A CEO’s perspective on the value of branding and strategy
At first glance, “empathy” feels like a strange word to use in connection with a business like Central Valley, a building and agricultural supply company serving Northern California’s wine country and surrounding areas. But in recent years, building a culture based on empathy – the ability to relate to customers and to one another – has been a cornerstone of the Central Valley strategy under the leadership of third-generation owner and CEO Steve Patterson.
Steve has worked at the family business since the mid-1990s, shortly after his father passed away. It wasn’t Steve’s first job. After attending Pomona College in Southern California, he worked in San Francisco for an insurance carrier and then in Mexico for a company importing and exporting building materials (where he met his future wife; they now live in Winters, California with their seven children). But when his father passed, he decided to come back to Napa Valley to help his mother keep Central Valley alive and plan for the future.
Central Valley has become his career, and Steve is committed to creating a brand and culture that will serve customers and attract the kind of people who can help Central Valley continue to thrive.
When you decided to become part of the family business, were you prepared to run the company?
Not at all. Central Valley already had an outside advisory panel and I had a personal mentor who told me “You’re not ready to be CEO yet.” The idea was that I would work in several parts of the business to learn the basics, so I spent time in Operations, Sales, and General Management before taking the role of president.
The first two years, Central Valley enjoyed the benefit of a good economy, and then the economy turned south and so did our business. The great lesson for me from that time was that you can’t take all the credit when things are going well, and you don’t deserve all the blame when things are going badly.
Even that didn’t prepare you for the implosion in the residential real estate business – the Great Recession – did it?
Absolutely not. We were growing well in the early part of the decade. By 2005, sales were around $110 million. But by 2009, that figure had dropped to about $40 million. Managing through that downturn required a tremendous amount of fortitude, and I had to make some difficult and unpopular decisions.
Sometime in 2010, we believed things were on the way up again, and I started to explore some ideas around strategic execution – not strategic planning, but execution. One of the challenges we decided to tackle was to reinvigorate the brand. The idea was to reassess who we are and who we want to be. We decided to do this from the perspective of our customers, who include professional builders and contractors as well as the broader communities we serve.
We created an internal team to help us find a branding agency and met with several branding firms. The process of agency selection was very instructive. We learned what exactly we were looking for and how branding works, which had never been systematically addressed during Central Valley’s history.
And you found Emotive Brand. What did you like about their approach?
Tracy and Bella are a really dynamic team, and their agency was right in the sweet spot in terms of size for Central Valley. We felt that our business really mattered to them, and we were confident we would get some solid thinking from Emotive. And we immediately liked the EB approach that stressed the behavioral as much as the visual.
But I’ll tell you what really resonated with me: the notion of empathy. Empathy is really useful for every stakeholder, from customers to vendors to employees. Central Valley is essentially a family business, and I’m sure I know by name the vast majority of our regular employees. Every person here is important to the business and it’s vitally important that everyone understand how empathy can apply to our various roles. We have to relate to one another and be able to relate to customers.
When we started focusing on empathy, we started to ask questions like, “Who are the right customers for Central Valley?” Whether we knew it or not, this was a really deep concept for us. We can’t please everyone, but we should work hard to please the customers who matter most and whose business we want over the long-term.
Emotive Brand constructed a new visual identity for Central Valley, and you’ve implemented it broadly. What about the behavioral side? What about your company’s promise, “Making the next moment truly matter”?
We are always looking for ways to go beyond what is needed, wanted, or expected. I look for opportunities to reinforce this component of what our brand stands for all the time. For example, we have bi-weekly “Brand Aids” sessions – short meetings with employees where we explore the emotional impact of what we’re doing, and how it works in practice. That way, employees can see and hear – and understand – how a concept like empathy fuels our work and what it means day to day.
We work on specific behaviors. I’ll give you one example. In many countries, like Mexico for example, it’s common for employees in shops to offer a simple a “good morning” or “good afternoon” when a customer walks into a store, but this is not as widespread in the States. We’ve talked about how a simple “good morning” or other genuine inquiry to the customer functions as an acknowledgment that the customer is there. It’s a way of inviting them to ask if they need help without putting them on the spot.
We also have annual “One Team” all-hands meetings. These are real celebrations of our people and our values. We choose one of our five locations, bring everyone in, show everyone some of the innovations we’ve added to that site, and give people a chance to meet and share experiences. This is a “show, don’t tell” kind of event, and it really instills empathy company-wide.
Right now, we’re in the process of reconfiguring the way we hire people, to get the right folks with a natural sense of empathy and with a helpful, team-oriented mentality. Instead of infusing hires with our approach, we want to hire those who have our approach in their DNA.
What’s your mood these days about Central Valley?
I am very positive and very optimistic about where Central Valley is today and where it’s going. We did an employee survey recently and got very high scores from our people – and we posted every single comment, 28 pages of them, in the break rooms. We’re also planning for the long-term with an initiative we call “Vision 2020,” which is informed by the branding foundation we have laid down.
And we are doing something different. We made a recent hire from a competitor. He had been with that competitor for 22 years. While at his former company, a colleague of his told him to check Central Valley out as “there’s something interesting going on over there.” On his first day with us, he told one of his new colleagues that the things he has seen at Central Valley just wouldn’t have happened at his old employer. What he was referring to was the culture and the way we do business. We’re doing something different and we’re doing something right.
Emotive Brand is a San Francisco brand strategy and creative firm.