As a 20-year veteran of the insurance industry, Charlie Rosson has seen his fair share of financial uncertainty, economic downturns and business struggles. So when he was promoted to CEO of Woodruff-Sawyer & Co. on Jan. 1, 2008, Rosson recognized rather quickly that his tenure was going to coincide with all three.

“Right from the start, like everybody, we were thrown a pretty difficult set of circumstances to deal with,” says Rosson, CEO of the San Francisco-based insurance services firm. “So many businesses were impacted in terms of their sales and access to capital and their business overall. The recession impacted our clients directly, and we were challenged to respond to that by coming up with more aggressive programs for them to quickly save them money and to help a lot of them through survival mode.”

Although clients were losing revenue and facing serious financial struggles of their own, the firm still needed to find ways to keep business profitable. But many clients could also no longer afford the firm’s services and products at the same rates or prices as in the past.

Like most professional service firms, Woodruff-Sawyer needed to find ways to keep clients’ businesses afloat but also avoid losing their business.

“Obviously, we had to become more efficient in the way that we do business, and we had to recognize in a lot of cases our clients weren’t willing or didn’t have the wherewithal to pay the same type of fees or commissions that they might have before the difficult time,” Rosson says.

“The way we would structure an insurance program before the financial crisis or before things got really difficult obviously wasn’t implacable anymore. So we had to kind of come to terms and help them with declining values and property, shrinking payrolls and overall downturn.”

Identify must-haves

Finding creative ways to deliver the same types of programs for clients more affordably wouldn’t be simple, especially because each client’s business was so different.

Rosson knew that the firm needed to work much more closely with clients to figure out win-win solutions.

“We had to negotiate greatly reduced premiums for them and come up with coverages that met their needs but were at a price point that they could afford,” he says.

So as Rosson and his team began talking with clients about their changing risks and opportunities, they also asked each client for a list of must-haves.

“We really had to dig in and find out what are the things our clients truly value and what things are sort of “nice to haves” that they didn’t value as much, and frankly, weren’t willing to pay for,” Rosson says.

“We’re fortunate that the clients we serve we have a great relationship with and normally have a pretty deep dialogue with them and attempt to fully understand their business,” he says. “So we can go in and talk about the services we deliver, how they’re delivered and how the team is structured, then drill into what things are important to them. Then we ask them honest questions about what things they can live without.”

Knowing your customer’s “deal breakers” can help you pinpoint the exact value that you add for them, allowing you to identify and recommend business solutions that are cost-effective but that still meet that customer’s needs.

“What clients are looking for is value, and in our case, it’s quality of advice,” Rosson says. “It’s how do we help our clients become more successful? And oftentimes when we partner up with them and really understand their business, we can help them execute a strategy that maybe they wouldn’t be able to execute without us.”

You may see opportunities to meet the future needs of your customers as trends emerge of where their businesses are moving and as new technologies come along. For example, the recession spurred the firm’s investment in technology to help address client issues.

“The current generation of buyers has already adopted technology as a core part of the way they do business, and that curve is only going to get steeper as newer generations come into the workforce and become leaders of companies,” Rosson says. “They’re going to expect that they can interact with service providers and professionals through some sort of technology medium. They’re not going to expect the traditional back and forth model that’s defined our industry for quite a while.”

Trim the excess

Once you identify your clients’ pain points and priorities, you can begin looking for ways to serve their needs more efficiently.

Rosson realized that although Woodruff-Sawyer continued to deliver valuable services and advice for clients, the firm could save time and cost by streamlining its approach — as could its clients.

“We had to get much more efficient in terms of the way we structured our teams, and we had to use technology in ways that we hadn’t before, in terms of delivering things through the Web that may have been done before either face-to-face or through some other lower-tech way to deliver service and advice,” he says. “So we are using technology in different ways, and we’re just more careful in terms of how we assign resources to client teams.”

Rosson restructured the company’s practice teams to put the focus on having the right people in the right roles, instead of just more bodies, to cut down on unnecessary costs.

“Don’t get swept away by how much revenue you think somebody can generate or how dazzling somebody is,” Rosson says. “Really do your homework and find out what that person is all about. Are they really a fit for the organization? Do they really have the client’s best interests at heart? Can they collaborate well with others? Those are really important things.”

Another way Rosson saw to improve efficiency was integrating technologies that could make communication more user-friendly for clients. Most of the technologies Woodruff-Sawyer has deployed are collaborative, meaning they enable communication between clients and associates outside of the traditional email and face-to-face meetings. In addition to saving its clients cost and time, many changes have streamlined the firm’s processes overall.

For example, the firm now issues all of its certificates online and deployed a portal called Passport, which permits document sharing and collaboration with clients over the Web to expedite projects.

Since seeing the positive impacts, Rosson has continued to pursue a direction that involves technological innovation. Recently, the firm launched an online portal for small businesses called, BizInsure, hired a chief information officer and has made investments in online business to ramp up its overall technology component.

“I’m absolutely convinced that emerging technology is going to have a disruptive impact on our business,” he says. “And I believe it’s going to be in a positive way, and we’ll be right there to capitalize on it. The way that we’re going to interact with our clients in the future is going to be different that our traditional model.”

Enable a responsive culture

Of course, it’s difficult to devise efficient and cost-effective solutions for clients if you don’t empower employees to be creative and test their ideas. Businesses that run their organizations with a heavy-handed, top-down leadership structure can easily stifle the kind of creative, engaged culture it takes to provide the most value to clients, Rosson says.

“To be a top-tier professional services firm, by definition, you want to have professionals — and you need to treat them that way,” he says. “The way to treat them that way is to respect what they do and be there if they need advice and guidance. You have to have a certain amount of structure, but listening and not being overly prescriptive or top-down in our approach has really paid dividends.”

Rosson avoids a command and control culture at Woodruff-Sawyer by furthering the firm’s corporate vision to remain an independent brokerage firm. Being a 100 percent ESOP firm gives the company a flexible infrastructure where top people feel empowered to make decisions and operate with more freedom, he says. With no shareholders, employees are able to focus on the client and do things for clients that might be difficult under a different leadership structure.

“We’re able to do things for clients in terms of being flexible and the people who are working with clients have a lot more authority to get things done for them, deploy resources and make decisions that our competitors who might have a different ownership system can’t,” Rosson says.

“Our independence is a key part of our competitive advantage and a big part of our culture.”

The independent structure has also helped the firm attract talented employees who value autonomy and the ability to be responsible to a client’s needs. And for companies that can’t do an ESOP, leadership comes into play even more. As a CEO it’s important to set the tone for your direct reports and other employees by showing that you trust their decision-making abilities.

“I truly believe that we have the best people in the industry,” Rosson says. “These are people who have arrived at a place professionally. They don’t need me to look over their shoulder or a leader to second-guess what they are doing.”

Rosson says in the future, the firm will continue to be prudent and watching the bottom line while making investments in technology and internal perpetuation to keep the firm independent. By successfully delivering insurance services in an efficient and user-friendly way for clients, the firm has not only retained clients, it’s also been extremely successful in adding new business.

“The vast majority of our growth is organic growth through just going out and telling our story,” Rosson says. “With a lot of our competitors, and the large ones, it can be very difficult or very expensive to access very sophisticated resources. What we do is deliver those same resources or the same level of advice — or even better — but do it in a way that’s less expensive and much more user-friendly.”

As a result, Woodruff-Sawyer has grown its revenue approximately 40 percent since 2007, generating approximately $70 million in revenue in 2011.

“Like so many businesses, the downturn forced us to work smarter and more efficiently and embrace technology,” Rosson says. “As the economy has slowly improved and our clients’ businesses has improved, we’ve found that we’ve been able to leverage our technology and we haven’t had to increase our costs at the same rate that maybe we would have. So we’re actually seeing that our business is healthier now, after the downturn, than it was before.”

How to reach: Woodruff-Sawyer & Co., (415) 391-2141 or www.wsandco.com

Takeaways

  • Ask customers where your business provides the most value.
  • Utilize technology to cut down on time and cost in customer interactions.
  • Empower employees to help clients by avoiding a top-down culture.

The Rosson File

Charlie Rosson

CEO

Woodruff-Sawyer & Co.

Born: San Jose, Calif.

Education: B.A. in history from UCLA

On growth: If you’ve got a very strong core business — I’m so bullish on the insurance business — you don’t need to take on too much debt or be overly grandiose in your expansion plans. Expansion and acquisitions all should be driven around acquiring people who fit into the organization, really bring something to the table and add to your organization rather than just executing a geographic growth strategy or putting pins in the map. All of your expansion should be for the right reasons, with the right people with client in mind, rather than trying to fill out (geographically) with different offices all over the place.

What is your favorite part of the business?

The best part of the business is getting out and meeting with clients and prospects. That’s why most of us got into this business and what really drives the passion for it. A lot of our relationships with clients go back 10, 15 and 30 years even. That’s the most fun part of it. I think it’s also really gratifying to successfully run the business and see the impact that you can have on employees’ lives.

What would you be doing if not for your current job?

Teaching English in Argentina

What one part of your daily routine would you never change?

Interacting with our clients and prospective clients

How do you regroup on a tough day?

I try to exercise every day.

What do you for fun?

Cooking, traveling, reading, coaching kids’ sports

 

Published in Northern California

Everybody’s telling you that you need a content strategy, but what exactly is content strategy?

An effective content strategy coordinates all of your organization’s messaging — internally and externally — and gets the right message to the right people through the right channel at the right time.

When it works, people are motivated to interact more with your company. You attract new prospects. And you increase opportunities to secure new clients and expand existing business relationships.

Your content may consist of feature stories, press releases, videos, Web content, blog posts, books, whitepapers and even case studies. Essentially, it is everything and anything that discusses your business, professional expertise and ability to solve clients’ problems. It includes news about your organization and human-interest stories that feature your employees.

You can deliver your content through traditional media (newspapers, magazines, radio or television), a corporate website, YouTube channel, Facebook page, e-book, TV show, movie or social media. It is quite literally every single way you digest information online, offline and on the go.

Any content strategy starts with understanding your audience. Learn who that audience is, what different groups are in it and what messaging resonates most with each group.

Every audience comprises two unique segments — those who support you, such as vendors, investors or employees, and those who use your services, including clients and engaged prospects.

It’s also important to take a hard look at this list and ask, “Who is missing from this picture?” By doing so, you may identify new prospect streams to target that you previously had overlooked.

Next, identify your key messages. What is it that you want people to know about your organization and why?

Start at the most macro level so that your brand message becomes part of the content — the part everyone receives. Then get into the specifics. As you do this, you create a series of customized messages for each specific group in your audience.

Third, recognize that not everyone digests information the same way. Learn the best channel or channels to use for each group. Some like to read it — in print or online. Others prefer to watch or listen to it — live in-person or through a mobile video. And still others prefer their information delivered in 140 characters or less.

What works for your website visitors doesn’t necessarily resonate face-to-face with people at a trade show or conference. And print ad messaging may not be aimed at the same people who devour industry whitepapers or read thought leadership articles in trade publications.

The actual format of the content won’t matter as long as it provides the “why” people should care about your organization, frequent your establishment, buy your products or services, or use your solutions. If you accurately match message with audience and channel, you’ll do just fine.

Effective content strategy can quickly become a powerful tool in moving your business forward. Treat it as you would any highly critical strategic business initiative.

 

Dustin S. Klein is publisher and vice president of operations of SBN Interactive, publishers of Smart Business magazine. Reach him at dsklein@sbnonline.com or (440) 250-7026.

Published in Akron/Canton

When significant change is on the horizon for your business, it is important to recognize how people react to the unknown.

In an article by David Rock, the co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, two broad themes are discussed.

The first is that each of us is driven by an “overarching organizing principle of minimizing threat and maximizing reward.” Those immersed in the drama of an acquisition are biologically driven to wondering and worrying about what will happen to the existing social order.

The second theme is that there are parallels between the way we respond to how well our social needs are met and how we respond to the meeting of our physical needs. He cites a study indicating that it hurts just as a much to be left out as it does to experience a hammer meeting our thumb.

Rock proposes a model, SCARF, which includes these two themes as a way to help us navigate what can trigger reward or threat behaviors in social situations. The model, in short, is as follows:

Status - This refers to how important we are or perceive we are within a particular group. When a company is acquired, employees may believe they will be viewed as lower on the totem pole than employees within the acquiring company.

What can you do?

Promote a culture of respect in which everyone’s opinion is valued in ways appropriate for their areas of expertise. When discrete events occur (e.g., promotions, acquisitions, etc.), be proactive in communicating how and why personnel decisions have been or will be made.

Certainty - Certainty refers to the need our brain has to respond to recognizable patterns. When we can’t, error messages akin to a “flashing printer icon” go on.

What can you do? Be clear. Be as specific as possible. For big projects, break them down into specific steps. In individual interactions, remember that the level of clarity necessary will be different for each person. When details are pending, promise that more details will follow, communicate a timeline for the additional information and deliver on that promise.

Autonomy - The third point refers to how much choice and control we perceive we have over our lives. As a leader, do you find yourself telling others what to do in their area of expertise? If so, you may be restricting their autonomy.

What can you do? Don’t micromanage. Enough said?

Relatedness - This refers to whether or not someone is “in” or “out” of your group. We’re all familiar with the student who doesn’t have an “in” group and sits by himself at lunch. His brain is firing the message that he’s on the outside looking in.

One way to promote relatedness is to encourage affinity groups. These could be either related or unrelated to workplace initiatives. Be a role model. Make an effort to relate to people that may be on the outside looking in.

Fairness - The fifth and final point refers to the belief that others aren’t being treated preferentially. Think executive elevators, executive washrooms, etc.

What can you do? Be clear about your reasons for decisions you make and changes that must be made. Be clear about the “why” and “how” of your decisions. There should be no hint that you’re trying to hide an unfair process by not being transparent about your reasons.

Andy Kanefield is the founder of Dialect, Inc. and co-author of “Uncommon Sense:  One CEO’s Tale of Getting in Sync.” Dialect helps organizations improve alignment and translation of organizational identity. To explore how to promote organizational sync by minimizing threat responses, you may reach Andy Kanefield at (314) 863-4400 or andy@dialect.com.

Published in St. Louis

When Facebook bought Instagram for nearly $1 billion, the social networking site was all but admitting that a smartphone app was poised to decimate its user base. But Facebook knew what all businesses must accept: When it comes to communications, we are in hyper drive.

As quickly as Twitter captured the public’s attention, the next new thing could replace it. Facebook is intent on keeping pace. You should be too.

Businesses must select the apps, sites, social networks and other modes of communication that best reach their client base and then create messages that can pierce through the blizzard of other messages. At no time is this more important than when a crisis hits or an opportunity suddenly emerges.

You need a rapid response team that can instantly craft the right message and get it to everyone who matters.

You must get your message out first. If you don’t, your critics or competition will define you. Every organization needs a rapid response plan that can be launched at a moment’s notice. Here are the basics:

1. Have your communication platforms in place. Facebook is losing some popularity, but it remains an excellent way to connect with people. If you don’t tweet, you should still have a Twitter account to follow trends that relate to your business.

Do you belong to or host Internet chat rooms that pertain to your industry? Do you have an 800 number you can direct people to if you must respond to a sudden crisis? Email is still a valuable way to communicate, so keep your email list updated. Texting allows you to instantly contact your base.

Pinterest, Instagram and Tumblr are hot right now. Decide which options you want to use and assign people to manage them on a daily basis.

2. Use technology to take the public’s pulse. Never assume that you know the public’s reaction to an event. Track their opinions on Twitter, and set Google alerts for keywords that relate to your business or events that will affect it. These free resources can guide you even if you don’t have a large budget.

If you need specific data before responding to a crisis or capitalizing on a news story, consider online surveys or smartphone survey apps. Before you react to a critical situation, make sure you know how your base is feeling about it.

3. Gather your rapid response team and give them three messages. The key to any good communication — and to winning any battle — is consistency. Having one person make a statement and the next person contradict it is the worst possible scenario.

You need to develop three messages that make the same point in different ways. The basic message must be succinct and all members of your team should consistently employ these three messages.

The most effective messages either use a third party to make your point or place the situation in a larger context. When reacting to a crisis, having a loyal client or customer defend you is much more powerful than defending yourself.

As for creating a larger context, choice, fairness and accountability are three concepts that everyone can relate to. You have 15 seconds or less to capture your audience’s attention, so make your point bigger and broader. That’s how to respond in a world that is moving faster every day.

Chris St. Hilaire is founder and CEO of Surveys On The Go, a smartphone market research application.

Published in Los Angeles

Dear CEOs, managers, sales presenters and meeting facilitators:

My name is Y.A., (short for Your Audience). You may think you know me well, but you probably would be surprised at how little you do. See, all those things you do incorrectly when you make a presentation or run a meeting are not fair to me. Yet, I’ve come to realize that while you’re not being fair to me, I’m not being fair to you either. I mean, how would you know where you could do better unless I tell you?

The things that make me pay attention, influence my decisions and help me perform more effectively are what can make you successful when you speak, but you’ve got to inspire me to stick around to listen to you. So, it’s time to give you the gift (seven gifts actually) that will help you become a much more successful presenter. After all you’ve put me through, it’s the least I can do. So here you go:

? Identify who you are and why you are here so I’m not asking myself these questions while you are moving on to the next point. Create alignment right from the start so we’re on the same page.

? Explain up front what you hope to accomplish in two to four points because if you think I want to listen to pointless rambling tangents, I will fall asleep with my eyes open right in front of you. Keep it simple and none of us will be stupid.

? Look at me when you talk because when I feel included and valued, I’m less likely to drift off and more likely to want to listen. Comfortably move your eyes and body throughout your presentation and I will stay engaged.

? Explain how I benefit because I want to know “what’s in it for me?” Like you, I operate out of self-interest first. Even if there’s not a direct return on listening to you, at least let me know how I play a role in the topic you address.

? Speak with genuine passion because falling asleep in my drool is not fun for me and certainly doesn’t build you a group of loyal followers. By speaking loudly and with enthusiasm, you become contagious, and I want to hang around and listen to what you to say.

? Remind me what I should be doing before you leave because I’m more likely to retain your message. Even better, if you can provide action steps for me to put into practice, your message might stick around and make our organization a better place to be.

? Be confident when you speak. If you want me to believe in you, you must believe in yourself. The biggest heckler in the room is not me; it’s you. Own your value and think positively even before you walk in the room to greet me.

I certainly hope you consider these suggestions because I want nothing more than for you to succeed when you present to me. If you do, it’s a win-win for everyone involved.

Good luck!

Your Audience

 

Joe Takash is the president of Victory Consulting, a Chicago-based executive and organizational development firm. He advises clients on leadership strategies and has helped executives prepare for $3 billion worth of sales presentations. He is a keynote speaker for executive retreats, sales meetings and management conferences and has appeared in numerous media outlets. Learn more at www.victoryconsulting.com.

Published in Chicago

If you ask Doug Taylor what it’s like putting on a fireworks show, he would tell you that it’s like taking the Rolling Stones on tour. There are potentially hundreds of people involved in the background and a single show can require five or six tractor trailers, a few straight trucks and more than a week to set up, using 15 to 20 people a day.

“This should all be background for our customers,” says Taylor, president and CEO of Zambelli Fireworks. “All we want our customers and the spectators to see is 15 to 20 minutes of a fantastic display, just like the Rolling Stones really only want their spectators to see them up on stage for that hour-and-a-half concert.”

Zambelli Fireworks is one of the best-known names in the fireworks industry. The company employs 50 people year-round, increasing its employment to roughly 1,500 people around the Fourth of July. Zambelli launches 2,300 firework shows across 32 states each year with nearly 600 of them being around Independence Day.

The company puts on shows for municipalities, Major League and Minor League Baseball, the NFL, MLS, professional lacrosse, amusement parks, festivals, weddings and private parties. Productions can range in cost from $3,500 to more than $500,000.

“Our company has one of the best names in the industry,” Taylor says. “We have that, but if we don’t keep working on that every day, we’re not going to have it at some point. We have to continue to earn our reputation and that level of trust with our customers.”

That reputation, the ability to put on a fantastic show and customer service focus has been challenged recently due to three major issues that have put added pressure on Zambelli. The company has had to overcome delivery disruptions from China, the challenge of the U.S. economy, the impact of increasing raw material costs and labor problems in the Chinese market, which is the source of 95 percent of the product in the U.S.

“With those combinations we’ve seen product costs go up somewhere in the range of 45 percent in the last five years,” Taylor says.

Here is how Taylor continues to put on a great show by dealing with unexpected challenges through close relationships with vendors and customers.

Expect the unexpected

There are about 14,000 fireworks shows shot on the Fourth of July in the U.S. every year. So in 2008 when China shut down two of the four ports from where fireworks are shipped, it created a 25 to 30 percent decrease in the capacity of delivery.

“An awful lot of companies didn’t get deliveries that year and there were a significant number of shows that did not end up being shot,” Taylor says. “We ended up getting most of our deliveries that year, and with a large inventory, we survived it.”

Typically, smaller companies get in a couple of containers of product each year. They use up 90 percent of it and then order more for next year. Zambelli tends to carry over a year’s worth of inventory each year.

“That way we have a lot more cushion than smaller companies can afford to have,” he says. “That certainly helps us in a time like 2008 where the shipping was such a problem, but it doesn’t mean we had the exact inventory we wanted.”

With China controlling 95 percent of the fireworks used around the world, there really wasn’t a good alternative for Zambelli to get product from.

“You can get product out of Europe from Spain and Italy, which is extraordinary product, but it’s three to five times as expensive as what you get out of China,” Taylor says. “So that’s not a good solution. We did go out and find some pockets of product because we moved very early.

“Ultimately, we had to design our shows differently based on the product that we had available within our existing inventory.”

To help combat the issue of product availability, Zambelli put a focus on communicating with its producers in China.

“We worked for years to make sure we treated our vendors as partners and that they treated us the same way,” he says. “Because of that relationship, we began to hear early that there were going to be problems. Vendor relationships are very important — making them a partner versus just a vendor.”

Aside from problems abroad in China, Zambelli faced challenges here at home due to the poor economy. A number of the company’s customers had to rethink whether they could do a fireworks show similar to what they had done in previous years or at all.

“We saw a number of cities that had to decide where they were going to spend their money,” Taylor says.

One city in Ohio was in a position where it had to lay off more than 50 employees and as much as the leaders wanted to have a fireworks show, it was politically inappropriate to lay off staff and then spend $20,000 on a fireworks show.

“We had some communities that canceled their fireworks and a number of communities that reduced the size of their fireworks,” he says.

Zambelli has been shooting shows for some customers for more than 30 years. Maintaining those kinds of customers goes back to having a good relationship.

“We didn’t want them to begin to think about talking to somebody else, because there is always a competitor that will do it cheaper,” he says. “We worked with them and gave them as good a deal as we could possibly give them. These were customers that we had for a long time, and that’s the kind of relationships that we like to maintain.”

One of the other interesting changes that occurred during this time was that if a city couldn’t afford to pay for a show anymore, it found an outside group to take it on. Zambelli has begun helping customers find ways to afford a fireworks show if they don’t have the funds necessary.

“That’s a new role for our company and for firework companies in general,” he says. “We’re working with certain larger corporations and trying to find places where they feel it would be a good investment for their brand to go in and support a community. We’ve had to change our marketing role to where we are marketing more directly to sponsors.”

The solution to this problem again comes back to building relationships and forming partnerships.

“If you look at the crux of what a true partnership is, there are going to be ups and downs,” Taylor says. “The sooner that you can anticipate what’s going to happen, the better positioned you are to adjust to it. You have to have an open line of communication with a customer or partner.

“Keeping those lines of communication open allow you to be aware of any issues. Having that communication … helps make sure we are hearing what’s important to them.”

Improve your relationships

Due to the issues with product delivery, the economy in the U.S., the challenges of increased costs of raw materials and labor problems in China, Zambelli’s ties to its vendors and customers have had to be stronger than ever.

“Many of our customers make a decision through a purchasing agent, and they’re trained to find the best deal,” Taylor says. “The easiest way for them to find the best deal is if they said, ‘We have a $10,000 budget.’ If one company offered them 900 shells and another company offered them 925 shells, they’re going to the 925-shell company, even though they don’t fully understand how that count was come by.”

That’s one point where Zambelli will work with its customers to explain it is offering a complete event, not just a number of shells.

“We’re selling the level of trust you can have in Zambelli Fireworks because of what we’ve done for years and what we’ve done for you as a customer,” Taylor says. “We’re selling you some of the highest quality product out there. We’re selling you a safety record, which is as good as anybody’s. We’re selling an entire package. We’re not selling a count of fireworks on a page.”

This level of selling has been somewhat of a transition for the Zambelli sales force, because not only has it become more competitive over the last five years, but the Zambelli sales team has had to learn to sell a turnkey package and not let people make decisions based purely on a shell count.

“It’s been an education process to not only educate our salespeople, but for them to turn around and educate our customers so they can make better decisions,” he says. “The more understanding customers have about each decision they make and why those decisions are important, the more likely they are to hire us.

“We have to develop a level of trust with our customers that they know we’re going to deliver that fantastic show. We’re focused on maintaining and improving a high level of service to our customers and maintaining our reputation.”

How to reach: Zambelli Fireworks, (800) 245-0397 or www.zambellifireworks.com

Takeaways

Be prepared for unexpected challenges.

Form strong partnerships with your vendors.

Find ways to improve relationships with customers.

The Taylor File

Doug Taylor

President and CEO

Zambelli Fireworks

Born: Port Arthur, Texas

Education: Attended North Carolina State University where he received a BS degree in science education and in zoology. He also received a MBA from Indiana University in Bloomington.

What was your very first job? What did that experience teach you?

The first job I had where I was working for someone else was mowing lawns at the age of 12 or 13. The first job I viewed as a real job was working in high school at a hardware store. What I learned there more than anything was the value of customer service.

When did you get into fireworks?

The first idea I ever envisioned of being involved with a fireworks company was in early 2007. I started work as the president and CEO of Zambelli in late May 2007.

What do you like most about fireworks?

It’s a fascinating industry, and it’s related to what I said about taking the Rolling Stones on the road. It is the entertainment business and although there are all kinds of technical and regulatory issues we deal with, at the end of the day if the spectators and the customer are happy with the result, then we entertained them.

Do you have a favorite Zambelli show?

At the Kentucky Derby Festival, we have two sets of barges that are each 600 feet long in the river and in the middle is a bridge that we shoot off of 3,200 feet of bridge. We’re able to fill the sky where people miles up and down the river are watching the show. The magnitude of that is incredibly impressive. On one side it’s the emotion and importance of the event to the community, and the other end is just the artistry and magnitude of what can be done.

What is the best business advice you’ve ever received?

My father taught me that the thing that you can’t give up is that level of trust that people have to have in you.

Published in Pittsburgh
Thursday, 31 January 2013 19:07

Steve Klingel: A premium offering

Few issues have gained more national attention over the past few years than the rising costs of health care and the importance of a healthy workplace. More businesses and families are struggling to afford higher insurance premiums as they engage in a tremendous national debate about the government’s proper role in health care and health insurance.

In this environment, businesses that provide health insurance coverage for their employees are confronted with two critical tasks:

  1. How to find the most comprehensive health insurance plan with the least cost.
  2. How to educate and engage employees in a cooperative effort to improve their health on an ongoing basis.

The first task is appropriately specific to each organization and its insurance carrier. But the second priority — identifying and implementing effective employee education and wellness programs — can be universally applied to employers of almost any size.

NCCI recognizes that keeping employees healthy is an important means of controlling workers compensation costs, specifically in regard to the detrimental effects of obesity and the rising costs of treating injured workers.

As a self-insured corporation, we are faced with the same rising health care costs and need to control workers compensation expenses just as every other American business has to. But after looking at the research showing just how effective wellness programs could be, our firm determined to implement our own companywide push for employee wellness in 2008.

The mission of the initiative was to develop a multifaceted approach to assisting and educating employees in making behavioral changes designed to reduce health and injury risks, improve their ability to make healthy choices, and enhance their productivity and well-being. We also wanted wellness to extend beyond the physical to include mental wellness, financial wellness and more.

Get your numbers

The first step was encouraging employees to participate in annual biometric screening and online health assessments. We’ve sponsored the screenings — designed to raise employees’ awareness about their personal health numbers — since 2009. Just knowing their critical health care numbers gives employees the information they need to begin taking better care of themselves.

Choose a theme

A successful wellness program includes programs and activities around clear goals. One way to clarify the goals is to use themes. In 2010, our firm embraced the theme “Mission Nutrition,” which included offering a weight-loss class and nutrition counseling plus retooling our on-site cafeteria and vending machines to provide healthy food options.

The following year our focus was “Get Moving,” and we improved our on-site fitness facilities — adding additional exercise equipment, expanding hours and offering free membership to all employees.

Make it an ongoing effort

This year — as part of our “Choose Well” theme — we are building upon the foundation we’ve started by offering employees increased support and education around health and financial issues that may arise, adding programs including:

•           one-on-one nutrition counseling

•           on-site smoking cessation program

•           free annual flu shots

•           fitness center programs

•           celebration of national employee health and fitness day

•           participation in the local corporate fun run

•           financial workshops

•           a holiday weight loss program

The result? Employees have not only responded enthusiastically to the wellness offerings and our goal to improve overall health, they’ve taken action. Our company’s biometric screenings show that blood pressure and blood sugar results are better. Employees are increasing fitness levels, eating more nutritiously and smoking less.

In fact, many screening participants have moved from a medium- or high-risk category to a low-risk category since the original assessment.

Even as health care costs continue to rise with inflation, many companies are steadying overall expenses by taking this proactive approach to corporate health. In the end, making wellness a company priority not only makes for healthier, happier employees — it supports a healthy bottom line.

Stephen J. Klingel, CPCU, was appointed president and CEO of NCCI Holdings Inc. in 2002. Before joining NCCI, he was a leader with the St. Paul Companies for more than 25 years.

 

Published in Florida
Thursday, 31 January 2013 19:01

Adrienne Lenhoff: Think before you post

Have you rethought your opinion of someone because of something they’ve posted on social media? Social media has blurred the line between business and personal acquaintances, with most people having both personal and professional contacts linked to their pages on social platforms such as Facebook.

Social media creates an environment where many of our social filtering inhibitions disappear, and people tend to feel freer in expressing views they would not otherwise express in real-life social and business settings.

We witnessed the best and worst of friends, family, business colleagues and acquaintances during the 2012 presidential election. In the offline world, most of us would refrain from lambasting someone for expressing their opinion. Most of us, however, would not begin verbal attacks against the individual or the candidates.

The election was an eye-opener

The presidential election shed light on the impact that the things we post on social networks has on our relationships with others. Forty-seven percent of respondents to a poll conducted by Mashable had unfriended someone on Facebook because of election-related issues.

Even if you did not actually unfriend someone, think about those you might be avoiding as a result of their comments or whose update settings you’ve changed to take them out of your active friend feed. Conversely, are your business colleagues or acquaintances taking these same actions against you?

Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project has conducted several surveys about people’s use of social networking sites for politics and personal political interaction. Here are some of the findings:

  • 60 percent of American adults use either social networking sites, such as Facebook or Twitter, and 66 percent of those social media users, or 39 percent of all American adults, have done at least one social media civic or political engagement activity.

  • 22 percent of registered voters shared their presidential vote on social media.

  • 22 percent say they avoid making political comments on social media sites for fear of offending others.

  • 67 percent of those who blocked, unfriended or hid someone on a social networking site did it to a distant friend or acquaintance.

  • 21 percent of those who blocked, unfriended or hid someone on a social networking site did it to a co-worker.

  • 16 percent have friended or followed someone because the person shared the user’s political views.

When it comes to blocking, unfriending or hiding someone on social media, overpolitical postings are often the reason why. The biggest complaints regarded someone posting too frequently about political subjects, posting something a user disagreed with or found offensive, and arguing about politics with the user or someone they know.

The loss of anonymity

For better or worse, the presidential election opened the floodgates of online bashing and heated arguments. In the early days of online interaction, most sites and media outlets allowed users to identify themselves using pseudonyms or user names rather than their true-life identities. That cloak of anonymity allowed many users to dispose of their inhibitions and interact as they would not otherwise in a real-world setting.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen a shift from the use of pseudonyms or user handles to sites that now require comments and engagement be tied to social media profiles on Facebook that reveal our real names, along with potentially allowing viewers access to our personal and professional identifying information — including employment information.

When you see someone boldly expressing themselves across social media platforms, it has the repercussion of not only fragmenting relationships but also making you lose respect for ones you have always respected. It puts people in a different light and has the potential to make you rethink who you would want to do business with.

Adrienne Lenhoff is president and CEO of Buzzphoria Social Media Marketing and Online Reputation Management, Shazaaam Public Relations and Marketing Communications, and Promo Marketing Team, which conducts product sampling, mobile tours and events. She can be reached at alenhoff@shazaaam.com.  Follow her on Twitter @alenhoff.

Published in Detroit

Throughout its history, vanpooling has been very good to Ann Fandozzi’s company.

For more than 35 years, VPSI Inc. — which is now branded as vRide — has grown and profited from running vanpools for commuters who want an alternative way to negotiate rush-hour traffic. After becoming the company’s CEO this past June, Fandozzi likely could have continued focusing solely on vRide’s vanpooling expertise with no ill effects to the company’s bottom line.

But Fandozzi saw more. She saw vRide’s potential to grow outward from its staple business, with a goal of becoming a comprehensive commuter solutions company. So Fandozzi challenged her company to expand and employ its expertise in new ways.

“My vision, and something that is palatable for us, is really broadening what we do,” Fandozzi says. “There really isn’t any type of commuter solutions company that does what we do, so that made it kind of exciting.

“When you think about it, we are really at an all-time peak of forces coming together, be it congestion in cities, be it gas prices, be it people’s time worth more of a premium than ever before. All of those forces coming together is something that allows us to come in and really offer a unique solution for commuters.”

To make her vision a reality, Fandozzi has needed to develop and implement a methodical approach that helps vRide — which generated $75 million in 2011 revenue  —  identify its target customers and create new ways to serve them by employing internal resources in the most effective way possible.

“If you have a commute of, say, 45 minutes or longer, you might come to us because of our vanpooling reputation,” she says. “But as we grow, we’ll be able to offer you a multitude of different solutions. We can certainly still put you in a vanpool, but we might also be able to put you in a carpool if you have a smaller group. No matter the service offering, the goal is commuter focus.”

Form a vision

To expand your company into new areas, you need a reachable vision, guidelines for achieving that vision, building blocks that will help you turn the vision into a reality and metrics that will help you measure your performance in relation to the guidelines and building blocks.

“Your vision has to be both broad and targeted,” Fandozzi says. “It has to be broad enough to capture the various value streams that the business model can deliver but focused enough that you’re not trying to be all things to all people.

“When we thought about broadening our company from a vanpool company to a commuter solutions company, our vision was significantly broader, but it was also very targeted from the sense that we are going to go after commuters and focus on solving their needs.”

To formulate an achievable vision for vRide, Fandozzi and her leadership team had to connect with the needs and pain points of current and potential customers. It required vRide’s representatives to gather customer data and conduct market research with an eye toward finding the holes in the marketplace that vRide could capably fill.

“A lot of it really has to do with delving deep into the customer’s world,” Fandozzi says. “In order to know where you want to go, you really have to take a step back and see what needs there are from a customer standpoint, areas that being underserved, and those are where the juiciest opportunities will usually present themselves. You go where the needs exist and where potential customers are being underserved.

“In our case, we’ve been looking at traffic congestion, people who are becoming frustrated with commute times, the state of the economy and gas prices, and people wanting more money in their pockets,” Fandozzi says. “We know those are the pain points, and from there, we dig a little deeper and get a read on whether we can expect those factors to increase or decrease over time.”

With traffic congestion and high gas prices remaining as fixtures of day-to-day life, Fandozzi’s team felt comfortable building a vision around how to address those needs. Then, she moved her company into the implementation phase.

“You don’t need to know every step of the 100 steps you’re going to take to get from here to there, but in general, you need to have a pretty good plan for how that vision can be achieved,” she says. “For us, a big fundamental building block has been the Web and mobile technology.”

Under Fandozzi’s leadership, vRide has taken steps to create a mobile-device app that can give would-be commuters instant access to potential solutions provided by the company.

“It’s the nature of addressing consumers who are on the go,” Fandozzi says. “You need an on-the-go solution. You need to automate instantaneous answers for consumers. For 35 years as a vanpooling company, that is a competency we didn’t have. So then the question becomes, ‘How do you scale to add those competencies?’”

It was a question of whether vRide needed to add new resources and competencies, or find new ways to utilize what was already in-house. Through rounds of organization analysis, Fandozzi’s team realized the company had a great deal of physical infrastructure already constructed, meaning scalability would be a mixture of the old and new.

It was a matter of creating new technology platforms and plugging them into what already existed in terms of vans, people and facilities.

“Currently, we have more than 5,000 vans, and there is a set of solutions that works really well there,” Fandozzi says. “So the question to the leadership team is, how do those get scaled? Anything from the way the vehicles get serviced and delivered, and anything or everything in between. That is why it really becomes a function of having those building blocks and being very honest with your assessment of whether you have them in-house, versus the items you need to bring in.”

Develop a marketing plan

With a vision and implementation plan in place, you need to get potential customers interested in your organization’s new direction. That is where a comprehensive marketing campaign comes in.

Fandozzi divides vRide’s marketing campaign into various phases focused on educating consumers and driving traffic. Once those phases are fully implemented, marketing can become an effective tool to spur further growth.

“You need to develop a phased marketing strategy that is appropriate for where you are in your development cycle,” Fandozzi says. “For us, we are kind of in a heavy learning mode right now, because we are still in the process of putting our fundamental building blocks in place.

“The next phase is once those building blocks are in place, you want to take what you’ve learned and use it to educate consumers. Then, once everything is place, you can expand your marketing efforts as you grow.

“For instance, we could then say that every man and woman in America who commutes more than 45 minutes to work is our target consumer,” Fandozzi says. “But that is a different kind of marketing effort from where we are now.

“The trick is in knowing what phase you are in at that moment but planning for the next one as you are in the current one.”

Developing a successful marketing effort around your vision often requires a combination of developing internal expertise and utilizing outside resources. Your internal marketing experts have an intimate knowledge of your business and your customer base. Third-party marketing firms will bring an outside perspective, along with data gathering and research capabilities that your company may not possess.

However, Fandozzi says external consultants should not drive your marketing philosophy. Though third-party firms bring useful skills and resources to the table, you and your team know your business the best.

“You want the latest and greatest, but you want it centrally managed with internal resources,” Fandozzi says.

“That is why you assign and train a leader who is centrally responsible for your marketing vision, because that is the person who is going to really understand where you’re going as a company, what building blocks are in place and what phase of marketing you’re going to need to be in for each phase of growth — are you in a heavy learning mode, or a heavy execution mode, and so forth.

“Those are the people who will be in charge of bringing in experts along the way to help them execute on each of those facets.”

If you make a misstep in your marketing, learn from it quickly and correct it — and have those systems in place from the outset.

“You’re testing along the way, fully preparing to fail,” Fandozzi says. “One of the things we do here is we like to learn fast-forward. You want to do something quickly and you want to learn from it quickly. Failure is OK if you learn from it, but you want to do it and correct it quickly. You are trying to fast-forward the entire process so that you develop definite answers on what you can move forward with.”

How to reach: vRide, (248) 597-3500 or www.vride.com

 

The Fandozzi file

Ann Fandozzi

CEO

vRide

More from Fandozzi on self-assessing as a business: There are several modes of self-assessment. One is having some conversations about just looking in the mirror with the leadership team and saying, ‘Hey, this is where we need to go and this is where we are.’ Another is bringing in experts, because sometimes you need a fresh set of eyes since you are just so close to the business, and it’s tough to see. One of the hallmarks of good leadership is knowing when to ask for help, and looking at experts instead of thinking that you have all the answers.

The third method is looking around at adjacent industries and seeing how they’ve been able to solve similar problems, to also free up your thinking. So, you may be stuck, but they’re going to bring in an expert and give you an expert solution along the lines of how you’re already thinking.

Fandozzi on hiring and retaining top talent: That is always the silver bullet to a business, having the right people. It comes from a multitude of sources. First and foremost, it comes from having the right screening techniques in place to make sure that as we’re bringing in people, they’re the right people. There is a lot of ownership on the part of the leader to make sure the vision is exceptionally clear, that people aren’t hunting in the dark and hoping they find the right answer.

There is a lot of personal ownership, for example, in order to develop and work with my people, I overinvest. People tend to underestimate how much investment this takes, but overinvesting on tools, resources — making sure we’ve put the right metrics in place. Then, it’s taking a step back and seeing if they can do it. It’s guaranteed you are going to make mistakes along the way, but you want those mistakes to be smaller-sized, and you want the wins to be bigger, and you want to course-correct as you go.

Published in Detroit

We are barraged each day with opinions on the economy, jobs, health care costs and a host of other topics that can affect consumer confidence. Information is plentiful, but it is often contradictory, leaving people to decide who and what to believe.

As business leaders, you must face not only the realities of the business environment in which you operate but also the mindsets of employees and customers.

As the economy shows signs of improving, they look to see if you’ll react. But leaders often rely on others, and being fearful of making the wrong move, they wait for the percentages to improve and for more certainty to prevail. Even the optimists are finding it challenging to break out of the pack and do something bold.

Emergence depends on factors

The reality is that not every sector will enter or emerge from a recession at the same time. It is important that you understand your market and where your business is in the cycle. If you don’t already have a list of leading indicators, then you need to develop one.

Demand the best information from which to make decisions regarding your business. Rely on facts, trends and data to help make better and timelier decisions. Act quick, be decisive, and don’t be a naysayer. Focus on what can be done versus what can’t. Motivate and energize your organization and set goals to break out and show what can be accomplished.

Being an early mover can give your business a substantial competitive advantage. When you see signs of enduring strength, you need to lead changes in your organization to improve the mood and atmosphere, to build confidence that things are going to improve, and to implement the plans you have developed.

Time to take action

Here are some steps you can take:

? Leverage your competitive advantage

? Take price increases in key segments while locking in cost in others.

? Get aggressive in marketing and selling efforts

? Expand into new markets or launch new products

? Invest in training staff and hire high-quality people

? Make acquisitions of products or businesses

? Invest in incremental capacity to enable growth

? Create a contagious atmosphere where people can prosper and customers can enjoy themselves

These actions within a company become contagious and can foster creativity and risk-taking. When done effectively, these actions will position your business for success.

Setting the tone

The way you think and talk about your business, the market and the situation you face will set the tone for the organization. Your actions and words can be the difference between breaking out or being a laggard.

Do you focus on the problem or the solution?

Do you think about the opportunities to grow share or focus only on retaining customers?

Have you ever noticed that, during tough times, the sales gap between the A and B/C players widens? Their attitudes shift and you start hearing excuses from B and C players as to why they “can’t” get sales.

Even when things start to recover, the A players will distance themselves even more from the others. When you go on sales calls with the A players, they acknowledge the circumstance with the customer but will quickly focus on what should be done to make the best out of the situation.

As leaders, we can set this expectation across the organization. It’s a mindset and an attitude. Do your part to create an environment where people can be creative, develop plans and execute with passion so they can win.

 

Tony Arnold is founder and principal of Upfront Management, a St. Louis-based management and executive consulting firm. He can be reached at (314) 825-9525 or tony@upfrontmgmt.com.

Published in St. Louis