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Leadership Interviews

CareerBuilder Leadership Series: Spotlight on Sidney R. Brown, CEO of NFI

CareerBuilder recently sat down with Sidney R. Brown, Chief Executive Officer of NFI, to discuss his leadership philosophy. In the following excerpt, Brown discusses the importance of having an open-door policy, being flexible and knowing when to ask for help.

WHAT IS YOUR PHILOSOPHY AS IT RELATES TO PEOPLE AND THEIR IMPACT ON YOUR DAILY BUSINESS? You can have all the tractors, trailers and warehouses in the world but if you don’t have people running them and doing it right, it doesn’t matter how much you have invested in assets. In my opinion the most valuable asset you have is your people, and then you can always get the other things behind it. What differentiates one organization from another is how those people execute in a manner that provides a service to the customers or to their fellow employees. It is all about managing the dynamics of the human resources in your organization and getting them to go on the same page. If you do not do that, nothing else counts.

HOW DO YOU ENGAGE WITH AND RELATE TO YOUR EMPLOYEES? I have an open-door policy. Every time I travel around the country, I always make it a point of stopping in and seeing one of our operations. It is important for those people to understand and meet ownership, make sure that we are all on the same page and that we care about the job that they are doing out there. I usually get some pretty good insightful things from meeting with the people on the firing line that sometimes does not filter up to the CEO’s office. We also have something called ‘skip-level’ meetings. We have done this a couple times over the last couple years where key executives will meet with people who report a few levels below me. We hold a roundtable discussion where we just see what is going on, what they are thinking about and what ideas they have. Some pretty good ideas bubble up from those kinds of meetings that provide some insight as to what is going on in the organization.

HOW DO YOU DEFINE NFI’S CULTURE? Entrepreneurial. We give people a lot of opportunities to try new things to see how they work. I think that we are flexible in our ability to respond to our customers, and I think we have held our people accountable for the results. If they’re not doing the right things, then we try to figure out with them what the right answers are. When you sit in the top job, a lot of people expect that person to have all the answers, and that person definitely does not have the answers. In the last two years, we went through some of the most difficult times in our lifetime in terms of the economic situation and there is no book there to tell a CEO what to do when he walks in the door. So you have to figure it out, but you have to figure it out with the help of a lot of the people working for you because you do not necessarily have all the answers. That is where you try to bubble up ideas, thoughts and processes from the team to figure out what we can do to make things work.

CAN YOU TELL US HOW YOUR OVERALL STRATEGY, WHEN IT COMES TO HUMAN CAPITAL, FITS IN AND HOW YOU PLAY A ROLE IN THAT AS WELL? I will tell you up until about 1998, human resources did not even exist in our organization. We did not really understand what human resources could do for you. Then through evolution, we understood that managing human capital can be more effective from a screening, development and career path standpoint. This all began to come through as we elevated senior management in HR to our executive team. We recently just put together a new leadership development program for about 15 people in our company who we have identified having high potential for future development. We are putting them through a whole development program on how we can improve their skill sets and decision-making. Our goal is to expose people to multiple areas and hopefully get them to start thinking differently about our processes.

SO WHAT DO YOU DO TO RALLY THE TEAM AND REINFORCE YOUR EMPLOYMENT BRAND? I lead by example and try to give the people a sense that we care passionately about this business. We take real pride in making sure that we can create a work environment for our employees that is stable. NFI has been in business now for almost 80 years, so there’s a lot of legacy here that we want to make sure we continue to perpetuate. I am constantly thinking about how the market is changing and how we have to change and provide opportunities as a company. I think our employees recognize that when things are done right, you have a good strategy in place and they can then rally around it. Employees are looking for leadership and vision, for making sure that they feel comfortable with the people leading the company. Two years ago when this economy hit, people were looking for a lot of leadership and that is when real leadership comes to the forefront and you can really exhibit that type of direction.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU SHARE BASED ON YOUR EXPERIENCES WITH SOME OF YOUR PEERS AND COLLEAGUES THAT ARE AT THE EXECUTIVE LEVEL? We are in an industry today where we get to see a lot of different businesses across the supply chain in terms of the services that we provide to them. So we get to see how they are reacting to whether it is the economic environment or the industry that they are competing against. I would encourage the idea that, if you do not know what to do, do not be afraid to ask. My other advice is constantly making sure that if something is not working, you have to create a change agent. You have to figure out a different way to do it; otherwise you are not going to see different results. And if you just wait for the economy to get better, it is probably not the right answer.

ABOUT SIDNEY R. BROWN: Mr. Sidney R. Brown serves as the Chief Executive Officer at NFI, its subsidiaries and affiliates. At NFI, he has set the vision to rapidly grow through start-ups, acquisitions and the aggressive expansion of NFI’s core business. Mr. Brown began his career in investment banking at Morgan Stanley before he joined NFI. Sidney sits on the Board of Sun Bancorp, Inc. where he serves as a Vice Chairman(NASDAQ:SNBC). He is also a Board Member of J&J Snack Foods (NASDAQ: JJSF). Additionally, he is a graduate of Georgetown University and earned an M.B.A. from Harvard University.

ABOUT NFI: NFI, founded in 1932 as National Hauling, has evolved from a trucking company in a regulated environment into one of the largest privately held integrated supply chain companies in North America. Today, NFI provides Logistics, Warehousing and Distribution, Transportation, Intermodal, Real Estate, Transportation Brokerage, Contract Packaging, Solar, Global and Consulting Services. NFI employs more than 5,500 people in the US and Canada. Revenues have surpassed $900 million and the company is well positioned to continue its explosive growth. Its market share predominantly comes from consumer and retail goods, general commodities and food and grocery. NFI is headquartered in Cherry Hill, NJ.

Mary Lorenz

About Mary Lorenz

Mary is a copywriter for CareerBuilder, specializing in B2B marketing and corporate recruiting best practices and social media. In addition to creating copy for corporate advertising and marketing campaigns, she researches and writes about employee attraction, engagement and retention. Whenever possible, she makes references to pop culture. Sometimes, those references are even relevant. A New Orleans native, Mary now lives in Chicago, right down the street from the best sushi place in the city. It's awesome.


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