An Interview with Herman Leusink
The city of Edmonton, best known as the seat of the Alberta government and gateway to the great industrial energy projects of the province's resource rich north, is home to Computronix, a high-tech company plying its unique software development solutions to governments and businesses all over the globe.
When you paint a picture of Computronix, it just doesn't fit the picture of an IT success story profiled in the latest edition business magazine: the company record shows 22 years of steady growth and consistent profitability—the 2001 IT bubble was good news rather than bad for Computronix. Its head office conveys a message of stability, tradition, and orderly calm in contrast to the intensity of the casual but sleek computer geek companies we have come to expect.
Like the company itself, CEO Herman Leusink is not the prototypical 30ish, fast company executive. Although successful and wealthy, he drives an older model vehicle, lives in a 1,000 square foot bungalow, and hikes Edmonton's parks and the rocky mountains for entertainment.
Walking into Computronix, it didn't take me long to figure out I had a unique company in my sights. Leusink met me in the foyer, punched his code into the secured entry system, and showed me to his office. A late 50s, balding, slight figure of a man, his soft-spoken voice and intense movements reminded me of a high-powered generator on idle.
Two minutes into the conversation, the tie is off , top button undone. Leusink is ready for an office tour.
We meet the vice-president of business development and have a lively conversation not on sales and growth but on ideas and purpose. The hallways are strewn with pictures of staff members—over 100 of them—and their families. "We believe in families here at Computronix," says Leusink, catching my sideward glances.
Before I know it, casually following the quick paces of the CEO and catching a mumbled reference about "sitting on our seats too much," we are out of the building, down the street, and into the wilderness of Edmonton's vast park system. A half hour later, a fast walk, a climb, the sight of the North Saskatchewan river, and I have the story of a deeply religious man convinced that his faith could be integrated with his work and that he could build a company that proved it. Computronix is Herman Leusink's belief that his values could display themselves in the workplace.
I have had the privilege of meeting and interviewing many CEOs and business owners. Few can match up against the unassuming Herman Leusink. He reminds me of James Collins's fifth level leader, those who invariably make a good company great, one with the "paradoxical characteristics of extreme personal humility and strong professional will." Leusink fits this analysis, and Computronix's growth has proven Collins right. How Leusink leads this growth and finds his successor will be the final evidence.
Michael Van Pelt: When I look at your corporate profile, you're not the typical IT company. What makes you so different? The language of your corporate profile tells a different story than what I read in Fast Company.
Herman Leusink: Certainly the difference is in focus. Our focus is not the hard-driving business environment where one is trying to build something that he can either sell or make a lot of money of off, the purpose being the bottom line. My focus, from the beginning of 1979, has been to build a healthy organization, one that applies the principles of the Christian faith, to which I hold dear. I think that's the reason for the difference. It's been quite a journey.
MVP: You said to me in a previous meeting that they may call us an overnight success, but it took my whole life to get here. What do you mean by that?
HL:: What I mean is that at this point we're not even a blip on anybody's radar screen, at least on a national or international level. So in that sense we've become a success with our technology, and it will be there all of a sudden. But that success has been founded on 20-odd years of hard work and planning and deliberate effort.
MVP: You're not a typical IT executive. You don't play the part of a successful CEO. Give me a quick picture of what got you here?
HL: What got me here is consistent diligent effort focused on certain clients. Our pattern has been to develop a relationship with a client, do a job, do it well enough that they're going to come back to us and say, "Hey, can you also do this other job or how about that one that is coming next year. We have a bunch of money in the budget for it, and we are looking for a company to do it."
So, the pattern has been to build relationships, strong relationships, and do lots of repeat business. We do not have a lot of clients, but they have been long-lasting clients. For example, we've been working with Syncrude Canada, one of our largest clients, continuously since 1981.
MVP: You say your mission is to provide outstanding business solutions to your clients within a highly ethical and nurturing workplace. Is that different than a highly ethical and nurturing person—whatever you mean by "nurturing?"
HL: I'm not sure if it's any different from being a highly ethical and nurturing person. Highly ethical means we set a very high standard of behaviour in terms of relating to our clients. We will always tell them the truth even though it is not always popular, and they know that. After all, it's gotten us into some really interesting places from time to time, but I don't think it has ever cost us work, and where it has, frankly, I'd rather not do the work for somebody who wants us to be untruthful or cut corners some other way where we can't be proud of and stand behind our work.
On the nurturing side, I believe that we have been created by God to be creative; that's part of being made in the image of God. And I believe that creativity can only come to full expression in an environment where it is safe to develop it. There are lots of people who will say they have a creative workplace. But real creativity means risk. You go down blind alleys; you have failures, and if you jump all over people who have taken a chance and it turns out not to work, you're basically saying they can't do that, and you're not going to nurture them to grow. I think real nurturing is giving people the opportunity to try things to grow, and that means you've got to be willing to let them fail. You must create a safe environment for people to really bring out their creativity, to allow them to advance further than they were before.
One of my commitments to our staff, for instance, is that when we hire somebody, we hire people. We have never advertised positions—ever—in our company. We hire people when we find that right kind of person that we believe will fit in with the team. And I make the final call on that. Then we hire them regardless of whether we have a position or not. We will work with that person for a year or, if necessary, two to develop what they are passionate about. In the work we do, we have a large variety of activities: document writing, testing, analysis work, teaching—a whole range.
My commitment to every staff member we hire is that we will work with them over a period of time to develop and discover the gifts they have. When they come to the point where they say, this is what I'm made for, and I can do this for a long time and just be passionate about it and enjoy it, then they let me know and that's what I'll let them do. That does not mean they are married to that for the rest of their lives, but it means that they can be passionate about the work they do. And if after a number of years they say that was a lot of fun but I'm starting to get bored with it, then we'll look for something else. To me that is nurturing.
MVP: How do you take the responsibility of your mission statement as the leader of this company? You said to me before, leadership and mission at Computronix is tied together; it's the same package. You also said that you are responsible for that mission.
HL: Absolutely. As CEO I have to set the direction. It took us probably six months to go through about 20 iterations of this statement before I finally came to the point and said that is what I want for Computronix as CEO. Now, I didn't make that in isolation. I got input from the management team. I got input from the employees. We tried it out and so on, but I was the final determiner of what it was going to be. It is my responsibility, I believe, to hold people accountable to this and say "this is where we go." Conversely, I also submit myself to the staff to be bound by it.
MVP: You've grown every year, from a small company of one, two, three employees to over a hundred now, increasing the challenge of embedding the values that come out of this mission statement. What do you do when you get to the office and have to apply this mission statement?
HL: You're right. As the company has grown, it becomes more and more challenging. Sure, we've got it on a plaque on the wall. We've done a number of things; we've unpacked it and said we've got half a dozen foundational principles that we've posted publicly and said these are some of the things that we will do and that we will work towards; they make it practical. We've done that in a number of other ways.
For example, we have one person, our staff development manager, who will contact an employee's spouse when that person has to travel for any extent, say for a week and a half. They'll ask the spouse how they are doing; is there some way in which we can help them. They will arrange babysitting so the spouse can have some relief, perhaps to do some shopping, whatever. We've had counselling arranged.
The staff development manager also heads up a small team who make donations to people. For instance, we have a way of taking time and cashing it in, and a number of people have over the years given the money from those days and given it to that informal help committee. One couple is in an adoption process right now. It's a foreign adoption, and it's cost them thousands of dollars. We just let it be known informally, via e-mail, and probably 20 people have given anywhere from 20 to 300 dollars to help the couple out.
Another one of our staff members, a few months back her car broke down. She is a single parent, and things aren't that great financially. It's amazing. Just like that the money was there to help fix her car. Stuff like that happens in this company. I encourage it by fairly regularly matching what the employees contribute. But I've deliberately kept that off the books. I don't want the company to be involved in it. I want this to be a staff-owned and staff-driven initiative.
MVP: So what you are telling me, the sense of community that you are building is going to ensure that your mission is met?
HL: It's one way in which we do, yes.
MVP: We haven't talked a lot about money. Where is the money? You've got to be in the business of making money.
HL: Our first founding principle is that we must ensure Computronix remains profitable and flourishes in order to provide for our families.
MVP: Okay, but you don't talk to me about your bottom line. You don't tell me we're making money. You don't say we're growing, and our shareholders or the people who funded our R & D are excited.
HL: We've been profitable every year except one when we posted a small loss. We've never been hugely profitable, but we are very solidly profitable and have grown steadily. Frankly, the company isn't about me becoming a multimillionaire, if that's what you're thinking, like it is for some.
MVP: I'm interested to know what motivates you.
HL: What drives me is the fact that I believe I have been created by God with gifts that I can express in the workplace. To me, work is a gift and an opportunity. I will be held accountable for how I exercise that opportunity. He is not going to ask me: so, how much money did you have when you died? He is going to ask how well did I manage the staff I had the privilege of working with. How did I help so and so out in that situation.
MVP: Speaking of staff, you very publicly create high expectations about them. You say they have personal character and skills and define your company by that.
MVP: What do you mean by personal character and skills, about staff having a wide range of educational and business background? Aren't you looking for computer geeks? What about staff individually tackling business challenges but not at all hesitating to bring in mentors and coaches to solve problems? There is a mindset there.
HL: Yes, there are two non-negotiables in hiring people. One of them is that I believe our staff members have to be people of good character. We often deal with confidential information, and I do not want anybody on staff that I cannot trust to handle that properly. You must be willing to deal with information that you gain with integrity and discreetness.
To relate to others appropriately, that's mandatory to work here; you must respect others. This does not mean staff has to be perfect, but they have to be in a process of developing. We make mistakes and we deal with them. We confront them. We do not tolerate backbiting. If I hear that I'll ask, have you talked to the person? Let's go talk to him together, and we'll deal with it. Or else I will want to know why not because that's just not negotiable. We have to deal with issues, so after you take on character, you have to be willing to grow in character. That's very hard to do for people, but it is highly important.
Second, it is very important that people have an aptitude to do the work that we do. If they don't, because it is so technical in nature, they will just not be capable of doing it or they'll do it extremely slowly or poorly in which case it is going to be frustrating for them, for us. It just does not work at all. And so that's mandatory. What's nice to have is any combination of training and experience. But it's not a requirement. We've hired high school drop-outs. We've also hired someone with a Ph.D. in nuclear physics.
MVP: The broad spectrum.
HL: We have people with Masters of Divinity on staff, some of them with pastoral experience. You name it, we have it! But that has given us some significant strength as a company because we're not all regimented, monolithic, thinking the same way. There are people who approach life differently. However, this only works in an environment of respect. And I believe it is my responsibility as CEO to enforce that respect.
MVP: Yes, because if you can't enforce it, especially with the intensive staff office environment you naturally have in your kind of work, it does influence the day-to-day culture. But let's be practical. I've been in many staff environments, and they all have a degree of backbiting, gossip, power struggles.
HL: They're a reality.
MVP: What you are saying is, sorry, we are not going to tolerate that in our company.
HL: That's correct. And resistance, there has never been open resistance. Not everybody has always been happy dealing with issues, but it's not an option. People have been challenged to be more thoughtful in certain areas. A number of character attributes we identified perhaps as being things that they need to work on. And we make it explicit by giving examples as to why we think they need to work on them. So people are confronted, held accountable for how they relate to each other and how helpful they are. I've built an environment where people do help each other and do respect each other.
MVP: There is the tough side of this as well. There are always some players who won't buy into this culture, and you have to get rid of them.
HL: In 20 some-odd years, only twice have I had to get rid of a person. Once during a probationary period and once after I think it was about three years he'd been with us. Our turnover rate is fairly low; currently, it's running at about three per cent or something like that.
MVP: Computronix is, as I see it, becoming a perfect company for an IPO. Many are doing it and not as capably as Computronix could. Are you ever going to go public? And why aren't you doing it now?
HL: I can't say that I would never do it or that I would. I call them the way I see them.
MVP: Financially, you could do very well doing an IPO right now. Does that not create any motivation for you?
HL: There is nothing wrong with having money, but my needs are met. I am thankful for what I have. I have a dynamic team that I'm working with here and enjoy working with. I have no strong motivation to do an IPO and take a pot full of money home.
MVP: Where do you see Computronix five or 10 years from now?
HL: The company will continue to grow. We have a very strong R & D team that will continue to expand and make good progress. Last year we had more creativity than ever. The company will continue to internationalize with some fairly aggressive moves into Europe. As our technology catches on, we may sell it, or at least the rights to it, that's possible. I'm leery of doing an IPO because it changes the nature of what you do. You are forced to become much more bottom line. In our society, the money is what counts, and I'm sad to say it seems that very little else does. I refuse to live in that single dimensional way. I recognize the value of money, but there are many other things that are valuable, my health, my relationship to my family, my relationship to my co-workers, and so on. Those are hugely important things. You can't buy those things.
MVP: Did you know that you would be this successful?
HL: I had no idea. That's not what I set out to do. I did not set out to create a large company, and I'm not, in fact, doing that now. To me, the company is like an organism in a sense, and I have focused from the beginning on making that a very healthy organism. I believe in God's way of doing things, helping things grow. I look to growth as being a consequence, not an end in itself.