(The following article appeared in the Central Penn Business Journal in February, 2001.)
The buck stops with him, but don’t call him a CEO.
“I’m the company coordinator,” said Barry Schlouch, the headman in the business that bears his name. Schlouch Inc., Blandon, employs 250 people in site-work construction. The company grades construction sites, installs utilities and paves the way for builders, both literally and figuratively.
“Really, my job is to send our people to the site in a coordinated sequence and to keep them from bumping into each other,” Schlouch said. “We have selected talented people with the right skills. We don’t tell them how to do the job, we just get them to the job site when they need to be there.”
Schlouch said that most supervisors feel the need to exert power and control. He prefers to be called a coordinator, a title he feels suggests more of a support role. Schlouch admitted he takes an unusual approach to directing a company, but his personal experience taught him that it’s the best way to manage his workers.
“When I started this company in 1983, I tried to run it like a regular business, but the more I tried to do that, the more unhappy I became,” he said. “I was also going through some difficult times personally, and knew I needed to make some changes.”
Schlouch sought the help of a clinical psychologist, who helped him to grow and change on a personal level, he said. Then he decided to apply what he had learned to his business as well.
“Basically I freed myself and rehired a new person,” he said.
One of the major changes Schlouch made was to provide a way for all employees to communicate their concerns and share their feelings about issues that affected the business. With the help of the clinical psychologist who had helped him, he launched a series of what he calls “Team Encounters.”
“In these sessions, we bring together eight to 12 people, and it’s all about getting comfortable talking,” Schlouch said. “We’re asking people to communicate better and share how they feel.”
In a company that’s predominately male, this process took some time to catch on. In fact, Schlouch said, some people left the company because they weren’t comfortable with the concept. And some people he had to fire. But today the Team Encounters are an ingrained part of the business, and Schlouch has extended the program to include families and customers.
“We started what we call “Life Partner Encounters” for spouses or a friend to get families involved,” he said. “We also started sessions that involve customers to discover what they like and don’t like about working with us, and vice versa.”
Steve Funk is a coordinator in the field and has worked for Schlouch for eight years. He appreciates his boss’s “major entrepreneurial spirit.”
“He gives us a lost of trust,” Funk said. “He doesn’t spend time looking over my shoulder, yet I can still feel his support. Even if we make a mistake — and I’ve had a few of those — he doesn’t freak out. As long as we deliver, he trusts us to do our jobs.”
One of only eight women in the company, Diane Fick, receptionist and secretary, said she doesn’t have any trouble working with mostly men.
“It’s the open and honest feel around here that’s so nice,” she said. “If I have a problem with a co-worker, I go to him or her, and we work it out. It’s a very friendly and supportive atmosphere to work in.”
Schlouch knows his approach and management style is unique in his industry. In fact, he said, he doesn’t know any other company that operates like his. But he doesn’t mind being a maverick.
“When I learned to know myself, I also knew that I could turn that insight to others and make it work,” he said. ” I just tell the people who work her with me, ‘Be yourself and go with your instincts.’ And that’s our key to success.”
by Susan Sempeles