Harry & David CFO Michael Schwindle on the value of a communicative, authentic and accountable organizational culture.
By Rachelle Nones
“If you had looked at me in middle school, you would have never predicted that I’d graduate at the top of my high school class,” said Michael Schwindle, current Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of specialty gourmet food product company Harry and David.
Schwindle found himself to be an uninspired student with unexceptional grades until temporarily misplaced middle school records resulted in a transfer from lower-track to more advanced high school courses. It was during this class schedule transition that something clicked: Schwindle relished the intellectual challenge, worked hard to master the rigorous coursework and graduated as valedictorian of his high school class before setting off to college to prepare for a career in business.
The formerly fair to middling student currently derives immense satisfaction from helping transform companies into healthier, higher-performing organizations. Because he is partial to “nimble,” mid-sized companies unencumbered with the bureaucracy that may bog down larger corporations, Schwindle joined the freshly reorganized Harry and David in December 2011, firmly convinced he had no place to go but up.
Stewardship Challenge No. 1
As the former CFO of Musician’s Friend, a U.S. e-commerce retailer of musical instruments, Schwindle has made it a priority to rev up Harry and David’s Internet marketing machine.
“When Harry and David made the transition to the Internet, they didn’t make a full transition to the e-commerce business,” Schwindle said.
Schwindle also joins the Harry and David team ready to face the company’s Facebook challenge. “Many of the visitors on Facebook aren’t particularly paying attention to ads as they would on other places,” Schwindle said. “But Facebook is doing some very interesting things around gifting that they are getting ready to roll out. It’s very exciting stuff—having Facebook arrange gifts for your friends and family is an exciting development.”
Stewardship Challenge No. 2
Revamping the business has required cultural transformation and increased levels of accountability and engagement at lower levels. Schwindle empowers employees “by mentoring them as opposed to dictating or pushing things out.”
Acknowledging that it takes more time to mentor employees, Schwindle also emphasizes that “it can be rewarding to watch people suddenly realize they can make decisions and go off and do things in a way that historically has not been the case here.”
Resolving the People Problem
“It can be rewarding to watch people suddenly realize they can make decisions and go off and do things in a way that historically has not been the case here.”
Schwindle believes that managing and engaging employees is the main challenge of any business, regardless of its size. Placing people into jobs they love to do resolves the majority of performance issues, he says. Before hiring a new employee, Schwindle asks two mandatory questions: “What do you like to do?” and “What do you not to like to do?”
To keep his team members engaged, Schwindle invites three to five employees from diverse departments to a casual lunch he hosts on a monthly basis. There is only one rule regarding employee selection: A supervisor and a subordinate are never invited to the same luncheon. When Schwindle’s guests arrive, he tells everyone, “I’ve got only one agenda. I want to get everyone together to have lunch.”
Any topic of conversation is fair game over the meal. The main goal is to provide an opportunity for employees to get to know Schwindle and some of the colleagues with whom they may only rarely—if ever—get to interact.
Diary of a Working Manager
Schwindle delegates responsibility, but considers himself to be a working manager with eyes firmly focused on “the big picture.” He wakes up around 5 a.m. each morning. One of his first tasks, even on weekends, is to analyze Harry and David’s automated sales reports.
After 8 a.m., Schwindle’s window of opportunity for performing solitary tasks and sales analysis halts as he shifts into meeting mode for most of the day.
One of Schwindle’s priorities is watching for the loss of peripheral vision that commonly occurs when employees get busy and focus in on a singular assigned task. “I have to keep my eyes open,” he said, “to make sure that when something important falls between the cracks, it gets elevated and raised back up to the attention levels it deserves at that point in time.”
Finding Year-Round Relevance
With new management at the helm, Harry and David recently posted its best annual profit in four years. Presently, trust and transparency are significant emerging themes at Harry and David. Accordingly, Harry and David’s latest catalog featured vignettes highlighting specific employees discussing their commitment to producing a high-quality product that is consistently delivered on time.
Harry and David also is pursuing opportunities to attract attention with relevant new products. Recognizing Halloween to be an increasingly popular holiday for gift giving, Harry and David added new Halloween gifts to this year’s offerings and has seen a spike in its spooky-season sales.
“We want to make sure that Harry and David as a brand and as a gift solution,” Schwindle said, “is relevant to our customers outside of that Thanksgiving to Christmas holiday timeframe.”
Rachelle Nones is a freelance writer based in New York City, New York