In any hardware and building supply business, there are marching orders and there are skirmishes. There are threats and enemies. There are missions, defensive positions, and battle plans.
In some cases, there are even nuclear options, and one hopes that these are approached with extreme caution. There are reconnaissance missions, and sometimes there is the fog of war that clouds decision making. Of course, there are battles won, lost and those that are carefully avoided.
All this goes to show that this business, perhaps more than most, is a minefield of military terminology and battlefield analogy.
Ace Hardware CEO John Venhuizen stressed the similarities between the battlefield and business in a recent address to Ace members. The popularity of the article — "Ace draws up battle plans" — inspired HBSDealer to follow up with military veterans in the industry and collect their thoughts on how their business careers are informed by their military service.
[What did you learn from your military service? Send comments to email@example.com]
We spoke to Michael Cassidy, chief operating officer of Kodiak Building Partners; Steve Sallah, CEO of LBM Advantage; and Tim Mills, SVP of growth at True Value Company. These executives served as officers, respectively, in the Marines, the Navy and the Air Force. In edited form, here are some of their highlights from the interviews.
Nine years in the Active and Reserve U.S. Marine Corps, serving within infantry, reconnaissance and hostage rescue teams. Achieved the rank of Captain in 1991.
COO of Kodiak Building Partners
“Most of the information that civilians get about the military is through television and Hollywood movies, where the drill instructor is a psychopath, and everyone is a hero 24-7 and everyone is a special ops guy. You see Colonel Kurtz from ‘Apocalypse Now’ Those are great entertainment, maybe, but do a disservice to the people who are the real deal. In fact, my first exposure to a Marine Colonel – Col. [Larry] Ogle was my Professor of Naval Science at the University of Rochester -- was certainly one of the toughest and most courageous, but also one of the most intelligent, gentle people I ever met.“
“As a leader, your job is to make sure everything is done. It’s not your job to do it all. If you're smart, you do not attempt to take charge of every aspect of a mission. For instance, at Freedom Materials [a Kodiak company], the two senior manager there well over 30 years of experience in the business. What am I going to tell him about running Freedom on a day-to-day basis that he doesn't already know?
In the military, in my experience, you find a way to collaborate and you have a lot of open discussions, it’s not “officers vs. enlisted men”. The “I say jump, you say “How high?” myth devalues the abilities of these great thinking warriors. For the most part when things got intense, everybody was expected to contribute. When training was dangerous, everyone was focused. Much of the time the most experienced team member held rank junior to that of the ultimate decision maker. That was the beauty of the Marine Corps, everyone worked, everyone carried their own pack, and everyone was expected to think and lead decisively. Above all else, an officer never ate before his people. Servant leadership. I still do this today.
Small unit leadership and making decisions without always going up the chain of command is an important military concept. And it plays out in the business world. If one of our yards is calling me about a basic decision that needs to be made right now, something's very wrong and we have already failed.
The battlefield analogy
In our industry, your opponent isn’t a deadly enemy. We’re not fighting an evil empire. We want to win, we absolutely expect to win, but I prefer to use the sports analogy, instead of the warfare analogy. You may win or lose, but knowing that you're playing against a great team makes you focus all the more."
Seven years of active duty, including submarine duty aboard the USS Norfolk, Achieved rank of commander in 2004.
CEO of LBM Advantage
On joining the Navy
I think about my military career a lot, actually. I joined right out of college. I had worked a lot in construction, and so the Navy was the first job where I had to shower before work.
The navy provided excellent training. We took leadership courses and we were put in positions of management, and those were great training. You get to make mistakes in the Navy that you don't get to make in the business world. We were college graduates and we all went through it., And we learned from those mistakes.
On the battlefield analogy
I like the battlefield analogy for business. Especially this industry, and especially right now. There is a lot of change going on in this business, and planning and flexibility are the keys to success in both the military and in this industry. For instance, who saw this degree of private equity entering the business? You have to adapt to new threats and challenges. And that’s what lumber dealers do every day. They know their customer very well. They’re not just a retail lumberyard anymore. They are providing a lot more expertise and services than they did in the past.
On top of that, the military always taught that you need to have poise. At all times, but especially when things are bad, you have to be in the same mindset. There is no giddiness and no sadness in business. That concept helped me through the down years in 2008 through 2010. when this business suffered its historic downturn.. Being in the military helped my attitude of “let’s just do what we have to do.”
I was an officer on the USS Norfolk, our motto was Vi per Concordium -- strength through unity. I always liken that motto to our LBM Advantage co-op, where we are much stronger together. I think team building is much bigger in the military than people realize. The military culture is to really support the cause and execute the plan. That’s one thing I learned, you have to be in the trenches where the troops are to earn their respect. You can’t be a desk warrior. You have to understand and feel the challenges and feel it with the crew. There’s a lot of crawling around together. That certainly describes submarine life.
Graduated 1986 from the U.S. Air Force Academy, and served as acquisitions officer at Wright-Patterson AFB, and worked on jet engine R&D. He also taught defense policy in the ROTC program at University of Arizona.
Senior VP of Growth at True Value Company.
Strategy and strengths
Strategy is obviously key to success in both the military and in business. Every potential adversary has different strengths and weaknesses, and you have to consider what the best approach is to gain an advantage over your competition. My military experience taught me that the best strategies either leverage a strength or exploit a weakness of your opponent.
I was in the service during the first Gulf War. During the buildup to Desert Shield, which later became Desert Storm, there were a lot of reports of the battle-tested Republican Guard and their dug-in position. However, we had the far superior air power, so instead of fighting a ground war against a formidable enemy, we leveraged our strength and attacked from the air. When the air campaign was over, the will and strength of the enemy was essentially gone. The strength of the independent hardware retailers, I believe strongly, is the convenience and expertise that they provide their customers. Those who leverage these strengths will have success against the big boxes and the internet.
Every organization has a hierarchy, whether it’s the military or the business world. In the Air Force, we weren’t the most militaristic in terms of barking orders. Whenever I’m asked, “What did you gain from your military background?” I always answer with the importance of informal authority. If I need to get something accomplished, I could “order” someone to do it. In my experience, I’ve found that when I work together with them, I get their best effort as opposed to them going through the motions at their own pace because they have to comply. More things get done when I work side-by-side with my team. The better message is: “I’m going to work with you.”
Air combat requires endless hours of training, so that when it comes time to execute, you go. At True Value, we have disaster recovery exercises that we take very, very seriously. Through several winter storm events this year, our ability to keep the supply chain open and the products flowing was huge. I attribute that to our preparation.
Everything comes down to execution. When a pilot takes a multi-million-dollar aircraft into the sky, it’s the entire team that is putting that person in the position to do his/her job. Whether that’s the mechanic, the weather officer or the intelligence officer, all of these people come into play for that one sortie to be successful. It’s the attention to detail around all of this that leads to success. In business, it really is about attention to detail, just as it’s all about the detail when it comes time to go to battle.