Michael Feuer

Every business knows that to survive and succeed it needs customers. What is often ignored, however, is that companies also need vendors and suppliers in order to prosper. In too many organizations, this group is not only frequently neglected but also, at times, abused.

A growing number of savvy organizations have come to realize that their vendors are, in effect, their partners. A company’s success therefore becomes the vendor’s success and is a win-win for everyone.

On the flip side, too many businesses treat their vendors like secondhand citizens who are merely a means to an end. This shabby behavior can manifest itself in many forms, from not returning a supplier’s phone call to being down right belligerent.

What I’m writing about here has nothing to do with negotiating the best possible terms with the lowest possible prices from a vendor. It’s probably almost biological that buyers and sellers butt heads over price. If we take price and terms out of the buyer-vendor relationship, the question becomes what are the key factors that strengthen the working relationship and what weakens it?

Strengthening the partnership usually gets down to promises made and promises kept. The rub occurs when the little annoying things get in the way of the relationship. A company is judged by its cumulative actions. What may seem to be an insignificant series of slights can be as damaging as a single major lapse in appropriate behavior. The big ones don’t happen that frequently. Here’s an analogy. Relatively few people are hit by locomotives, primarily because they’re easy to spot, but a huge number are stung by bees because most don’t see them coming.

One of my pet peeves is how frequently vendors are kept waiting in lobbies. This sends a signal to the vendor that “our time is more valuable than yours; after all, we’re signing your purchase order.” The example I’m using in this column is just a proxy for dozens of ways companies send the wrong message and don’t even know it.

Years ago, I found an effective solution to reduce vendors’ waiting time that cost nothing, worked wonders, and kept my employees on the straight and narrow of how to treat visitors.

To get a sense of what was going on in my company, I regularly took walks through all four floors of our headquarters to see and to be seen. There is something about visibility that sends a signal that the boss is paying attention and not just sitting in an ivory tower. During these walks, I would swing through our lobby, where there was always an abundance of hustle and bustle. Often, when I made a second pass through the lobby on the way back to my office I’d see the same people still waiting from my first pass. It was obvious some employees were treating visitors rudely by disrespecting their time.

I thought, “How in the world could we ask a vendor for this or that when we start out by behaving rudely?” It was time for me to take action.

Here’s what I did. I had a sign made for the receptionist’s desk that bore my signature and read: “If you (the visitor) have an appointment and you’re kept waiting longer than 15 minutes, please pick up the red phone next to this sign, which rings directly on my desk. I will personally come down to greet you.”

Next, I sent a memo to every employee outlining this policy and the reasons for it. I explained that one of our competitive advantages would be how we treat vendors. I pointed out that this was not to be confused with giving the vendors whatever they asked for just because we didn’t want to hurt their feelings. I concluded with the admonishment that if I were called, I would personally rescue the visitor and bring him or her to the policy violator’s office.

Once the sign went up and my memo went out, things began to change. Visitors were greeted promptly or even ahead of the appointed hour. We dramatically improved our reputation as a company that, although very tough negotiators, respected those doing or trying to do business with us. This created a positive buzz among our vendors.

As a P.S. to this story, I never received a call from a single visitor from the date I put in this policy to when I sold the company.

Being big, small or in-between is never an excuse for being rude. And always be on the lookout for bees.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988. Starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind wellness chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

Read Feuer's previous column.

Every company’s mission statement should contain what the Federal Drug Administration calls a “black-box warning.” This is similar to what appears on each pack of cigarettes and on numerous medications approved by the FDA. For companies, a comparable admonishment should be: “Complacency is a silent value destroyer that can cause your business to fall behind competitors.” Remember you are in a race that has no finish line.

Most companies promote the promise of complete satisfaction to their customers, which is a good thing. However, fostering a state of satisfaction and contentment within your corporate culture is not. Am I promoting that all business leaders become malcontents? Yes, pretty much. To do otherwise can stifle innovation. You can bet that as sure as there are little green apples, there are others, right this minute, thinking about how they can do what you do better, faster and cheaper.

Forget for a moment that it’s politically correct to assert that competition is good. Frankly, as a CEO, I never once recall jumping out of bed in the morning and screaming, “Yippee, maybe today I’ll get a new competitor!” Yes, competition makes us all better but not without considerable pain — both economical and emotional. That’s why the best of the best leaders suffer from various degrees of “F of F,” or fear of failure. F of F is one of the strongest drivers known to man to spur improvement. Every time you think you have it knocked, lo and behold, some competitor that was lurking in the shadows seems to appear almost out of nowhere with a different twist or turn of your contraption or business that makes your heart skip a beat. And that skip ain’t caused by love or happiness.

What’s a CEO to do?

For survival, you must confront the potential of a new interloper head on. It is altogether fitting that your team pauses to smell the roses by celebrating a success. If you don’t, your troops will rightfully perceive you as an ungrateful curmudgeon or an unrelenting taskmaster — although there probably is some underlying truth in these assumptions.

A quick series of attaboys and toasting a win are always appreciated by those involved. However, as soon as the party glasses are cleared from the table, it’s time to start planning your next iteration. This is just a simple matter of survival of the fittest. I’m frequently asked, “What are you going to do now that the big job is done?” My response is always, “If I’m doing my job efficiently, I’ll never be done.” Just look around and you will find examples of too many great ideas that were translated into a finished “must-have” product, only to, in short order, wilt and die on the vine. Does anyone remember Polaroid Instant Cameras, Sony Betamax Recorders or Microsoft’s WebTV? All were initially heralded as the next best thing, only to fall from grace when the next generation was introduced — by a shrewd and heartless competitor.

How do you keep your organization energized knowing that once they’re done creating they’ll have to do it all over again and then again and again? One effective method is to have more than one team ready in the wings to begin working on the same product or project. When Team A is done, the next new and improved version becomes the job of Team B. While Team B picks up the gauntlet, the original team starts on something completely different. Team A is satisfied by its accomplishments and can savor the moment while team members gain enthusiasm for their next undertaking. Team B, meanwhile, is motivated to top its predecessor with improvements that the first group may not have even envisioned. Competition within your own organization sure beats the competition that comes from outside.

As the leader, your job is to be not only the chief cook and bottle washer but also the head pot stirrer, always prodding the search for the unexplored or the unimagined. Some cynics may call you a malcontent but so be it, because if you’re not, you are almost guaranteed to be called much worse — a has-been.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988. Starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. Feuer is CEO of Max-Ventures, a retail venture capital/consulting firm, and co-founder and co-CEO of Max-Wellness, a new health care product retail chain concept that launched in 2009. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.

Thursday, 26 March 2009 20:00

A fool and his money soon part

This column is a deviation from my usual themes about how to be a strategic leader with an entrepreneurial bent. Instead, this month, I explore why executives may be effective at running businesses but frequently fall short in managing their own money. Like many businesses leaders, I thought I was a street-smart steward of my own portfolio of stocks, bonds, hedge funds and private equity. Then came a wake-up call, manifested by what I would characterize as a less than amicable separation between a double-digit percentage of my assets and me.

During recent market gyrations, assets that took most of us years to accumulate and build were significantly reduced in mere months. There were warning signs. One word kept popping up on prognosticators’ radar: subprime. This was quickly followed by dire predictions that some of the world’s more storied financial institutions could crumble faster, under the weight of toxic loans, than their counterparts did during the infamous 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Sure, in hindsight, I knew there were troubles brewing. I read The Wall Street Journal daily and Barron’s Financial Weekly. In addition, just like President Obama, nothing comes between me and breaking news from my BlackBerry — nothing.

So why did I and the vast majority of other executives experience a precipitous and cataclysmic exodus of assets damaging not only one’s net worth but ego, as well?

There are apt comparisons between why the shoemaker’s children go barefoot, why the person who represents himself in court has a fool for a client and, yes, why business executives are many times pretty mediocre investment advisers to themselves.

The core issue gets down to priorities, energy and the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day. Business leaders in today’s environment must have an unrelenting laser focus on running their organizations. This, however, can result in one-dimensional thinking.

How many times has your spouse or significant other told you that you don’t listen? Case in point, at breakfast you review your previous day’s business results and your spouse asks you a question, as in, “What would you like to do this weekend?” and you respond by passing the sugar. This is simply an example of time and attention limitations, not lack of interest.

Certainly, you know the mechanics of the markets, you know where you have investments, but at the end of the day, after dealing with myriad business issues and opportunities, you just run out of gas. Because you may be good at making money doesn’t mean you have the discipline and expertise not only to preserve it but also to grow it.

What can we do differently to rebuild our assets, while not losing a beat in doing our all-consuming day jobs? Compartmentalize, compartmentalize, compartmentalize!

Just as you set aside specific time to focus on various aspects of your work, you also must compartmentalize your personal investments and then devote time to them on a regular basis.

Start by scheduling some solitary time with yourself to know what direction your portfolio is going and, more importantly, where you want to take it over the next three to five years. It gets down to something as simple as three sessions every two weeks or some sort of quiet time with yourself. During the first session, review whether your portfolio has been either up, down or sideways. In the second time slot, try to understand how and why it got there. Devote the third review to new investment ideas and consider any adjustments.

Managing a portfolio is much akin to playing a hand of poker, during which you must decide to call, raise or fold. Just like in business, if you hesitate too long, you may lose. Treat your investment reviews the same as you would an update with a subordinate. Establish performance parameters, make notes and always assign yourself follow-up action dates.

It’s going to take some time to rebuild our portfolios. Remember it took an astonishing 25 years for the Dow Jones Industrial Average to return to its pre-1929 crash levels. However, with some discipline, a plan and perhaps a decent adviser, you can at least ensure that your kids will always have shoes and you won’t feel like a fool whose investments deteriorate from passive neglect.

MICHAEL FEUER co-founded OfficeMax in 1988. Starting with one store and $20,000 of his own moneyduring a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annualsales of approximately $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003 to BoiseCascade Corp. Feuer is CEO of Max-Ventures, a retail venture capital/consulting firm, and co-founder andco-CEO of Max-Wellness, a new health care product retail chain concept that is launching in 2009. Feuerserves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business,marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.

Just about everybody, after entering kindergarten, will become involved in talking about another person behind his or her back. Sometimes comments can be hurtful, sometimes innocuous. However, if correctly framed, “behind-the-back venting” can also be constructive, not to mention therapeutic.

It’s a national pastime for everyone to think that he or she is smarter than the boss. Many times, an employee can — and certainly should — outshine his or her superior on specific subjects. As a boss, you can be sure your people will compare their abilities and creativity with yours and second-guess your strategies and practices. Therefore, I suggest that you facilitate the process so that talking behind your back can occur more regularly, on your terms, and be productive to boot.

There are some very simple and effective methods to providing “employee back-talk time.” As CEO of my Fortune 500 company, I discovered that I could control this process by structuring a means where all my direct reports could have an open forum to take their best shot at me. Early on, I created an Operating Committee, which was composed of my direct reports and other key corporate managers and executives who had to carry out company mandates and run the place day in and day out.

I attended only one Operating Committee meeting and made a statement that took less than a minute. I simply said that this would be my first and last appearance at “your” weekly meetings and that, going forward, the group would set its own agenda. I emphasized, however, that on every agenda there should be “back-talk” time, during which participants could vent their frustrations and talk about any traditional unspeakables — even if they reflected negatively on my leadership, decisions or capabilities. I stated that the only thing I asked was that once the committee thought I was making some big mistakes, someone must be appointed to come and tell me — with my promise of immunity from prosecution. I made it clear to the Operating Committee members that their job was to make me better and, to facilitate that, they could talk about my shortcomings, real or perceived, behind my back.

Now, I didn’t just fall off a turnip truck, and I knew that not all of the comments would be complimentary. I approached the process in a very Machiavellian manner, knowing that if I could get past the bruised ego, I could become a more effective CEO and ultimately deliver better results for all constituents.

Each week, my people were able to identify my errors, which were often plentiful. At times, I observed the folks leaving the Operating Committee meetings with a very satisfied smirk on their faces. Why? Because they got whatever was bugging them off their chests. They were able to compare notes, and I think, in many cases, they realized that what might have been festering as a big problem was, in the overall scheme of things, not particularly significant.

Another ancillary benefit of the behind-the-back talking is that it tends to diffuse situations that might otherwise grow to biblical proportions. This release enables the team to move on to issues of greater importance.

There are a number of other practical ways to foster venting in your organization. During particularly tense times, it is appropriate to excuse yourself from a planned dinner after a day of meetings with employees because your gut tells you they need to have time to themselves. It takes a certain confidence, including a healthy ego, for the leader to foster this process. Most of the time, when I bowed out of a dinner with subordinates, I knew that my employees’ ensuing collective catharsis would give them satisfaction and refocus their efforts.

In the public arena, our country’s leaders have all experienced a not-so-behind-their-back venting, particularly by the media, within minutes of making a statement. Pundits would dissect what was said right, wrong or that was irrelevant. This ongoing safety valve has served citizens well and provides an effective method for public officials to gauge acceptance of their actions and plan their next steps.

You, as a leader, can use similar “back-talk” techniques to maintain equilibrium in your company and reduce both petty and deep-seated distractions that impede progress. Being a good manager means accomplishing objectives through others. Being a great leader means keeping the team focused and communicating with you and each other.

Politics in business and talking behind the boss’s back aren’t always negatives, as long as you manage the process and encourage it with your blessing.

MICHAEL FEUER co-founded OfficeMax in 1988 with a friend and partner. Starting with one store during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide, with annual sales approximating $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. Feuer immediately launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a retail/consumer products venture capital operating and consulting firm headquartered in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.

Saturday, 26 May 2007 20:00

Too much information

Basic communications supposedly started with the cavemen about 130,000 years ago.

Those Neanderthal dudes really knew how to cut to the chase and get their message across. Using symbols and markings, they told what needed to be known: “Where’s the food, fire and danger?” When friend or foe came across the message, it was immediately understood.

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, took a giant communications leap when he spoke through this instrument to a nearby companion device and said, “Mr. Watson, come here. I need you.” It was artful in its simplicity (the message, not the phone).

Since those times, there have been huge changes in communications, but with innovation comes excess. Today, businesspeople often provide TMI — too much information.

Examining e-mails that have been returned to me because the recipient was out of the office, I have been struck by how much people will tell you about where they are, what they’re doing and why. Examples include this one from an employee who obviously decided to stop working but continued to collect a paycheck: “I’m sorry I cannot read your e-mail today because I am out of the office. Actually, my boss thinks I’m taking my sick grandmother to the doctor, but instead, I’m on an interview that will hopefully lead to a better job so I can not only take my grandmother to the doctor but make enough to even pay the bill for her exam.”

The same goes for out-of-the-office voicemail messages: “I’m not in today because I seem to have the bug that’s going around. I spent all night in the bathroom, but by tomorrow, I’ll have this beat. Leave a message after the beep and I’ll get around to you one of these days.”

We’ve all been frustrated listening to and reading this drivel when we’re simply trying to get a question answered. Just think about the dollars that are wasted in corporate America, including your organization, because people have the misguided sense that others want to know the details but were afraid to ask.

Telling people what he thought they wanted to know worked for Dr. David Reuben, author of “Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask.” No doubt he made millions giving people information they didn’t ask for, but he was a notable exception, and his subject matter was more compelling than most.

The newest TMI phenomenons are blogs, which have evolved from the traditional intimate diary with a running account of the author’s life. It used to be that a diary was for teenagers dealing with everything from peer pressure to raging hormones. The safety net was knowing that what was inscribed would never be read by another living soul.

Today, modern blogs, which are public on the Internet and transcend age boundaries, often include the scribe’s innermost secrets. Some also have graphics that provide too much visual information, leaving little to the imagination.

Since this is a business column, I will stick to offering suggestions as to how you can manage your employees’ voicemail messages and outof-office e-mail replies for the greater good. I am a proponent of establishing your own e-mail/voicemail police, whose job is to protect and serve — protect your organization’s image and serve your customers’ needs.

Some might think this is a form of censorship; I prefer to think of it as an extension of marketing to enhance a company’s perception.

Start with surveying your employees’ current responses for their business e-mail/voicemail messages and be prepared to be shocked by both the content and length.

Next, have your HR or PR staff put together brief scripts that get the desired message across. Each message should be tailored to the person’s job function and provide an alternative contact when there is an immediate need.

Establish standards of what is appropriate. Explain to your employees why you are doing this and that it is another technique to demonstrate how your organization is better than your competition. Consider ending all voice messages with the same tag line emphasizing your best attribute, such as, “Prompt service is our No. 1 priority,” or, “Getting to the point makes us better.” This beats gratuitous endings such as, “Have a stupendous day.”

Most employees will appreciate the scripted assistance because it gives them one less thing to do. For those who don’t, buy them a diary in which they can continue to record their personalized messages, and make them promise to keep those messages to themselves and never share them with your customers.

MICHAEL FEUER is co-founder of OfficeMax, which he started in 1988 with one store and $20,000 of his own money, along with a then-partner and group of private investors. During 16 years as CEO, he grew the company to almost 1,000 stores with sales approximating $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. In 2004, Feuer launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a venture capital operating firm that focuses on buying control and/or making substantial investments in retail-oriented businesses and businesses that serve retail. Reach Feuer with comments at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.

Wednesday, 28 February 2007 19:00

Window of opportunity

Every time a customer or client is unhappy with your goods or services, your business stands at a crossroads.

Either that customer will become permanently disenchanted, or you can seize a narrow window of opportunity to strengthen the relationship, turning a negative into a positive. The worst-case scenario is when someone isn’t satisfied and doesn’t tell you; not only can the problem not be fixed, but the disenchanted customer will recount the unhappy experience to anyone who will listen.

Do the math, and you’ll quickly realize that one customer’s negative perception can spread exponentially at a rate that rivals the spread of E. coli at a bad fast-food restaurant.

There is no simple way to guarantee customer satisfaction, but a good first step is making sure that embedded in the hearts and minds of every employee is the company’s sacrosanct policy that customers are always right, even when they’re partially wrong. This doesn’t become a way of doing business simply because it’s written in a manual.

Instead, management must educate employees about the domino effect caused by unhappy customers who will repeat the company’s transgression every time there’s a lull in conversation. But make sure they also understand the power they possess in their role of problem-solvers to satisfy the customer’s problem then and there, with no ifs, ands or buts.

After a negative experience is reversed, the satisfied customer will tell everyone about the positive encounter and the company’s fairness. My experience is that the customer who brings up an issue not only wants to right a wrong but is also, many times, subconsciously looking for a reason to continue to do business with the organization.

And just as negative comments from the disenchanted can ruin your business, the new believer can help you prosper.

When I was CEO of OfficeMax, we had hundreds of telephone customer service representatives who were trained to do the right thing for the customer the first time around. The best reps were those who had previously been on the losing end of a negative customer experience, finding themselves trivialized and demeaned by a would-be problem-solver who only knew how to say “No.”

Periodically, tenacious customers who were outraged by a perceived transgression made it their mission to find a way to reach me directly. The more creative ones would get my private number from an accommodating company operator.

Actually, they could have gotten through to me directly by simply asking the operator. But sometimes the chase is better than the catch, as the complainant tried to beat the system to get to the boss by circumventing intermediaries. Plus, the harder it was to reach the CEO, the angrier customers would get, giving them an added dose of adrenaline and bravado.

When I personally answered my phone after-hours and identified myself, the irate caller would launch into histrionics, with suggestions that I take the product causing their angst and place it where it shouldn’t go and wouldn’t fit.

After the ranting and raving stopped, I almost always solved the problem by immediately saying, “I’m sorry. You’re right.”

Over time, I became more creative in dealing with customers who called after-hours. Instead of answering with my name, I would simply say hello and state that I was the computer tech working on the big boss’s computer, but all of us at the company were “trained to stop whatever we were doing and help our customers.”

The caller would then rationally explain his or her problem. Playing the role of the customer-centric tech, I would say I was writing a note to the CEO explaining the problem. I also confidently proclaimed that I was sure there would be a resolution by sundown the next business day.

Many times, the customer would ask my name. I would give them a pseudonym and a department number that, if they made contact again, would be directed to my office.

Over the years, I received many letters of recognition for that “tech” who took the time to listen and bring the dilemma to the CEO’s attention.

We are only as good as our reputations. In my role as the nighttime computer tech, I knew that when I hung up the phone, we had again turned a likely defeat into a resounding victory.

MICHAEL FEUER is co-founder of OfficeMax, which he started in 1988 with one store and $20,000 of his own money, along with a then-partner and group of private investors. During 16 years as CEO, he grew the company to almost 1,000 stores with sales approximating $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. In 2004, Feuer launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a venture capital operating firm that focuses on buying control and/or making substantial investments in retail-oriented businesses and businesses that serve retail. Reach Feuer with comments at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.

Wednesday, 31 January 2007 19:00

Self-promotion

Why is it that otherwise productive and creative executives are often dismal at marketing their own ideas or accomplishments? These business pros can do a credible marketing job for others but not for their team or for themselves. The reality is that many executives’ communications, self-marketing and spins often miss the mark and do not connect with their intended audience. It’s akin to flirting in the dark — if the other person doesn’t see you, then you’re not flirting.

There is nothing insidious, egomaniacal or inappropriate about letting others know what you do well, how you do it and why you’re doing it. I am not talking about shameless self-promotion or shallow boast-and-brag assertions.

Instead, substantive communications are the cornerstones of our free enterprise system. The positive effects of advertising, marketing and communications — not only on educating consumers but also on ultimately improving goods and services — have been proven. As more people become aware of something, that awareness breeds competition and forces the originator to continue to make it better, leading to improved efficiencies.

Henry Ford knew the drill well when he launched the first Model T in any color as long as it was black. Shortly thereafter, the spectrum of available colors covered the rainbow.

The creators of the likes of the iPod or Smart Phones have improved on this lesson, fine-tuning these products through further innovation, combined with communicating their increased attributes and creating demand, resulting in these items being used across all age and economic boundaries.

But what about marketing your own ideas? The streets are littered with good concepts created by clever people, concepts that never got out of the starting block because the promoters didn’t have a clue how to get attention focused on their undertaking.

There are some basics to creating a buzz, garnering attention and getting things moving. Whether you want to raise money for a business idea, get credit for something your team has achieved, or simply make sure your boss knows you’re the next best thing since sliced bread, the process is essentially the same.

Whatever you’re promoting must have substance, be fact-based and deliver on your promise, from a solution that solves a problem to that great “whatever” that the world just can’t live without. It has to be credible, and it has to be true. The next step is to make sure others know about it. In real estate, the three keys to success are location, location, location. Similarly, in marketing, it is communication, communication, communication.

Communication is limited only by your imagination. It can include simply telling someone of influence something that no one else knows. Tell the person to keep this news quiet, which will almost always ensure that the very next person he or she encounters will immediately hear your story, followed by, “This is very confidential, so don’t say a word.”

This applies to communicating what you’ve done or discovered to one person, all the way to wearing a sandwich board sign at a freeway exit. It’s all about communication that starts with a whisper and builds to a shout.

It quickly gains momentum, size and scope with each revolution. But there are two important caveats: You can’t bore people, and you have to make whatever you’re saying new — it must be news.

The Holy Grail of effective communication is creating attention, interest, desire and action. This formula is self-explanatory, but few follow this tried-and-true methodology.

If you don’t get people’s attention, you’ll never get them interested. If they’re not interested, how will they ever have desire? Finally, without successfully crossing these first three hurdles, they’ll never take any action, and you’ll be flirting in the dark.

But don’t get carried away. Never, and I mean never, fall in love with your own spin. A little can go a long way.

Creating new news about moi cannot occur on a daily basis. Pick your spot before you communicate, and make sure the subject matter will further your cause.

If you want to be recognized as a subject matter expert, improve your credibility or get backing for a new idea, you must stop doing business in the dark, or your ideas will never see the light of day.

MICHAEL FEUER is co-founder of OfficeMax, which he started in 1988 with one store and $20,000 of his own money, along with a then-partner and group of private investors. During 16 years as CEO, he grew the company to almost 1,000 stores with sales approximating $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. In 2004, Feuer launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a venture capital operating firm that focuses on buying control and/or making substantial investments in retail-oriented businesses and businesses that serve retail. Reach Feuer with comments at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.

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