EDITOR'S BLOG: Where modesty rules

by Lawrence Aylward
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SugarCreek CEO John G. Richardson and his son, Michael, run the company from cubicles and not corner offices.
SugarCreek CEO John G. Richardson and his son, Michael, prefer to run the company from cubicles, not corner offices.

CININNATI – When Jami Edgington began working at her new job earlier this year as brand manager for Cincinnati-based SugarCreek, she was astonished to learn that the company’s chairman and CEO, John G. Richardson, worked in a cubicle not far from hers. Edgington assumed the company’s boss had his office in the building’s best space with a large room, big window and fancy wooden door.

But that’s not how Richardson and the other brass at SugarCreek roll. The leaders of the $650 million company, the nation’s largest independent bacon processor, don’t put themselves on a pedestal.

“We don’t celebrate closed-door offices,” says Michael Richardson, John’s son and the company’s chief operating officer, who also works in a cubicle.

This is not to say that CEOs, COOs and CFOs are wrong for securing fancy offices with wonderful window views. It’s just that the Richardsons elect to do things differently. And, no, the Richardsons don’t sit in cubicles so they can keep an eye on other employees to make sure they are getting their work done.

“We strive to be genuine,” Michael says.

The Richardsons make a concerted effort to lead by example – in this case the example being that, although they are the company’s leaders, they prefer to be viewed as members of the team, just like other employees.

Their management approach not only works, it is admired. While Jeff Shutte, plant manager for SugarCreek’s bacon-processing facility in Dayton, Ohio, doesn’t work in the same office, he respects the management so much that he has this to say:

“Most of us would take a bullet for the man,” Shutte says of John Richardson.

Take a bullet for the man? Shutte’s statement is unprecedented. Not many employees will say that about their employers.

And when Shutte told me this, it wasn’t just some off-the-cuff statement. He said it with total conviction.
“We are here for John and Michael,” Shutte added. “They are the ones who hired us, give us direction and treat us the way they treat us.”

At another plant, the new SugarCreek facility in Cambridge City, Ind., Josh Lewis, the plant’s operations manager, echoed Shutte’s sentiment. Lewis says he is “blown away” by Richardson’s generosity and willingness to invest in the company and its employees. “I’ve never met a more generous man in my career,” he says.

As leaders of the company, John and Michael strive to be transparent with employees. They want them to feel ownership of the company and succeed by moving up the proverbial company ladder.

Their approach can be traced to their respective histories at the company. When they first began working at SugarCreek, they were expected to learn every facet of the business, including working on the plant floors.

“Dad grew up working in the business doing every job for his father, [John S. Richardson, who began SugarCreek in 1966]. I was brought along the same way,” Michael says. “I think [employees] appreciate that. We would not ask somebody to do what we haven’t done.”

SugarCreek, founded as a raw bacon company, now operates five plants and has branched into a diversified food company. With sales currently at $650 million, the goal is to increase sales to $1 billion in the next three to five years. Something tells me that SugarCreek will meet this goal. The X factor is that the Richardsons have created a culture in the company that has invigorated employees, who believe in their leaders and want them to succeed.

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