Focus on Leadership: Tim Curran of the Curran Group discusses strategy and value - May 2018
Interview by Kemp Harr
Tim Curran is a fourth generation leader of the Curran Group, which owns Crossville Tile. Started in 1918 as Metropolitan Coal and Ice, today the Curran Group has almost 3,000 employees across four businesses: Curran Contracting, Holland LP, Global Finishing Solutions and Crossville.
Tim joined the family business in 1993 after earning a law degree and an MBA-concurrently-and practicing law for a dozen years. He leads his business with a focused commitment to values and long-term success-ideals that steer each of the Curran Group’s subsidiaries as well.
Q: The Curran Group owns and operates four very different businesses, but the company started 100 years ago in the coal and ice delivery business. It’s also been in and out of the turf business. How do you decide when to jump in and exit a business?
A: It is important to understand that we are a holding company, though ours is more than the business definition of holding company. We truly do intend to “hold” an investment for a long time. Our current business portfolio of companies have been with us for 20, 33, 44 and 80 years, so when we look at an investment, it is with an eye to something with a long future. We are not business flippers. We are not turnaround specialists. We look for opportunities where a business can benefit from our long view and our strong reinvestment philosophy. We look for investments with a unique, defendable niche that supports a premium pricing strategy. Most importantly, we look for investment opportunities that align with our company culture and our core values.
The hardest part of exiting a business is the emotional component. We have partnered with employees, suppliers and customers for years, and saying goodbye is very difficult. The financial aspect is much more defined. We have created a universal return threshold methodology that is employed at each of our businesses. While we understand and expect the cyclicality of businesses in general, it is important to attain the required returns over the long run. We are willing to make additional investments in our businesses to help them reach these return goals, but when that is no longer possible, we will exit a business. This type of pruning has helped keep our company healthy over the last century.
Q: How do you answer the question of core competency for the Curran Group?
A: I’m not sure it fits the traditional definition of core competency, but I would say it is our culture. We make no grandiose claims that we have the best culture, but it is pretty great. We do have a culture that is unique in many ways for a company our size, and it fits us well. When people are exposed to all four of our business platforms for the first time, we always hear how much these diverse businesses are the same. Since culture is all about sharing attributes, values, goals and practices, this really shouldn’t be surprising. Our great culture helps us attract great people, and it helps these great people perform their best.
Q: Contrary to Millennials, the Curran Group believes that people should not job hop but that its hires should see joining the organization as a lifelong-career commitment. Tell us more about that thought process.
A: Let me first clarify that it is observers who have claimed that Millennials want to job hop. The Millennials that I know are quick to say that they change jobs not because it is in their DNA but because their company has failed them in some way.
I believe that if we live our core values as an employer-we treat employees as part of the family; we respect them as individuals; we provide them opportunities to improve their skills; we present them with new challenges; we act with integrity when dealing with them; and we partner with them to help them fulfill their personal dreams-there is never a need to go somewhere else. Our longest-tenured employees are the greatest ambassadors of our culture. Having the company get its fresh blood through the opportunities brought on by growth is much healthier than through turnover and attrition.
Q: What type of character traits do you look for when you hire people to come to work with the Curran family?
A: We look for those characteristics in candidates that align with our culture and core values. Unfortunately, we occasionally have hired talented individuals that did not embrace or understand our culture. No amount of talent can overcome missing on culture and values.
For many years, we used an executive recruiter with great success. I came to realize a pattern in the candidates he would present. One would have the perfect resume with all the best education, job history, experience, technical mastery, etc. This person would handle the interview questions with the polished answers you would expect from such a resume. The second candidate would have a resume close but not quite as perfect as the first. However, when you interviewed this person, you felt an immediate comfort and connection. The answers were less polished but clearly were genuine. Then there was usually a third candidate that just didn’t quite measure up. It didn’t take long to learn that a perfect resume didn’t mean success. Alignment trumped the resume every time, and this recruiter had our culture and values nailed perfectly. That second candidate was always the winner.
Q: Why is there no title on your business card?
A: The easy answer to the title question is that it states the obvious…my name and the company name are the same-duh! What more needs be said?
Actually, there are two more subtle reasons. I don’t want a title because sometimes that title can create distance or a wall between me and someone else. I don’t want that to happen. I want people at all positions inside and outside our company to feel that I am approachable and “just a regular guy.” More fundamentally though, there is no title because I don’t believe that my leadership role should be defined by that title. I may have a management role by designation/title, but I must earn the right to be a leader. I will wait for that other person to look at my card and read into it “leader” when I have earned that honor in their eyes.
Q: Crossville was the first porcelain tile plant built in the U.S. What made the family feel comfortable enough to take the risk to do something that hadn’t been done before?
A: I hate to admit it, but sometimes luck and ignorance play a bigger role than strategy or intelligence. We were lucky to have been in the financial position to comfortably make our initial investment in Crossville. We were lucky to partner with an honorable foreign company whose interests were managed by Svend Hovmand, our eventual company president, a person who had the vision and passion to make Crossville a success. We were lucky that our foreign partner eventually had to liquidate its interest in Crossville due to financial needs elsewhere in the world. We were ignorant of the Italian tile industry’s size and influence. We liked the upscale niche that porcelain tile might become. We liked that good returns would be possible without having to disrupt the ceramic tile market to any significant degree.
Q: It’s no secret that several of the big firms in the flooring business have offered to purchase Crossville. Why haven’t you sold it?
A: First, I must say that you should never believe all the industry rumors that swirl around. Rumors far outnumber realities.
Many years ago, we used to say that anything was for sale at the right price. This applied to Crossville, our other businesses, parts of our businesses and more. However, when we looked at our actual behavior, we realized there were many instances where we were offered more than a fair price for something, but we had not sold it. We slowly came to acknowledge that we truly are a “holding” company. We are good at operating companies over the long term. Finding or building a successful business isn’t easy. Why would you sell something that is performing at an acceptable level? You immediately pay taxes and then you must turn around and find or build something new with the remaining funds. That is a risky path to travel and a lot of work.
Q: Crossville spends millions every year training installers and building relationships with A&D specifiers at its training center in Crossville, Tennessee. How did you know that these investments in training people would pay dividends?
A: I wouldn’t say that these activities were driven by some type of calculated return. They are more directly related to our core values of partnership and improvement. Each of these activities involves one or more of our partners in business. Partnership means we share resources and information to accomplish shared success. We are committed to the success of the industry as well. For us, improvement goes beyond just improving skills through continuing education. It is about going farther and investing in the health and vitality of our business and that of our partners and industry. You cannot put these values up on the wall if you aren’t willing to back them up. You will find variations of these activities at each of Crossville’s sister companies as well.
Q: You have decided to go downstream and buy some of Crossville’s distributors. What does that tell us about the evolution of the channel in the tile sector?
A: When we first ventured down this path over 15 years ago, it was more defensive in nature rather than a strategic initiative. Our initial forays into distribution were prompted by a lack of alternatives in an underperforming market, a lack of adequate succession planning by a distributor, and a payables balance due Crossville that almost exceeded the value of a distributor. As our presence grew, our view began to change, and we recognized that there were strategic advantages in this vertical expansion. We had direct access to more of the end users of our products. We were able to leverage our logistics program. We were able to leverage our buying power with other suppliers. We now recognize that the traditional multi-tiered distribution model must change. How big that change will be and where it winds up is yet to be determined, but our direct presence in distribution provides us a multitude of test environments for us to evaluate various options.
Q: While you do hold the number two position in tile in the U.S. market (from a manufacturing perspective), there is a big gap between you and number one. What will it take to capture more marketshare, and are you willing to make that investment?
A: As almost any of our employees can tell you, our business philosophy at Curran Group is not focused on “bigness” or marketshare. Our focus is on profitability and, most importantly, long-term return on investment. These returns must also consider fair returns for our employees, our customers and our suppliers. We all must win together. There is an old African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.” That being said, our businesses have continued to perform well across the board in recent years, and that has us in a very sound financial position, which allows us to make sizable additional investments as warranted.
Q: Where do you want to see Crossville in ten years?
A: We have created what we call our winning aspiration over the last few years. It is to be “America’s first choice of design-oriented surface solutions to create beautiful spaces.” This statement not only captures who Crossville is today but guides us to expand from traditional floor tile, to gauged porcelain panels (for walls, floors and furniture facing), to slabs (we currently offer stone and quartz countertops in some of our Crossville Studios locations and will be test marketing Crossville porcelain countertops by mid-year), and potentially to exterior façade materials, among others.
My hope for Crossville in ten years would be that it was still a vital part of the Curran Group. For that to be the case, Crossville will have continued to grow and prosper, our employees will have retained good jobs with healthy benefits, our industry supply partners will have had their bills paid timely, and our customer partners will have received successful new product introductions with continued outstanding service.
Q: What makes coming to work fun for you?
A: This is an easy question with a simple answer: the people. We are blessed to have a great group of people in our organization. They are hard-working, intelligent, dedicated…all the wonderful adjectives that you can name. Most importantly, they are genuinely good people. They are people you would love to call friend or neighbor.
Q: How do you plan to celebrate the Curran Group’s 100th anniversary?
A: A nice glass of wine!
Actually, the celebrations will be focused on family. We have events scheduled at each of the four businesses this coming summer, culminating in a community open house at our headquarters near Chicago in September. For example, we are coordinating the celebration with Crossville to coincide with their traditional summer picnic in August. At each of these events, I will be joined by as many of my siblings, our children, grandchildren and spouses as possible. It is only right that both families-business and relational-enjoy this milestone together, and both families are able to see that the longevity and stability are in place to continue into our second century.
Q: Tell us a little about the company’s five common threads.
A: Years ago, we identified five consistent values present across the generations and business platforms that we have had over what is now one hundred years. They are the heart and soul of everything we do. We identified family, integrity, respect, partnership and improvement as keys to our long success.
Many books and educators downplay these characteristics, claiming that they are present in any successful business and really do not represent anything unique. We disagree. While the terms may be generic, excelling at these values is unique. We review our definition of each characteristic as part of the onboarding process at each business and spend a half day in a “culture class” with all new hires three to nine months after they join our company. In addition to defining the characteristic, we also describe what it looks like in practice. This practical guide was the result of an exercise we conducted at a meeting of key employees from all our businesses a few years ago. Groups were tasked in one session with creating examples of how a particular characteristic manifests itself in our businesses.
Q: You have an economics degree, a law degree and an MBA. What drove you to seek that level of base knowledge when you knew you’d be joining the family business?
A: I actually started college as an engineering major. I grew up during the space race days and dreamed about being an aeronautical engineer. I didn’t see the family business in my future at that point. That all changed when the math became more difficult! Fortunately, I had elected to attend Dartmouth College, a liberal arts school. As I switched my major to economics (the closest thing to business) with a minor in government (the closest thing to pre-law), I began to appreciate the value of learning critical thinking and the importance of communication skills (both writing and speaking).
The decision to pursue my law degree was prompted in large part by my father. I had worked at both our road construction company and at the railroad industry company during and after college. In discussions with my father about remaining in the railroad industry or returning to school, he pointed out the increased need for legal representation within our company because the world was heading that way, and our businesses were growing and becoming more complicated. Most importantly, he pointed out that obtaining my law degree would give me additional critical thinking, logic and problem-solving skills that would serve me well regardless of what I eventually pursued. He also pointed out that it would be a shame to one day be in my forties wondering, “What if I had gone to law school?” I decided to add the MBA program at night while in law school during the day to give me the more in-depth business education that was not provided in a liberal arts program-and to make sure I had absolutely no personal life for a few years. This was another case of not wanting any regrets later in life, especially since I now saw a real possibility of working in the family business someday.
Q: Who has served as a mentor to you, and what did you learn from him or her?
A: First and foremost, my parents. It’s amazing to look back and recognize how much you absorbed during your childhood, your teens and into your adult life from your parents-despite your attempts to avoid it. There are so many pearls of wisdom and values that I learned from them, but there are two that stick out the most. They are basic and fundamental to who I am. They each lived and taught me that it is important, first, to believe in the fundamental goodness of people and, second, to live by the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.”
Q: What do you do in your spare time to decompress?
A: My number one fun activity these days is spending time with my two granddaughters; my first grandson is due June 1. It is so much more fun and less stressful than raising children. I get to be a kid again when we play, I get to spoil them and break all the mom and dad rules, and then I get to give them back to my daughter and her husband and let them deal with the long-term stresses of parenting!
When the weather in Chicago permits I enjoy working around the yard. My wife and I spend most of our summer weekends there. She is big into flowers and has beds, planters, pots and hanging baskets everywhere. I am in charge of everything else. I enjoy climbing on my lawn tractor with headphones tuned into a ball game and just running back and forth uninterrupted for a few hours while mowing the yard. I enjoy other more physical yard activities like edging, spreading mulch and trimming trees and bushes. I can even enjoy pulling weeds!
My other passion is cooking. I love preparing gourmet meals for friends and family. This passion works well with our frequent trips to Italy with Crossville. I have been to a cooking school near Florence and even hosted a Crossville group at a gelato course just outside of Bologna during Cersaie two years ago.
Q: What advice do you have for business people who are just starting their career?
A: On this one, I defer to the wisdom of Steve Jobs, “The only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.” I would add a corollary to this quote. Don’t be swayed by money, a fancy office, a title or other perquisites. They will not get you happiness, and there is nothing worse than being miserable at work.
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