The inaugural 425 Business live event started bright and early Thursday morning at the Bellevue Club. The event, focused on the different aspects of value, treated a crowd to dynamic presentations by Combat Flip Flops CEO Matthew Griffin and Craig Dickens, CEO of Merit Harbor Group.
In 2003, Griffin was patrolling Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley with the 75th Army Ranger regiment. “We were a high-performance team that lived, breathed, and died based on values … that one man alone couldn’t bear, but a group could uphold,” Griffin said. One morning, as he was filing a team report, three young Afghan girls came outside their home to play, and their doting mother soon followed.
“That’s when ‘us and them’ disappeared for me,” Griffin said. “Afghanistan isn’t full of evil people or terrorists; it’s full of families just like ours. … These were women at the centers of their families. They were oppressed by violence, they are purposefully limited in their education. At the time, I can confidently say that I wielded the entire might of the U.S. Department of Defense. I led one of the most inspirational and devastating units on this planet, and I had absolutely no idea of how I was going to help them.”
A few years later, after Griffin left the military, he toured a factory in Kabul where women were making boots for the Afghan defense force, but discovered that the factory likely would be shuttered as American influence in the region waned. “I knew what I had to do — I had to build an elite team based on aspirational values and guided by a sense of purpose,” he said. “So we started a company.”
Griffin founded Combat Flip Flops, an apparel company with production lines in war-torn regions. Griffin told the story of his company, which recently received a $300,000 investment on Shark Tank, at the first 425 Live event Thursday. The event’s discussion focused on the external value of a company as well as the intrinsic values of great leaders.
“You’re not just a CEO, a CFO, or a COO,” Dickens said. “You are a creator of value.”
To Dickens, growth rate, earnings, and size are the fundamental ingredients of a firm’s value, but ensuring those three legs are on solid footing requires thoughtful planning from a prescient leader, one with a target in mind. “If we’re going to re-orient our brains to a value focus, we need to know why (we started the company) and what our end goal is,” he said. “A lot of times, what we think creates value is in the operations and the current plan and historical financial results. What really creates value is having that end goal, and executing against it.”
Entrepreneurs, Dickens said, often start as specialized workers — a talented welder starts a welding company, a talented programmer starts a software firm. Leaders who mire in operational excellence might create a good product, but the company as a whole will struggle to maximize value if the executive’s goals don’t span all aspects of a business.
Griffin saw this principle at work in the Army. Military groups, particularly specialized forces such as Rangers, are governed by value-laden mantras that are written down, recited, and hence internalized by all members of a force. Griffin started a company outside his area of expertise — he wasn’t making shoes in his spare time — but by establishing company values early, he was able to recruit and guide early employees in a fashion consistent with his goal. Just like Army cadets, Combat Flip Flops employees have an internalized, written-down mission, and are guided by three principal values — persistence, creativity, and respect.
Steps like these are usually seen as culture-building measures, but Dickens said they have commercial value. Combat Flip Flops, for example, entered a saturated market. But by clearly communicating its values and its backstory, “you’ve almost turned your product into a commodity.” This opens up customer avenues. Someone who buys Griffin’s flip flops might just be looking for some new shoes, or they might purchase them solely to support Afghan workers.
Instilling organizational values early is critical, and Griffin offered a methodology. “Take your top three values — it’s easy to remember three — and write them down. Put them somewhere you can see them every single day, without fail. If you’re bold enough, share them with those around you, and they’ll know what you’re doing. The last step is most difficult: You have to live them.”
Once organizational values are in place, building fiscal value can become a priority for those at the top of the chain. “Take two hours on Friday and just focus on value creation,” Dickens said. “What will make my business more valuable? I want to work on the business versus in the business.”
The next 425 Magazine live event will be Women to Watch, held from 6 – 9:30 p.m., April 14 at the Kirkland Performance Center.