The year was 2009, and the Great Recession had dealt a punishing blow to Barry-Wehmiller.
Following years of profitability and growth from the mid- to late 2000s, the St. Louis-based manufacturing technology and services company experienced a 40 percent drop in new equipment orders. The challenge would become a defining moment for the organization.
Bob Chapman, chairman and CEO of Barry-Wehmiller Group, and his team had already developed the Guiding Principles of Leadership, which lays out the company’s commitment to employees’ personal growth. He’d also recently founded Barry-Wehmiller University, which offers classes focused on inspirational leadership, culture and sustainable business strategies.
In his 2015 book, “Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family,” Chapman and co-author Raj Sisodia chronicle how Barry-Wehmiller emerged from the time stronger and better.
Staying true to the message he and the company had fervently adopted would become a test for Chapman and Barry-Wehmiller. The question of how to spare employees from layoffs troubled Chapman deeply.
To get through the crisis, Chapman asked himself one question: “What would a caring family do when faced with a crisis?” The answer he came up with revolved around shared sacrifice. The company initiated a plan that included furloughs and suspension of executive bonuses and 401(k) matches. Chapman even cut his own $875,000 salary down to $10,500. Ultimately, Barry-Wehmiller implemented nearly $20 million in cost-saving measures to protect employee livelihood.
The move paid off. Business bounced back, far outpacing the recovery of the economy at large, and the company posted record earnings in 2010.
Though the economy once again is in boom mode, not bust, the issues that led Chapman down the path of developing Guiding Principles of Leadership, launching his Truly Human Leadership blog and writing a book on leadership, remain.
Much of this discontent, Chapman says, comes back to people’s dissatisfaction at work. He points to a Gallup poll that found 88 percent of people feel they work for a company that doesn’t care about them. Additionally, three out of four people are disengaged in the workplace.
“We live in a country where we have TGIF. Thank God it’s Friday,” he says. “I dream of a day when we have TGIM: Thank goodness it’s Monday.”
Fostering an environment that creates such a world begins with leadership, which traditionally has been focused on supervising or managing people. Many leaders, Chapman says, haven’t been taught to care.
Before a series of revelations that led him to begin working toward developing a people-centric culture, Chapman found himself guilty of that. He realized he’d been viewing employees as roles — engineer, receptionist, accountant — and as functions of his own success.
“It shifted my complete emphasis from seeing people as functions to seeing somebody as someone’s precious child who I could have a material impact on their life of meaning and purpose,” he says of his shift in perspective.
Leadership, to Chapman, is about stewardship. You must teach people to become leaders, he says, and that’s why he created Barry-Wehmiller University. Its Communications Skills Training course focuses heavily on teaching leaders to listen empathetically, and its class on recognition and celebration is one of its most popular.
Chapman modeled much of his leadership philosophy on his and his wife’s experience raising six kids. Parenting is the stewardship of precious lives that come into parents’ lives, and leadership is stewardship of precious lives that come into companies’ buildings, he says.
Around 12,000 employees across 90 companies, 28 countries and more than 100 locations make up Barry-Wehmiller. Wisconsin is the company’s largest state of employment and home to Green Bay’s Paper Converting Machine Co., a Barry-Wehmiller company.
Barry-Wehmiller offers a host of recognition and celebration programs that look for the good in people, and it’s all about saying thank you, Chapman says.
“Recognition and celebration are core to letting people know they matter,” he says. “I’ve heard people say in our journey, ‘Why would you thank somebody for doing something they’re paid to do?’ I say because that is the way we are called to treat each other to let people know we appreciate them.”
In all of this, and amidst a talent shortage that afflicts many businesses, a company may be tempted to embrace Truly Human Leadership in the hopes of attracting more workers, but that’s choosing it for the wrong reason, Chapman says.
It comes back to that concept of stewardship and doing right by people, and if companies get that in order, good results will flow organically. Chapman trusts his company is creating a positive environment whether people stay with Barry-Wehmiller or leave for another opportunity. Companies should want people to work for them because they love what they’re doing, he says.
“It is so simple and basic that we are called to treat the people we have the privilege of leading with respect and dignity regardless of their role and allow them to be who they’re intended to be and appreciate them for doing that.”