Tag Archives: Foldcraft

Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

I will be leaving a corporate Board of Director’s seat in a few weeks, ending about 28 years of service with that group.  “That group” is Foldcraft Co., the firm for which I worked as an employee for more than 30 years, as well.  To have remained on the board for so long has been a privilege as well as a point of pride; that any organization would tolerate my presence and outlooks for so long defies realistic expectations.  But I have chosen to leave under my own terms and timing, which seems a fitting conclusion for so long a tenure.  The change that it will create is an essential one. And therein lies a lesson for most organizations, I think, including ones in Nicaragua.

The lesson has everything to do with succession, that final piece in a sometimes long term of service wherein the responsibilities and obligations, the voice and the stewardship for the organization is passed along to whoever follows.  It’s likely the most overlooked responsibility leaders deal with.   That’s not to suggest that leaders don’t think about and plan for succession at all, but that they simply don’t prepare for the eventuality nearly well enough.  That reality is why leadership succession represents one of the most vulnerable times in an organization’s entire life, and why organizational failures often occur within a short time after a succession has taken place.

I have often stated that perhaps the most important accomplishment I ever achieved during my employment at Foldcraft was turning over the leadership of the Company to the “right” successor.  I still believe that to be true.  But it also must be recognized that the effectiveness of that transition was years in the making, wherein senior authority and leadership became increasingly discussed, shared and strategized.  In fact, one could argue that preparation for that particular succession evolved over nearly fifteen years.  Successful succession in that instance was not an event, but rather a process of orientation, teaching, seasoning, making and learning from mistakes.  Organizations rarely have fifteen years to prepare for a shift in leadership, but they owe it to themselves to be constantly preparing for the inevitable change.

And when the planning and preparation have been well provided for, the change in boardroom or management or committee setting can be- in fact, should be- a blast of fresh air.  I hope and believe that my participation in recent Board meetings has not been stale or redundant.  (You’d have to ask the others about whether that’s true or not.)  But I also hope and believe that my successor will bring new chemistry to the process, challenging the way that conversations have evolved over the past 28 years, lending insights that I might never have had, and seeing the future of the organization through a new lens.

If, over the past years, I have brought any positive elements to the organization, I will trust that those characteristics will have impressed themselves on my colleagues and they will blend those singularities with the freshness of the newcomer.  It’s the best of evolution, and our organizations deserve that step up in their continuity.  No one is good forever, and even if they could be, there will come a time when the organization needs something else, something new.

One of the great disservices which befalls an organization is the perpetuation of same leadership.  Leaders are comprised of the sum total of their life experiences and lessons.  It’s the stuff from which they draw conclusions, make judgments and see the world.  But no one possesses perfect vision or all-encompassing experiences, and by definition that means any leader is bound to misinterpret or misread from time to time.  The capture of an alternative outlook sometimes can only be discovered through new insight born of different intelligence.  Hence, the necessity for superb succession.

Some have argued that the risk of succession is primarily because the new leader might not possess the same values and perspectives that allowed the organization to function well in the first place.  And that’s true, if the successor is relatively unknown to those who would make the appointment; any governing body’s primary obligation is to have a pretty intimate knowledge of its incoming leaders.  Where that knowledge exists, the value of new energies will far outweigh the risk of detrimental decisions.  (In any case, no leader should lead without checks and balances and the continuing governance structure should always provide a safety valve against an ill-advised direction.)

I’ll be spending time visiting cooperatives during the coming weeks and one of the essential qualities I hope to see is the provision for what happens when the leadership shift occurs.  First of all, will one occur?  And if so, under what process and preparedness?  It may not feel like a priority to anyone today, but I can guarantee that it will be, and sooner than most are prepared for.

Yesterday, I remember wondering about the future and what it might hold for my organization.  Today,  as I prepare to leave it, I recognize all the promise and challenge once imagined in the past. Tomorrow, I hope neither I nor the rest of the organization will regret any lack of preparedness for what is to come….





Universal Truths

One of the hopes that I had held during my years at Foldcraft Co. was that some day we might be able to compete successfully enough to acquire one of our local competitors, Waymar.  We actually engaged in conversations with the owner of the company who was contemplating his own retirement, but we never could advance the conversations in any substantive way.  You might imagine my sense of satisfaction, then, when last month Foldcraft completed the process of acquiring that company and its subsidiary in Seattle, Washington.  Some good things just take time to develop.

The acquisition wasn’t free, of course.  The employee owners of Foldcraft have their work cut out for them in order to make a success out of this acquisition.   They will have to learn new things.  They will have to familiarize themselves with the way that Waymar conducted its business.  They will have to envision changes that can be made to blend the two manufacturing operations.  They will have to learn about an entirely new set of customers and their demands.  They will have to make Waymar a profitable enterprise if they are to cover the debt incurred from the purchase, and almost certainly surprises will be encountered along the way.  The two cultures will have to be blended into one, and a collaborative workforce will have to be fashioned out of two previously competing ones.  A great deal of education within both companies will be required.  When you stop to consider all of the hurdles that exist in such a transaction, it sounds downright risky.

That’s one of the realities about being in business of any sort: every one has both its risks and rewards.  It’s never any different.  If success was guaranteed in any particular economic undertaking, everyone would be doing it.  But the tensions between the risks and rewards are what make the success stories so compelling to us.  We marvel at the obstacles that successful enterprises have overcome, and we listen longingly to tales of financial success, often concluding that we should be able to accomplish as much.  Whether a cooperative in rural Nicaragua or a factory on the plains of Minnesota, we love to hear stories that affirm the notion that unlikely- even miraculous- things can and do happen despite the odds.

As a member-owned company, Foldcraft will tackle the challenge in the manner that best assures success, a process that will draw upon some truths and methodologies which pertain to organizational life everywhere.  The first thing that management will do is to recognize that people need to know.  Leaders will ensure that members understand clearly the risks mentioned above and what exactly will be required to counter those risks.  Truth will not be a luxury but a necessity, because where information is lacking, rumors will fill the void and success cannot be built upon innuendo.  There will be nothing automatic about success in this venture, and the owner-members absolutely must know the truths of their new organization, good and bad.

Engagement will require that the members of the organization- Foldcraft and Waymar both- become educated in the new organization’s success equation, those elements that must occur in order for the new business to succeed.  Unfortunately, in all too many organizations even today, members simply do not have knowledge about what creates success for their business.  They only know that they perform certain activities which they have been directed to do, without knowing why or how those activities synchronize with the efforts of others in the organization.  As in any game, the objective is to score, and the players need to understand how those points are made, how certain actions and reactions mesh within the company to reach the goals.  They want to know how to win.  In the case of Foldcraft, principles of open book management will teach members exactly what needs to happen for success and then will track success (or failure) so that members know whether they are winning or losing the game.

Foldcraft will create ways for its members to be involved.   The transition difficulties encountered simply won’t be able to absorb people who not fully engaged in its success; that’s a reality of any business.  Participation of every member becomes magnified in an undertaking such as this.  The company will continue to assemble teams and special project groups to address issues, and for at least two reasons.  First, even when members are excited about contributing to change and improvement, they may not fully recognize what role they should play or where to begin.  The leaders of Foldcraft can help with that by “positioning the players.”  Second, sustainable and effective change needs the wisdom and experiences from as many sources as possible, and that means broad member involvement from all areas of the organization.  Foldcraft has already utilized this approach as it was performing its evaluation of Waymar as a possible acquisition.  Teams of Foldcraft people were involved in assessing factors such as financial health and transparency, company ethics and integrity, employee safety, production methods,  opportunities for improvement, marketplace strategies and more.  Members of Foldcraft shared the responsibility of gathering and evaluating this information under the belief that “no one of us is as smart as all of us.”  As a result, the evaluation was performed more rapidly and thoroughly than it would have been with only a few involved.

Finally, success of the new organization requires that there is a reward for all of the effort and responsibility-taking exhibited by members at both worksites.  In addition to strengthening their job security by forging a stronger company, the members of Foldcraft are owners of their enterprise.  By participating in the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) of the firm, the members are the ones who benefit from stock growth.  And that wealth accumulation can have a major impact on those members who remain with the company for many years.  The incentive to make this acquisition successful is firmly in place, for those members who want the chance to make a better future for themselves and their families.

Of course, Foldcraft knows that success is not fated.  It’s only an opportunity, as any enterprise is.  The good news is that the truths and methodologies mentioned above are ones that resonate with most of us.  They feed a human need to belong, to understand, to contribute, to succeed, to be part of something bigger than ourselves.  It’s a truth that transcends national and cultural boundaries because it touches something deep in our psyches, something innately human.

Some organizations allow opportunity to slip through its hands, whether through leadership power struggles or greed or lack of transparency or too few members being seriously involved; good ideas die every day at the hands of ignorance and self-centeredness.  Success stories, though, emerge from the foment of universal truths that absolutely lie within our reach when we’re willing to stretch….




One Couple’s Gift

One Couple's GiftOne Couple’s Gift, by Steve Swanson, is the chronicle of Harold and Louise Nielsen’s awakening to the needs of the world’s poor and how they sought to make a difference.

The book covers their lives in creating Foldcraft Co. and their subsequent commitment to using their own resources for the benefit of others.  You can get the book at Amazon.com.

In May of 2009, the Kenyon Leader newspaper published a story on the book in an article titled ‘One Couple’s Gift’ is giving.

You Could Write A Book…

And finally, someone did! I have worked with Harold and Louise Nielsen since 1974.

Harold NielsonlouisenielsonI served as Foldcraft Co.’s first human resources manager, succeeded Harold as the Company’s second-ever CEO and was provided the opportunity to lead Winds of Peace Foundation, the private foundation begun by Harold and Louise.  In between all of that, I served on the Board of Miracle Ranch Children’s Home, a private orphanage established by the Nielsens.  I served on the Board of the Nielsen’s  Third World Friends Thrift Store in Kenyon, MN, where tons of donated clothing is either sold or sent to Third World locations to benefit the poor.  Harold and Louise have always been entrepreneurs, innovators, people who are willing to try new ideas and most often on behalf of others.  When you are around individuals like that, things happen.  Exciting things.  Unexpected things. Naturally, I love to talk about these things.

One Couple's GiftAnyone who has ever met either of the Nielsens is ready to tell a story, including me.  It might be about how they grew their company, or how they came to start the foundation, or about some act of generosity that seems to be their trademark.  Every occasion I’ve had to speak publicly about any of the organizations created by the Nielsens has generated queries about these two innovators.  Few people have ever met this selfless couple and NOT been moved by their down-to-earth nature and their quiet spirit of caring.    The questions are generated by curiosity about what moves these everyday people to act in ways that so consistently impact the lives of others, even around the world.  And now, I have a means to provide at least some of the answers.

Steve Swanson is a retired Lutheran clergyman and professor of English at St. Olaf College.   He has written many books for both adults and children, and he continues to write and preach as opportunities arise.  But his most recent book, One Couple’s Gift (Nine Ten Press, Northfield, MN), is the result of a long-developing relationship with Harold and Louise, and his growing admiration and amazement at the lives of these two visionaries and the initiatives which they created.  I had the chance to contribute in some very small ways to the book since I’ve had the privilege of an “inside look” at so many of the Nielsen’s endeavors.  But the book and the observations are really Steve Swanson’s and it’s a wonderful story that he tells.

The timing of the tale could not be better, in my opinion.  These rather dark economic days have given rise to deeper introspection by many of us, an occasion to examine our lives, our priorities, what’s truly important and necessary versus that which is peripheral and transitory.  One Couple’s Gift provides a powerful message through a simple but remarkable story.  It gives me at long last a resource to partially explain the fertile environment in which I have found myself working since 1974, leading me to explorations into such worlds as business ethics, employee ownership, servant leadership, microlending, the plight of the poor, and, ultimately, human love and compassion.

What I have been surrounded with for all of those years is now  reflected in Harold and Louise’s moving story, and in a book that I can share with others.  I just wanted you to know….