Industry Icon Tony Golobic: Building GreatAmerica to Last
by Rita Garwood October 2019
Tony Golobic, winner of Monitor’s inaugural Pioneer Icon Award, shares the vision he used to create “built-to-last” GreatAmerica Financial Services. By focusing on people first and establishing a strong organizational design, Golobic challenges the status quo, looks beyond profit and consistently focuses on doing the right thing.
Monitor’s inaugural Pioneer award is reserved for a leader who has demonstrated an ability for forward thinking and a willingness to step away from proven methods to employ new strategies that transform the status quo. A true builder at heart, Tony Golobic, chairman and chief executive officer of GreatAmerica Financial Services, is the perfect recipient of this award.
“Money has never been a great motivator for me,” Golobic says. “I am motivated by building a lasting organization that is cheered on by its loyal employees and customers, a company that I can point to with pride because I played a role in building it, as can the rest of my over 600 fellow employees. To do this we had to depart from usual ways.”
Golobic borrowed the high-performance team concept from the manufacturing industry. “We always believed that if you borrow ideas from outside your industry and tailor them to your needs, you are a leader, but if you borrow them from within your industry you are a follower,” he says.
“Our vision, to reach standards of excellence so high that we will have no competition, dictated our organizational design,” Golobic says. “That is a vision that motivated me 27 years ago and still motivates me today.”
More Than Annual Results
Before striking out on his own, Golobic led business units at industry giants like GE Capital and Mellon, and while he achieved success in his career, something was missing. “I wasn’t content. I was in charge, but I wasn’t in control,” he says. “These organizations were saying the right things like, ‘Customers come first’ and ‘Employees are the most valuable asset,’ and they mostly believed this; however, toward the end of each year, what really mattered were that year’s results.”
With this focus on short-term results, Golobic recognized that everything else was expendable. “I felt there was a better way to build a business that would last and that I could truly be proud of. I felt the only way I could do this was to have ownership control, so we started GreatAmerica. It was then that I stopped saying ‘I’ and started saying ‘we,’ and it has been ‘we’ ever since. We now have over 600 GreatAmericans who are making us successful. A single person could never have done it without the hard work, care and loyalty of our GreatAmericans.”
Golobic points out that there are myriad reasons for starting a business, which will ultimately dictate how the business is run. If money is the goal, the business will pursue a fast growth track and sell at the right time. But creating a business to last requires building strong foundations that will withstand economic cycles and prepare the organization for its future.
“We wanted to form a business that would last and focus on its employees first, its customers second, its community third and its owners last,” Golobic says. “We put employees first because only hard working, happy and engaged employees can make our customers happy. We knew that by taking care of the first three constituents, the owners would do very well for themselves also.”
Stan Herkelman, president of GreatAmerica, says Golobic has a deep talent for inspiring his team to do well: “Long before Simon Sinek made ‘start with why’ so visible, Tony focused on a purpose deeper than creating shareholder value and has always been transparent and specific in our ‘why’ and why each individual’s specific role is directly linked to our customers’ and our success.”
Herkelman says Golobic drives this purpose by employing constant messaging directed at the responsibility of each individual to make a difference; using GreatAmerica’s team-based structure to cultivate a mindset of an aggregation of small companies with a related big picture and balanced perspective; and by sharing detailed financial information in monthly company-wide meetings which provide context for why the company is doing well in a specific area or why the team is being asked to change something that is not working.
“Tony has had superb resolve in the vision of the company as an independent that is expected to do ‘great things’ against strong competitors and instilling this belief in our team members,” Herkelman says. “Tony has also been very skilled at seeing potential in individuals that the individual didn’t necessarily see in herself/himself and then ‘nudging’ and supporting the individual into new opportunities.”
Jennie Fisher, senior vice president and general manager of GreatAmerica’s Office Equipment Group, echoes this point, noting that Golobic has a strong desire to provide opportunities to his team: “I thank him all the time for the opportunities he brought to me, though he reminds me it is the passion in me that drives me to succeed. I am so fortunate to have Tony as a mentor, to increase my knowledge, to help me understand the critical elements of a successful finance organization and, most important, to have someone who cares about me, about my family and about my career.”
Since the early days, Golobic and his team have focused on building a strong organizational culture, which led them to be “very selective” when choosing teammates. “We look for attitudes and beliefs,” Golobic says. “Our tight fit allows us to select less than 3% of the applicants.”
Perhaps thanks to this selectiveness, Fisher says Golobic demonstrates a strong trust for his team and his dealers. “Over the years, he has demonstrated innovation by allowing us to implement programs outside our comfort zone with good partners and the opportunity to see if it worked. This has built some very strong relationships over time, and it allows us to introduce solutions to the market that others have not been able to.”
Fisher notes that Golobic has always led by example. “He never asked us to do anything he would not do himself,” she says. “I always appreciated that he was willing to get on the phone on a tough collection call or roll up his sleeves and get out there and sell alongside us. He has a very strong presence that demands respect. Dealers were very impressed that Tony would come into their offices. They are also very impressed, even today, that they can call him, and he will pick up the phone or return their call the same day.”
A Solid Foundation
Although people come first, Golobic also relies on a strong operational foundation to ensure the long-term strength of GreatAmerica. “Having previously worked at highly respected financial institutions, I appreciated the role operational fundamentals played in forming a built-to-last financial company,” he says. “Strong policies and procedures, checks and balances, sound credit policies, conservative accounting, continuous improvement and measuring everything we do were central disciplines to our foundation.
“We entered the most competitive area in small-ticket because that is where the best business was and we knew it well,” Golobic says. “It was and still is dominated by large financial institutions. They had brands and resources that we couldn’t even dream of, so we decided that we were going to have employees that they couldn’t even dream of. Engaged employees backed by an organizational design that will allow them to reach their potential.”
“Tony has been unusually skilled, both at the inception of the company and then over the 27 years since, in making decisions that cultivate a unique and engaged culture that has been a pivotal part of GreatAmerica’s success, particularly in competing with those who are larger and have more resources,” Henkelman says. “He did this before it was such a commonplace topic in business literature.”
Golobic says this guiding philosophy has helped GreatAmerica successfully weather two recessions. While other companies posted losses and lower business volumes — and some went out of business — GreatAmerica experienced strong income and higher volumes.
“I remember with great pride how the Cedar River’s historic flood in 2008 forced us out of our building for over three months and just as we moved back, Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, triggering financial panic that started the Great Recession,” Golobic recalls. “These two calamities, one right after the other, would have severely hindered many organizations, yet we at GreatAmerica were celebrating new records. We have posted organic growth every year for the past 27 years, culminating in last year’s new business volume of over $1 billion and assets of over $2.2 billion. We plan to continue with this tradition for the next 27 years and beyond.”
For the Next Generation of Trailblazers
Looking back over his career of nearly 50 years, Golobic says one lesson stands out. “I have learned to always ‘do the right thing.’ By this, I mean being highly ethical, always keeping your word, putting your employees and customers first, considering them as a part of the GreatAmerica family — a family that helps each other. And when I’m wrong, to always make it right. It’s important to do the right thing for everyone involved: our employees, our customers, our community and our owners. While in the short-term this may not optimize results, over the long-term it pays great dividends.”
Golobic advises aspiring trailblazers to follow their passion. “Build worthy organizations you can be proud of, be long-term oriented, and always do the right thing regardless of short-term consequences.”
Mentoring is how a business passes its culture from one generation of leaders to the next. Drew Spears discusses how, if done correctly, mentoring can be just as beneficial for the mentor as it is for the mentee, as it provides the opportunity for two-way learning.