The idea for LinkedIn was born in 2002 from what Reid Hoffman learned as a co-founder of Socialnet, an online dating site. He realized the online world needed the creation and management of one’s personal brand to distinguish themselves from others on the Internet. He felt the professional life was the most important facet of online identity and saw the need for a site on which to cultivate a professional persona.
Hoffman and Jeff Weiner, CEO, never wavered in leading LinkedIn over obstacles and propelling the company to its current state of success. Initial growth of the online network was one of the first and biggest challenges to the company’s viability. Critics stated that the member base needed to be large to create network effects and value for members, and viewed building that network to be a huge hurdle.
Through innovation, utilizing their own networks and hard work, memberships began to increase. Once the address book feature was created, allowing members to import their e-mail address books and send each contact an invitation to join LinkedIn, membership growth was sustained.
When Jeff Weiner joined as CEO in 2008, the network grew even further. Under Weiner’s leadership, LinkedIn has rapidly expanded globally and nearly tripled its membership base from 33 million to 100 million members across the globe.
The value of LinkedIn’s business model is driven by a proprietary technology platform which processes, filters and indexes a vast and growing amount of user-generated content, including updates to members’ profiles, connections, activities and recommendations. The more data members share, the more valuable the network becomes.
To further grow the business, the company plans to keep growing membership and expand its international presence through registration optimization, search engine optimization, integration with other applications and enhancements to communications capabilities. The company also plans to expand to more international members by making the platform available in more languages and further developing its brand.
HOW TO REACH: LinkedIn Corp., (650) 687-3600 or www.linkedin.com
It was the year 2000, and John Scardapane was in his salad days leading Saladworks LLC.
The phrase “salad days” derives from a line in the first act of William Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” in which Cleopatra laments her earlier involvement with Julius Caesar:
“My salad days, when I was green in judgment, cold in blood…”
Scardapane isn’t cold-blooded, but the former chef was green in judgment as he led the restaurant chain he founded in 1986 toward a franchising concept that could serve as a springboard to rapid growth, but required the corporate leadership to provide a strong, stable support system for prospective store owners. It was something Scardapane had yet to address.
“I was very green about multi-unit operating,” he says. “We had no structure, we had no core values, we had no manuals, no training programs. We were doing extremely well, but our volume was covering a lot of our seams.”
Scardapane — also the chairman and CEO — decided to begin franchising the stores to family members and friends, hoping they would take the restaurant concept and run with it the way he had. Scardapane’s family and friends had expanded Saladworks to 25 locations as the century turned, but nothing was standardized except for the restaurant name.
“It got to the point where I either had to start building an infrastructure to support them properly, or find someone who could do it,” Scardapane says. “I had no success finding anyone else, so I decided to start building the infrastructure.”
In 2002, Scardapane began selling franchises to the public, and now Saladworks is a chain of more than 100 stores with locations in the New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Atlanta areas, along with locations in California, Florida and Missouri. The company employs 2,500 between corporate and franchised locations.
But to get there, Scardapane had to build a growth plan, a strategy for the future and a culture. In short, Scardapane needed a system that worked.
Define your culture
In the early years of the previous decade, as Scardapane began franchising Saladworks locations to family and friends, he knew something was missing from the business equation. But he wasn’t sure what it was.
Scardapane sought out the assistance of executives at Commerce Bank and Wawa Inc., two companies he admires. Through those companies, he found a pair of experienced executives who were willing to mentor him and help grow Saladworks.
“We found a banking executive at Commerce Bank who showed me how Commerce developed their culture and strategies,” Scardapane says. “The gentleman from Wawa came in as a consultant. I asked him to spend a couple of days in the company, go around to every employee and talk to them, come back and give me your opinion on what is happening. He came back to me after a few days, and told me he was extremely impressed. He felt we were running a company structure like you’d have for 500 stores, but he felt the one thing that was missing was a culture.”
Scardapane wanted to know the reasoning behind the need to develop a culture, and why it was critical to his company’s success.
“I asked him, ‘What is a culture and why do I need it?’” he says. “We talked about it, he helped me put everything in writing, and everything else evolved from there. I found out that once you have that culture in place, that is when you can start empowering everyone in the company to make decisions because you know they’re all going down the same path.”
Scardapane decided to craft five core values that would serve as the foundation of Saladworks moving forward: customer service, a passion to be the best, valuing other team members, doing what is necessary to get the job done, and hiring the best people. Those five principles became Saladworks’ DNA, and something at the heart of the vetting process when Scardapane and his team are searching for new franchisees.
“Whenever we’re interviewing potential new franchisees, we want to see if they match our culture,” he says. “We’re really interviewing them concerning whether they have the passion to be the best, are they willing to do the right thing, do they have integrity and honesty. Are they going to do whatever it takes to get things done, and are they going to grow future leaders? Each department has specific questions that pertain to their area, but they all follow those guidelines.”
But even if you hire the right people, you won’t be able to fully engage them in your company’s culture without involving them in the process of shaping your plans for the future. Each year, Scardapane involves his corporate staff in the strategic planning process. Involving the corporate staff allows the home-office work force to better reinforce the culture among the franchisees.
“Everybody has a chance to ask whether we have lived up to our values in the past year,” Scardapane says. “And we look at whether those values are reflected in our programs for the next year. So it’s basically us asking ourselves, ‘Do we still believe in our values?’”
Scardapane drives the discussion down to the franchisee level by taking selected franchise owners and putting them through the same process. To make a truly open forum where no opinion is off limits, he bans members of corporate leadership from the franchisee discussion.
“Nobody from the home office is there,” he says. “I have a consultant help them get through the process, but anything they say never gets back to the home office regarding who said it. Then we compare their strategic plan and what the franchisees think the strategic plan should be for the coming year to the one we did for the home office.
“That way, we have a home office strategy and a strategy from the field, from the people who are actually out there working in the stores. It does two things: It helps us understand what is going on in the field, and it gets the franchisees to buy into the company culture. We share the information in a PowerPoint presentation every year at our convention for all of the franchisees.”
If you need to build or revamp your culture, Scardapane suggests you do what he did: find a mentor and have that person analyze your business.
“There are a couple of books out there, like ‘Good to Great,’ but they won’t give you the details and development, how to actually put a plan together,” he says. “You really need some support and structure and someone to take you through the process. Once they’ve gone through once or twice and shown you how, you and your team can take the ball and run with it.”
Maintain your momentum
Scardapane has learned that without an established culture and empowered, educated work force, you’re going to find growing your company to be a difficult prospect. You may have the capital and manpower to grow, but you won’t be able to harness it in any meaningful way.
Once you’ve established a culture and have the right people on board, however, you need to become something of a maintenance man, with team members constantly on the ground in all of your locations, offering support and promoting accountability.
Scardapane keeps his cultural momentum strong with a team of business coaches who each oversee a handful of Saladworks franchises. It’s the coach’s job to maintain contact with their franchise owners and address any issues they might be having.
Finding business coaches and training them is an involved process in and of itself.
“We’ve found that even if you have experience in your field, even if I bring in a guy who has 15 years of experience in the restaurant, it takes about six months before he can go out and support franchises. He has to know everything possible about owning and operating a Saladworks store. He can’t just read the manual. You have to spend a lot of time in the store working as a business coach before you can adequately support the franchisees. It takes a lot longer than most companies realize.”
One of the continuous challenges facing Scardapane is how to maintain a growth support structure that can stay ahead of the rate of growth. He wants to have a system that is capable of continually absorbing new stores into the fold, which means committing people and dollars to support locations that haven’t opened yet, and doing it months in advance.
“You really have to bring in the structure before you expand,” Scardapane says. “If I know we’re opening 25 stores this year, I’ve already brought in two business coaches, and they’ve already been in the pipeline for four months. That’s why the whole system needs a lot of cash flow.
“Where companies fail is they go out and sell a lot of franchises, but they don’t have the infrastructure to support it. They’re trying to backfill the infrastructure, and they don’t have the people to support the stores that are opening.”
If you’ve built the system properly and everyone in your organization is adequately supported, your company will begin to develop its own momentum. Leaders will groom other leaders, the daily business of the company will be well-managed and you will be free to pull back and view your company’s course with a wide-angle lens.
“Once you’ve been doing it for a while, you can do more managing on a macro level,” Scardapane says. “Once you get used to the ideas of others paying off, and watch them start to grow future leaders, you start believing in people and you start giving them more responsibility. And you become more open because of that. You start to realize that you don’t have to do everything yourself. That’s important, because as a leader, you really have to recognize that you’re going to need the help of others, and that sometimes their ideas are going to be better than yours.”
Scardapane wants team members who are smarter than him in their area of practice. He doesn’t want to have to be the expert on everything in his company. He wants to know that once he’s defined the boundaries of the company playing field through the culture and strategic plan, he’ll have star performers on the field making plays.
It’s the only way to ensure the culture he established more than a decade ago remains strong and allows Saladworks to continue its rapid growth, carrying Scardapane well away from those salad days of old, when he was learning on the job.
“It’s about what the leader does once he’s built the infrastructure of core values and strategic planning,” Scardapane says. “Then, it’s time to let people grow and make their own decisions. My entire team knows that the only time I get upset is when they don’t make a decision. I don’t get upset over a wrong decision. I get upset when they make no decision.”
How to reach: Saladworks LLC, (610) 825-3080 or www.saladworks.com
The Scardapane file
Born: Camden, N.J.
History: I was a chef at a New Jersey country club in 1985 or so, and I could see our golfers were eating more salads than burgers. We had a section of the kitchen that would make these very attractive salads with various vegetables, and I started to have an idea for putting the salad concept into a food court environment. An opportunity came up to buy a location at the Cherry Hill Mall, and I brought the idea in there. But the people who ran the mall told me that salads wouldn’t be successful enough to pay the rent. They asked me to find another concept.
On the third try, they agreed to give me a chance if I’d sell sandwiches as well. They thought sandwiches would be strong enough in sales. I agreed, and opened my first store in 1986. The salads were so successful, we became the highest-grossing counter in the food court.
What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?
Our major tipping point as a business was bringing the culture into the corporate office and franchise system. So my most valuable lesson is you need to have a culture.
What is your definition of success?
Realizing our vision would be our success, and that vision is to be the greatest restaurant brand. What I love to do is build something great. I get a sense of satisfaction watching our home office people rise through the ranks and watching our franchisees become successful.
If you follow baseball in the Los Angeles area, Dennis Kuhl, chairman of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, wants you to know one thing:
“The Dodgers are not my competition,” he says. “When I go out and speak, people ask me about the Dodgers being my competition. But my competition is Southern California sunshine. You have to talk a family of four into coming to the ballgame instead of going to the beach. So you’d better have some things going on that are exciting.”
Kuhl came on board with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim shortly after owner Arte Moreno purchased the club in 2003. The team’s 2002 World Series title predates Moreno’s ownership, but under the leadership of Moreno and Kuhl, the Angels have become a perennial playoff contender and one of the leading attendance draws in Major League Baseball.
Moreno has bankrolled the talent that has led to the team’s on-field success, but Kuhl says it has been a group effort to keep fans in the stands at Angels Stadium of Anaheim, from the front office all the way down to the janitors, ushers and parking attendants that interact with fans before, during and after games.
It’s really no different from any other business: a respected brand plus great customer service leads to repeat customers.
“Our brand itself is well-known, but we also wanted to demonstrate great customer service,” says Kuhl, who served as the team’s president until 2009. “But that is only part of it. You have to reach out to the community in which you live. We have to let our fans know they’re a big part of us being here in Orange County and Los Angeles. That means you still constantly have to promote your brand, even with a well-known image. I tell everyone in the organization that they’re a salesman. You’re representing the Angels and you’re selling Angels everywhere you go.”
Know your colors
Kuhl and the Angels leadership team picked three items to serve as the outward identity of the organization: the color red, the name “Angels” and the club’s capital “A” logo. The use and appearance of all three factors is carefully managed to promote brand association throughout the fan base.
“You’ll never see our ‘A’ in camouflage or a different color,” Kuhl says. “It’s always red. We specifically picked the color red, and in our merchandise store, everything is red. Everything we give away is red. And the third item is the name ‘Angels.’ We don’t put ‘Los Angeles Angels’ on our stuff. We put ‘Angels.’”
The goal was to create a distinctive brand image, one that employees want to support and promote, and one that fans want to embrace. The Angels nickname and the club’s capital ‘A’ logo have been around for decades, but the club’s transfer to a red-dominated color scheme in 2002 is something Angels management views as the final ingredient, what makes the whole branding recipe work.
“Too many organizations tinker with their logo, change it every year, and we have not. We have taken that brand into the market and kept it the same, kept our uniforms the same. People have responded, because when you come to a game, you see a sea of red. They’re getting it.”
Kuhl says it’s counterproductive for a business to focusing on being many different things to many different people. You have to zero in on what it is you are trying to be as an organization, and work hard to put those essential elements in front of your customers on a constant basis.
It might be exciting to revise your company’s image and try new looks on for size. But if you water down your image with too many differing messages, you’re going to confuse your customers as to what you really stand for as a business.
“You can’t focus on 20 different things,” Kuhl says. “You have to focus on a small number of things and work hard on branding that name. When we go to a dinner or to a Rotary Club meeting, we take a bunch of inexpensive hats with us, and every kid there gets a hat. A lot of people think if you give away hats, they won’t buy them in the store. We don’t care right now. We want to see every kid in Orange County, in the whole Los Angeles area, wearing an Angels hat. You start with the kids, and if you walk into a store around here now, you see more red than you ever have before. It’s because we’ve stuck with our image and focused on it.”
Kuhl says the Angels aren’t looking to other baseball teams for branding inspiration. They’re looking at companies like IBM.
“You have to focus and pick your brand, and develop your mission,” he says. “Like with us, our mission is youth. You have to, as an organization, pick what your goals and brand are, and tie it in with the surrounding community. And you have to develop the culture within the organization. We have to have people buying in to what we are doing, what Arte’s goals are. That has to come internally.
“I’ve seen other great organization do that. In college, I watched what IBM had done, how they built their brand, and their brand is as strong as it gets. Nike is the same way. They believe in their culture, and that’s what we want from our people.”
Project your culture
One of the oldest axioms in the business how-to book says your culture isn’t what you say it is — it’s what your people believe it is. It’s also what your people project to your customers.
Even though the Angels have carved out a large and loyal fan base throughout Orange County and the Los Angeles area, they can’t take that as an indicator that they’ll reap the benefits of bumper-crop ticket and merchandise sales. As with other businesses, it still takes diligent work to constantly improve customer service and enhance customer experience. A guy in Orange County might have an Angels pennant hanging in his house, but Kuhl still needs that guy to take the step of driving to the stadium, buying tickets and taking in a game with his family.
To make it happen, Angels games need to be a customer-focused experience from the parking lot to the stadium and back. Which means everyone who works at an Angels game is an ambassador for the team.
“The people in the office, like myself, we might touch the fans, but we don’t touch them like the ushers, like the parking lot attendants, janitorial people and concessionaires,” Kuhl says. “Those are the people who have direct contact. We need to educate them on the service we want to see from our employees. We want them to smile, say thank you and look customers in the eye. We want them to know if customers aren’t getting good service. That’s why I say we have team ambassadors.”
Turning employees into ambassadors for your organization takes training. But as part of the training, it takes a great deal of dialogue. Employees won’t feel empowered to represent the business if they don’t feel engaged in the process.
Kuhl wants his employees to know how to provide a good customer experience. But he also wants the people who work at the many customer interface points at an Angels game to tell the management team what needs to be done better, and where new ideas could potentially flourish.
“When we meet with game day employees, the first thing I do is go talk to them,” he says. “I thank them for the job they did the previous year, I ask them if they have any questions about the organization. It’s important that those questions come from the top. But then, we let them speak out, and we want to hear some of the problems that they’ve had and some of the areas where they think we could be doing a better job.
“When you let people speak out and give them the opportunity to tell you what is going on in the stadium, you can find out what is missing, what else we need to do. If someone in the stadium needs a wheelchair, we don’t want them to find you. You go get it, and you don’t have to ask. Just go do it. That gives them a sense of belonging. That gives them a sense that ‘I belong to this organization, I am a representative of this organization, and I’m going to do the best I can.’”
Feed yourself some feedback
Fans write letters to Kuhl all the time. He takes the time to read them all, but he’s particularly interested in letters that provide some sort of constructive criticism regarding how the Angels can make the game day experience better.
“Last year, one of our issues was that there were not enough healthy alternative foods at the games,” Kuhl says. “So we go together with our food service partners and put together a menu selection with some more gluten-free choices and other health-food alternatives. We developed it, we’ll promote it on the scoreboard and we’ll see how it goes over the course of the season. You have to take a look at what people are looking for.”
And if people aren’t finding what they’re looking for and they’re taking their dollars elsewhere, you need to find out why.
If a season ticket holder doesn’t renew for the following year, Kuhl and his staff want to know the reasons why. It might be related to the recession, or it might be something that the Angels could have done better.
“Our customer service representatives call every season ticket holder after the season, then again around Christmastime,” he says. “It’s amazing the feedback you get. But you have to make the effort to go out and reach out to these people. If somebody didn’t renew their season tickets, we want to know why. We want to know what we could have done better. If you’re not interested in season tickets, would you be interested in a mini plan? Things like that. But you have to go out to the market; the market is not going to come to you. You need to set up a customer service organization within the company, go out and seek them.”
In the end, Kuhl says, you’ll probably find that customers want a good product that doesn’t break their budget. If you have those two factors, you’re off to a good start.
“You sit down and say ‘OK, what do the fans want?’” he says. “In baseball, people want a winner, and Arte’s been working to put a good product on the field. Off the field, you want to get the people into the seats. And once they’re in the seats, maybe they buy a hot dog. And if you get them in here and they enjoy the experience, maybe they come back again. That’s why you concentrate on having that good fan experience, good customer experience. We have to focus on giving them value for their dollar. That’s the way I feel, and that’s how our plans are constructed.”
How to reach: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, (714) 940-2000 or losangeles.angels.mlb.com
The Kuhl file
Born: Boonton, N.J.
Education: Business administration degree, University of Arizona
First job: I was a caddy in a country club in Boonton when I was a kid. It was interesting being around a lot of successful people. They had money and belonged to a country club, and you kind of looked up to them. You respected them. And they always treated us very well. I was always impressed with the way most of them treated the caddies. And what I learned was that you always treat people with respect. That made an impression on me at age 12 or 13, and I’ve always carried that with me.
What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?
One of the things I wished I was better at was being more of a visionary. I’ve been working a lot of years with Arte Moreno, and he’s a very visionary person. One of the lessons I’ve learned from him is to never make decisions looking at the past. Always make decisions for the future. Don’t look to the past; always move forward as you’re running a business.
What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?
A real business leader has to see four or five years down the line, and then communicate a plan to the employees. You have to hire the right people and know who to put in charge. You need to really believe in your vision and communicate it to your team.
Kuhl on changing the club name to Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2005:
We believe our baseball team is in a big time market. We want to make sure we acted like a big market team, not small market. We wanted our advertisers to know we live in a very large metropolitan area. We felt this was one of our steps that we needed to take to let everyone know that we are a part of the Greater Los Angeles area, and it has helped us to be recognized as a big market team.
In October 2000, Charles Davidson joined Noble Energy Inc. as chairman and CEO, assuming leadership of a company that was underperforming and in need of a strategic reset.
Since then, Davidson has built an industry-leading team at Noble Energy that has delivered remarkable results.
In the 10 years between 2001 and 2010, Noble Energy’s total shareholder return has been 300 percent, or 15 percent per year on an annual compound basis.
Davidson’s leadership style is exemplified by an exceptional personal commitment to the highest business and personal ethics, a low ego where success is broadly shared and a facilitative style with employees, businesses and stakeholders. His low-key, data-based approach to challenges and opportunities, and his personal integrity, are recognized by key stakeholders, government officials and his industry peers. Davidson has become a go-to leader for the company, and for the oil and gas industry as a whole.
Davidson is a founding member of and serves on the executive committee of America’s Natural Gas Alliance. He serves as the offshore committee chair of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, and as a board member of the American Exploration & Production Council, the Gas Technology Institute and the Offshore Energy Center. He is also a member of the National Petroleum Council.
Davidson’s leadership and his open approach to challenges and opportunities were demonstrated following the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Early last May, as the gravity of the incident became clear, Davidson pulled together the Noble Energy leadership team to brainstorm the likely implications and impacts to the company and the industry.
Davidson recognized it as an opportunity. The team took a proactive approach with government regulators and industry peers to help support the development of new drilling regulations, and spill response and containment capabilities.
How to reach: Noble Energy Inc., (281) 872-3100 or www.nobleenergyinc.com
When David Brain was looking for a real estate investment trust to finance a new format of movie houses ? the megaplex theater with between 10 and 30 screens — no one was interested. But he didn’t give up. He enlisted the help of Peter Brown, former CEO of AMT Theaters, and the two formed Entertainment Properties Trust (EPR). It now has investments in more than 100 multiplex theaters with many operators, as well as retail, public charter schools and metropolitan ski areas.
But it was not all smooth sailing since the August 1997 formation. At that time, many large theater operators were in bankruptcy. Anxious to build new megaplex theaters, they had to get out of their leases for the traditional movie houses. The bankruptcies brought negative headlines for the industry, and EPR’s stock fell. Brain was only able to find one bank that would listen to him share his vision, but he succeeded in getting EPR’s debt refinanced. Since then, the company has grown and diversified its portfolio.
Clearly, Brain enjoys a challenge. He approaches it with enthusiasm and a can-do attitude. One of his frequent discussions is how EPR thrives on the differences between perceived risk versus real risk in its investments.
The relationships he develops can be seen in the number of repeat business deals with many operators. He works at establishing trust by showing that he cares about the people with which he works. There’s a family feeling inside the successful public company.
One of his best skills is how he lets his executives freely execute the company’s key initiatives without any fear of being micromanaged. Understandably, most key managers have been promoted from within the company. Since Brain has been CEO, the company retention rate is more than 90 percent, a testament to the empowering work environment.
How to reach: Entertainment Properties Trust, (816) 472-1700 or www.eprkc.com
Soon after Paul Greig joined FirstMerit Corp. in 2006, he was facing the most challenging leadership obstacle in his career, a worldwide economic recession. Greig soon saw many of his peer banks posting tremendous losses quarter after quarter, with the financial industry struggling to find its footing.
Because of Greig’s decision to steer FirstMerit clear of sub-prime home lending and focus on smart lending practices, when the housing market crashed, the bank didn’t take a loss that many other banks did. Throughout the crisis, the bank continued its rigorous fiscal and credit policies, keeping it on sound financial ground and positioning it to stay strong as the economy improves.
As chairman, president and CEO, Greig has led FirstMerit in remaining profitable and continuing to be a source of strength for customers, employees, stakeholders and community members, in spite of the turbulent financial environment around him. The FirstMerit banking model is designed to better serve customers by letting bankers make credit decisions at the local level, allowing customers to deal directly with advisers they know and trust. Greig has always emphasized the advantage of small banks, bringing them together to leverage the resources of big banks but delivering with local channels and services.
FirstMerit has continued to expand its reach due to Grieg’s ability to spearhead successful mergers and acquisitions. In 2009 and 2010, he led FirstMerit to complete a series of acquisitions to enter the growing financial market of Chicago. The company added 450 employees in Chicago, and other support positions in Northeast Ohio, and moved from having no position in Chicago to 13th in terms of deposits.
And while organic growth is a priority, Greig makes sure FirstMerit grows in a way that promotes strong customer relationships, sound business banking fundamentals and great local service.
How to reach: FirstMerit Corp., (330) 384-7075 or www.firstmerit.com
John A. Canning Jr. has seen success throughout his career. He graduated from Denison University in 1966 and went on to graduate from Duke University’s School of Law in 1969. After graduation, he took a position as an attorney at The First National Bank of Chicago. There, he practiced law as assistant general counsel until 1980, when he was selected as president of First Chicago Venture Capital.
He served in that role until 1992, at which point he co-founded Madison Dearborn Partners LLC. Upon founding the private equity investment firm, he served as president and CEO until 2003, and then as chairman and CEO from 2004 until leaving the CEO role in 2008. He is still the chairman. MDP has invested more than $13.9 billion and achieved a compound annual rate of return of more than 20 percent over its 19-year history. Its current portfolio includes L.A. Fitness, The Yankee Candle Co. Inc., Cinemark Inc., The Topps Co. Inc. and CDW Corp., among others.
His success hasn’t been just in the companies he has run, though. He and his wife administer The Canning Foundation, which provides financial aid to Chicago-area schools and funds shelters and transitional programs for abused women and their children. The foundation provides more than 100 multiyear scholarships to inner-city children. The couple is also deeply committed to the WINGS (Women in Need Growing Stronger) program, which provides a continuum of integrated services in an effort to end domestic violence and homelessness, one family at a time.
On top of these programs, he’s also active through his service on various boards. He is a trustee and chairman of The Field Museum, director and co-chairman of the Big Shoulders Fund, chairman of the Chicago News Cooperative, and former director and chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. He also serves on the board of directors of Corning Inc., Exelon Corp., Milwaukee Brewers Baseball Club, Norfolk Tides Baseball Club, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Rasmussen College Inc., TransUnion Corp. and the Children’s Inner City Educational Fund.
How to reach: Madison Dearborn Partners LLC, (312) 895-1000 or www.mdcp.com
From an early age, Art Van Elslander learned the value of hard work by watching his immigrant father run the Detroit bar that adjoined to the family’s home.
By the age of 16, Van Elslander had acquired an eye for style by selling men’s clothing. In this job, he learned the value of developing a personal brand as he learned about fabrics and colors and the importance of presentation.
That eye for style and the elements he learned selling men’s clothing were helpful when he started his first furniture store in 1959. He mortgaged his home to open it, and he worked as its only employee, often staying open until he had made a sale.
But he stuck with it, and he had the fortitude to go where he anticipated the business would be, not where it currently was. This approach allowed him to beat the competition and has earned the company its place as Michigan’s No. 1 furniture retailer and America’s largest independent furniture retailer -- quite a feat because all 37 locations are within Michigan.
In addition to expanding to 37 stores from his single shop, the business has grown to employ 2,500 people, many of whom stay with him for years. Thirty-five percent of his employees have been with the company for more than 10 years, and many of them are second- and third-generation employees.
He’s also earned numerous industry awards, and has been inducted into the American Furniture Hall of Fame. But he hasn’t let success go to his head; he remains committed to giving back to the community, and he’s provided millions of dollars to support Michigan.
How to reach: Art Van Furniture, (586) 983-3001 or www.artvan.com
Chris Cicchinelli wishes he knew how to speak more languages or at least paid more attention in his Spanish classes, because his company has started to expand into international markets.
Pure Romance Inc., an in-home party company that sells a premier line of relationship enhancement products, expanded into Puerto Rico last year and now has 750 consultants selling products there.
“I wish I would have taken more Rosetta Stone or more Spanish when I was in school,” says Cicchinelli, president.
Now that the company has successfully started its quest to break into international markets, it’s looking to open locations in Johannesburg, South Africa, Sydney, Australia, and Manila, Philippines, within the next year.
2010 was the company’s biggest year yet, seeing 40 percent growth, which resulted in revenue in excess of $120 million and 50 new employees.
“We’re growing in all of our Midwest markets and all throughout the United States,” Cicchinelli says. “We were also very fortunate that we started doing some international growth last year. We are really beefing up our infrastructure to continue our growth trajectory for 2011 into 2012.”
While the organization has been able to grow domestically, Cicchinelli has found international growth offers a few challenges he hasn’t had to face until now.
Here’s how Cicchinelli keeps his company on a rising growth curve.
Consider each decision carefully
It’s no secret that every company wants to see growth. However, not every company is fully prepared to take on the challenges that growth brings with it.
“Making new decisions for the company and what the right decisions are for the company and the growth aren’t always easy,” Cicchinelli says. “You have to be upfront with everybody. You have to be as honest as you can. As long as you are upfront, honest and have an open dialogue it will get you far.”
If growth is something you’re looking to achieve, it is imperative that you are ready to take on the challenges.
“You have to look at everything [in the company],” he says. “You have to look at what’s right for the company from a perspective of new product development if you’re looking at it from a manufacturing route. You have to ask yourself questions. How’s it going to affect my end consumer? How’s it going to affect my sales rep out there selling? How does my company internally get behind what we are out there doing? All of those factors are important before you make a decision. You have to also sit down with key individuals in your office and talk it through. It’s not a dictatorship, it’s a democracy. You have to sit and talk about things and how that will affect all aspects of your business.”
Looking over all aspects of your business and making sure your plans will work or at least have a good shot at working is a big time commitment.
“Time is definitely a challenge,” Cicchinelli says. “You’re constantly working in the business from 9 to 5 and working on the business after that. I’m working on the day-to-day pieces, making sure that the core competencies of our business are done during those hours and from 5 o’clock until maybe midnight we are working on new development and making sure we have all those pieces covered.”
Because growth takes so much time and effort, it is important for not only yourself but for your employees to be able to celebrate the successes you see along the way.
“There were points and times where we would just go from one project to the next project to the next project,” he says. “It was like, alright, great job, let’s shelve it. No celebration, no congratulations, it was just move on to that next thing. We run so fast all the time that I want to make sure that the culture of my company is always positive and celebrating victories, even the little things. Personally, I’m trying to make sure that I’m celebrating those internally and I’m celebrating those with our staff. Those are things I had to overcome as a leader and making sure that we did celebrate that stuff.”
Celebrating success may seem obvious, but it is a big factor in your employee’s moods and demeanors. You can’t skip over any victory, large or small.
“Life is really short and the people that are around you are very important,” Cicchinelli says. “You spend more time with them then you do sometimes with your own family as leaders. You want to make sure that you congratulate them and you continue to boost them, because it is the right thing to do for your culture and your company. Celebrate the little successes that you’re going to have along the way because sometimes when you grow, you can grow so fast that you forget about everything that you’ve done and all the things you should be proud of. As a society, sometimes we forget about that and we just go through the motions and we forget about all the things we have to be thankful for in life.”
Expand to foreign markets
Before you can expand to any new market, foreign or domestic, you have to research where you want to expand. You have to take the time to get to know that market and have an understanding of whether your company can compete there.
“You have to do the research to make sure that there is not a lot of competition for the product that you’re selling,” he says. “If you’re selling printers or if you’re selling cars or whatever, you need to do the research either online, in business magazines, newspapers or even people on the ground in that market. You have to use anything you can to help you make the right decision.”
Finding a good reason to break into a market is step one. Once you understand the opportunity in a market, you have to gain an understanding of the culture there.
“Culture has been the most important thing anywhere that I’m traveling,” he says. “We spend a lot of time understanding culture. How do we interact with them? How will they take these products? How do we make sure we don’t offend anybody when we are talking about sexual health or sexual relationships? Culture has been our biggest thing for us to overcome.”
To understand how the culture of a new market works, you have to take time to visit and gain firsthand experience.
“You have to absorb as much as you possibly can,” Cicchinelli says. “Spend as much time as you possibly can in those markets. That’s one of the things that I’ve been able to do is I’ve been able to spend a lot of time and really get to know the people better. You have to take the time to build a relationship and better understand each other.”
Build relationships with people in your organization that want to help your company grow. Also, find people who live in those markets who can help you. That can make a huge difference in your company’s success.
“You have to find some people you trust,” Cicchinelli says. “Find some people in your organization that have got your back and don’t mind putting the extra hours in. You also have to make sure you find somebody that wants to grow up in the company.
“Find somebody that is either an expert in those locations or is someone on the ground in those locations. We have a person who’s on the ground in South Africa and I have a person who’s on the ground in Australia who is really helping guide us through.”
Don’t underestimate the importance of having someone with knowledge of the market and your industry.
“You’ve got to meet with the people that know your industry the best or know what type of industry you’re in to help make some of these decisions with you,” he says. “You have to make sure that you’ve got someone who has experience with whatever your product category or whatever your product line is to direct you where to open up and what the best way to communicate with the people of that country is. Once you have that then you’re putting your plan together and you’re implementing.”
Reaching the implementation stage is a big accomplishment and once you’re there, you have to keep pushing forward without hesitation.
“Once you make a decision, go fully committed,” he says. “You can’t go into these places, especially in the foreign markets, and be 99 percent in. You have to be 110 percent in.”
Fill your company with strong people
Pure Romance’s growth hasn’t just been about finding the right markets to break in to. The company has more than 100 very strong employees that understand the business and help keep it moving forward.
“As you continue to grow, make sure that you have the right team around you and the right people around you,” Cicchinelli says. “Make sure that you’re not just throwing people into position as life rafts so you can actually get your nose above water. You want to make sure that you’re interviewing your people and making sure that you know who you have in your organization.”
Finding the right people involves making sure they have the skills and the attitude to fit within your company.
“You need to think about using things like Myers-Briggs or some sort of analysis when it comes to not only looking at someone’s skills and talents but also whether they are going to fit into your culture,” he says. “If your culture is fast-paced and these people aren’t going to survive in a fast-paced market you have to know that before you hire them.”
Pure Romance is also a believer in promoting from within. The company gives employees every opportunity to learn different areas of the business so they can be better prepared to move up the corporate ladder.
“Most people that have been promoted from within have shown … understanding that their job is to help others and to lift not just themselves but to lift others up,” he says. “The ones that have moved up have worked in multiple positions within the company. So they not only know accounting but they know operations. Those are the ones that have been very successful in the company because they know all aspects. They don’t know just their job, they know what their job is and how their job can affect other departments.”
Allowing employees to gain knowledge of other areas of the company will help encourage company interest and make for stronger employees.
“You’ve got to first tell people that you’re promoting from within,” Cicchinelli says. “I think some companies sometimes don’t think that they have the talent inside and they try to hire out. I’m a firm believer that cultivating a strong culture means that you have to promote from within. You have to make sure people know that there are opportunities inside the organization for them to continue to grow. Sometimes it’s good that those things come from the CEO and not just the HR person.”
You have to present these opportunities for your employees and ask if they are interested in other areas of the company.
“I think it’s asking your employees and asking if they’d like to learn other areas,” he says. “The more jobs that they understand or know in your office the better off you will be in the long run. Empowering employees gives them the ability to have as much love for the company as you do. They will be able to cross-train the different people in the different departments, they’ll be able to have a better understanding of the flow of the business and at the end of the day they will be able to educate your consumers or your sales force so you can increase your revenues and be more efficient. And they may see things that you as the CEO or business owner may not see.”
HOW TO REACH: Pure Romance, (866) 766-2623 or www.pureromance.com
The Cicchinelli File
Born: Naperville, Ill.
Education: Attended Mount Union College
You played football in college. What position did you play and what did you take away from that experience?
I played defensive back and it taught me how to be a team player and how each person’s role is very important to the success of the whole team. We won two Division III national titles there — ’96 and ’97.
Who are some people you admire most in business?
My mother, Patty Brisben. She’s a true entrepreneur, and one of those people that started something most people saw as taboo, and she’s been very passionate and laser-focused on what she is going to do. Another person would be Steve Jobs. I like the way he approaches things. He is very innovative and has put some good people around him. A.G. Lafley would be another. He was a Cincinnati guy and what he did for Procter & Gamble was amazing. I would want to figure out how he did what he did.
If you could do something dangerous one time without consequence, what would you do?
I would travel to the moon. I would do it just to say I’ve done it, but the other reason is to see how pretty Earth is from up there.
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HOW TO REACH: Groupon, (312) 662-7657 or www.groupon.com