Once upon a time, I thought culture meant opera and ballet and classical music. I also knew it was a word used to describe the differences between natives of different countries. I had no idea that I would spend later years working to develop positive company environments — also called cultures.

I am now a convert, and like all converts, I am missionary in my zeal. A tangible, inspiring, and managed culture is what separates the exceptional companies from the merely good. It is what turns success into significance.

It can be difficult to get the initiative going, and once undertaken, honing your company culture is a forever project. It takes time, money, and focus. It can't be faked and be successful.

Here's how one remodeler has begun his company's journey.

Big Picture Laverne Brubacher, owner of Menno S. Martin Contractor in Ontario, Canada, knew that defining and developing his company's already positive culture into words and actions was an important step. Brubacher wanted to free himself from making daily judgment calls while continuing and enhancing exceptional service delivery. As a well-run remodeling firm, Menno S. Martin had the systems to guide its employees in handling the routine challenges of their work. But those systems only go so far. Good judgment aligned with the company's vision, mission, and core values would be needed to make the many, often tough, decisions that were non-routine. And for all those things to align, the specifics had to be defined and understood by all.

Brubacher brought in a local facilitator who set up three major activities. The first was a full-day meeting with Brubacher and his two key managers to draft mission and vision statements.

Then they met with everyone in the company. They didn't share the work they had already done or the decisions they had already made. Instead, they asked for fresh perspectives from all employees.

Out of this careful and thoughtful work came the company's vision (“We will be responsive, innovative, trusted, and caring renovators”), mission (“We design and build comprehensive renovation solutions”), and values (Integrity, Stewardship, Care, Team Play, Encouragement).

They then met with the entire company to present what they had developed. “These were very aligned with the discussions and recommendations of all our staff, so there was buy-in,” Brubacher says.

Live it Now it was time to move on to the day-to-day applications of their culture — how they would live and work their beliefs.

“We focused on some of the dos and don'ts of our daily work,” Brubacher says. “We got great answers to some key questions like, How do we want the company to be known? What do we want our clients to say about us? What do you think we can do to improve our profitability? What could we do better? As you think of working at Menno S. Martin, what is most important to you about working here?”

Brubacher has invested between $15,000 and $20,000 in time and money to date and is enthusiastic about where the culture path is taking the company and the benefits it will yield for both the company and for himself as owner. That path should lead to an exceptional, values-based working environment for his personnel and outstanding service delivery for his clients. And that is a significant accomplishment indeed. —Linda Case, CRA, is founder of Remodelers Advantage Inc. in Fulton, Md., a company providing business solutions through a network of experts and peers. (301) 490-5620; linda@remodelersadvantage.com; www.remodelersadvantage.com.