John Nank

Sunday, 24 February 2008 19:00

Cohesion through communication

You will never find success with a house divided, says Bill Taylor, chairman and CEO of Taylor-Morley Inc.

Approximately seven years ago, the home builder’s work force was ruled by cliques: salespeople in the field, management in the Chesterfield corporate office, carpenters on the worksite and so on. Each was separated by sputtering channels of communication and the festering antagonism of exclusion.

Faced with such division, Taylor brought his employees together the only way he knew how — by sharing any and all information that he could. Promoting an open-book policy on financials and strategic goals not only fosters a sense of inclusion, he says, it also instills trust and ownership among staff members. Today, Taylor-Morley’s employees work as an aligned unit, boosting the company’s 2006 revenue to approximately $80 million.

Smart Business spoke with Taylor about how to facilitate cohesion at your company through communication with your employees.

Don’t be afraid to let employees read the books. We have brown-bag seminars where we invite all of our company team members to a breakfast where we talk about current events and the vision of the company. The leaders of the company will discuss pertinent issues that have to do with where we are financially, meeting our goals, our budgets and also talk about current events in the industry.

We have an open-book policy where people know where we are as it relates to our goals in terms of revenue and profitability and on and on and on. That goes a long, long way to instill confidence and trust amongst your team.

The benefits are people are going to learn. Where you’re able to communicate with people, they’re not just wedged in their four-walled office or their little cubicle. They’re learning; they’re growing.

Share information with everyone.

At one time, we didn’t have that open-book policy. Six or seven years ago, we felt that there were too many little cliques going on.

We felt that the only way to really break down those barriers was to make sure that we communicated to everybody any and all information.

We have our salespeople in those brown bags, we have our field people, we have our carpenters, we have our office people, we have our customer service people, our financial people; everybody participates.

It has really, really helped tremendously just by virtue of how people are willing to help one another. We don’t have the kinds of cliques that we had at one time from one department to another. It really breaks down that barrier.

You’ve got the best shot at dealing with outside conditions when you’ve got people all pulling together and understand what the goals and objectives are, and that they know that they can count on their fellow team members to be there to help and assist toward reaching those goals.

Make yourself accessible. There is not a substitute for timely and proper communication.

People know that I have an open-door policy. I’m constantly around and engaging people and wanting to get feedback. ...

By having an open-door policy and always being accessible, that gives the individual person the mindset that you’re just not talking all the time, you’re listening, and you’re available to them.

Maintain an air of sincerity. You can say whatever you want, but if people feel that you’re condescending, they’re not going to be able to trust you.

That’s the most important thing. They have to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that when you say something to them, you’re sincere, and that they can trust that the feedback and communication that you have is important and it means something.

You’re not able to build that kind of a culture overnight. It takes time.

I’ve built my career around, ‘My word is my bond.’ People can, without a doubt, trust me. When I say something, I’m going to do something. ...

It’s pretty simple stuff, but leaders’ egos get in the way a lot of times. The most successful leaders are those that don’t have the large egos and care more about the individual and the company. If they genuinely care about their success, then along with that will come the success of the company.

Let employees know where they stand.

People want feedback. People want to know how they’re doing against their goals and objectives.

Everybody in the company is reviewed every 90 days, and they have an opportunity to have their direct report go over what their goals and objectives are in terms of their particular job and get feedback. That’s extremely important to raise the vitality of our people.

It’s really all about communication. ...

That’s helped to grow our company in terms of the quality of people.

The quarterly review process is a fabulous tool and one that gets very, very high marks from our team members.

Previous to that, people would wander around saying, ‘I don’t know whether I’m doing the right job,’ or, ‘I don’t know what so-and-so thinks.’ This leaves no doubts in the manager and the staff position of where they stand.

Associate Editor Patrick Mayock contributed to this story.


HOW TO REACH: Taylor-Morley Inc., (888) 297-3155 or

Sunday, 25 November 2007 19:00

Michael Kent

Michael Kent is a big believer in the idea that employee satisfaction plays a big role in a company’s ability to succeed in the marketplace. As such, the CEO of PromoWorks LLC, a Chicago-based marketing services provider, pays extra attention to creating a culture aimed at giving his staff a sense of comfort, fulfillment and belonging. Founded just eight years ago, PromoWorks posted 2006 revenue of $172.5 million and was recognized earlier this year as the nation’s No. 2 promotion agency by PROMO magazine. Kent, who is proud to know each of PromoWorks’ nearly 400 full-time employees by name, says a leader’s approachability and openness are significant factors in developing an environment in which employees have no doubt that their contributions are recognized and appreciated. Smart Business spoke with Kent about the benefits of creating a family culture and the importance of leading by example.

Set the vision and reinforce it to everyone in the organization. My leadership style is one of setting a vision at a very high level with our managers and guiding them down the path of driving that vision to the rest of their departments and their employees to get a cultural buy-in from the entire organization. I’m not a person who is hands-on on a regular basis. We’ve got great people and great leaders, and my job is to set the vision, set the values, set the tone of the organization and support them in driving home that message, those values and that vision to the rest of the employees.

It may seem elementary to some extent, but we do management meetings with the department heads monthly, we do all-employee quarterly meetings in a town-hall setting, and we also have a company newsletter that’s distributed monthly that highlights certain departments and the latest initiatives from a business standpoint.

We’ve grown over 1,000 percent in the last five years, and we are close to 400 full-time employees and 33,000 part-time employees. Having that touch point with your CEO gives employees a sense of buyin, in that it shows that management and leadership cares. They care enough to take the time to lay out their vision and values for everybody from the top of the ladder to the newest employee. We’ve found that having that type of connection with the employees while still empowering your managers to lead the day-to-day operations gives you a full range of support from a brand-new person all the way up to your partner.

Make work feel like home. Culture is a benefit in that what it does is create an opportunity for people to look at their jobs not as a job but to look at it as a career and to look at it as an integral part of the success of the company.

Let’s face it. The two biggest things we do from a time perspective in our daily lives are work and sleep. We all think about the time we want to get out of work and go home and spend with our families, and that’s extremely important, but the way that I look at our company and our culture is that this is their second family.

We want to create a culture here where people are excited to come to work to see their second family on a daily basis, they want to contribute to their family’s success and want to feel like they are a contributing factor, instead of somebody who shows up and punches a clock and then leaves and goes home.

We have really created almost a family culture internally in that we do a number of things extracurricularwise for the company outside of work. We have a number of softball teams, bowling teams, volleyball teams, basketball teams during the various seasons, we have a number of company functions with clients where everybody participates and is involved, so that everyone feels like they’re part of the business and that they’re a contributing factor in driving the success of the company.

Leave no man behind. We’re not necessarily a family business, but what I mean by a family culture is that in these town-hall meetings, it’s almost like a ‘no man left behind’ type of attitude.

We want people to participate in the success of the company, and in doing so, in having these town-hall meetings and having company functions where we can interact with each other outside of work, we create bonds beyond just the 9 to 5 of the workday. There is a culture here that everyone has each other’s back.

Not everyone is going to be on their A-game on a daily basis, but when you have a culture of support, such as what we have here, that’s able to substantiate itself throughout the business cycle. There’s a real camaraderie and dedication to a common goal of achieving extraordinary results through ordinary processes.

Lead by example. If you can’t perform a task or are not willing to step up and do it, why would your employees want to do it?

You walk the talk and you maintain a large amount of humility and common sense as you’re approaching the business because as your companies grow, the newest people that come in to the company view the CEO and the senior management as a group that’s not approachable or maybe untouchable. That is the complete opposite of the approach here in that I’m just as comfortable leading a high-level board meeting or client call as I am hosting our company picnic.

One thing that all key leaders share with each other is a vision for what they want to accomplish and a passion to be able to execute it. A leader’s actions speak louder than his words.

People can see your vision because you have communicated it to them, and your passion is evident in the way you conduct yourself to accomplish that vision.

HOW TO REACH: PromoWorks LLC, (888) 310-3555 or

Friday, 26 October 2007 20:00

Steve Baird

Steve Baird remembers clearly the day when he realized the culture he had worked to establish at Baird & Warner had taken hold. At a meeting of about 15 midlevel managers, Baird was told that one of his top executives — the direct superior of several of those in attendance — was not “a Baird & Warner person.” Though disturbed that he had somehow failed to notice this fact, Baird says he was nonetheless encouraged that his leadership team knew so well what it meant to be part of the 2,200-employee organization, which, with 2006 revenue of approximately $160 million, is the largest independent real estate broker in Illinois. Smart Business spoke with Baird about how to avoid complacency and make smart hires and the importance of establishing and reinforcing your vision.

Hire to fit your style. Any leader sets up an organization and hires people to his model. You essentially build your organization around your leadership style.

There are really good people who don’t necessarily work well with me, and it’s a stylistic thing. Initially, I thought it was just about hiring good people, and if they were good people, they could work together. What I’ve realized is that not only do you need good people, you need the right kind of people. It’s not right in an absolute sense, it’s right in that they need to fit with your style and your culture.

Recruiting for that is the hardest thing, and I don’t have a lot of confidence in my own ability to make judgments about people through an interview process. What we have tried to do is to eliminate variables. So, for most of the positions in the company, we have standardized questions that we ask, and we’re trying to build some experience in what works in our organization and what doesn’t work based on a standardized interview report.

We also have multiple-people interviews. Nobody works here in any major position without going through at least three or four interviews — and more like six or seven.

Define your expectations. The leader of any organization sets the tone. You define the culture, and you set the vision and the goals. The better and more distinctively you define it, the easier it is for the organization to become that culture. Then it takes some time. These things don’t happen overnight.

How do you really define those things as a leader? First is you set it out there and say, ‘Here’s what I want’ — culture, goals, planning, strategy, all that stuff. But the real definition comes firstly in who are the people you hire, but more importantly, who are the people you fire? The people you fire send a very distinct message that this kind of person or behavior or approach is not tolerated.

Everybody realizes when you hire that you’re trying to get there, but they give you some slack. When you don’t fire to that standard, whatever your threshold level for firing is, that becomes your standard.

Twice in my tenure I have fired the No. 1 producer in the company. Both times it shocked a lot of people, but those people were not Baird & Warner people. As the leader, almost everybody else in the company knows more about this than you do. You’re the last guy to know about it, so when you don’t do it, they’re watching you.

Even though they might be good people, if they see that you’ll tolerate that kind of behavior or activity or attitude, they will say, ‘He’s not as strong on this issue as I thought he would be, so next time I can come to the meeting a little late.’

If your standard is that everybody shows up on time and you allow a couple people to be 10 minutes late, your standard becomes 10 minutes late.

Reinforce your vision. You always want to look for things that reinforce your vision, your values and your goals. There are some simple ones — compensation programs — that reinforce the kind of behavior you want, but I’m very sensitive to things like what you do at a Christmas party. How do you act? What kind of party do you throw?

In almost everything you do, you are making decisions to do things a certain way. You have to look for opportunities, particularly public opportunities, to make a statement. Some of them are very subtle. How do you build out your space? How much money do you spend? And, if you want to get very literal about it, what’s the tone of the carpet? You project a certain image. We moved our corporate headquarters to a brand-new facility about seven years ago. We had been in the other facility for about 15 years, and it was a reasonably nice office, but when we moved over here, it really defined to people what we were about.

It was an opportunity to make a physical statement. We did some things in the way the space laid out that was more in line with our culture that kind of made all the other things click, and I was surprised it had that much of an impact.

Avoid complacency. Any organization has to be able to change and adapt, whether it’s how they do their business or how they make their products. There are a lot of people who don’t like change, and that’s just built into people’s psyches. Companies become complacent, but change is just a dynamic thing that happens in the marketplace. Organizations that continue to change and evolve are ones that are healthy and growing, and companies that don’t change, it’s just a matter of time before they’re going to struggle or be left by the wayside.

We’re a 152-year-old company. When I took over our company, I gave a lot of speeches about change, how other business have been affected by change and continually reinforcing how it works. The other thing I’ve tried to do is let people know that it’s not bad to fail. That’s a very hard thing to let people know about.

Employees, by their nature, are trying to please their bosses, so to foster a culture where people try things and fail is a really difficult thing to do. You have to be very careful that when someone tries something and fails that they don’t get down about it because if you’re not willing to fail, you’re never going to change.

HOW TO REACH: Baird & Warner, (800) 644-1855 or

Tuesday, 25 September 2007 20:00

James Bodman

Since introducing its hot dogs at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, Vienna Beef Ltd. has called Chicago home. And if James Bodman has his way, that isn’t about to change any time soon. Vienna’s chairman and CEO is committed to keeping his company true to its roots in what some consider the hot dog capital of the world and providing an income for 450 area families. Vienna, whose growth has somewhat mirrored that of Chicago itself, now offers condiments, soups, deli meats and pickles along with its famous dogs, and last year, the company produced more than 250 million hot dogs and recorded sales of about $105 million. Smart Business spoke with Bodman about the importance of change, how mistakes can help improve future decisions and why he empowers talented people and gets out of their way.

Keep your ego in check. I tend to hire people who are more talented than I am. I befriend them, I give them goals and I leave them alone. That’s difficult for some leaders to do. We all have some insecurities in life; I just don’t happen to have that particular one. I’ve had problems with managers in our own business that don’t pass on that philosophy, and they are afraid to go out and hire good people because they think they’re going to take their jobs.

Have trust in the fact that you can hire somebody who you think is better than you are. The man who runs our plant is better at it than I am. The guy who is our chief operating officer is better at it than I am. The guy who is our chief financial officer is new and learning the trade, and I’m kind of helping him along, but he is dramatically smarter than I am. He will be better at doing this than I could ever be.

Expect and accept mistakes. If you walked through this office and equated the quality of folk working here with the size of the business, you would be very taken aback. We have some enormously talented people.

Of the six or seven folks that I put into the close cadre of my leaders, any one of them could be the CEO of this company. These people love knowing that they can work for a company that is very athletic. They can make decisions and see the results of their decisions right away, and generally know that they’re not going to get their hair cut if they make the wrong decision. What they get is a smile in the hallway and the knowledge that they’ve got a million people standing behind them, and they’ll make a better decision the next time.

It’s like having a private in the Army shooting at the enemy. If he misses, you don’t go call him a schmuck because he won’t shoot again. You want him to feel free.

You want people to have the confidence knowing that a lot of the decisions that they make and a lot of the actions they take are going to be wrong. They have to have the confidence to continue doing it.

At the end of the day, you’ve got to support them, and when they make a mistake you’ve got to let them know that it’s OK, that you expect mistakes and that it’s good to have a mistake out of the way because that just increases the probability of the next decision not being a mistake.

Maintain focus on customer needs and embrace change. Sixty percent of our revenues today come from products that didn’t exist 20 years ago. If we don’t keep changing everything that we make and offering tastes and packaging that are more acclimated to the marketplace, we would go broke in a New York minute.

If we ran this company the way it was structured 40 years ago, we would no longer be in business. We derived 40 percent of our revenue from pickled corned beef, which is an easy-to-make, ethnically demanded product. You find it in the Irish bars and the old Jewish delis and Polish neighborhoods. Today, it represents 5 percent of our revenue, and the margins are small.

You have to keep moving away from things. You have to add value. You have to give the things to your customers that they are demanding that are parallel to what your abilities are. Too many companies get caught in the old-fashioned way.

I’m 66 years old. You know how I spent yesterday morning? I spent yesterday morning walking around with our salesman. We visited 10 hot dog stands in The Loop in downtown Chicago. I talked to them, and I listened to what they had to say.

Five of them bought from us, and five of them didn’t buy from us. There are now three of them that don’t buy from us. I go out and I talk to people. I listen to what customers have to say, and I make a solid practice of listening to our salesmen because they’re saying to us what the customer is saying.

Reward effort. If you put the right people in the marketplace and they give it effort, in the long run, they are going to succeed. It’s much like being the manager of a baseball team.

He’s got a guy playing out in left field who’s very talented, who’s trying very hard but who has had a bad spring. Things aren’t going well, and the press and everybody in the world is yelling at him to bench the guy. Just let him go. Give him some time to perform.

I’m willing to accept faults, and I’m willing to encourage people who maybe aren’t given all the talents in the world, and I’m willing to recognize and reward effort.

Too many people are fixed in the need to empirically drive income and promotions for their employees and rewarding aggression and performance as opposed to effort.

HOW TO REACH: Vienna Beef Ltd., (773) 278-7800 or

Thursday, 04 October 2007 20:00

Family business

Accepting awards is nothing new to the folks at Shearer’s Foods Inc. Since its founding in the mid-1970s, the Brewster-based snack food manufacturer has been honored for product quality, business growth, community service, customer service, innovation in manufacturing and now, after a 51 percent work force increase over the past five years, employee growth.

The company’s roots are humble enough. Though it currently employs more than 700 associates, the Shearer’s story starts with Jack and Rosemary Shearer, the operators of a third-generation, family-owned grocery story in Canton. After purchasing a small snack food distributorship in 1974 and expanding the business with the help of sons Bob and Tom — now Shearer’s CEO and vice president of business development, respectively — the family started manufacturing their own hand-cooked, kettle-style potato chips in 1979. Today, less than 30 years later, Shearer’s boasts three state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities that will produce an estimated 83.5 million pounds of product this year, a nearly 20 percent improvement on the company’s previous volume record that was set in 2006. Through four company-owned distribution centers in Ohio and Pennsylvania and a combined network of company-owned routes and select distributors, Shearer’s potato chips, tortilla chips, cheese curls and popcorn are now on shelves throughout the Midwest, New England and part of Canada. Through the company’s private-label customers, Shearer’s products have a worldwide distribution network.

Though Shearer’s staff increased from 406 to 614 employees between 2002 and 2006 and annual revenue grew from $61.5 million to $101.5 million over the same period, the company shows no signs of slowing down. With new and improved automation systems, additional volume capacity, a new distribution center, expanded product offerings and the acquisition of North Ridgeville-based Poppees Popcorn, Shearer’s projects revenue of $126 million for fiscal 2007 and anticipates further expansion of facilities and equipment capabilities.

Shearer’s has long been committed to improving its community. Through its Caring and Sharing committee, Shearer’s supports community needs with product and monetary donations. A 2006 Cascade Capital Business Growth Award honoree, Shearer’s was named Overall Success Story in the Manufacturing/Distributing category last year.

HOW TO REACH: Shearer’s Foods Inc., (330) 767-3426 or

Sunday, 26 August 2007 20:00

Brad Serlin

To illustrate what it takes to be part of the United Scrap Metal Inc. team, USM President Brad Serlin makes a distinction between a team member and just another employee. “An employee is really, in my eyes, one who receives a paycheck for doing good work,” Serlin says. “A team member is somebody who is really passionate about what they do. They believe in the organization, and they help us achieve our goals by facilitating customer service, which helps us grow and retain our customer base. They really take pride and ownership here and treat our customers like they’re family.” Considering that it was Serlin’s mother, Marsha Serlin, who founded USM in 1978, it’s not surprising that making customers and employees feel like part of the family comes naturally to Serlin. And facilitating a culture of teamwork and collaboration within the organization has paid off. The mother-and-son combination — Marsha Serlin is USM’s CEO — has grown the metal buyer and recycler from an initial investment of $200 to 2006 revenue of approximately $140 million. Smart Business spoke with Brad Serlin about his secret to staying positive and the rewards of being a good corporate citizen.

Get involved. I’m a lead-by-example individual. It’s imperative for a strong team to have somebody who’s willing to roll up their sleeves and get involved with pretty much every facet of the business.

I try to walk through each different department within our operation and consistently interact with all of our employees and engage with them and see how they’re doing, give them positive feedback and basically get a handle on how things are going for them and any challenges or issues that they’re facing.

It goes over very well. I speak some level of layman’s Spanish — I would call it entry-level Spanish — but with our work force being predominantly Hispanic, that has a very positive impression on them, even just simple conversational Spanish.

When an owner or a key leader takes an interest in what they’re doing and how they tie into the organization’s goals, it really goes a long way in letting them know that they play an important role in what we’re looking to do.

Encourage feedback and seek the opinions of others. I’m a big advocate of teamwork, and I’m setting that example in everything I do by involving the other managers and departments and collaborating, leveraging their experience and expertise in the industry. I’m not afraid, if I don’t have an answer, to flat out let people know that I don’t have the answer and that I’m really looking to learn from them. A lot of leaders feel like they always have to have the answer, and I don’t feel in any way that, that has to be the case.

I want to learn from their expertise. These are the individuals that are doing the job every day, every week, every month, and they have more answers than I do.

Open communication and candor are essential in creating a culture of team-work and collaboration. People feel comfortable, and they feel like they have a voice and have an impact on the things that we do, and that’s what it’s all about. I’m really proactive with soliciting their feedback and input and finding out if I’m doing a good job leading and directing the company.

We don’t offer a lot of criticism here; we call them ‘improve-upons.’ We’re very big on revisiting the improve-upons and exchanging feedback because, in a dynamic organization, it goes both ways, up and down the organizational chart.

Be a good corporate citizen. Part of our culture is giving back to the community and others that are less fortunate, and we’re very involved in charities and other phil-anthropic and community endeavors, and so we interview for that. When we bring team members aboard, they have an understanding of how significant that is to our culture and that, that is a core value and that if they don’t understand it or believe in it, they won’t be a great fit here.

We built the safety village in the town of Cicero, we’re on the chamber of commerce, the school board, the archdiocese. We’re probably a little extreme, but what we’ve done as owners is we’ve engaged our team members.

In a lot of companies, the pressure is on the senior management or the owners, and we’ve engaged our team members, and they rally around it, and they really enjoy it, and it helps to build a more cohesive team. Giving back to the community absolutely helps our team members feel good about what they’re doing.

Another benefit has been engaging our customers within all of our charitable, community and philanthropic endeavors. That’s been fun because our customers enjoy it. It’s hard in a business. You can become so internally focused that you can lose sight of the big picture, and the big picture is giving back and helping others and being active in the community.

Stay positive. The most significant challenge a business leader faces is staying positive. Whatever business or industry you’re in, you’re constantly facing challenges. You have such a strong impact on the other team members that it is so important that you are positive leading the way. You can’t develop a positive culture and environment without the leader embodying that.

One of my secrets to staying positive is this: We have a recycling center here that serves the public. We have people coming here pushing carts who collect metal, whether it’s aluminum cans or other metals, and these are people that are basically living on the street.

However bad you might think you have it that day or however tough a challenge you feel like you’re facing, it’s not as bad as what they’re enduring every day. However bad you feel it is, you could have it a lot worse.

United Scrap Metal has been blessed to have achieved success, and for the owners, one of the greatest things that we’re able to do is give back and allow our team members to develop careers and advance through our organization. That, to us, is very rewarding.

HOW TO REACH: United Scrap Metal Inc., (708) 780-6800 or

Sunday, 26 August 2007 20:00

Premium performance

When Greg Muzzillo turned his $200 investment into sales of $250,000 in the first year after founding Proforma in 1978, it was a sign of good things to come.

The Cleveland-based provider of marketing and promotions materials, which serves clients through more than 600 franchise owners in the U.S. and Canada, has shown sales growth every year since its inception and now boasts annual revenue of $250 million.

Along with his wife, Vera, with whom he has shared the CEO title since 2001, Muzzillo has worked continuously to develop new resources to support franchise owners and assist them in providing the highest possible level of service to the organization’s approximately 30,000 clients. Proforma’s tech department helps create individually customized Web sites for all franchise owners, and each site is equipped with e-commerce capabilities that allow the franchisee’s customers to make personalized orders online.

In addition, Proforma’s marketing department helps franchise owners develop promotional materials for their own businesses and creates marketing campaigns that can be customized to fit an individual owner’s business. The business development department provides business coaches and other services to franchise owners and is also available for consulting during any mergers and acquisitions in which franchisees take part.

However, perhaps the most innovative of these resources is Proforma’s North American Major Accounts Program. Spearheaded by the company’s executive team, with Greg and Vera Muzzillo at the lead, the program is designed to identify prospective customers with revenue of more than $100,000 and match the prospect with an owner in the correct geographical location to support the account. Proforma representatives then help franchise owners develop a relationship with the prospect and guide them through the bidding process.

Far from the norm in the franchising industry, Proforma’s business-to-business model has the advantage of a lower initial investment and the opportunity to take advantage of a well-established brand and support system. Because many business functions normally handled by franchisees, such as accounts receivable, marketing and lead generation, are essentially outsourced to Proforma’s owner support center, franchisees can commit more resources to serving their customers.

HOW TO REACH: Proforma, or (216) 520-8400

Thursday, 26 July 2007 20:00

Growth spurt

Brian Whiteman was an enterprising young man — while his high-school classmates were hanging out at the mall, the 15-year-old Whiteman was laying the foundation for what would become, an online printing company specializing in business cards and, he says, user-friendliness.

Whiteman has come a long way from making color copies in his parents’ garage with five employees; now with 100 employees, his company posted 2006 revenue of $15 million, and, as Whiteman says, the sky is the limit.

“It’s just a matter of time before we become the largest online printing company in the world,” Whiteman says. “I’m extremely, extremely passionate about what I do. I live, breathe and eat what I do, and we try to pass that passion on to all the employees.”

Smart Business spoke with Whiteman about flexibility, inspiring passion and planning for the future.

Q: How would you describe your leadership style?

I like to let my employees know that they can make a difference in anything they do. I like for them to be able to act as though they were the owner of this company, that they are the entrepreneurs.

They can make a change, and I give them the flexibility, within reason, to do whatever they think they would do if they owned the company to make the company better. I give them a tremendous amount of flexibility. As a result, they don’t feel like they are chained to a desk.

The benefits are they can grow with the company in any way. They can do one segment of the business, and six months later, they can be doing something totally different. The sky is the limit here. We tell all the people to buckle their seat belts and get ready for the ride.

Q: How do you identify those who can handle responsibility?

We give everybody a fair shot, and we see what they can do. If we don’t give them that opportunity, the company is not going to grow. People aren’t going to be happy in the environment.

I have never worked for anyone my entire life. I have been doing the same thing since I was 15 years old, so it’s been almost 18 years now. I treat my employees as though they’re my kids. It’s an extremely pleasant environment.

We are all working almost a third of our lives in a company here. If it wasn’t pleasant, I wouldn’t do it, and I wouldn’t want them to do it either.

Q: How can a leader communicate his or her goals and vision?

I convey it by being extremely positive and extremely passionate about what I do. I don’t see how an employee can go to work for somebody if they don’t see that passion and that excitement in their employer.

I would have a hard time going to work for someone if I did not see that the owner of the company was passionate and excited about it. Whenever we talk and I’m around the employees, everything is always upbeat and exciting, and I’m always conveying the message that the opportunity for people to grow here is mind-boggling.

They see the way I interact with other employees, they see the way I interact with customers, and they believe in the dream that they are working for the best online printing company out there, and that we’re going to be the biggest online printing company in the world. If I keep mentioning that to them, and we’re all striving for the same goal, we will achieve it.

Q: Is it possible to grow too fast?

We keep doubling every single year and our products become better, our quality becomes better, our prices become lower and the customer base keeps on growing. We set up the right foundation from the beginning to give our employees the right tools to be able to handle the customers.

Leaders have to look into the future. They have to realize what their company would be like if they went from 20 employees to 500 employees. You can’t get to where you want unless you can visualize it, and you’ve got to set the right procedures up so you know you can achieve what you want. The danger in not doing so is that you won’t achieve it.

If you don’t have a vision and you don’t know where you’re going, you’re never going to get there. I started out of my parents’ garage, and I knew when I was 16 or 17 years old that I wanted to have a 100,000-square-foot facility, and it took me five moves, but we finally did it.

HOW TO REACH:, (800) 263-0847 or

Monday, 25 June 2007 20:00

Setting the standard

Mike Rodman makes no mistake about his belief in hard work and leadership by example.

“I’m asking everybody at the company to work very hard, and I personally work very hard,” says Rodman, president and CEO of Advanced Planning Services Inc. “It’s a lot easier for me to ask that of others when they see that even the president of the company is busting his tail every morning, up early, working hard and traveling a lot. In some companies, the leader is absent a lot or not as active, and it sets the tone for everybody else when they see how hard I work.”

Balancing that hard work with the right amount of fun helped grow Advanced Planning Services’ annual revenue to more than $20 million in 2006.

Rodman, who describes the company he founded in 2002 as “an adviser to other financial advisers,” spoke with Smart Business about encouraging buy-in and the importance of having confidence in your employees.

Q: How would you describe your leadership style?

My style is leadership by example, and it’s also a collective style. As opposed to demanding what I want, I tend to seek the opinions of my senior management in such a way that I can listen to what everybody has to say before I make a decision on what I want to do.

You have to communicate regularly, and you can ask for feedback often. It’s both communicating in an outbound way and asking for input and feedback. The benefit is that I solicit everybody’s input before I make a decision, and I’m more likely to have more information. It also enhances the buy-in of the employees that they have at least the opportunity to be heard before a decision is made.

Some of the best ideas come from that collaboration, so the decisions that are made are better than if I had taken the position that I know everything myself.

Q: How else can a leader enhance buy-in?

I like to empower my employees with great authority at an early point and give them a chance to show me that, given that opportunity, they can make the most of it. That’s the key ingredient.

Once I see some talent in even a young person or a new person, I tend to give them a significant opportunity to see how far they can go without too many reporting requirements. Some people really embrace that and excel, and others waste that opportunity.

I have great faith in the talent of the people that I’ve hired, so I don’t think it’s necessary to micromanage them. For the most part, I have not been let down.

I have a high degree of confidence in newer people or younger people in positions that demand expertise, and I’ve been consistently impressed with the results that I’ve seen. Therefore, I am stretching more and more every time I get the chance.

It’s a sign that I have confidence in them, which is really important to get buy-in, but it also, frankly, eliminates any excuse for failure. They can’t blame it on the lack of empowerment. It’s a combination of a real sign of confidence, but it also lets that person know that if it doesn’t work, I know where the buck stops.

Q: How has growth affected your culture?

It’s been enhanced. It’s the new blood in an organization that makes everyone that has been here for a long time better. Although the initial reaction sometimes when you bring on new people is that it threatens the old people, we get a real boost of enthusiasm and excitement with all the new associates that we bring on.

I involve some of the existing senior people in the interviewing process of all new people to get buy-in before we hire a person. Once a person is on board, I encourage that person to have no limits on what they think they can do, because I firmly believe that people are capable of doing more than they think.

If you can get a new person to knock the ball out of the park in the first year, it helps remind some of your existing people that they can do it again, as well.

Q: What is one trait that all successful business leaders share?

Optimism. You have to believe that you can accomplish what you set out to accomplish, or else you’re destined to failure. I let all of my employees know that I have great confidence in them and that I am optimistic that they can do the job.

When they’re doubting themselves, my optimism and support of them helps them turn the corner sometimes when times are tough. A sense of confidence and optimism makes people stick to the task at hand when it seems like they might not be winning, and if they just hang in there a little bit longer, they will win.

HOW TO REACH: Advanced Planning Services Inc., (619) 220-8116 or

Monday, 25 June 2007 20:00

Sweet smell of success

In much the same way that Jill Belasco crafts perfect scents for her clients, she works to craft a positive and productive chemistry within her team. As president and CEO of Latitudes International Fragrance Inc., a private label designer and manufacturer of fragrance products that she founded in 1994, Belasco has worked to inspire passion in her 150-person work force — something she says starts at the top.

“The most important thing is that they see my passion for the business,” Belasco says. “If the person who is leading you is motivated, then you are motivated. If they are passionate, then you become passionate.”

With $16.5 million in 2006 revenue and projections of more than $22 million this year, something is working.

Belasco spoke with Smart Business about the art of building a team and why a leader has to be willing to go for it.

Q: How do you develop team chemistry?

I have had, over the years, mixed results, as I’m sure most managers have, with building the right chemistry within a team. It’s difficult to find the right talent, but some things can be taught. Personality and chemistry cannot be taught.

We are more likely to bring people on board that we feel are a good fit emotionally and personalitywise who may not have industry experience or who may not have the exact experience we’re looking for, because that can be taught. We’re more likely to try somebody out for three or four months on a contract basis to make sure the team is correct, because we have been caught, like any manager has, in the ‘hire because we’ve got an opening and we really want to fill it’ and had somebody not be the right personality for our culture.

The first part of building the team is being really careful who you put in there and weighing other aspects besides experience, other characteristics. For us, that’s important. Once you have a great team that works together like one unit, it’s easy to keep them motivated because they really want to achieve the same goals that the company wants to achieve. They have clarity of what we’re targeting.

Q: How can a leader best communicate his or her goals to employees?

Apart from traditional quarterly staff meetings and regular management meetings, which everybody does and we do, reinforcing targets and goals and the company philosophy is sort of a daily and weekly thing. You show it in your actions and in every interaction with your colleagues and staff.

We always talk about, ‘How does this fit into the bigger company goals?’ and we remind ourselves what our goals are regularly. If we have to make a major decision, how does it dovetail into the goal we’re trying to achieve?

It’s regular discussion about what the company’s targets are and what the company’s goals are. We’re also pretty transparent with information here, and that lets people feel that they have a hand in it.

Q: What are the other benefits of being open with information?

Anytime an employee has a sense of ownership or a proprietary feeling about a company, you’ve got a long-term employee on your hands. You’ve got someone who wants to grow with the company because they believe in the team.

You can really see the difference in companies where people don’t feel they have any kind of effect on the business. We talk about having an owner’s point of view all the time, and we make sure that if people have an owner’s point of view that they’re rewarded.

We’re a privately held company, but we make sure our bonus program reflects people that have an owner’s point of view. If the company succeeds and has a great year, then our people have a great year, especially if they feel they are part of the team.

If people feel that they have a stake in what’s happening to the company in whatever form, whether stock or a bonus program or whatever it is, and that they can affect the company’s direction, you’ve got a partner for life.

Q: What is one trait that all successful business leaders share?

I don’t know if it’s bravery or stupidity, but I think it’s probably bravery. You can’t run a business if you’re too chicken. You can’t be a coward and be a business leader, and you have to be doubly brave if it’s your own money and your own company.

You can’t be afraid to say yes or no, if no is the right thing to say, and you have to be able to take a risk or your business isn’t going to grow. The only way businesses grow is if somebody says, ‘Let’s go for it.’

HOW TO REACH: Latitudes International Fragrance Inc., (866) 639-3999 or

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