Two Questions with Phil Cohen
Welcome to two questions. I'm your host, Sidney McGregor. Two questions is a program where I try to understand the world around me by asking people two questions: What is your fact and what is your faith?
Today we're talking about something that affects almost every person in their lives and that's the importance and impact of business culture, not only in our daily lives, but to society as a whole.
My guest today is the CEO of Cohen Architectural Woodworking, Phillip Cohen. Phil, welcome to two questions.
Let get right to it – you’ve said your fact is that you’ve owned and operated Cohen Architectural Woodworking since 1982 and you’ve almost lost the company a few times but you saved it by focusing not on sales, but on growing a healthy culture.
And your faith is that business owners are truly responsible to the wellbeing of their employees and if they really want to have a thriving business in the process, then at their core they need to focus on doing as much as possible to a healthy business culture.
How exactly would you describe this business culture?
It's the story and the behaviors that are going on in the hearts of the people. It's what story are they telling themselves and what behaviors are they following? Businesses are run by human energy and when the human energy leaves, there's nothing left. And so that the energy has to be good, clean, strong energy. That's all moving in one direction.
So a good business culture keeps a healthy culture, first of all, keeps the individuals healthy. And then when you have individuals who are healthy, who are working together and growing in the same direction and there's no sideways bad energy, then you have a healthy culture.
We found that culture is again, one of the greats Peter Drucker said, culture eats strategy for breakfast. I mean, you need to eat breakfast. And so we do have strategy. Uh, but a strong culture is if, if things go bad, if you've got strong morale and people are critical thinkers and they're getting along well with each other and they're going home feeling good about their work, they'll get you through anything.
So how did this come about? How have you developed the culture and the business that you have today?
Well, we are a family business. We have nine children. We raised most of them through the business up until about 2004 when we moved up to the Saint James area. And, and at that time we knew we were going to start hiring people and incorporate and I didn't have a clue how to lead people. Uh, we were a normal company with people arguing and cussing and, and there was a lot of toxicity.
I had heard, backing up a little bit...I was introduced to the Bible in 1974 I was searching for something. I grew up in a, a lot of violence and abuse and drugs, a drug culture. I had got involved with dark things like witch craft and I was into eastern religions and violence and took heavy drugs for several years. And I was a pretty broken person.
And somewhere around 1974 I was introduced to the Bible and, and it just blew my mind. And the Bible that I started discovering, it was more teaching me how to do life.
And I think the Bible that most people have in church is teaching you how to do church and teaching you morals and teaching about salvation. But it's not a Bible that teaches people how to actually do everyday life.
And so the first experiment I actually did with the Bible was in 1996 when I was really broken and burned out. I was very religious and I was diagnosed with severe manic depression. And I believed, and I, you know, just for what it's worth, I didn't believe that a person could have something wrong with them emotionally that could keep them from having joy and hope. And so I wondered what God called Manic Depression. And I just decided to try this experiment. I said, what if it's a spiritual problem and not a biological or medical problem?
So I got anointed with oil and went on lithium and I started reading the Bible just deeply ingesting the Bible. I mean, 10 or 20 chapters a day, staying up all night reading, a lot of it was by myself alone. Sometimes it put me at odds with the churches I was in. But that was in 96. When I went on medication in 2002, I was able to completely wean off of, uh, I was on trazodone and lithium and several other medications and it was because of that heavy Bible engagement.
And so around 2004, we were thinking about moving to the Saint James area. And I knew nothing about leadership. I knew almost nothing about business. I couldn't read a profit and loss statement. And I had heard about a man in Ohio who in desperation had turned to God and his father had died. His, uh, the shop burned the union tried to take over and in desperation he was a go to church Christian in desperation. He wondered if there was a god that could help him with his business and, and God turned it around. He retired recently. I think he has 1100 employees now, $100 million in sales.
And so I told my family, if we going to continue, I am going to to see if we can use the Bible and prayer to run a business. I didn't even know if it would work. I knew what had helped me get through manic depression. I didn't know if it would work. It was just totally an experiment.
So we kind of just, I don't know if it was reluctantly or curiously or whatever, we started just praying and reading the Bible, And then around 2013, I had a business coach who told me, he said, why don't you see if your leadership team wants to become a faith based company?
And so I put together a presentation. I had found all these companies like Quaker and Hershey and Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby and Interstate Batteries and In and Out Burger companies that had been started by people who were seeking God and using the Bible. I shared it with my leadership team and I said, what do you think we should do? And I mean, we went around the room, there were nine of us, and it was just like this it was like, “You know, it worked for them, it might work for us. Maybe we should try it.” And so it was that some of the guys weren't Christians, most of them didn't know the Bible that well and none of us even knew if it would work.
And so we just started doing that. We started writing a devotional every day from proverbs and sending it to each other. And we started meeting and praying and reading the Bible again, just searching. That's all we did.
And it was like immediately the first thing that happened was it felt like we were standing around this fire every morning. We were standing around the same fire and warming ourselves.
And then as we studied and prayed we discovered that a lot, there were things in the Bible that actually worked. Like the proverb that says good planning and hard work lead to prosperity and just a lot of them like that.
And there was a time when we had a lot of anger and hostility and poor workmanship and, and I was in my morning time praying and God just, it was like God spoke to me and said, you can't allow this to keep going and call this a Christian company.
And so I wrote an agonizing prayer and I started meeting with employees and one of them, his father had, he had argued with his father and they'd gotten into an argument, his father killed himself that night, and another guy, his wife had died and he hadn't gotten over grieving. And everybody had a good reason for why they were bringing drama to work and why they were doing poor work. And, and I said, you know, I'll do anything, anything I can to help you, I'll get you a pastor, I'll get you counseling, whatever you need, but you can't bring that to work because it's not fair to our customers and it's not fair to the other employees families.
And I just kept that agonizing prayer going and meeting with people. And eventually we got done we had three people on the plant floor. We had a few people in the office in three on the plant floor and $1 million worth of manufacturing work backlogged. And at that point we thought this is going to close us down, but we did what was right.
So what happened then? You all of a sudden have a millions dollars in work and thee people to build it all? These must have been some amazing employees?
From that point on that people who were there, first of all, they said, there's a man I want to follow. But from that point on, we just realized that you've got to have a clean culture. And so as we did that, as we had a clean culture people would come and a lot of the people came to us who are unemployable and they had been to prison they had been to war, they had been drug addicts, they were uneducated. And they came into this culture where first of all, woodworking itself is therapeutic. And they came into a culture of where they felt cared for, they didn't feel attacked and shamed and abused. We call our culture and no guilt, no shame, no condemnation, stay curious culture.
And so people just started rising up. After those, there was three people left and people just started rising up. We had one of the best years we've ever had. And that's where we realized that it's the hearts of the people that create the company. And so by keeping the culture, the people healthy, doing everything you can to make the people and the organization healthy. And there's some good books out there on organizational health that by doing everything we could to make the culture happy and people healthy everything else just fell into place.
There's a lot of energy wasted when people go sideways and argue with each other a lot of time. And I think it's measurable financially. So that's when we just started really driving culture hard. And over the years we've been on this journey of how do we create a great culture? What causes culture and how do we help people become emotionally healthy, healthy in every way without forcing religion down their throats?
That’s amazing, such an inspiring story. You totally changed not just your life but the lives of your employees and your business and not just selling more or making more money – but by investing in your culture. Now I understand that this isn’t a process that’s ever complete, so I understand you took some interesting changes drastic changes in to your business strategy recently.
In 2015, I believe it was we were going to somebody, one of our advisors, we were doing our annual planning and he said, take money off the table this year. Just concentrate on having a healthy company.
So I had a picture of a tree and I said, “We're going to do everything we can to feed the roots and, and make the company healthy.” And some people wanted to set a goal of financial goal. I said, if we set a financial goal, we might hit it, but we might have a few broken marriages and a few accidents and two nervous breakdowns and heart attacks. I said, we need to make sure that none of that happens, that we just have a healthy company.”
And so lo and behold, we focused on a healthy company. Our sales actually doubled that year and it was all, most of was at the end of the year. And it put a tremendous strain on our company, everything, Our machines broke down, our quality broke down, our health broke down, but our culture and our morale never broke down.
And so people were still happy and joyful and working together and there was no attacking each other, no discontentment, no complaining. And so because of that, we were able to recover from that and then build a big, a stronger company infrastructure. The heart of the company is the infrastructure and the infrastructure begins with the hearts of the people.
You’ve have this statement, almost philosophy about the responsibility of the business owner into the quality of their employee’s life.
I know that a business owner can do more damage to a family than it then a pastor or a counselor can do to repair that family just simply by sending people home, feeling stressed out and unfulfilled because that's where they do all their, that's their most productive energy and time in life.
And so when they come home feeling damaged and like they'd been arguing all day and they just couldn't reach their goals, they're going to go home and, and many times take it out on their family.
So I'm very sensitive to that and I, everything we do is to, to make sure that workers are happy and they go home feeling fulfilled. And in fact, we have even built our benefits around family, one of our, our missions statements that our mission is healthy families that honor God.
So a lot of people will build benefits. And compensation to maybe attract rock stars. We build our benefits and compensation around helping people have a better home life because when they go home feeling fulfilled, and many of the people who come to work for us, just like probably about maybe 80 to 90% of the people alive today don't even know what a good family looks like.
So when we send people home feeling fulfilled, they come back to work and they do their best and they're loyal and their families send them back to work. And many people have told me, this is the best place he or she's ever worked, my Dad has ever worked, my husband, wife, girlfriend, boyfriend has ever worked. And that's just, that's intentional.
I spoke with one of your employees and she was saying how she was happy in with the job she had, but her husband who works here was coming home and talking about all this personal development and he was becoming a better person even.
Yeah, we have a lot of those. If spouse spouses come to work for us siblings, uh, fathers, sons, my, my belief is I know that they, people say you shouldn't have spouses working together or people dating each other or siblings or fathers and sons. And My, my feeling is if the Bible is silent about it, I'm going to be silent. And so it takes more humility and grace to work with your, with your family.
But we've had a couple of situations where we had a son who was managing his father and, and it just worked. There was, um, we've had it, we have a number of, at one point I think more than half of the people in our company had a family member there also. And as dating, we encourage them to date each other. And become friends with each other outside of work
We are like a little village,
The little Cohen village. So how, how would you describe the, the, if feeling is the right word, but the feeling of culture at Cohen. What does it feel like?
Yeah, it's like clean air. It's like you go there and it's like the air is clean and, and the atmosphere is relaxed and in fact, it's a safe, quiet place to work. And I can, I don't have to be afraid, I can go out on the shop floor. I'm having a bad day and somebody would come up to me and put his hand on my shoulder and say, you okay? And I'll go, not really. And I can't always tell them what I'm going through, but you know, just, they'll just be there and tell me, you know, I'm with you.
We have a lot of people just sharing and opening up about struggles they have
and it’s just helping people. When people feel safe and they feel protected and cared for, they open up. And when they open up, they grow, they become more creative and then they're more productive. So you get that feeling when you go.
I come to work, I don't understand why, why God made me the CEO cause I come to work and, and so many mornings I just drive up to work and I go, wow, what a great place to work. And then all of a sudden it hits me. Holy Crap, I'm the CEO. And then I go, I don't know what to do. You know, I don't have it to help all these people. And then it's like God says, just walk in, you'll be okay,
What advice would you give for a CEO of a, of any size company who is, you know, sees that they have this toxic environment and they know they need to, to change their culture.
You start with yourself. So many, many of the leadership teachers will tell you everything rises and falls on the leader. Just from my studying history, studying the Bible, observing whatever happens in the leader secret heart, it affects the entire organization even if he tries to hide it. So you start with yourself, you work on the things in you, the anger issues, the addictions, the secrets you're keeping, the areas may be where you struggle with depression your own health. Get yourself in healthy shape.
And because there's a saying that everyone wins when the leader gets better and it's really a crazy thing cause you actually get paid to get better. And when you, when you get better, the people who follow you are going to want to get better. If you come to work all stressed out and you're driving yourself, people are going to drive themselves into burnout.
So you start with yourself and then from yourself. Then you radiate outward
and then you start building a, a small core team, like an inner circle of people who are doing the same. And from that then you just start building the culture out from there. But that's where I'd start.
I would start with myself and I start with getting just surrounding myself with a few people, maybe a couple of coaches, and I'm talking about not people who went to a class and claim to be coaches. I'm talking people who have actually been through the battles, who actually have experienced the scars, people and people who will coach you through. And then just surround yourself with a little team of curious people who, who are on the journey together with you.
And these coaches you have a special word for them
Yeah, I called them my insultsultants. And so I don't want people who tell me what I want to hear. I want people who tell me what I need to hear. Cause I tell people, if you don't tell me the truth, life will. So I need you to just what some people call the, the other 3%. Some people tell 97% of the truth. I want somebody who's going to tell me the whole 100% of the truth. And I want people who have been, who have climbed the mountains I'm facing so that they, uh, they know what I'm facing and then just tell me the truth.
Now let’s bring this back to the everyday worker. How does a someone who’s looking for a job find a company with this healthy culture?
Yeah, my father in law was ah, fortune 50 executive and he retired and he did very well in the stock market. And when we asked him how he did it, he said, I studied the leaders and if I know the leaders and I believe in the leaders then I know the stock will probably do well.
When I take people through orientation, I tell them this, that regardless of if you don't remember anything else and if you don't end up working here if you can find out why the owner is in business, then it'll tell you just about everything you need to know about what it's like to work there.
So, for example, if a man is in business because he's trying to prove something to his father and maybe his father's dead, I don't know. But if he's trying to prove something to his father and you work for him, you're never going to be good enough because it is really not about you.
Or a man is trying to build his business up. I know knew a guy who was trying to build his business up to where he could sell it and then retire. Well, you're just a commodity to him.
I'm in business because I really care about people and I love seeing their lives change.
And uh, I really, at this point in my life, I don't need the money. I just this, it's all I want to do. I just love seeing people prosper and get better.
So you find out why the owners in business, and I could probably tell you if I talked to an owner for 15 to 30 minutes, I could tell you right, right away why he is in business and what it would be like to work for him. And then if you can find that out, then decide if that's, if that why is going to, is going to fit what you're looking for in your career. It may not be our why may not be your why, but make sure the why of why that person's in business aligns with what your career goals are.
So we just need to do some research on the people leading the companies we are applying to.
So really, business culture is everything?
Well, I would put a great business culture up against as a company that has a great anything. One of the things we look for, we work for large companies, typically companies that do hundreds of millions or billions of dollars a year. And it's the first thing we want to know about that company is what's their culture. Because if they, if they have a toxic culture, we know it's going to be hard to work with them.
So why not? Why not? Why not work with people who are trying to build a great culture
I have a saying, let, let them know. Let the others work with their own kinds of people. So let the sick people work with each other.
But if you're a leader, make sure you've got the right why for being in business. Because if you don't, you're going to attract people you probably don't want.
So having great culture flips back on the owner, if he is acting out of uh, a certain way, he's going to attract a certain kind of employee.
Yeah. And it's such a waste to because you're going to be at work anyways and so why would you go to work and be ill tempered and greedy?
There's this, I mean plenty of authors will wright about this non-Christian authors that’ll tell you that, that givers get more. Adam Grant, will talk to you, tell you about how givers get more of the go giver book, generous people get more back. People who take, they get it taken from them.
Tony Dungy wrote a book called quiet strength that changed our culture. And Tony said that I'm always going to talk to you in this tone of voice. When I'm angry I'm going to talk to you in this tone of voice and want to get really angry, I'm going to whisper. And he said, if you want to work on a team where the, where the coach yells and cusses at you, let me know now and I'll help you find one. And Tony led his team to the superbowl by leading with quiet strength.
So you're going to be there anyways. Why not? Why not learn all the skills and disciplines and character traits of what it takes to be a great leader? Just there. There's so much available online.
Thanks Phil for your time and your insight. This has been a wonderful insightful conversation.
To lean more about Cohen you can visit the company website at www.cohenwoodworking.com
Thanks to my listeners for joining me on this journey to understand the people who impact the world around us. If you liked what you heard and want to hear more – tell us! If you know someone who has a great story we’d love to tell it. Visit us at www.sidmcgregor.com/twoquestions. Until next time. Ubuntu.