New BBB president wants his work to have a purpose

November 14, 2011
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With more than three decades of experience in radio and TV broadcasting under his belt, much of it in senior level management, some may be puzzled with Phil Catlett's decision to jump into an entirely new foray as president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Western Michigan.

The changing tides of the broadcast industry nudged him to his new career path, Catlett said.

"The broadcasting business has become more and more oriented toward its profitability motivations," said Catlett.

"When I started in the business, there were three major accomplishments that a broadcast operation was focused upon. The first was community impact, and the second was ratings and delivering to the largest possible audience, and the third was profitability. As the years went by and deregulation of the industry occurred, to a higher degree that focus was placed upon economic return and less upon community impact."

As broadcasting became less of a good fit, Catlett said he knew any career transition had to include more than collecting a paycheck.

"I want my work to have purpose," he said.

His purposeful yearning started to take shape last July when leaders from the community discussed the possibility of Catlett succeeding Ken Vander Meeden, who will soon retire following a 19-year stint as the BBBWM's president and CEO.

Vander Meeden has agreed to stay on for the remainder of this year to show Catlett the ins and outs of the nonprofit.

Catlett said he liked what he heard about the regional Better Business Bureau's efforts to uphold high standards for fair and honest business practices that are earned through BBB accreditation, agreed upon contractually with its 3,575 members in the 38 counties.

Those standards include fulfilling all licensing and bonding requirements of applicable jurisdictions; providing all license and bonding information upon application for BBB accreditation; providing periodic updates upon request of BBB; being free from government action that demonstrates a significant failure to support BBB ethical principles in marketplace transactions; and being free of an unsatisfactory rating and maintaining at least a B rating at the accrediting BBB and the BBB where it is headquartered, if different.

Better Business Bureau of Western Michigan
Position: President/CEO
Age: 57
Birthplace: Dayton, Ohio
Residence: Plainfield Township
Family: Wife, Caroll; grown daughter and son.
Business/Community Involvement: Vice-chairman of the Salvation Army; president of Walker Charter Academy school board; member of his church’s council.
Biggest Career Break: “Getting an opportunity to become sales manager at WLHT. I’d been an account executive at WCUZ AM 1230. I had a tremendous learning experience, tremendous mentorship, with Ron Dysktra, who was general manager of WCUZ. Ron helped me to be effective in my sales career. When the position opened up at WLHT, he encouraged me to interview for it. It turned into a tremendous career break for me.”

The Better Business Bureau issues reports on all businesses, whether or not they are a BBB-accredited business, and reviews charities across the United States. It makes its findings known through its "Wise Giving Guide."

"What I found is, this is a mission-driven organization that's important, given the time we live in, for businesses, charities and consumers who need to trust one another," said Catlett.

"They told me my background in being a general manager of a media organization gave me many of the experiences that would be quite helpful in leading the Better Business Bureau to accomplish its mission.

"It's about creating an environment in which businesses can agree to a particular list of expectations," added Catlett. "They have to be willing to be accountable to those standards."

With information overload a common phenomena today, "most of these consumers are unsure how to make a purchase wisely," said Catlett. "That's why we're here to provide reliable, unbiased information."

Many find the organization's national website,, which includes local businesses, to be invaluable, he said.

"When you're a business looking for efficiencies, and you're willing to put dues in an organization like ours, that speaks well of the Better Business Bureau and the business," said Catlett.

Next year marks the 75th anniversary of the West Michigan BBB and the 100th anniversary nationally. Catlett has some embryonic ideas on what the local celebration might include.

"I have a long list of ideas that I have yet to show to the board," said Catlett. "It's safe to say there will be a number of proactive initiatives to enhance the consumer/business relationship, to create better understanding from where businesses are coming from, and for consumers to understand where businesses are coming from."

It was just this year that Catlett still worked in media, as WGVU Public Television and Radio's major gifts and projects coordinator for eight months.

His lengthy career in broadcasting includes positions as a news and sports reporter, account executive and general sales manager. From 1987-2010, Catlett was vice president and national sales manager for WGRD 97.9, WLHT 95.7, WTRV 100.5, WFGR 97.7 and WNWZ 1410. In that span of time, a parade of five owners owned the stations.

Catlett said his work in media helped him hone what's important in people. To him, actions say more about a person than practiced, elegant speech, no matter how well delivered.

"I think a lot of times you can get into trouble by not stepping away, and it really helps me to identify talent, as well," Catlett said. "I need to not be impressed by personality but by the truth of actions, and not be pressured by someone's oratory skills."

One of his jobs in college left an indelible impression. Working for a family-owned business in Detroit, Catlett was responsible for removing decorative bricks that had been fired in a kiln, loading them onto pallets and later into customers' cars. The work was sweaty, hard and physical, but it stretched Catlett's resolve in a good way.

"It taught me how to deal with customers and about being open and transparent," said Catlett. "Just being tired and worn out was no excuse to be less courteous to customers in helping them find a particular brick for their project."

Another summer job the following year had him loading freight cars for a Fisher plant in Livonia. He could have shrugged it off as another dead-end job he was happy to be done with, but he sees the experience in a different light.

"We have to be open to learning from our experiences and the people we work with," he said. "You learn what makes you feel valuable and what makes you happy, and you learn the underlying motivations for the way people behave — the way they do things. By asking the right questions, we can create some clarity."

He remembers working for a radio station for a year-and-a-half in Sault Ste. Marie when he was in his early 20s. Catlett would rise in the wee hours of the morning to host the morning show, then cover afternoon events to do the afternoon news, then cover meetings at night and sports on weekends. He gained much experience in broadcast journalism — plus he learned how to navigate through an ungodly pile of snow during the 1976-77-winter season.

"It was long hours and an incredible learning opportunity," said Catlett. "So much of life is how we look at things. I'm a Christian who believes our actions have consequences and we have a responsibility to behave in a way that is beneficial to those around us. I'm a very inclusive person who believes everyone deserves respect and everyone has value. All of my actions would derive from that understanding and belief."

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