"Business Philosophy" By Robert Castles
In business, the customer is always right — true or false? Well, it’s not always that clear cut. Sometimes the customer knows what he wants to achieve, but fails to share that business knowledge with you. This insight gap can prevent you from delivering a relevant product that meets his needs.
This type of situation, unfortunately, happens quite often, especially for software companies like PMG. Often our customers request a certain product that may not be the optimal solution for what they are really trying to accomplish. Our philosophy is putting our customer’s business needs first, rather than leading with our technology solution.
“Business First, Technology Second” has proven to be the winning ticket for both our customers and our business. At first glance, letting non-technical customers define our technology road map may seem counterintuitive, but it has enabled PMG to grow and thrive, even through the recent economic downturn.
Get in step with your customer
Not understanding the business issue behind the product request can lead to long development cycles, changes in direction, delays, and a possible solution that doesn’t quite meet customer expectations — leaving both parties frustrated.
Before embarking on developing the solution, you must first define the problem in business terms. The key is to engage customers to understand the underlying business issue. The information uncovered will help you deliver a more relevant solution and ultimately more value, which results in a satisfied customer. And satisfied customers lead to more business with additional referrals.
Walking the talk
At PMG, we walk the talk. Last year, a major customer was insistent that we offer a native iPhone app for our service catalog solution. The customer wanted the app so that users could request items from the field. This was a major developmental undertaking that was not currently slated on our short-term technology road map.
In time, we discovered the real business issue was the significant delay in the approval process when executives and managers were away from the office, without access to the catalog. So the actual need was not the ability to submit requests from a mobile device, but to approve them.
This information dramatically narrowed the scope of the project, allowing us to almost immediately deliver a more relevant solution. Now executives are able to process approvals on their mobile devices, driving down the request processing time, which was the major issue from the beginning.
Had we proceeded to develop the solution that was originally requested, it would have taken much longer to deliver and cost more. Additionally, the solution would have been much more complex, which would have risked low user adoption altogether.
Crawl before you walk. Then run with it.
Investing the time and energy to form a true partnership with your customer will ensure success for both parties. Too often our customers are in a hurry to get a project completed. As a result, they skip steps and move ahead too quickly, instead of taking the time to have additional conversations to ensure that you fully understand the nature of their business and the scope of the issue at hand.
Taking the time to help your customer assess intended goals is critical to achieving success. But, even more important, is to ensure that the goal is tied to a business outcome. Unless decisions are made in the context of driving a business outcome, you may spend a lot of time deploying a solution that does not provide substantial value.
Robert Castles is principal of PMG, a provider of enterprise service catalog and business process automation software. Reach him with your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or (770) 837-2301.
Marcia Taylor isn’t your run of the mill CEO. She’s a soft-spoken matriarch, who transformed Bennett International Group, LLC, from a small, five-truck contract carrier into a $266 million logistics and freight services powerhouse.
Taylor attributes her early success to fostering a family-oriented culture and deliberately sidestepping head-to-head battles with conventional competitors.
“We grew organically by adding services to meet the unique needs of our customers,” Taylor says. “We were positioned outside the mainstream, so we were used to competing against just four to five firms.”
Riding the coattails of customers helped the company expand beyond long haul trucking into lucrative new segments like warehousing, logistics and vehicle transport.
Over time, Bennett International built a stable of disparate companies and service lines with random reporting lines, while earning a reputation for being one of Atlanta’s best employers. In fact, the company has been recognized as one of the top workplaces in the area by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
But the Great Recession illuminated the shortcomings of Bennett International’s unorthodox structure as domestic revenues sagged and the management team struggled to win new contracts, especially in burgeoning international and government segments.
“I think we became a bit complacent before the recession because things were going well and we were making money,” Taylor says. “In hindsight, I can see that we weren’t as efficient as we needed to be and our management structure prevented us from offering clients bundled services or a single point of contact, which were essential to winning bids and new contracts.”
Realigning a family-owned company is never easy. Here’s how Taylor got Bennett International back on track without sacrificing key staff or its family-oriented culture.
Prioritize people over profits
Taylor wanted to avoid draconian staff cuts and the potential loss of institutional knowledge that could impede Bennett International’s ability to rebound when the economy improved. Plus, she didn’t want to violate the trust of long-term employees or tarnish the firm’s vaunted employment brand, so she reduced ancillary expenses, watched cash flow like a hawk, and asked everyone to make small sacrifices.
“I’ve always believed that if you treat people right and give customers great service, the profits will come,” Taylor says. “Our goal was to come out of the recession in a better place and we achieved our mission because our employees were willing to pitch in which helped us avoid massive layoffs.”
Taylor asked employees to take off one day per month without pay, while the management team worked on reorganization and hunted for new sources of revenue. The camaraderie was so strong, that financially secure employees helped out their cash-strapped co-workers by volunteering to take off additional days without pay.
“Our employees supported our long-term strategy because we didn’t make hasty decisions and kept them in the loop throughout the realignment process,” Taylor says. “CEOs can reduce fear during times of crisis by being candid about their motives, prioritizing the needs of their customers and employees, and avoiding cuts that might hinder growth and profits down the road.”
So far, it seems that Taylor’s penchant for delayed profit gratification is paying off. Bennett International is projecting revenues of $275 million in 2013 and Taylor says the organization can sustain 20 percent annual growth for the foreseeable future without increasing overhead thanks to its increased efficiencies.
Exploit synergistic opportunities
Given her intimate knowledge of logistics, it’s not surprising that Taylor took a methodical approach to Bennett International’s realignment initiative. Her management team pinpointed the needs of current and prospective clients and redefined the firm’s core services, while looking for ways to streamline and consolidate its vast slate of offerings.
They also looked for ways to extend their capabilities by leveraging the firm’s prized fleet of owner-operator truckers, who have primary relationships with Bennett International and a vested interest in the company’s success. In turn, Taylor earns the loyalty of owner-operators by treating them like family, which is smart, given the current and projected shortage of transportation professionals.
“We looked for synergistic opportunities to combine several services under a single umbrella and leverage our existing assets and owner-operators so we could up sell current customers and attract new clients by offering them a package of services,” Taylor says. “Second, we wanted to be more efficient by leveraging our existing technology and consolidating back office tasks without inconveniencing our existing clients.”
The goals served as the linchpin for the reorganization initiative and a rallying point when the team disagreed or veered off course. In the end, they were able to segue from a company with a host of competing fiefdoms into an integrated firm with several divisions. Plus, realignment created opportunities to consolidate billing and accounting systems and eliminate redundant processes that increased overhead while adding little value.
For example, the team created an international logistics division by bundling project cargo, cold chain and other services that had been housed under different entities giving the firm expanded capabilities in full spectrum logistics planning and support. They also created Bennett International Transport and Bennett Distribution Services to enable rapid expansion into key segments of the international marketplace.
Early realignment efforts spawned new contracts from clients with international needs and the U.S. General Services Administration, and validated the efficacy of the team’s strategy.
While some CEOs might hammer out a major reorganization plan in a few hours or days, Taylor’s team worked on the initial blueprint for nearly six months.
They often argued behind closed doors but eventually reached consensus by listening to each other and staying true to their goals and the company’s values.
“I think it’s healthy to disagree but you need ground rules so the discussion is respectful and fruitful,” Taylor says. “We’d take a break when we reached an impasse. I’ve always thought that sleeping on a problem is a great way to break a stalemate.”
Match the right people to the right jobs
Once the new divisions were created, Taylor faced the difficult task of realigning the company’s senior management team with its new structure. Taylor took stock of each person’s strengths and performance before asking them to take on new roles. The fact that the senior management team includes outsiders and her two sons added to the complexity of her mission.
“I believe in putting people into roles that give them an opportunity to grow and maximize their strengths and talents,” Taylor says. “The decision to realign employees is difficult, but it gets easier if you put them into positions where they have the best chance to succeed.”
Taylor referenced the needs of clients and the company’s history of exceptional customer service to bolster support for her management realignment strategy. She’s an advocate of values-based decision making and says that her business decisions support the company’s mission and core values. She also uses data to make tough calls but says executives make the best decisions by balancing data with intangible factors and thinking about what’s fair.
“I think if you have a lot of passion for your ideas and convey a clear vision people will accept change,” Taylor says. “It may take time, but if the logic is there and your decisions don’t conflict with your values, people will eventually come around to your way of thinking.”
Taylor takes her time when making difficult decisions but defends her sluggishness by saying that she’d rather be slow and accurate then have regrets, especially when her decisions directly impact the financial health of the company and its nationwide team of more than 3,000 contractors, agents and employees.
While Taylor acknowledges that she and her children don’t always see eye to eye, she says they’ve found success as a family-operated company by fostering open communications and supporting each other through thick and thin.
“We’ve learned some valuable lessons from this experience, and we don’t plan to repeat our mistakes,” Taylor says. “By leveraging our excellent reputation, repositioning for growth, and remaining true to our customers and what we do best, I believe our company and our extended family will continue to do well for the foreseeable future.”
How to reach: Bennett International Group, LLC, (800)866-5500 or www.bennettig.com
The Taylor File
Name: Marcia G. Taylor
Company: Bennett International Group, LLC
Birthplace: Clifford, Ill.
Education: High school graduate
What was your very first job? I was an apprentice pharmacist in a small, solely-owned compounding pharmacy in Mt. Vernon, Ill. There were only four of us on the staff so I learned the benefits a family-oriented culture at an early age. The pharmacist would extend credit to customers who couldn’t afford their medications so I also learned the importance of ethics and the value of prioritizing people over profits. Profit is important but it’s not the primary goal. If you treat people right and give them great service, you’ll have loyal customers, plenty of referrals and profits will follow.
Who do you admire most and why? I admire Margaret Thatcher for sticking to her guns when she felt something was right. Although our styles differ, I appreciate the way she went about things. She was a tough lady who accomplished a great deal because she wasn’t afraid to take a stand and voice her opinion on difficult issues.
What is your definition of business success? When your employees and customers are happy you greatly increase your chances of success. Set high standards, focus on being the best instead of the biggest, and success will follow.
What was the best business advice you ever received? Don’t rush to judgment or make rash decisions. Step back and think things through. And when you’re facing a tough decision, rely on integrity as well as facts and think about what’s fair. I’ve found that by practicing values-based decision making, I make the right call most of the time. Plus,it’s hard to undo the damage when a leader makes unethical choices.
What’s the secret to working with family?
Set ground rules and then hash things out behind closed doors. Always speak with a unified voice when addressing the staff and don’t take things personally. Businesses come and go but you can’t replace family.
- Garner support for your reorganization plan by prioritizing people over profits
- Create operating efficiencies and new revenue streams by exploiting synergistic opportunities
- Execute your plan by matching the right people to the right jobs
How Belk’s Dave Penrod is leading 6,000 employees through non-stop change as the nation’s largest privately-owned retailer undergoes a renaissance at age 125Written by Leslie Stevens-Huffman
Dave Penrod and his management team at Belk had an order as tall as a homemade lemonade: change the company manta from “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” to “Modern. Southern. Style.”
“Our customers viewed us as old fashioned and one-dimensional, so we decided that it was time to modernize our approach to the business while retaining our traditional Southern values,” says Penrod, who oversees 100 stores in the heart of the South — Georgia, Florida, Alabama and South Carolina as chairman of Belk’s Southern Division.
Belk has had just three CEOs since its founding in 1888 — that is until 2010, when the heretofore low-key department store chain launched a makeover with the goal of reaching annual revenues of $6 billion within five years.
Historically, Belk has catered to shoppers who patronize its 301 brick and mortar stores located in small- to mid-size cities throughout the Southern U.S. But recently, it’s been ceding sales to savvy city slickers like Macy’s and Nordstrom, who use the Internet and mobile apps to infiltrate rural markets. Admittedly, the company has fallen behind in the e-commerce and social media arena, and many of its stores could use a facelift.
The company wants to leverage its strength, which is appealing to the tastes, culture and buying habits of Southern shoppers, while improving in lagging areas.
To that end, management adopted a new logo and the new tagline. The company is investing $270 million in store improvements, $210 million in information technology, $53 million in e-commerce and $4.5 million for a new e-commerce fulfillment center in Jonesville, S.C.
Penrod is charged with implementing the company’s strategic plan in his division, and as every executive knows, change is difficult — especially for tenured employees. In fact, a survey of 3,199 global executives by consulting giant McKinsey found that only one change transformation in three succeeds. Here is Penrod’s approach to instilling change and yet keeping Southern values at Belk.
Penrod is creating line-of-sight between the company’s objectives and his employees’ daily activities as part of his plan to achieve long-term structural and cultural transformation. Now, workers can see how going the extra mile to satisfy a customer can propel Belk’s sales and profits.
“The way we communicate our brand to consumers is by being friendly and hospitable because that reflects traditional Southern values,” he says. “We need to go out of our way to smile and greet shoppers the minute they enter the store so they experience our Southern hospitality.”
And since employees often need a compelling story to change their behaviors, Penrod is using a structured communications program to breathe life into Belk’s new brand and encourage his team’s evolution.
Employees in Penrod’s division review results from the day before and set daily goals during a 10-minute morning huddle with their manager. The short sessions reinforce change and build mindshare toward the company’s strategy.
“You can’t broadcast a list of goals and think that everyone gets it,” Penrod says. “You need frequent reminders to create a shared vision and buy-in for your strategy.”
He’s also increasing his team’s chances of success by building their skills and capabilities.
After only 75 percent of customers said they were satisfied with their shopping experience in a recent survey, Belk launched a new customer service training program for its 23,000 associates. But Penrod took training and development to the next level in his division, by launching a formal succession planning regimen and development program for high-potential employees.
The program boosts morale and productivity by giving employees a career path and improves retention by providing new hires with the necessary skills to execute Belk’s strategic plan. Plus, promoting from within helps preserve the company’s unique Southern culture.
Finally, Penrod’s fostering accountability and continuous improvement through the introduction of monthly performance reviews. Employees receive feedback and share ideas during one-on-one sessions with their area manager. Although the sessions take a fair amount of time, Penrod says they’re jumpstarting productivity and fostering innovation.
Since every employee looks at organizational change from the stand point of how he or she will be personally affected and self-preservation can take precedent, Penrod is allaying their concerns by offering them knowledge and opportunities.
“Failing to invest in your people is shortsighted because they drive customer satisfaction,” he says. “We came out of the recession with a renewed commitment to development and innovation and now, it’s paying off.”
Support your local community
Belk plans to continue it’s commitment of giving 2.5 percent of annual pretax income back to the communities it serves and for good reason. The $19 million in donated last year not only exhibits Southern values it distinguishes Belk from impersonal e-tailers.
Plus, employees can spread the company’s “Southern State of Mind” philosophy while rubbing elbows with members of the community as they paint classrooms, build bookcases, beautify school grounds and install educational murals as part of the company’s 125th birthday celebration.
“We call ourselves community partners but what does that mean?” Penrod says. “It’s the way we support local education and healthcare, but it’s also the way we treat our customers and our associates.”
For example, Belk had just acquired the Proffitt's and McRae's chain from Saks Fifth Avenue in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit Biloxi, Miss. Penrod says the company could have taken the insurance money and closed the store, but instead, they raised $1 million for local employees and continued to pay them until they got back on their feet.
CEO Tim Belk called the company’s decision to stay in Biloxi a defining moment as other companies abandoned the devastated region.
“Unlike other companies, we don’t measure the return from our donations, we do it because we believe that supporting the communities we serve is the right thing to do,” Penrod says. “Community support exemplifies our Southern culture and values, it’s an intangible asset that can’ be measured.”
Cater to customers
Belk store sizes are tailored toward the needs of the local markets they serve. Stores range in size from 40,000 to 300,000 square feet of space, with an average size of approximately 92,000 square feet.
While management is introducing new lines of private label fashions by designer Cynthia Rowley and Carolina Panthers quarterback, Cam Newton, the merchandise selection in each store addresses the preferences of local customers.
Customized merchandizing is one reason why Belk is surpassing the competition in a key measurement for brick and mortar retailers. The 11 retailers tracked by Thomson Reuters posted just 1.1 percent growth at stores open more than a year in March. In contrast, Belk has had 12 consecutive quarters of comparable store sales growth and its comparable sales growth rate for fiscal 2013 was 6.3 percent.
“We use demographics like income, age and population size to adjust the assortment of merchandise in each store,” Penrod says. “But we refine that data based on our knowledge of the local community and by listening to our customers. Our growth in same store sales reflects our connection to the community”
For instance, the stores in South Florida offer a slightly different selection of merchandise when the snow birds arrive from Northern states. And some stores extend Southern hospitality to local shoppers by hosting evening parties that include refreshments, a fashion show and music by a local disc jockey.
Like many companies, Belk uses formal pulse surveys to gauge overall customer satisfaction. But customers can weigh-in at any time by completing an online survey or “Tell Us What You Think” card, and their feedback serves as a call to action for executives like Penrod.
“We adhere to something called the sunset rule,” he says. “When a customer expresses a concern, it’s referred to an executive and must be resolved by the end of that business day.”
But Belk’s management team doesn’t stop there; they use customer feedback to review underlying business practices and initiate adjustments to faulty policies and procedures.
For instance, the company is committed to giving shoppers the seamless omnichannel experience they crave, that reaches across stores, belk.com, mobile devices and social media.
It wasn’t until 2008 that Belk’s online offerings expanded beyond home goods and wedding registries to include clothing and other merchandise. Furthermore, the company estimates that only about 25 percent of online sales come from outside Belk’s sixteen-state footprint and customers can’t order a product online and pick it up in a local store — at least not yet.
The initial phase of improvements includes a new systems platform and functionality enhancements to make shopping online at belk.com easier and it’s developing a mobile app so customers can shop on-the-go from their favorite device.
Employees are charged with promoting the company’s improved website since multichannel shoppers spent 15 percent to 30 percent more than those who visit brick and mortar stores according to surveys by IDC’s Global Retail Insights research unit.
Although the firm didn’t embrace the social media craze until 2010 it now has a blog, a solid presence on Twitter and 789,988 “likes” on Facebook.
While net sales for the 53-week period ended Feb. 2, 2013 increased 7 percent to $3.96 billion, the company is banking on the growth of Internet sales and it’s Southern charm to reach $6 billion by 2015.
“When I visit our stores with members of the Belk family and talk to customers and associates, I get a true sense of what Southern means,” says Penrod. “As a guy who’s originally from Michigan, I’ve learned a whole lot about Southern style and hospitality.”
The Penrod File
Name: Dave Penrod
Title: Chairman, Southern Division
Education: Bachelor’s degree in business management, Oakland University in Rochester, Mich.
What was your very first job? I was a caddy at a local golf course, where I learned a lot about human nature. Golf is a game where honesty, integrity and sportsmanship are paramount because it’s not monitored by referees, so it’s easy to cheat. I observed that some people are inherently honest and some people aren’t. What I learned as a caddy prepared me for life as well as my career.
Who do you admire most and why? I admire politicians like Hillary Clinton and John McCain because they’re truly business people who have to build consensus and balance disparate points of view to get anything done. It’s not easy to do that and I admire anyone who can overcome tremendous obstacles, relentlessly pursue a resolution and foster a spirit of collaboration.
What is your definition of business success? Sales and profits are important but you can’t achieve them by yourself. Your success as a manager hinges on the growth and development of your people. When they flourish and grow, the financial metrics take care of themselves.
What are the keys to leading organizational change? You’ll get some connectivity at a high level, but to truly inspire change, you need to take your message down to the individual level. Give your employees the opportunity to shape the direction of the organization by sharing feedback, especially from customers. Some folks won’t agree with your plan but most of them will engage if you employ a regimented communications strategy that is supported by performance management, training and career development.
Nothing builds and sustains credibility better for a business professional than when he or she can lead by example.Whether you take the time to chat with new colleagues before a meeting, help out with a difficult project, or are the first to ask the hard questions, you alone are responsible for setting standards and expectations.
As a father, husband and business intermediary, people count on me for advice, leadership and guidance. I found the best way to earn their trust is by setting a good example.
Actions speak louder than words, particularly when your attitude and behavior motivate people to do their best work. Doing otherwise only confuses the people who look up to you.
By incorporating the following practices into your life, you will not only improve the way others perceive you, but you will also feel better about the way you are presenting yourself as a person that others will follow and emulate — the very definition of leading by example.
While working your “day job” may already be taking up too much of your time, getting involved in industry organizations may be just the thing you need to advance your career and set a positive example for others. I am involved professional organizations such as the Georgia Association of Business Brokers, the International Business Brokers Association, Rotary International and Street Grace.
I have found that getting out from behind my computer can be a challenge. But meeting new people and talking big-picture about my industry has been crucial to my professional advancement.
Joining professional organizations in my field has given me a chance to do just that. Best of all, most organizations have local chapters so I did not even have to travel very far to get involved.
Put family first
Putting family first is something that we all strive to do, but in today’s busy world, most of us have jobs that do not allow for much free time to spend with our family.
I know that trying to put family first above everything else may seem like a mission and not knowing how to do this can make things even harder. Jobs can be a huge part of our lives and sometimes our jobs can get out of hand and make us spend less and less time with our families.
I make it a point to be involved in my children and wife’s lives as much as possible. Taking interest in their hobbies and being an active participant is a great way to spend time with your family.
I am a lacrosse coach and Cub Scout den leader. In these roles I have the opportunity to shape lives and demonstrate to other parents how they can become involved in youth organizations to point kids in the right direction.
Look to your community
The best way to stay involved in your community is through maintaining a commitment to make a positive impact in the environment in which you work, live and play. You can gain respect, friendship and pride through community involvement.
One of the most satisfying, fun, and productive ways to lead by example and get involved in your community is through volunteerism. When you commit your time and effort to an organization or a cause you feel strongly about, the feeling of fulfillment can be endless.
Your peers, colleagues and family members are always watching you and taking notice to what you do. They will see the benefits of being involved in professional organizations, putting family first and being involved their communities.
Owner of the North Atlanta office of Murphy Business & Financial Corp., Reed has been serving clients for more than 20 years in the Atlanta, Ga., area as well as across the country. He is an accredited business intermediary, a licensed real estate broker and has owned and managed his own limited liability company. Reach him (678) 383-4781 or email@example.com
Every year, your company conference creeps up. So, who’s going to plan it? Who needs to go? What does the agenda look like, and what is it we want people to take away from the experience? Set the stage from the beginning with a cross-functional planning committee, determine the key members of your team who need to attend and ensure at the end they have key takeaways.
Planning a meeting is no small task, especially when it involves hundreds, potentially thousands, of people. While meeting planning often is the job function of one person, a cross-functional planning team can have positive effects.
First, it ensures all your departments are represented and that the topics from each discipline will be discussed. Second, it brings perspectives from different people, and with that, new ideas. It also allows employees to get involved and develop new skills they may otherwise not have been exposed to.
Conferences can get expensive, and when you add in the fact that they are often in different states and last for several days, a company has to be strategic about who can attend. It’s important your senior leadership team attends, as those leaders will likely be the ones presenting the strategy and reporting on the team’s accomplishments.
While not all associates need to attend, be sure to include those who lead teams, those who interact with vendors and those who have a purpose for being there. For employees who don’t attend year after year, it could be a nice surprise to invite one or two a year that don’t typically make the list.
Vendors are vital to a company’s success, whether they are partners of record or help on a project basis. It’s important they are invited, have a seat at the table, and hear the same messages your team does, because they are an extension of your team.
So now you’re at the conference and your team is attending the general sessions. They go to the break-outs. They listen to a guest speaker. They visit the vendor fair. Conferences are so much more than just following the agenda. I challenge you and your teams at the next conference to do the following:
Make a friend — There are always people you don’t know at conferences; many people attend just to network. Take the time to meet new people and get to know what they do and how they contribute to your company’s success. Keep in touch with the people you meet.
Develop existing relationships — If you have acquaintances at conferences, think about how you can take your business relationship with them to the next level, whether it’s learning something new about them or their business.
Learn something new — Lots of new information and ideas are shared at conferences. Attend with an open mind and be ready to learn. Take two or three new learnings and put together an action plan around them.
Recognize accomplishments — Conferences are a great opportunity to publicly recognize both employees and vendors who contributed to your company’s success.
In addition to celebrating accomplishments, it’s a good time to inspire attendees about the future. Conference themes that are reflective of the company’s long-term objectives will help ensure associates and vendors at all levels leave with a common understanding of the company’s strategies and what it is counting on them to accomplish.
Paul Damico is president of Atlanta based Moe’s Southwest Grill, a fast-casual restaurant franchise with over 490 locations nationwide. Paul has been a leader in the foodservice industry for more than 20 years with companies such as SSP America, FoodBrand, LLC; and Host Marriott. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships were built for,” is a quote that hangs in Brig Sorber’s office at Two Men and a Truck in Lansing, Mich. Sorber uses that quote to define the new direction in which his company has been moving.
“I love that quote because this ship, Two Men and a Truck, has been in port for too long,” says Sorber, CEO. “We’ve got to get this into deep blue water. There are a lot of challenges out there and a lot more risk, but that’s where business is done. We need to start moving forward and accept the challenges.”
Sorber and his brother, Jon, started Two Men and a Truck International Inc., a moving company, in the early ’80s as a way to earn money using their ’67 Ford pickup. Today, the business has x4,500 employees, more than x1,400 trucks, more than x200 franchises in x34 states, Canada, the U.K. and Ireland, and 2012 revenue of x$361 million.
“We did it to make beer and book money for college,” Sorber says. “We really never thought that it would get to this point.”
However, in getting to this point, the company had neglected to make necessary changes in order to keep the operation aligned and running well.
“One of the challenges we have had is going from a mom-and-pop-type business to having to grow up and become more corporate,” Sorber says. “We needed to bring in newer and stronger skill sets.”
Here’s how Sorber has helped Two Men and a Truck grow up.
Two Men and a Truck incorporated its first business in Lansing, Mich., in 1985 and began franchising in 1989. The company at this time was run by Sorber’s mom since he and his brother were in college.
Upon graduation, Sorber worked as an insurance agent and also operated his own Two Men and a Truck franchise. He returned to the company in the mid-’90s, became its president in 2007 and CEO, the title he carries today, in 2009. In that time the company had grown significantly, but it wasn’t running as well as it could be. Starting in 2007, Sorber’s job was to help restructure the business.
“We had to take a look at ourselves internally,” Sorber says. “There came a time that I just knew things were broken here.”
Because the company was growing so fast there was no organization chart. It was very loose on who reported to whom. It wasn’t that people weren’t working hard, but things were not getting measured.
“I had an epiphany that something had to change big time,” he says. “I made up something that resembled an org chart on a big piece of paper in my office. I brought in five people that I greatly trusted and had confidence in and gave them three markers — green, which meant that person or that job was important; yellow, which meant I didn’t have an opinion either way about this person or about this job; and red, which meant that this job makes no sense.”
Sorber used that as a starting point to help him identify where the company could restructure and cut costs.
“I wanted to give big bonuses to everyone at the end of the year and share the winnings, but we had to prime the pump first,” he says. “We went from 78 employees down to 51 employees after I went through that chart.
“That wasn’t because we were losing money. It was because by the time we realigned everything, there were some people here who weren’t doing anything.”
To avoid issues such as this, you have to have metrics that you measure to make sure whether you’re doing well or not.
“My metrics are No. 1, customer satisfaction,” Sorber says. “Find out how every one of your customers feels about their service. No. 2 is trucks and driveways. We want to put more trucks in more driveways every year.
“No. 3 is franchisees. Make sure your franchisees are profitable and have the tools to grow. No. 4 is giving back to the community.”
Metrics are a crucial aspect of success, but so is a mission statement that helps employees and customers know what the business is about. It also makes your decisions as a CEO simple.
“If your mission statement is strong, it should be limitless,” he says. “For us, we had our mission statement when we had 25 franchises, and now we’re well over 200 and it still applies. You also need core values that comprise what’s important to your company. Once you have those, you have to stay within the confines of your core values.
“When I was a younger executive I thought that was stuff you say to be nice. It’s something that’s serious. You can’t go into work and keep turning the wheel and expect better things to happen. You’ve got to maintain your mission statement, core values, measure what you’re doing, and then you have to look for ways to make things better.”
Bring in key people
As Two Men and a Truck went through these necessary changes, new employees and executives had to be brought in to give the company the right skill sets to continue growing.
“Sometimes we hold onto our executives too long, and we get comfortable with them,” Sorber says. “They may not question what you’re doing. Not all of them, but many of them can be fine with the status quo and as the world is changing they’re not forcing you as a CEO to question what you’re doing.”
You can’t settle for the people who are in your key positions. You need to find people with the right skill sets and make sure they stay within your mission statement and core values.
“Bringing in new individuals is kind of like working on an old house,” he says. “You think if you put new windows on the house it’s good, but then the siding looks really bad. The same thing happens in business when you get somebody that’s great in a department. You start to think, ‘What if I had someone like that in marketing?’”
Sorber brought in executives to fill his company’s voids, and they began offering all kinds of new ideas for the business.
“When I started bringing in these key executives, they wore my carpet out because they have fresh eyes for the business,” he says. “They asked why we did this or that. Many of the things we were doing were the right things, but it’s good for you to make your point about why you do it.
“The new executives will say, ‘That makes sense’ or ‘That’s different.’ Other times they’ll say, ‘OK, but did you ever think about doing this?’”
That is how your business goes through an evolution, and it starts bringing in more modern thinking and different approaches. A business will have a life cycle of only so long, and you need to continually reinvent it because your customer is changing. If you bring in new people they may bring the great ideas you need.
“It’s really important as a president or CEO to hire people who are smarter than you in their specific fields,” Sorber says. “Our job as president or CEO is to look more strategically at where we want the business, make sure the executives play nice together, ensure there’s harmony in the business and keep an eye on those important metrics.”
During the course of the past six years, Sorber has been able to successfully do all those things within Two Men and a Truck. Randy Shacka became the company’s first non-family member to serve as president in 2012. Now, Sorber and Shacka are looking at the future outlook of the business.
“We think we will be a $1 billion company by the year 2020,” he says. “In the last few years we’ve been doing a lot of internal work on fixing where we are broken and getting the right people in here. Now we want to be more than just a moving company. We want to be a company for change.”
How to reach: Two Men and a Truck, (800) 345-1070 or www.twomenandatruck.com
Many executives do not view the content they distribute as intertwined with their organization’s unique product or service. However, the two are interchangeable. Your product or service has differentiators that cause your clients to select you instead of the competition. Those same factors apply in content marketing.
If your goal is to engage prospects and ultimately lead them to conversion, you must create content that keeps them engaged. Success comes from creating consumable pieces of content that together form a singular thought leadership message and distributing those pieces across multiple channels. You never know through what channel someone will engage with your brand (or branded content), so the message needs to be consistent.
There are a few simple rules to doing this. Your content and what you’re selling should meet four criteria. It must be:
Useful means the content, as well as your product or service, has a defined use for a target audience. It addresses:
- How do I use this?
- How does this help me?
- What problem does this solve for me?
Here’s an example: According to a recent IDC Research report, 49 percent of the entire U.S. population currently uses a smartphone. By 2017, that number is expected to reach 68 percent. That means that within four years, more than two out of every three Americans — regardless of age — will be connected via smartphone. Therefore, a useful product a company might offer could be a solar-operated phone charger. And useful content to distribute to a target audience may include “How to make your daily life easier with these top five iPhone apps.”
To be Relevant, the product, service or content must be new and interesting, and mean something to the market or industry. Your audience will ask:
- What does this mean to me?
- Do I need this?
Let’s say your organization provides a website portal that connects insurance companies. New and interesting content that means something might be, “How your health care plan will be affected by reform . . . and what you can do to prepare for it.”
In a world filled with noise, you must demonstrate how what you do is Differentiated from competitors and explain:
- How does your content, product and service compare to the competition?
- Is it unique?
Let’s go back to the smartphone example. If you sell or service iPhones and Android-platform models, think about creating engaging content that examines the needs of today’s smartphone user, and then go beyond the basic functionality.
It’s also imperative to understand your target audience and the target audience for each product. Android-based smartphones are primarily aimed at businesspeople. iPhones, for all their bells and whistles, are not. This differentiation has led to a lot of confusion in the marketplace when consumers compare one against the other. Understanding this allows smart marketers to create engaging content such as “The top 10 needs of businesspeople: A comparison of Android phones vs. iPhones.”
Finally, your product, service and content must be Available and easily obtained in any channel.
If you run a benefits company that works with employers, for example, health care reform provides a timely opportunity to help clients make sense of the landscape. This might entail delivering a variety of consumable content that’s available to them 24 hours a day, seven days a week, through any channel.
This could include a video that explains the difference in options available to employers. It could be a social media campaign that outlines the top five differences between the health care insurance exchanges and employer-sponsored health care. Or, it may be a series of print mailers or webinars, or even a dedicated microsite that’s filled with content that details what employers need to know.
When your goal is creating engaging content, your ability to consider — and address — each of these factors may be what’s required to transform engagement into measurable conversion.
This is no fish story. Instead, this column is about one of the most important roles an owner or CEO must fulfill on an ongoing basis.
Leaders spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with the issues du jour. These range from managing people, wooing and cajoling customers, creating strategies, searching for elusive answers and just about everything in between. These are all good and necessary tasks and undertakings. Too frequently, however, these same leaders delegate this effort to others or ignore it altogether. To be “in the game,” you have to know when to fish or cut bait.
Successful fishermen know that to catch a fish they have to sometimes cast their lines dozens of times just to get a nibble or bite. The first bite might not result in reeling in that big fish. Frequently, a nibble is just a tipoff as to where the fish are swimming.
The same applies to reaching out — casting a line, if you will, to explore new, many times unorthodox, opportunities for your organization. These opportunities can be finding a competitor to buy, discovering an unlikely yet complementary business to partner with or snagging a new customer from an industry that had heretofore gone undiscovered.
All of this takes setting a portion of your time to investigate unique situations, as well as a healthy dose of creativity and the ability to think well beyond the most obvious.
Too many times even the most accomplished executives lack the motivation to look for ideas in unlikely places. Some would believe that it’s unproductive to spend a significant amount of time on untested “what ifs.” Just like sage fishermen, executives can also cultivate their own places to troll.
Of course, networking is a good starting point, particularly with people unrelated to your business, where sometimes one may fortuitously stumble onto a new idea that leads to a payoff.
Other times, a hot lead might come from simply reading trade papers, general media reports and just surfing the Internet. The creative twist is reading material that doesn’t necessarily apply to your own industry or to anything even close to what you do. New ideas come disguised in many forms and are frequently hidden in a variety of nooks and crannies. This means training yourself to read between the lines.
Once something piques your imagination, the next step is to follow through and call the other company or send an inquiry by email to state that it might be worth a short conversation to explore potential mutually beneficial arrangements. This can at times be a bit frustrating and futile. That's when you cut bait and start anew.
However, reaching out to someone today could materialize into something of substance tomorrow. The often skipped but critical next step, even after hitting a seemingly dead end, is to always close the loop with whomever you made contact. Even if there is no apparent fit or interest at the moment, it’s easy and polite to send a short note of thanks and attach your one-paragraph “elevator” pitch.
That same person just might be casting him or herself, be it in a month or even a year later, and make contact with a different organization that’s not a fit for him or her, but recall you because you followed through and created awareness about your story.
This just might lead the person with whom you first spoke to call you because you had had the courtesy to send that note. Bingo — you just got a bite all because of continuing to cast your line.
Good CEOs and honest fishermen also have one other important characteristic in common: humility. They know that when a line is cast it won’t result in a catch every time. But if nothing is ventured, it’s guaranteed there will be nothing gained. Don’t let that big one get away. Just keep casting.
As an organization grows, changes are inevitable.
New employees are added, promotions are made and job responsibilities shift.
But any time you have change, you have the potential for conflict. Few people are comfortable with change, and each person will react differently in making the adjustments necessary to move forward with the company.
The most important thing a CEO can do is to be active in confronting potential conflict. Conflict goes hand-in-hand with change. Employees begin to question management, co-workers and even themselves as they are forced outside of their comfort zones. Those questions can lead to misunderstandings that can lead to conflict, and that will ultimately slow your growth.
Don’t passively avoid potential conflict. Instead, actively engage members of your organization by providing the necessary forums both for you to communicate your strategy and vision and for them to communicate their concerns back to you. An active conversation will help drive your vision for the company through the organization and will also help foster your next generation of leaders as they take a more active role.
Only when employees are challenged to think — and to challenge you — will you maximize your organization’s potential. Do you want employees who don’t speak up when they recognize what may be a fatal flaw in your grand strategy? Or would you rather have employees who are actively thinking about the big-picture goals of the company and doing their part to contribute?
Regardless of what size company you run, it comes down to a simple choice.
It’s a choice between having employees acting like robots or acting like people. If you choose robots, you will have to have all the answers. If you choose people, you only have to have some of the answers because the employees will help you find the rest.
Engaging employees in conversations, meetings and decision-making helps them take ownership and helps you create a happier work force. If they are not allowed to speak, gossip and rumors will drag down your productivity.
Actively provide two-way communication. Let employees do the talking and hear what they have to say. The results may surprise you. Those closest to the customer often know best what needs to be done to improve sales, service or efficiency.
Too many CEOs lament the lack of good people to help take them to the next level. Maybe the problem is more CEOs need to create good people rather than driving them off with a work environment that’s better suited to a good robot.
Every Company is a Media Company. It’s a phrase coined some eight years ago by tech journalist Tom Foremski to describe the impact of technology on marketing.
From the Internet to Wi-Fi to smartphones, a tectonic shift has taken place with technology forever changing the landscape of marketing, just as radio and television did before.
Only this time, it’s different. This time, the power has shifted from the hands of a few hundred powerful media outlets to the hands of billions of consumers.
At the same time, companies like yours have been handed powerful tools and an unparalleled opportunity to engage with customers like never before. It’s not just in the obvious new places like mobile websites, apps and the media. Technology has made it easier and cheaper to communicate through video, live events and, yes, even print publications.
Like it or not, you are a media company.
So what’s a media mogul like you to do? You need to do one thing: create content. And you need to do it well. You need to create content that generates interest among your target customer base and engages them with your organization.
It might sound easy, but it’s not. Most business leaders know that effective communication is one of the biggest challenges any company faces. When that communication is what sets you apart in the minds of your customers and prospects, the stakes are all the higher.
Here are a few important points to keep in mind as you set about embracing your new role as a media company.
Be where your audience is
Content comes in many forms. Most of us 40- or 50-something business executives are more comfortable reading printed material. Flipping through your brochure, newsletter or even your own custom magazine is comfortable for us. So hand us something.
But younger VPs and 20-somethings — many of whom do the heavy lifting of researching company buying decisions — are more comfortable gaining intel online. They scour videos on YouTube, mine infographics on visual.ly and peruse PowerPoints on SlideShare. So take the time to figure out which of these is the right channel to reach your target customer.
Share knowledge, not platitudes
Yeah, we get it. Your people are smarter, their customer service is better and their breath smells fresher longer. But that’s not why we might be interested in your business.
What we want to know is how you’re going to solve our problems and make our lives easier. We don’t want you to tell us you are smarter; we want you to show us you are smarter.
Thought leadership articles, white papers and blog posts showcase your knowledge of industries, issues and tactics. They differentiate you from your competitors and position you as a subject matter expert in your market.
Talk about customers more than yourself
The best communicators are great storytellers. Stories resonate. They connect us. They are, simply, what we remember.
Sharing client success stories is one of the best ways to tell your own story. The tried-and-true case study is one of the most effective forms of content in a marketer’s arsenal. If you show us how you can make our businesses faster, better, stronger, we will do business with you. It’s that simple.
And if you have particularly well known and respected clients, you get the added benefit of basking in their reflected glory. Welcome to the media business. Now go tell your story.
Michael Marzec is chief strategy officer of Smart Business Network and SBN Interactive. Reach him at email@example.com or (440) 250-7078.