Akron/Canton (3279)

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:38

Under the microscope

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Joseph Palmer says that buying a business is like judging a beauty contest.

"Unless you're a turnaround buyout company looking for a losing business, no one wants to buy a troubled company that requires a lot of heavy lifting to make it a profitable venture," he says.

As a partner at Moore Stephens Apple, an Akron accounting firm and business management consultancy, Palmer says that logically, a company doesn't have much to offer if it has marginal sales, hasn't maintained customer relationships and isn't running efficiently and effectively. But if a company passes the following checklist, it's a worthy candidate as a prospective purchase.

1. Succession plan. When you purchase a business, you're not just buying assets, products or services. You're buying people. Since sellers usually exit after a transition period, a company's ability to continue operating hinges on existing, succeeding management to serve as your mentors.

"If management hasn't been trained and allowed to implement key business decisions in the past, you will fail," says Palmer.

2. Strategic plan. This sets a business apart from its competition, says Palmer.

"Determine if the company has strategically positioned itself and communicated that mission to its employees, vendors and customers."

3. Financial reports. Scrutinize financial reporting practices, says Palmer, because companies able to expedite and acquire accurate financial data on a timely basis can benchmark performance, reinforce successful practices and promptly correct mistakes.

4. Value-added marketing. This is key, says Palmer, because you must be able to discern why, in the mind of the customer, the company's products and services are preferred over the competitor's.

"You need to know if the customer cares more about your price, service or value-added ways you're improving your product, so you can focus your efforts to meet their needs."

5. Customer satisfaction. Does the business seek customer feedback to measure satisfaction as to what the company is doing right or wrong?

"Customer input is extremely valuable in measuring the success of a business."

6. Budgeting. A company that has a budget and sticks to it is a safe bet, says Palmer.

"It's like the proverbial road map -- you need a plan to get there."

7. Productivity and profitability. Any business has two or three key indicators that, if monitored daily, weekly and monthly, can measure profitability

"You can measure productivity, which leads to profitability, by considering simple things such as how many pounds per employee was produced this week, how many products were shipped this month, what is the percentage of waste off this line. These are critical success factors to monitor."

8. Employee retention and growth. In today's market, the No. 1 concern of business owners is how to retain employees and grow the business. The answer to these questions should weigh heavily in your decision to buy a business.

9. Management team. "What you're looking for is growth, and you need an existing management infrastructure to support growth and change," says Palmer. "Have the owners made that commitment to breadth and depth of management?"

10. Use of technology. Look around the company, says Palmer. If you don't see an obvious use of current technology, it's not a good sign. How to reach:Moore Stephens Apple, (330) 867-7350

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:38

Taking it personally

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> When Dennis Drennan rode into town five years ago to launch a local office of Realty Executives, he vowed to raid his competitors of their better agents in order to land his franchise within the top four area real estate companies within two years (see SBN September 1995).

Drennan, who had been vice president and regional director for ERA in Chicago before returning to Canton in 1995, had built a successful 20-year career as one of the top producers for several local real estate companies and for the 11-state territory of ERA he managed before deciding to set out on his own.

Now, five years later, Drennan's Realty Executives Commitment franchise has grabbed 10 percent of the local market share -- in number of listings -- and he has managed to hire 45 full-time agents without losing one to another real estate company.

While his success since his return to Canton may not be surprising, the fact that he achieved it by making a personal investment in each of his agent's personal and professional well-being is practically unheard of -- especially in the cutthroat world of real estate sales.

His secret weapon might just be his wife, Fran, who he brought on board a few years ago to recruit agents and provide overall HR services. Realty Executives franchises are set up so that agents work as independent contractors. They pay a fee to the franchise to work under the Realty Executive umbrella, for the office space and for the training they receive, but they get to keep 100 percent of their commissions.

"We're so different," says Fran Drennan, vice president. "There's no competition amongst agents. There's really a camaraderie where we celebrate each other's victories and we share our sorrows."

But simple encouragement barely describes the level of interest the Drennans take in their agents.

For one, every year, agents share in a personal and professional growth study. This year, they are studying the life applications of Stephen R. Covey's "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People," called "Living the Seven Habits." At the beginning of each weekly sales meeting, the Drennans, who provide copies of the book for agents, recap what was discussed at the last meeting, and then delve into the book a little further.

"It's enough to get everybody on the same page," Fran says.

It's not required reading, but, as Fran is quick to point out, she knows the regime is being taken seriously because "you start to hear people using the terminology around the office."

The Drennans choose books that promote both personal and professional growth, because, as Dennis says, you can't separate the two. Last year, agents read and discussed Og Mandino's "The Greatest Salesman in the World."

Dennis' credo is: "If we become better people, we'll become better agents."

That may be why each sales meeting focuses on the principles on which Drennan founded his company: total honesty, no politics, the Golden Rule ("Doing unto others as we would really like them to do unto us") and always seeking the "adult/adult relationship" Covey writes about in his books.

The Drennans' involvement with their agents extends beyond the workplace. Everyone spends a day each summer helping to build a house for Habitat for Humanity, while the company donates cash (this year, $5,000) to the project.

Fran says that the camaraderie gained from working together toward a cause like that can't be duplicated.

"It's a whole new opportunity to see the agent, to see their strengths, and for them to see us. It's fellowship and it's fun," she says.

She says those experiences help create memories for the agents, and as a result, a history for the group overall.

"Once you have a memory in place, you can refer back to it, just like traditions with a family," she says. "You just have that sense of belonging."

The Drennans also host picnics, parties, dinners and lunches for agents to celebrate just about every occasion -- from new hires to each agent's anniversary.

And every day, agents are encouraged by Fran (a former chemical dependency counselor) to bring their problems to work.

"There are so many times that agents get beaten up out in the real world," Fran says. "We hope this is a haven where they can come and get a pat on the back and a hug. If you're doing battle out there, you don't need to do it internally."

Maintaining a 'safe haven' means discouraging competition among agents, a practice that flies in the face of traditional sales environments.

"We don't have any salesman of the month parking places. At meetings, we don't say, 'Who has seven listings, stand up, and whoever doesn't have any, crawl under the table,'" says Fran. "Everyone is on the same level. Everyone here is professional. How divisive is encouragement with a parking spot, for someone to have celebrity while someone else is kicked down? "We don't believe in it and we don't do it." How to reach: Realty Executives Commitment, (330) 492-2162

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

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:38

Letters to the editor

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Searching for flexibility

I just finished reading your article, "A flexible solution." You spoke the sentiments of my heart. I completely agree with the philosophy that, "If the job gets done, it's not important where the job is getting done, but that it's accomplished in a quality and timely matter." As a computer analyst and mother, I need a flexible work schedule. I have successfully telecommuted in the past. I am currently looking for an employer with the same philosophy as SBN.

Vera L. Parker


Monday, 22 July 2002 09:38

Growing pains

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Tom Rice admits that one of the more difficult things he's done in his life is to name a successor for Rice's Nursery, a retail garden center, gift shop and design/build/landscape concern located on 35 acres in North Canton.

It wasn't that he balked at the idea of turning the day-to-day operations over to someone else. The 58-year-old CEO was perfectly happy to be out of the office and running one of the nursery's three Stark County farms, a 90-acre spread he bought four years ago to produce shade and ornamental trees. Furthermore, he realized it was high time sons Bryan, a 34-year-old horticulturist, and Kevin, a 33-year-old state-registered landscape architect, learn how to manage the business and its 120 employees.

"I found out a long time ago that as long as you're doing it, everybody will stand back and watch you do it," Tom says in a matter-of-fact tone.

The hard part was choosing one of his sons, both hard-working Ohio State University graduates, to head the family business.

"Making Bryan president was tough because the boys are just a year and five days apart," Tom says. "They're so close in age. But Bryan's really a leader. Kevin's a little more quiet, a little more laid back."

Tough is a word Bryan also uses, in his case to describe the role he assumed in January after working at the nursery for 10 years.

"The changing of the guard, if you will, has not been as easy as I thought it was going to be," he confesses.

The spring and summer of 2000, for one thing, have proved to be incredibly soggy. Bryan recently sent letters to customers explaining that major rainfalls have put the nursery behind schedule in completing landscaping jobs.

"Working with Mother Nature is very, very challenging in itself," he says. "Mix in the family part of it, and that just adds a whole other realm of problems."

Bryan is candid in describing just what those problems are. He believes his father may not have been as ready to hand over the day-to-day operations of the nursery as he professed to be.

"There's a level of trust, but ... this was his baby," Bryan explains. "He still wants to be somewhat involved."

The result was that neither Bryan nor the nursery employees knew exactly who was in charge of what. The new president says that people went over his head to his father with problems and concerns instead of bringing them to him. The problem was remedied to some extent when Tom explained Bryan's role in a letter to employees and asked them to support him in his position.

But Bryan says he needs to do it verbally, too, and calls that clear definition of roles "one of the biggest things with a family business that needs to be done."

Bryan's new title has gotten him involved in landscape sales and production, which has resulted in "a little bit of a power struggle/ego thing" with his brother, who designs and sells landscape jobs for the business to install. Bryan describes Kevin as a tremendously gifted landscape architect who, like many artists, doesn't possess all the management skills needed in his position as vice president.

"A lot of artists won't recognize that or can't recognize that," Bryan says. "That's one of the issues that we're dealing with right now."

His solution is to pitch in and help.

"I'm hoping and praying he's receptive," Bryan says.

Kevin, for his part, says he's had no trouble working with his brother or his father since he left a Columbus landscape design firm and began working with them seven years ago.

"The dynamics of the business are unique," he says of the family firm. "But we tend to work well together, and we understand our chain of command."

Tom says he has relatively little experience with his sons' predicaments. By the time he purchased his father's small landscape business, J.D. Rice & Sons, when his father retired in 1970, his own brother was no longer involved. But he says his sons have their own areas of responsibility -- Bryan the "green-good buying" and garden center, Kevin the landscape business -- and work hard to resolve any differences they have.

"We've had our moments, believe me, but for the most part it's been very enjoyable," he says.

His advice to Bryan?

"I told him to just take it easy, and things will happen," Tom says. "He needs to gain everybody's respect."

The problems Bryan relates are not uncommon, according to Dennis Zaverl of Zaverl & Associates, a Peninsula-based consultant who has worked with family businesses for 30 years. He's not surprised to hear that Tom might have problems handing over the reins of the nursery. The fact that employees seek him out for answers to questions and problems is "a form of being needed, a form of flattery."

Zaverl does say, however, that Tom has done the most important thing he can do in facilitating his sons' success in their new roles -- physically remove himself from the nursery. The next step is to refer those employees who continue to come to him to the appropriate offspring.

"It's a very difficult thing to break that dependency," he acknowledges. "But he has to say to the people who are doing that, 'Look, I like you. We've had a good relationship over the years. But I can't answer that, and I can't get involved in that. That's not the succession plan.'"

Zaverl agrees with Bryan that it might be helpful for Tom to have a succession talk with nursery employees. He says it's normal for some employees not to take the new arrangements set forth on paper seriously, especially in what Zaverl calls "a family atmosphere with nonfamily employees."

"You know how families are -- nobody pays attention to mom or whoever is beating on them all the time," he says with a chuckle.

The succession talk doesn't have to be an elaborate speech. Something simple will suffice, such as "Johnny's taken over the company. From this point on, all decisions in these particular areas will be made by him. Furthermore, these are the only activities that I will be dealing with."

To ease any tension between Bryan and Kevin, Zaverl suggests Tom put the emphasis on each man's respective responsibilities instead of on their titles, both when dealing with them individually and when presenting them to employees in the succession talk. Doing so, he explains, reduces the potential for breeding resentment.

"You go back to the division (of labor), a little bit like the Japanese culture," he says. "So the guy's the president. Big deal. He's just another worker."

Putting the emphasis on responsibility rather than titles, Zaverl adds, makes it easier to hold each son accountable for his actions.

"You let the accountability surface, whether it's at a weekly meeting or somewhere else," he says. "If one is responsible for certain things and they're not working, it's a topic for discussion."

Having Tom present during these meetings as a mediator might be a good idea until Bryan and Kevin work through any issues they may have.

Bryan believes the challenges of recent months may not be bad for the company in the long run.

"I might look back at this at age 40 or 50 and say, 'That really made me strong, to deal with the issues to get us where we're at today.' Truthfully, it should make us a stronger business, to go through this."Lynne Thompson is a free-lance writer for SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:38

Do something

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A friend of mine, who evidently has more confidence in me than I do, let me man the wheel of his sailboat last week as he walked to the bow to raise the sail.

It took about 30 seconds before the rudder became caught up in a turn and started to whip the boat around in a perpetual circle. My first reaction was to let go of the wheel and call for help. And boy, did I get reamed for that decision.

There's a maritime rule every sailor knows, I was informed, and that is, if you're headed toward an iceberg, you have three options, and two of them are correct. You can choose to avoid the obstacle. You can choose to hit the obstacle. Or you can choose to do nothing. The only wrong decision you can make is to choose to do nothing, he said. (Which is exactly what I did when faced with my first crisis at sea.)

There's a reason why sailors say every maritime rule applies to life in general. (And why there are so many metaphors and analogies in "Moby Dick.")

I returned to work the next day looking for ways I could avoid choice No. 3 in performing my daily job. And in this new awareness, I found some examples of companies which are, in a sense, making a conscious choice to do something.

I'm not referring to things that are part of the normal course of the day. Here are three ideas I ran across:

1. Donate one day a year of your staff's time to a charitable cause. The agents who work for Realty Executives Commitment in Canton spend a day each July building a house for Habitat for Humanity. While the company donates $5,000 toward the home, the 44 employees donate a combined 350 hours work hours that day.

2. Collect your used computer equipment and donate it or recycle it. There's a company in Columbus that restores old computers and resells them (retrobox.com or (800) 393-7627), or you can pay a recycler to dispose of your equipment in an environmentally friendly manner (backthruthefuture.com or techrecycle.com). This costs, on average, $15 a computer (including the monitor). Retro Box will erase your hard drive so information can't be stolen. Also consider donating your equipment to a local charity. And if you're having trouble finding a grateful recipient, don't forget your employees. It's cheaper than paying a recycler, and you'll reap the benefits of a happy worker.

3. Revamp your benefits offerings. Our HR manager informally asked employees to critique our time off plan. When employees were asked informally, and somewhat anonymously, what they thought was missing, many mentioned they'd like to be able to take a day off when they weren't really sick and weren't really on vacation. So she made a few simple (and free) changes in response to that frank feedback. Employees now accumulate a pool of days off, so if they want to go to an Indians game on a warm August day, it's just as valid as staying at home with the flu.

Next month: Why Captain Ahab was never really CEO of his own ship.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:38

Business Notes

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Republic Technologies International Inc. announced plans to close its 12-inch rolling mill in Canton in late September. Work performed at the Canton facility will be transferred to Republic's rolling operations in Lorain and Lackawanna, N.Y. Republic is headquartered in Fairlawn.

Dr. Monica M. Miklo has opened a private chiropractic practice on Fulton Drive in Canton.

The Belden Village office of FirstMerit Bank has undergone a $650,000 expansion and renovation project, which was completed late last month.

The Hoover Co. of North Canton has named four managers: Frank J. Bressi, manager of the dependable manufacturing office; Mark. R. Hollis, manager of industrial engineering; W. Jim Kellum, manager of mechanical design; and Gary A. Sacco, manager of production purchasing.

Gov. Bob Taft announced that Norman McNeal of Massillon will represent Ohio on the Martin Luther King Jr. National Holiday Advisory Committee. McNeal, a retired maintenance supervisor at Ashland Oil Refinery, chairs the Greater Canton/Stark Co. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Commission.

Stark State College of Technology has appointed John J. Kurtz as vice president of information technology and administrative services.

Christine Guest has joined CFS of Northeastern Ohio as a staffing consultant. CFS is a staffing company affiliated with Bruner-Cox.

Todd M. Kolarik, Eric J. Williams, David H. Krause and Randall M. Traub have joined Canton law firm Krugliak, Wilkins, Griffiths & Dougherty Co. as associates.

Alexander Hays IV has been named senior vice president and central region manager for Sky Trust, a nationally chartered trust bank with offices on Munson Street in Canton.

Bruner-Cox has hired Kara M. Presto as an associate in the general services department.

Mike Tyson has joined Castle Mortgage Corp.'s North Canton office.

Belden & Blake Corp. of North Canton has appointed the following: William F. Murray, vice president and general manager of Ohio District Exploration and Production Operations; David M. Becker, vice president and general manager of Michigan District Exploration and Production Operations; Carl J. Carlson, vice president and general manager of Pennsylvania/New York District Exploration and Production Operations; and John C. Corp, vice president and general manager of Arrow Oilfield Service Co., a division of Belden & Blake.

Dr. Ahmed El Ghamry Sabe, medical director of the Cardiovascular Center at Mercy Medical Center, will serve as the 2000 American Heart Walk chairman.

Innis Maggiore Group Inc. of Canton has promoted Jennifer Barnby to art director for the agency's creative department.

Dr. Peter D. Ferguson has been re-elected to president of the National Voard of Chiropractic Examiners, headquartered in Greeley, Colo. Dr. Ferguson has been in private practice in Canton since 1972.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:37

Strategy for success

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It took Thomas Sullivan just eight years to drive the company he took over from his father from $11 million to $100 million in revenue. That was 20 years ago.

Today, Republic Powdered Metals' revenue stands at $1.95 billion and its success comes from aggressive acquisition and mandatory innovation, says Sullivan, the company's chairman and CEO.

The company's acquisition approach is so novel that it led industry analyst Timothy Gerdeman of Lehman Brothers to offer this observation: "You (Sullivan) and (Vice Chairman and CFO) Jim (Karman) were essentially the Lewis and Clark of the chemical industry and doing a lot of great acquisitions over the past couple of decades."

Sullivan's acquisition strategy is simple: "We buy businesses that don't need fixing and we let them do their thing," he told SBN last year.

Stimulating innovation is not as easily explained, though it is a mandatory part of business for the world leader in specialty chemical coatings.

"At the operational level, we live by new products," he says. "It's through new products and new marketing that is generally the only way we can keep our margins where they should be."

Sullivan says the company's goal is that in any given year, 25 percent of its volume should come from new products developed over the previous three years.

"It's important to maintaining stable margins in a business of disinflation, which is what we've been through in the past several years," he says.

Sullivan adds that innovative thinking is not necessarily a process that can be taught; and it's an inherent trait he looks for in his employees.

"The most creative people that I can think of need little motivation because they do it on their own," he says. "They love what they're doing."

Within the company's operations (as opposed to at its Medina headquarters), employees are encouraged to think out of the box and "not discouraged from coming up with wild, wacky ideas every now and then," he says.

RPM's first acquisition was in 1966, when the company bought St. Louis-based Reardon Co. (maker of Bondex products). Since then, it has overseen 81 purchases and 20 divestitures, all part of the industrial products industry, which includes roofing systems, sealants, corrosion control coatings, floor coatings and specialty chemicals. RPM's products include the well-known name brands Day-Glo, Rust-Oleum and DAP.

The company began a restructuring plan this year that includes cutting 23 facilities. The plan was developed to help cut operational costs and streamline operations, but so far, it has resulted in an earnings drop. RPM's fiscal year 2000 earnings ended a 52-year growth streak for the company.

Sullivan attributes the 17 percent decline in earnings from 1999 to 2000 to operating disruptions caused by implementation of the restructuring plan, along with large profit shortfalls at some of the company's operating units.

While sales for the 2000 fiscal year totaled $1.95 billion, a 14 percent increase over the prior year's record sales of $1.71 billion, net income was $78.6 million, compared to $94.5 million in fiscal year 1999.

Sullivan said in a public statement released in July that operating profits of the StonCor Group fell significantly below the company's plan because the group encountered difficulties in assimilating the Carboline unit into StonCor, particularly in its foreign markets.

He added that the Testor and Bondo operations also performed below expectations and RPM is addressing issues affecting the underperforming business units. In addition, a $52 million restructuring and asset impairment charge, along with restructuring-related expenses of $8 million -- primarily discontinued inventories and plant closing transitional expenses --were charged to earnings during the year.

There were other reasons for the disappointing results that Sullivan addressed during the fiscal 2000, year-end conference call.

"What I would like to do is talk about the what and the how, and most importantly, what we're doing to correct this past year and how we missed the mark so badly," he says. "In addition to growing RPM by a billion dollars in the last five years and absorbing our largest acquisition in DAP, last August we announced two major programs -- a restructuring program and a reorganization program.

"This caused the lack of focus by our operating people, and in part, probably by some of our corporate people, on what's so important to us in past years, namely, planning and growth. And obviously, it also cost us our 53rd year of consecutive record earnings.

"Why? We did too much, too soon when you put the restructuring and the reorganization together. In restructuring, we failed to understand the pitfalls that most programs of this nature have," he says.

Sullivan does not expect remaining costs associated with the restructuring program to affect future earnings.

"The positive earnings impact of this program will begin to be seen in the 2001 fiscal year," he says. "Earnings growth in 2001 will get back to our more traditional levels, upwards of 10 percent or more."

Sullivan recognizes that even an innovative operation occasionally faces some growing pains.

"Although this past year has been very painful, in the long run, I am confident that the restructuring and the reorganization programs will serve RPM well."

The Medina-based company has 96,000 shareholders, 6,800 employees and hundreds of sales and technical representatives. Its products are sold in more than 110 countries and manufactured at 72 plant locations in 14 countries.

RPM common shares are traded on The New York Stock Exchange under the symbol RPM. Of its total 1999 sales of $1.7 billion, approximately 60 percent was generated by industrial products sold worldwide and the remainder by branded consumer goods sold primarily in North America. How to reach: RPM Inc., (330) 225-3192 or www.rpminc.com

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

RPM's industrial maintenance products

Tremco waterproofing

Alumanation roofing coatings

Paraseal membranes and Vulkem, Dymeric and Monile sealants

Carboline, Plasite, Mathys, Alox, Westfield and TCI corrosion protection

Dryvit exterior insulation finishing systems

Stonhard and Duracon industrial and commercial floor coatings

Day-Glo fluorescent colorants and pigments

Wolman industrial lumber treatments

Fibergrate and Chemgrate fiberglass reinforced plastic grating

American Emulsions textile additives

Euco concrete admixtures sold by Euclid Chemical Co.

RPMs consumer products

Rust-Oleum and Stops-Rust rust-preventative coatings

Painter's Touch, American Accents decorative

Zinsser primers and sealants

Bondex and Plastic Wood patch and repair products

Wolman deck coatings, sealants and brighteners

Thibaut wallcoverings

Bondo and Marson auto repair compounds

Mar-Hyde auto body paints

Varathane, Watco, Mohawk and Chemical Coatings woodworking and wood finishing products

Testors and Floquil model kits, coatings and accessories for the hobbyist market

Pettit, Woolsey and Z-Spar marine coatings

DAP caulks and sealants

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:37

Playing upon her strengths

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Janice Gusich opened the doors of Akhia Public Relations with three clients on six-month contracts.

She started her own business after her long-time employer, M.H.W. Advertising and Public Relations, closed suddenly after 40 years of operation in Cleveland.

Nearly four years later, Gusich still has those same three clients and many more, and she's moved her offices three times to accommodate the firm's tremendous growth. Now settled in Hudson, Gusich reveals the universal truths that have kept her motivated and successful.

"My biggest inspiration was my dad," she says. "He was a tool and die maker with eight children. He believed in loyalty and working hard for what you want. It's funny, out of eight of us, five own our own businesses. I think that's a great example of what comes from a strong work ethic."

Gusich had her first job at age 13. By the time she was 16, she had saved enough money to buy her first car. Her predisposition for hard work proved both an asset and a challenge when she became an entrepreneur.

"My first inclination is to write that proposal or do other work for a client," Gusich says. "I had to train myself to work on visionary issues that were vital to the company's growth.

"In the beginning, you have to do everything yourself, from hiring the cleaning staff to bringing in new business. There is some security in doing the work and achieving, so it's hard to step out into areas you don't know about. It's uncertain ground, but if you're going to grow a business, you have to step into territory you've never charted before."

Performing the job of CEO, while difficult at first, is now Gusich's favorite part of the day. She says her leadership role is to provide a vision, inspire and provide support for employees.

"One of the things I'm most proud of is that I've been able to build a wonderful, supportive and talented staff," Gusich says. "That makes my job easy. When I'm under pressure, I can simply look around me and feel confident with a quality staff I know will perform."

Gusich used lived the 8-to-5 grind, commuting more than an hour to work with an infant in daycare.

"I was unhappy, exhausted and I hated every minute of it," Gusich says. "Too many companies are worried about the bottom line. As a result, they don't have quality people and they don't have fulfilled employees. You will always get a better product from a happy employee."

Akhia offers a flexible schedule to accommodate employees' personal lives and aspirations. It also boasts a zero turnover rate among its eight full-time employees.

"The most important thing I can provide is a quality of work life," Gusich says. "I think my staff chooses to be here because it fits their lifestyle. People love coming work when it helps them achieve both their personal and business goals."

Maintaining balance is a priority.

"I take the time to be as good of a parent as I am a CEO," she says. "I couldn't look at myself in the mirror if I worked at the expense of my kids and I would never ask my employees to do that, either."

Listening to others has paid off for Gusich on the road to becoming a CEO.

"I also listen carefully to anyone that I admire," she says. "I knew how to do PR work but I didn't know how to run my own business, so I asked those that I admired. If I'm in a room with someone like Bob Schneider (CEO of Patio Enclosures Inc.) who built his own business from scratch and turned it into a multimillion dollar business ... when he talks, I listen."

Gusich credits Schneider, a long-time client, with one of the most important lessons she learned about growing a business.

"Bob said to me, 'Don't worry about getting new business. Do a good job with the business you have and new business will come to you,'" Gusich says.

Part of doing a good job is putting herself in her clients' shoes.

"I take a personal interest in my clients' businesses," she says. "If I owned their business, what would I want to achieve? That helps me become a good custodian of their money and their aspirations."

One of the most important lessons she says she can share with clients is to pay attention to their image.

"You never get a second chance to make a first impression," Gusich says. "That's something I did right away.

"It's a hard lesson for a small business but image means everything." How to reach: Akhia Public Relations, (330) 463-5650

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:37

Goliath's challengers

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Mark Goldfarb and Gary Shamis aren't just small-town gladiators making a stand against greedy Goliath competitors.

They are the managing partners of SS&G Financial Services Co. -- a regional, full-service accounting firm with offices in Akron, Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati -- who are making their mark, making a point and making it easier for independent firms to compete in the financial services arena.

"There are top quality firms like ours around the country that are very successful, have deep client relationships and strong community ties, and don't want to sell out to large corporations," says Goldfarb, explaining that SS&G is often approached by big-boy firms hungry to buy local practices to create financial services conglomerates. "Like other independent firms, we're tired of large multinational rivals targeting our clients, and we want to find ways to compete." (See SBN, August 2000.)

And so they have, in ways that would impress Marvin Shamis, the founding father of the 32-year-old practice also known as Saltz Shamis & Goldfarb Inc. To provide superior client service, foster entrepreneurial growth and safeguard against industry consolidation, SS&G's managing partners are launching a steady blast of innovative ideas and leveraging the potency of like-minded industry alliances.

Making a mark

To boost retention rates and brand SS&G as a cutting-edge financial services practice, the partners debuted offerings unique to traditional CPA services. For example, SS&G was one of the first nonnational firms of its kind to introduce a product like SS&G Investment Services. The partnership with R.C. Morris Inc., a local employee-benefits consulting firm, augmented SS&G's employee benefit offerings.

The partners then introduced SS&G Healthcare Services to assist physicians with practice management, contract negotiations, strategic management, billing and collection issues.

To provide operational and managerial consulting to the restaurant and hospitality industry, the firm partnered with Carroll Consulting, a restaurant and hospitality consulting firm. And this spring, SS&G enhanced its IS consulting practice by merging with F1 Ltd. to create SS&G Technology Consulting.

"Offering all these services is unheard of for a traditional accounting firm, but we realized the capabilities would set us apart from other accounting firms," says Goldfarb. "It's also allowed us to grow at an unparalleled rate."

Making a point

To establish a competitive advantage, Shamis arranged a meeting of several top national independent accounting firms, and last fall, "The Leading Edge Alliance" was formed. The consortium is the first international association of its kind designed to help large independent accounting practices leverage the strength of a multinational firm, while maintaining individual local expertise.

Goldfarb says the outcome has been "overwhelming" in that, to date, the consortium includes 25 domestic firms, and a recent partnering with an international association secured a combined membership of 245 firms in 68 countries -- and more than $600 million in annual revenue.

"Through this alliance, we can tap into global resources of cutting-edge knowledge from leading experts and deliver even more value to clients," Goldfarb says.

And since the power of The Leading Edge is based upon the strength of its regional affiliates, this June, SS&G merged with Greene & Wallace, the fourth largest independent accounting firm in central Ohio. The merger made SS&G the largest independent accounting firm in Ohio and an employer of about 240 people.

"We can grow and receive awards, but it all comes down to serving your clients by coming up with innovative ideas to help them with their businesses," says Goldfarb. How to reach: SS&G Financial Services Co., (330) 668-9696