An Interview with Wade Mayfield, President of Thermal Services, Inc.
By Jake Chapman and Charista Baye, Creighton University MBA students
Business ethics is a field that has been growing in popularity in many industries and brings to mind images of big banks and multinational corporations that are out of touch with how the country really operates. What you wouldn’t expect is to see a small heating and air conditioning company in Omaha, Nebraska, setting ethical standards. That is exactly what Thermal Services, led by President Wade Mayfield, is accomplishing. A 2009 and 2003 Better Business Bureau Integrity Award winner, Thermal Services provides proof that success can be achieved through honesty, integrity and good, old-fashioned doing the right thing.
When talking with Mayfield, it becomes immediately apparent that, while some people study ethics and debate ethical dilemmas in leadership ’til they are blue in the face, others just have it in their blood. We were impressed with the candor that Mayfield had when discussing ethics and its place in his organization. To him, the ethical business practices he applies are just second nature (or at least he makes it look that easy). By putting ethical business at the foundation of his organization, he has created a culture where employees practice ethics when no one is looking, which is a true measure of success in our minds.
Let’s start from the beginning, tell us about your background. Where were you raised, what education did you have and what is your career trajectory?
“I grew up in a family of five, with my two brothers and parents, near Olathe, Kansas. I played football at a junior college for a year and decided that wasn’t for me. I met my wife there, and we got married; she finished her studies at the University of Kansas, and I went to work. Fast forward 10 years, and it was 10 years ago Labor Day weekend that we moved to Omaha. I had a wife and two kids, no job, and happened to find an ad in the paper here for a sheet metal apprentice. I came and applied with about 300 of my closest friends, and I was fortunate enough to fill one of the two spots. From there, that’s kind of the beauty of a small business; if you apply yourself, you can succeed. I never had any inkling I would end up president of a company.”
What kinds of jobs have you had in the past?
“I was a ditch digger, and then I actually hauled manure. I worked for a utility company in Olathe, doing ditch work and running heavy equipment and that type of stuff. They got bought out by a company and, long story short, I was released, even though I was told I was a great employee. After that, I worked for a really neat, Christian guy who had a construction company. I really enjoyed working for him; he was a really good man. I ran equipment and there was a lot of mine reclamation work being done up there. One of our contracts was to, literally, haul manure from one town 65-70 miles away and leave it so they could make the ground fertile again. We adopted our son while we were there, so we’ve always said that is the reason we went to Montana. Then, we decided we wanted to be a little closer to the grandparents as our kids were starting to grow up, so we moved to Omaha.”
Have you always done business in Omaha? If not, where else have you done business? What moral values typify the Omaha business community?
“I’ve been strongly involved in our local trade association, HACCA, and I have had the opportunity to work closely with my competitors in that arena. I’ll tell you, I think the best way I have heard Omaha described is, ‘It’s the biggest small town there is.’ You have a great opportunity to run a business and operate a business, but it is not so big that you are disconnected from your competitors and the people aspect of business. The climate I have found is that people want to serve and do things well. There is that ‘Midwestern feel’ of you do what you’re supposed to do and be a person of your work.”
“On the flip side of it, I don’t think there are enough vocal leaders of ethics out in the world today. I think ethics is something that has become more of a backroom discussion with people, versus being more of a front topic. In our trade association, I was chairman this past year, and we worked with a group of competitors to write a code of conduct that had ethical themes about some of the rules that you need to abide by. We made sure ethics was at the front of it, and that is one of the things I am probably most proud of. It’s really neat that once you open that envelope, people love to walk through that with you.”
What do you like most about your work?
“I love leading, and I enjoy people development. I enjoy offering somebody the same opportunity that I have been offered and to be able to see wherever they thought their limits were, that those are self-imposed. You can take somebody that has passion, drive and some raw, innate abilities and really do something with that. I enjoy leading change, structurally and culturally. That’s fun. It’s what really drives me.”
What do you like least?
“If you are going to have a changing, evolving, growing, healthy and vibrant company, along the way you are going to find people who are good people who just aren’t going to be a good fit. Having to go to somebody and let them know that we certainly appreciate them, but we’re just not going to be a good fit for one another is hard. So, probably making those calls. It’s never fun, but it’s always the right thing to do for both parties.”
Very generally, when you think of "ethics," what does it mean to you?
“It’s a reflection of your character and your integrity. I think the biggest thing that I can do as a leader is to live a life that is worthy that others would be willing to follow. When integrity and character are in your life at the center point, then ethical behavior follows. So, I think it is less procedural, and it’s more who you are as a person.”
Describe an ethical situation in business you have faced that was relatively easy to handle. Who was involved, where, what did you do, why?
“Well, an easy one is that we recommended that a customer change their furnace out that had a flawed heat exchanger. We brought all of the product back in. My service manager went through it and found that we had made an incorrect diagnosis. At the time, we were already in the process of installing the new system that we had sold for $6,000 or $7,000. The sales manager and service manager came to me and said, ‘We can’t charge them for this,’ and I completely agreed.”
“So, I had my sales manager make the call so he could have the experience of ‘living out’ our ethics. He told them we were going to complete the installation of the new system, but we were not going to charge them for it.
The guy could hardly believe it. He would have never known, but we would have always known. That’s the right thing to do. You know ethics are in your culture when it is brought to your attention by your employees. That is very rewarding, and it’s really neat to know.”
“Inevitably, in a company of 100, you are going to have somebody that’s going to steal, or you’re going to have somebody that’s going to do something that is unethical. One of the decisions that I’ve made is that if I am going to lead with character, I am going to explain to people what character is.”
“We had an employee who was standing in line at a store after he got off work and still had his uniform on. He got in an argument and cussed at a lady. She called in upset by it because her kids were there, and I fired the guy. I told him, ‘You’re fired because of what you did here. It didn’t have anything to do with work, but it has everything to do with who you are as an individual, and that’s not going to be tolerated here.’ I took that and went back to our employees and said, ‘Character is going to matter here. We don’t do this.’ There is right and wrong, and I believe the best way you can teach is by showing people what character, integrity and being ethical looks like.”
Describe an ethical situation in business you have faced that was hard to handle. Who was involved, where, what did you do, why?
“We have purchased a few different companies along the way. Once, we purchased a company that had a great, big million-dollar plus home being constructed, and they had the contract to do all of the heating and air conditioning on it. We purchased it during the construction phase, and it gets to be very complicated, but, long story short, once it was completed, they were not happy at all with the way the system was working. I gave them a guarantee that, ‘You are doing business with us, and I’m going to make sure we are going to get this right.”
“They had another pretty severe mechanical failure on a piece of equipment, so what I ended up doing was replacing that system for them for free and upgrading it to a better brand and a higher quality product. To the letter of the law, I could have said the date has passed and it went out of warranty and walked away from it. So, that’s where I start to go down the road of what’s the right thing to do versus, procedurally, where are the boundaries?”
“The continuation of that is they were still having problems with water dropping down on their ceiling. I continued to work with them and brought in some experts who were able to diagnose the problem. I had no financial gain in it; I had nothing else other than keeping my word and commitment. It was a six to seven week deal that took a lot of time but, at the end of it, I felt good about the fact I was going to bed at night knowing we did the right thing.”
You kind of touched on it, but why do you call the three previous situations ethical? Do you have anything else to add?
“I always have something to add, because I am passionate about ethics. Philosophically, I keep our company away from being a very ridged process and procedure-driven company. Don’t get me wrong, we have a handbook, we have guidelines, we have information that we operate our company in inside of boundaries. What I’ve tried to do is leave discretion to create a thinking culture that believes in character, integrity and these core values that we have talked about. I don’t think you can make ethics into a procedure. I have been around companies that it works for them, but it doesn’t work for us. I think you are doing a disservice if you do that. There are safeguards, but I don’t think it can be a procedure-driven thing.”
How does it feel talking with us about ethical quandaries you faced? Is it easy? It is uncomfortable?
“It’s easy for me. I’ve just never had a problem with that.”
To expand on that, do you think that it’s easy because it’s commonsense or is it just “this is ethical,” and you just know it?
“I profess that there are four things that people need to possess to work for me, and I align myself by these as well:
- Leadership: You have to be worthy of being followed.• Candor: You have to be able to speak the truth while leaving dignity in place.
- Tenacity: You have to get up and want to win every day on your own.• Execution: You have to be able to take the plan and put wheels on it.
“I try to simplify things, and I try to simplify business. When I have an ethical problem, I go through, and I evaluate it based on those four things. Nothing becomes personal at that point, so I don’t have a problem talking about it. Typically, what you have is that you make people around you uncomfortable when you do talk about it. That’s the thing that I have been able to see. Once people get used to that, they love to join you, and they love to be able to talk about it. But, again, it is kind of more of a closet topic that people just don’t want to go there.”
Do you think that it is more of a closet topic because they may not agree, or because it is just not something you talk about every day?
“No, we talk about it regularly. People have an inherent risk associated with being wrong, I guess, or offending someone, and I think that holds people back from really being able to express an opinion on something. They may think, ‘Oh, geez, what will so-and-so think about me?’ As I’ve told people, this is what I believe to be right and wrong. It doesn’t mean that I can make you have the same belief system as I do, but this is what is tolerable where I have stewardship.”
Talk about the ethical culture at your organization: How do you infuse ethics in your organization? Do you have formal policies in place? How do you get everybody to be as ethical as you are?
“As the president of the company, I am the example. How I position my life and what I deem is important will be noticed by everybody. Something that I teach our managers in reviews is this: I draw a triangle and say, ‘I’m here, and I live in a glass house, everybody below me has a view up, and they will be looking constantly for a flaw or something I have done wrong. I get that, I am willing to accept that. But I want to make sure that you understand that you have come along this hillside, you have windows, too.”
“For some of the practical things, I have what’s called a thought for the week and, every week, I put an email out to the management that talks about ethical situations— something that helps them stop and think about where they are at. How are they serving their customers? What are we doing as a company? Are we delivering what we are supposed to be doing? I think the best thing is to constantly be asking the question, ‘Are we doing the right thing?’ In any of my quarterly company meetings, I hit ethical topics of what we dealt with this quarter as a company. I show them where I see the world evolving, where we see the behavior of a constricted economy, etc. I’ll use examples of companies that have chosen poor short-term decisions and how it blew up on them.”
(Holding a sales and service handbook) “This is a concept that I came up with that we use for our retail selling, our residential side of our business and the commercial as well. Everything that we have should fall into this: One, we need to understand the technical merits of that product, we need to understand why it is worth us selling, and two, is there value that the customer will see out of it? If we believe those two things, then we need to know how to effectively communicate that to where our integrity is never in breach. So, this really does keep us in balance that if we start to over-sell and over-represent a product, then we have walked away from our responsibility to always have integrity. All of our employees have this handbook. We go through this on Monday morning.”
Have you had an ethics mentor? If so, who and why?
“The quick answer is Jesus. Probably the best mentor there is. Beyond that, my dad is the one who taught his son what is right or wrong. So, it would be my dad.”
Do you see any connections between how you were raised and how you handle ethical situations at work?
“Yes. I was a very strong-willed kid, and my dad did a great job never bailing me out and making me have to be accountable for what I did along the way. I always remember him telling me, ‘You made your bed, now you have to sleep in it.’ He did a really good job of teaching me through character lessons, versus berating and yelling at me trying to correct behaviors. We grew up in a strong, Christian home, and those values still apply to me today. I always knew right from wrong. You always assume, as a kid and as you grow up, that everybody has the same upbringing and the same values system as you, and that is just not the case.”
Leaving a legacy: What are the biggest ethical challenges that you think face the younger business professionals today? Any tips for dealing with them?
“I don’t know that you are going to have any less pressure or any more pressure on what is right or wrong. I don’t think that ever becomes easy, and it probably shouldn’t. If it’s easy, then you’re in the norm and you become homogenized. If what you think and how you do things doesn’t really matter to you, then there is nothing there to separate you from the norm.”
“The power of technology is definitely something that is a blessing and a curse. It can expedite great news, and it can expedite bad news, too. In our company, all of our people have computers that they work off, and you have to start monitoring what Internet access is used for. Politically speaking, our country has moved more towards acceptance, everything needs to be O.K., and we need to be tolerant. I think that you need to be tolerant, but I’ll never be a tyrant to somebody that doesn’t agree with me, and it should never stand in my way of standing on my belief system.”
“Yesterday, I sent out my thought for the week, and I turned the table and asked my employees to give me thoughts for the week. One of them that came back was really pretty cool. It talked about the economy and the world that we live in and how different we are and the results that we are seeing are so much different from what you hear and you see. Probably one of the neatest things that was in it was that, even though the economy is tough, we are in a position that the pendulum of integrity always swings in favor of our customers. I think to sum it up, nobody wants to be that guy that does that stupid thing. You just don’t do that. “
“So, back to your end question. I don’t think that you and your generation are ever going to get away from that. I would just encourage you to understand truly who you are and what your core values are and what you want the reflection of what you are responsible for to look like.”