20 Questions with John Hazen White, Jr., CEO of Taco
Originally published: 06.01.12 by Terry Tanker
Publisher Terry Tanker recently met with John Hazen White, Jr., President and CEO of Taco, a growing manufacturer and marketer of hydronic systems for the residential and commercial marketplace. They talked about employee education, a dedicated and trusting workforce, his business philosophy, company communications, and politics.
1. What always puts a smile on your face?
Waking up! (laughs)
2. If no one were looking for you today, where would you be and what would you be doing?
I’d probably be in Florida playing golf.
3. You’ve established three criteria for “new things” at Taco, whether it’s a new product, marketing idea, etc. What are they?
It’s got to be different. It has to be fun, and it’s got to tick someone off — you know, a competitor, because if it doesn’t do that then it really didn’t do much — right?
4. What was your most recent “good idea”?
Our new $20 million building expansion that is totally dedicated to education. We are so focused on our employees. The largest investment we make in them is in their education.
5. Why do you believe so strongly in this?
I’ve always believed that if you do the “right stuff,” the profitability will come. And, then you have the ability to give back. When I worked in a factory in high school and college, I saw how happy the people were on Thursdays because that was pay day. And I thought to myself, someday, I want to have a company where people come to work for something more than that.
6. So, how do you get to that point?
What drives this company is giving people a path to success and believing in them. If you do, they won’t let you down.
7. Is this also how you motivate employees?
Absolutely. It’s trust, once they know you are looking to them for answers. At a certain point, pay becomes secondary to feeling good about yourself. And they have to trust me, too. They have to feel like they have security, that they can put their kids in a good school because they know they’re going to have a good job, and no one is looking over their shoulder.
8. Has this philosophy worked?
I’ll let you be the judge. Ten years ago when I took over we were a $30 million company and we had 500 employees. This year we’ll do $200 million and we still have 500 employees, and almost all of them are the same people.
9. Back to the learning center. What type of education does it provide?
The Taco Learning Center is for employees and family members. We have a very diverse workforce, and there are language barriers we try to transcend, so there are language classes. We have individuals who want a high school or college diploma, and we offer programs to accomplish that or even earn an MBA. We’ve even included summer camps for the kids.
10. You’re politically active. When is Washington going to get it right?
In the current environment they can’t possibly get it right because of the total polarization of both parties. It just creates this nasty environment, and I’ll tell you what, we’re all paying a huge damn price for it.
11. Do you have a guiding management philosophy on how you run the company?
We have several obligations. The primary one is to remain profitable because that enables us to have happy, rewarded employees who feel safe and supported. Once we have that, the customers are going to get exactly what they want, which is the best product at a competitive price. So, the philosophy that drives the company is this belief in our employees.
12. When you became CEO, what lesson did you learn the hard way?
I learned this lesson over time as opposed to the “hard way,” and that lesson is, to be an effective CEO, you have to understand people, you have to listen to them, you have to bring them into your life. Everybody has a story, so get interested, listen to people, tap into that in a good way. It gives you insight into what makes them tick.
13. How do you set the tone for the year?
We have an annual plan and financial goals, but we don’t manage the business based on our bottom line because when you do that, it’s too easy to sacrifice your core beliefs. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important; it’s just not the most important thing.
14. New products are key to a company’s growth. How do you cultivate innovation?
We have a good connection to the market, engineering, marketing folks and the best rep network in the industry. All of them are very close to the customer, so we have good feedback on what they need and want. Often it’s just a tweak to an existing product.
15. What is the most innovative thing you’ve seen in the last three years?
It has to be how efficient motors have become. However, our focus has been system design, and I think we are better at that than anyone in the industry.
16. What trends do you see in the market?
The move toward efficiency and the environment. It’s pervasive, and it’s in every industry.
17. Taco makes almost everything in the U.S. How much goodwill has that built with customers?
It’s helped, and it needs to be encouraged. I saw very little value in chasing low-cost labor. In fact, it goes against everything I believe in with regard to managing this business. However, what our P&L did show me is that we needed to source low-cost raw material costs on the world market.
18. How do you divide your time between strategy, finance, product development, and communications?
I spend most of my time on communications, and that’s on many different levels. Finance would be next and then product development.
19. As a manager, what do you struggle with, and how are you working to improve?
This may sound funny, but it’s my own self-confidence. I’m blessed to be here, and I will do everything I can to make this company succeed.
20. What’s the best thing about leading Taco into the future?
I believe in my heart this is the greatest company with the best workforce in the world.
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