The ServiceMaster Story: Navigating Tension between People and Profit

February 6th, 2020

Albert M. Erisman, Hendrickson Publishers (January 2020)

When the Business Roundtable announced, in August 2019, that businesses should no longer have a singular focus on profit, analysts asked: How do businesses deal with the “quick-buck” pressures from Wall Street?

One answer lies in The ServiceMaster Story. Between 1929-2001, The ServiceMaster Company, under five successive leaders, demonstrated value to all stakeholders by focusing on the development of its employees. Anchored by the Christian commitment of its five leaders over this period, the company started with its understanding of the value and dignity of workers, rooted in its first objective: “To Honor God in All We Do.” They gave priority to their second objective as well: “To Help People Develop.” Peter Drucker, noted business author, consultant, and academic stated that ServiceMaster was in the people development business.

During the 20th century, the company grew from a few people making their living in Chicago, to a publicly traded company with revenues of $6 billion in forty countries. For 29 years, revenue and profit grew every year, an unprecedented achievement by any measure. Over this time, the company faced recessions, market shifts, changing laws, changing leaders, and changing culture. Fortune magazine rated ServiceMaster as the number one company in the service business in both 1985 and 1995; The Financial Times rated ServiceMaster in its list of top 20 most admired companies in the world in 1998; Harvard Business School Professor James Heskett said, “ServiceMaster has broken the cycle of failure, and has basically reengineered jobs, provided training to people, and attempted to deliver a level of self-esteem that many workers have never had in the past.”

In 2001, the company went through a shift of emphasis under new leadership, with more focus on profit and less focus on the frontline worker. Declining results followed. Yet the ServiceMaster way continues today in many parts of the world and in many types of organizations, under leaders whose development took place at ServiceMaster.

In this well-researched book, former Boeing executive Al Erisman argues that the success of this company is due to its strong adherence to purpose beyond profits. ServiceMaster provides a strong case study, showing how meaning and purpose for all employees leads to success by other measures as well. In the case of ServiceMaster, frontline workers were janitors, pest control technicians, and lawncare people, often treated as low-cost labor by other companies.

From the early days, the foundations were deeply set.

“I was not asking for personal success as an individual or merely material success as a corporation. But I did try to build a business that would live longer than I would in the marketplace, that would be a witness to Jesus Christ in the way the business was conducted.”

—Marion E. Wade, Founder of The ServiceMaster Company

The ServiceMaster Story: Navigating Tension between People and Profit is available on Amazon and ChristianBooks.com

Media: Books