UPDATE: This article from 2013 — referencing “shiny shoes” (also referred to by some as “pointy shoes”) was brought up again over a dinner conversation at the July 2018 Dealership Minds Summit in Iowa City. Here’s the original Farm Equipment column (March 2013) on RDO Equipment by Mike Lessiter.

Weeks after the first Dealership Minds Summit, the candor, solutions and warning signals expressed during the day still swirl in my mind. But it was the colorful dialog on the “wrong kind of leadership” that I’m yet to shake.

Prior to detailing the “home-grown” employee development plan at RDO (Farm Equipment’s 2010 Dealership of the Year), Executive Vice President Keith Kreps shared some decisions where a mulligan would’ve been handy. This included 6 years of public ownership and a time they’d “outgrown their people capacity, but not their checkbook.”

He shared how RDO, in its rapid growth phase, “ran out” of the caliber of store managers that had made it successful. Instead, RDO had taken up hiring “corporate leaders” — who Founder Ron Offutt later dubbed the “shiny shoes.” Kreps says, “They had no passion for our industry nor an understanding about our business — but thought they did.”

What followed was a terribly expensive lesson for RDO, stemming from going beyond its expertise and letting stock prices dictate certain decisions, such as deep cuts to training, facility upgrades and service vehicles. It ended with Offutt yanking the reins from the “shiny shoes” and handing them to his daughter, Christi. She managed to chart a new course, and later returned the firm to private ownership.

Focus on the wrong thing and you end up in the wrong place. Christi, says Kreps, vowed to never again outgrow people or lose sight of core values and the firm’s true stakeholders.

You’ve got to admire RDO for picking up the pieces and reclaiming its position, as well as sharing its warts so others can avoid such pitfalls. Because culture-erosion is occurring at an epidemic rate.

When you’re small, the entrepreneur IS the company. When your grandma’s retirement is at stake, when you ask customers for advances to make payroll, or in the case of my parents, when you mortgage your home 5 times in the business’ first 12 years — a certain business philosophy becomes ubiquitous.

But now you’re asked to grow. The biggest risk isn’t capital, facilities, nor managing bigger dollars. It’s the tall task of transferring a winning culture to others who will embrace it. A lot of your people, including your veterans, never personally endured the rites of passage that forged a lasting imprint on you. Further, how many of your ranks are yet to see a “down” ag economy? How ready are they to navigate one?

Compounding that is the need to replace talent as retirements loom. Those who approach their profession to learn and grow, to measure themselves, to support a larger team and enjoy what a hard day’s work does for the soul are in scarce supply. Right or wrong, different values, mindsets and agendas exist today. Anything else, it seems, is “old school.”

There’s much at stake. You’re called to grow at a rapid rate, your veterans are pondering retirement, and there are few options other than promoting staff that may not be ready, or placing trust in those on the outside.

The loss of company principles is a slow burn, something not always noticed in real time. And once that which made your company special is gone, it can be lost forever.

Some advice on key staffing decisions. Look at the soles of the shoes, too.