November 29, 2021

Corner Office: Jack Dangermond: Cultivating His Plants, and His Company

Q. Do you remember the first time you were somebody’s boss? 

A. I was a teenager. My parents owned a plants nursery. We all grew up growing things, and planting things, and selling things, and I also managed landscape crews.   

Q. So how old were you when you first started running a crew?   

A. Sixteen.  

Q. Was that hard for you?   

A. No.  Growing up in a family business like that was really a happy time.  When my parents started it, they had little education and were immigrants from Holland. We all just worked together as a team in the nursery. It basically gave me all the lessons of business school when I was growing up — issues like cash flow, customer service and how to grow a business. 

My parents had no money, but they had strong values that I’ve carried throughout my life — things like not going into debt, never borrowing money, never leveraging, paying your bills on time, keeping your agreements, selling customers the right things, treating employees right and growing things. 

Q. So, at 16, you’re managing a crew.  I assume that these people were older than you.   

A. Yes. We worked as a team. Part of my management style today is not being elitist, but rather being involved with the people doing the actual work. On the landscape crew I learned a lot from the other workers. We treated everybody equally, and we worked hard.  I also remember my father and I were once walking through the nursery, and one of the plants was wilting.  And he said, “Did you notice something?” 

I looked down and realized the plant was wilting.  He said: “Don’t ever walk by a wilting plant. Get water on it right away.”  Which sort of stuck with me — you inherently have responsibilities to take care of things. In a nursery, if you don’t take care of those plants, your profits get lost real quickly.  You have to weed.  You have to water.  You have to nurture.  Also, you have to take care of your employees in such a way that they do the same.

Q. What other lessons from the nursery?

A. One of the guiding principles was to take care of your customers.  Don’t sell them something they don’t need. So we would simply listen to our customers, and work with them, show them some alternatives, sketch some things out and create a successful design for their yard.  And that kind of customer relationship was something that was genuine and also endeared our family to people. People loved going to that nursery, and having somebody actually care for them rather than just shove some product in their face. 

Q. How do you apply all those lessons at Esri?   

A. I have four priorities. The first one is to focus on what customers need and want. And, second, make my company a really great place to work.  So when we hire somebody, we have in mind finding a person who really fits so well that they realize their life’s work with us.  

  The third is to make sure we’re a very strong business that supports the first two priorities. In a public company, the first thing is taking care of stockholders, and then you keep the employees happy, and then, O.K., the customers. I was very lucky to start this company and keep it my own. And the fourth priority was added about 20 years ago when we started to work seriously with business partners. Today we have about 2,000 business partners all around the world. 

Q. Can you talk about hiring?

A. Our H.R. department screens applicants to make sure they would fit in a certain job.  Then they have interviews with as many as 10 different people they would be working with if they got hired. We want to have peer review of the person so that we are sure that they really want to do the work we do. We’re very passionate about our work.  We want to make sure that they’re skillful, that their motives are right, that they can work on a team and that they’re nice.   

Q. Can you give me more of a sense of how the conversation goes during an interview? What do you ask?

A. I’ll ask provocative questions that help me quickly get a sense of someone, like, “What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you?” In their professional life, the issues they bring up are often associated with challenges like laying people off. And so I’ve heard every story of a public company’s ups and downs where people were confronted with doing dirty work for others and not feeling good about it. I learn a lot about people’s values and their judgment about things based on how they act in those situations. I’m just trying to figure out who they are.   

Q. What other questions do you ask?   

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=0cdeb79b4d63f8edc013354e2f5b9ca2