Lynne Thompson

Tuesday, 23 October 2001 10:49

Communicating in the electronic age

Cell phones, pagers, voice mail and e-mail are among the most lauded inventions of the 20th century, godsends that allow on-the-go individuals to communicate with business associates, friends and family members at any time, at any place in the world.

No more waiting at a desk to take an important call. No more busy signals or endless minutes of waiting for a real person to answer a ringing telephone. E-mail even eliminates the ringing telephone, allowing users to send and respond to messages at their convenience without sacrificing speed.

But high-tech communications gadgets and systems have created problems of their own. The ring of cell phones and beep of pagers interrupt meetings, movies, concerts and meals in fine restaurants. Voice mailboxes are filled with unintelligible messages and rambling diatribes. And e-mail recipients are spending hours answering electronic correspondence, much of which is junk mail from senders they don't know, according to Christina Haas of Kent State University's Center for Workplace Literacy, an organization that conducts field-based research on how information is communicated in the workplace.

Etiquette experts say users can become part of the solution by exercising courtesy and common sense. They offer the following tips for communicating in the electronic age.

Cell phones/pagers

Turn off cell phones and pagers while in conference rooms, theaters, concert halls, restaurants, churches and other places, and let voice mail pick up your calls, advises North Canton image consultant Bonnie Motts.

Dick Blake, a Beachwood-based deportment/etiquette coach who has led classes for Akron City Club staffers, concurs. He says the cell phone so many brandish as a status symbol is actually considered an unwanted interruption by truly important people. Using it in group situations is just plain rude.

"Telephone conversations," he stresses, "are supposed to be personal and very private."

If you're on a call or expecting an important call that simply can't be returned at a later time, put the phone or pager on vibrate mode (some phones are also equipped with a light that indicates an incoming call) and discreetly alert your host, dining companions, meeting leader, seminar presenter, etc. to the situation, Motts says. When the call or page comes, excuse yourself and answer it in a more private area, perhaps in the corner of a lobby or hallway.

If you're attending a meeting or seminar, sit at the back of the room by the door, if possible, and slip out of the room when necessary.

When it comes to making and taking calls in the car, Motts suggests pulling over to the side of the road before you pick up the phone. She points out that some communities have passed laws prohibiting drivers from using hand-held cell phones in moving vehicles.

Blake says talking in a stopped car is not only safer, it's less noisy and allows drivers to extend the common courtesy of giving their full attention to the person on the other end of the line.

Voice mail

When leaving a message, clearly state the date, time and purpose of your call, as well as your name, company's name and phone number. Motts suggests jotting down the reason you're calling before dialing if you become flustered or tend to ramble.

Some voice mail systems only allow callers a matter of seconds to state their business. Pay attention to your pauses. Blake says some systems will cut callers off when they stop speaking. And make sure you give message recipients plenty of time to respond before leaving another message. According to Blake, a call returned within 48 hours under normal circumstances has received prompt attention.

When recording a voice mail greeting, state your name and company's name and ask callers to leave their name, phone number, date, time and purpose of their call. One executive we know updates his greeting each day he's in the office. He includes the date the greeting is recorded, whether he's in the office, and, if not, when he will return and whom to contact during an extended absence. The effort has greatly reduced multiple messages from frustrated callers.

Don't incorporate music, jokes, etc., in your greeting, even if you work out of your home.

"There's no place for that in a business," Motts says.

Blake adds sales pitches to the list. All take outgoing messages over his 10 to 15 second limit.

"People resent taking too much time," Blake says. "They don't like to hear long messages."

He advocates setting the system so calls go into voice mail after two or three rings. After three or four rings, he says, people get annoyed.


Keep e-mail messages as short as possible, preferably no longer than one screen.

"If somebody has to scroll down to read the rest of your e-mail, they may miss it," Haas says.

She also recommends adhering to rules of grammar, punctuation, capitalization, spelling, etc., and stating the purpose of the message in the subject line. Messages with a subject line are more likely to get a response, especially when the recipient doesn't know the sender or the business that person represents.

Some users set up an "automatic signature" that inserts their name, title, phone and fax numbers at the end of every message. Resist the urge to include a long song lyric or quote. Haas calls them annoying.

Don't send one e-mail after another if you fail to receive a response, and don't acknowledge every e-mail by sending a got-your-message e-mail of your own.

"People e-mail people when they're sitting across from them in the same room," Blake says.

Haas says the misuses contribute to e-mail overload.

Haas points out that the e-mail message, although often deleted after receipt, is indeed a permanent record that can be saved, stored and redistributed like a memo or letter on paper.

"It can be sent to hundreds, even thousands of people almost instantaneously," she says.

She adds that courts tend to support the idea that an institution owns the e-mails sent by its employees. Therefore, watch what you say and how you say it.

Lynne Thompson is a free-lance writer for SBN Magazine.

Tuesday, 23 October 2001 10:49

Shutting down

Last year, a fledgling dot-com venture launched by a local computer concern went out of business after its lifeline of investment dollars slowed to a trickle.

The owner, in his infinite wisdom, handled the situation by letting the last of his employees go, then turning off the lights, locking the door and disappearing from sight. Wages and bills were left unpaid, and messages left on the business' still-functioning automated telephone system were not returned.

The only reason some creditors knew of the dot-com's demise was because unfailingly responsible employees took it upon themselves to contact them after they'd been dismissed.

The idea of simply walking away from a business can be attractive to an owner, especially one with a failing company. But the reality is that closing a business in a manner that is less than considerate of employees, customers and creditors causes more problems than it solves.

Experts say unethical actions exacerbate legal and financial matters. Worse, they can create a public relations nightmare that haunts the perpetrator, making it difficult, if not impossible, to go into business again -- particularly if his or her name is associated with the defunct enterprise.

George Prough, a professor of marketing at the University of Akron, utters an often-overlooked truth: People don't forget when they've been burned.

"You have to look at the idea of lifetime value of relationships," Prough says. "It's easy, especially if a person stays in the community, to get a lousy reputation that's going to last for a very long time."

So just how does one go about "successfully losing a business," as Prough calls it? According to Norma Rist, an Akron-based marketing and business strategy consultant, two telephone calls must be made immediately, regardless of the reasons for calling it quits. The first is to the company's attorney; the second is to its certified public accountant.

John Guy of the Akron law firm Guy Lammert & Towne, says that call to the attorney is needed so the obligations accumulated by a business over the years can be addressed, from terminating vendors' licenses and leases on rental properties, automobiles, office equipment, etc., to taking care of outstanding debts.

"First of all, you have to address the issues with your secured creditors," he says.

In most cases, that means the banks from which money has been borrowed to maintain cash flow and finance equipment purchases and operations. Guy points out that banks require the owners of virtually all small businesses to personally guarantee their debts -- a fact with which most entrepreneurs are all too familiar.

If liens on a business's assets aren't enough to pay its debts, "the bank is going to come knocking on the door of the individual who guaranteed it," Guy says.

Sharing the first line on the to-pay list are the employees.

"You always give the employees the No. 1 priority as a practical matter because there are so many issues and so many governmental agencies that you'll become involved with if you don't," he says.

Although secured creditors legally have first dibs on a business's assets, they usually consent to the payment of wages and related withholding taxes.

"There are laws on the books that give the employees certain rights," Guy says. "Unless they're paid, they can complicate the lives of secured creditors."

All federal, state and county and city tax returns also must be filed and the taxes paid.

"I've had people who thought, 'Well, I shut my business down. I'm done,'" says Dave Smith, manager of taxation services for the certified public accounting and consulting firm Brockman, Coats, Gedelian & Co.

Another surprise is that final annual returns, W-2 forms, etc., normally due in January must be filed in relatively short order after the closing. And even after the final returns are filed, a limited liability company or corporation still technically exists until it is legally dissolved.

Smith says one client decided against such a move because he thought he might go back into business and wanted to avoid the cost and red tape of forming another corporation.

"Some people seem to move from business to business to business," he says.

According to Guy, unsecured creditors are paid last.

"If you don't have enough money to pay them in full, you need to at least pay them on a pro-rata basis whatever remaining proceeds you have," Guy says.

He strongly recommends contacting creditors and letting them know exactly what arrangements are being made -- filing for bankruptcy, for example, or auctioning off the business -- instead of dodging phone calls and ignoring past-due and collection notices.

"Really, it's a waste of time to try to hide or keep your creditors in the dark," he says. "The best way to do it is be up-front and have your lawyer send a letter out to them."

Prough suggests the owner in question compose a few key messages that explain why, when and how the business is closing its doors, then disseminate those to employees, customers, suppliers and other creditors, the media, etc. Employees in particular, he says, have a right to know the reason they're losing their jobs. He stresses the importance of giving the same information to each group, some members of which are bound to compare notes. Conflicting stories will "tarnish the image from Day 1."

Rist concurs.

"Honesty and integrity in information released to the community will help the owner in any future endeavors," she says.

Rist says owners can take other actions to engender goodwill. She recommends they sit down and think of how they can help each group adversely affected by the closing. Employees, for example, will appreciate letters of reference and introductions to companies where they might find work, while customers will find referrals to a reputable competitor helpful.

"Everything doesn't have a cost," she says. "But it does require some thinking and planning and consideration." How to reach: Norma Rist Consulting, (330) 865-5900; Guy Lammert & Towne, (330) 535-2151; Brockman, Coats, Gedelian & Co., (330) 864-6661

Tuesday, 23 October 2001 10:48

A day at the drive-in

For many folks in these parts, Swenson's Drive-In is synonymous with hamburgers -- really good hamburgers, the kind pictured in a 1999 Forbes magazine article on one New York Times correspondent's favorite U.S. restaurants.

The caption simply reads: "Behold America's best cheeseburger."

The sandwich is a cardiologist's worst nightmare: two ground-chuck patties and a layer of cheese served on a toasted bun slathered with real butter. (Owner Stephen Thompson denies the Akron-born scribe's suggestions that molasses is used in the patties to help them caramelize on the grill and that the cheese is Cheez-Whiz.)

But since the Depression, locals have ignored their arteries and flocked to the tiny drive-in on South Hawkins Avenue, even during those notorious Northeast Ohio winters, allowing it to thrive while other drive-ins went the way of poodle skirts and bobby socks. Over the years, Swenson's locations have opened on Cuyahoga Falls Avenue (late 1950s) and in Stow (1987), Montrose (1995) and Canton (1998).

Thompson stresses that he hasn't gone out of his way to peddle nostalgia.

"I really am selling food," he says.

But he has yet to install a single drive-through window at any of his eateries. Instead, he still employs dozens of waiters to "run curb," taking orders from patrons in parked cars and returning with trays of shakes and fries -- something his teen-age employees may have seen before only in late-night-movie screenings of "American Graffiti."

And he's quick to extol the virtues of dining in front of the dashboard.

"There's just too many great things about eating in your car," he enthuses. "You can smoke if you want to. You can listen to whatever music you want. It's probably the most expensive chair you own -- and probably the best-designed chair, actually. If you want to be alone, you can be alone. You can say whatever you want to.

"Besides getting crumbs on the interior, it's a pretty good environment to eat in."

Thompson, 53, grew up with the Swenson's legacy. His father and the son of Swenson's founder Wesley T. "Pop" Swenson, both doctors, were friends. Their children attended St. Vincent-St. Mary High School together, and Thompson worked five or six shifts a week as a curbside waiter at Swenson's South Hawkins Avenue location while studying business administration at the University of Akron.

Thompson, an energetic, entrepreneurial individual who enjoyed his high school job as a Brown Derby busboy, didn't mind the schedule. He says Swenson's "got into my blood, like the circus."

"When I worked there, I wanted to open a similar restaurant, maybe someplace with a little better weather," he says.

But fate intervened. The two Swenson's Drive-Ins had entered a period of decline by the time Thompson graduated from college in 1972. Bob Phillips, the man to whom "Pop" Swenson had sold his restaurants, had died, and Phillips' widow was struggling to run them even as her own health failed. In 1974, Thompson ended his brief career as a life-insurance salesman and became the proud proprietor of Swenson's original location.

"The Swensons (who still owned the property on which the restaurants sat) always really liked me, and the owner really liked me, so I just kind of took over the one on South Hawkins," he explains.

By the early '80s, he had acquired the Cuyahoga Falls Avenue location from the Phillips' daughter and son-in-law.

The first thing Thompson did as a new owner was "to go back to the way things were when I first worked there." His predecessor had not only raised prices, but started cutting corners in an effort to boost declining revenue. Orders were served with one pickle instead of three; oleo was used instead of butter; and "second-rate" French fries, mustard, chocolate, etc., were being served.

"Things got so bad that at one point she was actually serving a partially soy burger," he says. "You could almost spread the meat with a knife."

Thompson rehired the restaurant's old butcher, then obtained the recipe for the original buns from the bakery that made them. When that bakery went out of business, he took the recipe to another company and had the buns made to his exact specifications.

And the drive-in once again began using "the best butter you can buy" -- an ingredient about which Thompson is particularly persnickety.

"I'll go in a restaurant, pay $25 a plate, and they will serve me something that is not butter," he says, his mild-mannered voice flaring with indignation. "Some of the new products are actually pretty close to tasting like butter at one-third the price. But I just refuse to change it. It makes a difference on every bun."

Perhaps just as important as the quality of food is the classic drive-in atmosphere Thompson strove to maintain. The design of the restaurants -- even the newer ones -- has remained much the same. And he refuses to install those "speaker boxes" that allow waiters to stay in the restaurant and take orders instead of walking out to the cars.

The contraptions, he charges, reduce the customer contact that is so much a part of the drive-in experience to the few moments required to drop off food at a parked car.

"Soon after the speaker boxes came, the drive-ins started going out of business," he says. "When the owners lost their touch with their customers, it was the beginning of the end. ... It was a very impersonal style. You talked to a faceless person."

Thompson hasn't had a problem finding young workers who are willing to run to and from customers' cars trying to achieve their boss's goal of serving each patron made-to-order items in 10 minutes or less.

"I get to see a lot of quality people," he says. "If you're a high-energy person, it's a great place to work."

In 1995, Thompson's older brother, Ronald, came on board, and approximately three years ago, Thompson hired a former Swenson's waiter -- a top-notch server who had worked his way through college -- to help him run his mini-chain of drive-ins.

Aside from the number of restaurants, the biggest change at Swenson's has been to the menu, which has expanded to include items such as pork sandwiches and vegetarian hamburgers.

"The previous owner taught me one lesson, and it probably holds true today," Thompson says. "It was the fifth-person-in-the-car theory: You didn't want to lose four customers because the fifth person wanted the chicken dinner. There's quite a few extraneous items we don't sell a lot of, but they're for that purpose."

In fact, Thompson surmises that Swenson's willingness to go the extra mile for customers is one of the reasons the business has continued to grow.

"We'll do about anything," he admits.

A layered milkshake -- a layer of chocolate, a layer of strawberry, a layer of vanilla -- was created at one imaginative customer's request, a labor-intensive concoction Thompson estimates would be priced at $8 if it were on the menu. The restaurant offers free milk for babies (waiters return to the kitchen with baby bottles to fill and warm them); a "doggie burger;" a plain hamburger without the bun wrapped in paper and served on a plate (10 cents less than a regular hamburger); even free water for Fido.

"Doggie 81 is the code for it, which is water in a styrofoam soup bowl," Thompson says.

But not every encounter with a four-legged patron is a pleasant one.

"We've had some pretty close calls," he says with a chuckle. "Not all the dogs care that much for the waiters. The guys warn each other: 'Watch out for the dog in 25.'

"It's pretty scary when you come up to a car, you don't know the dog, and all of a sudden they're out the window." How to reach: Swenson's Drive-In, (330) 928-3797

Tuesday, 23 October 2001 10:48

A penny saved

"Most business owners are so busy worrying about the day-to-day things that they really don't take the time to step back and create a plan for being profitable," charges Dave Brockman, founding partner of Brockman, Coats, Gedelian & Co. and director of the company's Profit Enhancement Process.

Does the assessment sound too familiar for comfort?

The good news is that Brockman says you may be able to rectify the situation by following some basic steps of the Profit Enhancement Process, a program founded eight years ago in Maryland by a CPA and the proprietor of a family enterprise to address problems commonly faced by business owners.

1. Focus attention on profits instead of sales. Most businesses, Brockman says, are driven by the latter instead of the former -- some to the extent that their owners don't even know which customers, products or services generate the most money.

To change that mindset, he suggests business owners rate their bottom line on a scale of 1 to 10, then ask themselves what improving that rating by a single number would mean to their bottom line. Brockman says most clients project an increase of several hundred thousands dollars.

2. Share the responsibility of profit-making with everyone in the company.

"Employees generally understand that there's a need to make money in order to pay people, maintain facilities, buy equipment and inventory, and generate a return on your investment," Brockman says.

Those who don't may be motivated by learning about the benefits they'll reap by working for a more profitable employer -- if not enhanced compensation and bonuses, then improved technology and equipment to work with, for example, or the ability to attract better-qualified employees.

"Many times, employees don't realize that profits are reinvested back into the business in some form or fashion as opposed to being taken out of the company."

3. Make sure the company conveys the message that there's a need for profitability.

"In closely held businesses, there's a reluctance to share information, especially the bottom line," Brockman says.

As a result, employees may believe a company is faring better than it actually is. Those who aren't ready to embrace an open-book style of management should at the very least consider relaying components that relate to employee performance: profit margins, percentage of on-time deliveries, customer satisfaction ratings, etc.

4. Open up communication within an organization.

"One of the greatest things you can do to enhance profitability is to get people to talk more about how to be more profitable," Brockman says.

Such conversations can yield incredibly useful suggestions. During one session at Brockman's office, a truck driver for a trash-hauling company suddenly realized that drivers and passengers were staying in the garbage trucks as the trucks were weighed. And the dump site was charging per pound. The oversight, when corrected, saved the company approximately $78,000 a year.

During another meeting, the sales representatives of a moving and storage company divulged that they were spending only about 12.5 percent of their time in the field -- most of their days were filled with completing paperwork. The cost of hiring administrative staffers was more than justified by the $250,000 increase in net profits generated by a sales force that was actually calling on customers.

"The front-line employees -- the people actually doing the work -- really know where they can save you money," he says. How to reach: Brockman, Coats, Gedelian & Co., (330)

Tuesday, 23 October 2001 10:47

Going to market

Hartville Kitchen has a reputation that extends far beyond the small Stark County community in which it's located.

People are willing to drive a couple of hours to the 440-seat family-owned restaurant -- which Soloma Miller opened as a lunch stand over her husband Sol's livestock auction in the late 1930s -- just to sit down to a meal like Grandma used to make: broiled and pressure-fried chicken, roast beef, real mashed potatoes, made-from-scratch soups and baked goods. Vernon Sommers Jr., the husband of one of the couple's granddaughters who oversees restaurant operations, says the place serves an average of 2,500 meals a day.

And it's known for 21 kinds of pie, particularly coconut cream.

"We probably make an average of 600 pies a day," he says. "They're sold either by the piece or whole, and they're not sold anywhere else but here."

In fact, for years, the only Hartville Kitchen items that could be purchased outside the restaurant were homemade salad dressings. According to Bob Pawley, president of Specialty Foods in Massillon, Hartville Kitchen's exclusive distributor, the refrigerated dressings are in the produce departments of approximately 600 grocery stores in Ohio, Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia, as well as in farm markets as far south as Tennessee.

The stuff, he says, is very popular, even though Hartville Kitchen does little or no advertising. He's been told that the sweet and sour dressing, for example, is "the No. 1 salad dressing in units and dollars, including shelf dressings," in a couple of local grocery store chains.

"We do sell an awful lot around here," he says. "There are stores that sell 40 to 60 cases a week, which is a lot of salad dressing. It's not something that you use up right away."

But the Hartville Kitchen label is on more than just salad dressings. Last fall, the restaurant introduced its refrigerated cookie dough in six Fishers Foods stores in Canton, as well as 12 Giant Eagles and 15 Acmes in the Akron-Canton area and a handful of Marc's throughout Northeast Ohio. Sommers says other products will follow.

Contrary to what some believe, however, putting a restaurant favorite on supermarket shelves is no piece of cake when you insist on making and packaging it yourself. Sommers says extending shelf life is a major challenge, especially for a place that doesn't like using preservatives. According to Pawley, distributors and retailers who don't properly store or rotate the product compound the problem.

"You can end up with more problems than you'll ever have profits if the product is mishandled," he says.

Pawley says Sommers learned that lesson the hard way long ago, when Hartville Kitchen tried to make pies for sale at other outlets.

"People would advertise that they had the Hartville Kitchen pies, and they'd do a good business with them," he says. "But if they had a slow couple of days and didn't sell all their pies, they'd hold them over for the next day. Well, they don't do that at Hartville Kitchen. And if the pie wasn't good, (Hartville Kitchen) got blamed for it.

"When you sell somebody something, it no longer belongs to you. You can't tell them what to do with it."

To prevent such problems with the cookie dough -- a product suggested by Pawley that comes in chocolate crinkle, chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, peanut butter, sugar and "bushel" varieties -- Sommers and his crew are working to extend its all-natural nine-week shelf life, which limits distribution.

"A lot of it is sold now at school fund-raisers," Sommers says.

Freezing, of course, would eliminate the problem. But the refrigerated dough, which comes in a resealable 1 1/2-pound plastic tub, allows consumers to bake as many cookies as they want, whenever they want. In this case, as with some of the salad dressings, preservatives that Sommers says won't change the flavor will be added to the recipe.

"We try to use natural ingredients when we can, things like vinegar in the salad dressings," Sommers says. "But in this case, you are almost forced into using (preservatives). ... It's just almost impossible to market something that's got only nine weeks from the time we produce it until you have to use it, to get it through distribution and everything."

Packaging is yet another consideration.

"When we bring out a new product, we take it a step at a time," Sommers says. "Sometimes we do things by hand, then we buy equipment that will go into an automatic line later on. We'll just keep on adding to it. We're not one of these companies where we go out and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, then hope it works."

Although a machine deposits cookie dough into containers, the lids are still put on by hand. In contrast, the salad dressing line -- which once consisted of a one-gallon blender and pitchers used to fill jars by hand -- is almost completely automated, with a system capable of cranking out 10,000 pint jars a day.

Then there's the matter of getting a new product into grocery stores and retaining a distributor. The word-of-mouth success of Hartville Kitchen's dressings belies the effort of doing both.

"It's very, very competitive," Sommers says. "You don't see grocery stores with empty shelves looking for new product. You have to prove to them that they can make money at it. That's the name of the game."

The Miller family and its parent company, Hartville Auction, have a history of accomplishing big things. Six Miller grandchildren and their spouses, with the exception of one granddaughter, are all involved in the businesses to varying degrees.

Over the years, they've turned the restaurant into a day-trip destination. Hartville Kitchen relocated to its current site five years ago after it outgrew the former dry goods store the lunch stand occupied after the health department closed it in 1966 -- officials didn't like the idea of Soloma preparing and serving soups and sandwiches over the livestock pens, according to grandson Howard Miller Jr.

Next to the new restaurant is a bakery and candy shop; above it is a 15,000-square-foot gift shop that sells everything from greeting cards to Hummel figurines and Swarovski crystal, and a 5,000-square-foot art gallery that features works by painter Thomas Kinkade. The family also owns a large True Value hardware store purchased in 1972.

Behind the restaurant, ground has been broken for a 85,000-square-foot flea market that Sol started not long after he opened the livestock auction in the late 1930s. The old restaurant houses a 15,000-square-foot antique mall and the salad dressing manufacturing operations, but there are plans to build a new plant for the latter.

"We had always made our own salad dressings here," Sommers says. "People started asking for them, and we used to put them in a 16-ounce paper cup, put a lid on it, and sell them that way. Then the local grocer asked for them, so we got a little container to put them in for him."

In July 1976, Pawley, whose only client at the time was a maker of frozen pizzas, approached the Miller family about selling the dressings in grocery stores.

"Within about three months, (Bob) was no longer selling pizzas -- nothing but salad dressings," Sommers says.

Pawley says the Hartville Kitchen-brand cookie dough, limited though distribution may be, is "doing very well."

"We are going to hopefully come out a lot stronger with it this fall," he says.

A refrigerated ready-to-bake pie crust -- a challenge even for accomplished cooks -- may follow. Pawley says the restaurant is already testing crusts for shelf life. Another potential product is noodles.

"We use a lot of noodles here, and we don't make our own," Sommers says. "We would love to do that some time."

Subsequent products will be items that are popular in the restaurant and bakery and that meet the needs and desires of consumers.

"We've talked about barbecue sauces and all kinds of things," Sommers says. "But that's just not who we are." How to reach: Hartville Kitchen, (330) 877-9353

Lynne Thompson is a free-lance writer for SBN Magazine.

Tuesday, 23 October 2001 10:47

Family therapy

There's no business like a family business, as anyone who's ever worked in one knows.

Dennis Zaverl of Zaverl & Associates, a Peninsula-based consultant who has worked with family businesses for more than 30 years, ticks off a few of the challenges faced by an enterprise in which members of the work force are related to each other: Dealing with the entitlement mindset of offspring who expect to take over the business without paying their dues; judiciously employing, promoting and compensating those offspring without instigating a major case of sibling rivalry ("In theory, we all know they're equal, but you can only have one president."); and the influence of husbands and wives not employed by the business.

He compares a family business to a marriage, a unique entity complete with its own personalities, quirks and compromises.

"There's that familiarity that tends to push it out of the business environment," he says. "That's probably why it's so difficult and why there's such a small percentage of people who really do plan for the future."

Zaverl is one of the sponsors who will speak at the Family Business Academy, a 10-week noncredit course that beginning Sept. 12 will meet Wednesday nights. The class is the latest offering by The University of Akron's Center for Family Business, founded four years ago as an outreach activity of the College of Business Administration's Fitzgerald Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies.

"Russ Vernon of West Point Market in Akron was really the one who came up with the idea," says Susan Hanlon, the center's director.

Vernon, she says, had attended family business forums and programs across the country and thought the regional business community would benefit from an affordable counterpart.

The center's mission, Zaverl says, is to help families do the planning they never seem to get around to, whether it's because they're too busy putting out fires at work or just don't think it's necessary.

"The purpose of the Center for Family Business is to help you realize the issues that you're facing and give you some education to handle them," he says.

According to Hanlon, the center's past programming consisted of 10 unrelated workshops scheduled throughout the year for its members. They began with a short presentation by an expert on topics ranging from succession planning to mentoring, followed by roundtable discussions -- one for founders and one for successors -- and a discussion of solutions formulated by each group. Although the workshops were well attended, Hanlon didn't believe members were using what they learned when they went back to work.

She hopes to change that by replacing the workshops with the Family Business Academy. The class will differ from previous center offerings in that it will focus on single topics -- the first half will be devoted to strategic planning, the second half to family meetings.

"Those are the two things that the research has shown make the biggest difference to the continuity and the performance of family businesses," Hanlon says.

Participants will also be given out-of-class assignments, such as scheduling a family meeting, conducting it and preparing to discuss the outcome.

"What we're trying to do is to get them to implement some of this stuff," Zaverl says. "Most people have a difficult time taking the time to do that."

Other sponsors scheduled to speak to the class include an attorney from Buckingham Doolittle & Burroughs, an accountant from Renacci Corwin & Co., a representative of the Akron Regional Development Board and College of Business Administration faculty members.

Zaverl's forte is strategic planning.

He has conducted center workshops on topics such as passing on assets and equity to children without passing on control or jeopardizing retirement security; retaining key employees when the reins are passed from one generation to another; and creating an independent board of advisers to help guide successors. But he also tackles "soft issues" such as eliminating the squabbling between heirs apparent and preventing two minority shareholders from ganging up on a third.

"Soft issues," he says, "drive the hard answers -- documents, procedures and agreements."

The hard answers, he says, differ from family to family.

"You have to take it on a case-by-case basis."

Those soft issues are popular topics in the "affinity groups," groups of member founders and successors that meet outside of center workshops.

"The idea is to talk, in an informal setting, to someone who's in a similar situation as yours," Hanlon says.

Although meeting schedules fluctuate, Hanlon says successors generally meet once a month, while founders get together three or four times a year.

Bernie Krzys, president and founder of Trenchless Technology, a Peninsula-based publisher of trade magazines for the drilling industry, says a group gathering "is almost like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting."

Zaverl compares it to family therapy.

"People are very open, much more open than I would have ever realized," Krzys says.

Krzys, one of the center's charter members, joined because he was looking for guidance in passing along the business to his son, while at the same time ensuring a comfortable income for his golden years.

"It's a fairly complex issue," the 61-year-old says. "How do you, in effect, guarantee your retirement plan's going to be there, and how do you maximize it so you don't have all these taxes that eat everything up?"

But Krzys found that the benefits of attending workshops extended beyond obtaining strategic planning advice. He says the association has been a positive influence on his professional relationship with son, Rob, Trenchless Technology's 31-year-old marketing manager.

"It's hard to say, but perhaps the involvement with the University of Akron has made us both look at some things differently," he says. "I think we're both much more respectful of each other as businessmen rather than as a father and son. Those kinds of issues really get in the way in a business environment."

Krzys adds that one weekend-long workshop he attended with his brother, Richard, the company's 68-year-old associate publisher, and their wives improved relations between the couples.

"That particular weekend, we really opened up a lot about how my brother would go home and talk to his wife about things, and my wife would hear from me at night, that kind of thing," Krzys says.

The men discovered that griping to their wives about each other negatively affected how the women, who enjoyed a good relationship with each other, felt about their brothers-in-law.

"(The programs) made you think about these things that you didn't even realize were issues," Krzys says.

Glenn Leppo, president of Leppo Equipment, a construction equipment distributor with locations in Akron, Canton, Youngstown and Wooster, says his involvement with the center helped he and older brother, Dale, work through a difficult situation with their sister.

She wanted to leave the company after she was struck with a life-threatening illness in 1999 but still retain ownership of her stock. The decision to buy her out was based on what he learned in center workshops.

"My sister had previously taken a sabbatical from the company for about six months and went sailing," Leppo says. "Now she wanted to get out of the business and go sailing again. Well, how would I feel? Family business -- at least our approach to it -- is essentially a full-time job, working anywhere from 50 to 70 hours a week, depending on the time of year, those kinds of things.

"Working like that and sending a good chunk of money off to your sister, who's sailing around the Caribbean, probably wouldn't sit very well."

Leppo admits that striking a deal with his sister was "a bit of a struggle." But he says she understood that the resentment generated by her continuing to receive dividend checks would build to the point where her brothers might, say, give themselves hefty raises that would eliminate profits.

"She and I have always been very close," he says. "It was the right thing for our relationship."

The stories of Krzys and Leppo support Hanlon's assertion that, contrary to what some people think, the majority of center members do not represent family businesses fraught with the J.R.-and-Bobby-Ewing-style dilemmas depicted on "Dallas." Krzys likens attending a center program or affinity group to visiting a marriage counselor before wedded bliss is threatened.

"Typically, the families that come to any kind of program, they're the very healthy family businesses," Hanlon says. "The ones that are in crisis can't get it together enough to even come -- or they're so miserable that they won't." How to reach: University of Akron's Center for Family Business, (330) 972-7685

Lynne Thompson is a regular free-lance contributor to SBN Magazine.

Tuesday, 23 October 2001 10:47

Higher learning

Fetch coffee and doughnuts, deliver the mail, man the copier -- they're the duties many people still associate with college internships.

But today's students (normally under the supervision of a faculty adviser) are doing jobs often assigned to management consulting firms, often at no charge. The beneficiaries? The businesses that give them a chance to apply textbook lessons to real-world situations.

Following is a sampling of projects performed by students at area colleges and universities, along with contact names and telephone numbers for those interested in taking advantage of them.

College of Wooster -- Since mathematics professor John Ramsay started the Applied Mathematics Research Experience eight years ago, its student teams have been hired by some of the area's biggest corporate names, including the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and Newell-Rubbermaid Inc.

Ramsay describes the bulk of the projects as "management science" -- inventory control, production scheduling, floor-plan analysis, etc. But the students have done everything from creating a computer program to assisting workers at Wooster-based Metromedia in determining where to place grommets so their banners won't tear in the wind to crunching historical and weather data to predict strawberry crop volume for the J.M. Smucker Co. in Orville.

"Really, it's evolved to be more like a consulting agency than anything else," Ramsay says. "It's different from an internship in that the students work at the college. We provide office space, computers and telephones."

Representatives of companies interested in hiring teams are invited to attend a program in mid-November, at which students who worked through the previous summer give presentations on the projects they completed. The AMRE is designed to provide students with a full-time job for eight weeks in the summer; therefore, the projects they accept are limited to those where needed information and resources are readily available.

"If we have to wait three days for information, we give up a lot of hours to twiddling our thumbs," Ramsay says.

Fees vary according to the number of students committed to a project. This summer, a team with three students and a faculty adviser ran $8,700 -- approximately what it would cost to hire three interns for the same time period, according to Ramsay.

For more information, call Ramsay at (330) 263-2579 or e-mail him at

University of Akron Debbie Owens, an assistant professor of marketing, estimates the market research done by the graduate students in her Business Research Methods Class would cost a client "$15,000 to $20,000 a shot." But the only things clients pay for are any out-of-pocket expenses (postage, rental of a room to conduct focus groups, beverages for participants, etc.) Management must also agree to attend an oral presentation by the student group working on their project.

The class splits into groups of four or five students, and each group works on a project for one of the concerns Owens has lined up. Although she favors nonprofit organizations, small start-up businesses are eligible for selection. "Many of our students are first-generation college (graduates)," she explains. "They just haven't had that broad experience in the community-leader side of life."

Past projects include a survey of parents and teens served by the Akron Urban League on current and future recreational programming; a survey of past and present members of the Better Business Bureau on their perceptions of the organization; a market feasibility analysis for Masterdrive of Ohio, a provider of driver training programs for police, youth and the elderly located in Akron, on offering programs to fleet truck services; and a market feasibility study for Inventure Place on corporate interest in creative thinking courses.

For more information, contact Owens at (330) 972-6029.

Kent State University -- Approximately three years ago, Dennis Ulrich, director of executive development programs for the Kent State University College of Business Administration, and Doug Shupe, operations manager for the state of Ohio's Small Business Development Centers, created the Ohio Graduate Business Student Competition.

As the name suggests, the annual contest pits teams of business school grad students from around the state against each other. There is a cash award for the top team, but the real winners are small businesses: Each team of four to six students is judged by the project it completes for a company chosen by the local SBDC.

Last year, teams did 9,000 hours of free consulting work, developing Web sites, financial and marketing plans, business process engineering, "anything that a business really feels as though it needs," according to Ulrich.

Ulrich calls the competition "a very structured, highly organized thing."

"In most cases it's part of a college course that the (team's) faculty adviser oversees," he says.

The results can be very impressive.

"We had one case where (the winners) began to look at the financial records and discovered that the chief financial officer of the company had embezzled $150,000," Ulrich says. "That's how intense the business analysis gets sometimes."

Ulrich says 10 schools, including Kent State University, are participating in the competition. (Other participating schools in northeastern Ohio are Case Western Reserve University and Youngstown State University.) An organizing meeting is held in October, and teams work on their projects from December up to the competition in April.

Perhaps the only downside for interested presidents and chief executive officers is that each college or university is only allowed to send two teams to the competition -- which means that, for those schools that don't hold an additional on-campus contest to determine the teams, only two businesses are chosen for projects by their local SBDC each year.

For more information, contact Linda Yost, director of the SBDC at the KSU College of Business, at (330) 672-1279.

Hiram College Teams of undergraduate students enrolled in marketing research classes also conduct marketing research projects at no cost, according to Kathryn Craig, director of the college's Career Center. One team, for example, recently conducted a market feasibility study for a local woman who was thinking of opening a day care center that offered after-school programs.

The students who sign up for the Organizational Communications class provide a free service called a communications audit, which Craig defines as "a survey of how communication is handled within a particular unit of a business" -- among sales reps, with clients, between departments, etc. -- and suggestions on how to improve it. Craig says some clients already know they have an internal communications problem; others ask the students to find out if they have one.

For information on marketing research projects, call Jane Rose, dean of the Weekend College, at (330) 569-3211. For information on communications audits, call Gail Ambuske, professor of management and communications, at the same number. Lynne Thompson is a free-lance writer and regular contributor to SBN Magazine.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:48

Controlling disability claims

There are plenty of disability management coordinators who would gladly trade places with Helen Simpson.

She says the overwhelming majority of disability claims that land on her desk at the Akron headquarters of FirstMerit Bank are pregnancies. The company averages a mere 65 injuries a year among its 3,500 employees, approximately 80 percent of whom Simpson estimates are women.

Many of those mishaps are relatively minor — slips and falls that result in a broken ankle or wrist, or back strains from lifting coin and cash.

“That sounds so funny,” she admits with a chuckle. “But these tellers are out on the front line, and they have to pick up their money at least twice a day and put it in their teller drawers. Those things can weigh 25 to 35 pounds.”

But the way the bank once handled injuries and health conditions that kept employees at home was no laughing matter. Paid leave was all too often prescribed not by a doctor, but at the discretion of the bank president responsible for that employee’s branch. An employee supervised by a more lenient bank president might get more time off than an employee at another branch suffering from the same malady.

Simpson admits some leaves were granted without confirming the required length of time off stated by the employee. The practices left FirstMerit vulnerable to legal liability as well as poor morale.

“We needed a standardized, centralized way of making sure we were in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Family and Medical Leave Act, to centralize and standardize how we applied these policies and procedures in law throughout our corporation,” Simpson says. “A person in Cleveland would be treated essentially the same as a person in Medina.

“Along with that, we wanted to control absenteeism. We’d have people off work, we didn’t know why or where, and we were paying them.”

In mid-1996, Simpson suggested the bank utilize disability management services offered by Premier Comp, based in Fairlawn, which is the managed workers’ compensation plan of HomeTown Health Network of Massillon. Together they began approaching disability cases using the same techniques traditionally applied to workers’ compensation claims: early intervention, intensive, hands-on case management, continued contact with the employee and light-duty/transitional work assignments that return the employee to the workplace.

“The main focus of disability management is to limit the amount of time that the employee is off work,” Simpson explains. “It’s all about an early, safe return to work.”

A pregnant employee, for example, would be asked to notify her supervisor as soon as she finds out she is expecting. The supervisor notifies FirstMerit’s nurse case manager, who in turn calls the employee at least every 30 days until the delivery. According to Simpson, the chats can identify problems that, if left untreated, could develop into unnecessary complications.

In the meantime, the mother-to-be — a teller, for example — might be offered a desk job that would keep her off her feet.

Case managers were nothing new to Simpson, who from time to time hired them on an as-needed basis to help her handle claims. But the first full-time case manager the bank employed didn’t see the value, for example, in calling pregnant employees right before they went on maternity leave. When Premier Comp director Stephen Elkins stopped to make a sales call, she discovered they shared the same philosophies regarding active case management.

“We both had the commitment and the energy, not just to talk the talk but to walk the walk,” she says.

Premier Comp provided the bank with a nurse case manager, Jean Phillips, who spends her 28-hour workweek at FirstMerit’s Akron headquarters handling both workers’ compensation and nonoccupational disability claims. A good deal of Phillips’ time, Simpson says, is spent on the telephone talking to supervisors and workers employed at the bank’s 188 branches.

She also helped Simpson implement a comprehensive disability management program, traveling to branches and explaining forms and procedures designed to collect the information essential to approving or denying a claim.

“Frankly, the procedures just grew out of folly,” Simpson says.

Premier Comp also helped establish a network of health care providers to handle on-the-job injuries. (Simpson stresses that employees are encouraged, not required, to use these providers, which are under contract to see them immediately.) Instead of pulling a network “off the shelf,” Elkins says Premier Comp helped Simpson create a roster that satisfied the bank’s specific needs.

“FirstMerit being a banking organization with many different branches, we contracted and established relationships with different providers that are near each of those branches so that they would understand FirstMerit — so that when someone was injured or ill, they could provide quality, timely medical services.”

Elkins declined to quote what Premier Comp charges for such customized services, explaining that costs differ from client to client.

“What FirstMerit has may or may not be what Company B gets,” he says. “Every company has a different management style. Every company has different goals.”

He’ll only divulge that fees are “somewhat in line” with the average amount U.S. companies dole out for disability management services. That price tag, he says, is about 1 percent of the 8 percent of payroll U.S. companies spend annually on workers’ compensation and disability claims — figures he quotes from a 1998 national study presented earlier this year in Akron at a Ohio Rehabilitation Association conference.

“For $1 invested in disability case management, $96 in savings can be attributed to that,” he adds.

Simpson, too, is reluctant to speak in terms of dollars and cents. Instead, she interprets savings in calendar days missed by employees: She says FirstMerit saved 10,466 days during the first nine months of 1999 alone.

“That translates into almost 29 years,” she says.

Simpson says Premier Comp’s disability management program has generally been well received by employees.

“Most people want to work,” she says.

Phillips does everything from answer garden-variety health questions to take blood pressure readings for a worker suffering from hypertension. More important, the nurse case manager acts as an advocate for the employee as well as the employer, functioning as a liaison between an injured/sick worker and his or her doctor and supervisor.

Indeed, Phillips’ presence is especially helpful when a hard-nosed boss doesn’t understand, say, why a woman can only work half-days during a difficult pregnancy or a cancer patient’s attendance may be erratic during chemotherapy.

“I could tell a manager, ‘So-and-so’s not feeling well, they’re unable to come in, and it’s necessary for them to be off,’” Simpson says. “They’ll argue with me, whereas they will not argue with the nurse. Because of confidentiality, ignorance is bliss all the way around.

“The nurse case manager serves as the trusted intermediary.”

How to reach: Premier Comp: (330) 666-6757

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:43

The little bakery that could

Elizabeth Vernon is interrupted in mid-sentence one late winter afternoon by a boy at the door of Birdie’s Bakery (formerly Biddie’s Bakery), the Akron-based mail-order cookie operation she and husband Mike operate alone.

The child’s request is predictable, one the proprietors have grown accustomed to hearing during their three years in business on Baird Street.

“I can give you a cookie today, but just a plain one. That’s all I have,” she tells her young visitor as she dispenses the free treat, then returns to her conversation with an explanation. “Just my friendly neighborhood children coming by on their way home from school, wanting to know if we have any rejects. There’s always broken ones and mistakes.”

The kids, some would say, are getting a real deal. Customers across the country pay $17.50 for a ribbon-tied tin containing one dozen individually-wrapped, just-made-from-scratch cookies. The varieties range from the requisite chocolate chip to cherry macadamia cookies in white chocolate and chocolate truffle brownies.

Elizabeth’s fancy shortbread creations, themed cutouts hand-decorated with icing using different pastry points, start at $2 apiece. The bakery also produces custom-decorated cookies made with cutters Elizabeth fashions herself. Her trademark item is the gingerbread teddy bear, a 10-inch “greeting card” cookie included in the company’s eight-fold brochure.

Mike, 39, admits that the fledgling bakery is still primarily a seasonal endeavor, and a specialized one at that. About 60 percent of business is done during the holiday season — a time when the couple employs approximately 20 temporary workers and manages on a couple hours’ sleep each night. Elizabeth operates an antique store bearing her name at the Medina Antique Mall to help supplement the bakery’s income.

“I don’t think it’s something you would want to start and leave your day job for,” she says of the bakery.

But even as a side-job, Mike reports that gross sales receipts have doubled each year. Approximately 20 percent of all orders come from the area; the rest are from out of state. And he says that about 20 percent of all prospective customers who have sampled the product — in other words, new mailing-list additions who have received gifts of cookies from current Birdie’s customers — order again at some time.

Robin Segbers, director of client services at Bill Brokaw Advertising in Cleveland, says the figure is double that posted by one client, an established regional mail-order purveyor of a traditional holiday food item, for repeat business among current customers.

The bakery is a far cry from the Vernons’ first entrepreneurial exploit, a tea room they opened in the Trumbull County town of Holand a decade ago.

“We were a little ahead of our time on tea rooms,” Elizabeth admits. “People weren’t really supporting them. Now, of course, there’s lots of them.”

The couple moved back to Akron after the tea room’s demise, and Mike went to work for West Point Market, the upscale Fairlawn supermarket his father owns and operates. It was there, he says, that he received a thorough education in “just about everything — working with people, how to manage, store operations, merchandising, food.”

He served as food service director, human resources manager and store manager; rewrote employee hiring and training manuals; and transformed the basic deli into a gourmet delight. But Mike, who loves to bake, still wanted his own business — a mail-order cookie business, to be exact.

“He did a lot of research on what most Americans eat the most of in a year and what’s the most popular food item,” Elizabeth says. “Cookies is what kept coming up.”

Elizabeth already had some experience in the area. While Mike was working at West Point Market, she made the decorated cookies sold there — an item Birdie’s has supplied ever since the bakery opened in November 1997. And a mail-order business, they believed, would allow more flexible hours, generate less overhead and provide a much larger potential customer base than a walk-in shop.

The Vernons’ first marketing move was to compile a mailing list of about 200 friends, relatives and acquaintances, each of whom received an announcement of the bakery’s opening, and place ads in the West Side Leader and local trade publications. New customers were added to the mailing list, as was anyone who received a gift ordered by those customers.

“The customer is paying for the sample, actually,” as Mike puts it.

Cookie gifts were donated to charity fund-raisers, and the couple worked with the Akron Regional Development Board to promote the business.

The Vernons also took their cookies on the road to trade shows, art and craft fairs, and business-to-business events, where those who sampled their wares could request a mailing. Outings closer to home included promotional appearances and demonstrations at West Point Market.

“From there, it was all word of mouth,” Mike says.

The two-color brochure was — and still is — designed with the help of students at Akron University, where Mike studied graphic design.

“We can do all the art direction, and they just put it together for us,” he says.

He adds that the results are good and the cost is about one-tenth of what he’d pay somewhere else. The brochures, sent once a year in October, are supplemented by occasional postcard mailings and a Web site.

The result of the Vernons’ efforts is a mailing list that includes names of about 2,000 individuals and businesses across the country. A visit to an outdoor crafts show at a New Jersey art school last summer yielded an order for custom cookies in the shapes of lighthouses, sailboats and seashells to be served at an April wedding on Cape Cod.

Elizabeth says corporate customers have ordered their cookies as gifts for the likes of Disney executives and Neiman-Marcus co-founder Stanley Marcus, who in turn ordered a couple dozen cookies to be shipped to his Dallas office late last year. The couple is considering expanding into the wholesale market, but Elizabeth believes their prices may be too high for some.

“Really, our prices are pretty reasonable, considering how much work we put into them,” she says. “You might go to a coffee shop and pay $3 for a piece of coffee cake, and it’s not even made with real butter.”

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:37

From Puffs to pizza

Is there a difference between selling toilet paper and selling pizza?

It's a question that begs to be asked of Ken Howe, a former assistant brand manager in the paper division for consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble and former senior director of Pizza Hut Inc.

Howe remains straight-faced when he replies, "Basically not." With a just-delivered pizza, "you know that when that box gets opened, that for just a little bit, maybe, life's a little bit better," he says. "It's almost the same with bathroom tissue."

OK, so he's joking. Ripping into a four-roll pack of Charmin can't compare to the mouth-watering anticipation of lifting the lid on a fresh, hot pizza smothered in melted cheese and loaded with pepperoni. But Howe is serious when he says, "The bedrock for me is that you've got to provide something that someone is willing to reach in their pocket, take out their hard-earned money, and pay you for."

That basic business principle -- along with a good sense of humor -- is just one lesson learned from corporate America that the 41-year-old executive brings to Hallrich Inc., the largest franchisee of Pizza Hut restaurants in Ohio. In January, he was named president and chief operating officer of the Stow-based company, which owns and operates 80 restaurants in 14 Northeast Ohio counties.

The area stretches "from Lake Erie down the Pennsylvania line to the Ohio River, then back out to Ashland and back up to Lorain County," says Tony Szambecki, who, in 1968, opened Hallrich's first Pizza Hut in Austintown with financial partner A. Scott Ritchie and the late Bill Hall. (Szambecki says his family name isn't represented in the Hallrich moniker "because they didn't like the name Hallrichski.")

"We've had 15 million-dollar sales weeks this year," Howe says with pride. "We're heading for a sales record. We should do $52 million in sales this year easily."

Szambecki says that by the time Hallrich hired Howe as vice president of operations in 1997, he had long since been lured away from P&G in Cincinnati by the Wichita, Kan.-based Pizza Hut chain, then owned by Pepsico. There, he worked for nine years, first as a marketer, then with a "new concepts group" that determined whether pizza would sell in stadiums, airports, convenience stores, mall food courts, movie theaters, "places that traditional Pizza Huts couldn't go."

"He had a very good reputation as a good people person, a good operator," Szambecki remembers. "I had heard that he was a very positive individual, and I had heard that he was a leader when we were doing the interviews."

He adds that one of the most valuable things Howe brought to Hallrich was a recognition culture that transcended the company's annual awards banquet. He presents crystal apples to anyone who teaches a training program session (preventive maintenance, for example, or dough preparation) and awards "traveling trophies" -- one set each for restaurants, delivery/carryout stores and "restaurants that deliver" -- to general managers at monthly operations meetings.

Managers' names are added to plaques displayed at each location every time the restaurant meets certain standards of excellence during annual inspections.

"We have a lot of pins and letters," Howe says. "We take a lot of pictures. We publish pictures and achievements in our newsletters. It's very much a coaching, praising environment around here."

Howe says Pizza Hut was anxious to recruit P&G employees like him because their employer provided a classic education in basic marketing techniques.

"You understood television advertising, the terminology of that business -- reach and frequency and impressions," he explains. "You understood how print (advertising) worked. You knew the various forms of print, everything from slick ladies' magazines to newspaper advertising."

That knowledge will undoubtedly continue to serve Howe well as he shoulders Hallrich's marketing, personnel and training functions so Szambecki can concentrate on finances and restaurant development. But he learned the importance of recognizing and rewarding others during his time with Pizza Hut.

"There are a lot of companies who don't believe that people are good," he says. "I happen to firmly believe that most people try to do the right thing. I'd rather spend most of my time praising them for what they do right than berating them for what they do wrong."

Howe also credits Pizza Hut with honing his competitive edge, a trait that has been further sharpened since he moved to Northeastern Ohio, which he calls one of the most active pizza markets in the country. Competition is provided by both national chains such as Domino's and Little Caesar's, as well as regional players such as Donatos, Marco's and the East of Chicago Pizza Co.

"Anybody whose last name ends with an 'o' thinks they've got the license to open up a pizza shop," he says. "In America, they've got just as much of a chance to be successful as we do. You've just always got to be making a better product, running a better restaurant.

"It's amazing in the pizza business how quickly a bad pizza can lose you a customer. You really didn't get that in the toilet paper or tissue world."

As for the leadership skills Szambecki mentions, Howe says those were developed during his time in the Army -- four years at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., where he earned his bachelor's degree in engineering, followed by five years with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Dexheim, West Germany.

"The Army is a people leadership business," he says. "Most companies and most businesses boil down to that. ... That's something I liked about the Army. I loved being a platoon leader. I loved being a company commander. "When you run restaurants, you really do have a big team that you can seek to inspire, teach and make better." How to reach: Hallrich Inc., (330) 678-0684Lynne Thompson is a free-lance writer for SBN.