Let's Get Ethical
How three local operations turned doing the right thing into long-term success.
Karen Mosteller, Markham Norton Mosteller Wright & Co. consulting partner
Over the course of the last 15 years, significant ethical blights among the ranks of certain multinationals have aroused mistrust among consumers. And yet, the corrective to this stained corporate reputation is—and in some instances, long has been—in evidence within the cultures of businesses that approach ethics in the workplace as critical to maintaining their customer base, enriching the communities they operate in, and ensuring their own long-term fiscal health.
Here in Southwest Florida, exemplary enterprises are celebrated by the Uncommon Friends Foundation, which, every year since 2006, has been handing out its Business Ethics Award. “We’ve learned that we can’t teach ethics successfully if we focus on negative examples such as Enron and Wells Fargo,” says Eric Dent, who holds the foundation’s endowed ethics chair at Florida Gulf Coast University, where he conducts classes in business ethics for both undergrads and graduate students. “We need to remind people of good virtues, good character, and how they reinforce both good life and good business.”
What, though, actually accounts for ethical best practices—and how can it help businesses move toward higher standards of service? To find out, we talked to three Uncommon Friends award recipients about how they operate, and why.
Markham Norton Mosteller Wright & Co., Fort Myers (2010 award winner)
Markham Norton Mosteller Wright is a 37-year-old accounting firm with four partners, a staff of 42, and 1,900 businesses in its portfolio. The heart of its operation, however, lies in its ability to act as trusted advisors no matter the nature of the need. Says consulting partner Karen Mosteller, who signed on full-time in 1986, “We’ve always been a firm that listens to our clients, and when their needs aren’t met, tries to figure out a solution.” That might mean finding them a new banker or insurance agent, writing up policy manuals, or “putting on the family hat” should more personal matters arise.
Mosteller describes her overall role as encouraging clients to “make the right decisions before they make the wrong ones”—explaining why they can’t write off articles of clothing, or coaching them on the correct way to pay out bonuses (through payroll, not as a cash handout). As Eric Dent sees it, “Their job is to keep people legal, so every interaction they have has a laden ethical component to it.”
The firm carefully vets businesses before agreeing to work with them, using a pre-engagement checklist to assess corporate values. Mosteller cites an experience in which she was approached by five separate real estate agents—all looking for new CPAs, all engaged in questionable practices with their former CPAs. In the end, three of the five were willing to make necessary ethical adjustments and the firm took them on; two were sent packing.
Internally, new hires are assigned mentors who guide them through ethical scenarios. And there’s an open-door policy for all staffers. “You don’t have to cover up if you don’t know how to do depreciation, or if you make a mistake,” says Mosteller. “We’ll coach you, or help you fix it the right way.” Some breaches are too big to overlook or fix, though; instances of employees caught surfing Internet porn and lying about repeated absences resulted in firings. “Ethics is a value, it’s a culture,” says Mosteller. “We have zero tolerance for unethical people—and that comes from the top down.”
It’s Never “Only Business”
Conditioned Air, Naples (2011 award winner)
In 1995, when Theo Etzel came on as CEO of a 44-year-old, $2.5 million, 27-employee mom-and-pop shop, he was new to the business of air conditioning—but not to the ways in which ethical practices drive a company’s success. The former owner of several Ben & Jerry’s ice cream stores already had a mantra of sorts: You live and die by your reputation. But in implementing it at Conditioned Air—not much of a stretch, he says, as the former owners were “honorable”—he was bucking an industry trend for service sale quotas and paying commissions to technicians. In steering the company, quota-and commission-free, to $50 million in revenue and 350 employees spread across three outposts, he sees no inherent paradox. “We’ve proved that you can do the right thing for people and run a profitable enterprise,” he says.
Paramount to that success is a secondary philosophy: Employees are internal customers. “I try to find good people, put them in good positions and serve them,” says Etzel, who insists that management keep him apprised of employee illnesses or deaths in the family in order to lend assistance. Profits are an open book because “I want employees to know their impact on performance; that way, the whole team rises.”
Rises, in fact, to an empathic system of customer service based on core values of integrity, respect, purposefulness and exceeding expectations. Employees who work the phones are taught to minimize the anxiety, say, of the octogenarian on a fixed income worried about costs, and to prioritize service based on things like medical need. Technicians’ bonuses are linked to customer feedback. Mistakes—like an improperly installed air conditioner—are fixed gratis. The company as a whole corresponds to what Dent calls the ultimate win-win: employees wanting to do well by customers, in order to bring in as much value as possible.
Conditioned Air uses a profile assessment program called the Predictive Index to determine likely candidates for employment. And it adheres to a strict no-broken-tenets policy for dealing with employee infractions. “If we have someone behaving unethically, they’re not going to be here,” says Etzel. “We have to look to the greater good of everyone.”
Sell An Experience, Not Just Product
Sunshine Ace Hardware, Naples (2014 award winner)
“People spend more time with their work family than their own family,” says Michael Wynn, president of a third-generation family business that encompasses a chain of hardware stores, a grocery store, and now, 500 employees. “So, it’s fundamental to business longevity that you treat associates in a way you can feel proud of.” How to assemble a team that wants to work together—and stay together, satisfying customers along the way? For Wynn, it starts with the hiring process, when potential employees are assessed through a behavior personality profile, then sent out to interact with other associates. “Do they smile? Make eye contact? We get them out of the interview to see what’s in their soul,” he says.
Ten core values—including “deliver sunshine,” “create solutions through imagination” and “inspire confidence”—form the company’s ethical spine. “They’re our highest authority; the Wynn family answers to them, our managers answer to them,” says Wynn. The result is customers who write in to say they stop by even when they have nothing to purchase, because they enjoy the in-store experience. “Reputation carries a lot of weight down here,” says Eric Dent, remarking on what drives Wynn to maintain a high standard of satisfaction. “Michael also has the pressure of his family legacy, with a grandfather who started this business” and watched it thrive.
Wynn says it’s his ethical responsibility to give employees not exhibiting “correct behavior” the opportunity to change it, and will keep them on as long as they continue to show progress. On the flip side, he also welcomes pushback from associates who feel they’ve been asked to do something that violates company values. “It’s only by holding us accountable that we will continue the success we’ve had for so many years,” he says. GB