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Case Study: SABRE

case study Jul 29, 2020

In our last case study I discussed the company Lextech. I had a leadership position there and worked with my partner to turn our core values into a competitive advantage by bringing them alive, making them thrive and using them to drive the organization forward. Several years after I moved on from Lextech, they still have a high-performing culture leading them to success.

At Lextech we developed a set of superhero characters to represent our values, which worked perfectly for a company filled with software developers and Star Wars fans. However, that approach doesn't need to be— and should not be— duplicated by each and every leadership team hoping to implement CoreVals in their company. The great thing about the Culture Czars methodology for bringing core values alive is that the steps we take will help you identify the values important to you, your company, and the employees who represent your business every day.

Today we're going to discuss a company called SABRE, which manufactures pepper spray and its deployment systems, as well as other personal safety products. These products keep both law enforcement and the communities they protect safer, while helping individual consumers feel empowered and more secure in their daily lives.

Why Core Values?

SABRE is the global leader in the manufacture of pepper spray and other safety products for personal and law enforcement use. The company, founded by Larry Nance in 1975, has been in business for more than forty years, and members of the family’s second generation currently manage each major area of business operations. Yet despite the long and successful history of this family enterprise, morale at both the factory and sales office was lagging. In my Culture Czars podcast with David Nance, CEO of SABRE, David says, "We had a lot of people just showing up, going through the motions, but not really thinking about the big picture and what they were doing."

David Nance, CEO of SABRE

David was aware of the concept of core values and had written down some ideas in hopes of guiding his company forward. However, these thoughts were not circulated or promoted within the company, nor had they been shared with the broader SABRE community of distributors, customers, and end-users. "We had come up with some core values," he says, "but they perhaps weren't defining our organization as clearly as we would have liked." David’s situation is common, and it demonstrates how vital the process is— why you must put in the effort to bring culture alive and make it thrive, if you want it to drive your people and your business to achieve their full potential.

There were mitigating factors at SABRE that may have initially caused some resistance. The organization was split between two locations, with sales and administrative headquarters in Chicago and the factory and warehouse in St. Louis. The top executive posts were held by family members, who brought some of their interpersonal drama with them. These conditions influenced the unity of the staff, the flow of communication channels, and the ability to work as a concerted team.

Yet the company’s size was manageable, so key decision-makers could take the initiative to provide other employees with the opportunity to develop some autonomy in their work. Many lower-level jobs were repetitive or limiting, but these employees could find their own way to work that was most efficient for them, while still meeting their objectives.

And most importantly, the company had a clear purpose… they just didn't realize it yet. While the notes that David Nance jotted down initially were a good start, he needed a better understanding of what the company meant to the people who worked at SABRE every day.

In order to help discern the values of a company, it's important to first identify why this company exists in the first place. Who started the business? What service does it provide? How does the company improve the lives of its customers? You look back and then you look forward— that's how you discover the why. This answer you uncover is what I call the CorePurpose. While CoreVals help employees in your company love where they work, the CorePurpose helps them love why they work.

Soon after David brought me in, I visited with his employees to talk with them about the company. Without having any clearly identified CorePurpose, most of the people I spoke with thought they were just shipping aerosol cans. Yet during each conversation I seemed to hear a new story about the different people who used the products they made: the young woman who prevented an assault in a parking lot late at night; the law enforcement officer who avoided the necessity of using lethal force; the hunter who stopped a bear in its tracks.

As I heard these stories, it became clear to me that SABRE's products were more than aerosol cans; these products empowered people to become heroes in their own lives. By targeting these end users as heroes, we had discovered the why: The products they sold and produced saved the lives of people every day.

To get the most out of his business, Nance would need both his family members and his employees to understand the importance of the role they played in improving the lives of their customers. "We wanted our people to realize how significant it is, what they're actually doing." Knowing the Core Purpose of the business helped us reveal its Core Values. However, the values needed to drive SABRE forward were not yet solidified. Because the main tenets of their CoreVals hadn’t been meaningfully discerned, they could not be deliberately communicated.

The rich legacy of stories associated with both SABRE’s founder and its customers pointed the way to the enduring core values that were already there— values that simply needed to be discovered, discerned and described. In SABRE’s case, they emerged from the stories of the company’s forty years of growth under family leadership.


During my discussions with SABRE's employees, many people admired the humble beginnings of the company. David’s father, Larry Nance, started SABRE with less than three hundred dollars, 228 dollars to be precise. His wife, Jane, was his business partner. They began selling a tear gas formulation to sporting goods stores, with Larry driving as far as his gas money would take him. Ten years later they moved into pepper spray research and product development, which eventually propelled the start-up to global success. Today their formula ranks as the number-one pepper spray used for protection by both police and consumers in more than forty countries. The company has mastered their product.

Another set of ideas emerged around the idea of heroes— and specifically the people who use SABRE products to save lives every day. Many of their customers have stories about how SABRE products positively impacted their lives:

  • One customer was able to repel an attacker in the park and escape harm.

  • A college student used her SABRE pepper spray to prevent a rape.

  • A police officer avoided the need for lethal force by deploying his spray canister and apprehending the disabled perpetrator.

While customers appreciate the quality and convenience of these potent deterrents, SABRE's employees can also take pride in making something that literally saves lives.

A third common theme revolved around the partnerships SABRE has forged with both their local and global community. The individual effort and teamwork that go into SABRE's manufacturing and sales extends beyond their workplace. SABRE products provide great purpose and strength to the law enforcement officers facing danger on the front lines. Conversely, some of society’s most vulnerable members can take comfort in the safety SABRE's products offer. The company proudly helps organizations that protect women at risk for sexual assault, both domestically and in developing countries, by donating funds and resources.

After working to discover the meaning of the company— to those both inside the walls of SABRE and without— the leadership team at SABRE then took the necessary steps to bring these CoreVals alive for the people working to deliver their products everyday.


From the themes discussed above, David’s team and I drilled down to unearth the main core values that keep the company running and relevant:

Proud & passionate


Prepared & engaged

Go the extra mile

These were concrete emotions and conditions that staff could relate to—once they understood clearly what they stood for.

At Culture Czars we use a multi-step process to deliver CoreVals so that they can be implemented in a way that helps your employees thrive. Discovering the themes reveals the meaning behind the operations of both your company and your employees. Discerning the CoreVals allows the themes to become memorable and actionable. However, those actions can go awry if your CoreVals do not have clear descriptions to help drive your company forward.


If you’re part of the factory or warehouse staff, some days you may need a reason to get out of bed in the morning that goes beyond your hourly pay. SABRE’s stories and their business model told me that people could be proud and passionate about:

  • the founder’s dedication, vision, and persistence

  • a family-owned company with a long history

  • the company's loyalty to its community

  • products made in America and tested on-site

  • being the global market leader for their products

  • protection of people’s health and safety

  • support for the most vulnerable in society, both at home and abroad

Pride in these things made those who worked at SABRE passionate about what they did. But did they realize it yet? Are the words "Proud and passionate" enough to reveal the full scope of the list above? Are they enough to reveal what SABRE's work means to its workers and the community at large? We needed to better inform both SABRE's team and their partners the meaning behind their CoreVals.

In the Describe phase we elucidate the meaning of the words and add subtext to provide clarity to the value. These are the descriptions David and his team added to the core value of "Proud and passionate":

  • We are proud of our mission to save and our global leading brands.

  • We are passionate about our heroes, our team, and our customers.

These words have power, and now employees could better understand that SABRE’s products were more than lowly aerosol cans propelling pepper spray. They were life-savers that turned customers into heroes! That's how we begin to change a perspective and how people feel about their work.

The core value "Empowered" lends a clear meaning when considering how SABRE's products can help men, women, children, police officers, prison guards, and consumers of all kinds gain power. But David and his siblings wanted to give every employee a reason to carry forth SABRE’s values.

Internally, empowerment would mean more freedom to perform tasks as workers best saw fit. Executives and managers felt empowered to delegate, trusting that their goals would be pursued in line with the company’s best interests. So this idea built trust across management and staff.

Furthermore, building culture from common values created another kind of empowerment: it leveled the playing field, so that everybody’s ideas and concerns were received with open minds. This liberated all employees, including the sibling administrative team.

The CoreVal "Prepared and engaged" relates not only to the value the product provides to the end-user, but also to the work ethic required to manufacture and distribute the product. By doing the job correctly— at the factory, at the test site, and at the warehouse— consumers have the tools they need to be prepared and engaged. Being ready to deliver an eagerly awaited order serves customers who may be in dire need.

As David told me, "If one person is having a bad day and not paying attention, it can disrupt the entire process, and that could jeopardize somebody's safety. We wanted people to realize everything that goes on in this facility is super important." He wants his employees to consider a law enforcement officer, or "a young girl in a very dangerous situation. What you're doing over this eight-hour shift could lead to her fate."

This CoreVal gives workers a directive: be ready and willing to do what it takes in their roles. It also gives a nod to their larger purpose in the company— to prepare and engage others in their own safety.

"Go the extra mile" serves as a reminder to workers of the expectations of the company, their fellow employees, and of its customers. When sales tallies rise and production needs increase, staff need to be ready to work, and to work together. Satisfying customers so that they can go beyond their comfort zones in an emergency— perhaps going the extra mile to protect a loved one or stranger— is the result of their effort.

The CoreVals of a company must extend beyond the employees, and perhaps even beyond its customers. As a leader, they should also push you to lead not just your company, but also lead a culture that extends well beyond your four walls or a 9 to 5 commitment.

With SABRE as an example, we can see how augmenting the original themes with more fully-formed descriptions adds weight and specificity to the mission. But to bring that mission alive in hearts and minds of the team requires a few more steps.


The next step for SABRE was to personalize their CoreVals. For a people-oriented business like SABRE, pictures of customers could drive home a sincerity about their values. The SABRE core team identified employees and customers who represent distinct values, like the Uber driver who does her job with confidence because she is empowered to prevent an attack, or the child-safety expert who displays his passion for protection as a trainer for SABRE Personal Safety Academy.

Creating a memorable visual component is one of the most important ways that a business can bring their CoreVals alive. These heroes that the team selected were elevated beyond words and stories. SABRE added images of their heroes to the posters that hang in every department as living reminders of the important work that occurs inside SABRE's facilities.

Now anyone entering their facilities can see the impact SABRE has on their community. And of course employees see these faces everyday. David tells me that they've also made small cards, and that people "put them in their cubicles, put them in their office to serve as a reminder."


I think it's important to have a launch event to celebrate with the team when you introduce your new CoreVals. You'll want to write a compelling speech that touches upon what these values mean to you personally. This event will be another opportunity to make your CoreVals more memorable. SABRE began and ended their CoreVal launch event by playing “Start Me Up” by the Rolling Stones, because the company’s tagline incorporated one of lines in the song: “Making grown men cry since 1975.”

Of course they were starting up a new era for the company as well. But in order to make their values thrive, SABRE took important additional steps to engage their employees.


Management at SABRE has taken steps to acknowledge employees caught committing one of their CoreVals. But best of all, this acknowledgement comes directly from their co-workers. Every month management accepts nominations from employees of each department for the co-worker who best lives up to one of the company’s CoreVals. At the end of the month they meet for the announcement of the “228 Award” winner.

The nomination form asks for specific details, as this allows the story of each nominee to be told in front of the gathered audience. In the end each winner goes home with a $250 gift certificate. This number provides another subtle reminder of their CoreVals: the sum is rounded up from $228, the amount of money that Larry Nance initially invested to found SABRE in 1975.

The level of engagement reached by regular acknowledgement builds the trust management needs to delegate responsibilities and for the team to work together. As a result, employees have become more efficient with their work, allowing management to reduce shifts.

"We've noticed it with employee productivity, overall attitude. When you have a happy staff that believes in what you're doing, it makes a very significant impact on your business," says David Nance.

Having clear, unwavering CoreVals has also influenced SABRE's hiring and unhiring process. And similar to what happened with me at Lextech, SABRE had employees choose to leave because they recognized that their values didn't align with the specific culture SABRE's leadership was seeking. When tough hiring decisions must be made, David and his team now ask, "Who best resembles our culture? Who's going to be the best culture fit? And that's the one that we end up going with, and I think that pays significant dividends. They fit in. They like the people that they're working with, and they're more likely to produce for the organization."

In my experience I've found that few people intuitively know how to hire for fit. So I've developed a standard set of questions that I like interviewers to ask that help provide insight into a prospective employee's fit with the company's culture. I then go further to develop behavioral questions specific to their CoreVals, and train interviewers how to use these questions to probe the candidate to reveal more meaningful answers. With SABRE, for example, we used one question to determine if a candidate exuded passion for their Core Purpose. Would they take pride in helping heroes, or were they skeptical about their products?

Those asking the questions also grow, and get better at discerning fit with each interview they  perform. My CoreVal screening has become an integral part of SABRE's process. Finding the right fit is more than experience or the items on a resume. Especially in SABRE's case, this is serious. People's lives are on the line, so it can be an intense business. They need to know: Do you get it? Do you want it? Can you do it?

Existing staff also benefit from the expectations that strong CoreVals provide. "People who are struggling realize their mistakes and how they need to change, if they want to remain in their jobs," says Meaghan Mullgardt, SABRE’s chief financial officer. "People know what is expected of them.” Knowing what defines success in a job description will help employees achieve goals and take positive steps toward bonuses or promotions.

I also have a formula called CoreScore to help businesses understand how improving culture leads to bottom line success. SABRE developed their metric to track workplace culture alongside their market performance. Since integrating the Culture Czars methodology in the business, David Nance reports that SABRE’s investment in their culture has produced clear results:

“Top-line sales are up double-digits… We’re more efficient in manufacturing and shipping because morale has gone from okay to good. And we’re still improving.”
— David Nance, CEO

Wrap Up

I mentioned earlier in this case study how, as the head of your company, you can lean on your CoreVals to go beyond just leading your company. It's my personal goal to create Culture Czars in companies across the country and world. And that means you must lead not only your company, but you must also lead a culture.

The great thing is that implementing CoreVals in your business and being a Culture Czar for your company will provide a greater ROI than any other investment you could make. The financial cost is minimal. All it requires on your part is a small investment of time, and a commitment to your employees to be the leader of this new culture through your example.

But this is what your business is. It is you, your team, your employees, and your ideas all working together in concert. The improvement in morale and the togetherness you foster will not only show results on the bottom line, but will also show results in the happiness and well-being of you and your team. And that's truly what we're all working towards.


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