Part 1 of 4
I’ve had the privilege of knowing Tony Chivinski for more than 20 years. He’s an incredibly energetic, principled, experienced leader whose diverse experiences has qualified him to help several organizations find new life. This series is from an interview conducted June 20, 2019.
Geoff: I’m here with Tony Chivinski on the 20th of June, 2019, for an interview for (Extra)Ordinary Leaders. Tony, thanks for being here.
Tony: You bet.
Geoff: Let’s start by having you tell me a little bit about you and your personal history.
Tony: I think it goes back to when I was a kid. My father was a contractor. My brother and I started working when we were six years old. So, during the summer we would work 40 hours a week and get paid $5, which I thought I was rich. We could get an afternoon off, if we scheduled it. There were a number of things that I learned from that and have stuck with me: to take full responsibility for yourself; provide exemplary service to your customers and clients; take extraordinary care of the people who are working with and for you. If you can do those three things, then that really allows you to get through a lot. And so, no matter whether it was my volunteer work, work when I was in charge of a company, or now, those three things still are very foundational. And then from my mother’s side, she was a very caring and loving person. So, my natural innate desire to care deeply about people, I think came from her. I think that sums up pretty much who I am and why.
G: So how about your wife? Where did you meet your wife?
T: We were 15 years old. She spent six months trying to get me to ask her best friend out, which I really wasn’t interested in girls at the time. I finally acquiesced and asked this girl out, and she turned me down. So, I went back to Sherry and said, “I’m really confused about all this stuff.” She said, “Well, she got tired of waiting.” So, I asked her out, and we just celebrated our 42nd wedding anniversary. And we’d been going together for eight years before that, since we were 15. And she and I are a good balance. She’s very different than me in many respects; but in terms values, treating people well, and caring, we’re very much alike.
Geoff: You have two sons.
Tony: Two sons—37 and about to be 35. Both married. Each has two boys. One is in Philadelphia and one is in Villanova. Like so many other folks who have two children, you would think they didn’t come from the same parents and the same family.
Geoff: Tell me about your grandsons.
Tony: The oldest are twins—they’re five years old. If you look at them, you wouldn’t think that they are related. They are completely different in appearance and personalities. We have always spent a lot of time with them. It was scary – they were born eight or nine weeks premature, a little over two pounds, and were in the NICU for eight or nine weeks. Especially the first two weeks, that was a very frightening time for me, a very scary time. But they fortunately have no health issues and are lots of fun. The other ones–one is two and one is just about four months old. The two-year-old is at that age where they’re always adorable. And we make it a priority to spend time with them.
Geoff: So how did your career begin?
Tony: In high school, I went to the guidance office. She asked me what I wanted to do. And since I was very handy mechanically, I thought nuclear engineering would be a great career. And I told her that. She said, “That sounds great. Where would you like to go?” I said, “MIT or RPI are two of the best schools. So, I’d like to go to one of them.” I still have not forgiven MIT because they did not accept me. But RPI did. I went there; and after one year of that, I pretty much knew that that was not my cup of tea. I transferred into Business at Penn State and started taking a lot of accounting courses and sales and marketing courses. If someone said, “Do you want to be an accountant?” I would have said, “No.” But then that’s what happened. I went to work for Peat Marwick at the time and became a CPA. But at the same time as I was doing that, all my volunteer work was geared more around leadership position or development—raising money for nonprofits and things. That’s really how I got started.
Geoff: Why did you get into that line of work?
Tony: You know what, that’s a great question! I’m not sure I know what the answer to that is. Somehow, I liked accounting when I was taking it. I was very good at numbers. But as I try and think back, I can’t really recall why I made that decision. I do know that I loved sales, I loved marketing. No matter what I did my whole life, I continue to spend a lot of my time in those efforts and being with nonprofits. But the accounting piece is still a puzzle—I’m not exactly sure how that worked. Maybe that’s why I got out of it after five years.
Geoff: Where’d you go then?
Tony: I was going to leave one of the big eight firms. And a client found out about it and decided to hire me. He offered me a job as controller of all their divisions and subsidiaries. It was a fairly large company. Initially I thought, “Why would you want to go to the same place every day?” Honestly, the opportunity for money was about 80% greater than the other thing, and the combination of those two things, I decided to go there. That’s really how I made that decision.
Geoff: Is that what brought you to Lancaster?
Tony: No, actually Sherry went to Millersville University. When I graduated, I started with Peat Marwick in Albany, New York, and she was teaching in Lancaster. I got a transfer to the Harrisburg office and then we moved to Mount Joy. It was really her being here and having a job here which caused us to come here. I’ve been here ever since.
Geoff: The company you worked at—what were your greatest successes there?
Tony: I think there are a couple things. One is, we became a Best Place to Work in Pennsylvania. That was a lot of work by an awful lot of people. To achieve a Best Place to Work standing I think was a great success. I think culturally the company was always very focused around fanaticism about safety of its employees, doing a great job for customers, and doing a great job with the employees. When we would use The Net Promoter scores at our different locations, we always got very high marks. I was always very proud of culturally how we focused on everything we could to create exceptional experiences for the customer and try to do that for the employees. The other thing—I was able to attract and retain really great people. When I think of the quantity and quality of the great people there, I have always been very proud of that.
Geoff: How about your greatest challenges as a leader in that organization?
Tony: I think there were two things. Number one, when you are working with a large family-owned business with a fair number of family members, there are those typical challenges that go along with that. So, trying to manage and handle those things appropriately, without spending too much time on it because of the demands of the rest of the business, is always a challenge. I think the second biggest challenge–and I will get to this later in the conversation because I think this is the biggest challenge as a leader in business–is to look at the marketplace and realize soon enough what is changing and how to adapt the company and re-position the company in those industries to remain relevant and to be competitive. I think it has gotten even—I don’t know if “worse” is the right word—I think it has gotten more challenging with how quickly changes come upon us. I think that to me those were the biggest challenges.
Geoff: So, when did you leave that business?
Tony: I left the business when I was about 53 years old. One of the things that happened to help create that change: I have a brother and two sisters. One of my sisters passed away at 47 from cancer. That was a real wake-up call, that you always think you have forever and things like that. That really caused me to reflect about what I was doing, where I was doing it, and what else I might be doing. At 53 I just decided it was time for me to move on.
Geoff: What’d you do? Where did you go to?
Tony: The first thing I did was take three months off—the whole summer. I’d been working since I’d been six, so I took the whole summer off. Then I started looking for another CEO job. Quite by accident, some organizations found out about me and asked if I’d start doing some consulting work for them and their clients, which I agreed to do. I started this pretty big project. And then two organizations that offered me CEO roles that I turned down, asked me to help them and I said, “Yes.” Then over the course of a number of months, more people came to me. After about four or five months, I realized I already have a job. Why should I be looking for one? That was thirteen years ago.
Geoff: Why did you chose to do this?
Tony: I love to help people. I always say we are all only good at two or three things. I’m very good at looking at people and organizations and knowing what they are capable of. And quite simply the joy of helping people and organizations getting to a different place. And therefore, their personal lives are enhanced because of less stress and greater personal accomplishment. I think that that’s what it was. I think the other aspect of it: if you are not fearful of not having money or not fearful of losing a client, then you can conduct yourself in a way that is probably appropriate to get them to make some of the significant changes they need to make but maybe don’t want to make. I think it’s those combinations of things that just really make it thoroughly enjoyable to be assisting others and helping individually and collectively folks get to a better place than where they were.
Geoff: Are there any special kinds of people or organizations that you work with?
Tony: For me, it’s pretty simple. If they’re focused on. . .They may not be achieving their results, but they’ve got to be focused on and have a desire to do a great job for clients or customers. They culturally have got to care deeply about their people and want to have an organization where people can thrive and be treated well. The third thing has to be that they have to be ready, willing, and able to accept assistance and trust that assistance and make significant change. Those are the three common characteristics. If they’re not great to their employees, if customer experience is not high on their list, that’s just not folks I want to spend my time with.
Geoff: What are the kinds of problems you see in the companies you work with? Are there common themes that run through?
Tony: I think some of the common things I find is what we talked about a little bit earlier. They are not necessarily adapting quickly enough to the marketplace and making the changes required. I also see where, not that every person there isn’t valued and valuable in some role, but as those changes take place, they don’t always have the right people in the right seat. Or they are not really capable of doing what is necessary. Quite frankly when people have been with you a long period of time, it is hard to own up to that and make the changes necessary to get the organization where it needs to be. Then there’s some family issues that come in from time to time where they have to decide whether they’re a family business or a family in business and how serious you are about performance. I would say those are the typical kinds of things I see—the big challenges.
Geoff: Why do you think leaders in organizations face these problems? What’s at the root cause of them?
Tony: I think a couple things. When you’re close to something, you often don’t see it or don’t believe it’s as big an issue as it is. It’s very difficult. And I say that because when I was a leader, it was very valuable for me to have outside board members because they would see things and challenge me. I’d think they didn’t know what they were talking about, but they did. So, when you’re real close to the business and the people, quite frankly it’s sometimes just very difficult to see those things and you need some outside folks to observe that. And then there’s the fear. What if I make a change? What if this person leaves? What if we increase prices and we lose customers? There’re always these fears or assessments we have that aren’t necessarily grounded in facts or a real sound analysis of the facts that cause us not to take some of those actions. I think those are some of the root causes of that.
Next post, we’ll hear some of the success stories Tony’s shared, what he’s learned about leadership, and his leadership philosophy.
© Geoff Davis 7/26/19