Leading in a time of change
2020 Executive of the Year award winner Dave Franchino earned his leadership stripes as an early employee of Saturn and through leading Delve following the 2001 dot-com bust.
2019 was a watershed year for Dave Franchino, president and principal, as he led the transition of 52-year-old Design Concepts to a rebranding as Delve.
Delve’s leadership team believed the company had outgrown the rather generic name of Design Concepts and wanted a brand that better reflected the multidisciplinary, in-depth design and innovation services it provides. Delve represents the leaders’ commitment to deep understanding of user and client needs, their curiosity and drive to explore, technical acumen, and willingness to get their hands dirty.
Recognizing the growing importance of virtual reality in design, Franchino provided time and resources for the company to develop a virtual reality (VR) lab that its designers use to prototype concepts. Delve also hosted an event with the Madison Chamber of Commerce that featured demonstrations from several area companies that are providing VR, augmented reality (AR), and artificial intelligence (AI) services.
The company also continued a growth pattern begun with the opening of a Boston office in 2018 by moving its San Francisco studio to a new, larger location. Over the past fiscal year, Delve’s team of employees across its three offices has grown 26 percent to service an associated 16 percent increase in the number of projects and a 19 percent increase in the total number of clients, resulting in a 21 percent increase in revenue.
In addition to leading the rebranding effort, Franchino began hosting a podcast on creating a culture of innovation within organizations called Delve Talks. In the first six episodes, he interviewed leaders from Kohler Co., American Family Insurance, General Motors, Dexcom, CUNA Mutual, and Verily. The second season will launch this month.
Through all of the recent changes, Franchino has led by creating an open-book culture. He shares the company’s financials with all employees monthly, spreading responsibility in a way that empowers everyone to contribute their best while retaining enough control to be fiscally responsible. He was nominated for the EOY award by his staff.
“I’m humbled my co-workers think I’m worthy of this award,” says Franchino. “I work with an amazing group of talented, smart, and hardworking people — they’re truly the best staff I could possibly ask for. I learn from them every day and it means a lot to me that they nominated me for this. I’m also inspired by this award. It makes me want to double down on my efforts to grow, learn, and do more to continue to drive our firm forward.”
According to Franchino, every leader needs to find his or her own way and develop a leadership style that’s authentic to them. That said, there are some qualities that he believes every leader needs for the long haul.
“You need courage to work through the tough patches without becoming discouraged or cynical,” notes Franchino. “Failure and hard times are just realities. You have to be able to get back up and keep going. You need to have humility and recognize you’re fallible. It’s critical to listen to and learn from others. No one has all the answers.
“I also believe leaders must make their employees a priority,” Franchino continues. “Your organization’s most valuable asset walks out the door every night. Lose sight of your employees and their well-being and you’ll compromise the health of your organization. And I’ll wrap up this list with balance. To create a culture that people want to work with and for — and build an organization that can thrive in a variety of circumstances — you need to balance passion and emotion with discipline and focus.”
Franchino had the good fortune to start his career as one of the first employees of the Saturn corporation, which he calls General Motors’ “grand experiment in building a small car in the U.S.,” and was where he honed some of his leadership style.
“I joined the company as one of the first 50 employees and there were eventually more than 8,000 people on staff,” says Franchino. “I started with Saturn as an engineer. At that point I had little exposure to and, frankly, not a lot of respect or empathy for the diverse disciplines an organization needs to be successful. Fortunately, Saturn was headed by brilliant leaders from whom I was able to learn and model as they built both a culture and a business.
“Among other things, the leaders of Saturn realized they needed to completely rethink the traditional relationship they had with the entire workforce to succeed in a highly competitive market. Historically, the management/union relationship in the car industry had been pretty acrimonious. Saturn was a ‘different kind of car company’ and worked hard to change that. I saw firsthand the role your internal culture and a focus on your staff play in creating a successful business. My time at Saturn showed me the importance and value of working to create a culture where people felt they were safe, valued, informed, involved, and challenged. I’ve tried to carry those lessons through my entire career.”
When Franchino started at Delve in 1996, he was blessed to join a company when its business was booming. The company had more demand than it could handle, and his primary focus was on recruiting new staff and sustaining culture. Then, in 2001, the 9/11 tragedy occurred on top of the dot-com bust.
“I describe the drop in sales interest like someone shutting off a faucet — we suddenly went from not having to worry about sales to wondering how we would make payroll,” recalls Franchino. “There was no playbook for how to survive as a business without completely losing sight of all we were trying to stand for.”
During the recession of 2001, Franchino says Delve made a net profit of just $25,051. “I’m probably prouder of the job our team did that year than many other years with much more impressive financial performance. Ultimately, we got through it by working to prioritize hard work, courage, honesty, open communication, and compassion. It was really hard and frightening, but an incredible learning experience, as well. Getting through that period gave me confidence that we could get through other challenges. Beyond that foundation, leadership has been a continuous process of making mistakes and learning from them.”
That’s not to say that leadership was always something on Franchino’s radar.
“I have to say I’m a bit of an ‘accidental’ leader. I had a great career with Saturn and had honestly always imagined working as a manager in a larger firm, rather than leading a smaller one myself. Even when I joined Delve, I had no inkling that I’d end up running it. But I’ve always been a curious individual and tried to think strategically and creatively, and I think this has led me into leadership roles.
“Some of the most important responsibilities of being a leader have little to do with glamor or excitement, so I try not to get too caught up in the trappings of the role,” he continues. “If you’re in it for the long haul, the blocking and tackling of running a business aren’t particularly glamorous but they’re vital. Besides, just when you think you have it figured out, something happens, or you make a mistake that reminds you of how humbling leadership can be. That said, I do enjoy the feeling that I can help drive our strategy and use my experience and instincts to lead us in new directions.”
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