Our guest today is COO Alliance Member and COO of NVB Playgrounds, Inc. Lacey Jarvis.
Lacey started at NVB Playgrounds Inc. as a CSR in 2016, and quickly was given the additional role of the Install Coordinator. As the busy season progressed and ended, she moved away from Install Coordinator to help out with Accounting and continuing as a CSR.
Lacey eventually took over Accounting and grew the department to a 5-person team. She promoted her team lead to the Accounting Manager position when she became Head of Operations in January 2022. Lacey pitched the COO position and job duties to her CEO in March of 2022, and was given the COO role.
Lacey started school with the idea of getting an Accounting Degree, quickly found out that that was not the route for her. She decided to play it safe and get an Associate’s Degree in Business. She believes in getting knowledge from her everyday work experience rather than the degree.
In This Conversation We Discuss:
- What companies can do to keep Gen Z workers engaged in their job
- How to adapt to rapid growth within the company
- How Lacey as a COO and young mother with a child finds her life/work balance
- Experiences navigating a working relationship with China
- How Lacey and her CEO defined their roles and stayed in their lanes
NVB Playground, Inc. – https://playgroundequipment.com
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I am super excited about this episode with Lacey Jarvis. She is the COO of NVB Playgrounds. She’s an incredible person. She’s actually super young and a COO Alliance member. She’s got one child already who’s eight years old. She’s only 26. She started with the company years ago as a customer service rep and has progressed in the years to being the COO of the company. They’ve got about 100 employees now operating throughout all over North America. They do manufacturing in China. She shared some interesting stuff about the relationship with the CEO, how she’s scaled as a leader for years, and what she focuses on to grow in her career. I’m super excited about having her as a guest, so hopefully you enjoy the episode as much as I did.
I’m happy to be here, Cameron. Thanks for having me.
I’m looking forward to learning from you. Before you and I jumped into this conversation, you mentioned that you guys have been going through some pretty rapid growth. Before you tell me about that, why don’t you just tell us quickly what NVB Playgrounds is and what your focus is?
We sell commercial playgrounds. We focus on anybody who needs commercial playgrounds, gets audited, and wants big products. We have two sides of our business. We have AAA State of Play and that is direct to the consumer. That’s churches, schools, and city parks. We have another side of the business, which is PlaygroundEquipment.com. That is more of a B2B site where we sell directly to other playground businesses and then they sell direct to the consumer.
What’s your focus? Is it the playground equipment site or selling direct to consumers as well?
I’d like to say that both of them are focused. For me at least, I like to see growth on both sides. Sometimes that gets challenging. This 2022 specifically, we’ve seen a lot of growth on the B2B side in PlaygroundEquipment.com. The AAA side was the beginning of the business. That’s plateaued with the growth part of it but trying to learn the curve of keeping the growth maintained on AAA. It does require focus there.
Is it two totally different teams or the same team that is marketing both products?
It’s two totally different sales teams, but we have our support teams like accounting, shipping, warehouse, marketing, and a support resolution team. All of those teams are one team for both sales teams.
How many total employees are in the company?
It’s fluctuating. Our turnover here in Indiana has been tough. It’s about 95 to 100 right now.
What do you mean by turnover being tough? Are they quitting? Are they getting poached? What’s happening?
We’ve had a lot of people not show up for interviews but we’ve onboarded them. They filled out all of their paperwork and don’t show up for their first day.
What’s going on with that?
I don’t know. They don’t answer their phone. We try to reach out to them and it’s wild, Cameron. I just don’t get it.
The 95 to 100 staff, what’s the mix between the install side of the business? Are you third partying the installation because you’re selling all over North America?
We third party that out. We have an installation team of two and they coordinate all of that with our installers. We have a local team here on the AAA side. They do probably half of our installs. In 2021, we little over 200 install. I haven’t run numbers in 2022. Half of those were in Indiana, but the other half were all over the country. We think we’ve got five installers that we run our installs through. It’s pretty tough to keep that running. We love our install coordinator. She runs and makes phone calls all day long to make sure that things stay moving with shipping deadlines, calling in the line, keeping the installers and customers updated, and getting all the paperwork signed. There’s a lot to it and she does a great job.
Are you guys manufacturing your own playground equipment as well or are you purchasing that and then selling it? How’s that work?
We import it. We have a great relationship overseas in China. We have a private label brand and we have a couple of products ourselves that we have designed, sent over, and had our own mold made. We have a design team here in-house. They’re all CPSI certified minus one who just started, but they all know the general guidelines of how safety code and how things should be built. We designed everything here and then it gets manufactured overseas and imported here.
You’ve been with the company for years. What was the size of the company when you joined them? You mentioned you had 80% growth in the last couple of months. What was the size of the company in terms of employees when you joined?
I want to say there were fifteen office workers and I don’t remember how many warehouse workers there were.
Have you doubled or tripled the size of the number of employees?
In the warehouse, I don’t know how many there were starting out, but I know right now, we’ve probably got 45 out there. That leaves about 50 employees in the office, so triple, almost.
Easily tripled. When you’re coming into the organization, you’re a customer service rep and then six years later you’re COO. That’s not a very common story. What’s your growth been like and why did that work? Walk us through that.
It’s been a challenge. I like to learn every day. I think that that’s something that’s helped me succeed personally. I like to better myself, which helps me better my team. That’s something that I try to thrive on for myself. Starting out as a customer service rep and learning every aspect of the business was something that was intriguing to me and understanding both sides of the business and the aspects of how each one worked. It was my first office job and business in general. I thought it was such a neat business plan and I thought, “Who could ever think of this?â€ I would have never in my life guessed that playgrounds were such a big commodity. It was always fun, not like kid playground fun, but business adult fun to learn as crazy as that sounds.
I like the way that you’re explaining it too. It does make a lot of sense. How many states were you selling in when you joined? Were you throughout the US when you joined already?
Yes. We’ve always been throughout the US.
When did the company start?
It’s really not that old.
No. They started in the owner’s house in two of their bedrooms and then they moved to the owner’s basement as they got more employees. They moved the warehouse that they built in 2015. I started in 2016 and it quickly out through that. It grows every single year exponentially. It’s the summertime that gets us and it’s a challenge, which is fun. It’s bittersweet.
I like the idea of the opportunity in PlaygroundEquipment.com where you’re selling direct to other suppliers. Is that a big growth opportunity for the company as well? Is that a big focal point?
We have a Playground Convention every year, and we try to focus on meeting our dealers, whoever goes, and spending some time with them to get to know their business. Also, figure out where we can help them and understand where their struggles are. A huge focus point for us is being able to figure out what processes we can change to help them. We have a dealer come in and they asked about our installs. They asked how we did them or asked for some tips and tricks. It’s nice that we can give them ideas, help them with their business, and teach them things as well.
What was it do you think that the owner saw in you to promote you that quickly throughout the organization? It’s pretty rapid growth, especially in the size of the organization to you go from a CSR to a COO. What do you think it was that they saw in you?
In the beginning, it was my hard work and determination. I was always asking questions. I was taking the initiative because I liked to learn. I think that was very intriguing to them. I was young at that time too. I was 19 and that was very odd for a 19 or 20-year-old to not do those things. I think that also was a big factor for them. What’s always been a big thing for me is wanting to help out and do whatever I can to make things easier for people. That’s where a big highlight for myself and why I am where I am. It is because I do what I do to help people. I’ll do whatever it takes to get it done.
You’re in the 1st year or 2nd year of Gen Z, so it’s highly unusual that Gen Z is operating as a COO. Even within our COO Alliance, think of the 170-plus members, we’ve probably got 4 or 5 that are under 25, or 26 years old. It’s a super interesting cohort, but it’s also highly unusual that Gen Z stays in a job for more than six months to a year. They’re famous partially because they’re early in their career and it’s easy for them to hop and move up in their career. Why do you think it is that’s gotten you to stay and what did they do right to get you to stay? It’s something that we’re all starting to think about as companies.
For me personally, NVB gave me an opportunity. Not a lot of people, I don’t think, would have seen and given me a chance as a kid going through school. Everybody at my age was working probably at a fast food place trying to make it to school. I really wanted an office job and they gave me an opportunity to learn and grow my skills. I took every opportunity as a chance to learn and climb the ladder. I think that’s what helped me stay here.
You’ve mentioned a few times about growing your skills. I was going to ask you about that. Where have you focused in terms of your skill and your growth over the last couple of years specifically?
I tried to learn every aspect of the business and the backend part of it. I was in the accounting department for a long time. I was the go-to for people on things and it was an array of things. There wasn’t a main focus point. It was just backend operations. For the last few months, I have focused on importing overseas and overseas freight. Over the last few years, I tried to get better in my leadership and understanding of people.
I love your insights around this stuff. You went in two directions with it. One is on what the company does in terms of the manufacturing and the shipping in from China, and that whole side of the business to the soft skills of leadership, which is what’s going to help you excel in the career. Is that why you joined the COO Alliance then? Was that the decision point for you or did your CEO tell you were joining? How did that all come about?
I was driving to one of my son’s races up North and I had been looking for some resources on what I could do to better my skills and figure out what the hell I was doing. I found your show. I was tuning in and got hooked. I think I tuned in to four that day. I started doing some research and put together a pitch of why I thought the Alliance would be good and beneficial for me. My CEO was like, “Let’s do it.â€
I also love that you pitched the CEO, but I got to back up the truck a little bit. You said that you were taking your kids to a race. First off, you’re 26 years old?
How many kids have you got?
I only have one and he’s eight.
He’s eight. What race was he in?
He races four-wheelers.
Of course, he does. You have an eight-year-old kid who races four-wheelers, you’re a COO of a company, and you’re 26 years old. How do you balance it all? How do you balance the time and the priorities?
It’s not easy. Some days, I realize that I’m running out of fuel and I remember my home base and that’s my son. He is the reason I do everything that I do. I love him very much. Another big thing for me is my family. They are my biggest support system. I have three siblings. There are four of us. They all happened to also work here at the business, so it’s very nice to be able to see them every day and talked to them. We all help each other out in balancing work and life. It’s easier with them for sure.
Is it a family-run business or do you happen to hire all your siblings?
It is very family-oriented. We have a lot of family connections. The founders are mom, dad, and son. The son came up with the idea and started it. His mom and dad helped him build up and become what the company is now.
They’re not your mom and dad. They’re the family and then you got involved and you’re now running the place. Is the son the CEO of the business then?
I’m getting the pieces. When did you hire your siblings or were they working for the company first?
No, I started in 2016. My oldest sister started in â€˜17. My middle sister started in 2020. My brother is the oldest of us, he started in the spring of 2022.
I’m vibrating right now. This is super cool. This is really unusual to ever go and do this. It can’t all be easy either. There’s got to be moments in time when they want to kill you and you want to kill them or there’s a disagreement, a fight, or an argument. How do you balance that side of the business?
Something that’s cool about my siblings and I is that we have a strong relationship and always had an understanding that we get it out in the open. At the end of the day, we disagree, but we have to let it go. There’s never been a big knock on wood or a big blow-up. Honestly, everybody asks the same question, “How do you do it? You guys probably hate each other.â€ No. I absolutely love working with my siblings. It’s like a dream I never knew I had come true. We try to go on what we call our family walls at least once a week, but it doesn’t happen.
COVID, did that impact the business in any way in terms of the culture or the operations day to day? How did you guys manage through that?
With COVID, we all ended up going home beside our warehouse workers and sending them home for a week or two with the regulations that Indiana put in place. Business impact-wise, we were very fortunate. We didn’t get hit too hard. We lost some money revenue-wise but culture-wise, it wasn’t great. We sent everybody home and the very last minute was a scramble. It was very hard figuring out how to meet every day and how everybody was going to be productive and stay on task. Maintaining their mental health as well was very difficult.
I think that a lot of people didn’t realize how much it was impacting them, but we made it through. We came back to the office. We bought our new warehouse in the middle of COVID. We were in the middle of buying a new building, so we built out the office space here when we came back from COVID. It was nice to come back to a new space, but definitely, a struggle to keep everybody aligned during COVID at home.
How did you keep them aligned? What did you do specifically that helped them do that?
We ended up using an app called Discord. We chatted through there, made groups for each department, and had video calls. I was the accounting manager at that time. I had my team come work at my house. They were not too worried about things, so they came and worked with me at my home. I had some desks set up in my extra room. That’s how we stayed aligned, personally.
That’s amazing. Talk to me about China. What’s it like working with them? Where are you in Indiana?
You’re in Indianapolis. You’re in a bigger city. This isn’t like a small-town business in North America. What’s the population of Indianapolis, a couple of million?
I believe so.
You’re in a bigger city so you’re having to attract and bring people into the offices as well. What’s it like working with the operations in China? What lessons can you give us?
You have to stay up late. We talk to them all the time, which our CEO does for the most part. We’re trying to navigate right now, at least, the ever-evolving COVID protocols is very challenging. They are always changing, which is putting our plans up in the air based off of getting our goods out of the country. We have a really great relationship with our partner over there and they work with us very well. They are almost always able to get our containers filled and at the port in time. It’s a giant question mark.
It adds a layer of stress.
Yes, it does. Some advice is to stay calm and organized. Things can change all the time but as long as you stay organized and keep track of your plans, when things change, it’ll be easy to pivot and make a move.
How about culturally? What cultural lessons can you give us in terms of your meetings or communication with them? Are you dropping emojis into your emails? Are you staying more business with them?
I don’t have a lot of communication with them anymore. When I was the accounting manager, I’m wiring money all the time and had more communication with them. Our partner was always sending pictures of her family and we were doing the same back to them. Yes, emojis. There was one emoji specifically. It was a laughing emoji, but crying but it looks a little different than our Apple emoji. It was funny when she would drop that one in there because it was like, “Why is that there?” It was fun to see her personality come out. It was business related also at times. It’s not as businesslike as a lot of people would think but that’s because we have a great relationship with them and our CEO has always worked with them for a long time.
I want to talk to you about working with your CEO as well, but what’s NVB stand for? I forgot to ask that at the beginning.
I’ve never gotten a straight answer for that. I think that it’s for the owners’ names. It’s Nancy, Nic, and Victor Breedlove. I’ve always gotten an up-in-the-air answer.
I’m sure that’s what it is. That makes sense if they got the two Ns and the VB. Are they trying to move themselves away from the brand or something and just have it on its own?
I’m not quite sure.
It’s interesting. I wonder if they’re doing that to not look small because sometimes when the owners’ names are on the brands, it can appear to be a smaller business. If you go with NVB Playgrounds, it seems like a bigger brand all of a sudden.
Yeah, that makes sense.
You’ve got you and the CEO and you have some pretty clear delineation between your roles and responsibilities. How did you decide what those roles were going to be and how do you stay in your own lanes now?
Our CEO, Nic, has always enjoyed having that communication with overseas manufacturers. He’s been great at it. Why change that? I’ve always wanted to be a part of the people skills and helping people. He has been very busy and that was his job before myself. In my eyes, it’s got to be two different jobs, for me to be able to choose between the two. Why make him change? He’s good at that. I can do the other part. I’ll sit whatever he doesn’t want to do.
You’re totally speaking to me on some stuff. My next book is launching in January of 2023, and it’s called The Second in Command. It’s how to unleash the power of a COO. One of the things I talk about is the COO needs to take all of the areas of the business that the CEO doesn’t love to do and drains them of energy. That’s exactly what you’re speaking to. We’ve got an in-person event coming up in April of 2023 for the COO Alliance.
We haven’t even told our members and we’ve already got people signing up for it but the theme of it is all around going deep in terms of the communication, trust, and the relationship between you and the CEO. Also, with you, your leadership team, and your employees. How do you get that deep trust and relationship with your CEO? Are you guys doing anything specifically to continue to build a strong relationship and trust?
Early on, there was a trust factor in there. That’s why I was promoted very quickly. There’s always been issues with trust with him and trying to let things go task-wise. He does not like to not do things. It’s hard for a CEO in general to let go of things that could make or break a lot of companies. From what I’m learning, it’s when a CEO doesn’t let tasks go so that the business can build. Nic has been pretty good about letting things go as long as I can help guide him.
You’re also good. It sounds like you’ve even taken stuff off his plate and he’s that radical self-reliance that he’ll do it himself. It sounds like you come up and just say, “That’s mine. I’ll take that.” Is that true? Are you asking to take things over?
Yes. He doesn’t like it very much, but I keep trying to remind him that his part of the job is to do what he’s good at and what he likes to do and I’m going to try and do everything else.
Where is he learning? Is he a part of any mastermind groups or CEO groups at all?
I think I inspired him to find one after I join the COO Alliance and how much I loved it. He’s been looking at some places as well, but not yet.
Tell him to reach out to me or even introduce him to me over email for a couple of reasons. One, I have two great groups that I think he would be a good fit in it sounds like. One is called Mastermind Talks and the second is the Entrepreneurs Organization. There’s one chapter in Indianapolis, but both of those could be very good for him for a couple of different reasons. We also allow the CEOs of all of our COO Alliance members to come on to a monthly call with me with a group of the CEOs that I coach. I’ve got CEOs paying me $80,000 a year to coach them. He can join on one of those calls and hit me with a bunch of questions too. It’s an ask-me-anything format.
I’ll definitely help give him some insights because I’ve been a part of YPO, EO, Vistage, Genius Network, Baby Bathwater, and War Room. I’ve got a lot of great insights that I can help fast-track him, but good for him and good for you to guide him. It’s usually the reverse. For most of our members, the CEO is a part of a group and they tell the COO to join. I love that you flip this one upside down.
I’m doing my best.
I did it years ago as well with Gerber Auto Collision. I told my partner Terry, who is the CEO, that he should join YPO, and he did. He was like, “This is amazing. It’s the best thing ever.” I was like, “Yeah, of course.” It can’t always be easy. You and the CEO, there’s got to be some opportunities for conflict but it’s healthy conflict, too. Walk us through how those transpired and what have you two learned in terms of how to get better at that?
A lot of the conflict that comes between me and the CEO is that I’m a very detail-oriented, well-thought-out decision-maker. He is a, “Let’s move right now. Let’s do this.” We do not agree. We try to sit down and understand where each one of us is coming from, give each other a day or two to cool down, and then make a decision. Sometimes, we can’t wait a day because we do need to make decisions so that we can keep moving forward but trying to make sure that we understand and give each other the space to let each other talk.
It’s very important for us to understand why the other is thinking what they’re thinking. It’s a learning curve. It’s something new that we had started doing. It seems to be working, and that made me, “Probably it’ll never get better.” He’s going to move and I’m going to be like, “Let’s wait about this. Let’s think.”
Have you done your Kolbe profile? Do you know what your Kolbe is?
No, I haven’t. I’ve been meaning to but you know how things are.
I want you to get it done this week. Do the Kolbe A profile and have him do his Kolbe A Profile as well. If you send me both of your numbers, I’ll do a quick little video and give you some snapshots. It’s the things that will help you get in sync real quickly. My gut is that his Kolbe profile is going to be roughly 4393, which is a very high Quick Start. Quick Starts are basically they shoot now and they aim later. They’re winging it and shooting from the hip their perpetual motion or idea-generation machines. Your profile is probably very high on the first two numbers. You’re probably more like an 8633, which means you ask a lot of questions or put systems in place to start projects.
That’s where the sync issue and the opportunity are going to be. Kolbe will also do a call with you for $100 or $150. They’ll do a call and walk with both of you through your profiles and teach you how to mesh them together because you won’t change him nor do you want to. He can’t change you nor does he want to. The key is how you get that yin and yang relationship. How do you fit perfectly together? It’s cool that you’re going through it.
It’s really cool.
Until it’s not. How about with some of your core employees? What are you working with them on right now with your direct reports?
I have most of our managers as my direct reports. We started doing our manager meetings. I think our first one was in August 2022. It’s still the new leadership group. They’ve all been managers for a while, but coming together as a team, the ship together has been neat to see them grow so far. Something I’m excited about is their potential. That’s why it’s important for me to be able to figure out how to tap into that potential. Sometimes, they don’t know where they’re struggling. They’ve never had the opportunity to move forward in some aspects.
A lot of our managers have always been tied down with tasks. We get very busy in the summertime and they don’t have time to manage. I’m pushing to make sure that our managers have a lot of tasks off of their plate and that they have time to manage, but it’s a whole new ballgame for them to manage. Being able to make sure that they know how to do that and that they are set up for success with that is going to be very fun for me to figure out how to do but also a challenge.
Make sure that you’re going through the Invest in Your Leaders course and get a couple of them going through it. It’ll be massive for your growth as well, but it sounds like you’re really on top of it. I’m curious, you’ve got to have a bunch of direct reports that are older than you and some that are probably significantly older than you.
Yes, all but one.
What’s the biggest age gap between you and one of your direct reports, approximately?
Forty years, maybe.
Forty years between you?
Do they look at you and go, “Who are you?” You’re a dance for your age? Are they past that now? Is age no longer an issue?
I’d say that age definitely pops up as an issue. Sometimes they struggle to understand that change has to be made. I think that that’s really where it comes in. I don’t think that they technically struggle with me. At the end of the day, it’s about changes being made within the business and they may be frightened by that. It’s not true for me, but a lot of our managers have been with us for a long time. They were with us even before I started and they’re used to the way that we did business when they were smaller. Our processes are changing and they have to. It’s very difficult to get that through some people because it is scary to change and not knowing if the changes going to work. Believing that we’re going to figure it out is where you have to have faith.
You mentioned that you’ve gone through some pretty rapid growth. Any lessons on how you got through the 80% growth in 2021?
How we made it through was a miracle. We’re trying to implement more processes every single day. We’re writing them down and making sure that we have them documented. We’re trying to be more transparent across departments and making sure people know things, even if it’s not technically pertinent to them. It doesn’t hurt them knowing. The shipping department that we’re putting in a new process and support, we’re notifying our sales teams of things. It doesn’t hurt for them to know that. While it doesn’t impact them, we’ve always thought in the past, “It doesn’t impact them. They don’t need to know.” At the end of the day, more information is better than not enough. I would say that is a bigger piece of the puzzle for sure.
That’s very cool. This is usually a longer question. You lean back to talk to the 21-year-old self. It’s almost like yesterday for you. I want you to go back to when you were just starting your career. Let’s say you were just coming into NVB and going to be working in customer service. You were starting your career. Would you give yourself any advice back then that you know to be true now?
I would probably tell myself to be a little more organized and stick to an organization skill that works for me. I struggle with that now being so busy. Be more confident. Proven success means something.
You’re crushing it, Lacey. I don’t think you have to worry about the confidence side. The fact that you keep pulling stuff off the CEO’s plate is incredible. Lacey Jarvis, the COO for NVB Playgrounds, thanks very much for joining us.