Be Dynamic — If COVID didn’t teach us anything else, it taught every business leader to either proactively or reactively become dynamic. Good businesses are the reactors. Great businesses are preemptive in developing this trait of being dynamic as an organization. This is a critical characteristic of companies that have withstood the test of time, economic turbulence, and market uncertainty.
As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Korey Neal Sr.
NFL Training Camp Invitee, second generation business leader, son of a former Giant Foods executive, leader of one of only two minority-owned full service, commercial truck and bus dealerships in the country, and just 30 years old — that’s Korey Neal Sr.
As a 2020 Washington Business Journal 40 Under 40 Awardee, Eastern Michigan and American University graduate and president of K.Neal Truck and Bus Center (K.Neal), Korey has achieved 315 million dollars in sales since his (2) years of presidency and worked tirelessly to keep the organization healthy in the midst of losing almost 50% of K.Neal’s revenue due to the effects of COVID-19.
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?
My name is Korey Neal, and I’m from the Washington, DC Metropolitan area. I grew up as an athlete, playing football and basketball throughout high school which turned into a full football scholarship to Eastern Michigan University (EMU). Once I graduated from EMU, I was offered the opportunity to participate in NFL training camps for the Carolina Panthers and the Washington (formerly Redskins) teams. I ended up not making it through either of the NFL training camps, and it was a turning point for me. To be that close to becoming a professional football player and not make it — the opportunity of a lifetime — was my reckoning point. Maybe I wasn’t as committed to my craft as I thought I was. When there’s 100 people in a room, 75 make the cut and you’re in the mid 80’s, that’s not a talent gap. It’s a commitment gap.
That moment started this drive inside of me to never miss out on an opportunity for a lack of commitment. I always want to be able to say that my commitment is tied to whatever I do.
After that short stint of trying my best hand at what I thought would be my future, I transitioned over into the family business — K.Neal Truck and Bus Center (K.Neal). My journey to upper management was a 7-year process that involved learning the business from the bottom up. I spent 6–12 months at a time learning every department or business unit in our company which led to becoming the general manager in 2017, and the President of K.Neal by 2018.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
The hardest or most difficult time in my life was actually from my childhood. Though I was a good athlete, I never really had confidence in high school regarding my academics, specifically my ability to read. It wasn’t until I was about 16 years old that I developed confidence in my performance as a student. As a part of the overall sports program, I was assigned a tutor to support my academic growth while attending St. John’s College High School. My tutor was the first person to really help me understand the why behind learning the concepts and techniques that would make me a better reader and ultimately a better learner. Thanks to her, I now consider myself a lifelong learner, invest regularly in my personal development, and strive to read one book per week throughout the year.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
One of the four satellite stores we have in our organization was my first big assignment. It was my chance to manage my first profit and loss sheet (P&L), balance sheet, and the talent that supported our work at that location. I think when we are all starting out, we have this sense that we know what we are doing, but I quickly found out that there was much more that I didn’t know, especially when it came to managing the people.
As the person in charge, I was faced with all of things we didn’t learn in school. How do you deal with people being late? How do you respond to irate employees?
I once had an employee storm into my office after I changed her schedule by 30 minutes (a change we had already discussed), and she proceeded to use every profanity possible to express her anger in front of all of my staff. I was probably 25 years old at the time and had no idea what to do. We had already discussed these changes as a staff and regardless of how she behaved in the moment, I knew I needed her support to continue to keep our business running. I listened and had to respond. It ended up working out, but in that moment, it was anything but funny.
Now I look back at moments like that and realize that these are the moments that made me. Moments that were uncomfortable and complicated are what prepared me to work with close to 100 different personalities, preferences, and workstyles in my organization today.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our organization is special for many reasons. Not only are we one of only two minority-owned commercial, full-service truck and bus dealerships in the United States, but we are unique in our identity as company and the motto we follow of being First to Serve. We take the approach that servitude doesn’t start at the bottom; it starts at the top. I serve the leadership team that reports to me. The leadership team serves the managers who report to them. The managers then serve the associates. The associates then serve the customers across the counter. Servitude is our model. We believe that if we help and support one another, we can effectively serve our customers.
As to what makes us standout, I go back to our decision to offer contact-less parts pickup and curbside commercial vehicle drop-off for our clients. These aren’t new ideas (think Panera Bread and most restaurants post-COVID), but it was new for a transportation company. We were able to provide another level of on-going safety, convenience and efficiency for our customers — mainly, our truck dealers who typically operate on the road and without much luxury.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Though I never really left my office throughout the rise and fall of the pandemic case numbers, this era of blurred lines between work and home life, exposed a few areas of improvement that have helped me move forward even in uncertain times as a leader:
- Don’t let the environment change your routine.
If you don’t already have a morning routine, I highly encourage you to start and implement one right away. As an athlete, a schedule was critical to being successful on and off the field. The same is true for your personal life. I typically get up between 3:30–4:00 AM, workout, catch up on the news and take some time to read a book, blog or engage in some type of self-development. You are your most valuable asset. Burn out happens when we forget to invest in our own growth and development. Make your personal success — to include spending time with your family — a routine practice and well-kept commitment. I have fixed times during the day for working out, thinking, doing, and responding. Plan your day. Failure to plan is planning to fail.
2. Prioritize. My mentor once shared this wisdom with me, “the fox that chases two rabbits doesn’t catch either one,” and this is true of any leader. Focusing on everything in your organization instead of items that are critical for your attention and output doesn’t support mission clarity for the teams and individuals who support you. You have to prioritize what is important enough to require a significant amount of your time and how it shows up on your calendar. This is where the power of delegation comes in. Focus on the big-ticket items and delegate other areas to your staff when possible.
3. Fuel yourself. In my opinion, burning out as a leader is really a result of not appropriately fueling yourself. It may sound elementary, but what are you eating? Food effects the way you perform. Make sure your nutritional fuel is supporting your ability to lead physically and mentally. How are you staying inspired? If you’re religious or spiritual are you attending church, mass or getting that soul fuel you need to push forward towards your purpose? Are you taking note of the routines, rituals, and steps that great leaders follow to refuel themselves? Have you considered a coach? These are all questions related to how and what you fuel yourself with to sustain the momentum of your output and performance. Check your fuel regularly and often. Running out of gas doesn’t have to be a regular occurrence in your life as a leader.
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?
Throughout life, I’ve been blessed to have so many great mentors and coaches who have helped speed up my maturation process and continue to shape the man and business leader I have become today. However, I’d be remised if I didn’t acknowledge my parents — the two most influential people in my world. My mother has taught me how to be humble, how to give and how to sacrifice. Watching the way she sacrificed her wants and needs for my sister and I to give us a better life impacted me in more ways than one. My father has always operated in leadership roles for as long as I can remember. He has led in the corporate, entrepreneurial and community space, but most importantly he led our family which is something I try my best to do everyday with my wife and son. I owe my success to my village of mentors, coaches, role models and my parents.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?
A good company looks good on paper. They have good values, good stock evaluations, good equity, good people and do good business.
Great companies are the top 1%.
Great companies don’t just do business, they create movements. They are customer centric, dynamic, innovative, agile, and adaptive. They don’t just exist in the business ecosystem; they are the top performers and competitors. These are the descriptors every good company should aspire to and work towards becoming.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.
At K.Neal we have 5 laws that govern our daily interactions and align with our mission and vision as a company. These laws are universal traits that we believe capture what it means to be a great business:
- Customer Focus — Serving the customer well is always the end goal. When we plan, make changes, restructure, add or remove any components of our business or offering, we start with our customer.
- Embody Humility — As we have developed our identity at K.Neal, we want our customers and the world to know that we believe strongly in the power of humility. We know that there are a number of ways we serve our customers and our employees well, but how can we improve? How do we handle situations when we get it wrong? Humility is the standard in our company for how to approach situations and especially our customer’s needs. We are getting better at creating a more open dialogue within our organization that we extend across the counter between our associates and our customers.
- Trust — At K.Neal, we believe that a great company is one that can be trusted. Will you do what you say you do and do it well? Will you standby your promise when times are challenging or uncomfortable? All of these questions relate to the ability of your company to foster trust internally and externally.
- Be Dynamic — If COVID didn’t teach us anything else, it taught every business leader to either proactively or reactively become dynamic. Good businesses are the reactors. Great businesses are preemptive in developing this trait of being dynamic as an organization. This is a critical characteristic of companies that have withstood the test of time, economic turbulence, and market uncertainty.
- Win- Win- Win — This one may seem simple, but good companies aspiring to be great have to have a universal mindset across the organization of winning. When you’re on the business playing field, you have to have a strategy on how to win the game. The game or goal may change overtime, but the object — to out-serve and out-sell your competition, doesn’t need to change. As a former athlete, I understood that the overarching goal of the all-day training schedule, study halls, team meetings, grueling practices, and strict social guidelines was to win games and ultimately, the championship. You have to decide as a business leader, what is our championship? What are the goals, 100-day plans, and remote working all leading up to? What’s our trophy for the year and what’s the difference between third, second and first place? Developing a winning mindset and strategy is a steppingstone from being a good company to becoming a great company.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?
I believe that being purpose driven is necessary not only in business, but in life. Most of the successful people we admire or celebrate have some since of purpose that drives them to succeed or be the best at what they do. The same can be said for business. Having a clear purpose enables businesses to harness passion and intent to reach the next level. How companies can get to that answer of what is our purpose, starts with their why as Simon Sinek points out in his book, “Start with Why.” Why is our company here? What problems do we solve? How does what we do impact the surrounding community? These are all questions that shape a company’s purpose and can ultimately affect the bottom line.
What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?
Every business goes through a life cycle of some sort. Early stages, maturity stages, downfalls, and upticks. It’s all about having a plan to endure the process. The same can be said for business leaders. We all have a process of maturation to go through that mirrors a business lifecycle.
When that process becomes overwhelming and it’s time to restart the engine, here’s what’s worked for me:
- Assess your last 6–12 months. You have to know where you are in order to move forward. What worked? What went wrong? These answers are key to figuring out how to move forward or pivot when necessary. Review your structure, talent, resources and the marketplace and see what pieces need to be moved or realigned with business goals.
- Review or create your growth strategy. This can apply to you personally and as a business leader. Have you created a plan for your continuous growth and development? Are you on track, behind, or stalled? After taking a self-assessment, work with your team to do the same for your company. Is your growth strategy being followed, in need of a change or refresh given the current market trends and behaviors? Use this information to inform your next steps and to restart your growth engine.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
You have to plan for downturns. You should also plan for upticks. How do you become lean when times are rough and how do you meet demand when business is booming? Having a plan won’t solve every issue, but it will give you a framework for working through any season of your business or career. If I’ve learned anything in this pandemic, it’s to preemptively plan as much as I can. Use different scenarios. Get outside feedback and support. As they say, failing to plan is planning to fail.
You also need an internal resolve to rise to the occasion and commit to the process of seeing your organization through good and bad times. Once you do that for yourself, do it for your team and keep the momentum going.
Lastly, you have to develop a solid people plan that includes growing and acquiring great talent. You won’t be successful without a solid team. Make this a priority in your planning process.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Running an organization with just under 100 people with 100 different personalities has been an area I just didn’t think about as much when I was learning the business. Figuring out a people plan can be just as important as figuring out a profit plan. How will you attract the best talent? How will you keep that talent? How can you make sure the talent you already have aligns with where you are going? Asking yourself and your company these questions can help you stay ahead of the curve.
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?
Today, the ability to increase conversion rates is an ever-changing skill. The transportation industry is both progressive and still in a lot ways, old-fashioned. We employ digital and traditional marketing strategies for reaching our customers, but we still have a large number of customers who value that in-person (or virtual) personal touch — and that’s how we close deals. We regularly visit our customers and have expanded our social media marketing strategies to appeal to the younger segment of our customer base. We’ve seen leads increase online by giving the customer the information they would need to make a decision without having to be there in person. E-commerce is a growing sales engine in the transportation space, and we are claiming our stake in that trend. The overall strategies I would suggest are to really study your customer avatar. What do they value? How has COVID affected their business? How can you service your customer in way that supports their bottom line and yours?
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
Build trust by doing what you say you’ll do. More than ever, consumers are looking for brands who deliver on their promise of service, safety, efficiency, and consistency. It takes years to build a trusted and beloved brand, and it can take 50 characters on Twitter to completely change and possibly destroy a brand as it relates to the customer and public opinion. Empower your company to keep its word to deliver on the promises you’ve made and be accountable when you don’t.
Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?
I would tell my colleagues to take a moment and close their eyes. Think about the last time you were wowed. Where were you? What happened? How did it make you feel? Why do you keep going back? Those are the questions we continue to ask ourselves as a company. How can we create experiences that change moods, make our customers laugh or smile, and make the K.Neal experience a favorite part of their day? Is it our pricing, our product selection, or customer service? We have to consider these questions as we serve our customers.
What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.
Of course, it’s a little scary. It’s a real-life review of your business and it never turns off, but if your customers are there, you should be there (in most cases). A truck and bus dealership Instagram profile may not be the sexiest page to end up on the trending feed, but our social media profiles serve as an introduction and funnel for our brand to a younger generation of customers. Is there some risk? Of course, any time you put yourself out there on the worldwide web there’s a possibility that something could go wrong, but is that a reason to exclude potential leads and increased awareness? Not in my opinion.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
The biggest mistake I’ve observed is letting your mistakes or failures define your ability and identity as a leader. We’re all human. We’re going to make decisions that don’t bode well. We may fire the right people and hire the wrong people. No matter what we do, we can’t let every challenge or setback become the obstacle that keeps us from moving forward. My approach to making mistakes is to address them head on and figure out what I can learn from that process. I didn’t make it to the NFL, but I gained a renewed since of commitment and brought the discipline of being an athlete with me into the boardroom. Decide now to give yourself some grace and to be honest about the mistakes you make. Many leaders have this idea that admitting faults makes them look weak, but your team will respect you (or should respect you) even more for being transparent with them. It creates space for your team to feel comfortable discussing their mistakes with you. Make it a learning experience and keep leading!
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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 mission in life is to give back more to the world than I take from it. Because of that, I’d love to see a movement of individual business leaders committed to serving their employees and the surrounding community better. As leaders, we have the ability to model service from a higher platform that enables a wider reach in terms of what we can offer, what we can do and what we can change. Activating service-oriented company cultures and communities should start from the top. How can service become integrated into our daily, weekly, monthly and annual calendars outside of the usual company-wide events? Servitude in our personal lives, businesses and in our communities can easily become the next leadership trend.
How can our readers further follow you online?
Connect with me on LinkedIn:https://www.linkedin.com/in/koreyneal/
Learn more about K.Neal Truck and Bus Center: https://www.knealtbc.com/
Follow me on Instagram: @knealtbc
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!