Thrasher Basement Systems

An Interview with Dan Thrasher, Director of Operations at Thrasher Basement Systems
By Nikki Grandpre and Ryan Kenney, Creighton University MBA students

Thrasher Basement Systems has been a successful business for over thirty years, specializing in basement waterproofing, crawl space repair, and foundation repair. Thrasher started out as a family run business in a small town in Iowa by Greg and Nancy Thrasher. It was founded in 1975, and since that time, Thrasher has grown to include a staff of over ninety employees and has expanded its services to Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, and Missouri. Today, they are one of the largest waterproofing and foundation repair specialists in the region.

The decision to move business into Omaha was based largely on the population. There was a larger market base in Omaha, and Thrasher wished to affiliate with this area because they wanted to work with people who had similar values and work ethic. Thrasher is unique in that it has remained in the same area for almost thirty-five years, and has not strayed out side of their niche in that time. They see themselves as experts in basement waterproofing and foundation repair, and there fore keep their focus in those areas.

One key to the great success of Thrasher Basement Systems lies in the company’s culture. Thrasher was among the recipients of the 2008 Better Business Bureau (BBB) Integrity Award, and it did not take long to understand why. When we arrived to interview Dan Thrasher, the Director of Operations for Thrasher Basement Systems and the son of the owner, we immediately got a feel for what the company valued. The waiting lobby of the office building was filled with awards demonstrating Thrasher’s excellence in customer service and other integrity awards.

It turns out that Thrasher had won the BBB Integrity Award before in 2000. We learned that in order to receive the award, a company must be nominated, and then must fill out an application that details how they run the business. The company must also provide references of customers, including those who were unsatisfied in some way and they must explain how those issues were resolved. Once a business wins the Integrity Award, they cannot receive the award again for a period of three years. Thrasher had been eager to regain this achievement a second time, but had settled for honorable mention. That being said, attaining the 2008 BBB Integrity Award meant a great deal to them, and it showed. We were eager to learn what role Thrasher’s company culture and ethical basis played in this accomplishment. A friendly staff member introduced us to Dan, and we sat down for a very leisurely and enjoyable interview.

We learned that Dan grew up in Omaha, and attended college at Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was apparent that Dan’s parents are still very much involved in the company they had started in 1975. In fact, Greg Thrasher now owns a manufacturing company as well as Thrasher Basement Systems, and that company makes products for the original business. Dan related that he sees his family members as business colleagues because he has worked with them for so long.

What do you like most about your work? Least?

I like that this company is progressive and innovative. We are always trying to find more and better ways to do things. My personality lends itself to that. I like variety and change and I enjoy looking for ways to make improvements. Working with my Dad, I learned to adopt his “whatever it takes” mentality. He doesn’t allow customers to remain unhappy. We do as many things up front as we can to make things acceptable for the customer, and then we will go above and beyond to make sure the customer is satisfied. I’ve worked in companies that lack this mentality and it is not as much fun.

One difficulty we have is in trying to maintain small company atmosphere and family run company culture. This takes more and more energy because we have an increasing number of employees. Our company growth has been great over the last five years. We have several employees who have only been her for a few years, so we have to spend a lot of time on maintaining our positive culture. We’ve done this in a variety of ways. We have family outings, parties, and lots of opportunities for training and maintaining employees. We implemented a program called “Wow Service” which basically focuses on how you can get a wow out of customers. We want to be the best and want to give customers the best. So we have lots of new programs to train and instill values in the company. We often train on the history of the company as well in an evening session or a family get together because we think it is important for everyone to understand the company’s core values.

Very generally, when you think of “ethics,” what does it mean to you?

Ethics is one of our core values. We believe in doing the right thing even if you might get away with not doing so. The more employees we have, the more we have to keep an eye on ethics. We try to reward them for doing the right thing even if it costs more money or takes more time. We feel that if you reward good behavior, you can avoid having to worry about what people might do wrong. We run this business as a Christian based organization because my family considers it important. I think that having ethics as a core value has helped attract employees. Over fifty percent of our employees are referred by friends and family. In this way, having those references means they may already be a good fit in our culture. When we can “snag” someone from an existing job, it says something about the attractiveness of the company. We hire for attitude and understand that we can always train for skill. Having the right “fit” is of major importance to us.

The fact that we stand by our work even beyond the warranty we give out also speaks to our culture. Word of mouth and reputation are huge to our business. Even if a problem is not related to our work entirely, we will come out and look at it and will try to refer the customer to someone who can help them. We feel it is a part of doing what is right.

Describe an ethical situation in business you have faced that was relatively easy to handle.

Twenty-five percent of our customers let our employees into their homes and then leave to go to work. Employees could snoop around, take things, etc. We are usually doing some sort of removal of basement floors. When the customer gets home, the new floor should already have been put in place, so they have no proof of what has been done under there. We work to ensure integrity through weekly training (one and a half hours) no matter how long an employee has been with us to continue improvement, learning, etc. We also give out surveys to all customers and have them rate how we did. We read these in front of all employees and include names to provide credit and accountability. Also, we make post-installation visits to look over the job and make sure everything is done correctly.

Describe an ethical situation in business you have faced that was difficult to handle.

In one instance, our system design specialist had diagnosed a problem and we fixed the issue per his recommendation. We had to return later to find that when it rained there was water that had been there and had dried. Our design specialist had to base what happened off the customer’s explanation. The customer was upset that after the rain our work didn’t hold up.

The customer had put new carpet in and our warranty says that if water comes in from something we already fixed, we cover the damages, but personal belongings are not included. They wanted their carpet replaced. We talked about this situation as a group, realized it wasn’t our fault completely, but ultimately came up with the following. We offered them a flooring product that was waterproof (carpet) that they hadn’t chosen to use previously, but this time we offered it to them at cost so they got a permanent fix for their problem. We considered this a fair trade. We save the customer money and give them a permanent solution, while the customer simply covers the cost of it. This individual was actually one of our references for the BBB award.

In another instance, a customer had a completely finished basement that possibly needed some work. Based on a description from the homeowner and the way that the drywall was cracking, it looked like the basement wall was bowing in, so we bid them and fixed it. Later on, other problems were occurring throughout the house and it was determined that the basement wall wasn’t really the problem and they decided to take all the drywall down. They found out that it had not been necessary for Thrasher to have done the previous work. We had some one go down to look at it and found that the customer also had wall anchors that didn’t appear to be necessary, but agreed that it was understand able why the customer thought it looked like they did. We refunded the money for the job and left the anchors in. This way, the customer had the benefit of the anchors if they ever did end up needing them and they hadn’t incurred any costs.

Talk about the ethical culture at your organization. What are some of the unspoken ethical rules in your organization?

One of the ethical rules within our organization, although it is not written anywhere and is not found in any of our material, is the “whatever it takes” mentality. I hear people say this all the time here at the company. For example, we did a job for an apartment complex for one room in the basement that was getting water. It was raining during the job and even though the complex hadn’t bid for us to do the room next door to the one we were working on, it was taking on water also. No one was available to ask if they wanted us to continue taking care of problems in the other room so the foreman just did the work and went ahead and fixed it without worrying about if cost was going to be an issue or whether or not the apartment complex would pay for it. He took initiative without having to go through the whole chain of command due to situation’s urgency. Our employees seem to feel empowered to go above and beyond when necessary. Exceeding expectations is important.

We also respect our facility and keep things clean and tidy. We make it a point to hand wash all of our trucks at the business. We recycle paper, and in fact had an employee organize our recycling effort without being asked. She arranged to have a recycling bin under everyone’s desk and got a company to come out and pick the recycling up every week.

How do you infuse ethics in your organization?

I credit my parents for starting this company with ethics in mind and for maintaining that value in our culture. It is difficult to try to change a company’s culture after it has been established, so we are very fortunate in that regard.

We have a Director of Training Development in house who is responsible for training and infusing the culture at all times. We have department meetings for each department with fifty per cent of the meeting time devoted to training and we try to have some sort of training or feedback every week. As I’ve already mentioned, we have employee outings such as our Christmas party, summer carnival, and others because we see family as being really important to our business. These outings breed loyalty within the company as well. We also provide pay plus incentive pay. In this way, everyone has an opportunity to share in the company’s profit and this is deter mined based on performance. This is objective because every thing is based on statistical analysis of performance. This makes people excited for success. They want the company to succeed because they will also get a piece of the action.

Have you had a mentor? If so, who and why?

My Dad is my mentor. I grew up in a household where business was always a focus. I also read a lot and listen to a lot of audio programs. There are several authors who have impacted me even without them knowing who I am. Also, Thrasher is part of a dealer network with companies all over the country that are very similar to us. We get together with them to brainstorm, learn from each other’s mistakes, and bench mark. Since we aren’t competing with each other we are able to share our knowledge. I have always tried to learn from employees of other dealers out there.

Who was your first manager? What did you learn from him/her? Do you think your style mirrors theirs?

I had early experiences with managers who had good styles and bad. I tried to take the best and avoid the worst from everyone. I had a manger while I was in college who was very empowering. He gave me the tools I needed but then gave me the space and authority I needed to do my job. There was no hovering and no micromanaging. I felt I was able to grow a lot in that position and even if I made mistakes it was ok.

Now, I have a very hands off approach to my own employees. I have the benefit of having a great team to work with, and I try to meet with them every week to see how things are going, but for the most part I let them do their jobs. I also work side-by-side with them. They know they can make decisions without asking me, and even if I don’t agree completely with a decision I won’t under mine them in front of the other employees. Everyone has to take responsibility for their actions. That is another value of ours.

What are the biggest ethical challenges that you think young business professionals face today? Any tips for dealing with them?

I think smaller companies and startups have the big gest challenge of investing in their employees. It is hard to justify spending money to hire great people, especially if you have a hard time delegating. Thrasher has seen so much growth out of quality employees and I think it is definitely worth investing in people. I offer a job to anyone I see out in the workplace or wherever I might encounter someone who impresses me. If I notice them, I want to find them work here because they will make Thrasher better.

No one person is great enough to do it all on their own so we need to have good people around. An employee who is great enough to give authority to is worth twice as much as one who you aren’t willing to delegate to but can pay less money. Those who are productive on their own will reap benefits for you. I would advise those in the business world to stand behind everything you do and follow through with your customers. Call customers and ask them if they were satisfied even if they don’t tell you first. People who are blown away by good work or who are upset with bad service will tell others about their experiences but those who are just ok with a job or are simply satisfied wont tell people and there will be no word of mouth. Do the little things if it will make your customers say “wow,” even if it seems expensive or not worth it.