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At his company’s national convention last year, founder and CEO Ed Kaloust was unsure of how to handle the announcement for Medi-Weightloss Clinics’ employee of the year. The problem wasn’t identifying a worthy candidate, but narrowing the success stories down to just one person.

“We just had three spectacular employees,” says Kaloust, who has grown the weight loss company from start-up to $16.5 million in revenue in 2011.

So he decided to announce three winners.

In today’s economic environment, having too many good people is hardly a problem a CEO is worried about. In fact, Kaloust says having the right people in the organization to grow its unique business model — a medically supervised and managed weight-loss program where physicians help clients lose weight through a combination of medication and diet – is why the Tampa-based business was one of Inc.’s fastest growing privately held companies in 2011.

“One thing that I believe in is what I call my ‘PLU’ method,” Kaloust says. “I believe that we need People Like Us. So we are very, very selective in the people that we choose to do this. By doing that, we can then be very supportive in helping them develop their program.”

From the time he started the company, Kaloust has been resolute in sticking to his PLU philosophy, carefully evaluating any business partner before he brings them into the enterprise, even if it means growing more slowly.

“People are really having a tough time out there,” Kaloust says. “I believe that it’s critical to keep that in front of us and to understand that growing through quality PLUs, people like us, is much better than trying to build 15 or 20 of these a month.”

Through deliberate organic growth, Kaloust has expanded the company from its initial three employees to 55 employees and 90 franchisees today. But in addition to having a company built with PLUs, he says, a leader needs to be able to support them effectively.

“My focus has changed from building the infrastructure to leading the infrastructure,” Kaloust says.

You need to let your people know that you are available to help them achieve their goals today, tomorrow and in the future, by “over-servicing” them. For example, Kaloust assigns a franchise field consultant to every 12 to 14 franchisees to help handle all of the marketing and compliance issues at each location so that they don’t need to worry about it.

“You need to do everything you can to protect the people who are investing in your program,” Kaloust says.

“That is one of the keys to not only growth, but it’s very key right now. Every time we turn around there is a new problem out there. So you’ve got to be there in front of them and keep reminding them, and you’ve got to be there to support them.”

It’s also important for leaders to demonstrate confidence and stability that people can look to and be inspired by.

“We have to protect the system and protect the clinics that aren’t doing well,” he says. … “We do whatever we can to help them get though the economy right now.”

Kaloust shows this by letting his people know that there is no problem too small for his involvement and no interference if an employee or franchisee calls him or comes to him with an issue.

“I’m not afraid to reach down to the smallest issue that we have in the company,” he says. “If I can help, I want to do that.”

In addition to having formal support systems in place for employees, an open-door policy lets them know you care about their wellbeing.

“I just make the time,” he says. “It doesn’t always happen and I don’t have that now as much as I used to because we have built such a strong company, but I would get involved.”

With the right team and support in place, Kaloust says, success is just a matter of letting people do what they do best.

“I believe that adage that you can take away everything I have and give me back the people, and I’ll do it again,” he says.

How to reach: Medi-Weightloss Clinics, www.mediweightlossclinics.com or (877) 633-5677

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Ed Kaloust spent 43 years in the securities and investments industry before founding Medi-Weightloss Clinics in 2004. He had never planned on being in the weight-loss business. In fact, he was set on retirement, soon to be heading off in a custom-built sailboat to fulfill his dreams of blue water sailing. But then he got hit with a market opportunity that he couldn’t say no to.

“I felt that we were in the perfect storm, because we had a country that had an overweight issue and had 70 percent of its population dealing with it,” says Kaloust, CEO of the company.

In addition to making sure you have a clear problem, a differentiating solution and the right people to execute it, Kaloust says having a partner can be a key factor in how well you capitalize on a new market opportunity.

In addition to being an asset through complementary talents, partnerships can be a mirror to help you reflect on and guide decisions about a company’s direction.

“It’s a lonely office when you are a CEO or a president,” Kaloust says. “Everybody is looking at you, and where do you look?”

By partnering with James Edlund, now president of the company, Kaloust was able to balance his financial background with Edlund’s pharmaceutical experience to grow Medi-Weightloss nationwide.

“There are a lot of people who say that partnerships don’t work,” Kaloust says. “That’s not true. Some partners don’t work, but other partners will help you go on to do bigger and better things than you can do on your own.”

How to reach: Medi-Weightloss Clinics, www.mediweightlossclinics.com or (877) 633-5677

Published in Florida

Rick L. Hull liked the world of a small community bank, where he had lots of individual loan authority and was able to interact with clients. The problem was he was the CEO of a large regional bank and just wasn’t happy in what was not a kinder, gentler world.

So he hooked up with a private equity firm and struck a deal to acquire a woe-begotten bank so he could breathe new life into it. And after 18 months, regulators declared the bank safe and sound (although Hull had hoped for about a 12-month time span).

“I really just had to follow my own advice,” says Hull, president and CEO of Premier Bank & Trust, formerly Ohio Legacy Bank. “I had spent my entire career telling everybody who worked for me that life is too short to be unhappy. If you find you wake up in the morning and you really don’t want to go to work, do something different.”

Hull knew change had to start with changing people if the bank were to thrive.

“There was a real stagnancy about the place but there were folks who really wanted to do something,” he says. “I think some of them simply just did not want to get re-energized. So you have to go and take care of that quickly.”

Once Hull excised the deadwood, he knew he had to assure those who were left that stability would return as guided by new management.

“I think you have to be quick to make change; it will resonate with others in the organization ? ‘OK, there was a willingness to make the tough decisions and do those for the benefit of the organization.’”

If you have a basic philosophy such as Hull’s ? life is too short for you to be miserable ? this was the time to explain it.

“I should have written the book, ‘The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t,’” he says. “Robert Sutton wrote it, and it exposits the theory that I have always had ? if someone is making you miserable, you don’t want to be party to that.

“We really invoked that and made some changes quickly. I’m a big believer that you need to make those changes fast. You have to be willing to hemorrhage for a short period of time as opposed to a slow bleed-to-death. You want to get everybody back to that feeling, ‘OK, there is some certainty. I wasn’t one who was released. I am part of this team.’”

Once Hull formed his team, it was time to get out the playbook and make sure everyone was on the same page.

“You need to meet everyone in the organization,” he says. “Take a humanistic type of approach ? you want them to be happy. If they do not think this is the place for them, then please, they should look someplace else.”

An important part of the plan is your expectations for the employees during a specified time frame, for instance, 90 days.

“Track that about every 30 days, giving a kind of periodic update,” Hull says. “Here’s where we are relative to this point ? staffing issues, things relative to systems, processes, procedures, all those types of things.”

If you want your vision to resonate with the staff, even though you come from a larger institution, stress the familial aspects.

“You want to define both internally and externally who you are and what you are looking to do,” he says. “Take the time to make certain there is really a family feel to it.

“If folks respect you as a leader, they’ll certainly do a lot of things for you,” Hull says. “If they really care about you and know that you care about them, I think they really will want to succeed. They have a sense of pride themselves. They also want to make you proud.”

How to reach: Premier Bank & Trust, (330) 499-1900 or www.mypremierbankandtrust.com

Committing to a sales culture

When Rick L. Hull was resuscitating the former Ohio Legacy Bank, he noticed it was missing something quite important.

“This little bank did not have any type of sales culture,” says Hull, president and CEO of the bank now known as Premier Bank & Trust. “They had never made a proactive sales call, ever.”

To develop a sales culture, you have to target with whom you want to do business ? small business owners, doctors, lawyers, accountants ? the ones who may have not been getting great service from one of the bigger players.

Next, your assignment is to institute strict guidelines for the sales department.

“I want you to make three outbound calls per day, and I want to know who you are going to talk to, what you are going to talk to them about,” Hull says. “I’m going to ask for your commitment, then somebody’s actually going to follow up at the end of the day to see if you did that. It’s a responsibility. If I ask you to do something and value your time enough that I’m actually going to follow up with it, you will feel a sense of ownership in it.”

Finally, make certain that everybody commits himself or herself to the process.

“Evoking a sales culture here was really embraced by some; it wasn’t embraced by others,” Hull says. “The ones who didn’t embrace it are no longer here.”

How to reach: Premier Bank & Trust, (330) 499-1900 or www.mypremierbankandtrust.com

Published in Akron/Canton

Last May, John Sensiba was elected to his second term as managing partner at Sensiba San Filippo LLP, a CPA firm with approximately 100 employees. Having been in the role for a little more than three years now, Sensiba has come a long way since he first transitioned from the practice side of the business to take the top spot.

“It has been a dramatic change,” he says.

One of the first lessons Sensiba learned was that he needed to be more confident in the strategic decisions he made and recommended to the firm. It was tempting to be overly participative in decision-making, but by taking a more laissez faire approach in everyday decisions about activities and investments, he realized he was freed to focus more on setting policy and strategy.

“In a professional services firm, the more that you involve the partners in those decisions, usually the better, because they are a bunch of smart people,” he says. “But sometimes you can do it to the point of distraction. Then you might wonder, ‘Why do you have a managing partner if the decisions are all made by a group?’”

While a leader should be able to make some decisions without too much input, Sensiba says you need a way to gain honest feedback on your choices. That becomes increasingly difficult the higher you get in an organization.

“Regardless of the fact that you know folks and you feel like you are approachable, you get different and filtered feedback when you are in the top position in an organization,” Sensiba says.

He now frequently looks outside of the organization to get critical feedback about his leadership and the business from other leaders.

“I learn a lot just talking to people who have been in different roles not within the profession but just in a variety of different businesses or nonprofit enterprises,” he says.

“It may not be the kind of praise that most of us would like to hear all of the time, but it can be really productive to hear things from somebody, and you change your behavior.”

That communication goes both ways. Sensiba found out the hard way that as a leader there is no such thing as overcommunication.

When he first took over as managing partner, he would very carefully craft communications and messages to the firm and for meetings only to have people approach him later on and be frustrated that they hadn’t received the information.

“I thought, ‘Ugh, can I go back to your e-mail for you and show you where I sent it to you?’” Sensiba says. “You get that frustration and sometimes that would come through in my communication.”

Sensiba knew it was damaging for the culture to show frustration with his people, but he admits it was a good lesson to learn early on. He shared his irritation with one of the other managing partners about how his efforts to communicate seemed to be futile.

“He said, ‘If for some reason they didn’t hear it, it’s still your fault,’” Sensiba says. “‘If you said it 10 times, maybe you need to say it 11, but the market is never wrong. Your people are never wrong.”

If people are not getting the message, you can’t blame them. As a leader you need to look at the way you are communicating and do something differently.

“You just cannot put the message out there enough,” Sensiba says.

That goes for communicating day-to-day info and strategy, but also communicating the everyday vision to inspire future leaders of your business. That has been the key to maintaining the firm’s 92 percent client-retention rate.

“My role is to continue to build leaders at every level within the firm — to convince people that you lead from the day you start in a business — you are a leader,” he says.

How to reach: Sensiba San Filippo LLP, www.ssfllp.com or (408) 286-7780

Relationship mechanics

For John Sensiba, retaining clients and generating new business at Sensiba San Filippo LLP is a matter of executing a simple and popular principle.

“It goes back to the golden rule,” says Sensiba, the firm’s managing partner. “Treat people the way you’d like to be treated.”

How does this apply to business? Sensiba gives the example of going to a mechanic to work on your car’s transmission, only to find out that it was your fuel injectors that needed work. Even though the mechanic might do an OK job, it’s not that person’s specialty.

“He might say, ‘You know what, it’s your fuel injection and I’ll work on that for you.’” Sensiba says.

“But I would have much more respect for that mechanic if he said, ‘It is your fuel injection and here is my business partner who does nothing but fuel injection, and he is the guy that you need to talk to.’”

While you may lose some business referring customers elsewhere, you earn their trust by showing them that you are looking out for their best interests.

“If you come to me with something that we don’t have the expertise for or we’re not passionate about it, we’ll tell you ‘Call my friend from X, Y and Z firm. They really focus on that. They will do a great job.’” Sensiba says. “Because that is what we would like people to do for us.

“Our growth is built on a very stable client base that tends to stay with us and refer us business. It’s a very good upward spiral when you do good things for people.”

How to reach: Sensiba San Filippo LLP, www.ssfllp.com or (408) 286-7780

Published in Northern California

Rick L. Hull liked the world of a small community bank, where he had lots of individual loan authority and was able to interact with clients. The problem was he was the CEO of a large regional bank and just wasn’t happy in what was not a kinder, gentler world.

So he hooked up with a private equity firm and struck a deal to acquire a woe-begotten bank so he could breathe new life into it. And after 18 months, regulators declared the bank safe and sound (although Hull had hoped for about a 12-month time span).

“I really just had to follow my own advice,” says Hull, president and CEO of Premier Bank & Trust, formerly Ohio Legacy Bank. “I had spent my entire career telling everybody who worked for me that life is too short to be unhappy. If you find you wake up in the morning and you really don’t want to go to work, do something different.”

Hull knew change had to start with changing people if the bank were to thrive.

“There was a real stagnancy about the place but there were folks who really wanted to do something,” he says. “I think some of them simply just did not want to get re-energized. So you have to go and take care of that quickly.”

Once Hull excised the deadwood, he knew he had to assure those who were left that stability would return as guided by new management.

“I think you have to be quick to make change; it will resonate with others in the organization ? ‘OK, there was a willingness to make the tough decisions and do those for the benefit of the organization.’”

If you have a basic philosophy such as Hull’s ? life is too short for you to be miserable ? this was the time to explain it.

“I should have written the book, ‘The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t,’” he says. “Robert Sutton wrote it, and it exposits the theory that I have always had ? if someone is making you miserable, you don’t want to be party to that.

“We really invoked that and made some changes quickly. I’m a big believer that you need to make those changes fast. You have to be willing to hemorrhage for a short period of time as opposed to a slow bleed-to-death. You want to get everybody back to that feeling, ‘OK, there is some certainty. I wasn’t one who was released. I am part of this team.’”

Once Hull formed his team, it was time to get out the playbook and make sure everyone was on the same page.

“You need to meet everyone in the organization,” he says. “Take a humanistic type of approach ? you want them to be happy. If they do not think this is the place for them, then please, they should look someplace else.”

An important part of the plan is your expectations for the employees during a specified time frame, for instance, 90 days.

“Track that about every 30 days, giving a kind of periodic update,” Hull says. “Here’s where we are relative to this point ? staffing issues, things relative to systems, processes, procedures, all those types of things.”

If you want your vision to resonate with the staff, even though you come from a larger institution, stress the familial aspects.

“You want to define both internally and externally who you are and what you are looking to do,” he says. “Take the time to make certain there is really a family feel to it.

“If folks respect you as a leader, they’ll certainly do a lot of things for you,” Hull says. “If they really care about you and know that you care about them, I think they really will want to succeed. They have a sense of pride themselves. They also want to make you proud.”

How to reach: Premier Bank & Trust, (330) 499-1900 or www.mypremierbankandtrust.com

Committing to a sales culture

When Rick L. Hull was resuscitating the former Ohio Legacy Bank, he noticed it was missing something quite important.

“This little bank did not have any type of sales culture,” says Hull, president and CEO of the bank now known as Premier Bank & Trust. “They had never made a proactive sales call, ever.”

To develop a sales culture, you have to target with whom you want to do business ? small business owners, doctors, lawyers, accountants ? the ones who may have not been getting great service from one of the bigger players.

Next, your assignment is to institute strict guidelines for the sales department.

“I want you to make three outbound calls per day, and I want to know who you are going to talk to, what you are going to talk to them about,” Hull says. “I’m going to ask for your commitment, then somebody’s actually going to follow up at the end of the day to see if you did that. It’s a responsibility. If I ask you to do something and value your time enough that I’m actually going to follow up with it, you will feel a sense of ownership in it.”

Finally, make certain that everybody commits himself or herself to the process.

“Evoking a sales culture here was really embraced by some; it wasn’t embraced by others,” Hull says. “The ones who didn’t embrace it are no longer here.”

How to reach: Premier Bank & Trust, (330) 499-1900 or www.mypremierbankandtrust.com

Published in Akron/Canton

Andrew E. Brickman says anything is possible if you’re persistent in pursuing your goals.

He’s proven that with the success of Abode Living’s recent development projects, despite a downturned economy that has particularly devastated the real estate market. Only one town home remains for sale of 27 at the upscale 27 Coltman in Little Italy, while the first phase of million-dollar town homes at Eleven Rivers in Rocky River has sold out.

Already on to a new project, Clifton Pointe in Lakewood, the managing partner and director attributes Abode’s success to innovation and quality fostered by a culture of employee empowerment.

Brickman emphasizes that his staff members are partners — not just employees — in the business. He looks to his nearly 200 current project employees to help him continuously improve the company and serve its customers well.

“If you have an opportunity to interact with people at all levels within the organization and you can see what they’re doing and you know what their position entails, you can work with them to help empower them to do a better job,” Brickman says.

To empower employees, ensure your compensation system directly relates to productivity, as opposed to a standard cost-of-living payment system.

“Rewarding people based on merit and productivity versus a fixed rate of compensation is — if practical — a more effective way to create a type of culture that I think will foster the most favorable results,” Brickman says. “I don’t think the fear of losing their job motivates people.

“I certainly believe in a pride of ownership — that if it’s yours, you’re going to generally take better care of it.”

Give employees more responsibility to further their sense of ownership in the company by allowing them the flexibility to make their own decisions, get creative and take risks.

Brickman’s director of branding and marketing developed a charitable partners program that committed Abode to match donations made by customers, suppliers and contractors. Despite the monetary cost, Brickman says the program has resulted in increased exposure to Abode’s target demographic.

“Creating a sense of significance and importance within the employees’ psyche relative to the overall success of the company creates a sense of confidence,” Brickman says. “It further empowers them, makes them feel more responsible and more a part of the organization’s success.”

Promote open communication so that employees feel comfortable sharing ideas and critiques.

“Foster an environment that leads to more people willing to speak up to try and make changes or try and identify problems sooner rather than later,” Brickman says.

“The people that (CEOs) surround themselves with have to be willing to speak frankly and speak their minds so that if they don’t understand the vision of the CEO, it can be refined and it can be improved upon.”

Brickman’s vision is for his employees is to go above and beyond the Golden Rule to satisfy customers, treating customers better than they would want to be treated in the same situation.

Employees who feel personally invested in the success of the company, and thus their performance on its behalf, will actively embrace this vision of excellent service. This benefits the company, as well as its customers and ancillary support.

“A relationship should be a win-win relationship,” Brickman says. “We should try and be focused on how we can help (customers and suppliers) improve themselves and their business. And that’s kind of the culture I’ve tried to create within the organization, one based on optimism, passion and persistence for always trying to do the best that we can.”

How to reach: Abode Living, www.welcometoabode.com or (216) 721-0027

Listen up

It’s not just about how you can serve your customers; it’s also about how your customers can serve you. Andrew E. Brickman hosts “share its” to get outside input from customers and suppliers before starting a project, ensuring issues are identified and worked out before starting.

“Make these people feel like they’re an important part of the project, that their opinions matter and that we appreciate them taking time out of their busy schedule to weigh in on it,” says Brickman, managing partner and director of Abode Living. “By doing that, you get people who really care, who are sincere and who aren’t just there to say yes to the project.”

Be professional and hospitable by hosting these collaborative meetings at a distinguished venue.

“By hosting it in a fine-dining establishment, we create a certain sense of quality — that we’re committed right down to providing a quality experience for the people who are in attendance,” Brickman says.

Communicate with customers to find out what they value in a product or service to give you an edge over competitors.

“If you don’t have something very special and you can’t relay that to your customers, then you’re going to have a commodity,” Brickman says. “And if it’s a commodity, it’s just a race to the bottom in terms of price.”

Published in Cleveland

On a Saturday in early March 2010, Will Knecht was delivering some product for customers when he got a call on his cell phone, “Will, come back to the forge, it’s on fire.” He hustled back to find his flagship store, corporate offices and work shop of Wendell August Forge up in flames.

Knecht, president of the company, a retailer and manufacturer of handcrafted metalware and giftware that employs 106 people, couldn’t believe what he was seeing. As firefighters went to work, Knecht says he didn’t think the damage was going to be as bad as it ended up being.

“As that was burning, I had a very interesting peace about me that day,” he says. “I wasn’t anxious, I wasn’t stressed; it was what it was, and I really trusted the Lord that he knew what he was doing even though I didn’t.”

As the fire roared on, more Wendell employees came to the site where Knecht led them in a prayer, which ultimately set the tone for rebuilding and moving forward.

“As we broke that circle it was absolutely like the lights had been turned back on, and we were all about what do we do next. What are the next steps? What do we need to do to get back up and going?”

To add pressure to getting back to work and refocused, the company had just landed its biggest order in its history.

“We got an order from the Pittsburgh Penguins … two days before the fire,” Knecht says. “We were able to create 20,000 replica tickets of the last game at the Mellon Arena and we were able to deliver those on time.”

The Penguins order was a game changer for the company and following the fire it helped to keep Wendell August motivated and in business.

“That order took on added significance because it was the rallying point,” Knecht says. “We were going to deliver that and it put everything in focus.”

The first step Knecht had to take was to rally his employees and change their demeanor from wondering what was next to focusing on getting past the fire.

“As you can imagine … there was a lot of fear,” he says. “This fire wasn’t the end of the game. This was the closing of a chapter or the closing of a book on Wendell August and at the same time, that day was the opening and writing of a new book. We conveyed that confidence to each of our employees and said, ‘We’ve got to go about getting it done now and turning this around. This is a temporary setback, but we’re going to be OK.’”

Knecht did everything he could to continually communicate that Wendell August would make it through this hardship.

“Having faith, for me, was the cornerstone, but what that gave me was a sense of purpose and direction and clarity that it was incumbent upon me to communicate,” he says. “My job became the chief communicator inside and outside. I had to provide the stability. They had to see in me a calm and peace, strength, confidence, and they had to see a future focus.

“Bad things are going to happen. It might not be a fire, but a company might lose its biggest account. A company might lose a key employee. The leader’s job is to overcommunicate a sense of calm, a sense of focus and a sense of direction. That’s what we were able to do immediately after that fire. You have to communicate that clearly, directly and consistently. That’s what they needed from me. They didn’t need me to make the product or make a big sale. They needed me to calm and steady the ship.”

Eventually the company got itself back on track, and Knecht had to keep his employees motivated.

“When you go through a cataclysmic event like we did, it’s all about the here and now and getting us through today,” he says. “Then you change gears when you get through an event like that and you have to execute and get back to business basics. You’ve got to stay the course. You need to overcommunicate and you as the leader need to become the bridge to move on to the next phase of life. Put it behind you and change your demeanor, communicate and focus and then begin to throw the vision forward and cast that vision for the employees.”

HOW TO REACH: Wendell August Forge, (800) 923-4438 or www.wendellaugust.com   

Looking forward

Wendell August was opened to exciting opportunities because of the fire and being forced to think in new and different ways.

“There is a realization on all of our parts that we are an almost 90-year-old company, so we’ve got a tremendous foundation, but we’re basically rewriting the book and we have this blank canvas now to paint on,” says Will Knecht, president. “There’s an energy and there’s an excitement about some of the new directions we’re headed.”

The Penguins order put the company into the realm of licensed products, which is today a big focus that the company is moving on significantly as part of the future.

“That Penguins order … and the success that we had with that allows us to talk to some teams in Major League Baseball and the NFL and other NHL teams,” he says. “You have to look outside of yourself and think differently and open your mind. One of the things we did was we weren’t stuck in a ‘This is how we’ve always done it.’ We as a company opened our horizons and we looked at what the possible was. What can we do now that we have this great foundation of a company yet a blank canvas to paint? That’s what I would challenge business folks who go through an event such as this to open their mind to the opportunities sometimes you don’t see when business is going as business as usual.”

Published in Pittsburgh

How far are you willing to go to sell your brand? Dennis Jarrett is willing to go pretty far to get people to do business with Stratus Building Solutions.

“I often think my partner and I are more tenacious than we are talented,” Jarrett says. “We don’t take no for an answer. I don’t mean in an obtrusive way. If one door shuts, we go to another one or we get in through the window, whatever the case may be.”

While he was joking about climbing through the windows of prospective clients, Jarrett says relentlessness is the name of the game when it comes to building awareness of your brand.

“I know it’s difficult, especially when times aren’t going well,” says Jarrett, co-founder and CEO of the commercial cleaning franchise company. “You get frustrated and you think you’re doing everything. But there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. There’s always an opportunity.”

Jarrett is an optimist, but he’s also a realist. If you work hard, you can be successful, but you may be pretty worn out when you finally get there. If you’re not willing to put in that effort, it’s probably not going to happen for you.

“It took us a long time to become newsworthy in St. Louis,” Jarrett says. “In the beginning, we were constantly told, ‘Well, we have a lot of stories like that,’ or, ‘It’s not relevant,’ or, ‘We’ll call you.’ What I would do is meet with these people face to face and constantly tell them my story. Take them to lunch, whatever the case may be.”

Jarrett and his partner, Pete Frese, who is a co-founder and president of Stratus, split duties to get their company where they wanted it. Frese handled the internal operations while Jarrett hit the road to drive new business.

“Get a key person, it could be an employee, it could be somebody else, who can help you with some of the key areas that are still big picture,” Jarrett says. “You can’t be in all places at once.”

While that person is monitoring things at home, you need to be out there selling your business.

“Don’t be bashful,” Jarrett says. “The key is diplomatic tenacity. That’s where people fall just short and they are really just around the corner from success.”

The difference maker is often the story you tell when you’re out there working hard to grow your business.

“Everybody has a good story to tell,” Jarrett says. “You just have to prepared to tell it many, many times repetitively to anyone who will listen. You don’t need a large advertising or marketing firm. These are the times where you build relationships with writers and people in the local community that are looking for a story or human interest that is public relations worthy. People look at our press and our brand and think we have this big agency behind us. We’ve never worked with an agency. It’s all been internal. We don’t have a big marketing department. It’s myself and one other person. It’s all grassroots, and if we can do that, anyone can do it.”

Stratus has grown to more than 5,000 franchisees, 60 master licensees and 11 employees who helped the company yield $63 million in 2010 revenue.

“Psychology is a big part of an entrepreneur who makes it,” Jarrett says. “You have to be optimistic, almost blindly. The key is to know there are going to be good days and bad days and you just have to stay at it and on course.”

Once you start to gather supporters and get some good feedback, make sure you share it to help generate even more business.

“That goes back to the perseverance, the patience and the tenacity to build your substance, even if it’s one brick at a time and it seems like it’s taking forever,” Jarrett says. “There will come a pay day.”

How to reach: Stratus Building Solutions, (877) 731-2020 or www.stratusclean.com

Reach out

You can’t be afraid to reach out for guidance when your business is struggling. It’s not a sign of weakness, rather, it’s a sign of strength that you’re willing to admit when you need help.

“Everybody has a mentor or an adviser,” says Jarrett, co-founder and CEO at Stratus Building Solutions. “Sometimes, the best clarity comes from somebody who is not knee deep into the business. Someone who has done it before and can take a clear, objective look at the business. Listen to people. It doesn’t mean you always take 100 percent of what they say. But there is great feedback out there.”

You need to be strong enough to admit that an idea, maybe even your idea, is not working and it’s time to try something else. Humility is one reason Stratus has grown to $63 million in 2010 revenue.

“You have to have an appropriate mix of ego, because you have to have confidence in your decision making,” Jarrett says. “You can’t be wishy-washy. But you also have to be pragmatic enough to know when you’ve got to change.”

It’s a tough thing for leaders to admit sometimes.

“They believe with all their heart and all their conviction that they are doing the right things,” Jarrett says. “That’s why sometimes, you need to take a look at somebody outside. Sometimes it’s a board, a mentor or a banker. The key is to have some outside clarity.”

Published in St. Louis

It happened so fast that no one really noticed how spread out things had gotten at AMS Fulfillment. The third-party fulfillment service company had grown from 80,000 square feet to 500,000 square feet in just three years.

“We took a step back and said, ‘Wow, we’re operating our fulfillment business out of seven buildings,” says Jay Catlin, president and managing partner at the company of more than 200 employees. “It’s not necessarily ideal to be running your business out of that many different buildings in our space.”

Catlin and his leadership team felt like the company needed to consolidate a bit and have a larger presence in fewer locations.

“It’s a situation where you say, ‘Wow, we’re really growing,” Catlin says. “But just because you find a way to get an order fulfilled and out the door doesn’t necessarily mean you’re fulfilling it in the most efficient or effective way. So after running all this business out of the various facilities, we took a step back and said there is a way to do this better. We need to commit to coming up with an operational infrastructure that’s going to benefit ourselves and our clients.”

It was time to sit down and talk out the best plan of attack to meet this goal of better operational efficiency.

“If it’s not managed properly, meetings like that, you can run into some inefficient dialogue where people are talking over people and so forth,” Catlin says. “We lay out the framework. This is the situation and these are various options we have.”

You’ve got to have some sort of framework of a plan in mind before you begin the discussion. But you probably want to keep it to yourself as the meetings begin.

“Our job at that stage is we don’t want to force our opinions on the senior troops underneath us,” Catlin says. “We want them to give their ideas and advice without it being influenced by our own thoughts. So we hear everything that they have to say and then as we’re helping to direct conversations and so forth, we’re sharing our thoughts on what might be positive or negative with any particular approach.”

In the case of AMS, there wasn’t a lot of debate over what needed to be done. The company needed to commit to longer term leases and make capital expenditures to get those buildings ready to be more permanent facilities. There also needed to be an effort to make sure client relationships were strong.

Your tone in how you approach these discussion meetings will go a long way toward making them effective.

“Whoever might be directing traffic, if that person is one who is combative or emotional in the way they conduct the meetings, it’s just going to breed more of that,” Catlin says.

You need to maintain an even keel and make sure you let people have an opportunity to speak without being interrupted.

“If you get into a situation where you’re not able to finish your thought process, it’s very frustrating and not very effective,” Catlin says. “There is a goal in mind of everybody having a chance to share their thoughts completely and everybody having a chance to respond.”

You also need to make sure that people are doing their jobs and being held accountable for tasks they may be assigned along the way.

“If somebody comes in and we’re supposed to have a meeting about one subject or another and it seems like they are not prepared, we’re not out to embarrass anybody,” Catlin says. “But just in the course of asking questions and looking through what they have to talk about, we’ll just naturally find they are not prepared.”

If it becomes a habit, try meeting with that person after the meeting in private to discuss it.

Catlin says it’s a problem he doesn’t have at AMS, which has allowed the company to address some of its concerns.

“We’ve had a chance to get caught up and move ahead of our current business activity to better prepare to manage our current and future needs,” Catlin says.

How to reach: AMS Fulfillment, (800) 931-4267 or www.amsfulfillment.com

Get it on the record

You may think that because you’ve labeled a meeting as important, that everybody will remember everything that is said. But if you don’t have a formal process to document the business of the meeting, that’s not too likely to happen.

“It can become hearsay afterward,” says Jay Catlin, president and managing partner at AMS Fulfillment. “You’ll hear, ‘That’s not the way I remember it,’ or ‘I don’t recall talking about that.’ If we’re having a meeting about something where we’re going to be taking some action or there’s some change in place, it’s best to have the function leader writing up all the notes and then sending out a confirmation e-mail.”

Catlin takes documentation a step further at AMS, a third-party fulfillment services company with more than 200 employees. Important topics become a spreadsheet file that is maintained and accessible on a shared drive on the company’s computer network.

“So at any time if you’re going about your business and you think, ‘Oh wow, here’s another thing we could talk about, you could just go onto the shared drive and type an additional line item onto there. Here’s an area of concern, here’s a possible solution. Then the next time we have a meeting on the subject, that issue will be up there.”

Published in Los Angeles

You’ve got to show respect when you’re buying another company, especially one with the legacy and prestige of Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. So Tim Maloney tried to use a great deal of tact in the days, weeks and months following the purchase of the well-known wealth management firm by the 288,000-employee Bank of America Corp.

“The first step that we dealt with, and frankly continue to work on every day, was to get people to lower the gloves,” says Maloney, market president for both Illinois and Chicago at Bank of America, which took in more than $100 billion in 2010 revenue. “There can be a defensiveness or concern that somebody is going to lose in this trade or that somebody is going to get steamrolled.”

With the people Maloney came in contact with, he focused on the many good things that both organizations brought to the table in the deal.

“The first step was to get people to understand that there is inherent value and worth in each of these institutions and that we didn’t have to worry about one coming in to overwhelm the others,” Maloney says. “That wasn’t the intention and that’s not how we’ll be successful. Now that takes time and you have to prove that over time.”

Create opportunities for people on both sides to get together and get to know each other so you begin to chip away at those “sides” and start to create one team.

“It really ultimately comes down to having people develop a relationship and a sense of trust with their new colleagues,” Maloney says. “The mythology starts to melt away and people understand that these are skilled, honest and earnest professionals who have similar goals and objectives that I do. They want to take great care of their customers and serve them well and help us grow this company. The most essential step is to get it out of the theoretical and at the relationship level and help people to get to know each other and develop a sense of trust.”

You can’t force people to get together and if you try, it probably will only hurt the integration process.

“Natural selection does work,” Maloney says. “We’ve found people have gravitated and developed relationships that we wouldn’t have scripted in our infinite wisdom, yet they are working very effectively because we made it safe for them to do it on their own and they have taken advantage of that.”

Maloney has found success, particularly in the joining of Merrill Lynch and Bank of America, by finding early adopters or supporters and encouraging them to bring others on board.

“Do everything you can to support and encourage them,” Maloney says. “Make sure you share them back with the broader universe of people who may be taking more of a wait-and-see attitude or being a little bit more deliberate or cautious in pursuing this. Supporting those early adopters was a critical step for us.”

As long as people aren’t bringing others down or being overtly negative about the transition, you can afford to be patient through this process.

“There are going to be people who are either extremely cautious or reluctant,” Maloney says. “That’s OK. But what isn’t OK is anyone taking the position that they are going to undermine or be a detractor.”

Don’t expect your people to do all the work, of course. You need to be out there communicating and providing clear and candid updates on what’s happening.

“Here’s what the issues are and here’s how we intend to tackle it and here’s the help we need from all of you to help us get to this vision or end state that we think will be beneficial for our company, our employees and our clients,” Maloney says. “It’s the authorship up front and the frequent, candid communication that can help all employees row together to get the right answer.”

How to reach: Bank of America Corp., (888) 550-6433

Keep an open mind

When you’re in the process of bringing two companies together, you should enter the integration phase with a willingness to consider all options.

“We have two organizations with lengthy real histories of putting clients’ interests first and lengthy real histories of working as a team,” says Tim Maloney, market president for both Chicago and Illinois for the 288,000-employee Bank of America Corp. “That’s a great place to start from. What is then important is that you are respectful of the strengths that have made those different organizations successful in their own right. Try to build upon those.”

It’s not a matter of trying to make everything the same or trying to make everything different.

“They may take different business approaches and have different methods for very good reasons,” Maloney says. “So those practices that make sense to extend horizontally across the enterprise, we do that consistent with a shared set of values and authorship to drive it out. But at the same time, we’re a stronger company because we do have distinct companies. We do have distinct brands that represent distinct values and distinct ways of engaging clients. We don’t necessarily want to change those.”

Published in Chicago

While some business leaders said the recession officially ended in June 2009, Tom McGraw would hardly agree.

“I think that those folks probably got into the Kool-Aid,” says McGraw, CEO of First National Bank of Northern California since 2002.

In 2009, the organization had a break-even year. And in the last three years, he watched as 345 banks went under.

“I think some of these banks that failed essentially were so paralyzed by the sheer volume of problems that they had that they just didn’t do anything,” McGraw says. “Then there were others who said, ‘Well, this thing is going to pass. It’s going to get better.’ For those people, denial was not just a river in Egypt. It was a way of managing things, and unfortunately, I think it led to their demise.”

Instead of being paralyzed by fear or in denial, McGraw thought that during the recession it was more important than ever for the bank to make the challenges facing customers and employees the top priority.

“By no means are we perfect, but I think we take a much more active approach when we have problems instead of trying to wait for them to resolve themselves,” he says.

Whether it’s with a customer or employee, McGraw wants to learn about people’s problems sooner rather than later so he can take swift action to address them. Personally, he’s found that having an open-door policy with customers and employees, especially in tough times, gives him the advantage of staying highly attuned to people’s needs.

On the bank’s home page, for example, McGraw lists his direct phone number and e-mail address so that customers always have someone to reach with any issue.

“I say, ‘Well, OK, if you’ve lost complete faith in us, then maybe that’s the right thing to do, but if you want to share with me what your challenge or problem or issue is, perhaps there is something I can do to try and turn it around,” he says.

Right away, McGraw also brought in all of the bank’s creditors who were struggling to help them find workarounds moving forward, such as switching to interest only payments.

“There were some where we had to take losses, but when those happened, we took them promptly,” he says. “We got them off the books as soon as we could rather than just holding onto them and hoping and praying that things were going to get better.”

For a CEO, this transparency and willingness to help also goes a long way in earning people’s trust and loyalty. More than 70 of the bank’s 180 employees have been with the bank for 10 years or longer.

“I think the access to management, our visits, our open-door policy — it really keeps a connection with what is happening within the system,” McGraw says.

By staying connected, you also know what people value and what keeps them inspired when times are tough. The company’s bank-funded employee profit-sharing plan has traditionally been a key factor in the company’s uniquely high retention rate. So while McGraw and his executive management team took no raises and bonuses in 2009, they were adamant about keeping the profit-sharing program.

“What we said is, ‘Look we’re in this together,’” he says. “‘If we can salvage a year and make some money, then we are all going to benefit from it. If we don’t, then we’re all going to have to feel the pain a little bit.’”

Through furthering a culture that ensures people are always a priority, McGraw has led FNBNC to survive a recession that many of its peers have not.

“You have to lead by example,” he says. “If you are going to ask people to take a little bit of a hit, I think that you have to, as well.

“Families stick together. They work through their problems. They’re not perfect, but they depend upon one another … and that’s the metaphor we like to use that holds for both our employees and for our retail customers.”

How to reach: First National Bank of Northern California, (650) 875-4865 or www.fnbnorcal.com

Fight complacency

When CEO Tom McGraw spots someone in his company who isn’t executing well or isn’t happy, he makes sure he finds out why. To keep complacency at bay, it’s important to recognize people’s motives in their roles so you can figure out which employees may want to do more, which are unhappy and which really are content where they are.

“Sometimes you want to try to promote people,” McGraw says. “You want to push them. You want to see how far they can go. While that’s good in concept, the reality is that if they don’t want to go, you are going to set them up for failure.

“We have some tellers who have been here for 25 years. …That’s a very important job. They have the most contact with our customers, but that’s all they want to do. And then you take them and you put them in an operation supervisor position and they fail miserably. Well, they didn’t want to be there.”

As a leader, you need to be attuned to what people’s expectations are for their career, what their aspirations are, and then try to match those with positions in the company.

“So you’ve got people with various aspirations,” McGraw says. “If you can line up those aspirations and those skills with the position, the chances of success are much greater.”

Published in Northern California