Building a Business by Recognizing Employees

Since joining the OPEN Forum team, I’ve had the chance to meet and hear from a number of members about building…
March 10, 2011

Since joining the OPEN Forum team, I’ve had the chance to meet and hear from a number of members about building their networks and enhancing their companies. Recognizing employees seems to be a key theme in the success stories.


I want to share the story of someone who went from losing his job when his company downsized and losing his home, to building a $6.5-million business based on recognizing and appreciating employees.


David Long founded Specialty Engraving in 1989 without planning to start a company. He had recently moved his family into his parents' home after his employer moved to another city and he lost his home. While driving home from one of a series of unpromising interviews, he stopped by a local real estate office and asked to meet with the person in charge of employee recognition.


“I’d done engraving early on in my career and thought I might be able to make at least a little money engraving agent-of-the-month plaques for them," he says. "I wasn’t expecting to get a meeting, but when I did, I came up with pricing on the spot. I got the order, and from there, I drove to the next real estate office and then the next. I just wanted to do some engraving to help pay the bills, while I searched for another job. After a few sales, though, I quickly abandoned the idea of another job.”


Today, David has 50 employees serving 10,000-plus clients for their employee-recognition needs, including restaurants, retailers, and assisted-living facilities. His business grew 22 percent in 2009 and 43 percent in 2010. And he attributes his success to, appropriately enough, recognizing and motivating his employees.

  • Training: “I buy books for all my employees and pay them to attend training on company time. And the training is not necessarily related to their jobs. It can be on personal financial management, which given how I once lost everything, is very important to me. If I can help them be better with money and happier outside of work, then they’ll be happier at work.”
  • Incentives:  “I’ve made every position an incentivized position. Two-thirds of their pay is salary; the rest is bonus.”
  • Rewards:  He rewards his top performers with an annual “Champion’s Trip.” Last year, he took them to Miami and then on a cruise through the Caribbean. After hitting a record $1 million in sales for October, he closed the company for a day and took his employees and their spouses on a shopping excursion, with $200 spending money for employees and $100 for spouses. (The photo above was taken at the team dinner on that trip.)

When you talk to David, you immediately sense that he’s passionate about his team and constantly looks to improve his leadership skills. His e-mail signature includes some of his favorite quotes, including one from Zig Ziglar: “You can have everything you want in life, if you will first help other people get what they want.”


And he constantly reads motivational and management books and newsletters for inspiration.  While we were working on this article, he forwarded me a column by motivational speaker and author Harvey Mackay about how to say thanks to your employees. That column concluded, “As a manager, you are only as effective as the people you supervise. These are not mere employees working for you; they are people who can find other places to work if they feel undervalued.”


My thanks to David Long (Cardmember since 1995) for sharing his story, which you can read more of on his Specialty Engraving blog.  And if you have a story you’d like to be considered for OPEN Forum, e-mail me at