My Job At The Container Store Employees at the best company to work for in America sell boxes and garbage cans. Our reporter went moonlighting to find out what's so great about that.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – It's 5:50 A.M. on a December Friday in Dallas, and I want to go back to bed. For the past hour I've been unloading a 16-wheeler for the Container Store, a chain of 20 retail stores that sell just about anything for organizing your home, your car, your office, your life. My life right now is devoted to moving Santa Claus tins, Three Stooges wrapping paper, Elfa ventilated shelving, 3M hooks with Command adhesive, and Container Store-brand corrugated boxes through the 25,000-square-foot store. My T-shirt is wet, my back support is too tight, and frankly it's too early for humans to be moving.
"What a way to start the day," I say to Chris Robinson, a 20-year-old who has been working at this Dallas branch for seven months. We're standing in the back of a dark truck, pulling boxes from a seven-foot-high stack and shoving them down metal rollers that lead into the stockroom. In addition to this job Robinson attends college full-time and plays second base for his school's baseball team. It's a hectic schedule that most people would avoid at all costs. "Yeah," he says, without a hint of displeasure. "I don't know too many 20-year-olds who would get up at 4 A.M. for this. But I love this job. I've worked at companies where the boss sits behind a desk and says, 'Do this, do that,' and I'm like, 'You do it.' Here everyone does everything. It's like a team." Once we're done unloading, Robinson grabs a broom and starts sweeping out the truck. "Otherwise," he says cheerfully, "the driver has to do it when he gets back to the distribution center."
A few minutes later I'm on the sales floor trying to avoid being assigned a task. Some workers are speeding by me with boxes. Others, called slashers, are running down aisles with box cutters, slicing open boxes and dumping their contents in front of the appropriate shelves. Suddenly, a jungle call reverberates through the store--"AH, YAHAIA, YAHAIA!" I follow the scream.
"I was raised on a dairy farm, so I've had time to perfect my Tarzan yell," says Daren Fagan. A smile lights up his face as he knifes through a box of small, rectangular plastic canisters. For three years Fagan ran a division of the Container Store's distribution center. Now he's unloading boxes. I ask whether it's a demotion. "No," he says. "I just wanted to step out of the management role, get back in touch with the customers. I told my folks that I was going back to the store, and they were like, Huh? What? But we just think different here."
No joke. In an age where every company seems to offer harried employees a salve of on-site services, pet-friendly policies, and stock options, the Container Store promises only that it will treat its workers like humans. Grade-school-type maxims--treat people as you want to be treated, help others--are granted policy status. Employees undergo constant training. And instead of tightly guarding financial information, the Container Store opens its ledger to all employees. The outcome: a company whose turnover is a fraction of the industry's, losing just 28% of its full-time salespeople a year, vs. the industry average of 73.6%, and just 5.3% of its store managers, compared with the industry's 33.6%.
That kind of success is what brought me, a jaded journalist, down to Dallas for a week. Don't be surprised if you've never heard of the Container Store. We hadn't either. Although it's been around for 21 years, the closely held company has branched out to only eight states. Its founders, President Kip Tindell and CEO Garrett Boone, have slowly created a company that this year will generate an estimated $214 million in sales. This was the first year that Tindell and Boone's company entered FORTUNE's survey of the best companies to work for in America. It placed first.
How? Well, the company did terrific by the arcane metrics that go into making the list (an explanation of them accompanies the list that follows this story). A big part of the company's score was derived from the 225 anonymous responses (out of 250 randomly selected employees) that were sent to the Great Place to Work Institute. The Container Store employees' responses read like the Letters to the Editor of Pravda, circa 1977:
--"We grew up with 'family values,' and it's rare to find a company with the same values, philosophy, and foundation principles. Going to work is like going to a family reunion every day."
--"I love this company because 'Customer Service is #1'!!... All customers can use our phones at any time."
--"At TCS we do 'everything' with pride, from sharing our line of products and matching knowledge to the tidy bathroom we clean ourselves!"
--"Kudos to Kip and Garrett for creating a place we love."
--"Working for this company has made me a better person and certainly made the world a better, more organized place."
--"I miss everyone when I go on vacation."
--"TCS is my family."
--"I will never leave."
Never leave? Thrills over a generous phone-for-customers policy? What, my editors wanted to know, was the Container Store putting in its water? To find out, I arranged with Container Store execs to work in one of their stores for a week. Everyone I worked with was told that I was a reporter, but only a few executives knew my piece related to the 100 Best Companies to Work For list. No one knew the Container Store had placed first.
My mission: Find out why this company made it to the top.
TUESDAY Before shipping me off to work, the Container Store has invited me to sit in on a meeting at headquarters to launch the annual Elfa sale. Elfa is wire shelving used to organize closets. It's the company's highest-margin product, accounting for a fifth of sales. The goal is to eventually get that to a quarter of total sales. And to make sure everyone is thinking Elfa, the company has called together 100 managers and "super sales trainers"--on-site employees who do nothing more than train other employees. Melissa Reiff, the vice president of sales and marketing, kicks off the event:
"What are we in the middle of?!"
"Christmas!" everyone yells back.
"What's around the corner?!"
"When does it start?!"
"When does it end?!"
Another exec leads a cheer of E-l-f-a. "What's it spell?! What's it spell?! What's it spell?!" she shouts. The response is deafening.
It's clear that these are people who don't mind thinking alike. As the meeting continues, I start to tune out. These are managers, after all. They probably get a huge cut of the Elfa revenue, I (wrongly) assume. What I want to see are the rank-and-file employees. How do they respond to the cheerleading antics? Are they really as happy as they make out on the survey?
Two hours later I'm sitting with eight of the rank-and-file in the break room of a Dallas store directly across from the NorthPark shopping mall. Manager Merrilyn Frank, who has been with the Container Store for 16 years, is teaching us about the Foundation Principles, the guidelines that dictate every action at the company. There is no thick rule book, we're told; employees should trust their instincts as long as their actions follow the six principles:
1. Fill the other guy's basket to the brim. Making money then becomes an easy proposition.
2. Man in the desert.
3. One great person equals three good people.
4. Intuition does not come to an unprepared mind.
5. The best selection anywhere plus the best service anywhere plus the best or equal to the best price in our market area.
6. Air of excitement.
The phrases don't exactly roll off the tongue, but employees constantly find ways to mix them into their everyday conversation. The one most often invoked is No. 2, the enigmatic "man in the desert." It's the principle that holds the clue to the Container Store's success.
"The man in the desert is the story of a man crawling through the desert gasping for water," explains Frank, as she leads us on a tour of the store. "He comes to an oasis, where a regular retailer gives him water. Well, he thinks, 'Great.' But when he comes to the Container Store, we say, 'Here's some water, and how about some food? I see that you have a wedding ring on. Can we call your family and let them know you're here?' This applies to customers: It doesn't do any good to hand them a glass of water without the food. You're cheating the customer if you're not offering them the opportunity to buy more."
In other words, selling is good for the customer. Man in the desert allows you to be a pushy salesperson but feel as if you're a public servant--a useful sensation for a company that doesn't offer sales commissions.
WEDNESDAY It's time for Gift Wrap Wonderland. For nine weeks in the fall, everything from the center of the store is moved to the periphery, and in comes the Wonderland: 250 prints of gift- wrap, a spectrum of colored tissue paper, satin ribbons, yarn, and ornament hangers. So important is Gift Wrap Wonderland that we're having our morning huddle in the area. The huddle is when managers let salespeople know what the sales goals are for the day. Frank first announces that we beat yesterday's goals. But today's are higher, so there's a quick call and response to build enthusiasm: "Where's the place to be?!" "Holiday!"--and the doors are opened to the public as the staff breaks into more applause.
As the day goes on, customers come in and start looking over wrapping paper. After just a second or two a red-aproned Container Store salesperson is on them. "A good way to approach someone is to ask if they're going for a certain theme," says Karyn Maynard. She's the super sales trainer for the NorthPark store.
I try it a couple of times, but the customers all respond in the same way: They nervously edge away from me and avoid all eye contact. Am I giving off some anti-sales vibe? I try a little harder. A woman approaches me asking for a box in which to wrap the Lucite cookbook holder she plans to give as a Christmas present. Confidently I lead her to the aisle of floor-to-ceiling boxes. Those are shipping boxes, she points out. She wants a gift box. They're not the same thing. Maynard has told me to be inventive, so I head back to Wonderland and tell her that I think a $2.99 cardboard cake box would be perfect. I pick up an unfolded version of the box and proceed to mangle it as I try to create an approximation of the display version. She eyes my box, thanks me, and takes the display version. That's fine. Remembering "man in the desert," I point out that she'll need tissue paper to package her gift and perhaps some wired ribbon to make it perfect. But she's content with her glass of water, as it were, and heads off to the registers. It's my first sale.
At 1:30, I take my lunch break with Dave Steinberg, a fellow salesman. Before joining the Container Store six months earlier, Steinberg managed ten stores for the kids' chain Noodle Kidoodle. "To go from a district manager to making bows took some getting used to," Steinberg says in his Brooklyn accent. "A lot of getting used to."
Steinberg took a pay cut to join the Container Store when the stress of constant travel between Noodle Kidoodle stores started affecting his family life. Salespeople at the Container Store often start with an annual salary of around $45,000, with 8% raises a year for excellent sellers. That's not bad for this industry, and at the Container Store, it's not unusual to have a handful of salespeople at each branch making more than the manager. Sometimes it's even hard to find out who the manager is, which, says Steinberg, makes his job all that more rewarding.
"When I was a district manager at Noodle, if I wanted to write a gift certificate, I'd have to ask permission," he says. "Here, there's no seniority, no politics. If someone comes in and asks to speak to a manager, I say, 'Okay, what can I do for you?'"
Over the past few months, the real store manager, Frank, has even had Steinberg and another salesperson do all the hiring of part-time help for the holidays. I ask Steinberg if he wants to move up in the company. He says probably. But back in the store he seems content teasing other salespeople (including his wife, who works part-time in the store) and playing with customers' babies.
THURSDAY I'm being Gumby today. At least I hope I am. At the Container Store, that's one of the highest compliments you can receive. "Being Gumby" means that you're being flexible--going outside your regular job to help another worker or a customer. Frank has little Gumbys on a shelf in her office, and headquarters has a human-sized Gumby on display. This morning I'm shelving a rolling cart full of ribbon; I'm supposed to be selling gift wrap.
To tell the truth, I'm probably more cowardly than Gumby. Talking to customers--or rather, being nice to customers--doesn't come naturally to me. It does seem to come naturally to Melani Meyer, a former insurance saleswoman who has been working at the Container Store for three years. I ask her if she's always been perky.
"Oh, no," she says. "When I was selling insurance, I was never happy. It's hard to be when you don't trust your superiors."
Here she does. In an effort to avoid working, I ask why. She credits part of it to the open books. She knows what the store and the company make every year and what the financial goals are for next year. How can that be motivation? I ask. Sure, meeting goals helps the store, but hit or miss, it doesn't affect her paycheck. "It's a team thing," she says, later adding, "We have profit sharing. Of course, we just bought Elfa this year, so we won't get much in profit sharing. We're okay with that, though, because we know that in the next three to five years, it will be great for the company. What's a measly five years?"
Five years is measly? I've always had trouble knowing where I'll be working in three to five months, let alone years.
FRIDAY I unload a truck from 5 A.M. until 11 A.M., eat lunch with the company's owners, and spend the rest of the day sleeping.
SATURDAY It's my last day, and I have yet to find anyone who will clue me in to the dark underbelly of the Container Store. Trying to dig deep, I interview Leonard Berry, director of Texas A&M's retail-studies center, who studied the company for his book Discovering the Soul of Service. Berry confirms my sneaking suspicion that Container Store employees are actually, honestly happy. He attributes it in part to the early homework that the company does on its salespeople. "One of their keys to success is that they hire very well," Berry says. "It's such a generous place, such a high-trust place, that employees love it. They hire people with the same values as the leaders. That's the cornerstone."
I figure that if anyone at the store might not share those values, it's Hayden Tidwell, a 27-year-old worker who sports a Vandyke beard, earrings, and several tattoos. Tidwell eschews standard-issue Container Store T-shirts and sneakers for black shirts and black shoes with red and yellow leather flames.
I figured wrong.
"I worked at Toys 'R' Us for five Christmases, and I got worn out by managing a bunch of idiots," he says. "I said, 'I don't want to work with people who don't want to work.' I'm a negative person, but I've never had a day I didn't want to go to work." As we're talking, a man in a blue jacket waves and approaches Tidwell. Although he doesn't speak English, he signals that he wants a box for a painting that he's holding. Tidwell takes down some boxes, but none quite fit. So he reaches for some flat cardboard, disappears into the storeroom, emerges with scissors and tape, and custom-makes a box. Tidwell is very Gumby.
I try a few more sales, show off a bow that I've learned how to tie, and come to the conclusion that I would never be hired by the Container Store. Which, for its sake, is a great thing. Cynics aren't welcome at the Container Store. And customers--and employees--seem to like that just fine.