Joe Guerra, 43
Present life: Co-CEO of American Golf, a $697-million operator of more than 300 public and private golf courses, headquartered in Santa Monica, Calif.
Former life: During all five years of college Guerra was a maintenance mechanic at the Beverly Hilton, in Beverly Hills, Calif. "Basically, I unplugged toilets and took hair out of the strainers in 581 bathrooms. It was the most disgusting job you can imagine," he says.
"All the waste material floated down to a huge tank at the bottom of the hotel. The tank had this 100-horsepower pump which siphoned waste into the sewer. The pump responded to a float in the tank; if the pump wasn't responding, an alarm went off to let us know that the waste was literally rising too fast. Sometimes you had to reach in and fix the prime on the pump. I made sure I got a tetanus shot every six months."
Lessons learned: "It taught me how it feels to be at the bottom rung of something and how badly you want to offer your advice but no one asks you. I learned to take the calls and respond to the people in an organization who get the least attention and ask for it the least," Guerra says.
"Several times a year we do departmental 'workout' sessions, where supervisors leave and the group creates a list of ideas for improvement. At the end the supervisor returns and is confronted with the list. For each idea the supervisor must say 'Yes, we'll change it,' 'Maybe, we'll research it,' or 'No.' In exchange for that immediate response, we ask that workers use rational thinking and try to anticipate how the idea will be received," he explains.
"One result has been that we've saved hundreds of man-hours with respect to our 50-plus accountants. Each month they had to write individual reports on each golf course, explaining why the courses made or missed their numbers. I mean, we have software that says all of that," he notes. "That exercise took four or five hours to compile -- and only because the VP of finance was used to tracking it that way. Since then dozens of reports have been eliminated. Now we're allocating those human resources to making our members and guests feel better."
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