As part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies,” had the pleasure of interviewing Chip Crunk, RJ Young’s President and CEO.
Chip has worked at RJ Young since he was fourteen years old. In his own words, working for RJ Young is “the only life I’ve ever known.” In 1987, Chip started officially at RJ Young as a sales representative after graduating from the University of Mississippi. In 1989, he graduated to director of sales, then eventually executive vice president, and chief operating officer.
In 1995 Chip was named president and CEO of RJ Young. Guided by an innovative, entrepreneurial spirit, Chip has led the company to see double-digit annual growth — now ranking as the largest, privately-held dealer of office technology solutions in the Southeast and one of the largest in the nation. He oversees an operation that covers eight states including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Virginia, North Carolina, Louisiana, and Tennessee, and employs more than 600 people in 30 locations.
Chip Crunk serves as the president of the School of Business Board for Ole Miss, is a founding member and past president of the Nashville Entrepreneur Organization (EO) and serves on the board of directors of Fourth Capital Bank. Throughout his career he’s also been an active member of the Ricoh Executive Steering Committee, the Canon Dealer Council, and the Copier Dealers Association. He is active in community and civic organizations and enjoys flying, boating, golfing, and the Tennessee Titans. Chip and his wife Gina reside in Brentwood, TN, and have two children.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
RJ Young has been with me my entire life. My father was the company’s third employee when he began working for RJ Young in 1958. Fast forward nearly 30 years when he became president and CEO.
I started working with RJ Young right out of college as a Junior Sales Rep and for the first 18 months, I left a lot to be desired. I wasn’t great, to say the least. It was in my second year that I really figured it out. I always say that the key to sales is — he or she who makes the most calls usually gets the most wins. In my second year at RJ Young, I was the top rep at the company. I discovered a true passion for the company, but also recognized the opportunity we had to grow and flourish. When my dad retired in 1996, I became president and CEO — which was a surprise to me and everyone in the company.
When I stepped into my new role, we were a $12-million-dollar business. At that time, I told our team that in ten years, we’d be a $100-million-dollar company. I had no idea how we were going to do that but having a clear vision of the future and where the company was going was important. And plus, there’s no better way to make things happen then to force accountability. I had to keep myself honest.
Because I grew up in the business and had a heart for it, I recognized the opportunity we had to take the business to the next level. And to do so, we had to take the processes we had built and go beyond the Middle Tennessee market — which is exactly what we did. I spent a year in South Mississippi to learn how to expand what we had, and how to grow RJ Young to become one of the largest office equipment dealerships in the country.
We’re still focused on the document, but the thing that has changed is technology. The industry is changing, and technology is improving, and along with this change comes a need to stay ahead of the curve. Our goal is always to deliver what our clients’ needs are not only now, but also into the future. All our customers have different demands, and at RJ Young, we have the technologies available to meet their demands.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Twenty-five years ago, we had a customer that was difficult and harsh on all of our staff — the accounting, service and sales staff. It was a difficult situation because they were friends with one of our sales managers and several other managers were over it.
It got to the point where so many team members had issues with this client, that I knew it was not an internal issue, it was external. I met with the customer to see if I could try to resolve some of the issues, and within 30 minutes I realized what I had to do. I said to them “I think it’s time we go our separate ways. We are not a good mutual fit.” I then recommended several competing technology service providers Who could help them moving forward.
At the end of the day, as business leaders, all we have is our people. As much as we need our clients, we need our talented people more. And, if a client isn’t treating your team the way they need to be treated, it’s best to part ways. If an issue gets to the point that it causes grief or stress to the team, it’s simply not worth it.
In my 25 years at the company, we’ve had tens of thousands of clients — and that was the only time I’ve had to fire a client.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
The first person who comes to mind is my father. I grew up watching him work hard with a commitment to his family, his company, his people and his community. He instilled his work ethic in me and taught me the value of a day of work. He taught me that the key to success was setting a goal, working as hard as you can and never stopping until you reach your goal. I believe this, combined with a commitment to our people, customers and community is the reason we’ve had success along the way.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
An office technology company with a 60-plus year history, change is inevitable and constant — especially as technologies evolve. One thing, however, that has remained the same is our commitment to providing the best quality solutions to our customers, standing by our people and investing in our community.
When RJ Young started, we were solely a printing company. We equipped our customers with the highest quality print outputs in the country. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, we expanded and got into the office product business Today, we offer more than 30 technology solutions that power businesses. While the technologies we offer has expanded, the outcome we provide and our purpose for our customers is the same. We strive to be more than a vendor. We want to be a consultant that helps business leaders sort through the noise of technology products on the market and invest in those that will streamline their day-to-day and truly make them more productive.
We’ve stayed true to who we are by living by our mission statement. Our focus is to provide innovative products and solutions, while maintaining a commitment to excellence and integrity for our people, customers, and communities. I believe that if you have your people, customers, and community at the heart of your business, and do everything in your power to make a setback right, everything else takes care of itself.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
At RJ Young, we strive to provide businesses with the technology solutions they need to drive their businesses forward. With so many technologies available, it’s difficult to know what you really need. What’s actually going to solve your challenge. Or, you may know what you need, but it’s helpful to have a team of folks who can advise your team on the people and process pieces around the technology — ensuring it’s a value add and not a resource suck. In short, we like to consider ourselves technology problem solvers for businesses.
From process automation and managed IT services to digital printing and promotional items, we offer technology solutions that help our customers combat the struggles facing an ever-evolving business climate.
Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?
Remote work has been the most disruptive force on our industry — because so much of our core business revolved around the printing and copying in-office environment. With offices shifting to a remote workforce at the start of 2020, it forced us to adapt to meet the new needs of businesses. The writing had been on the wall, but 2020 sped up our plans.
What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?
At the start of COVID-19 when businesses were transitioning to a remote workplace, we realized that our core business was about to take a hit to the chin. Remote work was disruptive to all businesses — we saw this opportunity to pivot our offerings as clear writing on the wall. We were already getting other technology solutions ready to help ourselves and our clients — but this was the moment we ran towards the challenge to find the opportunity.
Not only were our clients facing these issues, but we at RJ Young were as well. Because we’re a business too, we get the inside perspective and know what businesses need to thrive.
When COVID-19 hit, one of our biggest challenges was getting team members their mail remotely. Through experiencing that first-hand and hearing so many of our clients were experiencing the same thing, we wanted to find the solution.
To address the new needs of businesses, we brought on new products and services for our customers and ourselves. We implemented solutions like:
- Digital mailroom solutions to digitize and distribute physical mail.
- Digital lockers to ensure contactless delivery to our customers.
- Cloud-based phone systems that seamlessly integrate all communication systems into one manageable solution, so you stay connected no matter where you’re working
- Network security solution to combat the heightened risk of remote working cyber security attacks.
- Temperature screening kiosks to easily take temperatures and log visitor information for tracing purposes.
We also invested in our people. We doubled down on training so they could get up to speed on our new offerings and get excited about the future of RJ Young. Additionally, we recruited talent to bring on the expertise that we needed to refresh our organization.
Our people were essential in our pivot, they encouraged us and were there all along to way — without them, we would simply not have succeeded.
Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.
When the pandemic first hit and we were all working from home, the executive team had a daily team call. In one of the first calls, I tasked the leadership team to come up with their best forecasts in the next four months.
It was nearly impossible to forecast.
During the time, so much was unknown, and the future was so unclear. It was one of those defining moments. We could’ve just decided to wait and see. Luckily, we took a different approach. We realized that to take care of our customers and people, we had to create our future. We had to make drastic changes to survive in the everchanging business climate. That’s when we invested in our new technology solutions and services, allowing us and our customers to be successful throughout the pandemic.
So, how are things going with this new direction?
Very well. Our technology solutions are up 400% this year. While it has been a crazy year, we are thankful for all the changes. We began the transition to these new technologies prior to the pandemic, but the disruption accelerated our five-year plan into six months.
We credit all of our success to our people. They took on a new direction and new technologies with energy and enthusiasm. It’s been inspiring to watch. And that spirit of overcoming disruption and coming through stronger has permeated our team. Morale is soaring and the enthusiasm continues to build.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?
When the pandemic began early this year, we experienced a dip in team company culture morale. Because we were working remotely and the world was filled with uncertainty, our culture took a hit.
When we recasted our vision and moved forward with the pivot to new offerings, it re-invigorated our people and gave them a new, exciting goal to work toward. All the grim outlook we had previously expected was put to ease when we saw our team rally around our new vision.
So, while change is usually eschewed, it’s been interesting to see it be embraced.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
It is vital for leaders to be decisive, direct and honest with their team during a disruptive period. As a leader, you are responsible for setting a clear vision of where the company is going, and how we are going to get there. If you do this, your team, will rally around the vision and the goals will get completed.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Make a decision. Sometimes, your five-year plan goes in the dumpster and you just must make decisions based on that day — and that’s okay. A leader can simply figure out what the next right decision is at the moment and then, take action. The wrong decision is better than no decision at all.
Also, share a plan. Letting people team members know there is a plan and vision is calming. Openly sharing that plan at all levels brings a sense of importance, inclusion and buy in.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Integrity. Doing the right thing and treating your team and your customers properly is really all that matters at the end of the day.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Adhering to the status quo: Many businesses make the mistake of assuming what has made them successful to that point, will continue to make them successful. We all know the stories of Blockbuster and Polaroid, but those are headliners. That same story can be told of small and medium-size business over decades and across all industries who fail to take chances to pivot.
Not investing in talent: Sometimes talent can be pricey. The adage of “you get what you pay for” applies to talent in the workplace as well. Investing in talented individuals inside your company can make a huge difference.
Indecisiveness: There’s an old saying that indecision is much worse than a wrong decision — we live by this as a leadership perspective. If you live indecision, you’re not making progress forward.
if you make a decision and are wrong, you can readjust and fix it. At least you tried and learned it wasn’t the right path. That’s progress.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.
Be innovative: It is critical to always look for ways to enhance the value that you can bring to your customers. An example is that most of the office technology hardware we were providing to our customers are network connected. In many instances, we would get a call that the hardware was not functioning as intended, but would find it was actually a networking issue that required the customer to engage their managed IT provider or in-house IT department. We began to see the need for a service and solutions-based remedy which led us to launching our Managed IT Services offering which grew over 200% during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Don’t let fear dictate your decision-making: In 2020, fear and uncertainty have run rampant in business and in the world in general. It is easy to fall into the trap of playing it safe and sticking to what has made your business successful to that point, especially for a business like ours that has been around for 60+ years. However, when you let fear dictate your decisions you can miss tremendous opportunities. We decided during the middle of the pandemic to double-down on our technology solutions business by hiring incredible talent that was available due to other business consolidations and invest in infrastructure to drive growth in this business. We saw immediate results increasing that business by over 300% year-over-year bringing immediate ROI and accretive earnings to the bottom line. While others were still making decisions around how to survive or how many of their people they’d need to cut, we took bold steps to find a way to thrive.
Take care of your people first and they will take care of your customers: We take pride in delivering an incredible customer experience for all of our 20,000+ customers. We want to be known as a company that will go above and beyond to put our customers’ needs first. However, that starts with hiring the right people and treating them in such a way that they convey that message as the face of our business. If you have unhappy people working for you, they will not deliver the level of customer service and experience that you want to have. It starts with investing in your people which are by far your biggest assets, and when they are taken care of, they will take care of your customers.
Stay true to your core values: An organization’s core values are the moral compass for all decisions that have to be made. With the fast-paced world we live in, and the rapidly facing technologies that are constantly disrupting the status quo, it is critical for an organization, and especially its leadership, to stay true to a set of core values that guide the decisions and vision set forth for the organization as a whole. During the pandemic, we had several customers who were completely shut down due to local governmental regulations. It would have been easy to continue billing these customers at their standard contractual rates, but if we are truly committed to the ultimate customer experience as we indicate in our core values, this would not have reflected that. Instead, we decided to work with these customers to defer and their payments, extend payment terms, or modify contracts to make sure we did our part to ensure these business partners could survive these trying times.
Have a clear vision and communicate it to all levels of the organization: I truly believe that without a clear vision, businesses can never truly accomplish the goals it has and maximize its performance. As the leader of the organization, it is my responsibility to lay a clear vision that will serve as the foundation for the decisions we make and the pivots necessary to address disruption in the marketplace. When we transitioned a large portion of our workforce to a remote work environment, I would provide weekly video updates to all employees informing them about the decisions we were making, WHY we were making them, and how it was impacting the business. When your employees understand the vision and why the organization is making the decisions it is making, then you will see a cohesive and concerted effort by everyone towards the unified goals of the organization.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Success is a series of little daily victories.” It has been my favorite quote for a while now as it is something I truly believe. To be successful, you must set a goal every day. It’s easy to get overwhelmed in business and feel like there’s too much to accomplish. If you ask yourself what do I need to do today to move things forward, and follow through with those things daily, you will be successful.
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