How Ryan Gunnigle keeps Kids II ahead of the curve

Ryan Gunnigle, President and CEO, Kids II Inc.

Ryan Gunnigle’s company Kids II Inc. has grown at almost 25 percent a year for the last four years.

“Just really keeping up with that growth is probably mine and the executive staff’s biggest challenge,” says the president and CEO.

With 400 employees spread out over 12 different offices, it’s quite the challenge for Gunnigle and his staff, but he manages to not let the growth eat him up.

Smart Business spoke with him about how to not let rapid growth consume your organization.

What’s the key to staying ahead of rapid growth?

There’s a lot of components to that but I think it’s strategic planning and trying to do a better job of that every year so you can lay down the plan — not a big, formalized process but really try to lay it down so it’s well thought out and you have everybody’s buy-in and everybody in the organization moving in the same direction. Continually try to do that while your organization is growing fast and changing and becoming more and more dynamic every year.

Really try to innovate and do things you haven’t done before. As you get bigger, some of that effort gets diffused sometimes, so it’s keeping in front of that.

How do you do that?

Your job as the leader is really to visualize where we want to go and a lot of components go into coming up with that overarching vision. The biggest thing is within your organization to come up with a way you can get everybody’s buy-in, and as you grow, it’s harder to put together an environment that fuels that thought process that helps you get to where you’re visualizing.

What I try to do is come up with a very simplistic way to show everybody the very basic way that helps communicate where we’re going as an organization and try to simplify that as best you can so everybody has a clear understanding of what they can do or what they need to do to be able to help the organization get there. As you grow as an organization, your top leaders’ time is consumed with everything but business-driving activity sometimes.

Honestly, it’s the infrastructure we have in place that really fuels the great people that fuel us and help us get to long-term goals. They’re the ones that really develop a lot of it. We work with them and what is their wish list and what is their paradigm-shifting activity that can propel the organization to what our top-line goals are. They’re the ones that come up with the really strategic, outside-the-box [ideas] that makes us more competitive and really fuel the team and have the environment that the teams can prosper in that way and really contribute.

Culture really starts at the top. The bottom line is you really have to give. You have to really care about your team. I think that shows to what you do in your organization.

How do you show you care?

We really strive to not have a real roll-up-your-sleeve mentality. Those kinds of things set the pace. Every year we try to improve the employees’ experience, whether it’s benefits or work atmosphere or it’s activities at the office. Keep it fun, keep it fresh. Get an environment where people really enjoy coming to work, and they’re excited about coming into the office and working for somebody who inspires them. As soon as you stop trying to get to that point, you’ve failed. That really sets the pace for the organization. I fully expect from the Kids II team as much as I expect from myself.

In evaluating employees and people, one of the quickest things that comes up to me, let’s say you have an A-player, but they just don’t fit corporately, that type of person will not succeed at Kids II. I’d rather have a B-player that cares about the business as much as or more than I do than having an incredibly smart person who’s distracted in certain areas.

How to reach: Kids II Inc., (770) 751-0442 or www.kidsii.com

Sean McDonald handles growth and change at Precision Therapeutics Inc.

Sean McDonald, President and CEO, Precision Therapeutics Inc.

Sean McDonald has been at the helm of one of the fastest growing companies in Pittsburgh over the past few years and that growth continues to be his focus. McDonald, president and CEO of Precision Therapeutics Inc., a 280 employee life science company dedicated to personal cancer research and care, has had the task of keeping up with the company’s rapid expansion.

“We’re very focused on understanding where the dynamics of this market are going, what technologies are going to come to the forefront in personalizing medicine and also what regulatory and reimbursement infrastructure is going to be in this industry in the future,” he says.

The organization’s growth has carried changes along with it as the company has brought in some new technologies and new products, as well as undergone modification in the direction and strategy.

Smart Business spoke to McDonald about how he manages the challenges of growth and change.

What are some ways you are overcoming the company’s challenges?

The most important thing is to communicate as much as possible to the team about what the strategic objectives are; the thinking behind why they are the strategic directives and just make sure that everybody understands and really buys in to the strategy. That obviously takes more than one communication to do effectively.

You have to be able to clearly articulate the direction that you’re going in and I think you can always underestimate how hard it is to communicate changes and the thinking behind it. You have to be willing to take the time to do those communications and have the patience to do it.

What has changed in your strategic direction?

We’ve brought in a number of products this year so I think that those involve new technologies that have come into the business. It’s increased the opportunities for the business, but it’s also a substantial change for people. People have to get used to moving from a single-product company to a multiple-product company and all that that entails in terms of the priorities of their activities and things like that, but most importantly to understand what people are trying to accomplish.

How have you gotten buy-in for these new changes?

The trap people fall into is they think they have to communicate once or twice. You have to be very consistent and spend the time and work with them and they will get on board assuming everybody wants the same thing. Everybody wants the organization to go in the right direction. They’re differently affected by different things so you have to be sensitive to that, but in reality you just have to take the time to communicate. Some people will require more explanation and more commitment of time than others.

How do you evaluate your employees as the company continues to grow?

I think we have a very good group of committed employees and I think I have a lot of faith that they’ll be able to hang up with the modifications that we’re doing as an organization. It’s something that you have to watch very much and you have to have a relationship with people such that you can be open with them and also coach them through the changes that they have to go through in a very, very dynamic environment.

Certain people are great in their jobs for a certain stage in the organization and it’s a question of whether they’ll be able to acquire the skills to grow in a position sufficiently quickly. With growth comes real questions about whether the right people are able to take the step up and able to manage at a higher level.

What helps a company reach a higher level?

Hopefully, you have the right leaders who can understand the overall strategic direction of the company and it’s really a leader’s job to explain why certain directions or certain decisions that they are making will serve the overall business. If you have managers who understand where the business is going and why decisions are made, they will make good decisions themselves in support of that mission and that’s what’s so critical.

What makes your company adaptable to change?

We try to stay very much on top of what those changes are. It’s too easy to seduce yourself into thinking that you’re unaffected by things in your market.

We’re very tuned in. We talk to a lot of people in the market. We talk to a lot of people who are involved in this market in other companies. We watch what the various regulatory agencies are doing very closely. And we network very effectively in our industry and learn from the experiences others are going through as well.

Talk to other people in the industry, be open with them and have the kind of personality that people will be open to talk to you. That will set you up very well to get the information that you need to understand where the various market directions are going.

HOW TO REACH: Precision Therapeutics Inc., (800) 547-6165 or www.precisiontherapeutics.com

How Jane Lloyd built the team that helped DEXUS broach the U.S. market

Jane Lloyd

Jane Lloyd, managing director of U.S. investments, DEXUS Property Group

When Jane Lloyd arrived in the U.S. from Australia two years ago, she was working with very nearly a blank slate. The managing director of U.S. investments for Sydney-based DEXUS Property Group was in charge of developing an administrative team to oversee the company’s stateside portfolio of properties. After moving to the company’s Newport Beach U.S. headquarters, she needed to recruit people who worked well together while providing an insider’s perspective on the 15 U.S. markets in which DEXUS operates.

Smart Business spoke with Lloyd about how she built and continues to maintain a cohesive and productive leadership team at DEXUS, which generated nearly $90 million in revenue in 2010.

When you moved into your current position, how did you assess what you needed to do for the business moving forward?

Initially, I dealt with moving here from Australia, spending the first six months in Chicago and then moving to Southern California. From there, I needed to establish a team in order to execute DEXUS’ business strategy in the U.S.

Because we were setting up a whole new platform, I needed to understand effectively what our property portfolio was. We have $1.3 billion of property across the United States, so I needed to understand what that property looked like and what those markets were. And then I needed to put a team together on the West Coast and get that team up to up to speed in terms of how DEXUS operates. Then I needed to leverage the deep market knowledge that the team has, being local players. So as far as assessing the situation, if you think of it in terms of people and property, it’s establishing a good team and understanding where the property in the markets are.

When it came to establishing the team, how did you do that?

We had two options. One was we could just do one by one by one, and recruit that way. The other way was to look at hiring an existing team. We looked at about 50 companies on the West Coast. We interviewed 15, did due diligence on three, and at the end of the day, we chose a really great team here in Newport Beach. One of the really important things for us was cultural fit, and we’ve found that the team has been a great cultural fit. Beyond that, we’ve built the team from an initial count of nine people to a total of 21 in our office today.

How would you tell other business leaders to build a team that can address the needs of the markets you serve?

First, you need a clear plan. We’re very focused on what our strategic plan is, and remaining nimble with regard to whatever the market opportunities are as they arrive. Then you need to continually communicate that plan. To that, we have formal and informal communication mechanisms such as team meetings, performance reviews and so forth. The other thing, which is something we’re very big on, is celebrating your successes. We try to stop occasionally and just socialize with the team. One of our favorite things we do is to have drinks on the patio on Friday afternoons. We have drinks and discuss the week, and if there is something we want to acknowledge within the team, that is normally the time to do it.

Once you have the team in place, how do you develop a strategic plan?

We think that in order stay ahead of your competition, you need good, solid research-based metrics, and that needs to be complemented by strong local market knowledge. So it’s a combination of research and market knowledge that helps you understand where you want to go and what you want to do, and then stay ahead of your competition. In terms of the way we run our strategic planning, we have a top down and bottom-up approach. Our board is involved annually in looking at a three-year strategic plan, which we develop. And we also have contributions from all of our teams in terms of input and making sure everybody understands what all of that looks like, and more importantly how we’re going to execute that plan.

How to reach: DEXUS Property Group, (949) 724-8886 or www.dexus.com

Kevin McMullen finds operational efficiencies at Omnova Solutions

Kevin McMullen, Chairman, PResident and CEO, Omnova Solutions Inc.

Acquisitions left Omnova Solutions Inc. with a fragmented IT platform composed of 27 disparate systems several years ago, complicating communications for the emulsion polymer specialty chemicals and decorative and functional services company.

Omnova decided to standardize and streamline its platform using lean Six Sigma in its process improvement efforts, eventually choosing a new platform with SAP. This change cut costs and improved communications for the 2,300 employees among its facilities in America, Europe and Asia.

Chairman, President and CEO Kevin McMullen served as a panelist at the October Smart Business Toolbox Series presented by Hyland Software, speaking about lean manufacturing initiatives to drive success in a global economy. Below is an excerpt from the Q&A session.

What are keys for operational efficiencies?

It starts with a culture that is embedded with continuous improvement mentality. In everything you do, there’s an opportunity to improve it tomorrow better than you’re doing today. If you don’t have that as a culture, then a lot of the other things fall short of the mark.

Secondly, you clearly need to have solid leadership and solid capability for people to work on solving problems and improving process.

Third, it’s a framework. We chose lean Six Sigma as our primary framework for problem solving and operational excellence. It allows us to get a lot of people involved — the people that are closest to the action who know the most about any individual process.

What are the initial steps that need to be taken to get initiatives off the ground?

Are you really defining the problem that needs to be solved? Or are you trying to solve a symptom of the problem? Getting to the root causes of what the problem really is, and getting a very clear definition of the problem that you’re going to charter a team to go solve, is job one.  You need to involve a lot of people to get a lot of different perspectives on that to ensure you have the right problem.

One technique in lean Six Sigma is called the ‘five whys.’ We don’t do anything until we’ve asked the question ‘Why?’ five times to try to get to root cause.

After that, it’s making sure that you have the right team in place and the right resources in place to do it. Make sure that they understand what the business case is for — ‘Why is this worth me spending my time doing this? What are we going to achieve if Fraunhofer F we’re wildly successful?’ — so that everyone who’s involved in it understands what the goal is.

Who decides what the problem and goals are?

We will have top-down ideas of areas we think that there’s opportunity. We will then charter a team to study that and potentially redefine the problem but working in that area.

We will have a framework of what we think the improvement can be. We’ll ask the team as they are getting chartered and getting set up to reaffirm that ‘Yes, in fact, after we looked at this, we believe that this is the right problem to solve. Here are the metrics we think we should be held accountable for.’

Surprisingly enough, the metrics that they come up with are frequently tougher than the metrics we had from our top-down standpoint, because they’re closer to the issue and they believe that they can achieve things at certain rates.

How do you get buy-in for initiatives?

Once you really nail what the issue is and what the impact will be on your enterprise if you’re able to go from here to there, once you get that and you are able to communicate that effectively to people, all of a sudden buy-in becomes a lot easier.

I’ve seen a lot of situations with organizations where someone is promoting going one direction or another and they don’t really have a strong business case. People are questioning, ‘Why do we want to do that? Is this motivated out of some other reason?’

The biggest detractors of saying, ‘There’s no way we should do that,’ you want to get them involved. Maybe they have a great idea that’s actually going to help improve what you’re going to do from A to B.

If they’re involved in coming up with the answer, they’re very enthusiastic about seeing it through.

How Hillel Sackstein defined and implemented a growth strategy at Virtual Graffiti

Hillel Sackstein

Hillel Sackstein, founder, president and CEO, Virtual Graffiti Inc.

In the 12 years since Hillel Sackstein founded Virtual Graffiti Inc. as an e-commerce software development company, the business has sprouted from a startup outfit in Sackstein’s home to an international IT solutions provider with nearly 30 employees and $23.8 million in 2010 revenue.

As a result, the company has outgrown the systems and processes that Sackstein originally implemented. As growth opportunities have arisen, Sackstein has needed to ensure that there is a strategy in place to meet the demand.

Sackstein spoke with Smart Business about how he has strategized for growth and how you can keep your own business ready to grow.

How did you begin to construct your growth plan?

First, we identified what the issues were, because we definitely had to document those challenges. We had an idea as to what we needed in terms of systems and processes and what we needed in place to take us to the next level. We then did a thorough investigation of all the possible options, and there were a number of them. One was to develop a lot of functionality internally here, using our existing systems. Or, we thought that we could do what we did end up doing eventually, which was a company overhaul of our systems and finding a platform as a starting point for doing that.

That really meant doing a thorough investigation of all the software products on the market, and I did that personally.

What would you tell other business heads about constructing a growth plan?

In order to grow as an organization, it is definitely about looking at your business and understanding what the strengths of your company are. No company can be good at everything, so it’s really key to have a good understanding of what is different about your company and what you can do with your company to make you a stronger competitor, able to find that competitive advantage.

In our business, we are in the technology field and things are changing very rapidly. We’re always looking for the hot new products, what the trends are, what businesses need, what sort of technology companies are buying. Then we try to make sure we’re in those markets. Also, we try to make sure we’re developing the right partnerships for us, that we’re partnering with the right service providers and so forth.

How do you ensure your company is growing in the right manner and direction?

It’s finding something or a need in the market that is going to differentiate you from your competitors. We look for opportunities where there is recurring revenue in the product we might be able to sell. There is a lot of product out there that we might be able to sell very easily, but it’s a one-off sale. It may cost us a lot of money to advertise and find the customer that will buy the product, but very often, we may never hear from that customer again, because that product serves their needs.

Where we really want to look for areas in which we can grow is a product that has a recurring component to it — products with service contracts or products that are sold on an annual subscription kind of basis. That way, there is a component in there where we’re working with customers to ensure that they’re renewing those services, and it’s also an opportunity to find out what their needs are at that time, if they have a need for other technology solutions that we might offer.

What would you tell other leaders about capitalizing on a good growth opportunity?

In business these days, it is very hard to find that niche where there is no other company. It’s hard to find a silver bullet where you’ve found a product that no one else has made. In anything you do, there is always competition, there are always companies that are going to look at what you’re doing and copy it, and the growth opportunity is really going to come by being in a business that is going to be around for a long time and doing what you do well. That is really how to grow — it comes back to concentrating on what you do well, focusing on that and not allowing your company to get sidetracked. If you excel at that, that is what brings your business long term relationships. That is really how we’ve tried to grow our company.

How to reach: Virtual Graffiti Inc., (949) 870-3500 or www.virtualgraffiti.com

Joe Gingo increased revenues at A. Schulman Inc. with efficiency

Joe Gingo, Chairman, President and CEO, A. Schulman Inc.

Joe Gingo, chairman, president and CEO of A. Schulman Inc., was brought in to sell the struggling company in January of 2008. But by focusing on improving processes and operational efficiencies, Gingo led A. Schulman to generate $200 million in cash by the end of that same year. Undertaking several acquisitions, the company was no longer for sale.

A. Schulman is now a leading international supplier of high-performance plastic compounds and resins, with 30 manufacturing and support centers worldwide employing approximately 3,000 people.

Gingo served as a panelist at the October Smart Business Toolbox Series presented by Hyland Software, speaking about lean manufacturing initiatives to drive success in a global economy. Below is an excerpt from the Q&A session.

What are keys for operational efficiencies?

One, you have to have a process, and two, you have to have a leadership that drives it — a leadership that actually believes in it and makes it happen.

Continuous improvement has to be driven from the top down. It has to be something that’s built into your culture, where people actually look to improve everything they do, every day of the week.

How do you look at waste reduction?

People that look at lean tend to just look at it from a manufacturing standpoint, and that’s a big mistake. Everything can be processed, and some of your biggest savings come from that type of thing.

A good example for us was working capital. We had a great deal of concern about working capital when I first came to the company, and we laid out a program and actually developed it down to a board game.

We made a tremendous reduction in working capital. Why? Because the people that actually controlled working capital learned about working capital.

What are the initial steps that need to be taken to get initiatives off the ground?

Take your time upfront to get your team behind it. I don’t believe that you can just force these things. You really need to do a lot of work up front in designing the process and getting buy in from your global team.

What I’ve learned in the past is that without this buy in upfront, without this agreement as to what the process is, implementation gets sidetracked. Things start to happen along the way and delay everything.

How do you get buy in for initiatives?

Don’t give them the solution. Give them the problem.

Communications have to go up and down in this process. From the top is, ‘Here’s what our issue is and here’s why it’s an issue. Here’s why it’s important to us. Here’s how it affects you. This is how you benefit if you do this.’ Then listening to the people when they say, ‘OK. Well, if that’s the real problem, here’s how you solve it and this is what we need. These are the tools we need.’ Then you as the leadership have to provide these tools.

What processes does A. Schulman have to maintain continuous efficiency?

What we attempt to do is, through the Lean process, not only identify the problem areas but establish a priority for them. Priority can come two ways. One way, obviously, is ‘What’s my biggest problem?’ But sometimes that’s really hard to solve.

Sometimes you actually take a little problem that you know you can resolve extremely quickly through that whole chain. Solve that problem, give people credibility that this is going to work, and then you attack each problem along the way. And my experience is you keep redefining the process.

How long should initiatives take?

I look at it as a payback within two years — two years or less — especially for a major initiative (that) is going to cost us a lot of money.

We look at ROI. It’s a very important thing. If it’s going to be over two years, it better be really strategic and it better be really critical to our long-term situation.

How Katsu Uno promotes a culture of continuous improvement at Hirotec America

Katsu Uno

Katsu Uno, chairman and CEO, Hirotec America Inc.

Katsu Uno believes in changing things, even when nothing is broken.
Where most CEOs might be hesitant to adjust cogs in a well-oiled machine, Uno operates with a different philosophy at Hirotec America Inc., a $90 million automotive component supplier that he heads as chairman and CEO.

Known by the Japanese terms kaizen and kaikaku, Uno runs Hirotec with an eye toward constant and revolutionary change to the company’s organization and processes.

Smart Business spoke with Uno about the importance of facilitating change, and why evolving and adapting is a must for any business.

How do you promote an environment of continuous change and improvement?

One thing I do is constantly change the organizational structure. Sometimes I drive my operational managers crazy because I like to make changes. One day I show up in the office and show them a piece of paper, showing them how the new organization and team will look like. And I tell them it will work. It will be a good development for you. Even right now, I’m continually working on new changes within the organization to meet the current business environment. So I constantly try to see what is the best way to utilize our employees, and depending on the business environment, I shuffle people around and create new environments within the organization.

I constantly adjust the company’s organizational structure to meet the demands of our customers, and try to integrate each employee’s unique skills. Our company succeeds because we work well together.

Why does this constant-change model work for you?

The first thing I should probably explain is that we have this concept called ‘K2.’ K2 stands for kaizen and kaikaku. Kaizen is a concept of continuous change and improvement. Here in America, we describe it as, ‘If it’s not broken, let’s make it better.’ A lot of people might say, if it’s working, why bother to change? But we believe that through change, you can make it better.

Kaikaku is a Japanese word for revolutionary change. It’s the idea that you always think outside of the box. You hear those words here a lot, because that is what we think is important. It’s what differentiates our company from our competitors. Those are unchanging components for our company. We change vision and strategy, we could change all kinds of stuff, but driving change is something we never change. 

We believe this is the right company for people who enjoy change. We are looking for people who want to challenge and be challenged, and if you don’t like change, it is going to be very difficult to survive here.

Do you have an example of constant change and improvement in action?

It could be a product or how we do an engineering process, the organizational structure, and how we do all kinds of stuff. We have a core product called hemming solutions, and internally we have meetings where everybody gets together and discusses how we can change it, how we can we can improve it to meet the demands of more customers. Constantly, we’re trying to do that, drive change and make our products better.

How does change serve as a motivational tool for people?

The people we hire, the people we train, are people who like a challenge, and like changing and learning, so it’s not our system or our company driving them to change. We have people who enjoy changing and make it better. So it’s not a company where people are pushing the culture. We have people who create it; we have people who enjoy changing. I don’t’ need to motivate them. That’s what they enjoy, and they see the better product, a better financial result due to the changes they made.

What are the dangers of stagnating and not cultivating a change-oriented mindset?

You lose your competitive edge.  Our reputation is that we are in a constantly changing industry, constantly needing to introduce new products and introducing new ways to do business. If you don’t change, you lose that reputation, and people in the company are going to lose motivation, because that is what is driving the team.

So that is the danger. If you don’t continue to change, really your company is no longer the same company if you have built your reputation on changing with the needs of the marketplace.

How to reach: Hirotec America Inc., (248) 836-5100 or www.hirotecamerica.com

Frank Fantozzi takes Planned Financial Services LLC to the next level

Frank Fantozzi, President and CEO, Planned Financial Services LLC

As Frank Fantozzi continues to find ways to grow Planned Financial Services LLC, he finds it challenging to continuously reach the next level of success.

“I think the challenge is growing your practice prudently to fit the culture and vision and team that you assemble,” he says. “That’s the challenge because there’s no constant. If there’s one constant, it’s you and your leadership.”

Fantozzi is constantly looking to make sure that as he grows the financial services firm, which is part of the LPL Financial Network with $200 million assets under management, that the business still fits the culture he’s created.

Smart Business spoke with the president and CEO about the challenges of doing this.

How do you grow your company so it fits the culture?

It comes down to vision. You need to know what you want to be. If you can’t articulate, first of all, to yourself and then to your team and then to the prospective audience that you seek, you’re going to grow aimlessly. You’ll grow, but you won’t grow as effectively as you can. You have to know what you want to be before you can say how do you want to grow. If I want to go on vacation, where do I want to go? If I don’t know, I can go anywhere, and that’s what happens to a lot of companies.

Your mom and dad tell you, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ What do you want your company to look like? That’s where you have to start — you have to know what that looks like, and then all your decisions as a leader should focus on moving toward that vision.

Think about it in the automotive industry. You can either be a Kia, which is a nice car but it has a certain marketplace and segment, or do you want to be a Mercedes Benz? I’m in the financial services business. If I ask you what financial planning means to you, you’re going to have your own definition.  Are you a client for every financial planning firm out there? The reality is no. As a company, we can’t be everything to everybody.

For the health of the organization, you’re setting up expectations — that’s the key component of leadership. If you don’t know who you want to serve, you’ll attract all kinds. You won’t have the loyalty you want from your clients and you won’t have the effectiveness you want of your organization. Sometimes your efficiencies are better served for one marketplace than another. It’s critical for every leader to really define and remind your team that everything you do culturally has to be focused on this is who we are, this is who we want to be.

How do you define that well so there’s no confusion?

Write down for yourself what you think your company is — what the vision is. Then ask every one of your team members to do it. Take your best clients. Ask them and compare. If you get alignment on all three, then you’re probably spot on. It’s a three-point check — you have your vision of who you want to be, you have your team, and if those aren’t congruent, that’s problem No. 1. If your client sees you differently than how you see yourself, that’s problem No. 2. That’s the way you check it.

You have to know if you have alignment. If you have alignment you’re good. If you don’t, then the question is, ‘How do you get yourself in alignment?’

So how do you get yourself in alignment?

You have to say, first of all, is the vision I thought I had the right vision. Maybe your employees’ vision, because they do heavy lifting, is better. If there’s not alignment, is the vision I thought I have the right vision? If it is, then how do I get my team in alignment, and how do I convey that message to my clients? If it’s the other way around and it’s a different vision, then I have to first define what I want my vision to be.

There, you just have to do some soul-searching. You have to say where’s my company at? Where’s my life cycle? Where do I want it to be? Maybe you get input from your team and come up with a vision and then you have to get your clientele in. I would look at it in two different ways. If you’re all in alignment, great. If you’re not in alignment, and I like the vision I originally had, the goal is how do I get everyone in alignment, or if I come to the conclusion that I don’t like my original vision, then you have to start from scratch and figure out what you want to be.

How to reach: Planned Financial Services LLC, (440) 740-0130 or www.plannedfinancial.com

Ken Weisbacher identifies niche markets at KW Flooring

Ken Weisbacher, President and Owner, KW Flooring

Ken Weisbacher, president and owner of KW Flooring is no stranger to adversity and overcoming obstacles in his business. The company owns and operates seven different flooring brands such as Carpetland Carpet One, Big Bob’s Flooring Outlet and Buddy’s Flooring America. The 150-employee, $42 million company finds ways to take advantage of its niche markets in carpet, hardwood, tile and concrete flooring.

“The keys to our success generally have been our ability to market to different niches of floor coverings,” Weisbacher says. “We have many different models that we operate that makes us unique. We don’t just have one company that sells to everybody.”

It’s that attitude and constant industry awareness that has allowed KW Flooring to push past tough times and continue to offer various specialty flooring brands.

Smart Business spoke to Weisbacher about how he overcomes obstacles and creates niche markets.

What have been some of your toughest challenges lately?

The biggest challenge recently has been the decline in demand for flooring both residentially as well as commercially. With 22 locations selling flooring, when things are good, we have 22 locations that do very well. When things are bad and you’ve got 22 locations, it becomes a big challenge. We’ve had to downsize. Because there is not as much demand we’ve had to right-size to the market. We’ve had to figure out avenues that we’re involved in that will be successful going forward and which are best to get away from. Over the last three years those have been the types of decisions that have been most difficult.

Most business owners open up a store or get into a type of business and that becomes like a child to you. You want to see it grow and succeed and prosper so it’s very difficult to pull the plug and say, ‘Get out of this or I get in deeper.’ You have to be willing to close your failures and promote your successes. Too many people waste their assets and their energy on trying to turn around their failures and their time and money would be better spent promoting their successes.

How do you grow your successful businesses?

We created half a dozen different companies that specialize in a particular area of flooring. We focus on that and are able to provide a level of service for people that they’re not likely to find in a store that has a more general outlook.

You have to identify a niche that is ignored by other people or underserved by other people or that is really fast growing. The first step is to identify the niche and then determine what you can do to differentiate yourself from others who are trying to serve that niche. You’ve got to do it better than anybody who’s out there doing it now.

What have been some challenges of growth in your company?

The progress has been three steps forward and one step back. It has not been a continual improvement, but things are getting better and I am optimistic about the future. One challenge has been ignoring the impulse to be too quick to hire back a number of employees. Personally I believe you should hire back more slowly because you’ll be more profitable as business ramps back up.

You have to hold back the impulse to bring more people in as you see business pick up. You have to make sure that the people you have can manage the growth by doing a little bit more business than they’re currently doing now. If people are paid on commission and are money motivated, they will appreciate that and it works out well for both sides.

What are the keys to finding a new area of business?

A new area for us is concrete grinding and polishing. There again we saw a niche that was underserved. A lot of retail space is now polished concrete and finished floor as opposed to carpet or tile. So we decided that rather than try to compete against that we would learn how to do it ourselves and get into that market. It is an opportunity that traditional flooring has lost to polished concrete. As we saw more and more of that, we realized we were missing out on it.

You have to be open-minded and flexible enough to say what I did for the last 20 years may not be what I need to do for the next 20. It’s not easy to do because everybody gets into a comfort zone. We all want to keep doing what we’ve been successful at, but there comes a time when you have to say it’s not the same as it used to be, therefore my actions and activities have to change.

HOW TO REACH: KW Flooring, (513) 771-2345 or www.carpetlandcincinnati.com

Phillip Carter’s keys to maintaining a service-oriented culture

Phillip Carter

Phillip Carter, founder and president, Texas Cash Cow Investments

When Phillip Carter was 25 years old, he spotted a dilapidated house that at one time had obviously been a beautiful home, and he decided to see if it was for sale.

When he asked the man at the bank if he could buy it, he challenged Carter to make him an offer. Carter said $8,000, and the man said, “Sold.” Carter immediately knew he had paid too much, and it became evident that he had no idea what he was doing in the process of actually buying it.

Despite that, he got a home improvement loan for $10,000 and fixed the place up, and two months later, he sold it for $58,000 — a $40,000 profit.

That’s when he knew he was on to something.

What started as one house is now a $20 million business called Texas Cash Cow Investments, where he serves as president.

Smart Business spoke to Carter about how he’s grown his business over the years.

What have been the keys to your success over the years?

My grandfather told me a long time ago that customer service is the best product you’ll ever have. I can’t tell you how true that is. There’s going to be competition in the marketplace for everything. But it comes down to treating your customers well. Customer service is a dying breed. We’ve built our whole company off of customer service. It takes a little bit longer to build your business that way, but you have customers for life. We have customers who buy with us over and over.

The market changes all the time. It’s providing customer service and owning all the businesses, quite frankly that’s why I own the investment company, the construction company, the property management company, the warranty company, because I can control my customers’ experience throughout the whole process. If we outsource any part of that, I couldn’t control their experience.

What’s the most important thing you have to do to have good customer service?

Communication is a big part. I talk to my customers often, and I form personal relationships with them and I meet with them and shake their hand. No matter how good the product is, [you have to] form that relationship with the customer, communicating with them and educating them. There’s a huge void of quality information out there in real estate right now.

When communicating, what questions do you ask to understand them better?

One of the first things we do is I have a conversation with them about what their goals are. Are they getting close to retirement? Are they young? We have several different types of products — long-term retirement or sell-it-in-a-couple-years to make a bunch of money. Get to know what their goals are. 

What advice can you give other leaders to understand what their customers’ goals are?

Probably getting to know the customers and asking the questions. That goes back to the customer service, as well. Developing a personal relationship with your customers — that’s your future. You might have the best product right now at the time but there’s always competition and there’s always going to be stuff coming out. People will look at your product and people will try to duplicate it, but having that personal relationship and your customers’ best interest at heart and being honest and open with them, you’re going to retain that customer for a long period of time. They’re not going to go anywhere.

If another product does come out and you don’t have that bond with those customers or know them well, you’ll probably lose that customer. We strive to ensure that we keep in communication with them. It’s not just always about sales. We get to know them personally. Quite frankly, that’s where all of our business comes from is from referrals. We’ve never advertised. We’ve grown this to a $20 million company, and we’ve never advertised. It’s all through word-of-mouth. We’ve gone global, and it’s all through word-of-mouth.

How to reach: Texas Cash Cow Investments, (214) 683-0984 or www.texascashcowinvestments.info