“Stacked” For Success in the Game of Business

Business is a game to Jack Stack; he calls it the Great Game of Business. But what high stakes!

Stack worked for many years as an engine plant manager for International Harvester—a megacompany mired in bureaucracy and stagnant thinking. “We had 670 pages of regulations before we could talk to anybody. We had to make the one rule apply to 17 plants. And the work was boring; we never engaged their minds. There was no camaraderie, no loyalty.”

Then, in the face of foreign competition and a slumping heavy equipment market, the company decided it didn’t need the plant anymore. Stack bought the plant and not only brought it back from death’s door, not only made it profitable, but spun off business after successful business: by rethinking every assumption, involving the employees deeply in running the company (including open-book management on an unprecedented scale)…by making every one of his employers a player in the Great Game of Business.

Currently, Stack oversees an empire of 22 companies, all aiming for 15% annual growth. A share of stock worth 10 cents in 1983 at the company’s founding goes for $81.50 today.
In one of the most remarkable presentations the Family Business Center has had in its entire existence, Stack led off the Center’s 8th year of programs at the Log Cabin on September 5.
Partly through luck, Stack climbed the ladder very quickly at Harvester, becoming a manager at age 20. “I had a $243 million budget and I couldn’t buy a beer! They were told their management was too old, so they brought in all the kids. I was good at my job—made everyone fill out 15 forms to get a part. But I was not connected [with the reality] that the assembly line was shutting down because I wouldn’t give them the parts.” He worked at the company for 14 years.
When Japanese heavy equipment manufacturers started to “take the American market” from the 17 US tractor manufacturers in the late 1970s, they gained market share quickly by listening to their customers, instituting rapid shifts (slashing the time for a new model introduction by two thirds, from 18 months to 6)—and by paying attention to the line workers.

“The Japanese had one simple philosophy: who knows how to do the job better than the one doing it? We did not trust hourly employees. We had seven layers of overhead, all doing the same job. We didn’t trust the crankshaft grinder to call the forge and say, ‘deliver me 10 units.'”
When Harvester’s debt climbed past 6 billion, the company was laying off 1000 people a week. That’s when Stack offered to buy the plant—and got some hard lessons. “The quickest way to learn about business is to try to borrow millions of dollars when you don’t have any of it. I wanted to borrow $9 million.” It would have been much easier, Stack said, to borrow many times that amount.

Meanwhile—this was 1983—interest rates were at record high levels. Venture capitalists were looking for 40% return.

“I went to 54 financial institutions; by the 17th I could write a business plan in a taxi. Then I went to a bank in trouble: ‘I hear you’re looking for bad loans; I’ve got a doozy!’ If you have a bad loan, go to bad banks first; safe banks don’t give bad loans.”

Of course, bad banks making bad loans demand horrible terms. “We borrowed $8.9 million and collected $100,000 in equity. The interest was 18%: $96,000 a month—and we started in February, not a long month.”

With an 89:1 debt-to-equity ratio, Stack started giving his employees a crash course in economics and finance. “I gave them a financial literacy test; they were all wrong. Nobody ever told them how the business is run, but they had these perceptions. We had to trick them into learning with a metaphor, the Great Game of Business. We explained—89:1, you’re on life support. The whole idea is to go from 89:1 to 1:89.”

To do this, Stack not only opened the books, but asked every single employee to look at productivity, efficiency, cost control—taking in both the big picture and the individual trees in the forest. He achieved quite a bit through strategtically designed incentives and bonuses—but also by simply keeping all lines of communication open. “A janitor told me, ‘this open book stuff is baloney; have you looked at your balance sheet? Do you know 76% of your receivables are in the truck market? You have all your eggs in one basket. They have a recession every six years. You’re going to lay us all off.’ Then he went back to pushing his broom.”

Stack discovered the janitor was right and started diversifying. He and his employees looked for markets that would be strong when the truck market was weak. Auto parts was one success; in a recession, people keep their vehicles longer and need replacement parts. “Most recessions occur because of bad management; they don’t just happen. We’re still going strong because we prepared from day one for a recession. Everyone in 22 organizations knows the contingency plans. When you set standards of this nature, it’s amazing what people come up with.”

Stack shared two more anecdotes from the early days of his company: A woman, at an employee meeting about the need to be more efficient in producing engines, said, “I don’t like engines. I like nozzles. I build 6000 nozzles a month.” He gave her some authority in the department. “I came back a month later—it was the most incredible transformation. She painted the floor to show contaminants, saved $12 per unit by grinding down the burrs, bought department t-shirts with her own money…I saw the ownership, the pride.

“There’s 750 parts in an engine; we had to duplicate her success. I gave them all the information a CEO has. We’d sit down and figure out how to make it better. We took half the saved interest and put it in a bonus pool.”

And then there was the person who dreamed up a 5-year dealership incentive program tied to a bass fishing derby, with escalating prizes. “The dealers are killing each other to get in. They want the 5-year megabucks $25,000 prize. We’ve run it for 13 years; I run seven fishing tournaments a year because of this guy!”

Sometimes it gets pretty far afield. One of the spin-off companies is a highly profitable venture selling non-caustic cleaning chemicals to sheltered workshops. Still, in a climate that rewards internal entrepreneurship with instant recognition, celebrations, career opportunities and even ownership, 80% of the news businesses succeed. Sometimes the success is dramatic: one spin-off, a furniture company, applied the game and generated an increase in sales of 220%, profits of 540%, a decrease in returns of 18% and a 19% gross margin.

Bonus programs are an important part of the success. Stack looks carefully to find places where incentives will produce large gains. “Every year, we identify different weaknesses. Every time we’ve bonused a benchmark, the gain has maintained.

Meanwhile, Stack appears to have the Midas touch. “We’ve made money 18 consecutive years, with no layoffs.”

And now he consults to companies, the World Bank, even whole countries, such as Zambia. For more on the Great Game of Business, visit http://www.greatgame.com, or get a copy of Stack’s book called (surprise!) The Great Game of Business.

Based on a presentation to the
UMass Family Business Center

Shel Horowitz is Director of Accurate Writing & More, a family-owned firm in Northampton, MA, offering low-cost marketing strategies for businesses. His latest book is Grassroots Marketing: Getting Noticed in a Noisy World. He can be reached at 800-683-WORD or at his web site www.frugalfun.com.