An Interview by Bill Lee: Jim Sobeck Speaks about New South Construction Supply, Business Leadership, and Balancing it All
- My name is Bill Lee, and I am here today with our guest, Mr. Jim Sobeck, owner of New South Construction Supply with nine branch locations operating out of Greenville, SC. Jim, the last time a lot of the folks in our audience today knew you, you were president of Enterprise Computer Systems. How about telling us how you ended up in the distribution business.
After the sale of Enterprise Computer Systems (ECS), I looked at several software and construction supply businesses to buy as those two areas were where I had spent most of my career. I had a business broker send me information on New South and I was intrigued with the fact that they were very focused on only three niches: concrete and masonry accessories, and waterproofing products. Over the years I have found there are riches in niches, and I loved New South was only in these three niches and there were no 800-pound gorillas as competitors
- Jim, a lot of entrepreneurs will say that business is business, that it doesn’t much matter whether it’s installing computer systems or delivering rebar to a contractor customer. What do you say?
Bill, first, I believe you have to have basic business acumen. As CEO, you need to understand a little about a lot of the key areas of the business such as hiring and firing, basic accounting, collecting money, inventory control, HR, etc. Then, to really succeed you need to immerse yourself in the details of the products you sell so you can come across as an expert to your customers
- How did you go about educating yourself on New South’s product lines?
I subscribed to every trade journal I could find and every online newsletter for our industry. I joined trade groups and went to all of the main trade shows. I participated in supplier demos and webinars. We also have 4-5 suppliers demo their products at our sales meetings so the cumulative effect of all of the above helped me get well educated about the main products we sell. There is, however, no finish line
- One of the topics I hear a lot of business experts talking about today is that young people — the Gen Yers and the Gen Zers — won’t work, don’t like to work and are impossible to manage. What has been your experience working with these 20 somethings?
I get worked up when people say that millennials are lazy and don’t want to work. We have a great group of young people. Two of the senior managers who report to me are under 35. We hired them right out of college and put them through our Manager-in-Training program before they got bad habits elsewhere. We look for people who worked during college and learned to balance work and school. We also look for athletes. They understand hard work, taking orders, and pulling together as a team
- This is such a big key to business success, let me ask you this: do you have a couple of suggestions you could make to the business owners and managers in our audience that you believe would help them get better results with their younger employees?
Several years ago, I read that young people today are loyal to their profession more than their employers so if you invest in their professional development, you’re more likely to keep them. We send our young associates to every relevant seminar we can find. One of the best is the Texas A&M Operations Manager Training Program. We also send associates to the University of Innovative Distribution (UID) in Indianapolis every year. This three-day program is sponsored by several trade groups and exposes our young managers to thought leaders on a wide variety of topics. We also send them to every supplier training program that is offered
- If I’m not mistaken, when you acquired New South back in 2011, the company operated five locations in the Carolinas. I’ve heard you say that orderly growth is an important key to success in an entrepreneurial business. What has been your approach to growth?
I would answer that question this way: If you’re not growing, you’re rotting. Growth is an imperative – it’s not optional. We grew by filling in the gaps in the markets we covered but didn’t cover as fully as we needed to so we could give the kind of service we promise our customers
- I know you moved your corporate headquarters to Greenville, SC from Columbia, SC, but other than changing the physical location, what did that move do for New South?
Frankly, I got tired of spending two nights a week for 12 years in a motel room in Columbia as I have lived in Greenville since 1979. Also, our lawyers, accountants, insurance broker, and bankers are all in Greenville, so it made it easier to meet with them
- Jim, if you would, please tell us a little bit about your corporate organizational structure.
First off, unlike most family-owned businesses, we have a strong board of directors with five outside directors and me. Most closely held businesses don’t even have a board, or if they do, it’s the owner, his/her spouse, the company attorney, and their CPA. Our board is like a public company’s board. Then, I have five direct reports who are VP’s or Directors of the key areas of the company. They manage the rest of our associates
- That’s a lot of people. Five directors, five direct reports. What’s your communication style, Jim. How do you stay in touch with this many branches and this many key executives?
Bill, it’s a combination of emails, phone calls, text messages, monthly one-on one meetings with my reports, monthly staff meetings, and three-day management retreats every six months. No one method works, it’s a combination of all of the above
- How do you feel about awards and recognition programs for your high achievers?
Legendary GE CEO Jack Welch said you need to treat everyone fairly, but not equally. You need your superstars to feel loved and appreciated. We have an awards dinner as part of our annual company kickoff meeting, we give years of service awards, bonuses, and spot awards like dinner for two or even dinner for the whole family. A lot of top performers will say they don’t care about awards and recognition…but they do
- Here’s a question I believe a lot of people would be interested in…..How do you balance your life between your business and your family.
It’s like a triangle. You need to make time for work, family, and personal time. Not always in equal proportions, but as equal as you can get it. I’m 66 now, but when our children were still at home, we ate breakfast and dinner as a family every day, I went to our children’s games and school events if I wasn’t traveling, and we did a family ski trip and beach trip every year. I talk with my wife about both of our days for 20-30 minutes after dinner every evening, we have “date nights”, and we travel together a lot. As for “me time,” I try to play golf once every weekend and the occasional golf and ski trip
- Jim, I just have to go back to, what was it — Question #3 — it has to do with hiring. You are doing something really right when it comes to recruiting and hiring, how about walking us through your hiring protocol?
We have a very well-defined hiring process that has served us well. We do a series of interviews and after the final interview we administer the Wonderlic Personnel Test to determine IQ level, and three psychological assessments: the DISC, the Kolbe, and the Athene Quotient. We also do a complete background check, so we get to see if the applicant has a felony record, his/her driving record, and their credit history. By doing all of the above we significantly lessen our chances of making a bad hire
- What are some of the “showstopper” lessons you’ve learned over the last twenty years at NSCS?
First and foremost, it’s all about people. I say that there are five secrets of success: People, people, people, people, and products. We are always recruiting and adding to our team. We promote our brand all the time via several social media channels and this gets us a lot of leads and job applicants. We haven’t paid a headhunter fee in a long time. Also, people don’t buy from companies, they buy from people. We give our salespeople large expense accounts for entertaining and we do company events to get to know our customers better like taking top accounts to the BMW Performance Driving School, ball games, hunting and fishing, and we’ve been a sponsor of the PGA Tour’s Heritage Golf Tournament for the last twelve years.
Jim, I want to close by saying congratulations for the job you’ve done over the past 20 years to build and grow New South as you have, and especially for the job you’ve done to develop a strong leadership team. My hat is off to you and the business team you have assembled.