Walter Wright: An Outside Review of Flow Auto

Walter Wright is the executive director of the De Pree Leadership Center, an organization in partnership with Fuller Theological Seminary that works to support and inform principled leadership in public life. Before coming to the De Pree Center, Wright was president of Regent College in Vancouver, B.C. The study of Flow Automotive will be the topic of a forthcoming book that he is preparing.

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Ethix: Tell me about the studies you are conducting.

Walter Wright: We are studying small- to medium-sized private companies to understand how CEO values shape their corporation. By looking at multiple companies, we hope to be able to draw conclusions from very different leadership styles across similar sized companies. All of these companies, including Flow Automotive, have been recognized in their communities as good places to work.

How did you go about the study of Flow?

We engaged the Work Research Foundation in Toronto to staff a team that joined me and Dr. Joyce Avedisian in the study of Flow Automotive in the latter part of 2002.

We first interviewed Don Flow, their CEO, to learn about his set of values. We then spent time with company information—sales, marketing, newspaper articles, measurement systems, etc.

We conducted a survey of all their employees. The survey started with an Organizational Leadership Assessment instrument developed at Indiana Wesleyan University, supplemented by a series of questions to learn how well the company was carrying out its stated values. We believe we have a good picture of Flow Automotive, but not detailed data about each store.

Then we went back in for four days of interviews. We had one-on-one discussions with all the senior management, focus groups of employees at all levels, and focus groups with representatives of customers, suppliers (e.g., lawyers, bankers, service providers), and community leaders. We went to a couple stores that have been with Flow the longest, starting with Don’s father, and a couple of newer stores that are now going through the culture change.

And what did you learn?

First, a personal conclusion. When I arrived there for the first time, I thought it would be great to live here because I could probably get a good deal on a car from knowing Don. By the time I finished, I thought, if I lived here, I would buy a car from Don whether there was a special deal or not. It would be great to buy a car from a dealership that truly values the customer and has this environment of trust.

His father had begun the values of honesty and valuing the customer, but Don had looked at this in a very sophisticated way, putting in many practices that put feet on these values. I found Don to be bright, articulate, and energetic beyond his peers.

The core values of customer satisfaction, valuing other people, and honesty truly pervade the organization. One question we asked the focus groups of employees was, “If you were advising a friend coming to work at Flow, what would you tell them could get you fired?” Three things came back. Not being a person of your word. Not valuing a customer. Any disrespect for another person such as racial slurs. These values are strongly embedded in the culture.

What questions or concerns did you identify?

Three areas came out—not weaknesses so much as questions as they grow. At some of the newer stores, some employees knew of Don’s practices but didn’t know him. They wondered if these practices were for real, or a gimmick. It will take time to acculturate the new stores.

A second area was how some of the employees felt. The leadership team felt strongly valued. The management team a bit less so. Some of the employees in the organization understood the value of the customer, but felt less valued themselves. All of them, upon reflection, realized they were very well treated, but the dominant focus on the customer came through more strongly for some. This suggests that as they grow, they will need to make sure their expanded management team captures the vision for the employee as well as the customer. It is impossible for Don to do it all in a growing company.

Third, Don has based his practices on his very well articulated Christian theology. The practices obviously work, but will they continue if future leadership no longer holds to the roots of these practices?

Any other summary level conclusions from your study?

This is a great company with an incredibly innovative, energetic leader. As they grow, however, can Don build the team behind him fast enough? The challenge is to continue to be strong in twenty years.