How to Hire a Star Employee
The CEO looked at the young guy he was considering for an executive position. Then he looked at the guy's wife. "What," he asked, "are your husband's strengths as a leader?" Nicole Wigton was taken aback for a moment; she hadn't expected to be interviewed. She paused and then replied, "Well, he's never asked anybody to do anything he wouldn't do himself."
That was the moment Jim Thornton decided to make Mike Wigton an offer. It's typical Jim Thornton. He has a way of mixing a traditional analytical approach with often unorthodox methods to reach big goals, in this case rebuilding the senior management team at Provo Craft and Novelty. Provo Craft was founded in 1964 as a single store in Utah; it sold paper, fabric, glue, buttons, and other materials for do-it-yourself home and school projects. Over four decades it grew to become a leading manufacturer, importer, and supplier for a broad range of arts and crafts. But Provo Craft, based in Spanish Fork (population 28,000), about 50 miles south of Salt Lake City, was showing its age. Its product lines had become stale and profits were meager. Its management structure was cumbersome and inefficient. Sensing weakness but potential, Sorenson Capital, a private equity firm, bought the company and hired Thornton to fix it.
When Thornton, then 38, took over as CEO in late 2005, Provo Craft was still run more like a neighborhood store than a company with 1,200 employees and $120 million in sales. Executive positions often went to people who had been promoted simply because they stuck around. Twenty people were considered top management, including the maintenance supervisor. "We needed to bring in a layer of truly senior people," Thornton says.
Thornton decided to narrow his search to executives who had experience at bigger companies and were looking for the chance to advance rapidly in a smaller setting. He himself had relocated from Chicago, where he had been president of the consumer-products division ($800 million in sales) of Apogee Enterprises (NASDAQ:APOG), a publicly traded glass-technology company, before coming to Provo. But attracting top talent from big corporations to an underperforming company in a decidedly unsexy industry in a sleepy little Western town would be a tall order.
Thornton, a Utah native who had welcomed the chance to move his young family home, recognized that he had to recruit executives willing to give up big-city sophistication and embrace the community's orientation toward family. "I needed to recruit not only the executive but the entire family," Thornton says. He decided he would invite applicants who were under serious consideration to bring their families along to Utah for a few days of hiking or skiing, including the kids and sometimes their grandparents. And Thornton wanted to include spouses in interviews whenever possible.
Relying on a mix of recommendations from executive search firms and people he found through references, Thornton interviewed 40 to 60 candidates for each of six senior positions from mid-2006 to mid-2007. He pitched Provo Craft not as a creaky old company selling yarn to Midwestern housewives but as a "40-year-old start-up" that was dropping low-margin inventory such as paper and stickers in favor of new computerized products such as the Cricut, a $400 tabletop version of a $20,000 industrial cutting system used for creating paper or fabric patterns in scrapbooks and other decorative art forms. The six men Thornton finally hired came from companies like Honeywell International (NYSE:HON) in New York and AT&T (NYSE:T) in Seattle. They say they were persuaded to join Provo Craft the moment Thornton told them he expected each one of them to move on to become a CEO at another company within five years.
But Utah was a hard sell. Mike Wigton was typical. Wigton liked the idea of joining forces with Thornton. Based in Chicago as an executive for Banta, part of the RR Donnelley (NYSE:RRD) printing empire, Wigton was restless for more responsibility. But he and Nicole were uneasy about moving their kids so far from their relatives in Wisconsin. As non-Mormons, they were also concerned about fitting into a culture dominated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Wigtons flew out, and Mike spent the day with Provo Craft managers. He and Jim Thornton played pickup basketball. Nicole toured the headquarters and warehouse, lunched with her husband and the senior managers, and checked out the local neighborhoods.
When the Wigtons met back at their hotel that evening, the phone rang. "Hey, how about coming over to the house to meet my family," Thornton suggested. "We'll order pizza." He wanted to give the Wigtons a glimpse of what their home life might be like in Utah, and he wanted to hear about any misgivings they might have. As they ate their chicken pesto pizza, the Wigtons chatted with the Thorntons' four kids, the oldest of whom was in high school. The kids told the Wigtons how they liked their schools, how they ran around the neighborhood playing with friends, how they loved the views of the Wasatch Mountains and the short drive up to the ski resorts.
Later, the adults settled into conversation in the basement family room. Jim and Lise Thornton, both Mormons, were direct. Yes, they said, non-Mormons will in some ways always feel like outsiders; at the same time, newcomers typically welcome the chance to live in a place where the streets are safe, the schools are good, and neighbors really do welcome newcomers with a plate of homemade cookies. "We talked frankly about the culture," Wigton says.
Thornton urged the Wigtons to make a return visit to get to know more people in the town. Thornton also offered to pay for Wigton's parents to make the trip. Three weeks later, the Wigtons returned with their kids and with Mike's parents, who gave their blessing to the move after a cookout in the Thorntons' backyard.
Mike joined Provo Craft as the director of new business, and a year later, the Wigtons say they have no regrets. The added responsibility at work, the prospects for faster advancement, and the family-oriented outdoor lifestyle are all exactly what Thornton promised. Thornton is satisfied, too. Sales at Provo Craft are up 40 percent over the past two years, to a projected $220 million in 2008, and pretax earnings are on track to triple to $35 million. Without the new team, he says, the turnaround would have never happened. Thornton also knows that at some point the team members will probably be gone, off to bigger jobs elsewhere. Then again, they may just stick around for that view of the Wasatch Mountains. Life is pretty good in Spanish Fork.
For more smart tips on hiring, go to Inc.com's Human Resources links on Executive Recruiting at www.inc.com/guides/hr.