Evangelist: CEO Is Fan of Total Quality Management

Article excerpt

James Truesdell is the guitar-picking, country music-crooning chief executive who runs Brauer Supply Co.

On weekends, you can see him in a cowboy hat, strumming for the recreational apple-pickers at Eckert's Farm.

Every other day of the week, he becomes a business-suited preacher for the concept of Total Quality Management.

Truesdell, 44, heard about the TQM concept at a 1991 seminar. He became a true believer after applying the lessons at his own 50-employee distribution company.

Now, he's written his own gospel on the subject, "Total Quality Management: Reports from the Front Lines," just published by Smith Collins publishing house in St. Louis.

TQM has been a big buzzword in American industry for the last few years. Boiled down, it means getting everyone in a company, from the president to the assembly line, to work smarter and improve the product.

There are surveys and committees and reports. All that leads some to conclude that TQM a big bureaucratic waste of time.

Truesdell testifies to the contrary.

Family-owned Brauer Supply Co. went into business 113 years ago by shipping parts for pot-bellied stoves to towns on the frontier. It evolved into a distributorship for heating and air conditioning equipment with seven locations around St. Louis.

Its 2,000 customers are contractors and companies that own buildings. Its warehouses stock 5,000 items. The job is to match the customers with the right equipment, then get it to the job site promptly.

Truesdell started his TQM program by surveying customers and employees, asking them to rate the company's performance.

He got immediate feedback. "The survey form doesn't fit in the envelope. End of survey!" wrote one customer, angry because the return envelope was too small - a quality problem.

But other replies helped Truesdell spot the company's strengths and weaknesses in filling customer orders and helping them find the right products.

The toughest part was to convince employees that the program wasn't a flash-in-the-pan from management that would quickly disappear. "I really had to explain what I was doing. People had a tough time grasping on," he said.

The results were a big help to people who deal directly with customers, Truesdell said. A touchier task involved getting each employee to focus on helping his "internal customer" - the other Brauer worker who was on the receiving end of the employee's work.

The process encouraged employees to talk to each other about ways to cut down errors and speed up deliveries. …