By Paul Soubry.
For the past nine years, I have been fortunate to work for a great Canadian company, New Flyer Industries Inc., which has been around since 1930. We manufacture buses and lead our industry within North America.
Over the years, we have grown organically and through acquisition — now consisting of a team of nearly 6,000 people. We have transformed our business, both by changing our capital structure and by adopting lean principles to enhance our products, service, and competitiveness.
As I get older and wiser (not to mention fatter and balder), I have come to truly believe the only real source of competitive advantage we have is our people. It’s easy to say — and everyone does — but there is a significant difference between saying it and building a company around it.
We have made a commitment to continuously pursue excellence in our operating environment and in the relationship with our team members. I read a book nearly 25 years ago that had a huge impact on the way I think about business and what is really important: The Great Game of Business, by Jack Stack. It is a story about a company in the mid-west United States on the verge of being shut down that transforms itself and turns it around. It is an easy read and, through logic and analysis, explains how understanding the economic engine of your business is vitally important.
From my perspective, the most profound statement in the book — which I seem to repeat almost daily — is, “You can fool the fans, but you can’t fool the players.” I interpreted that to mean we can tour a visitor through our plant and impress them with the way it looks, but the reality is we cannot fool our employees, customers, or shareholders. Our team members know whether they are trained, safe, paid fairly, and engaged. Our customers know whether our buses are properly functioning and providing good value. Finally, our shareholders know whether we are growing, generating solid cash flow, and delivering consistent returns.
At New Flyer, we are focused on our players. Our method in maintaining the satisfaction of our players is developing outstanding leaders and a thriving work environment. We know we must aspire to set the vision and have the ambition to achieve great things, but we recognize that we must inspire and motivate our employees to do great things as well. We want our team members to follow us not because they have to, or because ‘it’s their job,’ but because they want to.
We believe leadership is not the same as management, and that to be successful we must learn the difference, and do both. We are constantly investing in leadership development so that our team members who design, source, manufacture, and support our products are continuously led and engaged to do the right thing. We want everyone to be committed to making exceptional products and not to accept any that are not high-quality or finished — where ‘good enough’ is not good enough.
We also subscribe to the concept that people are a product of their environment (think Eddy Murphy and Dan Aykroyd in the 1983 comedy Trading Places). The work environment, the tools and systems, and even the support areas must be right if we are going to consistently build high-quality buses.
We have tried to locate as many leaders and support professionals as possible on the shop floor, where the buses are built, to provide leadership, assistance, and troubleshooting support — right in the game, on the playing surface, and not in the bleachers or press box.
We are committed to transparency and always trying to be sincere and humble. One of our customers once said to me, “Shit happens, but tell me — don’t let me find out.” That comment resonated with me. Clearly, it applies to all the players — employees, customers, and shareholders.
We are working hard on communication of direction, priorities, and expectations through various mediums and frequencies within the organization. With, however, the vast number of employees in multiple locations, in addition to the different generations, cultures, and ethnicities, effective communication is a constant challenge.
Lastly, as we continue to evolve as a business, we sought out an outlet to rally all our team together, to unify all employees, whether it be office or shop, staff or union, leader or worker, local or remote, and all others within the organization. We chose the United Way. You may ask: What does the United Way have to do with buses? Nothing. But what it does is allow every person in our company across 32 locations in North America to come together as one team, with the common goal of benefitting others within our respective communities.
As my university basketball coach once told me when I showed up upon graduation from high school, thinking I was something special, “It’s amazing what can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit.”
If New Flyer is going to be successful for another 88 years, we must keep focused on our key competitive advantage — our people.
Remember, you can’t fool the players. Business is a team sport and the pursuit of building a winning team is never done.
Paul Soubry is the president and chief executive officer of NFI Group, and — in 2016 — was named CEO of the Year by the National Post.