An Interview with Todd Rannals, Millard Sprinkler’s President
By Paula Lavigne and Dustin Springer, Creighton University MBA students
Todd Rannals discovered the principles of an ethical business from simple lessons found in free pizzas and an honest auto mechanic.
Rannals, owner of Millard Sprinkler, learned how to do the right thing at an early age by the examples set by his parents, teachers, neighbors, and businesses that treated his family well.
“Big Fred’s Pizza. When they screwed up you got a free pizza or a free pitcher of pop to make up for their little errors,” he said. He also remembered how Markel Automotive treated his mother well and gave her a good deal on repairs.
“It’s an impression that just lasts forever,” he said. “You want to be that good guy. That’s one of the goals we strive for.”
Rannals learned by example growing up and he teaches by example in the way he conducts himself running his business. It’s a method that has worked for Millard Sprinkler, which employees between 40 and 50 people and has reached more than 15,000 customers since its founding in 1995. In 2006, the company won a Better Business Bureau Integrity Award for its continued ethical service in the community.
With those early lessons in right and wrong as a foundation, Rannals graduated from Millard South, completed a few semesters of community college and jumped right into the workplace. He worked for two sprinkler distribution companies and a sprinkler contractor before starting his own business. Witnessing the interaction among customers, distributors, and installation companies showed him what does and does not work, especially as it relates to keeping customers.
At Millard Sprinkler, customer service drives its motto: “Our tomorrow starts today.” The company views customers as an investment, not just a sale. Employees work to build lasting relationships from installation through ongoing service.
That means if someone calls in with a simple question, “you answer that question,” without trying to draw it out into an hours-long service call, said general manager Dustin Nihsen.
“It has to do with treating the customer right today because you’re looking toward tomorrow and 10 years down the road,” he said, adding that the company relies a lot on word-of-mouth referrals.
Customer service goes beyond just doing the job. It’s about knowing which customers are especially particular about dirty shoes in their house, being considerate of a family going through a rough time, and making sure you refund or credit customers who send in payments larger than what they owe – which Nihsen and Rannals say happens a lot.
Employees who are commended for doing a good job get $5 in “Millard Sprinkler bucks” that they can spend in the company store on T-shirts, hats and other promotional items, Rannals said. Hard work gets noticed in other ways as well.
“I never once asked for a raise or a promotion. It just happened,” said Nihsen, who started as a sales rep in 2002.
Financial compensation is just one way the company’s leaders show employees that customer service and ethics matters. Millard Sprinkler does not have a formal or structured ethicstraining program, but an ethical discussion is part of the company’s annual meeting.
Rannals and Nihsen said ethical issues come up during weekly meetings and employees talk about what they did or what they should do in certain situations. They rely on foremen to model ethical behavior to new hires. “Our foremen are some of the nicest, hardest working people I’ve ever met,” said Nihsen.
Millard Sprinkler also makes ethics an important part of its hiring process, Nihsen said. Someone who cites, “personality issues” as a reason for leaving his or her last few jobs raises a red flag, he said.
“I’d just as soon hire somebody that is ethical and works 90 percent over somebody who would rather run over their mother and works 110 percent. Those people don’t fit in around here,” he said.
Employees at Millard Sprinkler are visible in their concern about customers, showing their remorse in their facial expressions and posture if they’ve done something wrong.“If they don’t have a good heart, they’re not going to last,” Rannals said. People who seem indifferent to their mistakes, “they don’t make it here,” he said.
“Employees constantly see the fact that we care about the customer. We want them to have the best sprinkler. Whether we put it in or not, we want it to work right,” he said. “We’re not real grey here. We’re pretty black and white. We let (employees) know, verbally, this is what we expect, this is what the customer expects and we try to give that to them.”