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JD Ewing of COE Distributing: “Be (a little) predictable”

Be (a little) predictable. Have specific and consistent topics and metrics that you report on during your meetings. It’s helpful to track your progress toward goals daily and weekly. You can keep things lively with a weekly feature that celebrates successes. We incorporate a “shout out” to a team member who has done something exceptionally […]

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Be (a little) predictable. Have specific and consistent topics and metrics that you report on during your meetings. It’s helpful to track your progress toward goals daily and weekly. You can keep things lively with a weekly feature that celebrates successes. We incorporate a “shout out” to a team member who has done something exceptionally well in our weekly emails.

Listen up! Finally, always remember the biggest part of communicating is listening! There’s so much to learn from teammates’ feedback. Listening helps improve our bottom line and fosters an engaged culture that makes us unstoppable.


We are living in a new world in which offices are becoming obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don’t replicate all the advantages of being together. What strategies, tools and techniques work to be a highly effective communicator, even if you are not in the same space?

In this interview series, we are interviewing business leaders who share the strategies, tools and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team who may be spread out across the world. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing J.D. Ewing.

J.D. Ewing is the CEO and president of COE Distributing, a national office furnishings distributor and manufacturer with a passion for creating inspiring work environments. Based in southwestern Pennsylvania, outside of Pittsburgh, PA, COE sources high-quality office furniture with forward-thinking, well-planned designs from around the globe.

Raised in the family business, J.D. Ewing has worked at COE in one capacity or another all his life. In fact, when he took the helm in 1989, he was COE’s sole employee — tackling sales, driving trucks, loading product and learning each position inside and out. This hands-on experience at every level of the business coupled with a passionate commitment to employee engagement and development are the difference-makers for J.D. and the core of his leadership style.

More than 30 years later, J.D. has grown this third-generation, family-owned business from its unconventional beginnings as his grandmother’s typewriter repair shop in the basement of a bar, to one of the largest distributors of office furnishings in the United States with more than 100 employees.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

COE Distributing is a national office furnishings distributor and manufacturer with a mission to create inspiring work environments wherever our customers are working. Our clients are resellers, or dealers. COE has been a family-owned business since 1947, beginning as a typewriter repair and office supply store founded by my grandmother, Clara L. Ewing. I took over the wholesale business in 1989 at the age of 19, after three semesters at Penn State University, and began running the company as the sole employee — taking calls, fulfilling orders and making deliveries. After a few years of doing everything as the sole employee, I hired an office manager to answer the phone, manage inventory and do the billing. This provided me the ability to be on the road selling, making deliveries and managing the warehouse. It was in these early years that I met Melanie, the amazing lady who would become my wife and partner in COE. Melanie was from the industry and immediately stepped in to manage the marketing and customer service aspects of the business, as well as anything else that needed to be done daily. We quickly grew the business from 200,000 dollars in annual revenue to 10,000,000 dollars and hired our first salesperson. In the early 2000s, our team grew to 70 employees and we opened our second facility in Charlotte, NC. In 2006, I was approached to sell the business, which I did, as part of a rollup with other regional wholesale office furniture distributors. After the transaction, COE quickly became the largest division within the group. However, in 2009, the acquirer ran out of cash and ultimately filed for bankruptcy. I, along with another former owner & largest creditor, bought the company out of bankruptcy in a cash deal and officially reopened COE in January 2010. My main goal after acquiring the company back was two-fold, first to provide gainful employment for our displaced team members and, second, to regain the trust of our customers. We were successful in both goals. Flashforward to 2021, COE currently has 118 team members, 1,000 active customers, three facilities (Charlotte, NC, Houston, TX, and the headquarters near Pittsburgh, PA) and sales approaching 100 million dollars.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

One of many interesting stories from the early days at COE is how I had to heat my office in the colder months. Our office/warehouse was in an older concrete block building. The only heat source was a wood stove and I burned broken pallets from inbound shipments to heat the office. This experience sticks with me because it’s really grounding … no matter how big or successful COE becomes, those humble beginnings keep my head from getting too big.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“In this world you’re either growing or you’re dying, so get in motion and grow.” Lou Holtz

This quote has been relevant to me, my career and COE’s ability to grow so quickly. Yes, it is important for you to recognize your growth, achievements and successes. It is essential to celebrate these milestones. However, if you stop for too long or look back, you can potentially miss something ahead that will bring even greater growth and success. So, recognize where you came from and all that you have already accomplished, but always stay focused on the future.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Neither the business nor I would be where we are today if it were not for the trust my father had in me back when I was just 19. He was the one family member who believed it was the right decision for me to walk away from school to work in a business that was not generating much income. He knew my dedication and “never give up” attitude could turn the company into something great. Two years after I left school, my dad gifted me half of the business and I took it and ran with it!

I also attribute my more recent growth and development to Verne Harnish, the world-renowned speaker and best-selling author of Rockefeller Habits and Scaling Up. Attending many of his live and virtual summits and reading Scaling Up have really helped me stay focused and set goals.

Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity, but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a team physically together?

Having a team physically together encourages a higher level of collaboration and a feeling of togetherness. When you’re in person, you can’t turn off your camera or stay muted through a whole call or meeting. Instead, your face and emotions are seen and expressed openly and you feel a stronger need to communicate and articulate your thoughts. At COE, our focus is on our culture and employee engagement. While both can be and have been maintained virtually, nothing replaces the feeling of physically being together to celebrate wins, learn from each other, and share ideas. In person, you also get that “water cooler” chat that you may not experience virtually. These conversations allow you to learn more about each team member personally or hear honest and transparent feedback that may not be vocalized elsewhere.

On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a team is not in the same space?

Less frequent communication is one of the main challenges that may arise when a team is not in the same space. When a team is not in the same building day in and day out, it can sometimes be more difficult to find the best time to call and discuss issues, goals, or projects. This is where I highly recommend daily departmental huddles and weekly calls with the entire team.

COE was communicating daily throughout the company via daily huddles prior to the pandemic. These brief (5–15 minutes) updates for teams, departments or the entire company provide all involved a clear, concise update of what is happening. These huddles were proven to be effective by having a clear focus and concise metrics that each team member is responsible for reporting on. When the pandemic hit, we continued these virtually without skipping a beat. Additionally, we actually have live, company-wide calls not once, but twice a week at COE so employees can ask questions in real time — and I also send a weekly email to communicate specific metrics to staff and summarize how our week has been.

Another challenge your team may face is lack of social interaction, motivation or even burnout. Some team members who are used to clocking in at 9 a.m. and out at 5 p.m. may find it more challenging to punch out when they are home all day. This is where you need to encourage work/life balance. Mentally and physically checking out for the day to rest is essential to keep highly motivated and socialized team members.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Mix it up. Provide a variety of formats for communication. I like to encourage constant communication and collaboration by giving employees multiple ways to make their voices heard. Our departments huddle daily to go over the latest information impacting business, but we also set up twice weekly calls with the entire team so people from different departments can discuss ideas. We also have quarterly written surveys and a more informal quarterly book club so employees who may not feel comfortable speaking up in meetings still have venues for sharing their thoughts.
  2. Get personal. Your communications shouldn’t be all business. Ask your team members how they’re doing or how they spent their weekend. Starting off any call with a personal question will help your team members feel comfortable and more open to share. It’s also important to make time for social interaction. Fun activities like virtual happy hours, birthday celebrations or random lunchtime chats prevent burnout and keep team members engaged and motivated.
  3. Watch the clock. Have time limits on your calls and stick to them. Team members are participating in more virtual calls than ever. You don’t want them to experience meeting burnout or dread coming to meetings that consistently run long. Sticking to the scheduled time also helps your employees plan their days.
  4. Be (a little) predictable. Have specific and consistent topics and metrics that you report on during your meetings. It’s helpful to track your progress toward goals daily and weekly. You can keep things lively with a weekly feature that celebrates successes. We incorporate a “shout out” to a team member who has done something exceptionally well in our weekly emails.
  5. Listen up! Finally, always remember the biggest part of communicating is listening! There’s so much to learn from teammates’ feedback. Listening helps improve our bottom line and fosters an engaged culture that makes us unstoppable.

Has your company experienced communication challenges with your workforce working from home during the pandemic? For example, does your company allow employees to use their own cell phones or do they use the company’s phone lines for work? Can you share any other issues that came up?

We really stayed ahead of the technology curve and ensured our team members all had the tools they needed to succeed when the stay-at-home order hit in March 2020. The change was pretty seamless for us, and I was truly impressed with how well we transitioned from having everyone in the office to immediately having 75 team members working remotely. Our customer service reps were provided with the phone, headsets, and tools needed to effectively handle the constant flow of calls with our customers. Our other remote team members communicate with customers or fellow team members via their personal cell phones or by utilizing our business Zoom accounts. The main issue we’ve experienced since going virtual is connection problems with Zoom or faults with power or internet — all of which can occur whether you are remote or in the office.

Let’s zoom in a bit. Many tools have been developed to help teams coordinate and communicate with each other. In your personal experiences which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?

We rely heavily on Zoom as our main source of communication and have been impressed with how well it works for us. I like that Zoom gives you the capability of all being together, but also provides breakout rooms where collaboration can take place among a smaller group. We also utilize Microsoft Teams and Monday.com, both of which have proven to be highly effective and efficient means of communicating with dispersed groups.

If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?

Any system that would build upon existing virtual reality technology to allow for our customers to physically experience our products as if they were there in person would be ideal for our business. Allowing customers to virtually sit in one of our chairs and feel the fit or virtually sit behind one of our desks and test its features would be an amazing system for engaging customers.

As far as communication, we’re working toward a system to offer instantaneous, personalized feedback and communication to our customers and team members around the clock. If they have a question after business hours, I would love for them to be able to go onto an online chat and get meaningful assistance they need in real time rather than having to wait or interface through an impersonal chat bot.

One of our main focuses this year is to automate and digitize as many of our sales processes as possible, and we are on a great track in accomplishing this initiative. By reducing or removing the manual effort from sales tasks, we’ll free our talented team members to provide more value-added communication and services, such as product recommendations, to our clients.

My particular expertise and interest is in Unified Communications. Has the pandemic changed the need or appeal for unified communications technology requirements? Can you explain?

Unified communication provides a consistent user experience across all forms of communication. As I believe that unified team members are stronger together than alone, I also believe that having all methods of communicating together in one system is vital. Zoom is a form of unified communication and one that we use every single day. This system allows for real time, face-to-face communication, chat, screen sharing, video, etc. that all help in continuous collaboration, learning and transparency among the team and outside the company with vendors and customers. If being unified in person is not encouraged due to the ongoing pandemic, then all forms of unified communication should be required whenever possible.

The technology is rapidly evolving and new tools like VR, AR, and Mixed Reality are being developed to help bring remote teams together in a shared virtual space. Is there any technology coming down the pipeline that excites you?

Virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality are as close to being in person as possible. Any technology that would give our customers the full experience of our products as if they were there in person would be ideal and exciting.

Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?

My only concern about a future heavily focused on technology, with many team members continuing to work virtually, is the loss of social interaction and in-person collaboration, which I believe is vital for any successful business, team and individual to thrive.

So far we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers? How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?

When the pandemic first hit, our sales reps stopped all travel. We were not physically in front of our customers anymore. Instead, we set up virtual meetings, calls, and webinars. I have always encouraged the constant flow of communication from our team members to our customers. I pushed even harder on this after the pandemic hit, encouraging the team to reach out to 5–10 customers each week just to ask them how they were doing. Like I have mentioned previously, it is important to connect personally as well as professionally. We receive great feedback on our communication from our customers. We remain as transparent as possible with them, which has grown their trust and loyalty with us over the past year.

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote team member?

This can be an incredibly challenging topic of discussion regardless of the environment — in person or virtual. However, hard conversations tend to be most beneficial for all parties if a level of trust already exists between those having the conversation. Trust is developed by having open, honest communication at all times, where candor is the norm and anything less is unacceptable. If this level of communication is maintained, the perception of a ‘difficult’ conversation really is dispelled, because the interaction is just that — an interaction like all others with both parties sharing openly.

Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?

The team members at COE Distributing are the engine that keep the business going and growing, so it is vital that we remain cohesive, engaged and aligned. I have worked hard on our company culture and have always been about putting the team members first, because they are truly the difference makers. We put team members first by offering extensive employee engagement opportunities that promote teamwork, fun, growth and transparency. Some of the many employee engagement offerings include quarterly book groups, a Rising Stars program that helps create future leaders of the company, Employee of the Quarter recognition with luncheons, personalized birthday and anniversary celebrations and our unique biweekly Warrior Helmet peer-to-peer recognition ceremonies, which stem from an employee engagement partnership we established with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The leadership team and I always encourage team members to continue to learn and try new things through outside learning opportunities including webinars, Scaling Up Workshops, and seminars offered by the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, on which I serve as a board member.

The culture is also focused on transparency, which begins from the top down. This value is showcased through weekly videos sent out to all team members on the state of the business, weekly emails that give a deeper look into how goals are being achieved and what the financial numbers look like and twice weekly Zoom calls with all team members and sales reps to talk over goals, achievements and what is happening in the marketplace. These efforts supplement daily huddles in all departments, and quarterly Start, Stop, Continue surveys that allow all team members to openly provide their thoughts, ideas and suggestions on how to make the company even greater. I, along with the executive team, reply to every survey response because we feel it’s important to let team members know they are heard and their feedback matters.

So, to keep a team cohesive and engaged, you need to have fun together, openly communicate both good and bad news and offer team members ways to grow and learn.

Ok wonderful. We are nearly done. Here is our last “meaty” question. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

My movement would be to keep employee engagement at the center of every decision a company makes. When you’re focused on the people ahead of everything else and employees feel supported and appreciated, you’ll have a cascading effect that results in improved processes and profits. Pulling together a team of A players and supporting them in their work yields positive results. I learned this lesson throughout the early days of COE when we were shorthanded. At times, positions were quickly filled by just checking off a few experience boxes. Turnover was high and it was frustrating to feel like we were constantly interviewing for positions we had just filled months ago. I discovered the top-grading method of interviewing which is a structured, repeatable process focused intently on determining if the candidate is a good cultural fit. It was such a key change for us. Turnover dropped 70 percent. Hiring employees who share our cultural values and providing them with many avenues for giving feedback has led to our greatest successes. I whole-heartedly know investing in individuals is the best way to invest in your company.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

www.coedistributing.com

www.officesource.com

https://www.linkedin.com/feed/ — Personal LinkedIn

https://www.linkedin.com/company/1502377/admin/

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.


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