Phil Cohen is the founder and CEO of Cohen Architectural Woodworking, one of the most successful small businesses in the U.S. Though he runs a thriving business, Cohen's path to success wasn't easy. He faced a difficult upbringing, growing up in a Jewish home in the Chicago area right after World War II. He went to synagogue with people who had spent time in concentration camps, and he saw a dark side of people.
"I just saw a lot of violence," said Cohen. "The solution to everything was violence, suicide, drugs, alcohol, sex, numb yourself with TV."
Cohen's father spent a lot of time in and out of mental hospitals, and the toll of seeing those close to him struggle eventually led Cohen down the wrong path. Growing up in the 1960s and '70s, Cohen became a teenager and young adult during the hippie era. According to Cohen, he fit into the culture, but he too often took his decision-making to the extreme.
"Even the hippies thought I was wild," he said. "I probably did about 300 hits of LSD over a three-year period. I was homeless and hitchhiking and wandering around – just really lost and broken inside."
In addition to using LSD, Cohen said he was shooting heroin, smoking marijuana and even tried witchcraft to find a sense of peace. In short, he was struggling.
While Cohen wasn't looking for God, he says he had an encounter with a higher power in 1974 that changed the path of his life forever. After the encounter, Cohen made restitution with those he'd wronged earlier in his life. Once he made amends, he started to get on with the next chapter of his life. He got married in 1976 and started woodworking. That leads us to Cohen's next chapter.
Finding his purpose
"It was just therapeutic," Cohen said of woodworking. "I was building porch swings in birdhouses in a neighbor's pigpen."
Yes, Cohen, the SBA 2017 Missouri Small Business Person of the Year, started his woodworking career working alongside pigs. He found so much joy from woodworking that he was willing to do it just about anywhere. Despite the unusual circumstances, Cohen found a hobby that brought some peace to his life. He continued woodworking in this strange setup before turning his passion into an official business in 1982. By 1986, he was working for major contractors. Unfortunately, things took a negative turn once again.
His father committed suicide during a rough time in Cohen's life. He was in a religious cult that prevented members from showing their emotions. Understandably, his emotions started boiling over. He was diagnosed with severe manic depression in the mid-1990s and experienced suicidal thoughts.
He was able to find peace again when went on a trip to Nicaragua and spoke with a missionary from the area, whom Cohen had previously read about. The missionary told Cohen that God was going to heal him one day. While Cohen was extremely skeptical, he vowed to make his purpose healing others if he did ever receive healing from God. After digging into the Bible and surrounding himself with others of similar faith, Cohen felt that he had been healed. This belief and faith led to his unusual hiring practices at Cohen Architectural Woodworking.
Building a culture
Many of Cohen's current employees have similar pasts to his. He hires people with past issues with drug addiction or alcohol abuse. He believes he can help other people better their lives by giving them an opportunity to be around like-minded individuals who want to improve as people. Cohen helps heal others through his business.
"We look for a strong work ethic, a willingness to work on your character, a spirit of gratitude and a feeling of mutual admiration," he said. "They look at me and go, 'I can't believe this guy hired me,' and I look at them and go, 'I can't believe this guy wants to work for me.'"
He looks for employees who are willing to respect each other and appreciate what others bring to the table. His hiring criteria provides a good starting spot for other small businesses. Sometimes, the best employees are those who are good team members, even if they don't initially possess all the skills in a job description. You can train someone to do tasks, but you can't teach a good work ethic or strong character.
"Our plant manager, who's almost our chief operating officer, he just came out of drug rehab when he came to work for us," Cohen said. "He came to us a laborer, and he's gradually worked his way up, but we never let his past – or his lack of resume – be a limitation in how he could advance."
This lesson can help all small businesses trying to make the most out of their talent. Don't limit employees based on their previous experience. If someone wants to learn a new skill or take on new responsibilities, seriously consider giving them the opportunity to explore those passions. That helps build an excited workforce. Cohen's experience also shows that you shouldn't discredit employees based on personal transgressions.
Drawing a line
Building a sustainable culture means you must set boundaries. While Cohen brings in employees with checkered pasts, he sets clear rules for how his company's culture works. This helps him add stability to the lives of his employees, and it ensures the company maintains the culture he has spent decades building.
"We have four D's in our culture that'll get you fired – drama, drugs, defects, and dishonesty – and that can get you fired instantly," Cohen said.
Cohen compares his business to a sanctuary. He considers woodworking therapeutic, and his rules help create a safe environment for everyone involved. By removing drama and dishonesty, he creates a place where employees feel valued and respected. This allows them to start overcoming their inner demons and integrating into the workforce.
Another aspect of limiting drama is the company's 24-hour rule. If you have an issue with a fellow employee, you have 24 hours to resolve it. Cohen's team doesn't remove drama by bottling up issues every time something arises; instead, they hash it out respectfully in a timely manner and put the issue to bed. These rules help set the culture.
Sustaining the culture
Phil Cohen (left), CEO of Cohen Architectural Woodworking, works on a project with his son, COO Ben Cohen. The company sustains its unique culture by hiring people who fit into the work environment, rather than bringing in employees with the flashiest resumes. Credit: Photo courtesy of Cohen Architectural Woodworking
After building a peaceful culture that the employees cherish, Cohen doesn't have to do as much as he did in the early years to maintain the culture. He says the employees are the "guardians" of the culture, as they don't want to lose their place of refuge. Once your business builds its culture, your loyal employees will help maintain it.
To find loyal employees willing to help maintain a strong culture, you need to entice candidates with benefits beyond the paycheck.
"You've got to look for value beyond money," Cohen said. "You've got to look for currency beyond money that you can give people, because if money is the only thing you have, money is limited, and money doesn't satisfy. Part of the currency is that you care for people, and they know you care about them, and they know you're transparent, they know that you've got their back."
The bottom line
Cohen Architectural Woodworking knows what it is. It's a faith-based business that makes phenomenal products and is willing to give employees second chances. Your business doesn't have to be a faith-based operation to follow many of Cohen's guiding principles. Any small business owner should be excited about the idea of building a successful business culture.
By thinking outside traditional staffing norms, Cohen has built one of the most successful small businesses in the U.S. When hiring, you don't need to look exclusively at candidates who have the highest GPA or come from the most prestigious universities. The best hires might not have the flashiest resumes, but previous experience that outlines their willingness to get better and work hard.
Hiring is difficult, and it's a crucial part of building a strong culture within your business. It might be worth taking a page out of Cohen's playbook by looking for candidates with strong character who fit best into your operation. Just because someone has an impressive title attached on a line of their resume doesn't mean they'll be the best fit at your company. Hiring for fit can help you create an impressive business culture.