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A Leadership Model for the Times

Aug 17, 2007
The vast percentage of all business startups and entrepreneurs fail.

Of the few who survive long enough to become successful, less than a quarter of them make a successful transition to the second generation.

As CEO of The Working Person's Store, Eric Deniger is doing just that. Eric's leadership style illustrates what's critical in a 21st century business leader who is also a second-generation success story.

The Working Person's Store was established in 1995 with the sole mission of serving working people with a broad selection of work clothing, footwear, safety gear and accessories.

Customers can purchase items at its flagship store in Lakeville, Indiana, its Industrial Shoe Mobile Division that visits area workplaces, and through its award-winning website.

Steve Antisdel, COO, characterizes Deniger as, "a strong leader that's created a culture of performance at The Working Person's Store." He further adds that Eric balances his staff's accountability in providing superior customer service with "genuine personal concern for the entire staff". They come to him because they know he cares."

"In the 21st Century, more and more organizational leaders have come to understand that happy, respected employees, empowered by their managers to meet and exceed customer expectations, provide the best service and feel more personally fulfilled by their work," comments Henry Barbey, director of the Center for Coaching and co-founder of Strategic Conversations".

In fact, Deniger remembered to thank his staff when his Michigan-based e-commerce division was honored as one of the "Michigan 50 Companies to Watch."

At the awards program, Deniger stated, "This is an honor I'm proud to share with every member of our team. They did a great job of providing truly outstanding customer service, while helping us grow our e-commerce business by nearly 500% in 2005."

The "Michigan 50 Companies to Watch" competition is geared toward recognizing second-stage companies. Criteria for judging are in part based on exceptional entrepreneurial leadership leading to growth.

When it comes to daily decision-making, Deniger's approach is to "give everybody a voice."

Bypassing formal meetings, he receives input from everyone involved, and then incorporates the common threads into the company's action plan.

"Listening, really focusing on employee input by giving the staff member your full attention when you ask an employee for his or her thoughts regarding an issue, summarizing what you think that person said to make sure that you have accurate information, thanking the person and incorporating the feedback into your decision-making will make the employee understand his or her value to you and the organization," notes Barbey. "This process exemplifies a Strategic Conversation and Deniger naturally uses this tool every day."

And as far as strategic planning goes, it's a corporate version of natural selection theory. Says Deniger, "The single source of our success in my opinion, [has been] maintaining our DNA and purging that which does not fit," and, "One day you don't wake up and decide that you're going to have a good company. You have a good company from the beginning."

Since everyone is cross-trained, Deniger welcomes employees to switch jobs if they are not happy. He not only believes his employees should come to work feeling comfortable about who they are going to see and what they are going to do, but he backs it up in action.

As the number of staff continues to rapidly multiply as it did a year ago (from 8 to 60), Deniger is confident the corporate culture will be maintained.

Speaking from his personal experience with fast employee growth thus far, he shares the company's success: "We foster our DNA and we mentor our DNA. We cultivate it, we protect it, and it has prevailed. And I feel confident that we'll be able to scale it 80 to 100 people this fall and be in good stead."

So where does a leader like Deniger turn to for advice? It seems his most trusted source is his father, The Working Person's Store founder, Dennis Deniger, whom he listens to carefully.

And he also listens to what his partners at North Main Ventures have to say. "They've been there [developing an Internet presence and retail sales space]; they're willing to take the risk."

Deniger hastens to point out that in matters of business, "It doesn't matter who's wrong or right. What matters is what is right."

As is the case with many 21st century business leaders, Deniger's biggest challenge today is implementing better technology, so his employees need to not work as hard. "We need to work smarter. And that's our number one objective right now."

A close look at Deniger reveals he has stepped away from the non-personal, results-at-any-cost business attitudes of past company leaders. His leadership style is a perfect example of the right mix for a 21st century business leader.

He is personal and accessible, and he cares about his staff. He gives his employees a voice, guides the work culture to respect the foundation that has brought success in the past, focuses on working smarter not harder - striving to utilize the best technology and staff knowledge available to The Working Person's Store.

The success of his leadership style speaks for itself. By 2005, the company had 10 years of unbroken growth with an average of about 20 percent growth annually. And the future promises to be rosy as well!
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