The Build Cycle Podcast #035 – Management Advice from Polartec CEO Gary Smith

Gary Smith is the CEO and marketing head for Polartec, one of the world’s largest technical fabric manufacturers that supplies leading outdoor apparel brands globally. He’s also the owner of Independent Fabrication (aka “IF”), a boutique custom bicycle manufacturer in New Hampshire. Between the two, he’s either managing 10 people in a small shop, or almost 600 people spread around the world in multiple timezones. So I wondered, how do you manage so many people? And what are the differences between managing a small lifestyle business with a few employees versus managing a multinational corporation with layers of bureaucracy and departments?

In this episode, Gary lays out his strategy for managing employees and managers, how his style is different between the two companies, and advice for anyone who’s found themselves in a management position.


  • 01:45 – Gary’s backstory, and how reality TV led him to owning a bicycle company.
  • 14:40 – How did his experience at Timberland inform his management style at IF?
  • 20:25 – Do different generations require different management styles?
  • 24:10 – How do you get people to buy into your vision?
  • 31:50 – How did his experience at IF inform his management style at Polartec?
  • 35:30 – Differences between managing large and small workforces
  • 46:50 – How to deal with people bypassing the chain of command
  • 49:40 – Management challenges and thoughts on real leadership
  • 58:00 – How casual can you be with your small team? With your big team?
  • 1:01:50 – Tips on delegating.
  • 1:06:00 – More tips on management.
Polartec CEO and Independent Fabrications owner Gary Smith talks about the different management styles required for small and large businesses
Gary presents their fabric tech to the press and cycling team members. Top photo: Taking the bull by the horns when it comes to team building.


I’ll kick this off with a few quotes I pulled from the episode:

“It’s all about treating people with respect and accountability.”

“Leadership is getting people to do what they otherwise wouldn’t, and to do it without your involvement. And in a perfect world, when you step aside, they wouldn’t even realize that had happened.”

“When you’re the leader, your job is to create an inspiring vision.”

Management advice for a small company

At IF, creating actual measurements and goals and being analytical and disciplined about meeting them helped steer the brand back from the brink of self destruction.

Practically speaking, the employee owned co-op structure didn’t work there because people were too often pointing fingers rather than lending a hand, assuming others would do the work they didn’t want to do. They were also selfish when it came time to pull money from the company, with everyone wanting to get their share without thinking about the overall financial health of the company. Gary’s implementation of structure and proper management changed the way people saw their roles in the company. It also gave them a clear vision of short term, long term and overall goals, and insured bills and employees were paid on time.

Regarding employee buy-in to the company mission and vision, one of the key concepts Gary conveys is that you need to put the work in to make it a vision worth working towards. Some of the ways he does that is to show how achieving the goals benefits both the players and the team. He also provides a desirable work environment.

Polartec CEO and Independent Fabrications owner Gary Smith talks about the different management styles required for small and large businesses
Gary rides along with the Alberto Contador Foundation development team at a recent press event in Arizona…aboard one of his IF bikes, of course.

Management advice for a large company

One of the biggest differences in managing a small company versus a large company is the lack of leverage. Meaning, at a small company, you don’t have as many resources (people, budget, tools) as at a larger one, so you’re responsible for more. And your small, daily actions are much more visible. At bigger companies, you can use people as levers to increase your reach. Department managers can take your vision and spread to more people, so your minutiae isn’t as visible, but you’re now responsible for making sure your message is delivered clearly and consistently across all of your channels.

More leverage means more layers, though. Gary says you have to be careful not to have too many layers, which slows things down. But too few can cause bottlenecks. There’s no single formula that works for every company, so you need to pay attention to where the bottlenecks are and see if more people can help smooth the flow. And you need to empower your employees and managers to speak up with they’re struggling to keep up. Another challenge is keeping people focused on the big picture, rather than pigeonholing their efforts to smaller (and sometimes selfish) goals that may produce short term gains but long term or overall losses. Managers, for their part, need to understand the differences between the departments, their goals and how everyone’s efforts combine to meet the big picture goals.

He also cautions against organizing too tightly around a single facet of the company. Meaning, if you organize around sales, then product development might suffer. And vice versa. Keeping a fluid mindset (for yourself and your employees) helps ensure everyone can pick up the slack when necessary or adjust their process to serve the overall vision more effectively.

Random thoughts on Management & Leadership

“Sometimes its better not to be a hammer looking for nails.” Meaning, you don’t always need to go looking for problems to fix. My take? Sometimes it’s OK to enjoy your successes for a bit before immediately jumping on the next fire that needs to be put out or next challenge to undertake. Take time to give kudos and let your team enjoy little victories. Gary puts it well when he says he doesn’t want to just be a hammer, he wants to be a complete tool kit.

Gary says followership is better than blind loyalty. Create a vision that others can find meaning in and get behind. Set a path and get people motivated to follow you on that path.

“Showing up? That’s just the beginning. That’s the bare minimum. Showing up and participating. What did you do? Everyday I ask myself, what did I do to make whatever I put my energy against better. In the case of moving forward, I’ve always done the job I wanted, before it was given to me.”

My take: If you only wait around for people to tell you what to do, you’re only going to get what they’re willing to give you.

“People really listen to what you say. Particularly in a bigger company, you can’t be callous about what you say.”

“At some point, someone took a chance on each of us. Rather than view it as delegation, view it as opportunity creation. That’s fun. It’s pulling people up from the bowels of the organization and giving them the chance to move up. Bet on athletes. When someone shows initiative, let them run.”

The flipside, which has been my experience, is pushing something off your plate before the person you’re handing it to is ready. Or capable. As Gary says, it’s important that people have a solid foundation and skillset before they’re given full responsibility. You have to master certain things before you can rise up. You can’t blindly give people responsibility when they’re not ready for it. You need to create an environment where you have some confidence they have the skillset or be able to step aside and get them ready.

“That’s the key to managing, recognizing that other people are not you, and we all have our own filters that are a function of where we were when.”

“Diversity tends to get narrowcast as just being about gender and race. Diversity is about people who can compensate for your shortcomoings. Surrounding yourself withe complementary skillsets is key. We’re all unique individuals.”


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