When L. Norman Howe's employees say they are willing to walk across hot coals for him, they mean it. A session with a fire walker is one way Howe has built trust and team spirit for his Pasadena marketing and consulting firm.
Howe, a former marketing director for the Kal Kan pet food company, created F&P Inc. (which stands for Fun & Profit) in 1974. He vowed to create an alternative work environment after chafing under the rigid rules at Kal Kan after it was acquired by M&M Mars in the late 1960s. When Howe learned that even the president had to punch a time card, "I said, 'Whoa, this doesn't feel right. I'm not going to go any place in this organization.' "
Convinced that he could make money \o7 and \f7 have fun, he set out to provide marketing and promotional services primarily to the food industry. Howe also consults with companies that are trying to boost productivity and employee morale.
Howe believes that his people-centered approach to business can be adapted to any small business that cares about getting the most from its employees. F&P's corporate symbol is a teddy bear because, Howe says, "We are a warm and fuzzy company."
But not everyone is ready for F&P's innovative style of management. And some company policies surprise people. According to the employee handbook, F&P employees agree to:
- "Keep my word, not lie to anyone . . . including myself.
- "Not to settle for 'what's possible,' go for what I really want.
- "Be clear, or get clear, on what I want from my life and from other members of the group.
- "Confront and communicate behavior problems or upsets, responsibly, to the people involved."
Howe admits that a few people he has hired who were enthusiastic about working in F&P's highly charged but loosely structured environment barely lasted a week.
F&P staffers work in teams, setting clear goals and being rewarded for both team and individual efforts with bonuses and other perks. Employees participate in frequent encounter groups to hone their communication skills. They take turns leading staff meetings to improve their leadership abilities. Howe also challenges his troops with exercises, including the session with a fire walker who taught them how to walk across hot coals without burning their feet.
"If we get together just to push the rock up the hill, it is a pretty boring way to spend our lives," said Howe, who embraces Eastern philosophies. "The workplace can provide an opportunity to have fun."
In fact, when he formed F&P 15 years ago, he ran the business from a house in Atwater, conducting much of it around the swimming pool.
Today, 26 people work with Howe in what used to be a mortuary. Through creative remodeling, he has transformed the rambling brick building into a comfortable workplace. It even has a cozy dining room where the staff eats lunch as a group every day.
F&P's main business is cooking up promotions and marketing research for grocery giants such as Ralphs and Shoprite. Since 1980, F&P's "Coupons of Hope" promotion has raised more than $7 million for the City of Hope medical center. The coupon books are supported by hundreds of manufacturers and virtually every supermarket chain in California. In 1985, Advertising Age magazine named the promotion one of the best of the year.
Howe also works with companies seeking to improve productivity. For the past year, Howe has served as a consultant to RBT & Associates, a Cerritos food brokerage with offices in San Francisco and Phoenix.
The firm was created about four years ago by the merger of food brokerages. But the new company was faced with four different corporate cultures and conflicts that needed resolution, according to Vic Trutanich, RBT's president.
"We felt we needed to go outside for a fresh approach," Trutanich said. Howe interviewed each of his 200 employees, both individually and in groups, he said. Based on his evaluations, Howe suggested new ways to organize RBT's operations. Trutanich said Howe's suggestions directly contributed to RBT's sales growing 30% to 40% in the past two years. Howe said most of his clients are unaware of how he pushes himself and his staff toward personal growth. But he believes that his approach improves the quality of the work that F&P does for clients.
Although most small-business owners may feel that their operations do not lend themselves to Howe's concepts, he said a few simple changes can significantly boost employee morale and productivity.
One thing any business could do is ask employees to write up a weekly "to do" list every Monday morning. At F&P, the lists are shared, not only to increase communication but to provide an opportunity for teams to be formed to complete the work.
To increase communication with customers and vendors, Howe asks every employee to make a list of all the people they deal with outside the company. The list can be narrowed down to a few key people to save time, if necessary.