Keith Lee’s Make-You-Happy Management System didn’t just come about overnight. Even though he graduated with a degree in Business Administration from the University of Puget Sound, he certainly didn’t learn it in college. It actually got its start out of a huge amount of frustration. Keith had become a slave to his business. It seemed like he was always responding to things and taking care of problems. He had no time for myself. It was not fun.
In 1991, his business was nicely profitable, but he decided he didn’t want it to grow anymore. It seemed like the only things that grew as fast as his business were his headaches, and he sure as heck didn’t want any more employees… talk about headaches. He might as well have been a babysitter.
He thought some of the people at American Retail Supply liked playing pinball with his blood pressure. “Hey, we haven’t seen Keith’s face turn red for a while. Let’s bring him a problem and watch him turn red.”
“Hey, I bet I can make Keith’s face turn red faster than you. What’s the record? 2.5 seconds?”
“Oh yeah? I can keep it red longer!”
“Yeah, but I do it more often.”
Whether you feel like he did, or just know that if you didn’t need to take care of so many menial everyday things, or simply understand that you could achieve more by getting everyone on the same side of the table working together, Keith’s management system is for you.
In the early 1990’s, Keith had a 10,000 square foot warehouse at American Retail Supply, and I was burned out.
Before he sold American Retail Supply in 2015 he owned 5 businesses with a combined total of 80,000 square feet. Because of the systems he put in place, he spends all of my time on important things, not menial things.
What happened? How did Keith go from a guy who didn’t want to expand his business, who had more headaches than he could handle, to a guy whose business grew dramatically, added four more businesses, loves his work, has the time he wants to spend with his wife, kids, and grandkids, and has time for his many hobbies?
Before 1992, when Keith went on vacation, he never felt like he got away. It never failed! He either had to work on something or got called to solve a work-related problem while on vacation. His definition of a great vacation was one without interruptions, but he always came back to a pot load of problems.
Now, since 1995, when he goes on vacation, he never get interrupted. He comes back refreshed and excited to get back to work. Instead of problems, he comes back to a business running as well, or better, than when he left.
A number of years ago, he went on a 3-week Mediterranean cruise, with no cell phone and no email. He told my Vice President of Operations the ship he was taking and told her, “You’ll have to figure out how to get in touch with me if you need me.” He knew she wouldn’t need him. Since 1995 when he had never been interrupted on vacation.
How does the business get better while you’re gone?
It’s the system. The entire system is designed for continuous improvement whether you’re there or not.
Here are just a few examples of what happened in Keith’s business while he was on that 3-week Mediterranean Cruise.
While he was gone, the office team decided to have a surprise, “thank-you” breakfast for the warehouse team. Here’s the email our warehouse manager sent to the office staff team after the unexpected treat.
The breakfast and lunch were absolutely wonderful. What we’ll keep in our hearts forever is the card. This was all very special from you folks and we’ll always remember it. What a statement you made. Thank you from the warehouse team. We think you too are very special and do a lot to make our work easier, but we can’t cook…thanks again.
Here is a voice mail message Keith returned to.
“My name is Josh Flipner. I’m the manager of Elger Bay Grocery – a small convenience store, gas station, and gift shop on Camano Island. I ordered a copy of the book “The Simple Truths of Service” through your newsletter, and I wanted to let you know that it was amazing and everything you said in the newsletter was 100% correct. I’m really glad you guys put that in there so we had the opportunity to get it.
Here’s a card he got from Jeannine Camp from The Groom Room in Ewa Beach, Hawaii while he was on the cruise.
Dear Mr Lee,
I had to write to you and express complete happiness and thankfulness for your staff in Honolulu. First of all I would like to applaud Gary – for his care and great attitude. He not only took excellent care of me at the initial visit to your store but the follow up has been very much appreciated. Gary is a great rep for your company. I hope to do a lot of business with American over time. I want to make mention of Beth, a woman that went out of her way to help and also of the delivery man Martino. You have been blessed with these 3 people in your employ — Thought you should know.
So what happened? How do you create a business with that type of caring for clients and co-workers? How is it that Keith used to dread coming back from vacation to a bunch of problems? Now, not only doesn’t he dread coming back, but he consistently comes back to great news.
What happened is that he developed a management system that made him more money, made his job infinitely easier and more enjoyable… a system that his employees love and in fact led to his company American Retail Supply being named “The Best Small Business To Work For In Washington State” by Washington CEO Magazine. It’s a management system that creates great clients who love doing business with you. At the same time it gives you, the owner, more time to work on the important things in your business: more time for your family, more time for your friends, more time for yourself and it is simply a lot more fun.
Keith currently lives, works, and plays in Kent, Washington. When he’s not working on his business he is playing outside; either fly fishing, boating, skiing, working around the house, biking, or running around with his grandkids. Keith often sneaks away to Conner, Montana, a town 90 miles south of Missoula to go play at his dream vacation home with his wife of 42 years.