March On

How one firm broke from the single-industry cycle.

Long before the auto industry ran headlong into the global financial meltdown in late 2008, Link Howard III surveyed the landscape and didn’t like the view.

“We were servicing auto plants and performing tasks such as cleaning painting booths in 2005, but I could see the (domestic) automakers were struggling financially, so we began to look for a way out,” says Howard, president and CEO of Powerlink Facilities Management Services in Detroit. “It was a painful transition (to find new clients), and there were many lean days.”

While Howard’s timing proved beneficial in the long run, he doesn’t let the business’s recent success — $24 million in projected revenue in 2011, from $11 million in 2010 — impact the company’s reliance on discipline and strong leadership. A provider of skilled trades in management, Powerlink oversees more than 600 employees and subcontractors. Clients include the Detroit Public Schools, Henry Ford Health System, and the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute.

Following a 32-year career in a variety of federal departments, including serving as a military police officer in Vietnam, Howard says his business philosophy can be boiled down to three principles: sterling customer service, employee empowerment, and continuous project improvements.

“If you don’t work with your managers every single day, they will begin to feel autonomous, and then you have problems,” Howard says. “You have to set up an operational system that lets managers feel like they’re part of the home team.”

His other management tips:

— “Just like in the military, we have a philosophy of being showroom-ready. So before you leave, everything must be in place at your desk or work environment.”

— “Systems must be in place so that the business outlasts the owner. If it doesn’t, everyone loses.”

— “We hired friends and family in the past, but when things didn’t work out, it was a painful transition. Have them apply for a job like anyone else.”

—“Avoid ‘Yes’ people. If you’re not challenged, you’re wasting everyone’s time.” db

—R.J. King