Home / Profile / Ross and Nancy Kitt: They do more
than talk about employee empowerment

Ross and Nancy Kitt: They do more
than talk about employee empowerment

As husband-and-wife leaders of General Code Publishers Corp., which researches, organizes and publishes municipal-code books for cities and towns in the United States and Canada, the Kitts are living examples of how defining and pursuing workplace values can make a company as healthy on the bottom line as in the hearts of employees.
They also are showing that being personally close to their 63 employees, trusting them with detailed financial information, opening up decision-making and implementation processes, and publicly admitting and learning from mistakes can create a company culture that benefits the workers in ways that help them, in turn, serve their customers with care and excellence.
A couple of years after financial struggles and a painful downsizing that reduced the head count by one-third, the Gates company–with more than 1,400 clients around the Northeast and southern Canada and sales approaching $4 million is netting enough to feel good about returning 5 percent of profits, after taxes and retained earnings, to charities and to a scholarship program.
As part of this new “giving program,” employees not only get to decide where some of that money goes, they also get to create the decision-making process. Though the checks each organization receives may be modest, the process builds morale among employees that defies measurement, staffers say.
The giving program is merely one way “employees get to be in on major and not-so-major decisions,” says Julie Antonelli, co-manager of the shipping department and an eight-year employee. “(The owners) take the time to listen, (and) they trust employees enough to let them run the show. It makes you feel part of the business.”
At a recent employee meeting, Antonelli was loudly cheered when another staffer announced that Antonelli had quit smoking. She credits the GCP climate– and her own newfound willingness to change–with boosting her self-esteem, confidence and independence at work, and enhancing her ability to approach co- workers about work issues.
Antonelli’s personal life also has benefited, she says. Though initially resistant to the changes that were “forced” on her, the training eventually helped give Antonelli the courage to break off an unhealthy relationship and to cultivate a better one. She plans to get married next month.
The training to which Antonelli refers –and the basis for much of GCP’s current emphasis on values and trust–comes from an ongoing relationship with Great Lakes Leadership Group Inc., a consulting firm that was hired in 1992 to advise GCP on a fledgling total quality management effort. The role of Great Lakes, which specializes in guiding small and family-owned businesses through cultural transformation, has been expanded to include advising GCP on its strategic-planning process.
Those plans include boosting GCP’s sales presence in other geographic areas, continually improving the efficiency of its operations, examining its core competencies, and looking at new–including electronic–ways to tailor and deliver its services.
Amid those long-range objectives, making the most of GCP’s many familial relationships is a special challenge on which the company seems to thrive.
GCP was founded in 1962 by Ross Kitt’s father, A. Ross II, who recognized a need for governments to organize their laws in a logical, usable way. In 1965, Ross III–who had worked summers doing typesetting, file management and editorial work–graduated from Colorado State University and joined the company full time as, he says, “a gofer.”
That same year he married Nancy, who enrolled in SUNY College at Brockport to get a teaching certificate and later taught in the Churchville-Chili Central School District.
Ross took over from his father as president in 1972, when the firm employed 32 people and revenues were approximately $500,000. He became CEO in 1982. By then, GCP’s work force had grown to 40 staffers.
Nancy, who now is treasurer, joined GCP in 1980 as a temporary bookkeeper.
“They asked me, “Could you help out until we find someone?”’ She laughs: “They still haven’t found anyone.”
Ross II, 79, remains chairman and secretary, and maintains a presence at GCP in the summer, though he exercises no day- to-day control. Ross III’s brother, Lyle, is vice president of the company. The father and three sons–including brother, Dale, who works elsewhere– hold GCP stock.
The elder Kitt is delighted with his sons’ management of GCP.
“The bottom-line figures are gorgeous,” he says. “They’re doing things that I never would have thought of.”
While GCP’s long-term plan includes making it an attractive acquisition target for employees, other family members or outsiders, one thing is certain: The Kitts’ only child, A.J., will not be taking it over. At age 26, he is too busy pursuing his quest to win the world championship in downhill ski racing. A competitor in three Olympics and third-place winner in a World Cup race in Japan in 1993, he is heading into what his parents hope will be the prime of his career.
Former instructors, Nancy and Ross, both 52, remain avid skiers. Ross’ office sports a dramatic shot of himself, dropped from a helicopter, carving fresh powder in the Canadian Rockies. Their son’s races frequently entice them to ski meccas like Colorado and Europe.
In summer, they enjoy plenty of golf. Nancy also is active in her church and serves on a neighborhood architecture committee.
The Kitts’ approachable, casual ways are evident throughout GCP, where shorts and T-shirts are the favored dress, and where family relationships abound, not only among the owners/managers but also among staffers. Several mothers and children, one set of sisters-in-law, and another husband and wife work at GCP.
Though some companies actively discourage nepotism, “we have not had difficulties with families (working here), outside of our own,” Ross says.
Relatives can run a company successfully, he says. Troubles arise when “expectations aren’t set out clearly, and other employees feel that there is no fairness and equity, that people are treated differently–and they are. It’s impossible to deal with family members exactly the same–because family is different–but you can apply the same standards to both.”
In some minds, the phrase “family atmosphere” might conjure up fuzzy images of a warm, paternalistic environment but say little about the organization’s ability to face tough challenges.
At GCP, “family atmosphere” means a commitment to building high-quality relationships at every level: among owners, among staffers, between owners and staff, between workers and clients, and between the company and the community. The fiber of those relationships has been tested in the last few years as GCP has undergone a painful adaptation to financial, competitive and technological realities.
Colleen Wight, co-administrator of the editorial department and a member of the management team, has enjoyed a loyal 23-year relationship with the Kitts. She says she is proud of the service the company provides and has always felt the work was suited to her.
Yet, she says, the old GCP was “more rigid and controlled. People didn’t feel a part of it.”
But the 1993 layoff–which reduced employment from 95 to 57–led to many improvements.
“Quite often a crisis does pull people together,” Wight observes. “The hard part is trying to keep the good feelings all the time.”
Out of that crisis and the “Great Lakes learning,” she says, grew employees’ desire for more communication and empowerment.
Though the first employee meeting more than a year ago was quiet, full of pain and skepticism, the gatherings have grown more enthusiastic, Wight says.
At a recent meeting, the agenda covered everything from monthly sales projections to picnic plans. A new billing procedure was discussed, the new voice mail system was praised and the failure of another project–“We learned what we can’t do,” one staffer said–was laid on the table.
Detailed financial information now is shared on a regular basis, Wight says; employees no longer need to go looking for it. When problems surface, she adds, the new attitude is: How can we pull together and get the job done?
Key to employees’ buying into the process, she says, are the ways in which they were drawn into the creation of GCP’s values and mission statements.
An exercise developed by a co-worker helped employees identify what makes them happy, what values “cried out” to them, Wight says. Gleaned from small-group meetings, those values were written on large sheets of paper and placed throughout the building. At a designated time, each employee was asked to stand on the paper that represented his or her highest value. Each then was asked to rate how well this value was operating in the company. The group then discussed the gap between ideal and reality.
GCP’s new values statement covers seven points, from customer satisfaction and efficiency to caring and concern. Under the value “personal responsibility,” the statement reads: “We will challenge each person in our company to be responsible for his or her own behavior and for contributing to the corporate goals.” Under “freedom,” it reads: “We are committed to a profitability that enables us to make choices: to determine our direction; to reward performance; to take risks; and to grow.”
Even competitors notice the ways GCP employees translate values into practice.
“Their professionalism reflects down through their sales staff,” says Dale Barstow, vice president of sales for Municipal Code Corp. in Florida, whose territory overlaps GCP’s. “They’re very conscientious, conservative and into what their customers need. They’re very respectable competitors.”
GCP’s clients also are pleased.
“They’re very organized,” says Jeffrey Eichner, municipal attorney for the city of Rochester. “They’re a good resource. They keep tabs on our code and, (when new legislation is passed), they know what changes have to be made to which sections.”
Typically, the city sends three months’ worth of new legislation to GCP, which determines where it will fit into the current books, cross-references existing legislation that is affected by the changes, prints new loose-leaf pages and returns them to the city for insertion in its four volumes, Eichner says.
Up-to-date, accessible code books are vital to efficient enforcement efforts, GCP’s literature states, and to the public’s right to know. GCP also fields numerous requests from municipalities planning to adopt a new ordinance and needing to know how other communities have addressed the same issue.
Providing that personal service, though, is costly. Because it markets the time and talent of its editorial department, rather than a mass-produced item, Ross says, “there are limitations on how much we can sell because there are only 24 hours in a day.”
“In the last five years,” he continues, “sales have grown 10 or 15 percent total.” The only way to be more profitable and to raise the standard of living for all of its employees, company officials reason, is to improve efficiency.
Getting out of the offset-printing business was a major step in that direction.
“For 25 of the last 30 years,” Ross says, “most of our capital investment was in printing equipment. In order to really put ourselves in a position where we could devote our investments to our editorial department and the other operations in the company, we had to find a way to get out of that loop. Fortunately, technology (finally) made it possible.”
“That was a big thing for us,” Nancy agrees, “to make the leap from hand- writing things and sending them to a keyboarder, to everybody using a computer (and) transferring everything electronically. We had to send everybody to school to learn Windows and make a huge capital investment in a bigger network and all the computers.”
And there were other, human costs.
“We had to eliminate a department and some of the people that were part of that, change our whole investment outlook and then do a lot of retraining,” Ross says. “That put some financial pressures on the company. In 1993, we went through a critically important downsizing.”
Though he makes no apologies for addressing business realities, Ross nevertheless expresses his abhorrence for terminations and “the whole thing that happens to a company when it reaches a stage (where downsizing becomes necessary). Everybody in the company is affected: top management, because you have to make these decisions and then implement them; and employees, because when they’re not privy to all of the things going on but they’re affected by them, it affects their feelings of security.”
Nancy puts it more bluntly: “When you’re a family business, the downsizing part is gut-wrenching. You just care so much about everybody. When you have to tell somebody they’re not going to be here anymore, it’s like having one of your kids run away from home.”
Healing that pain and rebuilding trust, the Kitts say, have been easier with the guidance of Frank Staropoli, Great Lakes’ chairman.
Though the entire change process has involved a great deal of money and time–and, initially, a far greater emphasis on relationships than on the process-based work that a typical TQM program might involve–the Kitts are delighted with the progress.
“We were committed (ahead of time) to this process,” Nancy says, “and we did a tremendous amount of self-examination and self-improvement. Though we were spending boatloads of money on it, we never questioned (the wisdom of) it.”
Neither did the elder Ross, who endorsed the Great Lakes hiring, even though “in my generation it was unthinkable to have other people come in and tell you how to run your company. I’m one of those people who try to do everything myself.
“(But Great Lakes has) proven their point: If you take care of (workplace relationships), the bottom line seems to take care of itself.”
At work and at home, the Kitts have seen the benefits of inside-out change. Long a conflict avoider, Nancy says she has “learned how to accept that conflict is OK (and) needs to be dealt with.”
For Ross’ part, “I always thought I had to be able to answer all of the questions. (Now) I realize that I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t have to have them. It’s not a failure.”
True to that insight, Ross is philosophical about outside pressures that would link every investment to a bottom-line impact.
“When you let others make the decisions for you, when it’s offered in the form of advice, you lose control of your own destiny,” he observes. “You can’t do everything the attorneys say; you can’t do everything the bankers say. (But) you need to do just about everything the customers and your employees say.”
The measurement systems are different for different people, he adds. A business owner needs to balance them.
“It’s very difficult to put a cause-and- effect linkage between hiring a consultant … and the bottom line,” he continues “But it’s also equally difficult to ignore the circumstantial evidence: that our profitability, our efficiency, our internal happiness (have) improved immensely as we have progressed through our (change process).”
Still, no one is resting on any laurels. Colleen Wight is straightforward about the stresses of meeting customers’ and employees’ needs, and some staffers’ lingering resistance to the change process.
“I don’t want you to think we’re perfect,” Wight says. “We still have quite a ways to go.”
(Rose Ericson is a Rochester-area free-lance writer.)

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