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THE WAY I WORK

The Way I Work: Steve Grubbs, Victory Enterprises

The former Iowa politician now is obsessed with diversifying his business, which provides consulting, Web design, and other services to political candidates.

Family Time On weekends, Steve Grubb's children tidy up the office. Jared, 13 , and Erica, 18, handle most of the cleaning.


Chris Strong

Running Mate Grubbs made life-size cutouts for Republican Andrew Naeve (right-and center, in 2-D), who is running for Iowa's state senate.

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Steve Grubbs, 47, started his career in politics, first as an Iowa state legislator, then as chairman of Iowa's Republican Party, before parlaying his campaign experience into a business in 1997. Victory Enterprises, based in Davenport, Iowa, provides consulting, website design, and other services to companies and political candidates, including recent presidential hopeful Herman Cain.

Because elections come around only every couple of years—and because Grubbs is obsessed with diversifying his business—he launched a second venture, VictoryStore.com, in 1999. The site sells more than 500 kinds of customizable products, including high school banners, pizza boxes, 4-foot-tall greeting cards, and political signs. Grubbs's two companies have revenue of about $22 million and 90 employees, many of whom are friends and family members. When he's not out meeting with politicians, Grubbs spends most of his time at his old elementary school, which is now his company's headquarters. 

I usually start my workday at Starbucks. I get a half-caf coffee and spend an hour at my almost-reserved corner table, writing e-mails on my laptop. I'm referred to around here as Starbucks Steve. I feel like I can concentrate better at Starbucks. At the office, I'm tempted to go check on things and talk to people.

At 11 a.m., I usually head to the office. The building used to be my elementary school in the '70s. I bought it for $105,000 when the school district put it up for auction 10 years ago. I was emotionally attached to the building. Plus, it's close to the airport, which is important for shipping our products. The gym was another big selling point.

For my office, I chose the teachers' lounge, because it's the one room I was never allowed into as a kid. And it has its own, grownup-size bathroom. Most of the other bathrooms are kid-size. I've kept the whole place looking as much like my old school as possible. The school sign is still on the brick wall outside. The chalkboards, the hand-cranked pencil sharpeners, and the lockers are all still here.

My wife, Kelli, sits in what used to be my third-grade classroom. She's my business partner, and she handles operations, legal, and finance. Thank goodness she is a morning person. She gets in at 7:30 a.m. and does all of the real work. On top of that, she's a triathlete and a local cable-TV personality.

I check in with my assistant, Betty Fogle, who is 78 years old. She was my Sunday-school teacher when I was a kid. She is loyal and sweet. She handles all my scheduling. She usually texts me reminders about what I need to be doing. I like hiring people I know. My first employee was my best friend's wife. My head of licensing is my former campaign manager.

One of the first things I do at the office is a 20-minute walk-through of the production facility, where we make most of the products for VictoryStore.com. Part of it is inside my old fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms, and the rest is in a couple of new buildings I had constructed next to the school. There's about $1 million worth of production equipment here—from a $500 screen-printing machine to a $300,000 digital printer for giant banners.

I check to see what orders are coming in. Walking around is how I learn what's really happening in my company, what's working and what's not. It can take a long time for an issue to work its way up a company, but if I'm saying hi and asking people how they're doing, they volunteer the information I need to know.

Some people I meet have a hard time understanding exactly what we do, because our business does so many different things. I'm not a believer in betting the farm on one venture. I spend about a third of my time creating businesses. I usually try five new ideas every year. Of those, two will usually be utter failures, two will be marginal, and one will be a success.

For example, our line of clothing for dolls and teddy bears? Utter failure. Personalized dogwear? Failure. But our oversize-greeting-card business, BigFunnyCards.com, is very successful. I came up with the idea when one of my employees was in the hospital. I couldn't find a card big enough for all of us to sign.

Several new ideas pop into my head every day, and I have to fight them off, because at some point the business risks losing focus. With every new idea, I ask myself: Can this be profitable? Is anyone else doing it? Does it fit within our scope of products and services? Is it a potentially big market?

Our newest product line is custom iPhone cases. Corporations are switching from BlackBerrys to iPhones, so it struck me that they'll want branded cases for their employees.

About 60 percent of our business comes from political clients, so our revenue is much higher in even years. My staff and I provide local and national candidates with strategic direction and polling services. We also handle advertising, social networking, and marketing, and we build campaign websites and apps. We made an iPhone app for Herman Cain this year, but by the time Apple approved it, he had already dropped out of the race.

As a business owner, I get lots of free stuff—sports tickets, theater tickets, gift baskets. At most places, these perks get handed out to whoever's lucky enough to be walking past the boss's office at the right time. I want those incentives to go to the employees who want them the most, so I created an internal auction site five years ago. Employees bid on what they want, using points they earn from their managers.

I give my own direct reports points for perfect attendance. I hand out more when someone has a great idea, goes the extra mile, or does something nice for someone. Recently, an employee stayed late to finish up a project for a co-worker who had to leave early for her son's school function. I gave her 1,000 points for doing that. Tickets to a minor league baseball game might go for 1,000 points. A day off work might go for 100,000 points.

One of the few changes I made to the school was raising the basketball hoops in the gym to regulation height. Twice a week, I play basketball with friends after work. I supply the jerseys and towels. I do more laundry at the office than I do at home.

I have four kids—the youngest is 13 and the oldest is 20—and they use the gym a lot. My youngest son, Jared, comes by after school to shoot hoops with me. On the weekends, we open it to their friends. Sometimes we have Nerf gun wars, and I'm the referee. Or we play kickball, and I'm the pitcher. The kids often have birthday parties and class parties in the gym.

I like having my kids around the business. I want them to understand that money doesn't spontaneously come into existence. So for three hours every Sunday, my three youngest kids do janitorial work in the office: vacuuming, garbage, cleaning bathrooms, restocking vending machines. I want them to learn how to work, because work is a habit. I hire a lot of people in their 20s who just can't show up for work.

I pay my kids $10 an hour. My daughter, Olivia, who is 15, is fine with it. She mostly does the vending machines. But Jared wants a new profession. I keep telling him, when he finds another job, let me know.

IMAGE: Chris Strong
Last updated: Apr 3, 2012




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