#BeBetter Podcast with Michael Kurland

How to Build a Lasting Company Culture That Transcends the Ordinary with DeLinda Forsythe

Active listening and empathy will foster future growth.

As the CEO and Founder of Innovative Commercial Environments (ICE), DeLinda Forsythe is an entrepreneur who is passionate about developing next generation leaders. In today’s show, DeLinda speaks about how her company creates space for her team to “transcend the ordinary” and grow into leadership positions through purposeful mentorship.

DeLinda Forsythe portrait

“Our people were different because our leadership strategies were different.”

—DeLinda Forsythe

Innovative Commercial Environments (ICE)

67. How to Build a Lasting Company Culture That Transcends the Ordinary with DeLinda Forsythe

Key Takeaways

  •  Create a personal brand based on ethics, integrity, consistency, and follow through.
  • Develop a lexicon, a language to define and sustain your organization’s growth.
  • Listening and mutual respect within your teams enhances the employee experience and improves retention.

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DeLinda Forsythe is a thirty-five-year executive and entrepreneur in the contract furniture industry. The most rewarding years started in 2006 when she founded Innovative Commercial Environments (ICE) from a spare bedroom. ICE is considered by many to be San Diego’s ‘most creative office furniture dealership. ICE has experienced unprecedented revenue growth to include being on the Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Company list 2014-2020; only four San Diego companies and 1.5% of US firms have achieved this recognition seven times. This accomplishment sent DeLinda on an eighteen-month research mission to understand WHY? Her research introduced her to the Conscious Capitalism movement and she shares her 15-year journey as an ethical entrepreneur as well as the insights of other conscious leaders in her first book Inspiring Generational Leadership: Your Guide to Design a Conscious Culture.

“If you don’t know where you’re coming from, how do you know where you’re going?”

—DeLinda Forsythe

Innovative Commercial Environments (ICE)

Podcast Transcription

Hello. I’m Michael Kurland, CEO, and co-founder of Branded Group, an award-winning facility, maintenance, and construction management company that services multi-site commercial properties such as retail, restaurants, health care facilities, and educational institutions. Welcome to the Be a Better Podcast. Each week I interview thought leaders from a variety of industries who will share their stories and the lessons they learn as they strive to be better for their clients, partners, employees, and their community. Are you ready to be better? Hello and welcome to another episode of the BeBetter podcast. I’m your host, Michael Kurland, joining me today, DeLinda Forsythe, CEO and founder of Innovative Commercial Environments and author of Best, the bestselling book Inspiring Generational Leadership. DeLinda, welcome to the show. Tell the audience a little bit more about who you are and what you do.

DeLinda Forsythe: Well, thank you so much, Michael for asking me to join you today. I was looking forward to this conversation as another fellow Southern California resident. I love to hear people doing great things for the business community, and I think your podcast happens to be one of those positive things that leaders in the Southern California region are doing for our community. I started ICE Innovative Commercial Environments, San Diego’s most creative office and hospitality furniture dealership in 2006. I was a single mother at the time. I had just met my now-husband, but at the time he was my boyfriend and he kept telling me, “Why are you putting up with so much abuse where you work?” He worked in compliance with MetLife, and worked for them for 37 years. The furniture industry is highly unregulated and my compensation was constantly changing and it was difficult to go on vacation because you’d come back and you’d lose clients because you weren’t there when they happened to call in and it was just really tough making a living. And as a single mother, my son was accepted into Georgetown and I knew that was going to be a really tough road if I didn’t take the chance and become an entrepreneur. So I started ICE in 2006 with the goal to help my son achieve his educational aspirations. I also started ICE because I wanted to create a workplace that I had always imagined but never experienced, and that the employees that I first attracted were young women with little to no work experience. As a matter of fact, my key employee, who’s been with me for 15 years now, is the daughter of my fitness instructor at the time. She’s now my bookkeeper, Marilyn, and Alysse has been with me for 15 years. She moved from receptionist to president in 2015. In 2020, with the COVID shutdowns, we couldn’t shut down ICE but I had made a choice to no longer go into the office because I’m over 60 and so is my husband. We were just really concerned about our health and we had been preparing Alysse for many years to take over ICE and we finalized our purchase sale agreement in February 2022. That’s kind of how we started ICE and it was in the beginning, it was just really about helping others and helping the younger generation. That was really the focus of ICESD, that’s why I started it. And how I started it is I started it from a spare bedroom. I had 20 years of experience in office furniture. I had a great reputation in San Diego. I had a lot of existing clients, but more than that, I had a brand, a personal brand that I am going to encourage your listeners to focus on and create a personal brand based on ethics, based on integrity, based on consistency, and follow through. Doing the right thing is a long-term strategy. A lot of business leaders. I was always in sales. A lot of salespeople think I’m trying to get that quick deal, but that’s not going to build your brand and it is not going to build your book of business, and it’s not going to serve you well for the long run. So that’s kind of how I started ICE.

Michael Kurland: Well, that’s a great story. I love everything you just said. I have a lot of questions and I have a lot of similarities. So let’s start with what you said most recently, which is personal branding, and I cannot agree with you more. When I came out to Southern California to the Anaheim area and started running a group in 2014. All I had was my name. I had a bunch of other clients, as you said, that were willing to, you know, take a chance on a startup company. But all I had was my name, and I had one shot to do it right. And if I messed up with being unethical or having a lack of integrity, which are kind of the same thing, right, then I was going to lose those clients. So we’ve always run our company on the highest standards of ethics and integrity. That honesty and integrity are two of my mainstays. I can’t operate even in my personal life. I can’t operate without those. If I can’t be honest, on a two-way street, it’s very difficult for me to maintain a relationship with someone. So I do echo your sentiments to the audience if you do want to start your own company and I hope that if you’re listening to this podcast that a lot of you do that your personal brand is what you have. It’s like your credit score, right? You have nothing else in this world because banks look at you as a number. Write your credit score. You’re either 750 or you’re 520. And if you’re 520, you need to work on getting back up to 750 or you’re just, you know, not good enough, right? So that just, you know, with some synergy that you got me thinking of there. But I wanted to talk about a couple of other things you said. You said you’re the most creative office furniture. So what does that mean? And how do you get awarded that to talk about that? What are you doing to become the most creative?

DeLinda Forsythe: Well, that’s a great question because there’s not like a real award, there are a few caliber awards. Right from the beginning, my background was dance and I’ve been a very creative person all my life. That’s why I was so attracted to the office furniture industry because we’re creating these beautiful spaces. Our higher purpose statement at ICE is to “create space to transcend the ordinary.” What we do for a living is create beautiful office spaces for our customers, and for their employees to transcend the ordinary. As important to us is the safe, emotional space that we create at ICE for our employees to transcend the ordinary. So it’s always been a driver for us. We did not have a differentiating product, Michael, until 2018. We actually had all the same furniture options that everybody else did, but being very creative, years ago, I’m going to say 2012, maybe I started introducing hospitality furniture into commercial spaces, residential furniture into office spaces. And there’s a word that came out about 2015 called “resi-mercial”, and it’s the blending of residential and commercial, “resi-mercial” spaces. And we had won some caliber awards that are awarded for Southern California, for the most creative spaces. We have definitely won some of those awards. But I look at why we are the best? Why do I consider us the most creative? It’s who hires us. It’s commercial real estate developers like Kilroy, like Alexandria Real Estate, like the Irvine Company that can work with any furniture dealership but they’re looking to create very unique spaces. And they’ve tried other dealers and they’ve stuck with us for many years. Some of those developers took us ten years to develop a relationship with them for us to be their go-to. And that really served us well during 2020 when no one was going into the office or buying office furniture. We actually had an 8% revenue growth in 2020. We had zero employee layoffs. And it’s because of these relationships that we had with developers. This is a great time for them to improve their amenity spaces. And amenity spaces are where people gather. The gathering spaces in an office complex or in an office environment. So there was that and then also I say that because we actually created our brand of furniture, custom furniture in our industry and the office industry. You don’t want to spend a lot of time creating. And to do that kind of customization, because we weren’t aligned with the major brand, we have that ability for many, many years to fine-tune our customization and I developed, and you can see it on our website and developed my own line. We’re not making it anymore. It is just so expensive. It’s made with an I-beam. So the I-beam housed all the electrical in it. So this is a big industrial I-beam with all the electrical. And then we have these height-adjustable desks that we pull up with live edge wood. So very organic. What you would see in nature and people loved it, you know, how popular breweries are, how you were talking about liking to go to breweries. We called it brewery-inspired office furniture and start-ups loved it. And we did really well with that line. It just turned out it’s just really expensive I-beams, you know, like, yeah, no one can afford that these days.

Michael Kurland: So, you mentioned when we were talking that you did come up with a differentiating product in 2018. Is that what you were talking about?

DeLinda Forsythe: Oh, no, 2018. We aligned with Teknion. Teknion is a national- I’m sorry, it’s a global manufacturer. And they are one of the top four or five largest office furniture manufacturers in the world. And they chose us as their San Diego partner in 2018. We’re the only Teknion dealer in San Diego. So now we have a really differentiating product and now we’ve grown so much since then. It’s just incredible because a lot of larger firms, really big firms, want a national brand. So when you go to buy a car, you can buy a Kia or you can buy a Tesla. Tesla’s brand is very different from the Kia brand. And so now we’re attracting customers that would buy a Tesla. Before we only really had clients that were more toward Kia. Does that make sense?

Michael Kurland: Totally makes sense. I love the car descriptions and examples. I’m a big car guy. So that. Okay, so you mentioned one other thing. You had your receptionist and now she’s the president of your company. Did I hear that correctly?

DeLinda Forsythe: You sure did.

Michael Kurland: Yeah. And okay, so that’s great because at Branded Group we do the same thing. I have my administrative assistant from when we first opened in 2014. She’s now the accounting manager. I have another administrative assistant that I’ve promoted to the I.T. Manager, you know, obviously over the course of time. And you know, we’re all about bringing our people up and, you know, getting them to where they want to be inside a brand. So I really love that story. But then you mentioned a sale agreement. I wasn’t following that. Is that you sold a portion of the company to her. And now she’s a part-owner? Is that what I’m understanding?

DeLinda Forsythe: Well, I still have 100% ownership of ICE and Alysse, let me take you back just a little bit. In 2008. Alysse joined my firm as a full-time college student and a full-time employee. She’s going to Cal State’s San Marco’s background in her major was accounting. And we really thought she was just going to be with us for four years while she got her accounting degree. And then after she graduated, she really loved the industry. She’s a natural. She’s the most gifted individual I’ve ever seen in the office furniture industry. And she’s 35 now. She’s been with me for 15 years. So these 15 years, I’ve been working with her, mentoring her. But the reason I wrote Inspiring Generational Leadership is that we co-created the leadership strategies together with the millennial input we had, not just Alysse and not just me. My husband ended up retiring from MetLife and joining us as COO. And then we had other young millennial women in leadership roles at ICE that were giving us this input, like, Hey, we want to work from home. Let’s go with 2015 or maybe 2014. We want to work from home. And we thought, well, that’s really crazy. There’s no way you guys are going to be walking your dogs and doing your laundry because, you know, that’s what I would do. And they said, no, I think this is what young people want. They want this flexibility. So we implemented that policy and best forward to 2020. Right. We were all set up. Everybody was working from home. That was a standard policy for us that had been implemented for at least five years or maybe six years at that point. So that’s why I say that with all these things that we did intuitively, Michael, working with millennials, aligning with their values and their desires, and crafting corporate policies based on their input that we necessarily didn’t. Boomers don’t necessarily agree with a lot of the ideals of the millennials, you know, and there’s sometimes conflict. Often there can be but there never was in our company because there was so much mutual respect. We respected them and they respected us for our wisdom. And there was a lot of I mean, it’s not that we agreed on everything, but we always agreed to respect each other. At the end of the day, we would, you know, honor whatever was negotiated. And most of the time, we listened to them and did what they wanted, but not every time. But I would say most of the time, because there were some good ideas, even if we didn’t even if we had never experienced them in our careers because like my I’m 65, my husband’s 67. So, you know, we came from a different era than a, you know, a 20-year-old or a 30-year-old or 40-year-old, very different era. But we liked their ideas. You know, we’re like, oh, even we didn’t like their ideas. We were like, Well, let’s give it a shot.

Michael Kurland: Yeah.

DeLinda Forsythe: You don’t know what you don’t know.

Michael Kurland: Yeah, I can. So I can relate to what you’re saying as well. We started in 2014 Branded Group and I had come from another place that was very hard against working from home. You had to be in the office to be productive. And that was the mindset. And, you know, that former company employed a lot of single moms who were running around to try and get their kids to daycare on time, to get to the office on time and just creating so much extra anxiety and these women’s lives that were already full of anxiety by trying to raise a child by themselves. And then I started the company. We were successful for the first two years, and then we started testing it out because some of my former employees weren’t my employees. But, you know, work coworkers were coming to me now saying, hey, you started a company, I want to work for you. And I was saying, okay, well, and, you know, you’d have to work for. Home. And so we tested it out. And to your point, I do think they are walking the dog. I do think they are doing their laundry, but they’re still getting everything done. So I don’t care. Do you want to walk your dog for a 15-minute break or a 20-minute break? Have at it. You want to do your laundry in between phone calls. Go for it, you know, just make sure you get your stuff done. At the end of the day, that was always my mentality. And guess what? When 2020 hit Branded Group, the same thing. We were already in the Cloud. We already had a, you know, 30% remote workforce. And we just were fully remote right off the bat and away we went. And it was great because it allowed us to carry through what was a very tough time for a lot of companies, as you know. And we were able to seamlessly transition and still, you know, they always ask you, what will you do in a disaster plan? That’s one of the biggest questions our clients ask, because if there was a disaster at your office and it caught on fire, what would you do? And I always would say, well, we’re you know, we’re Cloud-based. We are able to go remote within a 24-hour turnaround and we actually got to put that disaster plan into effect. And it didn’t affect any of our business whatsoever. So I really appreciated what you’re saying and really aligned with it. So but you gave me such a good segue that I don’t want to waste that segue where you started talking about Inspiring Generational Leadership. Your book, so a bestselling book on Amazon. Let’s talk about your book. Let’s talk about all of the accolades that it’s won and tell the audience a little bit about what it is.

DeLinda Forsythe: Well, it’s something that in 2019, I was trying to figure out why I had been so successful. As I mentioned, we didn’t have a differentiating product until 2018 to get these really big projects. We get really big projects now, but yet we are growing. Revenues were growing so much every single year, 62% was our lowest growth and 150% our highest growth from 2014 to 2020 and 2019. As the CEO, it’s really knowing that I’ve got a shelf life I’m going to be leaving in the next few years. That and everything I was doing for so many years was intuitive and I did not have a language, a lexicon to explain why we were so successful. So I thought, I need to figure this out because if you don’t know where you’re coming from, how do you know where you’re going? And it was really important to understand it, and it started as an internal document, really. I started doing this research. I was introduced to the Conscious Capitalism book, the movement, the theory, and the organization. It’s a global organization with something like 36 chapters globally. There’s one in Los Angeles, and one in San Diego, as we talked about. There may be one in the neighborhood where your listeners are tuning in. There may be one in a city close to them. And I connected with this movement and these tenets. There are four tenets of conscious capitalism: the corporation exists not necessarily for profit, but it has a higher purpose. And that purpose is to elevate humanity, that there’s a higher purpose to the existence of your business. I guess my higher purpose was creating a safe space to transcend the ordinary, the higher purpose that you have conscious leadership, conscious culture, and that all stakeholders are integrated, which means that your employees are as important as your customers. Your customers are important, as important as your vendors and your banker and your community and the environment too. The environment is that all stakeholders are integrated and they’re equal, not just shareholders. So those were the four tenets and that really resonated with me. So I started studying conscious capitalism. I joined the CCI, the senior leader network, and joined a mastermind group in 2020 to really do a deep dive and understand these principles and how they aligned with our intuitive leadership strategies. And I started writing the book. It’s a how-to guide. Its full name is Inspiring Generational Leadership; your guide to designing a conscious culture and it’s a how-to guide. So it’s how to create this same type of workplace in your place of business. That’s kind of why I wanted to do it. And I wanted to, I learned the values of the millennial generation and the Gen Z generation right behind. They have the same values and are in complete alignment with the values of conscious capitalism.  That’s why we were doing so well and attracting this talent and retaining talent so well. It wasn’t our people that were different. I mean, sorry, it wasn’t our products that were different. It was our people that were different. And our people were different because our leadership strategies were different. I Care for people. We weren’t losing any of our customers because we had such a high level of customer service. That’s what I figured out through those two years of research that resulted in this how-to guide. And it really is a 15-year case study of ICE, a company that has had measurable societal and financial success because of these leadership strategies that we co we co-created together with our coworkers. It was not just a top-down, it was a top-down, bottom-up, and peer-to-peer mentorship as it is in our DNA. We mentor just intuitively with each other peer to peer. Everybody loves that because it makes people feel like they belong like they’re valuable and that they’re cared for by their coworkers. We’re not a workplace for everybody. It’s not going to fit everybody. You know, some people like to gossip. You know, some people can only see the bad in stuff. What we’ve found is those people, it’s not the leadership that pushes them out, their coworkers push them out because they just don’t want to hear it. You know, we’re here to do a great job, have some fun, enjoy what we’re doing, and feel good about ourselves. We pay very well. We have great benefits. Right from the beginning, we had a 401k plan that was matching even when we weren’t, you know, we were a brand new start-up and we implemented that. My husband’s idea. Even though he wasn’t part of ICE until maybe 2014, he was always in the background helping us with these Fortune 500 policies. So that was why I started writing IGL. And then I hired a great writing coach. I hired a team to help me get that book to an Amazon bestseller in five categories. When it launched in October 2021, it was a pre-launch, and then it was available on Amazon in February 2022. And I actually gave a free book excerpt that my goal really, Michael, is to help leaders understand how important these principles are. So chapter one is completely free. You can download it from my website. We’ll talk about that later. But chapter one is Conscious Capitalism, Millennials, and an Evolving Perspective. And it just gives you the reasons why you want to adopt these principles and then the number one driver for me, if I was a leader of a startup or a seasoned Fortune 100 company, is the Great Resignation. People are resigning. People don’t want to work at companies where they’re not, you know, they’re not treated well. So the cost of turnover can be 33% out of an employee’s annual income to two times, Gallup said, indicating that it’s two times an employee’s annual salary to replace that person. So you’re saying all the other individuals that you’ve promoted internally, you’re retaining those people? That is a really smart business strategy and leadership strategy.

Michael Kurland: Well, DeLinda, you talked about so much there. And one thing that I wrote down because it resonated with me is caring for people, caring for people. And, you know, there are many different ways to say this kind of thing. But when you take care of your people, they will take care of your customers. And that’s what I learned as well. Our retention rate, when I’ve talked about it ad nauseum, the audience is probably rolling their eyes right now saying, oh, he’s going to talk about the retention rate again. But it is so important we have a 95% retention rate. It dipped down at the beginning of COVID 2020 because unfortunately, we did have to furlough some people, but we brought back everyone as fast as we could because we just didn’t know what we were running up against. And we had everyone back before the end of the year, the end of 2020, everyone that we could get back and we now sport a 95% retention rate after COVID and we had a 95% retention rate going into COVID. And I think, you know what you said about conscious capitalism, and for the audience, if you don’t know and we’ve talked about it before on other shows, it’s written by John Mackey, Wholefoods, founder, and to DeLinda’s point, the formula for tenets, and it’s just it sets you on the right course. And I read that book in 2015, and that’s when we came up with the Be Better program. That’s when we came up with, you know, we have an internal rewards program and we also have the One-For-One program. It’s called the Be Better Program, and we have a One-For-One program where we donate at this point a meal for every work order that we complete. And that is all derived from everything I’ve read in the Conscious Capitalism book. So again, if you guys are starting your own company out there, you’re thinking about starting your own company. There are three books you need to read. There is Inspirational, Inspiring Generational Leadership by DeLinda. There’s Conscious Capitalism by John Mackey. And then there’s my book that’s coming out in July, but we’ll talk about that on another so, so shameless plug.

DeLinda Forsythe: I love it.

Michael Kurland: So, DeLinda, it’s been great having you on the show. If the audience wants to get a hold of you, how can they do so?

DeLinda Forsythe: They can email me at delinda@delindaforsythe.com or go to my website, delindaforsythe.com and that’s D-E-L-I-N-D-A-F-O-R-S-Y-T-H-E. So email or just go to my website. Download that free book excerpt, put your information in there, and ask to be contacted. I’d love to have a conversation with your listeners and if there’s anything I can do to help them in their careers and guide them as entrepreneurs. I, as you can tell, I love mentoring people.

Michael Kurland: Awesome. Well, thanks to DeLinda for coming to the show and the audience until next time. Thank you for tuning in. I hope that today’s episode inspired you to become a purpose-driven leader in your career or your community. There’s no doubt that when we lead with purpose, we can change lives. If you enjoyed today’s show, I’d be grateful if you would take a moment to rate us on your preferred listening platform. To learn more about Branded Group’s be a better experience and how we provide industry-leading, on-demand, facility maintenance, construction management, and special project implementation. Visit us at www.branded-group.com. Be sure to follow us on social media and you can also reach out to me directly on LinkedIn. Until next time, be better.

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