How John O’Leary got to the bottom of what was holding VPS back from success

John O'Leary, CEO, VPS, United States

John O’Leary wanted to know what was holding back his salespeople at VPS, The Vacant Property Specialists. Why were they struggling to drive new business and what could be done to eliminate those struggles?

“It was my job to come in, take a look at them, evaluate them and make recommendations and changes that would help increase the top line,” says O’Leary, CEO of VPS in the United States. “So I came in knowing I needed to find out who were keepers and who were not keepers.”

Spend a few minutes speaking to O’Leary, whose business specializes in protecting vacant properties from harm, and you understand he’s a no-nonsense guy. His approach to the challenges at the 1,500-employees was no different. He simply asked his salespeople to prepare a 30-minute presentation about what was working and what wasn’t working in their jobs. It would be delivered to him in a one-on-one setting where they would have his undivided attention.

“It would give me a feel for how sales-oriented the people were,” O’Leary says. “Their capability to make a presentation, talk about their territories, talk about the obstacles that we needed to overcome as a company. Usually, if you ask some people what’s wrong with the company, you get more than what you need to hear.

“But if you hear it enough times from enough people, where there is smoke, there is fire. My purpose there was to find out the top three or four things that I heard consistently from the people, then to take a look at them and see how they presented themselves and how they presented it to me. I was the customer in that environment. They were giving me a presentation on themselves and their territory.”

When it was all said and done, O’Leary expected to have a better idea on what he needed to do to get VPS where everyone wanted it to be. He wasn’t interested in excuses. He wasn’t interested in blame. His objective was to identify problems, eliminate those problems and help his people succeed.

“I was brought on board to help sales growth in the company,” O’Leary says. “You need to find a way to hit that number. ‘The economy is tough’ is not the answer. I don’t think you would find that an acceptable answer in any company. You just need to look in the business section every day to see how many companies are laying people off.”

If all went well for O’Leary, it wouldn’t come to that at VPS.

Talk to your people

O’Leary takes his job seriously. But he didn’t want to intimidate his people with these 30-minute presentations. He wanted them to clearly understand that he was there to help them and that it was to their mutual benefit to have these meetings.

“I said, ‘I’m bringing you in for a sales meeting because I feel it’s important that I understand what you’re facing as an employee and as a salesperson,’” O’Leary says. “What do we need to do to change anything that’s not being done correctly? What tools do you need to succeed?

“My purpose in doing this is there are about 16 of you right now. It’s going to be difficult to do one-on-ones going out and visiting you. It would take me too long. The reason I’m doing this is one, to get everyone together to talk about where we’re going as a team and let you meet me and find out what my thought process is on this; let me meet you and find out where you are on this and what you need to succeed. Hopefully, you’ll get an idea of how I work and what I’m looking for from salespeople and I can get a feel for what you need to succeed and some of the obstacles you’ve had in the past that have prevented you from succeeding. It’s a get-to-know each other.”

With all the forms of communication that are out there, sometimes you still will get the best information from a simple one-on-one conversation.

“I gave them an outline and I said, ‘Look, I want a 30-minute presentation on your territory,’” O’Leary says. “’What’s going on in your territory right now? Who are your top customers? What are the obstacles that you face every day that inhibit you from succeeding? What are the things we’re doing right? What are some of the things we need to change? What would some of your recommendations be if we were to change them? Give me a general overview of who you compete against and what you need to succeed, and anything else that you think is important that I should know about at this point.’”

O’Leary got a strong response from his people and the opportunity to sit down and talk to him about their challenges.

“They were looking for leadership at the time,” O’Leary says. “There were a lot of people working very hard. Like anything, when you come in and review things, some changes are made with personnel. That’s the way it is when you get new leadership. That’s going to happen in any company when you make changes. There were a bunch of people working very hard. They were looking for leadership, they were looking for the tools to be successful and welcomed someone that would come in and say, ‘All right, here’s the deal. Here’s where we are. Here’s what we’re going to do. Here’s what I’m looking for from you.’”

O’Leary had people bring him a written version of their presentation and he took notes along the way. When the presentations were finished, he reviewed what he had learned and quickly reported his findings to the people he had just met with to demonstrate that there was a purpose for what they had just told him.

One of the pieces of information that came up repeatedly was product and service pricing. O’Leary wanted to investigate this further in the field with prospective customers.

“I said I’ve got a list of some things here,” O’Leary says. “What I plan to try to do now is call some of you to go out and visit with some current customers and find out what they think about us; go out and make some new sales calls with you and find out what people who are thinking of possibly using us, what are some things you confront on a sales call. So I get a feel of what are the objections that we’re hearing to our product line and why we’re not selling. We’re going to figure out what we need to do better in terms of presenting our product, and look at our pricing and see if we truly are too high-priced.”

Be part of the team

So O’Leary hit the road with his salespeople to see what customers and prospective customers thought about VPS and the products and service the company was offering.

He wanted his people to be on board with the plan, but if they weren’t, he was OK with that too. They just would have to find somewhere else to work.

“If they are not willing to change, it’s a culture issue,” O’Leary says. “You need to change the culture or the company doesn’t have a chance at succeeding. One of the other reasons I had the sales meetings was to create team synergy. These people rarely got together. They’d see each other once a year. Now we’re doing quarterly meetings and having dinner afterward where everyone gets to sit down and talk. They get to be a team. They call each other now when someone has success and ask each other what they did. It’s created a team environment.

“I remember when I was younger and in sales, we had a new CEO come in. He turned around and he said, ‘Look things are going to change here. Not everyone is going to fit in with what we’re looking to accomplish. Let’s shake hands, part ways and part as friends. But for those of you willing to take part in what we’re looking to accomplish, I welcome you to jump on board and participate enthusiastically and let’s make this thing a success.’”

As O’Leary met with customers, he discovered that his people were right on target. People were concerned about price and in a tough economy, that was only making it worse. There was just a perception out there that VPS was charging too much.

“The question became are we too high-priced?” O’Leary says.

He didn’t think this was true. Rather, he thought his people needed to take a different approach in how they presented VPS offerings to prospective customers. They needed to know that while using steel to protect vacant properties might be more expensive, it paid off when those properties were not broken into.

“I put together a proposition that talked about the things that we do well versus the competition,” O’Leary says. “We went in and started talking to customers about this and started getting their attention. This is part of changing the sales culture here. In the past, they just accepted the fact that we were too high-priced. The first thing I had to do was get the sales team educated, change the culture and help them understand that you have to go in and be a consultative sales person to the end user. Pricewise, we really did play in that environment.”

O’Leary wanted his people to focus on solving problems for customers and not on selling them a product or service.

“The first thing I would ask is if they know us,” O’Leary says. “Even here in Chicago, you’d be shocked at how many companies have no idea who we are because we have not been marketed very well in the past. You sit down and start from the beginning. Here’s what we do. When you secure a property, what do you do? Do you use steel? Do you use wood?

“We’d tell them some of our customers use our product because they’ve encountered problems like this. Can you associate with any of those? Find out what are their issues. Then, let’s come back with a proposal for you and see if it makes sense for you pricewise. We are going to be a little more expensive than the wood, but we think in the long term, it will save you money.”

O’Leary was confident in his approach and he wanted his people to believe in it. But he didn’t expect them to be clones, because would-be customers would see right through that.

“People can be successful, but there is no cookie-cutter approach to doing it,” O’Leary says. “What works for one person may not work for someone else. What works for you may not work for me. We can all learn from the success that people have had, but I do encourage people to be themselves. We did professional sales training, but I said, ‘You need to take this and adapt it to your own personality.’”

By taking the approach of offering solutions to customers rather than just a product to buy, and giving them a few tips on how best to present those solutions, O’Leary found his people were having more success. He did have to make some changes and let some people go.

But the end result was a team of people who felt like they working toward a common cause with O’Leary.

“So and so has been successful and closed this deal,” O’Leary says. “Why don’t you tell us a little bit about it? How did you go about it? What did you find out was important to other customers? What enabled you to close the sale? Different ideas. The salespeople now after these sales meetings, they’ll get on the phone together and talk. How did you do that? What did you do to do that? So it’s important to get people communicating. Part of my coming here was when I got here, the salespeople were more out on an island. Now we’re building more of a team. I think that’s important.”

But even with the success, O’Leary recognizes that there will always be more work and more tweaking that needs to be done.

“Part of what you need to do is constantly go through the process,” O’Leary says. “What are we doing right? What are we doing wrong? What opportunities are out there? How do we grow the marketplace? Where can we improve as a company? Where can we help our salespeople improve? It’s a constant. It’s not coming in and doing it the one time because if you do that, things become stagnant.

“In times like this, you always need to be creative and look at the opportunities that are out there for your company and your salespeople. The most important thing is to educate them on how to sell your products, make them confident when they are in front of the customer and let them be able to relay the value proposition we offer to a customer.”

How to reach: VPS, The Vacant Property Specialists, (800) 918-9100 or

The O’Leary File

 John O’Leary, CEO, VPS, United States

Born: New York

Education: Bachelor’s degree in business management, Marist College

Who has been the most influential person on your life?

My father, John O’Leary. He was born in Ireland. He came over on a boat with his family and had nothing when they got here. He was going through high school when he joined World War II. He came out after the war, finished high school and college at night and became an accountant/CPA. He showed me No. 1, that work ethic is important and to be responsible for yourself, but that you can achieve anything you want to if you put your mind to it.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

Work ethic is huge, I’ve never asked anybody to do anything I won’t do myself. That’s how you get a successful company and that’s how you become successful yourself. Go out there and set achievable goals and work towards them.