February 01, 2015
Taking Care of Your People So They Can Take Care of You
by Jere Thompson Jr.
Photo above: Ambit Energy co-founders Chris Chambless and Jere Thompson Jr.
When I was a graduate student at The University of Texas, I spent a month in Washington, D.C., learning about the federal government and how it works. A couple of us in the program were given the incredible opportunity to visit the West Wing of the White House. James Baker, a fellow Texan and President Ronald Reagan’s Chief of Staff at the time, was our tour guide. The highlight, of course, was the Oval Office. While telling stories about President Reagan, Mr. Baker walked over to the President’s desk, opened a crystal jar and offered us some of his famous jelly beans. It was unforgettable, and so was a small brass plaque sitting next to the jar. It read, “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.”
To me, President Reagan was emphasizing that success is all about teamwork, about attracting and retaining the best people and giving them the recognition they deserve.
Today, Chris Chambless, my Co-Founder and our CMO; John Burke, our CIO; Laurie Rodriguez, our CFO, and I all have replicas of that brass plaque on our desks. From the very beginning we wanted to build a culture that would enable us to attract and retain the best talent. First, however, we had to decide what we wanted to focus on and what we were willing to say “no” to. We had to narrowly target our limited startup capital and time. We kept repeating, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”
At Ambit, we have three main things: our systems, our people and our standards.
Our entire executive team came from telecom backgrounds. In that industry, we had seen companies with great back offices and systems thrive and prosper while those with poor systems capsized, sank and disappeared forever when the inevitable data tidal wave hit them. We knew that operationally Ambit would be a data processing company. Everything we would do would involve the receipt, processing, storage, sharing, presentation and mining of data.
At first, John thought we would be able to find a vendor to supply our systems. But what we wanted didn’t exist. He told us that we would have to build our own systems because the cost and the delays of modifying off-the-shelf systems would be prohibitive. Chris and I didn’t know what we didn’t know about coding. We just shrugged and with very little empathy said, “Let’s get started.” John turned pale, but the next morning he was loyally at his desk starting to code. John built our IT organization and systems from scratch. He started alone and today has 130 people in his IT department. Our systems have been patented, and we feel they are a key qualitative difference between Ambit and our competitors.
People thought we were crazy to build our own systems. Any time you do something unconventional, you get criticized. The first time I was invited to a telecom industry conference to speak on a panel, I was asked to describe Ambit. I told everyone that we were a data processing company that happened to sell electricity and used direct sales for gathering customers. There were snickers in the room. We heard them and ignored them. We didn’t want to be like them, act like them and have returns like theirs. In fact, we didn’t even want to think like them. We didn’t hire anyone from the utility industry for over four years. Any time we needed to learn about something, we Googled it. This approach had risk, but it succeeded because of talented, curious people.
Companies are collections of people. Their cumulative and collective knowledge multiplied by their focus and passion is what distinguishes one company from another. That’s what culture is all about. The question for us was how to begin creating a culture. There is an old saying, “First, we define our space and then our space defines us.” We set our culture in motion by moving into a 100-year-old warehouse space and tearing out all of the offices. Light immediately cascaded through the many windows onto the beautiful polished hardwood floors and red brick walls. We wanted open spaces so that we could more closely connect to the emotions of our business. We wanted to hear the excitement and concerns in voices to know what to applaud or what to address immediately. We wanted to sit in the open so that we could have hundreds of conversations a day without ever leaving our desks.
Actually, our desks are $19 fold-up tables. They, too, were unconventional, and concerns were voiced that everyone would think we had no money and little chance of success. But we explained that we were going to invest all of our capital in great people and outstanding systems, not in fancy offices and elegant furniture. We told everyone that the smart people would understand this and not to worry about anyone else. Eight years later, we are a $1.5 billion company, and our executive team still sits at those same fold-up tables, next to each other and out in the open.
If we started over tomorrow, we would do it exactly the same way. Smart, young people want a space with high energy that promotes speed, creativity and collaboration. They want to be surrounded by other smart people. We knew that only assigning IT the task of figuring out what was needed and how it should be designed, coded and then prioritized would lead to disaster. We were determined to enable companywide collaboration, believing that everyone had to be engaged in this process. Our space and open culture made that work.
The very first time Chris and I sat down to map out the kind of company we wanted to build, we talked about our reputations and the reputations of consultants who would one day join us. We knew that consultants would be putting their reputations on the line every time they approached someone about becoming an Ambit customer or Ambit consultant, and we wanted to deliver as promised—not some of the time, but all of the time. So we committed to building the finest and most respected retail energy provider in America. Those were pretty bold words for a company with a couple of customers, but we knew the opportunity was enormous. To be the finest, we had to have great systems and outstanding people. To be the most respected, we could never sacrifice integrity for growth.
Over the past few years in almost every speech I have made, I have emphasized that the only way to attract and retain the best people, whether it is inside an organization or in a consultant downline, is by maintaining high standards. We tell our people to be the finest and most respected, to never sacrifice integrity for growth and to never exaggerate. We explain that exaggeration is like quicksand, and once you slip into it, it is almost impossible to get out of. You cannot build a long-term sustainable business with a foundation built on quicksand. Build your foundation on rock. Build it on truth.
Looking back over the past eight years, we have always tried to work our hardest and do our best. We have always tried to deliver as promised. We have always tried to attract and retain the best people. We have communicated our values repeatedly, and have enforced them when necessary. And along the way, we would like to think that we have built up a certain level of trust with our customers, with our consultants and with our people. That is why we have achieved what we have achieved.
President Reagan was right. Success is all about teamwork, about attracting and retaining the best people and giving them their well-deserved credit. Everyone can do that.
Jere Thompson Jr. is Co-Founder and CEO of Ambit Energy.