Pictured Above: For the third consecutive year, Jenner Ag has been named a finalist for the Great Game of Business All-Star award. The company, which operates an application equipment division along with a Case IH dealership and precision farming division, won the award in 2014.
Jenner Ag has always practiced open book management — sharing the company financials with the management team. But in 2011, Steve Jones, president of the Case IH dealership, decided to take it one step further and started playing the Great Game of Business after meeting Jack Stack, founder of the game and founder, president and CEO of SRC Holdings Corp., at a business leaders’ meeting in town. (See “The Principles & Practices of the Great Game of Business” sidebar below.)
“Jack Stack’s idea was to take the open book concept to the shop floor. To give you a personal real case example, one day a number of years ago, I walked through the building and one of the shop guys met me and said, ‘Well, you made millions this year.’ And I said, ‘Seth, how do you think I made millions?’ He said, ‘Well, our sales were.’ And I thought, boy, they really don’t understand, conceptually, how all this fits together. So I thought, let’s take this Great Game of Business concept and let’s bring it back to our company.”
This year, Jenner Ag was nominated for the Great Game of Business All Star Award for the third consecutive year, after winning it in 2014. The award recognizes companies worldwide that have fully embraced the principles of open-book management and the Great Game of Business, while also demonstrating outstanding results. Jenner Ag consists of three divisions, application, ag and precision. The application business is run out of the Harristown, Ill., location, ag is based in Taylorville, Ill., and Jenner Precision operates from Fairbury, Ill.
Jones says he and the CFO tried to implement it on their own the first year. “We did OK. But nobody trusted me because I own the place and there was this assumption that I was making the numbers up. We weren’t, but that’s what people thought,” he says.
To help the Jenner Ag team better understand the concept of the Great Game of Business, Jones sent members of the staff to other companies that were playing the game and started working with a coach to help facilitate the process. He says this management strategy helps to define goals and plans for the year.
- The Great Game of Business is a structured open-book business strategy that gets employees at every level involved in the success of the company and requires complete transparency.
- Giving employees a stake in the outcome motivates them to come to work to “win” because they know there’s reward, recognition and ownership in the outcome.
- Educating your employees on the financial side of the business will help them better understand the decisions you make as an owner or manager. It can also have the added bonus of helping them better understand their personal finances.
“As the owner of a company, you always struggle with what percentage of the profits to pay out in bonuses or setting up a reward system because you have to retain so much for the bank and capital to grow. But if a company is profitable, as ag had been for the last 4 or 5 years, employees see that. So prior to 2011 when we started playing the Great Game, it was kind of a Ouija board approach with me,” Jones says. “We’ve had a profit share program for years. We’d get to the end of the year and everybody would start asking me, ‘What’s profit share look like this year?’ And I got tired of deciding that on my own.”
Jones estimates 90% of the companies that are involved with the Great Game of Business started because they were struggling, with high debt to equity ratios or very disengaged employees. However, that wasn’t the case for Jenner Ag.
“We had the problem that we were doing well. How do we take the good of what we were doing and translate it into financial literacy for our employees and improve their knowledge?” he says. For Jones, the ultimate goal of The Great Game of Business is to teach his employees enough about business so they could actually go out and borrow money and start a business of their own.
Principles & Practices of The Great Game of Business
The Great Game of Business was started by Jack Stack, the founder, president and CEO of SRC Holdings Corp. Stack, along with 12 business partners bought the failing remanufacturing division of International Harvester in Springfield, Mo., and formed SRC (Springfield Remanufacturing Corp.). With a debt-to-equity ratio of 89-to-1 and hundreds of jobs on the line, Stack decided to turn the business into a game using what they called open book management. He later coined this management style as “The Great Game of Business.”
According to The Great Game of Business, “Treating business as if it were a game was not our way of trivializing business. Rather, it was a way to explain business in the most simple and unintimidating way possible, get everyone on the same ‘playing field’ and tap into the universal human desire to win.” Here is how the Great Game of Business says it works.
Know & Teach the Rules
- Business Transparency & Education: Opening the books only works when people are taught to understand them, which is best done both formally and informally.
- High Involvement Planning: When the Game is created with broad participation — specifically the people who are closest to the action and who understand the realities — it creates a level of commitment and alignment that just can’t be matched.
- The Critical Number: This is the financial or operational number that defines winning. When correctly identified through High Involvement Planning, targeted and tied to a reward, the Critical Number becomes the focus of the Game for everyone in the organization.
Follow the Action & Keep Score
- Keep Score: There’s an old saying, “If you’re not keeping score, it’s only practice.” The objective of keeping score is to simply and consistently inform the players if they are winning or losing, and who is accountable.
- Follow the Action: Huddles provide a rhythm of communication where everyone is kept informed, involved and engaged in moving the company forward.
- Forward Forecasting: You can’t change history. Forecasting is the fundamental way the Great Game of Business companies communicate the numbers and create forward-looking, educational and results-oriented huddles.
Provide a Stake in the Outcome
- Rewards, Recognition: All who directly participate in strengthening the company likely do so because they have some form of a stake in the outcome. They come to work to win, because they know their work will result in significant reward, recognition and ownership in the outcome.
- MiniGames: These are short term, intensely focused, rapid improvement campaigns that affect a change, correct a weakness or pursue an opportunity. Like the big Game, there is a goal, a scoreboard and a reward for winning.
- Ownership: Not all companies who play the Game can or will share equity, nor is it a guarantee of success. But getting employees to think and act like owners is one of the most powerful things any leader can do to create measurable and sustainable success in any organization.
Educating the Staff
While business success is an obvious goal of playing the Great Game of Business, Jones says the bigger goal is educating staff on how the business is run and how they can apply these same financial principals at home. “You go to school, you go to college, and maybe you get a master’s degree or even a PhD. But, who teaches you how to run a business? There’s no place to sit down and learn what debt to equity is and what’s net profit. People think if you sell something for $100,000, you made $100,000. But we know that’s not true,” he says.
Jones hopes that by teaching the employees about the financial side of the business they’ll be able to take what they’ve learned and apply it at home. “They can apply this type of management at home. We talk to them about their personal net worth statements and what net worth means to the company. We talk about all that stuff. And a lot of that comes out of the concept of the Great Game and how to play it,” Jones explains.
Playing the Game
Jenner Ag uses “mini games” to help improve behaviors. Mini games are short-term, intensely focused campaigns that correct a weakness or pursue an opportunity. In this case, employees introduce the “Rock the Cash” mini game, which was focused on sales.
Jenner Ag starts its business planning in October, and by December Jones says they have the reward system built for next year. The dealership works with an independent coach who helps them take the concepts of the Great Game of Business and apply them to what they’re doing at Jenner Ag.
Each division of Jenner Ag plays its own Great Game of Business, which then gets folded into the greater company’s game.
Each year Jones and the CFO, Clint Hohenstein, sit down to create a business plan. “We design a calculator, and the calculator says based on certain qualifying events, we’re going to pay out this percentage of the profits this quarter,” Jones explains.
There are anywhere from one to five huddles (or meetings) a week, and those are usually on the department level. Then, there is one big huddle — or company meeting — a month. Each member of the Jenner Ag team is responsible for one line item on the balance sheet. “For example, we take a frontline individual and we say, ‘This month at the company meeting, you’re going to talk about debt to equity.’ We put them right in the line of fire and say, ‘You’re going to have to learn about this,’” Jones says.
Jenner Ag is always forecasting its business 2 months ahead, looking at each line item of the budget on a weekly basis. For example, whoever is in charge of sprayer sales as their line item will come to the company huddle and report what sprayer sales will be for the week, the next week, the month and the following month, Jones explains.
Why get employees from every level of the business involved? Jones says its because they are trying to make better businesspeople. “Whatever the company is you work for, if the company does really well, you do really well, right?”
To help manage the balance sheet, departments play “mini games.” The goal of mini games is to improve a behavior. It can be as simple as replacing the toilet paper roll when it’s gone, or as complex as needing 5 more sprayer sales this month, Jones says. “We had a mini game recently on reducing office expenses. So it was down to how many pens and paper clips are we using? Do we need all that paper? What’s the inventory of envelopes? Do we need stationery? How many business cards are we going to maintain for each individual and department. So it’s a very serious thing and it impacts every point of your balance sheet,” he says.
Jones says they are trying to engage employees at every level, and that has helped to give employees a greater sense of accountability. “It’s not just our sales guy or our store manager or our parts manager watching the numbers and trying to change them.”
In addition to engaging employees, this management style has allowed Jenner Ag to empower its employees to make decisions. “I don’t want to decide what they order next. I want them to decide, because frontline equals bottom line. Who is in the best position to make the decision? Well, it’s the person doing it,” Jones says. “But a lot of times in business, we don’t give that person the numbers or the education to make good decisions.
“What that does for us is it takes some of the responsibility and puts it with the employee instead of the manager. And I think that’s something we’re getting here that you don’t get by just calling yourself ‘an open-book system.’ Since we build all of our models and our reward system in advance, the expectation is created very early in the calendar year, even before the calendar year starts, as to what we have to do next year to meet our goals and make our payouts.”
While all the huddles and meetings add to each employees’ workload, Jones says he doesn’t get complaints about attending. “They might complain about their normal tasks as being too much to do, but they never complain about coming to the meetings. There’s enough times that we do make a difference in their lives — whether it’s business or personal — that they don’t want to miss because they might hear something that really helps them. When they do miss a meeting, somebody else will say to them, ‘Oh, you missed a really good one last week. Steve talked or Clint talked. And this is what they talked about.’ So there’s the reaction of, “Oh crap, I don’t want to miss next month.”
The biggest expense of playing the Great Game of Business is taking employees away from their jobs with all the different huddles “The sales, parts and service departments’ huddle are each a half hour. And the big one is an hour and a half,” Jones says, but he insists it has been worth it.
“As a result of all this, there’s a lot more cooperation and a lot more willingness to help each other. Because if we do well, we all do well.
And if there’s any nay saying, it’s very easy for one of their team members to say, ‘Well, yeah but remember we saw this. And if we do this, then this.’ Or, ‘Well, you do get something out of it because XYZ.’ And they’re educated enough and knowledgeable enough to explain it well, in a credible manner,” Jones says.
The Big Huddle
“We’re doing this for the greater good of everyone, but we also expect you to take what you’re seeing, change the outcome and make better decisions…”
Three days before the big huddle, everyone is sent an agenda. Each meeting includes opening comments to start the meeting. A different person makes the opening comments each meeting. An example of an opening comment would be, “The vegetables in my garden at home are doing really well this year, and that means we’re getting a lot of rain. So, the farmers should have good yields,” Jones explains.
Next, a member of the team will do a brief presentation on one of Jenner Ag’s four core values (Reduce Risk, Make it Easier, Environmental Stewardship and Improve Profit). Then they move on to reviewing each of the scoreboards for each location — Fairbury, Taylorville and Harristown. “And then we populate the big, Jenner scoreboard and review it. So if Clint’s number went from 500 to 10,000, somebody might say, ‘Well, let’s go back to Line 38.’ We’ll talk about what’s going on in line 38.”
Jenner Ag’s coach, who regularly joins them for the big huddle, will do a presentation on financial literacy. For example, he’ll talk about debt to equity, T accounts, inventory terms or why “cash is king.” After the coach’s presentation someone wraps the meeting up with a closing comment, similar to how the meeting started. “That’s generally how the big huddle runs each month. The agendas for all of them are a little bit different. But it’s not just where everybody brings their numbers in, throws them on the table and we go home,” Jones says.
Monthly Boot Camps
In addition to reporting responsibilities during huddles, the whole staff also has continuing education responsibilities. They’re attending regular educational events, in the form of boot camps. “Every month we have a boot camp on a specific topic. For example, we did one on cash. We’ve done one where we handed them a personal net worth statement and taught them how to go home and figure their personal net worth. We’ve talked about how to balance a check register. We’ve done all kinds of those things. Basically we cover anything you can think of that would be a business acronym or something that would help them financially,” Jones says.
The benefits of the boot camps are two fold, Jones says, as they help the company become more engaged with the individual and the individual become more engaged with the company. “In addition to the business and finance oriented topics, there are also boot camps about why we play the game, about the brand and Boomer, our brand mascot,” Jones says. “So they’re engaged in learning about the brand and about Jenner and the management team’s philosophies. And they’re also getting business training. We’re bringing it all together very seamlessly, in a way that benefits the individual as much as the company.”
Bringing on a New Store
Steve Jones is president of Jenner Ag, based in Harristown, Ill. The Case IH dealership also has locations in Taylorville and Fairbury, Ill.
In 2014, Jenner Ag acquired the Taylorville, Ill., location of Case IH dealer Farm Pride. Jones says they hired all 13 of the store’s employees. Open book management, especially to the level of The Great Game of Business, was a completely new concept to the new employees.
“I would go to some of the huddles there and they would sit in the room and say, ‘We had no idea that’s what it costs to run this place or what we spend on rent. We had no idea,” Jones says.
Unfortunately, most of those employees are no longer with the company. “It’s a shocker when you start to see what’s going on. But then there’s accountability that comes along with seeing the numbers. We’re doing this for the greater good of everyone, but we also expect you to take what you’re seeing and change the outcome and make better decisions,” Jones says.
Beating the Down Economy
Through quarterly planning, Jenner Ag works toward a goal of paying out bonuses to employees each quarter. Jones says during 2011-15, they paid out every quarterly bonus. But, in the current ag economy they’ve faced more challenges. This year, only one quarterly bonus has been paid out so far, he says. “There’s some disappointment in our employee group because they’re not getting those bonuses. Our employees came through these really good times and now they’re seeing a big change. They see the numbers and understand why there’s no bonus — so they know we’re not hiding anything from them.”
With many of the dealership’s employees in their 30s or younger, most have not lived through a recession and this is new territory for them. “I’m old enough that I remember my dad paying 21% interest to federal land banks, feeding $30 hogs on $1.50 corn. And it was bad. It was really bad,” Jones says.
“But our employees in their 30s have never seen this. When they came into the business it was all growth. So now, they saw that, now they get to see this. And with the transparency involved, they’re saying, ‘We’ve got to try; there’s an ag recession but we can’t not participate.’
“We’re in a totally different ag market than we were in 2011, and there’s a lot of days I say, ‘Is this still working? Is this what we want to do?’ But, I think our employees would be pretty sad if we took it away.”
While sales are down — like they are for most dealers — Jones says they are in a much better position because of Jenner Ag’s management style. “We just got back from a meeting with the commercial sprayer group. And most of our counterparts were telling us they’re off 50%. And we’re only off 20%. And while being off 20% isn’t good, it’s better than 50%,” he says. “We’re OK and I would much rather be here today with the Game, with the literacy and what we’re doing than to be on the other end of that right now and have a bunch of employees not knowing where we stand.”
Jones credits that to the Great Game of Business and the transparency it’s added to the business. “We’re in challenging ag times, and what the game does for our employees today is it takes away the worry and not knowing. The water fountain chat about why isn’t Steve here today and is he at the bank again? That’s all gone. That transparency in the business is really good for morale.”
Strengthening the Culture
Even before getting involved with the Great Game of Business, Jenner Ag had a strong, positive company culture, but today it is even stronger than before. Jones says it’s given the employees a greater appreciation for what they do as a company and for what he does as an owner. Playing the Great Game of Business has engaged the Jenner Ag employees at levels that, Jones says, employees at many other companies aren’t at.
“There’s tremendous animosity today in our culture between businesses and employees. Some folks are driving this culture that there has to be this battle between employers and employees. And we don’t have that battle,” Jones says.
“We’re all in it together. It’s a shared reward. Not everybody gets the same reward. It’s based on your levels of experience and your years of service and your job. But it’s kind of a shared reward system. And they know if I win, they’re going to win, too.”
Jones says the employees are the key to Jenner Ag’s success, so making sure they are engaged is important.
“Employees are your biggest expense, so why wouldn’t you make sure they are engaged in the business like you are yourself as the owner?” he says.
He also adds that this management style and approach isn’t easy at first and it’s not for everybody.
During one of Case IH’s dealer meetings one year there was a breakout session with The Great Game of Business and the SRC Holdings Corp., which has ties to Case IH. (See “The Principles & Practices of The Great Game of Business” sidebar above.) Jones says afterward he asked how it went and no one who attended the session started playing the game.
“The reason is, if you scroll all the way to the bottom of our scorecard you see our equity line. That’s just not something a lot of dealers want to share with their employees,” he says.
Since then, says Jones, more ag companies have joined the Great Game, with even more planning on playing. It may not be for every company, but for every company that plays, the benefits are indisputable.