Kurt Hoge of Reno Type: “Listen”

Listen. You have to listen to your team; give them structure but give them a place to feel as though they can divulge to you their challenges or share the next great idea. We task our companies to listen to their customers to understand pain points so we can provide solutions, but do we task […]

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Listen. You have to listen to your team; give them structure but give them a place to feel as though they can divulge to you their challenges or share the next great idea. We task our companies to listen to their customers to understand pain points so we can provide solutions, but do we task ourselves to listen to our employees to really understand what they need to do the work and improve their respective personal and professional lives?

As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kurt Hoge, president of Reno Type in Reno, Nevada.

Kurt Hoge of Reno, Nevada, got his start in a darkroom in seventh grade. Work on yearbooks and student papers through high school and college got him in on the ground floor of the desktop publishing revolution. Armed with expert knowledge of Aldus PageMaker and Adobe Illustrator versions one, a fascination with typography, and his very own Apple Macintosh Plus (two floppy drives, baby!), he campaigned his way into a job at Reno’s leading typesetting firm, Reno Typographers. After a while he was offered a management position at the area’s leading color separator, where for five years he learned about high-end color separation, lithography and stripping. He returned to Reno Type in 1997 and by 2003 he’d bought the company and planned its transformation into a full-service commercial printer.

When Kurt is not getting things printed, you’re likely to find him rowing a boat somewhere like the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Kurt credits his time leading whitewater expeditions and practicing technical swiftwater rescue skills with defining his business leadership style.https://content.thriveglobal.com/media/cb387a494c2776636e4772cdfa0d0aaa

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Honestly it was a happy accident. I was always into media stuff, and worked in the darkroom at my middle school yearbook for example. But I never imagined it would be a career. Mom and Dad thought I should be an air traffic controller, which sounded awful to me. When I was out in the real world looking for work after college it turned out that the desktop publishing and image reproduction skills gained as photo editor of the university newspaper were in far greater demand than was my ability to recite Chaucer in Middle English (proud as I was of my accent). Once I started doing professional typesetting and color scanning, it was a natural progression to delve deeper into the printing world. It was so interesting to be able to take client concepts and create them into something tangible that could do something productive for them. The more I did, the more I realized it was an extension into other areas I enjoy: like giving back. Being at Reno Type has been a means to help the nonprofits I love and care about that are doing so much for the community.

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

I once made a customer cry. Buckets. And you know what? I was fine with it. Still am. I don’t even recall what the kerfuffle was about. I just remember that I overheard someone in our lobby berating one of our team. Words like “incompetence,” “rip-off,” and some less printable terms were used in a loud, condescending voice. I came out from my office to see what was up and quickly determined that our staff was not only in the right, but had gone above and beyond. I returned all material and work in progress, issued a full refund and asked the customer to leave and never return, whereupon she started crying, and quite literally begged us to complete the project. I remember we needed the money, but not as much as we needed our team to be treated with the respect and professionalism they deserved.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We’ve been introducing a service called PotentPost in our market, which wraps up seven different communication tools into one. It’s pretty powerful and turns what could be considered a normal direct mail effort into a lasting marketing effort. We’ve been using it to help our local nonprofits really connect with donors and supporters, which is critical when the public’s discretionary budgets are tighter than ever. During the election cycle, all but one of the candidates who leveraged PotentPost won their elections, which is saying something for how “sticky” this product can be. But politics aside, I’m really more excited about this product’s ability to harness data. What we’re seeing in the pandemic is that those companies that still have marketing budgets are trying to figure out the best way to spend every penny for ROI. Since this offers six more tools on top of the direct mail, we think it’s one of the most powerful offerings we’ve brought to the market in recent years. Maybe that’s just the direct mail geek in me speaking, though…

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

I always track back to Abraham Maslow. In the1950’s, Maslow published a theory that described a hierarchy of human needs. It’s frequently illustrated as a pyramid with the most basic needs for human happiness at the bottom and “self-actualization” at the top. The basic concept is that before a need at the top or middle of the pyramid can be met, all items below must first be satisfied. I don’t remember the exact steps but the general idea is that basic needs like food, water and shelter must be met before the need to belong or to love can be met. And one needs that love and belonging before real self-esteem can happen. And only then, when all that is squared away can a human being achieve full potential and be truly happy.

If you’re food insecure or can’t afford basic medical care, how can you be happy? Maslow knew the answer: you can’t be. If wages had grown at the same rate as the US economy since 1970, the median salary in the US would be closer to 90,000 dollars than the approximate 50,000 dollars it is. While our economy has arguably boomed over the last 50 years, the benefits have not reached regular people. It’s a disgrace. Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it does buy food, medical care and housing. And those things go a long way towards happiness.

Sometimes the boss is just an a**hole. I remember having a garbage can thrown at me by the guy I worked for in the mid 90s. (He missed: turns out his aim was as bad as his people skills.) This was not conducive to employee happiness. Are more bosses a**holes today than 50 years ago? Probably not. But I bet more bosses are having a hard time financially now than they used to. Maybe it’s Maslow again.

Human capital is difficult to demonstrate on a bank ledger, so we’ve associated all sorts of numerical metrics to employees. When they fail to meet those marks, they may conflate that failure with their own worth as a human being.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

An unhappy workforce can be one of the biggest detractors to a company’s bottom line outside of catastrophe. We talk about time theft and property theft when it comes to the impact they have on numbers, but these are granular. Employees who are unhappy have no reason to speak of the company with high regard — and while we don’t like to hang our hats on word of mouth as a viable marketing strategy, there’s no denying that one wrong anecdote can spread like wildfire and shake a company down from its pedestal. A happier workforce will go above and beyond when the stakes are high. They’ll feel secure in knowing they are considered a team member; that leadership will understand that they are humans and, as such, have needs to attend to outside of punching a clock. The people we take care of are the people who take care of the company, so those companies that do not consider mental health to be something to protect are perpetuating inefficiencies.

We’ve put so much stock as a society into turning our businesses into those that cater to the customer. But the business itself doesn’t cater to customers, its employees do. People move processes, intelligence and profitability forward. They’re coding the intuitive interface, they’re walking the customer through a return politely and cordially, they’re making a meal an experience. We simply cannot let our team’s mental health languish.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

Listen. You have to listen to your team; give them structure but give them a place to feel as though they can divulge to you their challenges or share the next great idea. We task our companies to listen to their customers to understand pain points so we can provide solutions, but do we task ourselves to listen to our employees to really understand what they need to do the work and improve their respective personal and professional lives?

Flex. You know, if 2020 has afforded us anything, it’s that the needs of human beings have come into sharper focus. We live lives that are robust and plentiful, but that requires a lot: doctors appointments, time with family, the mechanics of life like registrations and grocery shopping and whatnot. Those employers who don’t realize that a little bit of flex here and there is critical are going to find themselves suffering from a divestment of their workforce the moment conditions shift. You have to recognize that sometimes Steve wants to cut out at 3 p.m. to watch his daughter’s ballet performance. You have to understand that Mary needs to take one or two calls during the workday to deal with the sudden loss of her father-in-law. You have to realize that sometimes your team is going to wake up and life is going to throw a curveball or two and those employers who can integrate flex into the culture are those that actively demonstrate their team are valued and appreciated human beings.

Pay. We can’t stand on the backs of our employees in order to profit. I’m a firm believer in a team that is properly compensated — healthcare and all. That team is the team that’s invested. That team is the team that has your back when life throws you a curveball. That is the team that goes home at night without the constant and nagging fear they may not make the mortgage this month. They come back to you rested, revitalized, and much more willing to pitch in.

Advocate. Alright, so maybe you’re the employer who pays your team appropriately. Congrats! Can you help raise your voice so you can lift up those who are not being afforded the same? Leaders who use their platforms to extend graces to others are leaders who are remembered. Trust me — employees remember who stands up for them and who sits quietly in the background.

Spotlight. Share the spotlight when it’s appropriate. Nominate your team for awards when the work is well-deserved. Suggest they consider parlaying their knowledge into a speaker track. Cultivate the healthy spreading of their wings. Employees who feel nurtured and encouraged are going to have a greater sense of fulfillment.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

For society to change, there has to be marked leadership. To expect that one individual will shift an entire culture is a little misguided, but it is important for every individual to understand this: if they do become one person invested in the right way to do things, their example can have a ripple effect. I guess I say this to say please don’t assume that you as a lone person running a business or department or simply leading your family needs to be saddled with this huge responsibility. The weight of changing the societal norms we operate under presently is not for one person alone to carry. But as individuals, we do have a responsibility to ask ourselves what we personally can do and see what ripples we can make in the water.

Leadership is critical. If we don’t invest in understanding how to motivate humans, recognizing that those motivations are diverse and varied, we’ll fall back on numbers. And while numbers can guide, they can’t really help us shape better, happier people.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I’m a fan of systems, and believe every business failure can be traced back to a failed system or lack of a system. That said, even the best system isn’t a guarantee of excellence. McDonald’s has a great system for everything… but not a single Micheline star. So in addition to systems you have to be creative and innovate. If you’re not able to do that, hire someone who can.

In my non-work life, I lead whitewater rafting trips. While I do it for fun, it is serious at times, and in addition to regular training and practice in rescue scenarios, I have been involved in a number of actual rescue situations where someone’s life was truly at risk. Working through these scenarios and actual rescues has taught me so much about leadership and management. Here are a few principles from my “river life” that have translated to my business life.

  1. Before making an important decision, solicit ideas and feedback from your team. Don’t argue or debate that feedback, just listen. Then make your decision. Expect the whole team to follow it.
  2. Be willing to change your mind and approach. So you made a decision and the whole team is engaged in following it, but it isn’t working. Move to plan B quickly.
  3. Clearly define roles and stay in your lane. Make sure every teammate is working in a role that fits their talents and skills. As a leader, you need to have a good idea of what everyone is doing, and sometimes must facilitate communication between your teammates. It’s O.K. to offer ideas and feedback, but let your people do their job.
  4. Celebrate success and offer praise both publicly AND privately.
  5. Debrief. After every significant occurrence, bring the whole team together to discuss what went well and what could have gone better. Encourage a culture of learning so the whole organization improves, even through failure.

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?

There have been many mentors in my life, but the people I most owe my success to are the people I work with every day. Most especially, Davey, Alan, Kyle, Brad and Clay. The way you win is to field the best team.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I think it’s important to do the right thing. Around here we call acting with nobility and community foresight as being the “Reno Type” and, for our part, I’ve steered the company into working as much as makes sense with the nonprofits in town. We offer discounts and do everything we can to help guide strategy so we’re boosting their fundraising efforts. Sure it feels good on one level, but I also like that we can set an example for other companies. Reno Type believes that we have a responsibility to help our community and one of those ways is to encourage everyone to do their part.

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

“It’s not the big who eat the small. It’s the fast who eat the slow.” As awful as COVID-19 has been for the world, it has been an opportunity for companies that are nimble. Our sales for 2020 are up from 2019. I’m proud of our team and their ability not only to switch directions quickly and adapt to new markets, clients and ways of doing things, but also of their ability to get a print and mail job out the door before most of our competitors can turn around an estimate.

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. 🙂

Seems like a stretch in the current political climate, but I would like to see the labor movement return to its glory days. Reno Type employees organized nearly two years ago, making us the only union print shop in our area. It has been a home run for us, and I know the whole country would be better off if everyone made a true living wage, had access to healthcare and had enough time off to enjoy life. And by “everyone” I include business owners like me who see the productivity benefits of happy, healthy employees and the bottom line benefits of customers who can afford to buy our services.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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