A global company that started out as a provider of telecommunications equipment, TelStrat was founded in 1993 in Plano, Texas to take advantage of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex’s Telecom Corridor.
“Being in the middle of the telecom industry is very important to us because of the engineering and product development talent that is available,” says Jennifer Slack, CFO of TelStrat.
When the company sold off a division a couple years ago to focus solely on software, the Plano site was leased to another business and TelStrat needed to find a new location. TelStrat celebrated its 20th anniversary this past February and is focused on providing call recording and workforce optimization solutions.
Smart Business spoke with Slack about the decision to move the company’s headquarters to nearby Allen, Texas.
What were the key factors favoring Allen?
It was the location and the local talent pool. We knew we wanted to stay in the same general vicinity. Employees love the Allen area because of the good schools and housing that is available. The quality of life that’s in Allen makes it very easy to find employees.
How has the Allen Economic Development Corporation assisted TelStrat?
They helped with incentives that made it more affordable to change locations. Moving can be very disruptive, as well as expensive, and the financial incentives they provided definitely helped.
The city of Allen and the economic development corporation also sponsor many programs for businesses. They provide many opportunities for networking and encourage businesses within Allen to build on the synergies available, or just talk to each other for advice. They certainly promote that spirit of cooperation.
At one of their events, I met a representative from a local company that was able to help with our recruiting efforts. We’ve probably not taken full advantage of what Allen and the economic development corporation offer, but it did help with recruiting.
What is the nature of TelStrat’s operations in Allen?
It’s a complete headquarters facility; we have about 50 employees working in departments from sales order entry to engineers for software development and support and maintenance of our product with customers. There are also some sales staff, accounting and HR personnel.
The landlord was very helpful in remodeling the site. We predominately needed office and lab space and the building had served as a call center or back office. We’re in a five-year lease and it’s a very convenient location right off of the North Central Expressway.
What’s the best thing about your new location?
It’s the convenience — it’s very easy to get around for meetings, or if we have clients or partners visiting us. There are plenty of nearby options for lunches and shopping, which employees enjoy because it saves them a lot of time and helps with developing a good work/life balance. It‘s great when you have children and you need some flexibility if they have something special going on or are sick. You can pick them up for a dental appointment and get back fairly quickly. It helps a lot to have your place of employment near your neighborhood.
We’re a pretty simple company with simple needs. The city of Allen and economic development board have made it easy for us to do business here.
Jennifer Slack is the CFO at TelStrat. Reach her at (972) 633-4512 or email@example.com.
Reach the Allen Economic Development Corporation at www.allentx.com or call (972) 727-0250.
Considering the uncertainty in the stock market, 2012 turned out to be a good year for mergers and acquisitions (M&A), and the outlook is even better for 2013, says Albert D. Melchoirre, president of MelCap Partners, LLC.
“Last year was pretty tumultuous, with the overwhelming European debt crisis, a slowdown in certain emerging markets, uncertainty about the presidential election and its potential impact from a capital gains tax perspective, and the fiscal cliff debate,” Melchoirre says. “But there were several factors that would indicate reason to be optimistic about the M&A market in 2013.”
Smart Business spoke with Melchoirre about those factors and his expectations for the M&A marketplace in 2013.
How was 2012 from an M&A perspective?
The number of domestic M&A transactions was down by 4.6 percent from 2011. However, the average deal size increased 13 percent — from $138 million to $156 million. From a private equity standpoint, fundraising increased 31 percent compared to 2011. That bodes well for future M&A.
It’s interesting to note that deal volume was up 56 percent in December compared to November.
What was the reason for the end of the year activity?
The primary driver was the capital gains tax increase in 2013. There was concern that if President Barack Obama was re-elected taxes were going to go up significantly. The M&A process typically takes six to nine months, so that started before the election outcome was known. But there was pressure to try to get something done before the end of the year.
Another situation driving transaction activity was private equity dividend recaps. Many PEGS were going to the bank and taking out large dividends so the money would be taxed at the lower rates in 2012. They didn’t have enough time after the election to sell the business, so they paid out large dividends instead.
Because of the influx of closing activity in the fourth quarter of 2012, my sense is that 2013 will start out slowly. But I’m cautiously optimistic. When we look back at 2013, the numbers may be flat or down slightly because there isn’t enough time to make up for that lull.
Why are you ‘cautiously optimistic’ about the M&A market in 2013?
Some of the positive signs are the large amounts of cash reserves on corporate America’s balance sheets. The S&P 500 alone has over $1 trillion in cash, which is very strong. Combine that with favorable credit terms in the banking market and improved consumer confidence, and the elements are there for a solid year.
Another positive sign is more clarity with respect to the tax situation. Now business owners won’t be dealing with making decisions based on unknown, pending tax law changes. There’s something to be said for certainty. Uncertainty creates a tendency to be hesitant to make a move. When people know the rules of the game they can make decisions accordingly.
Do you expect corporate cash reserves to be utilized this year?
Absolutely. When you have corporate buyers sitting on these large cash reserves they have to deploy that capital in order to grow their business — there’s only so much equipment you can buy. When companies are sitting on trillions of dollars, one of the ways to accelerate that growth is through acquisitions. Cash is king and you can take advantage of opportunities in the market to grow and expand your business. And that cash will have to be deployed — the public markets will not let them sit on those reserves.
Last year, 75 percent of our sell-side deals were sold to strategic buyers who were sitting on a large amount of cash. Corporate buyers are acquiring competitors or complementary businesses through vertical or horizontal integration. With deals involving a private equity buyer, if they don’t have a portfolio company it would strictly be a financial play.
While I’m cautiously optimistic we’ll see more of the same activity this year, it looks like 2014 could be even better.
Albert D. Melchoirre is president of MelCap Partners, LLC. Reach him at (330) 239-1990 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Insights Mergers & Acquisitions is brought to you by MelCap Partners
On paper, Oleg Firer literally embodies the American dream. Moving to Brooklyn, N.Y., from the Soviet Union at the age of 12, he entered into business without a college degree and rose quickly to become the VP of a publicly traded company by his late 20s.
In 2002, Firer taught himself the payment-processing business — which would become his career — from the ground up and eventually partnered with private equity group Star Capital to start his own payments business in 2007.
With the help of his partners, Firer executed a roll-up strategy that included eight acquisitions between 2008 and 2010, combining the entities into a one payment-processing company — Unified Payments LLC. Today, Unified Payments has grown to approximately 50 employees and $59.5 million in revenue. And with a three-year growth rate of 23,646.3 percent, it soon shot to No. 1 on the 2012 Inc. 500 list of the fastest-growing companies.
“M&A is my background,” says Firer, co-founder and executive chairman, Unified Payments, which now processes about $10 billion worth of transactions for 100,000 merchants a year. “I like to find the diamonds in the rough and make them into diamonds. And that’s what we’ve done.”
Firer’s leadership has been critical in helping the company overcome challenges of integrating eight companies while managing fast growth and staying innovative in a competitive industry.
Smart Business spoke with the Firer to find out the keys to his M&A success and keeping Unified Payments on top.
SB: How did you choose which companies to target as part of the acquisition and roll-up strategy?
OF: The companies that we acquired had something unique about them. Being established is one thing — but they all had some sort of issues. We did a lot of distressed equity buys where they were either overleveraged or they were growing too fast and they couldn’t keep up with it or they had shareholder feuds or so on. Obviously, we looked at dozens of companies and we identified the eight companies that we liked the most, and we executed.
We also invested in human capital. Each one of these eight companies — besides having potential to grow and having a sales engine — had human capital behind them that we believed in. We don’t have eight different divisional presidents. We consolidated, and there were three people that I believed were the strong sales leaders to take this business to the next level. We bet on them. So it was not just acquiring for the core assets and growth opportunity; it was also acquiring them for human capital that knows this industry.
SB: What was your timeline for the acquisition strategy?
OF: The first acquisition that we did was the most expensive and the biggest. We executed the first acquisition in 2008 as a platform buy to do the add-ons that we did at later points. When we did the platform buy, it had a lot of human capital already behind it. Most of it needed to be restructured.
We bet on the sales leadership, but operationally, we had to break down a lot of departments in order to make this a success. That took awhile. And obviously, from the add-ons that we did, we moved some people around, and we hired some new people.
SB: When did you start integrating the businesses?
OF: We didn’t wait for the eight to complete. From the first platform buy, we started right away working on operations, restructuring the operations and making the operations stable. No matter what size of payment-processing provider that you are, you still need a core engine. For us, it was building an engine that’s scalable and having the outsourced pieces that we need in place to have 24/7 support and so on. It took a year to really build proper structure, and then when we started executing on acquisitions, it was about integrating them in the structure.
SB: When you are completing multiple acquisitions, how do you integrate them into your company in a way that doesn’t overwhelm your business infrastructure?
OF: It was easier with the add-ons because when you have an add-on, you strip away (general and administrative expenses) G&A and you integrate the asset into the engine if you see any new human capital that is an asset to the company. Then the rest we would strip down.
So the core support functions like customer support and technical support we would keep in the core engine. If tomorrow I’m presented with an opportunity to buy a payment-processing provider, I would let all the customer support and technical support resources go because I already have them in my core.
It’s like a puzzle. You see the missing pieces and you want to fill those pieces. Identifying the missing pieces and bringing those pieces in became easier after the first acquisition because we see that we’re lacking in a niche vertical. So now we know that the next acquisition that we do is going to be a new vertical. It has to have something special.
SB: How has the recession impacted the growth of your business?
OF: After we acquired the eight different companies, we consolidated, created this engine and decided to keep them in an organic growth strategy. We have been growing for the past two years organically from redoing these engines that we acquired.
This industry is very competitive. And with the recession the biggest thing that keeps me awake at night is that there are more businesses that go out of business. So it’s losing merchants and keeping up with attrition and the churn and providing outstanding service to the merchants that process with you — and providing them with innovative products so that they don’t go to the competition.
SB: How can you manage risk when you have customers who are struggling?
OF: It’s pretty much keeping your ear to the ground and working with partnerships. ... When MasterCard launched a PayPass program, which is a ‘contactless’ card, we were the first organization to launch it for them in New York because we understand what it takes to roll out technologies. By working with the industry’s innovative associations, such as Visa, MasterCard and Discover, and working with technological partners that we have, it makes us stand up to the competition.
SB: How do you make sure that you’re not growing too quickly?
OF: You want to have gradual growth. Pulling in the reins on a monthly basis and slowing down the growth is really the most challenging. Once you let marketing loose, it’s hard to pull in some marketing areas. Growing too fast can permanently damage the company. So it’s about growing methodically, managing within the budget.
With us, there is an acquisition cost to every merchant that we bring in. So if I want to pull in the reins, I just shrink the budget for that month. It’s growing at the pace where the business can afford to fund marketing and then fund G&A.
SB: Any lessons learned the hard way?
OF: If you’re a business leader and you’re an operator, choose the right capital partner that believes in you and that will give you an ability to take this to the next level. I had to go to a few capital partners, and it was challenging to find a capital partner midtransaction. Adding another capital partner during a transaction was even more challenging. So the challenge I had was going through several capital partners; when you’re already committed, you can’t go back.
Get a firm commitment and make sure that the partner that you choose believes in the overall picture and not just a piece of it. Believing in just a piece of it could cause you to run into to problems later in the game.
SB: What are the main lessons have you learned from your M&A experience?
OF: Everything takes longer and it costs more. So you need to be very conservative in your estimates and be very conservative in your projections. Be very cognizant of time. Underpromise and overdeliver — that’s my model.
SB: What advice would you have for another business executing an acquisition?
OF: I had to go through a lot of companies to really believe in the eight that we did. And I mostly believed in them because of the people. It all starts at the top. If you have the right people at the top, if you have the right business leaders, it becomes very easy to do a transaction. If you don’t have the right leadership and business leaders that you rely on, everything else can crumble.
And then, obviously, it’s always challenging to find good people for any business. But if you find somebody that you believe in and that has the track record, don’t let the person go. ?
How to reach: Unified Payments LLC, (877) 621-9110 or www.unifiedpayments.com
The Firer File
Co-founder and executive chairman
Unified Payments LLC
Born: Soviet Union
Education: New York Technical College
Management style: There are two styles to me. First of all, I have an open door policy. I speak to every employee in the company and everybody has direct access to me. I meet with my employees all the time. And I don’t consider them employees; I consider them partners because we have a common goal, and we need to work toward it. And I think outside the box. There’s no strategy that I would not look at. There’s no opportunity that I would not look at.
What you do for fun?
Jet skiing, boating
Who have you never met but would you like to have dinner with?
Warren Buffet, to get an insight on what it takes to be the most successful investor of the 20th century and understand what it takes to spot the hidden jewel in the companies he invests in.
What would you be doing if not your current job?
I would be a politician.
How do you regroup on a tough day?
I spend time with my kids.
What destination would you still like to visit?
What’s next for Unified Payments?
Every month and every day we raise the bar because of the fact we have to grow, and I’m not satisfied with the growth that we have. So we still want to grow a bit more. We still have some internal restructuring that I’m working on, and as I execute a little bit more organic growth and do a little bit more acquisition, one day who knows? I might exit. So it’s making the business big enough to be palatable to somebody smarter than I am.
The election is over and full implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) is expected to proceed. What does this mean for employers? The health care decisions made during 2013 will determine the financial impact of this legislation, and employers that plan to continue to sponsor group health plans must prepare for upcoming deadlines.
“Pay or play” penalties provide some incentive for employers to continue coverage, as they will be at risk for significant penalties if they do not, says Chuck Whitford, Client Advisor at JRG Advisors, the management arm of ChamberChoice.
“The first step is to determine which, if any, penalties will apply by determining the number of employees that regularly work an average of 120 hours or more per month for each month of the preceding year,” says Whitford. “Penalties will apply only to employers with 50 or more full-time-equivalent employees during the preceding calendar year, with full time under PPACA defined as 30 hours per week.”
Smart Business spoke with Whitford about the changes that employers need to be aware of.
What is the goal of PPACA?
Ultimately, PPACA seeks to achieve and sustain the availability and affordability of employer-sponsored group health care benefits. Otherwise, full-time employees become eligible for a subsidy from the government to purchase insurance through an exchange.
A full-time employee becomes eligible for subsidy if his or her household income is less than four times the poverty level and one of the following is true: the employee is not eligible for a group health plan that meets minimum standards (thus failing the requirement that coverage must be available) or the monthly employee contribution for single coverage is greater than 9.5 percent of household income (thus failing the affordability requirement). In 2012, four times the federal poverty level was $44,680 for a single individual and $92,200 for a family of four.
At issue is the fact that many employers are not likely to know employees’ total household income, nor may employees be willing to share this information. To that end, employers will most likely use the wages paid to the employee as a basis for determining the affordability requirement.
For example, an employee earning $30,000 would be limited to a monthly contribution for single coverage of approximately $238. Any higher contribution would exceed the 9.5 percent level.
What are the penalties for employers that fail to either make the coverage available or fail to provide affordable coverage?
If one or more employees are eligible for your group health plan and they qualify for a subsidy on the exchange, your penalty is equal to $2,000 per year times the number of full-time employees, minus 30. For example, an employer with 100 full-time employees would pay a penalty of $140,000.
If, on the other hand, you make coverage available and an employee still qualifies for a subsidy on the exchange because the employee contribution is more than 9.5 percent of household income, your penalty is $3,000 per year for each full-time employee eligible for the exchange.
Has everything been settled?
Regulations on many issues remain outstanding. All of the uncertainty has left many employers reluctant to make any large-scale changes.
The regulatory agencies responsible for implementation and enforcement of health care reform (departments of Labor, Internal Revenue Service and Health and Human Services) will issue additional guidance to help determine how to comply with new provisions of the law.
ChamberChoice will continue to monitor the progress of PPACA and its implementation and keep you informed of important developments.
Chuck Whitford is a client advisor at JRG Advisors, the management arm of ChamberChoice. Reach him at (412) 456-7257 or email@example.com.
Insights Employee Benefits is brought to you by ChamberChoice
Some people are in denial about their personal finances, thinking that they’ll get to it one of these days.
“You need to have a lot of discipline around your finances because getting into financial shape is tough,” says Jeanine Fallon, Senior Vice President and Market Executive, First Commonwealth Bank®. “It requires focus, planning and a lot of sweat, but the end result is a happier and more fulfilled life.”
Smart Business spoke with Fallon about taking control of your debt and spending habits.
How should you assess your debt situation?
Look at your current obligations by gathering monthly statements and listing loans and debt. Think about the creditor and your balances, interest rates and payments. Total all payments and divide your gross income by the debt to find your debt to income ratio. The target should be around 36 percent, but those with high disposable income can go a few percent higher. Then, use your partnership with a lender you trust to create a solid financial plan.
It’s also helpful to pull your credit report three times per year from annualcreditreport.com because not all credit reports are free.
What are some warning signs your finances are heading out of control?
Some warning signs are if you have no emergency fund, typically three to six months of your income, to fall back on; you experience stress when thinking about your debt; you don’t know what you owe; and/or you continually charge more on your credit cards than you can pay back.
How can a debt consolidation loan help?
Consolidation loans don’t reduce your debt but can reduce your payments. You take your debt and consolidate it into one big loan to simplify your payment and tracking. Your banker will help you decide on a secured loan or an unsecured loan, the right term to quickly pay off your debt without creating hardship, and choosing between a term loan or line of credit. Keep the end number in mind, which is what you’re paying back with principal and interest.
What are some best practices to help stay debt free?
Even if you consolidate your debt, it’s important to take steps to ensure you don’t end up right back in the same financial bind you were in before. Manage your expenses by establishing a budget. Keep a spending diary of every penny you spend for at least a month — similar to a food diary when on a diet. When looking at your funds, break it into percentages:
• Foundation expenses, such as shelter, groceries and transportation, should be 45 percent of your take-home income.
• Include 15 percent for fun, vacation, dinner, clothes or whatever your passion is.
• Typically at least 25 percent is used for taxes.
• Keep about 15 percent for savings — 10 percent for retirement and 5 percent for emergency or big-ticket items.
Then, manage, reduce and eliminate debt. It is important to make wise decisions when assuming new debt by using good debt to improve your net worth. Tie savings and spending plans with what’s important to helping you to live with a purpose. For example, if vacation time away with your extended family is important to you, yet you own a huge, expensive house, your financial obligations may not be in line with your values. Also, prepare for life events by taking a disciplined approach to building up the money you put into your retirement plan as well as your emergency fund. Ultimately, if you don’t change the way that you’re spending money when you experience significant life changes, it can cause hardship in the end.
Jeanine Fallon is a senior vice president and market executive at First Commonwealth Bank. Reach her at (412) 886-2540 or JFallon@fcbanking.com.
For a debt consolidation calculator, visit http://www.fcbanking.com/planning/calculators.html?CALCULATORID=PC10&TEMPLATE_ID=www.fcbanking.com_1.
Insights Wealth Management is brought to you by First Commonwealth Bank
It’s common for businesses to attain some measure of success and reach a point where they need to take strategic action in order to continue to grow.
“Basically, you’ve run the business to a certain point. What do you do next with a successful company? You could sell it, just keep the status quo — which I don’t think is a good idea — or you could grow it,” says Mario O. Vicari, director at Kreischer Miller.
Vicari says there are four options owners can consider to keep growing: Acquire a similar company; diversify by acquiring a company in a different industry; leverage what you have by figuring out how to cut costs or increase efficiency; or leverage your position by expanding into new markets.
“There could be a lot of different strategies under these four areas, but that covers the basics,” says Vicari. “Another option is selling the business. Maybe there is a point where the market is right to sell, but that has a lot to do with the personal goals of the owners.”
Smart Business spoke with Vicari about the different growth strategies and how they are implemented to build companies.
How do you leverage assets or market position to grow?
You can figure out how to do things better or more efficiently; that’s leveraging intangible capital. Every business also has tangible assets such as machines and buildings, and you can look at whether you can use those assets in different ways. Those might be line extensions or new products that you make with your existing technologies and hard assets.
Instead of focusing on assets, you can look at market position and ways to take share from competitors, assuming, for example, that it’s a billion-dollar market and you have a 10 percent share of a pie that isn’t getting bigger. You could take market share by expanding the sales force or distribution channels. For instance, if you’re only distributing in the northeast, you could open a distribution site in Indianapolis.
Another way to leverage your position is to look at existing customers and see if there are products they buy that you’re not presently selling but are close enough to your product line that you could. For instance, if you distribute HVAC equipment, you might want to expand your line and start selling water heaters.
What are the different acquisition strategies?
When you grow by acquiring a similar firm, it’s because they have different characteristics, such as geography or products, which complement the position you have. Maybe they give you a footprint in another three states. Or maybe they do commercial HVAC rather than residential.
You can also diversify through acquisition — for example, an HVAC company gets involved in home alarm systems, which is an entirely different business. Some businesses like diversification as a risk management strategy because you’re not concentrated in one industry. But the reality is it’s often very risky because it takes you outside of your core competency and it’s not easy to operate a business without experience in the industry.
Is it ever OK to stop growing your business?
It’s OK to maintain your position as long as you maintain your margins. The problem is that a lot of companies fall into doing nothing, not because they intentionally decided to do so, but because they become complacent.
Ninety percent of the time, companies in the status quo category tend to be there because they’re comfortable and not putting pressure on themselves to grow. That’s a dangerous place to be because when you have no goals or plans to improve your business you could wind up diminishing its value.
Mario O. Vicari is director at Kreischer Miller. Reach him at (215) 441-4600 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Something NEW has arrived for private companies! Introducing the Center for Private Company Excellence, a community created by Kreischer Miller. Learn more at www.privatecompanyexcellence.com.
Five years ago, Andres Ruzo was on the verge of pulling the plug on Link America Inc. The company, whose operations revolved around manufacturing and refurbishing telecommunications switching equipment, had fallen on hard times.
After riding the wave of the telecom boom in the late 1990s, Link America had been slammed by the dot-com crash in 2001 and had been on the decline since. Its revenue, which peaked at $12 million in 2001, had plunged to $3 million by 2007. Many manufacturers, unable to compete with China’s dirt-cheap wages, were moving their operations to the Far East.
Ruzo detected that trend gathering momentum and consequently was trying to transform Link America from a telecommunications equipment manufacturer to a provider of related services. But the plan wasn’t working well and time was running out.
“We were losing money, cutting costs, racking up debt,” says Ruzo, who started Link America as a one-man operation working out of his son’s bedroom in 1994. “The demand kept getting smaller because people were learning to dispose of equipment and replace it as opposed to repairing it or refurbishing it. Up until then, I had always thought repair was a recession-proof business. It turned out to be the opposite.”
Link America kept sinking, and Ruzo wondered how much further down rock bottom might be.
“It was painful,” he says. “I saw that we could no longer manufacture four lines of products and be successful. We couldn’t compete with companies in China paying workers $2 an hour when we have to pay $14 bucks an hour here. It’s impossible.
“So we went from four buildings down to one, and from 100 employees down to five. I even cut myself for six months without salary to keep the other four people working. I was just trying to stay in the game. That was 2007. I think we touched bottom there. I almost bankrupted the company.”
Turn the tide
At about that time, Link America won a contract to build five communications towers at a military base in El Paso. That tided the company over for a while as Ruzo looked for strategic partners to help him convert Link America from manufacturing to services.
Eventually he concluded that his plan to gradually convert the company’s operations from manufacturing to services wouldn’t work. Link America had to bite the bullet and plunge all the way into services, head-first.
“I started looking for an opportunity to sell all of our manufacturing and repair assets,” he says. “We had to jump all the way into the pool and swim — swim into services. After a while, we found a buyer. We sold our assets to a company called CTDI, and that company became our partner.”
CTDI not only bought all of Link America’s manufacturing assets, it also permitted Link America to leverage its balance sheet to obtain lines of credit to help it pursue its plan to become purely a service provider.
“CTDI came to the table and bought a piece of our company and bought in to our vision,” Ruzo says. “They gave us the funding necessary to do the turnaround, and they gave us the financial wherewithal and lines of credit so we could start doing large transactions and grow quickly.
“In reality, they saved us. It’s like building a 15-story building: We knew we had the footprint. We knew we had the design. But we needed someone to help us build the foundation, someone to say, ‘OK, I will fund the construction of the first floor. You do the rest.’ If we hadn’t found that, I wouldn’t be here.”
Ruzo’s vision included converting Link America into a service provider in two market segments related to its already-established expertise in manufacturing telecom equipment: No. 1, offering warehouse management solutions for large telecom carriers such as AT&T and Verizon, and No. 2, building wireless communication networks for public and private emergency service providers.
“The warehouse management solutions part of our business is basically logistics,” Ruzo says. “We support logistically the deployment of hundreds of networks nationwide for optical gear, and we also provide heating, rack and stack, and many other things. That’s one of the two main types of service we provide.
“The other type of service we provide is we build networks for first responders — police, fire, EMS. We build their networks, we provide their radio, we do the installations, we do the engineering, we do the provisioning of all the radios, and we do the support and maintenance.”
The conversion of Link America from a product-based company to a service-based one has worked remarkably well. Once the new model was in place, Link America started growing again immediately. Revenue bounced back from $3 million in 2007 to $12 million in 2008, then leaped forward to $40 million in 2009, $136 million in 2010 and $214 million last year.
“How do you know you’re doing well?” Ruzo says. “Well, I’ve always followed the money. You know you’re doing well when the money starts coming in. And that started for us in 2008. We started landing some contracts — some serious, sizable contracts.”
Among the earliest of those sizable contracts was a pact with a router company called Redback Networks, which has since been acquired by Ericsson. Other large clients quickly came on board, including Fujitsu, Ciena, Dallas Area Rapid Transit and Dallas County Community College. All along, keeping abreast of the latest technological trends has been a key element in Link America’s success.
“We were able to invest in a lot of technology to enable us to be profitable,” Ruzo says. “A large portion of our business is big-volume, low-margin, and what you have to do to be successful in that type of environment is you have to leverage technology in a big way.
“Technology is your enabler. We do thousands and thousands of shipments, and with those types of volumes, everything has to be digital. All of our invoicing, our receivables, our payables, our notifications — everything is electronic. We don’t do anything on paper. If we did, we would need 10 people just in accounts receivable to do invoicing. We have two.”
Link America is committed to keeping its operation lean and scaling up with as few newly hired employees as it can manage.
“We have systems such that, if we scale up on the back-office side, we don’t have to add much,” Ruzo says. “At one point, we added $10 million a month in sales, and we only added one person in accounting. Of course, we had to add a few more people to move the physical product, but we only added one in accounting. That’s crazy. That’s unheard of. And that’s exactly what I mean by leveraging technology.”
Ruzo attributes Link America’s success to its approach of forming strategic partnerships with its clients by showing them how to use cutting-edge technology to manage their inventories more efficiently and, in so doing, to become more profitable by increasing their sales, cutting their costs or both.
“A big part of it has to do with moving a lot of product using just-in-time inventory systems,” Ruzo says. “You have to move the stuff very quickly so that the carriers can order hundreds of thousands of products and you can drive costs out of their supply chain.
“The other part of that is showing them how to increase their sales incrementally. It’s about increasing incremental sales on the top line, and then driving costs of their operations by doing everything cheaper, faster and better. If we do one or both of those things, we increase their profit. And when you do that, you become not only a vendor, you become a strategic partner, because you’re bringing constant innovation to their processes.”
Faith — in the spiritual sense — has also played a major role in Link America’s turnaround, Ruzo says.
“My spiritual life has helped me,” he says. “If you want my secret recipe, it’s human effort and the grace of God working together. I try to be a spiritual person and to always strive to do the greater good — to help our community, to help other people, to treat the world good.
“Paul Coelho has a book called “The Alchemist.” In it, he says that if you always try to do good and to do the right things, the universe will conspire to help you, because the universe is always looking for those kinds of people and for the type of positive energy they’re putting out. When you do the right things, other things will start to flow for you. I believe that. I’ve seen it happen.”
Perseverance has been another key driver in Link America’s success.
“You have to persist to see things through,” Ruzo says. “There have been times when it has come to the point that if the door was shut, I would open a window. If the window was shut, I would go through the roof. If the roof was shut, I would dig a hole. That’s what it takes. You can’t give up. You have to be extremely persistent.”
Recognizing future trends and being willing to cut ties with one type of technology and move on to the next is essential, not just in the telecom business but in many other markets driven by technology.
“It’s good to be in love with your business, but don’t fall in love with the technology,” Ruzo says. “You have to constantly morph yourself and keep up with innovation and collaboration and value co-creation, and you have to always be ready to jump onto the next wave.
“Business comes in waves. You catch one and you ride it for a while, and then that wave starts going down and a new technology starts coming in. You have to constantly be on the lookout for what’s coming next so you can decide where to put your time and resources and when to staff up with the right people to stay successful.”
Courage and decisiveness are other key traits that have helped Ruzo shift Link America and drive it back into growth mode.
“Business changes constantly,” he says. “If you see that writing on the wall and you don’t act, you’re doomed to failure. You’re going to be a dinosaur. You have to keep a close eye on the situation, and when you see it’s time for change, act immediately. Make the decision, formulate a new strategy and implement it — now.
“The other thing is do not be afraid. Sometimes leaders are afraid to call it like it is and make hard decisions. You have to be decisive and make the right decisions ahead of time. Don’t assume things are going to get better. If you have to cut, cut. Don’t wait until the last minute. Don’t keep saying, ‘It’s going to get better,’ and then another month passes and another, and before you know it, you’ve racked up millions of dollars in debt. Take the pulse of your business monthly, weekly, daily. Be smart, be shrewd, be fast. Make strong decisions from the get-go.” <<
How to reach: Link America Inc., (972) 463-0050 or www.linkam.com
THE RUZO FILE
Link America Inc.
Born: Lima, Peru
Education: Bachelor’s degree in engineering, Texas A&M University
Looking back over your years in school, what important business leadership lessons did you learn?
The main thing I learned was that when you don’t have the answer to question, you have to have the discipline and the know-how to go find the right answer. That’s the key thing the university gave me: If you don’t have the answer, here’s how you go find it.
Do you have a central business philosophy that you use to guide you?
Basically, our tagline says that we are in the business of powering sustainable solutions through innovation, collaboration and value co-creation. Those are the three things that are very dear to us.
What trait do you think is the most important one for an executive to have in order to be a successful leader?
Laser focus and persistence. If you can be laser-focused and persistent, you’ll get there. Another important one, especially for entrepreneurs, is you have to be careful not to drink too much of your own Kool-Aid. I’ve had partners and have known people with companies that have grown incredibly, and they start thinking that they can do everything and be everything, and they don’t watch the ball, and eventually they lose their company. Entrepreneurs in particular have to watch out for this. You have to find people to challenge you, in terms of your beliefs and your vision. People that ground you. People that don’t think like you. It’s important to always have somebody who can help you keep your feet on the ground.
What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?
Live in the present and do your best. Also, invest in yourself and invest in the things that you can control. Believe in yourself. That advice was given to me by a guy I knew when I was working in the real estate business many years ago.
It was the first half of 2008. For 15 years, the company that became BioClinica Inc. had developed a strong presence as a medical image management business in the clinical research solutions space. Mark Weinstein, the company’s president and CEO since 1998, had been on board for most of that run.
“It’s been a good business, a dominant business, but in March 2008, we decided to really broaden the business and go into a new area for us, what we call e-clinical solutions,” Weinstein says. “It’s technology and solutions related to clinical research. We were stepping beyond our core business and entering a new space, but our strategic plans were intact.”
Everything was smooth sailing until the fourth quarter of that year, when the economy slammed into a wall, plunging into its worst recession since the Great Depression. Weinstein needed to keep BioClinica on course, continuing to grow its e-clinical solutions business, but he now had to do it in a climate of extreme volatility and adversity.
“When that happened, we had to do what everybody did, which was figure out how to keep the business going and stay profitable throughout the downturn,” he says. “That was a big challenge because we had just stepped beyond our core business.
“The good news is, we did fairly well, we maintained profitability and continued to grow the new business, but our revenue ramp wasn’t quite what we anticipated when we went into the space.”
But keeping the ship on course wasn’t as easy as maintaining a steady heading. Weinstein and his leadership put in months of work behind the scenes to ensure that BioClinica could continue to grow. The company generated $68 million in service revenue last year, up from $62 million in 2010.
Know your strengths
When the recession hit, Weinstein and his team had to do what a lot of company leaders were doing — assess the business and figure out which areas needed which resources in order to help minimize the effects of the downturn as much as possible.
Weinstein knew BioClinica’s best bet was the company’s primary competency — clinical research. He and his team quickly came to the conclusion that the company needed to focus on new ways to employ what it does best.
“We know clinical research very well, and we always approached it from the management of medical images as it relates to information using clinical research results,” Weinstein says. “So we wanted to stay within clinical research, but we needed bigger markets to go after.”
Within the broader category of clinical research, Weinstein decided to pour more resources into technology. With the recession driving business volume downward, e-clinical solutions became more than a new area for BioClinica to explore. It became essential to the company’s ability to weather the recession and emerge from it in a position to continue growing.
“We knew drug development was going to continue, but the challenge we had was knowing that pharmaceutical and biotech companies, as well as the world in general, became kind of like deer in headlights for a while,” Weinstein says.
“So the question becomes, what do you do with your business to try and maintain profitability? Something I have always stressed to my people is that when you hit a down market, the last thing you want to do is exit that down market in a weakened state.”
You can’t adjust the flow of resources in your business without creating a domino effect. Scaling back timetables on projects, reallocating dollars and reallocating manpower all take a cumulative toll on the organization. Your reasoning might be sound, but if you don’t keep your people in the loop, all they’re going to see is chaos and upheaval. Morale will suffer and, in turn, so will your culture.
Weinstein says a CEO’s obligation to his or her people in a time of upheaval boils down to one word: transparency.
“Transparency was a big thing for me because it wasn’t just my issue personally; it was a company issue and a market issue,” he says. “I didn’t see it as everybody’s issue to try and solve it, but I was very open with everyone.
“In some ways, it was actually better from a communication standpoint than some other market situations you might find because everybody in the world knew things were changing. The issue was that we had to do our fair share as individuals and a company to respond to that.”
Weinstein relied on the company’s organizational structure as a vehicle for communication. He focused on developing solutions with his department managers, who then rolled those solutions out to their areas of the company.
The goal was to maintain as much of a sense of normalcy as possible throughout the organization. BioClinica was responding to an economic crisis, but Weinstein didn’t want that feeling to permeate the company ranks. He wanted his people to remain focused on driving growth and finding solutions.
“We started with our executive team and just worked the process,” Weinstein says. “It was pretty similar to what we would be doing in a normal budgeting process. The issue was, the situation was somewhat fluid due to the down market, and nobody knew how long it might last.
“It was a little scary there for a while, because the economy worsened faster than anything I could remember in my career. But I wasn’t alone in thinking that, and everybody understood that they had a role to play in being a part of the solution.”
Face your customers
You can put the best crisis plan in place, plot out every detail and allocate resources perfectly, but it won’t make a bit of difference if sales dry up. If your customers aren’t buying what you’re selling, you’re still in a world of trouble.
Weinstein knew he couldn’t just focus inward on his own strategies and processes. As the economy worsened, he had to look outside the company and make sure his people were still connecting with the people and organizations that purchase from BioClinica. He couldn’t strip mine the customer-facing areas of the company if he expected it to emerge from the recession in a healthy state.
“We wanted to make sure that customers didn’t see us as retreating, so we deemed anything customer-facing to be highly critical with regard to resource allocation,” Weinstein says. “Things like development work might have changed, the rate of change of some of our products and services might not be as fast as we would have liked otherwise, because we had to gauge what the business could support and afford.
“But we didn’t want to do anything that would have affected aspects of the business that are client-facing.”
When the full force of the recession hit, Weinstein and his management team started to receive inquiries from customers as to the financial stability of the company. Weinstein looked up on it as an opportunity to reinforce confidence in BioClinica.
“We deal with all of the top pharma companies — the top 25 in the world plus 75 percent of the top 50,” Weinstein says. “In any given month, we’re sending invoices to about 170 pharma companies. So we did have more inquiries than usual relative to making sure that we did have financial stability, because drug development is going to be the key to their success. The last thing they needed was one of their vendors associated with their clinical research having financial difficulty.
“The way you quell those concerns is through simply being honest. You need to be open with people about where you stand.”
If you try to sugarcoat an issue or dance around a problem, it will come back to bite you. It’s only a matter of when.
“At the end of the day, we are all measured from the outside market from a financial perspective,” Weinstein says. “So for me to say something is happening that is not going to happen, I am delaying something that is going to be causing a much bigger problem if people have valued me based on expectations that are going to change. You really need to manage the expectations.”
However, managing customer expectations can be more easily said than done, especially if the matter involves an employee who wants to make a big impression.
Sometimes, younger employees who are eager to make their mark or simply haven’t mastered the art of managing expectations, will overpromise on a project, which could damage your firm’s reputation. Depending on the size of the account and the influence of the customer, such a misstep can potentially have long-reaching consequences.
“Sometimes, you can have a person who sees a risky situation with a project, but rather than be the bearer of bad news, they’ll tell the customer that they can get the project done without mentioning the risk level involved,” Weinstein says. “That type of situation can end one of two ways: Either you get it done and you’re a hero, or you don’t get it done and you have very poorly managed the customer’s expectations.
“So I always tell people to err a little bit on the side of losing the excitement of being the hero and more on the side of helping the customer to understand the risk you are undertaking. That way, nobody is disappointed.
“Clinical trials never happen as you plan them. As a vendor, one of our roles is to fix problems when they occur. To tell the clients that there will not be problems is not the right answer in most cases.”
Your customer-facing people have to know what constitutes a major risk. As BioClinica continued to grow in the e-research field during the recession, defining the boundaries of what made a given project a suitable risk came down to judgment calls at the executive level.
Ultimately, any decision on risk tolerance is an educated guess. You research the numbers, you measure the resources you can put into the project and you gauge the expectations of the customer. Beyond that, there are no guarantees. You can only trust the judgment of the people around you.
“We’ve amassed a tremendous amount of experience in our business, and anytime you’re able to rely on people with experience, it’s to your advantage,” Weinstein says. “I feel very comfortable that I can sit down with the right group of people, and I feel confident that we can figure out pretty quickly whether the project under consideration presents a risk that is appropriate for us.
“You can take the risk, but make sure everyone involved understands the level of the risk. The customer could always tell you that they don’t want to take that type of risk.”
If you have to walk away from a project because the risk is too big, it’s never an easy decision. But if it comes to that and you’ve built your corporate culture on a bedrock of integrity and honesty, the right answer should be obvious when you get on the phone to the customer.
“It has to be part of the fabric of who you are as a company,” Weinstein says. “If you’re talking about walking the walk like you talk the talk, I really do require that here. It can be difficult because those are never easy decisions. You want to minimize the number of decisions like that. But you simply have to stay true to the fabric of what you are as a company and who you are as a person.” <<
How to reach: BioClinica Inc., (267) 757-3000 or
The Weinstein file
Born: Washington, D.C. Raised in Richmond, Va.
Education: B.A. in economics, University of Virginia; MBA, College of William and Mary
First job: I filled foundations with dirt in a new housing development. I did it by hand, one shovel at a time, then tamped it down so the concrete foundations could be poured. I was 15 at the time, and that as much as anything convinced me that I needed to go to college.
What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?
As saying I’ve always enjoyed is, ‘Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.’ The path your business takes between here and the realization of your vision is not a straight line. There are a lot of curves and road switches. You have to constantly re-evaluate where you are headed. A good vision two years ago might not be a good vision now.
What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?
I am a big believer in having a strong ego rather than a big ego. A strong ego elicits feedback and makes people want to share things with you. A big ego just turns people away, which is never good. You need input from a lot of different people to run your business the right way.
What is your definition of success?
Seeing the people around me thrive personally and professionally. I am not responsible for the personal lives of the people who work here, but I can help foster a balance between their personal and professional lives. If you have a good personal life, it will help you have a better professional life.
Gordon Krater didn’t know where the bottom was. So he started focusing on the top.
Like just about every business leader, Krater had never seen anything like the recession that started in late 2008. The stock market started free-falling, the housing market crashed and two of the Big Three American automakers went to Washington looking for bailout money.
Not even the most educated and experienced of economic analysts knew where the slide would stop — or when. As the managing partner of financial and business advisory services firm Plante Moran PLLC, Krater faced a choice: Either brace for the eventual rock-bottom impact or focus his 1,700 associates on discovering present and future areas of opportunity despite the depths of the economic crisis.
“The most important thing was to not listen to all the noise,” Krater says. “Every day it seemed like there was bad news, but we couldn’t focus on just that. We needed to figure out what we thought was really going on. We needed to assess where we were and try to set a positive tone for the organization.”
Krater was elected managing partner in October 2008, on the front edge of the recession, and took over in July 2009, right in the middle of the economic free fall.
Thrust directly into the storm, he had to quickly figure out where Plante Moran could still generate positive momentum and rally his workforce around those areas — and he had to do it while his entire workforce was immersed in an environment riddled with stories of layoffs, foreclosures and bankruptcies.
“In the absence of communication, people assume the worst,” Krater says. “So one of the things I’ve learned over the years is that people really need to hear what is going on, and they need to hear that you are still confident in the company’s future. People won’t follow pessimists. They’ll follow optimists who are also realists.”
Get the real story
During the recession, employees at companies around the country consumed daily media reports about the deepening crisis. By the time team members arrived at the office for work each morning, they had already scanned a newspaper, watched TV during breakfast or listened to the car radio on the ride to work. Krater was already facing an uphill battle against negativity before he stepped into his office each day.
Krater couldn’t stop the bad news, and he couldn’t stop his staff from consuming bad news. But he could show everyone at Plante Moran that there was another side to the story.
Yes, the economy was in dire straits, and yes, it was putting a strain on just about every business. However, that was the surface-level story. If Krater dug a little deeper and asked a few more questions, he believed he could find the toehold that would help give his people a more positive outlook on the future.
To get the answers to his questions, Krater utilized Plante Moran’s vast and powerful client base.
“We have a really solid base, so we are a great place to take the pulse of the economy,” Krater says. “We have thousands of clients that include influential companies and leaders in our region. So I went out and talked to them. I tried to get what was fact versus what was conjecture, the real reactions to the issues at hand versus the reactions to a state of paranoia.
“I wanted to get a real sense for where our clients thought things were going, and where things were headed in reality. I didn’t want to just read a bunch of things in the media and allow us to be influenced by that. We needed to talk to our clients to get a real sense of where things stood.”
Krater was able to take what he learned from the firm’s clients and use it to keep his staff more thoroughly informed. If Krater foresaw a drop in business related to a particular account, he shared as much as he could regarding the reasons behind the drop in business and the potential severity of the drop.
“Rather than simply saying, ‘Business is down,’ we tried to answer how far down,” he says. “There is a big difference between business being 40 percent down and 5 percent down. If we had someone worried about whether a contract would be renewed, like a major auto supplier, versus having a contract canceled outright, there is big difference between those two. A big part of what we had to do was differentiate what was really happening versus the fear of what might happen.”
Krater wanted to focus his people on the day-to-day work of running the firm, not the horror stories coming from the nation’s financial centers. The staff at Plante Moran couldn’t help what was happening in Washington and on Wall Street, but they could do something about positioning the firm to weather the storm by strengthening its client relationships.
“People were concerned about the possible collapse of the financial system,” he says. “It was this growing idea that business as usual was over, and there was a new normal, which was a difficult concept for a lot of people to accept, both here and elsewhere.
“Here in Detroit, we had a front-row seat to watch GM and Chrysler go into bankruptcy, and nobody knew if they were going to come out. So all of that was swirling around, and we couldn’t do much about a lot of it. So what we needed to do was focus on our clients. We needed to do what we could, which was to serve our clients in the best way possible to help them through those tough times.”
Taking control of a crisis means to take control of communication. Your people need to hear the truth about your company’s situation directly from you, which means you need to stay well informed, so that you can better share information with your people.
During the depths of the recession, Krater wanted to give his associates at Plante Moran a realistic view of the situation that the firm was facing. Often, people associate realism with pessimism. Nobody has ever associated a reality check with something positive. But Krater believes pessimism can run as rampant as optimism, if left unchecked.
“That’s why you can’t panic,” he says. “That is why you try to get to reality, to what is real versus what is being thrown around out there. You try to find your own answers as to what is going on out there with the economy, as opposed to taking what you read at face value. Of course, I read everything I could get my hands on about what was happening out there, but you verify what you read.
“You can be truthful and realistic and optimistic at the same time. I wanted our people to know that despite what was happening, we are still going to be here, we are going to emerge stronger than ever, and most importantly, here is how we’re going to do it. You need substance to your message.”
By taking control of communication, you are really taking control of your culture. When tales of woe are assaulting your people from all sides, morale starts to erode; the collective confidence of your people starts to wane, replaced by anxiety and paranoia, which produce a counterproductive work environment.
With frequent and comprehensive communication, you can combat the negative inertia of a crisis by reminding your people why your company can still be successful and by focusing everyone on those items. That approach reminds your people that they’re not helpless, they’re still capable of controlling the company’s destiny, and they have a means of pulling the company out of the crisis.
In short, you want to promote a message of empowerment.
“We tell a lot of stories around our firm, and we’ll talk about clients and their experiences with us,” Krater says. “Frank Moran was our founder, and his undergraduate college degree was in philosophy. One of the things he’d talk about was the idea that we were a people firm disguised as an accounting firm.
“So we have been focused on our culture, ideals and principles since the beginning. We’ll relay stories to each other about a staff member who helped a client, how it happened and so forth — not unlike how I hear Quicken Loans does it.
“If you ask a person who has been there for two years or more, they’ll be able to give you a number of examples of how to deal with a given situation, based on a story they heard from somebody.”
Properly managing communication, and by extension your culture, is a critical component of crisis management. If you let your culture wither in a time of crisis, you’ll find it is a long road back when you set about rebuilding it.
“Every company has a culture,” Krater says. “The question is, is it good or bad? If you let your culture go bad, one of the toughest things to do is rebuild it. It takes so much energy and time, and it’s just a very difficult task. It takes energy away from serving those who you have to serve outside the company in order to make your living. We have a great culture here, and one of the things we do is fiercely protect it. You can’t let anything get in the way of that.”
Invest in what you can
During a recession, or any time of crisis, you need to spend money.
It seems counterintuitive when business is down and revenue is drying up, but when you face choppy financial waters, your company needs you to invest in resources and talent more than ever.
At Plante Moran, Krater and his leadership team made a commitment to hiring new talent during the recession. With added talent, Plante Moran was able to explore new business avenues and set itself up for a period of growth as the recession has loosened its grip over the past two years.
Plante Moran frequently hires college graduates straight from campus, but during the recession, Krater and his team took a bit of a different approach.
“Other companies had to cut some really good people loose, and because of our strong culture and reputation, we were able to attract some really good people who had been cut from other companies,” he says. “That’s one of the biggest advantages of making your culture a priority. You can provide opportunities for people, and they know you are a great place to work.”
If your people know they can impact the future in a positive way, they’ll want to work for your company, regardless of the economic landscape. If they know their work will be appreciated by management, and make a difference in the long run, it will be much easier for your people to tune out the negativity around them and develop a goal-focused mindset on improving your company’s outlook.
“People want to feel like they’re in the know, and they want to feel like they are making a difference,” Krater says. “One of the problems you can run into as an organization gets larger is this attitude of, ‘If I don’t do this one little thing, it won’t matter.’ It can become harder to connect them to the impact they can have.
“Any business, any profession is a game of inches. The little things make the difference between real success and not doing as well. It’s having people who are empowered and believe in their ability to make an impact that makes the difference. That is where you find the real gold.” <<
How to reach: Plante Moran PLLC, (248) 352-2500 or
The Krater file
Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration, University of Michigan
First job: It seems like I always worked growing up. I was always cutting grass or babysitting. The first time I got a W-2, however, I was a lifeguard at a municipal pool when I was 16.
Krater on making an impression on Michigan State University men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo: We have an annual firm conference where we close the firm down for a day, right around the end of our fiscal year on June 30. Every single person is invited, no matter what their role is. It’s a day when we talk about the firm, what we’ve done, what our goals are going forward, and we celebrate. We celebrate not only the successes of the firm, but of the individuals in the firm.
Oftentimes, we have a guest speaker, and one time we had Tom Izzo come in and speak to us. I was talking to him before the meeting, he had his notes on what he’s going to say, and he asked me ‘So, who is here today?’
I told him everybody in the firm is here. He says, ‘You closed the whole place down? Every single person is here? Not many people walk their talk like you guys do.’
On the spot, he changed what he was going to talk about. He talked about (his 2000 national championship team) that had a rough start to the year. And he actually called in the maintenance man, his administrative assistant and a lot of other people besides just the players. He told everyone, ‘You know what? We’re not doing a very good job. Everybody has to do better, because everybody contributes to the success of this organization.’
He talked about how when they won the national championship, and they got the championship rings that everybody covets so much, the first ring went to the janitor, because he is the guy who opened the gym so the players can practice.
That sends the message that everybody’s contribution is important. That is how we feel, and needless to say, he was a big hit speaking to 1,700 people about something that we really try to practice.
When Al Crawford visits Disney theme parks, he’s thrilled by the rides, the theatrics and the entertainment. But what really leaves him in awe are the park’s employees.
“I’m absolutely amazed by an organization like Disney,” says Crawford, chairman and CEO of the Southwest Ranches, Fla.-based Bankers Healthcare Group Inc. “I’ll walk through their parks and I’ll ask, ‘How do they handle this? How do they control everything?’ … For just one park, you wonder how do you get the right people being responsible?”
At the time they founded BHG in 2001, Crawford and his partners didn’t have to worry about any of these questions. Among the three of them, they had all the skills they needed to launch a successful venture on their own.
As president, Robert “Bobby” Castro, was “the guy who brings the business in” and “makes it rain.” His brother Eric Castro —BHG’s COO and the “glue” between the three founding partners — put the systems in place to help the company scale. Then there was Crawford, who handled finances and built the balance sheet for the company, which provides financial services to medical professionals.
“One of the unique things about the company was that you didn’t have to go out there and hire people to do things that you didn’t know how to do, because the original three owners had expertise and experience in really all areas,” Crawford says. “So you didn’t rely on anybody else. You knew that you had the experience and that your partners had brought a tremendous amount to the table to get the job done and to grow the company.”
But as growth accelerated, so did the demands on the three partners. Soon enough, the notion of doing it all was feeling more like a burden than a joy. Like the Disney parks, they needed to assemble a team of people who could run the organization’s day-to-day operations and could be trusted to make decisions and take care of customer needs independently, so that the owners could focus on expansion. Yet this was easier said than done.
“When you’re doing everything yourself, you know there’s accountability,” Crawford says.
“As we grew, one of the challenges has been letting go of those reins and finding people who had the passion and dedication that we did in all three areas.”
Recognize when you need help
Flash back to 2005, the three owners were drowning in the responsibilities of day-to-day business. They no longer had the time and resources to run the company on their own. But when you’ve been handling certain parts of your business independently for years, it’s hard to recognize when it’s time to delegate some of your job to other people.
One way to gauge whether you need to reallocate some responsibility is by asking, “Can I take a vacation?” For instance, whenever partner Bobby Castro was out of town, it showed up in the bottom line.
“It was where you just couldn’t handle it all by yourself, and the fact that you were trying to handle it all by yourself was actually hurting the company,” Crawford says.
“I could tell you when Bobby was on vacation because there would be a drop in originations, which is unacceptable when you’re looking at $15 million of small ticket $100,000 loans on a monthly basis. All of a sudden Bob’s on vacation so we do $7 million that month because he was gone for 10 days. We can’t have that. We’ve got to have other people that, though maybe not as good as Bobby, are close.”
Another question to consider is how many hours are you working? Working nights and weekends may be necessary when starting out, but 60-hour workweeks may not be the best use of time for the CEO of a growing business.
As the head of finance, Crawford found himself struggling to juggle too many tasks while also trying to finance business growth. COO Eric Castro faced a similar dilemma.
“Eric was close behind me in saying I can’t build all of these systems myself,” Crawford says. “I need to hire people, and we need to grow proportionately.
“So I had to grow my section — I can’t run around talking to banks for the rest of my life, because I’m also trying to handle accounting. We’re trying to handle legal. And I need to be a little more grounded. Consequently, I need some people who can do what I’m doing and do it just as well and not drop the ball.”
In the end, each of the partners felt the strain differently and independently. But acknowledging that they needed to let go of the reins was a critical step in preparing the company for the next stage of growth.
“As your plate starts to grow beyond an average of eight to 10 hours a day and you truly to see growth from a P&L standpoint — you’re making money and you’re becoming more profitable — you need to put the money out and start to mentor somebody,” Crawford says.”
“From a real microeconomics look, as the tasks become so vast that you find yourself just about getting to none of your to-do list, it’s time to find somebody who can start to take some of those tasks.”
Reset your priorities
Delegating responsibility to other people is a relief for some leaders, but incredibly difficult for others. Either way, it helps to start small.
As Crawford and his partners began unloading some of their mounting job responsibilities, they handed off their lowest priority items first.
“If I made a list of everything I had to do today, there’s probably a bottom 10, 15 or 20 percent that somebody else could do,” Crawford says. “And they could do it just as efficiently as me. If I’m just running around in circles and constantly trying to catch up, constantly not getting to things, I’d be better off and more efficient doing the bigger things better and allowing somebody else to do that bottom 20 percent.”
Instead, take that bottom 20 percent and give it to a new employee, who can give it his or her utmost attention.
“Give it to the person who is looking to ride something in that department and let them make it their top priority, so all of the stuff on your list is always getting high priority,” Crawford says. “You’re getting effective representation if it’s customer service stuff. Your customers are being serviced better.”
If it’s taking you two or three days to get back to a client or customer, ask yourself if there’s an employee who could take the task of following up on phone calls or even an entire account. A new person will also be excited and eager to get back to them, Crawford says.
“Maybe they are not dealing with you, but that’s OK,” he says. “Because dealing with you is really hurting the relationship because you haven’t gotten back to them in three days. That type of delegation makes the whole organization better, when you can take a look at your list and say, ‘What am I not doing well here?’
“Delegate that to someone who’s anxious, who’s looking to climb, looking to grow within your organization, and they make it No. 1 through 5 on their list, so it gets done extremely well.”
Help new people learn the job by staying close to them — literally. As Crawford began delegating to new leaders, he frequently had them in his office or next to his office to shadow and learn from him. He also confesses that finding the right people tends to be a process of trial and error.
“It’s no different than a professional baseball team or a football team,” Crawford says. “They can go out there and they can literally go after what they think is going to be the best quarterback in the country. And he can be a flop.
And just because someone has pedigree or experience doesn’t mean that he or she is going to be a success.
“We’ve had people who we’ve hired that have been tremendous,” he says. “We’ve had people that we’ve hired who we thought were going to be tremendous who were horrible. And then we’ve had people who we hired that we cultivated, homegrown and have become superstars.
“It’s finding the right candidate with the right degree, the right experience and the right attitude that you bring in and put in close proximity to you. You look for them to just really absorb everything you’re doing. You try to share what you’re doing, and you look to grow them into your spot, honestly, so they could replace you.”
Find people like you
Since 2001, BHG has grown from its original three partners to 150 people. And as a result, Crawford doesn’t see the “young, aggressive, talented person” anymore. Instead, most of the hiring decisions are pushed down to different department heads, who are given the freedom to hire, fire and mentor the people who work within their area.
“We use that model where you’re counting on people who you’ve trained, people who are moving up the corporate ladder, and they have earned the respect of their peers, earned the respect of the owners,” Crawford says. “Now they’re making the same decisions that you were making two or three years ago, and they’re looking to grow that department by implementing the same type of strategy.
“So they’re going to find that person. They’re going to find a person that fits with them, and they’re going to mentor that person in the same way.”
As people become more independent, they’ll take on larger roles in the company and eventually their own disciples. This tiered mentoring ensures that new leaders are continually being developed at all levels of the organization.
“It’s important for me, Bobby and Eric that people within your department respect you and they look up to you, and your personal traits and business traits appeal to them,” Crawford says. “If we can get that out of the individuals that work for our department heads, it’s a home run because they’re the people that have to do the entire day’s work with their peers.”
Furthermore, managers in the company can be more effective because they’re able to surround themselves with people who share their working style, whether it’s fun and laid-back like the BHG marketing department or more structured like in accounting. For example, the company’s lead treasurer, Angela, is always one of the first to get to work and last to leave, so she looks for this work ethic from everyone in her department.
“I can guarantee that she’s going to surround herself with people who are like her,” Crawford says. “It’s going to run in straight contradiction to her if you’re coming in at 9 a.m. and you’re leaving at 5 p.m. You’re taking an hour and a half for lunch ... It’s just not going to work. Angela probably works longer hours than I do. So if you’re in her department, you’re probably going to log some hours. And she’s got to hire. She’s got to fire.”
Hiring and mentoring people who share your values is important, but it doesn’t mean you want to fill your company with a bunch of “yes-men” either. That’s why Crawford always abides by the rule to hire intelligent people who are passionate about keeping the business innovative and thinking for themselves.
By developing and mentoring new leaders for the company, the partners grew BHG to $155 million in revenue in 2011, making the company a staple on Inc.’s list of fastest-growing companies, with six appearances in the last seven years. The company also received the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2012 Award in the Financial Services category in Florida — evidence that the new generation of leaders is carrying on the vision of its owners.
“We love to hire people that are smarter than us, that can bring ideas that we’re not bringing and that can just really push the envelope,” Crawford says. “In the future, we have the right people in place to challenge us daily, to come up with new products, to bring better solutions to the customer. And with those solutions, you’ll see a growth in business.” <<
How to reach: Bankers Healthcare Group Inc., (866) 297-4664 or www.bhg-inc.com
- Recognize when you need to transfer responsibilities
- Delegate some duties to a new employee
- Encourage managers to hire and mentor people like them
The Crawford file
Chairman and CEO
Bankers Healthcare Group Inc.
Born: Troy, NY
Education: BA from Gettysburg College, 1984
On being a worry wart:
I’ve been told that, ‘Geez Al, you worry a lot’; and it’s interesting, because Bobby [Castro] – he doesn’t worry. He’s so type A. The glass isn’t half full with Bobby. The glass is 7/8 full. And so that’s been a real help for me, because I’m a positive person. But a positive person can still worry about what’s coming around the corner.
What’s the best piece of business advice you’d give to another leader?
I don’t think it’s bad to worry and to be concerned that the world changes daily now. You have to be concerned. There are so many things that don’t last forever. For me it’s been a trait of always looking over my shoulder to see what might be coming at us from behind us and worrying about that, yet still not dwelling on that.
You’ve got to be positive. You’ve got to be thinking outside of the box. And I think the two traits go well together, where you’re willing to push on your people and willing to push on yourself…because nobody wins the Super Bowl every year.
On trusting your partners:
It’s trust in what they’re bringing to the table to the company. I’m dealing with two brothers who are 66 percent. People say to me, are you ever concerned about that? Could you be voted out? It’s not even a thought. They trust my opinion. They respect my opinion when it comes to growing the company, being the CEO of the company. And I feel the same exact way about them as individuals.
On loving what you do:
We’ve never been interested in even looking at a sale of the company because to sell the company and then have a non-compete clause and have to do something else – we like what we’re doing. To a point that might be not a good thing because maybe there’s a time where every company should be sold, but for us, it’s kind of like; well, what else would we want to do?