My first public job as a teenager was at Kentucky Fried Chicken. (We called it by its proper, full name back in the day.) I showed interest in all facets of the business and quickly worked my way into an assistant manager role. (Note: Giving a 16-year-old the keys to the store and responsibility to manage other teens on the night shift might not be the best idea.)
One of my favorite tasks was taking the weekly inventory. We had a system that led me through the entire operation, counting every bag of flour, every head of cabbage, every can of baked beans. Cups. Napkins. Styrofoam containers. Sporks (the greatest hybrid invention known to man). Everything had to be counted and noted on a form. Why? Because the process of taking inventory helped us make decisions on what additional resources were needed to deliver a top-notch finger lickin’ experience to our customers.
In a service business, you don’t have sacks of raw chicken sitting around (hopefully). Your key inventory items rest between the ears of your single most important resource: your employees. They carry in their brains the information, the reasoning, the experience, the skills, the attitude and the desire to serve your customers well. Sure, you still have computers and notebooks and software and pens, but your pool of talent is your single greatest asset.
In early July, the company my wife and I founded in 1996 in a spare bedroom was named to the Inc. 5000 list of America’s fastest-growing privately held companies. The exciting news caused me to reflect on the key elements of the journey that brought us to this day:
- My family, whose sacrifice and support are central to the story
- The many people who inspired and motivated me, and on whose shoulders I stand
- Our employees, whose hard work bring the company’s mission to life every day in service to our clients
It was only a few years ago that we could hold an all-employee meeting over lunch in the big booth at Ruby Tuesday. Today, WordSouth’s 31 employees are scattered across five states. When the pandemic hit and so many businesses struggled to adapt to remote working conditions, our team barely missed a beat — our distributed structure was already in place and working seamlessly.
But more important than the systems were the people working those systems. We had champions in place who were committed to taking care of our clients no matter how the circumstances shifted.
And boy did they shift. The pandemic brought so much uncertainty to the industries we serve. We immediately set to work creating resources our clients needed to communicate through the changes in their operations. We distributed content at no cost, first to our clients then to our industries at large. Our employees listened to the feedback and brought back ideas for new items that people needed to help them walk a path that had no guideposts.
It was almost four months after the pandemic shutdown began that I received the news that WordSouth had been named to the Inc. 5000 list. This was based on growth over the previous three years. All told, the companies on the Inc. 5000 list had created 582,748 total jobs between 2016 and 2019. And while that’s an impressive number for sure, the strongest story for me was the role our employees had played in bringing us to this day.
“We’re just like family.” That phrase often gets tossed around by company owners when talking about their employees. It certainly applies to our group, but I believe it goes deeper than that. Our team is connected by a sense of purpose, a focus on the mission at hand, a desire to help our clients succeed in the often difficult work at hand. At the core of this attitude is a genuine care and concern for one another’s well-being, for their families, for each other as people and not just co-workers.
This culture is something we did not systematize. There is no employee onboarding task labeled “teach them to care” with a checkmark beside it. It’s part of our culture, and something that happens organically every time a new face is welcomed to the fold.
As I take inventory, reflecting on the events of this year (the pandemic, making the list, selling our company, etc.), I am amazed at the team we have built. A client once told me that we hired well, and that was one of the best compliments I’ve ever received. It points to the fact that quality people have found a home here, a purpose in their career, an outlet for their creative talents that allows them to make a difference in our small corner of the world.
Our team is extraordinary. To a person, they are gifted and passionate and determined. It is a joy to work with them and a blessing to know them as human beings.
They are the reason we made the Inc. 5000 list. They are the reason our clients are well-served. They are the reason our company is making a difference in our industries. They are my co-workers and my friends.
And when I take inventory of my life, they are among the most treasured items on the list.
(Note: This article is the first of a series by founder Stephen V. Smith reflecting on WordSouth being named to the Inc. 5000 list of America’s fastest-growing private companies. The series can be found here in its entirety.)