Paul Fox achieves Skylight Financial Group’s vision one step at a time

Paul Fox, president and CEO, Skylight Financial Group

Paul Fox is a man who dreams big and has aspirations for his firm to achieve great things. The president and CEO of Skylight Financial Group, a 120-employee financial planning firm, plans to expand across Ohio and be a household name in the state within 20 years.

Fox takes a step-by-step approach to achieve those goals and has been driving steady growth for the last five years.

“I don’t look at challenges from the outside, I look at challenges from the inside,” Fox says. “I knew in the first five years I wanted to double the size of the organization in terms of people and revenue and we’ve done that. Starting off these next five years, we’re going to double it again.”

Smart Business spoke to Fox about how he sets his vision and accomplishes goals one step at a time.

What are the first things you need to do when developing a vision?

You have to start with something very vague that’s way far out. It has to be far enough out where you can’t create detail. You just create a picture that says, ‘This is what we want to look like way down the road.’ Since you have no idea how to get there today, you have to break it down into five-year increments. If you accomplish what you need to accomplish in each of those five year increments, you’ll get to where you need to be in 20 years. That’s very idealistic, but it’s something you have a passion for, you believe in it and you have commitment behind it.

How do you make a five-year plan work?

From the five year plan of attack it’s easy to break it down year by year. By the end of this year where do I want to be? In one year I want to be here toward the five year goal. In two years I should be here, three years here, four years here, and by the fifth year, you’ve hit the five-year objective.

Now you’re there in five years and you have to build another five-year plan and then within it, one-year increments, so that after 10 years, you’re halfway up the stairs to get to the long-term objective of the vision. You do that very systematically so you know that you’re working on the right things to get to where you need to get to.

What are common mistakes you see others make when creating a vision?

Most people in businesses today work on their next-year plan of attack in October, November or December. I’ve found that doesn’t really work, because by the time I had my plan ready to go for the following year, it was already the following year. By the time I implemented and got started on my plan for the following year, it was halfway through the year. Now what I do is from January through June, I write down ideas when things pop into my head. In June, I start planning out specifically what we’re going to do the following year and I do that June through August. In September, I start building out next year and by mid-October or early-November I start implementing the follow year’s initiatives so that by January everything is up and running.

What are the keys to making every step of a vision successful?

The leader of the firm has to have a very clear vision and an absolute passion about getting there no matter what. They have to be fully committed to it and take responsibility to get there and believe that outside influences don’t impact that. The second part is can the leader impart that same feeling and same awareness of the vision to the upper management team and build an upper management team that believes it. That has to be passed down through management to all the people in sales and throughout the organization. If everyone has that same feeling and same drive then you know you’ll get there.

You’re always going to make mistakes, but that’s OK because mistakes are good. Most people think mistakes are bad because it’s failure, but mistakes are a good thing because that means you’ve learned something and therefore you’re going to grow. Embrace the failure. Don’t keep failing the same way, have different levels of failure and you’ll continue to grow once you fix it.

HOW TO REACH: Skylight Financial Group, (216) 621-5680 or

Star2Star Communications supports customer needs through efficient distribution

Norm Worthington, founder and CEO, Star2Star Communications LLC

When Dollar General was shopping for a single vendor for its phone systems, Norm Worthington figured they would do the same thing as most big companies. They would call up Verizon or AT&T. He also knew that those companies didn’t have the answer.

“They found us instead and realized that we really are the only ones that could do it,” says Worthington, the founder and CEO of Star2Star Communications LLC, a technology company that delivers Internet telephone systems and services for business communications.

Today Star2Star provides phones at all of Dollar General’s 10,000 stores in North America. One of the key differentiators from competitors is that the company — which generated revenue of $10.8 million in 2010 — leverages a diversified, international network of distributors to sell its solutions.

Smart Business spoke with Worthington about how companies can improve costs and reach more customers by leveraging established distribution channels for sales.

What kinds of companies benefit from using established distributors rather than a direct sales force?

If you’re only going to serve one city, well maybe it makes sense to  have your own sales force; but if you’re saying I have technology that lets me cover around the world or North America, then for logistical reasons, I need to have a distribution that lets me rapidly be there, be across that whole geography. You can only do that effectively by connecting with established distribution channels.

It’s a lot less expensive to use established channels than to build your own. This is another built-in advantage if you’re looking at it as a financial decision. Unless you have a very, very low cost of operations, and this again is driven by your technology, you really can’t put the product or service out at a competitive price while paying your distribution channels a share of the revenue that they expect, and then have enough left over to operate your own organization. I think we’re very unique in that the special technology that we have allows us to operate at such a low cost that we’re able to do that. So we could in fact leverage the distribution channel without having to raise the price to an uncompetitive level.

What are keys to operating this kind of distribution network effectively?

I think the most important thing on that is that you have to be culturally committed to it. Here’s the reality of dealing with the channel: Your partners are sometimes going to be challenging to deal with. There’s less margin in it than if you do it direct. So there’s a continuing tension, continuing incentive to kind of carve out special exceptions. The classic case is start off this way and you end up creating a direct sales team or a government-direct sales force. You have these special exceptions instead of involving and engaging your partners. That sometimes has some kind of advantage in the very short term to revenue or margins, but in the long term you just destroy the trust in the channel because every one of your customers, your dealers, wonders whether they’ll find the lead, make the introduction, do the footwork on the sale and then have it stolen away from them by the parent company.

What can business leaders do to reinforce the cultural commitment?

It’s being as considerate and as sensitive as you can be in providing information to your distribution partners. It’s easy in the rush of business, especially when you’re doubling every year as we have for the last five years, to make the improper assumption that because you and everyone that you see on a daily basis knows something, that of course, everyone else knows it too. It’s a common error. So you have to really keep at the forefront of your mind what has changed, what has to be disseminated to your partners and how best do that.

Trust and confidence in the channel goes a long way. So if you fumble or stumble on something you’ll get a second and a third chance. And if you introduce something new, it will be reached for, taken and adopted much more readily than if that trust and confidence doesn’t exist.

How to reach: Star2Star Communications LLC, (941) 234-0001 or

J.J. Rodeheffer and partners found that correctly training newbies pays off for Zipline Logistics

J.J. Rodeheffer, partner, Zipline Logistics LLC

J.J. Rodeheffer, partner, Zipline Logistics LLC

J.J. Rodeheffer says in all honesty, it is not that difficult to be a great company. All you have to think about is how you want to be treated. As part of any interaction that you would have, treat people the same way and you can build an excellent company.

You might find it difficult to argue with that since the third-party logistics company, Zipline Logistics LLC, has doubled its revenue each year over the past five years and topped revenue of $10 million in 2011. It employs 17 people.
Rodeheffer and his two partners claim their success formula is simple: focus on doing what’s right; treat your clients and customers fairly and honestly; pay your carriers on time; and value long-term business relationships over one-time business transactions.
Smart Business talked with Rodeheffer, partner at Zipline, about building a great company.

Q. With company growth comes the challenge of disseminating information and market knowledge down to the next new level of employees. What do you see as a key factor in doing that successfully?

A. Training has been something that we have taken great pride in. I don’t necessarily know if we ever had the thought when we first opened Zipline that training would be one of our biggest strengths. But we realized early that we’ve got to pass along not only the information but the drive and the motivation, and to do that you simply just can’t expect a person to pick that up.
You want hard workers, and you interview for the type of person that you want — a competitive hard-working, multitasker — but in the end, the person still has to have knowledge. In the last two years, we really have spent a significant amount of time building a training program. When we did our first training guide we thought we were way ahead of the curve. We had an 80-page booklet and about four to five weeks of classroom training. For this next class, our fourth group of trainees coming in, 80 pages have turned into a few hundred and the topics have continued to grow.

Q. Once they are trained for the job, what are the keys to keeping people motivated?

A. First, once training is up, that’s not it. You have to strive really hard to further the education, whether that be logistically, and learning about your industry or what’s going on out there but also within the local community from networking, to knowing the businesses that are around here, whether that be potential suppliers, learning more about your competition and what they are up to. Keeping the eye kind of straight ahead and knowing what’s out there in front of you — I think has been important.
Moreover, charity group work is vital — not just a simple donation but some actual participation. That just kind of creates the awareness of where the company is now, where you are going, and I think that creates a positive attitude that comes into the day-to-day job as much as it does to the outside of the office.

Q. What are some of the keys to developing customer relationships that last?

A. I think too many companies get focused on small decisions and short-term thinking, and that leads to thinking about short-term profits. That gets in the way of developing long-term, long-standing relationships. You want to be here in the same role in five years, and 10 years, not how you are going to make your next quick buck. You have to really solidify in your customers’ minds that you have their best thoughts in mind. That could be, ‘Hey you know what? I know I quoted you $1,700 on this, but I’m only going to charge you $1,600. I found a cheaper truck, I’m still making a fair rate and I just wanted to let you know that I have your best interests in mind.’ Things like that just go a long way.

How to reach: Zipline Logistics LLC, (888) 469-4754 or

How Punit Shah reinvigorated Liberty Group of Cos. by focusing on acquisitions

Punit Shah, president and COO, Liberty Group of Cos.

When Punit Shah saw that people were no longer paying premiums for completed real estate development projects in 2008, he knew that his company needed to get out of the construction business.

“We saw where the market was going and we had to take reactive measures to make sure that our future was protected and the future of our employees was protected,” says Shah, the president and COO of Liberty Group of Cos., a Clearwater, Fla.-based real estate company with 400 employees.

To keep the company profitable, Shah has implemented a new business strategy to grow through aggressive acquisition of existing properties.

Smart Business spoke with Shah about the keys in investing in growth through acquisitions.

What is your approach to new acquisitions?

Any acquisition that we’re buying has to have a value-add component to it and have a big upside that we can conservatively rely on to have a long-term gain in.

One thing that really makes us different is our ability to analytically look at every piece of information upfront. That makes it a lot easier for us on the back end, because we know what we’re getting into and we know how to proactively deal with whatever is coming our way.

So it’s something that we think may tie up equity or capital for a really long time and then have minimal returns, we usually pass on that deal, because we want to make the most and highest return that we can on our equity. We also want to make sure that it’s a safe investment, because right now is not the time to be making risky investments. Now is the time to be making investments that you are 100 percent confident in and that you’ve got a reasonable return on the money that you are putting at risk.

We’re not forecasting tremendous numbers with a forward-looking basis. We’re buying what we deem to be profitable as-is right now. As the market improves overall, as the economy improves, as our management team goes in there and adds more professionalism in overall management of the asset, we see that all as value-add opportunity.

What criteria do you use to evaluate investments during due diligence?

The most primary thing is location and demand generators. We want to be conservative and consider all different options, whether if there is a terrorist attack, what that would do to the core business of the hotel, during recessions, what happens during peak periods. So we look for diverse demand generators. We look for location of course. Then we look at the physical plans of the hotel or whatever the asset is. We look at the long-term intrinsic value of the asset itself but also the submarket and the overall region. We want to know if this is something that is going to be sustainable and is there going to be a demand generator for this property 10 years from now. As far as my ranking, it would go in that order.

We’re looking just for the best products that we can find, and we’re filtering out anything that doesn’t meet our core criteria. We’ve been very diligent about establishing that criteria upfront and knowing what we’re pursuing.

What mistakes can you make when pursuing acquisition opportunities?

The biggest thing anyone can do if they’re getting involved in what we’re doing is make sure they spend the time, money and resources on the due diligence. It’s almost turning into the height of the market again on a different scale, because people are just buying things sight unseen, guns blazing and not necessarily knowing what the repercussions are because there are a lot of legal complexities when dealing with distressed assets. I’ve seen a lot of people who are just jumping in all at once without understanding the risks involved with those investments. The other thing is real estate and cash-flowing businesses are still businesses and you have to have great management and employees to make those investments profitable. You can’t just buy an assisted living facility or hotel and expect just because you got a good deal on it, it’s going to turn profitable. It’s not like land. There is an inherent business component to it, and a lot of people fail to realize that when they are looking at these types of deals.

How to reach: Liberty Group of Cos., (727) 866-7999 or

How Jay Honsaker led Design Molded Plastics to its best sales year ever

Jay Honsaker, president and co-owner, Design Molded Plastics

Jay Honsaker was very proud when his custom injection molding company met ISO 9000 standards for quality — and that the ISO auditor called Design Molded Plastics a benchmark company.

“If our people weren’t performing, we wouldn’t receive praise like that from our auditor and from our customers — it just wouldn’t happen,” says Honsaker, president and co-owner.

But the picture is even brighter. In 2011, the company had its best sales year in its 27-year history, tallying more than $20 million.

“We are 99.98 percent for on-time delivery, which in a lot of cases is unheard of,” he says. “From a quality standpoint, we’re at 5.8 Sigma overall, which is phenomenal. That comes from a lot of dedication, and that is a culture.”

Smart Business spoke with Honsaker on how building a culture of excellence is the key to such outstanding results.

Q: It sounds like you have groomed some great employees there. How was that achieved?

A: You mentioned a keyword — employees. It’s all about the employees. We’ve got four walls here and equipment inside, which is a great thing, but your employees will make you or break you. When we hire, we have stringent requirements, and we realize right away if an individual is going to maintain our culture when they start with us.

Most of our people are not here to play. We are here to work hard for our customers. We don’t carry a coffee cup in one hand and a cigarette in the other. We pay for two eyes and two hands and that’s what we expect. It really comes down to the individuals … You could tell somebody until you are blue in the face how you are and what your expectations are, but until they live it, they don’t realize how serious you are.

Once they come on board, they realize during the first week that we are pretty serious about what we proclaimed in our interview process. Then they make a decision: Do they want to live within the constraints of the organization or don’t they?

But if they feel that there is no way they could adapt to our method of doing business, then typically they exit the company. I don’t think we have to terminate; I think they realize that it’s just not a good fit for them.

Q. What advice would you give to engage employees and create a culture of excellence?

A: First off, you’ve got to have that discipline inside. If you don’t personally have it, then it’s not going to work. You actually have to demonstrate how you are and how you want things to be, and that comes from inside. You have to be driven from within to do your absolute best. If you can’t demonstrate that, then you’re not going to have followers believing in you.

Q. What are other key steps to a company culture of excellence?

A: It’s a very high level of commitment. One of the biggest challenges is to hire people that you could trust, that you could count on, that share your commitment because ultimately, who pays the bills? Your customer does. So without customers you have nothing. You could have a beautiful facility, beautiful equipment, great people, but if you’re not satisfying your customer, they’re not going to be there and you’re not going to have an income to make payroll.

So it really comes down to the fact that they have to share the commitment to the customer. That has huge value, because face it, as a president of the company I don’t hear every phone call. I don’t see every e-mail. I don’t feel customers’ responses when they are talking to one of our managers. Or even customer service, that has great value so those people have to fully appreciate the fact that your customers are paying the bills. They are the leader. They tell you what they want when they want it, and your level of discipline has to be to meet their expectations. If you don’t have that, then it can’t be trained.

How to reach: Design Molded Plastics, (330) 963-4400 or

How adapting to change is a key factor in ensuring company longevity

Victoria Schneider Temple, chairman and CEO, The Schneider Corp.

Victoria Schneider Temple knows quite a bit about adapting. The chairman and CEO of family-owned The Schneider Corp., was reading her grandmother’s minutes — and noticed how the engineering solutions company adapted to scrape through some economic downturns.

“Back in the early days, they sold fishing maps and chopped wood to keep the doors open,” she says. “Now we find other ways — technology and such — to adapt. Everything is changing so rapidly. … It basically all comes down to your ability to adapt and your willingness to accept change.”

Temple is proud to note that accepting change as a way to foster longevity is a strong point of the 50-year-old company that tallied $14.7 million in revenue last year.

Smart Business talked with Temple about how an ability to adapt is critical to company longevity.

Q. How can your outlook help a company get through financial challenges?

A. Even though we’ve had a contraction in our business, I have never seen it as negative. It’s an opportunity for you to go back and ask questions about how you can do things better. I do think there are going to be companies that are not going to survive the trying economic times, there are some that will and then there are going to be companies that will survive, but they are going to have no clue why; they won’t have adapted like they should have when the economy turned around.

Q. So the unfortunate ones may have not asked the right questions of themselves?

A. I think you have to be able to be honest with what works and what doesn’t work. If you are a leader, you need to have periods of introspection about what works and what doesn’t work personally and professionally. A leadership staff has to spend time introspecting and having hard conversations about what’s working and what’s not. I also think you have to have the courage to understand that if you have made a wrong decision, or you’ve made a bad choice, you just turn around and make a different choice. You can’t be afraid to make mistakes.

Q. How do you decide what does work and what doesn’t work?

A. You have to look at the finances of it. When you are putting any type of business together, whether you are investing in new technology or investing in a new person, you have to look at what you are trying to get out of that. You need to put together a business plan, you need to have milestones, you need to know if you are hitting those milestones.  If you are not hitting those milestones, you need to know why and you need to make decisions — is this worth the risk of going forward if you are not meeting your milestones? Or is it just something that you just have to decide, ‘Hey — I made a mistake, and we need to go in a different direction.’

I think a lot of it is really just about putting a plan together and sticking to the plan, and if you aren’t going to stick to the plan, you have to have very clear reasons why you’re not. A lot of that is just holding your leadership accountable.

Q. What goes into determining milestones?

A: In a challenging environment like this, you need to look at things quarterly. So if you are going to invest in something, like a specific piece of equipment or if you make a new hire to sell a new service, at what stage is your break-even point? At what point is it acceptable? And how fast can you become profitable in a specific area?

So when you keep longevity in the back of your mind, you know that there are hard decisions that have to be made along the way. What makes it worthwhile is knowing that the longevity of the company and the survival of the company for employees is the most important thing.

How to reach: The Schneider Corp., (317) 826-7100 or

Christopher Irion keeps ahead of the curve as e-Cycle grows

Christopher Irion, CEO, e-Cycle

When he launched the electronic recycling business e-Cycle, Christopher Irion was confronted with how to continue triple-digit growth while building a best-in-class culture for the company. Seven years later, that’s still his major challenge.

“I feel blessed that we can grow over 100 percent per year, but as opportunistic as growth is, it’s also a big challenge for us.”

Irion realized that the solution was to find the right infrastructure.

“One part is getting a management structure in place to support growth,” says Irion, CEO. “As an example, when we had one account manager who reported up to me, it worked fine. But now we have 85 employees, so we have more supervisors. So putting the right management structure in place to allow for growth was key.”

Smart Business talked with Irion about finding the passion and the right people to overcome growing pains.

Q. What are some of the steps in managing growth? How far do you look ahead?

A. From a managing standpoint, you need to look six to 12 months out in addressing growth issues. So knowing that you may have triple digit-growth again next year, you know that based upon that, you are going to be getting — in our instance — more than 20,000 to 30,000 phones on a daily basis. You need to start putting the infrastructure, the people, the processes in place today in order to not get bogged down knowing what is coming ahead.

Q. So you add more supervisors and processes to deal with growth, but how do you find employees who can deal with it too?

A. You have to constantly recruit. In the interviewing process, the way you look at it is you are not interviewing a prospective employee. It’s a 50-50 equation. They are interviewing you as much as you are interviewing them. So when you sit down and recruit employees, you are not looking at it like it is just a decision to bring them onboard. You communicate this as you tell them that to be a good cultural fit, you want them to ask you just as many interviewing questions about what you do and why they should come work for you as you ask of them why you would want to bring them onboard.

So with that, you determine that for any employee-employer relationship to work out well, expectations need to be set and prospective employees need to understand what your goals are and what your culture is, and this is the type of place that is a mutual fit for both parties.

Q. Is there an essential attribute that a company founder needs to have when building a company?

A. When you are first starting a company, you’re not sure if it’s even going to get off the ground, or you may be working until 2 a.m. every night, because there’s only one or two of you who are even at the company. And you’re wondering a year down the road whether you can make payroll or not, or how you’re even going to find your first client.

It’s that passion and that love you have for what you do that is going to get you through the founding of the company. When you are sitting in front of your first prospective client, they are going to see that passion in your heart and in your eyes, and you’re probably going to win them over, because if you are as passionate about what you’re trying to accomplish, then that passion is not only going to spill over to your clients, but it is going to help you recruit people to join your company and share with that passion you are trying to accomplish.

When you hire someone, the training is all around who you are, what you do and what your belief system is — what are your core values of the company. First and foremost — and every company says this but I don’t essentially think it’s true all the time — always do what’s in your client’s best interests and build that within your culture.

How to reach: e-Cycle, (877) 215-5255 or

Darrin Grove collaborates on innovation at TrueFit Solutions

Darrin Grove, Founder and CEO, TrueFit Solutions Inc.

Darrin Grove is happy that his growing innovation firm is located in Pittsburgh. Grove is the founder and CEO of TrueFit Solutions Inc., a 42-employee innovation firm that helps entrepreneurial start-ups and large enterprises bring new mobile, Web and social apps product ideas to market.

“We’re very proud to be a Pittsburgh-based company,” Grove says. “Pittsburgh’s a great place for us to be because Pittsburgh is a very innovative city and the innovation in Pittsburgh dates very, very far back. Pittsburgh has innovation in its DNA.”

Grove and his team at TrueFit work hard to collaborate with entrepreneurs, start-ups and large enterprise companies to develop innovation.

“In many ways we ourselves are very entrepreneurial,” Grove says. “We ourselves still have a start-up style to us. It’s kind of who we are, and it’s a group of people we love to work with to bring new ideas to market.”

Smart Business spoke to Grove about how he grows his business through innovative collaboration.

What have been the biggest success factors for TrueFit?

Understanding who you are and understanding the value that you bring to your clients sounds really obvious but is very, very critical. It’s more important to be different than it is to be better. Everybody’s organizational DNA is what makes them different not just better. You really have to understand that. The message has to be apparent, so part of what has helped us is that with our partners we have really tried to be clear so that not just the company knows who we are.

There is an ecosystem of partners that is essential for the growth of any organization. It’s not just up to us. It needs to be an ecosystem of collaborative partners. You have to think outside yourself to understand your ecosystem. What is the network of other people or partner organizations that are going to complement each other and contribute to where it’s a two-way street?

How do you understand your organization’s DNA and where you fit?

It starts with a process of getting really clear about who you are and then learning how to live into that and explain it to other people. Understanding that our reason for being was enabling innovation was a very important step, but articulating it in a way that is understandable was another important step.

You have to become very clear as an organization around what your DNA is, what your mission is and what your values are. I strongly suggest that people write that down. For a lot of people, it’s implicit, but make it explicit. Then really take a hard look at your organization alignment and do some organizational assessment work to ask, ‘How well am I doing?’ If that represents true north, how close am I navigating to true north?

How do you go about helping companies be innovative?

Innovation begins with collaboration. It begins for us by involving all the major stakeholders around an innovation. It could be company leadership. It could be end users. It could be subject matter experts. We involve a broad cross-section of people in a conversation about the innovation and we focus on three core things that define a relationship.

One is the matter of creating value — understanding the value that is needed in the market, understanding the value that a certain idea will deliver to the market. We have a methodology that helps people not only identify the value that they are creating, but also dial up, strengthen and optimize the value that they are creating. Value creation is a core part of the conversation that you have to have in collaboration.

The second pillar involves user-centered design, which basically says as we work with new ideas, we want to be focused on the user experience. You want to be very focused on adding value to the end user. You don’t want to create anything that people are not going to use.

The third pillar of engagement is an agile process. This flows out of the core tenets of agile development, which suggests that you’re working on a project in small increments and you’re constantly delivering real working software to the market. Then you’re listening to how the market reacts to that. Then you’re pivoting and repeating.

How do you develop relationships and understand value creation?

You have to ask and listen. Listen to the concepts and ideas. Listen to what the market is telling you about those ideas and then be creative. It’s a combination of listening and creativity that should fuel those client relationships. You’re constantly listening to objectives, business objectives combined with product objectives, combined with new ideas, combined with user-client feedback, and then you’re thinking creatively about how to respond to that. You have to approach the market with a certain amount of humility.

HOW TO REACH: TrueFit Solutions Inc., (724) 772-5959 or

How Sunil Agrawal adapted Nova Consultants to serve a new market

Sunil Agrawal

Sunil Agrawal, owner and president, Nova Consultants Inc.

In late 2008 and early 2009, the recession was sending many companies into survival mode. The customer base was drying up, and even if you still had a substantial portfolio of customers, your ability to produce and ship products was likely crippled by skyrocketing energy costs.

But through all the turmoil, Sunil Agrawal saw an opportunity for his business, Nova Consultants Inc.

“If you remember back when crude oil hit almost $150 a barrel, we were sitting in our office thinking about how one third of the GNP in this country was going toward energy, and all this money is going to the same countries which we are trying to fight against,” says Agrawal, Nova’s founder, owner and president. “So we tried to think, what is the one thing we will always need in this country to live on? And we thought that it would be energy. So let’s develop ways to save energy, to harness energy which comes from non-carbon sources.”

Agrawal decided to enter the solar energy market. It has been a challenge for the company to keep up with the ever-changing face of solar energy technology, but Agrawal and his team have been able to master the market enough to generate $10 million in 2011 revenue.

Smart Business spoke with Agrawal about how Nova was able to adapt, and the importance of flexibility in the world of business.

How did you identify solar energy as a good direction for the company?

We have on our key staff chemical engineers and electrical engineers. In 2008 and ’09, the Obama Administration was talking about alternative energy, about coming up with a program for alternative energy, so we thought we might have some opportunity in that field. Three or four engineers in our offices started attending conferences and reading journals, reading books, because there was no formal program at that time that could train someone in solar engineering. So we had the time, the guys were there, they were getting paid, they were very interested, they wanted to do something different, so we decided to give solar energy a try to see how it works.

What else in the company’s infrastructure allowed you to capitalize on the opportunity?

Raw materials were not needed. It was all intellectual material that was needed. We had plenty of intellectual material to make it happen, and we used it quite a bit. All the investments that we made in 2008 and 2009 paid off in 2010 and 2011. We now have a number of multimillion-dollar contracts. We have positioned ourselves well for growth.

What would you tell other business leaders about defining a new direction for company?

What happens is that when things are going good, people don’t look for new opportunities. They don’t look at the future; they are happy with the way things are going. Even though solar energy is developing a presence here in the United States, we are 10 years behind everyone else. It is because things were going good in this country as far as energy is concerned. So we developed it and gave to other countries such as Germany, Japan and Spain. For example, in Germany, 30 percent of the power comes from solar.

So I would say to other CEOs, look to the future. Don’t get too caught up in the present. Look in the future and see what is coming toward you. You have to deal with the present but prepare yourself to deal with the future.

Is there still a way to keep that future-focused mentality when times are good?

If you want to grow, keep growing. You have to maintain that, you have to look to the future. If you don’t, then what will happen, everything that you are doing now is going to become routine, and you will lose your edge. Without an edge, without a core competency, you cannot survive in the future.

What is the danger of getting complacent?

The danger is pretty high, because you become an antique then. You are done, and by the time you try to catch up, the technology has already moved on. In our own field, what we are doing right now, engineering energy, these fuels are changing on a weekly basis. The solar panels that we used three months ago are obsolete now. The efficiency and power is increasing that rapidly. So in our field, either you are in or you are out. You don’t have the option to get in and sit back. You have to keep moving with the times.

How to reach: Nova Consultants Inc., (248) 347-3512 or

How Bill Sasser developed an acquisition strategy at The Management Trust

Bill Sasser

Bill Sasser, founder, chairman and CEO, The Management Trust

Bill Sasser created The Management Trust in late 2005 as part of an industry rollup, merging six companies to form an employee share ownership plan, or ESOP. The community association management company is owned by its 700 employees, but it is Sasser’s job as chairman and CEO to provide value and profitability for the company’s employee-owners. As part of that, he has helped to spearhead a growth-by-acquisition strategy that has helped the company broach new markets and new lines of business.

Smart Business spoke with Sasser about the acquisition strategy at The Management Trust – which is the DBA name of The Management Association Inc. — and how to effectively implement an acquisition strategy at your company.

At the outset, what was the process like to roll all of the companies together to start The Management Trust?

We really invoke the ESOP culture quite a lot in just about everything we do, and probably our biggest cultural difference between an ESOP company and a nonemployee owned company is the degree to which we engage our employee owners. That really kind of changes the dynamic considerably. What we’ve done is we operate with a high degree of transparency for all of our employee owners, because they are our shareholders.

In doing so, they understand the good, bad and ugly of what our strategic vision is, what our financial performance is, all of those sorts of things. So as we are going through the post-merger integration issues, which is compounded by the recession, we would share with them the challenges we’re having. What we have found, and this is the beauty of an employee ownership culture, is even when you are sharing with them news that is not entirely positive, they feel honored and respected for being given the information at all.

Moving forward, what has been your growth strategy?

Historically, we have relied heavily on the homebuilders to fuel our growth. Obviously, over the last five years, there has not been a lot of home development. So we really found ourselves in the position of needing to reinvent the company. What we have done is a couple of things: No. 1, we realized we needed to find recurring nonvolatile revenue streams that are predictable, as opposed to the volatility of the real estate market. We went about doing that, creating some proprietary programs and so forth, and in so doing, we built a model that became scalable. So once we realized that we had built a strong business model that could prosper even in a difficult economic time, and had recurring predictable revenue streams, that is what then gave rise to the acquisition strategy.

What makes for a good growth opportunity in your situation?

I think it is a couple of things. First of all, every company’s long-term strategy is going to be somewhat different. My job description is very simple: the creation and preservation of ESOP share value for our employees. That is really what I do. Parenthetic to that is a lot of different things. But as it relates to the acquisition opportunities, we look for three different things. We look for companies that are either strategic markets, meaning markets that we know we need to be in to grow this company into a national presence. We look for companies that have what we call a strategic skill set, which may be a particular area of expertise that we can leverage throughout all the positions of the management trust. Again, with the idea that we want to create a business model that is scalable. Thirdly is simply tuck-unders, where we just acquire a focused business and fold them into an existing office of the national trust. The most important criteria that we look at when we are exploring a potential acquisition opportunity is where we can create value.

What would you tell other business heads about developing an acquisition strategy?

I think if I had to identify a couple of key points for somebody considering acquisitions, the first point would be to find a point of differentiation between your company and other acquirers in that business space. If the company is simply trying to compete on price while not considering other factors, a bidding war is going to ensue, and that is not going to work. Sellers want to find a company that is going to be a good fit. So any way you can differentiate yourself from your competitors is better. I think that culture is critically important in any acquisition strategy. You need to find a company that is going to fit.

How to reach: The Management Trust, (714) 285-2626 or