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NFI: Keeping the Entrepreneurial Spirit Alive

NFI: Keeping the Entrepreneurial Spirit Alive


Success can kill the entrepreneurial spirit of a company.If we are not actively engaged in protecting the innovators within our own ranks, the systems and process that must necessarily accompany growth will strangle them. But how do we grow and stay entrepreneurial?

NFI www.nfiindustries.com is one of the nation’s largest 3rd party supply chain and logistics companies.  It has over $1 billion in revenues, 8,000 employees and is led by the third generation of the Brown family that started the company in the 1930’s. NFI has something to teach all of us about how to keep an entrepreneurial spirit and values alive as our companies grow.  I highlight three insights in this article:

  • When hiring leaders from the outside, NFI looks for leaders who bring diverse expertise but shared values.
  • They intentionally invest in the future leaders already in their ranks who have “grown up” with the company’s values.
  • NFI’s executives are intentional about making the senior management team unified and highly functional.

NFI started as a trucking company and grew with an entrepreneurial combination of strategic savvy and opportunistic execution.   Today it offers everything from trucking to warehouse operation to real estate development to global logistics. The diversity of its service offerings have become a competitive advantage for NFI – few companies provide the range and depth of supply chain solutions they provide to clients. But keeping the entrepreneurial spirit alive in a company of this size takes work. Here are some insights into how NFI does it.

Make sure outside hires share your values

When you talk with Jeff Brown, NFI’s President, he is the first to say that the company long ago grew to the point where it needs leaders from outside the family to provide expertise in critical areas. Jeff understands that you must have diversity of thought at senior levels, and he and the other family members who run the company do not pretend to have all the answers. They actively seek to hire and develop leaders who know things that they don’t. They are also actively committed to developing diversity within the ranks of the company.

However, every leader – whether family member, long-time employee, or recent hire – must embody NFI’s values. The company emphasizes the importance of family, integrity, and a strong work ethic. Everyone in the company is competitive. And, the focus of this article, there is an entrepreneurial spirit at the heart of NFI that is important to cultivate and protect.

Jeff emphasizes that, particularly at senior levels, you have to hire people who already possess these values and characteristics. At senior levels, you are not going to teach someone to be entrepreneurial. NFI is looking for high integrity, competitive people who have demonstrated the ability to champion and implement innovative ideas.

High-growth companies must selectively look for leadership and expertise outside their own four walls. The economy is moving too fast to expect to have all the answers that you need within your own business. NFI demonstrates that in order to do this hiring well, we must know who we are as companies.  Then we must identify and attract leaders who bring diverse expertise but convergent values.

Intentionally cultivate internal talent

Beyond external hiring, NFI sponsors a yearlong executive education program with Rutgers University for high-potential leaders within its own ranks. These strong, more junior leaders participate in classes and seminars for 12 months as they work full-time at NFI.  The year culminates in a final project in which they make a formal presentation and recommendations for improvement to the company’s executive management team. Imagine the kind of attention a school project gets when the “students” are full-time employees and they are presenting to their CEO!

Consider this:  in 2016, only 5% of S&P 500 companies went outside of their own ranks to recruit a new CEO.  While we do need to recruit outside leadership into the C-Suite and occasionally into the top job, generally when companies can cultivate their next CEO from within, they do.  Superior business people who grow up in our businesses, know our culture, and have established relationships and credibility have a leg up on outsiders for the top role.

Given this, NFI’s intentional investment in its future leaders is important for us to note. You don’t have to be a Fortune 500 company to have a structured executive development program.  If our organizations are of a size where a partnership with a local business school similar to NFI’s is possible, let’s explore it. If not, we can still create internal universities that generate a meaningful return on our investment. Turn your own executives into “faculty.” Invite guest speakers. Arrange trips to benchmark other best-in-class companies. You can spur a lot of executive development without spending a lot of money.

Stay unified at the top

Jeff Brown emphasizes how important it is that the company’s senior leaders are a true, unified team. Ten years ago, Nancy Stefanowicz, the company’s Senior Vice President of Human Resources, encouraged the senior leaders to take their team effectiveness to the next level.  As Jeff Brown describes it:

“Prior to that, when one person’s portion of the business was struggling, the rest of us would just stare at him or her during our meetings – it was that person’s problem to solve, not our problem to solve.  Now, after ten years of intentional work, we recognize that every big issue is our issue. We each work to support one another. We are a confidential forum for one another.  And this has made a big difference for our management team and our company.”

Many companies start out dynamic and exciting but end up conflicted and toxic. Keeping a company nimble starts at the top. With unity at the top, we can capitalize upon the advantages of increased scale and scope while avoiding the pitfalls. To accomplish this means that we have to “lead our leaders” and insist that our senior leadership actually behave like a team.

Article Wrap Up

Growth becomes bad if it chokes out the entrepreneurial spirit that got us where we are today.  NFI is a great example of how to keep this entrepreneurial spirit alive. They work at protecting this spirit within their senior management team. They take steps to ensure that new hires bring needed expertise but share these same values. They work hard to cultivate and keep strong performers who already share these values. We can capitalize upon NFI’s model by taking a look in the mirror and asking ourselves if success is threatening to choke out our own entrepreneurial spirit, and then intentionally taking steps to make sure this does not happen.


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