Executives of the Year: Tim Lightner’s inclusive idealism

Tim Lightner is an open book and thanks to a fateful decision he made a while back, so is TWO MEN AND A TRUCK, the residential and business relocation services franchise he brought to Madison in 1993 as the local franchise owner.

That openness is one reason why Lightner was selected as an In Business Executive of the Year in the Medium Company category. He was chosen for this honor by a panel of judges that includes Deb Archer, president and CEO of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, retired UW–Madison Director of Athletics Pat Richter, and Mark Bakken, founder of Nordic LLC and HealthX Ventures.

“I’m just so humbled that peers of that caliber would even consider, let alone select me, for this honor,” Lightner says. “It’s a reflection on my entire team.”

Empowering employees

To give his team more skin in the game, Lightner launched a three-year open-book management initiative that so far has contributed to 13% higher revenues and 25% higher profitability while maintaining a customer referral rate (96.10%) that’s higher than the corporate system average of 95.75%. TWO MEN AND A TRUCK serves Dane and Rock Counties and is now the fastest growing franchised moving company in the nation.

To say Lightner is managing by the book might sound odd, but after a colleague recommended he read The Great Game of Business by Jack Stack, Lightner knew he needed to follow the author’s advice. Stack, the president and CEO of SRC Holdings Corp., chronicled how he helped an at-risk manufacturing company thrive by building a team atmosphere that improved employee morale, helped workers understand the financial aspects of the business, and shared the rewards (profits) with employees.

While reading the The Great Game of Business, Lightner felt Stack provided a future blueprint for his company. It resonated with him because, as the company grew, he saw that certain costs were getting out of control and morale wasn’t what it could be. He followed Stack’s advice to help workers advance in their careers, build equity stakes for them, and aggressively began to replace aging trucks that were driving up maintenance costs.

The book resonated so much that Lightner purchased 10 copies and had his entire management staff read it. What they learned from it has gradually been embedded in the company culture and operations. Now every manager has a better understanding of the financials steps taken to gain efficiencies in areas of large expense — labor, fleet maintenance, and safety. The ramped up safety culture was pursued not only to better communicate best worker safety practices but also to reduce insurance claims.

Becoming an open book has therefore not only brought financial improvements, but an enviable gift that keeps on giving — employee empowerment that has improved compensation, upgraded the work environment, and reduced turnover by 25%.

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Lightner has long encouraged employees to live by what he calls “The Grandma Rule,” which is to treat everyone — coworkers and customers — with the care and respect you’d want people to treat your grandmother. Now he’s trying to take it up another notch or two.

Marketing Director Sheri Rice, who nominated Lightner for Executive of the Year, says he embodies the company motto “Moving People Forward,” and the open-book management initiative isn’t the only example. The company has followed up with the development of a five-year strategic program to add services and market segments and drive more improvement in company culture and training.

Tim Lightner

Lightner also led a two-day manager retreat last April that focused on more ways to improve employee satisfaction. The result was a 19-point plan — including the creation of a TEAM leader program and a career path plan for all employees — which managers are now in the process of implementing.

While planning to drive continuous growth, Lightner hasn’t forgotten the community-service dimension. He has taken the lead in community initiatives to collect donations for mothers in crisis (Movers for Moms) and homeless veterans (Movers for Military), led in-kind support for a laundry list of local causes such as Habitat for Humanity of Dane County, Domestic Abuse Intervention Services, and Porchlight, and encourages his company’s active involvement in civic organizations like the Downtown Madison Rotary and Gilda’s Club Madison.

Businessman in the mirror

Lightner is the first to acknowledge that to survive 23 years some luck is also involved, especially blessedly lower gasoline prices, but after more than two decades in operation, he has come to believe that complacency is the biggest destroyer of businesses.

Since launching TWO MEN AND A TRUCK, he can cite plenty of examples of once powerful businesses that have met their demise and not just because they allowed themselves to become casualties of digital disruption.

“As a company grows, it becomes more demanding on leadership and management to motivate employees,” Lightner explains. “There is a distance that develops between management and frontline staff. In our case, the frontline staff makes or breaks us.”

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