Ritchie Bros CEO Ravi Saligram: “To create a fantastic work culture pay close attention to middle management; they are the employees who are closest to the business”

Pay close attention to middle management: Mid-level managers are the employees who are closest to the business. We need to make sure they are connecting the dots between strategy and execution, and are properly trained and resourced to be successful. As CEO, I make sure we are disciplined about having a cadence of communications with […]

Pay close attention to middle management: Mid-level managers are the employees who are closest to the business. We need to make sure they are connecting the dots between strategy and execution, and are properly trained and resourced to be successful. As CEO, I make sure we are disciplined about having a cadence of communications with employees. I personally lead quarterly town halls. I keep these company-wide meetings positive, but honest. I talk about accomplishments, the direction of the company, customer and employee success and failures, and recognize people publically when they have achieved great things.

As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ravi Saligram, CEO and director of the board for Ritchie Bros., the world’s largest auctioneer of construction equipment. Throughout his career, Saligram has epitomized the classic American immigrant success story, serving in top leadership roles with some of the most successful corporations in the country. Since joining Ritchie Bros. in 2014, he has created a people-first culture that values its employees at all levels. Ravi is a visionary leader with a proven track record of growing businesses, building brands, developing customer-centric teams, embracing digital, focusing on cash flow, and driving shareholder value. Throughout his career, he has inspired employees to challenge the status quo, created cultures driven toward innovation and built industry-leading diversity and inclusion programs.

Saligram was appointed CEO of Ritchie Bros. in July 2014 and since then has been transforming the company by evolving the world’s largest onsite heavy equipment auctioneer into a relationship-based, technology-enabled and data-driven multi-channel asset management and disposition platform. In 2017, Saligram led the acquisition of online leader, IronPlanet, making Ritchie Bros. one of the top 50 B2B ecommerce players in the world with over $3 billion in online gross transaction value. He and his team have doubled cumulative cash flow in the last four years and grown the market capitalization of the company to US $4.1 billion, an increase of $1.5 billion over the last four years.

Prior to joining Ritchie Bros., Saligram was CEO of OfficeMax Inc., where he strategically repositioned the company from a commodity office products retailer to an omni-channel workplace services and solutions company. During his tenure, he led the historic merger of equals between Fortune 500 companies OfficeMax and Office Depot in 2013, unlocking over half a billion dollars in synergies. Saligram also has more than 20 years of senior management experience at ARAMARK, InterContinental Hotels Group and SC Johnson. During his time as President, ARAMARK International and Chief Globalization Officer, he turned the international business into a growth engine, doubling international revenue and quadrupling managed cash flow, in part, by driving sector diversification, onboarding a new generation of country presidents and significantly increasing female leadership. And while working with Intercontinental Hotels, Saligram built Holiday Inn into the number one international hotel brand in China and pioneered some of the company’s first ecommerce initiatives. Saligram has lived in six countries and worked in many more across five continents over his 38-year career. He started his career at Leo Burnett in Chicago, earned an MBA from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and an electrical engineering degree from Bangalore University, India. He has served on the board of Church & Dwight Co., Inc. for over ten years and sits on its Governance and Finance Committees.

Under his leadership, Ritchie Bros was recognized as one of British Columbia’s Top Employers in 2018; OfficeMax was recognized by Ethisphere as one of the world’s most ethical companies, two years in a row; and S.C. Johnson Korea was named one of the three best foreign managed companies in Korea by KBS TV. In addition, in 2018, Saligram was named a CEO of the Year by Business in Vancouver, as well as the Best in Biz 2018 Executive of the Year.

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

I grew up in India and dreamed of becoming a writer. I even wrote my first novel when I was 15. However, pragmatism led me to earn a degree from Bangalore University, India in engineering. My dreams continued and led me to the U.S. where I attended business school and fell in love with marketing. A perfect match as I found a way to satisfy my creative instincts. I landed my first job at Leo Burnett where I developed a passion for delighting the consumer — a passion that has transformed into a core belief. Later, I moved into brand management and then general management. I now focus on business transformation. Having worked across five continents, I am a globalist at heart and thrive on transforming companies through reshaping strategies and reigniting cultures.

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

Ritchie Bros. is a company that is full of passionate employees who love what they do and love the equipment business. I knew I needed to build some street cred in order to be a part of the family. On a trip to Volvo’s North American headquarters I was given the keys to a 30 foot long articulated dump truck, which is used to haul very large loads through uneven ground. I tried to look like I didn’t have any nerves, which proved successful as I was met with cheers as I drove around the track. While I was terrified driving — my team appreciated the effort that I was really trying to get involved. That was five years ago. Fast forward to 2018, in return for the team I appreciate, I pioneered the 60th Anniversary Equity Award program where everyone received 10 shares of stock. I believe that this fractional ownership motivates high-quality work and is also symbolic that employees own “a piece” of what they work so hard for each day.

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

Ritchie Bros. has always been a company that has thrived due to customer relationships. Many leaders say this, but at Ritchie Bros., we mean it. We have some customers write in their wills that their trusts need to use Ritchie Bros. to auction off their estates. That is due to relationships and the value we deliver.

Now, we are building on those relationships to make auctioning easier for customers and employees. We are updating our technology to a cloud-based platform to speed up and simplify pretty much everything. For example, work on titles used to take two days — now it takes just 20 minutes.

We are also using tech to connect with customers via personalization strategies. Traffic to our website, for example, is at record levels with 5 million people visiting our site monthly. Smartphone purchases are up 10 percent. Our customers are excited about the app. In one case, for example, we sold a million-dollar piece of equipment via our app!

Ok, let’s 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 am saddened, but not surprised, to see the results from the Forbes study. Employees leave their bosses not the companies. Therefore, the relationship between a boss and their direct reports is critical at every level.

What is most important: a shared value and purpose. I call that a noble purpose. A noble purpose goes beyond shareholder value. This is how every employee at every level impacts the business and really, society. I have always tried to create a sense of purpose. At Ritchie Bros., we rally behind: Move, Build, Grow. In part, it is about equipment and giving our customers the ability to move the earth, build their dreams and grow their business. Internally, it means much more. This is about being with a company that is always moving forward, we are collectively building a better tomorrow (our best days lie ahead), and we are growing ourselves to achieve our aspirations. A noble purpose helps unleash the passion of employees, and at Ritchie Bros. I am very proud that passion reigns high.

Another reason for employees leaving a company is due to a poor cultural fit. We hire for skill, but also for a strong cultural fit. If an employee, who doesn’t fit the culture, does get hired, we find they typically leave. Our culture is clear and is embodied in every employee.

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?

Unhappy employees have a negative impact on happy employees and bring the mood down. It is important to sort out and confront the unhappy employee, understand root cause and solve the problem. There is no point in letting negative emotions fester as this has a negative impact on the system. However, as executives you have to focus on the greater good of employees not just the one or two.

Along with our brand reputation, our employees are everything and one of the core strengths of Ritchie Bros. If our employees are unhappy, it has a direct effect on business metrics plus takes a toll on employee morale. We measure employee satisfaction but there is nothing like sitting down with employees and having an honest conversation. That’s where you really start to understand how employees are feeling and I encourage my management team to have regular talks with their teams. Also, to have quarterly town halls by department, 1 on 1’s between leader and staff and periodic team meetings and calls as a way to align priorities, and encourage collaboration and communication.

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?

  1. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate: you can never overcommunicate with employees. This is true for information ranging from the direction of the company to philanthropic activities to customer wins. We have been going through a transformation after our purchase of IronPlanet. On top of this acquisition, we also are a decentralized organization with employees across the world, so we need to work hard to make sure that employees understand the company direction plus their role in making it happen.
  2. Focus: employees can get distracted with the project of the day. Make sure they understand the company’s goals and that they are doing value added work on the most important projects.
  3. Listen: Employees won’t always tell you how they are doing or feeling so you need to seek out employee influencers and make sure to understand what is not being said.
  4. Provide a clear vision: employees come to work to be successful, not to just collect a paycheck. Make sure they understand where the company is going and their role in making that vision a reality.
  5. Pay close attention to middle management: Mid-level managers are the employees who are closest to the business. We need to make sure they are connecting the dots between strategy and execution, and are properly trained and resourced to be successful. As CEO, I make sure we are disciplined about having a cadence of communications with employees. I personally lead quarterly town halls. I keep these company-wide meetings positive, but honest. I talk about accomplishments, the direction of the company, customer and employee success and failures, and recognize people publically when they have achieved great things.

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?

As CEO, I am a big believer in free markets and capitalism. However, I feel it is also important for companies to adopt compassionate capitalism. Meaning — I do not want to fuel a society where the divisions of have and have nots is extreme.

As corporations, we have a moral obligation to do good. Corporations have to focus on more than the standard corporate social responsibility programs. I am talking about the very purpose of the company. Something that is rooted in the company and not only driving shareholder value, but also creating value for stakeholders and adding value to society. Hence, my major emphasis on creating a noble purpose that employees can rally behind because they feel that they are making a meaningful difference. Not just sales and profits, but doing good for society.

I would also add that the best work cultures come from bottom up, where employees are naturally inspired to do great work because they want to, not because they are forced to by their bosses.

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

I tend to be very demanding of great performance, but I am also deeply caring about my employees, their well-being, and their families. I work to be supportive of employees when they have moments of disappointment or need.

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?

My success is really a reflection of the women in my life: my mother, my aunts, my wife and my two daughters. All of these women have made incredible sacrifices to help me in my career, starting with my mother encouraging me to go to business school in the U.S. and my aunt who I lived with when I arrived in Michigan.

I have also learned a lot from my bosses and direct reports, both good bosses and not so good bosses. My style as a CEO has been influenced greatly by Joe Neubauer, one of America’s longest serving CEOs of a Fortune 500 company, with nearly 30 years at the helm of Aramark. Neubauer took Aramark private twice and public twice and created immense shareholder value. Additionally, Joe taught me about compartmentalizing and having intense concentration at work. I try to maintain an intense focus and always be in the moment when I’m at work.

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

I am fortunate enough to lead employees who believe in giving back to their communities. For example, our auctioneers do hundreds of charity auctions across the globe each year. At our global headquarters in Vancouver, we are a major sponsor of Kids Sports. On a personal level, my wife is the high-achiever in the family and does an incredible amount of good in running a successful non-profit that supports the health and wellness of people living in India.

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

I became president of SC Johnson Korea when I was 32 years old. During a 360 review feedback session, my Korean CFO gave me life changing business advice. He felt that based on my U.S. training, I focused too much on the high achievers and superstars. Instead, he suggested that I should focus more on the majority of people in a company who are perceived to be ordinary or average. I took his advice and ever since have focused on bringing out the extraordinary talents of seemingly ordinary people. Bottom line — a good leader brings outs talent potential in everyone.

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. 🙂

I am a big believer in gender diversity. I want to see business environments where it doesn’t make a difference if you are male or female. It is sad that we are not there yet.

I would love to see more female CEOs, more female board members and a female U.S. president. More specifically in the industrial sector, I would love to see more females in senior management, sales and operations. I genuinely believe that gender diversity leads to innovation and better financial results.

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

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