The Great Game of Business teaches from experience


By Karen Buschmann

The first chapter in The Great Game of Business started in the early ‘80s. Global manufacturer International Harvester was in deep financial trouble. While the company was laying off an average of 2,000 employees every week for two years, Jack Stack, manager of the company’s engine remanufacturing facility in Springfield, was struggling to save the 119 jobs there.

Stack and 12 managers scraped together $100,000 in cash, borrowed $8.9 million, bought out the failing division and turned it into one of the most successful companies in America, SRC Holdings Corp. Today SRC Holdings employs 1,600 people and produces $600 million in annual sales. Its stock value has grown from 10 cents per share in 1983 to over $435 today. Stack still serves as the president and CEO.

The road to success was not an easy one. Stack was rejected by 52 banks along the way to buying the division and had to learn on his own how to rebuild a financially viable company. He eventually put what he learned into a book called “The Great Game of Business,” one of the business world’s best-known guides to open-book management.

“I wanted people to see business the way I saw business,” Stack said. “I wanted them to realize it didn’t have to be an instrument of exploitation or a tool of greed and you don’t need an MBA to understand it.”


Rich Armstrong, president and CEO of The Great Game of Business

The popularity of the book gave rise to a new business, a training company, not surprisingly called The Great Game of Business, which has taken the open-book management strategy into thousands of companies worldwide, helping employers transform the way they approach business at every level of their workforce. The Great Game of Business is located in Springfield and provides varied levels of consulting support, from one-day workshops to monthlong and multiyear engagements.

Southwest Airlines, Harley-Davidson, Whole Foods Market and American Electric Power are some of the most prominent clients. However, The Great Game of Business most often works with small to midsized companies. No matter the size of the company, the heart of the mission is the same.

“We believe the best, most efficient, most profitable way to operate a business is to give everybody in the company a voice in how it’s run and a stake in the financial outcome,” said Great Game of Business President and CEO Rich Armstrong.

Employee engagement is a common challenge facing many businesses today.

“‘Engagement’ has become a huge buzzword. Many of the methods being used are soft, like providing more flexibility, adding new benefits or bringing your dog to work on Friday,” said Armstrong. “What we find is that this simple idea of getting employees connected to the real, true mission of the organization, understanding how to be profitable and showing employees how what they are doing is impacting the business, is more engaging than anything else you can do.”

Another element that differentiates The Great Game of Business from other training programs is its depth.

“We don’t just work with the C-suite executive. We go deep. We work with all employees, right to the front line,” Armstrong said.

The first phase of The Great Game of Business is teaching the rules of business, including financial transparency and education, high-involvement planning, and financial goal setting. Next, companies set up a system for keeping score and communicating results. Finally, the companies develop ways to provide employees with a stake in the outcome through compensation and recognition.

The Great Game of Business has developed an almost cult-like following, and the company’s phenomenal growth has landed it on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies for the last two years.

“If anyone had doubts about the power of open-book management and the impact The Great Game of Business has had on our company, they should just take a look at the results,” said Michael Kiolbassa, president of Kiolbassa Provision Co. Inc. “We’ve accomplished a turnaround while navigating the most difficult commodity market in the history of the company.”

Kiolbassa Provision Co. Inc. is a 66-year-old, family-owned, San Antonio-based craft manufacturer of sausage. The company’s fast growth was creating communication and operational problems.

“We used to operate week by week,” said Kiolbassa. “Now we are having conversations that look out three to six months, which has really helped sync up our sales forecasts and labor schedules. When I look at the last year and see the growth we’ve had, the most impressive part is the people growth. We had immediate buy-in. They are hungry for knowledge.”

The Great Game of Business isn’t just for companies seeking a profit. Greene County implemented the elements of The Great Game of Business and stabilized its cash balance. According to Cindy Stein, the county auditor, Greene County saw enough savings to give its employees their first cost-of-living raise in nearly six years.

“Just because someone’s job doesn’t deal with finances doesn’t mean he or she can’t solve a problem, eliminate an inefficiency or identify a new opportunity,” Stein said.

The Great Game is not for every business. Armstrong has learned that only certain organizations are prepared to accept this type of management approach.

“Company leaders need to have a lot of humility and be open to the idea of sharing a lot of information with employees and taking a lot of time to educate them,” Armstrong said. “They can’t be afraid of the upward accountability that comes with that.”

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