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The Development Exponent: A Leadership Perspective

Bruce Holoubek

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Authentic Leadership Breeds An Authentic Company Culture, with Carl Atwell

These days the word “authentic” is bandied about quite a bit, almost so much that it’s lost its meaning. That’s why it’s refreshing when you get the opportunity to chat with a leader who truly embodies the meaning of the word. Carl Atwell is an individual with whom I had that sort of conversation recently. He’s an “all-in” guy, which is one of the main reasons he’s so authentic. Carl doesn’t believe there’s any reason or point to playing games or allowing organizational culture to go sideways. So he talks straight and with incredible authenticity, and he does so for the sake of making his organization of better service to customers and more meaningful for his team members. Now THAT is a mutually meaningful work engagement! Carl is the owner and President of Gempler’s, a farm and home company that he says is an “81-year-old ecommerce company.” During our conversation, we discussed how Carl made the decision to purchase Gempler’s, the experience that prepared him for the opportunity, the challenges and successes he’s experienced at the helm so far, and why customer service and company culture are such important things to him. What the leader of an 81-year-old company can teach us about organizational culture The people who buy products from Gempler’s are those salt-of-the-earth individuals who know what it means to work hard to produce actual fruit from their labors. They are farmers, ranchers, landscapers, and other outdoor workers who do honest work for an honest wage. It’s these customers who motivate Carl to make Gempler’s the very best it can be. Though his company is not growing the food or raising the cattle, Carl is proud to serve those who are in ways that make it possible. It’s an honor he doesn’t take lightly. That attitude is one he diligently strives to pass to his employees. He wants them to see how their work matters, why the things they do are not only supporting themselves but also those who fuel the food supply of a nation. It’s an admirable ambition and one that demonstrates how good leadership is essential to the attitudes and behaviors of those within an organization. When modeled well, meaning and purpose through work can be caught as well as taught. How small to midsize companies can out-Amazon, Amazon Shortly after Carl took the reins at Gempler’s he led the organization through one of the most far-reaching and significant pivots the company had ever made, moving from a long-standing, catalog-sales model to an e-commerce brand. With their primary competition being Amazon and Wal-Mart, Carl knew he had his work cut out for him. Not only did he have to get past the barrier that the company’s long-standing catalog-only sales model represented, he had to do so in a way that not only retained customers but also made Gempler’s an attractive alternative to Amazon. His approach to the issue was ingenious: Gempler’s could do all the things Amazon does well — great customer service, free shipping, quality products — but also do something Amazon can’t do well, be a company that people want to support by applying an authentic, real-people approach. That would make customers truly enjoy engaging with them. His approach paid off. Gempler’s made the transition to e-commerce quickly and without losing many customers. And top-down customer service is one of their largest areas of focus. Top-down customer service sets the tone for an authentic company culture Companies can say anything they want about themselves on their own web properties. Whether the claims made are to be believed depends on either the gullibility or diligence of the visitor. But when I visited the Gempler’s website I noticed something that told me it was an organization that was doing more than talking a big talk. The President himself posts his private email address on the website and

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