Vic Keller: To create a fantastic work culture have an “open door with a smile” policy

Smile Policy. Having an open-door policy is one thing but having an open door with a smile is the real deal. Leaders can say they have an open-door policy to encourage transparency, but no employee is going to saunter into a leader’s office if they look uninviting — even if the door is open. It’s not enough […]

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Smile Policy. Having an open-door policy is one thing but having an open door with a smile is the real deal. Leaders can say they have an open-door policy to encourage transparency, but no employee is going to saunter into a leader’s office if they look uninviting — even if the door is open. It’s not enough to work with an open door; leaders must invite the conversation to deliver true transparency. The best way to do that is with a smile when someone comes knocking.

As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Vic Keller. Vic Keller is a visionary leader bringing over 20 years of experience in establishing, growing and operationally optimizing both national and international companies. His innate entrepreneurial nature affords him the talents to convert strategic plans into tactical realities by guiding companies in establishing themselves as viable businesses. Vic has created, launched and managed several companies over the course of his career, the automotive industry-leading e-commerce platform NEXEMO being the latest. Most of his companies were successfully acquired by Berkshire Hathaway Inc. in 2015, where Vic assumed senior executive responsibilities for Berkshire Hathaway Automotive and oversaw several operating departments in the multibillion-dollar organization. Vic enjoys investing in other entrepreneurs and building companies. He founded Experience Ventures as a platform to partner and invest in targeted companies poised for growth and in December 2017 joined the private equity firm Ancor Capital Partners as managing partner. Vic’s current portfolio comprises 11 companies ranging from biotech to industrial manufacturing, where he focuses on operationally optimizing their growth by mentoring their leadership teams and shepherding strategic and cultural initiatives.

Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

After years of building my own companies and having them be successfully acquired by Berkshire Hathaway, I was left with a big decision: What’s next? It was a novel time to pause and consider what I really love to do and where to focus that effort. The truth is that I love building value within companies by developing talent and crafting innovative cultures that ultimately stand out as exceptional offerings to the markets they serve.

In business, capital is the price of admission, and private equity provides readily available capital. This means that the decision-point for any company looking to grow is less about funding and more about a partner who is going to bring immediate value and experience to the business they’ve worked so hard to build. Being that partner is an opportunity I relish.

Partnering with companies already established and thriving in the marketplace gives me license to leverage my passions and help these companies innovate and grow. I get to skip the building process and move right to cultivating value — serving both employees and customers.

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

In 2018, my PE firm identified an amazing company we wanted to partner with and acquire into our portfolio. We were not alone. This same company had many suitors and the posturing from all firms involved was that the price of sale would dictate the lucky acquisition. Problem was, we were one of the lowest bidders on the list.

Instead of focusing on financing, we took a leap of faith and focused on our core principles — people, purpose, passion, process — showing the company leaders how application of these principles would improve overall company success.

We focused on the employees and the strategies we sought to help them grow personally. We focused on the founder’s legacy, how it could be protected, and we focused on ways to further develop positive leadership within the company.

In the end, we won the acquisition. We paid less money for the company than other firms were offering, but the founder believed in the long-term benefits of our principles. So did we. Since the acquisition, this company’s profits have doubled.

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

We have an incredible medical technology company in our portfolio that provides products and services to both the pharmaceutical and health care industries. It’s truly transforming the way health care uses real world data to accelerate research and generate evidence that provides enhanced decision-making capabilities for the market. In effect, we’re enhancing the efficacy of drugs that work in many different therapeutic areas to improve quality of life.

And yet, in the first month of our partnership, we learned that the company’s leadership hadn’t put the time in place to really educate and relay to employees just how impactful their work is on the industry they serve.

This spurred a new project to bring all associates together in a monthly review to discuss not the typical business achievement, results or monetization updates, but rather focus on specific examples of how the work we do directly impacts patient lives.

We are taking the opportunity to qualify for the workforce that the work we’re doing is truly changing lives and that while health care is an obvious place to hone our purpose, there is further opportunity that extends to other industries as well.

It’s amazing to see the change in employee comradery, community and work ethic since the inception of these review meetings. Delivering purpose goes a long way to cultivating employee fulfillment.

OK, let’s jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the U.S. workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

Most progressive companies in today’s marketing place do an exceptional job portraying a positive culture, and yet, despite all the time and energy focused on these employee-centric environments, one-half of the U.S. workforce still tests positive for unhappiness. I believe that’s because there is a disconnect between what company “culture” means to leadership and what it means to associates. More often than not, company leaders strategically align their cultures with increasing accomplishment and achievement. Culture becomes a strategy for growth. However, what they should strive to do is align their culture with employee fulfillment.

I’ve seen some companies work to align their cultures with purpose, understanding that their employees want to feel purposeful in their work. This is a step in the right direction, but the disconnect remains in a lack of fulfillment. If you have a great culture but your employees are not fulfilled, you’re going to have a discontented workforce.

The real goal is to provide your workforce with fulfillment. It’s the only way to truly achieve the success companies are striving for — and the happiness employees crave.

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

In my experience, an unhappy workforce primarily results in employee turnover, which is the most detrimental and costly expense to most companies.

Company loyalty is no longer a given trait among today’s workforce, especially within the Millennial generation who values culture and purpose over title and loyalty. If a company breeds an unhappy workforce, then employee turnover rates will inevitably climb, negatively impacting productivity and profitability, and ultimately compromising employee health and well-being.

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?

Know Your Workforce. Many companies focus on knowing their customer rather than knowing their workforce as a primary tool for success. I believe it should be the reverse. Knowing your workforce enables leaders to not only cultivate an authentic culture, but drive innovation and company growth. Mary Barra, the general manager of General Motors Co., did an exceptional job of this when she assumed her leadership role at GM. Within the first month, Mary was touring plants, talking to people on the floor, learning their fears and aspirations, and understanding what incentivized and inspired them. Her №1 objective was to know her workforce, and it has served to propel GM to one of the top global companies heralded for good culture.

Foster Work-Life Integration. Just because you go to work doesn’t mean you stop living. A popular concept for leaders is to push the notion of a work-life balance, but all that really means is to make your time spent working equal to that spent not working. Balance is not a bad thing, but in this context, it compartmentalizes life and work. In my opinion, leaders should instead foster a work-life integration environment where time at work feels fun and life-freedoms are accepted. Work should complement life, not compartmentalize it.

Smile Policy. Having an open-door policy is one thing but having an open door with a smile is the real deal. Leaders can say they have an open-door policy to encourage transparency, but no employee is going to saunter into a leader’s office if they look uninviting — even if the door is open. It’s not enough to work with an open door; leaders must invite the conversation to deliver true transparency. The best way to do that is with a smile when someone comes knocking.

Take Time to Celebrate. Celebrating a birthday is still a big deal — it’s a party! This may seem sophomoric, but celebrations are infectious. A leader who celebrates birthdays gives employees permission to inject fun into the workplace. It’s the easiest way to break down walls and create camaraderie. Leaders who celebrate let employees know they’re human and that celebrating life is worth a break.

Make HR the Concierge, not the Police. As the department whose sole purpose is to manage the company workforce, Human Resources should always be positioned as a support department for employees. In essence, leaders in HR should act as concierge to employees rather than police.

When it comes to company communication, for example, leave out the policy-driven terminology. PTO should be called what it is: vacation, family time, a brain break … telling employees that they deserve the time off and that they earned it. This shifts employee perspective away from a disengaging authoritarian leadership and shows them that their company cares.

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 U.S. workforce’s work culture?

Most relevant, progressive companies in America today are either talking about how they have a great culture or how they’re working to build a great culture. But in my experience, when you dig below the surface for the true effect these company cultures have on employees, very few of them translate to real employee happiness. This is because companies are making the mistake of strategically aligning culture with increasing accomplishment and achievement for the company instead of focusing on true employee fulfillment.

A lot of company leaders recognize that employees want to feel purposeful in their work and thus try to define and build a culture around purpose. This is a step in the right direction, but ultimately this kind of culture still stems from the leadership’s strategic desire to achieve. To make a broader change in the perception of “work culture” in today’s society, business leaders must shift the desire to cultivate a culture to achieve company success to that of actually providing the workforce with true fulfillment. If we can do that, then we can expect a significant increase in employee happiness across the country.

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

Empowerment. I work very hard to identify smart, capable people who are aligned with my vision and values so that they can execute on strategies without any micromanagement. I learned very early on in my career that to be a successful leader, you must learn to delegate and trust the team you build. As much as your instincts may drive you to try to do it all, this is just not realistic. Thus, I surround myself with extremely driven, passionate talent and do my very best to equip them with the resources necessary to succeed.

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

Richard Branson. While I don’t know Mr. Branson personally, I’ve studied his business philosophies since I was a young professional, and I’ve always admired how he gives permission to entrepreneurs and business leaders to be outrageous in their culture-building and to always put people first. He’s done a great job advocating to the world that people can build incredible companies that do important work but still have a ton of fun along the way.

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

I love my job, the work that I do, and the experience and exposure it affords me to top industry professionals across the globe. I never stop learning. Ever. Every day a new experience helps strengthen, sharpen or shape my business approach. I’m incredibly grateful for these experiences and for the curiosity they inspire in others also looking to shape their own path. Speaking with students and young professionals entering the workforce is my way of imparting the lessons I’ve learned in business to help grow the next generation of leaders.

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

Live with Intention. It’s my personal mantra. Every decision I make is with intention — it’s the very key to my life. I love to innovate, fuel ambition and strategize success. I like to help others discover their vision, and to serve my family, my community and my faith along the way. I could never accomplish all I set out to do if I didn’t try to make every move, every decision with intention. It helps me be the man I aspire to be.

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 would love to inspire a Pay-It-Forward movement across identified mediums using profound business lessons. People would share their lessons wrapped in stories and the positive effects they’ve had. The idea would be to spread savvy business knowledge to help people shape, mold and improve how they go about making a positive impact in business. The goal would help to lift sage business advice from siloed stages and make it accessible to the everyday aspiring professional, fostering the forever-present heartbeat of our U.S. economy: the American Dream.

For more information on Vic Keller, go to

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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About the author:

Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.

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