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When this scaleup wants to recognize outstanding team members, it passes the warrior helmet

COE Distributing recognizes employees for living core values such as teamwork with the 'Warrior Helmet."

By Verne Harnish

Teamwork and customer service are core values at COE Distributing in Smock, Pa. And the third-generation, family-run office furniture purveyor–started in the rented spare room of a bar in the 1940s by founder Clara Ewing–has found a unique way to recognize when employees are living these values. 

Employees chosen for COE’s peer recognition program are awarded a “warrior helmet,” for their service by the most recent recipient. The helmet changes hands every two weeks, in an all-hands-on-deck meeting. Top management doesn’t know who is chosen until that meeting, bringing an element of suspense. 

The company also interviews the winners and asks them questions about what it means to be the recipient, which are published on the company blog. By the end of the year, it recognizes 26 employees in this way.

For many, it’s a powerful reminder of the company’s culture. As one recipient, Assistant Facility Manager Lorenzo Caballero put it in his interview, “It means that we are working for an organization where both the leaders and fellow colleagues acknowledge efforts of others. It reassures me that we are truly all in this together!”

Every six months, the company also sends the winners and their significant others to a Pittsburgh Penguins hockey game.

“The program really was developed to reward our employees for a job well done,” says James D. Ewing, Jr., Clara’s grandson, who is CEO and president.

Partnering to keep employees inspired 

The helmet idea is modeled on a program within the Pittsburgh Penguins ice hockey team, where a player in possession of a team helmet hands it off to the player who showed the best work ethic in the game. 

COE has established a formal relationship with the Penguins, in which COE is the “employee engagement partner” of the team, over the past year. The two organizations now bring their teams together in a book club. “It’s about integrating the organizations and learning from each other,” says James.

He had been running a book club for his team for two years – where the group reads books such as The Power of Moments by Dan and Chip Heath — when the idea of bringing the groups together emerged. “This was an opportunity to shake things up and provide a unique experience for our employees,” says James.

Employee of the quarter

COE Distributing also rewards an “Employee of the Quarter,” in another peer recognition program. Employees nominate their colleagues, with James making the final call. 

The winners get to attend a Penguins game, where they are escorted to a high-end buffet dinner and enjoy meeting the players. One got to ride the Zamboni machine on the ice. 

Rapid Growth

COE’s innovative employee recognition programs have been essential to scaling the company. It hit tough times in the Great Recession. After being acquired by a national company in 2006, COE found itself under bankruptcy protection when the owners ran out of cash.

James Ewing, who’d grown up in the family business, bought the business out of bankruptcy with another former owner and a large creditor and started it again in 2010.

He made a prescient decision to offer his original sales rep an opportunity to buy equity in the company. “He’s still with us,” says James.

The company, which has been using the Scaling Up system to grow for the past two years, now has 120 employees, with plans to expand to 135 this year. It brought in more than $92 million in revenue last year and was profitable, according to James. It opened a new distribution center, its third, in Houston in October. 

Thanks to its highly motivated team, it’s full speed ahead. “We’re focused on continuous growth,” says James.  

Verne Harnish
Verne Harnish
Verne Harnish is founder of the world-renowned Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) and chaired for fifteen years EO’s premiere CEO program, the “Birthing of Giants” and WEO’s “Advanced Business” executive program both held at MIT. Founder and CEO of Gazelles, a global executive education and coaching company with over 150 coaching partners on six continents, Verne has spent the past three decades helping companies scale-up. The “Growth Guy” syndicated columnist, he’s also the Venture columnist for FORTUNE magazine. He’s the author of Scaling Up (Rockefeller Habits 2.0); Mastering the Rockefeller Habits; and along with the editors of Fortune, authored The Greatest Business Decisions of All Times," for which Jim Collins wrote the foreword. Verne also chairs FORTUNE Magazine’s annual Leadership and Growth Summits and serves on several boards including chairman of The Riordan Clinic and the newly launched Geoversity. An investor in many scale-ups, Verne resides in Barcelona with his wife and four children; and enjoys piano, tennis, and magic as a card-carrying member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians.

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