Registering success

 Monte Cahn has always been an entrepreneur. He started his first company before he even graduated from college, and in the years since then, he has founded and grown many successful businesses.

“The key is to have initiative, tenacity and drive, and to stay focused,” Cahn says. “If you really believe in something, you continue to do it.”

Today, Cahn is CEO of DomainSystems Inc., a provider of domain name registration, management and monetization services, which he founded in 1999. In its first year, it became the first company to sell a domain name for more than $1 million, and it has prospered ever since.

“We just put our nose down and stayed focused on the core things that we started the business by instead of trying to do everything,” Cahn says. “It kept us in business when other people were going out of business.”

DomainSystems’ revenue doubled to $16 million in 2005 from $8 million in 2004, and Cahn says the company is on track to double revenue again this year.

Smart Business spoke with Cahn about how he builds customer relationships and the importance of staying focused on your core business.

How have you grown the company?
We were very early believers in our industry. We were one of the few players that were involved in the industry, so we helped create it.

When you create first-mover advantages, you become known and people come to you for expertise. It was being excellent at what you do, providing great service and support, and staying focused on delivering something that is unique or different in your space, and then people will come to you.

How have you maintained relationships with customers while growing so quickly?
You always weigh your growth and how it affects the organization. We grew a lot faster without expanding our organization in the beginning. You learn from making a couple of mistakes.

You try to build your business both internally and externally. If you have aggressive goals on the inside for revenue and profit and number of customers you want to serve, then you have to match that with a great support staff and great employees around you that are in for the same initiative and same goals and objectives that you are.

It’s matching inside and outside resources to help do that. And you learn a lot. You learn what you could do better. There are things we could have done better. You learn from your mistakes, and then you apply what you’ve learned for the future.

No one ever has a 100 percent perfect business. You always have bumps in the road and wrong turns. The key is getting back on track. Once you do that … then you’re successful.

How do you recognize new business opportunities?
Recognizing and then deciding whether or not you are going to go down that path are two different things.

In our case, I go back to the foundation — things that kept us in business and made us successful in the very early days even when things were tough — and that is to stay focused and to look at opportunities that are more around our core business offerings instead of looking for things that we don’t specialize in.

What advice would you give to other CEOs?
Make sure that they understand and know who their customer base is. You have to have the ability to service either one or two niches very, very well, or a broad audience pretty good in order to be successful.

You have to always ask for feedback on how you’re doing as a company and how you are doing individually as a leader, not only with your customers, but also with your employees. My employees aren’t afraid to tell me if I should do something better or do something different, or if I’m not addressing an issue properly. I take that feedback and it is very valuable to me.

Remain focused on your core business and what you’re intending to do from the very start. You can certainly change and adapt your business with the environment and with the times.

But unless it’s absolutely necessary, don’t take your business completely off course because there is some new widget or gadget or opportunity without fully understanding the risk and reward for going down that path when you started down one path, because it’s very hard to turn back around and start again.

HOW TO REACH: DomainSystems Inc., (800) 841-7686 or www.domainsystems.com

Positive outlook

 When George Cann and his wife, Carla Albano, left the corporate world to start their own company they spent a lot of time thinking about the kind of culture they wanted to create.

“That was one of my priorities,” Cann says. “I said, ‘If I’m going to start and own my own company from scratch, I’m going to do it the way I want to do it.’”

In 1996, the two founded Alternative Home Health Care and worked to create a culture based around respect, while also establishing a business plan that would allow the company to grow quickly.

“I’ve always been involved with growth businesses and growth industries and have been fortunate to bring some of those skills that facilitated that to this business,” says Cann, president of Alternative Home Health Care.

Smart Business spoke with Cann about how to find good employees and the importance of planning ahead for your company.

How do you create a good work environment?
When you work for other companies, there are always certain things that you see that you don’t like, but you have to go along. If I’m going to own my own company, I’m going to make it so there is nothing about my company that I don’t like or that I’m ashamed of or that we compromise on.

I start all of my orientations talking to new hires about respect, which is our No. 1 priority. By that I mean we treat everyone with respect. It’s a real priority for us. Our life is the people who walk in the door who come here to work.

We hire between five and seven or eight people a week. If we aren’t warm and friendly and reaching out to them when they come in the door, we’re going to lose them — especially now in South Florida, where our unemployment rate is below 3 percent and we’re struggling all the time to bring people in.

How do you attract good employees?
It’s a lot of word a mouth. I go back to how we treat people. They refer their friends and relatives to come to work for us. That’s our primary way in which we recruit people.

Secondary to that, we have our own internal school to teach people how to become home health aids. We provide that for free. If they come to our class and pass it and go to work for us, in 90 days we pay them for that time.

The norm is you go get a home health aid certificate and you end up paying between $250 and $500 for that training, so we are really trying to give them incentive to come work for us.

How can other CEOs succeed in leading a fast-growing company?
At the top, you really need to be focused on where you want the company to go. From the very first day, we had a vision, we had a written plan.

Oftentimes businesspeople say, ‘I’ll add that extra person when the business warrants it.’ But you can’t grow a company that way. You’re not letting yourself get your organization ahead far enough to grow. We’ve always had the people in place, the systems in place, so that we could perform at a much higher rate than we are performing right now.

I know that’s easy to say, and businesspeople say, ‘Well, you’ve got to have the money to do that.’ And that’s true. You have to be properly capitalized to grow business.

The No. 1 thing is to have a plan and think about your business strategically. Be ready to perform today where you want to be in two years.

What advice would you give brand new CEOs?
Be sure to spend enough time planning for your company. If growth is a priority for you, spend a lot of time on how you want to grow your business. (Spend time on) financial planning, how you’re going to have the resources to grow and risk management planning, which is a very key thing.

Everything starts from the top. When we talk about culture, values, respect in our organization, it all starts from the top. Any business leader has to realize that however he or she is perceived, that’s the way the whole company will be perceived. In other words, if they are a positive, energetic leader and they go out and have a positive attitude and give people positive feedback, that will permeate the organization.

If they have an attitude where they are grumpy, they’re negative and everything is weighing them down all the time, that’s going to go right through the organization.

HOW TO REACH: Alternative Home Health Care, (877) 584-7772 or www.alternativehomehealth.com

Failure is not an option

 When the Vikings went to war, they ran their ships up on the beach, then burned them so they couldn’t retreat. It’s an example that Sean Guerin and Britt Sikes have used as the inspiration to start U.S. Imaging Solutions and stick it out with the company.

“There was no room for failure,” says Guerin, co-CEO with Sikes. “We put everything we had into this thing. We had basically burned our ships, and there was no turning back.”

That motivation has been a large factor in the success of the founders. Their goals were to create a workplace where people liked to come each morning, to give back to the community and to provide for their families. Today, the $15 million company has changed its name three times, gone from selling toner cartridges to selling copiers and more, and experienced more growth than Guerin and Sikes ever planned on.

Smart Business spoke with Guerin about how he and Sikes create a good work environment and the struggles they have experienced growing U.S. Imaging Solutions.

How do you create a good work environment?
It starts with our personalities and attitudes. We recognize the fact that … no matter what is going on in our lives, personal or professional, we’ve got to be leaders. And that starts with your attitude.

We hired folks with similar attitudes, similar passions and a similar sense of urgency to get things done and take care of the customer. We refused to settle on personnel that didn’t share those same characteristics — the No. 1 characteristic being integrity.

Everything flows from integrity. There is no such thing, I think, as business ethics. You either have ethics or you don’t. You can’t pick and choose just because you are in business what they are.

We’ve made some mistakes along the way. The bigger you get, the harder it is to maintain that culture and have the simple gatherings that get everyone together from the various departments just to talk about other things outside of work.

How do you maintain that culture as you grow?
One of the things I can take from my dad is he had something called the two-minute rule, which I try very hard to adhere to. And that is, at least once a week, I spend two minutes with as many folks as I possibly can … just talking about anything outside of work.

For most people, they spend a lot more hours here than they do at home. We are quick to recognize that your personal life drives your professional life.

If you don’t have your personal life in order, you’re not going to be worth a damn to us here at the office. We make sure that they’ve got an ample amount of time to do the things they need to do with their family.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started?
You really need to, upfront, spend a lot of time and invest in the right people from the beginning. If you don’t get it right the first time, when are you going to find the time to go back and fix it?

If you don’t have the experience or the expertise on the financial and accounting side, invest heavily in the right software system and the right personnel to oversee the financing function.

That’s critical to all aspects of the business. I can go out and drive revenue all day long. We can go out and sell, sell, sell, but if we don’t have the proper infrastructure in place to deal with the sales, then it’s going to break.

If I had to do it all over again, I would have gotten a degree in finance instead of marketing. We had to overcome some hurdles in the beginning, because we did not have the right [finance] person.

We could have been further along had we had the right individual. We spent a considerable amount of time and money making sure we do now.

What advice would you give to other business leaders?
You have to come to work each and every day 100 percent, because everyone is looking to you to lead. I sometimes lie awake at night with that pit in my stomach, knowing that I’ve got 70 families relying on me to make the right decisions and do the right thing and provide the proper leadership.

You have to take a lot of risks as an entrepreneur. Unless you’re selling some magical widget, you’re out there competing, and there are no guarantees. You’ve got to constantly reinvent yourself, you’ve got to be creative and come up with ways to present yourself to the market in a unique fashion.

If you’re the CEO of a public company and you decide that you’re done and you want to leave, you can walk away. I can’t do that.

If I walk away, I leave everything and I leave everyone else in a lurch. You can’t just decide that you’re done, so you better be committed — just like the Vikings were when they burned their ships.

HOW TO REACH: U.S. Imaging Solutions, www.usimagingsolutions.com

Schooling success

 For more than 15 years, Lawrence Fisher and Dr. Lesley Epstein have owned and operated successful preschools in the South Florida area. The success of Cambridge Schools – and the need for better education – drove the two to franchise the school concept and expand into other regions.

Today there are four Cambridge Schools with 180 employees, and Fisher and Epstein plan to add 15 more schools within eight years. Revenue in 2005 was more than $8 million – a 38 percent increase over 2003 – and if Fisher and Epstein can replicate their success in other regions, Cambridge Schools’ revenue will continue to rapidly increase.

Smart Business spoke with Fisher about how he plans to expand into new regions and the importance of brand recognition in expanding Cambridge Schools.

What are you doing to build a brand?
We have obtained a service mark for the Cambridge name and worked diligently to ensure the name is synonymous with high-quality preschool education.

We know what we do – we teach preschoolers so that they are socially and academically ready to enter the school system. Our focus is always on this goal.

Why is getting a service mark so important to building a brand?
Every business with a successful model works to develop to the point of instant recognition as a leader in their field. This effort takes a commitment both from employees and in dollars.

The success of (our) model is evident in our programs but is represented by our logo and curriculum. To ensure that when parents see the Cambridge name associated with a preschool they are getting the program developed by us, we have obtained a service mark.

How will developing a brand help the company grow?
Internally, every new school has multiple successful models to learn from and follow. When we show new employees how we do it, they will know we are using a tried and successful method. For our new customers, the best method for ensuring that Cambridge will deliver the best in preschool education is to show we do exactly that in other communities.

How do you plan to grow to 19 schools over the next eight years?
First we have to get a location. And once we get a location, the building has to be built. All future buildings will be the same as the ones we’ve already built, so we don’t have to redesign or reinvent anything.

As far as supplies or equipment, we also have a nationwide supplier, and they supply all our goods. We have a complete listing of what we need at each classroom. As far as people to run the units, we will be bringing them to South Florida, directors and assistant directors, to work with the schools in South Florida, to see how it is done the Cambridge way and to educate them and assist them in hiring in their local areas.

We plan on a cluster of three in one year and then two clusters the following year and two clusters the year after that.

How will you maintain consistency and quality across a large number of schools?
We focus on three elements. First is the facility. We have worked with our architect over several years to design buildings that support the education and playful nature of preschoolers. The design has met with very positive reviews from the parents of our students, as well as our employees.

Second is our curriculum. The curriculum was developed by our owner, Dr. Lesley Epstein, and guides our teaching methodologies. The curriculum is everywhere in our schools and is evident both in the organization of the school day as well as the materials we have chosen.

Finally is our teaching staff. Every new director spends significant time at an existing school to learn how we do things. The teachers are carefully guided through our handbook, which details how to organize a room, conduct a school day, talk to children, our dress code, etc.

Once operating, each school is under the direct supervision of our executive director, who ensures that Cambridge policies are properly practiced and visible, hence our uniformity.

HOW TO REACH: Cambridge Schools, (954) 217-8566 or www.cambridge123.com

Family first

Andrew Zuckerman knows there is more to life than just work. Zuckerman, president of Zuckerman Homes, lives with the notion that family comes first.

And although he works with his son and two brothers every day, Zuckerman doesn’t just mean his immediate family; he’s also talking about his staff and their families. Zuckerman says his employees know their job should not come before their family and that has created a family-like atmosphere at the company.

“We’re not clock-punchers,” Zuckerman says of the fourth-generation residential homebuilder company. “Everyone who comes here has a job to do, and they understand it. There’s no real pressure. We want them to wake up every morning and look forward to coming to work. You spend as much time at the work place as you do at home.”

Zuckerman says that by letting people know that family comes first, he gains the loyalty of his employees. And that loyalty has helped propel the company to rapid growth — revenue increased from $45 million in 2003 to $58 million in 2005.

Smart Business spoke with Zuckerman about how he attracts good employees, creates a good work environment for them and excels at customer service.

How do you attract good employees?
The interviewing process is a very tricky process because you get to meet somebody and they’re usually nervous coming in to meet you, and you’re usually nervous not knowing who you are meeting with or what to discuss. You always go with your gut feeling.

We look for people who are honest, people who are caring. Family people are great. We always put family ahead of everything else and we let everyone who works here know that — that each individual family is a priority.

We’ve got a great environment here where everyone who ends up working here ends up staying here.

How do you create a good work environment?
One of the most important things to everybody that works here is that family comes first. If you have a child and they’re home sick and you can’t come to work that day because there is nothing else you can do, you stay home. If your husband is sick or has an appointment, you take the day off and you go do that.

It’s important to us, and it’s a natural outreach to everyone here. They really appreciate that this is not a clock-punching organization.

Over time, people grow to appreciate that. Everybody knows what they need to do to get the job done and they do it.

What challenges come with fast growth?
The challenges always seem to be trying to please everybody. Our business is quite complex, even though it seems so simple. It starts with first trying to find a piece of property that you think would fit the marketplace, and then analyzing, ‘Does it fit the marketplace?’ Then developing the property or getting governmental approvals to develop the property.

Then finding a product that you think would be appealing to the general public and building that product, selling that product. Then people moving into that product and you servicing that product. It’s a very long process for every house that you build.

What advice would you give to someone who is trying to please everyone?
It’s the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you want done unto you.’ I go through life like that. Everybody wants good service. You have to try to give good service.

We know we build a good product. We know our product is attractive. We know, or we hope, it’s well-received in the marketplace, but you still have to continue to service the customer.

It really doesn’t make a difference what industry you are in. I think every industry today is more and more customer-service driven than ever before because there are so many choices out there.

How do you excel at customer service?
By trying to meet the needs of each individual as quickly as possible and as efficiently as possible. I like to use the phrase, ‘You’re only as good as your last service call in our business.’

If you can get it done and get it done right and efficiently, and that keeps people happy, then you’ve done your job.

What are the key skills that any business leader needs to be successful?
Listening — not just hearing but listening. It’s important to talk and get your message across, but it’s probably more important to listen. Listen to the people around you. Listen to your professionals.

Listen to the people that you work with. Listen to your partners. Listen to people out in the marketplace. Listen to your salespeople on the front line. Listen to the people out in the field that have to build the product.

Listening is one of the keys to being a good executive. Many people hear. They don’t listen.

HOW TO REACH: Zuckerman Homes, www.zuckermanhomes.com

Planning perfection

Hal Etkin describes himself as a problem-solver. As founder and CEO of ME Productions, his motto is, “If you need something, we can get it for you.”

That focus on service has helped the full-service event production and destination management company grow and prosper for more than 25 years, and its revenue rose 67 percent from 2003 to 2005.

“The philosophy here is we walk in the shoes of our clients,” says Etkin. “We understand their problems, and we will give them multiple possibilities.”

Smart Business spoke with Etkin about how he builds relationships with clients and retains employees.

How did you grow ME Productions into a successful venture?
The company has stayed in business for over 25 years, and its growth is dependent upon the fact that we understand the client. All of our staff people, when they have an event, they are on duty 24 hours. The clients have all of their numbers, even their home numbers. They are very much hands-on at every one of their events.

We have grown because the clients have enabled us to grow. We give unbelievable service. We have been able to deal with technology. We’ve grown and adapted to change. We understand the demographic that has changed in the business world. We’ve been price-effective and able to respond to their needs as quick as anyone else.

We warehouse good talent. If someone comes along that is really talented, that will be able to contribute down the road, we will hire them and hopefully develop into that type of a business.

How do you attract big-name clients?
Our business has between 75 to 80 percent repeat business. We were able to get through things like 9/11 when a lot of companies couldn’t. We don’t advertise. The way we grow is by word of mouth, by relationships. We have very strong relationships with our clients.

How do you develop those relationships?
Most of our clients are from out of town. When they come in town, they are leery of dealing with a stranger for a first time. We need to cultivate a kind of closeness with them so that they are comfortable with us.

They will take us to Bora Bora. They will take us to Africa because of our expertise in the field. They will hire us as their expert to do their event everywhere else.

Because we have so many good people on staff, we don’t have to call anybody for information. We walk down the hall and we speak to someone and they can get the answer. That kind of service is hard to come by.

How do you attract and retain quality employees?
We can’t find enough good people. If you have a good product and bad personnel, you are never going to sell your product. If you have a bad product and good personnel, they’ll change the product. It’s people that manage the world.

In our industry, there are not any benefits generally given. When we employ people, they have a 401(k), and they have medical benefits.

In the hospitality industry, areas will generally be seasonal. For example, in Arizona in August, you are not going to go to Arizona, so they cut their health (insurance). In this company, we keep the help on 12 months a year, no matter what.

We’ve been able to create the kind of loyalty that we give them to give back to us. When 9/11 happened, we trenched a little bit, but we kept our doors open and we went into the social business, which is galas, weddings and things like that, which was able to support some of our staff. The company took a bite, too.

How do you communicate your mission and vision to employees?
We hope that they can grow with our company. We are a relationship kind of a business. We need to teach our people, we need to train them, we have to buy in into everything we do.

We have interdepartmental meetings weekly. We have monthly internal newsletters. We have e-mail updates. We have seminars.

We will tear sheets out of a magazine and send it around to everybody and expect them to do the same thing. They buy in to that. It’s a very creative element, and everybody here is very creative. HOW TO REACH: ME Productions, (800) 544-0033 or www.meproductions.com

Growth through communication

During the 20 years that Dennis Giordano has been with the company now known as Calvin, Giordano & Associates, the firm has prospered despite a sometimes troubled economy.

Giordano has been president of the multidisciplinary professional consulting firm for the past 10 years and has helped it expand into new niches, such as indoor air quality, and landscape architecture and environmental services.

Although the firm has consistently done well, it’s only in the past five years that Calvin, Giordano & Associates has started growing rapidly. Revenue has increased from approximately $11 million in 2003 to almost $17 million in 2005, and much of this growth has come from loyal customers who provide the firm with repeat business.

Smart Business spoke with Giordano about how he grew the company during tough times and why communication is so important.

How have you grown your company during difficult economic times?

We just continued with our business plan. What we tried to do was not have all of our eggs in one basket, so we had a pretty good balance between our public and private clients.

When the economy goes bad, (the private side) is the first thing to go. We are able to concentrate and focus more during those times on the public side. When the private side goes down, usually there is some additional money pumped into the public sector, so in actuality, there was more money available from public agencies.

We were able to grow not as much during that time, but we did grow about 5 percent a year during the tough times.

How do you communicate your vision and mission to employees?

We provide a monthly newsletter. We provide them copies of our business plan. We have quarterly luncheons where all of our employees get together and we discuss the past quarter and talk about the next quarter coming up. We provide interaction between senior management and the staff at those luncheons.

We have impromptu meetings with different groups and bring them in sort of as focus groups to get their opinion on what we are doing right, what they would like to see, what they wouldn’t like to see, things we can improve on. We also market internally.

For instance, we just developed a new corporate brochure, and we sent a copy of the brochure home to everybody’s family, so that not only the employee, but their spouse could see what our services are and what our business plan was.

The other thing is we became an ESOP company six years ago, so there is a good portion of the employees who have a stake of ownership in the firm.

How do you recognize business opportunities?

A lot of it has to do with the market at the time. What we try to do first is provide a service to our existing client base. By staying in contact with them, we get a feel for what services they may need and historically have been able to fill those services. It’s a very easy sale when you already have the client.

How do you build good relationships with clients to ensure repeat business?

Communication and providing them with a good product on-time and within budget. Communication is really the key, because even if you do run into problems, if you communicate with them beforehand, it works for a much better relationship.

How has open communication with employees and clients contributed to the company’s growth?

I think clients appreciate it because we constantly keep them abreast of the progress of their project so they can see how their business plan is going and how everything falls into place.

Communication with the employees allows them to think that they are part of the decision-making process, they have input and that we do listen to them. I think it gives them a feeling of buying into the plan, and they become part of it and they share in the success. Conversely, if it doesn’t work, they share in that also. Fortunately, we have been extremely successful, particularly in the last five years, where we just about tripled our business.

How are you maintaining quality as you grow?

We ensure that the safeguards are in place. In fact, we are just reviewing all of our quality control standards right now.

We have a system of checks and balances throughout the process that is monitored by a committee. It is their responsibility to make sure that all of the various departments are complying with our quality control standards that are in place. They are reviewed yearly.

HOW TO REACH: Calvin, Giordano & Associates, (954) 921-7781 or www.calvin-giordano.com

Against the odds

Beverly Raphael knew more about fashion than about construction when she took over as president and CEO of general contracting firm RCC Associates.

Raphael had run a successful fashion company for years, but when her husband, Richard Raphael, died of brain cancer, she was left with a tough decision: sell the business her husband worked so hard to create, or run a business she didn’t know much about.

“I entertained some offers, but a lot of the people that have been with the company for several years asked me if I would consider keeping the company,” says Raphael. “They felt that they could teach me everything I needed to know about the business, and we could keep it up and running.”

Raphael agreed to give the construction business a try, thinking that if things didn’t work out after a year, she would sell the company. Seven years later, she has grown it from $19 million in revenue to more than $70 million.

Smart Business spoke with Raphael about how she overcame skepticism and put RCC Associates on the fast track to growth.

With so little experience, how did you convince clients that you could do the job?
I needed to get out into the field. I needed to contact all customers, go see them in person and reassure them I wasn’t a novice in business and the Raphael name was standing behind everything that we did. I think that really meant a great deal to them.

We didn’t have a major change in staff. Our clients had been dealing with a lot of the same people over a number of years. Because those people stayed in place, there was a confidence level that things were not going to alter that much.

My late husband’s vision of how he treated people and how he wanted his company to be viewed by other people was something that I understood, and it was something that I understood how to carry forward.

What management strategies do you use to lead employees?
I had an option of either running the company like a taskmaster or running it like a mother. I knew that in being a taskmaster, I might get short-term results, but I would never give the employees the confidence that they need to grow and the assistance that they need to grow the company.

I am surrounded by taskmasters in the field. That’s how the construction sometimes has to get done but not in the office. I felt the employees needed a figure to guide them and correct their mistakes and not throw them under the bus if there was an error but try to get them to understand what the client was thinking or feeling.

I always wanted to put them on the other side of the table and envision themselves as the client.

I have an open-door policy. Anyone in the company can come in. If they have a difference of opinion, if they feel like they’re not being dealt with in a fair manner, if they are having a problem on the job, we want to participate in the resolution.

I made sure that they were comfortable enough to know that they could come in at any time and that they’re not going to be judged. Once they felt comfortable enough in knowing that I meant that, there became a revolving door on my office, and they were in there constantly.

It was OK, because it gave them the feeling that I was sincere about what I was telling them.

How did you grow the company?
It was the repeat business that drove our revenues from under $20 million when Richard passed away to over $70 million last year. We continue to expand our client base using a systematic approach to who we want to do business with.

We are in a niche business. That is something that Richard saw tremendous value to over 25 years ago when he decided to go in the direction of building high-end retail stores. We were able to take that to the next level by incorporating high-end restaurants, as well. Spas have also been an area where we have gotten involved in.

In our area, there are a handful of contractors in the whole country that really know how to deal with the high-end couture business. That’s why we have targeted that as our niche business. We’ve stayed focused. We are not trying to be everything to everybody.

How do you ensure that you get repeat clients?
That’s the hardest part of the job because you want to make sure that this is a painless experience for your client and that they feel like they are part of the process. There are going to be problems on every job — it’s construction.

It’s how you deal with the problems and how you communicate that to your clients, and you work through it together. We’ve never run away from an issue. If it was something we needed to deal with, we dealt with it head-on. We made sure the client was always made aware of it.

There’s a trust factor. Once the client trusts you, they don’t want to try to get to that place with another contractor, so they will continue to use us over and over again.

HOW TO REACH: RCC Associates, (954) 429-3700 or www.rccassociates.com

Team work

Thirteen years ago, Christine Madsen left her stable job and put her life savings on the line to start marketing agency InterMedia.

Today, InterMedia is one of South Florida’s fastest-growing private companies, but Madsen’s journey hasn’t always been smooth — in 1997, an employee stole a large sum of money from her. She credits her team of loyal employees for getting her through that tough time and leading her company to growth.

Smart Business spoke with Madsen about the importance of good employees and how she safeguards her company against fraud.

What challenges did you face starting your own company?
I started the agency after a 20-some-year career working in the corporate world. Part of the challenge was (coming) from a corporate environment, where there were other people’s dollars behind me, and everything I did was on a payroll.

When I started my own agency and still wanted to continue my community involvement, the most challenging part for me was realizing that for every hour I was involved in other things, I wasn’t able to focus on the business. It was trying to find that balance when I was on my own clock.

How did you find that balance?
Part of what solved that problem was bringing on people who were able to start taking on other areas of responsibility. I consider myself the primary rainmaker; therefore, the place that I am of most service to the agency is through my community involvement and to constantly be the face and the voice of the agency.

When I found people who could take over some of the operational responsibilities and do the other things that need to be done, it allowed me to be out doing what I think … I contribute to the overall success of the company.

How do you find good employees?
I serve on multiple boards and have a rather extensive contact base. I rely on that to grow the agency and to find the right people. I reach out to those people, and they will refer people to me.

I also stay very active and so do many of our senior people. We stay very active in the industry. That gives us an opportunity to meet and know professionals out there who might be in search of a position in an agency like ours.

What safeguards did you put in place after you caught an employee stealing?
I have done a little more due diligence in the hiring process, and there are some double-check methods in the accounting division. You can’t let one person start changing your trust and your belief in the goodness of people, but certainly there are things that you can do to safeguard yourself.

There’s one small thing that I would advise other smaller companies to do, and it would sound crazy to large companies. One thing that every owner should do … is to have the bank statement sent to your home and take the five minutes it takes to flip through checks and look at them. That is one way that you can safeguard yourself from somebody committing a forgery.

The person who is in charge of my accounting and finance department has been with me for six years. She came in after the event. I would trust her with my life, but I also have an accounting team that sees regular statements.

I don’t think there is any way of protecting yourself from every possibility. You can’t get crazy, you can’t get paranoid, and you have to keep thinking going forward.

How do you build a culture of trust after you’ve been burned?
What grew up out of that adversity was a lot of good things. The rest of the team jumped on board to help in every way they could. I really found out how many of the right people I had in place.

The spirit of the team came through. Everybody knew that I looked at it as one person who had some very difficult issues. My team and I are very strong. Most of the people that are here have been here for a great length of time. They are extremely supportive of me, as I am of them. They know I trust them, and I had no problem isolating that incident.

I was fortunate enough to win the “Good to Great” Award (from The Greater Miami, Greater Fort Lauderdale and Greater Boca Raton chambers, showcasing businesses that have transitioned from solid to great) last year. The Jim Collins book “Good to Great” talks a lot about having the right people on the team.

That is the thing that I am proudest of. It’s the overall spirit of the agency from top to bottom.

HOW TO REACH: InterMedia, (954) 485-5448 or www.mad4marketing.com

A born builder

Starting a company comes with many challenges — you have to find the money to finance it, employees to help run it and customers to support it.

But for Thomas E. Hoshko, that is where the fun is.

“I’ve always been more of a builder versus a maintenance person,” says Hoshko, who has founded two companies and led multiple others to rapid growth. “When a company gets to the point where it is time to be more in a maintenance mode versus growth and building, then it is time for me to move on.”

Hoshko’s latest undertaking is The Experts, a technology solutions and staffing company that he took over in 2002. As with his previous endeavors, Hoshko is growing The Experts at a rapid pace, from just under $1 million in 2002 to around $12 million in 2005. Hoshko estimates that The Experts will surpass $20 million in 2006.

Smart Business spoke with Hoshko, CEO and president of The Experts, about how he grows businesses and caters to his clients’ needs.

What strategies have you used to grow companies?
I hire the proven producers. We pay for performance and have good customer relationships. A lot of the [same] customers I have had throughout the years, regardless of which company I am with. I more or less work with the individual.

We don’t just pay on sales. For our branches, we pay on EBIT — earnings before interest and taxes. We pay them for profit and growth. That gives them some incentive.

We have strong customer relationships. We basically find strong demand and then deliver what we promise. You have to change with the technology and with your customers if you are customer-driven. For example Y2K was a big thing in 2000, but now it’s more things like Six Sigma, Sarbanes-Oxley and the defense niche.

If you are thinking about going public or you are thinking about value or selling or Wall Street, you want to be in something that has strong demand that you can forecast out for the next four or five years.

How do you plan to achieve your goal of being the most customer service-oriented company in the industry?
What we try to do is become a business partner with all of our customers. We get to know their business and not just their technology and plans for technology

When we provide technology experts, whether it’s network people or database people or even subject matter experts, they will know (the client’s) business as well as the technology environment. For example, you’re not going to take a guy out of the manufacturing environment and put him in a bank. It is important that people know and understand the business and the applications, as well as the technology.

We listen to what they need and then we deliver solutions to solve their problems. Customer service consists of developing a relationship over time, becoming a true business partner, listening to customer needs and obviously delivering. If you deliver, they are going to continue to work with you.

How do you find out what your customers want and need?
We go out and meet with our customers on a weekly basis to get to know them. We are probably one of the few companies that do guaranteed performance. For example, if we put somebody in, and it may not be that technically they can’t do it but it may be their personality, we will replace that person at no cost.

What we usually do is follow up with a customer on a regular basis, a monthly basis certainly, but especially the first week or two. We want to make sure that not only is the person technically qualified but meets the personality of the team he is working with and gets along with the managers.

How do you train your employees to excel in customer service?
We have some formal training that we have developed from all of the companies that we have worked for. There is still nobody in the industry that is doing everything 100 percent right. But each company seems to be doing something better than others, whether it’s sales, recruiting, marketing or even back office systems.

Not only do we try to hire the best, we take the best practices from other companies and put together our own combination of on-the-job training and formal training.

Occasionally, we will hire people who don’t have experience but seem to have the right attitude and are motivated. More than that, we hire the proven producers from the industry.

One of the things that I’ve learned over the years is you have to hire slow and fire fast. I’ve always told people that I don’t fire people, they pretty much fire themselves. You can’t teach certain things like motivation or drive. That’s the only thing that I have seen hold people back in this industry. And the hard work.

It is a tough business, but it can also be a very rewarding business.

HOW TO REACH: The Experts, 800-336-8359 or www.expertsit.com