A CFO with a People-First Focus

At LAZ Parking, Nathan Owen is tasked with looking after the financial wellbeing of a nationwide family. The key is putting the needs of people before the company’s bottom line.

When you think of parking lots and valets, what comes to mind?

For some, perhaps, a boring or tedious experience.

For Nathan Owen, CFO of LAZ Parking, parking can represent a number of important moments. Valets might be one’s first human interaction in a foreign land, upon arriving at a hotel or resort. Or they could be wingmen creating a stress-free dining experience at a five-star restaurant. Valets can even provide assistance at the hospital during emergencies.

For Owen and the rest of LAZ Parking, the second largest parking company in the US, their parking operations—and more importantly, the people who run them—represent a large and loyal family.

“We really see the organization chart as being inverted, based on servant leadership,” Owen says. “Our executives are here to support our managers, our managers support the front-line staff, and the staff serve and support our clients and guests in the field. Other companies tend to look at it the other way around; they look at the bottom line. We start with the people.” This is just a taste of what Owen and the rest of the company refer to as “The LAZ Way.”

Few people embody The LAZ Way quite as well as Owen. He jests that he has quite the loyalty streak, but it’s true—he’s only ever worked for two employers, married his high school sweetheart (they’ve been together for twenty-seven years), and he still supports his childhood soccer team, the Wolverhampton Wanderers. Throughout the years before he joined LAZ Parking, Owen received many offers to join other companies, but nothing proved worth his attention until he got the offer from LAZ and looked into the type of company it is.

A History of Global Experience

Now based in Connecticut, New England, Owen is originally from (old) England. Twenty years ago, he worked as a chartered accountant in the UK. From 1994 to the end of 2009, Owen worked for Deloitte, one of the “Big Four” accounting organizations, as a partner in the mergers and acquisitions services. The latter ten years were spent in Paris, France. As a partner, Owen advised on transactions with clients such as L’Oréal, the shampoo and cosmetics company; Renault Nissan, the car company; Saint-Gobain, a construction materials company; and VINCI, Europe’s largest construction company. His work brought him to Japan, Taiwan, Argentina, Brazil, Turkey, Egypt, and some thirty other countries.

Nathan Owen LAZ Parking
Nathan Owen, LAZ Parking

“You just can’t take your existing mind-set and apply it around the world,” Owen says. Even though he was already fluent in French, working in France and internationally was a completely different experience. “That really opened my eyes that there’s a whole world out there in terms of cultures, mind-sets, ways of doing business that you need to appreciate and respect.”

Owen’s first interactions with LAZ came about while advising for Deloitte Paris. “One of my clients was VINCI, and their parking business was a leader in providing parking services throughout Europe. They were looking to acquire 50 percent of LAZ Parking to enter the US market. So, I advised on the 50 percent investment, and LAZ Parking subsequently engaged me with Deloitte to assist with three subsequent acquisitions by LAZ in Boston, San Diego, and the mid-Atlantic market.”

Owen had received numerous propositions in the past, but LAZ’s was different. “What really made LAZ stand out was the way they focused on people. I felt they treated people the way I did—with respect.” Over the course of two to three months working together on these projects, Owen had the opportunity to learn more about LAZ’s commitment to its staff and clients, the values they upheld, and The LAZ Way. He received an offer to join on Christmas Eve, 2008, and the following year transitioned out of Deloitte, sold his home and cars in France, acquired new ones in the United States, and applied for a US work visa—all while his second daughter was about to be born. It all worked out, and Owen has worked for LAZ Parking ever since.

The LAZ Way

As CFO of LAZ Parking, Owen views his role as to adding and protecting value for LAZ’s stakeholders, which includes its people. Functionally, this refers to accounting and finance, payroll, audit, and compliance. But Owen says that a large amount of his time is spent on people. “Absolutely our people are integral to our success because they’re the ones who make things happen,” he says.

“I have a pretty high disregard for email,” Owen continues. “I find it very inefficient; it gets us away from people. The key thing is getting them to share their concerns, perspectives, and ideas with me so I’m able to support them. I try to avoid staying behind the computer and making sure I’m out there on the phone or in person.”

With over 13,000 employees spread out across thousands of surface lots, parking garages, and commercial businesses nationwide, supporting the LAZ family takes dedication. But dedication to the family is also what separates LAZ from competitors.

For example, one long-time employee had a stroke in 2016, and LAZ continued to pay him for an entire year, including his year-end bonus. Owen shared other recent examples of LAZ putting its people first: The company covered the flight, hotel and spending money for a valet to fly to his uncle’s funeral in Chicago. LAZ’s Houston team came together to help clear debris from a facility manager’s house after Hurricane Harvey; the team was led by their general manager who spent hours in a canoe helping rescue others from their homes. An employee’s wife passed away, so LAZ covered the cost of her child’s daycare for a year. Another had an aneurysm on vacation in Mexico and couldn’t afford an emergency flight home for treatment, so LAZ covered the expenses and logistics of bringing her home and caring for her.

In 2018, LAZ plans to spend one million dollars taking care of its employees, and over $600,000 in training. The company has made 150 hardship loans to its employees over the past five years. “We treat our people like family, we take extra special care of everybody,” Owen says. “Life isn’t a straight line; there are bumps along the way.”

In the last ten years, LAZ has grown sixfold, adding more than 200 facilities each year. Along the way, they’ve managed to preserve and strengthen the culture of family and taking care of people.

Part of that is with LAZ’s HR department, which they call “People and Culture.” Whenever a new hire is brought into the “LAZ Family,” they are first screened to see how well they fit the company’s culture. Once hired, they go through LAZification, an internal program focused on teaching the company missions and values.

The company also founded LAZ University five years ago, which provides training in both personal skills and parking expertise and now has over four hundred graduates. “Get Connected” events involve a nationwide roadshow, featuring executives and founding partners touring national branches to hear people’s stories. The company even calls its leadership meetings “annual family reunions” in keeping with their culture.

Owen believes that this all comes together to make LAZ a purpose-driven company. “We believe LAZ’s level of engagement and purpose sets us apart from the competition,” Owen says. “Part of our training is: greet, engage (‘how’s your day going?’), and thank 100 percent of the time, which we call GET 100.” The experience varies for hospitals, where patients or their visitors could be in distress. “We try to make that first touchpoint a positive one. That makes a difference.”

“When you take care of people,  and create a high-trust environment, it fosters loyalty, motivation, and engagement, and that in turn drives amazing results.”

Because LAZ Parking isn’t public, they don’t need to worry about short-term earnings or financial analysts. They can focus on people over profits, and plan seven to ten years out. Beyond parking, LAZ is expanding into other “strategic silos,” such as event staffing and mobility. They currently operate close to 200 shuttles nationwide for airports, hospitals, and municipalities.

“We hire, train, motivate, and retain people. That translates into a lot of different businesses,” Owen says. “Parking is just what we do; we could be doing other businesses. But at the end of each day, we always remember, we’re a people company.”

Photos: Steven Laschever