EVEN BEFORE MY COMPANY, Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, began 2021 with our 10th-straight quarter of triple-digit gains, our competitors might have been tempted to assume we were working on borrowed time. With meteoric growth comes challenges. Among them: It’s often difficult to sustain a company culture that retains team members. Instead, “churn ’em and burn ’em” ensues.
What my competitors don’t know: I learned early on that the cost of losing a team member is higher than what many CEOs have calculated.
In 1999, four years after founding my first company, I partnered with a celebrity chef to back the opening of his first restaurant. It was an immediate success; guests with reservations often experienced 45-minute waits. Chefs classically trained in France, however, can have a penchant for curse words and the throwing of pots. I still remember a call from a team member on her drive to work; she couldn’t come in because she started having a panic attack. I knew if the company culture didn’t change, I would lose my investment of sweat equity, and the investors I’d brought in would lose their money as well. Both inevitably happened.
Nearly 20 years later, following the July 2017 market launch of Uncle Nearest, our company took off. I quickly realized we’d set monstrous goals, but our foundation was shaky. Although we’d worked with a branding company to write our mission statement, we had not taken the time to truly define who we were. One day, as the world around me was spinning at a dizzying pace, I paused long enough to write seven guiding principles. I sent them to the entire team, about a dozen people, and asked them to help me eliminate values they didn’t believe to be most important and add others that were. By the time we’d refined the list to 10 principles, all team members felt ownership over our core values– and more readily exhibited them in all they did.
It was a step toward crafting our company culture. But as my leadership team began hiring their own teams–and it grew less likely I would be able to read every résumé–it became imperative that our culture remain fully intact. So, I wrote 10 hiring principles that mirrored our guiding principles. Our guiding principle No. 1 was “We do it with excellence or we don’t do it at all.” Our corresponding hiring principle became: “We look for the best candidates for each position”–the notion being that it takes more time to hire, train, and likely have to replace the wrong person than to wait for the right one. We paired guiding principle No. 2, “Every day we pound the rock,” with the hiring principle: “We keep looking for the right person until we find them.” To promote principle No. 3–“We accept each other’s differences”–we established the hiring principle “Diversity matters.” We actively looked for candidates who were different from us and could add novel perspectives. Not only was this good business ethics, but some of our most nontraditional hires have been integral to our bottom-line success as well.
Today, ours is one of the fastest brand ascents the U.S. independent liquor industry has seen. In the four and a half years since we founded Uncle Nearest, our workforce has grown 2,900 percent, and our turnover rate is just 3 percent–among the lowest in an industry that averages 13 percent. If our success can be attributed to any one thing, it’s that we put our guiding principles front and center. We didn’t allow branding firms to be the architects of our company culture. And now, if we begin to see either burn or churn–or if we start throwing pots around the distillery–we’ll know we’ve shifted our focus away from what’s most important.