Tom McGraw makes people a priority at First National Bank of Northern California

Tom McGraw, CEO, First National Bank of Northern California

While some business leaders said the recession officially ended in June 2009, Tom McGraw would hardly agree.

“I think that those folks probably got into the Kool-Aid,” says McGraw, CEO of First National Bank of Northern California since 2002.

In 2009, the organization had a break-even year. And in the last three years, he watched as 345 banks went under.

“I think some of these banks that failed essentially were so paralyzed by the sheer volume of problems that they had that they just didn’t do anything,” McGraw says. “Then there were others who said, ‘Well, this thing is going to pass. It’s going to get better.’ For those people, denial was not just a river in Egypt. It was a way of managing things, and unfortunately, I think it led to their demise.”

Instead of being paralyzed by fear or in denial, McGraw thought that during the recession it was more important than ever for the bank to make the challenges facing customers and employees the top priority.

“By no means are we perfect, but I think we take a much more active approach when we have problems instead of trying to wait for them to resolve themselves,” he says.

Whether it’s with a customer or employee, McGraw wants to learn about people’s problems sooner rather than later so he can take swift action to address them. Personally, he’s found that having an open-door policy with customers and employees, especially in tough times, gives him the advantage of staying highly attuned to people’s needs.

On the bank’s home page, for example, McGraw lists his direct phone number and e-mail address so that customers always have someone to reach with any issue.

“I say, ‘Well, OK, if you’ve lost complete faith in us, then maybe that’s the right thing to do, but if you want to share with me what your challenge or problem or issue is, perhaps there is something I can do to try and turn it around,” he says.

Right away, McGraw also brought in all of the bank’s creditors who were struggling to help them find workarounds moving forward, such as switching to interest only payments.

“There were some where we had to take losses, but when those happened, we took them promptly,” he says. “We got them off the books as soon as we could rather than just holding onto them and hoping and praying that things were going to get better.”

For a CEO, this transparency and willingness to help also goes a long way in earning people’s trust and loyalty. More than 70 of the bank’s 180 employees have been with the bank for 10 years or longer.

“I think the access to management, our visits, our open-door policy — it really keeps a connection with what is happening within the system,” McGraw says.

By staying connected, you also know what people value and what keeps them inspired when times are tough. The company’s bank-funded employee profit-sharing plan has traditionally been a key factor in the company’s uniquely high retention rate. So while McGraw and his executive management team took no raises and bonuses in 2009, they were adamant about keeping the profit-sharing program.

“What we said is, ‘Look we’re in this together,’” he says. “‘If we can salvage a year and make some money, then we are all going to benefit from it. If we don’t, then we’re all going to have to feel the pain a little bit.’”

Through furthering a culture that ensures people are always a priority, McGraw has led FNBNC to survive a recession that many of its peers have not.

“You have to lead by example,” he says. “If you are going to ask people to take a little bit of a hit, I think that you have to, as well.

“Families stick together. They work through their problems. They’re not perfect, but they depend upon one another … and that’s the metaphor we like to use that holds for both our employees and for our retail customers.”

How to reach: First National Bank of Northern California, (650) 875-4865 or

Fight complacency

When CEO Tom McGraw spots someone in his company who isn’t executing well or isn’t happy, he makes sure he finds out why. To keep complacency at bay, it’s important to recognize people’s motives in their roles so you can figure out which employees may want to do more, which are unhappy and which really are content where they are.

“Sometimes you want to try to promote people,” McGraw says. “You want to push them. You want to see how far they can go. While that’s good in concept, the reality is that if they don’t want to go, you are going to set them up for failure.

“We have some tellers who have been here for 25 years. …That’s a very important job. They have the most contact with our customers, but that’s all they want to do. And then you take them and you put them in an operation supervisor position and they fail miserably. Well, they didn’t want to be there.”

As a leader, you need to be attuned to what people’s expectations are for their career, what their aspirations are, and then try to match those with positions in the company.

“So you’ve got people with various aspirations,” McGraw says. “If you can line up those aspirations and those skills with the position, the chances of success are much greater.”

Doug Kovatch grows Kovatch Castings with a team-driven culture

Doug Kovatch, president, Kovatch Castings Inc.

President Doug Kovatch knew the timing was right to lead the multimillion-dollar plant expansion for Kovatch Castings Inc. After the company secured a $1 million grant in 2010 from the State of Ohio’s American Recover and Reinvestment Act, he now had the capital to combine the company’s own $2 million to expand its Green, Ohio facilities by 16,000 square feet, add 45 new employees and invest in new equipment.

“It was a $3 million risk to do this expansion and reinvestment into the business, but at the same time, I was very confident that it was the right thing to do at the right time,” Kovatch says.

Financing aside, there were a lot of other aspects of growth to think about. Facing the logistical challenges with moving equipment, altering processes, and making sure production continued to move efficiently, he also had to keep customers satisfied and employees engaged throughout the transition. What made it all possible was the company’s culture of teamwork and enthusiasm, which has been a key part of its success so far.

“We really felt that we were able to overcome that just with really excellent communication and leadership and the support that I have for my people,” Kovatch says.

While the new facility will enable the company to go from its current $16 million in sales to more than $25 million next year, there is still much unforeseen with the current economy. By keeping a focus on collaboration, Kovatch prepares his team to meet any setbacks or challenges ahead with positivity and creativity.

“That helps them feel that they are part of what we are doing and engaged,” Kovatch says.

Including people in the decision-making process during a growth period also encourages employees to accept the new level of flexibility it takes to adapt in an ever changing business environment. It means operational and structural changes, but also handling the ups and downs that come with an ebb and flow of new business.

“Some business will be lost and that’s just sort of how that goes,” he says. “We all have to come to accept that. But it challenges us to grow in automation, to constantly be focused on cost reduction, servicing customers, shortening lead times, doing these things that maybe the low cost providers don’t do as well.”

One way the company encourages teamwork is fostering a work environment that is committed to serving others, not just its own bottom line.

“We try to be a light and set a good example to other businesses around us,” Kovatch says.

“I think that really inspires people to do their best.”

Kovatch says it’s important to remember that just because you are growing successfully as a business, you shouldn’t start thinking you don’t need the input, help or advice of others, or stop giving yours.

“We don’t want to ever get too large that we don’t forget the people who are most important,” he says.

“We understand the importance of giving back, of understanding that we as a group are much bigger and have a bigger impact on the world around us than any one person alone.”

The company gives a percentage of its quarterly profits to both local Akron organizations and others all around the world, such as Samaritan’s Purse, which runs a project that takes shoeboxes and fills them with gifts for the kids during Christmas time. This year, the company’s 195 employees aim to send out 1,000 shoeboxes with clothing, toys and school supplies.

“With our employees, we had to remain adaptable to a changing environment, which means lots of problem solving along the way and keeping people positive and focused on the goal,” Kovatch says.

“There’s real power in group dynamics and in working together as an organization to impact the world around us.”

How to reach: Kovatch Castings Inc., (330) 896-9944 or

Jeff Miller engages employees at Dawson Resources to have an ownership mentality

Jeff Miller, president and CFO, Dawson Resources

When Jeff Miller became president and CFO of Dawson Resources five years ago, he found a phenomenal service organization, but it wasn’t as outbound as it needed to be to grow.

To be more outbound, he wanted to see more “push” marketing, rather than “pull.” There needed to be more marketing such as commercials, print advertisements, cold calling, tradeshows and e-mail blasts. In short, the staff needed to think more like a salesperson.

“Ask for the business,” Miller says. “Talk about the company. Spread the word.”

At nearly the same time, he could see that the economy was heading toward recession, and it necessitated reducing nine offices down to two, with the money saved being reinvested on the sales and service side of the business.

The reorganization allowed him to focus on developing a management strategy that would motivate the employees to excel toward being more outbound. The approach was to educate employees, to treat them — and get them thinking — like business owners. Initially, it involved finding out what was on employees’ minds.

“The first thing you have to do is ask and listen,” he says. “It seems simple but they often never do get asked. I was in on every meeting, asking and listening, caring about what they thought.”

Putting employees in hypothetical situations allowed them to wear bosses’ hats. Miller posed questions that would exercise their analytical and decision-making processes.

“What would you do to improve your own division?” he says. “Where would you spend money? If I had $5,000 to improve your division, where would you spend it? Put together a plan for me.”

Along with making those types of executive decisions, employees have to learn that business owners largely can set their own hours but have to decide what is the most effective use of their time.

“There used to be a distinction between home and work,” Miller says. “Today, it is blended. Sometimes it is hard to see the difference. You have to kind of embrace that now.”

While many companies may frown on employees taking time off for doctors’ appointments, Miller’s plan gives it merit because it requires the employee to decide how a business owner would make a decision.

“If it makes sense for you to go there and sacrifice two hours of work, then do it because that’s what you need to do,” he says.

In addition, many of the younger workers have grown up being connected 24 hours a day and have no problem working at home, especially if it means getting paid for results rather than by the number of hours put in.

“If it’s eight o’clock at night and something pops up, you check your e-mails or voice mails ― and address them,” Miller says. “You know that time is now and if somebody took the time to send you something at eight o’clock at night it seems they want to hear from you.

“It’s like we kind of expect you to have the same mentality when it crosses into your personal life,” he says.

You don’t have to send an elaborate reply but at least send an acknowledgement.

Getting paid for results involves a salary-plus-incentives arrangement. While not exclusive to business owners, it still offers the opportunity for self-direction.

“Show the employees what the return on investment is, how much money they are making the company and what percentage they’re getting,” Miller says. “Keep your fixed costs down by keeping salaries and other areas set.”

Then if employees want to earn more, it’s based on sales results, and they control that.

“So you give them that good culture but also tie it to their W-2s,” he says. “Make them produce.”

The result of Miller’s approach is an engaged work force that tries to create a partnership with clients.

“We’re trying to make their business better,” he says. “That’s something we all strive to do.”

How to reach: Dawson Resources, (614) 255-1400 or

‘I got this’

As Jeff Miller was wondering whether his strategy was working to increase employee engagement through a method of treating them as if they were business owners, he came upon a valuable method to determine the buy-in.

He didn’t take a survey or wait for employees to e-mail him about their appreciation for the opportunity for personal growth.

Miller could tell from the one-on-one conversations with employees about a client if his message was hitting home.

“They will come in if they complain about a client or what not, and say, ‘I will get this thing handled because this is my account,’” says Miller, president and CFO of Dawson Resources, a 55-employee company with annual revenue of $26 million.

“You see the ownership of it,” he says. “‘I’m just letting you know so you are aware of this, but I got this.’ There is a lot of ‘I got this.’ I always use the term ‘punt.’ I don’t like it when people just punt ― ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do; I’ll just punt. I’ll just send it somewhere else.’

“We don’t have a lot of punters here, which is a good thing,” he says. “On fourth and long, you go for it.”

How to reach: Dawson Resources, (614) 255-1400 or

Jeff Heintz led Brouse McDowell through the recession

Jeff Heintz, managing partner, Brouse McDowell LPA

Jeff Heintz isn’t bragging when he says the legal firm where he is managing partner, Brouse McDowell LPA, made it through the recent recession without missing a beat ― it’s a matter of fact that the firm only had a few scratches.

“We did OK because we stuck to what we did best; I think our reputation served us well,” he says.

Once Heintz realized that the 92-year-old company’s brand was the best weapon in his arsenal to fight the recession, he instilled a way of thinking to bolster that premise for the 120 employees.

“We adopted the philosophy that we are going to control the kinds of things we can control,” he says.

The first premise pertains to the quality of work, an obvious aspect that can be controlled.

“If you work hard, and you have high character, and you behave in a manner that is befitting of things like ‘A Lawyer’s Creed’ and ‘A Lawyer’s Aspirational Ideals,’ good things are going to happen to you,” Heintz says.

“If you develop skills that enable you to help your client as a technician and develop the feelings that enable you to discern how best to direct your client, whether or not a particular strategy has short-term or long-term benefit, then you can become a trusted adviser,” he says.

“There’s no better feeling in the world than being a trusted adviser, somebody who works hard, develops a business and builds it into something grand, and it is the centerpiece of that person’s life and perhaps that person’s family,” he says.

Place a high premium on community involvement, and feel an obligation to give back to the extent you can by participating and furthering the efforts of nonprofits and volunteering because it is the right thing to do.

“It also gives your people an outlet other than just coming in and putting on their miner’s helmet and cracking away at work. It keeps them fresh, focused and gives them some perspective.”

Dedication to clients can also be controlled.

“We’ve had relationships with clients that go back decades,” he says. “We’ve been through tough times with clients and we’ve been there for them. This time it was tough times for everybody.”

With a relationship that has developed trust and understanding over the years, there are often mutual benefits.

“You and your clients benefit from the strength and depth of your relationships because businesses across the board were facing issues that they never faced before, having to consider choices that they never considered before, and I think it is a considerable comfort to them to know that when they would pick up the phone to call their advisers, it’s a number that they have been calling for 30 or 40 years.”

One of the tools that may serve you in being open with clients is what Heintz calls the “sneaky direct approach.”

“You just sit down with them, and you tell them the truth,” he says. “You let them know even if you can’t lay out for them chapter and verse what will happen, you lay down for them as best you can your belief about what will happen and what steps you are taking to control what can happen. I think people tend to react well to that.”

Another factor to control is the seriousness with which responsibilities are taken.

“Take that commitment of trust very, very seriously,” Heintz says. “One of your first thoughts should be how is this going to benefit your client ― not how much money can you make, not how quickly can you get this job done, not how much personal goodwill can you get from this.”

As a final matter, protect yourself as best as you can against the things you can’t control.

“Ignore a lot of the chatter for things that happen at the federal level ― the preoccupation with the recent Washington gridlock, for example ― as difficult as it is,” Heintz says.

How to reach: Brouse McDowell LPA, (330) 535-5711 or

Availability is king

It’s been said that no matter recession or economic growth, your ability to succeed in business is only limited by your availability to your customers.

Jeff Heintz, managing partner of Brouse McDowell LPA, believes in that. In fact, he has his home phone number on his business card.

“If you make your clients know that you are available to them pretty much 24/7, they appreciate the commitment and are very conscientious how they use it,” he says.

Likewise, cascade that premise of availability throughout your staff, from top to bottom.

“If you are accessible, that’s a talisman of your commitment to your clients,” Heintz says.

“Don’t tell them, ‘You need to get a hold of me between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Monday through Friday because I’m not going to look at my mail over the weekend, and I’m not going to answer my phone.’

“Not everything’s an emergency, and there are people out there that live their lives at general quarters ― and everything’s an emergency ―but there are emergencies out there, particularly as we increasingly get to a global economy where it may be 7 p.m. on Friday night in Akron, Ohio, but 9 a.m. elsewhere on the globe where people are at work when you are at play. But most people use their best judgment, and they have the ability to discern between what’s an emergency and what’s not.”

How to reach: Brouse McDowell LPA, (330) 535-5711 or

How Amar Panchal recognizes and rewards employees to build a culture of success

Amar Panchal, co-founder and CEO, Akraya Inc.

Amar Panchal didn’t plan to start “waffle day.” It came about after he and a group of employees arranged an impromptu breakfast one Friday at the office. But it didn’t take long before waffle day became a company tradition.

“People really enjoyed it, so then they volunteered to make this a monthly event,” says Panchal, the co-founder and CEO of the Akraya Inc., an IT consulting and staffing business in Sunnyvale, Calif. “Every second Friday of every month, there’s a team of employees who volunteer to arrange for breakfast. It’s amazing how excited people are about it, because every month we’ve had a completely different menu for breakfast. That’s how much people enjoy it. And since they are working in a team, there’s a sense of achieving something together as a team. Everybody is enthusiastically part of participating.”

Providing breakfast for employees is just one of the ways Panchal leads his company to celebrate and reward employees for their contributions.

“All of us have achievements on a regular basis and it’s important to recognize and celebrate the achievements and milestones that we have,” he says.

At the company level, key achievers are recognized on a monthly basis at an all-hands meeting. Also, to celebrate success on a daily basis, employees come together to ring a bell in the center of the office whenever a person or group has a significant achievement.

“Everybody actually gathers around and high fives, and that’s a constant recognition of people hitting milestones during their everyday tasks,” Panchal says.

One of the company’s most obvious forms of employee appreciation is its unique perks for personnel. Panchal says each of these is the result of listening to people and identifying ways to reward them for their hard work. A good example is the company’s biweekly cleaning service for employees, which came about several years ago when the company was much smaller but gained it attention on Inc.’s Top 10 Perks We Love list in 2010.

“One day a few of the employees were discussing in the break room that they had to spend a long time over the weekend cleaning up their homes because they had visitors coming in,” Panchal says. “So I said, ‘OK. What can we do to help in this situation?’ We identified a cleaning service that every two weeks goes and cleans people’s homes.

“We listen to employees needs. Small things make a big difference to people.”

Yet although the ideas for a cleaning service and a monthly breakfast took off, there have been other ideas that did not work out financially or culturally long term. Implementing perks for employees comes down to trial and error.

“Some of them will work; some of them will not,” Panchal says. “We recognize that and continue to evolve.

“We’re constantly experimenting with ways to recognize or celebrate within the company, which is why people enjoy working here.”

In recent years, another challenge of having employee perks has been managing expectations when people begin to take certain cultural benefits for granted. Over time, a perk can become something that employees feel entitled to, and you may need to remind them of its value.

“Part of the solution is refreshing, especially the older employees, that these were things that although you have had for several years and think that everybody has it, that is not the case,” Panchal says. “It is still a fairly unique benefit or culture that we have in place.”

Although the costs of certain recognition programs and perks have increased as the company has grown — it grew to $32.5 million in revenue in 2010 — Panchal says he sees culture as an ongoing investment.

“Each of these has a significant cost in terms of not just hard dollars but time that it takes,” he says. “It’s something that is part of the prohibitive cost of doing business.

“When we were smaller, the costs were lower but as we’ve continued to grow, the costs have added up. But the value of that small perk is immense, because it benefits not just the employee. It benefits the entire family, and they appreciate it.”

How to reach: Akraya Inc., (408) 907-6400

Everybody counts

Cultural success at Akraya Inc. is the result of not just building a great culture for employees but working hard at maintaining it, says the company’s co-founder and CEO Amar Panchal.

“We consciously work on not just creating the culture, but we work on maintaining it and continuing to evolve it,” Panchal says. “It takes effort. All of us are busy with meeting our customers’ needs. It’s a competitive industry and people have a lot of tasks on their plates, but I venture that we take time out and do things that we value as a company, whether it is celebrating or it is giving back to the community.”

Though the company has been recognized for its culture in the past, Panchal continues to look for ways to improve its recognition program. That is why he invited an outside consultant to meet with employees one on one to gain more employee feedback about how they view the company’s culture.

“We’re actually going through that process right now, where we have compiled information and we are actually working on more of a companywide recognition program,” he says.

This has helped the company create a recognition program that takes into account the various contributions of different roles within the company.

“In most companies, it’s very easy to recognize the achievement of sales people because that is very measurable, but there are operations teams, there are customer support teams, there are marketing teams, there are finance teams. How do you have a recognition program that recognizes their achievements too?”

Dean Friedman’s keys to looking ahead

Dean Friedman

Dean Friedman, CEO, Real Integrated

Dean Friedman remembers one client in particular:

“It was a 35-store chain of restaurants that had a really difficult time building a database and creating an opportunity to have a rewards program,” says the CEO of Real Integrated, an advertising and marketing firm with $28 million in media billings last year. “One of our younger people came up with the idea for an opportunity in this space, and we grew a database from under 4,000 to approximately 27,000 Facebook friends, which is now driving that restaurant’s business through weekly offers.”

It’s not the traditional way that marketing and ad agencies have done business, but it’s example of the need to keep your eyes focused on the horizon when running a business. As technology has become more prevalent as a mass-marketing tool, Friedman and his staff have found it necessary to not only implement new technology, but find more creative ways to use it, constructing customized solutions to meet client needs.

“We’re a traditional agency, and had been for 50 years, the last 20 of which I’ve overseen,” Friedman says. “We’re really good at what we do, we have a fabulous product, and people perceive us as a great local agency. But what wasn’t being perceived was all the digital efforts we had been making. As the transformation has been occurring in the whole media marketing world, we have evolved.”

To build an organization that can take advantage of new opportunities, you need to build an open culture in which the employees that spot new opportunities are empowered to bring them to management for consideration. As it pertains to technology in particular, Friedman says that means you need to give a voice to your technology-savvy team members.

“One of the great things I’m learning throughout all of this is to take advantage of youth,” Friedman says. “I’m 59, and I don’t have all the answers. A lot of people in my organization have more answers than me, and are on the front lines more than I am. So my greatest advice is to keep an open mind and listen to everyone. As we’ve listened to our people, we’ve developed and refined our forward-thinking mindset.”

John Ozdych, the firm’s president and creative director, encourages dialogue throughout all levels of Real Integrated, helping to promote an atmosphere where there are no bad ideas and change is viewed as progression, as opposed to upsetting the apple cart.

“Everyone has to be agents for change, stewards of change and technology,” Ozdych says. “They have to be looking across the Web, combing through what is out there and bringing it back to the agency. If a new technology has been introduced out there, we’ll ask which of our clients could benefit from this solution, and we’ll also invite our clients to show other clients what we’ve been doing for their business. So it keeps going back to having that open dialogue throughout the business.”

Getting your employees to think ahead is critical, but clients and customers also need to look at what’s next. Your employees provide your services to customers, but the customers are the end users.

“What I believe is happening, and what is critical in all of this is that our clients are realizing that not every idea has to come from the CEO, or the president of the client company. Instead, ideas can come from anyone internally. The ideas bubble up now. I don’t care where the ideas come from and neither do our clients. We want to keep building a culture where everyone can have an idea or a suggestion.”

How to reach: Real Integrated, (248) 540-0660 or

Original recipe

Forward-thinking companies don’t just look to the future for their own benefit. Sometimes, they’re able to bring a client along for the ride, and open the client’s eyes to new ideas.

Bill Eubanks is in charge of co-op services for Real Integrated, and has a marketing relationship with Kentucky Fried Chicken that goes back to 1979. KFC has historically been extremely old-school when it comes to marketing practices.

“If there is anything I know, it’s that KFC has a plan that is exceedingly traditional in its approach to the business,” Eubanks says. “But as an agency, what has given us added juice is the way we’ve structured things here, the partnerships we’ve created with vendors on the leading edge, to begin to offer a traditional client very nontraditional ideas.”

Real Integrated recently developed a website called, in which KFC store operators can promote their businesses in a manner specific to the locale. KFC operators weren’t used to it, but the new concept has started to gain traction as store owners have seen the value in it.

“That’s the kind of thing we weren’t doing recently, until we really started to emphasize the way we communicate internally and the partnerships we’ve created with leading-edge vendors,” Eubanks says.

Andy Wexler gets employees ready to be leaders at Pali Camp

Andy Wexler, Founder and Executive Camp Director, Pali Camp

Andy Wexler is a man in search of the right mix. As founder and executive camp director at Pali Camp, he has often struggled to find the right balance for how quickly to grow the 221-employee camp operator.

“Sometimes I tried to grow very quickly before the business was ready and I put in a large management team and the business couldn’t support that, so I had to cut back,” Wexler says. “Other times, I grew too big without bringing in a management team, and we had growing pains.”

Wexler has found the most success when he has taken the time to work with his people and share his knowledge to help them become better leaders in the company. It puts them in a better position to handle whatever new responsibilities arise.

“Over the last five years, I’ve gone through showing them how to run each one of their businesses like their own business unit and have them basically take responsibility,” Wexler says. “So they’d not only be responsible for their revenue but their expenses, as well. It’s been a fantastic learning experience because every one of them now has ownership of their division. We have a cabinet meeting every week where everyone says if they are on goal and what their plan is for the week and then I let them do their thing.”

Reaching this stage of empowerment requires that you find strong people when you make hires.

“The first thing that I do is when we post a job, I’ll ask very specific questions,” Wexler says. “I want to make sure the person was meticulous enough to read the job description. It’s shocking. I’ll get 300 resumes and only maybe 15 to 20 percent actually read the job description. So at that point, out of 300 respondents, I’m down to 30 or 40.”

The candidates that make it through to this point are then judged on their cover letters.

“Did the person write a cover letter that was actually interesting to read?” Wexler says. “Did it look like they actually spent a little bit of time looking at whatever the position is? They could have asked pointed questions or they could have pretended that they were interested or maybe they really are interested. Once you get down to that, it’s probably about seven to eight people. Once I get there, I would see what their background is and see how long they have been at past positions.”

After whittling it down to a final four or five people, Wexler conducts in-depth interviews with each candidate to attempt to really get a good read on who is the best fit.

“The biggest thing at that point where people shoot themselves in the foot is if they complain about their last job,” Wexler says. “If someone just says, ‘I grew too big for the job’ and I call their employer and they say this was the best person they ever had, that’s the person I’m going to hire. If it’s a person who rips on their last job, they are just going to do the same thing for me.”

When you take this process seriously, what you end up with are people who believe in your vision and can walk with you to help your business grow. Then it’s all about you following through on your promise to let them grow as leaders.

“It’s all about motivation,” Wexler says. “If the manager is willing to put in more hours, then the employees will put in more hours. Education takes as long as it takes. If you really need to do something, as the manager, you can do it yourself and do the serious learning later on. If you really want people to learn and fish by themselves, however, that takes longer.”

How to reach: Pali Camp, (909) 867-5743 or

Pick a direction

You need to figure out what kind of leader you’re going to be and stick to it. If you like to take on different leadership personas, you’re asking for trouble.

“You can’t micromanage some days and not on others,” says Andy Wexler, founder and executive camp director for Pali Camp. “Just like with parenting, kids are very comfortable with routine. It doesn’t matter how tough the rules are, if they’re consistent and they know what the rules are, they can live within the rules. An employee would be the same thing.”

So if you’ve tended to be a micromanager and suddenly, you look to ease up a bit, you’ll have to work hard to be convincing that you really want to change your ways.

“If you say, ‘I’m going to let you do this,’ they’re going to be shocked first of all,” Wexler says. “They’ll either freak out or they will really appreciate it. They probably won’t believe it. But your actions have to follow your words.”

If you find people have gotten too used to being micromanaged, it may be a case of that person not having the skill set to make decisions on their own. Give them a test of responsibility and see how they handle it.

“Let them go with it,” Wexler says. “It’s probably not the most vital business area, but it gives them a taste.”

How to minimize merger and acquisition concerns so company cultures don’t clash

Jim Camp, general manager and partner, Cutler Real Estate

Jim Camp has seen his share of mergers and acquisitions. The general manager and partner of Cutler Real Estate, Camp has guided 12 mergers or acquisitions involving smaller companies over the last 15 years. However, it’s not the number alone that he sees as a success indicator but the way company cultures have been merged successfully.

“Our mergers fortunately have gone pretty well because we have experience and know how to do it and try to minimize concerns and issues,” Camp says about the firm, which has 300 Realtors and a support staff of 60.

The biggest issues with M&As often tend to be in terms of processes. Employees from the acquired company are anxious to find out the procedures of the new company and want answers to questions such as “Who will be my boss?” and “How will I be evaluated?” Their concerns have to be answered. If they are not, there is a chance that key employees could decide to bail out and take a job with a competitor.

“When combining two offices, probably the biggest thing is the issue of ‘We never used to do it that way’ or ‘You’re favoring your people instead of our people,’” Camp says.

If you reassure the incoming employees throughout the transition by listening and communicating with them, it will show your willingness to resolve company culture issues.

“You have to be very careful, pay attention and listen,” Camp says. “You may learn that there is a new way to do something that isn’t necessarily your way but may be a better way to do it.”

Keeping an open mind is one of the fundamentals when going into a merger. Take the attitude of nothing should be cast in stone, and everything is on the table for discussion.

“Look at it from an open view of not being close-minded to think, ‘This is the way we’ve always done it so we are always going to do it that way,’” he says.

You may be gaining some valuable employees that can benefit your company who may bring some good ideas with them.

“One of the biggest benefits from some of our mergers and acquisitions has been some of the folks who have come along and the talent they brought to the company,” Camp says.

On the other hand, realize that you can’t accept all the ideas presented by the company acquired.

“But also don’t reject them out of hand,” he says. “Work very hard at saying, ‘Yes, we will consider that,” and actually consider it. Don’t just blow them off.”

In the end, it is a high level of communication that can best lead to a successful merger or acquisition.

“Don’t jump to conclusions about what people want,” Camp says. “Encourage your managers to sit down with new staff and ask, ‘What are your goals; what are you looking to do?’”

More can be accomplished when you try to listen as you talk to new employees than when you try to guess or assume what they are looking for. Get to know the people and listen to them.

“It’s important that they know you care about them,” he says. “They aren’t just a number and that kind of thing.”

A final piece of advice is that there are always some surprises in mergers and acquisitions. By doing your homework, you may be able to find trouble spots before they become problems.

“Try to do your due diligence but you have to continue that due diligence after the merger happens because there are some things that you may not know until you actually are working more closely with folks,” Camp says.

How to reach, Cutler Real Estate, (800) 423-2004 or

Jump on the ‘brandwagon’

When Cutler Real Estate left the franchise world in 2005 and became an independent company, General Manager Jim Camp saw it as an opportunity to jump on the “brandwagon.” Instead of having to use the franchise’s marketing guidelines, a whole new world opened up.

“We had the opportunity to decide who we wanted to be,” Camp says. “We chose the very strong colors of orange and blue and maintained them all the way through the company signage and collateral.”

Making those types of decisions should involve professionals, even though you may be tempted to have your own marketing department run the show. Working with a professional can be an eye-opening experience.

“The difference in terms of working with a professional is significant,” he says. “The first decision to make is to interview companies to find somebody to work with, and go in with an open mind.”

Cutler Real Estate chose Innis Maggiore Group Inc. for its rebranding.

Once you have hired an agency, you will need to abandon any preconceived notions of what you want your brand to look like ― what you want it to be. Invite the agency to generate a variety of options.

“Just ask the marketing folks to do their vision,” Camp says. “You obviously have some thoughts but you should also be open to ideas.”

You will need to have some patience as well. The time frame may run from 12 to 18 months from concept to rollout, but it can be definitely worth the time and expense.

“I wouldn’t do it any other way, knowing now what we were going to face in the next four or five years,” he says. “We might have cut our budget in some areas, but frankly, we had a very successful rollout ― our competitors were hoping that we would stumble in terms of the conversion of our brand.”

How to reach, Cutler Real Estate, (800) 423-2004 or

Digital direction

Brian Deagan, CEO, Knotice Ltd.

There’s no finish line in technology, and Brian Deagan loves it.

“Nothing’s ever done; something new is always being created and that just intrinsically creates opportunities to build companies,” says Deagan, co-founder and CEO of digital marketing services and software developer Knotice Ltd.

But along with that comes some growing pains. The company over the past five years has exceeded 500 percent growth in employees and annual revenue; however, the need to hire at a quick pace is not the only concern Deagan has.

“Keeping up with some of the basic changes and things that are going on in the market can be disruptive organizationally, but at the same time, you need to be able to stay ahead of everything, stay on top of it and stay at the pace you are at,” he says.

One of the keys is not just a business plan, but one that is derived from an operational model that is used and leveraged on a day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month basis.

“That is one of the key things to keep the business headed in the right direction and on track,” Deagan says.

The model should drive the plan, but it tends to be more operationally oriented than, for example, a 40-page business plan, which is used more as a communication tool.

“Don’t confuse something that is a communication tool versus an operational tool,” he says. “Have them related and driven by the operational plan but don’t try to have one be both.”

The business plan is important to be able to communicate the plan of the business to external and internal constituencies. The operational plan’s role is to be effective in defining growth targets, meeting those targets, and then modeling out what is needed to support that growth.

The operational model in synch with the business plan gives a one-two punch to fight threats to derail growth.

“That is one of the key things to keep the business headed in the right direction and on track,” Deagan says.

The term “on track” for Knotice means a five-year goal of going from $10 million in revenue to $100 million.

“The primary way to do that is just sort of keep your eye on the ball and build the company brick by brick,” Deagan says. “So often, when you are growing and you are building something, if you are not really focused on the here and now, you have to have an idea where you’re going.”

If you spend too much time worrying about the future and not just building the business the way it needs to be done today, you’re not going to go anywhere.

“There is a point when you are supposed to climb up to the top of the trees, get a good lay of the forest and understand where you need to create that path through the forest,” he says. “But at some point, you just need to get back down on the ground and start chopping down trees.”

Hire a complementary management team in terms of personal and skill sets, and it will serve you well over the years.

“It’s much different when you’re in a room with six people banging something out to take the company to the next level versus when you are closing in on 100 people and you need to take the company to that level,” Deagan says. “I think it’s important that as the company evolves, you are tapping the characteristics and qualities that are most important to company growth. I’m a firm believer that everybody can do that to some extent. You just need to be conscious and aware of it.”

How to reach: Knotice Ltd., (800) 801-4194 or

Weighing feedback

Consumer trends rise and fall daily, and a company needs to be aware of huge shifts that may influence its long-term direction.

By evaluating customer feedback, it can help you sort out consumer behavior to see if it is a trend or just a fad.

“There may be a consumer behavior or a new technology that you need to address in the short term, and you work with your customers to understand how to help versus just reacting to a trend in a manner that might not be prudent or well-thought-out,” says Brian Deagan, CEO of Knotice.

Categorizing customers may involve some judgment decisions, but it is necessary.

“It’s critical to get feedback and engage customers that are both early adopters, as well as customers who aren’t, to make sure the things you are going to do have a broader appeal and don’t just focus on a specific niche,” he says.

Getting perspective from both is a key step.

“You may not necessarily want to do something for an early adopter ― and it could be indicative of the future, but it could also be indicative potentially of a niche segment,” he says. “Get feedback from different segments of early adopters and the majority users and balance accordingly.”

How to reach: Knotice Ltd., (800) 801-4194 or

How Kim Shoemaker roused Acloché Staffing out of a funk

Kim Shoemaker, CEO, Acloché Staffing

Kim Shoemaker had a major dilemma in 2009.

Not only was her company, Acloché Staffing, trying to pull out of an economic recession, but its longtime CEO had died unexpectedly at the age of 56. Grief was high, morale was low, and employees needed to be reassured and inspired that the company was going to go forward.

Shoemaker, who previously held leadership roles in the company, had been named the new CEO and set out to overcome the heavy challenges.

“My first charge was to increase morale, to show appreciation and to really build on the staff,” Shoemaker says. “I think that’s extremely important to make your team feel appreciated, improve on that and lift their spirits up. There was a lot of uncertainty among our staff and the business community regarding the future of our company.”

As a first step, she found it effective to have one-on-one conversations with staff members to determine what they were feeling, what they needed and what they thought they were lacking professionally.

“Then, you need to deal with those individually to help them grow, to be stronger individuals and to be stronger team players,” Shoemaker says.

“We looked at our processes first and went through how we did things and redesigned them ― we streamlined them, made them more efficient,” she says. “We tried to help people with their day-to-day productivity.”

While proposing what to do to improve morale, Shoemaker hit upon the idea to redefine the company to reassure the market that Acloché was alive and well, ready to assist.

“We had been in business since 1968, and there had to be something that we could be doing to market ourselves better ― to let people know that we were here and that we were here to help the business community,” she says.

She brought in an outside consultant to work with the sales and marketing team to reinvent the company’s image, keeping the same branding but introducing the company again to its clients and embedding itself in each of the communities where its 10 offices are located.

When employees are encouraged to participate in the decision-making process when new ideas are formulated, successful results occur.

“Present the processes or procedures that you are going to consider to your sales and management team, get their thoughts, opinions and feedback; then take that information and fine tune it,” Shoemaker says.

When the final tweaks have been made, let the operations team review the proposal.

“This is very successful because staff members see that their managers are excited about this innovation or this new process and they’re getting their team members’ input before decisions are made that affect the entire team.”

As with many changes, there may be those a little hesitant to get on board. However, if they give their input regarding the change factor, it makes it a lot easier to accept and implement the change.

“They have a voice and an opinion in the entire process,” Shoemaker says. “I think people feel more at home with it. They feel more involved with it and part of the entire process.”

For Acloché , the approaches Shoemaker took to step in as the leader, improve morale and redefine the company continue to pay off. The next year saw $33 million in revenue, and the company is ranked among the 100 largest privately held companies in Central Ohio.

“Any time that you’re doing anything new, get the buy-in from your internal staff because it’s important for them,” Shoemaker says. “It’s important in order for the entire process to go well if they have buy-in on the decision-making end.”

Turning over a new leaf

Some say if you don’t make innovation a priority for your success, you’re bound to fail, and Kim Shoemaker, CEO of Acloché Staffing, can testify to that.

“Innovation is critical in any business,” she says. “In order to compete, you need to regularly redefine your strategies and reposition yourselves in order to continue to grow.

“The only way to stand out is by constantly offering new services and presenting new ideas.”

Client feedback is worth its weight in gold when it comes to innovation.

“Go in, listen to what their needs are, to what their challenges may be and what their successes may be, and redefine yourself to that specific client to help them so they can focus on their core business needs,” Shoemaker says.

Failing to keep fresh may lead to a loss of your place in the market.

“You would stagnate,” she says. “Employees would not grow to their potential to be able to service their clients.

“I think it’s an ever-evolving business community, and if you do not keep up with it and evolve and even try to stay a step ahead of it, you’re going to be losing market share,” she says. “You will not be the partner that people would need you to be.”

How to reach: Acloché Staffing, (614) 416-5600 or