I remember running into Steve Bowen a while back in the La Crosse airport. As the CEO of PlastiComp, I already knew he was racking up some pretty good numbers. I was about to find out how good.
He asked me how my business was doing. I said, “Great, we set another record last year. We were up 28 percent.” When I asked him how his year was he said, “I can trump that. We grew 61 percent!”
About then I was wishing I hadn’t brought the subject up.
So I figured perhaps this was an extraordinary year, not to be repeated. You know, maybe a one- time acquisition explained that growth. But then I learned super growth is a normal condition at Plasticomp.
I asked him how he manages such spectacular growth year after year. He said almost nonchalantly, “We make the competition irrelevant.”
But how on earth do you do that?
Bowen does not think like an average CEO. It started in his first job at 3M where he was part of a small group of people that developed the Scotch-Brite brand of products. In fact most of his career has been, according to him, around “making new stuff.”
And rather than produce commoditized products, Bowen focuses on the 1/10th of 1 percent that are willing to pay a premium for higher performing materials and products. His focus made me think about the seminal work by Professors W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne that lead to the best-selling book “Blue Ocean Strategy.”
The essence of a Blue Ocean strategy is to create uncontested market space and make the competition irrelevant. Most companies operate in a red ocean, bloodied with competition.
As Bowen put it, “When we get to the retail or OEM space, we’re trying to create a better product, or solve a problem that had never been solved previously, and that gets us into new space. And if you’re in new space, by definition you don’t have a competitor yet.”
That is the essence of a Blue Ocean Strategy. Simple in concept, but very few companies can put it into practice.
But Bowen’s extraordinary thought process goes well beyond products. He feels most businesses today are on “a race to the bottom,” because they “steal” each other’s business through lower price.
He contends a good salesman can sell value at a higher price, but most salesmen can’t do that. They don’t sell, they “steal.” Needless to say the average sales guy would never make it at Plasticomp.
He is also very choosy on how he “picks” customers. Most companies take most any business that comes their way. Not Bowen. He said choosing customers is “a lot like dating” and he won’t choose one that doesn’t value the value proposition.
Like all the other CEO’s in the League of Extraordinary CEO’s, Bowen places a high value on having the right team and culture in place. He said a comment he often gets is his employees are very unusual.
Bowen said he likes it that way.