Former Caterpillar Exec Defines A New VIP Vision

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 584 views 

Does the company you work for give you a reason to care, or is it just a place where you earn a paycheck? Jon Harrison says it should be the first, and if it’s not, then the company can change that.

Harrison, 48, is the co-founder of VIP2, a business consulting firm based in Little Rock whose name stands for “values-driven, informed, passionate people.”

Co-founded by Harrison’s nephew, Rick Harrison, 46, VIP2’s mission is to help companies both large and small become places where employees will be proud to work. Training can be as short as an hour-and-a-half and as long as an ongoing three-month relationship. Jon Harrison envisions businesses displaying a VIP2 sticker on their doors for customers to see as they walk in.

“If you see that symbol, that means this is a place that focuses on their people, they hire well, they invest in their people and they instill passion,” he said.

Harrison co-founded the business after spending almost a quarter century working for Caterpillar. As plant manager, in 2008 he opened the company’s North Little Rock facility that produces all of its North American road graders. Under his watch, the company began the process of investing $140 million in the factory that is expected to employ 675 by the end of the year.

Harrison became convinced during his long Caterpillar career that companies must make investing in their employees a top priority. That was especially important at the heavily automated Caterpillar plant.

As Harrison was preparing to start up the plant, he had 1,300 applicants for the first 80 positions, which meant he could have just picked the first who qualified and been done with it.

Instead, potential employees underwent three interviews and then, after they were hired, spent four months training for their positions. Trainees could be late once, but after that they were in danger of losing their jobs. According to Harrison, the long process made it clear who really belonged there. After all, you can fake your way through three interviews, but not four months of training.

The training period was meant not only to teach job skills but to instill passion. Every employee – no matter their position – drove one of the road graders on their first day of training with an engineer in the cab, which was a pretty cool experience. A customer from North Dakota once addressed trainees about how necessary the road graders were during the long winter months there.

“I wanted our people to hear that instead of me saying, ‘Let’s have zero defects,’” he said.” Because every company says things like ‘zero defects.’ But now they were thinking, if I don’t assemble this 50-cent part right, and this thing dies, then that could be an ambulance that isn’t getting through.’”

That kind of attitude isn’t limited to just major manufacturers. Harrison pointed to a friend of his who spent five days training at Panera Bread learning about customer service and sampling everything on the menu. That same friend had spent a total of 15 minutes training at a fast food restaurant.

Caterpillar held a graduation ceremony once the training period was completed. It was nothing fancy – just some $20 trophies for various accomplishments, such as being the best welder in the class. Families would come, and some would cry. One employee told him a year later that the trophy he received was still on his mantle at home.

According to Harrison, proud employees don’t leave the company, saving the costs associated with turnover rates. On a personal level, he said some of his employees’ lives improved, including their marriages, because they spent their workdays engaged in meaningful work.

That sounds like a minister talking, which Harrison has become. He left Caterpillar last year – not to start VIP2, but to take an unpaid position running Vine and Village, a nonprofit organization operating several community-based ministries run by the Mosaic Church of Central Arkansas. VIP2 came later.

Resigning from Caterpillar meant leaving behind a very good salary and saying goodbye to a pension that would have been pretty significant. However, he said he and his wife, Jennifer, both felt they were being called by God to “a different second half of our lives.”

“Ten years ago, I would have been looking at spreadsheets every minute to see can I do this, can we afford this, how long can I last without making any money? Because Vine and Village is not a paid job right now,” he said. “But from a heart point of view, it was a pretty simple decision. We’ve never looked back.”

Talk Business contributor Steve Brawner is the author of this article. He can be reached by email at [email protected].