CEO Interview: Christopher Hearing, President, Direct Holdings Global
Direct Holdings Global, most notably associated with the success of the Time Life brand, is a multi-channel marketer, distributor, and leader in entertainment and lifestyle direct-to-consumer marketing. In this interview, President Chris Hearing shares how they foster an environment that encourages trust and innovation. Check out the full interview below!
Helios HR: What makes you excited?
Christopher Hearing: For me, seeing a new product or a new marketing program come to life. Our business relies on a steady flow of new products each year. We typically test about 15 new products annually. Of those, usually 10 products are launched. A huge amount of preparation goes into the product development and to see it become successful is incredibly gratifying. That’s what really motivates me to come to work every day.
An example that comes to mind is an oven that we’ve developed that uses a new technology to cook food faster, similar to a microwave cook time, yet browns and cooks food like a traditional oven. We set up a joint venture with Wolfgang Puck Productions and spent more than 2 years with Wolfgang and a team of engineers here and in China to prefect the technology and to bring it to the market. Last month we finally launched the oven on Home Shopping Network (HSN) and it sold out in 23 minutes! Now we are in the process of developing a TV commercial, working with our international and retail distributors, and continuing to market the oven. Everyone in our organization has a hand in making the success happen and it’s really exciting when we see it come full circle.
Helios HR: You’ve been with the organization for more than 26 years. How has the culture evolved at Direct Holdings throughout the change over the years?
Christopher Hearing: When I joined the company as a Financial Analyst 26 years ago, I certainly never expected that I’d be running the company now. If anyone who was with us 26 years ago came back today, they wouldn’t recognize the company. Twenty-six years ago, we had 10 locations in the US, another 7 overseas, operated under Time Incorporated and then Time Warner, making us part of a very large multinational corporation employing thousands. Today, we are privately held and we’ve got the same global distribution, it’s all done from our office in Fairfax, Virginia with just 62 employees. Even with a much smaller footprint, we’re as profitable today as we were back then. I believe that part of that is because of our culture. Now as a small organization, we operate with complete control, allowing us to have a much quicker response time and move at a faster pace. Direct Holdings is nimble and flexible, adapting to change and seeking new opportunities. We also ask all of our employees to be involved in a variety of responsibilities of the organization, whether it’s part of their job description or not. We are a team that embraces change and enjoys being challenged. We made a conscious decision 10 years ago to change the company structure and culture to be smaller and more nimble and we had to focus ourselves on making that culture change happen, the habits we had developed from our experience as a large organization were hard to break. A major cultural shift doesn’t happen overnight – 10 years later we are still focusing on ways we can improve, but it is critical to our ongoing success.
Helios HR: You’ve recently created an unlimited vacation policy. What initiated this policy change and how do you create such a trusting environment in the workplace?
Christopher Hearing: We’ve always had a generous vacation policy at Direct Holdings because we believe it’s important for employees to balance work and life. In order for us to be successful with our business model, we need employees who are really dedicated, motivated, and are willing to get the job done whether it’s in their job description or not. Therefore, it’s very important for us to treat our employees the same way we want them to act. They are free to take an appropriate amount of vacation as agreed upon with their manager. Obviously, we care about their work getting done and we require that they are having open communication with their managers and coordinating their schedules but that’s really no different than a more traditional vacation program. One of our biggest resource constraints is time. Making sure our attendance records are up to date wasn’t a good use of time nor did a structured vacation policy contribute any value. So whether someone takes 10 days or 13 days off per year, as long as they are demonstrating their commitment to the success of our business, the exact number of days isn’t really important. I get asked about managing employees who take too much time off or abuse the policy. It’s actually pretty simple; an employee who would abuse an unlimited vacation policy is not the kind of person who can be successful in our environment.
Helios HR: In an ever-changing marketplace, how do you encourage innovation at Direct Holdings?
Christopher Hearing: To give you some background, there are four different business lines at Direct Holdings: we have our traditional entertainment line where we sell music, CDs, DVDs on TV, web and retail. Next we have live entertainment business where we bring our nostalgic entertainment products to life through live experiences like our Soul Train Cruise where we charter a cruise ship for a week and bring entertainers like Earth, Wind & Fire and Gladys Knight onboard to perform. We have our lifestyle products group where we produce new kitchen products such as the Puck oven, juicers, next generation grills, etc. We’ve been in the lifestyle products market for about 4 years, it’s very new and different from our traditional lines of businesses, but we use the same core competencies as our legacy business line. Lastly, our fourth product line is Cash for Gold, which is a great example of innovation at Direct Holdings. We acquired this business out of bankruptcy last November. Although it was an opportunity in an industry that we had no experience in, we were able to play off what we are good at - direct to consumer marketing. We have been very successful in bringing Cash for Gold onboard and never missed a beat. It’s contributing meaningful profits to the organization.
Over the years, we’ve morphed Direct Holdings into where it is today. When we stop innovating, we will stop growing and will eventually fade away. Constant innovation is critical to our success. What’s really important is that everyone has a voice in the organization and that we are encouraging participation across the entire company. We have a quarterly town hall meeting, where we all meet to discuss what’s going on in the organization, have questions answered, and encourage new ideas to be shared. Additionally, I host smaller breakfast meetings inviting employees of all levels and across all departments to have breakfast and an opportunity to speak up and bring invaluable ideas and feedback in an informal setting. Some of our best ideas bubble up from inside the organization and so it is critical that we give voice to everyone in the company.
It’s also important that we bring new ideas to the table from outside the organization. A recent example is the hiring for a newly created position, Vice President of Entertainment Marketing. We intentionally wanted to find someone who wasn’t in our industry, who wasn’t an internal hire, someone with a completely new and fresh perspective. This new hire was brought in from well outside our normal hiring circle to help us innovate, challenge the way we do things, and change for the better.
Helios HR: How do you hold your leadership team accountable to managing performance?
Christopher Hearing: I am a very firm believer in the power of having a well-developed goals program. It gets everyone in the company focused and moving in the same direction. It’s too easy for us to get distracted and for people to work on things that aren’t central to our success. To make sure everyone is working towards the same goals, we spend a lot of time in the fourth quarter developing 4-5 large corporate goals that we want to accomplish in the coming year. The key components and reasons why we are going after those goals are then shared across the organization in our town hall meeting. Then, each division and individual develops their goals cascading from the corporate goals to ensure that everyone is aligned with our key priorities. I review everyone’s goals to make sure they are specific and measurable for performance and we add in financial goals from our budget process. Managing performance is all about being really clear about expectations of the organization and giving constant feedback on meeting those goals. We meet regularly to monitor performance against expectations and if things aren’t on track we develop plans to get back on course.