The leaders' way: Three CEOs discuss award-winning approaches

  • Article by: CHRISTY DESMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 16, 2013 - 6:52 AM

TOM GUNKEL, CEO, MORTENSON CONSTRUCTION

Tom Gunkel is something of an anomaly in today’s world: “I’ve been with Mortenson since the day I got out of college,” he said. “I started out as an estimator, which is a really basic, entry-level position. And I worked my way through every position on the operations side of the business.”

After 30 years with the same company, it’s not surprising to hear Gunkel say he strives for consistency in his role as Mortenson Construction CEO. At the most basic level, the chief executive tries to be consistent with his approachability and demeanor: “When people interact with me they know what to expect,” he said. He’s also thinking about consistency when articulating business strategies and goals. “Sometimes you have to be overly clear and overly precise about your strategies,” he explained. “You have to repeat them over and over again so everybody understands what three or four things are really important to the company.”

Creating a steady, dependable corporate culture means Gunkel isn’t the only lifer at Mortenson Construction. “The tenure of our [senior management] team is staggering,” he said. “I’ve had the same team in place for 14 years. I think that’s really important, and I’m frankly kind of puzzled by what I see in public companies, where people come and go.”

Gunkel credits mentors within the company — including M. A. “Mort” Mortenson, Jr. (current chairman) and Tom McCune (Gunkel’s predecessor as CEO) — with helping him succeed at Mortenson Construction. He wants that same kind of experience for the next generation of employees, he said, plus he wants to provide for consistent leadership. So Gunkel and his team recently launched a new leadership forum, designed to mentor young leaders and hone their management skills. “I would say it was more of a tribal process for me and my peer group,” said Gunkel. But as the company grew, Gunkel and his team recognized a need for more formal training and succession planning, to be more deliberate about passing along their values and institutional knowledge. “We’re not building a business for tomorrow,” said Gunkel, who is rather known for his long-range thinking. “We’re building a business for the next 20, 30, 40, 50 years.”

CHUCK RUNYON, CEO AND CO-FOUNDER, ANYTIME FITNESS

Like a good coach or personal trainer, Chuck Runyon provides his employees with plenty of opportunities for personal growth. “Because work should be a life experience,” said the CEO and co-founder of Hastings-based Anytime Fitness. “It shouldn’t be just something you do for a paycheck.”

Of course, Runyon hopes those life experiences will include excellent health.

“I’m telling you, physical activity isn’t about rock-hard abs,” stressed Runyon. “Physical activity gives you confidence and changes your life in so many ways.” He went on to suggest that fit workers make better decisions. This explains why Runyon not only allows, but actively encourages employees to work out whenever they like — 10 a.m., 2 p.m. “If we were not in the fitness industry, if we were just selling widgets, I would still believe in the benefit of healthy employees,” he said.

Anytime Fitness also provides classes and workshops on a variety of life skills. “We call them ‘ingredients,’” explained Runyon. “We bring in guest speakers that have nothing to do with our industry, nothing to do with our jobs, but have everything to do with improving ourselves as individuals.” Past subjects include financial planning, healthy eating, coupon-clipping and the ultimate face-your-fears endeavor — sky diving.

Anytime Fitness offers another growth opportunity even more highly prized by the company’s 150 employees, at least according to their survey responses. Runyon and his leadership team are always encouraging them to speak up, to offer their unique perspectives. “It’s kind of a pet peeve of mine, when we’re going through the political process — we expect our leaders to know everything,” said Runyon. But he learns a lot from his employees, he said. He depends on their contributions, even their occasional criticisms. “At team meetings, for instance, we will emphasize and reward those who ask questions. We just want some different opinions and insights.”

PHIL LEE, CEO, JT MEGA FOOD MARKETING

You won’t find Phil Lee cracking a management consulting book. “I’ve found a lot of inspiring information in books like ‘Team of Rivals’ by Doris Kearns Goodwin,” explained Lee, the gentlemanly CEO of JT Mega Food Marketing in Minneapolis. Goodwin’s bestselling book details the political genius of Abraham Lincoln, how he channeled the strengths and energies of his most adversarial Cabinet members toward the goal of abolition. “I’ve also read books on George Washington,” continued Lee, who inherited his love of history from antique-dealer parents. “You learn about how they worked with different kinds of people to accomplish their objectives.”

A 26-year veteran of JT Mega, Lee rose through the ranks under the leadership of Jay Mega, the agency’s founder and Lee’s longtime mentor. Mega was a “ball of fire” — an extremely dynamic leader who could outwork anyone, Lee explained. “It’s tempting to mimic someone whose leadership you admire,” he continued. “But you’ve got to be true to yourself.”

Lee is naturally inclined toward a quieter, more observational cerebral approach. “I’m not a rah-rah cheerleader type,” he confessed. “I’m much more of a collaborative person.” He takes his cues from Abraham Lincoln in “diminishing the ego as much as possible, especially if it’s going to benefit the business.” Which explains why you won’t find micromanagers, layers upon layers of hierarchy, or even reserved parking spots for JT Mega’s four partners and owners.

Instead Lee focuses on listening to his employees, on harnessing their individual strengths and one-of-a-kind contributions, no matter their ages or levels of experience. Let’s face it, advertising and marketing is an “ego-driven business,” Lee admitted. “But a good dose of empathy is good as well.”

 

Christy DeSmith • 612-673-1754

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