AA Windows "N" Doors

An Interview with Tom Rhodes, Co-Owner of AA Windows “N” Doors, and Recipient of the 2007 Better Business Bureau’s Integrity Award
By Justin Shanahan and Trevor Bertsch, Creighton University MBA students

Tom Rhodes and Gary Smith have been in the home improvement industry for over 30 years. Six years ago, they saw an opportunity to fill the growing needs of their industry by offering customized quality products and services at very reasonable prices, and AA Windows “N” Doors was born. Founded on a mission to provide the highest quality, highest value products and services to their customers, AA Windows “N” Doors has quickly built a solid reputation for doing business the right way within the Omaha community.

AA Windows “N” Doors has been widely recognized for their ethical business practices and quality customer service. They were the recipient of the 2007 Better Business Bureau Integrity Award and currently hold an A+ rating with the Better Business Bureau. In addition, they are members of a variety of local chambers of commerce.

Tom, can you give a general definition of “ethics” as you see it?

“I keep it real simple myself. A long time ago, I found an article that I still keep on my desk. All it says is “Should you do it?” It is a four-point checklist that helps me make ethical decisions. It asks:

  • Is it legal?
  • If someone else did this to you, would you think it was fair?
  • Would you be content if this were to be on the front page of your hometown newspaper?
  • Would you want your mother to see it on the front page of the newspaper?

“If you answer yes to all these questions, you are probably doing things ethically. I think being ethical is doing what’s right by the law and what you think is right for you, your family and the people around you.”

What role does this view of ethics play in your business operations?

“It plays a huge role. Our salespeople are trained that way, our installers are trained that way and, from the top down, we keep an eye on everything that is going on around here, just to make sure it is ethical and legal. We demand our entire company do the right thing for our customers. This includes giving a straightforward estimate and sticking to it.

“Don’t undercut and then later raise the price. Treat people with dignity and respect. Constantly remind employees and do follow up with customers to make sure that sales people and customers are in the right state of mind. Don’t take money or advantage of people. We want to help people out and have them be satisfied with our services.”

How do you go about hiring employees that fit into your business’s culture of ethics?

“I have some questions on my interview form that are designed to figure out if a potential employee will fit into our ethical culture, although you can never be 100%. I ask them standard questions like “Where did you work before?” and “Why did you leave?” But, I also will ask them questions like “Tell me what ethical means to you?” and “Why should that be important if you work here?” If you talk with someone long enough and ask the right questions, you can figure out if they are ethical or not.”

Do your employees receive any formal ethical training once they are hired?

“We have an employee handbook as well as structured meetings that reinforce our ethical standards. We give employees tips on how to be safe with regards to themselves, our customers and the public in general. We give employees tips on how to pick out customers who are trying to take advantage of the company. Most of all, Gary and I feel that, as owners, we set the ethical tone in the company and project that onto our employees.”

Can you give an example of an ethical dilemma common to your industry that your company has encountered? How did you or your staff address this dilemma and what was the result?

“An older gentleman set up a meeting with me to discuss some renovation on his home. After talking with him for a bit, I grew concerned that he was somewhat forgetful.

“I asked him if there was a family member that could also be involved in the process and that, once a family member was contacted said it was O.K., I would go ahead schedule the work. The older gentleman refused to contact a family member, so I turned down the work. This made the man angry, and he ended up kicking me out of his house. However, later the man’s son called and thanked me for refusing the work, as his father was in fact losing his memory and not capable of making a decision like that. It would have been easy to take the older gentleman’s money and do the work, but it simply wasn’t the right, ethical decision to make.”

Many people say that Omaha offers a positive ethical business environment not found in other parts of the country. As a business owner, do you find this to be true? What is your opinion on Omaha’s business climate from an ethical perspective?

“I can tell you that the Midwest does have very hardworking and honest people who want to be successful. They are proud of their home and family. This is why the Midwest is doing better than some other parts of the country right now. There is a different outlook totally.

“I grew up in upstate New York, and the only time we made coffee was when somebody died and we were going to a funeral.

“In the Midwest, people always have a pot of coffee going. They want to sit down and have a cup of coffee with you and discuss their family and home. I had never experienced that before. This is why it is a good business environment. The people are nice to talk to and friendly, and they want to take care of their home and fix up their property.”

Who are some of your ethical influences? How did you come to “doing business” in a manner that has been widely recognized by the Better Business Bureau and others as exemplary?

“My dad and my mom would be the first. There were fifteen of us kids. My dad didn’t have a lot of time for us, and my mom didn’t either. But I remember my dad telling me “don’t lie, don’t steal and don’t cheat.” I always remember this and that was where it first started.

“We always had to work growing up, and I was lucky enough to work for people in my neighborhood who instilled these same values and taught me “if you work hard and tell the truth, you will get ahead.”

“I started working for companies, and some I enjoyed working for and some I didn’t. I have worked for some that weren’t the most honest, and I left after a short time. You have to make choices and I have chosen to work in honest, ethical environments.

“I would also say my partner, Gary, is a real honest person and an ethical influence. We have talks all the time about what’s right and what’s wrong. I have friends who are the same way. If you surround yourself with people like that, you will be fine, I think.”

As a business owner, what is the biggest ethical challenge you face?

“I suppose right now, it is a new lead law that changes frequently and is hard trying to keep up with it. It’s a very broad law that changes so much. We follow this law, even though not doing so in some cases would save us time and money. There are companies out there not following it.

“Most of them probably won’t get caught. It would be very difficult to get caught not following this law, but we chose to conduct our business by abiding by this law, even if we aren’t being watched. We make sure our installers are certified to deal with this law and we do our best to keep up with the constant changes. The cost alone to pass on to our customers is too much.

“The everyday codes are the biggest challenge, but I wouldn’t say it’s an ethical challenge because there is no question we are going to do it. But it is hard to manage that stuff sometimes. We are doing it, but a lot of people do skirt it. We are in there playing on an uneven surface.”

Are there financial benefits to operating your business in an ethical manner?

“We have had more good experiences by doing things the right way than bad experiences, by far. People tend to talk to each other. If I can do something right for somebody, they will pass it on right away, and I will get more business. It’s the right thing to do.

“It takes some time to build a clientele in our business. But, once the word gets out that we do things the right way and that people can trust us, it flourishes. That’s what it has done for us, and it is the reason we are as big as we are. We are not huge, but for six years being in business, we are doing pretty darn well. We do things the right way, ethically speaking.”

As a business owner, what advice do you have for someone looking to start their own business?

“If you are good at what you do and you have confidence in your own abilities, you can do it.”

“You need to have a great partner, a great wife, and you have to hire great people. But if you believe you can do something, you are good at what you do, and you do things by the book, you will be successful.”

“Should You Do It?” A Four Point Ethical Checklist

  1. Is it legal?
  2. If someone else did this to you, would you think it was fair?
  3. Would you be content if this were to be on the front page of your hometown newspaper?
  4. Would you want your mother to see it on the front page of the newspaper?