As leaders, it’s not what you say; it’s what you do that really matters.
After World War II, with a $240 investment, my grandfather founded a wholesale business in the basement of his home that distributed health and beauty care and general merchandise items to small independent grocers in the Atlanta area. Granddaddy was a classic entrepreneur, a hard-driving “square peg in a round hole” type of guy who lived the core values of keeping one’s word, listening to the customer, and operating with absolute integrity.
My father grew up working in the business, and by the time he joined the company full time, the business had grown significantly, serving customers, including some large regional supermarket chains, across Georgia. Eventually, the entire family worked there, even myself. As a teenager, I worked in the warehouse pulling candy orders.
One day, the data processing manager informed Dad that there was a problem. During the process of upgrading the computer system, there had been a programming error, and unknowingly, we had been adding a penny to every line item extension on every invoice for about a month. Now, the company carried 35,000 items, and a retailer’s typical invoice would run many pages — that represented a lot of pennies! So, Dad decided to bring my grandfather into the discussion. The data processing manager explained what had happened, noted the error had been corrected, and recommended we do nothing else since the error was hidden and had gone unnoticed.
My grandfather slammed his hand on the desk and said, “Absolutely not.” He instructed the data processing manager to write a program to identify how much we overcharged each customer and to generate a check to each customer. He instructed my dad and our sales management team to write and hand deliver an apology letter to every single customer. I thought Dad was going to have a heart attack!
Most checks were small, but for the larger chains, some of the checks were significant. Our sales people thought we were crazy and predicted Armageddon. But within a few days, the team was on the road delivering checks.
The reaction from the customers, even the regional chains, was incredible. They were amazed. Rather than being angry, they appreciated and respected that a distributor would do such a thing. Our competitors had a tough time taking our customers from that point on, and our business grew as word spread to retailers who were eager to sign on with a distributer they could trust.
There was never a question in our company about what integrity and honesty meant. My grandfather modeled the way. It’s not what you say; it’s what you do that matters.