The role of community in culture

By Marty Parker

When an organization leverages the community it’s in, and the community of employees it brings together, it can have an incredible impact on performance.  I sat down with Jim Spatz, Executive Chairman at Southwest Properties Limited, to talk about the role community has played in that organization’s growth, and how it has become embedded in their culture.

The interview has been edited for length, but you can listen to the full conversation here.

Marty Parker:
Jim, tell us a little bit about Southwest Properties in the culture that you and your family have built there.

Jim Spatz:
I’ll go back to the beginning. So my parents arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax in 1950 with me. I was an infant less than a year old. And after a year or two working in other people’s grocery stores, my father bought his own grocery store, which he turned into a great success for a neighborhood grocery store, back in the day where stores that weren’t supermarkets could be more than just convenient stores. So he had a full meal deal grocery store, meat, fish, vegetables, canned goods, frozen goods, everything, that kind of thing. And he grew business enormously to its limit, let’s say.

At the same time, it was quite embedded in that surrounding community on Moore Street in Halifax, which at that point in time was really a blue collar community.  And part of being embedded in that community was getting to know everybody, getting to know all those customers well, doing delivery. So the service was good. The products were first rate. The prices were very good.

And then at a point in time started buying small properties on Moore street right around there. And then after a number of years, and that would be 12 or 14, started to buy bigger things and even started to build things. And eventually after close to 20 years in the grocery business, he gave that up because his property business had become significantly more valuable and bigger. And from the beginning, similar to his grocery store, he had a relationship with his customers that was more than a landlord, in the sense that he cared for them, helped them if they had some trouble. Like if somebody didn’t pay the rent because they lost their job, they didn’t get evicted right away, he tried to work with them, that sort of thing.

And that culture of embedding yourself in your community and your customer base also translated to the organization that he was starting to build.  From the beginning, the sense of caring for people that you work with beyond being an employer that gave them a check every week has been a basic value for our company. So if you look at today, and we employ many, many more people, if you work for Southwest, you feel like you were part of something that’s more than a good business. It’s not quite a family, we’re not all getting together every night for dinner, that kind of thing. But there’s a sense that we care about you beyond you putting in your hours and doing a good job.

Marty Parker:
Medicine to real estate and property management is not the most linear or common career transition …

Jim Spatz:
No, no, it’s not at all. And I’d be a rare bird, even though there are some other successful business people who started as physicians, but I would be a rare bird.

You do need an education in what you do, truth be known. And stitching up cuts is not really connected to building buildings, but here’s the one thing… So I ended up doing emergency medicine. I ran an emergency room, a busy emergency room in Montreal. And the piece that I learned from that is that when you make decisions, it’s good to not dawdle too much. Don’t just put them off. But the idea that you need to quickly assemble the information that’s available and move in a direction is something that you need to … especially to be a good physician, but to be an emergency physician where there is that pressure of time to get the information, make a decision, keep moving forward is something that I brought with me.

I don’t know that I brought that much else. I brought growing up in my father’s house and watching him buy and build apartment buildings, and grow the business and be successful. He’d always take me around to construction sites on the weekends when he didn’t have a grocery store anymore. And we’d walk those concrete stairs before there was an elevator in the building. And he’d show me when he was looking at buying something, how he looked at it. So I had a good mind for quickly getting information and decisions and an attitude towards that and then I grew up in my father’s house. And yeah, it’s not very linear, but here’s why I did it: So walking those freshly poured concrete steps of the building, and then getting to look at the view before there was anything on the walls, just columns and total view before anybody had put the wrong skin or the wrong windows in and messed it up. And the possibility of doing beautiful buildings was something that hooked me at a very young age, even though I went off and got that education and did emergency medicine and loved it, I had this other itch that I finally had to scratch. And that’s I came back.

Marty Parker:
Jim, how do you assess fit?

Jim Spatz:
Yeah. That’s a critical kind of question beyond technical competence. How do you assess fit and what value do you put on fit?

We actually had an experience in … it would have ended a couple of years ago, of somebody who did an amazing job for us in terms of technical skills, but never really fit well inside the company. And we put up with it because it was a critical job. And the people that worked for him, he almost created a separate … he’d socialize with them and less with the whole group kind of thing. And inside of us, there was a dozen people that were in this group and they did good work for the first while and then it didn’t go well at all. And then we terminated him.

You know how it is sometimes, you have a shortlist and sometimes you have a very short list. And not only did we have a very short list, but technically we knew he was very competent. He approached us and we didn’t just hire him, we were at a point where we needed to refill that position. And so we did a search, and he applied and it was a very short list and he was obviously technically competent, but the HR firm we used, one of the owners who ran this search for us said, “Are you sure? He’s not a fit for you.” And I said, “I think we can control it.” But you know what? His values were not aligned with our values and it didn’t end well.

So how do you assess that? I think you want to get enough people to see someone that you’re thinking of hiring to get a group consensus. I think it doesn’t want to be one or two or even three people. You want to run them by a number of people, including some people they’re going to work with. And you need to go with your gut to some extent. We do all the testing and that kind of thing, and that’s very valuable, but when you put all that together at the end of the day, did I know that he … and it’s not that I didn’t like him and we got along okay and we’d have lunch sometimes, but did I know that really his values didn’t align with ours? Yeah, I knew.

So yeah, I think that a large numbers of interviews, if you have the right group of people, they’ll know more than just one. And doing all the testing and then sticking to your guns with regard to the great importance of people that align with culture. When you have a good culture, don’t mess with your culture. You can’t mess with your culture. You can’t mess because the people who are good, won’t be as happy. And if you start to lose them too bad for you.