From getting expelled from high school in England to co-founding a mat manufacturer in Suwanee, Ian Malpass has walked an unconventional path. Malpass, an entrepreneur at heart, is president of Millennium Mat Co., an international producer of business floor mats, residential rugs and car mats, including those licensed with team logos through the pro football, baseball, basketball and hockey leagues. With factories in Suwanee, Dalton and overseas, annual revenue has hit $100 million.
Malpass, 53, has had to recreate his career several times. Without the aid of a high school or college degree, he’s soaked up ideas from his eclectic experiences to develop a business savvy. He talks about some key lessons, including a successful sales approach and getting the best out of employees.
Q: Why did you get kicked out of school?
A: My father worked in sales and marketing for Procter & Gamble in the U.K. We literally moved every two or three years. He wanted us to have stable schooling, so I went to boarding school when I was 7. But I left somewhat prematurely.
At boarding school, you have a massive amount of time to fill, so practical jokes are really common. For example, we dyed the swimming pool like the Black Sea right before the parents of 700 boys turned up for an event.
One time, we bought fireworks and stuffed them under a bed and then lit them. But the bed caught fire. The following morning, they called us all together and asked who did it. The code of ethics there was you own up. So I stepped forward, but the two guys I did it with didn’t. I was marched out the door, just after my 16th birthday.
My father was a bit upset that I got expelled. I got a job as a night porter in a hotel, then became a barman and a wine waiter. Then I worked as a bingo caller in a retirement home. After a penance period, my father helped me get a retail sales job at Procter & Gamble.
Q: You learned a sales method at Procter & Gamble that laid the foundation for your career. Would you please describe it?
A: They have this very regimented, five-step sales process that’s absolutely brilliant. Everything you do in life is about selling ideas, getting messages communicated. Procter & Gamble has a wonderful structure that I insist on to this day with the employees here.
1. Summarize the situation. You have to do that for the person you’re trying to sell something to. You first have to agree on where you are now. There is no communication without first getting on the same frequency. You’re filling out the person’s knowledge and building the notion that will support your idea or product.
2. State the idea. Do it in one simple sentence. Don’t ramble on.
3. Explain it. Detail how the idea or product works.
4. Discuss. Talk about the key benefits for you and me.
5. Close. Use closing techniques to ask if we’re going to do it.
I started out selling soap powders and then got moved to toothpaste and shampoo. It doesn’t really matter what you’re selling. This is the fundamental building block.
Q: How did this process help you?
A: I suddenly felt empowered beyond selling soap powder to grocery store managers. My girlfriend’s father at the time was in the forklift business. If you sell a piece of capital equipment, there’s a lot more money in it than selling soap. So I went to sell forklifts using the P&G method.
The people in that business are very knowledgeable. In that case, you get them to summarize the situation for you. It’s a wonderful way to develop a relationship. It became clear to me that, in the capital goods business, people buy from experts in the field who they trust.
I realized that you couldn’t develop trust in a single sales meeting. You don’t want to kill the opportunity to go back. So you’ve got to have a little arsenal of reasons why you’ve got to leave that first meeting and then return in a day or so. You want to go back two or three times.
You’ve got to spend a long time in the first step — summarizing the situation — before you go on to the other steps. If we’re talking about a $100,000 piece of capital equipment or a major decision, you’ve got to respect the fact that the person is going to need time to trust you.
Q: More trust and a better organization were needed in your mats factory in Suwanee. What did you do?
A: About six years ago, we were not getting the bang for our buck in terms of profitability. The processes were not organized well. The lead person in each of the manufacturing areas was not really leading, because everyone was communicating with everyone else. There were systemic problems.
I had a dawning realization that with all of the time and energy I had spent learning the sales process, I had not spent a minute thinking about all of the people working here. I was almost in tears because of the opportunity I was missing.
You’ve got to turn the world upside down. We ended up creating a chain of command by having a CEO in each department of the manufacturing operation. Everything goes through him or her. We created a profit-and-loss account for each area, which essentially meant there would be companies within a company. We “sold” raw materials to each area and “charged” for the labor that was being used. We “bought back” the product that was made.
We know what we get out of a particular machine. Anything above that number, we started a profit-sharing program for the CEO and his or her “partners” in each department. Now everyone has a vested interest. Our turnover and accident rate went down and our quality and productivity numbers went up.
Q: How do you continue to increase those numbers?
A: I believe you have to be positively dissatisfied with everything you do. Not negatively dissatisfied. You have to depersonalize criticism to identify errors and get better.
We have periodic blitzes to improve things. We have campaigns like the “Pearls of Wisdom.” Each creative idea on safety or productivity gets assigned a pearl value of $5. The best idea gets the black pearl of $500. We got 1,000 good ideas in two weeks.
Right now, we have a three-month campaign where we will give away two Kia Optimas, one to a CEO and one to a production partner. Everyone starts out with one key, and the number of keys goes up and down based on attendance, safety and quality numbers. A car costs about $20,000, which is a fraction of my labor costs. I get that money back every week through this program.
Each week, Sunday Business Editor Henry Unger has a candid conversation, called “5 Questions for the Boss,” with a top executive in Georgia. Some remarks are edited for length and style.