Six Characteristics of Long-Lived Organizations According to Barnett Helzberg

by Matthew Barksdale on December 4, 2016

Darrin Clawson, Barnett Helzberg and Matthew Barksdale at Engage Mobile's 5 Year Anniversary Party

Barnett Helzberg, the legendary leader of Helzberg Diamonds who sold his company to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, is an icon in Kansas City. For decades, Barnett has been a cornerstone of the Kansas City business, philanthropic and entrepreneurial communities. He is the namesake of Rockhurst’s Helzberg School of Business (as well as countless other institutions including one of our favorites, the Kansas City Zoo’s Helzberg Penguin Plaza) and is the founder of the Helzberg Entrepreneurial Mentoring Program (HEMP).

I have had the opportunity to speak with Barnett several times over the past few years, and I have been an admirer since I first saw him speak to my Rockhurst MBA class over ten years ago.
Last week, Barnett spoke to the 2016 graduating class of the Helzberg Entrepreneurial Mentoring Program (HEMP). His speech was titled, “Characteristics of Long-Lived Organizations” – the following are my takeaways from his speech. (NOTE: Barnett had five characteristics… but I split the first characteristic into two parts).
1 – High Ethical Standards 
While this is important for your clients, the biggest reason to set high ethical standards is for your employees. Setting high ethical standards makes it clear to everyone how your company treats its employees and clients – and how your employees should treat each other and clients.

2 – High-Performance Standards 

Barnett Helzberg at 2016 HEMP Graduation

Barnett Helzberg at 2016 HEMP Graduation

If you do not have high-performance standards, you will not be successful over the long-term. In Barnett’s organizations, if you are not productive, you do not stay. For example, Helzberg Diamonds had a performance monitoring system where their salespeople were reviewed once per week. During the weekly appraisals, supervisors looked at a salesperson’s sales on an hourly basis for the previous week.
3 – Sensitivity to All Environments
As a business manager and owner, you must understand your clients and what drives their behavior – specifically location and distribution channels. Every 30 years or less the world turns upside down – get ready. If you are not sensitive to the changes that are taking place in your environment, you will not survive. In Barnett’s words, “Hope for the best and prepare for the worst.”

“Hope for the best and prepare for the worst.”

Barnett Helzberg
4 – The Organization Is Seen as a Community
Employees are the heart and soul of the organization – they are the ones that control the client experience. They are the ones that determine the success of the company. As a result, you must treat the organization as a community – give your people the tools, training and respect they need and deserve. This is crucial to the success of the organization.
Matthew Barksdale, President of Engage Mobile, Cheryl McConnell, the Dean of the Helzberg School of Management and Barnett Helzbert

Matthew Barksdale, President of Engage Mobile, Cheryl McConnell, the Dean of the Helzberg School of Management and Barnett Helzberg

5 – Conservative Cash Management
Cash is King – A company can be profitable but be in deep trouble due to inventory, receivables, bad debt, not enough credit line, and a dozen other issues that are driven by cash. A company should never put itself in a position where a lack of cash drives short-term decision making. If you want to be successful as an organization over the long-term, you must be conservative with your cash management.
6 – Safe Experiments for Change Encouraged at the Periphery
To survive, companies must change and adapt. But before you make changes that disrupt the core of your business, test them on the edges. Experiment so you can determine the impact without jeopardizing the entire company. In the words of Barnett, “You do not need to put two feet in the water to determine the depth.”

“You do not need to put two feet in the water to determine the depth.”

Barnett Helzberg
Barnett’s humility and charisma contribute to his success as a business leader
Barnett is not an arrogant multi-millionaire who rubs his success and wealth in your face. He acknowledges that there was some luck involved in his success, that he did not do it by himself, and that he does not know everything. As a result of the above, Barnett is a beloved member of the Kansas City community. Not because of his wealth and fame, but because of the person he is and because of how he treats the people around him.
The world would be a better place if more people had the mindset of Barnett Helzberg.