Atlanta (1302)

Tuesday, 31 January 2006 11:53

Cultural revolution

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Six years ago, when Charles R. Eitel became chairman and CEO at Simmons Bedding Co., he realized things had to change if the company were going to grow.

As it stood then, its policies were counterproductive, making Simmons an unattractive place to work.

“Simmons was a very autocratic, formal, stiff, bureaucratic company,” Eitel says. “Corporate thought the people at the plants were there to serve them. They had it completely backwards. The only communication was from corporate to say, ‘This is what you will do.’

“Our plants all had very different cultures. They had very little communication; they competed with each other. We had awards we would give out. If it meant hurting another plant to win an award, they would actually do it. It was a very fouled-up culture. And it started right at the top.”

Eitel knew the entire corporate culture of the bedding manufacturer needed an overhaul, so he set out to change the way people throughout the entire organization thought about the $870 million company. To do that, he spent $10 million on a new philosophy, dubbed the “Great Game of Life.”

“The key here is to create an environment where people feel like they’re making a difference, where they can have fun, where they are free to make decision beyond the boundaries of a typical company,” Eitel says. “A lot of this comes from the culture that we’ve created.”

Eitel’s investment in the Great Game of Life was used for training and development and for experiential activities to regularly push associates outside their comfort zone into their learning zone.

“For example, almost every employee of this company has been through a two- or three-day outdoor experience, including a ropes course, classroom training, experiential learning exercises, all geared toward continually helping us to reinvent our company, helping us build a better company,” Eitel says. “There’s a lot of power in people coming together and sharing their truths and their beliefs about what’s what. That’s what the Great Game of Life is about.”

Employees learned how to think in new ways, take charge and have fun along the way. By focusing on changing the attitudes of employees by showing a commitment to caring about them, Eitel more than doubled his company’s earnings in five years.

Value reinforcement
The Great Game of Life represents the core culture at Simmons, and the values of that culture have to be communicated constantly and consistently to get results.

“One of my jobs is to make sure that I have a senior leadership team that’s connected,” Eitel says. “The most important area of connectivity is on the subject of the culture and how we behave. I’ve got five people that report to me, and all five of them believe as I believe on this subject. We’re all different. We all have different perceptions and behaviors, but when it comes to how we treat our people or how we walk our talk, it’s not open for discussion. We have to have this consistency.

“When you have that consistency of behavior and demeanor, it flows through the organization. It takes years to get this message through. Occasionally, somebody messes up at a senior level and goes astray from that behavior. Then you have to back up, regroup and go forward. That’s just part of the process that you’re going through to communicate to people, ‘I care about you.’”

To communicate in simple terms what the company is about, Eitel developed the acronym C.H.O.I.C.E.S. Each letter represents a company value — caring, history, opportunity, innovation, customers, empowerment and support. It is a simple, straightforward way for the Simmons’ management team to communicate the company philosophy to thousands of employees.

“People have trouble, particularly as you work your way down the ranks of an organization, bringing clarity to what a company stands for and what a company is trying to become,” Eitel says. “That word clarifies who we’ve been becoming and also puts emphasis on what we think is the most important going forward.”

And while each letter in C.H.O.I.C.E.S gives represents one of the company’s values, Eitel considers one of them — caring — the most important.

“For us, caring is a very specific core value,” Eitel says. “We care about each other, we care about our customers, we care about our suppliers, we care about our health and our mental health.”

The value of caring is demonstrated both externally and internally. For example, following Hurricane Katrina, Simmons worked with the Red Cross to offer mattresses at significantly discounted prices and encouraged employees to give blood and make donations. Simmons sent more than 6,500 mattress sets at a rate of six trailers per day to dealers near the devastated areas, making it possible for individuals to purchase mattresses at or below wholesale cost.

Caring plays out inside the company, as well.

Eitel says that employees in the plants did their jobs but had difficulty understanding the corporate culture. At the Charlotte, N.C., plant, for example, communication was difficult because 17 languages were spoken there.

“The Great Game is about hooking people up across cultures and across belief systems to come to a common understanding of what is important,” Eitel says.

Now communciations are translated into the languages spoken by employees, making it easier for them to understand the company’s goals and values. It also makes it a better place for people to work because language barriers no longer isolate them from what the company is all about.

Measuring success
Eitel’s cultural shift isn’t just about making everybody feel good about work; metrics measure just how much the culture is affecting key performance measures in the areas of safety, quality, service and cost.

“We rank them in that order,” Eitel says. “We have monthly business reviews and we examine those four categories in considerable detail. If we focus on safety, quality, service and cost, we believe that everything else will take care of itself.

“Treating safety as an unquestioned initiative and behavior says a lot to our people about how we feel about them, about how we care about them,” Eitel says. “As the CEO or the head of manufacturing, I can’t allow anything to go on in this company that is unsafe. There is nothing else more important than safety.”

Employees take the caring message seriously. Three years ago, the company’s annual workers’ compensation costs were $3.3 million; today, they are about $600,000.

“This has been traditionally an unsafe industry, and Simmons wasn’t really running safe plants,” says Eitel. “Today, our safety performance is exceptionally good. A lot of that is just by focusing on it and connecting the Great Game of Life to safety. We’ve driven our OSHA recordables [work injuries that require reporting to OSHA] from a number that I’d be too embarrassed to talk about to below four.”

The Great Game of Life also led to morning meetings at which plant workers discuss the day’s activities. Anyone with a safety concern of any sort immediately reports it to a safety committee.

“The biggest problems you have in bedding plants are back strains,” Eitel says. “That has resulted in moving more toward automated handling of product.”

The second most important metric is quality, and that focus has led to an improvement in how products are shipped. Simmons had problems with returns because the plastic that protected mattresses during transport often tore. That allowed mattresses to drag on the ground, leading to returned products.

One plant’s team solved the problem by putting an extra guard on the bottom of the bed so if it dragged, the guard would protect it. The company also returned to a thicker plastic wrapping.

“We thought we were being conservative and correct for using a thinner material for our bagging,” Eitel says. “The cost of quality from tears was greater than the cost of going to a thicker material.”

The third most important metric is service.

“We’re a make-to-order company,” Eitel says. “When we get an order, there’s always been a belief that you have to make it immediately. We learned that not all of our customers wanted everything immediately.

“We had a flawed belief system — if we didn’t deliver everything in three days, then we were going to disappoint them. Through better communication, we found that a week is fine, even 10 days is fine. Instead of automatically making product and immediately shipping it to them, we’re more likely to ask, ‘When do you need this?’ And then we would provide it when they need it.”

And when customers are served more efficiently, there is more time to plan production, which ties directly to the fourth metric — cost.

“If we have more time in production to plan and still meet service needs, then that reduces our costs,” Eitel says. “Service is measured daily and tracked. Most of those ideas come from product planning and the way product is scheduled. So that comes more from the office side. They’ve been through Great Game as well. They have their own meetings to decide what went right, what went wrong.”

When all four initiatives are done correctly by the employees who have been trained in the Great Game of Life, financial success follows.

“The final performance would be the bottom line,” Eitel says. “If you were to look at the company the year before I came here — our (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) were approximately $50 million. Last year, it was $130 million. We went from $50 (million) to $130 (million) in five years [on revenue of about $870 million], and in the middle of all that, sold the company for over 100 percent improvement in value.”

Eitel’s Great Game of Life has changed the attitudes of employees, and the company has joined Fortune magazine’s list of the top 100 companies to work for. Simmons debuted on the list at No. 100 in 2004 and last year moved up to No. 93.

“Being selected as a Fortune 100 company, for me, is the most important report card that I could get, because my No. 1 job is to create an environment where people can grow and develop,” Eitel says. “What I’m trying to do at Simmons is leave a legacy that goes way beyond me, way beyond my successor and way beyond my successor’s successor to say that we have created a culture here built on a great legacy that, at the end of the day, is about caring for each other, caring for our customers and caring for the environment.” HOW TO REACH: Simmons, or (770) 512-7700

Tuesday, 31 January 2006 09:44

Rising prices

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During the month of January, industry experts put their own spin on the possibility of benefits increases in 2006. Headlines predicted increases in cost from as low as 5 percent to a miserable 19 percent. Only by reading the entire article carefully did you find that each article was correct based on what costs were being reported.

When you read that costs are increasing only mid-single digits, you eventually found in the article that the cost being referenced was the employer’s cost. Employers are keeping their increases low, based in part on changes in plan design and increases in employee costs.

Trends for medical and prescriptions combined are still higher than general inflation and range between 8 percent and 17 percent, based on the medical carrier and their delivery system.

Most employers are choosing plan designs that limit increases in their employees’ payroll deductions. Employee surveys consistently indicate that employees are more concerned about their payroll deductions than their copays and out-of-pocket expenses.

With 80 percent of the general population incurring less than $2,000 in medical claims a year, most people realize that what they really need is affordable major medical insurance.

The transition to high deductible plans and, eventually, health savings account plans will be predicated by the renewal increase.

Let’s examine the question, “How much are my medical rates going up in 2006 from my current carrier?”

Assuming your incurred loss ratio (claims / premium) is 80 percent (the target loss ratio) and there are no changes in your demographics (age and gender), your increase would be whatever trend is for the insurance carrier you are with at the time of your renewal. This is one of the reasons why you want to review trends of the health insurance carriers during your annual review.

The other 20 percent (100 percent to 80 percent target loss ratio) is used for the carrier overhead and profit. If your loss ratio is lower than 80 percent, you should receive a reduction in the trend increase from claims.

In other words, if your incurred loss ratio was 75 percent and the medical trend from the carrier 15 percent, then the increase from claims would be 10 percent (5 percent less than trend of 15 percent). If your loss ratio was 85 percent, your increase from trend would be 20 percent (5 percent more than trend of 15 percent).

Depending on the size of your group, underwriters will blend the claims experience increase and the manual rates to yield your actuarial increase. This is called credibility.

The answer to the primary question of predicting a group’s increase is answered with the following four questions.

  • What is your current carrier’s health care trend?

  • What is your group’s claims experience?

  • What changes will you make in your plan design?

  • What changes will you make in employee contributions?

The primary culprit is still the inflationary factor of providing medical benefits. This factor referred to as trend is more than double general inflation in the best-managed plan and triple that for most health care plans.

Is there any relief in sight? Fortunately, the answer is yes. When most of the insured population of Americans return to major medical plans, you should see trends actually reverse.

When Americans have $2,000 deductibles with no copays, except for preventive health services, simple economics will step in. If Americans stop buying certain services because they feel they can’t afford it, the cost will have to come down. That’s a simple economic fact.

Also, more than 60 percent of Americans are overweight and a shocking 30 percent are obese, and most experts agree that more than 50 percent of health care expenses can be attributed to lifestyle choices. So the other trend reversal is that people will realize that the best way to avoid health care expenses is to stay healthy.

Bruce Bishop ( is director of marketing and managing partner of KYBA Benefits. KYBA Benefits provides consulting and administrative services to moe than 400 corporate accounts, ranging in size from 20 employees to more than 7,000. Reach Bishop at (770) 425-6700 or (800) 874-2244, ext. 205.

Friday, 27 January 2006 05:39

IDology Inc. names Dancu president

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John Dancu has joined IDology Inc. as president and CEO.

Dancu is a seasoned technology executive with expertise in managing rapidly growing companies.

“John is a successful serial entrepreneur with a proven track record of driving rapid growth and building shareholder value,” says Raye Croghan, IDology spokesperson. “He has the experience, talent and vision to continue to build IDology’s market success and leading technology. On behalf of all of us here at IDology, I want to express how excited we are with John’s desire to join our team and move the company into its next phase of growth.”

Dancu worked as president and chief operating officer of Synchrologic Inc. and guided it in its rapid growth and its sale to Intellisync Inc. He also worked as president and COO of Netzip Inc.

Prior to Netzip, Dancu worked as COO and chief financial officer of K&G Men’s Center Inc. During his five years there, he led the company through growth, overseeing its initial public offering and helping to complete K&G’s merger with the Men’s Warehouse in 1999. From 1985 to 1995, he was an investment banker at the Robinson-Humphrey Co.

“I am excited about the opportunity to lead IDology,” says Dancu. “IDology has a talented and dedicated team, excellent customers, technology leadership, financial strength and a leading market position from which to continue its ongoing, rapid expansion in the age and identity verification market.”

Bill Jennings
joined Navigant Consulting Inc.’s Atlanta office as managing director.

Jennings brings 20 years of experience in fraud and forensic accounting investigations to the company. He is a CPA and a certified fraud examiner.

Robert D. Hays Jr.
was elected chairman of King & Spalding LLP and succeeds Walter W. Driver Jr.

Hays joined King & Spalding in 1983 and has served two terms as a member of its management committee since 1999. He has also worked as leader of the firm’s 150-lawyer Tort and environmental Litigation Group since 1995. He has won several key cases, including a jury verdict in 2003 that was elected one of the Top 10 Defense Verdicts of the Year by the National Law Journal.

Hays graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and earned his law degree from Vanderbilt University Law School.

Mirant hired William P. von Blasingame as senior vice president and general manager, Caribbean. He is responsible for all Mirant assets and businesses in the region.

He brings nearly 20 years of experience to the company. He spent most of his career with Edison Mission Energy, where he has been vice president for the past nine years while living in Singapore. He also worked as vice president, project finance, of Edison Mission’s Asia region, and for the last five years as vice president and chief financial officer of the region.

Von Blasingame earned a bachelor of science degree in business administration from Clark-Atlanta University and an MBA from the University of California at Berkeley.

Don Addington
was appointed to the board of directors of Technology Association of Georgia.

Addington is president and CEO of Seagull Software. As a board member, he participates in strategy development, gaining access to industry resources, promoting growth and governance of the association.

Gary M. Austin joined eLifeCare Solutions as director and senior vice president, business development. He is responsible for building and maintaining strategic vendor relationships, generating new business opportunities and securing funding to pilot expansion and product development.

Austin has more than 20 years of C level corporate experience in business and capital development.

Prior to joining eLifeCare, he co-founded Clearwave Corp., a health care solutions provider of radio frequency technology and Web-based kiosks. Before that, he founded HERO Inc., a holding company managing intellectual property in the payment card-based cash rewards business.

Frederic Villoutreix
was hired as chief operating officer of Schweitzer-Mauduit International Inc. following the retirement of Jean-Pierre Le Hetet.

Villoutreix joins the company from Compagnie de Saint-Gobain, a French multinational manufacturer of numerous industrial products, where he had worked since 1990. He held key manufacturing positions in Europe and the in United States, including general manager, world construction products and stone, Luxemburg; and vice president, abrasives Europe and coasted abrasives world.

He earned a master’s degree in science and engineering from Ecole Polytechnique in Palaiseau, France, and a Ph.D. in engineering and management from Ecole des Mines in Paris.

The National Chamber Litigation Center named Joaquin Carbonell chairman of its board.

Carbonell is general counsel for Cingular Wireless and has worked in that capacity since its formation in 2000. He also led the regulatory and legal teams that completed the merger of Cingular Wireless with AT&T Wireless in 2004.

He graduated from Boston College and earned his law degree from Duke University’s School of Law. He also earned a master’s degree in management from Stanford University.

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Wednesday, 28 December 2005 10:08

Uncommon leadership

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Planning the future of one restaurant chain should be enough responsibility for any one person. Philip J. Hickey Jr. must do it for three.

There’s the high-end concept, the one with the strange name and the one named after a funny looking species of cattle.

The three chains — The Capital Grille, Bugaboo Creek Steak House and LongHorn Steakhouse — comprise RARE Hospitality International Inc., which owns and franchises the restaurants. And it is Hickey’s job to find a way to move those three restaurant chains forward, keeping the concepts relevant, the staff trained and intact, and the growth manageable.

“The ultimate goal is to build a company that stands the test of time,” says Hickey, chairman and CEO of the company that posted more than $812 million in revenue in 2004. “Restaurant companies often struggle to stay alive for a long period of time. In our company, we are very fortunate to have been in business for 24 years.”

The first step to growth is making sure the company stays relevant to customers.

“A healthy fear that gets me out of bed every morning is how do we stay current,” Hickey says. “I use the term concept relevance — that is, what we serve, the price we charge for it and the manner in which our people serve it — does that continue to answer the guests’ needs? For example, in the early days of LongHorn, there were nine entrees, one salad, one dessert — a very limited menu. Today, we’ve expanded broadly; we’ve added a number of taste profiles. We’ve modified the box, the restaurant, the interior and exterior seven times. Staying relevant and staying current are very critical to staying alive.”

Hickey knows a little something about what happens when a restaurant concept loses its focus. Although he left the chain more than 15 years ago, as co-founder and former executive of Cooker Bar & Grille, he felt more than a small pang when that restaurant padlocked its final locations in 2004.

But it also served as a cautionary tale.

“They did grow too fast, but also they lost track of the core values upon which the company was founded,” Hickey says. “That may sound like founder’s sour grapes, but I don’t think so. I left in 1989; the company survived for 15 more years after that. But when I left, we had established the foundation and core principles of the company, and a big feature of the foundation was how we treat guests and how we treat our people.

“The guests have to be nurtured and catered to. If, over time, that focus veers away from the guest and more toward financial performance, the guests will abandon the concept.”

To make sure that doesn’t happen at any of RARE’s restaurants, Hickey surveys guests in a number of ways.

“We’re pretty relentless on tracking guest satisfaction from shopper scores,” Hickey says. “We also use what we call top box or intent-to-return scores. We use Internet market research, phone market research, and we also have the verbatim and subjective comments from the managers, the staff and guests sent upstream as well. Again, this is all in the effort to stay relevant to our guests.”

Managing employees
Another way to keep guests happy and ensure the chain’s success is to make sure they see the same smiling faces every time they visit the restaurant. That’s not an easy thing to do in a trade in which the tenure of the average waitperson is notoriously short.

“It’s the bane of our business,” Hickey says. “It is transient by nature. What we strive to do is to build loyalty and to have that person who will stay loyal and stay with our company for a long period of time. We have a large number of long-term employees who are very devoted to their guests and have promoted a family-like feel in many of our restaurants.”

Hickey says it all starts with the restaurant management.

“Most of our restaurants have a managing partner,” he says. “That is a person who buys into the restaurant and has a very focused need to grow the business. Correspondingly, that managing partner has the understanding that the pathway to building loyalty with guests is by having loyalty of the staff members.

“Imagine going into a restaurant and seeing the same friendly faces that you’ve always seen, and they know your name. That’s a very magnetic quality for a restaurant to possess. We try to drive that. Also, the consistency that comes through loyalty — the consistency of food quality and presentation — is something that we continue to strive for.”

The way to do that is by making the restaurants a place that people want to come to work at every day.

“We’ve been able to sustain that in a lot of our restaurants by creating a great culture individually in each restaurant, and trying to have the underlying culture of RARE support those same values,” Hickey says.

And there is a practical side to loyalty.

“Our managers are very well paid,” Hickey says. “We have very competitive benefits. When we benchmark our satisfaction levels against other companies, our managers are very happy. There’s the expectation that our managers have to provide for our crew, our team members. They have to make them happy and drive their loyalty, and they have to get results. If they don’t, then we have to have a dialogue with them and try to modify that behavior.

“We do employee-level satisfaction surveys and we do management level surveys at least annually, and if there are any clouds on the horizon, we do them more often. We do a support center survey of all our support center staff. In addition to that, we go out on the road and we conduct what we call day camps. We bring in every manager in the company once a year, in small groups, to hear the current goals of the company and the future goals of the company and (provide) a reinforcement of some of our cultural benchmarks.”

Management also does small focus groups of six to eight managers at a time.

“We drill down and track all that information,” Hickey says. “We have a lot of different data points for management and crew satisfaction.”

Communication and training are keys to developing top-notch employees.

“Talent acquisition and talent development are the two linchpins to success,” Hickey says. “Most of our leaders are promoted from within. Because of our culture and our track record, we continue to attract people from outside the company, as well. We like that blend of talent.

“The culture that we have is one of training and development. If we can get people on board who have a lot of those skills, we can certainly enhance what skills they have and enable them to grow. We have enormous opportunities, and we love to see someone come on board, take the bull by the horns and grow as fast as they will allow themselves to grow.”

Once those people are on board, RARE takes steps to make sure that their skills do not erode. Each restaurant chain has its own training program, but Hickey also employs a corporate university to make sure that it’s not just those at the restaurant level who keep their skills honed.

“Those are programs that are driven toward driving guest loyalty and creating and sustaining the culture of high food quality consciousness and high guest satisfaction consciousness,” Hickey says. “RARE University is separate from all those, and that is where we train all our managers for all our concepts.

“Management training is two to three months, and then a week at our headquarters and support center. I speak to every class. It takes a lot of time, but we think it’s essential to preserving the culture. We believe that training and development are so key for our continued success. We continue to pour a lot of resources — both people and money — into perpetuating it, trying to perfect that.”

Managing growth
Hickey’s ultimate task, of course, is to increase value for shareholders, and the primary engine that drives that value is growth. But growth cannot come at the expense of destroying the concept relevance — lest the company suffer the same fate as Cooker — nor at the risk of being unable to find the right talent to oversee operations.

Hickey set a goal of 20 percent earnings per share annual growth. To do that he developed a three-part plan that includes growth through new restaurants, margin improvement and same store sales growth at the almost 300 total restaurants under the RARE brand.

Of that 20 percent earnings per share (EPS) growth, as much as 15 percent will come from new restaurants, with 70 percent of them opening in existing markets and 30 percent in new areas.

“Backfilling allows us to take advantage of marketing leadership, economies of scale and, of course, you continue to target new markets to expand and grow your brand,” Hickey says.

Over time, RARE management has learned how many restaurants can succeed in a market.

“We do a number of surveys that cut by population and income and growth,” Hickey says. “We have a large number of factors that we load into our models. Once we begin opening those restaurants in the cities, we see how they respond. We have over 30 restaurants in Metro Atlanta and over 40 in Georgia.

‘Ten years ago, I don’t think we had any idea that we could grow that many. It’s a matter of learning the market and making sure the customer base is willing to embrace more growth.”

That’s still a learning process. The company expected to post a loss in same-store sales for the Bugaboo concept in 2005. It posted a 6.6 percent decrease in the fiscal third quarter of 2005 compared to the same period in 2004, and Hickey brought in a new president to refocus the concept.

RARE’s ESP growth will also come from improving the margin by growing same-store sales. The more sales the restaurants post, the more purchasing power they generate, reducing the costs the chain pays for supplies while still charging the same prices to consumers.

The final piece of EPS growth is from same-store sales growth, of which there are two components:0 guest counts and increasing the average check price.

“We expect to grow our guest counts by 1 [percent] to 2 percent,” Hickey says. “We hope to grow guest counts by first of all delivering exceptional dining experiences, which will, in turn, generate loyalty among those happy guests. In addition, we count on word-of-mouth advertising, as well as our own advertising, to attract a continually growing stream of new guests. While the restaurant business is extremely competitive these days, restaurants can still grow guest counts and sales by exceeding expectations, meal-by-meal, day-by-day.”

The remaining EPS same-store sales growth comes from increasing the amount of the average check through either menu price increases or from quarterly menu promotions that are heavily emphasized to encourage people to choose additional items over what they would normally order.

So far, the plan is working. In the third quarter of fiscal 2005, LongHorn posted its 15th consecutive quarter of same-store sales growth, while The Capital Grille posted same-store sales growth of 4.4 percent compared to the third quarter of 2004. The organization overall posted 14.8 percent net income growth for the same period.

Under Hickey’s leadership, RARE Hospitality is ready to move forward, confident that management will keep the concepts relevant, the staff intact and the growth manageable.

“We like the balance of three growth concepts,” Hickey says. “Obviously, LongHorn is the most stable and established brand of the three, growing 27 [stores in 2005] and 29 to 30 (this) year. We’re very confident in sustained high growth. Bugaboo and Capital Grille, we’re not as aggressive in growing those, but we think that both those can grow more units per year in 2007 and beyond.”

HOW TO REACH: RARE Hospitality International Inc., (770) 399-9595 or

Wednesday, 28 December 2005 06:08

Hotlanta 2006

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Dan Forsman, president and CEO of Prudential Georgia Realty, one of the largest real estate firms in metro Atlanta, spoke to Smart Business about his predictions and concerns for the metro Atlanta real estate market in 2006.

Where do you see the Atlanta real estate market heading in 2006?
I see us having as many transactions as we had in 2005. Atlanta is one of the most diversified economies of any in the country. Even with the announced GM restructuring and phasing out of the Doraville automobile plant, things are going to continue as they have in metro Atlanta. This area has a robust, healthy real estate market and that should continue in 2006.

What about mortgage rates?
While mortgage rates have been at historic lows in the first part of this decade, I believe interest rates will creep up a half to a whole point in 2006. I do not see them getting above 7 percent and do not believe rates will have an adverse effect on the real estate market.

Do you see the new home construction market as remaining strong or tapering off?
Construction materials are increasing at a faster pace than the rate of inflation. I think the luxury homes market will taper off a little due to the cost of materials. However, I think this will drive the luxury home resale market.

The resale market for homes below $500,000 will continue to be healthy. New homes, as a whole, are going to continue strong. There’s nothing to indicate a significant slowdown in home construction. In fact, the Southeast leads the nations in housing starts and it will continue to do so in the future.

As a nation, we are living so much longer and people are, consequently, staying in their homes longer. This trend is fueling a demand for more houses.

What about the commercial market, in terms of areas like retail space?
Although my expertise is more in the residential market, I believe more space will be absorbed than delivered in 2006.

How will the real estate market in 2006 compare to recent years?
I see no slow down in what has been a very strong real estate market, not only here in Atlanta, but around the country. In the last few years, organizations like the National Association of Realtors and home building organizations have been reporting record closings and record home starts.

We may not top the staggering numbers of 2004 or 2005, but I think we will be very close. This translates into next year’s real estate market continuing to be an excellent investment.

What real estate trends do you see developing in Atlanta?
A very strong entry-level market with the influx of internationals and first-time home buyers. The area is also very desirable for corporate migration so we will continue to have a large number of relocations into the area.

In addition, there’s a huge resurgence in the convergence and remigration into the heart of downtown Atlanta with projects like Atlantic Station and the opening of the Georgia Aquarium. More and more people, particularly those in the 30 and under age group, are realizing the benefits of living, working and playing in town.

How does the Atlanta real estate market compare with that of other major cities in the Southeast?
Atlanta isn’t a coastal market and, as such, we are not exposed to the risks of coastal cities. According to PMI [Private Mortgage Insurance] statistics, the probability of a drop in our average sales price is less here than other cities in the Southeast.

How do Atlanta’s average home prices compare with others in the Southeast?
Our average home sales price is very favorable compared to other cities in the region and around the country. I see our homes having greater appreciation in the future as well.

Where do you see the Atlanta real estate market in the next five years?
It’s projected the area will continue to grow faster than the national economy. That, coupled with the desirability of the region and the favorable price point for homes, will continue to result in strong growth. This was also positively affect home price appreciation, which is always great news for all your readers who are homeowners.

Dan Forsman is president and CEO of Prudential Georgial Realty. In addition to his role as head of the 10th largest Prudential real estate affiliate in the U.S., Forsman has a degree in accounting and is a Certified Public Accountant. He is a former president of the Atlanta Board of Realtors, one of the largest real estate trade organizations in the Southeast with 7,000 members and was named Realtor of the Year for this organization in 2004. Reach him at (770) 649-5040.

Tuesday, 27 December 2005 05:33

Henry named Grady CEO

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John Henry has been named CEO of Grady Health System following the resignation of Dr. Andy Agwunobi.

He had worked with Agwunobi to streamline Grady’s operation, elevate awareness of the role the health system plays in the medical eco-culture of the region and assisted in building partnerships for Grady’s future.

Henry brings to the job more than 40 years of experience in health care and previously served as COO of Grady. Prior to that, he had retired as CEO of Emory Hospitals and Wesley Woods Center.

Henry is the past chairman of the board of the Georgia Hospital Association and past regent of the American College of Healthcare Executives. He has also served on the regional policy board of the American Hospital Association and the boards of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.

Henry has received a tribute from the Woodruff Health Science Center, the Phoenix Award from Mayor Shirley Franklin and a commendation from Gov. Sonny Perdue. He also received the 2003 Lifetime Achievement Award from a local magazine and the 2003 Chairman’s Award from the Georgia Hospital Association.

Henry oversaw the $270 million renovation and expansion of Emory Crawford Long Hospital and received an Urban Land Institute award for his work.

Gay Haynes was appointed director of sales and marketing for the Georgia Tech Hotel & Conference Center.

Haynes previously worked for the Hilton Atlanta Airport. She has also worked for Inverness Hotel & Golf Club in Englewood, Colo., and for the Wynfrey hotels and other Hilton brand properties.

Also at Crestline Hotels, Andrea Richey was appointed director of sales and marketing for the Atlanta Marriott Gwinnett Place.

Richey joins Crestline from John Wieland & Neighborhoods, where she was a real estate sales manager. Before her real estate career, she worked for the Hilton Atlanta Northeast, Hyatt Regency Suites and the Davidson Hotel Co.

Fidelity Southern Corp. hired Georgett Dickinson as senior vice president and general counsel of Fidelity Bank.

Dickinson has more than 18 years of legal experience in the banking industry. She previously served as first vice president, assistant corporate secretary and regulatory counsel for SunTrust Banks Inc. Prior to joining the in-house legal department at SunTrust in 1986, Dickinson practiced with law firm Elrod & Thompson.

Dickinson earned her bachelor of arts degree from Auburn University and her law degree from the University of Georgia School of Law.

The Women’s Transportation Seminar Atlanta Chapter honored Yvonne Durrett Williams as the 2005 Woman of the Year.

Williams is president of the Perimeter Community Improvement Districts. She received the award in recognition as a “role model who has contributed to the advancement of women and minorities in transportation in the Atlanta community.”

Laurence P. Colton
joined Powell Goldstein LLP as a partner.

Colton has practiced intellectual property law in Atlanta for more than 18 years.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Tufts University and his J.D. from the Emory University School of Law.

Stuart C. Johnson and David L. Watson also joined Powell Goldstein LLP as partners.

Johnson brings experience in middle-market transactions, the private equity and venture capital markets. He is president of the Atlanta chapter of the Association for Corporate Growth.

Thomas brings experience in employment litigation, arbitration, mediation, class actions and jury trials.

He earned his bachelor’s degree from Indiana University and his J.D. from the Georgia State University College of Law.

Also at Powell Goldstein LLP, David L. Watson was hired in the tax department.

He has experience practicing taxation, estate planning, probate, trusts, and business planning and succession.

Brian E. Szabo
was named manager of SunTrust Banks Inc.’s corporate strategies unit.

Szabo has worked as SunTrust’s general auditor since 1999. He joined SunTrust’s predecessor, Crestar Financial Corp., in 1990 and worked in a variety of positions until 1997, when he was named chief audit executive for Crestar. Crestar merged with SunTrust in 1998.

Also at SunTrust, David G. Bilko was promoted to general auditor.

Bilko has more than 24 years of banking industry experience. He graduated from the University of Virginia and earned an MBA from George Mason University. He has also completed the Graduate School for Bank Administration Audit Management Program and is a certified employee benefits specialist.

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Tuesday, 29 November 2005 10:10

Turning over a new lease

Written by
Charles Loudermilk started Aaron Rents 50 years ago by renting out 300 folding chairs at 10 cents a piece for an estate sale.

Today, his 1,050 stores rent and sell electronics and furniture to consumers in 45 states, Puerto Rico and Canada and produced more than $946 million in revenue in 2004.

And he’s not done yet.

Loudermilk’s long-term goal is 3,000 stores. He plans to get there by adding a combination of company-owned stores and franchisees, and by understanding the psychology of his customers.

Part of that psychology is understanding where customers shop and how Aaron Rents can benefit from that.

“We’re saying we should be near every Wal-Mart,” says Loudermilk, chairman and CEO. “A lot of Wal-Mart customers are our customers. Wal-Mart doesn’t handle the type of goods that we handle — the high-end Sony televisions and the leather sofas and chairs, stainless steel refrigerators. Our customers want the best. There are close to 4,000 Wal-Marts around the country. And we should be as near to them as we can.”

While there is no relationship between the enterprises, Loudermilk has learned they share a customer base. That helped Aaron Rents to better gauge how many stores can be successful in a given market.

“We’ve been constantly surprised about the smallness of the market we can be in,” Loudermilk says. “At first we thought, for example, Columbus, Ga., (population 185,000) was a one-store market. We now know it’s a three-store market, if not more. Macon, Ga., (population 97,000) the same. We gave these two cities to franchisees. They were (each) going to open one store. We now know that they ought to have three stores in those towns.”

Loudermilk has taken advantage of these new, if smaller, markets.

“We’re in a lot of markets (that) I couldn’t tell you the state they’re in, the towns are so small,” he says. “They might have a 15,000 to 20,000 population. We thought it had to be a minimum of 50,000.

“The market has expanded greatly, just like it has for Wal-Mart. We’re lucky that we can kind of piggy back on Wal-Mart’s locations. They have very sophisticated site selection and data and everything, and if a Wal-Mart does well, we’ll do well.”

But Loudermilk, whose five-year goal is to reach the 2,000-store mark en route to 3,000 long-term, knows success means more than just opening down the road from the local Wal-Mart.

Part of mastering customer psychology is recognizing that the rent-to-own industry carries a stigma. Too many schlock operators have cheated or conned too much money from consumers for too long.

Loudermilk wants Aaron Rents to be the agent of change for the industry. And while the difference between renting and leasing may seem like semantics, for Loudermilk, it is what separates his company from those other operators and is the first step in changing consumer attitudes.

“We’re more of what we call sales and lease-ownership,” Loudermilk says. “Lease (and) ownership are the (important) words. We’re not a weekly pay, small and dirty, rent-to-own operation.

“You never see ‘rent to own’ on our building, our literature or anything else. The words you see are ‘sales’ first and ‘lease ownership.’ Our parent company is Aaron Rents, but you don’t see ‘rents.’ Leasing is an acceptable word.”

By using different words, Aaron Rents removed a consumer stigma that might prevent a sale.

“What we found out early on is that people who come in to rent, they wouldn’t want the truck to pull up to the front door and let their neighbors see that they’re dealing with a rent-to-own company,” says Loudermilk.

Company vehicles are labeled with ‘Aaron’s’ and ‘sales.’

“So when we go in to deliver a living room suite, the neighbors don’t know whether it’s bought or rented,” says Loudermilk. “There’s a lot of psychology in that. The rent-to-own business has a very bad stigma and reputation, most of it is deserved.”

Loudermilk also helps ensure the quality of many of his products by controlling the manufacturing. The company has its own furniture division, MacTavish Furniture, which manufactured $70 million in furniture at cost for Aaron in 2004, accounting for the majority of the furniture rented or sold through its stores. This vertical integration helps the company ensure not only its costs and delivery times but also the functionality and durability required for multiple rentals.

“We get a product built the way we want it built,” says Loudermilk. “We have to be careful what we buy in the rental business because there is a good chance it is going to come back on a truck and go out again. We know the price and we know the quality. We’ve been in this 50 years. We think we know the furniture business.”

Delivering a consistently quality product differentiates the company from its competitors and helps garner repeat business with customers.

Keeping satisfied customers is important to Loudermilk and to the continued growth of the company, and Hurricane Katrina showed how far he’s willing to go to keep them.

The hurricane closed or otherwise affected about 30 Aaron Rents stores.

“The merchandise that we have in the store is insured,” Loudermilk says. “The buildings themselves were insured. The trucks were insured. What we don’t have insured is the merchandise that is out in the customers’ homes. We think about 90 percent of that in some areas is going to get wiped out. The people that had a television 2 feet under water, we don’t want it back. That’s a loss for us.”

Loudermilk expects hurricanes to cost the company between $5 million and $10 million this year.

“It’s a loss because we charge the customer 10 percent — we call it service plus,” he says. “That covers delivery, pickup, the free month and other things, as well as what you might classify as insurance. We call it waiver of risk. One store had 1,200 customers with active accounts. We don’t think any of that merchandise will be brought back or paid for, and it shouldn’t be, because that 10 percent they pay covers this damage.

“Say they’ve got a 24-month (payment plan) for a product. Say they’ve paid 20 months (when the storm hit). We’ll give them a (new) product, they’ll pay four more months and it’s theirs.”

Satisfying the customer also takes talented individuals running the stores. Figuring out how to find enough talent to manage hundreds of new stores may seems like a challenge, but it doesn’t concern Loudermilk.

In fact, the bigger the company gets, the easier it is, he says. Every new location provides the perfect place from which to pluck future leaders.

“Each store has one or two potential general manager trainees,” he says. “If you’ve got 1,000 stores, you’ve got 1,000 potential managers to open 300 stores. They prove themselves by being an assistant manager.”

Assistant managers learn on the job, then can move up to manage their own store. And the company’s fast growth attracts people looking for opportunities for rapid advancement.

“The opportunities for general managers, district managers, regional managers, vice presidents, regional vice presidents and so forth is big,” says Loudermilk. “They can see people getting promoted above them all the time. We’re not a stagnant company.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that every manager trainee will make it to the next level.

“It’s a hit or miss thing,” he says. “I would say half the people that we hire to be potential store managers will make it, maybe even one-third. You get people in that don’t understand six days a week. Families don’t want to give up weekends. If they’re working hard or get behind, they might come in at 7 or 8 o’clock at night.

“It’s a specialized thing. The ones of us who have been in this industry of serving the customer, of making the customer happy, getting joy out of the transaction — that is what you have to have in running these businesses.”

And while some managers drop out of the program because of the time commitment, the issues facing franchisees are more complex. When things don’t work out with a franchisee due to things such as divorce or partnership troubles, the company buys back the store to make sure the loss of the franchisee doesn’t affect the customers.

“Every store we’ve bought back has been a profitable store, but they say, ‘This is not the business for me. I want to be a fireman, I want to be a stockbroker, I want to be something else,’” Loudermilk says.

The Aaron Rents corporate office keeps a tight rein on franchises to make sure the stores are on track for profitable growth.

“Their computer system is on our computer system,” he says. “We micromanage these stores. We get a 6 percent royalty, and of course we want them to do better and better. We want them to be a big success. We want them to make a lot of money and be very proud.”

With that kind of corporate backing and the overall success of the company, finding franchisees hasn’t been difficult, either, which will help the company meet its ultimate growth goal.

“We have more stores on backlog to be opened by franchisees than we have stores opened by franchisees,” says Loudermilk. “We’re selling more than we’re opening. It’s very close, anyway. It’s over 300 (franchises) opened and over 300 backlogged.”

Franchisees are a big part of the company’s growth plans and will account for at least 30 percent of all new stores.

“I’m comfortable with that (two-thirds company-owned ratio),” says Loudermilk. “We’re learning a lot from these franchisees, and of course, we’re teaching them a hell of a lot. That’s what they’re paying their money for.”

Loudermilk continues to learn and to innovate. And as long as he’s doing that, he’ll be running Aaron Rents.

“I work every day, though I’m 78,” he says. “I’d rather be here than anywhere else. I enjoy being right at this desk.”

HOW TO REACH: Aaron Rents Inc., (404) 231-0011 or

Tuesday, 22 November 2005 10:34

Leading for innovation

Written by
If you want to be a leader, here’s a newsflash: People make mistakes. But — relax — its OK.

In fact, in a well-led organization, mistakes are usually manifest when hard-charging team members try new things, innovate and push the envelope. In those organizations, rarely are mistakes some sinister plot to squander resources.

These employees are good people, people who want to succeed, people who want to be a part of something special.

All thrust and no vector
In my early days in the Air Force as a young fighter pilot, I was described as having all thrust and no vector. Simply put, my enthusiasm was not reinforced by a commensurate level of experience or internal direction. One of my first leaders brought me into his office, sat me down and then conveyed his philosophy to me, using a football game as an analogy.

I was starting on my own 20-yard line and my goal was to score a touchdown. The sidelines of the field represented the boundaries. If I willfully went outside of the boundaries, I was committing a major violation or a crime.

However, in my quest to score a touchdown, he encouraged me to use the entire field. I could roam from side to side and make mistakes as long as I stayed on the field of play.

It was my responsibility to know where the sidelines were. He said, “There is a difference between making a mistake and a committing a crime.” I cannot tell you how many times I have visualized that playing field in my military and business careers.

The key for me as the consumer of this newfound knowledge was to understand the difference between making a mistake and committing a crime. It is a simple concept that is rarely internalized in the world of business.

Too often within an organization, the perception is that your first mistake will be your last; therefore, no one is willing to accept any level of risk and this stifles innovation.

Defining boundaries
In the military, this was simple. The regulations formed clear and unambiguous guidelines. If you broke the regulations, you were committing a crime.

In the business world, it isn’t always so easy. Here are some things you can do as a leader to help your team know where the sidelines are.

  • Define the sidelines. Clearly state, in writing, company policies that define the realm of good conduct and acceptable business practices. Utilize your employee handbook as a place to distribute and maintain your company standards for acceptable business practices.

  • Reinforce guidelines. Use formal and informal training sessions to help your team members internalize how the policies work on a day-to-day basis so there is no ambiguity.

  • Debrief mistakes. When a mistake occurs, treat it as a learning point and let the lessons permeate the organization. Encourage a nonretribution culture where mistakes are discussed openly so they will not be repeated, not just for the individual but for the team.

  • Keep a corporate diary. Keep a record of successes and failures in a continuity book so you develop a resource of collective corporate knowledge. This is best done on a job-by-job basis, so that as one person enters a job that has been vacated, the new person doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel but can try to improve on what has been done previously.

  • Deal with crimes with consistency. Any actions outside the defined boundaries must be addressed quickly, fairly and consistently. Failure to do so will become a cancer within the organization.

Go for it
If you push your team to perform to its fullest potential without fear of retribution for mistakes, your organization will discover new and innovative ways to win in business. Your clear communication and reinforcement of where the sidelines are will give you confidence that your team will achieve results without compromising ethics.

The upside is huge when your team isn’t afraid to go for it.

Marty “Opus” Richard is COO of Fighter Associates LLC. Reach him at

Tuesday, 22 November 2005 10:07

Ketchum named interim CEO, Newell Rubbermaid

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Newell Rubbermaid Inc. appointed Mark D. Ketchum, a member of the board of directors and the audit committee, interim CEO while the board conducts an external search for a permanent replacement.

Ketchum has been a Newell Rubbermaid director since early this year. He retired last year as president, global baby and family care, at The Procter & Gamble Co., a position he held since 1999. He was instrumental in driving the turnaround of this $11 billion business unit, delivering improved sales and profit returns, including 8 percent annualized sales growth and 16 percent annualized profit growth over his final two years.

Ketchum joined Procter & Gamble in 1971 and during his 33 years of service gained experience in operational, brand management and general management roles.

"We are fortunate to have a person of Mark Ketchum's caliber on our board who can immediately step into this role while we search for a permanent replacement," says William D. Marohn, chairman of Newell Rubbermaid. "Mark has been an important contributor to our board and he will bring a high level of consumer product industry experience, energy and operational expertise to this leadership position."

Newell Rubbermaid Inc. is a global marketer of consumer and commercial products with $6.5 billion in sales in 2004.

Ketchum says, "Newell Rubbermaid has tremendous potential and I will do all I can to maximize that potential. The board and I are committed to continuing the strategic direction that we have established to improve performance, and I look forward to working with our management team over the next few months to ensure a smooth transition. Newell Rubbermaid has extremely talented senior management and dedicated employees, and I am very optimistic about this next phase in the evolution of our company."

IMAGES USA hired Ricki Fairley-Brown as vice president of strategy and planning.

IMAGES USA is a full-service, multicultural marketing communications firm headquartered in Atlanta. In her new position, Brown is charged with strategic and account planning activities, collaborating with the agency's leadership team on business-building strategies and maintaining the agency's position as a leading multicultural marketing firm.

Brown earned a bachelor of arts degree from Dartmouth College and an MBA from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

Before joining IMAGES USA, Brown excelled in management and leadership positions with The Coca-Cola Co., Chupa Chups USA Corp. and PowerPact.

In 1998, she received The Creative Thinking Award from The Creative Thinking Association of America based on her creation of a futuristic marketing think tank at The Coca-Cola Co.

Cambia Security Inc.
Cambia Security Inc. appointed Steve Ethridge vice president of engineering.

Ethridge brings more than 20 years experience in software engineering and technical management to his new position. At Cambia, he will lead the organization that develops, tests and supports the market releases of the Cambia CM system. Cambia Security Inc. develops software that continuously monitors, detects and prioritizes security-related changes in the IT infrastructure.

Ethridge previously worked as director of product development at Lancope, where he led the development of the StealthWatch network behavioral anomaly detection security appliance. Prior to Lancope, he served as vice president of product development for Thoughtmill Corp. and led the organization responsible for the definition, design, development and testing of large commercial projects for high-tech companies including Internet Security Systems, DoubleClick, Attachmate and XcelleNet. Ethridge previously held management positions with DCA Corp. and NCR Corp.

Etheridge earned his bachelor of science degree in computer science from the University of Georgia.

ACE USA named Jim Shevlin assistant vice president and regional business development manager for its Southeast region.

Shevlin most recently managed sales and marketing for ACE Select Markets, the specialty personal lines division of ACE USA. In his new position, he will manage distribution, product sales and marketing, and producer relationships for ACE USA∏s Southeast region.

ACE USA is the U.S.-based retail operating division of The ACE Group of Companies.

Shevlin joined ACE in 2002 as a member of the management team responsible for overseeing sales and account management for a division that marketed personal insurance products to Fortune 1000 clients. Prior to joining ACE, Shevlin held senior business development and marketing positions with MetLife, AIG, Allmerica Financial and Continental Insurance/CNA Financial.

Shevlin has served on boards related to the insurance industry, including the International Mass Marketing Association and Mass Marketing Insurance Institute.

Shevlin earned a bachelor's degree in business management from the University of Massachusetts at North Dartmouth and pursued MBA work at Nichols College in Dudley, Mass.

Monday, 10 October 2005 12:12

Mission accomplished

Written by

After a decade as leader of the Robert W. Woodruff Arts Center, Shelton g. Stanfill announced his resignation, marking the departure of the leader who oversaw the largest expansion in the organization’s history.

The Woodruff Arts Center campus, which includes the Alliance Theatre Company, High Museum of Art, Atlanta College of Art, 14th Street Playhouse, High Downtown Folk Art & Photography Galleries and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, has seen significant growth during Stanfill’s tenure.

“Since I’ve been here, we’ve built seven new buildings plus a new garage,” Stanfill says. “There’s also been a significant expansion in the diversity of our audiences and patrons from 10 years ago.”

During his time on the job, the center has seen operating activity increase 245 percent to $145 million, placing the organization, along with the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center and the Los Angeles Music Center, as one of the top arts centers in the country. And although Stanfill is moving on, he’s not necessarily leaving the community.

“I’m stepping down; I’m resigning to go on and do something else,” he says. “I’ve got the fortunate circumstance that I’ve got the time to decide what that is. I do very much want to, if at all possible, stay in the Atlanta area. ... I really am invested in this community. My intent is to stay here.”

Stanfill will leave his post in June 2006. Smart Business spoke with him about knowing when it’s time to go and how he’s helping make the transition happen.

How did you know it was time to move on?

The process came in preparing what was going to be the annual report and my 10th budget to the board. I realized in doing that report that we had accomplished so many things — not just what I was doing, but what all the division heads here were doing.

I knew that we were probably going to be entering into a period of consolidation, of refinement, of restructure, of maintaining. It hit me — I’ll never get to make this exciting and impressive report again.

You don’t get very many chances to go out on the top. That’s what started me thinking about it.

Are you concerned about becoming a lame duck leader?

My board, through my board chairman, has asked that I not get into thinking of myself as a lame duck. They’ve instructed me to act as though I were here on a continuing basis. That is my intent.

It could come to a special circumstance in which I would make the judgment that would be more productive for the institution if my successor made that decision, and (if) there is time in which that can be allowed to happen, I might do that. In general, I’ll go ahead and make decisions and continue to send out directives as I always would and have.

What role will you have in the selection of the new director?

The entire agenda will be my talking to (the selection committee) about the position, telling what I think the strategic challenges are and opportunities are going forward. I’m also meeting with each one of those committee members individually to give them a chance to ask me questions about the office and to give them some personal background and dialogue about the position.

The intent would be somebody who is there in the spring so that when I leave June 30, they’ve either had a month of transition here with me or they’ve at least had time to prepare to come into the position.

How will you help with that transition?

It all depends on who the individual is and what their background is. It could be somebody who comes out of the business world, in which a lot of time would be spent introducing them to both the international and national arts world and the people who are in that field.

If they come out of the arts field, then it will be much more about spending time on the particulars of this arts organization — the Woodruff Arts Center. No other performing visual arts center is structured the way we are in this country. It’s a model that most people, if they’re in the arts world, will not know about, and therefore, (I) will probably spend a great deal of time on that.

What are you looking for in a new director?

It could be somebody who is out of a lifetime or a long-term arts administration or it could be somebody out of the business world or education world. That’s going to be a very interesting set of discussions that the search committee will have here.

For the next five years, the skills that are really necessary, that you really need to have deep pockets on, are not necessarily my skills. And there are a lot of good people out there that do fit that profile. I care about this place passionately, and so I want it to have the best person possible.

What are the goals in your final six months?

First of all, the integration of a new division, Young Audiences, fully into the life of the center — that’s been a huge investment of time to make that happen. And it’s critical that goes well.

The only thing still remaining is the creation of a presenting division ... one that is bringing a whole variety of different programs of arts from the outside to here, whether it be blues festivals, world music, world dance, a whole variety of programs that, in large part, bypass Atlanta. (We’re also) creating a business plan as well as a lyric theater and preparing all the research and the basic statistical information that one would need for the new president to be able to form their own strategic plan once they get here.

What metrics do you look at to measure success?

I measure it in several ways. One is how many people in the community feel they own a piece of this real estate, feel they are proud that this is here, that this is an asset to the community. That’s one.

Two ... whether or not it enhances their appreciation of life, I believe the most important function we serve is keeping other people alive to life. There are a lot of people who go dead on life.

The arts, one of their greatest attributes is to help people think, to have people react, to help people feel, to help people transpose in their minds what’s on stage into their own lives or what’s in their own minds to the stage.

Stand outside a theater or a museum as people are leaving and see if they act differently than when the walked in. Do they seem more lively? Do they seem more engaged? I do this with children’s tours when they come here. When you see children walking out of a concert totally animated, alive with energy, spinning and singing songs, you know you’ve touched their lives. When you see them going quietly into a theater and they come out and they are telling stories to each other and they are comparing ideas and notes, you know you’ve touched their lives.

That’s what we’re about; we about enhancing and elevating life.

What has been your biggest challenge?

The symphony strike at the end of my first year ... was the most difficult time. This has actually been, of all of my former experiences running arts centers and arts programs, this has been the most collegial. It’s also been the most productive time that I’ve spent in my career. Part of that has to do with (the fact that) Atlanta is a very easy and open place in which to do business and a very supportive city for the arts.

I got through it day-by-day. Because of very good people who were running the symphony and good people in the orchestra, all of that has been healed. It was the strike and the departure of Yoel Levi as the conductor and the controversy surrounding that. Those were the toughest times — people of good heart who worked to put all those pieces back together and actually grow from beyond there, and the symphony is a much stronger organization and certainly a much more productive and joyous organization than it was 10 years ago when I arrived.

Any regrets?

Coming to Atlanta was one of the best decisions I ever made. In all honesty, Atlanta was not on my radar ever within my professional career.

I was sold on this job, and I was seduced into this job, and it turned out to be wonderful. It’s been one of the most fascinating, productive periods in my career, and I’ve had really interesting career.

HOW TO REACH: Woodruff Arts Center, (404) 733.4200 or