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On the Brink with Andi Simon

Dec 4, 2023

Hear how a family firm can remember its roots while focusing on the future 

As they say, family is family and business is business. But in many cases, the two can coexist, often quite profitably. Did you know that almost 80% of the businesses in the U.S. are owned and run by families? As a corporate anthropologist, a culture change expert and a daughter raised in a family business, I have a particularly strong interest in family firms, which is why I’m so excited to bring to you Dylan Rexling, the fifth generation to work in his family’s farm operations in southwestern Indiana. He read my book On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights and was inspired to incorporate many of its teachings into the way he runs his company. Whether or not you have a family firm, listen in to learn about running a successful business.

Dylan is that rare business owner who values every employee and actually listens to his customers.

Key takeaways from our conversation:

  • Get to know your employees. He has a monthly Friday breakfast where everyone talks about who they are, why they’re at the company, and what their goals are.
  • Admit you’re not perfect. Dylan’s message to his workers: “My door’s open. Come see me. If we do something that we shouldn’t have done, or we said it in a way that we shouldn’t have, come talk to us because we don’t know if you don’t tell us.”
  • Culture is very important in a business. He specifically hired culture experts who brought in the concept of culture to the organization.
  • Always be willing to learn and get better. There’s always room to go a step higher.
  • Do everything you can to service your customer. If they need something, do everything in your power to say yes, even if it’s not easy. The old saying is still true: the customer is first.
  • Treat your employees well. And your customers. Dylan writes an anniversary card to every one of his employees every time they hit an anniversary date. “I just write a little thank you that says, ‘I really appreciate your contributions to our team and look forward to working with you in the future.'” He also sends handwritten notes to customers thanking them for their business. “I think those little things are what matter.”
  • Take a step back and look at your business from a high level. “And I think you’ll be very happy that you did so well,” he notes.

To connect with Dylan, you can find him on LinkedInFacebookTwitter or his website PFL Logistics.

Want to learn more about the importance of culture, especially in family firms?

Additional resources for you

Read the transcript of our podcast here

Andi Simon: Welcome to On the Brink With Andi Simon. I’m Andi Simon, I’m your host and your guide. And as you know, what I love to do is find people that are going to help you see, feel and think in new ways because that’s how you open your mind and begin to see opportunities. We often say, the future is all around us, it’s just not widely distributed yet. But what if what’s happening is something you could see so that you can understand it? Maybe I can as well, because in some ways, the story that you’re going to hear today is going to help you rethink what you’re doing and begin to open that door so that you can get off the brink.

I have with me today, Dylan Rexing. I’m honored to share him with you. I met him out in Indianapolis at a Vistage group, and I think what they’re doing is transformational to an industry that’s sluggish. I’m going to let him tell you more about it, but let me tell you about his bio. Dylan Rexing is president and CEO of Rexing Companies, an Evansville-based network of family-owned and operated companies. So if you have a family firm or are thinking of building one, this is really good insights to share.

Dylan is fifth generation in his family’s farm operations, where he grew up learning the value of hard work and financial responsibility. But under his leadership, the Logistics Division of PFL Logistics has earned recognition as one of the 5,000 fastest growing private companies for the past four years. I’m going to let him tell you his story, but I think you’re going to enjoy his journey because it’ll change your own story about what’s possible. If only you can open your mind to see and then do some observation into innovation. Dylan, thank you for joining me today. I’m so excited to have you.

Dylan Rexing: Yeah, thanks for having me. Good seeing you again.

Andi Simon: It’s good to see you again. Dylan said he was away and read my book and I went, Oh, isn’t that good reading on the beach? And I appreciate it. Dylan, please, let’s hear your story. Your journey as you were sharing it with me is really a perfect setup for today’s talk.

Dylan Rexing: So, as you had mentioned, I’m generation five in our family business. When I took over the family operation, we were really just an agricultural-based company. We farm about 3000 acres. We had 120,000 chickens. And I took over out of college. I have a bachelors in accounting. And I determined that I didn’t want everything that we did to be out of our control. So as a farming operation, we’re not in control of the weather. So when we plant our crops is not determined by us, the yields that we get are also determined by Mother Nature. Then when we take it to market, it’s really what the market bears.

And so I sort of took over our organization. We still farm. It’s still part of our legacy. Farmers are a backbone of the American economy. I don’t want to necessarily downplay that by any means. It’s still an important part of our business. But I sort of took our business and made a full 360. We have about 90 employees today in the supply chain space. And so we have three companies: cold storage, warehouse trucks and a trucking company where we have trucks and drivers, and then a freight company where we sort of work with our customers and partner with our customers to move freight all over the country.

And so, for me, as you mentioned, I was on vacation last week and you were nice enough to give me a copy of your book On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights, and I read it and talked about how you sort of put on a different lens and look at the world in a different way. It resonated with me. If you get an email from me, at the very bottom underneath my signature it says: “The most dangerous phrase in the English language is ‘as we’ve always done it.'”

Andi Simon: Dylan, you have no idea how many clients hire me to help them change that. The first thing they say is, No, we don’t do it that way. And I say, Then you don’t need me. If that’s the way you’re going to do it, the habits will drive you. But the times are changing, and maybe those habits are no longer viable or valuable or reliable for you.

But, you know, you have a curious mind. And as you and I were talking, that curiosity factor is not to be underestimated. How did you begin to figure out the logistics part? Or, you could have abandoned where you were, but you didn’t. You could have sold it, which you haven’t. But now you’ve taken a bigger picture and have begun to develop a new set of solutions for the whole supply chain of. And I have a hunch there’s some interesting new things coming as well. How did you begin? Where did it start?

Dylan Rexing: Well, believe it or not, you might wonder, how does agriculture and supply chain tie together? And the fact of the matter is, it’s very common for farmers to own supply chain-driven businesses. For example, farmers have to have semis and trailers to take product out of the fields and take them to market. But they only do that for several weeks or a month or so, two months a year. So you buy this equipment and it just sort of collects dust per se.

So the way it started was, we had all this equipment lying around that we were trying to figure out, What do we do with it? And then the cold storage business is kind of the diamond in the middle that sort of connects it all. Our cold storage business: we have customers, big and small, from large poultry companies to bakeries to anything in the middle. And so those all tie in because of the stuff that we store in our warehouse. Our cold storage food product that we store, it has to get to market. It has to get to the grocery store, or it has to get to a plant to be further processed. And so it was all sort of tied together through a supply chain lens.

Andi Simon: Now your clients come to you for any particular reason? Have you differentiated your cold storage in some fashion? Is it fully integrated? You make it simple and easy for them. What are the kind of core attributes of it?

Dylan Rexing: So we like to tell folks, we’re a one-stop shop. So you can call us and we can store your products, you can call us and we can haul your products. We don’t necessarily have to, but we just try to make it easy and convenient for our customers. The cold storage business is pretty niche. There aren’t a ton of companies in the US that are in the cold storage warehouse space and buy cold storage warehouses. For your listeners that maybe don’t understand that, it’s basically a building where we store products that are frozen, refrigerated, fresh, so that they’re nice and healthy for folks in the supply chain, but just a high level of how that works.

Andi Simon: Okay. But you bring them into the cold storage. You said that there aren’t many cold storage businesses, and I am always curious whether you’re doing it like everyone else. And, you and I were together when we talked about being another “red ocean,” or someone who is creating a market. And I hear you because you make it simpler and easier for your clients to get what they need done without having to work as hard, making it simple instead of complex, and beginning to see ways to add value innovatively so that maybe it’s not a Blue Ocean®, but it has all the attributes of a good market creator, not simply “we are another.” Am I saying that correctly?

Dylan Rexing: So I would say, there’s only two large players in the cold storage business that own over 60% of the market. And so one of the ways we differentiate ourselves is by answering the phone when the customer calls. No offense to large companies, but when they get big, there’s several layers of folks in the middle.

And so one of the ways we differentiate ourselves is, we personalize our approach to the customer. If they need something, we do everything in our power to say yes, even if it’s not easy. And so I think ultimately the farming background that I have is sort of driven by the fact that, it sounds a little cheesy, but the customer is first. And we do everything that we can to service that customer.

And interestingly enough, most of our customer base does business with all three of our companies. So we try to anchor them in from one or the other and then convert them from being just a single customer to three of our operating entities. But our secret sauce really is just doing what we say we’re going to do, answering phones, answering emails, and just providing a good service.

Andi Simon: How interesting, simple and yet very profound and very much appreciated and needed by your community, by your markets. Are you located just in Indiana or are you across the country or where are you located?

Dylan Rexing: So our warehouses, we have four locations in Indiana, all in southwest or southeastern Indiana. Our trucking division, we have a location in Owensboro, Kentucky, about 45 minutes from us here. And we also have an operation in the Carolinas. We have several employees out there in the Charlotte, North Carolina area, a little city called Troy. So we aren’t all over the country, but we have trucks that travel in all contiguous 48 states. But our headquarters is mainly here in southwestern Indiana.

Andi Simon: It sounded when you and I were talking, though, that so many companies today have people problems. But I have a hunch you don’t. And I have a hunch there’s some core values that are working well for you. Can you share with our listeners about how you attract and retain? Is it the metaphor of family? What do you find works particularly well? Because I do think that’s a much needed wisdom to share with folks who aren’t quite sure how to do that anymore.

Dylan Rexing: You know, I would say that we’re not perfect, and I don’t think really anyone is. We’ve grown over the years. I mean, if you look back in the history books of our business in 2010, we had zero employees and 13 years later we have 90. And so we’ve obviously had some struggles along the way. We’re still learning. I tell folks, when we onboard, we’ve hired so many people as of late that I don’t know their faces. I don’t know their names, I don’t know what their hobbies are or what makes them tick. And so we started having a Friday, a monthly breakfast where we bring in bagels and sit down and just talk about who they are and why they’re here and what their goals are and those kinds of things.

And I just found it important to sort of personalize each person; it’s kind of embarrassing when someone works for us and I don’t know who they are. And so I made it a purpose to sit down with them and just take an hour out of the month and just get to know them. But when I end those meetings, I tell folks all the time that, you know, we’re not perfect. My door’s open. Come see me. If we do something that we shouldn’t have done, or we said it in a way that we shouldn’t have, come talk to us because we don’t know if you don’t tell us.

And so I would say that culture is very important in a business. I didn’t even know what the word culture meant probably 4 or 5 years ago. I didn’t really understand it. I thought you just went to work and you busted your butt until you got the job done. And again, I didn’t really understand it. And we hired a couple of people that really brought culture to our organization.

And so I would say, you know, as far as attracting and retaining talent, we’re better than the average company. We still have room to go. One of the things Vistage will teach you, and I’ve only been in Vistage a little over almost two years, is if you’re not willing to always learn and get better, you’re just going to get passed by. And so when people say, Well, how do you know how you are doing? And in the employee area, I always tell folks, I think we do a fabulous job. But, you know, there’s always that room to go a step higher.

Andi Simon: Particularly since the folks you’re hiring are all coming from an age at a different time. They’ve had different experiences, you know, and the Google search for culture and culture change is has been going up like this for a couple of years now, something we specialize in because people don’t know, as you’re saying, what is it? And if you have a toxic one, you don’t even know why. And if you have a good one, you can’t figure out how to keep it going. And it’s the thing that makes humans so special.

We must have meaning, and as you’re talking, it’s important to get your folks to understand that they matter in the larger scheme of your business, that they aren’t just a cog in the wheel, that their feelings matter and and they’re changing and you want them to help build a better business. And it’s interesting because I have a hunch your clients look upon them as assets, as real value providers, not just tactical and practical people. I mean, is there kind of a blend of your culture into your clients?

Dylan Rexing: Yeah. I mean, I would say we have customers, we have employees on site at customers’ facilities. We have some that work on their site. Not only are they there occasionally to do a pick up or a drop, but we have sites where our employees sit at a desk next to our customer, which is a little odd at times. And so we have to sort of manage that.

Our culture and their culture have to kind of mix and we have to make sure that our employees are in a good space. But, I would say it’s important to have employees that want to work for you. And that you treat your employees well. One of the small little tricks that I’ve taken from my time and in some books I’ve read, is that I write an anniversary card for every one of our employees every time they hit an anniversary date. I just write a little thank you that says, I really appreciate your contributions to our team and look forward to working with you in the future.

It’s really short and sweet, but I think we’ve sort of lost touch as a country or a globe, that everything is social media driven and everything’s on our phone. And so our folks appreciate me taking the time to just literally get out a pen and write down a nice little note. And we also do that for customers. So we’ll send handwritten notes to customers thanking them for their time listening to us about X, Y or Z. Maybe it’s the curious mind in me, but I just sometimes think those little things are what matter.

Andi Simon: Oh, I want to say, sometimes I think it is. I was on a plane coming back from Houston, Houston or Lexington. Unfortunately, I’m on a plane every week, and this flight attendant wrote me a personal note thanking me for being Executive Platinum on American Airlines, and how much she appreciated my loyalty and service. You know, often I get things from American to thank me but this is the second time I’ve gotten a handwritten note and I took a picture of it. And I just think it’s a nice touch that makes it seem like you’re not just a cog in this thing, that maybe it matters. And it mattered to this particular flight attendant. And she was very gracious about it. She said, I just want you to know how important this is. And I went, Well, I don’t know who trained you, but you got a heart that’s bigger and sometimes the flights are good and they work, and sometimes they don’t. And after a while you just take whatever you get, right? But it was very touching.

So yours has a ripple effect because I have a hunch your folks then say thank you to their folks and their clients say, Isn’t this a nice thing? And all of a sudden the community has an appreciation for each other, bigger than the task at hand, am I right?

Dylan Rexing: Yeah. I mean, ultimately, I think what we try to do is, and it’s changed over time, but we want to make our community and our world a better place than when we took it over. Right? And so the little things about saying thank you and writing little notes to your employees and customers, I hope that puts a smile on our people’s faces. And I hope when we send it to vendors and customers that it makes them feel better. And it’s just trying to make the place we live in a little better. Ultimately, I don’t know the exact statistics, but we spend more time with our colleagues at work than we spend at home with our family. If you don’t love or enjoy where you work, you need to make a change, right?

Andi Simon: Well, you can tell the folks how to reach you if they’re curious and how to join you. I am curious, though, when we were talking about the future and the things that you’re already seeing as ways to improve, even a very good model that you’ve got. And I do think that the times are changing fast, and sometimes there’s a little idea that comes and adds great value. Can you share something about the work that you’re doing now?

Dylan Rexing: So we’ve got a new program with one of our companies, PFLAG, that we’ve been working on bringing to light. It started in July. Let me take a step back. The biggest fear I have as a business owner is that I’m the taxi cab that gets replaced by Uber, a great metaphor, or I’m a Blockbuster that gets replaced by Netflix. That’s my biggest fear is that we started and we put all this tremendous effort and thought into our industry or in our several businesses, and that’s just my biggest fear that someone comes in and just replaces us like that.

And so I’m always trying to think of different ways to differentiate ourselves. And so we’ve got a new program for our logistics business that’s really unique. It’s probably the only one in the country. And we ultimately give our customers more control and transparency over their supply chain and where their product is and how much it costs and those kinds of things. So it’s kind of cheesy to say, but we’ve become a partner of our customer, not really just a vendor. We’ve become partners. So we’re integrated into their system. And like I said, we have employees that sit next to their employees in their building. And so we’ve just become an important piece of their business. And just the reason it came up is, again, I just was extremely concerned that we were going to be the taxicab. And I just don’t want to do that.

Andi Simon: But your metaphor, your aha, is that it’s happened, to Airbnb and Blockbuster could have bought Netflix, but didn’t think that was anything. Let’s not forget, there was a Sears catalog before an Amazon ever existed. And now no more Sears and lots of Amazon. And you wonder who’s going to tackle that one.

But to your point, unless you try and you don’t really know what’s of value to your partners, I love the idea they’re collaborators with you. Together you both rise, and without those customers partnering, you can’t grow either. I mean, you can’t have empty  cold storage. It doesn’t do much good. And we can’t because you’re delivering the food to us in a way that’s fast and easy and really affordable.

More often than not, we believe it’s getting to be challenging. You know, I’m enjoying our conversation. The thing that I really do think is that there are some lessons that you’ve learned that you want our listeners to hear: one, two or three of them that really impacted you because you are different than when you started to do this transformation and things are working, I have a hunch, better than you might have anticipated, but we can’t necessarily know the future. We just can plan for it. Some lessons you’ve learned that you want to share.

Dylan Rexing: You know, I’m going to hit the same topic again. But I think it’s extremely important. I think for someone that’s trying to start a business, or maybe they’ve already started one and they’re kind of in a growth phase or anything in between, I think you need to walk in every day and think about how you’re going to replace yourself. Because if you don’t walk in your office every day or your building or wherever you work every day and think about how am I going to get replaced, someone’s going to replace you. Maybe it’s not tomorrow. Maybe it’s five years from now. But ultimately that’s the world that we live in. It’s moving much faster today than it ever has. So I think that’s one important piece that I’d like to share.

The other piece I like to share is to listen to all the stakeholders in your area. So listen to your employees, listen to your vendors, listen to your customers. You learn more from that than you’re going to learn anywhere else. There’s my neighbor who ran a $1 billion manufacturing plant down the street from us. And he said, What I would do is, I’d have this scheduled time every Wednesday, I think it was where I’d walk the plant floor. It was a manufacturing business, a big one in our area. And every week he made a point, for a couple hours, to walk around and just walk the plant floor and talk to his people.

A lot of folks in today’s world, especially in my age group, I like to pick on my age group, I’m a little younger and we do some things better, but we also struggle in some areas, and people in my age group want to manage behind a desk or behind a spreadsheet or something of that nature. And I think it’s just important to kind of get out there and get in front of the stakeholders of your business.

Andi Simon: Well, you know, as an anthropologist, I can tell you that you really don’t know what you don’t know. And you can ask people and they’ll tell you a story about what they think it is you want to hear. But that gentleman who went out to look and see is how we actually learn. And unless you’re in the trucks or in the cold storage route with your own customers, you’re imagining what it is they’re struggling with and where you could add value innovatively.

My husband was a serial entrepreneur in his last business. He spent a whole lot of time just listening, trying to hear what people were challenged by and not assuming we knew because we really don’t know. We think we know, but we are imagining what it is like there. And so that point is a really powerful one.

You know, this has been fun. Do you have your folks also coming back with things they’ve heard from customers that feed into an innovation, you know, culture in some fashion? My last question and then we’ll do a wrap up because I do think they hear more than we will ever hear.

Dylan Rexing: So when we were at Vistage in Indy together, you had spoken about going to your customer service team to listen. Our business isn’t necessarily set up that way. And so it’s still in the back of my brain as to how to get ideas from not just myself talking to folks, but to get ideas from other folks in our organization. So stay tuned on that. It’s one piece that I sort of wrote down as a takeaway, and an important one for sure. I think what Vistage says is, It’s a day to work on your business, not in your business. That’s kind of their metaphor.

I think my last piece of advice would be: sometimes we get really busy in the day to day of whatever fire is out there. Take a step back and sort of look at your business from a high level. And I think you’ll be very happy that you did so well.

Andi Simon: And I love the idea of taking a Wednesday and being an observer, and give it enough frequency so that you can really begin to see. And offline, you and I can talk about some ideas about how to get your talent out there to begin to feed things back in because there’s always gaps for pain points that they hear.

My favorite story is someone who said to a Vistage member,  what “What if’s” could you have benefited from? And he said, We ignored all those. That wasn’t what we sold him, and then we asked where all the opportunities were. So he created the “what if” sales process. Don’t sell what we sell, listen to what they need. And I went, Oh, that’s not hard. And he said, But I didn’t hear a word that customer was saying, and that’s where all my opportunities were. So it’s pretty cool stuff. Where can they reach you if they’d like to get ahold of you?

Dylan Rexing: The best way is the Contact Us page on our website. My office number’s on there. My email address is on there. I’m happy to talk to anybody at any time and see if there’s a way I can improve your business.

Andi Simon: Good. I am reluctant to share on the recordings because they’re there for a long time and sometimes we don’t want them there for a long time. But I thank you so much. It’s been such a pleasure today. So this is fun. I have to tell Steve McFarland this was just a treat and he should send me some more of his folks. They’re really remarkable people. It was wonderful.

For those of you who don’t know about Vistage, I’ll put a plug in. I think I’ve done 503 or 504 Vistage talks, mostly on: change mattershow to find new markets Blue Ocean Strategy-style or culture change or innovation. But Vistage is an organization of CEOs and key leaders from companies across the world now, and it brings them together for them to listen and grow and learn.

In my book, On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights, six of the eight stories in there are Vistage members. And it’s a great way to understand how Vistage folks begin to open their minds to possibilities, and it gives us great opportunities to help them see things through a fresh lens, which is my job.

For those of you who came today, as always, thank you for joining us. It’s so much fun to do podcasting. It’s a way of sharing people and ideas and you don’t need to listen to me alone. This was a marvelous time to share and I’m just glad we’re growing together. I feel like a partner. Our new book, Women Mean Business: Over 500 Insights from Extraordinary Leaders to Spark Your Success, co-authored with Edie Fraser and Robyn Freedman Spizman, is behind me here, and for those of you who may have bought it, I’m getting great reviews on Amazon. If you haven’t bought it yet, Amazon, Barnes and Noble and local booksellers have it, and we are on the book tour. If you want to hear us speak about how Women Mean Business, I’d be delighted to share with you. There are 102 women in it. They’re all leaders in their field who share their five wisdoms, and help others do better together. And that’s what we’re all about.

So it’s been fun. Thank you for coming to On the Brink. My job is to help you get off the brink. And, so thank you Dylan, it’s been a pleasure. Have a great day. Bye bye now.