Bryan Brenner

Lessons from Entrepreneurial Leaders Featuring Jacob Houk

Picture of Bryan Brenner

Bryan Brenner

Jacob Houk is the first non-family leader of Hays+Sons, an Indianapolis-based expert in restoration services. He became president in 2015. Founded in 1982 by Charles Hays and his two sons, the company has nine locations and 135 employees serving Indiana and Cincinnati.

BKB: After 37 years of family leadership, you – not a Hays — were named president of Hays+Sons. What challenges have you faced?

JH: It’s been quite an evolution for us. There’s a lot of legacy in a family business, good and bad. The Hays have always been owner operators. They started out as construction guys, running the business from project to project. Like any company there can be a bit of friction, but with family roots, we still operate like a family. And that has been a real positive.

None of the “kids” wanted to take on the business, so I accepted the position. We’ve always had a good team but haven’t always worked to improve our team. When I stepped in as President I knew we had to get better at culture and communication. Turnover was at 55% in 2015 which was a drain on finances, not to mention morale.

BKB: What steps have you taken?

JH: We worked with FirstPerson to do a strategic plan aimed at increasing investment in our people. Communication is a top priority. With nine locations spread across Indiana and into southwest Ohio, it’s always been a challenge to keep people informed and engaged. We’ve implemented, among other things, quarterly town halls. It takes more than two weeks to drive to every location which is a big-time commitment. But it’s a favorite time. When you get out in front of your team and see how energized they are and the commitment they have, it fills your bucket.

You cannot focus on your why enough. I’m always looping back to that when I talk with team members. This is the cornerstone of our internal engagement initiative. The world we live in – restoration – is very stressful and the potential for liability is high. We’re dealing with customers who are in distress. For us it’s all about responding quickly after something has happened – a flood, a fire, some other disaster – with professional care and expert work.

Identifying that ultimate goal and understanding that our people need support from leadership has lit a fire. Now everyone has bought into our mission. And this year our turnover rate has dropped to 20-25%.

BKB: Buy-in is critical to any organization’s success. What other strategies have you implemented toward this alignment?

JH: Training and team building have made a big impact. We subscribe to True U for personal and professional development. We select courses that align with our values that are delivered in-person or online, so any team member can participate. Providing this has put action behind our words, our commitment to develop our people.

Professional certifications are obviously important, and a given for hiring. We’re rolling out an internal development plan soon that focuses on time management and growing toward another role to keep people motivated and address retention. Quarterly engagement surveys have shown us to be one percentage point below “highly engaged.” Since we’ve paid attention to our culture, the data we’ve collected based on tenure and job function shows that people hired are much more engaged.

The creation of our Culture Crew has provided a sounding board that keeps people in the field connected. It consists of 10 people – one from each location representing cross-functional roles, led by our HR director. I don’t participate intentionally to give them space. It’s been great! They’ve become champions as to how we do things.

The use of Ohana, a phone app that is an easy way for people to get to know one another, is another strategy for team building. We have a younger workforce, so this works well. People give “high fives” and share family photos; it gets at our personal side.

BKB: What motivates you as a leader?

JH: Having a platform to influence people’s lives is a lot of responsibility. But I truly feel a calling to take care of 135 people who spend more time with us than they do their own families. This is a key motivator. At the end of the day, life is short. You can build into people or you can deplete them. On my deathbed what am I going to care about? That I sent a handwritten note to someone who needed encouragement, or the bottom line?

Read more about how Hays+Sons takes care of its customers at

And join us next time to learn from Michael Huber, CEO of Indy Chamber.