Laura Ann Spencer began her tenure with Perma-Seal Basement Systems in 2004. Starting at the very base of the operations by manning the call center, she quickly observed the need for a more structured environment to support the growth goals of the organization. It didn’t take long for her to create and lead the marketing department at Perma-Seal, as she established relationships with Chicago media, many of which have endured the test of time and turnover. Since her humble beginnings 15 years ago, she has worn many hats. Most importantly, she designed and developed the organizational structure that is in place today. In her most recent role as Chief Development Officer, Spencer has launched the Perma-Seal University which currently consists of the Senior Leadership Development Program, a “Seals” (or high performance team) Leadership Track and a Next Level Leadership Training Program which is held weekly. Driven by engaging and energizing the Perma-Seal Tribe, Spencer believes the ripple effect of someone who is feeling fulfilled by their work is immeasurable. In Spencer’s previous role as Chief Operating Officer with Perma-Seal, she introduced People-Centric Leadership as the norm and not the exception. Alongside her senior leadership team, she developed a manifesto outlining the responsibilities of the company in their pursuit of Making the World A Better Place for their tribal members, customers, partners and the community.
Perma-Seal was founded in 1979 with a simple and direct mission: to provide homeowners with permanent repairs at the greatest value and stand behind the work without equivocation. According to Laura Ann, “At the time, you could not find good contractors in the Chicagoland area. It was a lot of bait and switch. The perception at the time was that all contractors in the waterproofing industry were unreliable, you couldn’t count on them for a good price or quality work. Roy (Spencer) wanted to change that. And he did. He changed the industry and caused other contractors to have to rise up.” Today, Perma-Seal has grown to become Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana’s leader in creating dry basements, crawl spaces, stable foundations, and healthy homes; compelling the entire industry to upgrade their methods and practices.
Perma-Seal is an excellent example of a company that was Conscious Capitalist before there was even a definition of Conscious Capitalism. As a matter of fact, they used a different term to describe the way they practiced business – benevolent capitalism.
Laura Ann tells us that it all begin in 2005 with the devastation that took place in New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina. “We took a group of people from Perma-Seal to help in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. Our business provides structural support for housing so we knew we could be helpful given all the devastation. There was a group on staff that were from another organization that were volunteering their time as well and they were talking about how evil capitalism is, and how it was to blame for Katrina. Roy and I were engaging with them and trying to understand their perspective. It became really clear that their limited resources were not going to make a significant impact in New Orleans. We started to talk about the benefit of capitalism, and how we wouldn’t be able to make an impact the way were able to do without capitalism. We found ourselves trying to educate people about capitalism, and we walked away from that experience with something that we called ‘benevolent capitalism’, capitalism for good instead of evil.”
This was the turning point for Perma-Seal; Laura Ann tells us, “After that experience, we started to look beyond the walls of Perma-Seal to see where our business can make an impact on all of our stakeholders and in the world at large.” Laura Ann, Roy, and the whole Perma-Seal team had been talking about and practicing “benevolent capitalism” with their stakeholders for a few years when their story and the work they were doing caught the attention of the Chicago Chapter of Conscious Capitalism. Laura Ann tells us, “We went to a meeting and from that point on it’s been just this trajectory of passion and influence. Today, we educate everyone who comes into our tribe about Conscious Capitalism.”
Flipping the organizational chart upside down
Perma-Seal began to grow rapidly. So rapidly, that Roy was not able to interview each new candidate personally to ensure strong values alignment. Laura Ann explains what happened next, “The values were being diluted, our team was starting to lose their connection to the core values. In 2007, we began to do a lot of research and studying on what we want this organization to look like. We are people-centric, so we flipped the organizational chart upside down so that our employees are at the top and we serve them. This is probably not the most politically correct way to put this but, our employees come before our customers. Because we know that if we take care of our employees, then our employees will take care of our customers. I see it every day. It’s amazing.”
Laura Ann shares some of the quintessential elements that have helped Perma-Seal to grow their tribe, a tribe that works together everyday to make the world a better place:
Prioritize your tribe. “Our employees come before our customers and we work really hard on educating our employees up front about who we are and what we stand for. We do this in lots of ways. For each employee we hire, we typically have at least 2 interviews, most of the time it’s 3 or 4. Once hired, we do a week-long Welcoming Program. Some people come out of that program and they say, ‘This isn’t for me; I just want to do a job and go home’ and that’s okay. We do quarterly check-ins on our values and our practice. We use the Entrepreneurial Operating system (EOS) to give us a good structure so that all of our tribal members know where they stand. Finally, everyone in our tribe has a career path; it’s not just a job. Many of employees are family members. We have three generations of members at Perma-Seal for a reason.”
Transparency is key to Conscious Leadership. “There aren’t different rules for managers or leaders; we are all in this together. And I feel it. I’m just one of the team. There isn’t a Perma-seal Laura and an at home Laura, there’s just Laura. That’s how we are at work. I was in a Welcoming Program a couple weeks ago and I said, ‘Look. I’m going to swear sometimes. That’s just who I am and once in a while it happens, so if you’re offended, I’m apologizing in advance.’ Sometimes you’re not at your best and that’s okay, and then there’s other times where you’re knocking it out of the park and that’s good too.”
Culture is built on connection, in person and virtually. “We have more than 280 people now and the majority of our tribal members are outbound – our sales people leave from their home, they visit clients, then they return to their home – and every single one of us is connected. This is because we are interacting and communicating, even when we don’t see each other in the office every day. We use Workplace by Facebook to post personal updates, for example, when our kids are going to school; we use it to post educational updates, for example, when we experience an unusual or tricky project, we’ll post an update on how we handled it, so if one of our tribe comes across something similar, they’ll be able to look to what has worked in the past; and we post inspirational updates, for example, we post job site photos after we finish an installation, and we’ll post pictures with customers so you get to be part of the day to-day life even though we’re not on the job with them. And our customers love to share their stories with the whole team. It’s incredible because we’re doing waterproofing; it’s not sexy, you can’t see it when we’re done. And the page is full of customers’ stories about their amazing experience working with us.”
Build valuable relationships with your suppliers and partners. “We’ve been working with most of our suppliers for more than 30 years. We are very transparent with them. We treat them fairly across the board. We have consistently done so and they trust us to continue to be fair. We know that they need to win and we need to win, so we’re not beating them up to get the lowest cost; it’s about creating the best value. And that value extends beyond the transactional relationship; we regularly hold social events like picnics, Christmas parties, etc. and they are always invited; we have a personal relationship with our suppliers and partners, they are part of our tribe. And they know it. From our media partners to our concrete suppliers; we are always nurturing win-win relationships with all of our stakeholders.”
Live out your purpose every day, no matter how broad or lofty. “Our purpose is to make the world a better place and so I often hear, ‘Oh my gosh! That’s such a lofty goal and how do you boil that down to every day work?’ I’m super proud to say that you can pretty much interview anybody in our tribe and they will be able to tie what they do every day to making the world a place a better place. I see it all the time on Facebook Workplace, for example, they will post, ‘Today I made the world a better place by doing this”, or ‘I was living the core value we work hard seriously’ or ‘I want to give a shout out to somebody else for living the core value that we act with urgency’. We talk about it every day.”