Tin man has a heart

Runner-up

W.P. HICKMAN Headquarters: Asheville CEO: Scott Hickman Employees: 52 Founded: 1945 Projected 2009 revenue: $15 million Business: Maker of custom commercial-
roof edging

Scott Hickman grew up in San Francisco and, after graduating from Stanford and earning a Harvard MBA, was a corporate nomad in such places as New York, Geneva and Budapest, where he led Sun Microsystems’ operations in Eastern Europe. His was not a résumé for running a small factory in the Carolina mountains. But blood did what a head-hunter probably could not have. In 2004, he became CEO of the company his grandfather started in a Michigan garage in 1945 and his uncle moved to Asheville in 1975. Though he had been on its board nearly two decades, it wasn’t until directors started looking for someone to turn it around that he offered up himself. “I didn’t want to see the company go down. It was a family company that I felt that I had a real stake in, and the employees loved it.”

His efforts are paying off. At a time when American manufacturers are struggling — in some cases, strangling — W.P. Hickman is increasing market share and anticipates double-digit profit growth this year. That will allow Hickman, 52, to continue following his uncle’s example to treat employees as family. In addition to traditional benefits such as health insurance, a 401(k) and a match of charitable gifts, the company provides on-site care from a physician’s assistant and on-site counseling from a financial adviser. The P.A., who visits monthly, will meet one-on-one with any employee on company time. Employees pay nothing for the appointments and are guaranteed confidentiality.

When Scott Hickman became CEO, the benefits were in jeopardy. The company was bleeding money. Offering a premium product — it custom-makes most of its edges for metal roofs — at commodity prices, it focused on selling its products to commercial roofers, who demanded low prices to bring projects in under budget. And the company simply wasn’t focused on the bottom line. “We’re not trying to make money because we’re greedy bastards,” Hickman says. “We’re trying to make money because without that we can’t give good benefits, develop new products and equipment and give a return to our shareholders.” To stress that point, he has linked part of every paycheck to profitability.

If financial management wasn’t a strength before he arrived, craftsmanship certainly was. The company owned more than 20 patents and could make all sorts of colorful, contoured roof edges. “Our guys are doing an old-school art. We just needed to create some incentives and change our pricing structure. But the skill of this group was the secret sauce.” W.P. Hickman’s marketing now targets architects and property owners who can demand costlier materials to achieve a desired look. It has done a zinc edge for the roof of M Resort Spa Casino on the Las Vegas Strip and curving white coping above the entrance of the World of Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta. Better edges improve not only appearance but durability, keeping roofs attached in high winds.

To hear Hickman tell the tale, his company’s turnaround swung as smoothly as a Sunday morning hymn at a little mountain chapel. But prod him a little, and he’ll admit that employees doubted him when he arrived. “Mountain folks are self-sufficient and a little suspicious of outsiders. I needed to show that I’d do what I said I’d do. The first thing I did was to sit down, one on one, with every employee for an hour to learn about them and to ask what they thought was right and wrong with the company.” After ensuring them that they would share in any upside, he expected them to do things his way. “I brought in a little of the ready-fire-aim approach from tech. In a world as fast moving as high-tech, you don’t have the luxury of waiting for consensus. We needed that sense of urgency.”

— Tim Gray