One of the most commonly held assumptions in the world of business is that it is only the most ruthless competitors who will flourish and succeed. During the past century, the models of successful businessmen and businesswomen that we are taught are those who put the bottom line of profit ahead of all other considerations.
Art Barter, the owner and cultural architect of Datron World Communications, offers a living case study of an extremely successful business that has thrived while following values and principles that seemingly contradict the guiding tenets of the globalized economy we live in today.
Who is Art Barter?
Art began his career at Disney where he worked for over eight years while he put himself through school. After working his way up from janitorial duties, he spent time in their finance department. However, Disney Corporation didn’t offer a wealth of opportunities to get ahead, so he moved on to the world of manufacturing.
In the manufacturing business, he discovered his passion for building things and for the world of international business. Datron World Communications, a radio manufacturing company that he worked for and eventually purchased, had 90 percent of their revenue sold in the international marketplace. “They were selling in countries I´ve never heard of,” Art mentions, “and I ended up in 2004 with the opportunity to buy the company.”
At the time Art purchased Datron, he was in what he calls the “power world” where the most important element of the business was trying to increase quarterly profit and keep his shareholders happy. “I spent a lot of my career sacrificing family time,” Art remembers. “I got burned so many times by companies that I said…I´m tired…of having to sacrifice my life for the companies I work for.”
At the same time, during the first six years that Art owned Datron World Communications, he turned a $10 million company into a $200 million dollar company. This obvious success, however, didn’t stem from spending 14 hours a day in the office in an attempt to squeeze every penny of profit from his company. Rather, the success of Datron was born out of his desire to transform a traditional system of leadership into a servant-led organization.
The Servant Leadership Model
When Art originally purchased Datron, it was a doing 10 million dollar of revenue annually and actually losing money. “I told my wife that I wanted to run this company different, not just like any corporation,” Art says, and in 2005 he began the process of changing the culture, mission and purpose of the company.
He began in 2005 by asking his team how much they wanted the company to grow, but Art put a twist on traditional business planning. He told his leadership team: “I´m tired of putting plans together based on a 10% increase in revenue…If we are all about serving customers, let´s make serving customers our number one priority.” In essence, Datron decided that they were going to let the customers decide how fast the company would grow depending on how their customers responded to the service that was offered. “The customers will see our heart and they decide how fast we´re going to grow,” Art explains.
Through different contacts and readings, Art came across the idea of servant leadership. He knew that his job as the head of the company was to inspire his employees and focus on serving those employees over simply increasing profit margins.
In the power model of the business world, leaders are in love with power and profit. In the servant leadership model, however, Art encourages an ethic where “we care about our employees, and what they want to accomplish in life. The big difference for us is that our families come first. We don’t want people to look Datron and say that´s the company that took the people I love most away from us because they demanded them to work 12 hours a day.”
The Process of Defining a Servant Leadership Model
At the beginning, most of the leadership team at Datron thought that their new owner had simply come across a new fad in the world of business leadership and they were failing to understand the deep-reaching changes that Art wanted to implement in the company culture.
The main question that Art had to deal with was: “How do I get people to own this?” Of the 35 leaders in the company, he asked each of them to come out with what they considered to be ten characteristics of a good servant leader. As a team, they then narrowed down those characteristics to a final ten. “We started with their definition,” Art clarifies, “and when I look back this was the moment I transferred ownership to my leadership team. It was their definition, and this empowered them to take ownership of this process.”
Art understood that the people in his company had to take ownership for cultural change to truly occur within the company. The main purpose of the company was to positively transform the lives of others, and the people within the company needed to be able to live out this purpose see it put into action.
Living Out the Servant Leadership Model
It is worth recognizing that Datron World Communications is an extremely successful and profitable company that doesn’t believe in debt. They raise all of their funds organically and are still able to set apart ten per cent of operating profit each quarter destined for a charitable fund decided by the company.
Instead of simply writing a check to some huge non-profit organization, the employees at Datron are the ones who decide where that money goes. “This charitable fund is managed by employees and the employees decide which non-profit gets money,” Art explains. “My employees get to give back to some of the organizations that have helped them….I have the best job in the world because the heart of the employees comes out through this process…and it gives them an opportunity to give back.”
Art believes that since “the employees helped to create the profit, they have every right to say where that money goes.”
At the same time, this unique aspect of the servant leadership model acts as an incentive for people within the company. If the employees work harder to create more profit for the company, the more the company will be able to donate to NGOs. Instead of a selfish incentive, this heart-centred, altruistic motivation has been central to the company´s model of success.
To date, Datron has given away over 15 million dollars of funds to non-profits around the world.
Show Your Heart to Your Customers and Your Employees
Another essential aspect of the servant leadership model is to not be afraid to show your heart to your customers. Art tells the story of a military client in the Middle East who wanted to buy their radios. They needed something easy to use that could be deployed quickly to the servicemen and women. Art asked for a year to develop a product, and when the first one rolled off the production line, he travelled overseas and hand-delivered that first radio to the general on the front line. Today, the company has sold over 40,000 radios in that Middle Eastern country.
“When you serve your customers from your heart, it shows financially as well,” Art believes, “especially if you care about (your customers” from your heart and not your pocketbook.”
Art and the Datron leadership also worked hard to help their employees determine the gifts they have and find ways to put those gifts to work for the company. While many people were put in a job position straight of college that didn’t correspond to their interests, Datron is determined to help their employees discover what they like to do and find a niche for them within the company where they will be happy and productive.
Finally, Datron is also very focused on finding ideal employees that can identify with the mission and purpose that is behind the servant leadership model. “If you are clear on your values and know who you want to serve, you need to hire people for character first and competency second,” Art believes. He advises young entrepreneurs who are looking for employees to look firstly at character, and only secondly at their resume. “If you get the person with the right heart, then you can take their skill level and teach them and help them learn, but it is very difficult to change character,” Art advises.
Business Insights and Strategies to be Learned from Datron World Communications, Inc.
Any business that can grow from 10 million in revenue to 200 million in only six years certainly has a recipe for success that young entrepreneurs would do well to follow and learn from. In the case of Art Barter and Datron World Communications, however, the lessons that can be learned aren’t the typical business “values” of competition and fidelity to the bottom line of profit. The three main lessons from Datron World Communications can be summed up as:
- Find and follow your own values and principles and be strictly faithful to them,
- Empower your employees to live out the mission and goals that you have defined for your business, and
- Don’t be afraid to show your heart to both your employees and your customers.
For young entrepreneurs, Art shares the following important advice: “If you are an entrepreneur just starting your company…know what your purpose is, make sure you have values and the most important thing is, and don’t compromise on your mission, purpose and values. Don´t compromise to get business. Stick to your values and do it the right way.”