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Thank You, Ken Yerves!

Ken Yerves, Retired JM Family Executive“Leaders become great, not because of their power, but because of their ability to empower others.” – John Maxwell

In 2006, I got a call from a temp agency. They asked me if I wanted to interview for a company called JM Family Enterprises in Deerfield Beach, Florida. The company is currently  ranked No. 55  by FORTUNE® as one of the 100 Best Companies to Work For®, its 19th consecutive year on the list.

The agency wanted me to temp in JM Family’s Community Relations department for two weeks. I was told the company had hired someone already, but they needed a fill-in until their new person started. They told me this department was responsible for raising funds to support local charities. Without hesitation, I agreed to interview. How could a company who had a department dedicated to assisting the less fortunate be anything but wonderful? My gut feeling was 100% correct.

I worked in Community Relations for a few weeks, and they extended my assignment even after their new hire started. At the end of a month, the temp agency called to move me into the Procurement department. I agreed as there had been no more talk about extending my current assignment. Later, I was offered an extension, but I was already committed to Procurement.

I was sad to leave Community Relations. I loved the community aspect, and I learned a lot about JM Family’s charitable contributions. In my spare time, I read stories about the amazing things JM Family’s founder, Jim Moran, had done. I wanted to meet him and his wife, Jan Moran, because of the many ways they had positively impacted those around them. Not only did they write enormous checks to nonprofits, but they helped their own. I remember reading an article about how one of their associates was working in California and got really sick. The Morans flew their associate’s family out on one of the company’s private planes so he would not be alone. If I could not meet Oprah, I wanted to meet the Morans. I was determined to become a part of the magic I felt around me.

I spent a year in Procurement, hoping to find a job within JM Family. Here, I made friends and became a social organizer for our floor. I streamlined the position I was in, allowing management to create a better role. When they filled the position, they kept me on. I helped the department, as well as covered Southeast Toyota Distributors’ Accounting department when their admin was out.

JM Family is not the easiest company to join. I always lacked one required skill, or they hired from within. I wanted to work in events, communications, marketing, or philanthropy, but I was not having any luck, regardless of all the people around me trying to assist.

One night, I had an idea. While out with the Procurement folks, I voiced this crazy, half-baked idea. I announced I was going to go straight to the top and hand my resume to the CEO, Colin Brown. I am not sure if I was even serious or what came over me. The company was composed of 4,800+ people, and I was just a temp. Sure, I had met Colin on my first day in Community Relations, but seriously, would he remember me? Even as I spoke of my plan, the idea seemed far-fetched.

The guy whom I told this to, thought my plan was a good one, but it needed some modification. He told me I should reach out to Ken Yerves, one of JM Family’s executives. My response, “Why Ken?” For one, Ken made more sense because he headed up Human Resources. I was also told he would be more apt to hear me out. I thanked my co-worker for his advice, not really knowing if I was actually going to go through with my idea.

The seed had been planted, and one day, I took action. I composed a letter asking Ken for some of his time. I mentioned some of the reasons I was a great fit for the organization. I included my resume and professional compliments I had received at JM Family, as well as from my previous company. I found an article by Fortune or Forbes saying how finding talent was the biggest challenge for a company. In my letter I asked Ken, ‘If finding talent is a corporation’s biggest challenge, then why am I not working here?’ At the time, the cockiness of my 20s still lingered. I did not proof my letter or question my words. I wrote from passion. When I shared my letter, some people thought I had done a great job. Others thought my letter was a little too strong. Too late. I had already sent my packet directly to Ken. I knew I was taking a risk. I was either going to be called into Human Resources and sent packing, or I was going to meet with Ken.

Lucky for me, Ken’s assistant was really good friends with one of the women in Procurement. She called her friend to ask about me and only heard great things. She decided to pass along my letter to Ken. A few weeks later, I received a call from Ken’s office, and I got some time on his calendar. I was ecstatic.

I told my family and some close friends. They asked me what I was going to say. I told them I had no idea. And then reality hit. I asked to meet with one of JM Family’s executives, and I had no idea what I was going to ask for. I knew I could not ask for a job, as that was not the culture of the company. I knew I wanted an opportunity to show what I had to offer the departments I wanted to work for. I just was not sure what the opportunity looked like.

Everyone had advice for me. I was given interview questions and told to ask for a job and given all sorts of ideas on how to approach the meeting. Nothing felt right, and my head was about to burst. The cockiness I had exhibited in my letter was fading fast.

I called my friend, Andrew, who had started a company in his late teens and had since been a CEO of several corporations. He told me not to worry. He said Ken would most likely lead the conversation. He said to be myself, and everything would be okay. He said if he had received my letter, he would have been impressed and would have wanted to meet me. He said Ken would probably just ask me for my story, and take things from there.

While I waited for Ken, his executive assistant told me not to be nervous. I am not sure if I looked apprehensive or not, but the reality of what was about to happen hit me hard. I still had no idea what I was going to say.

When I met Ken, he was very welcoming. He told me he had been in Japan, and he was looking forward to meeting the person who had sent him this letter (as he picked it up from his desk). He asked me which jobs I had applied to, which I had interviewed for, and why I felt I did not get each job. I went through every opportunity and why I felt the position did not come through. He asked me what my salary was and what my expectations were. He fascinated me with stories about himself, and about when he first started at JM Family. Those stories are his to share, not mine.

He told me many have asked him to help them get a job at JM Family, but that is not how the company works. I knew he was going to take a chance on me. I also knew if he gave me this break, he expected me not to decline if the opportunity fell a little short of my expectations. He asked me if I wanted to continue to work in Procurement and keep looking for a position. I told him I had been using this strategy for a year, and I had not gotten anywhere. I knew if I got in front of the right people, I could prove my worth. I guess that is what I asked him for… an opportunity to be seen by the folks I wanted to work for.

Our meeting ended. I was not sure what would happen next, but I left impressed. I do not know many executives who would take time out of their busy schedules to meet with a temp. This was one of the reasons I was drawn to JM Family. This was the magic I experienced.

Shortly after my meeting, I saw the Procurement director’s phone light up with Ken’s name. When he looked at me, my gut told me Ken was inquiring about me. Was I legit?

I was moved into Corporate Communications, which was one of the departments I wanted to work in. The director was hesitant when she interviewed me. I did not have a communications or public relations background. In fact, she had turned my application away for this very reason a few months ago. She wanted to know why her manager asked her to interview me when I lacked experience. She explained the job, and she asked me if I felt I could do it. She told me if I could not, to let her know. Otherwise, I would not last two days, never mind two weeks. I knew I could, and I knew there was no room for error. I trained on Friday, and I started what I could do over the weekend. I knew I needed to come out strong. I had two weeks to prove myself as the director told me she had just hired someone.

Lucky for me, the person did not work out. The director hired me about a month later after JM Family experienced its saddest moment, the passing of Jim Moran. The way I worked showed her I may not have had the experience, but I had the talent and the drive. This was the start of almost a decade with the company before I moved back to Boston in 2015.

Although I had to prove myself, Ken opened the door for me. Today, I want to say thank you, Ken, for taking a chance on me. I am not sure if I ever got to express the gratitude I have always felt and will always feel towards you.

Check out my other blogs related to my time at JM Family:

Check out my JM Family pictures.

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