A Kickass Approach to Building a Great Culture


By Michael Kerr

You have to admire a company that never does things half ass, whose entrepreneurial spirit is truly kickass, and whose marketing efforts occasionally have a smartass quality about them. These are the traits that not only flavor their culture, but also reflect the flavor of three of Kicking Horse Coffee’s blends: Kick Ass dark roast, Smart Ass medium roast, and Half Ass (with, naturally, half the caffeine).

The humble beginnings of Kicking Horse Coffee Co. Ltd. is reminiscent of Apple’s legendary beginning – the founders of Kicking Horse Coffee, Elana Rosenfeld and Leo Johnson, began selling coffee out of their garage in Invermere, British Columbia, in 1996. And as with so many success stories, the upstart company began with a clear vision of what it wanted to be once it was fully brewed. Wildly successful, naturally, but not just successful for the sake of being successful. They wanted to do things differently.

And different, they most definitely are. Kicking Horse Coffee became one of the first 10 companies in Canada to sign on with Fairtrade Canada, helping raise awareness and demand for Fair Trade Coffee (which guarantees a fair price be paid to farmers regardless of economic fluctuations). Their commitment to being a good corporate citizen goes much further: Kicking Horse Coffee purchases and brews only 100% certified organic coffee, strives to be environmentally sustainable, contributes to numerous conservation projects, and they contribute and participate in dozens of numerous local community initiatives.

A commitment to sustainability and larger goals helps fuel a sense of purpose that goes beyond mere profits, and contributes to a passionate following by customers and employees alike. And that passion spills over into their culture, where yet again, Kicking Horse Coffee strives to stand out from the herd.

When I sat down with Chris Wrazej, the Chief Operating Officer for Kicking Horse Coffee, you could sense his deep passion for the company’s culture. “But there’s no magic bullet,” he told me. “There’s not any specific things I could point to that are earth-shatteringly novel to our approach, yet it’s clear we’ve built a strong culture with very loyal, passionate employees. It starts with intentionality – we are very intentional about fostering a great workplace.”

It begins with Kicking Horse Coffee’s recruiting efforts – they treat potential recruits like VIP’s and strive to ensure they’ll first and foremost be a good fit for their culture. A newly renovated lounge space, employee wellness program, monthly catered staff meetings and a coaching approach to management all contribute to a strong culture and positive work environment.

“And we definitely have an element of fun in our culture,” Chris added. Fun job titles for some of the production positions include: Packaging Ninjas, Special Ops Agents, Stage Horses and Work Horses. The use of humor in their marketing, annual “fun days” for all the employees, which might include a rafting or hiking trip into the world-famous Bugaboos, or recognizing spontaneous “Powder Days” at Panorama ski hill whenever the hill hits the magic 20 cm powder mark, all help foster a spirit of fun and camaraderie.

Kicking Horse Coffee also emphasizes the importance of employee recognition. Their CRACK awards encourage employees to recognize each other with gift cards – CRACK being an acronym for celebrating random acts of kindness. And their quarterly RAVE award (Recognizing Actions, Values and Ethics) goes to the Kicking Horse Coffee line employee who best demonstrates a strong work ethic and behaviors congruent with Kicking Horse Coffee values.

Now I don’t want to be a smart ass about this, but this is definitely a kickass approach to business and workplace culture — and anyone who doubts that they can build an inspiring culture in only a half ass way must… be a real dumb ass. (Which, incidentally, has been rejected as a potential name for Kicking Horse Coffee’s next coffee blend.)

Michael Kerr is listed as one of Canada’s most in-demand speakers. A very funny motivational speaker and international business speaker, Michael’s company Humor at Work helps organizations leverage their humor advantage to create outrageous results.

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