Laura Shapira Karet often finds herself setting unrealistic goals for her company. At Giant Eagle Inc., Karet is one of the driving forces in the company’s constant innovation and evolution.
Karet encourages all employees to think beyond what is just achievable. The culture she sets as the senior executive vice president and chief strategy officer of Giant Eagle stresses the idea of continuous reinvention by examining what could be possible and then figuring out how to achieve it. With this mindset, she has inspired and led the 33,000 employees of the Giant Eagle family to realize tremendous results.
Karet serves as a visible ambassador of the company’s business model, which focuses on achieving operational excellence, using innovation for growth and always showing respect for people. She lives the tenets of the Giant Eagle culture every day in order to lead from the top down and spread these ideals throughout the organization, maintaining an entrepreneurial spirit and culture of camaraderie that helped grow the company to become one of the biggest players in its industry.
One of the greatest leadership challenges Karet has faced is selecting which growth opportunities Giant Eagle will invest in and when, especially when dealing with limited resources. However, her foresight and ability to identify the most advantageous risks for Giant Eagle is one of the key reasons the company has driven incredible customer loyalty and differentiated itself as a multiformat retailer. In the past decade, she’s been vital in spearheading Giant Eagle’s long-term strategic plan and helping the company achieve significant expansion by taking strategic risks to reinvent its offerings. With ideas such as the Fuelperks and Foodperks discount redemption programs, gift card rewards and others, her continuing vision for what could be keeps the 80-year-old company evolving and growing.
How to reach: Giant Eagle Inc., (412) 963-6200 or www.gianteagle.com
The halls and rooms that comprise Turner Enterprises Inc. are more than simply office space for the entity that runs famed businessman Ted Turner’s operations. They’re partially a tribute to Turner, chairman of the organization, featuring photos and awards depicting his success, but they’re also part museum, with memorabilia and paintings decorating conference rooms and foyers that show his passions ranging from the Civil War to sailing.
Enter Turner’s assistant’s office and you’ll see more than 100 magazine covers featuring Turner from over the years adorning the walls. And from there, enter Turner’s own office — dim, as the lights are off to conserve energy — and you can’t help but notice the wall full of honorary degrees behind his desk and further evidence of his achievements and interests.
It’s all a legacy of a life of entrepreneurship and innovation by the man who pioneered 24-hour news by founding CNN and has been involved in many different business ventures over the years, including starting the Ted’s Montana Grill restaurant chain. Beyond his business achievements, he’s won 180 sailing trophies and is one the largest individual landowners in the United States with approximately 2 million acres of personal and ranch land. He’s also passionate about furthering clean-energy initiatives, and he gave a $1 billion gift to the United Nations through the United Nations Foundation, which he created to support goals and objectives of the U.N.
Turner’s accomplishments could take up pages, but constrained by word counts, simply put: Ted Turner is a legend most business owners would do just about anything to sit down and talk to, but when it comes down to it, he can summarize his success in just a few main keys.
“One common thread is hard work, and another is careful consideration and thinking through what it was that I wanted to do and going through the mental exercises of what could go wrong and being prepared for that as much as possible,” Turner says. “You can’t predict completely what’s going to happen, but you can have a plan and think it through as carefully as you can, and then once you make the decision, after very careful thought — or this is the way I did it — when I did decide to move forward, then move forward with great speed.”
Think through an idea
When Turner first thought about the concept of 24-hour news, like most great ideas, it was because he had a problem.
“I wouldn’t have done it if I wasn’t convinced I was right, and the reason was I never got to see television news because I got home after 7 o’clock when the news went off at 7,” Turner says.
He also went to bed before 11 o’clock when the news came back on, so he had to read the newspaper to keep up with current events. Twenty-four-hour radio was already successful, so he thought if 24-hour radio news could work, why couldn’t 24-hour television news?
“People came home, and it was 8 o’clock at night, and they already missed the early news, and it was three hours away from the late news, so why wouldn’t it be something some people would want to watch?” Turner says. “Maybe a lot of people would want to watch sit-coms and the talk shows, but there probably would be some people who would like to see the news and not waste their time with entertainment.”
But, like many often do, he didn’t initially do anything about it.
“The easiest thing is to do nothing, and then you’ll never get in trouble — and you’ll never get anywhere either, but doing nothing is an option, and that’s an option that most people avail themselves of in life,” Turner says. “They do as little as they can, and they don’t realize what they could have done because they didn’t do anything. That’s most people. It’s just too hard, and it is hard. It’s extremely hard, and you’ve got to be — there’s an old expression I heard somewhere — smarter than a tree full of owls to do anything like create a Microsoft or a Google or a CNN.”
He says you have to be like Yogi Bear — smarter than your average bear — and that’s exactly how Turner was as he thought through this seemingly crazy idea of 24-hour news.
“At the beginning, when I first thought that, I never thought that it would be me that did it, because I didn’t have two nickels to rub together, and I knew it was going to cost a fortune to do,” he says. “So for the first three years, I sat there and watched and nothing happened. I figured CBS or NBC or ABC would do it, or all three of them at the same time, but they didn’t. They made the choice to fight cable rather than embrace it and try to keep things the way they were with three channels.”
Create a distinctive plan
When Turner realized he would have to be the one to start 24-hour news, he made sure to think through what it would take and the possible problems.
“Let’s face it: 90 percent of all new businesses fail, so the odds are way against you to start, but that’s how you really break through,” Turner says. “You have to come through.
To really break through, you have to come up with some kind of plan that’s a little bit distinctive and hopefully a little bit different than what your competitors are doing — if there are competitors. Usually there are.”
He’s seen both — when he started Ted’s Montana Grill, there were tens of thousands of other restaurants he would be competing against but very little barriers to entry. On the other hand, with CNN, the barriers to entry for delivering 24-hour news were huge.
“They were costly, and there were limited satellite distribution capabilities at that time, and there was not very much distribution — certainly not enough,” Turner says. “There was no way CNN could be profitable with cable penetration at 14 percent, which is approximately what it was when we started.”
Instead, he recognized that it needed to be at 50 percent.
“In order to get my television channels in to people’s homes, we had to get the rest of the people in America to subscribe to cable, and cable wasn’t even in front of over half the homes,” he says.
Recognizing what he thought was the threshold for success was an important part of creating that plan.
“You make your own metrics for what success is,” Turner says. “You set up criteria and write down what you think would make you feel successful. Each person would do it differently. What success is for one person wouldn’t be success to another. If one guy said, ‘If I made $1 million, I’d be a success,’ but to another, ‘I wouldn’t be a success unless I made $1 billion.’ They’d be off by a factor of 1,000 to one.”
Sometimes you may start in with your idea and then realize you’re not going to make it unless you reach certain thresholds.
“To grow a business successfully, you have to have a successful business or have an idea of how to make the business successful if you grow it a little bit more,” Turner says. “Some businesses are a little too small and would have to reach a certain tipping point of size to where they tip in the right direction.”
When it comes down to it, you may simply not know what it will take to be successful.
“You just have to estimate it,” he says.
Turner says that comes down to judgment and using your mind.
“It’s pretty tricky, but some people know how to do it,” he says.
Turner says it’s important to stretch your mind and its capacity as much as possible.
“It helps to be born with it, I guess, because basic intelligence is inherited,” he says. “It’s an inherited trait as much as anything else, but you can develop it. Your mind is, to a large degree, a muscle like the other muscles in your body, and the more you use it, the sharper it gets, just like your body. You can take a skinny little kid and turn him into a marathon runner if they’ll train hard enough and are motivated to train hard enough, and basically my success in business and in life, it was due, to large part, I just wanted to do it and wasn’t afraid.”
When he made the decision to go forward with 24-hour news, he didn’t lollygag.
“I moved as quickly as I could, for instance, to get CNN on the air because I wanted to pre-empt CBS, NBC and ABC because once we announced that we were going to do it, it was going to make them think about it and revisit it more, and all three of them had everything they needed to start.
“They already had bureaus. They had news organizations. They had news anchors that were underutilized — they were doing two hours of news a day, and they were spending $200 million a year to do two hours of news a day, and I was going to do 24 hours of news for about $30 million.”
He planned to get CNN on the air within 10 months because he anticipated it would actually take longer, and he wanted it on in 11. Along the planning road, most things went according to plan, but he did have his share of anxieties. While he thought through most of the worst-case scenarios, he was completely caught off guard, for instance, when their satellite disappeared and they lost their satellite signal less than four months before CNN was set to air.
“It never occurred to me because I wasn’t in the satellite business — what do you mean the satellite disappeared?” Turner says. “That was my reaction. Well, that’s what it did. They never found it. It just blew up, and it’s out there floating around in space. There was a TV series called ‘Lost in Space’ and our satellite was lost in space.”
Luckily, there was a clause in the contract that anticipated this possibility, so they were able to negotiate a deal to gain access to another satellite in time for the launch. CNN launched in 11 months — as Turner had anticipated with his one-month, built-in cushion.
While he moves full-speed ahead in business, he recognizes sometimes it doesn’t work.
“We went full blast with the AOL merger right into disaster, just like the Germans when they invaded Russia,” Turner says. “They were going fast, but they were headed straight for catastrophe — they were headed for Stalingrad. So going fast can be reckless and very foolish, but you’ve got to be sure you’re right, then go ahead. But that’s not easy to do always. It’s not always easy. Not everybody can see the future with accuracy, and there are the things that happen along the way that sometimes aren’t anticipated, no matter how good you’ve done, and then you’re in real trouble.”
He says there are all kinds of ways to get into trouble in both business and life, and sometimes you won’t know right away.
“A lot of times you have to wait and see, and only history will tell if you’re right or wrong,” he says.
While Turner may have made some mistakes along the way and had his share of challenges, he’s had more success than anything, and he says it comes back to those main keys.
He says, “Those are the main things that in starting a voyage or a venture, those three things would be very carefully think through what you’re going to do, then what could go wrong — take a look at what could go wrong and anticipate that in advance and be prepared — and the third thing is when you do decide to go forward, move rapidly.”
How to reach: Turner Enterprises Inc., www.tedturner.com
On a mission
If you look in the parking lot at Turner Enterprises Inc., you’ll see solar panels, which Ted Turner installed as an energy source.
“Anyone can do that, and the technology already exists, and it works,” Turner says. “This building is going to be powered by those solar panels.”
Turner is passionate about environmental causes and encourages other business leaders to follow suit.
“They can put solar panels on a fence post — electrify your fence and keep out people that you don’t want to come in. Keep your cattle in or your bison for that matter,” he says. “We use solar electric power fences on a ranch. If you have a house, you can have a solar hot water heater.”
If you’re not quite sure if solar power is the way to go for your business, Turner suggests at least seeking outside help to identify ways for your business to make a difference.
“Hire an environmental consultant to come up with recommendations specific to your company and business for how you can cut down your carbon footprint and use less energy,” Turner says.
Beyond the big things, he points out there’s also myriad small things you can do. For example, when you walk into Turner’s office, it’s dim. He keeps the lights off to save energy and only turns them on when he needs them. Additionally, he uses low wattage bulbs. He also suggests looking around you for the obvious.“As you walk down the street, if you see piece of trash, you can bend over, pick it up and carry it to the next closest wastebasket,” he says. “Making the world a better place is as easy as picking up a piece of paper.”
The old cliché says steering a large organization is like steering a ship. But steering an ocean liner on the open water might actually be a simpler task than what Laurence Merlis needs to accomplish.
As the president and CEO of Abington Health, Merlis is charged with steering a medical system comprised of 6,000 employees spread across two hospitals, two major outpatient campuses and 57 physician sites.
Merlis has to promote and enforce a uniform set of standards and values for everyone, regardless of where they work in the Abington system. To do it, he needs a vision, and he needs the vision to be clearly defined and communicated to managers and employees who understand their role and how it helps the system accomplish its overarching goals.
“Everybody has a part to play, leaning forward and recognizing day in and day out that we can move toward our vision if we’re clearly aligned,” Merlis says. “We need to recognize that there is a connection between the parts people play in their daily tasks and the work we do to ensure the very best outcome for patient safety and service, while at the same time ensuring that we are efficient and effective.”
Merlis wants everyone at Abington to visualize what the medical system can be when it realizes its full potential. In the highly competitive Philadelphia market, in which patients have numerous options when seeking medical care, Merlis wants Abington to be the go-to system for area residents, known for high standards regarding service, technology and safety.
Visualizing that outcome starts with Merlis, and must cascade down from there. That’s where a great deal of the work occurs. Merlis realizes that he needs to be a visionary, but even more than that, he needs to be a unifier.
“You do need to be able to visualize the concept of what you can be as an organization,” he says. “You start really thinking about tomorrow and how has to be inspiring for everyone. But it has to be understandable, we have to stretch for it, and we have to make sure that the messages are crisp and simple and something that becomes compelling in terms of what our purpose is and how we can rally support to achieve that vision.”
Start with leadership
Two of the most critical things a leader can do when formulating and promoting a vision is to listen and measure. It’s something that Merlis has made a top priority at Abington. He wants his leadership team to get input on the future direction of the organization from all involved stakeholders — the board of directors, physicians, medical staff, office staff and support staff. Then, once the vision and strategy are formed, he manages by what he can measure and communicates that data back to employees to facilitate an ongoing dialogue.
“You need to make sure that you can measure and manage work, and that you are not setting strategy or policy by anecdote, but that you are setting it by fact,” Merlis says. “You need to be sure that you are measuring yourself by what you said you would do.”
When a strategic initiative is set, Merlis and his leadership team keep tabs on metrics within that initiative, and disclose the results to the employee population. He wants to keep the entire work force engaged in the process and also empower employees to hold management accountable for their leadership decisions.
“We have metrics within each of our major strategic intents,” he says. “We share that in an effort to stay as transparent as possible. Since one of our core values here is patient safety, we’re very public with where we are day to day against what we call ‘serious safety events,’ because that is a critical metric for us. We have other patient safety initiatives around the effort to reduce infections. It might be something as simple as the number of our staff who received a flu vaccine.”
Merlis wants the staff involved in measuring progress against the vision because they are the people at ground level each day. They have a front and center seat for what is going on in the facility corridors, and can offer real-time advice on improvements that can be made.
“Our philosophy here is the staff are experts in how to get things done,” Merlis says. “We look to them for advice and recommendations on how to make things better when it comes to making ourselves a place for patients to receive care. We need to constantly look at all of our processes, work on them and continually find ways to make them work better. It all gets back to execution. You need to get the results needed to achieve your vision. You can’t confuse effort with results.”
Stay on message
Rolling out a vision is great. Receiving input from your staff on the vision is even better. But what about after the initial push is over? You need to keep the momentum going and keep your people interested in continuing to achieve the goals you originally set.
At Abington, Merlis has learned that keeping a vision fresh within a large organization takes a combination of front-and-center communication and subtle reminders in the day-to-day details.
The details can be as small as a pocket-sized card.
“We have what we call an ‘E3’ card, which stands for ‘engaging every employee,’” Merlis says. “Every employee has a card, and on that card are the three things they can do to help us move our mission and vision forward.”
The more direct reinforcement comes in the form of, among other things, patient feedback. Like many health systems, Abington uses the stories of successful patient treatment to inspire, and any negative patient feedback is analyzed for ways to improve policies and processes.
Regardless of who is receiving the message, Merlis and his leadership team don’t do a great deal of tailoring the message to a given audience. Whether the message is meant for physicians, nurses or food prep staff in the kitchen, everyone receives it in similar fashion. Though some large organizations believe in crafting the message to meet the needs of a certain audience, Merlis says it’s more important to keep everyone on the same page and eliminate any chance of a message getting muddled or completely lost in translation.
“We don’t shape the message,” he says. “We share with everybody what the issue is, what the strategy is, what the goals are moving forward. We want to make sure that we clearly articulate the behaviors we want, the behaviors we need to exhibit, so that it can resonate with every single person and show them the part they do have within the system. The size of our organization, with 6,000 people and multiple facilities, is why we need consistency. It creates different challenges in terms of making people feel connected.”
Build your team
With a well-defined vision comes the need to continually look for people who can help promote the vision at all levels of the organization. At Abington, much of the interview process for many positions focuses on whether a job candidate has the competencies needed to support the system’s mission and goals.
Merlis calls it “behavioral-based interviewing.” He says the essential skills needed for a job are going to be present on a resume, or they aren’t. The technical requirements are a mere means to getting in the door for an interview. Once in the door, it’s up to Merlis and his team, as well as the interviewee, to figure out whether there is a cultural match.
“What we’re looking for are people whose behaviors will exhibit and support our values,” Merlis says. “To get to that stage, we’re already looking for people who have the right skills and competencies. The skills are the hurdle to get into the interview. The knowledge and the background, their experience, those are all things you can pick up in their CV and references. But you really want to be interviewing for the level past that. You want to know if they can be the right fit based on those leadership competencies and behaviors, what you know you need to have in order for a person in that position to be successful.”
The way to drill down and find the best possible match is to ask specific questions in the interview process. Merlis says you want examples of ways in which the job candidate has exhibited the cultural qualities you want in an employee.
“You’re asking specific questions to elicit examples of where their behavior and prior experiences support the values that you think you need for this particular position in the organization,” he says. “It’s a given set of competencies for each position. But you’re always looking for people who can manage a vision and a purpose, people who manage ethically in terms of honesty and integrity, people who manage by engaging their staff. You want people who have great interpersonal skills and are focused on results.”
And once you’ve found the right match for the position, you need to let the person do his or her job. As long as the employee is doing it well, you should be able to trust that he or she is on the same page with regard to the vision, will live it and help promote it.
“When I got here back in 2009, we already had a team that was excellent,” Merlis says. “If you have that, you want to give people the freedom to do their jobs. You want somebody who recognizes that they’re going to be a part of a team. We define success as the success of the team. And you want people to be self-aware so they learn.”
Ultimately, you are defining the roles and the rules of engagement. Beyond that, you want to see your best and brightest show their stuff, which means letting them do their jobs and promote the vision, mission and values in a way that plays to their strengths.
“Everyone has to be committed to the goals of the team,” Merlis says. “You have to have the right mix of skills, and you really have to have a sense of holding each other responsible. We want the team to understand, based on the project or issue, who is responsible, who is accountable and who they need to contact for support.
“Another big key is continuing to create a safe environment, meaning an environment where people feel safe to raise issues and follow up. You’re going to need to have crucial conversations or confrontations at some point, but you promote the culture by doing that in a positive and respectful way. You want your people to be able to handle conflict yet move on, a team that has a sense of spirit and can support each other.”
How to reach: Abington Health, (215) 481-2000 or www.amh.org
The Merlis file
Born: Bay Shore, N.Y.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in biology and psychology, Union College, Schenectady, N.Y.; MBA, George Washington University
First job: I taught waterskiing for a summer after my freshman year in college.
What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?
What is critical for anyone to be successful is to not act outside yourself. Be true to who you are. Be genuine and sincere.
What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?
First and foremost, ethical behavior. You absolutely must lead with honesty and integrity. You need to be approachable. You need to be willing to lead and make difficult decisions and be self-aware of what you can do better. Just constantly look to improve.
What is your definition of success?
Success could be defined as making sure you make a positive difference in the lives of others, while achieving goals to bring the organization closer to its vision. You want people to be moving forward with you and, ultimately, leave the organization in a better position than when you first arrived.
When Mike Jackson was 10 years old, he made his first entrepreneurial endeavor by cleaning horse stalls for $1 each, and he learned how to appreciate hard work.
He also learned as a child how to persevere. When he was 14 years old, he signed up for and paid for a Boy Scout summer camp program in New Mexico on his own, but he was small for his age. So when he showed up to board the bus with the other scouts, the leader insisted he stay behind, but he wouldn’t back down. He went on to the camp, withstood ridicule from other scouts and persevered against bears and rattlesnakes. He learned that adversity was his friend, and at the end of camp, he was named the one outstanding camp scout out of several thousand attendees.
After college, while on his way to law school, his old Mercedes broke down. He couldn’t afford to have it fixed, so he offered the dealership his time in exchange for repairs. He did odd jobs, and when they asked him to stay on as an apprentice mechanic, he delayed the start of law school and took the job.
He went on to join Mercedes Benz as a master technician, and in 1979, at age 29, he purchased the dealership where he had worked as an apprentice. The dealership grew substantially, and Mercedes approached him to run its failing North American business, which he accepted because adversity was, indeed, his friend.
He made the company the strong business it is today. The turnaround caught the eye of entrepreneurial legend Wayne Huizenga, who was the chairman of AutoNation Inc., which was a young auto retailing startup at the time. He had rapidly built it and was looking for someone to lead the company from growth through acquisition to growth via sales. Jackson accepted, and he’s grown the organization significantly, and today, he serves as chairman and CEO.
How to reach: AutoNation Inc., (954) 769-7000 or www.autonation.com