Dennis Seeds

Ask any number of business leaders if his or her employees are satisfied with their jobs and the word “engagement” will probably be in the answer. It’s not just a coincidence; it’s an accepted fact that employees, who by freedom of choice have a desire to work in the best interests of the organization, will drive positive outcomes for the company.

While employee engagement is not a new concept, it has received considerable attention in the last 20 years as one of the top management techniques that can have a significant impact on a business.

Here are seven tips from Houston business leaders on the importance of employee engagement — and how it works for them so it can work for you.


1. Strip off the badges

Steve Stagner, president and CEO, Mattress Firm

When Steve Stagner and his company Mattress Firm took over the 180-store Mattress Giant, he made the first day of the merged operation a memorable one.

He closed all the stores — temporarily — to host a team-building exercise at seven locations across the country.

“We had about 400 of their sales associates show up along with a couple hundred of our people,” he says. “They spent the first four hours in shorts and T-shirts, running around the community finding things together, creating videos on their phones and trying to help accomplish tasks.”

The modified scavenger hunt was actually a way to develop camaraderie, teamwork and a foundation for a common culture between employees who once viewed each other as competition.

“The idea was that I wanted to take our culture and their culture, strip our titles and our badges, badges meaning what company you work for — Mattress Firm and Mattress Giant — and get people to work together, play together, laugh together and solve problems together for a few hours,” Stagner says.

“We had been fierce competitors for 25 years and by noon, we were all sharing ideas. To me, that is the foundation of how a culture is built. It is built on trust and on a relationship.”


2. Communicate casually

Drew Alexander, president and CEO, Weingarten Realty Investors

Meeting with your direct reports and having them cascade information down to other levels is a common method to communicate, but it shouldn’t be the only one.

“It is important to spend some casual time with employees, to go to lunch with them, to have a cup of coffee with folks and to meet with them in their offices, maybe have a drink after work occasionally and hear what’s going on with them,” says Drew Alexander of Weingarten Realty Investors.

The talk may even include some disagreements about operations. While they are unavoidable — you can’t expect agreement all of the time — you can learn to exercise control in how you respond to avoid making matters worse.

“Always try to walk the talk,” Alexander says. “When somebody disagrees with you and says you’re wrong, or when somebody gives you some difficult feedback or says that something isn’t working, always try not to retaliate in any way, shape or form.

 “Don’t get into an argument. Maybe ask a little bit more about why they think that to really solicit other feedback. I may not always agree with it but I learned a long time ago if you want honest feedback then you have to accept it graciously.”


3. Look at it FAIR-ly

Jim O’Neil, CEO, Quanta Services Inc.

Jim O’Neil of Quanta Services found that simple is best, and he made it easy to commit employee engagement steps to memory by using an acronym.

“I call it the FAIR model; F stands for Focusing everyone in the organization on the overall vision and strategy of the company,” O’Neil says.

This takes into account that you have company vision and mission statements already in place. If you don’t have them, it’s time to write them.

“No matter what job position you are in with an organization, you work as hard as you can to make a difference,” he says. “You listen and you learn from those around you.”

A stands for holding employees Accountable for their performance.

“You have to hold people answerable and watch for complacency,” O’Neil says. “How do you know whether people are complacent or not? One of the main ways is to set financial targets. Also set employee development targets for them to develop talent within their organization.”

I is for Involving every employee in the mission of the company.

“A CEO must always remember that employees are his internal customers,” he says.

“You have to be a good listener. More than 95 percent of all problems brought to my attention deal with the need for better communication. People often require a sounding board to talk it out. Some problems are complex and require a collective approach to a solution.”

R stands for Recognizing people for their results.

“It means understanding what each person brings to the table in the way of value, knowing that you may have people at the table who are new, and they are there just to learn,” O’Neil says. “But just the experience of sitting through that type of exercise is invaluable to anyone. I learn every day. It’s a continual process.”

Employees who are involved are more likely to generate ideas in the suggestion box.

“They’ll pretty much tell you if you empower them that, ‘Look, I know I’m responsible for A, if you let me go pursue B, I think I could improve value to both our organization and the customer,’” O’Neil says.


4. Consider salary bands on merit

Jason Bernal, president, YES Preparatory Schools

When it comes to the subject of wages and salaries, it’s one topic no company or organization can afford to ignore. Some companies put a salary cap on positions, limiting advancement, but often denoting a dead-end job.

YES Prep realized that there are some people who just want to teach and be great teachers, so a pathway called Teacher Continuum was created, a system on how teachers are paid based on performance and not tenure.

“With the Teacher Continuum program, we have teachers who start out in a certain band; if you are a first-year teacher, you start off at the novice level,” says Jason Bernal of YES Preparatory Schools. “Then you can move throughout the bands to mastery teacher. So based on how your performance is throughout the year, you can move into a higher position.

 “A big part of this is that we don’t want to lose great teachers and people who don’t necessarily want to go on to be administrators,” he says. “They just love teaching. We want to keep those teachers. It gives teachers the incentives just to continue doing really, really well in the classroom.”


5. Get inside their head

Taseer Badar, president, CEO and co-founder

It’s been said many times: Managing employees takes a good bit of psychology to be successful — and to grow your business. The first step is to consider the way the employee looks at the job.

“It’s important to understand that when you are dealing with people’s psyche, dealing with human emotions when you are a leader of a company, you’re dealing with their families, you’re dealing with what is going on in their home life,” says Taseer Badar of ZT Wealth Inc./Altus Healthcare Management Service.

He uses the analogy of an airplane to describe how to manage a company and its growth.

“Make sure you don’t fly too high,” he says. “You take off in an airplane, and there is nothing underneath you. If it crashes, you can’t save the plane. When you grow too fast and you don’t have a foundation underneath you, it’s the same thing.”

The foundation is not only some statements describing the company core values or its mission, but a real knowledge and awareness of what’s going on with employees.


6. Engaging in a virtual world

Dana Sellers, CEO, Encore Health Resources

When Dana Sellers realized there needed to be a process to keep Encore Health Resources’ employees up-to-date on new tools and methods, she instituted monthly “lunch and learns” at the virtual company. These videoconferences cover educational topics and are recorded so they could be accessed on Encore’s Web portal. This way, a consultant on the road can stay up-to-date with training topics while relaxing in his or her hotel room.

In addition, about every 18 months, Sellers, holds a retreat that includes team-building and training exercises.

“That retreat is really important in a virtual world because it is where you do come together and actually get to spend time with people,” she says.

The personal connection is also important to retain when there are grievances or problems. Sellers devised a virtual “open door” policy that may rival those of her non-virtual peers.

“We are very, very conscious that we are virtual so we make sure we do a lot of things to keep people engaged,” she says.

“The policy is this: We will make certain that you are face-to-face, personally, with that person, whoever you reach out to, within two business days somewhere in the United States. We don’t guarantee where. You may have to fly to them, or maybe they will fly to you. We will figure it out. There won’t be any retribution; we don’t guarantee you’ll get the answer you want, but we will take your issue seriously and we will look into it, and we will follow up.

“We will hear your issue. And there never, ever will be any retaliation. That’s how you do it.”


7. Seek and enhance relationships

Ric Campo, chairman and CEO, Camden Property Trust

While many businesses feel their most important relationship is between the company and its customers, equally important are employee/employee relationships. You have to have the second one before you can even think about developing the company/customer relationship.

Camaraderie is your lifeblood and without it, work and even life in general may be rather dull.

“One of your core values should be to have fun,” Ric Campo says. “If you can’t have fun with the people you work with, why bother? We try to make it feel like employees want to get up in the morning and come to work for Camden. And they want to have fun doing it.”

Creating a culture of fun starts with researching and borrowing ideas from fellow companies’ successful efforts. Once you have some plans in mind, roll out an initial one — a good time is during the first part of the year.

“One of our big ones is at the beginning of the year. Starting in February and running throughout March, we have what are called ACE awards, which is Achieving Camden Excellence. It’s basically an employee recognition event,” Campo says.

Employees vote for other employees on how they emulated Camden’s values in the last year, and winners get prizes.

“It’s a really big deal,” he says. “Some people get up and cry when they win. They also get money, like $2,500, a trophy and a watch.”

You can try different formats and vary the locations. Campo finds an all-day employee event effective for rehashing how everyone did last year and what is going to go on in the new year.

“But if you think about what you have — a lot of people, maintenance people and service people and so on — don’t communicate in corporate speak,” he says. “Communicate in normal language. For example, when we talk about how we did over the last year, we don’t talk about balance sheets, income statements, earnings per share or multiples on stock.”

Talk about normal things that people understand. Incorporate some well-produced videos and other types of presentations if you can.

“We use a lot of fun stuff, so that creates a camaraderie with the employees; it gives them a sense of pride where they work,” Campo says. “Spend a fair amount of time talking about what you do.”

As the discussions are carried on, it’s important to follow through when suggestions or requests are made. Those can be turned over to a committee structure which you would have in place by that time.

Mark Pentecost knew it was time to work on the substantial growth his company, It Works!, was experiencing — and stop putting out fires all the time. The health and wellness company, whose flagship product is called the Ultimate Body Applicator, grew from $29 million in revenue in 2010, to $45 million in 2011, to more than $200 million in 2012.

There were growing pains along the way, but Pentecost, president and CEO, prefers to think of them as high-class problems.

“I think you get caught in the weeds putting out fires all the time instead of being at 10,000 feet, seeing what’s going on,” he says. “It was how to connect the departments. We were growing so quickly. We were adding 10 or 12 people to a department and all of a sudden we were becoming too many departments instead of one team.

“I had to make sure the focus was crossing over and that people were spending time together as a team.”

Pentecost set out to find ways to ensure crossover between departments. One device he settled on was an informal company get-together called fire pit talks.

While certainly not a revolutionary idea — the term “fireside chats” goes back to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s days — it offered a tool to fire up team members while they were in a relaxed, casual setting.

But there was one rule that made it different. The participants, usually the lead figure from each department, were not allowed to talk about anything in their departments — they could only talk about ideas they had for other departments.

“So that made it OK to leap across departments and say, ‘Hey, have you ever thought about this with your supply chain? Or have you thought about this with your marketing team? Social media, I know you guys are doing this, but what about … ?’” Pentecost says.

The fire pit talks put It Works! back on track, and emphasized how critical teamwork was.

“It led to being one team, and now as we see challenges, we are trying to pick up on them,” Pentecost says. “In the last couple of years we have added so many more people, and we have had to do more processes — which sometimes is painful and isn’t fun.

“You’ve got to have a process for everything you do. Your operations people say, ‘Let’s just walk over and do it,’ and your vision people say, ‘I’ve got to wait for the process.’ So there are those kinds of growing pains. For me, it’s fun. It’s exciting how to put those together.”

Here’s how Pentecost makes it all come together with his team of 60,000, who serve more than 400,000 customers through direct sales.


Instill one team, one mission

It takes a strong teamwork structure and a leader with vision — and hopefully experience — to make a company successful.

Pentecost found that his 16-year career as a high school teacher and basketball coach gave him the foundation to understand what makes up a team.

“In business, I found I did the same thing I did with coaching,” he says. “First you have to get the right people on your team in the game. It’s kind of like that Good to Great proverb: You’ve got to get the right people on the bus and get them in the right seats. Then you’ve got to have a great game plan, keep people focused and inspire them to see the vision that you have.”

The company uses a cross-interview process through other departments to help make sure new hires fit into the team.

“Even though you are coming into the supply chain, or you’re coming in as a programmer or maybe you are coming in as a customer service representative, or whatever level that you are coming in, what we are learning here is that not only is it your resume and your talents, but it is also how you interact with the whole team,” Pentecost says.

A part of Pentecost’s game plan for It Works! to reach its first $100 million in sales was to use a sports-like technique. He designed a jersey for employees at the headquarters, as well as in the field, and staffers added the motto, “One team, one mission.”

“This led to monthly events that focus on what we are doing,” he says. “At them, there is a lot of passion, energy. It may be a jersey one month, or bracelets that we wear the next month, and we all really get behind pushing that. I wouldn’t call it, ‘rah, rah;’ I would call it just inspiring people to be connected that way.”

Even splitting employees into two teams to help a common purpose, such as raising funds for a charity, helps build teamwork — and does not become divisive.

“I do worry about that, but, to me, I look at it from when I was coaching basketball, I had 12 on my team,” Pentecost says. “But in the stadium there might be 8,000 to 10,000 people. So to me, it is unifying them as a fan of our company and unifying them with the same focus, the same message that somebody would have watching their team. That’s worked well for us so far.

“For me, the coaching part was innovating, doing it your own way, having a good vision, focus, keeping people focused and then building a great team. That has been our magic formula for success, especially in the last few years. Our growth has been amazing.

“I feel like coaching was really just a prelude to being the CEO,” he says.


Brainstorm and build upon an idea

When Pentecost was first using the fire pit talks to smooth out the wrinkles in the teamwork fabric, he also realized it offered a time for brainstorming, which not only resulted in some great ideas but also helped build the feeling of team ownership.

Anyone can bring up an idea, and even Pentecost tosses out a few.

“I will see a commercial on TV, and I’ll say, ‘Hey, what do you think of this crazy idea?’ And then I let them take off from there. We like to have a crazy idea. Something that might be really crazy but you throw it out there.

“I find some of our best stuff comes from someone saying, ‘This might be really dumb or this might be really crazy,’ and then it ends up being ‘genius.’”

The gatherings provide a platform for these conversations and no one feels threatened, and everyone has fun.

“To be able to laugh at something or be able to say, ‘Well, that’s crazy but what if you took it over here,’ we may end up way far away from where it started but with a great idea that helps the company.”

Even ideas such as moving the company are fair game at the fire pit chats. Originally located in Grand Rapids, Mich., the company moved to Bradenton, Fla., a little over two years ago.

“Sometimes in the middle of winter for some reason, people didn’t enjoy coming to Grand Rapids,” Pentecost says. “We all laughed about it because we had about 25 families in our management at that point. I remember the bank saying you would lose half of your management in such a move.”

The decision was made and 100 percent of the management moved to Florida.

“We moved 25 families from Michigan — we were already a tight group,” he says. “We had to find schools together, we had to find churches together, we had to find golf leagues and softball, and where the kids play altogether, so it made us tighter. As we added people to that, we made sure that we all clicked.”


Consider those who helped along the way

Teamwork and competition is not all about winning, although winning the championship is certainly a goal worth seeking. It’s the middle ground that needs to be considered.

Pentecost is careful to point out that while a leader is often a competitive person, the leader must learn that his or her greatest strength is also the greatest weakness.

“I can be so competitive that I have blinders on to what is going on to the side of me, and so it’s been a great strength,” he says. “It’s realizing it’s not just getting to the end line. I used to set a goal — it’s finishing, it’s winning the championship or it’s having another championship year, where now I am realizing it’s that process in between.

“When I was teaching, I was in the teachers’ union,” Pentecost says. “I didn’t understand what was going on. Now that I have been on both sides of the fence, it really helps me understand a lot of the troubles and views different people may have.”

In short, it’s not forgetting the people along the way who helped in the pursuit.

“It’s how you take care of your people at the office,” Pentecost says. “It’s the victories that you celebrate together as a team. It’s the change that you can really make in your community.”



  • Impart the theme of one team, one mission.
  • Brainstorm and build upon an idea.
  • Consider those who helped along the way.


The Pentecost File:

Name: Mark Pentecost
Title: President and CEO
Company: It Works!

Birthplace: I was born in Holt, Mich., which is near Lansing. I started teaching just outside Grand Rapids and loved the area, so when we started our business I was living in that area.

Education: I got my teaching degree from Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich.

What was your first job and what did you learn from it? I had a lawn care business. At one time I was mowing about every yard on our block. I learned how to be your own boss and do a good job. I learned that if you messed something up, if you ran over a hose, you had to repair it and take it out of your profits. I definitely would say now I am frugal with money as far as not wasting it. It’s being smart, being prudent with my team.

What is the best business advice you ever received? I think for me, it was, “Never give in, never give up.” I look back at 13 years of It Works!, and I remember a couple of times that someone called us and said maybe we should quit putting money into it, that it was going to ruin us — we had financed it ourselves, and we just kept thinking we had the vision and we had to have faith in what we’re doing. The reason for our success is that we just never gave up or gave in. We stayed with the values that we thought were right and we were just like that little train, we were just going a little more, little more. 

Who do you admire in business? I think I would take a little from a lot of people. I look at Warren Buffett. He really studies the numbers of the business and what they do. I look at Donald Trump and the branding that he has done. I look at someone like Mark Cuban who bootstrapped himself and didn’t come from money but was able to create that. I love John Maxwell with his study on leadership and leading. I think probably more than ever I realize how important that is in this world today. We are under a magnifying glass so you have to be real. I think it has been a case of taking a little from quite a few and try to take the good and put that in our own. 

How do you define business success? That’s a great question because that changes. In the beginning when I started the company, it was all on the bottom line, being profitable and being able to pay your bills and your employees. Sometimes I tell people I don’t have a high IQ — I have high grit. We just stuck with something and didn’t let it go. To me that’s what business is. It’s that grit of getting in there and even though we didn’t have a silver spoon, you can create that. We truly are in a country that if you’ve got high grit, you can accomplish anything. If you had told me I would be teaching for 16 years, then I was going to own a golf course and a ranch, and I was going to own a company in the Inc. 500 and sales were going to be in the multimillions yearly and international, I would’ve thought, man, that sounds like something you read in a book. But we’ve done it ourselves and we are just getting to it. I mean the story is not complete yet.


It Works! Social Media Links:

Twitter: @ItWorksGlobal


How to reach: It Works!, (800) 537-2395 or

Steve Weis admits it’s fun to be in a Max & Erma’s restaurant on Free Cookies Wednesday. He watches for the responses on customer’s faces as the freshly baked treats arrive after they’ve finished their meals.

“We do it because we see reactions, and we do it because we love it,” he says. “No one else really does it. We love that it’s unique. It always has had a culture of being just a little quirky and a little different — and it’s always been about quality.”

And quality is the magic word that Weis, president of Max & Erma’s Restaurants, knows is helping reinvigorate the casual dining chain that was rescued out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2010 by American Blue Ribbon Holdings LLC.

Weis is a firm believer that there was something worth saving.

“There was clearly this great brand underneath it, and the previous owners had probably made some poor decisions along the line that got them into the situation they were in,” he says. “You could feel there was this quality of a concept and also just an amazing group of people that was still operating the restaurants.

“What was beautiful was that there were a lot of great people and a lot of great locations that had a real local connection with the guests. I think that is the difference Max & Erma’s has.”

He recognized that Max & Erma’s bread and butter was the quality of the brand, and his mission was to get operations under control.

“The guests liked the concept, but they had been frustrated with the way it had been operated for some period of time,” Weis says. “That to me is a great problem to have. I think if you realize, ‘Hey, they like us. They just want to see us do it right.’ Well, that is something we can tackle.”

Here’s how Weis is reinvigorating Max & Erma’s and putting it back on track to generate more than $100 million in revenue this year through its 73 locations in 10 states, ending a period of double-digit sales decline.


Find out what’s worth saving

If you look at any company, you’ll find a backstory — the foundation it was built on. You use it to help establish your brand, and you may need to revisit it if your brand is in trouble, which is exactly the approach Weis took.

Max and Erma Visocnik operated a neighborhood pub in Columbus’ German Village from 1958 to 1972, when they retired. Two businessmen purchased the tavern and developed the brand and its theme, including a converted bathtub that served as a sundae bar.

“We have such a long heritage, and people have these warm stories about some connection they have to our brand,” Weis says. “You just don’t get that with a lot of other companies. You just don’t. Most restaurants, it may be just a place where they are happy to dine — or maybe not happy to dine — but it is not the emotional attraction which we really, really appreciate that we have.

“You might see a Max & Erma’s in an area along with some other national chains, but the reality is that we are very local in the way we behave. We do lots of local charity fundraisers, and it’s always been that way. The company operates much more as a neighborhood place rather than a national place — and I think that is appealing to guests.”

While Weis launched a new prototype design and system-wide remodeling program, and introduced a new food and beverage menu with local draft beers, the atmosphere still has the same down-home, community feel. There are still all the quirky, kitschy collectibles, the warm chocolate chip cookies and the cartoonish pair of Max and Erma characters.

“You can’t imagine how many photos I have of a Max and Erma showing up at a walkathon in Pittsburgh, at a bake sale in Detroit, in Indiana and in all these different markets,” Weis says. “We are showing up at all these local events. People have such a connection with this, and I think it’s one of the greatest things about this position and this organization — to see the happiness that it brings people.”


Put passion into your service

The chain was sold to an equity investor in 2008 and American Blue Ribbon Holdings bought the chain out of bankruptcy.

“We acquired the Max & Erma’s brand because we recognized in the restaurant a key ingredient for ultimate success: genuine personality,” says Hazem Ouf, president and CEO of American Blue Ribbon Holdings. “Truly authentic and unique personalities like Max & Erma’s are rare. So I began the charge to bring the restaurant back to the basics.

“We focused on the quality and personality that make Max & Erma’s a memorable and lasting restaurant experience for its guests,” says Ouf, who chose Weis, then American Blue Ribbon Holdings’ vice president of operations to head Max & Erma’s. “With this blueprint in place, Weis continues to embrace Max & Erma’s genuine personality while moving the brand forward in ways that remain true to that spirit.”

A former vice president of operations for an Applebee’s franchisee, Weis drew on that experience to instill the disciplines the operation needed. He didn’t have to look too far to find what needed to be fixed.

“One of the things I think goes out the window during bankruptcy, and when there is this sort of anarchy, is the standardization of how to do things the right way, the same way,” he says. “We had to start focusing on the daily basics, and giving the guests a better experience.”

The key ingredient is to impart the core value of “a passion to serve,” according to Weis.

It’s making sure that every guest who comes into the restaurant has a great experience.

With a number of locations and a number of employees, it is much easier to get the team focused on a core set of values than it is around one particular item.

“Instead of saying I want everyone to work on cooking a burger a certain way, it is much easier to get them focused on a passion to serve,” Weis says.

“For the guy who cooks burgers, it might be one thing; for the server, it might be something else; and for the manager a third thing. They all have a common thread between them, which is if you work here, you have to have a passion to serve guests. There is no point in being in the restaurant industry if you don’t love that and you just don’t do it.”


Find the true connection

The passion to serve is an awesome value — one that Weis believes can come about in two very distinct ways. An employee either arrives with it, or comes in with a malleable mind, allowing you to inspire them. Either way, it’s the employee’s connection to the business that counts.

“We always use the phrase, ‘People always join companies, and they stay with companies because of values connections.’ Every day in every industry, people call and say, ‘How would you like to go across the street and work for me for X dollars more?’

“And the people who jump are leaving because they don’t have a true connection to the company that they are in, and the people who stay and continue to make the company great are the people who really do believe and connect with it. It connects to their own personal values.”

To stop a disconnect from happening, stay balanced and values-focused.

“If you say quality of life is important to you, and you want to spend time with your family, but your company makes you work seven days a week and close every night of the week and you never get to see your family, that’s a value disconnect and you’re not going to stay there.”

Weis stresses a life/work balance, focusing your time and attention on matters you can control, including “ownership” of your job.

“Staying balanced and very values-focused is a little bit untraditional for the restaurant industry,” Weis says. “Restaurant work is known as a grind for everybody, and everybody’s got to work all kinds of hours. I think sometimes they miss the long-term picture of really keeping the best people connected to the business.”

The final piece of getting the connection is having a little skin in the game, no matter how you look at it.

“It has to be what you talk about, and how you behave and what your actions are,” Weis says. “Clearly, we want to make sure that everybody feels there is something for them in it. So if we are going to sell a particular item, for example, it has to be good for the guests, it has to be good for the server, so that they have the ability to make money doing it, and it has to be good for the company.

“And the good news is sales are growing, and guest counts are growing. I can’t say that about everybody in our segment and in our industry.

“There’s lots of stuff people focus on in business and the reality is, if you just run it very well and you have lots of people coming through the door, you are never really going to have a hard time figuring out how to be successful.”



  • Discover what’s worth saving.
  • Put passion into your service.
  • Find the true connection to the business.


The Weis File: 

Name: Steve Weis
Title: President
Company: Max & Erma’s Restaurants 

Born: Queens. I grew up in North Jersey. We moved there when I was young and my dad worked in New York City.

Education: I went to American University in Washington, D.C. That’s where I lived and where I started to get in the restaurant industry. I worked for Domino’s Pizza back in the early growth days in the 1980s, and kind of moved into the industry from there.

What was your first job and what did you learn from it? I was a dishwasher in a restaurant when I was 15 or 16, and I remember it was hard work and that you couldn’t cut any corners. It was kind of a fancy, upscale restaurant. The hardest part was that there were lots of pots and pans that had to be scrubbed by hand. If I was tired or didn’t feel like scrubbing it as clean as I should, I remember the owner coming in, looking at it and saying, ‘Hey, it’s not good enough. You’ve got to go further.’ I think probably the greatest lesson to learn at that age was that you might as well do the job really well the first time rather than have to do it a second or third time.

What is the best business advice you ever received? When you lead people, it is much easier to lead them through their heart than it is through their minds. So that ties into our values — how that works for us here and how that works for me. If you can connect with the people you work with through the things that matter to them, they will give you their brain, their energy and their efforts. If it matters to them in some way, they do it wonderfully, and they do it better than you can ever get them motivated to do if you went the other direction.

Who do you admire in business? Innovators — people who had the guts to take something small and make it much larger. I look at somebody like Bill Gates. It is not just the success and the money but the fact that he had this idea that was pretty remote when he co-founded Microsoft, and he was able to turn it into something that made everybody connect. I admire people that from a business perspective have the ability to take something that’s a fairly small idea and completely change things. And then I love the fact that he is giving his money away and that his intent is to really kind of change the world by eliminating, for example, diseases by vaccinating the entire continent of Africa. That’s pretty amazing.

What is your definition of business success? In the restaurant industry, it is pretty simple. We need to have happy guests, and a happy team that in the end drives growth. We have to have more people coming in to the restaurant this year versus last year. So for us, it’s a combination of giving a great experience to guests and having a team that really is energized to deliver that to the guests. Then the business grows; it takes care of itself.


Max & Erma's Social Media Links:



How to reach: Max & Erma’s Restaurants, (615) 256-8500 or

What started as a chat between Bob Shearer and a caterer led to a match made in snack food heaven.

When Shearer, co-founder of Shearer’s Foods Inc. and founder and CEO of Shearer Solutions, heard that Keith Kropp, owner and president of Or Derv Foods, was setting new standards with innovative appetizers, he wanted to meet him.

“He was not looking for a partner, but we hit it off,” Shearer says. “And he said, ‘With your experience and what you have done at Shearer’s, I think we could really do a lot with the company.’

“I agreed and so one thing led to another, and then basically with my investment group we bought 40 percent of the company. We’re looking to expand and grow the company and are planning a new manufacturing facility.”

Shearer discussed his first investment with Smart Business after selling Shearer’s Foods last year. 

Q. Besides its signature sauerkraut balls, Or Derv Foods produces a range of deep fried products such as calamari, banana pepper rings and even Oreos. With your 40 years in potato chips and other snack foods, how did this opportunity pique your interest?

A. I look for something that has a special niche, something in which we could be different, where we could diversify ourselves and be unique. With the group of talent that we have at the company, I feel good about the innovation that we can bring to the company.

Q. Who is in your investment group?

A. Bob Hanline, founder and CEO of The RS Hanline Co.; Al Melchiorre, CEO and president of Melcap Partners LLC; Steve Surmay, vice president at Shearer’s Foods Inc.; Joe Rogers, COO of Shearer Solutions; and John Bahas II, owner of Akron’s Waterloo Restaurant and Catering and Prime 93 Restaurant and Event Center — he tipped me off about Or Derv Foods, he’s also product development director at Or Derv Foods.

Q. You grew Shearer’s Foods from scratch in 1972 to more than $500 million of annual billings in 2012. You recently won the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year™ Northeast Ohio Award. What’s the key to this type of success?

A. My philosophy has always been to try to work with good people. And I really like Kropp. Then I think you always have to have a unique product in the category and be innovative. Those are the things that help successfully move a company forward.

Q. Can you describe the plant expansion that’s slated for 2014?

A. The new plant will be a sustainable plant. We will be doing LEED certification. Obviously we have a great interest in conserving our natural resources and working to make our foods very sustainable in their nature and manufacturing processes. 

Q. What is it about the uniqueness, for example, of the products that enticed you?

A. We make wonderful falafels. Now I am really hooked on them. We are trying to do some products that cater to the vegan world and are organic and all-natural. We do an all-natural meatball that is just a great product. We do a meatless meatball for vegans that is just to die for. It’s great. We’re trying to develop a lot of unique products that set us apart from our competition. Outside of Shearer’s, this is my first adventure in food. I’ve done some minor things outside of the food industry, but this is where my real love is. I like the opportunity to be able to do that. ●

How to reach: Or Derv Foods, (330) 376-9411 or

Mike Thompson was going through the most difficult time in his career — he was spending a lot of time trying to keep Montrose Auto Group employees calm during the 2008-2009 recession.

“People were panicking around the country,” he says. “Nobody in our government leadership was really out there with confidence, reassuring the people that we were going to get through this thing — that we were going to survive.”

So Thompson did the next best thing. He took his years of experience with the business cycle and decided to be the take-charge guy who would inspire confidence among his employees.

“You have to believe that you can knock the walls down and get through it,” he says. “We were one of the fortunate ones who never had to lay anybody off, never had any need for anybody to take pay cuts. Sometimes we didn’t replace people when they left and we spread out the workload, but we kept on going.”

Pundits are quick to remind everyone of the cyclical nature of business, and while that may provide some consolation, someone who appears in control can strengthen its effect.

“I believe that for every down cycle, there is an up cycle,” Thompson says. “You’ve just got to be able to ride it out. And that was my message to our people. You’ve got to hang tough, because if you leave me and go somewhere else, you’ll be just as nervous.”

Thompson made it a point to communicate regularly with the managers who ran his operations.

“I explained to them how to talk to their people, and how to keep the people from panicking,” he says. “They had to keep them calm; financially, we were going to get through this thing. None of us had ever gone there before.”

While calm and reassuring words from management helped the situation, Thompson, president and CEO, didn’t stop there. His successful years in business — growing Montrose Auto Group into 12 auto dealerships, garnering more than $400 million in annual revenue — meant he had a few tricks up his sleeve. Here’s how he combines his principles of business with lessons learned to steer Montrose Auto Group through choppy waters.


Crunch your information

Business critics use many indicators to try to predict where the economy is going, and Thompson has found that a leading indicator such as sales of new automobiles carries a lot of weight.

“Usually, we are the precursor of six to eight months as to when a recession is going to start,” he says. “All of a sudden, even before people are aware, showroom traffic starts to do what I call turning — visitors go from excited, happy buyers to all of a sudden buyers who just have to buy cars. When that happens, you can always expect a slowdown coming sometime in the near term in the car business.”

Once Thompson saw a pattern there, he also looked for the reverse to support his belief.

“It is just the opposite when all of a sudden you start seeing people with smiling faces going out to buy new cars just because they want a new car and they can buy one,” he says. “That means we are looking at some good times coming up.”

While the nature and number of prospective buyers alone can give some important insight to economic trends, you would do well to support that indicator with research.

Thompson finds that rather than relying on reports from analysts, he does his investigating first-hand.

“I watch all the television programs that are important to business,” he says. “That’s the first thing I do in the morning. You try to stay ahead of the curve and you’ve got to go by your instincts. After so many years in business, your gut kind of tells you certain things are going to happen.”

Thompson finds that the often-overlooked signals are important.

“I read The Wall Street Journal; I look at little articles that a lot of people don’t even bother to waste time looking at,” he says. “You see how the ‘stars and the moon’ line up when you take all these little bits and pieces and pull them altogether.”

For instance, Thompson examines how many dealerships are for sale in the Automotive News. If there are only a small number listed — instead of several pages — things are good in the car business.

“You look at the Kiplinger report, you watch Fox Business news, you watch the international scene as to what is going on in Europe, Japan … I look at all that.

“Look at currencies, whether the dollar is getting weaker or getting stronger, whether the yen is weaker or stronger, what’s going on with the deutsche mark — those are little hints; what is going on in the bond market, what is going on with LIBOR — all those things give you clues.

“It’s just assimilating that information and tying it all together and saying, ‘Wow! Times are going to be good.’”


Saving for a rainy day is vital

Developing a sixth sense to predict the ups and downs of the business cycle gives you a powerful tool to employ. Of course, as economists are prone to say, leading and lagging indicators are not always accurate. So it is a good business practice to save for a rainy day.

Thompson learned as a young auto dealer with his first Chrysler store how tough it was to not only make money but to borrow money. Once he understood that, and depending upon how much the company made, he set aside an amount for a reserve fund.

“We put somewhere between 20 and 35 percent of whatever we earned that year into the rainy day fund,” Thompson says. “Then so much went to pay taxes, and then the rest, if I needed to leave it in the business, I did. If I could declare a dividend for myself, I did. Or we took that money, reinvested it and bought more stores.

“There were a couple of years when we didn’t put any away because we wanted to make sure we didn’t breach any covenants with the bank.”

Another advantage of having a cushion was apparent in the most recent recession, when as Thompson says, it was difficult to borrow a nickel, unless you really didn’t need any money.

“We were able to borrow money and invest in other stores because we had put away the cash cushion for a rainy day,” he says. “When they saw me investing in other companies, our people relaxed because I was one of the few in that first year and a half of the collapse who was out there buying stores.”

Along with the skills and experience of analyzing market conditions, it can take having a gut feeling for when change is imminent to ready your next move.

“I threw my money into the market when the Dow Jones dropped to 7300,” Thompson says. “I knew I didn’t have the bottom; it went down to 6600. But still, I said it is time. If it doesn’t turn around, the money is worthless anyway. So we got back into the stock market, and it worked out.”


Realize your reputation is king

It can take years to assemble a strong staff to run your operations well. If you have your pulse on the market, and realize that the cycle will run its course and bounce back, you need to be ready for that rebound. You will be ahead of the game if you are able to keep your experienced, senior staff rather than paring back and then hoping to obtain new talent when the market turns around.

“Even in the down cycle, never once did I think about letting senior level people go because it took me all these years to gather the people that I had who were really the strength of the Montrose Auto Group,” Thompson says. “I can give them all the tools, I can give them guidance, I give them money to run the businesses; without them, my businesses wouldn’t run the way they do now.”

In short, your company’s reputation, which you have carefully built over the years, could suffer a critical blow if you don’t ensure the continuation of your standing. Thompson knew how he had vowed in 1967 as a new salesman that if he were ever fortunate enough to buy his own dealership, he would never allow customers to be treated with less than the highest quality service. And he was going to keep that vow.

“You have nothing if you don’t have a quality reputation today,” he says. “That is why all the manufacturers today have to build quality cars. They had looked so bad, especially the domestics, in the late ’60s to early ’90s. They had no options to do otherwise; they had to start building better products. I give them a nine out of 10. They are just that good now.”



  • Develop your information crunching methods.
  • Saving for a rainy day is key.
  • Realize your reputation is king.


The Thompson File 

Name: Mike Thompson
Title: President and CEO
Company: Montrose Auto Group

Born: I was born in Cleveland. I’m a local boy.

Education: Besides the school of hard knocks, I went to Wickliffe High School, and I was the oldest of eight kids. I had to leave home in the middle of my senior year because there was no room for me at the house. My dad gave me my options: ‘Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines? We are bringing grandma here and there is no room for you.’ I went into the Army. I got my high school GED and took college accounting courses in the Army. I served in Vietnam in 1967 with the 9th Infantry Division.

What was your first job? As a boy, I mowed lawns, had paper routes, washed cars, waxed cars, shoveled snow by hand — anything to make a few pennies. I came home from Vietnam, and my dad told me there was an opening where he worked at Dowd Oldsmobile for a used car salesman. I went in and saw Healy Dowd who my dad had worked for 33 years at that point. And he said, ‘Mike, I’m going to do you a favor. I’m not going to hire you, because you will never make it in the car business.’ And I said, ‘Well, gee, thank you Healy.’ You know, that’s the biggest favor he did. Seven years later, I bought my first store, Trotter Ford in Euclid.

Who do you admire in business? In the car business, Alan Mulally, the president and CEO of Ford Motor Co., is the guy I admire most. And prior to him, it was Lee Iacocca. I liked both of those gentlemen … Iacocca was a tough guy. He pulled Chrysler out of trouble and turned it around. Mulally earned all my respect when he refused to take the handout from the government; he rolled up both sleeves and went to work just like Iacocca did and said we are going to fix this thing and he did.

What was the best business advice you ever received? This is a little bit of a joke. My dad said, ‘Son, you don’t want to go into business. Get a job and get a paycheck, you know you can count on it.’ That was the best business advice I ever got. My dad had an eighth grade education. On the other hand, the best advice I give to people, relative to business is, ‘Follow your money.’ A lot of people will take their money and invest it, and they expect other people to make it grow. Well, the way it’s really going to grow is if you keep watering it yourself. You worked hard to get that money, so, keep watering it. It pays off eventually.


How to reach: Montrose Auto Group, (330) 666-0711 or

Allison Barber isn’t surprised that there are more ways to communicate in business today than ever before, but the top complaint on workforce surveys is a lack of communication.

“If you look at employee surveys across every sector, every business — even nonprofits — the top complaint about the organization is a lack of communication,” she says. “But let’s review how much we are communicating. We have never had more communication in business than we have today, be it from social media, newsletters, e-newsletters, intranets and websites.”

So what’s the problem?

“There is a major disconnect, and I think it comes from a lack of authentic communication and a lack of targeted communication,” says Barber, chancellor of WGU Indiana, an online university established by the state of Indiana in partnership with Western Governors University. “We need leaders who we can trust; trust is connected to authenticity.

“A lot of times leaders will just blast everything out to everybody — the equivalent of direct mail, when you go home and you go through your mailbox and you just start throwing stuff away. It’s not speaking to you.”

Barber should know a thing or two about communication challenges. WGU Indiana is a virtual organization, and all 157 employees in Indiana work from home.

“We have had to be even more creative because I never see anybody at the water cooler,” she says. “How do we communicate to our employees in an authentic, targeted and consistent manner? I think those are the keys.”

Founded in 2010 as a nonprofit online university, WGU Indiana enrollment tripled in the first six months as demand for an affordable college education grew among working adults. More than 3,300 Hoosiers currently attend WGU Indiana and 40,000 students attend WGU throughout the U.S.

Here’s how Barber uses authentic, targeted and consistent communication to eliminate the disconnect that, once removed, can help leaders build camaraderie and collaboration among employees.


Be authentic in your communication

As a leader, you have to be committed to the value and power of communication. As with any powerful tool, its effective use can make or break an organization. One of the first steps in effective communication is authenticity.

“People are just smart — they will see right through communication that is not authentic,” Barber says. “Sadly, we have had a decline of respected leaders. The American people have started to distrust their corporate leaders. So the way to rebuild trust is through authenticity.

“Leaders show authenticity in several ways. We show it through transparent communication, being honest with our employees, being honest with the public and through passionate concern for our employees.”

Many companies are looking for new ways to care for their employees through benefits, work-at-home policies and family leave policies.

“Society is starting to say, ‘How do we connect better with the people who we value — the employees?’” Barber says. 

One of the best methods for a leader to demonstrate caring concern for employees is by supporting efforts to give back to the community.

“You have entrepreneurs who are starting their own foundations, they are giving back to the community and when that starts to take place, it pulls back the veneer to show the heart of the leader,” she says. “And that’s where the authenticity comes in.”

If you’re trying to achieve authenticity, however, you’ll have to do much more than just go through the motions.

“Where you can go south is when a leader says, ‘Oh yeah, today is Clean the Park Day. I’d better go out there,’” Barber says. “If the CEO says, ‘I’d better go out to a volunteer project,’ your employees will see right through it.

“If you really want to be a strong leader, it has to be authentic, or don’t do it because your employees and consumers will see right through it.”


Talk to the right people about the right thing

Every piece of communication needs to be targeted to a specific audience in order to be effective. You need to be talking to the right people about the right thing.

“You have to understand where your employees are, what space they are in, what is the best way to communicate to them and what tool you use to target them,” Barber says.

“If I am trying to reach my employees, who are working from home, I’ve got to be in their space. They spend a lot of time with email and phone calls because we are a technology-based university. So everything we do is technology.”

Well, not everything. Barber is a staunch supporter of the power of the pen, which can be used very effectively and can make a lasting impression.

“If I want to target a communication to the employees in Indiana, I spend a lot of time writing handwritten notes because I am a big believer in them,” she says. “I write hundreds a year.”

The point is that there is no one-size-fits-all tool to communicate. If you aim to communicate to your employees through a 30-minute webinar, you may be wasting precious time and energy. If, however, you assemble a short video that tells about a single topic or two, your employees will watch it.

“My general manager and I do video announcements — commercials that are two minutes or less,” Barber says. “Employees really don’t have time to call in for a webinar because they are busy helping students.

“But if I create a communication tool that is two minutes long, and they always know that it is going to be two minutes or less, and it is going to be some upbeat video message about the next thing happening in our university, then they will watch it. They know it is a communication targeted and created specifically for them with respect to the rest of their busy day.”

There are different communication tools for all your audiences if you wish to communicate effectively.

“Whether I talk to my employees, students, prospective students or to corporate partners, all four audiences require a very different communication tool that I use so that it meets my listener where they are,” Barber says.

A generic approach won’t reach anyone effectively. The goal is a targeted communication that will engage the recipient.

“I am so committed to employee engagement because I think it is one of the missing elements in so many companies,” Barber says. “This is part about reaching your employees where they are, as you have to know them. We spend a lot of time trying to memorize all 150 people’s names, we have company picnics, we send them birthday and anniversary cards, we send them notes when they have a baby; we just try to embrace our employees in as many ways as possible.”


Establish consistency by being persistent

Everyone today seems to be incredibly busy in his or her job. So is there a way to find the time to do what needs to be done?

“Everyone has time — to do what they care about,” Barber says. “So if you are committed to employee engagement, committed to being the kind of executive who says, ‘Hey, my internal team is my first team, and if I get this right, for my external customers or my students or parishioners — fill in the constituents — it will work.’

“But it won’t work if you don’t get this right with your internal team. You are committed to them, and if you are committed to them, that will drive your consistency. Commitment is the value system. The consistency is the tactic.”

One of the fundamentals to ensure consistency is to manage to the best of a scenario, initiative or situation.

“When you have a remote workforce, you have to kind of throw all the spaghetti on the wall and see what sticks,” Barber says. “So you try as many things as possible, and try to manage to the best of these.”

The more challenging the workforce situation, the more you just have to be persistent. A perfect scenario would be nice to have, but there may never be one.

“I’ve seen in some corporations that people manage to the least of these; so it is like, if only four people show up, we are not going to do it,” she says. “At WGU Indiana, we manage to the best of these, so if four people show up, we are going to make it the best opportunity for four people, because next time, maybe 14 people will show up.

“For leaders who are looking for a kind of forced morale building, which I am really offended by, somewhere along the line you have missed the boat in employee engagement if you have to make your holiday party mandatory,” Barber says.

“You get discouraged unless you manage to the best of these and be encouraged by the ones who do show up. Just keep swinging for the fence for those who will continue to show up. It’s a long-term deal. But that’s what you have to have as a leader.”



  • Authenticity is the first step to effective communication.
  • Talk to the right people about the right thing.
  • Establish consistency by using persistence. 


The Barber File

Name: Allison Barber
Title: Chancellor
Company: WGU Indiana

Birthplace: Gary, Ind.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in elementary education, Tennessee Temple University; master’s degree in elementary education, Indiana University.

What was your first job, and what did you learn from it? I was 10 years old, and I was anxious to work, but there were not too many opportunities for someone my age. I saw an ad for a door-to-door salesman, selling packets of seeds. The ad did not mention an age requirement so I sent in my name and address and a few days later, I received several packets and a bill for $18. I immediately went outside and started knocking on doors. I was turned down seven times. I remember reciting the Bible verse Proverbs 24:16. “A just man falls seven times and rises again.” (I attended a Christian school.) I was determined to keep trying, but I recognized that I needed a different strategy.

I rode my bike to my great uncle's house, told him my plight and he couldn't believe his good fortune. He was just thinking about buying seeds. He bought everything I had.

The lessons I learned: 1. Don't sell seeds in the late fall (market research); 2. Don't quit (personal determination); 3. Sell to people who want to buy (consumer research). 4. Always support a kid who is working hard.

What was the best business advice you ever received? It is actually a quote by President Harry S. Truman: ‘You can always amend a big plan, but you can never expand a little one. I don't believe in little plans. I believe in plans big enough to meet a situation which we can't possibly foresee now.’

Who do you admire in business? I admire Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks, because his mantra is “Everything matters.” I appreciate his focus on details and experience.

What is your definition of business success? To play offense, not defense. That is true in any area of life, not just business. I have yet to find a successful leader who doesn't take risks and doesn't play offense. As my dad has always said to me, ‘Take it to the hoop.’ That is success!

Barber on being personal in an impersonal world: I really believe that what is important at WGU Indiana is that we are on the front lines of emerging technology, but yet we have this commitment to this high-tech and high touch formula. I think that is where engagement, transparency and commitment really come into play because if we didn't create the culture with our employees, if we didn't create an environment where people care about people, then we really lose the value of leveraging technology. Then it is a robotic system and people won't succeed and won't learn and won't graduate in a system that doesn't embrace them as people and individuals and support them in that way. I think that is always the risk with emerging technology. If we embrace technology, we can’t forget the people side of the business that we really all are in and should be in. That is the blend that we really try to get right at WGU Indiana.


How to reach: WGU Indiana, (877) 214-7014 or

Paul Sarvadi wanted to launch his company’s rebranding from Administaff to Insperity in the right way — in a big way. So he and his team rented Minute Maid Park and invited all 2,000 employees, some friends of the company and guests. Forbes publisher Steve Forbes was the guest speaker and NFL sportscaster Jim Nantz served as emcee.

If all that fanfare wasn’t enough, the rebranding also leveraged the company’s 25th anniversary into the message.

“It was a very high energy and exciting event,” Sarvadi says. “But at the same time, the rebranding was a little unnerving. It was kind of like your foundation was changing. It was like every one of us was having our first day on a new job the next morning.”

By the time employees got back to the company’s 57 offices, the new brand was in effect — not only a new name that better defined what the HR and business services company provided, but also a solidified lineup of the company’s expanded services.

“The reason for the rebranding was partly because of the limitation of the old brand,” Sarvadi says. “Administaff had a connotation of being in the temporary staffing business, which we never were, and we found that it limited our ability to get in the door because people presumed that was what we did.

“However, people who knew us well loved the name because it was our identity. We served customers well for so many years, and we had a lot of advertising that supported that brand. It was a very positive brand in the marketplace among those who knew us.”

But the real reason behind the $10 million rebrand was that Sarvadi needed something that went past the core service that the company originally offered.

“We were known so well for that one product — Workforce Optimization™ — and it was very difficult to use that brand to ever do anything else beyond that,” Sarvadi says.

“So we needed kind of a bigger vessel, something that could really allow us to extend our competencies into other product offerings and into other markets.”

While the huge but short-lived event heralded the arrival of Insperity, the impact was that the company could now take care of customers for life. Here’s how Sarvadi lead the rebranding process for the company that capped a complete business transformation over the last several years.


Transformation precedes the rest

Rebranding often arises out of a negative event that happens to a company; for instance, a scandal or faulty product the company wants to put behind itself. But in the case of Insperity, it came out of the desire to improve how the company performed in the past, and to leverage the strength developed over 25 years of existence.

“We had to make some serious changes,” Sarvadi says. “We really didn’t have cross-selling in our DNA. Now we do. Now we have the ability to look at a customer for life: when they are first in business, when they find out where they are, and then help them as they move through different stages with different solutions that are appropriate for them.”

For most of its life, Administaff sold one product to a perfect-fit customer at just the right time. Customers were receiving administrative relief, better benefits, reduced liability, a technology platform and a systematic way to improve productivity.

“We had been in business for 25 years, and we had tremendous success as a company,” Sarvadi says. “But the one issue that we had was, ‘Why hadn’t we grown faster? Why weren’t we larger? I know $2 billion is pretty good but why weren’t we $10 billion, $20 billion?’

“We just felt like there were a lot of companies that we could have assisted if we had some way to help them get started rather than to just take the leap to the full comprehensive service.”

The first step in such a transformation is to develop complementary businesses that serve as stepping-stones toward the full-service product.

“For example, we use what we call a Build by Partner strategy to either build our own new service offerings or build out of what we had already been doing,” Sarvadi says. “For example, we now do payroll on a standalone basis, recruiting on a standalone basis and retirement services.

“We also bought some companies that helped to fill a gap in our service offerings such as expense management, time, attendance and organization planning.

“So for me as an entrepreneur, it was like entrepreneur heaven because now we had a dozen or so new businesses in different stages of development that were all part of the new brand.”


 Start with a name

Once Sarvadi had the package to offer, it was time to brand it. The company went through a two-year process to evaluate the current brand and conduct internal and external studies.

“There was literally a full year before a decision was made to rebrand or not,” Sarvadi says. “Then it took another six months to pin down the approach we would take.”

Administaff hired Addison Whitney, a rebranding company out of Charlotte, N.C., but also did a lot of branding work in-house.

The first step centered on the new name and the promise that went with it.

“We decided to hone the mission of the company even further,” Sarvadi says. “Our mission is to help businesses succeed so communities prosper. With the recent economic upheaval and reversal, you could see the opposite effect that when businesses were not succeeding, the community suffered.

“We chose the word ‘inspiration,’ which is so important in entrepreneurship — having that inspiration about a new product, a new service or a new company to provide an improvement in the marketplace, that particular inspiration in the business owner — and the desire to find ‘prosperity,’ not just financially but to be successful to achieve, to create.

“We took those two words, and we put them together into Insperity.”

Once the name was established, extensive planning was made for all the people involved in the process. A small group within the company had to be fully aware of what was going on because it handled implementation.

“Planning is so important,” Sarvadi says. “Having some advice from people who have done it is always a good thing. We were so deliberate about the process and the steps and the communication, and that is really what paid off most. We could demonstrate the ‘why.’ You know, people want to know what we are doing, but they want to know why we are doing it too. The better you can articulate the need for change and what change you are trying to drive and why that is important, then the more accepted it is.”

The company went through a full education process over the time period.

“We held monthly company meetings,” he says. “We took another step to kind of demonstrate where we were and where we were going, and eventually toward the end of that process, why a new brand was not only necessary, but represented a huge opportunity.” 


Know when it is time to get on board

It takes a tremendous amount of communication to nurture people in a rebranding, giving them a chance to come on board and then ultimately just saying this is the way it is.

“At some point, you just have to say, ‘This is what we are doing,’ Sarvadi says. “People normally are going to stay in their comfort zone absent a significant reason to get out of it. So after you try all the different positive ways to do that, eventually you just have to say, ‘You know what? The train is leaving the station. If you’re staying on it, you’ve got to get with it. If you’re not, the best to you, and thanks for your contribution.’ But at some point you have to get on board.”

While Sarvadi and his team did have a few bumps along the way, trying to make sure that a company could still have consistent predictable results while going through a massive transformation like this was no small feat.

“I’m not sure it could have been done faster, but my gut is if we would have spent more time with the field leadership people to get them along faster, they could’ve helped us get to the frontline people faster, but that’s all under the bridge, and you just got to go from there now,” he says.

“It was almost like we were refueling an aircraft in midair, or changing the tires while we were going 60 miles an hour.”

The rate of unaided awareness was one of the sure signs that the rebranding was working.

“We developed some very powerful television commercials to have a big impact initially to get the brand out there, and the effort has been very successful,” Sarvadi says. “In fact, in about a year and a half, the old brand disappeared. It was amazing how much work we had to put in on an ongoing basis just to keep that brand alive. The new one almost doubled the recognition in 18 months.”



  • Transformation often precedes the rest.
  • Start with a rebranded name.
  • Know when the train is leaving the station. 


The Sarvadi File 

Name: Paul Sarvadi
Title: Chairman and CEO
Company: Insperity 

Born: Aurora, Ohio

Education: I attended Rice University and the University of Houston, but I never completed college. I got the entrepreneurial bug about halfway through and never finished — much to the chagrin of my mother. But I think she got over it.

What was your first job and what did you learn from it? The first one I would call a job was caddying. My brother was the caddy master, so that taught me never to work for your brother. But the other thing was that you learn to serve people. With caddying, you actually learn a lot about personalities and people when you are watching them play golf. Golf has a way of bringing it all out of you. You learn the value of service, and I think that is always a very important thing for young people to learn.

Who do you admire in business? There have been a lot of folks that I have admired over time. Early in the development of our company, I was particularly intrigued with Compaq. They had been the fastest growing company, $1 billion at the time. Rod Canion ran that business, and he really spent a lot of time and effort on the culture of the company and getting discretionary effort and creativity. He had kind of a consensus-style management that works a lot, but depending on different times, it can be effective, or not as effective.

What is the best business advice you ever received? I think the best advice any business owner could have ever received is about persistence and perseverance — you just can’t give up. Believe me, when you own a business, the thought of giving up does enter your mind periodically when the challenges are great. That is really why we started our company, because I felt like the success equation for business owners was going the wrong way. It was getting harder to be successful, both in the level of success, the degree if you will, and the likelihood, and we wanted to provide services and support to improve that success equation.

What is your definition of business success? The beautiful thing about business is that there is a report card — financial success is certainly an integral part. But I don’t agree that is the only part that makes you successful. I think you can be successful financially and leave a wake behind you, if you will, that was not of benefit. And that to me is not success, just having financial results without making something better. You have to make your community better, help employment, help individuals be successful. To me business success means that you contributed in your community in a way that has been uplifting. You have provided a good product and service, your customers benefited, your employees benefited, your shareholders benefited and all of them throughout your community.


How to reach: Insperity, (866) 715-3552 or

Former Dallas Cowboys right guard Crawford Ker played under some top coaches in his day — including Tom Landry and Jimmy Johnson — and he’s quick to comment he’s learned that for the best coaches, a team owes its wins to the process.

“It’s all about the process; the best coaches don’t get too far ahead of themselves,” he says. “You have to celebrate your wins, but you have to say, ‘OK, that was last week. Let’s move on to this week.’ You just have to be really centered.”

While that formula holds its weight on the gridiron as long as you follow it, Ker found that once he became an entrepreneur after his NFL career, he likewise would be keeping his team members centered — in the business world, that is.

“It’s like, too many highs, too many lows,” he says. “It’s either ‘I’m the best there ever was,’ or, ‘I am the worst there ever was.’ So I try to balance it out and say, ‘Just keep improving. Keep working on the little things and try to do a little bit better.’”

Ker spent six seasons in the NFL, was voted to the team of the decade by Dallas Cowboy Weekly and then dabbled a little in business ventures before establishing Ker’s WingHouse Bar and Grill in Largo, Fla., in 1994. The main attractions were the signature chicken wings, a family-friendly atmosphere at a total of 22 locations and growing and the WingHouse Girls — a version of “The Girl Next Door.”

Ker says like some football games, businesses are a hard thing to win.

“You never really win in business,” he says. “You might win for a little while, but you always have to keep improving and always get a very good team around you.

“John F. Kennedy once said, ‘Surround yourself with great people,’ but it is not as easy as it sounds. Here, we will find people, and if they’re good, we will develop them. It’s just a process. If you get the right team, it will be a lot easier for you.”

Here’s how Ker, president, CEO and founder, tries to get the best players on his team and stay focused on the process as WingHouse’s 1,400 employees help generate more than $60 million a year in revenue.


Mixing it up can be a plus

Whether your leaders arise from your rank and file or come in from the outside is one of the top questions involving a business operation. In some cases, a mixture offers a good solution. Ker believes in drawing from both sources.

“I always tell my managers, you have 40-50 employees in the restaurant, and they are doing their work in front of you the whole time, so you train them and give them additional skills,” he says.

“You develop inside and you evaluate what you have inside, and if you don’t have what you need, you go outside to try to get the talent.”

You have to keep your culture intact, however. When you hire from the outside, those employees may be accustomed to their own ways, which could be at odds with your culture.

“I played for the Dallas Cowboys, and then I went to the Denver Broncos,” Ker says. “I might have said, ‘In Dallas, we used to do it like this and like that.’ Well, Denver really didn’t want to hear that. It’s the same in business. You’ve got to respect someone else’s culture. You can’t go into someone’s house and rearrange their furniture and say, ‘I really like it like this.’ People will take offense at that.”

During the on-boarding process with any employee, stress that the culture you have built will remain, and you are not about to re-invent it.

“The business doesn’t run itself, and you have to have great people,” Ker says. “If you look at any great organization, you have great people in those organizations. If you are not first in the market, you’ve got to keep improving and be better than your competition.”


Get your team aligned

Alignment is a familiar term in football and in business, but the repercussions for poor alignment in the corporate world far outweigh the 5-yard penalty of a neutral zone infraction.

“It really comes down to people,” Ker says. “The biggest thing is getting them aligned. I think a lot of good, high-energy people really want to make a big impact. They want to prove their worth. And that’s a good thing. Passion is a great thing to people, but also you have to be somewhat slow in business to know your way around the block, so to speak.”

Employees really can’t be expected to lead themselves, and they can’t always just assume they are doing their jobs well.

“It takes a lot of coaching and leadership,” he says. “You have to spend an enormous amount of time with people. And some won’t get it. In your business or any other business, some people will pick up the work really fast and do real well; some people you could tell them how a thousand times and they’ll never get it done.”

While you can’t always give an employee the friendly football slap on the back for a job well done, you can offer encouragement in other ways.

“Give continual feedback to people and continual training,” Ker says. “Continue to say, ‘OK, this is good. This isn’t so good.’ Give them advice. ‘OK, why don’t we do this … how about that?’

“You reward the good, and you kind of frown upon poor performance, and you’ve got to have good metrics to decide,” he says, noting the importance of performance plans that are aligned with and support the goals of the organization.


Be better, not just different

Conventional wisdom may say you have to be different from your competition to succeed, but in today’s marketplace, just being different may not be enough.

“I don’t know if I agree with the philosophy of just being different,” Ker says. “I think you have to be better. You don’t really have to be different — just be better.

“So whatever anyone does, if you look at Kmart, if you look at Wal-Mart, the names Kmart and Wal-Mart are pretty similar. OK, what was different? Sam Walton did it better than Kmart. But his model was a Kmart.”

Ker has a couple of trick plays, so to speak, to stay a step ahead of the competition.

“We believe in a philosophy of ‘Brilliant on the Basics,’” he says. “In the restaurant business, we all know it is great service, a great product and a very clean atmosphere. If you look at the top one in the restaurant segment over the years, it’s been McDonald’s. McDonald’s is very good in marketing; very clean. You look at that and you say, ‘OK, they did it.’ You could do it too if you work hard enough at it.”

Enter the confidence factor: There’s not a sports coach around who doesn’t impart the value to his players of believing you can win.

“People believe in mentors,” Ker says. “My dad was probably my biggest mentor. He taught me that you can do whatever you want to do. But it is not easy.

“I remember going to my first football tryout in junior college. He said, ‘It’s going to be tough.’ And he was right; it was tough. He was just always there, and he instilled that confidence in me that you can do what you want to do.”

But mentors don’t have to be a parent or a boss. Sometimes they can be co-workers.

“I have been around some great athletes in my day, and I saw what they did and how they did it,” Ker says. “It kind of rubbed off on me, and I said, ‘OK, either I’m doing it right, or I’m doing it wrong. I need to straighten up and do it the way I would want the results to be.’”

Ker’s “Brilliant on the Basics” mission statement provides the foundation for the WingHouse culture.

“In our business, it is food, it is service, it is our staff, and if we are brilliant on the basics, we will be successful,” he says. “When you get away from the basics, you start to stumble a little bit. And that’s where the problems start.

“Your goal is exceptional product, exceptional customer service, a clean atmosphere and that your policies and procedures are followed — kind of like quality assurance standards.”

One other means to ensure that quality levels are maintained is to grow carefully.

“I used to think that more is better; now I think better is better,” Ker says. “It’s a private company. We don’t have to hit projections of ‘X’ amount per year. What we try to do is do the best deal we can. Maybe we turn down a lot of deals but the ones we get we feel comfortable with.”



  • Mixing it up can be a plus.
  • Get your team aligned.
  • Be better, not just different.


The Ker File

Name: Crawford Ker
Title: President, CEO and founder
Company: Ker’s WingHouse Bar and Grill 

Born: Philadelphia. My mom and dad emigrated from Scotland. They settled in Philadelphia. I grew up there and moved to Florida when I was about 12 or 13.

Education: I went to a two-year school, Arizona Western College in Yuma, Ariz., and then I went to the University of Florida.

What was your first job and what did that experience teach you? My first job was working with my father. He had a lawn care business. I was in fifth or sixth grade, and much of my job was just hand-trimming work. We didn’t have string trimmers back then, so my dad gave me a little pair of hand trimmers, and I would go to it. The funny thing about it is, years later, I made my living grabbing people with my hands. So my hands were very strong, maybe because I started using those little hand trimmers when I was in fifth or sixth grade, and it paid dividends later when I was trying to wrestle big defensive lineman.

Who do you admire in business? It’s kind of a different business than I am in, but I admire Vince McMahon from the WWE for his business savvy. He works very hard at what he does. He is on top of his business. I don’t watch the product a lot but I know that he is very involved in it. So he could be in the wings, he could be beside it; he is very dedicated to his business. That is what I respect — any owner who really gets his hands dirty and works his business.

What is the best business advice you ever received? It would probably be keep going. Don’t be deterred. Keep going forward. Everybody has setbacks, nothing is as good as it seems, nothing is as bad as it seems. Just keep going and don’t count your wins too much and don’t count your losses too much. Just keep moving forward and do your best.

What is your definition of business success? Business success to me is having a lot of people contributing to a common goal or common cause of the business. The ultimate success is if a lot of people have benefited from your results. Success is a team sport. So if everybody is successful, you are successful. I think the biggest thing about it is if the company is successful, a lot of people are making a living off your company. For me that is successful. You are employing a lot of people, and a lot of people are counting on your decisions.


How to reach: Ker’s WingHouse Bar and Grill, (727) 535-2939 or

Most employers would be happy if they had only one employee leave in a five-year period. For Sean Adkins, however, it brought about some ambivalent feelings.

Adkins was feeling a modest amount of pride for the showing West Monroe Partners LLC in Columbus had between 2007 and 2011. The business and technology consulting firm was growing, it was recognized as one of the best places to work in Columbus and had only one voluntary resignation during that period — all of which were almost unheard of during that recession-laden time.

After all, the employees were committed to the company mission — “to do the work we love with the people we trust” — and the development of a culture to fit that calling was coming true.

“But one of the things I have had to learn about my leadership style is you can’t also value culture without regard for business performance — because suddenly, this could turn into a country club,” says Adkins, managing director and office leader. “This has been my biggest leadership challenge.”

The heart of the matter for Adkins was the one employee who left during that five-year period.

“I actually started asking myself questions about this,” he says. “Was that good or bad? Am I not striking the right balance here? Maybe near-zero attrition is not a good thing because you are not pushing the team hard enough for results and not finding the right balance.

“I almost felt we ended up with the opposite situation. Where the culture was so valued that maybe we were missing some of the opportunities we could have had from a business perspective,” Adkins says.

“Essentially, I decided that the one turnover was probably not what I was aiming for,” he says. “Some attrition is probably healthy because that tells you that people are being pushed to where they are either going to excel or decide ‘this isn’t the pace I need to go, this isn’t right for me, and I’m going to move onto something else.’”

This year, there was a slight uptick in turnover: three employees voluntarily left. But that didn’t sound an alarm for Adkins.

“I’ve already had one come back three months later,” he says. “That’s another good sign of our culture. People don’t know what is on the other side of the fence.”

Here’s how Adkins tries to dodge the sand traps and water hazards so West Monroe Partners doesn’t become a country club, but a company where employees do the work they love with the people they trust, helping to generate $67 million in annual revenue corporate wide.


Set your core values and live them

Like many other companies do when they first launch, the founders of West Monroe Partners’ initial step was to write down their core values. Once established and followed, core values are designed to keep your company on track.

“You don’t try to fabricate a strategy you think will attract people or what may resonate in the market well,” Adkins says. “This is about describing a set of values that we individually believe in because that is the only way we are actually going to be able to live those values on a day-in and day-out basis.

“I think as we continue to grow as rapidly as we are, maintaining that culture is incredibly important,” Adkins says. “You can look at yourself five years from now and say, ‘Geez, we are a completely different company. Things have changed quite a bit.’ And that is exactly where we don’t want to find ourselves. It is something that we always have to work on.”

So to avoid an about-face in your company culture a few years down the road, there’s never a better time to start but at the beginning.

“The way we avoid being a country club is, No. 1, getting the right people on the team that are motivated to excel and achieve great things,” Adkins says. “Then the second step is having a vision that we aim for.

“We are not just trying to go through the motions each day and live to fight another day. What we are aiming for is something larger, and I can go talk to the team about what we are trying to achieve and why their contribution — and what I need from them — is so important.

“If I am clear on my expectations and my vision for where we are taking the organization, that gives me the capital to go to the team members and ask for more from them because it’s for a purpose. It is not just, ‘Please do more because we need more revenue,’ or, ‘Please do more because we have to get more clients.’ It has a bigger purpose.”


Put in a bit of intrigue

The earliest point at which you can determine if an employee is going to be a good fit for your culture is when he or she asks about the company culture during the job interview.

Adkins is prepared to give an interesting, and telling, reply.

“The answer without fail that I provide for them is, ‘If I am able to answer that question for you right now, I feel like it is doing it a disservice,’” he says. “I shouldn’t be able to describe my culture in words because it just feels like something our marketing team put together or someone has said and repeated.”

Once Adkins has crossed that threshold, he says the best explanation is how the company has a set of core values that hasn’t changed over time — and employees live them every day.

“Our culture is embodied in that ‘to do the work we love with the people we trust’ concept,” he says. “That says everything we want to say about our culture and what we expect from our people, and quite frankly, the environment that we want to provide for our people.”

Adkins observes the candidate’s reaction, which usually contains a degree of intrigue. Many express that they want to find out more, that there is something they may be missing.

“At the same time, we realize that people need facts, they need information to make a decision, and the best thing that we can point to is, ‘Hey, look, we have won several workplace awards across many of our offices as being a best place to work for four years running, and so I am not asking you to just believe me, we certainly have some proven results, but I’m not going to give you the rubric of exactly what that means because you have to experience it.’”


Watch for cracks in the foundation

Complacency is the enemy of success, it has been said. But there are warnings if too much comfort is starting to infect your business. You just have to develop your observation skills to spot them.

Adkins thought he might be seeing cracks in the company culture as 2012 unfolded.

“Some of these folks on the team didn’t appear to be going above and beyond, and I knew they weren’t, both in terms of their commitment to the organization from a time perspective, but also in how much activity they initiated on their part,” he says. “If you are waiting for someone to tell you, if you are waiting for someone to ask you for help, that is an indication that maybe it has become a little too comfortable, and you are not as motivated as you had been.”

Those were a couple of telltale signs he was seeing in the organization that he felt needed to be corrected while ensuring that the core values in the culture weren’t being disrupted.

“We needed our people to be around  ... If the clock says five o’clock, and people say, ‘I’m not really interested in seeing you until the next day,’ this doesn’t lead to good results in our view. We really want it to feel like family, and feel like these are people I enjoy being around on the day-in and day-out basis.”

On the trust aspect, you need people who are motivated by the same things that you are and want to achieve the same things in their career and in their marketplace that you do.

“You know that when you look to your left, and you look to your right, there are people who are marching next to you versus you having to pull them along at the pace you want to go,” Adkins says. “I think that is inspiring for our people to know that they have people in the fight with them.”

Consider a culture well developed when it can maintain itself.

“We have a concept of stewardship for the basic fundamental principle: ‘Leave this place better than what you found it.’ So everyone has to have a personal responsibility in that. It takes everyone’s participation for that to be a reality.”



  • Set your core values and live them.
  • Put a spin of intrigue in your culture.
  • Watch for cracks in the foundation.


The Adkins File

Name: Sean Adkins
Title: managing director and office leader
Company: West Monroe Partners

Born: Cleveland. I grew up in Lakewood, went to Horace Mann Middle School and then to St. Edward High School. 

Education: Miami University. I have a bachelor’s degree in marketing and management information systems. 

What was your first job, and what did you learn from it? I was a caddy at Westwood Country Club in Rocky River after eighth grade. The thing I learned in that job and probably the subsequent jobs I had in high school was just the notion of serving — what customer service means. You learn what it means to provide a service to someone else and how to operate in that environment, which helped me learn quite a bit of what I use today. To be a caddy, you need to be there and ready to go quite early in the morning, and for someone who’s a freshman in high school, that might not be the easiest thing in the world. But the tips were pretty good. 

What is the best business advice you ever received? “The customer is always right” is one I believe in firmly. While there may be some finer distinctions in that, the attitude that I have to bring daily is that I am here to serve my customers. It doesn’t mean I always have to be accepting and obedient, but if I keep my overarching principle as I’m here to serve my customers, that sets the tone for me having a productive relationship with them. I firmly believe that. 

What is your definition of business success? It’s having a team and people motivated by a vision that is personally important to them. I firmly believe that is the way you achieve success. You don’t achieve success by turning the screws harder. You don’t achieve success by setting revenue goals and meeting them. It has to be about the people on your team motivated to do more, and personally motivated by what they are doing. 

If you could have dinner with anybody in history, who would it be? President John F. Kennedy. I find his life and existence to be extremely interesting and inspiring and have always looked upon his untimely death with quite a bit of interest. He has just been quite a bit of motivation for a lot of folks, and I always thought that it would be interesting to talk to him.


How to reach: West Monroe Partners LLC, (614) 372-7300 or

It really bothers Jennifer Rosenberg, president of Acorn Distributors Inc., when she doesn’t make it around to each department every day to say hello and acknowledge all 110 employees.

“It’s something I try very hard to do because I want to see the distribution center employees, and that’s just as important as walking back to the purchasing department or the accounting department,” she says.

She admits that it anguishes her when she’s running late or is swamped with meetings and can’t make her daily rounds.

“At the end of the day when I am walking out, it’s always the first thing on my mind: Did I see everyone?” Rosenberg says. “And it really bothers me if I didn’t get a chance to acknowledge everybody in the building that day.”

Rosenberg doesn’t try to greet everyone because she is a people pleaser or a micromanager checking up on employees, or even because she’s the boss’s daughter.

It was her father, Al Wachter, now vice president of Acorn, who introduced her as a teenager working at the janitorial and food service equipment and supplies house to the practice of greeting every employee every day.

The difference now is that Rosenberg, who purchased 52 percent of the business in 2005, knows why she is so keen on giving salutations.

When she was a teen, it was all about starting off on the right foot. Now it is affirmation that she has the support from her team members who no longer see her as just the boss’s daughter but as the high-energy leader who inspires them to exceptional service.

Here’s how she met the challenge of being a leader in her own right who had to gain the respect of her employees.


Take the wheel with a firm plan

When you enter the field of company ownership, planning your exit strategy is probably the farthest thing from your mind. But Wachter, who was the sole owner of the company from 1999 to 2005, started thinking about a succession plan as soon as he took the wheel.

He needed to make sure there was somebody coming in behind him to operate the company as a family business. At the time, Rosenberg was working somewhere else, and her brother, who was working for the company, would decide after a few years to leave.

“You have to have a passion for the industry; he didn’t have that passion,” Rosenberg says. “There’s no animosity between us, but if you don’t have a passion, you’re not going to be successful. We all work so hard and put in a lot of hours, and if you don’t love what you are doing, you’re not going to go home a happy camper at the end of the day.”

So Wachter was successful in drawing Rosenberg, who was then a food broker, back into the company, but not necessarily to be the leader.

“When I started, I was just a salesperson, given a territory and told, ‘Go out. Sink or swim,’” she says. “But I needed to prove myself to the employees to earn their respect. I shouldn’t have expected that because of what my last name was. That was meaningless to me, and I didn’t want to be treated any differently than any other employee.”

A new leader joining a company wants the support of the employees. It boils down to whether they think they can follow because of respect or just because you are the leader. And in a family business, starting at the bottom may just be the best place to begin to gain support, to show employees you have paid your dues.

“You want their support,” Rosenberg says. “If employees don’t believe in you, why are they going to help you? I came in as a salesperson in our purchasing department. Those people knew a lot more than I knew, and I needed to learn from them.

“And if they didn’t have the trust and confidence in me that I was looking out for their best interests, why are they going to support me? Why are they going to help me learn what I need to make sure that I know every facet of the business to run it someday?”


Hitting the pavement pays off

In a number of family businesses, family members are automatically brought into the business whether or not there’s a need for them or whether they have the qualifications for the position or not. They may even enjoy tenure regardless of how well or how poorly they do their job.

But Rosenberg was intent on getting across a different message, one that would level the playing field: “I am not any better than any employee, and no employee is any better than I am.”

Starting at the street level (sales) was her preferred place to begin, especially in the distribution business, she says.

“You need to start with sales and learn the business, because if you don’t learn what goes on in the street and what your customers expect — you don’t have a business without your customers,” Rosenberg says. “Then you want your employees to have your back. I did that, and I proved myself, just as any other employee would do — not because I was part of the family.”

It worked, because Rosenberg put the effort into it.

“They saw how hard I worked,” she says. “They saw that I was out there hitting the pavement, knocking on doors, opening new accounts, educating customers that we train our sales people not to be order takers but sales consultants.”

It wasn’t long before Rosenberg found out that the different jobs she was learning around the company would help her wear different hats.

“On the sales side, employees see what I do for customers,” she says. “They see that I’m out there bringing in new business and growing existing business. They also see the relationships that I have built with customers.

“On the inside, it’s taking interest in what they are doing and working with them on projects, showing them that you’ve invested a lot in your employees; they are your biggest asset. Without them, you wouldn’t have the ability to go out and get customers.”


Don’t worry about whether or not you’ve arrived

If you’ve paid your dues to learn how to lead a company, there should be a point where you are respected and trusted — and seen as a leader in your own right. And if you can pinpoint when it happened, it might not have really happened yet.

For Rosenberg, there was no lightbulb moment. She once was asked if she knew when she had obtained buy-in and support from the employees.

“I couldn’t give an answer,” she says. “I don’t know when it was. I thought to myself, ‘Maybe I should ask one of the managers who has seen me literally evolve into my role,’ but I don’t remember when the lightbulb went off — when it was like, ‘OK, I feel that I have a good relationship with everyone here.’

“I think it takes time, but it’s one of those things; you’ve got to start off on the right foot. And I was lucky that I started off on the right foot.

“I think as long as you are working to your best ability, and you are truly learning the business, people know who is working hard and who is not working hard — and who is playing the system and who is not playing the system.

“You can’t fool people, especially employees who work with you day in and day out. It’s obvious you are in it for the right reasons. I think you just need to be yourself.”

There is one certain way to learn whether you have arrived: take time off.

“When I was on maternity leave, I remember getting emails with comments like, ‘We miss your energy around the building!’” Rosenberg says.



  • Take the wheel with a firm plan.
  • Hitting the pavement pays off.
  • Don’t worry about whether of not
    you’ve arrived.


The Rosenberg File

Name: Jennifer Rosenberg

Title: President

Company: Acorn Distributors Inc.


Born: Indianapolis


Education: University of Cincinnati. I graduated with a degree in history. I didn’t complete a minor in business, but I took a lot of business classes. For some reason, I really loved art history. I took an art history class my freshman year and I said, ‘Wait. I really like this.’ And everybody said, ‘What are you going to do with it, teach?’ I said ‘No, I’ll probably go into sales.’


What was your first job, and what did you learn from it?

I used to come in on Saturdays when I was a little girl and empty the garbage cans and my dad would give me a dollar. When I was 16 or 17, I worked at a clothing store called Chico’s at a local mall. It was a small boutique clothing store but I was very hands-on as far as with the customers trying things on and accessorizing them. I would blow other people’s sales away there. I learned the art of sales and taking care of a customer.


Who do you admire in business?

There are a couple of women that are in my industry, in our buying group, who are probably 20 to 25 years older than me, and their stories are very similar to mine as far as coming into their fathers’ businesses. And they are looking at me and saying, ‘I was you 20 years ago.’ I see where they have gone, and I see that’s maybe where I’m going to be in 20 years. And my dad has really been my role model as a businessperson. I’ve learned an incredible amount from him, and I am still learning every day.


What is the best business advice you ever received?

When I first got into the business and people were asking me, ‘Are you going to take over,’ I couldn’t answer that question. I was just learning in the beginning. And I remember asking then, how will I know if this is for me or not? They would say, ‘It’s when you don’t like what you are doing 51 percent of the time.’ That is something that has always stuck with me. As I mentioned earlier, if you don’t have passion, you are not going to be successful. I think you learn that pretty quickly — if you’ve got that passion or not.


What is your definition of business success?

A strong team, because without great employees, and a strong team behind you, you can’t be successful on your own. It takes an army. And I’ve got an awesome army behind me. We don’t have employees who have just been here six months, two months. We don’t have a revolving door. We have long-standing employees.  From the hourly employees up to salary … and it’s not just in one department. It’s pretty clear throughout the building that we have a lot of loyal employees.


How to reach: Acorn Distributors Inc., (317) 243-9234 or