Asterios Satrazemis, CEO @ BlueLine Rental, Talks Company Turnaround & His “ABC Culture”

In this episode, BlueLine Rental CEO Asterios Satrazemis shares insights from his career and talks about how he turned around BlueLine Rental in just 18 months.

Back in 2016 when Asterios joined the business, it was losing hundreds of millions of dollars annually. In order to turn around the business, Asterios placed a huge emphasis on culture and communication. Learn how he did it and his take on the phrase “ABC”.

Podcast Transcription

Stacey Epstein: [00:00:04] Welcome to our podcast today. We call this podcast series Essential because we believe that communication is anĀ essential element to business. This podcast is sponsored by Zinc and will feature many different guest speakers from numerous markets and professional business functions. I’m Stacey Epstein Zinc CEO and will be your host today. The purpose of this series is to focus on how organizations can better communicate and collaborate in order to positively impact employee engagement retention and ultimately how communication directly correlates to quantifiable business results. Many of our guests will focus on how technology solutions directly address the need for better communication which we believe is essential to conducting successful business. Of course it’s hard to talk about technology in a vacuum. So we will also cover related topics including people, processes, culture, and how we better enable communication for the future of how we work. My guest today is a Asterios Satrazemis who is the CEO of BlueLine Rental and I actually have the pleasure of sitting right next to him for this cast. We in one of BlueLine’s regional locations right outside of Baltimore, Maryland. So full disclosure BlueLine Rental is one of Zinc’s customers. And for that reason I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Asterios is probably as committed to delivering strong communication capabilities across his entire organization as I am in order to achieve business goals. So Asterios welcome to our podcast today. Why don’t we start by you telling me a little bit about BlueLine Rental?

Asterios Satrazemis: [00:01:36] Well Stacy, appreciate you having us here and we’ve really enjoyed the partnership with Zinc. Kicking off our focus on always be connecting which I’m sure we’ll talk about a little later but BlueLine Rental is the fourth largest corporate rental company in North America. We’ve got 130 locations 1100 employees across the U.S. Canada and Puerto Rico. What we do is we provide contractors and industrial plants with the equipment that they need when they need it. And a big part of what we do is making sure that we have clear communication with our customers and our employees because the needs of our customers are constantly changing and that’s how we came to find Zinc.

Stacey Epstein: [00:02:15] Right. So one of your phrases that I’ve seen a lot and heard a lot since I’ve been here at the BlueLine Rental location is ABC and I think a lot of people think of ABC Always Be Closing. But it means something a little different at BlueLine Rental. So tell us a little bit about what ABC stands for, for you.

Asterios Satrazemis: [00:02:36] So yeah I mean for anybody who’s been in sales they’ve heard the expression Always Be Closing. Anybody who saw the great movie Glengarry Glen Ross with Alec Baldwin. But here at BlueLine Rental and for the rental business particularly we use a different ABC. It’s about always be connecting. And the reason for that on the customer side is when you’re renting equipment it’s really a service that you’re providing. So when you go into spend time with the customer the odds of them needing that piece of equipment at that given time are very low. So what you’re trying to do is you’re constantly trying to be front of mind for the customer because if you stay front of mind, if you keep the brand front of mind, then when the customer has a need more likely than not they’re going to give you a try. And we work on our salespeople to really understand the difference not being in a situation where they’re going in and trying to do a hard close but where what they’re really doing is trying to make a connection. And so when they sit down with the customer and have a meeting with the customer we really what we do is we train them on how to have a quality conversation, how to diagnose pain, how to really get in understand the customer’s needs.

Asterios Satrazemis: [00:03:40] Not the old school look over their shoulder and see that they’ve got a picture of a fish and say, Stacey do you fish? You know that’s that’s not the way we sell. We sell on trying to make connection with another person person to person another human being. And we really take that ethos across not just our customers but also to our employees. So again our focus on the sales side. We’ve got 330 salespeople who really have to work in with the other 1800 employees to make what we do as a company happen. So what they need to do is work just as hard to make connection with their internal teams as they do with their customers. So that always be connecting that constantly being front of mind keeping our brand front of mind is really where it all starts. And when we think about how our economic engine for BlueLine Rental works is that is the beginning of it staying front of mind and building a connection. So I was just at a sales training just yesterday with a bunch of new sales folks and what we talked about was always be connecting and that’s the focus.

Stacey Epstein: [00:04:38] So talking we’re talking a lot about that connection to the customer. And you brought this up earlier about how important it is also to connect internally between employees, from management to employees, but you have 150 locations spread out across the country. So people are a lot of your workforce is what we call deskless, so they’re not sitting in front of a computer or an e-mail where they can get your messages. How do you guys stay connected to such a disparate and deskless workforce?

Asterios Satrazemis: [00:05:13] So when I came on the business in January of 2016, one of the things when I introduced this idea of always be connecting. The other thing I talked to our employees about was an active communication loop. What I wanted to create was an environment where it wasn’t just a one way communication. Me sending out e-mails or me doing quarterly conference calls or video conferences and then that was it. I wanted the communication loop to be two ways so the idea of an active communication loop, and we’ve worked very hard on that and creating that environment through every employee interaction being having a question and answer session. One on one communications where when I’m with a branch like we are here Curtis Bay, making sure we go out and spend time with each and every individual in the branch and go spend a little time talking to them personally. So as we were thinking about that even back in January of 2016 I wanted to find a tool that would allow us to create that active communication loop. So our staff is made up of like I said 330 sales people who are out in trucks on front of customers, 200 plus what we call inside sales people who are who are the ones that are the most deskbound, if you want to call it that, but it’s not really a desk it’s a counter in a branch and they’re running around making things happen.

Asterios Satrazemis: [00:06:36] But then the rest of the staff are truck drivers truck drivers and mechanics. Now those folks are never checking a computer. They are out and about every single day making things happen for our customer. So how do you communicate with them? How do you have an active communication loop with drivers and mechanics. And we’ve been looking for ways to do that. Obviously we started like everybody does making sure they all have emails making sure they all have devices. But as I found in the past 18 months, you know those folks are out in it making it happen and you know they’re just not checking e-mail. So that was one of the things that brought us to working with you guys.

Stacey Epstein: [00:07:15] So let’s talk about information flowing. I think a lot of people think of communication technology and processes as being top down so management has messages they need to get to the workforce and they need a way to do that quickly. But let’s talk about more of that team communication or peer to peer interaction. I’m out doing a delivery and I need help or there’s a problem with the vehicle and I need to fix it and I don’t know how to fix it. How important is it to you to facilitate that communication amongst your workforce?

Asterios Satrazemis: [00:07:49] Obviously those type of day to day guys that need to get a hold of each other is the lifeblood of how you run a business, because you’ve got the handoffs between sales and operations and administration. Now for me one of the things they all do is they just call each other right which is obviously one of the easiest things to do. But then are you calling a counter person who is in the moment working with another customer. So you know how do you create an environment where they have multiple ways to get communications to each other and ensure that there is there isn’t a big lag when there’s a customer need so that on the ground, day in and day out communication. My view what you want to do is give people enough tools that they can really reach out to each other in different ways. Well maybe I’ll give it to you in another way. This whole thing around having this active communication loop from me all the way through to all 8500 people really something you have to live every day it’s not just day you know once a quarter. The CEO should have a town hall that you know every reasonable CEO now does. But it’s also making sure you’re really listening making sure you’re really reacting to the things that folks are asking you and having that be a live real communication in Q and A session. Great example was you know for a long time our drivers our mechanics had flip phones. And you know if you ask me why they had flip phones I would tell you I don’t know. It was a one of the things that was on my radar when I came to take over Blue Line in January of 2016.

Asterios Satrazemis: [00:09:25] The business was in bad shape and we had to do a lot of turnaround work. So it just hadn’t hit my desk. Well in one of our townhall calls or quarterly updates we got a mechanic who called in and said just that, you know with all this talk of communication and all this talk of technology why do we get issued flip phones and we don’t get issued iPhones. And I said that’s a great question. I don’t… the answer there is no good reason. So you know immediately thereafter we completely changed it over and everybody has been outfitted with you know what everybody should have in this day and age a proper iPhone or, that’s what I use. Other people use other things but that’s what we’ve been issuing people with. And so you know it sets a small example but it’s a very impactful example because what happened was the next quarterly update that we had. You know I didn’t have to beg people to ask questions, the questions were flooding in and we had probably the most robust company wide Q and A that we’ve ever had. And it’s an important point. You don’t want to just to have that as a talking point, that yes we like communication or Yes we like to know what you think as an employee so you can be engaged. It’s actually living and breathing it every day and showing that we react to the things that we hear because you don’t always get all the right information if you just go through the normal chain of a business.

Stacey Epstein: [00:10:47] So as I’ve been here at BlueLine Rental and walking around and checking things out, I’ve been so struck by how much you guys really leverage modern technology. I don’t see a lot of big computers or desks or paper. I see a lot of people using phones and apps. And to me that seems maybe uncharacteristic and quite modern for your industry would you agree with that and talk about your embracing of technology.

Asterios Satrazemis: [00:11:15] Yeah absolutely. So really for us what we’ve tried to do is we’ve tried to make a focus around making it easier for our people to do the business and making it easier for customers to do business with us. And in this day and age if you’re not focused on a mobile strategy as it relates to your people and your customers you know you’re still playing in the 1990s. And what we’ve done is we’ve focused on ensuring that the tools that our people use and the tools that our customers can engages with are mobile. So as an example take my role, take my job. I run the entire company off of my iPhone. All of my tools that I have, all of my ways to look into the business are mobile apps. Obviously we’ve been using Zinc which is the way that I communicate with my exec team and my management team and down to our drivers and our mechanics. And I don’t have a desk, I don’t have a desktop, I don’t even have a laptop. I still carry around an iPad but I haven’t taken it out of my bag in over a month. That’s kind of like a security blanket. I haven’t given that away yet. But the reality is I don’t need that anymore. And really it comes down to the reason behind it isn’t just technology for technology sake. What we want is we want managers who are out in the field with our customers and our employees. We put a premium on leadership that is focused on being out there with their people.

Asterios Satrazemis: [00:12:41] And the only way to do that is to give them a tool that allows them to still run their business without having to sit behind a desk. You know my people know that I hate paper. You come to my office you’ll see there is not a piece of paper on my desk. And again that goes back to the idea that in this day and age, you don’t need paper, you don’t need to be tied to a desk. And for those managers who think they’re doing their quote unquote job when they’re sitting in front of their computer, that doesn’t work at BlueLine Rental. You’re doing your job when you’re out with your salespeople, when you’re out with your mechanics, when you’re out with your drivers and when you’re out with your customers. And so we’ve built all of our tools to run the business whether that’s our the way that we look at data to make good decisions, the way that we do the Salesforce.com work that’s so important for our salespeople to keep track of what they’re doing with our customers and the way that we communicate. It’s all mobile first and you know it’s allowed me and all of my managers frankly to do everything we need to do where we are our offices where we are that given day. And this you know very clear constant focus on front line managers being obsessed with being out in front of customers is another part of what’s helped us transform the business.

Stacey Epstein: [00:14:00] So I heard something about a moose.

Asterios Satrazemis: [00:14:02] Yeah. So I give credit to a buddy of mine who actually works at Twitter. He runs a big part of their marketing and sales side of that business. And he’s got a great expression that I’ve lifted. I think I’ve lifted almost all of my expressions and his is you can’t shoot moose from the lodge. So it’s something that I’ve talked to my sales team about quite a bit and my managers and it’s just that same ethos you know you just can’t hunt from sitting in the Lodge by the cozy fire. You can’t do what we need to do to be successful by sitting on your butt in your branch in your office behind your desk with a big cup of coffee. You’ve got to be out in it with the people and when you do that, you’re a successful leader and your business is successful.

Stacey Epstein: [00:14:46] And so do you practice that?

Asterios Satrazemis: [00:14:48] Oh 100 percent. So you know for me in any given week in any given day you’ll very rarely find me in the woodlands. That’s where our headquarters is from there in any given month 5 business stays that’s probably the max the rest of the time I’m out and about in our branches and with our customers.

Stacey Epstein: [00:15:10] So sticking with that theme. How do you think that this focus on connectedness and communication has impacted your culture and metrics like engagement retention even hiring? Have you tried to correlate that?

Asterios Satrazemis: [00:15:26] Yeah I mean it’s been an integral part of our turnaround. Ours is a business that was in terrible shape losing hundreds of millions of dollars. Our turnover rate was well over 50 percent. When I got here and really through the on the ground focused efforts getting the right people in place who believe in these things as well, I can’t stress that enough you know, and not having more but just having the right ones so I’ll give you a great example. The way we run our business is we have four regions. We break up North America in four regions and then within those regions are a total of 19 districts that are responsible with 130 branches. When I originally was here it was six regions and 30 districts. So it wasn’t just having more. It was actually having fewer but having more quality people and by having the right people at those management levels who believe in the same idea of active communication, who believe in this always be connecting, who believe in empowering the employees to have a voice and listening to what they have to say because they’re in front of the customer every single day. It has completely transformed the company. So now we’re a business that is thriving. We’re profitable again. We’re a place where people are clamoring to come to work. And another great example is one on the people side. Our safety record. So our safety is so important because we’re going construction sites we go in industrial plants and if you don’t have a good safety record in many industrial plants they will not let your people in. So when I got here or TRI score that’s a no show score that tracks the amount of recordable injuries that you have and it’s just a calculation over the total number of work hours that you have in a year to put in perspective to get into most industrial plants that has to be one or below.

Asterios Satrazemis: [00:17:24] When I got here it was over three and just through communication just through the types of things that we’ve talked about literally not changing much other than showing people that we care and that we’re focused on safety and providing them with visible tools and visible placards that you’ve seen today as you’ve walked around our location that has gone from over 3 to 0.74. We’ve more than dropped it by two thirds. We’re now one of the safest companies in the industry and that’s truly a testament to each and every employee in the business, all 200 of them really believing and caring in what we do. And in our whole safety program in the center of it we’ve got what we call Blue Pride and people taking pride in their work taking pride in their team their location. And you know that focus and constantly living that has really shone through and I’m sure as you walked around today and talked to some of our employees and you ask them what’s the difference? You’ll see that a lot of them say that and I hear that from many of them as I go through my travel so you know that softer side if you will of the things around culture the things around brand and living your culture living your brand. I know sometimes that gets caught up in the consultants and you know hiring people to make it up. Frankly ours wasn’t made up ours was built by us the team of folks that we brought on board and they live it they believe in it and because of that the business has turned around in 18 months.

Stacey Epstein: [00:18:57] Yeah I did have a chance to walk around a little bit and I spent some time with your branch manager Mike today and I was kind of asking him. He’s been here five years so he was here well before you were and and he was here when things weren’t going so well and he’s kind of witnessed the transformation. And I was asking him what’s it like what’s it been like and he loves his job. Super happy. He said he feels like it’s more that there’s more organization and more processes but ultimately the thing that stands out most for him is that he feels like he’s been he’s treated like a human being which I think it just speaks volumes to this philosophy. So last question then I have a little fun. Rapid fire question. And I want to do with you my last question is how did you get so involved as a leader. Let’s go back to your career and where did you learn that this was such an important and impactful way of leading a business.

Asterios Satrazemis: [00:20:00] You know they say I actually get that question a lot from folks. Because I do spend most of my time talking about these things even with my people. And we don’t actually spend tons of time reviewing KPI and detailed financial statements when it comes to our locations frankly. I very rarely do that. I spend most of my time talking about the people and what they’re experiencing. And I’ve reflected on it and I think a lot of it for me goes back to you know just sort of how I was brought up. I’m a first son of immigrants and first generation my first language was Greek not English. My folks worked in factories their entire lives. And you know I’m a classic sort of first to go to high school,, first to go to college first to have a professional job in a factory and I’ve never forgotten that. When you hear me talk to our employees I always remind them that we all have a job to do and no one’s job is more important than another’s because if we all do our jobs correctly the business will be successful. Businesses stumble. Businesses ultimately fail because management starts to believe they’re more important than the people who are executing the job every single day. And we’ve worked hard to get managers in place here who believe their job is no more important than the driver who’s dropping off the equipment or the service mechanic who’s fixing a broken piece of equipment or the inside salesperson is picking up the phone call from a customer.

Asterios Satrazemis: [00:21:31] And if you really live that every single day you’re going to just by nature of what I’m talking about believe that an active communication loop. This focus on listening to what your employees have to say is just how you need to run the business. You know the way I describe it to folks put in a bit more of a context. I say the jobs that we all have are different because of the transactional nature of them. So the closer you are to the customer the more transactional in nature your job. So when you come into work on Monday morning and you’re an Inside Salesperson you’ve got a stack of orders that you have to get through and make sure they get to the right place or they get picked up. The difference from my job is I just don’t have those transactions. Mine are less transactional but I come in and I’ve got stuff to do just like you do. And if you really believe that and you live that then these other things that we’ve been talking about for the past half hour or so are just a natural offshoot of it.

Stacey Epstein: [00:22:30] Ok so where is the fun part. Yes. Now is the fun part. Now is the Rapid Fire and ask you three questions that you’ve never seen before. And I need a one word answer from you. Question number one: what is the most rewarding aspect of conducting better communication and collaboration across your business today?

Asterios Satrazemis: [00:22:50] Engagement.

Stacey Epstein: [00:22:51] As a CEO what advice would you give to other executives who are starting out? on building better communication channels across their business?

Asterios Satrazemis: [00:23:03] Technology.

Stacey Epstein: [00:23:03] If you were to pick just one metric to measure the impact of better communication what metric would that be?

Asterios Satrazemis: [00:23:10] Turnover.

Stacey Epstein: [00:23:11] All right. Great. Excellent. Well thank you so much for your time today it’s really awesome to be here at the BlueLine Rental location and we wish you continued success as well.

Asterios Satrazemis: [00:23:21] Appreciate you coming out and spending some time with us and looking forward to seeing how much further we can take Zinc into the organization. Thanks.