As the co-owners of Zeeland-based trucking, warehousing and logistics firm Inontime Inc., Jon Lanning and business partner Eric Bruins have tried to build a culture based on trust and entrepreneurship, where every one of the more than 300 employees has a sense of ownership. That culture earned the two executives the Small Business People of the Year honor for the state of Michigan, as awarded by the U.S. Small Business Association. Lanning spoke with MiBiz about the role culture played in enabling growth for the company that has annual revenues in excess of $25 million, and how the general business climate affects small business executives.
Why is that sense of employee ownership so important for a trucking and warehousing operation?
We don’t have to have a traditional time clock here where people have to punch in and out. We can still trust them to enter their hours and to do it honestly. And it’s way more efficient because not everybody starts and finishes in the same place when you’re in a trucking company, from an hours perspective.
So often our customers are actually looking out for us because they know that we’ve watched out for them over the years, and that mutual collaboration on working together to try to minimize their logistics cost and watching out for each other just leads to some really cool dynamics. There’s just a lot of really special people that have made Inontime a cool place to work and then a cool place to be able to service customers well at the same time.
Do you have any particular experiences that you see as emblematic of the company’s culture?
In 2011 we bought a warehouse building. We formed an LLC and one of the things we did was we opened it up to all of our team members to be owners in that building. So it was kind of our version of an ESOP, where we then leased that building back to Inontime. We offered to loan them the money to (invest in) the LLC. So it wasn’t really about generating money. It was about our way of letting the team in on the success.
What are the challenges you’re seeing at an industry level?
From an industry perspective, there continues to be a shortage of great people to drive. We’re fortunate in the sense that we’re local, so our team members are home every night. That gives us a significant advantage from a hiring perspective. But at some level, part of the issue is companies only want to hire people with experience.
Given the shortage of real estate, are you able to expand much on the warehousing side?
We did just lease 200,000 square feet of warehousing space. We did have to sign a lease for that, but we were fortunate enough to find a really nice warehousing facility (with 32-foot ceilings) to do that. That gave us a bunch of additional capacity to continue to take on projects.
Do you foresee the need for more space?
I wouldn’t be surprised if we continue to expand. As our customers need space, that’s our job.
What’s the general growth strategy for Inontime?
We hope to be able to grow at a steady but controlled rate, and that is really important to us. For what it’s worth, our mission statement says that we want to have the most positive impact we can have. It’s a little bit of a strange thing, but for us, it’s not just about making money. I call it a triple bottom line. … Are we having a positive impact on our people, our vendors, the environment? And then, certainly, being able to make money and sustain the business is part of that as well.
What are you watching when it comes to policy that affects small businesses?
One of the challenges that we’ve experienced — and what I think I see from the other small businesses as well — is just navigating the regulatory and tax and licensing and paperwork and regulation environment.
You’re trying to do things right — or at least we are — and the people I talk to are trying to do it right. But you know, this government agency needs it on this form in this way … and this other one wants it different, and it just is a real challenge for a small business to navigate that correctly. I see the SBA working toward that and I think it’s definitely on the radar. Having just been in Washington, Linda McMahon (the new administrator of the SBA) is talking all about that. Thankfully, I do think it’s on their radar and it certainly is part of their priority to simplify that.
As a small business owner, what are the one or two policy changes you’d like to see?
For us, a simplified tax code would just be a lot better. Just simplify it, and tell us what it is and don’t change it on us midstream. None of this, ‘Are we going to renew the incentive this year or not?’ From our perspective, that one would be a great deal.