Member Spotlight on Neil Houtsma
Chicago Family Business Council: What year was your company founded?
Neil Houtsma: The company was founded in 1972 by John Flanagan Sr.
CFBC: Tell us a little bit of the history behind the company?
N.H.: John was the father of two of my partners Jim, who is in the CFBC, and Johnny. John Sr. got into the business by working at another company as a young man for 25 years before he founded this company in 1972. I worked here one summer when I was in college. I knew the family; we lived in the same parish. I was in the same class as Jim’s sister, Eileen.
After college, I went to law school. I was looking for a job to pay my way through law school and John Sr. offered me a job here running the plant. If I’m not the world’s worst plant manager, I am in the top two. John gave me a chance to go into sales, which worked out a lot better.
CFBC: What family members work with you in the business (if any)?
N.H.: I am not a family member, but I have known the Flanagans for 45 years. But, there are two family members who work here – Jim and John.
CFBC: How did you hear about the CFBC and what motivated you to join?
N.H.: Jim, my partner. I had been in another business group. Jim was in FBC very early on. After a while, he suggested I join. Prior to that I had noticed a significant change in this behavior since he joined the FBC and not only in how he managed people. I was happy to join after seeing how positively it affected him.
CFBC: How has CFBC helped your company succeed?
N.H.: Within my company, I think that the forum experience has been a real difference maker for us. It has helped develop our leadership capabilities and it has provided a prospective that was absent before. The truth is, Jim, his brother and I grew up in this company and our vision and view of the world was skewed. Forum has broadened our horizons and PDEI has found its way into our business and it has been a very positive thing for management and the way we develop people.
I think you take PDEI for granted and you shouldn’t. I’ve got my manual and I go through it. The best testimony I can give to Forum and PDEI is that we have a third person in Forum now, our vice president of sales. I think all the leadership of the company should be involved. There is a shared language, an understanding, that knowing PDEI and being in Forum gives our leadership team, and it is a great help.
CFBC: What has been the most rewarding aspect of your experience with your forum and the CFBC?
N.H.: It’s hard to pick out one thing. The first would be the great privilege it has been to get to know the members of my Forum, Arete. This is our fourth year together, for most of us. These guys are extraordinary people and they have influenced my life in a broad way. That being said, the education programs are always helpful and informative. I’ve always found the strategic partners to be helpful and accessible. I meet like-minded quality business people. It’s been a wonderful, great experience for me.
CFBC: Is there one thing you have learned from being a member of CFBC that has impacted your business or your life the most?
N.H.: I’ve learned how much I don’t know. My experience has been that the supportive experience like Forum is a great place to learn. I appreciate how open and helpful my Forum members are.
CFBC: What one book would you recommend to your fellow CFBC members?
N.H.: Good to Great by Jim Collins is the best business book I have ever read. It was an easy read and easy to see where they were going with it. It is a great blueprint for building a company. On a personal level, William Manchester, wrote a series of three books called The Last Lion. It traced Winston Churchill’s entire life. He describes a very flawed man who had a singular vision of service and country. He persevered. I think any small business owner would relate to his will.
CFBC: Name one person who had the biggest impact on you as a leader?
N.H.: It would have to be my Dad. I am the oldest of five. From an early age I was told I was to be an example to my younger brothers and sister. He was also the oldest, so he knew how to hold me to that standard. He taught me how to be conscious of my actions and be that example. For a long time I wasn’t sure if I had been the example he wanted. But as an adult, I asked him, and he assured me that I had made him proud. That was a good day.
CFBC: Describe your ideal customer?
N.H.: My ideal customer is honest, collaborative, aggressive, and challenging. I like people who challenge us to be better and are real partners who are committed to mutual success. We do have partners like that, I am grateful to say.
CFBC: How does your Company celebrate successes?
N.H.: We share everything with our employees, good and bad news. We celebrate publicly. We order in lunch or a pizza and we talk about the state of the company, and there we get to talk to people offline. How do we do it? Simple ways but ways we can share.
CFBC: What are your plans for the future?
N.H.: I just learned this past week my daughter is getting married next year. Therefore, I expect to be working for some time. I am not expecting to retire in the traditional sense. I told the younger guys, “Look, just keep me around. It’s dangerous for me to be at home.” I would just like an easier schedule to be able to spend more time with my wife. Once you stop contributing, you’re just waiting to die.
CFBC: What was your first job?
N.H.: I set up a lawn service in sixth grade. I wanted to go to a summer camp. My father told me he would pay for the first week and I had to get the money to pay for the rest. I was able to go to camp for 7 weeks. My first paying job after that was as a caddy. Easiest money I ever made.