Stan Silverman | Crain's Philadelphia

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Stan Silverman

Background:  

Stan Silverman founded Silverman Leadership to help companies create what he calls "leadership cultures," which encourage all employees to take charge of implementing the company's vision. He is also vice chairman of the board of Drexel University.

Before founding Silverman Leadership, Silverman worked in the chemical manufacturing industry for 31 years, starting out as a processing engineer for Atlantic Richfield Company, which was acquired by PQ Corporations in 1971. Over the next 30 years, Silverman rose through the ranks until he became CEO and president of PQ in 2000.   

The Mistake:  

When I was president of our Canadian company, there was a pulp and paper customer in Whitecourt, Alberta, that needed one of our products to bleach the pulp that they were producing to a lighter color. It was a small, developing market and we only had one customer, but we wanted to build a plant to handle the growth of the market.  

Our engineering department and our plant operations designed the plant and it had a low rate of return, lower than the threshold needed to be to approve the project.  

At the time, I was reporting to the CEO of the corporation's parent company. I sat down and told him I am not sure we can move forward even though strategically it is something we wanted to do. He said, "Well, tell me about the plant."  

Typically, we would run the plant with five people, and he said, "Well, can you run it with fewer people?"

I said, "No, how can we run it with fewer people?"  

"Well, can you run it with one person?" he said.

I said, "No, I don't think so."  

"Well, we'll get to that in a bit. Can you run it with two people?"  

I knew where he was heading, and I said, "Well, I guess we can put two people on one shift."  

He said, "No, I want you to put one person on the first shift and one person on the second shift and allot a third person to the third shift when the demand for the product grows. I want you to take a look at the scope of the project. Design it for the capacity you see for the next five years and not much longer than that.”  

We went back and we refined the plan. We figured out a way to run it with one person on one shift and one person on the second shift. We needed a higher skill-set person than we would normally have hired for that job. 

We eventually built another plant on Vancouver Island to do the same thing, and we did run it with one person. Whenever that person got sick or took off, we hired a retiree from the pulp and paper industry to fill in. We set the standard for the industry.

I sat down and told him I am not sure we can move forward....

The Lesson:  

You should always challenge your paradigm and think outside of the box. Be creative and innovative — it moves your business forward. As leaders we have to help our people be creative and innovative and help them break their paradigms. That's how you move forward. So you always have to be thinking about how to do this better and improve in terms of continuous improvement.    

We basically broke a paradigm with how big plants are built and run and reset the standard for the industry. There are a lot of design elements that we incorporated that we never even thought about before, but we had to because we had to have this one person run it.  

The other thing that we did was we helped people become multi-skilled, so instead of just doing one thing every day, they were doing a multitude of things and helped them develop as individuals.   

Follow Stan Silverman on Twitter at @StanSilverman