Lori Blaker didn’t have a lot of support back home in 1994 when she headed to China to begin training operations with a select group of automotive manufacturers. To put it bluntly, they thought she was insane.
“My colleagues here at the office looked at me like I was crazy,” says Blaker, president and CEO at TTi Global. “I was told at the time that it was the stupidest idea they had ever heard of. Was I insane? I was going to be the ruin of the company. What the hell did I know about doing business in China? You name it, I heard it.”
Nearly 20 years later, of course, it’s easy to look back and think how foolish and shortsighted those critics were. China is on everyone’s mind no matter what business you’re in these days.
Blaker just saw the signs a little sooner than the rest of the team at TTi Global, which provides business performance solutions for a number of sectors, including many companies in the auto industry.
“GM was starting to get built up there and Ford was just starting to go out there,” Blaker says. “Chrysler had Beijing Jeep at the time, but they were thinking about expanding. It was the Wild West, the great frontier.
“I just knew with the population and the market opening up, there was going to be a big demand for the automotive industry in China. Somebody was going to need to train these people on how to sell and service these cars. So to me, you just looked at it and thought how could you not go after this market?”
Blaker went to China, got the ball rolling on those training operations and today leads a business that spans the globe. Growth has been steady at the nearly 2,000-employee company, a trend that barely skipped a beat through the global recession of 2008 that hit many other businesses so hard.
“We had a really good growth year in 2008 and haven’t stopped since,” Blaker says. “We’re in Asia-Pacific, Latin America, China, India, Brazil, Mexico — they are all big markets for us. While things were slow here in the United States, we had tremendous growth in those markets overseas.”
One of the keys to that success is the conciliatory approach Blaker took in response to the overwhelming skepticism she faced over reaching out to China.
Keep your team together
In business as in life, you’re going to run into situations where people don’t see things your way. One of the keys to avoiding an unpleasant confrontation is the attitude you take toward those who disagree with you.
“OK, so you have a few people who disagree,” Blaker says. “You have to bring them along. You have to get them to agree that, ‘OK, while you may not think this is the greatest idea in the world, here’s why I think it is. Please just ride with me for a while and let’s see what happens.’”
When it’s a situation where you’re the lone believer in an idea, you could gather everyone together in the board room and proclaim, ‘I’m the boss and this is what we’re doing. Get on board or get out.’ But that’s not going to lead to anything but hard feelings and more conflict, even if yours is ultimately proven to be the right idea.
So work with them and continue to share your thoughts as to why you think it’s an idea worth exploring.
“Get them involved and keep them involved,” Blaker says. “The more you keep them involved, the easier it is for them to just get with the program. Then as time goes on and the program is successful, they are involved in the success and you don’t even have to go back and say, ‘Hey, you didn’t think this was going to work.’ You don’t have to go there because they are already on board.”
Before you get to that point, be sure you’re addressing concerns that people have about your idea.
“You just continue to make them a part of the process,” Blaker says. “‘I understand your concerns, let’s take a look at this and watch it as we go forward.’ That goes a long way toward winning them over and making believers out of them as time goes on and things go well.”
There will of course be situations where your idea doesn’t pan out and your critics end up being proven right. That didn’t happen for Blaker with her China idea, but it has happened before as it does with any leader.
The focus on teamwork and finding a solution rather than turning it into a situation of us vs. them can make a big difference.
“Because they are such a part of the team, they are going to work just as hard as I am to make it a success,” Blaker says. “Even if there are challenges, they are already ready with some solutions because they’ve already been thinking about it. If this happens, we’re going to think about this. If that happens, we’re going to be ready with that. So keeping them involved and informed is key.”
Fortunately for Blaker, she was right on the money in her belief as to the need to gain traction in China.
“It was probably the single-most important decision we’ve ever made as an organization,” Blaker says. “That actually catapulted us into the global playing field and we haven’t stopped since. There is no one in my space in the automotive industry who has my global footprint and who can provide the level of service I can provide all over the world.”
Know what your team can do
So what’s the key to making a good call on a potential idea that could be really good or really bad for your organization?
“You can’t do everything,” Blaker says. “So which is going to provide you with the best return on your investment? That’s all part of knowing your business, your customers and what you can do. You have to take a look at all of them and understand what is that return. Some projects will take a whole heck of a lot of work, but there’s not a lot of return on investment. It’s not just a question of doing too much. It’s what can you do, how well can you do it and what is your return going to be at the end of the day?”
Having knowledge of your company as it is today is very important when you’re trying to assess future opportunities. You need to know what resources you have that you can apply to this opportunity or what the cost will be for acquiring those resources.
“If it’s in an area that is a core competency and we’ve got the resources to do it, there’s typically no reason why we can’t move forward,” Blaker says. “Those are the easy ones. It’s the one where you’re in a new market or faced with providing a proposal for services in a market where you’re short on resources that you agonize over. You may have to walk away.”
Looking back again at the move to China, Blaker firmly believed it was the right move and she was effective at earning her team’s support. The support wasn’t just something that was nice to have. It was a critical piece of making the idea work.
“I can’t go forward by myself,” Blaker says. “I need them behind me. It’s how well I can sell them on an idea or prove to them that something is worth pursuing and the same for them with the rest of the team.”
Blaker’s team is one that brings many different points of perspective to the table, a quality that often leads to disagreement during discussions. It’s something that Blaker feels makes her company that much stronger in the end.
“I worked very hard to pull together a senior management team that has different strengths,” Blaker says. “We all approach a problem or an idea from a different direction. So I think we get a real comprehensive overview of everybody’s thoughts and potential pitfalls.”
Blaker spends between 60 and 70 percent of her time looking at the future and trying to get a good read on what the company needs to be doing to remain a leader in its field. But without the strong relationship she has with her team, it would all be for naught.
“You can’t just be looking ahead 100 percent,” Blaker says. “You have to make sure what you’re bringing along with you is strong and solid. You have to have that good, solid foundation underneath you to continue growing. If you don’t, then sooner or later, that house of cards is just going to tumble.”
When Blaker visits locations around the world, she encounters many different cultures, but she takes a very consistent approach to each meeting. Her goal, no matter where she is, is to fuel the passion that her people have for what TTi Global does. It all comes back to being part of a team.
“You’ve got to not only have the individuals in your organization who deliver the day-to-day programs and projects,” Blaker says. “You have to have those creative visionary individuals within your organization who get excited about a new piece of technology and can dream about where it could take you.”
How to reach: TTi Global, (800) 837-5222 or www.tti-global.com
The Blaker File
President and CEO
Born: Royal Oak, Mich.
What’s special to you about Detroit?
It’s the Motor City. There’s a vibrant history that surrounds the whole automotive industry here in Michigan. We really got kicked in the teeth in 2008. To see the way people are working together and have banded together to support the city, support the state, it’s just the kind of people we are.
That’s what keeps us here and keeps our global headquarters here. It’s just that can-do attitude that you don’t see everywhere else. We’re going to go out and conquer the world and we will. That type of attitude is what launched the automotive industry here in Michigan way back with Henry Ford. It’s that vibrant entrepreneurial spirit that’s here that I don’t necessarily see everywhere else.
How did your father, who founded the company you now lead, influence you?
He made me learn the business from the ground floor up. For that, I’m so thankful. While I had taken over part of the business, I wasn’t running all of it at the time. When he died, all of that changed.
Because he had been such a tough boss, I was better able to step up and assume the reins of running the organization. If he hadn’t been so tough on me, I wouldn’t have been quite so ready.
He wasn’t afraid to step away from corporate life and take a chance. He was a real pioneer and an entrepreneurial guy and always wanted to have his own business. I think I got that from him. I’m not afraid to try anything. If I look at the situation and it looks like a good risk, I’m not afraid to move forward. He gave me that gift.
Use your imagination.
Don’t underestimate need for support.
Focus on return on investment.