Akron/Canton (3279)

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:41

Slow track to success

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If you want to discuss rapid start-up, accelerated growth and IPO exit strategies, Jeff Clair wouldn’t be your likely source. But if you want to learn why some consider it crucial to take your own sweet time to build a successful business, pull up a chair.

Clair is president of a Canton firm that some refer to as “the dot-com behind the dot-coms,” partly because Data Direct Inc. (www.datadirect.com) develops and hosts Web sites, with an emphasis on e-commerce and database development. The designation also applies because Clair was a pioneer who launched the area’s first independent Internet firm, and he’s outlasted many new-sprung competitors despite his slow, strategic approach to growth.

Clair, 44, started his company in 1984 as a sole proprietorship. His initial focus was database development and Unix consulting, and his key customer was B.F. Goodrich. Ten years later, Clair decided the Internet had progressed to the point where it was time to quit his day job and incorporate his company. (He was an electronics and programming specialist at Aultman Hospital.)

“At that time, the Internet was predominately Unix-based, and that’s where our core competency was. So it was a natural evolution for us to get into the Web,” he says.

Back then, many sacrifices were necessary to build a successful Internet firm, says Clair, because the Web’s potency had not yet been proven in terms of a return on investment. Client education was a major part of every sales presentation, and to build a reputation and a portfolio, Clair designed many sites without charge, or for next to nothing.

Since then, the Internet has become a must-have marketing tool for every business, and Clair’s company has proven itself as a preferred provider. Still, he has taken small steps in moving his company up the ladder of success. Today, doing business at 4565 Dressler Road in Canton, Data Direct employs 10 people — a staff Clair says is small, but strategic.

“I’ve watched other companies quickly spring from two to 50 employees, then lose their major clients and have to lay off their employees. I didn’t want that to happen to us, because the strength of this company lies in the expertise of our employees,” he says.

As for Data Direct’s clients, the CEOs and business managers of those companies credit Clair’s strategic specialization and appreciate his approach to growth.

Bill Jasso, vice president for public affairs at Time Warner in Northeast Ohio, says that in 1995, when Time was searching for site developers to help create Web content for the launch of Roadrunner, the nation’s first high-speed online computer service, Clair was selected for more than one reason.

“Here was a guy who grasped what we were looking for, which was someone who saw the advantages of creating Web content in a broadband environment,” Jasso says. “We also appreciated Jeff’s business sense. He wasn’t one of these get in, get rich and get out guys. He looked at this as a business for the long term, so we saw him as someone we could develop a long-term relationship with — which is essential for any business activity.”

Mark Adams, president of The Rogers Company — a Mentor-based tradeshow booth designer — was one of Clair’s first clients. He, too, says Clair’s business approach was a deciding factor in doing business with Data Direct.

“When we hired Jeff to do our first Web site in 1995, I liked the fact that here was a guy trying to get a company going, and he was going at it with consistent, measured growth as opposed to stratospheric numbers,” says Adams, still a loyal Data Direct client.

The company’s numbers have reached $1.2 million in annual sales, a figure Clair says is notable considering he’s come this far on his own.

“I’ve looked at investors and venture capital, but I didn’t want to have to go that route because I wanted to keep control of the company and keep it headed in a specific direction,” says Clair.

Holding tight to the reins has necessitated insightful planning and creative thinking, he says, explaining that one of the ways he’s grown the numbers is by establishing strategic partnerships.

“Our strategy involved developing partnerships with local advertising agencies because, since the Web is an advertising vehicle, we knew they could offer their own clients Internet marketing options along with their other advertising efforts,” Clair says.

Among the alliances are those with Canton companies Crowl Montgomery & Clark Inc., Innis Maggiore Group and Covey & Koons Inc.

“Our partnership has worked well because we both have a firm understanding of what the Web can accomplish for a company,” says Rod McGregor, senior vice president of Crowl Montgomery & Clark. “Jeff also knows what he’s good at and he knows what we’re good at. We handle the strategic issues of marketing and operational directives of our clients’ Web sites, and he’s involved in the back-end decisions, like the database and e-commerce applications. So we’ve meshed well.”

Innis Maggiore president Dick Maggiore says that once his firm determines the creative direction for a client Web site, Data Direct tackles all the complicated, back-end applications.

“It’s a partnership in which we complement each other, and we’re able to provide our clients a complete package because Data Direct also houses some of our client sites on their server,” says Maggiore.

Covey & Koons president Rod A. Covey says, “It’s been a great partnership, great for our business and great for our clients, because Data Direct provides all the technical support we need.”

To provide that technical support and solve problems for clients, Clair has made strategic investments in technology.

“We’ve constantly added and upgraded new equipment in the past few years, and Oracle was probably our biggest investment in one fell swoop,” Clair says, confiding that the Oracle software — a $100,000 investment — enhanced Data Direct’s e-commerce site development capabilities.

For example, when Myers Tire Supply wanted to expand its market and move into e-commerce, Data Direct used the Oracle software to build a database that enables multiple searches, including keyword, manufacturer, product code and pull down menus. Oracle was also used to develop the database for Stark County Family Council’s site — which provides resource referrals to the community and transmits user requests to more than 130 cooperating agencies.

“We’ve also made significant investments in the servers in our T-1 connectivity to the Internet,” says Clair, noting Data Direct began offering hosting solutions five years ago.

But Clair’s colleagues say he’s been careful not to overinvest in technology.

“A lot of Web companies have gone under because the tendency too often is to become enamored with the latest and greatest of technologies,” says McGregor. “Jeff knows that in this business, you can’t overcommit to capital expenditures of technology. You have to have the business in hand before you start committing all sorts of funds for growth. He’s taken a more structured and conservative approach than what you might find in a similar operation of his size.”

Clair has also been careful to stick with his specialty, rather than trying to offer every Web-related service. As the Internet became more widely used and companies increasingly wanted to have more than just a static Web presence, Clair strengthened his forte to meet their needs.

“Rather than putting up brochure-type Web sites, we moved into the interactive and database arenas, because that’s where our expertise was, and those are the areas that offer more benefits to the client and the consumer,” he says.

Clair recalls that his first e-commerce client was Conferon, a Twinsburg seminar-management firm for which Data Direct designed online registration sites, collected registration and ordered information entered by users, encrypted the data and electronically forwarded it to the client.

From there, Clair started providing myriad e-commerce solutions for other companies — from order processing and fulfillment services to intensive database design and interactive site development.

He was also careful not to offer off-the-shelf packages that didn’t specifically meet a client’s need.

“We decided to specialize in finding solutions for clients by sitting down with them, listening to what they really needed, and designing solutions especially for them,” says Clair.

More than anything, Clair says he’s learned from experience.

“As far as the planning goes, a lot of my growth has been planned, but so much of it is experience as I go, from cash management to sales and marketing. You have to wear so many different hats and it’s an enormous education process. But I’ve learned so much about running a business and what it takes to survive,” he says.

Clair says he plans to guide Data Direct into the new millennium by expanding e-business development with regard to extranets and intranets.

“Extranets and intranets can be applied to a variety of scenarios to take e-commerce to a different level of business. Our Oracle partnership strengthens our product offering and we can confidently focus on developing this area,” he says.

He also plans to strengthen strategic partnerships crucial to his success.

“We’ve worked hard in the past year by analyzing the market and identifying our own strengths and weaknesses. This year we will pursue strategic alliances to assist with areas outside of our core competencies,” he says.

“We’ve already the felt the effect of our focus on these areas, and I’m confident that we will meet our goals.” How to reach: Data Direct Inc. (330) 499-0692; (888) 438-6768 www.datadirect.com

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:41

No regrets

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We all have things hanging over our heads. In folklore, they were referred to as daggers and black clouds.

But they’re just pieces of unfinished business. Some remain there, dangling inches above us, for years. Some slip, leaving a place for another unresolved issue to slide in. I have a few clouds lingering over my head: finishing my master’s thesis (that one’s been there for years); taking my car in for an estimate (that one’s been there since I was rear-ended on I-77 a week ago); and hiring a reporting staff.

When I was transferred to SBN’s Akron office a year ago from the company’s corporate office in Cleveland, my first order of the day was to hire a reporting staff. I didn’t have any free-lance writers lined up, and the staff reporter who had been working here had just left to go to a small daily newspaper in Port Clinton.

I immediately placed ads on several Web sites for journalists, and in the communications section of a couple general job-search sites.

I received e-mailed resumes daily, though not many of the applicants were from the area. I interviewed the handful of local applicants, and some recent journalism school graduates who could afford to work for the budgeted salary.

While this was happening, I had a magazine to put out, and I found myself relying on a couple of highly experienced reporters who had become full-time free-lancers. Because of their skill level and qualifications, I simply couldn’t afford to pay them enough to work here full-time, so I considered our agreement a short-term contingency plan.

But as time passed, the arrangement went from acceptable to desirable. My search for full-time reporters started to take a back seat to my editing responsibilities, and even though I was lacking a staff, I was improving upon the quality of the product every month.

I found I had been caught in the home-based business trend, and I was either going to benefit from it or fall victim to it.

When it comes to employment trends, journalists have always been on the forefront. Most of us had flexible hours 10 years ago (how can you cover “news” if you have to work from 9 to 5?), and we were free-lancing decades before the term “home-based business” was coined.

Now that it’s becoming more acceptable to be self-employed, more journalists are gladly turning in their full-time status for the freedom of working for themselves. And as it becomes harder to find good writers and editors to work for average salaries, it becomes easier for free-lancers to make a good living.

I’ve found that for the same budget that had allowed the previous editor to hire two junior-level reporters, I am able to afford the services of four veteran reporters to contribute to the magazine every month. What’s more, they work at lightning speed, are professional and well connected. The nature of their jobs has transformed their work ethic to one that parallels that of an entrepreneur.

In return, I try to offer these writers some of the perks I would offer a full-time reporter — like business cards and access to company accounts — because their roles to me are just as valuable.

So I’m removing that cloud from above my head, and in the meantime, I have to remember to stop looking for traditional solutions to problems that arise in a highly evolving world.

Connie Swenson (cswenson@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:41

Getting down to business

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Daniel Colantone lives by his watch, his desk clock and his daily planner.

The president and CEO of the region’s largest business association says that after having his personality assessed through a Briggs-Meyers test several years ago, he realized that he needed a rigid schedule. And that was OK.

These days, that rigidity is well-suited to Colantone’s position. As head of the Akron Regional Development Board, he is charged with managing a $2.5 million budget and 26 employees, and fulfilling the lofty mission of the 25-year-old organization: to facilitate economic growth in the region. A membership of 2,000 businesses, and a board of directors that includes company presidents, congressmen and other local chamber presidents, holds him accountable.

With that kind of pressure, he can’t afford to get off schedule.

In January, Colantone was chosen to succeed Dick Erickson, who left the ARDB last fall to head a new regional business coalition.

Prior to his appointment, Colantone served as president and CEO of the Manhattan, Kan., chamber of commerce. His accomplishments there, including boosting membership, developing a public policy agenda and creating a 5-year strategic plan, resulted in the chamber being awarded Number One Chamber in the Nation by the National Association of Membership Development, an affiliate of the American Chamber of Commerce Executive Association.

Colantone has also held marketing positions with the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Raleigh, N.C., Chamber of Commerce.

He comes to the ARDB at a crucial time. Next month, the board will announce its decision to move its headquarters to a new downtown location. As of now, a recommendation has been approved by the board, but the lease has not been signed. The objectives for the move are to provide better image and visibility for the organization and to provide improved space and better functionality for all of its divisions and partnerships. The larger space will also be set up to accommodate features including a business resource and technology center, more meeting rooms and a training center.

After just 90 days on the job, Colantone spoke to SBN about how he hopes to accomplish the goals laid out before him. We thought our readers should better understand the objectives of the man charged with “facilitating economic and business growth” in the area.

What exactly is the mission of the ARDB and how does it differ from other local chambers of commerce?

The ARDB’s mission is to promote and facilitate economic and business growth and prosperity to benefit the people and businesses of the region by providing a continuing source of business services information and advocacy.

The ARDB is a combined chamber of commerce and economic development organization within one organization. As a chamber of commerce, we’re a business of 26 professionals who support the needs of business; but we’re also an economic development organization whose goal is to foster economic prosperity in the region.

You will find some communities that just have a chamber of commerce and some that have separate chambers of commerce and economic development organizations. You’ll also find communities that are similar to the ARDB that will have both of those organizations within one organization.

What is No. 1 on your priority list today?

My No. 1 priority is to develop a regional economic development marketing strategy for the tri-county region; a marketing strategy that will sell the region to businesses that are already here; and sell to businesses outside the region to relocate here.

Give an example of something you do every day to work toward that goal.

Each and every day there are different tactics that we have in place to meet that objective. Different strategies that we’re working include a retention and expansion program, where we go out and visit companies; an effort to work with our industrial clusters initiative, which works with the core competencies of a community to help determine what their challenges are, what their needs are to not only exist in today’s marketplace, but to position themselves for the new economy.

Looking at the business community in Akron, what is its biggest weakness right now?

I want to consider weaknesses as challenges. Our biggest challenge is to foster the agendas of business, education and government in a cohesive vision to build the community. That’s our biggest challenge.

Has that been done before?

It’s been done, historically. It’s been something that all communities wrestle with. When I look at the Akron region, I look at it as a product. A product that we sell collectively together with our community partners.

That product is the region, and we’re competing in a global marketplace. As a result of that, the biggest challenge we face is that education leaders, government leaders and business leaders — who obviously all have their own missions — work together to create quality of life for all the citizens of the community. I think that’s our biggest challenge — bringing us all together working on one goal.

Where would you rank this collective effort among your top goals for the ARDB?

No. 1, we have to build upon our strengths; we have strong industrial clusters in the community, and we have to create an economic development marketing strategy to build upon our past successes and build jobs in those industry clusters.

No. 2, we need to better build the infrastructure and capacity for small- and medium-sized businesses to be more profitable. We need to provide better business services, information and education to the existing business community to better position themselves to compete in the marketplace.

No. 3 is to foster regional cooperation with business, government and education. We need to build a coalition of those three entities in a cohesive way that will help identify our real priorities building the community of the future.

I could almost give a fourth one, and as the premier advocate for business, we need to be more proactive in advocating the business agenda. We need to not only develop a public policy document, a legislative initiatives document, but we need to develop a tactical plan to articulate our position to government, education and business and encourage them to embrace that agenda.

Looking at those four priorities, how much have you altered them from what existed before you arrived at the ARDB?

Under Dick Erickson’s leadership, I think the organization went through the changes necessary to set the foundation for these four initiatives. Historically, the ARDB has had 25 years of success. Under Dick’s leadership, he set the foundation for us and really helped to position us where we are today. My perspective on it now is to take what’s been done and help foster additional leadership in the community to really focus in on these core strategies.

How do you plan to foster leadership in the community?

I think the network’s already there. I think we have leadership within the organization on our executive committee, on the board of trustees and on committees and task forces. Now as we initiate projects and activities, we need to continue to communicate our message to the other members of the business community: what our priorities are, where the needs are and where they might play a role in being active in helping us to meet those goals.

How are you taking a personal role in accomplishing that?

I believe my job is to do two things. One is to market the organization in the community and to be the spokesperson for the organization in the community on all the reasons why the Akron region is a great place to do business. No. 2 is to be out there developing and cultivating leadership for our organization in the community.

What is your biggest personal strength that helps you fulfill your role?

My No. 1 strength is in sales and marketing.

What is your biggest weakness?

Probably patience. I think taking one day at a time is very important. Success doesn’t happen overnight. Sometimes I need to be a little more patient.

What advice or experience that you picked up along the way do you rely on on a regular basis?

My spiritual journey, my faith and my family. I think what’s important each and every day is that you’re making a difference in other people’s lives, you’re contributing to others. I’ve learned over the years that if you can make others successful and make a difference in their lives, you’re really making a contribution. I think that ties to why I have such passion for this business, because I feel that if I am part of building a community, I’m making a contribution that makes a difference in other people’s lives for years.

If you could ask one thing of the business community to help you with your job, what would that be?

I would ask the business community to re-engage themselves in the Akron Regional Development Board. I would ask the business community to invest in the Akron Regional Development Board either through financial support or by volunteering their time and energy, because we do represent all 20,000 businesses in the region.

I would ask them to re-evaluate the mission and the goals of the organization, because we’re the only organization that represents all businesses in the region and the only organization that’s really marketing the region as the place to do business.

And what can you promise in return?

In general, a much stronger, vibrant, stimulated economy in which to do business. If businesses invest in an organization like the ARDB, they’re going to get dividends back. The big picture is creating a prosperous, vibrant economy, and that’s one in which all businesses can thrive and prosper. By businesses prospering and being more profitable, they’re offering better employment opportunities, and better employment opportunities means that the resources are increased to provide a better quality of life for all citizens.

Whose support do you need in terms of Akron’s leadership?

Obviously, the most important support is from the private sector. The business leadership of all size com

panies in the region needs to be re-engaged. No. 2, the leadership of education at the university level, both at the University of Akron and Kent State University. We also need the leaders of city and county governments and we need our state and federal political leadership to be at the table helping us to build the community.

How important is it for you to have a good relationship with other chambers in Northeast Ohio?

It’s absolutely imperative that we have a strong, passionate relationship with all of the chambers and economic development organizations in Northeast Ohio. Northeast Ohio is a product, so we all have to work together on improving that product. It’s also important on a global perspective for us to have good partnerships with all of the communities in Ohio as we sell against other states, and as we sell against European markets.

Where would you like the ARDB to be in five years?

No. 1, that we have delivered on our promises, and that is to be a stronger advocate for business, to have better quality products and services to offer to more businesses to help them be profitable, and that we’ve been at the table with our community partners and truly have instituted new initiates to better position the region in the new economy.

If I were in five years to look back and say, ‘Boy, we really marketed the organization, we grew the organization, we provided better quality services, we did a better job of being the premier advocate for business and we worked with our community partners to truly foster initiatives that are going to create a much better place to do business and to live,’ I will feel that I have contributed to making a difference.

Connie Swenson (cswenson@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:41

Double vision

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On a busy street just off the circle in Tallmadge, there’s a multifaceted firm doing business as System Optics Inc.

Contrary to the name, the company doesn’t just meet the need for comprehensive optical, optometric and ophthalmologic services — the specialties on which Dr. Jerry Sude and Dr. Todd Beyer established the company in 1992.

The practice also includes laser vision correction surgery. Launched in 1998 under the banner of Refractive Surgery Associates, this division incorporates current medical technology and pre-operative, operative and post-operative care for patients who opt for refractive surgery.

And there’s a division that offers head-to-toe plastic surgery, which debuted in 1998 as Cosmetic Surgical Arts under the direction of Dr. David Dellinger, a plastic surgeon, and a full skin care center.

All these specialties are offered under one roof — a 13,000-square-foot medical facility which encompasses a reception area, optical dispensary and laboratory, examination and testing rooms, ambulatory surgery areas, and offices for the physicians, administrative, accounting and insurance billing areas.

Besides Beyer, Sude and Dellinger, there are two other physicians and 42 employees. Beyer is president and medical director; Sude is vice president and oversees the optometric division. Since the physicians are partners in this complex company, they’re essentially CEOs. But how do they compensate for the fact that they were trained as medical experts — not as business managers?

“It’s all about going out and getting the experts or consultants, and the best technology, to help us achieve our goals,” says Sude.

One of those experts is administrator Scott Weekley, who has a degree in industrial management and a decade of medical management experience. Sude credits Weekley for bringing order to what might otherwise be chaos. Weekley attributes the success of each practice area — and the business as a whole — to clockwork collaboration.

Cross marketing. Sude says a key to the company’s success is a focus on cross-marketing its different divisions. When a new offering is introduced, such as a lens warranty program or a new optic nerve analyzer, every employee is made aware of it, so they can promote new services to patients.

There’s also a patient training area where laptop presentations, lectures and seminars are presented about elective surgery offerings, and where patients can watch videos that explain the risks and benefits of the medical procedures.

Coordination. In addition to structured administrative systems, Weekley keeps checklists in the surgery areas to engender efficiency and accuracy — such as medical supplies lists, and chart audits to ensure the correct forms and health histories are in the chart of each patient scheduled for surgery.

“I also make sure we have the right people in the right positions, such as a director of nursing and managers in each of the divisions, and make sure they’re accountable for their duties,” he says.

Communication. “The physicians here are very interested in the business aspect, and we have a lot of meetings so they stay informed about what we’re doing in the facility, and so the managers know about all the new objectives,” says Weekley, referring to the weekly physician meetings and monthly managers meetings.

“And my door’s always open — so if an issue arises, we can address it immediately. We’re constantly communicating, educating, and we empower people to give us ideas.”

How to reach: System Optics, (330) 630-9699

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:40

Who do you trust?

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In God We Trust — All Others Pay Cash.” The amusing sign in the delicatessen caught my eye and started me thinking — What place does God have in the marketplace today?

Ohio is the most recent state to come under attack for references to God. A challenge to the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to remove the phrase “With God all things are possible” as the official state motto for Ohio, suggests just one more step in the process of removing any mention of deity in our lives.

The first step is removing God from our government and schools. Will the next step be to remove God from our businesses? Will faith be outlawed as a guiding principle in our daily affairs as religious references are erased from public view?

In our rapidly changing, high-tech culture, we are so crowded with our own inventions that we have no need for dependence on, nor accountability to, a Supreme Being. But can success, material wealth and power give ultimate meaning to our lives? In our shift from the spiritual to a more secular world view, our appeal to higher standards of love, virtue, compassion and positive traits in general have lost their point of reference.

There is a growing sense of frustration that achieving The American Dream does not fulfill our deeper longings. We spend years building businesses, growing market share and watching the bottom line. After years of struggling to climb a mountain of obstacles, we get to the top, only to realize that success can be an empty feeling.

We have it all, but we are not satisfied.

Peggy Noonen, former speech writer for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, spoke about our national spiritual crisis in the Sept. 14, 1992, issue of Forbes magazine: “ ... We are beginning to lose God — banishing Him from the scene, from our consciousness, losing the assumption He was part of the deity drama or its Maker.

“And it is a terrible thing when people lose God. Life is difficult and people are afraid, and to be without God is to lose man’s great source of consolation and coherence.”

From Moses to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn have come dire warnings of the consequences of a nation that forgets God. Without God, our business endeavors have no reason or meaning. It becomes a game of wealth accumulation and power struggles.

Some will demand evidence before allowing God to guide their daily affairs, but there are compelling reasons that a belief in a Supreme Being is not so farfetched. Consider:

  • The “outer” evidence. Look at the order, beauty and intricate design of nature. Could all of this happen by chance or accident? I think not, any more than an explosion in a print shop could result in a book of poetry!

    Abraham Lincoln said, “All that I see teaches me to believe in a God that I do not see.”

  • The “inner” evidence: The inner longing of every human being to be loved and to express love, to know truth and the desire for peace — where do these come from? A higher being? To come to the realization that we are created for a purpose will influence our personal, family and business worlds. The more we seek to be in a right relationship with God, the more we come into right relationships with our fellow human beings.

It will pervade every area of our lives as we remember that in all matters — however, great or small — it is “In God We Trust.”

Fred Koury (fkoury@sbnnet.com) is president and CEO of SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:40

Team mentality

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CRESCO Real Estate was founded nine years ago on a strong basis of teamwork.

Where other traditional brokerage organizations are composed of independent contractors with different goals, CRESCO sought to create a company that worked together and shared both the good and the bad.

In the past five years, CRESCO has grown by 50 percent and is a respected player in the industrial real estate market it serves. Company President Armand Aghajanian believes the company’s success rests on its mix of industry experience, quality customer service and a strong team mentality.

“I’m an active guy,” says Aghajanian. “I’m not just sitting back listening. I’m out on the street with the rookies and I know what’s going on within our company and within our marketplace because I’m still active in the business, as opposed to sitting back as an administrator and having people come to you with problems.”

Typically, there is little teamwork among people associated with a particular brokerage, and the sharing of commission is out of the question. CRESCO’s team concept allows workers to provide a more complete, one-stop company to its clients and creates a more desirable work environment for staff members.

“None of the partners step on each other,” says Aghajanian. “The bottom line is, it’s all coming back to us.”

This kinder, gentler workplace concept has worked well for the company. Since it was founded in 1991, there has been very low turnover. In fact, the staff members who have left did so for personal reasons rather than because they were hired away by a competing firm. And although the work is shared inside the firm, so are the rewards. Bonuses are awarded to everyone at every level of CRESCO, based on the company’s overall performance.

This success sharing, explains Aghajanian, is one of the main reasons the company’s teamwork concept has worked so well for so long: If one person loses, everyone does.

Aghajanian, along with Fred W. Christie and Joseph V. Barna, all former employees of Grubb & Ellis, are the primary account team. Together, the trio has built a strong reputation for themselves in the industrial real estate market. Locally, CRESCO has a number of significant accomplishments, including identifying and securing 15 distribution centers for the Plain Dealer, securing a 10-year lease for GTE on a 78,000-square-foot regional office and selling space downtown for the new Stonebridge condominiums, apartments and retail developments.

As far as being recognized as one of Northeast Ohio’s leading entrepreneurs, Aghajanian deflects credit for the company’s success to everyone who has worked to make it what it is today.

“Not only me, but everybody here feels we’re extremely honored,” he says. “We’re a small company and we have a small niche in our marketplace, although we do a lot of work. Those in our field know who we are and we’re well thought of.

“That’s the way we do our business.” How to reach: CRESCO Real Estate, (216) 520-1200

Jim Vickers (jvickers@sbnnet.com) is an associate editor at SBN Cleveland.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:40

Road trip to success

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Two decades ago, Frank Pistone never envisioned himself as president of a well-established and consistently growing business that today tops $2 million in annual sales.

After all, he says, his company evolved by accident, literally. And he didn't even have a business plan when he started his ground transportation service 18 years ago.

"My brother had wrecked my family car, and since I've always been a 'big-car' guy, I decided to buy a used 1978 formal limousine from a local limo company," Pistone says. "After I bought the car, the seller asked me to sign a contract agreeing not to go into the limousine business, even though I had no intention to do that -- I was already working 80 hours a week for my dad's snack-food supply business."

Since the contract hadn't previously been mentioned, Pistone refused to sign on principle and instead, asked for a refund. The seller acquiesced, and Pistone drove away in the classy car.

"When I brought it home to show my wife, she went ballistic -- 'You bought what? Are you crazy?'" he recalls, laughing.

But Pistone's wife, Joyce, quickly adapted to riding in style, and there was always a preferred parking space reserved for them at dining venues and nightclubs. Soon, the couple started finding business cards slipped under the windshield wiper, soliciting chauffeuring services. Encouraged by his wife, Pistone refurbished the limo, acquired the proper permitting and licensing, and the couple cruised right into a cushy new business -- A Touch Of Class Limousine Service Inc.

"At first, we ran the business from home and my wife did everything from hiring to washing cars," says Pistone, noting that Joyce Pistone is vice president, treasurer and the driving force of the company. "We had no clue what we were doing, but we were so much in demand that we kept leasing and buying more vehicles."

The eight-car fleet quickly outgrew their driveway and street parking spaces, so in 1986, Pistone leased a 5,000-square-foot space at 5893 Center Road in Valley City on Route 303 near Brunswick. After moving into the luxury limo bus market in 1991, he acquired another 5,000 square feet at the same location. This year, he purchased the entire seven-acre lot from the former landlord.

Pistone dedicates most of the space to his showroom, administrative offices and transport facility, and leases out the remaining buildings on the property.

Today, A Touch of Class boasts a colossal fleet of late model vehicles to meet all transportation needs, from ultra-stretch Cadillacs and Lincoln Town Cars to luxury VIP coaches. There are seven sedans, four six-passenger stretch limousines, five 10-passenger super-stretch limos, two six-passenger executive limo vans, two 14-passenger vans, one 24-passenger shuttle bus, four 20-passenger VIP luxury coaches, two 30-passenger mini-tour buses and a 57-passenger tour bus.

The company employs almost 75 people, including reservationists, corporate sales representatives, accounting and management personnel, dispatchers, auto detailers, auto technicians and full- and part-time licensed and uniformed chauffeurs who cover a ribbon of asphalt that stretches five counties wide. The company's client roster includes organizations such as FirstEnergy Corp, The Akron Symphony, Babcock & Wilcox, the Cleveland Indians and the Cleveland Browns.

Since Pistone didn't initially map his trek to success with a business plan, one wonders how he arrived at the pinnacle of prosperity. He says he kept his eyes on the road (and on the rear-view mirror) to determine where the bulk of his business originated, and strategically steered expansion efforts in that direction.

Seeing that 60 percent of his company's services were requested by the corporate sector -- from business and convention transport to golf outings and office parties, Pistone began focusing on more corporate services, such as long-distance meetings, facility tours and employee sales incentives. He made all the right connections so he could offer convenience packages such as catering for day trips, and invested in limos for conference seating, equipping them with everything from cellular phones to fax capabilities.

To enhance his company's image, Pistone joined the Greater Cleveland Growth Association, the Cleveland Convention Visitors Bureau, the Ohio Limousine Owners Association and the National Limousine Association. Those alliances served to impress both corporate clients and private individuals, says Pistone, noting that the other 40 percent of his sales are in the leisure market: weddings, proms, retirements, sightseeing and shopping tours, casino gambling trips and other special events.

Pistone also eagle-eyed trends to add value at every opportunity. For example, he affiliated his company with a national ground transportation network so he could provide corporate customers with limousine service anywhere in the nation.

A recent trend Pistone has capitalized on is the corporate customer's preference for low-profile vehicles.

"Because of the trend of downsizing, layoffs and pay cuts, corporations don't want to have limousines parked in front of their establishments. So we were one of the first companies to purchase executive limo vans, because they're inconspicuous, not pretentious, and yet there's a lot of luxury inside," he says.

Pistone says he's also kept apprised of trends in his industry by attending annual limousine conventions, and networking with ground transport companies in cosmopolitan cities to learn how things are done.

"There have been huge shifts in the transportation industry, and I've really focused on the destination management trend," he says, explaining that he's developed a personal forte in coordinating transportation for conventions and special events.

"We're a very detail-oriented company and we worked our way up the ladder by doing local corporate conventions that involved about 20 buses. Then we got involved with the NBA and they chose us to do the limousine, sedan and van work," he says. "Since then, we've done things like the NBA All-Star Game, the Major League Baseball Playoffs and World Series, where we've transported the players and commissioners for those events, coordinating more than a hundred passenger buses and shuttling people to a couple of dozen hotels and other locations."

As for a road map for his own results, "When we took on serious overhead with the building and staffing, we started developing a solid business plan," Pistone says, explaining that a heavy focus has been placed on staff training, reservations technology, driver communications equipment and satellite communications capability.

In terms of financing, Pistone says he initially funded his company's growth by acquiring vehicles through a friend who started a leasing company.

"But in 1986, when the government repealed the investment tax credit, it was no longer advantageous to him. So I started going the traditional financing route," he says.

Pistone explains that since he's committed to providing the newest fleet in Northeast Ohio, the average age of his vehicles is two years. So, when he sells the older vehicles, does he require the buyers to sign noncompete agreements? "Absolutely not!" he laughs.

How to reach: A Touch Of Class Limousine Service Inc., (330) 225-5382 or www.atoclimo.com

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:39

On the Mark

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When it became apparent that Florine Mark had achieved success in her early days as a Weight Watchers franchisee, some people attributed it to good luck. She didn't necessarily disagree with the assessment.

"They used to say, 'Well, you're very lucky,' and I used to say, 'Yeah, I'm very, very lucky, but I work very hard at being lucky,'" says Mark, president and CEO of the WW Group, the largest franchisee of Weight Watchers International. "I think that's what everybody has to do, you have to work hard and you have to -- I believe I'm lucky, I really believe I'm lucky. So it happens. If you believe it strongly enough, it will happen."

If her operating principle is valid, Mark has worked quite hard. Her company, located in Farmington Mills, Mich., spans 10 states, including Pennsylvania, as well as Mexico and Ontario. Across the WW Group, approximately 100,000 people regularly attend 2,500 meetings held at more than 1,000 locations. In Greater Pittsburgh alone, 10,000 people meet in several hundred sessions at more than 90 locations.

Ironically, Mark turned to Weight Watchers in desperation as a final attempt to shed excess pounds.

"I had lost 50 pounds nine times before with diet pills," Mark recounts, and she eventually overdosed on amphetamines. "My family doctor said, 'I'm not going to be responsible for your life if you take any more diet pills,' and I didn't know how I was going to lose weight, because I never felt I could do it myself."

Mark joined Weight Watchers in New York in 1966, dropped 50 pounds and gained the idea for a business venture. She started her franchise in Detroit with a single meeting.

In this month's One on One, Mark, who was recently a guest speaker at The Business Show in Monroeville, talks about what it takes to be successful in business, why she and Weight Watchers continue to prosper -- and why she's got a dream job.

SBN: Why has Weight Watchers been successful?

Florine Mark: We believe in what we say; we walk our talk. We don't give pills, we don't sell food, we don't make you pay in advance for anything. Everyone that works with us believes in our product and our service. We have a big staff of advisory boards of the finest doctors, psychologists, exercise physiologists, psychiatrists, M.D.s, D.O.s, constantly researching the best ways to lose weight, the best ways to exercise. We've changed out diets several times, four or five times over the last 30 years. We always want to be up to date.

You seem to be very enthusiastic about your business. How does Weight Watchers hold your interest after all these years?

Weight control is a very passionate, fabulous field because you see only your successes. Your failures seem to drop out and don't come back, so you'll see among the people who are there, your customers -- we call them our members -- people who are happy, who are doing something about themselves, are getting healthier, who are getting motivated to do better in life. It's a very passionate, very wonderful business.

The product we sell is self-respect. When people ask me, 'What do you sell?' it's not losing weight. We sell self-respect. When you see an 11-year-old kid that's lost 30 pounds and feels good about himself and is playing soccer and baseball, how do you put a price on that?

When you see a man that comes in and says, 'After I lost 70 pounds, I found out I had a rare form of breast cancer in men, and the doctor said that if I hadn't lost the weight, I'd have been dead in a year,' how do you put a price on that? It's been the most wonderful business ever. I could never think of changing, I could never think of doing anything else.

What kinds of risks did you have to take when you were starting out with Weight Watchers?

Well, I had no money. I had small children and a lot of responsibilities. I could have gone out and gotten another job that would have paid a steady salary. I didn't know if this was going to pay off as far as the money was concerned, but every day is taking a risk, whatever you do. But I have no regrets.

In fact, I'm more passionate about what I do today than I was, say, 25 years ago. But it's easier now. Then, I was the bookkeeper, I was the controller, I was the advertising person, I was the marketing person, I was the leader, I was the receptionist, you know, I did everything myself. Now, I have a full staff of people all over the country from Mexico to parts of Canada and the Midwest and to the East. And it's very exciting.

What might you have done if you hadn't become a Weight Watchers franchisee?

I wanted to be a movie star, I wanted to do television on-air, I wanted to do radio. I like to write, I wanted to do public relations. I think that's what I would have done, but I think marketing is what I love the most. And I do all of that now. I'm on TV. I write for our newspaper, with a circulation of 350,000; I'm very involved in that. So all of my dreams of what I wanted to be -- I'm writing a book -- all are happening.

Who were your mentors?

At the very beginning, there were no women around, so my mentors were my CPA and my lawyer. What I did, even though I had no money, was to find the finest law firm and the finest CPA firm, and I told these guys that I had no money but I was going to be successful. I must have convinced them because they treated me the same way then as they treat me today, and today I'm their largest woman client. Then, I didn't have 500 bucks.

What are the factors that have helped you to become a success as a Weight Watchers franchisee?

I believed in the product. I had a fire in my belly, a passion in my heart. I recognized that success was, first, what you want, and then what you're willing to give up to get it. I've always done strategic planning. I've always had goals. I've always written things down; when I get up, I'm always writing things down. I believe in people, I believe in my gut.

My goal was always to hire people that were better and smarter than I was and let them do the job; I've always done that. When I find out that it's not working, I have to make changes. But I've been pretty right for a very long time. I have a lot of people that have worked for me for 25 years.

How is running Weight Watchers like operating any other business?

I think in most businesses today, if you want to be honest about it, the intellectual problems can be solved very easily. You hire the best CPA or the best engineer, you buy the best equipment, whatever. The real problems are people problems, and that's where a lot of people in business seem to go astray because they don't keep their eye on the thing that's most important -- that's the people who work for them, and their customers.

And if you pay 100 percent attention to that and pay other people to do the financial and the other stuff, you will have a good business. If the people who work for you, if their morale is good and they like what they're doing, you're going to have customers.

What occupies most of your time?

The morale of my staff is 50 percent of my time, and 50 percent of my time is everything and anything to do with bringing members into classes. I'm involved in the marketing department, I'm involved in the advertising, I'm involved in the training of the staff and the retraining of the staff.

What advice do you give to entrepreneurs?

Be very passionate about your product; believe in it. If you don't believe in it, forget it. Take the risk. Keep your eye on the people that work for you and the ones who are buying your product. Write plans. My plans change all the time, but at least I write them. I put them down on paper; I know where I'm going. I trust other people. I manage my team and I certainly have the final say, but I can't ever remember having to use that authority. It can't be right for me and not right for you, and it can't be right for you and wrong for me, so we have to sit there and talk about it and communicate until it's right for both of us. You have to be able to give. You can't be egotistical, you can't be a monarch -- the only authority in your business. First of all, it won't be any fun, people won't respect you for it, and I don't think you'll do as well.

Ray Marano (rmarano@sbnnet.com) is associated editor of SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:39

Mother of invention

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Most people who pass the former post office at East Market and Prospect streets assume that the business inside is an art or photography studio, a reasonable assumption since the signage reads “Charles Mayer Studios Inc.”

Yes, the company does have a photography department, and offers services from executive portraits to motion picture photography. Picture framing is also a forte, with more than 2,000 molding choices, and services such as matting, installation and frame repair.

But what’s surprising is that Mayer Studios is actually a manufacturer of sales tools and training aids, specializing in 15 core areas, with hundreds of products and about 40 specialty services.

Displays and exhibits — from lightweight tabletop to large-scale floor models — with services from design and fabrication to installation and repair. Interior and exterior display boards — from bulletin to directory and letter boards — with dozens of features. Indoor and outdoor signs of all kinds. Plaques and presentation pieces. Rental audio-video equipment. An art department for everything from lettering and graphics to airbrushing and hot stamping. Woodworking offerings for items such as cabinets and conference tables.

Despite the seeming diversity, Charles Mayer, president, says these areas are strategically related, and were all spawned by necessity.

For example, Mayer wasn’t in the sign business two decades ago. But after installing computerized equipment needed for his display-lettering specialty, the opportunity for signs presented itself. And because some customers prefer wood displays, the woodworking department followed. If they wanted a wood veneer display, that required a plastics department for work with acrylic, extruded aluminum and all sorts of dyes.

“We get into the use of all these different things, so one specialty engages the other,” Mayer explains.

As a manufacturer of audio-visual equipment, such as rear projection screens for Bell and Howell, Mayer would add new equipment for part manufacture, and, in turn, find ways to make the most of it. In essence, necessity became the mother of invention, and innovation spawned new offerings.

“We were manufacturing flannel boards and we thought the Velcro concept would work for that. Velcro wasn’t interested in developing a similar fastener for us, so we developed our own version. We called it Hook N’Loop, filed for a patent and trademark, and that became one of our strongholds,” Mayer says.

Yet another forte falls under the umbrella of Mayer Investments Co., a real estate group that, among other things, purchases and rehabilitates properties — one of those being the historic building that houses Mayer Studios.

“We bought it 24 years ago for no other reason than to save it, because I liked the architecture. Like other properties we’ve had to gut and start from scratch, we put a lot of money into this building and now it’s recognized by the Federal Registry,” he says, noting that the rehabilitation was extensive.

Few people realize that when Mayer bought the structure, there were only two floors. The main level’s 30-foot-high ceiling made it costly to heat, so he minimized heating costs and maximized space by adding a middle level, resulting in a 75,000-square-foot office building that houses his multifaceted company.

Mayer says that even after 66 years in business, being able to fill multiple needs for countless customers inspires him to look for even more areas in which to specialize.

“That’s what keeps me going, because if I had to specialize in just one thing, I’d be lost,” he says.

How to reach: Charles Mayer Studios Inc., (330) 535-6121