How Larry Feldman keeps Subway ahead of competitors

Larry Feldman was living a double life. As assistant minority counsel of the House Banking Committee, his day job was dealing with Capitol Hill’s most pressing issues: the Chrysler bailout, alternative fuel sources and cradle-to-grave health insurance. But come lunchtime, he headed across the street to oversee an operation pretty much as critical to Washington’s well-being. Feldman, you see, managed the local Subway.

“I would do congressional hearings in the morning, run across the street, take off my jacket, put on my apron and stand behind the counter to make sure the operation was going well,” says Feldman, CEO of Subway of South Florida and Subway Development Corp. in Washington, D.C. “These lobbyists would look at my face and say, ‘You look very familiar.’ And then after lunch, I would run back, take off my jacket and do hearings.”

Since opening up his first Subway location 35 years ago, Feldman has grown his territory of restaurants to approximately 1,500 locations and 1,600 employees throughout Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and, most recently, South Florida. But his success hasn’t just earned him respect in the franchise world — it was Feldman who helped pioneer Subway’s development agent growth model in 1979 — it has also earned him a nickname: Mr. Subway.

By eliminating company-owned stores and empowering entrepreneurs to grow territories through franchised locations, Subway has become the largest fast-food chain in the world, surpassing the iconic McDonald’s with more than 37,000 locations worldwide. Here’s why the growth model is still viable and successful decades later. 

Javier LaFianza is always eager to hear about the next great idea, even when it’s not great

Javier LaFianza, president and CEO, Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership

Javier LaFianza will listen to any idea an employee offers up or any suggestion he might get from one of the 4,000 volunteers at Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership, more commonly known as HOBY.

That doesn’t mean he’ll always agree with it or even think it’s an idea worth pursuing. But he will listen and give the person a chance to make their case for whatever point they are trying to make.

“If people are giving you two or three suggestions and you’re shooting every single one of them down, they will be left with the impression that this isn’t real,” says LaFianza, the youth leadership training organization’s president and CEO.

The “this” is the idea that you are an open-minded leader who has an open-door policy and wants to hear from your people.

“If the only way you’re communicating is through memos, e-mails and big staff meetings, you’re just reinforcing the perception that you’re higher up, you’re not all that interested and that communication is a one-way street in your organization,” LaFianza says.

So if your suggestion box is covered with a thick layer of dust, it may be more of a punch line for your employees than an actual tool that makes them feel empowered. You can start to turn things around by first closing your mouth and paying close attention to what your people have to say.

“If you listen to them and you say, ‘Thank you for sharing, thank you for your feedback, I’ll consider that,’ they feel like they have been heard,” LaFianza says. “They appreciate that a great deal more. You still may not end up going along with their idea. But at least you listened. That is something that really helps.”

There may even be times when your people bring up an idea that is worth implementing. LaFianza recalls an experience at a job he had before coming to HOBY.

“It functioned a lot like an insurance company would in terms of processing claims from providers, mainly child-care providers,” LaFianza says. “We didn’t have a single place where providers or parents who had complaints or issues or needed particular help, we didn’t have a single place for them to go. One of the line-level staff said, ‘Maybe we should set up a customer service center and have a group of people who are dedicated to processing some of those issues. We set that up and it increased our customer satisfaction dramatically.”

LaFianza says senior leaders need to know their place in their organization and try to stick to it.

“Your job is really to develop a strategic priority, develop the metrics and develop the strategy on how you’re going to achieve those things,” LaFianza says. “Then you turn it over to the rest of the staff or your managers to implement that. You have to trust them to do that and hold them accountable. Otherwise, you’re wasting time, talent and money.”

So if you want your company to be known for providing great customer service, explain that message to your leaders and then let them figure out how to make it happen.

“If you’re doing that and you trust your managers and they feel empowered and they’re making a difference and implementing and are able to be innovative and creative, you’ll find people will work harder and be more efficient and more excited and happy with their jobs,” LaFianza says. “That will trickle throughout your organization.”

HOBY is all about teaching young people about being leaders and so it would be inconsistent if LaFianza didn’t lead with the same philosophy. But it’s a philosophy that applies to any type of business.

“If people feel like they are going to lose their job immediately on every project, they are going to be paralyzed and they’re not going to develop their leadership and management style,” LaFianza says. “They need to feel like it’s a safe environment and they can take a risk, within reason. If it doesn’t work out, they can learn from it, do a diagnostic and move on. You’re going to be instilling a culture of learning and discipline and not just a culture of shame and fear.”

How to reach: Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership, (818) 851-3980 or www.hoby.org

Look for the signs

Javier LaFianza has learned to identify leadership traits in individuals at a very young age. That might have a little to do with the fact that he’s president and CEO at Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership, a not-for-profit organization that has helped more than 375,000 youngsters hone their skills as future leaders.

“As a leader, some traits I look out for are if someone is taking an initiative,” LaFianza says. “Is someone speaking up both with positive ideas and what may be frustrating them? Are they offering very good suggestions? Are they not just complaining, but following up their complaint with a suggestion? Are they able to communicate clearly enough so that people are gravitating toward them and getting bought into their idea?”

And perhaps most important, are they willing to go along with someone else’s idea if their idea is not chosen?

“If you’ve made a decision that you’re going to go down this road instead, are they able to get on board and implement it and make it successful?” LaFianza says. “Those are all key signs to me.”

Jewish Community Services improves efficiency and cuts costs through strategic partnerships

Fred Stock, president and CEO, Jewish Community Services of South Florida

As the economy took a hit over the last few years, Fred Stock saw the demand for his organization’s services grow dramatically. That’s because the result of a down economy is more and more people seeking out more of the services that Jewish Community Services of South Florida has been providing for years. But keeping up with the higher demand has not been easy, especially when coupled with the funding challenges of operating as a not-for-profit entity.

“There’s an increased need corresponding with a reduction of available dollars,” says Stock, the president and CEO of the Miami-based social services agency, which services the Dade County community.

As fundraising in the overall community has dropped, so has the amount of funding dollars coming into the organization.

“So we need to figure out ways to cover the overhead for the agency,” Stock says. “One of the ways is that you reduce those costs by being more efficient.”

Stock says that this is a challenge many more not-for-profit organizations are dealing with today.

One way he says these agencies can manage costs is by providing a mix of free and paid services. By expanding in areas that have a “fee for service,” such as home care, the organization is able to cover costs of the services that it provides for free.

“We’re trying to expand our capabilities to provide services that can reimburse us for our costs, and we can generate some surpluses to pay for the programs that people don’t have the ability to pay for,” Stock says.

However, the crux of the agency’s strategy to become more efficient involves developing partnerships with organizations that share its service goals and funding model.

“We have definitely taken on the belief that in order to be successful, we need to partner,” Stock says.

“By combining, we can serve more people, create operational efficiencies, expand our reach, and it will allow us over the long haul to create more opportunity to serve people.”

While many smaller not-for-profit agencies are quality organizations, they are often limited in what they can do because they don’t have the infrastructure or funding sources to expand and grow. Leading a larger agency, Stock is now working harder to partner with smaller entities so both parties make progress on shared goals. An example is how the agency is partnering with assisted living facilities and HUD 202 housing projects where there are large constituencies of people who need its services.

Stock says you want try to align yourself with agencies and programs that relate to where you can provide services but also with agencies that have a similar mission.

“You maximize their capabilities and their expertise,” Stock says. “You bring that expertise now into this affiliated entity … and then you can expand your service capability because potentially that service can be located in a community that you’re not serving.”

The other advantage of partnering is the potential to combine operations or share resources where appropriate, which can increase efficiencies for both parties. So if two entities are doing billing with a number of grants, there is an opportunity to combine that billing for cost savings.

Stock says constantly monitoring and improving efficiency is something that not-for-profits and businesses should be doing whether or not there are funding issues. By partnering up, the agency continues to find strategic ways to carry out its mission and deliver its services more efficiently.

“We’re a $15 million agency,” Stock says. “We can bring some of that infrastructure — the funding, the marketing, to that new agency and enhance that agency’s effort to create revenue. And then you can create revenue for a larger organization and you have a whole lot more clout, because you have a whole lot more reach. You’re serving more people. In that process, you can find savings within that entity that you can then put back into your programs to yet provide more services.”

Start inside

Many not-for-profit entities have faced funding challenges as a result of the economic recession. Jewish Community Services of South Florida, which provides its services at no cost, is funded primarily through grants and fundraising. But that funding is limited and most of the agency’s funding sources do not provide enough money for its administrative component. To maintain services as money becomes scarcer, president and CEO Fred Stock has led a number of initiatives to be more efficient in this area.

“We’ve had to become much more efficient in the way we provide services and in the way we fund our administrative component,” Stock says. “In an agency, you have direct services and then you have the infrastructure that you need in order to run these services, things like billing, rent, offices and all of that, which are fixed expenses to some degree.”

To increase efficiency in the administrative component, the agency has consolidated some of its offices and begun looking at ways to utilize space better. It’s also started to streamline processes in internal operations such as billing, maintenance and systems.

“We’ve been able to save a substantial amount of money in these areas that has allowed us to continue to provide services at the same rate,” Stock says. “So even through we’ve suffered from reductions in funding, we’ve been able to still maintain the levels of service that we’ve provided over the last few years.”

How to reach: Jewish Community Services of South Florida, (305) 576-6550 or www.jcsfl.org

How Nick Fortine expanded his sales force while cutting back in operations to set up long-term growth

Nick Fortine, president, CSC Worldwide's Retail Specialty Group

Nick Fortine had to face a 40 percent drop in business as the retail sector put on its capital expenditure brakes in 2009.

Fortine, the president of CSC Worldwide’s Retail Specialty Group, which makes fixtures such as fitting rooms, display walls and cash register stands, was startled, but he knew he had to act soon.

“I was particularly surprised by the level at which capital expenditures stopped in the specialty retail sector,” Fortine says. “We had to create a strategy rather quickly based upon our new reality.”

Once Fortine examined the landscape, he made a bold decision to downsize personnel but to invest ― by adding people ― to the sales team. The company hired a handful of sales associates at the time it was laying off an equal number on the operations side.

“At the beginning of ’09, we knew the future was far from certain,” he says.

“We also knew that if we took our foot off the gas on our selling efforts, our pipeline would quickly dry up.”

Fortine knew that in many businesses, including fixture manufacturing, relationships with prospects and opportunities to sell usually take from several quarters to years to develop.

“So when spending picks back up, you need to have new opportunities queued up,” Fortine says.

In the meantime, when the dust is settling, it’s time to get started with your new strategy.

“As a leader during periods like these, first of all, your team needs to know you have a plan,” Fortine says. “Then they need to understand the plan, believe in the plan and buy in to the plan. They need to know that you are a part of a plan. You are there to support and assist them and to successfully execute that plan.

“A natural result of adversarial times in a workforce is tension, fear, doubt and uncertainty about the future,” he says. “During periods like those, open and frequent communication about the state of the business, the strategy, the goals and measurements against those goals is really critical. In fact, it’s always critical in a business, in good times or bad.”

A key factor is to make sure that everyone understands the steps you are taking to move the business forward given the environment.

“People are much more effective at doing their jobs when they know that they are aligned with the overall goals of the company,” Fortine says. “People perform much more effectively when they are not running scared but rather when they feel like they are empowered to go make a difference in the business. That is the biggest challenge and how you overcome it is by making sure that the people left truly understand what their role is in turning this situation around.”

You need to be positioned to find and win new opportunities all the time.

“While the economic environment is still unpredictable, you have to keep selling throughout,” he says. “You need to be positioned to find and win new opportunities all the time. When the market experiences the inevitable upswing that will come in the future, and those levels of spending return, you will be very confident in your position to take advantage of that.”

While the new sales representatives were getting their feet wet, Fortine was coaching the remaining employees on the new strategy to keep selling and to do more with less. It was critical for them to understand their new roles.

“We needed to explain that if we wanted to sustain our business long term, you don’t do that by laying off sales people,” he says. “You’ve got to always be selling.”

While this wasn’t a company culture makeover, Fortine felt it added a new dimension to the culture.

“I really believe it changed us culturally,” he says. “Your associates should really learn to think creatively about new approaches to managing the business. You have to continually ask yourselves and challenge each other, ‘What can we do to make this better?’ and ‘What can we do to make this easier, more economical, take less time?’”

How to reach: CSC Worldwide, (614) 850-1460 or www.cscww.com

Recreate success

Recreating positive sales and service experiences is an effective way to add to your bottom line ― once you know your strengths and weaknesses.

“You grow by continuously finding ways to do what you do more effectively,” says Nick Fortine, president of CSC Worldwide’s Retail Specialty Group. “You become more honed in doing what you do best.”

The best way for you to hone your business performance is to review the customer satisfaction level.

“Your clients will be very clear about how they believe you are doing,” Fortine says. “Continually ask them. If you are growing, if you’re profitable, and if your clients are happy, you know you are doing the right things.”

You should also believe also that your strength is your domain knowledge in the market.

“Knowing what it takes to pull off a world-class product rollout and translating that knowledge into exceptional service and program results ― that’s your differentiation in market,” Fortine says. “Believe that you do that as well as anyone in market.

“Spend all your time trying to recreate those success patterns by finding opportunities and serving more of them. Become really focused at what it is you do well and knowing what it is you don’t do well. Spend your time concentrating on just getting better and better at what you do really well.”

How Chris and Natasha Ashton set the stage for continued growth at Petplan

Many businesses — especially in this economy — would love to be in the position of Petplan. The pet health insurer has experienced explosive growth over the past few years, climbing to $18.7 million in revenue during 2010 and a debut on the Inc. 500 list (No. 123) in 2011.

But with explosive growth comes daunting challenges, and it has fallen on the husband and wife team of Chris and Natasha Ashton to lead the way. The co-founders and co-CEOs of Petplan — which is the DBA name of Fetch Insurance Services LLC — have needed to chart a course for the blossoming business and ensure that the resources are in place to sustain growth.

“We debuted at No. 123, but getting there sure wasn’t as easy as ABC,” Natasha Ashton says. “Managing that growth has meant taking our hands off the nitty-gritty and delegating. Bringing in the right kind of people to enable us to handle the growth and then accelerate it further is a constant thing. We’ve had to expand our office, pretty much double our head count and make sure the team members weren’t distracted throughout the construction. We also had to make sure the technology wasn’t going to falter and that we were able to maintain the same level of exceptional customer service that we have become known for.”

Chris and Natasha Ashton

Chris and Natasha Ashton, co-founders and co-CEOs, Petplan

The Ashtons have been on a constant search for the best possible talent to aid in the company’s growth. But adding intellectual muscle to the work force is only part of the equation. The company’s employees have to be properly managed and motivated.

“We always have very lofty goals and ambitions, but one of the things we are very good at is taking those goals and breaking them down to manageable goals,” Natasha Ashton says. “Our aim is to become the first billion-dollar pet insurer globally. But when your long-range goals are ambitious, you know there are a number of steps you need to take before you can get there. So you break it down into manageable chunks, and delegate those, which ensures that we hit every goal along the way.”

“A lot of how you handle growth comes down to your core values as a company,” Chris Ashton says. “It drives who you decide to partner with as an organization, but it also drives the kind of people you look to recruit. You want people with a great skill set, who have relevant experience, but who also have the right personality. In our case, you want people who can thrive in a fast-growing, high-energy business like this, because it doesn’t suit everyone.”

A great deal of the Ashtons’ jobs revolves around communication. When the landscape is constantly evolving, new ideas are suggested by team members on a daily basis and maneuverability is important, management needs to define the company focus and communicate it consistently, while encouraging dialogue around new ideas.

“Part of it is cultural,” Chris Ashton says. “Do you really encourage people to speak their minds? We strive to reward people for having great ideas by publicly recognizing them. There are also structural things you can have in place. We have built an intranet that includes discussion boards, and we encourage people to contribute to the discussion boards along every aspect of the business. It’s key, because as you get bigger, nobody can be as involved in all areas of the business at once, like you used to. So you keep your finger on the pulse of what is going on, what the customers are saying, and continue to encourage the good ideas that are coming from our customers and our employees.”

How to reach: Petplan, (610) 595-3353 or www.gopetplan.com

Personality match

Offices with adult-sized playground slides? On-site pet care? Table tennis in the lobby? Call it the Googleization of the American workplace, or whatever you want. Unconventional trends are becoming quite conventional.

It can mean you cultivate a more engaged, upbeat work force. But it can also mean that your HR questions just became a lot more vexing. Not only do you need employees who match the skills required for the position, they also need to be able to thrive in your unique workplace. One employee’s whimsical atmosphere is another’s irritating cacophony of background noise.

At Petplan, co-founders and co-CEOs Chris and Natasha Ashton are on the front lines of trying to answer the question of fitting employees to the workplace. The workplace atmosphere cultivated by the husband and wife team includes bright colors, animal figures positioned throughout the office and frequent visits from family pets.

For the Ashtons, the first question they often need answered from a prospective employee is “Are you an animal lover?” If you think dogs are too noisy or cats are walking lint balls, shedding everywhere, Petplan is probably not the place for you.

“We want people who believe that pets are fun,” Chris Ashton says. “There is a reason people have pets, and we want people who are also going to have that sense of fun about them. We want them to be able to bring that personality to work.”

How Caroline Nahas engages her team at Korn/Ferry

Caroline Nahas, Office Managing Director, Southern California, Korn/Ferry International

Caroline Nahas doesn’t try to be intimidating. But it would be naïve to deny that her position has that effect on people. So when she speaks to employees at Korn/Ferry International, she works hard to be very approachable.

“People can be intimidated through absolutely nothing that you did other than you have the title,” says Nahas, office managing director of Southern California for the executive search firm. “I always think one of the greatest approaches is to sit down and say, ‘Hi, I’m interested to hear what you think.’”

Nahas leads about 150 employees that work in offices in Irvine and Los Angeles.

“Show them the respect and show them that you think their views and what they have to say is of value,” Nahas says. “There is bound to be someone, whether they come up with a right or wrong statement, someone is going to open up. And suddenly, you are getting into this dialogue and then you can ask some of the questions that you’re curious about.”

Korn/Ferry is going through a transition where clients expect the firm to have more intimate knowledge of what recruits can do and how they can address specific concerns in their business.

When your business is going through a major transformation, you need to get your employees at all levels of your organization involved in the discussion about how to address the changes.

“I might say, ‘We are going through this strategic change, and the people on the executive team are extremely excited about it for these reasons,” Nahas says. “I’m curious, what would you do if you were us to get this out to the population of the firm?’ What you have just done is show them a great deal of value. You’ve said, ‘I value your opinion.’ When you do that, you break down the barriers, but you also engage them and win them over and make them part of something rather than making them feel part of something that is being imposed on them.”

Keep in mind that just because you’ve been thinking about this change for a long time and have talked about it with your peers, others in your company may not be as familiar.

“If you’re a CEO and living this day to day and it’s sort of your overall vision, you’re very deeply steeped in the subject,” Nahas says. “Sometimes people can forget because they are so engaged in it and so enthusiastic and passionate about it, they forget that the people they are communicating to haven’t had the benefit of all that vetting, of the debating, the learning and the creating. So you just have to be more repetitive and consistent in terms of delivering that message and trying to put yourself in their shoes, three or four levels down. Make it real for them.”

Reality is another obvious but often overlooked component in communication. Just as you look for concrete evidence to see that your business is growing, your employees appreciate tangible examples to help bolster the case for whatever it is you’re telling them.

“If you tell people stories about why something has been successful, giving them real-life examples of clients who have integrated and used some of those services and how they have benefitted and how the partners or the people at Korn Ferry identified those needs within the clients is extremely impactful for helping people understand how something works,” Nahas says. “Telling them on paper or giving them theoretical ideas is not as effective as practical application and real-life examples.”

After you’ve had a good discussion with someone who you don’t normally talk to, follow up with a note to express your thanks for their time.

“Write back and say, ‘I truly appreciated the open, candid session we had,’” Nahas says. “’Your input was valuable and your active participation made a huge difference, not only in the meetings but obviously also in our company.”

How to reach: Korn/Ferry International, (310) 552-1834 or www.kornferry.com

Don’t act too soon

Caroline Nahas doesn’t face a lot of conflict in her role as office managing director of Southern California for Korn/Ferry International, where she leads about 150 employees. But when she does, she works hard to maintain a sense of impartiality.

“When you’re going to be involved in resolving conflicts with individuals, it’s very easy when the first person comes in and gives you the story; generally, that person is obviously editorializing,” Nahas says.

“It’s not that they are trying to do that. It’s just natural. They have their own view and they are very passionate about what they are raising objectives about. It’s very easy, as you’re listening to that, to get drawn into the story and to potentially show a reaction or to even prematurely make a judgment.”

If you want to maintain peace in your company, you’ll resist the urge to make that judgment before you’ve heard the other side.

“Listen, don’t render any kind of a judgment, don’t show any kind of expression that you agree or disagree,” Nahas says. “You’re just listening. This is such a great adage. There’s always two sides to the story. Often times neither one is right or wrong or they are both right and they are both wrong. But it’s absolutely critical you get all the information before you react.”

How Rick Hull transformed a failing bank into a sound institution, starting with the people

Rick L. Hull, president and CEO, Premier Bank & Trust

Rick L. Hull liked the world of a small community bank, where he had lots of individual loan authority and was able to interact with clients. The problem was he was the CEO of a large regional bank and just wasn’t happy in what was not a kinder, gentler world.

So he hooked up with a private equity firm and struck a deal to acquire a woe-begotten bank so he could breathe new life into it. And after 18 months, regulators declared the bank safe and sound (although Hull had hoped for about a 12-month time span).

“I really just had to follow my own advice,” says Hull, president and CEO of Premier Bank & Trust, formerly Ohio Legacy Bank. “I had spent my entire career telling everybody who worked for me that life is too short to be unhappy. If you find you wake up in the morning and you really don’t want to go to work, do something different.”

Hull knew change had to start with changing people if the bank were to thrive.

“There was a real stagnancy about the place but there were folks who really wanted to do something,” he says. “I think some of them simply just did not want to get re-energized. So you have to go and take care of that quickly.”

Once Hull excised the deadwood, he knew he had to assure those who were left that stability would return as guided by new management.

“I think you have to be quick to make change; it will resonate with others in the organization ― ‘OK, there was a willingness to make the tough decisions and do those for the benefit of the organization.’”

If you have a basic philosophy such as Hull’s ― life is too short for you to be miserable ― this was the time to explain it.

“I should have written the book, ‘The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t,’” he says. “Robert Sutton wrote it, and it exposits the theory that I have always had ― if someone is making you miserable, you don’t want to be party to that.

“We really invoked that and made some changes quickly. I’m a big believer that you need to make those changes fast. You have to be willing to hemorrhage for a short period of time as opposed to a slow bleed-to-death. You want to get everybody back to that feeling, ‘OK, there is some certainty. I wasn’t one who was released. I am part of this team.’”

Once Hull formed his team, it was time to get out the playbook and make sure everyone was on the same page.

“You need to meet everyone in the organization,” he says. “Take a humanistic type of approach ― you want them to be happy. If they do not think this is the place for them, then please, they should look someplace else.”

An important part of the plan is your expectations for the employees during a specified time frame, for instance, 90 days.

“Track that about every 30 days, giving a kind of periodic update,” Hull says. “Here’s where we are relative to this point ― staffing issues, things relative to systems, processes, procedures, all those types of things.”

If you want your vision to resonate with the staff, even though you come from a larger institution, stress the familial aspects.

“You want to define both internally and externally who you are and what you are looking to do,” he says. “Take the time to make certain there is really a family feel to it.

“If folks respect you as a leader, they’ll certainly do a lot of things for you,” Hull says. “If they really care about you and know that you care about them, I think they really will want to succeed. They have a sense of pride themselves. They also want to make you proud.”

How to reach: Premier Bank & Trust, (330) 499-1900 or www.mypremierbankandtrust.com

Committing to a sales culture

When Rick L. Hull was resuscitating the former Ohio Legacy Bank, he noticed it was missing something quite important.

“This little bank did not have any type of sales culture,” says Hull, president and CEO of the bank now known as Premier Bank & Trust. “They had never made a proactive sales call, ever.”

To develop a sales culture, you have to target with whom you want to do business ― small business owners, doctors, lawyers, accountants ― the ones who may have not been getting great service from one of the bigger players.

Next, your assignment is to institute strict guidelines for the sales department.

“I want you to make three outbound calls per day, and I want to know who you are going to talk to, what you are going to talk to them about,” Hull says. “I’m going to ask for your commitment, then somebody’s actually going to follow up at the end of the day to see if you did that. It’s a responsibility. If I ask you to do something and value your time enough that I’m actually going to follow up with it, you will feel a sense of ownership in it.”

Finally, make certain that everybody commits himself or herself to the process.

“Evoking a sales culture here was really embraced by some; it wasn’t embraced by others,” Hull says. “The ones who didn’t embrace it are no longer here.”

How to reach: Premier Bank & Trust, (330) 499-1900 or www.mypremierbankandtrust.com

John Sensiba grows Sensiba San Filippo through participatory leadership

John Sensiba, managing partner, Sensiba San Filippo LLP

Last May, John Sensiba was elected to his second term as managing partner at Sensiba San Filippo LLP, a CPA firm with approximately 100 employees. Having been in the role for a little more than three years now, Sensiba has come a long way since he first transitioned from the practice side of the business to take the top spot.

“It has been a dramatic change,” he says.

One of the first lessons Sensiba learned was that he needed to be more confident in the strategic decisions he made and recommended to the firm. It was tempting to be overly participative in decision-making, but by taking a more laissez faire approach in everyday decisions about activities and investments, he realized he was freed to focus more on setting policy and strategy.

“In a professional services firm, the more that you involve the partners in those decisions, usually the better, because they are a bunch of smart people,” he says. “But sometimes you can do it to the point of distraction. Then you might wonder, ‘Why do you have a managing partner if the decisions are all made by a group?’”

While a leader should be able to make some decisions without too much input, Sensiba says you need a way to gain honest feedback on your choices. That becomes increasingly difficult the higher you get in an organization.

“Regardless of the fact that you know folks and you feel like you are approachable, you get different and filtered feedback when you are in the top position in an organization,” Sensiba says.

He now frequently looks outside of the organization to get critical feedback about his leadership and the business from other leaders.

“I learn a lot just talking to people who have been in different roles not within the profession but just in a variety of different businesses or nonprofit enterprises,” he says.

“It may not be the kind of praise that most of us would like to hear all of the time, but it can be really productive to hear things from somebody, and you change your behavior.”

That communication goes both ways. Sensiba found out the hard way that as a leader there is no such thing as overcommunication.

When he first took over as managing partner, he would very carefully craft communications and messages to the firm and for meetings only to have people approach him later on and be frustrated that they hadn’t received the information.

“I thought, ‘Ugh, can I go back to your e-mail for you and show you where I sent it to you?’” Sensiba says. “You get that frustration and sometimes that would come through in my communication.”

Sensiba knew it was damaging for the culture to show frustration with his people, but he admits it was a good lesson to learn early on. He shared his irritation with one of the other managing partners about how his efforts to communicate seemed to be futile.

“He said, ‘If for some reason they didn’t hear it, it’s still your fault,’” Sensiba says. “‘If you said it 10 times, maybe you need to say it 11, but the market is never wrong. Your people are never wrong.”

If people are not getting the message, you can’t blame them. As a leader you need to look at the way you are communicating and do something differently.

“You just cannot put the message out there enough,” Sensiba says.

That goes for communicating day-to-day info and strategy, but also communicating the everyday vision to inspire future leaders of your business. That has been the key to maintaining the firm’s 92 percent client-retention rate.

“My role is to continue to build leaders at every level within the firm — to convince people that you lead from the day you start in a business — you are a leader,” he says.

How to reach: Sensiba San Filippo LLP, www.ssfllp.com or (408) 286-7780

Relationship mechanics

For John Sensiba, retaining clients and generating new business at Sensiba San Filippo LLP is a matter of executing a simple and popular principle.

“It goes back to the golden rule,” says Sensiba, the firm’s managing partner. “Treat people the way you’d like to be treated.”

How does this apply to business? Sensiba gives the example of going to a mechanic to work on your car’s transmission, only to find out that it was your fuel injectors that needed work. Even though the mechanic might do an OK job, it’s not that person’s specialty.

“He might say, ‘You know what, it’s your fuel injection and I’ll work on that for you.’” Sensiba says.

“But I would have much more respect for that mechanic if he said, ‘It is your fuel injection and here is my business partner who does nothing but fuel injection, and he is the guy that you need to talk to.’”

While you may lose some business referring customers elsewhere, you earn their trust by showing them that you are looking out for their best interests.

“If you come to me with something that we don’t have the expertise for or we’re not passionate about it, we’ll tell you ‘Call my friend from X, Y and Z firm. They really focus on that. They will do a great job.’” Sensiba says. “Because that is what we would like people to do for us.

“Our growth is built on a very stable client base that tends to stay with us and refer us business. It’s a very good upward spiral when you do good things for people.”

How to reach: Sensiba San Filippo LLP, www.ssfllp.com or (408) 286-7780

Ed Kaloust develops a capable team to drive Medi-Weightloss Clinics’ expansion

Ed Kaloust, founder and CEO, Medi-Weightloss Clinics

At his company’s national convention last year, founder and CEO Ed Kaloust was unsure of how to handle the announcement for Medi-Weightloss Clinics’ employee of the year. The problem wasn’t identifying a worthy candidate, but narrowing the success stories down to just one person.

“We just had three spectacular employees,” says Kaloust, who has grown the weight loss company from start-up to $16.5 million in revenue in 2011.

So he decided to announce three winners.

In today’s economic environment, having too many good people is hardly a problem a CEO is worried about. In fact, Kaloust says having the right people in the organization to grow its unique business model — a medically supervised and managed weight-loss program where physicians help clients lose weight through a combination of medication and diet – is why the Tampa-based business was one of Inc.’s fastest growing privately held companies in 2011.

“One thing that I believe in is what I call my ‘PLU’ method,” Kaloust says. “I believe that we need People Like Us. So we are very, very selective in the people that we choose to do this. By doing that, we can then be very supportive in helping them develop their program.”

From the time he started the company, Kaloust has been resolute in sticking to his PLU philosophy, carefully evaluating any business partner before he brings them into the enterprise, even if it means growing more slowly.

“People are really having a tough time out there,” Kaloust says. “I believe that it’s critical to keep that in front of us and to understand that growing through quality PLUs, people like us, is much better than trying to build 15 or 20 of these a month.”

Through deliberate organic growth, Kaloust has expanded the company from its initial three employees to 55 employees and 90 franchisees today. But in addition to having a company built with PLUs, he says, a leader needs to be able to support them effectively.

“My focus has changed from building the infrastructure to leading the infrastructure,” Kaloust says.

You need to let your people know that you are available to help them achieve their goals today, tomorrow and in the future, by “over-servicing” them. For example, Kaloust assigns a franchise field consultant to every 12 to 14 franchisees to help handle all of the marketing and compliance issues at each location so that they don’t need to worry about it.

“You need to do everything you can to protect the people who are investing in your program,” Kaloust says.

“That is one of the keys to not only growth, but it’s very key right now. Every time we turn around there is a new problem out there. So you’ve got to be there in front of them and keep reminding them, and you’ve got to be there to support them.”

It’s also important for leaders to demonstrate confidence and stability that people can look to and be inspired by.

“We have to protect the system and protect the clinics that aren’t doing well,” he says. … “We do whatever we can to help them get though the economy right now.”

Kaloust shows this by letting his people know that there is no problem too small for his involvement and no interference if an employee or franchisee calls him or comes to him with an issue.

“I’m not afraid to reach down to the smallest issue that we have in the company,” he says. “If I can help, I want to do that.”

In addition to having formal support systems in place for employees, an open-door policy lets them know you care about their wellbeing.

“I just make the time,” he says. “It doesn’t always happen and I don’t have that now as much as I used to because we have built such a strong company, but I would get involved.”

With the right team and support in place, Kaloust says, success is just a matter of letting people do what they do best.

“I believe that adage that you can take away everything I have and give me back the people, and I’ll do it again,” he says.

How to reach: Medi-Weightloss Clinics, www.mediweightlossclinics.com or (877) 633-5677

Mirror image

Ed Kaloust spent 43 years in the securities and investments industry before founding Medi-Weightloss Clinics in 2004. He had never planned on being in the weight-loss business. In fact, he was set on retirement, soon to be heading off in a custom-built sailboat to fulfill his dreams of blue water sailing. But then he got hit with a market opportunity that he couldn’t say no to.

“I felt that we were in the perfect storm, because we had a country that had an overweight issue and had 70 percent of its population dealing with it,” says Kaloust, CEO of the company.

In addition to making sure you have a clear problem, a differentiating solution and the right people to execute it, Kaloust says having a partner can be a key factor in how well you capitalize on a new market opportunity.

In addition to being an asset through complementary talents, partnerships can be a mirror to help you reflect on and guide decisions about a company’s direction.

“It’s a lonely office when you are a CEO or a president,” Kaloust says. “Everybody is looking at you, and where do you look?”

By partnering with James Edlund, now president of the company, Kaloust was able to balance his financial background with Edlund’s pharmaceutical experience to grow Medi-Weightloss nationwide.

“There are a lot of people who say that partnerships don’t work,” Kaloust says. “That’s not true. Some partners don’t work, but other partners will help you go on to do bigger and better things than you can do on your own.”

How to reach: Medi-Weightloss Clinics, www.mediweightlossclinics.com or (877) 633-5677

How a sizeable firm can still deliver the goods with personal touch of a small company

Curt Moody, president and CEO, Moody-Nolan Inc.

Curt Moody was finding it tough in a down economy to find construction projects for his architectural firm to design. And the competition was like none he had ever seen before.

“One of the difficulties in this market is the small firms are doing everything they can just to survive ― and the large firms are doing the same,” says Moody, president and CEO of Moody-Nolan Inc. “The large firms are coming after the smaller work. A lot of times, clients are looking to say, well, they would prefer the personal touch of a small firm on a certain project type.”

So to address this challenge, you need to set up your firm to respond to both ends of the spectrum.

“We build our practice around being able to service and give the personal touch by having our project teams small enough to be able to respond in that way,” he says.

“But there’s the understanding that, let’s say, when a schedule gets pinched, you need to be able to add personnel quickly, so you need an approach that allows you to augment your core teams with other staff members when necessary.”

It was even more of a challenge since he built his company over the last 30 years, and to his credit, it is now the largest African-American owned and operated architecture firm in the country ― 162 employees work at the $26 million organization.

You’ll find that restructuring is not magic in itself, and it will still take you some solid selling efforts to overcome what might be assumptions about a larger company.

“When you reach over 100 employees, clients just look at you as a very large company and impersonal,” Moody says. “So work very hard to show that with your past clients, what you committed to them you fulfilled.”

You will need to explain to prospective clients that you will do that for them as well. Make sure you focus on how well past clients of similar size were satisfied.

“You will have good client references if the new clients want to dig into that,” Moody says.

The composition of the project team is important. To maintain the small company feel, you should have the team that presents the initial sales pitch be the same one that carries out the project. If your company is divided into specialty areas, you can make the head of the particular division the point person to serve as the project’s executive. He or she would name a project manager who would choose a team of very experienced people in that project type.

“They are all going to have the skills that any of your competitors will also propose ― but you’ll have them,” Moody says. “The team is built around those skills but the responsibility is to service the client. Therefore, they have the responsibility of getting to know the client more than just as a project, so you can address their overall needs, not just the specific needs of a one-time project opportunity.”

When you discuss the client’s needs and budget during the sales pitch, again use a small business approach.

“What you should try to say is that you can fulfill those base needs, making sure you give them the full program, that you meet their budget, meet their schedule, and by the way, you are going to be as innovative as they desire,” Moody says. “So it’s basically the client’s determination how far you go, not your own, because you can go from one extreme to another.”

In other words, you should show a client what the client has asked you to do, and then show what you can do that expands on what they asked for.

“Try to show them that you can meet their basic criteria ― here it is ― but they have an opportunity to go beyond that and here’s how you can still meet their criteria and go beyond what they might have been thinking,” he says. “And by doing that, you are giving your clients more choices than some of your competitors. That gives you an edge. You have to have a strategy that is going to work to help you be successful no matter whom the competition is.”

How to reach: Moody-Nolan Inc., (877) 530-4984 or www.moodynolan.com

Getting that next project

When Moody Nolan Inc. opened a new office in Dallas, Curt Moody knew one of the first orders of business would be to impress upon his staff the challenge of getting the next project.

“You can be very solid for the present,” says Moody, president and CEO. “But when you finish that work, what is next?”

If you don’t have something following quickly, you’re either going to have a large payroll expense during a time when you are not generating sufficient revenue for it or you are going to have to reduce expenses.

“A lot of firms are going to cut positions,” he says. “The problem is that you have gained some experience on that project and now you are letting it step away because you are waiting on another opportunity.”

You need to try to stay away from that and be in environments where you don’t vary your staff levels. Build upon the skills that you retained, keep the skills of that environment, and you can do better by maintaining a healthy workflow.

“You have to know when somebody has a dream,” Moody says. “You have to know when somebody says, ‘We are growing, we have a need. Should we consider building or expanding?’ You’ve got to hear about those things; follow it wherever you can find it, then follow up: ‘You know you are thinking about this ― can we help you?  Can we do an analysis or some planning to see what might be in your best interests?”‘

How to reach: Moody-Nolan Inc., (877) 530-4984 or www.moodynolan.com