Ask any successful business owner for the key to attaining a competitive edge, and you’re likely to hear this: Listen to what your customers want, and deliver it better than your competitors.

Along the same lines, Peter Senge, director of the Center for Organizational Learning at the MIT Sloan School of Management, has said: “The only sustainable competitive advantage is an organization’s ability to learn faster than the competition.”

Listen and learn: Not a bad recipe for success, whatever the industry.

In the realm of corporate universities there are few professionals who have accomplished as much as Gary Ewer, Director of Education for Platt Electric Supply a premier wholesale electrical distributor. “The future at Platt is an educated workforce,” says Ewer. “We are committed to developing our people”- “People like to work for a company that invests in their future.”

He began his professional career as an electrician, and he quickly discovered that he loved hanging out at the electrical supply house. Soon enough he began to work at Platt Electric Supply as an entry-level delivery driver and rose rapidly through the ranks to the role of branch manager at their Olympia, Washington location.  As a new manager, he quickly became aware that he needed help to improve his business skills, so he began attending night classes at a local community college. “Everything I learned, I put into practice at work the next day.” And he began to see improvements in branch sales, staff attitudes, and customer service.

Noticing these improvements, the company president at that time, asked Ewer move to the Branch Support Center in Beaverton Oregon and take over a newly created strategic learning initiative: Platt University.  As the new Director of Education, “I knew the formula I needed to follow - go back to school and learn.”  He enrolled in night school again, this time completing a Bachelor’s degree at Marylhurst University, then completing a graduate degree in Education at Portland State University for the purpose of learning how to create a workforce training program.  “His ah-ha moment” was when he realized “I am so grateful to work for a company where leadership recognizes the value of lifelong learning.  Organizations thrive when leaders support workplace learning.  I believe leaders must get actively involved and fully participate in the learning process, if not it won’t succeed.” Today Ewer is completing his Ph.D. in Educational Leadership at Oregon State University.  “I’m at my best when I’m continually learning,” says Ewer.

Platt University began in 1988, with just one class, “How to Process Paperwork.” The class was lecture-based and required that all branch managers travel to the Branch Support Center for one week of training.  Platt University next began a distance learning program that involved sending hardcopy workbooks to hundreds of employees working in 60 branch locations.  When the workbooks were completed, employees shipped them back to Platt University to be hand-graded. In 2004, Platt began a company-wide effort to reduce the amount of paper transferred and stored within the organization. The BlueVolt Learning Management System (LMS) significantly helped Platt University eliminate paper by moving all of the workbook-based content to an online format. Now Platt employees had electronic access to great training courses and significantly reduced their need to travel. The University uses a blended approach to learning meaning a mix of 40% classroom and 60% online. Ewer believes that blended learning is the most effective way to train. Concerning LMS content, he likes courses with interactivity and helpful games. He also wants to challenge employees with real world examples that help learners think critically.  Finally, he favors courses that are chunked, meaning short bursts of time. Example of a chunked product course “short, not longer than 3-10 minutes.  Shows the products features, associated benefits, and identifies potential customer types that would possibly buy the product.”

The Platt organization focuses on hiring highly promotable people who are willing to learn.  “Always hire better than yourself, says Ewer. “I ask myself, would I want to work for this person.”  To illustrate this, Ewer tells a story about one of his first hires as a manager over 25 years ago. The opening was for an entry-level driver. RC Noreen was selected for the position and he quickly grew within the organization successfully completing the company’s leadership program, moved into more responsible positions in sales and branch management. Noreen currently serves as both the Regional Vice President of California as well as the Vice President of Human Recourses (Noreen is now Ewer’s boss). 

What is Platt’s winning formula? Hire and train highly promotable people. And the results confirm it! Ewer said “In 2013, Platt’s 1150 employees completed 113,584 courses and 58,576 hours of training through Platt University resulting in the company’s greatest selling year since it was founded 60 years ago.”  Platt has clearly identified learning as its sustainable competitive advantage.

Platt Electric is a Division of Rexel Inc.


Case in Point is a regular contribution featuring a client success story that showcases the business results of using a learning management system. 


Photo: Gary Ewer presenting at the 2013 LEAP Ahead eLearning Confernece. Credit: Toto Vo



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