in place.”
When Eastern Shore Forest Products does need to recruit for new positions, it taps into various online platforms to get the word out. Johnson wants to be creative with how the company recruits its people when it needs to fill positions—finding the right person is key, and we will train that new hire to do the job. “We have posted jobs on our Facebook page, and we’ve used sites like CareerBuilder,” Johnson says. “We cast a wide net, from using recruiters to social media sites.”
Treating People Right
One initiative Johnson is enthusiastic about that aligns with his passion for employee satisfaction is creating employee centers at his manufacturing facilities. “We want to make sure our people have a really welcoming environment when they walk in,” Johnson says. “You don’t just walk up to a timeclock and jump into a machine,” he says. Employee centers at its locations includes a comfortable, air-conditioned room with water and healthy snacks. There are clean bathrooms and an area to take a break with a large video monitor for communicating. “Now, when we build a new facility, the first thing we complete is the employee center where they get their information for the day.”
Not all Eastern Shore Forest facilities are currently equipped with an employee center, but they are on the drawing board. “You have to focus on your people,” Johnson emphasizes. “Whether it’s the person who is loading a truck or driving a forklift, or a mid-level manager, every person on our team has to be enthusiastic about the job. When they’re enjoying their work, we can deliver the best products to our customers.”
And, the customer is a constant conversation at Eastern Shore Forest Products. “We always talk about how we are making their experience better and how our decisions and actions will impact customers,” Johnson relates. “We want our folks here to know there is a lot of opportunity for them if they really care about customers, because those customers are hungry for quality products. It makes this job a lot of fun when you know every day, you are improving something for somebody.”
Looking ahead, Johnson is pleased that his daughter Lindsey Johnson has been working in the business and will join the team after she graduates from the University of Virginia next year. “She has the drive I have for doing things right and making things better—for thinking outside the box,” he says.
There’s so much opportunity for business growth here and across the country, Johnson adds. “Customers want good products and they want to be treated right,” he says. “But you can’t focus on them unless you focus on your own people first.”
Johnson says, as an owner, he’s most proud of the high-quality people he has met and worked alongside during the journey of growing the business. “It seems every time we open a new plant, we meet a host of new people that are high-caliber, enthusiastic and share our values,” he says. “It makes things very enjoyable.”
What’s also inspiring is how receptive his employees have been to change. Giving credit where it’s due, he says, “They’ve worked hard to propel us through rapid periods of growth. The success of Eastern Shore Forest Products has undoubtedly been the result of the collective energy and dedication of our entire team. We wouldn’t be where we are today without their passion, optimism, and “get it done” attitude.”
Atlantic Traffic Safety – Getting In The Door—and Staying In
What next? That’s the question Angela Gould and Joe O’Boyle asked in 2009 after operating businesses on the Ocean City boardwalk. O’Boyle, a charter captain, had been running boats for 28 years. Gould owned a range of shops over the years, including a funnel cake stand, a motorcycle boutique, wood carving shop and a college/pro wear store. The couple had always beat the crowd to trends by introducing cutting-edge new products and concepts to the Boardwalk. “We were the first to have a pro-wear store—even the department stores didn’t carry that type of merchandise back then,” O’Boyle relates.
In 2009, the couple was ready to shift gears. What they knew how to do best was run a business. They talked to a buddy, Bill Vernal, who mentioned opportunity in the traffic control market. “I thought the state highway handled that,” Gould says. But in reality, contractors working on road jobs sub-contract traffic control/flagging to private providers.
Gould and O’Boyle had an aha moment.
With Gould as president and CEO, their business would be minority-owned—a foot in the door to contractors required to meet minority subcontractor quotas. They saw room for a niche player that could deliver hands-on service and develop relationships with contractors. “Our work ethic is very strong,” Gould relates. “We have a certain standard and we don’t stray from that.”
O’Boyle adds, “We’re just really hands-on—we put our heart, soul and sweat into what we do.”
Today, that’s a significant differentiator that Atlantic Traffic Safety has over competitors that are not as intimately involved in operations.
Right away in September 2009, the company earned its first contract. “The business has grown from there,” Gould says, referencing a recent expansion from a 1,000-square foot garage into a 10,000 square-foot warehouse that allows room for a growing electronic sign equipment rental business. Not to mention, O’Boyle can fabricate crash trucks on site. Those are trucks designed to absorb the impact of a vehicle colliding into it from behind, and they’re commonly used in road construction to protect crews from being struck by passing traffic. “These crash trucks are lucrative rentals that are in demand,” he points out.
With six crews and certification in three states, Atlantic Traffic Safety is growing forward with the next generation of ownership on board learning the business. Here’s what Gould and O’Boyle share about their growing pains and wins.
If the money isn’t in the bank, Atlantic Traffic Safety doesn’t make a capital purchase. This takes discipline—and it called for a little help from friends, too. “We never took out a loan to buy equipment or vehicles,” Gould says. “When we started this business, the first six months we borrowed friends’ trailers—it wasn’t fancy.” Atlantic Traffic Safety grew debt-free, starting in a modest garage.
While the minority business designation can be a market differentiator for Atlantic Traffic Safety—it’s an in. But Gould makes it clear that this certification isn’t enough to keep a contract. “That is a foot in the door, but it’s our job to keep our foot there,” she says.
How? It sounds simple, but it’s not in this industry, Gould shares. “We show up on time, we’re there every day and we have people out in the field doing a great job,” she says.
Arriving to a jobsite on time can ensure the contractor on a high-cost project is preserving profits, which goes a long way for building a relationship. “If we are on the road directing traffic for a contractor that has $10,000 an hour invested in paving a road, including equipment, labor, trucks and asphalt—if we hold them up for one hour, that could cost him thousands,” O’Boyle says. “This happens a lot in the industry when companies are late.”
Also, Gould and O’Boyle overseeing every contract in a hands-on way. “One of our niche is that we can give companies the service they need,” Gould says.
Because of this trust, and Gould’s efforts to build bridges with competitors and entities like the Maryland State Highway Administration, the company has earned repeat business and expanded its service footprint.
“In this business, I have created personal relationships,” Gould says.
O’Boyle pipes in: “If you call the business, she answers the phone all the time. Any aspect of the business, she’s doing it.”
Hiring people who show up, work hard and pay attention to the details is not easy in any industry. And, that’s particularly the case in traffic control, Gould says. So, the company has tapped into creative recruiting avenues. “Every other Saturday, we hold an open house job fair here for one or two hours,” she says. “We run ads in the paper to get the word out. Then, instead of talking to prospects individually on the phone, we can give them information about our business in a presentation and screen up to 20 people in a day.”
Gould has a knack for identifying talent, after more than two decades working on the boardwalk. And, at Atlantic Traffic Safety, there’s no tolerance for sub-par work ethic. With Gould and O’Boyle setting the example on the front lines, they expect their teams to sweat, too—and in turn, they get rewarded with opportunities to move up in the business and take on new responsibilities.
“Everything in the business seems to flow along if you get the right people on board,” Gould says.
Moving On Up
A couple years ago, the couple recognized that they had outgrown their garage home-base and the time had come to search for new property—specifically, a warehouse in a commercial district that would provide room to grow.
They looked at properties that required renovation, and even considered building a new facility. Then, they came across a completed warehouse that was a bank repossession. At 10,000 square feet with completed electrical, plumbing, driveway and mechanicals, it was ideal. Except, working a repossession deal takes grit. Gould and O’Boyle were just the team to take this on.
The process took about nine months.
Now that they’re in, the space is providing room to grow Atlantic Traffic Safety and diversify its offerings with the addition of an electric sign rental and crash truck rental business.
Leaving a Legacy
Eventually, the couple’s daughter, India O’Boyle, will take over the business. “She has been an integral part of the business for the last few years. When she graduated from college, she decided she wanted to be a part of the family business,” Gould says. “She jumped in with both feet and has been amazing for me and the company.”
India works alongside Gould, and she’s learned every aspect of the operation. She’s a certified Manager of Traffic (MOT) in two states and earned her flagger’s card. “She doesn’t need these because she does not work on the road, but she wants to understand the business,” Gould says.
O’Boyle adds that the family dynamic lightens the stress when things at the office are moving full speed ahead, and that’s pretty much the time. “They keep each other sane!” O’Boyle says of his daughter and wife. “They make each other laugh, and they cry together sometimes, too. It has been amazing for all of us.”
Gould adds, “We’re proud that we can leave India a way to make a good living—it’s nice to give a legacy like this to your child.”
>> Take-Away Tips
Hire Smart. Your company—and brand—is only as strong as your team. So, focus on recruiting talent that aligns with your culture, fills skills gaps and enhances the qualities of your existing team members.
Treat People Right. The way you treat your people will have a trickle-down effect, impacting the way they treat your customers. When you show your team members they are valued and their talent is important to achieving the company’s goals, they feel empowered to serve. The net effect is a customer base that gets the best service possible.
Show Up. Bring your passion and your skills—and go ahead, bring the tough day or tricky situation to work, too. We don’t live in a vacuum. We can’t be entirely different people at work than we are at home. Be consistent. Be true. Be you.