Why Our Business Is Built on Telling the Truth & Being Nice

In 1971, SanMar was founded on a shockingly simple belief: Tell the truth and be nice. 

After a particularly poor customer service experience with a t-shirt supplier, CEO and founder Marty Lott knew there was a better way of doing things—so he took it upon himself to try. “We always recognized that it was good business to do business with good people,” says Marty. “That’s what we thought of as corporate responsibility in the ’70s and ’80s.” 

Today, of course, corporate social responsibility has taken on a new meaning, with entire departments at companies, (including at SanMar,) dedicated to the cause. Despite SanMar’s commitment to ethical and sustainable business practices, Marty struggles with the idea of sharing the company’s accomplishments in this area. It can feel like bragging, he says. But he also knows that it’s too important not to share. It’s a way to celebrate the efforts of SanMar employees who are working toward these goals. And it’s also a way to be a resource for the industry, to share what metrics SanMar is tracking and what actions they are taking to use business to promote social good.

These values aren’t something Marty only talks about—he truly lives them out in the way he treats his employees. In nearly 50 years of business, SanMar has always paid above minimum wage. “When we can help people move along in their careers and help them feed their families, they want to do good work. It’s all part of building a good business.”

The company has weathered four recessions, including the 2008 crisis that saw businesses dismissing thousands of workers. But SanMar weathered these recessions without cutting back on staffing. Marty says that choice, while difficult, ties directly to his morals. “It’s a two-way street,” he says. “When you do good things for employees, they bring productivity and loyalty to the company. When employees enjoy what they do, they do it that much better.”

Being nice doesn’t just serve Marty’s employees—it helps SanMar thrive, too. “After the recession, we were able to grow the company through the next cycle much better than any of our competitors, because they had cut back on labor. When business started to improve, they couldn’t ramp up production as quickly as we could. We were able to take advantage of the upswing.”

Employees who’ve met Marty know just how much he cares. When he goes on site visits to distribution centers, he eats lunch with his employees, moving from table to table for feedback. “I like getting into the weeds and really finding out what’s working and what’s not working,” he says. “I ask three questions: ‘1) What do you like about SanMar?, 2) What do you not like about SanMar?, and 3) What do you think we could be doing better?’” It’s a set of questions that encourages truth-telling, and it’s offered a wealth of insight into how his company can improve. “The vast majority of our great ideas have come from customers or employees,” says Marty.

From day one, SanMar has put its people first. While “Tell the truth and be nice” might seem like an oversimplification of values, for Marty Lott, it’s the basis of his business. “It doesn’t cost anything to be nice,” he says. “My happiest and proudest moments at SanMar are when I see an employee connecting with a customer. That tells me that everything I’ve tried to build here has worked.”

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