Roaring down New Mexico's St. Jemez trail on a Harley Davidson hardly sounds like a typical way to conduct business. Neither does a brainstorming session or marketing meeting around a desert campfire. But John Wheeler, CEO of Rockford Construction, Inc. in Belmont, Mich., has not built a $110 million general contracting and construction management firm in 11 years by running his business like everyone else.
Take Wheeler's weekly staff meetings. Every Monday morning, he lights candles and incense and joins about 50 of his employees in a form of meditation called Vipassna. In a session called "guided imagery," the group begins each work week by listening to inspirational audiotapes narrated by Belruth Napperstak, of which a favorite is a series called "Opening the Heart."
"Meditation helps our employees relieve the tensions that go along with the job. They need to be well-centered and well-balanced. Energetic, but calm," says Wheeler. He has coined this philosophy the "No Negative Energy Concept"--and everyone at Rockford practices it.
Offbeat Retreats Wheeler also believes in taking each company division off-site once a year to build morale and boost productivity. "Money is not the master motivator," he says.
In early 1998, when the 13 members of his accounting department expressed their wishes to be wined and dined, Wheeler sent them by rail to Toronto, Canada, to see "The Phantom of the Opera." They worked on the way there.
Also last year, Rockford's project management staff, together with the estimating department and several key executives, flew to Santa Fe, New Mexico, rented motorcycles, and spent a week riding the desert trails. Morning meetings were held at a conference center, with moderators addressing topics from customer service to internal communications. In the afternoon, the group rode helmet less over 800 miles of scenic trails, and, at night, conducted brainstorming sessions around the campfire. The group also went white-water rafting and mountain hiking.
"I have never, ever, attended a more productive work session," Wheeler says. "It was free-sailing, freethinking--and it was wonderful. Just 'the guys'--no outside influences, very work-oriented. And it wasn't just the scenery and the beautiful weather. What occurred were some very straightforward, argumentative but realistic discussions between employees and supervisors."
Wheeler says that in New Mexico, away from the corporate setting, people were more honest about situations that genuinely needed attention. "Our company doubled in size in 1998, and major growth carries pressure with it. People were energetic and very tuned in to problem-solving.
"The whole sense of 'the team' was reborn in Santa Fe. There's more camaraderie among employees now; it was just an unbelievable improvement in company relations. Our best, most productive ideas of the year came from that trip, and we have implemented many of them. Customer approval went up, and we had our best year ever."
Humble Beginnings Rockford Construction is the very profitable brainchild of Wheeler and Executive Vice President Mike VanGessel. The company owns and manages 27 commercial properties and, in six years, has built 11 multihousing town-home communities, all with an impressive 98 percent year-round occupancy rate. Rockford is responsible for constructing more than 800 buildings, including 200 condominium units, 57 Family Video stores in seven states, several hospitals, and more than 100 projects for Meijer Inc. throughout the Midwest. Engineering News Record recently listed Rockford Construction 308th in the United States in its Top 400 Contractors, based on revenue. The company also was named 227th on Inc. Magazine's annual compilation of the fastest growing privately held companies in the country, the Inc. 500.
Contributing to this success, Wheeler believes, are Rockford's generous incentive and award programs, including the coveted Employee of the Year award. The program is designed "to put employees on a pedestal...in front of their co-workers," says Wheeler. "We choose the employee who most exemplifies our mission statement." The recipient receives an all-expenses-paid pleasure trip of his or her choice. Last year's winner took his family skiing in Colorado.
This year's companywide meeting was another incentive: nine sun-soaked days in Maui, far from blustery Michigan in March. In addition to a group luau, individual activities included sailing, deep-sea fishing, horseback riding, snorkeling, scuba diving, and an all-day bicycle ride down the gentle slope of a dormant volcano.
Spouses were invited, which, Wheeler acknowledges, created a more challenging climate for business but gave the group a first-class morale-booster. "It really helps to get the whole family on our side and involved in the company. We really improved the relationships between our people. It was just spectacular."
Why do these combined incentive and business retreats play such a key part in the success of this young firm? "I learned a long time ago that the further you travel from your source of frustrations, the clearer your mind becomes," says Wheeler. "Being in a new environment melts down the barriers. It is conducive to learning and positive thinking. I'm such a believer. It just works!"