Thinking back over the years on how our company, Stewart Lumber, has grown and how we have changed to allow for that growth, I am reminded of several programs that we have implemented that have helped us along the way. While these initiatives may seem trivial to some outsiders, for me and my staff they were major events in the evolution of our business and vital to helping us get where we are today.

The first thing was our association with other dealers. I attended regional and state association meetings and frequently learned new ideas for managing our company, and I eventually joined a roundtable sponsored by our state association. Through these groups, we've experienced the successes and failures of others without having to experiment ourselves. I still call on and receive calls from other dealers about new ideas and strategies.

The second major project we undertook was a program sponsored by the National Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association (NLBMDA) called the “Managing for Excellence Program,” a Total Quality Management (TQM) plan adapted for lumber dealers. It helped us focus on who we really were and why we were in business. Our staff developed a mission, vision, and value statement that we still live by. This set a new tone for our company, and we developed a new culture for the learning and sharing of ideas, respecting others, and being more considerate of their wants and needs. We learned to set mutual goals and develop strategies and tactics to accomplish them with different teams and task forces.

Next we turned our focus to customer care by developing nine one-hour training modules for employees. They emphasized team-work, dealing with difficult people, courtesy, telephone techniques, and other customer-related topics. We still use the program in a condensed form during new employee orientation. We also implemented the Sandler Sales Training program, which provides professional training to our sales staff through weekly one-and-a-half-hour classes. It has been a terrific help to some of our younger staff by developing them at a much faster pace.

We've reengineered our operations along the way, examining procedures to change or eliminate any antiquated methods. This process led to a significant shift in policy—open book management. We had never shared financials with all of our people, but the more we studied the idea, the more it made sense. As someone once said, “How do you expect your employees to know how to play the game if they don't know how to keep score?” Now we pay a bonus on how well we do in excess of our financial objectives for the year.

This year's new program is called “Topgrading,” a concept that helps us ensure that we have the right people in the right positions throughout our company. We strive to have “A” players in every slot. We want to train, coach, and develop any “B” or “C” players to become A players, or move them to a position where they would be an A player.

Even with this abundance of programs, starting a new one does not mean we drop something we began a long time ago. We absorb all the methods and implement them into our culture. We are constantly seeking improvement as a company and we encourage our associates to strive for ongoing self-improvement.

We should always look for ways to better ourselves. If you feel you are getting in a rut, you might try one of these programs. If you focus on fresh ideas, you'll find yourself building a better company.

Bill Stewart is chairman of NLBMDA and president of Stewart Lumber Co. in Dickson, Tenn. E-mail: