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Champions of great company culture

Generations of happy, productive people drive Champion, Inc.’s success

This is the third story in a series featuring UP companies that are finding innovative ways to build a strong internal culture. Read our other company profiles here.

Steve Verrette (left) with his father, Bill (right)

Iron Mountain, MI (April 7, 2021)  In 1971, Bill Verrette took the company reins from his father and became president of Champion, Inc. During his tenure, a lot changed. The “little company with only gravel to sell” grew into a multi-divisional business. Fifty years later, at 81 years old, Bill still comes to work each day—but he has a new title.  As Keeper of the Culture, he focuses on maintaining Champion’s core values of history, family, and a positive company culture.

When Bill’s son Steve stepped up as Chairman/CEO of Champion, Inc. about four years ago, it was the culmination of a slow and thoughtful transition. Over the space of ten years, Bill identified Steve, CFO Dan Wentarmini, and President/COO Steve Alexa as the next generation of leadership. Each year he’d hand off a bit more work to them, always sure to reinforce the company’s history, legacy, and values. 

“It was a very intentional transition,” Steve Verrette notes. “Keeping the torch lit as we pass it from one generation to the next is very important to the family and to the company. We’re grounded in our history.” 

The gradual transition resulted in a seamless transfer of leadership for Champion’s 400 full-time employees and 700+ contractors and part-timers.  

As much as the Verrette family values the past, they also continually look towards the future. Each year the staff spends a week to ten days developing an annual business plan. All employees at every level of the company are welcome to share their input. The creation of the yearly plans is guided by Champion’s regularly updated three-year vision. Verrette says that practice of soliciting multiple opinions even extends to Champion’s leadership model. 

“With our triangle of leadership—Dan, Steve, and me—no one makes a solitary decision,” says Verrette. “We figure out the best path to take as a group then we all support and promote it.”

Today Verrette maintains the culture and traditions his father established. He loves to spend as much time in the field as he can since “that’s where the good stuff happens.” When he’s at the office, he and the rest of the leadership team have a strict open-door policy. 

“I know everyone says they do it, but we really mean it,” Verrette explains. “I never shut my door. Anyone can come into my room and have a conversation, whether it’s personal or work-related.” 

Although he acknowledges it’s nearly impossible, he genuinely wants everyone to be happy. That’s why the company also encourages a flexible work-life balance and looks for opportunities to bring some fun to the workplace. Each year, during a two-week period, everyone who walks through the door must be prepared to navigate the Wii ski jump game. There’s also the annual fall beanbag tournament, and spirit weeks with office-wide themes like pajama day, plaid day, crazy hair day, and Christmas color day. 

But the foundation of Champion’s welcoming, family-centered culture is rooted in tradition. That’s where Bill Verrette comes in. Verrette says that his dad’s job as Keeper of the Culture isn’t just honorary. 

“He meets with new hires to explain where we came from, what we’ve done and where we’re going,” says Steve. “He keeps that knowledge ever present, so we remember what’s important and so we don’t repeat our past mistakes. My dad has a vast wealth of knowledge that’s free for the picking, whether you’re inside or outside the company—all you have to do is ask.”

About Champion, Inc.
Throughout nearly 100 years of business, Champion, Inc. continues to strive for and attain the ideals first set forth by its founders. With careful guardianship, the little company that started out with only gravel to sell has developed into a multi-divisional company.

About InvestUP
InvestUP is a private sector-led economic development organization keenly focused on driving economic growth across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Founded by the region’s leading private sector businesses and the region’s universities, its mission is to deliver business and job growth across the peninsula.

As a part of our commitment to the Upper Peninsula, we collaborate with partners to share some of the most compelling stories about business and job growth across the region. Our goal through these stories is to get at the heart of what makes the U.P. unique — and to ensure these stories travel beyond our peninsula and broadly illustrate why the UP is the place to live and work.

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