The Importance of Passion, Brevity, and Rotten Fish

Fern Manser on the lessons that shaped the leadership ideals she wants to leave behind at the Napoleon Group

“An elephant’s faithful 100 percent. That’s my code, my motto,” says the character Horton—himself an elephant—in the film adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s classic book Horton Hears a Who! Many executives also follow mottoes or guidelines that have helped them pave the way to their success. Fern Manser is one of them.

Manser leads global purchasing for fireplace manufacturer Napoleon Group—a $500 million business experiencing an average annual growth of 15 percent. She draws upon experience at top companies in various industries to make a lasting impact. Manser—who hopes to retire at Napoleon—is doing all she can to create the set of processes that will prepare the company for the future. Here, she shares the top four insights that guide her approach.

1. Follow your passions

Although Manser now serves as one of Canada’s top purchasing executives, she didn’t set out to work in the field. Initially, she started in urban planning, and had enrolled in York University’s urban planning program. But during her co-op, she realized urban planning was a bad fit for her personality. “I’m very collaborative and I love to work on teams,” she explains. “Most urban planners work in siloed government agencies and deal with nonstop bureaucracy.”

Manser took a part-time position with a small company where leaders asked her to complete orders from cards and deduct inventory manually. When she was able to help save that organization dollars and cents—when she saw her direct impact—Manser was hooked. She accepted a full-time job at the company, and the rest is history.

About a year later, Manser left for a job as a purchasing manager with PepsiCo and spent the next thirty years moving into larger roles with more responsibilities in bigger companies. She’s developed a well-rounded profile as she’s changed industries: from food, to healthcare, to grocery, to textile, to automotive. “I’ve done a bit of everything in this line of work,” she says, “but the common thread is my passion for what I do. I’ve hung onto that since discovering its importance at the very beginning.”

2. The fish rots from the head down

Many of Manser’s leadership philosophies come from the time she spent working for Japanese automotive giants Nissan and Toyota. She adopted the saying, “The fish rots from the head down” from her president at Nissan, who was tasked with leading the revival of a financially troubled company. Good leadership and a series of cost-cutting measures helped take the manufacturer from red to black.

Bad leadership, she says, would have been its certain demise. “If the head of the fish is bad, the whole fish dies,” says Manser. “You’re not going anywhere without good leaders.” The time also taught Manser that an effective leader must get into the trenches with their team and be willing to do a fair share of the dirty work. Today, Manser eschews the term “boss” in favour of “leader” and does all she can to promote teamwork, honesty, and collaboration.

If the head of the fish is bad, the whole fish dies. You’re not going anywhere without good leaders.”

3. The one-sheet rule

You won’t find hour-long PowerPoint presentations or receive a binder of high-gloss photos and fancy graphics in a Japanese business meeting. Instead, leaders and executives use one simple sheet of A3 paper to organize and communicate their ideas. “If you can’t say what you need to say on one sheet of paper, you’re wasting everyone’s time and you better refine your idea,” Manser says.

While she might not be quite as strict at Napoleon, she does look to implement efficient systems and processes to keep up with the company’s 15 percent annual growth. She’s implementing new gate processes, a new scorecard system, and a new stocking system. Manser has set up cross-functioning teams, communicates clear key performance indicators, and facilitates monthly management meetings. The steps—each imported from other industries and companies—unite under Manser’s leadership at Napoleon to get everyone working toward one common goal.

4. Employees matter

In December 2015, about seven months after Manser joined Napoleon, eight hundred employees and leaders gathered at the annual Christmas party. She watched as the owners of the family business shook hands with each and every person present. “Employees make or break a company, and our owners understand that. We invest in our people,” says Manser.

At Napoleon, retention and respect are more than just lip service—they’re core tenets. In 2015, the company suffered after being too aggressive with its inventory in response to backorders. It held twice the stock required. While other companies would have started layoffs, Napoleon slowed production, cut temporary workers, and reassured full-time employees of their job security. The strong, debt-free company was able to weather the storm, and now, Manser and her peers have put in to place inventory teams and other steps to prevent the issue from arising again. Napoleon emerged stronger than ever, knowing that its long-tenured and talented new employees will drive results going forward.

In the wise words of Horton, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”