Imagining solutions Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2007

In 1989, Robert L. McNeil Jr. founded IMAGES USA in his dormitory at Georgia Tech. Eighteen years later, his company employs more than 40 people, and in the last three years, IMAGES USA has more than doubled its annual billings, from $24.5 million in 2003 to $51 million in 2006, with clients including Sprint, Nike, FedEx, and AOL.

Now McNeil’s greatest challenge is maintaining momentum — his company has to remain an expert in the multicultural market while continuing to find creative solutions across a dozen industries.

Smart Business spoke with McNeil, president and CEO of IMAGES USA, about why your business could suffer if you don’t have your life in order.

Q: How involved in the day-to-day operations should a leader be?

Only as much or as little as necessary. ... You’ve obviously got to be involved in areas of concern or areas of particular interest. My charge is to focus on growth. Focus on the management of the company. Don’t get mired in the details of the day-to-day operations.

Q: How do you develop a company culture?

The culture is influenced by the leadership, but it is very much employee-driven. The leadership of the organization definitely has the wherewithal to set the tone of the culture and focus the organization in areas we think have high growth potential.

But at the end of the day, the people who work for the agency are the ones who make it go around. We have a very exciting, vibrant environment.

At the end of the day, it comes down to how you treat people. We believe in treating people well.

Q: How do you deal with growth?

Any founder of a company is always going to have their focus on the business. It’s their baby, they love it, they love to see it grow. They recognize the impact it has as it grows and develops.

Fortunately for me, the growth of our company has really been accelerated by the diversification of our portfolio offer. Through that diversification, we’ve adopted a new core competency every two or three years. That’s easier for me because I didn’t have to let go of everything at once, and while I was letting go of one thing, I was embracing another one.

I could focus on whatever that new core competency was and focus on understanding it ... while I could let other capable individuals focus on running the areas of the business we were already focused on.

Q: What are the advantages of that delegation process?

It gives them the opportunity to have leadership and ownership in a particular area. For example, at about year four in our growth cycle, we decided to add market research, market intelligence as a core competency.

One of our clients loaned us a Ph.D. for about six months to help us build that discipline. That individual was able to grow that business. We treated it like a department: They were able to hire their own staff, train the people, develop relationships with them and grow their customer base. It gives people the autonomy to run their business.

In an entrepreneurial-driven company, you tend to attract other entrepreneurs. Maybe they don’t want to run the whole company, but maybe they want to run a division they could still have ownership and leadership with, (and) the autonomy to make decisions.

Q: What has been your greatest challenge in business?

Managing growth. Our culture and our creativity and our emotional strength as an organization have been at an all-time high for some time. At this point, it comes down to what can you do to maintain momentum, and what can you do to manage growth.

At the staff retreat, we came up with a goal we wanted to reach as an organization. Once a month, we get updates on that goal. Every single week, our management team meets and we talk about our business — what makes it work, what could make it better.

Q: What are some pitfalls a CEO should try to avoid?

Definitely have your life in order. You have to have a balance between your priorities. For me, it’s God first, family second, the business third. Not to have those in order could be a huge pitfall because, ultimately, your mental health, being the CEO, will have an enormous effect on the rest of the organization.

Another pitfall to avoid is to make sure to give your leadership the ability to make decisions. The last thing you want to do is hire a high-performing individual and not give them the autonomy to perform.

CEOs are smart people, and they attract smart people. But a lot of times, they smother them without allowing them to grow. You’ve got to have a growth development plan for your top management in the company. They bring a world of information and expertise, but if they don’t have a plan ... they’re going to get bored.

HOW TO REACH: IMAGES USA, (404) 892-2931 or