By Sarah Nicastro, publisher/editor in chief, Field Technologies
Power Pro-Tech Services (PPT) specializes in the service and installation of distributed power systems. Over the past five years, the company has experienced rapid growth – more than 15 percent per year. With field techs operating in 22 states and a number of acquisitions over the past five years, PPT is no stranger to some of the pains that accompany rapid growth. While these pains fall into the category of “a great problem to have,” they are still a problem that must be handled effectively to be overcome.
Bob Byrne, president and CEO of Power Pro-Tech, has learned firsthand some of the “dos” and “don’ts” of managing rapid growth. Here he shares his insight and advice on some of the common areas of strain related to a rapidly expanding field service operation.
Nicastro: One of the challenges we discussed with your company’s growth is selecting technologies that can scale as PPT continues to expand its operations. What insight can you provide on how technology – when used well – can help a field service organization manage growth?
Byrne: The fundamental building blocks of a successful business our People and Processes. As a high growth company in a service industry, the first challenge has always been getting the right people and, to paraphrase Jim Collins, getting them on the right seat on the bus. The next challenge is to manage and coordinate the efforts of the team members through appropriate processes. Employing the right technology can help with both the People and Process imperatives.
As a field service organization, our team members are performing work without any supervision. It is through technology that we have been able to efficiently manage the productivity of our field technicians and provide verification and validation to our customers that we have performed the work they requested. Scheduling and routing are two critical factors aided dramatically by technology that enables scaling. Likewise, electronic delivery of work orders to our technicians’ laptops and tablets that are specific the customer equipment and required scope of work ensures we are performing the right work on the right assets at the right time. Additionally, electronic data capture in the field and automated process workflows that route information to the appropriate person has been something of a game-changer in scaling our business. For example, if a technician diagnoses a problem with a customer’s equipment, he or she can immediately check numerous inventory locations for a needed part. If the part is not available in a local inventory, a request can automatically be generated to either ship from another inventory site or issue a purchase order to a supplier. Likewise, if the customer requires a formal quote be prepared for approval, this can be executed through a workflow that immediately sends the information from the technician to an estimator for follow through.
Nicastro: While technology has the ability to help, what’s been your biggest challenge in successfully deploying a solution used in 22 states?
Byrne: The first challenge is overcoming the natural resistance to change. Deploying new or updated technology typically involves a “step-back” in productivity before you can realize many “steps forward”. Getting accustomed to anything new takes time. There is learning and experience curve that is inevitable, even in the most intuitively designed systems. Like with most issues, the key is communications. People respect the straight talk that the new technology solution is going to be painful and frustrating for many. The first adopters in the company have it the worse because they get the initial version of software that has bugs and glitches that have to be worked out. I found it helpful to be honest upfront is setting expectations. It is also helpful to remind the team that the consequence of doing nothing, of falling behind in technology adoption, imperils the company and their livelihoods. Nearly everyone understands that organizations that delay and defer are likely are destined to fail.
Nicastro: How does rapid growth impact your customer base? What are some of the potential issues you work to protect them from?
Byrne: Customers do not like change either. They like the consistency and reliability of having the same technician every time on every service call. For static companies, this may be feasible. However, when in high growth mode, it is often necessary to reassign customer relationships based on proximity. This applies equally to a customer’s contacts within our service management and account management groups. We have had to convince our customers that our growth may affect the consistency with respect with whom they interact, but will not affect the quality and consistency of our service levels.
Nicastro: As the CEO, what’s the biggest challenge of managing through such growth?
Byrne: With growth comes greater complexity. This requires more delegation and trust of the People and Processes. On the People front, there is always the concern that you have the right people in the right seats on bus. This changes as a company grows and different skills are called upon to manage more complexity. It is fair to say that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. The most difficult challenges as CEO is objectively discerning these strengths and weaknesses, some of which are not obvious until you give someone a new challenge. It is joyous when someone rises to a new challenge and likewise painful when they cannot.
Nicastro: Explain how rapid growth can put a strain on your employees.
Byrne: As mentioned above, rapid growth causes increased complexity and greater uncertainty. While growth is exciting, it is also stressful. The greater complexity means that we are always asking our employees to do more. Eventually, rapid growth requires changes in processes and procedures so that more and better controls are in place that acts as guardrails from running off the road. As discussed above, change is difficult for everyone. I believe the key to success in such an environment is to foster a culture of Teamwork. We need to look out for each other and help each other like a family. Business is a team sport.
Nicastro: What are your tips for hiring well as your company continues to grow?
Byrne: We have a very strong culture of promoting from within. As we get larger, it has required that we find experienced people in key roles for have “been there, done that” - i.e., bring highly relevant experience that can help us avoid pitfalls of which we are unaware because of lack of experience. We know from experience that the key to success of anyone who join our company is their fit with our “Team” culture. We are not going to be a good home for a superstar with a super-size ego.
Nicastro: What advice can you provide on how to standardize on processes when combining business units through acquisition?
Byrne: Our experience is twofold. First, be open-minded about modifying processes across the entire company so as to reflect “best-practices”. We have adopted some great ideas and process improvements that were being practiced at an acquired company that we had not thought of. Second, once the best-practices are reflected in the processes, be fast and unwavering in driving adoption at the acquired company. Have courage in the conviction of what you are doing. If some people at the acquired company are inflexible and incorrigible, part ways quickly and move on. Don’t be held hostage to insubordination. There in only One Team at PPT. Either you are all in, or you are out.
Nicastro: What’s the biggest misstep you feel you’ve made related to managing growth that someone else could learn from?
Byrne: There is not enough time or space to confess all of my missteps along the way. Undoubtedly, the biggest mistakes have been on the People front. I am admittedly not the greatest judge of character. Perhaps my entrepreneurial enthusiasm impairs healthy skepticism. However, at least I am self-aware enough to admit this. As a result, it has been critical for me to rely on the intuition of a couple of key colleagues. Inevitably, when we made a hiring mistake, at least one of these fellow colleagues expressed some significant reservations based on some “gut” feeling. Inevitably, most bad hires were not cultural fits. In a couple of cases, they came from large companies and never adapted to an entrepreneurial firm where it is essential to “get your hand dirty”.
Nicastro: What other comments do you have on this topic?
Byrne: I recommend that executives of high growth entrepreneurial companies try to find peer companies with whom they can meet periodically on some regular basis. I found this to be very helpful. However, the peer group does matter. A high growth company has different challenges than a static company.