Culture Club

Posted on Jan 1, 2011 :: Cover Story
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Photos by Shane VanBoxtel of Image Studios

The catalogs had already been mailed.

That didn’t stop one buyer and marketer at Miles Kimball from proposing a new seasonal product. Reluctant to sit on the idea, she and her team at the Oshkosh direct marketing company huddled with co-workers in customer relations to talk options.

Someone suggested an “ask me” program. Customers waiting to place their orders by phone would hear the pitch for the new product. If they agreed it was irresistible, it would sell. Team leaders figured it was worth a try.

The effort would be low key: A script would suggest customers “ask their operator” about the nifty serving tray for deviled eggs. They would slip it in right after the line that “calls may be monitored for quality control” and just before the click to the operator. The tray cost a few dollars and Miles Kimball had a vendor with a couple of hundred of them ready to ship.
Three days later, the trays sold out.

“We are empowered here to do things,” says Beth Bush, a customer relations team leader. “We didn’t need to get any sign offs, we just had to check with folks to see if it would work and we made it happen.”

Similar “ask me” programs have now become a regular part of the Miles Kimball ordering procedure, Bush says. A recent one featured the Snuggi, the fleece blanket with arms, and more than 1,000 sold within a few days.

For Vicki Updike, president at Miles Kimball since February 2010, the “ask me” suggestion is a great example of what a company can achieve if it listens to the folks who do the work that make it successful.

“Now this has become a great program for us,” says Updike. “If someone has an idea, our attitude is ‘let’s try it.’”

It’s all part of a conscious effort to create a workplace culture – and one that has others taking notice.

Last year, that culture and its cornerstone component – the Kimball’s Improvement in eXcellence System, or KIXS – was honored with a New North Workplace Excellence Award. Just a few months later, the Wellness Councils of America lauded the company as one of the best “Well Workplaces” in the nation. In that instance, the company was honored with a Gold award for its comprehensive wellness program, which was recognized as a “strategic and integral part of the business” that produces results for the bottom line.

Company managers say they missed the platinum, or highest level, by a mere point. “We are very proud of our employees,” says Updike. “We are not the kind of company that will spend time criticizing what will not work. We learn and we move on.”

For the company’s employees – which includes about 550 year round and another 600 seasonal – it really is, as the radio jingle sings, “a great place to work.”

“There is a feeling here that you can contribute and drive your ideas,” Bush says. “You don’t run into closed doors here.”

Knocking down silos, driving results

While not all of the ideas are an over-easy success like the deviled egg serving tray, Updike says it’s important to listen to them and try them. It’s part of a work culture at Miles Kimball that is built around flattening the hierarchical structures and department silos that can often kill good ideas before they get started, she says. It’s about empowering employees to take responsibility for the company’s success and make decisions that can drive bottom line results.

The approach is not necessarily a unique or new one, says Al Hartman, a University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh business professor who helped judge the New North award, but Miles Kimball does have a unique level of buy-in from its employees, he says.

“They have clearly engaged the staff at a level that will keep the company moving forward,” Hartman says. “They have been very thorough in their approach.”

Keeping the doors open and encouraging employees to contribute to the corporate mission are fundamental elements of KIXS. The improvement system was introduced to the Miles Kimball corporation in 2002 by a management team that included new arrivals to the company, including Updike, who served as vice president of marketing, and Margie Harvey, vice president of human resources.

Management knew they needed to make changes to keep the direct marketing company vibrant and profitable. Working with the Tennessee-based consultants Miles & Associates, the company formed its first teams of employees from various departments, or cross-functional teams, to begin making changes to the company’s workplace culture.

“The thing is, the employees just don’t come in and do it, you have to have a management team that supports it and teaches it,” says Ed Miles (no relation to the company founder), who helped management develop the KIXS approach as a consultant in 2002. “There is a level of trust and commitment that has to be developed on both sides.”

One of the initial projects was creating a base of employee trainers who could then train other employees and begin spreading the new philosophy throughout the company. As the new process became ingrained in the workplace, the barriers between departments were eliminated and top-down decision making was replaced by a more collaborative team approach in which employees were encouraged to take part and use their experiences and ideas to drive bottom line results.

“This really defines how we want to work together to get better business results,” says Harvey. “We really emphasize the soft skills – respect, listening and problem solving. Would you rather work in an environment where everyone is in their own silo, or one where you can work across teams? It makes the whole organization stronger.”

The early returns certainly got everyone’s attention.

Streamlining for savings

By empowering front-line employees to suggest improvements to the company’s processes, Miles Kimball was able to improve the production of its catalogs, reduce back orders, decrease inventory levels and streamline several processes resulting in savings ranging from $15,000 to $100,000.

Efforts to change the way orders are processed and returns are handled gave the company an initial savings of more than $250,000, with continuing savings of 15 to 20 percent per year in those areas.
Consultant Ed Miles made a return visit in October while in Wisconsin visiting other clients. He observed that the program has grown into a tremendous success – not only for the employees, but also for the bottom line.

“From what I see, they are doing very well, especially when you consider the recession,” he says. “They were not necessarily doing that well when we started.”

From the employees’ perspective, changes that take place in the workplace are often gradual and on-going. Someone has an idea, takes it to their team and if it makes sense, the changes are made.

“A lot of times, I will get on the floor and notice that things are a little different,” says Steve Lenz, who works as a business analyst at the company’s corporate headquarters in downtown Oshkosh and its distribution center across town. “I’ll ask about it and learn that a team member made a suggestion and it worked out better than the previous way we did things.”

One of those ideas was the company’s rookie camp for call-center operators. Given the high volume of calls the company handles – you can hear the buzz of voices and phones when you enter the room – the thought was that new operators might need a room with less noise and bustle while they honed their skills and learned the various catalogs.

A smaller, quieter version of the call center was created where new operators can go through the paces until they are ready to handle the demands of the full call center.

At its heart, KIXS is a continuous improvement program.
“It’s what we do,” Updike says. “It’s how we operate.”

Taking the mission to heart

Inside the company’s headquarters on the banks of the Fox River, it does not take long to sense there is a unique culture at work. Updike, Harvey and other members of the executive leadership team have offices right off one of the main work areas. There are no reception areas or gauntlet of staffers separating them from where the work is taking place. As Updike walks through the building, she and the staff readily acknowledge each other on a first name basis.

Walking from information technology to the catalog production areas, Updike points out the prominently displayed mission statements. In addition to the main corporate mission, each department also has its own mission statement. Often, there will be team mission statements below those.

“We want empowerment and accountability at every level,” Updike says. “Everyone understands their role in the P&L statement.”

The mailroom gets it. While much of the catalog sales world is dominated by mouse-clicks and web pages, Miles Kimball still relies heavily on older technologies such as the phone and postal service. About 30 percent of its orders are generated online, a statistic that is in part the product of the company’s target demographic of men and women 50 years or older. The company’s inbound mailroom handles more than 1 million pieces of mail annually, representing orders for its six catalog titles.

Two maps hang in the mail room: One shows how incoming orders used to be handled, the other how the flow of mail has changed. Employees came up with a new system for routing those orders through the mailroom so that the paperwork was handled fewer times and the
orders filled faster.

The mailroom has always played an important role at Miles Kimball. Indeed, it may be the true cornerstone of the company.

A pioneer in direct mail

Miles Kimball Co. traces its roots back to 1934 when Oshkosh resident Miles Kimball, the company’s namesake, founded Direct Mail Associates with partner Dean Geer to sell personalized Christmas cards. The company started as a one-room shop with seven employees. Kimball borrowed $500 and mailed a sample of his Christmas Card to every Johnson listed in the Twin Cities’ telephone directory. The response was so strong it provided the seed money for the first Miles Kimball catalog and the company was off and running.

In 1940, Geer sold his interest to Kimball and the company was renamed Miles Kimball Co. Kimball is considered by many as a pioneer in the direct marketing industry with his ability to create catalogs of unique gift items for customers.

Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack in 1949 at the age of 43. However, his wife Alberta Kimball took over as company president and Miles Kimball Co. continued its upward trajectory in the direct marketing industry. By 1950 the company had more than 1 million customers. That is a number that has certainly grown in the past 40 years. Today, the company mails out more than 130 million catalogs a year and handles more than 19,000 different products featured in six different catalog titles.

A lot of that traffic still comes through the same way it did when the company was founded – the mailroom. Miles Kimball shipped more than 3 million packages this past year. But the company’s call center now handles a large share of the orders, and the company began taking online orders in 2000.

The company takes about 70 percent of its orders by mail or phone, though its Internet presence is growing. Its Facebook page has become popular with customers, especially a recent feature that allows customers to follow the growth of a tomato plant grown in one of the upside-down handling planters the company sells. “Some customers even name the tomato,” Updike says.

In 2003, the company was acquired by Blythe, Inc. of Greenwich, Conn. A publicly traded company, Blythe is considered one of the leading marketers of candles, home fragrance and home décor products with locations spanning the globe.

Alberta Kimball did more than build a successful company. She launched a charitable foundation that’s still active. She helped fund a short-lived competitive daily newspaper and was behind the development of Park Plaza mall in downtown Oshkosh, one of the nation’s first enclosed shopping malls. The mall would eventually founder as consumers’ preference shifted to highway access and expansive parking when it came to shopping.

Yet, Park Plaza continues to play a role in new wave of economic activity in Oshkosh as an office complex. Miles Kimball Co. moved its headquarters, call centers and creative staff into renovated space in the former shopping mall in 2005. That allowed it to bring the design division back in house after it had previously located out of state.

Its distribution center moved to a facility near U.S. Highway 41 on the city’s western edge in 2001.
The sense of community involvement still plays a role at Miles Kimball. Several of the company’s teams are involved with the annual Dragon Boat races on the Fox River that are part of UW-Oshkosh’s annual Fall Fest. They volunteer with the local Boys & Girls Club and other charities. The Miles Kimball Foundation donates more than $100,000 to more than 30 organizations each year.

“We want to make sure we stay an active community partner,” Updike says. “Oshkosh has a very strong sense of community and we are happy to be part of it.”

While the company has been around more than 75 years, the KIXS culture is still relatively new. How long it remains may depend on how long the management team that introduced it remains in place says.

“The challenge always is long term,” Hartman says. “This was brought in by a previous president, so it will be a test for Vicki to keep it going. Can she make it go?”

Ed Miles agrees that leadership changes are always a challenge to a continuous improvement program such as KIXS, but noted the company has already gone through several changes at the top since the program was implemented and it is still going strong.

“Vicki was on the senior team at the beginning and she has seen how it works,” he says. “Margie has also been there since the beginning and she is a tremendous supporter. Even with the changes, they have been successful.”

The question, as Miles sees it: is there something better?
The discussion is moot for Updike.
“I’m in a really good place now,” Updike says. “There are lots of good opportunities here and I love to lead the team we have.”