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The Technical Side and the Personal Side of Workplace Culture with Tom Hatton and John Ballinger of Clean Vapor
Episode 4827th February 2023 • The Manufacturers' Network • Lisa Ryan
00:00:00 00:33:25

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Connect with Tom Hatton and John Ballinger:

Tom Hatton:

John Ballinger:

Lisa Ryan: Hey, it's Lisa Ryan. Welcome to the Manufacturer's Network podcast. I'm excited to introduce you to two guests on the show today, Tom Hatton and John Ballinger. Tom is the CEO of Clean Vapor, a radon and vapor intrusion mitigation company. He's worked in the environmental consulting and remediation industry for over 30 years.

John Ballinger is the COO at Clean Vapor. He also owns a risk management and leadership development company. He's been working with Clean Vapor over the last three years. So, John and Tom, welcome to the show.

Tom Hatton: Thank you for having us, Lisa.

John Ballinger: Thank you very much, Lisa.

Lisa Ryan: So, Tom, I will start with you. Share a little about your background and what led you to do what you're doing with Clean Vapor.

Tom Hatton: Sure. My background is, I was, I have a science background, which is chemistry and physics, and right out of school, I was fortunate enough to be on EPA's very first vapor intrusion site, which is vapor intrusion is where chemicals that are in the ground come up into buildings and they're harmful to people.

And I was able to develop a model that would predict how those papers would get into the building. And then, from there, I was drafted to be part of the first research team to figure out how radon is getting into houses in the United States. So we looked at a bunch of homes and buildings and came up with a flow chart for a logic pass for fixing these buildings.

So that's how I got into this business. And one thing led to another. So we started, and we were fortunate. The United States Park Service was our very first client. And then we grew the business out of that to where we're today.

Lisa Ryan: Awesome. And John, what about you?

John Ballinger: So, I was in aviation in the military and left the military like many military people do when they're retiring and trying to figure out what I will do with the next portion of my life?

And it was a natural progression to start a risk management company focused on planes, trains, and automobiles. And started that company and quickly saw that getting called in after the occurrence happened. It was people-driven more than it was process driven. There was a failure in someone following policy or procedure, or the leader in the organization needed to communicate more effectively.

So that risk management company led me to start a professional personal development program, especially when it comes to leadership of the executives down to middle management. And that's Tom and me. Tom and I intersected about four years ago through our work with two nonprofits in dire straits.

Lisa Ryan: So, before we dive into the culture that you have created at Clean Vapor, Let's talk a little bit about exactly what you do because we all have, or we're supposed to have, radon detectors in our house and stuff, but I don't know if people know what it is and why it's So, vital that you're doing what you're doing with it. What is radon, and why do you focus?

Tom Hatton: There are two elements of focus for the company. One is naturally occurring radon, and the other is man-made chemicals that are a carcinogen, which is at many of the manufacturing sites, and that's where the intersection is probably for this audience. Radon is naturally occurring.

It's of all soils worldwide, and it gets into your home based on the concentration in the soil below the home and how the home is constructed. Now, radon's hazardous because it's colorless, odorless, and you can't detect it. But it is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States.

There are about 21,000 deaths annually caused by radon, and it's probably the country's number one underplayed health crisis, mainly because mother nature is the culprit. There's no lobbying against Mother Nature. It's one of these hazards that just gets swept under the rug because there's no bad actor you can point to and say, let me litigate against you. And there's also a personal responsibility element where you, the homeowner, or you, the building owner, are responsible for doing the testing. So people tend to avoid looking at it.

And the third factor is out of all the harmful risks in the United States. The federal government only spends 7.9 million in education to tell people about radon.

And when we encounter people, usually after they've got lung cancer, the question is, why didn't somebody tell me about this? And we took on our mission to educate to the extent we can as a small company.  

Lisa Ryan: That brings it back to why you started the company in the first place. Is that right?

Tom Hatton: Yeah. What happened was my wife Kristen and I were just married, and we realized that there was a family member who was suffering from cancer. We realized that there were probably less than 25 or 30 people in an entire country who knew how to diagnose buildings and correct them correctly. And we realized that we did if we did what we did in the science-based practices because what we did was a little bit different. We took a scientific approach to evaluate homes and buildings. When the government started collecting statistics on correcting these homes, we discovered we'd had the best results out of any company.

In other words, the lowest radon runs post-mitigation. And we decided that the thing to do is since we had a corner on this technology, is that we would use it to mitigate as many homes as we could and take people out of the risk of getting lung cancer. And that's a terrible death. I've met these people on oxygen, and essentially they suffocate. The death is terrible. And I'm very passionate that it was one of the country's saddest, most overlooked health crises.

Lisa Ryan: So, it sounds like you have a strong mission, which is important when you're coming to building a company culture. Let's start talking about that. First, what prompted you to look for someone else to help you develop and direct the company culture that led you to find John?

Tom Hatton: So, that came out of the other side of the business, which it's not the other side, it's just a different focus, which is the chemical vapor intrusion part. We had grown that business, and we had worked with Fortune 1000 companies, but as the word got out about Clean Vapor and there was a growing need in the large consulting engineering world, we started working for Fortune 100's, and we came it for 500's and the 100's.

And we were blessed enough to have an opportunity with a large aerospace manufacturer, and the company had grown at that point. And I'm very technically oriented and have one type of culture, which is based on respect and trust and the expectation if you ask somebody to do something that, they're going to carry it forward with the same level of commitment that you have now, that's not a reality. And as the company grew, I gave our clients A-plus technical support. But the other part of it, the installation part, the field services were developing their own cultures. So the company is almost like a farm without a farmer, with different segments, cows, and chickens doing whatever they want. And we acquired this client, and the person who made this all possible sat on the phone with me, and said time to saddle up. And I knew exactly what that meant: the entire company needed to get harmonized with one culture, a culture of excellence to match our technical services.

And John and I were working on the nonprofit at that point, which got lassoed into a bad corner. And John said you need me, right? And I said, yeah, but I don't know if I can afford you. And he wrote, I wrote a number and said, I'll do this for a year. And he wrote it on a sticky and turned it over.

And I'm like, yeah, we could do that. So, we looked at the company, and the company was running, It was producing products, but internally it was running like when you throw sneakers into your dryer, and they're all bouncing around. But we couldn't scale the company and have all this bouncing around because it would just get worse, and then we would lose the opportunity to serve a tremendous aerospace manufacturer. And that's when we evaluated the company and found out how out of balance it was. And that's where John started putting in plants. And he and I and Chris worked together very intently to figure out how we would fix this thing and give A-plus service to our clients worldwide.

Lisa Ryan: Awesome. So, John, when you came into the company, what did you find and do? How did you prioritize your starting point?

John Ballinger: Tom developed a system. I created a system I used before stepping inside the company by giving a series of tests.

And that first test would be the Myers-Briggs test, which gave me insight into who I was getting ready to talk to. And I have administered the test. So, I often don't even need to have a picture or meet the person. I can read the test results and walk into a room, and if there are ten people in a room with ten tests, I can tell you which test belongs to those ten people.

Everyone took the test. I went to the, I went to three different locations and walked in. We're talking to people and quickly realized through the process of the test and a risk assessment that I've developed over the last number of years that 50% of the people in companies, and this is a general statistic during the previous 17 years, are in positions they're not suited for. I call them. They're not wired for that position. They migrate to that position for one reason or another. Or, as most companies do, they just hire someone and put them in that position and hope they swim, but maybe they sink. Then they know they do not know what to do with them once they start sinking.

I went in with that personality profile test, with that risk assessment, gave it back to Tom and Kristen, and said, here's what we need to do, and here's how we need to start. And there were roughly 14 people when we started, and we shaved it down to three, which is tough because you're rebuilding.

And I talk about you remodeling the house while you're living in the house and growing too. And all that's difficult. And I tell the business owner, this will be very difficult because some of the relationships you've had with these employees are years and years long. But they don't meet the criteria we need to take it to the next level in this company.

We start narrowing it down and then rebuilding it. At the same time, we're removing personnel. Then we have to select people. Cause I take the word h i r e out of the equation and say we don't hire people; we select people that will be on our team, much like a professional team does.

Lisa Ryan: So, when you went from 14 to three, what was, what did those 11 people have, not have, or what were they missing as you saw the future growth of the company, and what did those other three have that you felt value enough to keep?

John Ballinger: The first was respect. One of the things that I learned early on doing this, you may not always agree with the owner. And you may have a voice to go to the owners and state your opinions, but by all means, always respect the owner.

And I saw a lack of respect in a lot of areas. And the three, even though they still need to be fine-tuned, there was still a level of respect they had that the others didn't. There were more blasé. We don't care, just give us our paycheck.

Tom Hatton:  I want to add something to that too. What coincided with this was Covid. And suddenly, we were locked out of our work sense because of covid. And So, we decided to take that opportunity and implement personal and professional development. So, we selected courses, modules, and things for people to do, and the weirdest thing happened. We were paying for their time and the course, and people would just come up and resign one at a time, going, "this isn't for me," and I'm like, this is mind-blowing. If anybody allowed me to improve myself, and they paid for it, and my time, I would be all over it. But I found out that a specific type of employee wasn't interested in self-advancement, and they took themselves out of the equation one by one.

And then we were able because there are a lot of people idle at home because of Covid, we took our time and selected the next level employee as a replacement. And that's when things started coming together because we had, John was steering the culture. I was steering the technical side of things, and I wanted to get back to what the company was when it was small, where I was selecting people, and there was enough personal time that if the culture didn't work, it just wasn't going to work. And that's where the whole scaling thing came on. But there was a lot of intentionalities and how we went about that, how we were going to replace people, what the job tasks were.

We wanted people who had not just technical skills but good hearts as people. They like you care for the person you're working with. And I started hearing about these guys being over and their coworkers' houses for barbecue, helping each other put new brakes on their cars.

And this cohesiveness started developing within the company. And that's what, that is what helped separate us. And we get great feedback from our clients. They said, Hey, I'll work with your guys any time. So they work hard, go out for dinner, joke around, return to the hotel, and show up for work nice, sober, and inspired the next morning.

John Ballinger: Let me just put a little cherry on top of this for Tom and Kristen because it's tough to decide to remodel the house while it grows and builds. And they did that. And what happened even during Covid and the great resignation is that the company went from three, and it's standing at 34 right now.

Lisa Ryan: Wow. And what's occurring to me, and what my listeners are picking up on, is there are so many lessons here. Number one, you have a CEO who's running a successful company but realizes there's a part he's missing where he has good technical skills but not people skills.

So there's that awareness that sometimes the signs are there that we have to make those difficult decisions. And then you have 14 people that were probably good at what they did, but there needed to be a cohesive team. So, then we have to make the difficult decisions to get the people on the bus that are no longer fit or off the bus that is no longer fit for that bus, and then be willing to turn over what you are not good at to somebody good at it and start to make that whole thing. And then just what you just said with going from three people to now 34 people in this harmony and these relationships, that it's not a change that happened overnight, but because you were willing to do all the cleanup work beforehand, now you're starting to see the results of all the work that you put into it.

Tom Hatton: Yeah. There are two employees that I want to point out. These guys were tremendous people. I liked them a lot. They were good at what they did, but what we were doing was not their passion. And I knew that. And one of the guys, cause we fly to some of our job sites, was a pilot, but he also had a physics degree.

And he was good as a technical scientist out in the field. But he wanted to become a bush pilot in Alaska. And I had some connections there, and I knew of a job opening, and I called the director of that air transport company, and I said, Hey, I have a guy who works for me. He's a tremendous guy, but he's always wanted the pilot in Alaska.

Would you interview him? And I set that up. He left. There was another guy with a very similar situation, and these guys did leave Clean Vapor. I lost valuable employees. Right now, we have an office in Charlotte—one guy who went from being a bush pilot to an airline pilot.

And when he lays over here, Hey Tom, are you available? Can you run down to the airport? We can grab lunch or dinner. And we have a great relationship, and I actually feel happy about it. Because he's doing something that he's passionate about, and we only go through life once. And that's why it's important that we spend our best years seated in what we are crafted to do.

And that's what I want at Clean Vapor. I want you to be wired to do what we're doing and enjoy what you're doing.

Lisa Ryan: And paying attention to what that passion is in people So, that you're making sure that you have the right people on. And again, people might be saying that, oh, these employees, they want to come, and they just want to paycheck, and how are they going to be passionate about the thing that we're manufacturing?

But finding out that aspect of the mission they can be passionate about. So, let's, John, let's go back to you as far as some of the things that you have focused on with the culture there and how you found the rest of the people to join the team to get it up to the number you are now.

John Ballinger: One afternoon, I'm sitting watching, no, I'm not watching, I'm listening to the TV, and I hear the words as I'm working on my computer, "The San Francisco 49ers Select." It was the draft. I stopped typing. I stopped writing and I said if the professional athletes select and the college has recruiters that select.

Why aren't business owners using that same platform to spend time selecting someone, not just throwing out a job description on Indeed or LinkedIn? Why aren't we spending time selecting that person? And we have a three-stage process that we've developed where we take someone. We bring them in, we bring them in at the level that they would be working with.

So like the manager, the director does interviews until it gets done, and they take a series of tests. So, they're taking the emotional intelligence test. They're taking the working Genius test. They're taking a Myers Briggs test, and we're finding out who these people are and the job description we want them to accomplish and see, does that person match this job description? And it doesn't matter if they've been doing it at another job when they get to us.

I sit on an airplane next to a gentleman from New York to Atlanta. And I said, is Home Atlanta? And he said no. Home's getting ready to be Florida. I'm retiring. And I said, oh, that's great. I said, what did you do? And he said, I worked for the New York Transit Authority for 40 years. I said, man, did you love that? He said I hated every day of...