Focus on product quality. Even with something as simple as supplying a glove, we are critical to the function of a large food retailer or a medical organization. They can’t do what they do if we don’t deliver.
As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Ardagh, founder and CEO of Eagle Protect. After establishing Eagle Protect as an industry leader in New Zealand, he relocated with his family to the U.S. in January 2016 and launched Eagle Protect PBC, bringing Eagle’s values of providing products that are certified food safe, ethically sourced and environmentally better. Steve is driven to keep consumers safe by reducing the risk of foodborne illness one high-quality disposable glove at a time.
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?
I suppose it’s a good thing for me that not everyone wants to grow up to be the “Glove Guy.” I can’t even say that I had that dream growing up, or even into my early career. I was trained as an agronomist and moved into marketing roles and eventually ran my own marketing company in New Zealand. While owning that company, I had the opportunity to visit a glove factory in southeast Asia while working on a client project. The glove packing area was a large room with a concrete floor, a roof and no walls to speak of, which reeked of chlorine and acid. There were several women working around multiple tables packing 100 gloves into boxes, and one person’s sole job was to keep cockroaches and other pests from getting on the gloves before they got packed. It was jaw-dropping stuff, and I recognized there was an opportunity to improve conditions for workers in such factories, as well as the quality and safety of the product and process. After starting Eagle Protect, I would take my own gloves to the dentist, because I knew they came from our own manufacturer and that they were clean!
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?
When we started Eagle Protect in 2006, one of the first challenges we found was how hard it was to establish credit and get money to start the business. That’s not uniquely hard, as most companies experience it. But we had to buy the product in order to sell it, and we were also trying to create a company where people came to work engaged and excited about what they were doing, while offering them a good wage. Getting that initial cash was hard, but we didn’t give up because we had no choice — I had moved on from previous business roles, and my wife, Lynda, had sold her physical therapy practices. We were all in on Eagle Protect, so we had to be successful. What helped drive the success was that we established a solid set of core values which we still live by. One of them is that we need to make it easy to do business with us. No one wakes up on a Monday morning excited that it’s glove ordering day! We learned early on the best client service was to be invisible to our clients. We perfected that, and also created a fun work environment and rewarded our people well. If you take care of your employees, they take care of the customer. We started to grow, and getting credit and capital became easier.
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?
At one point, we sourced a PPE clothing item we call a “smock” that looked very much like a rubbish bag with holes in it for the arms and head, intended for use in meatpacking plants to protect the wearer’s clothing from water and other fluids. We cut the final hole for slipping the garment over the head in an oval shape. We were in a rush to get the product out the door, so we didn’t test it. We quickly learned that an oval shape, when pulled over the head, tears incredibly easily. We had half a million of these pieces that we’d manufactured in China and shipped to New Zealand, so we had to work quickly to educate our customers how to pull the clothing on very gently to prevent the tearing. Luckily, our customers were prepared to work with us! From then on, we made the holes circular with no tearing, and we always make sure to test new products first!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I believe our key point of difference is that we are a purpose-driven company as ratified by our Certified B Corporation status. To become certified your company must undergo a rigorous process to verify your commitment to social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. Eagle Protect’s goal is to save the world’s food industry one glove at a time and to help our customers use a lot less of a better product. We are mindful of the supply chain from beginning to end, and we look after our staff, our community and our suppliers. To reduce waste, we help customers reduce usage by supplying a better product. People assume failure is part of the glove story, and it shouldn’t be.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
We are a purpose-driven company, and we are literally trying to save the world one glove at a time. That doesn’t burn you out, it fires you up. We also make sure we have fun. We share the love as much as possible with our employees, and we make sure everyone shares in the rewards of a good year. We also encourage creative thinking and fun when it comes to our customers. We come up with creative ways to make our product something more than a box of gloves. We’ve printed quotes on them or used unique designs and colors. There was one instance where we designed our outer box to be assembled into a mobile. It had a globe, a plane and the moon you could cut out yourself and assemble. I recall I visited one of our customers, a meatpacking plant, and one of the men there had assembled our mobile and hung it over his desk. It was just a fun thing to make someone’s day more interesting.
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?
My dad was a surgeon and he volunteered to go to the Vietnam War to help set up hospitals with the New Zealand Army Medical Corps. I learned from him hard work and dedication and service to a cause. If you aren’t into it, get out of it, was a lesson he taught me. As I have grown older, I appreciate more that life is too short to bark up the wrong tree. Don’t waste your time. I love building a successful company and seeing the company get better, the team excited and having a true impact on the world.
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?
One of my favorite books is Jim Collins’ Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t, and especially his quote, “Good is the enemy of great.” Good is often good enough for many people and they don’t go to the next step. One of Eagle Protect’s core values is intolerance of mediocrity. We always challenge ourselves to find what ways in which we can be the best in the world. I visit every factory we source from, we know the owners and we have a good relationship.
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.
- Focus on how much more I can do versus the least I can do. Our salespeople are customer advocates and they are encouraged to work for the customer and put them first, but without breaking our company. Sometimes, that means they work against me in favor of the customer, and that’s fine. This approach changes their focus to, “How much can I do for the customer?” as opposed to, “What is the least I can do for a customer?”
- Look out for your team, and they in turn will look after your customer. We give our people more time off than others may because we want them to have a life. We aren’t a grinding machine — we want employees to perform for their reasons as much as ours.
- Being curious about the supply chain and working out ways to make it better. Our supply chain is long and fragile, and we want to know the companies and workers well and get to know their challenges to make them better.
- Focus on product quality. Even with something as simple as supplying a glove, we are critical to the function of a large food retailer or a medical organization. They can’t do what they do if we don’t deliver.
- Be a good community member. It is important to be actively involved in all of the communities where you work and to be a good citizen.
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?
The reason we became a Certified B Corporation is that it validated what we were already mostly doing, and quantified it as well. The main benefit is that the people who want to work for those businesses tend to put more into it, compared to the average person who goes to work for a box-mover glove company.
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”?
In New Zealand, there is a saying that you’ve made it in business when you get to the Three Bs — a boat, a BMW and a bach (pronounced like “batch,” which is a vacation home). Once the owner can get a business to that stage, he or she can go off to the bach and the business carries on without exciting growth. When we got to that stage, we recognized we weren’t able to get much bigger in New Zealand, but we still wanted to grow. So, we came to the United States. When you look for new opportunities, you generally need to bring in new people with new ideas and experience into the business. That helped us reinvigorate and grow. Americans think they can change the world and they often do. This is one of the only places in the world where you can make a huge difference with a good idea.
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?
With the explosive demand for PPE during the pandemic, one of the challenges we face at the moment is that we have everyone coming to us looking for products, but we have made a commitment to keep all our customers in business because they have often been let down by other suppliers. We haven’t let down a single customer since we started. Recently, I was offered a huge sum of money for gloves that were meant for one of our customers. But I wasn’t tempted to take that money, even though it probably could have set me up to sail around Lake Tahoe all summer rather than run the business here. We always do right by our customers, and I believe that is why we haven’t lost a significant contract since we relocated to California in 2016.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
The key thing that is easy to let slip, especially when you are busy (as we’ve been in the pandemic), is keeping a pulse on your culture and looking after your staff. It is important to make sure they are continuing to be engaged and involving them in the decisions. At Eagle Protect, we are completely transparent and every employee has visibility to all our numbers (with the exception of salaries). They know exactly where the business stands at all times and they have a say in how it is run.
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?
It’s really simple. Tell the truth. Underpromise and overdeliver. We try to get things to people before the deadline. If we promise it next Monday, we deliver on Friday. It’s going back to being great, not just good. We try to do that little bit extra.
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?
This is basically the same answer — just tell the truth and be true to your promises. We deliver the product we promise. Even in a pandemic, we do it. Our product isn’t rocket science, but it has to work. Lives actually do depend on it. From our research, we know that about 500 people die each year in the U.S. due to food-borne illness related to glove use. This could be prevented with the use of quality gloves.
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?
It’s a simple circle. Don’t just be good, be great. Look after your staff, and they look after the customer, and the customer looks after you. Don’t overcomplicate it.
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.
I don’t believe that as a company we have a reputational risk from social media, especially because we are very committed to doing right for our customers. However, there is a risk for our industry on social media that I am seeing. Fraudulent companies are using social media, especially LinkedIn, to try and pass off poor quality, and even previously-used products, as new and quality. If anything, that just puts a stain on the industry as a whole.
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?
One of the biggest ones is thinking that you have to know everything. Sometimes, you just have to forge ahead without having all the answers — just work through it until you do have them. If you wait, the opportunity may pass you by. I also learned that whatever you think starting your business will cost in the first year, double it at least. And cut your expected income in half.
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. 🙂
To me, this is very simple and obvious: good business is good for communities and countries. How do we promote and incentivize good businesses? The Certified B Corporation is one great example of companies who have a shared approach to people, planet and profit.
How can our readers further follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!