This week’s guests have been on the Inc. 5000 or 500 five times in the last eight years, maintaining at least 30% growth each year. That’s impressive, so I’m focusing this article on the strategy and cultural practices they have used to achieve such extraordinary (and consistent) growth.
I’m delighted to welcome Dave Walens and Matt Kelly, CEO and COO of Exploring, Inc. Exploring, Inc., and their family of companies, are focused on creating experiences for customers in retail, trade shows, malls, and other physical locations.
As more customers are migrating online, retail is becoming more of an entertainment destination than a practical process for acquiring products, making the art of creating powerful customer engagement increasingly valuable. Says Walens, “Basically we’re just touching all senses really, so we want to make a fun and interactive experience.” Staying focused on this central goal has been at the heart of Exploring, Inc.’s acquisition strategy, which has been central to their sustained growth.
Walen’s acquired his first company, Brumark, in 1999, retaining the company’s brand and using Exploring as the parent company. Brumark creates unique flooring for an industry that was (in 1999) accustomed to basic carpet, bringing an additional element of design and experience to the game. They have since added companies with expertise in fabrication, 3D environments, graphics, and printing, among others. Continuing to innovate in the world of customer experience has been central to Exploring’s acquisition strategy in the 18 years since.
Explains Walens, on the acquired companies, “They were connected and integrated with what we were doing, and so we can operate internally as one, but externally as multiple brands, because each one can help each other, or have its own client base to support it.”
Have Your Team Steer You Away from Shiny Objects
CEOs are visionary individuals. They thrive on new ideas, and can create whole worlds in their minds. They have the enthusiasm and talent to share their vision in a way that others are enrolled, and new realities are created. CEOs can also (and this isn’t all of you, but it’s a lot of you, and you know who you are) tend to have a lot of these grand visions, and have thus been known to chase a shiny object from time to time. Having a team in place to cull your visions for those that fit into the company’s growth strategy is critical. Walens relies on Kelly and their team to work with him on a strategic and operational approach to great ideas.
Says Walen, “Matt and Vivek have been a godsend in that they really bring in the structure that’s needed, so I can go chase those shiny objects, or create them, but they keep the reality there and keep it in check.”
There are several areas that Walens and his team keep in mind when choosing companies to acquire. The first is customer focus. Walens says, “My passion is the customers. I love being involved and seeing a successful outcome.” He looks for companies that also have a strong customer focus.
Walens also looks carefully at the companies’ pain points that may keep them from doing what they do best, and assesses whether, by acquiring, he can relieve those pain points in such a way that the company is able to focus more completely on their strengths. Exploring’s strategy has been to leave the brands and cultures they acquire in tact as much as possible, and so choosing companies that are a cultural fit is key. And for Exploring, the customer is at the center of culture.
Keep Brand and Culture Integrity
Another of the key tenets of Exploring’s success lies in the way they empower employees – but developing this as culture has been a process. Walens explains, “I wanted entrepreneurs, and I wanted people to own their own business inside the walls of our company. I could never achieve that, even though that was my vision. For whatever reason I turned around and that was not happening.“ Walens has always operated under an open door policy, but before Kelly came on board, not many employees walked through that open door.
Says Walens, “Our people are our biggest asset right now, where probably they were our weakest point prior to Matt.” Kelly keeps the focus on the customer, and has practices in place to empower the team to have that focus as well.
Kelly says, “Everything we do aligns with that goal, and all the authority that’s given to the employees aligns with that goal. They’re charged with making sure that the customer experience is nothing but excellent, and that they don’t pass anything to their peers that doesn’t align with making that experience for the customer that high level.”
He works to empower employees at all levels. “When I first arrived, it was a very typical pyramid structure where one individual at the top really controlled everything, and that didn’t allow for input from the individuals who had been on the shop floor to be a high level part of the quality process.” He restructured so that employees at any level could call a halt to processes that weren’t being held up to the highest standards.
He says, “It was just imbuing that understanding into them that they have that responsibility, and they have that authority, and once they understood that, it took off like lightning.”
Exploring currently has 155 employees, and reinforces their culture through recognition programs – including peer recognition programs in which any employee can go to HR and recognize another employee publically with an award.
Kelly also turned Walens’ open door policy around. He says, “We make sure that at least three times per day we take a lap around the shop, and we touch all the employees, and talk to them, and give them an opportunity to interact with us…so the interaction with all the employees, as you’re going through, becomes much higher level, and then they start feeling more comfortable in their communication, and then you start finding out where you have troubles a lot faster, and you can address those a lot easier.”
Have Your Leaders Play Well Together
The Exploring strategy has been to retain the leadership, team and brand of each company that they have acquired. For those of you who have undergone cultural integrations, you are deeply aware of the challenges of integrating teams and cultures.
Existing CEOs of the acquired companies are set up as VPs in charge of those companies. They report directly to Kelly rather than Walens, as the issues they tended to have (sales, operations, quality control) are more directly related to Kelly’s skill set. They manage their own product lines, but are fully integrated into the organization, and provide support for each other.
Having, essentially, a lot of CEOs under the same roof could present a challenge, but for Exploring, it’s gone smoothly. Much of this is due to the careful selection process they go through before a new acquisition. Says Kelly, “We just didn’t go out and acquire companies; these were companies who wanted to join where we were going. That makes it easy.” He also credits Walens as being a leader who brings out the best in those around him.
Fast growth is possible when you have a great balance of vision, strategy, and execution. The team at Exploring has mastered this balance, and has used it to create a business that continues to be recognized at the highest levels by INC, but more importantly, by the market.