Success Stories with Marshall Atkinson

Success Stories Ep 30 - "The Value of a Company's Core"

October 13, 2021 Marshall Atkinson Season 2 Episode 30
Success Stories with Marshall Atkinson
Success Stories Ep 30 - "The Value of a Company's Core"
Show Notes Transcript

On today’s Success Stories podcast we’re going to explore how the notion of core values plays an integral role in the development and growth of a company.  Both internally with employees, and also externally with how customers are served.

Julie Denton leads the business development and customer service team with Blue Cotton will chat today about their four core values:

  • Customer-Centered
  • Profit and Growth
  • Integrity and Character
  • Family Atmosphere

So, get ready to take some great notes and learn how this stellar environment has lead to amazing growth and success for Blue Cotton!



Marshall Atkinson

On today's success stories podcast, we're going to explore how the notion of core values plays an integral role in the development and the growth of a company both internally with employees, and also externally with how customers are served. Julie Denton leads the business development and customer service team with Blue Cotton and we'll chat today about their core values, which are: Customer-centered, Profit and Growth, Integrity and Character, and Family Atmosphere. So get ready to take some great notes and learn how this stellar environment has led to the amazing growth and success of Blue Cotton. So welcome, Julie to the Success Stories podcast. 

Julie Denton 

Thank you happy to be here.

Marshall Atkinson

Yeah, I think it's gonna be a lot of fun to talk to you today. And before we get going, can you just share who is Blue Cotton? What do you guys do? And just talk about that just for a minute? And then we'll get into some questions.

Julie Denton 

Yeah, well, the who we are is we are a decorator at Bowling Green, Kentucky. So screen printing, embroidery, DTG, and homegrown in Bowling Green for the last 30 years. We have a pretty large facility here without 120 employees that just work hard every day to connect with our customers through their customer payroll. 

Marshall Atkinson

And who are your clients predominantly? 

Julie Denton 

Well, we do a lot of group orders. So I mean, we print as few as one and we print 1000s. So anywhere in between, but really our bread and butter are the group orders. So the kindergarten graduation, the 5k run, the family reunion, when people come together, that is our customer.

Marshall Atkinson

Is it mainly in the Kentucky area or you know, people in California, too?

Julie Denton 

It's across the country. So in fact, a very small percentage of our business comes from Kentucky.

Marshall Atkinson

Oh, that's interesting. Yeah. All right, well, cool. So let's get into some questions. And my first one here, is many companies write or hope to write their core values to help define their company. But your team at Blue cotton seems to live by them. Can you talk about how the core values were adopted? How did your team buy into them? And how has it made an impact on your business success?

Julie Denton 

Right. So I think when we were looking at core values, the question is, no matter what business we were in, what would be the things that guide us every day? What are the principles? So whether we sold cars, or we sold t-shirts, or ran a hotel? What are those guiding principles? And so you know, it's kind of like the core group Luke and I got together and came up with these four things that you mentioned, and they've just become something that's not just written on a wall. It's not something that people walk by and see, it's not something that's in our handbook only. It's actually something that guides our decisions, whether it be globally for the business, or for an individual employee, or how we deal with a customer, you know, it comes back to is this integrity and character? Is this a customer-centered decision? And so we talk about them a lot. But I think the way that they've been bought in is because we live by them... pretty easy to buy into something when that's just the way it is. So it's not something that we're pushing on to people, it's actually what we do.

Marshall Atkinson

Okay. And how did you pick these four? I mean, like, started off with 10. And you whittled them down? I mean, what was the process?

Julie Denton 

Yeah, I mean, there's a group of six or eight people and when you just start talking about -- like, individually, what the core values are for them, and then what you feel like it is for the business, and then kind of seeing what the commonalities are, and you really have to take your present situation out of it. And you have to think about, no matter what I was doing, so it does come down to a personal decision of what your core values are. And so being in business with people who have some commonalities help, and to have some similar values, obviously help so when you think about these aren't necessarily special or unique, like their core values are held by a lot of people. I think when it comes down to core values, that's how you execute them and practice them. 

Marshall Atkinson

Right. And so for your employees when you're hiring, and I think this really kind of help with culture when you're hiring, you obviously search for people who can easily hit your core values. And if they're not a match, they don't get the job, correct?

Julie Denton 

Yeah, so we're starting to do a better job of that, you know, in the craziness of business, when you need somebody on a press, or you need somebody at the end of the dryer really quickly, then we've made the mistake of just getting someone in to get someone in. But we've also seen what happens when you don't make decisions based on your core values? That person doesn't last, that person causes problems, that person's miserable in their jobs, we didn't really outline what our expectation was. So, we've learned to:

a.) Try not to get ourselves in those binds and because -- you know, when you're in a bind, you make really terrible decisions.

b.) To really stick to our principles and our core values.

Cause like, you know, this person, I'm sure they're great, they're just not going to fit with what we're doing. And so we'll both be miserable, like legit, that's probably the most loving thing to do is to not hire them, because it's just not gonna be a good fit. Yeah, so we've just, we've kind of had to learn the hard way to stick to apply core values to all parts of our business.

Marshall Atkinson

Yeah, I totally agree with that. I've had to let employees go, and the way I phrased it sometimes is, I'm going to allow you the opportunity to work for somebody else. And you just don't fit right. And so do you feel when you started with your core device, remember the first year that you were doing it, that it was hard to get your employees to kind of buy into it, or understand what you guys were doing? And Li especially because I've been part of projects like this, and you start talking about it all the time. And I'm like, man, I just wish they would quit talking about this stuff. We already know we've heard it, right? Yeah. How did you roll it out?

Julie Denton 

So I find the time we had core values are implemented these we had about 50 employees. So it's not something that started the very beginning, something that we grew into. Now, that's not to say that these core values weren't present. They just weren't identified and, and put out there. So I think that because it's just a part of the culture of blue cotton, even before we identified them, then I don't think adoption was that difficult, especially when you have 50 employees, where it's become difficult isn't growth. When we went we had a pretty big growth spurt in 2016, where we went from about 60 employees to 100. And to get to 100, you had to hire like, so that's 40 employees by had to hire about 90 to get to 40 employees, we've had so much turnover. And because so many people were coming in, and then you had some turnover, it was hard to communicate the culture and the core values. So yeah, when they started, I think it was just a part of who we were period. And we were just identifying it. But as we've grown, that's where the work has come in, to make sure everyone's on board with what we're doing, you know, 50 employees, you know, everybody, you know something about them outside of work. At the time, we were having weekly company lunches that we cooked ourselves a lot that's changed not just because of COVID. Like that's just changed because of growth. So that's where the work has come in as too as we grow to make sure we don't lose that

Marshall Atkinson

When somebody exemplifies one of the core values to help a customer solve a problem. are you celebrating that? Is there an award? Is there something that you're doing to just really solidify and just really celebrate that instance set that helps drive that repetition with everybody else is an ongoing basis? Are you doing that?

Julie Denton 

Absolutely. So for more than a decade, we've had core value awards that we do every year at the end of the year, like our Christmas party normally. And those are awards voted on by the peers by the team. And of the four awards, they vote for an employee that they believe really exemplifies that core value. So we usually have at least you know, four core value winners, and then an overall winner, just the person who's like, Mr. or Mrs. Blue cotton because of these core values. To take that a step further. A couple of years ago, we've started doing an employee of the month, which is not an original idea, but it's something we wanted to do. And I have to be honest, that I think at the beginning we got it a little wrong. We chose people who not that they didn't have core values. But sometimes the people who are really exemplifying these core values keep their head down or a little quiet. So the person with integrity and character isn't as noticeable as that salesperson who's bringing in a ton of orders, right? So we really got a few months and we got focused on like we hear the core values, you know, a guiding principle for that employee of the month as well. And then even more recently, just in an attempt to connect with each other more. We're just promoting a culture that has an appreciation and just like monthly shoutouts to each other so I was leaving the other day a second shift was coming in and this girl was carrying three dozen cupcakes. I was like, What are you doing? And she's like, Oh, it's, you know, Brooklyn's birthday and I'm bringing him cupcakes for all of the second shift and so it's just, you know, she didn't we didn't pay for that she did that on our own. And so that's the family atmosphere. And so recognizing that now not waiting till December and nominating her for a core value though we might do that we need to recognize the behavior as it's happening and just really show that that's truly what we value.

Marshall Atkinson

I love that and I love cupcakes, so I --

Julie Denton 

That went over everybody. Yeah.

Marshall Atkinson

Okay, so let's shift gears a little bit. And let's talk about the human aspect of serving customers. How are you linking that aspect in what you do with blue cotton to helping your customer succeed with your core values? How does it tie in because without customers we're not in business right? So how does this all fit? 

Julie Denton 

Right. So in our business, we have a very unique opportunity to connect with customers because we aren't picking a product off the shelf and shipping it to them. We are making it just for them. It's not going to anyone else it cannot be resold to anyone else it is only for them and from for that mere purpose we are connected to what it is they're doing custom t let's just take that further business is a very high emotion purchase someone has worked for a while on their design they've created this design you know they're usually doing it for a group and they've collected people shirt sizes, they've gotten people's money and they've placed the order and the like put a lot of heart into this and it means something to them if it didn't mean something to them they would just go to a retail store and buy something. So it's a very high emotion purchase so we just have a great opportunity to connect with people on the other side their event may only be once a year they may only order from us once a year but when they do they feel like they have a partner in the business so we are rooting for them all the way no matter what that event is and just love being a part of people's lives in that way

Marshall Atkinson

Yeah, cuz t-shirts are memories.

Julie Denton 

Yes, so that's what I say is t-shirts mark the memories of our lives and that statement is solidified just by opening your t-shirt drawer the t-shirts that you have kept are because they're very special to you it's that it's you know your kids’ baseball championship, or they won that game and he hit the home run, or your that Breast Cancer Awareness walk and your mom's a survivor or that senior trip that you took, all those are memories and even if like the shirt has holes in it or you can't wear it anymore, you've kept it because it means something it's meaningful. So, you know we could have been in the brochure printing business but what do people do with brochures? They throw them away and so you know it's a meaningful type of work and if we have to come to work every day because we're not independently wealthy, we want to enjoy the people we work with and enjoy the work that we do and being able to see a glimpse of people's lives and celebrate them and cheer them on is just very fulfilling.

Marshall Atkinson

So is there an example Julie that you can share about a customer where your core values linked to some order and then it was just way bigger than just getting some shirts made?

Julie Denton 

One that just pops into my mind recently is we had this customer place an order online brand new customer to us just in the past couple of months and they had wanted their design to be 15 inches wide. Typically we online our max width is 13 inches and there's like a really need to be like this and I need it to be lined up the front and back this way and you know at first we were like that's just I'm not sure that we can do it. So they're like, you know thanks we're really excited but you know we'll have to cancel the order so they actually cancel the order and then a few of us got together and we're like, "Now wait a second. Like, can we help this customer -- can we be customer-centered and figure out a way to make this work for them? Because Is this our only holdup?"

So we did you know get our team together and realize oh, you know we can actually our boards are 16 inches we have a 15-inch squeegee we could do this we get back on the phone with them. And we're like hey, you know we think we can make it work. Let's do a sample. Let's get it together. And that sounds very minimal except that it's turned into a fantastic relationship with this customer we have connected with them and their business. They're out in Washington State, the San Juan Islands where the Orca whales are and this customer is an artist, and he also worked with the whales on Free Willy, and he draws these designs and sells them in the gift shops there that's a high-tourist attraction and they have an Orca whale exhibit at the museum there. And like, this is a very important thing to them like it's not only is it his artwork but it's just their passion project. And so you know there was not going to be any hard feelings if we had just canceled the order because we couldn't make it work but the fact that we went above and beyond to really focus on what was important to them, I think has made a customer for life. We’ve never met them I don't even know what they look like but we have connected and feel like they're friends and we talk a lot and we're interested in like how are your shirts doing you know, are just wanting to see them succeed and their passion for their project drives us to be passionate for them.

Marshall Atkinson

What a great story. I love that. And why was it 15 inches such a big deal because they just wanted just a super big print or 

Julie Denton 

Yeah, they kind of wanted the print on the front and back to look like it was a wrap.

Marshall Atkinson 

That's cool.

<<COMMERCIAL>>

Let's talk about COVID. We’re still right here and still hanging around? Right? So in what way in the last year have you helped your employees or your customers using your core values with what has been arguably one of the roughest periods we've gone through?

Julie Denton 

So when it first started happening, and we could see that what we were heading towards, you know, things were shutting down left and right. Fortunately, in the state of Kentucky, we were deemed as essential and we never had to close our doors. So there's one thing I'm like, does the government make you close your doors? Or does business make you close your doors? So the government did not shut us down, and so that was helpful.

And then we're like, Well, where's the business going to be? So the first thing we did is you know, orders just really came to a halt because we're in the groups, clubs, and organizations you know, where people come together and they're not doing that. So what we did is like well, we've got to do something to help and to give our people a reason to come to work every day. So we teamed up with the local United Way and we just said, "Hey, what is the greatest need right now?" and in Kentucky, it was food banks.

And so we're like, here's what we're gonna do. We are gonna do a t-shirt that unites people it was like the State of Kentucky with the American flag in it said: "Team Kentucky" that's just what our governor has continued saying. And we're like we're gonna donate all proceeds to local food banks to help. So we got United Way together, we got our local TV station, and we sold so many shirts, we donated $30,000, to the food banks. So that was just being a good community partner. But what that did is that create a family atmosphere, because it gave our people, our team, something to do and something to focus on and someone else to help when it was a time when people could really get pretty down and worrying about themselves.

It gave everybody reason to come in and make a difference. And, you know, a year later, we still see those shirts out in the community, you know, you go to the grocery store, and you see a team Kentucky shirt, and you know, you're like I printed that shirt, or I pack that shirt, and it helps somebody eat, you know, that day. So it, it helped our community, it helped our company, you know, then we had to shift we had a request, you know, no one could get a mask. And our local Sheriff's Department said, "Hey, can y'all make masks, we don't have sewing machines, we have embroidery machines.?" So we started down this path of how do we make mass as before you could buy anything that Bella Canvas mass wasn't out yet.

So we had three versions. And finally, in the third version, we figured out how to make a mask with straps and an insert on an embroidery machine. And we started selling those. And you know, quite that's not the business we want to be in, we want to be in the t-shirt business. But that's just what we had to do. And again, that kept our people employed and supported the families of our team members. And then that helped, you know, it was a product that people needed. And we were still printing some shirts at the time. You know, unfortunately, a lot of other decorators had to close for one reason or the other. So there was some work. It wasn't the best year financially, but we kept our people employed, and their work is a blessing. And being able to provide our service to others who needed it at the time was just a great thing.

Marshall Atkinson 

There's nothing better than having a purpose. What a great story. I love that. And I love the fact that you did something for your community that really resonates not only with your customers and people in your community but also with your employees. And they're going to really remember that for a long time. Yeah. All right, cool. So lastly, for blue cotton, what's around the corner? And what are you really excited about these days? 

Julie Denton 

So COVID, if I had a choice, I don't know, I was gonna say if I had a choice, I wouldn't have chosen this past year. But what this past year has done, though, is made us laser-focused, when things are going well, you don't have a certain amount of tolerance for things that aren't working properly. Because you know, overall, it's going well, why don't want to dig into this part. And so we really had to get very laser-focused on where we're going, what we want to be as a company, it was a true reset of what are we doing, and I've just told you all these great things, and those things are still here. But I can tell you right now like that purpose has been amplified 100 times moving forward as we know exactly where we're going. And I think being focused on a purpose, you know, you have a purpose, but are you focused on the purpose is going to really be apparent to our customers. And for sure, our employees and prospective team members coming soon, hopefully. So we are continuing to grow. We're just really focused on the employee experience. One thing that we did this year is we air-conditioned our production facility, which is never been done. And it's amazing.

Marshall Atkinson

So how large a facility do you have Julie?

Julie Denton

We have about 51,000 square feet. So I think about 45 of that is the production part. So it was a big -- is a big investment. But we felt like it was investment our people, you know, in the summertime, it can get so hot, we have seven or eight 300 degree dryers and it's just hot in Kentucky and humid. And you know, people make mistakes, and people get frustrated and people quit. So we just feel like making the employee experience better is a better experience for our customers. And just being more centered on what our customers need as well and providing services to meet them where they are at this point.

Marshall Atkinson

That's great. I was just thinking as you were talking, maybe you should add a fifth core value, which is purpose-driven. I think that really is resonated with your story. And that would be an interesting thing. What do you think about that?

Julie Denton

Well, I think that in any custom industry, it's hard work. We do it and we don't just make a custom product. Like we'll get to it. We get to it. We've set deadlines for ourselves and customers expect things in a certain amount of time. And there are things that happen every single day, that try to derail that. So, you have to hold on to something to want to come back every day and make that work if you know some people are in the love of it for screen printing... but does that love keep you there when you know your screens keep breaking or your dryers down or you can't, you know, get that registration to, to line up every day. And you have to have something bigger than yourself. And something that's, that withstands all the other challenges. So and maybe it is a core value, maybe it's just that thing that ties them all together. 

Marshall Atkinson

Right? Okay, cool. All right. So thank you so much for sharing your story with have success with us today. If someone wants to learn more about what you do, or how you can help them, what is the best way to contact you.

Julie Denton

So of course, you can go to our website, blue cotton, calm, but I just don't we like to talk to our customers. So give us a call at 800-536-1435 or you can chat in or email [email protected] But we think sometimes it's easier just to get on the phone and talk. We don't have a phone tree.. when you call, you're going to talk to our customer service and sales team, the people who can assist you right from the get-go. So we just love to get on the phone to see how we can help.

Marshall Atkinson 

Awesome. Thank you so much for your time today. Julie. It was great.

Julie Denton 

Thank you.