Leading a company can bring a variety of challenges but at the same time, it can be an incredible opportunity for growth. Our CEO, Marlaine McCauley sat down with me to talk about her journey from when she started Apex Facility Resources in 1997 to today. How she grew her business and herself by focusing on her community and listening to the wealth of knowledge that surrounded her in all aspects of her life.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity
What is your "why"?
A big part of it was that I needed to prove something to myself but over time it evolved into loving the challenge.
Where did your passion for learning come from?
I didn’t attend college but over the years I had the benefit of having employers and mentors that let me expand my knowledge and skillset on the job and I wanted to extend that opportunity to my employees. Not all of our employees have attended college, but they meet one of our Apex Traits of being Continuous Learners. That is why we provide opportunities to continue to grow. In the past, we offered Apex University, a program that offered a variety of courses that employees could choose from to further develop their knowledge and interests. I felt that this helped someone hone their personal and professional skills regardless of whether they continued their career with Apex or moved on to other opportunities.
What does community mean to you?
I see community as giving back in some way. I grew up in a family that values service. When I was 10 years old a homeless man and his dog knocked on our door asking for a glass of water. We took him in and let him live in our home. From that day on I had this foundational belief that there is more to a person than what we see.
What is your favorite way to give back?
We donate to Sky’s the Limit Fund. They provide wilderness therapy retreats for teens in crisis. A couple of years ago I rode my horse 250 miles across Washington state to raise awareness for the organization and to bring awareness to why we need these alternatives to traditional forms of therapy. Giving back is an opportunity for me to step away from focusing on myself and contribute to those in my community that could benefit from my additional help. We have also set up volunteer events at NW Harvest to enable our employees to give back during work hours so they can be paid for their service without worrying about any conflicting after-hour commitments.
What motivates you today?
Oddly enough for the longest time legacy wasn’t important to me. However, as I have gotten older, I want to see the business continue to be relevant for the employees that work here. That the programs we have created like Apex University can survive and thrive in the organization. It is important to me that we leave a sustainable and viable business for the employees where they can continue to develop professionally and personally.
What advice would you give the next generation of female leaders?
Don’t put so much pressure on yourself to be perfect. The best advice I received was to ask for what you want (people aren’t mindreaders). There are still expectations that women should be those that stay home when their kids get sick or to be the Stay-at-Home mom, yet not all women are wired to fill that role. It is okay to have wants outside of the standard female-driven roles. This has been key to my relationship with my husband (Matt Watson, VP of Development) as we continue to run this business together... we maintain separate hobbies and interests outside of the business.
What would you tell women entering a male dominant profession?
You know more than you realize and trust in yourself. It takes a lot of courage to start a business. I was told ‘no’ or ‘you can’t do this so many times. It only drove me to prove that ‘yes I can’ and create my own independent life.
What traits do you think a great leader possesses?
Be Curious; I have learned that there is always more to the story. I can’t rely on just what one person tells me. I need to gather a more complete backstory to be able to make sound decisions. It circles back to the Russian proverb ‘Trust but Verify’ as there is always an opportunity to explore more.
Be Humble; Although I am the one to chart the course for my team, I don’t know everything. It is up to me to be a good listener and appreciate the skill sets of those around me and take what they have into account. That is why I created the Emerging Leaders Team, a group of employees from each department that participates on the executive leadership team because they bring in a diverse set of opinions, viewpoints, and experiences. Since they will be the people implementing the action items created through our strategic planning, their input is invaluable.
Be okay with saying ‘I don’t know.’ I don’t always know everything but there is always someone I can connect with, whether inside the organization or through my relationships with other business owners, that can provide additional clarity.
What’s one key leadership lesson you’ve learned along the way?
Hire Higher. Back in the day, we thought we couldn’t afford the more experienced employees because they cost more. It is no surprise that it ended up costing more not to hire those people. We currently have under 40 employees but at one time we had 80 people. Despite our growth, we are equally as successful with fewer employees because we focused on hiring the right employees for the role. A good friend once told me that “money should never get in the way of hiring the right person”. He was right.
How do you stay organized?
I thrive in chaos and excel at compartmentalizing as needed but what challenged me the most in the business was learning to let go and delegate tasks when I started hiring additional team members. I realized it takes a team to succeed.
How do you manage stress?
As a business owner there is a lot of pressure to maintain the livelihood of our employees, make payroll, chart a strategic course for the future, and stay competitive in the marketplace. It was no surprise that I developed a severe case of insomnia that required me to medicate just to get a few hours of sleep each night. For my personal health, I had to find a few outlets. To start, I love to travel. When I am traveling, I find that my creative side comes out more. Things that would have been a struggle to think about I can reach the solutions so much more clearly. I can let my brain wander and step away from the day-to-day. When I am home my greatest stress reliever is horseback riding. I was in 4H as a kid with my sister and as I got older other things took priority but once my kids were old enough to be independent, I bought my own horse. Riding horseback taps into my continuous learner mindset in that you must be present while you ride and let everything else wash away. Being on my horse on a trail in the woods has a restorative effect. I can happily say now that I don’t need medication to sleep.
The workplace just went through a long season of change. What do you foresee for the future?
Having weathered two major downturns, I wanted to make sure we looked at how we handled everything with the right lens to ensure we were successful. I am so thankful for the diversity of our company because it made it possible for us to ride out this pandemic. 2020 brought clarity. It showed me the importance of taking care of employees and improving their lives even when we are faced with challenges. I committed to keeping all employees through the pandemic and it reminded me of the importance of following our core values. With that, I do not see a return to ‘normal,’ I think businesses will now realize that employees can be productive outside of the office and in a more casual setting. Personally, I've loved working from home and can't imagine going back into an office unless it is to connect socially with people.
How did this past year affect you personally?
I’ve had some thought-provoking conversations with one of my kids about the LGBTQ community and the current climate locally and around the country. It has been a challenge to grasp these new concepts and see the world through their eyes, but I've been so grateful that I have the type of relationship with my child that we can have this dialogue. We spent a vacation together and dove into politics, business ownership, and what it is like to be one of the kids of a business owner. Owning a business can often be a double-edged sword as it can take its toll on the kids in the family due to the split attention, yet also creates unique opportunities in that my kids were able to attend college without the burden of college debt. What a blessing that has been to be able to do that for my kids.
What is one last thing you would like to share with our readers?
Find a group of entrepreneurs or a community of similar individuals so you have a space to share and talk through ideas. There are organizations like Entrepreneurs' Organization or Vistage that have helped me along the way. Having a group of similar mindsets helped to validate that I knew what I was doing. They helped me to learn to trust my instincts. Being a business owner impacts all aspects of my life and having a place to go where they understand the struggle is pivotal for managing all the challenges.