Talk of the town

Kimberly Palmer has spent a good portion of her career on international businessand has the master of languages to prove it.

Aside from English, she speaks Spanish,French and “enough Portuguese to get introuble at dinner parties.”

It’s no surprise then that Palmer is constantly thinking about methods of buildingcompany culture through communication.And when Palmer came back statesidewith Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. — whichrecently merged with Bank of America —as regional managing director for SouthFlorida a few years ago, it was a natural fit.In a company focused on constant andopen communication, Palmer has beenable to spread that mentality to the roughly 800 employees in her charge.

“I just believe that you have to have a culture where there is open communication,and that’s why I encourage it, and everybody who works with me encourages it,”she says. “If everybody else espouses thesame thing, then you really do have a feeling of openness, and that’s what gets youthrough some of the hard times like we’reall going through.”

To get her region of the leading wealth management, capital market and advisory company to open up, Palmer came right in thedoor talking. She instantly engaged her people on who she was, how interested she wasin hearing their ideas and what they could dotogether. From there, she hasn’t stepped offthe gas pedal in her efforts to build a culturewhere everyone communicates.

In turn, her region, which had $366 millionin revenue in 2007, is continuing to chugforward in a tough economy. The processhas been easier for Palmer, who is naturallydisarming on top of her lingual prowess,but it still took smart steps. Not everyemployee is going to go out of his or herway to speak up, so Palmer says you haveto engage employees first to get thingsgoing. Once you’ve set up that process, youhave to follow up by showing off your listening skills and then give candid feedbackto people to set the tone for celebrating success and constructive criticism.

Positive positioning

To hear Robin Levinson tell
it, keeping up business in a harsh economic environment is
easy.

“You just have to get creative,
be more on your toes and try
harder, and go along with
what’s happening out there,”
she says.

OK, she knows there’s a lot to
all of that. But she uses her
positive attitude to keep pushing Levinson Jewelers, the jewelry company owned and
founded by her and her husband, Mark, to more growth.
With many companies gasping
for breath, Levinson Jewelers
has grown to 35 employees and
is getting ready to open a new
store this month.

Instead of focusing on a climate where people are spending less money, Levinson keeps
her business up by keeping a
close eye on the details and letting her people laugh at the
hard times while she continues
to trust her instincts.

Smart Business spoke with
Levinson about pushing a
positive energy and why you
shouldn’t listen to someone
with a different shoe size than
you.

Push the positive atmosphere. We
try to bring a positive energy
every day and look at the
bright side instead of being
in the doldrums. We try to
keep our eyes open and not
be complacent — and try is
the operative word; it’s not
easy when you read the
newspapers and everything
out there is negative.

So when we go to work, we
put on our happy face and
try to just pump it up. If it’s a
bad day, tomorrow is going
to be a better day, and that’s
realistic, and you can’t live in
a bubble.

I can see in my own store
that the energy level is really
high, and that comes from
the top, and I don’t think it’s
a specific sentence or word
that I could say, ‘Do this,’ it’s
just the energy level that you
go along with. If you’re a
sour grape, everyone is going
to feel it.

When we have meetings,
we let them know that we’re
still pushing away, and that,
as a company, we’re holding,
and, as a company, we’re
doing OK.

You have to be honest, and
there are some days where,
just like everybody else,
you’re not going to be up,
you can’t be, no one is 100
percent up, that’s fake. But
when there are some days
where it’s quiet, we’ll sit
around and joke, ‘Oh, my
God, we need a sale; we
have to have a sale!’ And we
kind of have fun with it in a
way instead of being
bummed out.

Create systems to keep balance. You always have to strive to
become more efficient. You
have to keep the pencils very
sharp, and you can’t slack.

When things get big and get
busy, people have a way of
being neglectful about the
things that they should be
watching, so don’t let your
guard down in regard to the
back office and what’s going
on with the numbers and the
expenses.

It’s just about balance. You
can’t be everywhere all the
time. We all know that; that’s
not realistic, so you just have
to get a little balance and
you have to watch both
sides. You give a little attention to this and a little attention to that, and you’re not
going to see everything —
nobody is superhuman —
but you hopefully have
strong people in your organization that you trust and that
you rely on.

But you can certainly keep
your eye on the ball, and I
get very organized and I get
regular reports that I look at
for certain areas, and Mark
has certain areas that he gets
reports for, and between the
both of us, we’re watching
really accurately. Our
responsibilities are divided
pretty well, and I set aside
time so I know that every
week, or every two weeks,
those reports are coming;
that’s what I’m going to
focus on first.

You can’t let it go just to
one person because it’s dangerous, and I’m sure most
businesspeople would agree
with that. When you let anything completely go and you
just say, ‘Oh, they’ll handle
it,’ then you’re in trouble.

Dialed in

Luis Arias doesn’t spend a lot of time
using his own products at work.

It’s not that he doesn’t have faith in the
prepaid telecommunications products
put out by Blackstone Calling Card Inc.,
the company where he’s CEO. It’s just
that he doesn’t see much reason to call
any of his 180 employees because he’s
around them every day.

So while he might be able to get a discount on calling cards, he prefers
instead to make frequent rounds at
Blackstone’s Miami headquarters to put
people on the same page.

“Believe it or not, we go all the way
down to the bottom, to the last person,
everyone here has the same rights to
express their opinion,” Arias says. “I try
to take my time to walk around and see
everybody’s face at least once a day so
everyone can tell me if they have any
issues.”

To Arias, proximity to your people is
where growth lives. It’s important to give
your people standards on how quickly
you want the company to grow, where
the company can spend the money to do
so and then let them work out the direction. In an industry where innovation is
necessary to survive, he wants his people constantly thinking about realistic
growth and bouncing ideas off of each
other and him.

Following that pattern, Blackstone has
grown consistently since it was founded
in 1994 and has posted five straight years
at roughly 5 percent growth. Though the
company wouldn’t release revenue for
this story, it was listed at more than $250
million in revenue in 2007 according to
Florida Trend.

Here are a few of Arias’ thoughts on
how you set a standard for your company’s steady growth, how you get people
to work together to stay ahead of the
market and the ways to knock down
walls so employees buy in and add on to
your vision.

Passion peddler

Scott Coloney has always felt like he’s fighting the business world with a slingshot.

“I’ve always been the David going against the Goliath in anything I’ve ever done,” he says.

So Coloney, principal at The Coloney Group, is constantly looking for new ways to get his employees to stand up to the big guys.

He says the Goliaths have gotten meaner of late in the real estate business, where The Coloney Group, which is affiliated with RE/MAX Partners Inc., has seen a big spike in the number of homes being fore-closed upon. In response, Coloney has helped push out a new vision, working to create the Foreclosure Response Team, a specialization in short sale transactions. The result is a new direction that helps keep The Coloney Group, its more than 250 employees working with it and RE/MAX pumped up by working close to the front lines.

Smart Business talked to Coloney — who also founded Orbitz.com — about how to get your employees behind a new direction with inspiration and intensity.

Demand intensity from your staff. If you’re an intense person and you really believe in it, you surround yourself with those same people.

I tell them, ‘If you don’t believe in what we’re doing, I’d rather we talk about that now because I really don’t want to have anybody like that; that’s not a benefit to us.’

If people don’t get that and don’t want to be a part of it, then they can’t be a part of our team. I had a talk with someone just last week and I told him, ‘Look, I think you have a great opportunity here that you could do very well, but I kind of think you’re coming in here just wanting to collect a check, and that doesn’t fit with what we’re doing. I’m going to give you one more week to improve.’

After awhile, that starts to get to where the people that aren’t acting like you don’t really fit in anymore, and they’re the ones everyone talks about. That’s how you create a movement.

Only bring in people who believe in your vision. When you really believe in something, you want people that are also excited about it and believe in it, and with most people, you can tell upfront if they really believe in something.

It starts in the interview process. I’ll always say right upfront, ‘You might as well tell me if you’re motivated now, because it’s easy to spot once someone is part of the team.’

Then, when you talk to someone about doing something, it’s what they do. Are they calling me? Are they constantly calling me saying, ‘Hey, I want to get involved,’ or am I chasing them down trying to twist someone’s arm to get them to join?

Talk down

Michael R. Yormark helped
his team win the Stanley Cup while professional hockey
was on strike.

OK, so it wasn’t the actual
Stanley Cup that gets handed
out to the National Hockey
League champion, but it was a
similarly named business
award given by a publication
that covers the organizations
of professional sports teams.
Yormark — president and chief
operating officer of the Florida
Panthers and its operating
company, Sunrise Sports &
Entertainment — and his 170
employees earned the trophy
by staying focused during the
work stoppage of the 2004-05
season.

That dedication took open
communications and a solid
sense of where the team stood,
but it paid off when the
Panthers were able to get right
back on the ice when the game
returned. With that solid structure behind him, Yormark is
now able to focus on the bigger
prize — the real Stanley Cup.

Smart Business spoke with
Yormark about how to open up
channels for feedback and why
you’d better talk to someone
besides your direct reports.

Go beyond talking to your direct
reports.
Staying in touch with
the wants and needs of my
staff is a daily priority. I meet
with my executives on a daily
basis, but one of the things
that I do is I also meet with
each department within the
company on a regular basis to
get their feedback on internal
issues and external issues.

I use that as an opportunity
to get the pulse of the organization, how people perceive us
and what kind of feedback are
we getting from our customers.

It’s also important to talk
about how our employees feel
about the company because
you can really shape how you
deal with consumers based on
how people internally feel
about the organization.

We have consistent dialogue
on what people feel about our
company, how we’re perceived, what we need to do in
order to be better compared to
our competitors, and it seems
to be very helpful for us.

Make sure you understand that
your commitment is needed.
In
order to effect change, in
order to have an open relationship with your employees, a
leader needs to be committed
and understand that your
employees are your most
important asset.

A lot of people will say to you,
‘Yeah, we know the employees
are the most important asset,’
but they don’t live it. You have
to be committed, and you have
to realize that your employees
are truly the most important
assets that you have, and
their mindset when they
come in the building is so
important.

If you understand that, then
you are willing to create the
type of programs and the type
of interaction that will give
those employees the opportunity to effect change, to communicate and feel as if they
really can make a difference
within the company.

Developmental relationships

Jorge M. Pérez is no fool.

A self-made billionaire, he’s pushed his company well beyond $1
billion in revenue, has helped shape the landscape in South Florida
and has been named one of Time’s top 25 most influential
Hispanics in the U.S.

But he’s happy to tell you that a recent construction contract at
The Related Group, where he is founder, chairman and CEO, went
out without him even stealing a glance at it.

“I don’t deal with the construction contracts,” he says. “Do you
know how big the construction contracts are — $700 million for
one job that we just did, $700 million. I haven’t even looked at it.”

That wasn’t a careless error on his part. Pérez believes very firmly in bringing his people along and letting them make big decisions
at Related Group, a real estate development firm with a portfolio
in excess of $10 billion. To keep his company moving, he says that
there must be a culture that allows people to feel comfortable taking risks and making moves quickly to keep ahead of the market.
As a result, he has found that by coaching his nearly 500 people, he
has built a group of employees that he can trust to make those big
deals. By doing that he has created a culture where he believes his
people have actually far exceeded him in their specific areas of
expertise.

“You have huge trust that those people are doing the right
thing,” he says. “But the fact is, my senior people are 10 times
better, every one of them, in doing those contracts and protecting us than I would be.”

Here’s how Pérez brings in, trains and unleashes the kind of
people whom he can trust with $700 million deals.

Money talks

If you’re ever walking the halls of the Mercantil Commercebank
N.A. headquarters, don’t be surprised if J. Guillermo Villar
politely stops you to ask who you are.

It’s not some sort of security check, it’s just that Villar, president and CEO of Mercantil, is still adjusting to the fact that the
bank is constantly growing, having mushroomed to nearly 1,000
employees.

For a company that had fewer than 650 employees in 2004,
it’s been quite a change for a leader who prides himself on leading a culture of open communication.

“There’s the reality that, as the organization grows, you lose
some direct contact,” he says. “It’s very different to deal with an
organization that has 100 people than one that has 1,000 people.”

That’s not to say Villar doesn’t love the growth. Mercantil, a
subsidiary of Mercantil Commercebank Holding Corp., which is
owned by Mercantil Servicios Financieros of Venezuela, has
grown from about $3.7 billion in assets in 2004 to nearly $5.5 billion in assets in ’07.

But Villar is quick to point out that his leadership team’s ability to keep a culture of open communication between management and employees is what will keep people engaged and
motivated.

So as he walks the halls, he’ll often stop and talk to people
whom he doesn’t recognize, trying to make some personal connections. Villar isn’t trying to make 1,000 new poker pals, but
it’s one way he starts to set the tone of the company’s culture
from the top. Since he can no longer touch every employee, he
wants to show those whom he can touch that he’s constantly
available, willing to listen and able to be consistent with his
effort to push communications.

“I think with the people you deal with on a regular basis that
permeates and people get to know that and people talk to people,” he says. “So if you are nice and you are receptive to the
people that are closest to you, other people know how you are,
so it’s something that becomes part of the culture.”

New heights

There are plenty of great
ones to choose from, but the last time Keith St. Clair took
his employees to an Eric
Clapton concert, he says he
most enjoyed the song
“Running on Faith.”

What, you’ve never taken your
staff to see Clapton in concert?
For St. Clair, president and
CEO of StrategicAir LLC, going
to the concert was just another step in getting his team
involved at his private air
charter company.

St. Clair, who previously made
his mark in aviation as founder,
chairman and CEO of
TraveLeaders Group Inc.,
already knows the industry of
private jets and tourism is
appealing, but he believes the
key to getting the most from his
22 employees is building a culture around involving them in
everything. From company concerts to setting the business
plan out in front of every
employee, St. Clair is constantly
implementing ideas to get people engaged in the culture of
StrategicAir.

Smart Business spoke with
St. Clair about how to involve
your employees in your business and the four ways you can
reward them for their efforts.

Give employees principles to work
from.
You’ve got to first understand what you’re trying to
achieve in terms of your corporate strategic plan and document it. If you haven’t set your
parameters and you haven’t
documented it, then you haven’t
got a benchmark from which to
go from.

I built a company called
TraveLeaders, and we had the
company creed on a threefold
business card, and everybody
carried that and was able to
recite it. Now, it sounds sort of
arcane, but it actually reinforced what you did when you
answer the telephone, what you
did when you met somebody
and how you represented the
company.

Now, there are always some
things that are confidential in
the fiscal side of the business,
but you can always share your
vision to grow 15 percent or 20
percent or 100 percent, or your
vision to drive X percent of new
customers and all of the strategic processes of the business.

Promote the great ideas you hear. Encourage people and reward
people for their ideas. I’ve always
had the philosophy of rewarding
individuals for ideas that benefit
the company, and it doesn’t take
long if somebody from the
finance company comes along
and says, ‘Hey, do you realize if
we did this, this and this, we
could save X a year?’

And you put out a weekly
newsletter or report and say,
‘Mavis in finance got a bonus
this week because she had this
great idea;’ that sort of thing
rubs off.

Beyond doubt

In late March of 2007, Anthony M. Degina Jr. thought his staff was
going to face a sudden change.

At the time, Degina was the CEO of Cedars Medical Center, a
hospital connected to mammoth health systems operator HCA
Inc.

But the University of Miami, a long-time educational partner, had
signed a formal letter of intent to pursue the sale of the hospital
from HCA. With a potential change in ownership, and perhaps
daily operations, a feeling of excitement and apprehension temporarily seized the staff.

And then nothing happened.

For eight solid months, people working on both sides of the
negotiation just couldn’t get the details together. With the delay out
in public, it often felt as if the eventual decision on ownership was
constantly teetering. The stress of the deal could have meant total
turmoil for the more than 1,300 employees at what would eventually be called the University of Miami Hospital.

“If you look at how this evolved,” Degina, who stayed on as CEO,
says, “when the announcement was first made of the letter of
intent obviously … excitement builds, because while being an HCA
facility for a long period of time is a wonderful thing, (there’s)
excitement that built for the transition to the University of Miami.
Then, of course, the deal didn’t progress like everyone thought. So
keeping everyone focused on the instant mission was really what
was our challenge. So our communication was on staying focused
on the patients, and all the rest of the stuff will fall into place. And
whether this hospital winds up being owned by HCA or owned by
the University of Miami, you are what makes it special and as long
as you stay focused on taking care of the patients, taking care of
each other, we’ll be OK.”

So Degina and his leadership team turned up the frequency of
informal communication and focused on candor to push through
the transition. Degina also kept his focus on communications on
daily activities. Once employees knew enough to dispel rumors, he
put the onus on the mission at hand. As a result, when the hospital finally made its transformation into UMH at midnight on Dec.
1, employees were comfortable with what the change meant and
the overhaul was done smoothly — staff turnover rates hadn’t
spiked, and nearly 260 patients were discharged out of HCA’s system and checked in as the first set of UMH patients.

Here’s how Degina’s team used communication to push through
the tough times of transition.

Philosophy of communication

David Houri is not the bragging type, but if you ever talk to him, it may come up that
he speaks three languages.

Beyond his native French, he
also learned English and
Hebrew as a necessity of his
former businesses. It’s fitting
that Houri is a polyglot because
he’s obsessed with making his
communications as clear as
possible.

That’s because success at
Skyrise Development Group —
the real estate development company with more than $100 million in assets where Houri is
founder, chairman and CEO —
is all about people understanding not only their personal
potential but also the potential of
the company. And to make sure
his approximately 100 employees understand that, Houri is
constantly focused on laying
out his philosophy and his
goals for the future in clear
terms to motivate them.

Smart Business spoke with
Houri about why motivation is
nothing without ambition and
how failing to communicate
your philosophy is like being
married for two days and having a change of heart.

Explain your business philosophy. I’m taking the time even when
we are very busy to give (employees) the philosophy of what has
to be accomplished. Then people understand where they can
go, and the ball is in their hands,
but at least they understand the
potential.

It’s important to understand
the potential because everybody is not looking at the market the way we are as a leader.
You have to explain to them
what the potential is, where
and how far they can go,
because you can explain the
situation in different ways.

They can leave your office with
a very pessimistic approach, a
very optimistic approach or a
very unrealistic approach. As
long as you describe the things
very clearly and you showed
what the challenges are and
how you can beat the challenges at the end of the day,
they stay optimistic.

Even someone that is answering the phone has to understand. It sounds ridiculous, but
it’s not. Someone that’s answering the phone can say, ‘Hi, this
is Skyrise,’ or someone can say,
‘Hi, this is Skyrise. How are you;
may I help you?’ That’s a big difference within someone that
understands.

When they don’t understand,
it’s like you are married to
someone, and, after two days,
she says, ‘You know what, you
are not my guy.’ OK, but hold
on a second, let’s communicate and understand who we
both are and then make a decision.

When they understand, they
can all love it or not love it, but
at least they understand. Then,
if they are not performing, it’s
still a problem, but at least
everybody is on the same page
when we address it.