Cleveland Plain Dealer “Talk With the Boss” Q&A with Safeguard Properties CEO Robert Klein
The Cleveland Plain Dealer published an edited transcript of an interview with Robert?Klein, CEO of Safeguard Properties, for the first in a series of weekly conversations with Northeast Ohio executives about about the workplace, careers and management.
Safeguard Properties CEO Robert Klein leads by example at mortgage field services firm
by Michelle Jarboe/Plain Dealer Reporter
Robert Klein started Safeguard Properties in 1990 and has shepherded its growth into the largest privately held mortgage field services company in the United States.
The company, which secures and maintains homes that are in the foreclosure process or owned by banks, has more than 700 employees and a nationwide network of thousands of contractors who do everything from mow lawns to replace windows and clean out vacant houses.
Safeguard has annual revenues of more than $500 million. The flood of foreclosures during the recession has created more work, so the company has continued hiring.
Klein recently sat down with Plain Dealer real estate reporter Michelle Jarboe for the first in a series of weekly conversations with Northeast Ohio executives about about the workplace, careers and management. We call it “Talk With the Boss.” This is an edited transcript.
The Question: What leadership lessons did you learn when you first started managing people?
The Answer: I think one of the leadership lessons I learned a long time ago is lead by example. Don’t lead by giving orders. People will follow you if they see you have an interest in what they’re doing and you’re there with them, working as hard as they are to make this thing a success. Leadership, in my opinion, is based on do what I do — and not, “Forward, march.”
The Question: As the company grows, what do you need to do more of as a manager?
The Answer: You’ve got to hire smart people. It gets more and more complicated to keep your hands on everything that is occurring, so you’ve got to make sure that the people that are out there, actually doing the work, are of the highest caliber. And, hopefully, most of them are smarter than I am.
The Question: What do you look for in the hiring process?
The Answer: We can’t hire college graduates that know what our product is. We have a very extensive training program that people need to go through in order to be able to provide the services. So making sure that you have an HR department that does the right interview and knows the right qualifications and gets the right people in the right positions is absolutely critical.
The Question: Are there any traits that you have low tolerance for in employees?
The Answer: It’s called non-follow-up. If we tell a client we’re going to do something, we’d better do it. There is no excuse for not following through. Our entire company’s philosophy has been built on “customer service equals resolution,” and I am very serious about it. As long as we keep resolving our clients’ issues, we will continue to be successful.
The Question: How do you give feedback to employees?
The Answer: I’m an e-mail freak, so I utilize e-mail quite extensively with the entire staff. Acknowledging success, regardless of what level the employee is in the company, is very important.
If someone does a good job, it is very important to acknowledge their success and encourage them and make them feel like they’re part of the company.
The Question: How do you manage your time?
The Answer: I don’t sleep much. I think that the most critical piece in doing what I do is to make sure that you continue to enjoy what you’re doing. It’s still a challenge to me. It’s just as much of a challenge now, with 700 employees on staff, as when I had two employees. As long as the challenge is there, I’m fine.
The Question: Can you reflect on some of the best bosses you had prior to founding Safeguard?
The Answer: I never had a boss. I never worked for anybody in my life. I had a company downtown here in Cleveland, it was a produce company. I did that for about 13 years. Prior to that, I was in New York and I was driving a cab in New York for about five years. My father, who in my opinion was one of the smartest people in the world that I knew, told me at a very young age, he said, “My son, God blessed you with a brain and cursed you with a mouth, so you won’t be able to keep a job down.” So I’ve really never worked for anybody.
The Question: Was that a challenge in trying to figure out how to be a boss?
The Answer: Well, I never looked at myself as a boss. I always looked at myself as somebody who needs to make a living. I’ve always looked at myself as part of a company and trying to make it grow. We’ve been in business for 19 years, and up until about eight or nine years ago I never had an office. I had a cubicle. I was on the floor with everybody else and making this thing work. There’s a reason why my office has all windows so the staff can see, because I want my staff to see that I’m sitting in my office and I’m doing the work. I’m not sitting here smoking cigars, smoking cigarettes. I’m here working with them, and you’ve got to put a day’s work in.