Company Culture - An Interview With Michael Fry From Brown Button Estate Sale Services

**Tim:**Hey everyone! Thanks so much for being here today. Today we’re going to talk about something that all of our companies should definitely strive for and that’s developing and maintaining a positive company culture. Joining me today is Michael Fry from Brown Button Estate Sale Services in Kansas City. Michael and his team have been a huge part of EstateSales.NET for a very long time and we’ve even been lucky enough to have him speak at a few of our past conferences. At our last conference in Nashville, Michael led a talk on how company culture can be a secret weapon so I was really excited when the opportunity came about for us to talk about it more. Michael, thank you so much for being here.

**Michael:**Hey, I appreciate you having me on. This is a topic that I’m really passionate about and I love sharing it with the industry.

**Tim:**Absolutely. Let’s just kind of start from the beginning, in your own words, how would you define company culture itself?

**Michael:**Company culture is really a company’s DNA. It’s your character; it’s how you govern your interactions with your staff, your clients and your customers. It’s how you operate every day. Anyone that has been in the business any length of time knows that there are difficult business decisions that come up. And so what are the values that guide those business decisions when they arise? That’s your company culture.

**Tim:**Perfect. You mentioned DNA. One of the things you talked about at the conference is how you can intentionally build positive culture into the DNA of your business. That was something that really stuck with me. Can you elaborate on why it would be important for a company to invest time into developing their culture and what positives come out of it?

**Michael:**You know, if you look at the statistics on company culture, hiring and satisfaction in the workplace in America, it’s kind of crazy what comes out. It’s something like 53% of people are unhappy at work. I saw one statistic that said over 50% of people would trust a stranger over their own boss. Wow. That just means that there’s a problem in the workplace. America is very much a “Oh no, it’s Monday…Thank goodness it’s Friday,” kind of workplace. So, how can we have a workplace that’s completely different? First of all, you as the leader have to work there so why not make it an awesome place to work? If your team is engaged, if they’re happy, you’re going to see a different level of work and buy-in and efficiency from your people. If you’re a little intentional about the culture it can really make a big difference about how your company operates and how you’re perceived in the marketplace.

**Tim:**Absolutely. One of the other takeaways from your talk in Nashville was the John Maxwell quote, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Talking with a lot of the companies after your talk, it was amazing how many people I saw that had that highlighted on their page and I could tell that was one of their main takeaways they had. Could you give me some examples of how you use culture at Brown Button to retain the talent that you guys have right now?

**Michael:**Absolutely. You know, this is an increasingly interesting environment, especially when you’re talking about entry-level employees and the potential minimum wage change. That’s really going to have an impact on our industry. So, how do people feel engaged, feel bought in and feel connected to the company just beyond their paycheck? That’s what company culture is really all about. Through the different things we’ve done through our culture, our team knows we trust them and that we have their back. Specifically in this last season with COVID, we just leaned super hard into the safety side of things. We certainly want our customers to feel safe when they come to sales but how did the employees know that we have their back and that we’re not going to put them at risk when they come to work every day? That would certainly be a piece. And when you have an awesome work environment that people love to come to, when they think about potentially leaving, there’s more than just a paycheck keeping them there. We do some things to really foster interconnected relationships with our team so that team members become more than just coworkers but really become friends. I can think of a specific time when there was a gal on our team who worked for us part-time and worked for a national sporting good chain and they had come to her and they had asked her to go full-time with them to quit our job and they were going to pay her a dollar more than we were able to pay at the time. She came to me and she was kind of weighing the decision and ultimately decided that the job environment over there was terrible, she had a toxic boss and while we couldn’t pay her more at the time here, the environment was life giving and fun and it was something she cared about. She actually quit the part time job there and went full time here for a dollar less an hour just because of the culture and because of who we are. I don’t want to use that that to pay people less but there’s a certain amount that we can pay and with retailers going to a minimum of $15/hr, what is keeping people engaged with you? Especially with your entry level staff, for us, is our culture.

**Tim:**So what was the turning point at Brown Button when you knew you had to start investing more into the company culture there?

**Michael:**My first company out of college was a property management firm and I wouldn’t say I was a terrible boss, but I wasn’t great either. I was just trying to get the work done every day and really didn’t care about the people in the process. When we started Brown Button 10 years ago, I was fortunate enough to read a book by Dave Ramsey called EntreLeadership. It was really his playbook on how to run a good company, how to be intentional and how to do things different. For me, that was a bit of a light bulb moment. I can have a company that's, you know, hopefully profitable but at the same time, I can make it a great place to work. We were fortunate enough with the timing, to be able to focus on that really right from the start and we were able to bake that into our foundation and that’s something we’ve done since. A big part of that is you have to define your company and we do that through our core values.

**Tim:**I’m glad you brought that up. How did you go about putting together meaningful core values for Brown Button?

**Michael:**Well, I’m a big book reader so I’m going to pull another book up here. There’s a book called Traction and I highly recommend it. I would start with EntreLeadership because it’s a general overview but Traction gets into the nuts and bolts of running a business well and there are a couple chapters that talk about core values. It actually runs through a four step process on how to make your core values. You think about who on your team already is awesome and brings it every day, and what are the attributes that they have and how do you want to be seen as a company? That’s what I would recommend. Get the book Traction and run through the four step process. Core values are going to be different for every company. Just because we’re all in the same industry, we should have very different core values because every company and founders are a little bit different. The values that matter to you are going to be different so take some time to get your leadership team or your closest employees together and work through that prep process.

**Tim:**Well, you know what my next question is going to be. We all want to know what you’re working with over at Brown Button. Do you have some of the core values ready for us?

**Michael:**I do! I’m going to share my screen with you and kind of run through our process. And again, everyone’s is going to be a little different but these are the ones for us. While we have six core values, the book recommends you have no more than seven. So, the first thing that’s most important to us is that people matter always. Every decision we make, we put it through this filter. It doesn’t mean that we give everyone a pass, I actually had to let a team member go this last year and we let them go through the lens of people matter always. You still have to make tough decisions but you can care about people when you do.

The second core value for us is a BPA experience. BPA stands for blow people away. So whatever someone’s expectations are, we want to make sure that we’re exceeding it with the sales that we run.

The third core value is good soil and this is all about the internal side of our business and how we interact with each other. We want a thriving culture and a place that’s safe because so many workplaces aren’t safe. When there’s backbiting and politics then people can’t focus on being their best and doing the work at hand. For us, having that internal good soil means everyone can grow to their greatest heights.

The next core value for us is “I am responsible.” It’s in quotes because we consider everyone on our team having this perspective and saying this to themselves because they’re responsible for themselves, their role and their growth. If everyone brings this attitude then we can achieve pretty significant things every day.

Strategic Effectiveness is the next one and this is all about applying the 80/20 rule. We’re going to do things intentionally and we’re going to approach things in certain ways. How we focus on our work is going to change through strategic effectiveness.

Lastly, is Visual Excellence. From our website to our sale presentation and stating to the way our registers are set up, visual excellence matters to us. Again, these are individual to our company and maybe some of these will apply to other estate sale companies but you should really work through the four step process in the book. Maybe there will be some similarities but there are going to be a lot of differences.

Last but not least on our core values, we talk about this quote with our team. It’s a quote from Simon Sinek and it’s “A culture is strong when people work with each other, for each other. A culture is weak when people work against each other for themselves.” So much of our intentionality around culture is how do we make this environment more than a paycheck? How do we make it a work family where we care about each other? Everyone is pulling their individual weight. So then with those core values that I brought up, we hire using them, we follow them as a company, we review our team members with them and then we’re going to promote based on those core values. People who are hitting it on all six cylinders so to speak are going to be the ones that get promoted in our company. With those core values, it’s all about communication. We have them printed and they’re in the door of every supply trailer we have. They’re on every iPad that we use at checkout. Every time we have a team meeting we walk through those core values. Doing that level of communication is very important.

**Tim:**I appreciate you sharing that. I keep bringing it up but one of the big takeaways from the conference was you saying that you can never over communicate. It’s a constant state of how you need to run your business. Especially over the past year, everyone has been tested. How has the communication changed with not only your team but with clients as well?

**Michael:**I’ve been self-employed since 2004 and in the past 16 years this is the most challenging year I’ve ever had. We’ve had to eliminate our in-person meetings. A big thing with our staff is every Monday we do a Zoom meeting. So wherever you are, whatever house you’re in, everyone in the company jumps on for 15 minutes or less and goes over what’s in front of us this week. What did we achieve last week? How are we moving forward? It just lets communication go through all levels of the company for what projects we’re on and what we’re focusing on. As a company, we use an app called GroupMe and it’s just a mass texting app. So, as someone gets hired, we allow them to sign on to our company inner staff texting. If we need to communicate something easily, we can just send a text out that hits everyone in the company. So yeah, the big loss for us that I feel does drag down our culture is having to eliminate all of the in-persons. You can’t do a three hour Zoom meeting, that just kills people.

We used to get together every couple of months, all staff for two or three hours. We’d cater lunch and just talk about where we’re going, what our recent reviews are and just kind of a state of the union so to speak and I sure am missing those. I’ll be glad when we get on the other side of this and we can go back to in-person staff meetings.

**Tim:**Not to harp on the pandemic and all of that, but like you said, hopefully we’re going to get on the other side of this thing. One of the things that has been tested is company morale. What are some of the ways you have combated that over there?

**Michael:**As I mentioned earlier, the biggest thing is that we just leaned fully into safety. We’ve communicated through our actions that while we have a business that’s still running and we have to move forward, we’re not going to put our team safety at risk. So we’ve invested money into shields and face masks and all kinds of things. We had to cancel our Christmas party which obviously is a bummer but the money we normally put into a Christmas party was used to make custom gift baskets for every team member. My brother and I, who also owns the company, went around door to door on a Saturday night ringing doorbells and dropping off the Christmas baskets. We had to cancel our Thanksgiving potluck so instead we found a semi nice day in November and met at a park and brought in some barbeque. You can still do things in the midst of the restrictions that show your team that they’re cared for. We used to have everyone sign birthday cards but now we’ve moved to an online birthday card. We use a system called so we just send an email to every team member and they’re able to log in and type out a message that goes in the e-card. We’ve had to make a lot of changes but even in the midst of all those changes, we’re communicating to our team members that we care about them and we’re going to put their safety first and their work environment first.

**Tim:**I tell you what, you can keep the birthday card, just let me know when that barbeque comes in. I hear there’s some good stuff in Kansas City.

**Michael:**Kansas City is the place. Memphis and Dallas can step aside.

**Tim:**With everything you guys are bringing to the table, I think we could definitely do a part two to this interview but I wanted to lastly talk about some of the resources you would recommend if they were wanting to start their own journey into company culture and core values. You mentioned the books but do you have anything else you would recommend?

**Michael:**I mentioned EntreLeadership but they also have podcasts that are free with a lot of good content with some of the best thought leaders around the business. From John Maxwell to Pat Lencioni to Daniel Pink are all on that podcast so I recommend that. A book that I think is helpful in giving someone a perspective around why this is important is a book called Small Giants by Bo Burlingham. Bo was the editor Inc. Magazine for a while. They talked to all kinds of companies who had the chance to get really big but instead said “we’re going to be awesome.” Ultimately most of them did get big but they got big because they were an incredible, intentional company. So this book really inspired me. It’s less of a roadmap as it is inspiration for why to do it. Then lastly, Daniel Coyle wrote a book called The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups.

I recommend those books but I know not everyone is a reader. You can find all of those as audio books. You know, as you’re driving around town and making appointments, just kick that Audible on get to those books, you won’t regret it.

**Tim:**If you’re sitting in traffic, you might as well get something out of it, right?

**Michael:**That’s right.

**Tim:**Michael, I appreciate everything you’ve brought to the table and we’ve learned so much from you every time we get together. I know there are a lot of companies out there that are kind of struggling right now with what their place is in the industry and I know they’ll get some good stuff out of this. Again guys, this is Michael Fry from Brown Button Estate Sale Services in Kansas City. He’s a great buy and been a friend of EstateSales.NET for a long time. Michael, thanks again! If there’s anything we can do for you, just let us know.

**Michael:**Tim, I really appreciate it. Thank you.