Early in his career, Brad Eller was promoted to a position that, by title and job description, he didn’t have enough experience to have, and the new role opened his eyes.
“When that happened, what I realized very quickly is people do not think the same way that I think,” Eller says. “People do not do the same things that I do. People don’t approach problems or issues or conflict the way that I approach those things.”
At the time, he didn’t have the resources to hire a coach to help him, so he immersed himself into reading a variety of professional books to help him learn how to understand different personality types. What he learned still helps him today as president and CEO of LEVEL5 LLC, a construction management services company that has climbed the Inc. 500 list as a result of its growth from $1.5 million in revenue in 2004 to $47.5 million in 2007.
Smart Business spoke with Eller about how to understand personalities and build a strong senior management team.
Develop a strong senior management team. Everyone has to understand the need of a senior management team. One person cannot drive a business. It takes a group of people, and it takes a group of people that have alternative thoughts or different perspectives for a president or CEO to really get a read on any situation or issue or problem or actually to create a vision.
How I developed that is twofold. One, there’s going to be people in the business that you didn’t select — they’re in the business, so you have to understand those people and you have to understand what perspectives they bring to the table and what their talents are. I don’t want to go too far into psychology but kind of what is their personality profile? Where do they stand? How do they view life? You have to understand the perspective of who that person is and what they represent.
You have some of those people and then you have the ability or occasion to bring in other people. You have to bring people into your organization in areas where you’re lacking. Sometimes managers surround themselves with people who think like they do, and that’s a mistake. You have to look at the uniqueness.
Senior leadership, it’s like a stew; my job is to put the right ingredients in the stew — make sure that those ingredients complement one another. I can’t put the same ingredients in, otherwise it wouldn’t be a stew, and I have to make sure the ingredients bring out the flavor of the other ingredients and that it blends. Then I have to occasionally taste it and add ingredients. Sometimes my job is to stir it up a little bit. Then my job is to sometimes put the heat on and sometimes to turn the heat down.
Take time when hiring. From my perspective, I’m committing to someone for their livelihood. One of those fundamental leadership things that I have is I need to make it work. It needs to be successful, so I need to make the right decision.
I begin with a phone interview. Certainly we talk about experiences, previous work history, but we also talk about what do you want to accomplish in your career, what is the perfect job, how do you see yourself progressing, where would you like to be in 10 years, how much money do you like to make?
Then I like to bring the person into the organization, and I like to conduct an interview and meet the person. Depending on the strength of the phone interview and the personal interview, I’ll invite them back the second time. That second time, that’s the most rigorous of all because I try to have all of the other senior managers spend an hour with them — it can be a long, tiring day for the right candidate.
Then we meet and everyone provides feedback. Then, based on that feedback, I call the person in again. If you find a talented person, they may have other offers, and they’ve got decisions to make, and sometimes I have to accelerate through that, but I make it clear that we don’t want to rush through the process. It’s got to fit.
It’s like buying a pair of shoes. I go to the store, and I see a great pair of shoes, and I put them on and they don’t really feel right, but I buy them anyway and take them home and wear them into work, and my feet hurt and have a blister, and the shoes didn’t work. You don’t want to do that with people. You want to make sure that it works and make sure that it fits.
Mix everyone together. You have to make sure that your team understands that everybody is there to provide different alternatives and perspectives. So when we have a meeting, we want to have rules because I want power dialogue in the room. The main rule is you attack an idea not an individual. Other rules are there’s no rank in the room, and you have to be present, you have to be engaged.
Then what you have to do is you really have to teach your senior management team how to engage in conflict so that people can disagree and it doesn’t ignite emotional fire. It’s an education on how to engage in conflict. Organizations grow through conflict. If a conflict is resolved, they can stay on that growth curve, but if the conflict’s not resolved, you decline.
What you want to do is by heating up the fire or stirring the pot, when it makes strategic sense, have some conflict. You’ve got to check the temperature of your organization. If people are complacent and everybody just seems to be complacent, then obviously that’s when you need to insert a little bit of heat and conflict. If everybody is out there firing on all cylinders, and they’re working hard toward a common goal, then that’s when you need to turn the heat off, and you don’t need to stir the pot. Let it simmer. It’s a good tasting stew. It doesn’t need me doing anything to it.
How to reach: LEVEL5 LLC, (404) 761-0008 or www.level5.com
Numerous pieces of federal legislation have been proposed to control the high compensation costs for executives at public companies. While decisions on the legislation are not expected until later this year, approval would impact disclosures, reporting and corporate governance for public companies.
“Any company registered with the SEC will be affected by these new rules if they are finalized,” says Kevin A. McGill, an attorney with Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC.
Smart Business spoke with McGill about the different pieces of legislation, new rules developed by the SEC and how to prepare for possible approval of the legislation.
What are the proposed pieces of legislation?
Sen. Charles Schumer recently introduced legislation to overhaul a number of governance areas. Sen. Schumer’s legislation includes significant provisions, such as:
- ‘Say-on-pay,’ which gives shareholders an annual, nonbinding vote on executive pay practices
- ‘Say-on-severance,’ which gives shareholders a nonbinding vote on severance packages for executives following M&A transactions
- Enhanced proxy access, which makes it easier and cheaper for investors to nominate their own directors
- Elimination of classified boards, which requires companies to hold annual director elections rather than voting on a portion of the board each year
- Majority vote standard for director elections, which requires directors to resign if they do not win a majority of votes
- Independent board chairs
- Risk management board committees appointed by boards
The Shareholder Empowerment Act was recently introduced by Rep. Gary Peters and goes a bit further than the Schumer legislation. This legislation would implement eight governance reforms highlighted in a Council of Institutional Investors letter to Congress late last year. These include:
- Majority voting for directors
- Enhanced proxy access for long-term investors in nominating their own director candidates
- Elimination of uninstructed broker votes in uncontested director elections
- Separation of board chair and CEO positions
- Nonbinding annual shareholder approval of executive compensation
- Independent compensation consultants
- Clawbacks of unearned incentive compensation
- Bar on severance for executives terminated for poor performance
Finally, Sen. Richard Durbin introduced the Excessive Pay Shareholder Approval Act and Excessive Pay Capped Deduction Act of 2009 in May. The first act would require a supermajority shareholder vote — 60 percent — to approve a compensation structure in which any employee is paid 100 times the average employee salary at that company. A company’s proxy statement would also need to include disclosures related to the compensation of the lowest and highest paid employees, average compensation paid to all employees, and total compensation and number of employees paid 100 times the average compensation.
The second act would limit a company’s federal income tax deduction for compensation paid to executives receiving 100 times the average employee compensation. Any amounts paid in excess of this cap would be considered excessive and would not be deductible. Any company paying excessive compensation would be required to file a report with the U.S. Department of Treasury.
What rules does the SEC have in place?
The SEC put fairly extensive proxy statement disclosure rules into place in 2006, but there have been complaints that there was not enough emphasis on compensation policy analysis. The SEC has recently proposed rules that would require a more enhanced discussion about how compensation policies impact a company’s ongoing business. Many companies, primarily in the financial services sector, compensate employees heavily based upon business success and performance. The SEC is looking for a better analysis of how this method of compensating employees may impact business risk, i.e. whether employees of a company or particular business unit are encouraged to take on too much risk in an effort to increase individual compensation. The aim of these new rules would be to allow investors to assess whether a company’s compensation policies are properly aligned with the long-term success of the company.
Currently, the SEC requires a company to include a number of compensation charts in its proxy statement, including disclosures related to option and stock-based compensation. The proposed SEC rules would change the manner in which such compensation is reported in a company’s proxy statement by requiring that option and stock awards be presented in the tables at their aggregate grant date fair value rather than the dollar amount recognized for financial statement presentation.
How can you become educated on the legislation and prepare for possible approval?
Public companies need to be working closely with outside counsel and accountants. Some of these proposed items would require pretty extensive disclosures and could have some serious business impacts, especially if your company’s compensation policies emphasize success-based pay. If you have a good year and certain employees are rewarded for that success, you may not be able to deduct the excess compensation if the 100 times ‘excess compensation’ cap is implemented. You need to be proactive and understand how the legislation and rules might impact your business. Stay tuned, as it will likely be later this year before any new rules are finalized, and we see how many of these areas are impacted.
Kevin A. McGill is an attorney with Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC. Reach him at email@example.com or (404) 443-6704.
Tim Bentsen has been working at KPMG LLP longer than many of his employees have been alive.
After 34 years with the audit, tax and advisory service firm, one thing he recognizes is that he has a large group of generationally diverse people, which makes it a challenge to get everyone to understand him and the vision he’s communicating — and to buy in to it.
“We have so many smart, bright people that are out there trying to serve clients in a variety of ways — how do you keep them all aligned under the firm guidelines, processes, goals and objectives?” says Bentsen, the firm’s managing partner for the Southeast area and the Atlanta office.
He starts by setting goals for the 2,000 people in his region, following up to make sure they understood and then stepping back and letting them execute.
“That links into how do you get buy-in around things,” he says. “You can’t just tell someone, ‘This is our vision, and by golly, you just have to buy it, and it’s our way or the highway.’ You have to let them take some ownership of it. Say, ‘OK, this is the firm’s vision. What’s my piece of it? How can I influence it at my level? And how, at my level — even me as a partner — can I really influence what’s happening?’
“If you start to understand that piece and see how if I push in that direction or contribute in this particular area, it helps move the firm forward overall.”
You’ll never be able to get a group of people going in the same direction if you don’t set the direction for them, so the first thing that is crucial to keeping people aligned is to set goals.
“The key is just set a real clear set of goals and objectives and keep them focused on that, and you continue to say, ‘This is what we do, and this is what we will not do, and this is how we’ll engage with our people, and this is how we’re going to engage with the marketplace,’” Bentsen says.
When it comes to setting clear goals and objectives, it’s often more difficult than we’d like to think.
“We’ve all heard it for years — keep it simple,” Bentsen says. “That’s what we have to do because professional services, we can make it sound awfully complex, but it’s really fairly simple. If we understand our clients’ business issues and help them solve those, it’s not a whole lot more complicated than that. … We just have to keep in front of us a clear understanding of who we are and what we’re not, what we’ll do and what we won’t and how to engage with our clients in accomplishing that.”
Bentsen has to take a look at KPMG as a whole and then break it down from there. For example, as an international organization, the company has goals and objectives it wants to accomplish. From there, the U.S. entity also has goals that it’s looking to achieve. From those goals, Bentsen needs to look at how his regional area can fit into that puzzle of achievement. He then uses those tasks to create goals for his people.
“It starts at the very top with the firm’s priorities and strategies, and it transcends down into the businesses, be it geographic or functional, which then goes down to specific teams and individuals — what is my role, what are the things that I’m expected to do to help the firm accomplish its overall goals?” he says.
A lot of times it may seem overwhelming when you’re determining what goals to set for yourself or your people, but Bentsen says you have to choose the most important tasks to focus on.
“Don’t overdo it,” he says. “One of the real challenges is to keep it fairly clear. … Our leadership team might say, ‘Tim, here’s 47 things we need you to do.’ I cannot focus on 47 things, so it really needs to break down to, ‘Tim or Sue or George, what are the three to five things that you do that will move the business forward?’
“So I would say to keep it really clear, keep it somewhat of an ability to focus on priorities. What are the three to four things that will really make a difference?”
He says there are some ways to know how to choose top priorities.
“One, you have to use your own knowledge and intuition about what’s really important, but I’ll also play that back to my boss, and I would encourage people to play that back to their leaders,” he says.
For example, when you or your people are part of multiple projects, everyone thinks that the project he or she heads is most important, so how do you prioritize when different people think different things are most important? He says that’s when you have to go through those 47 — or whatever your number is — things and look at which items will most affect the business. Then communicate to everyone involved that these are your 47 things, but these are the four that are most important to focus on.
“I’m going to get to the other 47, but I’m going to address these four things first or keep them sort of the No. 1 priority as I work through the overall list,” he says. “Play it back to the people that you work with to get them to agree and understand what some of those competing priorities are.”
It’s all well and good to set goals for your company and employees, but they still won’t get aligned if those goals aren’t clear and understood by everyone, so you have to check back with them.
“When you’re communicating with someone, setting expectations, you do some follow-up with different groups and levels and say, ‘Did the message get through?’” Bentsen says.
He does this by having people summarize to him what they heard when he’s conducting formal reviews.
“You’re working with me, and I’ll say, ‘Here are your performance goals for this year, and I want you to summarize those and put them back in the formal performance discussion process that we have,’” he says. “So one, it’s your ability to turn around and articulate those in a formal and structured manner and then through ongoing and frequent communication and interaction.”
Bentsen also likes to sit in with his managers when they do this with their team members so he can see that they are doing the same thing and that their people are seeing how they need to contribute.
He also follows up with people after large group meetings.
“One of the things that I’ve learned — you kind of know it, but you learn it the hard way sometimes — is what you believe you say is not always what people hear,” Bentsen says.
For example, when he had a practicewide conference call for his region, where there were hundreds and hundreds of people on the call, he knew there could be misunderstandings. So the next day, he had a call with 15 of his senior associates and asked them what they heard on the call the previous day.
“I went through four or five specific areas that I had addressed,” Bentsen says. “‘OK, this is a topic we covered. Somebody tell me what I said.’ I think just to have that follow-up — and that’s the goal of having this sort of feedback process is to say, ‘Did my message get through, was it understood, how could it have been interpreted by others?’ If everybody is sitting in different contexts and experiences and different things, what they hear is going through all those different filters.”
Get out of the way
After setting goals and following up, for everything to work well, the next thing you have to do is back off.
“My role is to get out of the way,” he says. “We have some outstanding people, and if you set the goals and set the expectations, you want to empower them by having that clarity of expectations and then getting out of the way and then saying, ‘OK, you go do it, and what can I do to support you?’”
Bentsen knows how important it is to get out of the way because he’s seen his own frustrations through his own experiences with micromanagers and, on the other hand, his experiences with those who empowered him.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” he says. “I look at who have been great leaders for me over the years and know that they were there but they had given and they had instilled in me a tremendous amount of confidence — ‘Tim, I know you can do this. I’ve seen you do this before. We’re in agreement this is where you’re going; go do it and check back with me in two weeks,’ or whatever. But you learn from the people that you work with.”
While you may learn how to better let go by watching those who have led you, you’ll also learn how much to let go as you watch those you currently lead.
“As I’ve had the opportunity to work with others, you give more rope to different people,” Bentsen says. “That’s why you get to know people and you understand Samantha here can do some incredible things so I’m going to let her have almost as much rope as she needs, where Steve over here is maybe a little less experienced so we’re going to have a little more frequent touch points.”
Those touch points come in the form of evaluations and metrics. You have to have that follow through and look at how they are performing against those goals and objectives. One of the expectations he has of his people is to provide constructive feedback on someone’s performance in order to help them grow and understand the opportunities they have in the firm. He expects performance reviews of new associates after every project of more than 80 hours. For more experienced people, reviews are expected semiannually. He’s also quick to note that sometimes the best performance “review” is often the immediate and specific feedback that someone provides to a colleague.
“For a huge percentage of the population, they’re just going to do that anyway, but for everyone else, there is an expectation that what gets measured gets done,” Bentsen says.
Once you do all of this, you’ll have good systems in place to move the business forward.
He says, “You set all these expectations, and then you get out of the way and let them go do it and don’t micromanage and have your points of accountability and know that you’re there to support and encourage and help the teams going forward.”
How to reach: KPMG LLP, (404) 222-3000 or www.us.kpmg.com
Chances are you’re feeling the pinch of today’s economy in ways you never expected. With the recent banking crisis, you may be hesitant to share your worries with your bank for fear that it may see you as a risk. And your concern may be well-founded, as more than 40 percent of banks reported a reduction in credit lines to small businesses, according to a survey by the Federal Reserve.
But now, more than ever, is the best time to buddy up with your banker to develop a strong relationship that can help pull you through hard times and can ultimately save you money.
Forming a partnership with your banker makes sense, as you both share a common goal: the financial strength of your business. By talking candidly with your banker about all aspects of your business, you bring a financial expert to your inner circle of decision-making. Along with your accountant and attorney, your banker can help you streamline efficiency and keep you on the track to financial soundness.
“The bank is truly a key adviser to clients, and building a strong relationship between the customer and the bank is essential,” says Gary Dowell, market executive for Georgia, RBC Bank.
When you make time to talk with your banker regularly, you ensure that you receive the best services possible as well as the advice you need to keep your company running smoothly even when the economy is bumpy.Keep communicating
Communication is key during any climate, but keeping the lines of communication open becomes of utmost importance during downtimes. Frequent communication ensures that your banker understands your business and can best assess your needs.
“It boils down to a strong relationship and ensuring they have a meaningful meeting when they get together,” says Bill Peele, executive vice president, commercial banking line of business manager, Atlanta region, SunTrust Bank.
Like in any new relationship, those first discussions can feel a bit awkward. But each time you sit down with your banker whether during a quarterly meeting or through a monthly phone call it becomes more of a friendship. The most basic way to begin building the relationship is by inviting your banker to visit your business, so that he or she can visualize your passion.
“A banker today takes comfort in knowing all aspects of the business and the company,” Dowell says.
From the onset, you must convey to your banker a sense of openness and eagerness to discuss the various aspects of your company. Additionally, there should be an understanding that both sides are in it for the long haul.
“A long-term relationship creates trust, and that’s what clients are looking for,” Peele says. “When they chose to go with the cheapest rate, they don’t get that high level of service that they expect. Business owners don’t want to have to tell their story over and over again; they want to have the same banker and the same bank.”
Discussing a vast amount of information will help your banker understand that you respect the partnership and are looking to the future.
“A business should be very forthcoming with financials and information, good or bad,” Dowell says.
While it’s easy to share positive news, such as unexpected revenue, some executives may find their heart racing when they think about telling their banker that a major account is hovering near bankruptcy. However, discussing matters quickly and honestly can pave the road to an amicable solution. Bankers detest surprises, so ensuring that you are their first line of communication is paramount. If you choose to ride out a negative situation in silence, you run the risk of your banker hearing of your troubles in the newspaper or from a mutual friend.
“A banker would much rather learn about bad news from the client than learning about it in another way,” Dowell says.
While a banker may not be thrilled to hear of financial shortcomings, he or she will ultimately respect a client who does not hesitate to share important information.Maximize the relationship
With a trusted adviser on your side, you can work together to develop a plan to prosper. To make the most of the partnership, go over your business plan together and discuss how to improve efficiency. Even if your company is thriving, you can always benefit from the sound advice of a financial professional who can help you look to tomorrow.
“Just asking the bank to evaluate the business plan is the best first step,” Dowell says.
From there, you can analyze the effectiveness of your current plan and figure out what changes you could make to improve your overall success.
As a CEO, it’s your job to update the bank on any changes in your industry. Your banker can then help you plan your next best step, whether it be trimming costs or planning an expansion. It’s also a good idea to ask for your banker’s opinion on how you can take advantage of the low interest rates offered today. Refinancing may lessen your payments and free up cash for other investments.
Once you have a relationship with a bank, it may be tempting to shop around for additional services. However, remaining loyal to one bank for a variety of products even when you could get a slightly cheaper price elsewhere may actually save money in the long run. When a company has a variety of services throughout different departments of the bank, that company becomes a household name inside the bank and may be considered for special offers.Find the right products
Banks today offer more services than ever before, and tackling the list on your own can be overwhelming. Once your banker understands your company, he or she can assist you in selecting products and services that can streamline your workday and improve your bottom line.
“Any good bank is only going to want to place a client with products and services that make sense to that client,” Dowell says.
Though some services have a fee, the benefits can outweigh the costs. For example, compared to traditional check depositing, remote deposits can save time and money by eliminating the need for an employee to drive to the bank.
In today’s market, cash is king. Products are available that can maximize your cash flow. Your banker can also provide advice on the best use for additional money such as investments or paying down loans.
With the nature of banking constantly evolving, a business must trust its banker to match the business with appropriate products. A company should review its banking products annually to stay fresh on the offerings.
The recession has caused many businesses to cut back on expenses in many areas, including raises. While your employees may deserve raises, you may not have the money there to provide them with monetary recognition. Despite spending decreases, it’s important to recognize your employees’ hard work through other means of compensation.
“Employees are concerned and consumed with the prospect of reduced salaries, temporary layoffs or job losses,” says M.J. Helms, director of operations for The Ashton Group. “Now is the time to retain your super stars. You can attract and retain employees by offering rewards in exchange for time and effort.”
Smart Business spoke with Helms about how to recognize employees, how to keep track of employee performance for recognition and rewards, how to help employees understand the recognition tools, and how to use these tools to leverage your company during the hiring process.
What are the benefits of rewarding and recognizing your employees?
Recognition helps reinforce the actions and behaviors you most want to see people repeat. An effective employee recognition system is simple, immediate and powerfully reinforcing. When employees feel like they matter, they’re much more willing to give their all for your company.
When you praise employees, you let them know you’re aware of their hard work. You acknowledge they’ve put forth a great effort to accomplish something and you’re celebrating that accomplishment with them. It shows that you don’t necessarily need to spend money to make someone feel valued and appreciated.
How can you recognize employees for their hard work?
Employee recognition is not just a nice thing to do for people; it’s a communication tool that reinforces and rewards the most important outcomes people create for your business. You need to show your employees the value they add to the team and point out specific instances where they went above and beyond the call of duty. Recognition, such as identifying one employee each month who has gone above and beyond, needs to be a planned activity. Giving someone a pat on the back in private may make that employee feel good for a few minutes, but taking time to recognize that person during a staff meeting in front of his or her peers will extend that good feeling into days, if not weeks. This also entices others to strive for the same reward. You can even do something as simple as having a Wall of Fame in your office to post pictures of employees and their accomplishments.
How do you keep track of employee performance so you know whom to recognize?
Reward those who make a difference. Keep a personal log of significant contributions your employees make to your company from day one. For example, how they saved the company money or boosted sales, how they handled a project successfully from start to finish or how they showed leadership under pressure. Use as many details as possible, with corresponding data. Remember to base their salary increase on the contributions made to the company.
If you don’t have the funds for bonuses or raises, you may want to consider offering other incentives like flextime, extra vacation time, stock options or telecommuting from home. Even if you cannot offer your employees pay increases, it’s important to show them you are sensitive to the tough times. Find ways to help them, short of spending more money on a raise right now, but always acknowledge they do deserve a raise if the money were there. Taking that approach and working with your employees will allow you to retain and motivate good employees.
You can also include employees in your company productivity planning; you might be surprised at the ideas they may bring forward. Those employees will feel more engaged and appreciated in the company, instead of discouraged because they are not receiving pay increases. Establish criteria for what performance or contribution in the meeting constitutes employee rewards. Ask employees to come to the meetings prepared with suggestions and ideas for increased productivity for the company.
How can you help employees understand the use of these recognition tools instead of pay increases?
There is always room for employee reward and recognition activities that build positive morale in the work environment — you just have to work on these programs. For example, you could have company lunches on Fridays, or prize drawings for those employees who met their goals for the week. Or give your team members who go above and beyond a new job title. Job titles don’t always mean more money, but sometimes receiving a title means more than getting a few more dollars in the paycheck. It show that’s you’re pleased with their performance.
How can you use these tools to leverage your company during the hiring process?
Point out to the potential employee your company recognition program and show you are committed to your employees’ well-being. A well-designed peer recognition program promotes organizational values. Candidates will want to work for a company that recognizes employees for their hard work.
M.J. Helms is the director of operations for The Ashton Group. Reach her at (706) 636-3343 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Born: New Albany, Ind.
Education: Bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering from the University of Wisconsin at Madison; MBA from Pepperdine University
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I think I actually saw it in the back of Forbes magazine when I was a kid, and I’m paraphrasing it I don’t think when you run a business you should waste any energy trying to swim against the current. You should recognize that you’re in a stream, that the current is taking you somewhere, and you’ll waste an awful lot of energy trying to swim against that current.
So what you should do is try to swim to the left and right to avoid the rocks but recognize that the current is already taking you somewhere.
The important thing in starting a business I learned is at some point, you have to just jump into the stream. It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and think about wanting to be part of that, but at some point, you take the plunge, jump in the stream, recognize it’s going to take you somewhere, and do your best to navigate to the left and to the right, and that’s what running a business is to me. The company’s done very well by recognizing that there’s a number of trends going on that we didn’t create, but we’re paddling left and right to make sure we’re staying in the fast moving part of the stream and avoiding the rocks.
What was your first job?
I had a paper route, and then I went to work at a car dealership washing cars when I was in high school, and when I was in college, I became a surveyor. When I graduated from college, I took a job with a company called TRANE, the air conditioning company.
They were looking for some young graduates to start new sales offices in cities where they hadn’t had a presence, and I took that job because they promised me I could go out and open up a new office for them. Even as a graduate I’d always sort of wanted to do my own thing.
What’s your favorite board game and why?
I don’t play any board games. I don’t gamble either. I feel like business is a gamble, and it’s not a vacation for me to gamble. It’s not a vacation for me to play board games or card games.
When Ryan Gunnigle took over as president and CEO of Kids II Inc. in 2004, the infant products company’s revenue was stable but flat. The company was viewed as a respected business, but it was not a key category player. Gunnigle realized early on that a strategic change of course was necessary if Kids II wanted to be successful for the long term.
He immediately established a path to build and establish a proprietary brand, Bright Starts, expand internationally through both infrastructure and retail sales and to enter new, more profitable categories against much larger competitors.
Adapting and implementing his philosophies and new strategies to a global organization of more than 250 employees required clear articulation and support from the top all the way to the bottom. Gunnigle had an endless to-do list, and each day, he had to prioritize what would move him and Kids II forward. While this was a great challenge, he was able to do all of this while also maintaining the spirit of a family-owned business. He has a true open-door policy and is easygoing and approachable. He also believes in operating with transparency, and he holds himself and the company to the highest of standards.
As a result of his efforts, today, the Bright Starts brand represents 65 percent of Kids II’s revenue, and in five years, the company now has 11 global offices and operations on four different continents. It sells products in more than 60 countries and is the No. 1 or No. 2 market leader in every category in which it competes. Revenue has also grown by more than 20 percent during the last four years. Despite the economic downturn, Kids II has stood tall and virtually unaffected as a result of Gunnigle’s efforts.
How to reach: Kids II Inc., (770) 751-0442 or www.kidsii.com
Even though Arul Murugan graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering, he was always fascinated by technology and believed that he could do wonders by applying the right technology to business. So after two years of industry experience with a manufacturing company following his college years, he decided to switch gears and make a career change to implementing ERP technology solutions.
He was very successful, and after another two years, he decided to leave his salaried job and become an independent consultant. This was his first step toward true entrepreneurship. After four years of being a consultant, he started his own business, enrich IT Inc., which specializes in extending Oracle solutions, particularly ERP, CRM, BI/analytics, supply chain and procurement.
At the time, he had just a few thousand dollars in initial capital. Through a combination of believing in himself, doing what he knew best and having visionary thinking all mixed with working hard and being aggressive with a focused approach, he grew the business to several million dollars last year.
What’s more impressive is that he was able to do all of this without borrowing money at any time. Murugan and his wife are 100 percent owners in the company, so they’re able to push back all of the profits to reinvest in the company and the people that have helped them become such a success.
All of this has helped the company catch the eye of people in the marketplace. It has received several notable growth awards over the last couple of years both locally and nationally, including being ranked a top five company in Georgia and being ranked as one of the top five IT services nationwide.
How to reach: enrich IT Inc., (770) 667-0510 or www.enrichit.com
Back in 1972, J. Don Brock and four other men decided to start their own company. The group had previously worked together designing and manufacturing specialized asphalt production equipment, but they wanted their own company that would design, engineer, manufacture and sell a complete line of processing equipment for the hot-mix asphalt industry. With this vision, Astec Industries Inc. was born.
From the beginning, Brock and his co-founders wanted to do business with honesty and integrity. To keep this vow, they made a pact that under no circumstances would they copy a competitor’s equipment or hire local competitors’ employees. They also had to use each of their own net worth to secure financing.
At that time, there were seven major manufacturers of asphalt plants in the country, so competition in the United States alone was pretty stiff. Despite this tough field, in just five months of operation, the team sold four complete plants. Within those first five months, nearly 50 orders were received, and all of those orders demanded a new design. The team came out with equipment with advanced features, efficiency, automation, durability and attractiveness. During this period, Brock and his team were completely committed to doing whatever it took to succeed, so they worked seven days a week and 24 hours a day to service customers and complete orders.
Their hard work paid off, and the company’s reputation for creating and developing superior equipment was recognized throughout the United States as well as overseas. Last year, Astec’s sales for the year were nearly a billion all from absolutely nothing in 1972. Today, Brock holds more than 100 patents on construction machinery and drying equipment that he personally developed. He’s also led the company through 12 acquisitions and currently serves as chairman and president of the company, which is also listed on the NASDAQ.
How to reach: Astec Industries Inc., www.astecindustries.com
Arnie Malham grew his business, cj Advertising LLC, from just two guys and a beat-up car on the street into a full-service advertising agency that services clients from New York to California.
The company has a specific niche that Malham noticed. He saw that there was not a clear way for injury lawyers to get their firms noticed, so he decided to change that. Now, cj Advertising caters to these firms and empowers them to focus on their businesses.
Malham’s employees are all about getting things done because that’s how he is. He operates with a mindset that it’s better to do it and get it wrong than to talk about it all day long and not accomplish anything. One example of this approach is through a new initiative that cj launched, which is a new entity that focuses on personal injury law and news. This didn’t even exist a year ago, and now it does because of their drive for trying new things.
Malham also teaches employees to strive for higher levels and to constantly reach that next big thing. For example, each quarter, employees are paid to read and discuss industry and business books. He says it’s the cheapest and most effective training that the company can offer, and he never misses a meeting of this book club.
Over the years, cj has grown to be the largest full-service advertising agency in the country, but it also continues to cater to personal injury lawyers. Malham’s long-term goal is to build and represent the top 50 personal injury brands in the country. While he offers traditional services of media placement and production, Malham’s firm also completes all of its clients’ marketing plans by offering Web services, public relations, database mining as well as yellow-page design, tracking and management.
How to reach: cj Advertising LLC, (615) 254-6634 or www.cjadvertising.com