The safety signs sold by National Marker Company may seem simple at first glance, but the process behind their production is what sets them apart from the competition. The same can be said for the staff at NMC. On the outside of its North Smithfield, Rhode Island, facility, it seems like just another company. It's what's behind the walls that sets NMC apart from the rest.
People and culture are the top priority. Employees aren't just expected to do their job, but to learn something new every day – and even teach Michael Black, president of NMC, a thing or two. This is because it isn't the success or the notoriety, but the people of NMC that mean everything to Black.
"My favorite [part about my job] is, hands down, watching people grow," Black said.
Who is Michael Black?
Black initially didn't want to go into the safety sign business. Believe it or not, his first true love was cooking. He was accepted to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, out of high school, and was intent on going there – until he sat down with the head chef to discuss his plans of opening a restaurant.
He was told if he wanted to open his own restaurant, the trade-off would be never spending a night, a weekend or a holiday with his family. He quickly decided to forego his decision to become a chef, and it was clear from that point on that the people in his life, whether they be in the present or future, would be most important to him.
Instead of culinary school, Michael attended a community college in Maryland, then Drexel University in Philadelphia, where during his first co-op, he was offered a full-time job with an industrial distribution company. He accepted it, and finished his undergrad at the University of Baltimore at a later time.
Black became a fresh face to the company in 1998 when he joined as the national sales manager. He would quickly find his footing, rising to vice president in 1999 and president a year later at the turn of the century.
Black bought the company in 2012 after it was slated to sold and subsequently closed. He was offered a $1 million buyout for his small piece of the company, but refused after his wife Michelle helped him realize he wouldn't be happy if he made that decision because the people he had worked so closely with for all of these years would be out of a job. Having no experience owning a company beforehand, Black's purchase would go on to change the direction of NMC's future.
Life at NMC
Black's day-to-day schedule is hectic, but manageable. Meetings with his direct reports, as well as step meetings with different employees to ensure their voice is heard, compose most of his schedule. After talking with clients as well, Black devotes some time out of his schedule, usually two or three days a week, to walking the floor.
This is an exercise that harks back on what he believes an employee's purpose at a company is – not just to come in and do the regular 9-to-5 job, but to learn something along the way. He takes this time to learn something himself.
"I just sit there and I say 'Teach me something'," Black said. Most people are intimidated the first time around.
"They look at you like, 'Well you know everything that's going on,' but that's the point – I don't know everything that's going on."
Some employees struggle in that moment of surprise, so Black sits there until they are comfortable and figure out something to say. Why does he take time out of his day to do this? For three reasons that remain very important to his philosophy.
"I wanted people to feel comfortable with me, and I think teaching is the best thing that you can do in life," Black said. "The third thing is that I want people to see the humility of myself and for people to recognize that I don't know everything."
The culture Black created at NMC began with his initial decision to purchase the company and has only grown stronger as years have passed. The people that are behind the product remain the reason for its success and have forged some of his greatest memories.
He takes his role as president seriously, in that he enjoys watching somebody join with a very small skill set and grow it over time while working for the company. He believes this is a responsibility every president, owner and CEO has.
"The fact is that we want to grow people, people that have the desire or heart to be better tomorrow than they are today."