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'Don't Ever Underestimate the Power of People'

In this revealing Q&A, White Castle owner Dave Rife talks about how going undercover with front-line employees helped him discover how the old truths about engagement still apply

By William Keenan Jr.

Here at corporate headquarters you’re encouraged to go out and spend a day in one of the stores. We really want all of our upper-level people to get out, spend some time behind that counter, spend some time in the factories, and really immerse yourself in what’s going on, because that’s the best way to understand what challenges those people face.

When Dave Rife, a fourth-generation family owner and member of the White Castle Management Company’s executive council, gave a keynote presentation at The Motivation Show in Chicago recently, his standing-room-only audience was made up not so much of White Castle Cravers – the name the company gives to its leading brand enthusiasts – but of fans of the CBS TV show Undercover Boss, the program that takes company executives “undercover” in their own organizations to work on the front lines and find out what’s really going on inside their companies.

What Rife found as a result of his Undercover Boss experience was that, at least in the case of White Castle, many of the old truths still apply – truths about employee and customer engagement that had been in place since his great-grandfather, Billy Ingram, founded the company some 90 years ago. In particular, Rife found the truths that his grandfather and great grandfather lived by still resonated throughout White Castle today.

In the weeks after The Motivation Show, Rife had time to sit down with the editors of Engagement Strategies Magazine to talk about the important lessons that were reinforced by his televised experience, some new lessons he had learned, and how the company has tried to make sure those lessons continue to apply to White Castle’s corporate culture as the company moves forward.

ESM: There were a lot of Undercover Boss fans at your keynote presentation at The Motivation Show in Chicago a few weeks ago. What do you think an audience of motivation and recognition professionals can learn from a show like that?

Rife: The biggest thing is that people need to feel appreciated. And quite frankly, that’s why I think the show is such a huge success. We’re at that point in our economy right now when things aren’t good, and the first thing large corporations start doing when things go bad is to cut staff. Unfortunately, it seems like the first place you go is to your frontline people. When people see a show like Undercover Boss, and they see the boss go out and walk a mile in their shoes, they appreciate the fact that somebody is noticing that what they do is a difficult job. It also makes them feel like they’re appreciated and valued.

ESM: White Castle has a reputation for being a very employee-oriented and customer-oriented culture to begin with. How did it get that way?

Rife: The credit for all that, in my opinion, should go to my great grandfather, “Billy” Ingram, and a lot of the things that he believed in and the values that he founded our company on. One of those was the belief that treating people right is always the best policy and the best practice – and not only treating your employees right, but treating your customers right as well. One of his key phrases – and it has been around for almost 90 years now – is, “Happy team members make happy customers.”

Also, when he would travel in the early days of our company, if he visited a store he would make sure that he had a picture of every person who worked in that store and he would put a name to a face, so when he walked in he could address them by name and make them feel appreciated. Today, with over 10,000 team members, that’s kind of tough, but we have the same principle – just treat employees with respect and listen to what they have to say. We’ve tried to continue with those traditions throughout the generations, and I think that’s created an environment that our team members enjoy. And it shows through in the service that they give to customers, and customers respond to that.

Just yesterday, in fact, we held our tenth annual “White Castle Cravers Hall of Fame” induction ceremony. Every year we pick twelve of the best customer stories we get, and those people are inducted into our Hall of Fame. They love the brand, and as I was sitting there just getting to know all of them I thought, “What other company, what other brand, has customers who write you love letters about your product and your service? I think we’ve created something truly unique. And it’s all because of our people.

There are probably a lot of companies that would look at that and think that’s a lot of money to spend, especially with 10,000-plus team members. But we look at it as making an investment in our future. If we can keep our people healthy and happy and engaged, then we’re doing what’s right.

ESM: Do you use any other motivational tools or techniques to ensure your people are making those connections with customers?

Rife: We have a suggestions program that any person within our organization can get in on. We’re asking for ideas on how to make things easier for you as a team member or how to make things better for our customers. And we get lots of great ideas. If somebody has an idea that seems to have a lot of value, we put it through testing and evaluate it – we make sure that team members know what we’re doing all along. And we recognize those people publically.

We also have a screening and hiring process that gives us the best opportunity to hire the best people. My cousin John Kelley – our CPO, or Chief People Officer – has done a fantastic job of building a hiring process that includes personality testing and an assessment process to help us find people who are energized, who are engaged, who aren’t going to give up at a moment’s notice, who value the effort and what it takes to succeed, and are willing to work at it. And once you get those people, then it’s a matter of making sure you do what’s right by them, take care of them and keep them energized and engaged so you can hang on to them.

ESM: What were some of the biggest lessons you learned in your experience as Undercover Boss?

Rife: One of the biggest things I learned about myself – and I think I grew a lot as a person – was that I was kind of a micromanager. I was very focused, very driven, and I pretty much knew what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go, how I was going to get there. I kind of had my hands in everything, and looking back I think that was because I lacked a bit of self-confidence. Going through the experience of the show and everything that was involved in making the show enabled me to grow as a person. I developed a lot more self-confidence, and I’m no longer as much of a micromanager.

On the business side, it was fantastic to get out and see what I already believed get reinforced. My grandfather said, “Happy team members make happy customers,” and that message is alive and well within our company. It’s why we’ve been around for 90 years. It’s why I believe we will be around at least another 90 years, and it’s all about people. Don’t ever underestimate the power of people.

But besides just going out and trying to find some of these hidden truths, we want our team members to know that we’re willing to listen. We know we’re not perfect – nobody is – but we’re willing to really listen to what you have to say and work hard at trying to be the best employer we know how to be.

ESM: Is White Castle doing anything to measure and support engagement – the notion that “Happy employees make happy customers”?

Rife: We are. Every year we have a very thorough team member survey that goes to all our team members, and it’s completely confidential. You can write or say anything. It goes to an outside auditing firm that tallies everything up and gives us feedback – things like here’s what you guys are doing great, here are some things where you are doing well, and here are some areas where you need to maybe focus your attention and your energies because you could stand to improve. And then we take that information and we roll it up into a plan to address those issues. We also go back to our people to let them know we hear what they’re saying.

One of the things we learned a few years ago was that people in the regions – especially at the restaurant level – didn’t feel that we were doing a great job of communicating what’s happening at the home office. So we started a publication called the Slider Times, which is kind of our corporate newsletter. It comes out bimonthly and recaps what’s happening here in the office, and each of the regions also gets to talk about what they’re doing. Everybody’s got this thirst and desire for knowledge about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, and what everybody else in the organization is doing – particularly best practices. And the more information you share with them, the more they want to know, the more they want to succeed.

We also have a program called White Castle University where we bring our store managers into the home office in small groups for three or four days. They get a chance to sit down with each other, get to know each other, interact and talk about those best practices that are going on. It also helps to promote that sense of an extended family.

ESM: Besides engagement, how important is empowerment to your frontline staff, and how do you encourage that?

Rife: It’s very important for our team members to know that they’re empowered to make decisions on the spot. Those frontline people are the ambassadors of our company, and in my opinion you have one chance to make a first impression. In fact, I was working the front counter in Louisville last week, and a woman came up and ordered six White Castles. I handed the order out to her and then she said, “Are there onions on these?” And I said, “Yes ma’am, there’s onions on everything.” Turns out she had made a mistake and had meant to order them without onions, but before I could say anything, the woman on the grill said, “Hand me that sack right there, ma’am, I will replace those for you right now.”

It wasn’t our fault, but we made a connection with that customer, and we might just have made another lifelong White Castle Craver. We achieve that through reinforcement and training and praise. And reinforcing the message that “You’re important, and the customers are important, and it’s all about customer service.”

We tell our team members: “You guys are intelligent people. You know how to do what is right, and we believe in you. And if you get to a position where you want to do something but there’s a question in your mind, just ask. There’s no such thing as a dumb question, because that’s how you learn.”

ESM: You seem to have enjoyed your experience as an Undercover Boss. Do you have any formal process for getting top level executives out into the field regularly?

Rife: We do. We’ve declared May as National Hamburger Month. And what that means here at corporate headquarters is that you’re encouraged to go out and spend a day in one of the stores. Pick a store and go work it. Some of us will pick a couple of stores and hit a couple of different areas. We really want all of our upper-level people to get out, spend some time behind that counter, spend some time in the factories, and really immerse yourself in what’s going on, because that’s the best way to understand what challenges those people face.

And our people love it. They love having the people from the home office come out and spend time with them. Because it lets them know they’re appreciated.

ESM: Does being a family-owned company make it easier to create a sense of engagement in your organization?

Rife: Yes, I think being a family-owned business does give us an advantage. As a privately-held company we have the ability to sit back and make decisions that are based on what’s in the best interests of the company over the long term, and not make decisions based on short-term earnings. One of the things we’ve done – one of the big things that came out of the Undercover Boss experience, in fact – has been our whole wellness commitment. We want to let our team members know we care about them and their physical well being, so we now cover all of their co-pay for wellness visits. If you work for White Castle, we want you to go get a physical, and we’re paying for it – there’s no out of pocket for you. There are probably a lot of companies that would look at that and think that’s a lot of money out of our pocket, especially with 10,000-plus team members. But we look at it as making an investment in our future. If we can keep our people healthy and happy and engaged, then we’re doing what’s right.

ESM: Do you make use of any formal reward and recognition programs?

Rife: We do have some reward and recognition programs, but I think the biggest piece is the culture. And it’s a culture that has been created over 90 years. Some might not be as in tune to the culture when they first come in, but the more they interact and you kind of see what is going on, it just becomes part of you.

We do a lot in our training – teaching our new team members about the history of the company, the things that we think have made us so successful over 90 years, that have helped us build this brand. And most of it centers around treating people with respect. I’m a firm believer in celebrating your successes. And if we have a team member who has done something well, we want to celebrate that – we kind of want to call them out and make sure that we publicly say, “Hey, great job.”

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November/December 2010

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