By Kaveri Braid
There comes a time in every entrepreneur’s career when a point of insight has the potential to change the course of future events. Decisions in these moments have implications for customers, employees, and the owners of the business.
JoeAnne Hardy has been at this critical juncture as an entrepreneur. The President of WBM Technologies Inc. says her moment came with one of her biggest opportunities.
“We were hiring lots of people, we got this customer opportunity, the world was our oyster, and we had all of these great things. And I was kind of hoping that we didn’t get that next deal, because it was just one more set of things for me to do. Like how many more weekends do I have? So this is the question we asked ourselves: Is it possible to grow a company such that every time the company grows and becomes more successful, our lives get better? Is it possible to do that? Because that was not the path that we were on. And if we say yes, yes that’s possible for us and can be possible for every person who works here, then what is it that we need to do to make it happen?” says Hardy.
That is the fundamental question that has guided Hardy and her two business partners since they took over WBM Technologies in 2008. WBM, originally known as Western Business Machines, was a downtown Saskatoon business that provided customers with equipment such as electronic typewriters and adding machines. Fast forward 60 years: WBM is now a Western Canadian IT service provider with locations throughout Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia, employing 257 people, and generating more than $70 million in sales.
So with numbers like that, how exactly can you improve your life and the lives of your employees as the business gets bigger and more successful? Hardy says it was simple – the answer came to them after just talking it out.
“What we believed the answer was – and we didn’t find it in a book or with a consultant, we just talked about it – and what we said was that the answer to this has to be that we build a great leadership team around us. So the question then was how do you build a great team, how do you find those people and get them in the right positions? And you know, we had to be willing to take some risks and make some mistakes,” says Hardy.
WBM’s leadership team comprises 14 people, including Hardy and her two partners. Hardy describes them as very different individuals who each bring a different set of skills and business experience to the table. They build their own teams and organizational structures, which will morph and change depending on the needs of their customers.
“The idea of building the very best leadership team for us is not about going out and finding the MBAs or the people from our competitors who have the most experience. It’s about surrounding ourselves with people who have the same values that we do. And I know people throw the word values around all the time but we really do believe in this stuff,” says Hardy.
For Hardy, those values consist of two main areas: striving to have genuine relationships with their customers and seeking to do work and deliver outcomes that really matter.
“If you have those two things and you don’t have a university degree, or you have those two things and you’ve never worked in the industry, cool; welcome aboard. And finding the way to trust means you have to be willing to let people make those mistakes and that’s fine. I mean I make mistakes every day, so welcome to the mistake club; that’s not the issue or concern for me. If you have value alignment with the people you are bringing into the organization, you don’t have to be afraid of them lying to you, stealing from you, or making a decision that is going to harm your reputation, so you can set all of those things aside. But finding people who share those values – that can be a longer road,” says Hardy.
One of the unique things is that JoeAnne gives you that latitude to work.
Lee Branstetter became one of those people. He is the Director of Logistics and Warehousing and has been with WBM for six years. Branstetter says that initially, he took the job because it offered better hours than his previous shift job. But he quickly learned that his position at WBM offered him a very rare opportunity to grow as a leader. Branstetter says Hardy always has an open-door policy if you have a problem, but she rarely involves herself in how the leadership team runs their own teams. Branstetter says she leaves it 100% up to him, and there is no area of his team that he doesn’t have control over.
“One of the unique things is that JoeAnne gives you that latitude to work. There are often instances where I will feel stuck and I’ll meet with JoeAnne, and I don’t know how she does it, but she has the ability that makes you find the answer you were looking for. She doesn’t actually provide it. She has a way of… I guess getting you to look within yourself and realize you had the answer all along,” says Branstetter.
To understand Hardy’s leadership style, you must go back to when she first arrived on the scene at WBM 22 years ago. Hardy applied for a job as an assistant in the sales department and was hired. But she soon found herself frustrated because she didn’t know what she was supposed to be doing, and neither did any of her colleagues.
“The group of gentlemen I was working for at the time, who I reported directly to, knew that they needed help, but they weren’t exactly sure what it was that I needed to do, so for the first couple of weeks I was insanely frustrated, and then I figured it out. If I could just find a way every single day to come into the office and look for somewhere I could make an impact, somewhere I could help someone or find something I could actually improve, I was actually in the best position I had ever been in in my entire life, because the alternative is going into a job that is super clearly defined and you can never get out of that.
The idea of building the very best leadership team for us is not about going out and finding the MBAs or the people from our competitors who have the most experience. It’s about surrounding ourselves with people who have the same values that we do. And I know people throw the word values around all the time but we really do believe in this stuff.
“So I think I was incredibly fortunate in that I was continuously given the latitude so that I could actually make a contribution, a contribution to the people around me and to the business. And when there was a problem to be solved or extra work to be done my name would just come into people’s minds, because I was willing and open to doing it,” says Hardy.
That can-do attitude gave Hardy the opportunity to learn various elements of the business. She worked in many areas of WBM, from sales to service, in the customer care centre and centralizing calls. After more than a decade she rose through the ranks and into the position of president of the company. After she had done that role successfully for three years, the former owner gave her and three colleagues at the time the chance to buy the business in 2008.
Still figuring it out
Staying true to her values, both in life and in business, is what continues to help Hardy be successful. When she has not followed this path, it has been a costly lesson for WBM. Hardy says dealing with people is challenging and can often lead to indecision. These experiences have shaped how she views leadership.
“The worst thing I have ever done, and there are definitely examples of this, is when we have people in the organization who aren’t a good fit. Not because they aren’t good people but because they are just not into it. So you feel like you are doing the right thing when you are giving people the opportunity to grow or change, or you’re afraid of what’s going to happen if you pull someone out of the organization, but it’s in those moments of indecision that you are not doing the right thing for your team, and they need you to do it,” says Hardy.
I just try to ask lots of questions as to where the team needs me: how can I help, how can I contribute?
Hardy definitely doesn’t act like she has it all figured out, and she strives to find the balance every day and keeps her focus on the positive path forward, especially with her leadership team.
“I just try to ask lots of questions as to where the team needs me: how can I help, how can I contribute? And when the answer that comes back is, ‘we’ve got this,’ then I have to let them handle it. But sometimes I don’t accept it, either, and sometimes I’ll find myself diving back into the details. It’s just a work in progress all the time, and I have to stop and listen and ask questions. I have to do the best I can do, and some days are better than others,” says Hardy.
Finding that balance is not always easy, but as WBM continues to expand into other regions of Western Canada, Hardy does it with one intention in mind: to give her employees the chance to create their own opportunities, much like she did, and hopefully a life that gets better every step of the way.
The Accidental Gift
It was a cold January night in 2008, and JoeAnne Hardy and her friends were looking to doing something exciting before going out for dinner. They decided it would be neat to try wall climbing. Hardy had never done it before and was eager to experience the adventure, but it would be an experience that would change her life forever.
As Hardy was climbing the tallest wall, the rope suddenly let go. She fell about 40 feet before slamming into the floor below her. It was a freak accident that left her with an unstable burst fracture of one of her vertebrae. Shards of bone were so close to her spinal cord that doctors immobilized her to prevent further damage. Surgeons decided to put titanium rods and screws in her back to stabilize her spine and then put her in a back brace for 12 weeks to heal.
“When I thought about it from my husband’s perspective it was like, oh my God, I must figure out how this is going to go here, because he didn’t sign up for this and I cannot be a burden to our family. This is the thing I’m living in fear of, and I’m of course thinking of the business and my job and those kinds of things, but when you are in a situation like that, you realize without your health nothing has any value anyway, so I knew I had to get that straightened out,” says Hardy.
Hardy says she was back at work within 2 weeks after the surgery, not because the business needed her, but because she needed the business. For Hardy, going back to work was part of her personal recovery. She is grateful that everyone at work accommodated her during that time, and she keeps a reminder – a cozy couch sits in her office, given to her by her husband, who is also her business partner, to make sure she would be comfortable during this very physically painful time.
“I think that’s one really important lesson I have carried forward in business too: if I don’t take care of myself… Everything else gets its value from your health, and yet it’s the very first thing that people are willing to trade in pursuit of something else.”
Anyone who is close to Hardy knows that health is a top priority for her. She has a reputation for getting up early every day, at 4:27 a.m. to be exact. She either goes for a run or hits the gym for a strength training session.
Hardy says she now never skips a workout anymore because she realizes that you don’t have to work out, you get to, and that in itself is a gift. That is an appreciation she says she would never have had if she had not experienced the accident.
First published in the June 2018 edition of The Business Advisor.