Keeping up the culture

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After 13 years, Diaz Group is still growing by emphasizing self-development in all aspects of the business.

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April 6, 2021

Diaz Group President Rafael Diaz, right, went into business with his two brothers and father in 2007, and the company has continued to grow 15% year over year.
Photos courtesy of Diaz Group

As president of the Chicago-based Diaz Group, Rafael Diaz was looking for a better way to manage his stress. He found meditation and became completely captivated by it. When his team noticed, they were quick to laugh.

“It started as a joke,” he says. “They used to make fun of me, especially my family. Back when I started my own self-development deal, I was a high-strung person…I started to get into mediation to learn to control my emotions. When you’re a business owner, you get so many problems in a day. I had to find some way to think clearly.”

After his business partners and employees noticed a change in his demeanor, Diaz says they started to get curious, asking him questions about meditation.

“One day I introduced it to the company. I paid a professional to come to the Christmas party and he taught us all to mediate. A lot of people really took it up. Now, we do it about once a month,” Diaz says.

Since then, Diaz has noticed change in how his employees are handling pressure.

“I made a promise with my business partners...that as long as I was president of this company, that everybody will always be learning.” Rafael Diaz, president of Diaz Group

“It’s about convincing people that it’s a way to compartmentalize your thoughts and be able to make better decisions because your mind isn’t all over the place,” he says. “One of the things that it’s helped is that in our company, there’s never panic. You don’t see anxiety in the company itself.”

Diaz says most employees practice meditation every day on their own and once a month together. He would like to eventually make it a part of the team’s daily routine in the office.

Celebratory culture.

In the early years of the business, which was founded in 2007, Diaz says he worked with several consultants who taught him what he should be focusing on when growing the company like the culture and customer retention. Diaz says that approach really sunk in for him and now the company’s culture is at the forefront of everything.

“We started working a lot on our company culture and defining our values,” he says. “From there, our quality improved because employees were happy and we started doing more training, so that helped the quality, too.”

Company and community cookouts are just one way that Chicago-based Diaz Group sustains the company’s family-oriented culture.

Diaz’s philosophy for building up his company’s culture was pretty simple – just have fun.

“Don’t be afraid to have fun,” he says. “I feel like some companies always want to have that uptight ‘we’re down to business’ mindset and we have to be OK with having fun once in a while.”

To lift spirits, Diaz Group employees celebrate everything.

“For Diaz Group, everything is a big event,” Diaz says. “There is not one day we don’t have fun at work. Whenever a rep has a sale, we sound this airhorn and everyone claps and hits the walls. The office goes up in a roar.”

Gathering together for a meal, even at a social distance, is another way the company boosts its culture.

“With COVID it’s been super hard because we can’t have barbecues and dinners, so that’s been a challenge for us,” Diaz says. “But even just eating lunch together can be an event.”

Never stop learning.

Diaz Group’s revenue is $10 million annually, with 15% growth each year. One of the most crucial components of the company is its high customer retention rate of 92%.

“[One consultant] gave us a really good idea on how to structure the business and to always keep in mind that selling is the most important part of the business in order to have those customers come in,” he says. “So, we started learning more about sales, marketing and stuff that we needed to know to keep a flow of customers coming in.”

As a small company, Diaz admits his team was somewhat passive in its early years, but a consultant taught them to be more active in their sales approach.

“We were waiting for the phone to ring,” he says. “But in reality, it’s not about waiting for the phone to ring but about proactive approaches to contact the customer first. Nobody wants to be cold-calling or prospecting, so it was hard… but we had to have a different approach.”

Diaz learned that the services they provided were adding value to customers’ lives and that should be at the cornerstone of their sales pitch.

“I trained everyone in the company to be sales oriented,” he says. “So, no matter what your position was, you were trained in sales. Even if you’re in accounting and you answer the phone, you can help the sales team and find a lead for them.”

Diaz adds another way they seek out new customers – and keep them – is looking within their existing customer base.

“We ask for referrals,” he says, “And it always works. Our customer really is that property manager or facility manager. So, when we talk to them, we ask them to refer friends from the industry. It usually goes further than the cold-calling and the door knocking.”

But learning about sales and marketing wasn’t enough for Diaz. He took the advice of the consultant to heart and strived to improve his leadership skills.

“He started telling me that I needed to work on myself every single day and work on self-development for the rest of my life if I wanted to be a leader,” he says. “He told me to read books, watch YouTube videos, go to coaches… and he was right. If I wanted to be a good leader, I had to learn how to be one. I wasn’t just a boss anymore. I was a leader.”

From the top down, employees at Diaz Group spend time learning to better themselves and others through self-development.

Diaz says he especially connected with books by John Maxwell.

“He’s a great author and I read all his books,” he says. “The one part I loved was where it said you have to learn to create memories with your people intentionally. I never thought about it that way – I always thought memories were created spontaneously.”

Participating in a Dale Carnegie course also had a massive impact on Diaz. So much so, that it has become a requirement for certain Diaz Group employees.

“There’s this really cool course about how to influence and win people over…I liked it so much, that now if anyone comes into management, they have to take the course,” he says. “So, they can learn how to work on relationships. It teaches people a good way to approach other people. It’s about learning how to read people and understand them and their point of view.”

Diaz adds he instructs those who participate in the course to teach what they’ve learned to those they manage in order to share the knowledge and help everyone grow.

The course is not the only educational requirement for employees. Diaz says that each segment of the business, from sales to production, have their own weekly educational days. During lunch on these days, employees read and discuss books, watch training videos, lead workshops and more.

“I made a promise with my business partners, which are my two brothers and my dad, that as long as I was the president of this company, that everybody will always be learning. It’s helped us become very humble and always try to learn something from everyone,” Diaz says.

And that starts with the hiring process.

“Right away when we’re interviewing, if that person thinks they know it all already, they probably won’t work well within our company, because we’re all learning and if they don’t want to learn, they won’t fit in with the culture,” Diaz says.

Worth the work.

Between the educational and self-development opportunities, Diaz says his team has the skills to handle anything that comes at them, which has also contributed to the company’s growth. “It gives them better decision-making when they are stressed out,” he says.

Diaz says that whether it’s meditation, leadership courses or another form of self-development, in order to get employees on board, you have to make them see why it’s necessary. And don’t give up if there’s some hesitation or pushback at the beginning.

“You just got to keep at it,” he says. “Explain the value in it. I don’t think companies can afford not to do it.”

And Diaz says because of this, self-development is an integral part of the company’s budget that proves its worth year over year.

The culture at Diaz Group is also built on volunteerism. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the company served as a distribution site for food drives.

“You can measure how much money you spend on this type of development, but you can’t measure how much you lose if your people aren’t developed,” he says. “At the end of the day, if I don’t develop and train people to be better, I start losing them. It’s happened in the past.”

But Diaz says even if you train your employees religiously, you will never retain them all.

“People always ask me why I train them so much if they’re going to leave, and I say that’s the wrong way to think about it,” he says. “I always say that if other companies aren’t recruiting my guys, that means I don’t have good enough guys.”

An open-door policy.

With all of the self-development, the culture at Diaz Group has become incredibly family-oriented.

But that aspect of the culture is balanced out with expectations and clear policies in place, so everyone knows what is expected of them.

“People might think that if you treat them like family, they might get away with not working hard, or putting effort into it. We had to learn that balance,” he says. “It’s a family, but a family where everyone is working at their highest level.”

Now when people ask Diaz what the company’s secret is, he doesn’t just tell them – he shows them.

“We open our doors to every contractor here in the city to come to our office and see what we do,” he says. “We don’t have any secrets.”

“I always say that if other companies aren’t recruiting my guys, that means I don’t have good enough guys.” Rafael Diaz, president of Diaz Group

Over the past few years, Diaz says he’s had 10 or so companies come and tour Diaz Group’s headquarters.

“We do a lot of it through social media,” he says. “We’re big on social media. We’re uploading stories all the time, or Facebook Lives, inviting people over and saying the door is open.”

At first, Diaz says his family was hesitant on the idea.

“At the beginning, they thought I was nuts,” he says. “Now everybody is on board.”

Diaz acknowledges he’s gotten to where he is by having people open the door and teach him, and he likes to return the favor. He adds that the questions people have most often are on people themselves, and how to retain good employees. But he gives general business advice, too.

“At the end of the day, I think life is too short for secrets or closing doors on people,” he says. “Anyone who wants to come in and learn how to do a proposal – great. I’ll teach you.”

He notes there are some things that are off-limits when it comes to the financials.

“I won’t show you my bank statements or accounting stuff, but I’ll show you how I got there,” Diaz says. “It’s not a big deal and it’s pretty easy.”

So, when a business owner asks Diaz about how to grow their business, not only does Diaz offer his assistance but he encourages them to ask everyone they can for support.

“The number one key is to ask for help,” he says. “Talk to other people. Also, the first step is recognizing you need help and accepting that you need help. Because if you don’t believe you need help, then you’ll never make any changes. It’s about being open-minded.”