Cyclical Success

Most people know that satisfied employees create satisfied customers, but Rick Rostan believes that the driving force behind that powerful cycle is a strong company culture

As a publicly traded Fortune 500 company responsible for designing, developing, and delivering the best in global logistics, Expeditors has an understandably long list of priorities. Maintaining heavy travel schedules and juggling the needs of high-profile clients keeps executives on their toes. But according to Rick Rostan, Expeditors’ senior vice president of the Americas, the priority at the very top of the company’s list is investing in its nearly 14,000 employees. “At the end of the day, our greatest asset is our people,” Rostan says. “And we work hard to mentor and develop all our people.”

Employee relations has been a top priority at Expeditors long before the staff was quite so sprawling. In fact, part of the founders’ inspiration for launching the company in 1979 was to create a better corporate culture than the one where they had been working. From the very beginning, Expeditors has deeply valued transparency, innovation, and collaboration, and it has enjoyed the benefits that come with an intelligent and creative staff who have the freedom to explore ideas.

Rostan consistently demonstrates what it means to have an open door and a listening ear. He takes care to observe his employees’ areas of strength and provide a safety net when they experiment with new projects. “Giving people permission to fail without fear is an important part of building a culture of trust,” Rostan says, something he greatly appreciated from his boss when he first started at the company in 1985. “My supervisor always had an open door and always pushed me to take on new challenges.” These days, Rostan does the same for his staff. “To be a good manager, you have to listen to what your people need, and you have to go out of your way to make yourself accessible,” he says. “You have to be sincere.”

Mentoring remains an essential part of the culture at Expeditors. It has become more formalized over the years, and now Expeditors has a training schedule and set of learning objectives, so staffers who demonstrate an affinity to leadership are able to develop those skills with intention. Rostan believes that an investment in the future of the company means an investment in employees who are dedicated to it now, which is just one reason why its employees are so highly valued.

But this investment in others is much more than a program or a passive quip for managers at Expeditors. For Rostan, it is the greatest ongoing achievement of his career. “The most gratifying thing is bringing someone into the company, working with them as they develop, and watching them succeed and move up,” Rostan says. “That experience resonates more with me than anything else.” Expeditors is not just a place where people work—it’s a place where people build a career they believe in, which is something that sets the company apart from competitors and elevates its customer service to impressive heights.

“To be a good manager, you have to listen to what your people need, and you have to go out of your way to make yourself accessible. You have to be sincere.”

Expeditors’ corporate culture is what Rostan names as the key to employee empowerment and customer care. But between its home base in Seattle and 250 additional locations across six continents, it might seem that maintaining a consistent corporate culture internationally would be impossible. Fortunately, Expeditors’ leadership has developed ten core cultural components that they have successfully implemented at their locations around the world. “You can walk into an Expeditors office in Shanghai and another in Beirut and they will both feel familiar—you’d recognize them as the same company, connected by cultural attributes,” Rostan says.

Those core values are appearance, confidence (individually, and in each other), curiosity, excellence, pride, vision, attitude, sense of humor, integrity, and resolve. Expeditors’ employees take pride in exhibiting and protecting these characteristics, no matter where in the world they work. These are part of what sets Expeditors apart from competitors, and make it the kind of place where employees know that with their high value comes high expectation. “We create the environment for change, but the employees are the ones who make it,” Rostan says. “We encourage them to be ready for whenever opportunity strikes.”

Rostan also pushes Expeditors’ branch offices to take and create opportunities for business at the local level. “We try to drive things to happen within the branches, because the people on the ground are so much better connected with our customers than those of us in the corporate office.”

As an incentive for the dedication required for that kind of connective work, profits are regularly sent back to branches in the form of employee bonuses. “Our branch employees are incentivized to keep all the business we have, as well as to go out and get new business,” Rostan says.

Developing an environment that promotes good relationships with customers and employees is very cyclical: When employees are empowered, they provide the company with better information. That information helps the company create better products, which make the customers happier, which increases business. More business increases the bottom line, which then comes back to employees as bonuses, which empowers them to uphold standards of excellence, and so on. “You create this loop that’s continuously satisfying customers’ deliverables, as well as employees’ needs,” Rostan says.

Rostan himself is living proof of the powerful benefits of a culture that invites employees to actively contribute. When he joined Expeditors nearly thirty years ago, it was a step down. He started at the bottom, but he didn’t stay long. “I saw the guys above me as great leaders, taking care of people, successful; I wanted to follow in their footsteps,” he says.

Rostan seized opportunities when he saw them and created them when he didn’t. He worked jobs at every level, and now, thanks to hard work and bosses who invested in him, Rostan is senior vice president. He is the ideal illustration of a person who has taken full advantage of the opportunities that Expeditors continues to provide to each of its employees. He is an example of the cycle at its best—a product of his own culture, driven by its power.