John Hazen White Jr. runs the Taco company with a great deal of compassion for his employees and customers, part of his "All About You" campaign.

CRANSTON, R.I. - Friends call him Johnny. Peers call him Johnny. Even his employees call him Johnny. That's a good thing. Because John Hazen White Jr. prefers to keep it on a casual and comfortable level. And because his father, the late John White, wastheJohn White, anyone coming after would haveto go by a different moniker.

Even if White did not have to use a different name than his legendary father, the president of Taco Inc. would feel comfortable with his employees taking the casual approach with him. After all, his employees are the most important people to White. He makes no bones about the fact that if employees are happy, they will make a better product. And customers win when they buy and use better products.

Conventional business wisdom might suggest that customers always come first. Without customers there would be no business. But White has a different take on what makes businesses successful. He believes it all starts with the employees. Without happy and productive employees, there would be no business.

Coupled with the newest ad campaign, White is planning to keep his employees happy while sharing his face with a whole new set of people.

PUTTING A FACE ON THE COMPANY

Part of Taco's new advertising campaign, titled "It's All About You," is an effort to personalize what the company does for everyone and everything it touches. This new approach includes putting White's image in the forefront of its print and electronic media advertisements.

"I woke up one morning and asked myself what makes Taco unique," he said. "And it turns out that I make it unique."

White realizes that this may sound like chest pounding, but it comes from a personality that is open, honest, and "out there." He has taken that philosophy to another level with his regular newspaper columns and television spots. It is hard to drive around Rhode Island without seeing his face on a billboard or the side of a bus.

"Personification of our brand is job one," White said. "We need to get up close and personal with people in our trade. Bringing me into people's homes is a great value to our company.

"Look, if your mattress pops a spring, who are you going to call? Mr. Sealy? People know they can talk to me if they have a problem."

White said that since the start of the All About You campaign he has gotten more e-mails compared to anything else he has ever done, including an e-mail from a South Dakota contractor who appreciated seeing his face on the ads.

"I am so tired of selling cast iron by the pound," White said. "It all comes down to the pump. They all work and do the same thing. The goal is to find ways to become the easiest company to deal with when it comes to selling pumps."

If the attention makes more people notice him, it is good for business. And his business is people. "The best part about this business is the people," White said. "I love meeting people. Whenever I am having a bad day I always know that I can visit with our employees and feel better."

That attitude is one that White wants to pass along to his workers. He wants them all to feel good about each other and to genuinely like each other.

"It isn't easy to walk into work and leave all of your feelings and emotions at the door," he said. "We are a family here and we care about each other's lives."

White started a weekly get-together for employees called the Clock Tower Chat named after the meeting room inside the company's clock tower building. Ten employees are chosen from a computer-generated list and have the opportunity to meet face-to-face with White. That gives him a chance to talk about the company.

"I feel that some companies are run very secretly," he said. "I don't understand why. I want to be truthful with people and open with them. I want them to know what I am thinking all of the time."

John Hazen White Jr. poses with some of his workers inside his Taco plant in Cranston, R.I.

RATCHETING UP THE CARE

March 30, 1991, was a dark day for Taco. The company went through a major restructuring and had to lay off 30 percent of its workforce. It was at that point that White and his father decided to take a different approach to the business - educating the employees.

"Instead of bringing people back, we decided to train the existing staff," said White. "We had been investing in the plant and the equipment but our people needed more knowledge to keep up with the changes. Some had few math skills and even fewer English skills.

"My dad created the learning center and the courses we offered included English as a second language."

Enrolling in the learning center was optional but within the first year 98 percent of the Taco workforce had enrolled in at least one course, and many were asking for a larger selection of courses. About three years ago, 11 employees graduated with an MBA degree, completed in the Taco learning center.

White said that invariably, someone will challenge him on the returns he gets from the learning center. "I will not financially justify the learning center," he said. "I don't figure out how the company benefits financially from it. I look at the low turnover rate - a half-percent a year and average tenure of 18 years - as my justification."

White feels that his company is more successful when employees are part of the growing process, too. He is open to new ideas as long as they meet three criteria:

1. It's different;

2. It's fun;

3. Pisses someone off. He likes the third one. "I'll know I'm succeeding if I piss someone off," he said.

John Hazen White Jr. takes a lot of pride in his employees and often visits with them to discuss Taco's future.

GIVING BACK TO THE COMMUNITY AND INDUSTRY

Taco is currently in the process of constructing an addition to its plant. The new building will give Taco more operating space, particularly for warehousing, shipping, and receiving. It will also help the community.

"Our new addition is a benefit to everyone," White said. "I think it is important enough to go out and create an ad based on the new addition." White posed for the new ad while wearing a hard hat and helping maneuver a steel beam. He said he had fun with the project and planned to thank the steelworkers with a barbeque lunch.

White said giving back also involves members of the HVAC trade, namely the distributors. He equates loyalty to giving back to his distributors. "The distribution industry is evolving into something less than the traditional loyalty models," he said. "Consolidation has changed the face of it, with big guys gobbling up smaller guys.

"People who work with Taco tend to stay with Taco because there is value in our relationship. You can't buy loyalty. The distribution industry has been built on loyalty."

Building a relationship and giving back to people are key elements in building a profitable business model. White listed the benefactors of a profitable business, in order of importance.

"I must manage a profitable business on behalf of our employees, who are number one; our suppliers, because in a lot of cases we are their biggest customer and I want to be around for them; our customers, who rely on us to supply them with quality and competitive products; our community, whether it is the schools, churches, etc.; and on behalf of our environment where we can walk the walk and not just talk the walk," he said.

TOUGH TIMES, TOUGH DECISIONS

White acknowledges that the present time is the toughest it has ever been to run a business. But he knows that he has the stamina and compassion to make the right moves for his business.

"When I began at the helm of the business the company was in tough shape," he said. "My father allowed me great latitude during these tough times, and he had the wisdom and the foresight to make that decision. When my dad died [in 2001] there wasn't a question as to who was running the business. That was important to me.

"I miss my dad every day. I wish he was here to see what we have done."

White said that companies that take care of their employees and act aggressively in these tough economic times will truly be the ones that succeed.

"I'm going to be progressive and run the company for the benefit of our employees and our customers," he said. "I'm not going to sit still. I am going to push through and break out of this funk. I take a maverick approach to running my company.

"Whatever decisions we make will lead us to becoming a better company."

Publication date: 08/21/2006