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First, make your employees happy. Then, profits will follow, Broad College alum writes in recent book

By Omar Sofradzija, communications editor

Products? That’s what companies put out. Profits? Without that, a business goes bust. But there’s another word that starts with a P, without which those first two P’s are harder to come by:

People.

And paired with people, one more P. Pursuit of employee satisfaction – not just that of customers and shareholders – is necessary for the 21st-century business to truly tap its potential and best serve the world, Eli Broad College of Business alum and entrepreneur Dan Behm (BA Material Logistics Management ’83) writes in a recent book.

In Chief Culture Officer: Attract Top Talent, Grow Like Crazy, And Have An Insane Amount Of Fun Doing It, Behm – who served for 18 years as president and CEO of Open Systems Technologies (OST), a Grand Rapids-based tech firm with offices in Detroit, Minneapolis, and London where “our employees are our top priority” – claims that getting employees to “feel the love” of a company and its people best benefits all.

Through his book, Behm is trying to be an evangelist for the approach.

Dan Behm, Broad College of Business grad and founder of Open Systems Technology, a multi-million dollar company in Grand Rapids. Photo by Alan Piñon
Dan Behm, Broad College of Business grad and founder of Open Systems Technology, a multi-million dollar company in Grand Rapids.
Photo by Alan Piñon.

“I knew that we had something special at OST and I wanted to share it. My hope was to inspire other leaders to adopt our culture so their employees and families could experience a fun, energizing, accepting environment,” Behm said recently. “Companies focused disproportionately on the bottom line are missing out on the joy of running a business that every employee can share in. If you take care of your employees and their families first, everything else will fall into place.”

In his book, Behm wrote, “We want to be profitable, sure, but we also want to be sustainable. We want to enjoy all of the effort we pour into our jobs – but we need to be believe we’re part of something bigger than just bringing home a paycheck.”

How to do that? It depends. Contests and competitions, turning clients into friends, and piggy-backing onto intrastate rivalries – yes, OST has an annual MSU vs. U of M football bet, which once led to a good-natured “full-blown war” in the office – can work.

Demonstrating caring is another, in the form of anything from gifts and rewards that go to their individual likes and needs, to finding respectful ways to part with well-meaning employees that don’t work out, like giving them time to find new work as opposed to outright release.

“We never assume we’ve cracked the code for the perfect culture. It is an ongoing a process that requires constant nurturing and attention,” Behm wrote in his book. “Never being satisfied is part of what makes for a truly dynamic culture.”

Key takeaways from Behm’s book include:

  • Passion leads to profits, not the other way around: “If you focus on your passion, the financial success will eventually come … you inherently need profit to thrive as a business, but it should never be the reason that you are in business.”
  • Leaders bring out the best of their team members: “At OST we do our best to uncover the strengths of each individual and leverage them to benefit the individual and the organization. We spend far less time correcting weaknesses.”
  • Hire the best people: “Don’t settle. Take your time during the hiring process. Assure a cultural fit.”
  • Team members should have complementary skill sets and must trust one another: “Are you transparent with each other? Do you care about each other? Do you all have your eyes on the same prize?”
  • Treat people like people, not titles or outputs: “Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity, unless they won’t let you treat them that way.”
  • Make room for innovation: “The next time someone approaches you with an extraordinary idea, take a breath. Don’t shoot anything down without first exploring the possibilities.”

Behm’s writings make for a pretty good informal textbook, said Sanjay Gupta, dean of the Broad College.

“Dan Behm’s personal journey from a start-up to a successful business provides profound insights into the significance of culture – perhaps the hottest topic today not only in business but also in society as a whole,” Gupta wrote for the jacket of Behm’s book. “Rather than think of culture as a utopian idea or a nebulous concept, Dan provides many practical examples of how each one of us can create a positive culture within our organizations and achieve remarkable outcomes.”

Behm credits the Broad College for helping him in his professional and personal evolution.

“When I arrived at MSU, I was a small-town kid with lots of passion and energy with nowhere to direct it. The Broad College opened my mind to the world,” he said. “Studying things like world economies and international manufacturing and logistics techniques taught me to see the big picture.”

“But the real differentiator at Broad is the practical business knowledge that you can use every day. I had a group project in marketing class to market and sell frozen dog food. It makes me laugh now, but that was my first glimpse of entrepreneurialism and I loved it!” Behm said. “I took another class at MSU on leadership. I learned a lot about the psychology of leadership, but more importantly, I learned Midwestern values that would serve me well as I led OST.”

“Broad is more than book knowledge; employers will tell you that Broad graduates are well-rounded individuals and have excellent practical experience,” he said.

Behm’s advice to today’s Broad Spartans?

“If someone tells you that you can’t do something, use it as motivation to make it happen. With enough determination you will shock yourself at what you are capable of,” he said. “If you are afraid of something that is a good reason to tackle it head on. Remember that, in the end, business is all about people. If I could only give one piece of advice it would be to find ways to make each day fun – work does not need to be a burden.”

Behm was the 2015 MSU West Michigan Business Person of the Year. He also won the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award for Michigan and northern Ohio in 2011, and in 2012 he was the Grant Thornton Leader & Innovator of the Year.

Though retired from OST, Behm isn’t done creating tomorrow’s business just yet.

“Thankfully, being an entrepreneur never ends,” he said. “At the age of 59, I recently purchased an island in Bocas Del Toro, Panama, where I am building a Balinese style over-the-water luxury resort and condo complex.”

Behm’s book is available for purchase on Amazon’s Web site.


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