No nonsense navigator – TEC’s Harry Dennis

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In the late 1960s, Harry Dennis was a distinguished Vietnam combat pilot, flying people, supplies and ammunition in C-130 cargo planes.
The military relied on Dennis to fly the difficult transport missions. And it relied on him to teach others how to pilot the C-130s in his other role as an Air Force pilot instructor.
Today, almost 30 years later, Dennis is still calling the shots, but under less stressful conditions as the head of The Executive Committee (TEC), a Brookfield-based organization which allows company executives to share ideas and advice in a non-competitive setting.
TEC member groups meet nine times a year for a full day with up to 16 other CEOs from non-competing industries. In those confidential settings, members exchange ideas and opinions, providing one another with the kind of direct, honest feedback they rarely receive within their own companies. The no-holds-barred discussions among TEC members require a thick skin; but it’s the kind of feedback they won’t get from senior managers, boards of directors or even family members.
The 550 CEOs who belong to 27 TEC chapters in Wisconsin and Michigan are like pilots in their own right, as they are responsible for getting their companies off the ground to reach their destination. And as Dennis did in Vietnam, he helps them get there, albeit in an entirely different manner.
As the head of TEC, Dennis is responsible for appointing chairmen to run the roundtable groups, and to give them the service and the tools they require to be successful. Each TEC group is run by an experienced business professional who ensures that the group functions smoothly, and that members receive full value for their annual investment of $6,180.
“Harry just has a passion for running a first-class organization,” says Jim Quinn, a Milwaukee psychotherapist who serves as a TEC chairman. “Everyone talks about good customer service, but I think Harry believes it right down to the soles of his feet. When you talk to Harry, one of things that always comes to the fore is ‘Are we providing the best possible service that we can to our TEC members?'”
The TEC chair also meets individually with each member for up to two hours prior to each TEC meeting to help explore problems and other issues. In effect, the chair serves as coach, confidant and personal advisor, and holds members accountable for plans and actions needed to move their companies forward. (Dennis also chairs his own TEC group.)
“One thing that I appreciate about Harry is that he’s got so many good contacts,” Quinn says. “If a TEC member has a need in a given area, he always knows the right person to talk to. He’s just dead-on with the leads he gives us.”
Since it was started here in Milwaukee in 1957, TEC has grown to become a worldwide organization with 5,500 members. The Wisconsin and Michigan TEC groups are separately owned by Dennis. TEC also has a division for smaller companies, which costs $350 per month instead of the standard rate of $515. Dennis also has a controlling interest in Executive Agenda, which is similar to TEC but has 250 managers who are not heads of companies. Based on the executive roundtable concept it originated, TEC has spawned a host of imitators.
The Milwaukee Road
How Dennis got to Milwaukee is a story in itself.
As the son of a career military man, Dennis was essentially following in his father’s footsteps. When he reported to Vietnam, by a twist of fate he served in the same squadron his father commanded in the late 1950s in Nashville, Tenn. But Dennis’ experience in Vietnam soured him on the military.
“It was a terrible war, and poorly executed,” says the 53-year-old Dennis. “My eyes opened up once I got there, and that clinched my decision to get out.”
Dennis enrolled in a doctorate program at Purdue University. General Motors Corp. agreed to pay for his education if he would perform a study of the automaker’s factory management styles.
Dennis’ doctoral thesis was based on the premise that if managers operated in archaic, outmoded ways, it would lead to higher employee turnover and poorer operating results. Dennis was able to prove in his thesis that those managers who used positive, enlightened management practices got better results for GM.
That led to a full-time job with GM upon graduation in 1974. But when he reported for his first day of work, he learned that his department had been eliminated. Fortunately for Dennis, he befriended Purdue business dean Frank Sturner, who was an original partner in TEC. Sturner recommended the out-of-work graduate student to TEC’s founder, Robert Nourse, who said that if Dennis wanted to come up to Milwaukee and start his own TEC group, he could.
That was 25 years ago, when TEC had 35 members. Today, the roster has grown to 550 members largely under Dennis’ stewardship. A separate worldwide TEC organization boasts more than 4,000 members. Yet, the concentration of TEC groups here is twice that of anyplace else in the world, with the strongest concentration in the Milwaukee area, points out Stan Grabarek, who chairs three TEC groups.
Dennis and another partner bought the business from Nourse in 1977. Twelve years later, in 1989, the original TEC split with the larger organization, and Dennis took over sole ownership in the two-state region. The concept remains the same.
“Even though we have some premier companies like Harley-Davidson and Briggs & Stratton, TEC really serves the small to mid-sized companies,” Dennis says. “If you are a manager and a CEO and you would like to know about virtually anything, one way or another, there is someone on the TEC circuit who knows about it.”
The model CEO
Dennis says today’s CEO needs to understand the difference between leadership and managing a business, and knowing when he or she needs to do one or the other. Dennis sees today’s CEO as more general in his or her approach, and less a linear thinker than the business owner of the past who was a tinkerer-craftsman first, and a manager second or third.
Dennis recalls that, in the 1970s, many heads of companies were not familiar with some basic management theories. They ran their companies by the book. That often meant that businesses were run with little or no flexibility.
“The autocratic way of running a business is definitely outdated,” Dennis says. “I think the younger, talented employee is not going to put up with an autocratic CEO or supervisor. The pasture is green – there are too many jobs out there.”
Today’s CEO must have a grasp of how to build and sustain a corporate culture, Dennis says. It also requires the ability to think “outside the box,” which is where a group like TEC comes in.
“The CEO of today is much more capable of getting out of the box,” Dennis says. “What it means is deviating from what you ordinarily think you should do to examine your business, its problems and opportunities, and how to better work with customers and vendors.”
Unless the business is highly technical, today’s CEO must have the ability to motivate his employees and to get them to work in a team environment, Dennis says. Today’s CEO needs to remain impartial, whether it’s in his dealings with his own employees or with outside vendors.
“I would say that integrity and personal business ethics and having strong character is number one,” Dennis says of the ideal traits a CEO should possess. “Next come excellent listening skills.”
Dennis’ management instincts were honed through his military experience which he says, makes it sometimes difficult to practice the egalitarian management style he preaches to his own TEC members. For that reason, he has a vice president of operations who has all TEC functions reporting to her.
“That’s my way of making sure that I get out of the way,” Dennis says. “I think that a lot of good TEC presidents do that. They surround themselves with people who can offset their own weaknesses. That’s the opposite of the way things used to be.”
One trend Dennis sees is that of the hands-on company owner who is strangling the life out of the business, who can’t let go and won’t delegate his authority.
“I’ve been approached by the kids,” Dennis says. “They say, ‘You’ve got to get my Dad to TEC, he’s holding us back. He thinks if he’s not doing everything, we’re going to fail.'”
Some business owners, Dennis says, don’t see the warning signs that they are losing their effectiveness. Those signs include a lower energy level than an owner once had. The danger is that the rest of the organization will pick up on the owner’s sagging energy level, and the business suffers. Other signs include flat or declining sales, key people leaving, high employee turnover and losing customers. These are all signs that a company needs a change in leadership or direction, Dennis says.
But fortunately for TEC and its members, Dennis remains solidly in control.
“He never gets involved with individual differences,” Grabarek says. “He just makes sure that people are being served. I’ve seen many instances where Harry will bend over backwards to help if someone is in need, even if it means taking extra time and money out of his own pocket.”
Adds Quinn: “He’s always looking for a way people can win in a situation instead of resorting to fingerpointing. He’s got a real sense of making sure everyone is as happy as they can be.”
April 1998 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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