People say that a team is only as strong as its weakest link. In the manufacturing industry, often times this idea is completely overblown by management teams that treat their lower-level employees on the production side of the business more like widgets than actual people. But to run a profitable, balanced manufacturing business, this theory of overarching bureaucracy is not always the correct formula. One of Georgia’s largest food manufacturing companies, Southeastern Mills, has been thriving around a workplace culture and philosophy that puts its people first, no matter what level of the company they operate on, showing that mutual trust, respect and valuing employees can be the three most important ingredients for success.
Southeastern Mills is a fourth-generation, privately held food products manufacturer based out of Rome, Ga., whose products are used by some of the country’s largest restaurant chains, food manufacturers and retail grocery consumers nationwide. Southeastern Mills makes a growing variety of coating systems; seasonings & marinades; food bases and broths; and soup, sauce, gravy, and baking mixes. Despite its increasingly diverse product line and large client base, the company executives attribute a great deal of the company’s success to proper focus on a positive, people-centric workplace culture.
“Most workplaces, you have books of rules and policies and procedures,” says George Manak, the Vice President of Marketing at Southeastern Mills, “ and that is so demeaning and demoralizing because it basically tells grown adults that you’re back to being the child and the parent, in this case, is your company. These sets of rules don’t get the best efforts out of people because you’re automatically putting a barrier between workers and truly high performance. So we’ve got one rule here and that one rule is: Everyone acts in the best interest of their fellow employees and the company.”
Southeastern Mills fuels its people-first philosophy through a concept called High Performance Work Place culture, which operates under eight basic principles: trust, positive assumptions, eliminating negatives, training and development, open two-way communication, employee involvement, competitive wages and benefits, and performance improvement. In short, these eight themes play into the way different people in the company interact with and treat one another, no matter what role or position particular employees embody in the workplace environment.
According to Jason Marion, the Director of Human Resources at Southeastern Mills, the culture of the company is driven by a willingness to entrust responsibility to employees at all levels. “We don’t have the typical 500 rules up in the break room. Our employees don’t punch a clock. Our production employees are all salary and they’re paid for reasonable, necessary absences… If you work really hard to eliminate the negatives that exist in your workplace, if you eliminate all those things that make employees feel like second-class citizens, then it creates such a powerful, high-performing workplace. What you get is absenteeism that is below 1 percent, you get employee turnover that is below 1 percent, and you have employees that go beyond what is expected of them.”
For many American businesses which are driven primarily by a need to satisfy the bottom line, culture is a term that can be seen as soft or squishy. Southeastern Mills implemented their people-first cultural approach more than 17 years ago and has seen massive bouts of expansion and profitable returns in the years since, while never steering away from a philosophy of accountability and respect towards employees at all levels. In this case, reinforcement of a positive workplace culture across the entire company most assuredly outweighs the air of expendability that can be present in traditional corporate hierarchies. “We want to focus on the culture because by getting the culture correct, we can sustain superior performance,” says George Manak, “If you look at the hard financial metrics of our business, we would be considered a very successful organization.”