What if?

The closed-door meeting was tense. The CEO made the situation crystal clear: A solution was needed quickly, and the group assembled was charged with developing workable ideas.

Sales were in drastic decline. The company’s market share was ebbing. Its flagship product, which had carried it for years, was no longer flying off the shelves, and the corporate war chest was getting lighter by the month.

The concerned CEO asked the attendees, “How are we going to fix the problem and get this company back on track?”

His question was met by silence. Everyone looked around the room, waiting for a sage answer to leave someone’s lips. Finally, a team member spoke up. Instead of tossing out a sure-fire solution, she asked the group a second question. And it began with the words, “What if.”

The scenario is fictional, but similar situations have played out thousands of times in corporate boardrooms.

Innovative breakthroughs occur by looking at various components of an organization and asking, “What if?” Being innovative means being inquisitive. Throughout history, the most creative minds have also been the ones that ask the most questions, never satisfied to accept things the way they appear to be.

One of my favorite stories that underscores this notion concerns horror writer Stephen King.

In the 1970s, King wanted to write an unconventional vampire story. So he did what any innovative thinker did and began his journey with the words, “What if.”

In King’s case, the question was, “What if a vampire was introduced into a small rural community?” The answer: It would get hungry and drink someone’s blood.

King’s thinking subsequently went like this: That someone would turn into a vampire, who would also require someone’s blood for sustenance. The scenario would repeat itself until eventually the town would be overrun by vampires. Anyone arriving in town would be fresh meat.

From this innovative thought process came King’s best-selling vampire novel,’ “’Salem’s Lot.”

Innovation doesn’t have to be painstakingly difficult. It can be accomplished by questioning the status quo and asking those two little words: What if?

And while the process probably won’t lead to the creation of a horror novel, it could take your company places you had never imagined.

Thorn in my pride

I was sitting in a bucket chair at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, waiting for a late-night flight to Cleveland, when I noticed a janitor pushing a large, wheeled trash barrel.

He ambled along with an expression somewhere between indifference and insolence. Every few steps, he bent over, scooped up a handful of litter and tossed it in his barrel. He eyed some litter near me and, as he ventured past to collect it, his body language screamed, “I don’t want to be here.”

When he walked back, some of the litter slipped from his arms. A half-hearted attempt to catch it failed, and a few candy wrappers, a crumpled up newspaper page and a straw tumbled to the ground.

The man continued back to the barrel and deposited the remainder of his armful. What happened next solidified my negative perception of the employees at O’Hare.

Earlier that evening, I’d been dealt two bad hands that first forged my impression. First, my flight was delayed for a couple hours. There were whispers of a cancellation, but no one would provide a straight answer.

Next, I waited for more than an hour at airport security because two of three open stations closed promptly at 8 p.m., leaving hundreds of people in the three lines workers had sorted us into confused about what we should do next. We finally decided to consolidate into one, messy line, and nobody was happy.

So when the janitor stared for what seemed like forever at the litter he had dropped, then shrugged, turned and pushed his trash barrel away, his utter disdain for his job capped a perfect evening. It was a small detail, but it caused me to believe that O’Hare employed too many people who don’t care whether their attitudes negatively impact the airport’s clientele.

The simple truth is that whether your employees do care does directly affect how customers view your business. Like it or not, it’s the little things that leave the biggest impressions upon your clients.

Attention to detail and a good attitude toward the job often matter more than anything else. If your customer touch points don’t deliver positive impressions, your business will most certainly suffer the consequences.

A holiday wish list

We all reach the age when holiday gift lists become more burden than boon. Do you really need another sweater?

So for all of those idea-strapped executives out there, we have devised the perfect wish list. And at the top of the list — like all good car lists — is a Ferrari. To be exact, the brand spanking new 612 Scaglietti.

Ferrari 612 Scaglietti | $260,000
The 612 marks Ferrari’s first all-aluminum V-12 effort, and the lighter-weight material allows for some stunning performance numbers. Primed by virtually the same 5.7-liter, 533 hp V-12 found in the 575M Maranello, the Scag delivers 0 to 60 in 4.2 seconds and turns the quarter mile in under 13 ticks with a top speed around 200 mph. The engine is paired with an automated manual six-speed gearbox that can be shifted manually from F1-style paddles on the steering wheel.

Fashioned by the acclaimed Pininfarina design group, Ferrari’s new gran turismo is as beautiful inside as it is menacing outside. Upon entering, you are enveloped in stitched, handcrafted leather and aided by clean instrumentation with aluminum trim.

To get one of these gems, just leave this list in a conspicuous place, and hope for the best. Of course, it helps if you have low six figures in your checking account — for a down payment. For those of you whose bank accounts may fall short, we offer budget buys as a back up.

Aston Martin Vanquish S | $255,000
James Bond fans will recognize the Vanquish as 007’s car of choice. The new Vanquish S features a 6.0-liter V-12 assisted by a six-speed automatic gearbox that can be controlled from F1-style paddles on the steering wheel. With only 520 hp it may start a little slower than the Lamborghini, but its still gets you from 0 to 100 in under 10 seconds. Shaken, perhaps, but never stirred. Budget Buy: The gorgeous DB9, also a V-12, sells for about $100,000 less.

Lamborghini Murcilago | $282,000
Jaw-dropping looks are just the start with the Murcilago. Under the hood you get an all-aluminum 6.2-liter V-12 that delivers 575 hp and gets you from 0 to 60 in 3.8 seconds. Flip up the gull-wing doors and you are greeted with copious leather and a steel-balled gear shift. Those lucky enough to have their order filled will get it delivered via air freight in a sealed container. Wrapping and bows are extra. Budget Buy: The Gallardo is a steal at around $167,000.

Saleen S7 | $430,000
Hand-built by the famous producer of tuner Mustangs, the S7 is a street-legal race car. It’s also stupid fast. Like 0 to 60 in 2.9 seconds fast. Like a quarter mile in less than 11 beats fast. About the only difference between this and the S7R that raced at LeMans is the transmission. And those pesky U.S. emissions rules that dampen engine power. You still get an eye-watering 575 hp from the all-aluminum, 7-liter V-8. Budget Buy: Accept no substitutes.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: ferrariusa.com, astonmartin.com, lamborghini.com, saleen.com

Congrats, grad

With Spring heading quickly toward summer, graduation season will be fast upon us. For many a modern family that means four-wheeled gifts for the happy grad. Fortunately, there is a surprisingly large pool of cars that would make affordable – and fun – gifts for a deserving child.

Picking a favorite from this crowd was no easy task. But for some reason, we keep coming back to the Mini Cooper, brilliantly resurrected by BMW Group in March 2002.

It’s hard to look at a Mini and not smile. Sit behind the wheel and put it through its paces and that smile turns into a huge grin.

Skip the base model’s anemic 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine and upgrade to the supercharged Cooper S (base MSRP: $19,500), which delivers 163 hp and 0 to 60 in under 7 seconds. That’s not all that impressive, but the Mini is not about speed; it’s about handling.

A “bulldog” build, multi-link rear suspension, rigid body and cornering brake control keep a tight grip on the road through the sharpest turns. And don’t let its size fool you. The Mini provides ample room for passengers and 5.8 cubic feet of trunk space (expandable to 21.4).

Ford Focus SVT | $18,500
Got a tree-hugger for a grad? The new 2.3-liter PZEV (Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle) engine reduces harmful exhaust gases – and improves performance, though it is available only in limited areas. Like other cars in this group, the Focus boasts quick response and agile handling. The SVT hatchback features sport-tuned suspensions and a 2.0-liter, 170-hp engine, delivering economy and performance fun in one package.

VW New Beetle Convertible | $20,900
The original retro car — reintroduced in 1998 — finally gets the convertible it’s been needing. Who didn’t have at least one friend with a drop-top bug? If your grad is looking for a ragtop that can stand up to long distances, this is the car. The top folds easily (in about 12 seconds), yet provides solid insulation from wind and road noise thanks to three-layer construction. And for the safety conscious, OnStar telematics are now optional on the New Beetle.

Mazda RX-8 | $25,180
Don’t let the stunning looks – especially the “suicide” doors — worry you. Junior won’t break too many speed laws, although the twin-rotor Wankel engine delivers a respectable 238 horsepower and 0 to 60 in 6 seconds. Like the Mini, this car was made for driving, not racing. Remarkably even weight distribution and a sport-tuned suspension insure crisp handling in turns, while the overall ride proves pleasant enough for daily use.

The Sophia Loren of sedans

Italian automakers have long held bragging rights to producing the best — and fastest — sports cars in the world. But a high-end luxury sedan that effectively competes with the best Germany and England have to offer has proved elusive. Until now.

The 2004 Quattroporte — the fifth version of Maserati’s four-door sedan — can easily hold its own against the likes of BMW’s 7-Series, Mercedes-Benz’s S-Class and Jaguar’s XJ. At a time when BMW purists bemoan Chris Bangle’s flares and ridges, the Quattroporte offers voluptuous curves reminiscent of another great Italian export: Sophia Loren. For that you can thank 78-year-old Sergio Pininfarina, who has put his ageless design skills back to work on a Maserati for the first time in 50 years.

The designer of every famous Ferrari for the past six decades, Pininfarina mixes equal parts elegance and aggression to create an instant classic. The famous designer insists the Quattroporte defies words: “I don’t want to comment on the outside lines of the car because it speaks for itself,” he said at the car’s official debut at the 2004 Frankfurt Auto Show.

Pininfarina is particularly proud of his interior work, especially the way the wood follows the contour of the car, “as in a luxury boat,” he says. Rosewood, briarwood and mahogany are standard, but optional finishes abound. Leather options are extensive as well, with 10 Poltrona Frau leathers and 13 stitching colors available for the bespoke interior.

The Quattro gets a 4.2-liter, aluminum V-8 with 32 valves. It delivers 394 hp and 333 lb.-ft. of torque, enough to launch its 4,255 pounds from 0 to 60 in 5.2 seconds. The normally aspirated engine, designed by parent company Ferrari, is paired with a DuoSelect transmission with a fully automatic mode that can be changed at the flip of a switch to a manual, which is controlled from steering wheel-mounted paddles. Top speed: 171 mph. With the engine mounted just behind the front axle, the Quattroporte gets a sports car-like weight distribution of 53 percent in the rear.

Any question about how well the new Quattroporte would sell ended when 60 Neiman Marcus limited edition models were sold via phone in a mere three minutes — at a cool $125,000 apiece. Your failure to program your speed dial means an 18-month wait to get behind the wheel of your own Quattroporte, which has a base price of $90,000.

But get your order in now; Maserati plans to cut off sales at 8,000 units.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: www.maserati.com

A peek into the future

It is a sad but true fact that most auto shows no longer boast show-stopping new car introductions and concept car unveilings. These days, you are as likely to see a new concept on the cover of one of the car rags as at a car show.

Unless, of course, it is Detroit’s North American International Auto Show, the granddaddy of them all. And last month’s Detroit show did not disappoint, offering a number of truly new concepts, as well as the first chance for the great unwashed masses to see in person concept cars leaked to the press weeks earlier.

Prime among this year’s crop is the Lexus LF-A, a long-overdue sports car concept from the luxury marque. Hinted at for some time by Lexus’ entry into the Formula One racing circuit, the LF-A is so new its designers finished shaping it only two months before the Detroit show.

This sleek, minimal two-seater fits in a package slightly shorter than a Porsche 911 (though with an extra nine inches in wheelbase) and a hair taller than the new Ferrari F430. Though detailed specs were not provided, Lexus says the LF-A features an engine capable of more than 500 hp from a sub-5-liter engine. Top speed: 200+ mph.

While Toyota says the LF-A is currently “only a concept,” just weeks earlier AutoWeek had published spy photos of a camouflaged test car that, in hindsight, is obviously the LF-A taking turns around Germany’s famed Nurburgring.

Not content to let Lexus steal all of the limelight at the Detroit show, Infiniti unveiled its Kuraza concept vehicle, a striking crossover SUV thingy.

Truly one of the more visually stunning cars at the show, the Kuraza at first glance looks like a mutant Mini Cooper. But when you consider that it easily seats six adults, you’ll understand its size.

Among the Kuraza’s many unusual features are six doors (including two that open rearward to allow easier third-row access); uniquely shaped leather and silk seats with equal room for all occupants; a nearly all glass roof; and a 16×6-inch vertical touch screen monitor with multifunction display programmed to show images of nature and the changing seasons.

Don’t look for the Kuraza in showrooms anytime soon, but its interior concepts should shape future SUVs.

Below we offer a glimpse of other sports car and SUV/crossover concepts unveiled in Detroit.

Jaguar Advanced Lightweight Coupe
The ALC’s athletically sleek aluminum skin covers a sumptuous yet clean interior in stitched tan leather with aluminum inserts throughout. The whole rests on an aluminum frame and 21-inch alloy wheels. This is a concept only in name; watch for it soon as the new XK8 and XKR.

Chrysler Firepower
Built on the Dodge Viper platform and using the 6.1-liter Hemi V-8 from the Chrysler 300C SRT-8, the Firepower lives up to its moniker with an estimated 0-to-60 time of 4.5 seconds. Unfortunately, the name isn’t available for a production car, so remember the fastback profile.

Mercedes-Benz Version R
The three-pointed star’s luxe version of the Chrysler Pacifica boasts six individual passenger seats and all-wheel drive. Riders get plenty of room thanks to an extended length on par with an S-Class sedan. This concept, based on a 2002 concept, is all but production ready.

Mazda MX-Crossport
The Crossport’s low, wide look imparts an aggressiveness that suits Mazda’s zoom-zoom mentality. Design cues are taken from Mazda’s flagship RX-8 sports car, including four “floating” bucket seats mounted on center posts attached to a monorail system in the floor.

Toyota FT-SX
Get used to the T-Face front end, as it is Toyota’s new design language. Aside from its sleek looks, the FT-SX’s rear hatch boasts some trickery: Glass roof panels slide to the center of the vehicle to allow increased hatch access, while lowering the gate prompts a loading tray to extend.

Jeep Hurricane
“Jeep Hurricane is simply the most maneuverable, most capable and most powerful 4×4 ever built,” says Chrysler design boss Trevor Creed. Doubters will be convinced by the 37-inch tires, zero-degree turning radius and two V-8 HEMI engines sending 335 hp to each side of this ute.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: North American International Auto Show, www.naias.com

Executive decision: Luxury sedans

Talk all you want about the weak economy, but luxury car sales have been strong over the last year. And why not? Financing remains enticingly cheap, and automakers keep upping the luxury factor.

When it comes to executive transportation, sedans are the ride of choice. And any list of top luxury sedans has to start with the Lexus LS430 ($60,000), a line that has set the mark in this category since the LS400 was introduced 15 years ago to immediate acclaim. Having undergone a major upgrade with the 2002 model year, the LS430 in its 2004 incarnation sports more technological changes than cosmetic ones.

The 4.3-liter V-8 engine generates 290 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque; a new six-speed automatic transmission helped trim nearly a half second off its 0-to-60 pace (a peppy 5.9 seconds). Other additions include adaptive headlights, front knee airbags and tire-pressure monitor. At $60,000, it’s a steal; so if the LS430 is too plebeian, here are three more luxe models you should consider for your next lease or purchase.

BMW 745i | $69,000

BMW means performance as well as luxury, and the 7-series delivers both. A 4.4-liter V-8 with dual variable valve timing delivers 325 hp and 0 to 60 in 5.9 seconds. Active roll stabilization reduces lean in cornering, while the optional active cruise control alters your speed to maintain a preset distance between cars. Creature comforts include 20-way front power seats and the love-it-or-hate-it iDrive control system. If you are a technophobe, this car is not for you.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: www.bmwusa.com

Mercedes-Benz S500 | $88,000

Skip the relatively anemic S430 (the “entry level” to the flagship S-class) and head straight for the S500, which generates 302 hp from a 5.0-liter V-8 and is ably assisted by a groundbreaking seven-speed automatic transmission. The result is an admirable 0 to 60 in 6.1 seconds. For a mere $2,900, you can add 4Matic all-wheel drive. Inside is typical Mercedes luxury: copious leather, burled walnut accents and an MP3-compatible CD player.

Jaguar XJR | $76,000

Luxury car gizmos got your head spinning? Slip into the XJR. Sure it’s snug, but that goes with its sportier lineage. Sleek best describes the XJR. Powerful works as well. A supercharged 4.2-liter V8 puts out 390 hp and 399 pound-feet of torque. The result: 0 to 60 in 5 seconds flat, in case you’re late to your next meeting. Inside is all peace and serenity. And no Star Trek gizmos; just a simple touch-screen for operating climate, audio and optional navigation systems.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: www.jaguarusa.com