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Former Cintas President & COO Shares Insights On Supplier Diversity & Leadership

J. Phillip Holloman retired as president and chief operating officer at Cintas at the end of last month, and he is experienced when it comes to the subject of diversity in business.

Holloman at CintasJ. Phillip Holloman retired as president and chief operating officer at Cintas at the end of last month, and in addition to being an inspirational minority leader with the company for more than two decades, he is also experienced when it comes to the subject of diversity in business. As Holloman explains, diversity at Cintas goes beyond the makeup of its employees and management team, but extends to its suppliers as well.

“We’re nationally recognized for what we’re doing in the area of supplier diversity, and I think that is very big,” Holloman told Chief Executive. “I have personally mentored several diverse companies. I am particularly proud of a program where we would bring in selected companies, primarily locally, to be mentored over a period of time.”

Holloman served as the founding member of Cintas’ Diversity Committee and received the Excalibur Award, the company’s highest award reserved for business executives who demonstrate excellence during their tenure. Chief Executive caught up with him to discuss the importance of top-down support for diversity and inclusion, his legacy at Cintas, his advice for CEOs who are newcomers to the concept of supplier diversity and the leadership lessons he’s learned over the course of his career. Here’s what he had to say:

On his legacy at Cintas

When I look at my experience at Cintas, several things stand out, including the procedures and processes that transformed the way that we do business. I believe that the processes and procedures we put in place are going to be sustainable over time. I try to avoid using the word “I,” but there are several of those that I’m proud of that I believe strongly transformed our business.

First, I am very proud of having been the president and COO at the start of the great recession and that, as a company, we came out of it much stronger than we went into it on a number of fronts. Whether it was our growth trajectory, our margins, our partner engagement, our customer retention, new products that we introduced during that time, new market segments that we hadn’t previously been in but we pursued and got into, we did not, during that time, put our heads in the sand.

We have also made great strides in the area of safety. The safety engagement of our partners, the KPIs that we’ve measured and the improvements that we’ve made focus on sending our partners home the same way that they came to work and being very safe. We now lead the country with more than 85 locations certified VPP Star by OSHA, which is their highest recognition of safety attributes.

I feel really good about where we are on our diversity journey and supplier diversity. We measure that, we focus on it, and the organization as a whole is, at all levels, whether it be leadership positions or front line, far more diverse now than we were years ago.  Supplier diversity has really taken off more so over the last 12 years as opposed to 22 years, but we’ve made tremendous progress in that area.

I’ve enjoyed the people that I’ve worked with, coached, and mentored, and watching their careers grow and blossom. I always wanted to surround myself with people that have the potential to be better than me. And so, in my opinion, we’re in great shape from a leadership standpoint. I believe I’m going out on a high note, but it’s not the highest note Cintas will achieve. We talk about positive discontent and Cintas will continue to get better and better over time.

How supplier diversity has progressed within Cintas over the years

We really started to look at supplier diversity in the early 2000s, but once Pamela Brailsford came on board and took over our supplier diversity initiative, it really took off. If you look at the numbers, in our fiscal year of 2005 we did right around $45 million with diverse suppliers, or about 4.7% of our spend. And in our most recent fiscal year, we did $231 million, which represents about 12.06% of our spend. I would view that as tremendous progress.

We started out with looking at criteria and kind of checking the supplier diversity box, so to speak, and have moved towards more of a transformation. Where we’re at now is that we have done a lot of work in the area of providing outreach to minority- and women-owned business enterprises (MWBEs) and other diverse suppliers in terms of training programs. We’ve provided training for MWBEs that focuses on the sales approach that our sales professionals use. We’ve conducted numerous seminars with diverse suppliers on the art of selling and the appropriate sales techniques, and have also trained in the area of Six Sigma, providing them with a problem-solving methodology which we use here.

Advice for CEOs looking to enter the world of supplier diversity

I would say start with this one: get help. Don’t try to go it alone. Whether it’s bringing in somebody that’s had success in another company with supplier diversity and benchmarking with them, or leaning on resources like Pamela and people in similar positions at other companies, these people are willing to help and provide perspective. There are also consultants that specialize in this area. We utilized the services of Dr. Melvin Gravely, CEO of The Institute for Entrepreneurial Thinking who really challenged us.
And then beyond that, make sure that you’re clear about why you’re doing it. We always wanted to tie it to the business case because that’s where the credibility and the engagement will really come from. It’s not just about doing “the right thing” – it has to be tied to a business case. And we have clearly demonstrated here, at Cintas, that minority- and women-owned businesses provide value-added products and services and are competitive. We have actually started to measure the savings that we’re getting from diverse suppliers. So not only are we looking at our total spend and the volume, but as we go through additional cycles with these MWBEs, we’re actually tracking them as they continue to get better.

As the leader, don’t get decoupled from the organization’s state of readiness, even though you want to be out in front and you want to lead. View supplier diversity with a track analogy. Is it a sprint, marathon or relay? When you believe it’s a sprint and think you have top-down support, you may have a false start and realize the buy-in is not fully there, and you’ll have more ground to make up. With a marathon, the course is so long that you can have long stretches where you don’t have any contact with others. I view supplier diversity initiatives as a relay because the supplier diversity team starts the race but has to pass the baton (accountability) to get everyone who contracts with external suppliers from the supply chain and at all locations participating in the efforts.

Finally, be visible. I chair an executive council for supplier diversity that all the senior leaders of the organization attend on a quarterly basis. Whether it’s the CEO or the COO, the leader has to be visible.

Leadership lessons

There are many things I’ve learned as it relates to leadership. I’ll start pretty basic: it’s the culture of your organization. Different companies have different cultures, and you really have to understand and live and buy into and internalize that culture. If you’re going to be a leader in a company, I think your internalization of the culture has to be apparent, and you have to live it.

Another thing is what I call “check the linkage.” I am not bound by organizational structure in terms of who I talk to in the company. I want to talk to frontline partners, first line management folks, middle management people, my peers, my direct reports, and anyone else I want to in the organization. I do so because I believe in checking the linkage to see if the message is getting through, how the message is being interpreted, and how the message is being applied. There’s a lot to learn from people in all levels in the company.

I really separate out leadership and management. I’m a big believer that you manage processes and you lead people. You need both management skills, and leadership skills. You want to be a coach and a mentor. My door has always been open to anybody that wanted to talk to me and get some advice, perspective or coaching about their career. You want to create an environment with open communication and collaboration, and have principles like honesty and integrity. Those types of things that are paramount.

Related: New Helpshift CEO Takes Gender Bias Head-On


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