I spent 8 hours driving yesterday, to have a 90 minute meeting. Well an interview actually. I met with Thomas Schmuck. He manages a building supply store that is part of the Build It franchise (Click here for their web site). The store can be found in Vryheid. Somewhere in Kwa Zulu Natal. Actually a beautiful drive from Durban. Still a long way to go for 90 minutes. Or not?
I went to talk to Thomas because in 2 weeks I’m speaking at the Build It National Conference, and Thomas manages the ‘store of the year’. I don’t know his exact age, but he can’t be more than 35, he’s from Austria, and has been in South Africa for no more than 18 months. So how does an Austrian in his mid-30’s take a building supply store in Vryheid, and transform it into ‘store of the year’ within a National Franchise like Build It?
I wasn’t disappointed with what he had to say. I say that because what Thomas is doing in Vryheid looks very much like what we’ve been suggesting companies need to be exploring if they’re going to be successful in the future. There are many large companies that have large resources at their disposal that show little sign of making the necessary changes to capitalise in an emerging Connection Economy. In fact I have a feeling that the ‘new pioneers’ are not going to be found in your traditional blue chips. It’s going to be the Thomas Schmucks of the world who are going to be the leading lights into the future.

So how do you turn a building supply store into the ‘store of the year’? I sat enthralled for 90 minutes as Thomas told me story after story of what he’d done and was doing. You may be disappointed even cynical, because what he said was not the ‘usual suspects’. The success of the store had nothing to do with price, product mix and range, promotions, store layout, etc, etc. It wasn’t that he hadn’t spent any time on those things. As he pointed out; everyone has got that right. There is no advantage in that space. His customers expect that those ‘items’ to be world class. Thomas’ competitive advantage lay somewhere else. Here in no particular order is some of what he said….
Thomas saw himself as an enabler, ensuring that his staff loved what they did everyday. That they found meaning in it, that ensured they weren’t just fulfilling some meaningless job description. Thomas pointed out that they spent most of their day inside of Build It, so it makes sense that they should enjoy it, even love it. Thomas has regular social time with his team (and team is a word Thomas doesn’t stop using). They come to his house, he goes to theirs. They visit game reserves and interesting places together. As Thomas spoke what struck me most about what he was saying, was that he didn’t do these things because he wanted to ultimately have a better customer experience. That was a separate agenda. Thomas did all of this because he wanted to get to know and enjoy the people he worked with. There wasn’t a hidden business driven motive lurking here.
Thomas works hard to give his staff as much information as he can. Thomas pointed out that when he first arrived, the employees had no idea how their function connected to anything else. They were working in a vacuum. So Thomas started to develop reports that would give people more information about what they were doing and about what others were doing. This allowed everyone to understand how what they did impacted what others were doing, and visa versa.
Build It in Vryheid has a library. Books are passed around and people sign off after completing the book. Thomas spends time with his team once they’ve completed a book asking them questions about what they’d learned from what they’d read. He helps his team to contextualise what they’ve read by setting them ‘tasks’ based on their reading to be completed within the store. To illustrate how serious he takes learning development with his team – as I sat with Thomas and we talked about different books, Thomas made a note to buy 2 books I’d talked about that he hadn’t read yet.
I could go on and on, but I’ve written enough for you to understand what I’m getting at. Thomas is working proof that what separates the successful today from the successful tomorrow is a focus on developing muscle to capitalise on the emerging Connection Economy. Getting the basics right is a given. Everyone is doing that. Thomas is differentiating in what he calls ‘Emotional Retailing’, and what we call the Connection Economy. And I don’t think you’re going to learn this from the usual suspects. If you’re serious and want to learn, you’ve got to get in your car and drive 4 hours to Vryheid, or 5 hours to Thoyandou (that’s another great story) to see the ‘new pioneers’ in action, making a success of what’s emerging.

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