Good Business Summit kicks off with culture

Sparc Chief Evangelist John Smith talks about the culture at the Charleston company during the Lowcountry Local First Good Business Summit on Thursday in Charleston. (Photo/Andy Owens)
Sparc Chief Evangelist John Smith talks about the culture at the Charleston company during the Lowcountry Local First Good Business Summit on Thursday in Charleston. (Photo/Andy Owens)
By Andy Owens
Published June 20, 2013

Entrepreneurs and Charleston-area business professionals filled the auditorium at The Charleston Museum this morning to begin a daylong business summit that began with a panel discussion on company culture.

The inaugural Good Business Summit presented by Lowcountry Local First and other organizations continues until 5 p.m. today.

This morning’s panel discussion was followed by an hour of 90-second fast-pitch presentations to a panel of investors and experts and post-lunch breakout sessions including topics such as alternative business models, ways businesses can effectively tell their stories and ways to localize a supply chain.

Urban Electric's Dave Dawson talks about the North Charleston company's culture
Urban Electric Co.’s Dave Dawson (at right) talks about the company’s culture during the Good Business Summit today in Charleston. (Photo/Andy Owens)

Videos from today’s panel on culture

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“We invite you today to engage, explore, interact with the speakers and each other during the day,” said Lowcountry Local First Executive Director Jamee Haley. “We want to know your burning questions; we want to know your wildest dreams.”

John Smith, chief evangelist and product officer for Charleston software company Sparc, led the first panel, which focused on creating a company culture that positively impacts employees and a business’s bottom line.

“Let’s make this place the best place to practice values-based business,” Smith said as a challenge to attendees and the Charleston business community.

Smith said culture is the ultimate corporate advantage and the No. 1 thing Sparc looks for when interviewing employees, followed by aptitude and resume.

“You feel it right away. It oozes everywhere,” he said. “There’s nothing more important to being successful.”

Smith said Sparc’s culture model serves as an engine that drives innovation, energy and profitability over and over. He said happy people are 20% more creative than unhappy people and that can drive innovation. That matters in a post-manufacturing economy, he said.

“Culture is actually not as hard as most people think,” Smith said. “You have to be deliberate about it. It’s actually making sure that you’re fair, making sure you have an awesome environment people want to come to, and making sure that you have a promise involved — shared success, part of something bigger.”

Follow the summit on Twitter using the hashtag #GBS13

Other panelists included Natalie Chanin of Alabama Chanin in Florence, Ala., Dave Dawson of The Urban Electric Co. in North Charleston, Eric Henry, president of TS Designs in Burlington, N.C., and Paul Saginaw of Zingerman’s Community of Businesses in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Saginaw said people in a business watch what the leader does and how the leader interacts with customers, employees and other executives, which sets and reinforces a company’s culture.

“I really do believe that culture follows performance, in that if you want to change the culture you have to change the performance,” Saginaw said. “If you’re a leader in the organization, you really need to be behaving in a way every day that you want the entire organization to behave in.”

Henry said maintaining culture when your business is suffering can be challenging. Before the Great Recession, his company, which designs and prints t-shirts, faced a challenge that undermined many local textile and apparel companies.

“We’ve been in the business 30 years, and I think the biggest challenge that we’ve had as a business is constantly having to reinvent ourselves,” Henry said. “We were totally destroyed in the mid-’90s with a thing called NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.”

Before NAFTA, TS Designs had more than 100 employees and was serving brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, Gap, Polo and others. They were profitable and offered bonuses and full benefits. Henry said he thought the move of manufacturing out of the United States was a mistake, and he continued to operate with a smaller company and a smaller workforce.

“I think now people finally understand the real cost of cheap,” Henry said. “I have stayed committed to manufacturing, not only in the U.S. but in North Carolina.”

Henry said it’s a struggle for a company to think about culture when they’re looking at layoffs and possibly bankruptcy.

“So it is very challenging to maintain that culture,” Henry said. “It’s been challenging because you have lost those resources. To do the things that you wanted to do take money.”

Henry and his employees invested time into creating a garden at TS Designs’ manufacturing facility. He said that project took the company to a different place because line workers were digging right alongside the president of the company. He said it made them feel like they were in it together.

“Our employees are our most valuable asset. So we will always maintain health care; we’ll always maintain retirement,” Henry said. “Yes, we might not be able to pay the best, but we try to understand and connect with the needs of our employees because we want to make it work for them. Not just make it work for us.”

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