Valdosta Daily Times

February 22, 2013

Gathering of Eagles

Business leaders share the golden ruleĀ 

Stuart Taylor
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA —  Wiregrass Georgia Technical College hosted its Seventh Annual Gathering of Eagles Thursday. Centered around the theme of “Make Your Business Stand Out," the Gathering consisted of a mix of national, regional and local business speakers.

“It's important to us to offer leadership opportunities for the community,” said Mary Gooding, marketing director of Valdosta State University which acts as the Gathering's co-sponsor. Gooding, along with the rest of the Gathering's planning committee, felt it was important to have a variety of business speakers for the conference.

“It also gives emerging business leaders the chance to network and build contacts,” said Gooding.

Among the local speakers were Chuck and Susan Steel of Steel's Jewlery. They talked about the reasons for their business' longevity. They said customers pay attention to their business' community involvement.

Ernest Coulouras, vice president of sales for Seal Shield, credited his company's success to its approach towards customer service. Seal Shield, which specilizes in anti-microbial and water-proof keyboards, remote controls and electronic mice, offers lifetime gurantees and free evaluations on all of its products, as well as dealing directly with customer-service problems.

“Even if people like your product, it only takes one bad customer-service experience for them to decide to not come back,” said Coulouras. “We have made it part of our DNA.”

The Gathering's featured speaker was Joel Manby, CEO of Herschend Family Enterprises, a family-owned theme park corporation that bought Wild Adventures in 2007.

Usually Manby's speaking fees go directly into HFE's Share it Forward Foundation, but for the Gathering, he allowed his speaking fees to go to Wiregrass' Foundation fund, which secures classroom equipment and provides scholarships for students.

“I'm happy to support the fund,” said Manby. “We work to support every community we have a park in.”

Manby spoke at length about his and HFE's “leading with love” business philosophy that he outlined in his 2012 book, “Love Works.” The philosophy contends that it's not only possible to run a business based off the Greek idea of agape, or unconditional love, but that it's better for the bottom line.

Inspired by 1 Corinthians 13, “leading with love” focuses on seven attributes: Patient, Kind, Trusting, Unselfish, Truthful, Forgiving and Dedicated.

“You won't see innovation in a fear-driven environment,” said Manby. “A business should care about the bottom line, but also care about people.”

For Manby, who had worked in the auto industry for 20 years, the philosophy of HFE played a large part in his decision to work there.

“I knew I would be making a third of what I was making working for Saab, but I wanted to be one person, a consistent person, at home, at church and at work,” said Manby.

Part of HFE's efforts to promote unselfishness is its Share It Forward Foundation, which is made up almost equally of employee donations and corporate matching. The foundation helps out employees in financial need, from offering scholarships to assisting in the face of traumatic events. One of the employees who has been helped is Albert Sandford who, after working with Manby on an episode of the reality show "Undercover Boss," was offered a full scholarship.

“It's been a blessing, nothing but positive,” said Sandford, who attends Valdosta State University's Langdale College of Business while working at Wild Adventures. “All things being equal, I would like to have a life-long career at HFE.”

On "Undercover Boss," Sandford famously told Manby that he himself would like to be CEO one day, something he still aspires to today.

“But even if my career with HFE ended today, I would consider it a success,” said Sandford. “That's how the company makes you feel.”

Much of Manby's presentation flies in the face of cultural business stereotypes, such as Gordon Gecko of “Wall Street” and Bill Lumbergh of “Office Space.”

“It is a leader's job to be an encourager,” said Manby.

Manby encouraged leaders to trust their employees.

“The more you trust and delagate, and let people do things their way, the better people will do," said Manby. “When you don't listen to them ... it shows a lack of trust.”

Manby doesn't plan to write another book until after he retires one day, but does want to add a chapter concerning humility for the "Love Works'” paperback edition.

Dion Chapman, a manager with Southwest Georgia Bank, has been present for every Gathering of Eagles.

“Everything they're talking about today, we all know it,” said Chapman. “But in the daily grind, we lose track of it sometimes. I feel like all of the main bullet points go back to the Golden Rule, something that should be at the forefront of every business.”

No matter what industry you're in, Chapman feels the “Love Wins” philosophy can be applied.

“Patience and self-control are difficult in many situations, but what I've learned is that people who are angry or upset, nine out of 10 times they're not mad at me, they're mad at the situation,” said Chapman.

Representing the Langdale College of Business, Monica Page, a career strategies coordinator, cited selflessness as something she tries to instill in her students.

“So often we get caught up in how to find contentment for ourself that we don't think about those around us,” said Page. “It's not about whether you get to the top, but whether everyone around you gets to the top, too.”