Excerpted with permission from The Seven-Day Weekend, Portfolio, May 3, 2004.
* Ask why?
* Give up control.
* Change the way work works.
I'm a catalyst, and that's why I was on a ten-hour Varig flight from Sao Paulo to New York, fastening my seat belt and making sure the tray table was in an upright and locked position for landing.
You read that correctly the first time--catalyst. By definition a catalyst, usually an enzyme, initiates a reaction. The way I handle the role is by broaching weird ideas and asking dumb questions. Strictly speaking, I'm a highly evolved CEO, as in "Chief Enzyme Officer."
As such, I was fated to make the trip the moment I casually said to my Semco colleagues, "I bet we can get the phone number of the Rockefeller Group by calling information. It must be listed, don't you think?" It was. Like a good enzyme, I even offered to dial the number, too, since I was perched on the front edge of my desk, a favorite spot that allows me to get to my feet quickly to end meetings that start to drag.
"Oh, Mr. Mirante, you mean," the company operator said when I blandly asked the name of Cushman & Wakefield's president, pretending that I had just suffered a slight memory lapse.
"Yes, Mr. Mirante. Would you ring his office please?" Cushman & Wakefield is the commercial real estate arm of the Rockefeller Group. When Arthur Mirante's secretary picked up the phone, I told her that I was calling from Brazil. For some reason that worked magic--maybe she had a secret fantasy about attending Carnival in Rio--the next thing I knew President Mirante himself was on the line.
It took about three minutes; record time, considering he didn't have a clue about me or my agenda. I explained who I was--leaving out the bit about being a catalyst--and suggested that we get together face-to-face to discuss a business proposition. My new friend, Arthur, agreed without pressing for details.
Now, standing in the cab rank at JFK Airport, having been stranded by a no-show limo driver, I experienced my latest pang of misgivings: "Cushman & Wakefield is going to agree to partner with an obscure Brazilian company? Get serious, Ricardo. This is one weird idea that's about to fizzle."
A cacophony of Indian sitar music provided the soundtrack for my trip through Queens to midtown Manhattan. I asked the cabbie to turn it down, but he couldn't hear me over the noise. Ears ringing, I got out on Fifth Avenue, wended my way past the famous ice-skating rink (in springtime hibernation), noted the façade of Radio City Music Hall with its flashy neon marquee, and entered the high-rise domain of one of the world's largest real estate management firms.
I whisked through the revolving door and sailed straight past the security desk without stopping, affecting the bearing of a Rockefeller scion (Rocky Ricardo?), a little game I used to play prior to 9/11. I was pretty good at looking like I knew where I was going; guards rarely stopped me for ID or destination checks. (Alas, those days are over in the United States.) The elevator ride to the thirty-sixth floor gave me just enough time to review my predicament without triggering full-fledged qualms. Surrounded by hundreds of engineers, brokers, and high-end property managers, I was about to propose that Semco, a company with zero experience in real estate, join forces with the Rockefeller family to handle the nitty-gritty business of facility management in Brazil and the rest of Latin America.
I introduced myself to the receptionist and moments later was sitting on an opulent silk-covered sofa wondering if I had been wise to wear jeans and a blazer. The doubts about my attire were almost instantly reinforced when into the office suite strode Arthur Mirante II, tall and stylishly draped in an elegant, Italian-designer suit that reeked of many fittings by cadres of attentive artisans.
His firm handshake and warm, open smile put me at ease. I reminded myself that I was supposed to be having fun and so, presumably, was he. I noticed that he gave my jeans a quick sideways glance of appraisal. We bantered a few moments about not usually setting up meetings based on a three-minute phone call, or flying ten hours on the same flimsy pretext, and then quickly got down to business. I summarized my proposal, emphasizing Semco's background in manufacturing and maintenance, but Mirante looked disappointed. "I'm sorry you came all the way for this, then," he said.
"The problem is we don't make much money in that business. It mainly supports our other real estate interests."
I countered that I was confident we could make a business out of it in Brazil. Mirante asked if I really wouldn't be more interested in the brokerage business. I confessed that my knowledge of real estate started and ended with buying my home.
With that the executive shrugged and took me to see his facility management people. Afterward, I suggested that each of us put up $2,000 to cover the legal expenses of establishing the venture. We'd be fifty-fifty partners. Arthur agreed, we shook hands, and off I went in a hurry to pick up tickets to the New York Philharmonic, have lunch with the writer Peter Carey, and hit the legendary Strand bookstore for three hours of browsing their stock of used and remaindered books.
That was April of 1993. A year later, the Semco Cushman & Wakefield joint venture employed 150 people and did $4 million in business. Today, it employs 1,300 people and has gross revenues of more than $65 million.
Why am I telling you this story, much less starting a book with it? For one thing, you couldn't concoct a more outrageous and unlikely combination. Staid, proper, blue-blooded Cushman & Wakefield united with casual, off-the-wall, planning averse, nearly anything goes Semco. Talk about an odd couple! But I contend the strangeness is its strength. There's resiliency, flexibility, and sustainability to the venture that would be lacking in a more conventional pairing.
Even so, my purpose is much more subversive than merely recounting an unlikely success story. I believe the old way of doing business is dying, and the sooner it's dead and buried the better off we all will be. Incendiary words, yet Semco's alliance with Cushman & Wakefield, as well as other joint ventures that I will describe shortly, suggests that the transition from the old to the new can be hugely profitable and not nearly as socially disruptive as might be feared at first. On the contrary, the path Semco has been blazing for more than twenty years has led to an unprecedented record of innovation, customer satisfaction, growth, and an end to repressive command-and-control management practices that cause much labor unrest and personal misery, from the top to the bottom of many organizations.
One of the recurring themes of this book is the need--the absolute necessity--to give up control in order to cope with changes that are transforming the way we live and work. As counterintuitive as that sounds, it does not contradict the experience and values at the core of free market, democratic capitalism. I don't want to speak for Arthur Mirante, who is indeed an excellent friend and wonderful partner, but it seems to me that something in my casual, drive-by approach appealed to his entrepreneurial instincts. He was willing to take a chance--to give up control. Isn't that what entrepreneurs do? They're flexible, intuitive, nondogmatic; they take risks, make money, and have fun.
But many entrepreneurs--be they leaders of great or small enterprises--can't bring themselves to let go. They probably would have shown me the door, and turned away from a $65 million venture. I believe the obsession with control is a delusion and, increasingly, a fatal business error. The more we grab for it, the more it slips away, and ever more desperate measures are applied, spawning Enrons, WorldComs, and hosts of lower profile disasters. As the control mechanism grows harsher and harsher, what's lost is the central purpose of the business, any business--a satisfying, worthwhile life for those involved and a reasonable reward for their investment and hard work. The seven-day weekend is Semco's way of getting out of the control business and back to our central purpose.
Nearly twenty years ago a prominent Brazilian politician invited me to the far north of Brazil for a conference. Senator Jose Macedo, a wonderful self-made man, had begun his working life as a soap salesman. By the time I met him, he was a billionaire in the flour, biscuit, beer, and car dealership businesses.
I spoke at the conference for an hour about Semco and its unusual practices, and then Senator Macedo opened the question-and-answer session. Sitting in the first row, he looked back over his shoulder at the hundreds of people who filled the hot, humid auditorium and asked, "Mr. Semler, before answering other questions, can you please tell us what planet you're from?" It took several minutes for the room to quiet down, and I can still hear the good-natured laughter.
In case you're tempted to ask the same question after reading a few more pages of this book, I suggest that we first pursue another line of inquiry that might prove more helpful and less inflammatory. The question that I have in mind is, what is Semco?
The only problem is that now I have to come up with an answer. If you ask me to describe it in conventional business terms, I'd have to admit I have no idea what business Semco is in. For years, I have resisted defining Semco for a simple reason: Once you say what business you're in, you create boundaries for your employees, you restrict their thinking and give them a reason to ignore new opportunities. "We're not in that business," they'll say.
Instead of dictating Semco's identity, I let our employees shape it with their individual efforts, interests, and initiatives.
You probably don't like my answer, and I don't blame you. I'll try again from another angle. Instead of explaining what Semco does, I'll take a run at what it doesn't do.
Semco has no official structure. It has no organizational chart. There's no business plan or company strategy, no two-year or five-year plan, no goal or mission statement, no long-term budget. The company often does not have a fixed CEO. There are no vice presidents or chief officers for information technology or operations. There are no standards or practices. There's no human resources department. There are no career plans, no job descriptions or employee contracts. No one approves reports or expense accounts. Supervision or monitoring of workers is rare indeed.
Most important, success is not measured only in profit and growth.
Strange, eh? My summary may make Semco sound like a company with an offbeat management style that wouldn't succeed anywhere else. Nevertheless, hundreds of corporate leaders from around the world have visited Sao Paulo to find out what makes us tick. The visitors are curious about Semco because they want what we have--huge growth in spite of a fluctuating economy, unique market niches, rising profits, highly motivated employees, low turnover, diverse products, and service areas.
Our visitors want to understand how Semco has increased its annual revenue between 1994 and 2003 from $35 million a year to $212 million when I--the company's largest shareholder--rarely attend meetings and almost never make decisions. They want to know how my employees, with a show of hands, can veto new product ideas or scrap whole business ventures.
This book will explain the straightforward philosophies and practices that make Semco one of the world's most unusual workplaces. Be warned--many of our basic tenets fly in the face of even the most progressive business owners or managers. Our "architecture" is really the sum of all the conventional business practices we avoid.
It's our lack of formal structure, our willingness to let workers follow their interests and their instincts when choosing jobs or projects.
It's our insistence that workers seek personal challenges and satisfaction before trying to meet the company's goals.
It's our commitment to encouraging employees to ramble through their day or week so that they will meander into new ideas and new business opportunities.
It's our philosophy of embracing democracy and open communication, and inciting questions and dissent in the workplace.
On-the-job democracy isn't just a lofty concept but a better, more profitable way to do things. We all demand democracy in every other aspect of our lives and culture. People are considered adults in their private lives, at the bank, at their children's schools, with family and among friends--so why are they suddenly treated like adolescents at work? Why can't workers be involved in choosing their own leaders? Why shouldn't they manage themselves? Why can't they speak up--challenge, question, share information openly?
Semco's glass and steel high-rise headquarters is a far cry from the gritty industrial shop floor that my father, Antonio Curt Semler, founded in 1954. It started not long after he moved to Brazil from Argentina, having emigrated before that from his native Vienna. He patented a centrifuge for separating oils, and with that started his own small machine shop, choosing its name from a contraction of Semler & Company. Soon Semco was a $2 million a year business. Then, in the late 1960s, my father formed a partnership with two British marine pump manufacturers, and Semco quickly became a major supplier to the Brazilian shipbuilding industry.
For the next twenty-five years, Semco built marine pumps, and its name became synonymous with the shipping industry. It could also have been synonymous with rigidity and tradition. When I was still quite young, my father assumed that I would take over Semco. I wasn't anywhere near as certain as he was. I spent many youthful years in a rock band and one miserable summer as an intern in Semco's purchasing department. After that, I wondered, "How can I spend the rest of my life doing this? How can I stomach years of babysitting people to make sure they clock in on time? Why is this worth doing?"
When I told my father about my qualms, he reassured me with "that'll pass, young man," or "I, too, was once like you." Of course that only made matters worse. Instead, I began to wonder if it was possible to foster change by creating an entirely new kind of organization.
The answer was yes, but it involved a deceptively simple principle--relinquishing control in order to institute true democracy at Semco. And that is very complicated indeed. Convinced that my family wouldn't let me have free rein at Semco, I spent a year investigating a faltering ladder manufacturer. I was then twenty-one and preferred the prospect of a small, dangerous venture before I made a commitment to family interests. On the day I was to sign the final papers to acquire the ladder company, my father called me and proposed a deal.
After much debate and negotiation, we agreed that I'd take over Semco, and he would step back and allow me to remake the company as I saw fit. I was so young that no one at Semco took the news seriously. Clovis Bojikian, today one of five senior Semco managers and our venerable human resources guru, remembers coming to Semco for an interview shortly after I took over.
"They put me in a room, and a boy arrived," Clovis says now. "I thought he was a messenger. He was about my son's age. He sat down and started to ask me questions, and it was Ricardo Semler."
Within days of taking over, I fired two-thirds of my father's most senior managers outright. A risky move that I felt was necessary to quickly implement reforms without foot dragging from the entrenched executives. I then spent the next two decades questioning, challenging, and dismantling the traditional business practices at Semco.
Even though our workers can veto a deal or close a factory with a show of hands, Semco grows an average of 40 percent a year and has annual revenue of more than $212 million.
Today, I can honestly say that our growth, profit, and the number of people we employ are secondary concerns. Outsiders clamor to know these things because they want to quantify our business. These are the yardsticks they turn to first. That's one reason we're still privately held. I don't want Semco to be burdened with the ninety-day mind-set of most stock market analysts. It would undermine our solidity and force us to dance to a tune we don't really want to hear--a Wall Street waltz that starts each day with an opening bell and ends with the thump of the closing gavel.
Thanks, but no thanks. We generate enough of our own cash, and we're growing nearly 40 percent a year without public investment. Yes, we're successful by market standards--we've grown, we've made more money, and we've added employees. But that success means little to me if it's measured only in those terms. Sure, it's wonderful to have money. Yet it doesn't change how we feel about getting out of bed in the morning, going to work, and performing a job day after day.
The principles we now practice have resulted in tremendous growth: Semco has gone from my father's peak of $4 million a year to $212 million in annual revenue in 2003. My father's ninety employees have increased to nearly three thousand. We've moved from industrial manufacturing to services to high technology without giving up any earlier businesses.
Semco workers make money for the company and take a good chunk of it for themselves in a profit-sharing plan. Most important, they make it the kind of organization that people clamor to work for, a place where turnover is negligible.
Semco's experience befits more than just business. It's germane to any organization where flesh-and-blood realities of the workplace guide how people interact. The type and size of the organization is irrelevant--that's why Semco practices have been adopted at schools, hospitals, police departments, and large and small companies around the world.
Along the way, I've lost sight of what defines Semco. That's not because it's too big to manage or because I've stepped back too far from day-to-day operations. I don't want to know where Semco is headed. It doesn't unnerve me to see nothing on the company's horizon. I want Semco and its employees to ramble through their days, to use instinct, opportunity, and ingenuity to choose projects and ventures.
Fortunately, my convictions have borne results that business people value, and more important, can understand: sustainability, productivity, profit, growth, and new ventures. These are all by-products of running a company where employees are encouraged to establish their own sense of balance.
And the increasingly popular concept of work/life balance is not all that we seek. Balance also ensues when people are given room to explore so they can find out where their talents and interests lie and merge their personal aspirations with the goals of the company. Once employees feel challenged, invigorated, and productive, their efforts will naturally translate into profit and growth for the organization. That's what the Semco way is all about.
I'll bet you still want to know what Semco does. Okay, we have ten companies, give or take. I'm not sure, because they come and go; we've had a minimum of five for twenty years. We also have six Internet companies, so we could claim sixteen units, but we don't know how many of those will survive, or in what form.
At the risk of offering a description, Semco is a federation of businesses with a minimum common denominator. What I mean is we are not monolithic, yet there are common themes and threads uniting us. All our business units are highly engineered, premium providers and market leaders in their niches. We haven't ventured into any of them by chance.
The first, the industrial machinery unit, is what's left of my father's original business. It began with marine pumps and moved into industrial mixers, and now produces only high-tech mixing equipment--the kind of complex, engineered industrial mixers used for pharmaceuticals and at candy factories.
The second unit is SemcoBAC; a partnership with Baltimore Air Coil in the United States. Essentially, we make cooling towers for commercial properties. The third company is Cushman & Wakefield Semco. The fourth business unit is Semco Johnson Controls--a partnership with Johnson Controls, a $16 billion world leader in facility management to handle large properties like hospitals, airports, hotels, and huge factories.
Then there's ERM. We added this unit in 1996 in partnership with Environmental Resources Management, one of the world's premier environmental consulting companies.
Finally, we have Semco Ventures, our nod to the Internet and our high-tech ventures unit; SemcoHR, which manages the outsourcing of HR activities for large companies; and Semco-RGIS, our inventory control firm.
Semco's ten (eleven, twelve...who's counting?) units are very diverse; in fact, you might wonder how such industries came to be part of the same business. But a closer look will reveal a hidden synergy that satisfies three basic criteria when we consider a new venture. First, we look for complexity, which usually means "highly engineered." Everything has a high entry barrier of complexity. If a new business isn't difficult for us and for others to break into, then we're not interested.
Second, we demand that in each of our markets, we be the premium player. We want to offer a high-end product or service. That means we're always more expensive because we provide the premium that stretches what the customer will pay. And third, we want a unique niche in the market, one that makes us a major player in any given industry. To us, this follows naturally from the first two requirements. We want to be only in businesses where our disappearance would cause our disheartened customers to complain loudly. They'd survive, but they'd have substantial difficulty moving on.
Employees must be free to question, to analyze, to investigate; and a company must be flexible enough to listen to the answers.
All of our products and services meet these criteria, and we leverage the power of our units. For example, Wal- Mart has gradually become a customer of four of our units--we count their inventory, manage their cooling towers, administer their buildings and warehouses, and conduct environmental site investigation and remediation.
Other clients like GM, BankBoston, and Unilever have become customers of multiple Semco units. This isn't unusual for us. The point of entry may change, but our objective remains the same--synergy.
Whichever unit serves as the point of entry, it soon finds business opportunities for the others. Signing on with a client is usually our biggest hurdle, since we are more expensive than our competitors. Once a customer is on board, however, we rarely have operational problems, we rarely abandon a customer, and they rarely leave us. Repeat customers represent some 80 percent of our annual revenue. I can count on my fingers the number of clients who have dropped us in twenty years of business.
The secret? If we have a cardinal strategy that forms the bedrock for all our practices, it may be this:
Ask it all the time, ask it any day, every day, and always ask it three times in a row.
This doesn't come naturally. People are conditioned to recoil from questioning too much. First, it can be perceived as rude. Second, it can be dangerous, implying that we're ignorant or uninformed. Third, it means everything we think we know may turn out to be incorrect or incomplete. Last, management is usually threatened by the prospect of employees who question continually. But mostly, it means putting aside all the rote or pat answers that have resulted from what I call "calcified" thinking, that state of mind where ideas have become so hardened that they're no longer of any use. Employees must be free to question, to analyze, to investigate; and a company must be flexible enough to listen to the answers. Those habits are the key to longevity, growth, and profit.
Asking why in this manner is also refreshingly childish, therefore of essence. When I tell my four-year-old something and he asks why, I have a good adult, pat answer. Then he asks a second why, and I'm in a bit of trouble. By the third why there is no solution but to buy him an ice cream.
Thus it is at Semco meetings. Sometimes they are like scenes from an overly artsy foreign film--we address the same subject again and again. The angles are quirky and the focus fuzzy. We ask why repeatedly. And nothing gets carved in stone. That's because as a company we hate written plans. People will follow a plan like a Pied Piper--mindlessly, with no thought as to the final destination.
At Semco, we often jot down generic ideas and broad numbers so we can visualize the dimensions of a new product or service. Then we throw those notes away. At the next meeting on the same idea, we'll start over, without the benefit of the original notes. That way we cannot fall into the trap of "fixed assumptions." It forces us to reconsider all the variables.
When an executive is new to Semco, he or she will often stammer: "But we already decided that at the last meeting," or "Why are we going over this again, instead of forging ahead?" I'm sure it's frustrating for them. But when they watch the process unfold, and if they listen to their colleagues asking why, they'll see how it allows no stone to be left unturned. Soon they're roaring down the whyway with the rest of us.
In the 1990s, our philosophies, practices, and high speed merges onto the whyway attracted attention. Six thousand people have written to us, curious about Semco, and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles have featured our company. BBC television and dozens of other TV programs have profiled us. I've given nearly three hundred speeches to companies, conferences, charitable groups, youth groups, and universities such as Stanford, Harvard, MIT, the London School of Economics, and INSEAD. Semco is a case study at 76 universities, and texts of our organizational practices are required reading at 271 other schools. Sixteen master's and doctoral candidates have made Semco the subject of their theses.
And the first book about Semco, Maverick, was on bestseller lists in twelve countries and sold more than one million copies even though we had yet to really prove ourselves, let alone demonstrate staying power.
But the point I'm making is that all of this demonstrates a bona fide interest in Semco. Yet when visitors learn that our economic success requires replacing control and structure with democracy in the workplace --well, often those starry-eyed visiting executives go home with second thoughts and never get around to making it happen in their workplaces.
Why is that? Why do these visitors shy away from practices that are hugely successful both in terms of the bottom line and in the pursuit and attainment of personal happiness? And for the third consecutive why, why do organizations and their leaders cling to a rigid form of command and control that is at odds with the values of personal freedom that they cherish?
Don't tell me that the answer is profits. Semco makes plenty of money. But let the whys linger and ripen. The answers-- or more whys--will come in due course. We need to first walk through the seven-day weekend that is the metaphor for the Semco way. Oh, did I forget to mention that among those things Semco doesn't do is a Monday to Friday workweek? If rock climbing is more inviting on a Wednesday morning than a budget planning meeting, then break out the rope and pitons. If lighter traffic on a Saturday afternoon makes the commute to the office bearable, go for it. Yet, the seven-day weekend is more than permission to play hooky. It's about creating an atmosphere and culture that grants permission to employees to be men and women in full for seven days a week. Why should the fun, fulfillment, and freedom stop first thing Monday morning and be on hold until Friday night? And that's one why that we will revisit as the book moves forward because I believe no one can afford, can endure, or can stomach leaving half a life in the parking lot when she or he goes to work. It's a lousy way to live and a lousy way to work.
Although I still can't definitely answer the question about what Semco does do, I can say we've changed the way work works and improved the quality of our lives--and so can you.
Copyright © 2004 Portfolio