SunRun promotes innovation by encouraging employee autonomy

Lynn Jurich, president, SunRun Inc.

When Lynn Jurich and Edward Fenster co-founded SunRun Inc., they started out making all the decisions about the company themselves. However, when SunRun doubled in size in a matter of years, they quickly realized it was time to pass off some of those decisions to others.

“You really want to find that balance between providing a real, single and unified vision for the company but also giving enough decision-making push down and control down at the lower levels of the organization where people are really making the day-to-day decisions,” says Jurich, president of SunRun.

The “highly aligned, loosely coupled” culture Jurich and Fenster implemented at SunRun has been popularized by high-profile companies such as Netflix Inc. It is characterized by using strong top-down alignment to allow more freedom in employee decision-making.

“What it means is that everybody is very clear on what the big strategic goals are,” Jurich says. “They don’t have to be micromanaged. They don’t have to go check in with eight other different people. They don’t have to hold a staff meeting to make a decision. They can just feel empowered that, ‘OK, I know what the right decision is for the company, so I’m just going for it.’”

A major component of the approach is communication. While SunRun employs around 100 people, its sales force consists of hundreds more nationwide. To create strong alignment, Jurich estimates she spends 75 percent of her time communicating with her team to help articulate the vision and remove obstacles to employee success.

“That’s in weekly one-on-ones with people,” she says. “That’s in quarterly meetings. That’s in having really clear goals, division by division, that are communicative, that are written, that people can find easily just on their desktop. Then what that enables is for you to have a really loosely coupled decision-making process. Because everybody knows what the high-level corporate goals are, it’s easy for people to make decisions in their daily lives that are consistent with that.”

By maintaining strong alignment and communication on goals, Jurich is also able to make important decisions without always relying on consensus of the group.

“Sometimes there have to be decisions that get made, and when you’ve earned people’s respect, I think people prefer — at the least the feedback I’ve gotten is — people prefer operating in that type of an environment,” Jurich says. “Things can move fairly quickly because there’s somebody who is not afraid to make a decision to get us going, but everyone knows that their view and their viewpoint is going to be really heard, thought out and that we’re not making a decision with any sort of arbitrariness.”

It’s about never becoming a micromanagement, bureaucratic type of organization but cultivating trust by giving people more freedom, which keeps SunRun nimble and fast moving. Under Jurich’s leadership, the company is growing 500 percent per year and has expanded its offerings to eight states.

“In a lot of organizations where you have to set things up, where there are a lot of cross-departmental buy-in meetings, keeping people in agreement becomes really important,” she says. “And it kind of turns a little bit dangerous and inefficient. Whereas if people really trust each other and they’re clear on what the goals are, it gives individuals and smaller groups of people within the organization the ability to just be creative, move quickly and actually get things done. That’s how you stay innovative. When everything is you have to get internal buy-in and there are all these consensus-driven kinds of meetings, you lose the individual kind of spirit to really run with an idea.”

HOW TO REACH: SunRun Inc., (415) 982-9000 or

Consult and decide

As a leader, it’s important to have a leadership style that reflects the culture you want in your company.

“You have to adapt yourself over time to the needs of the organization,” says Lynn Jurich, president of SunRun Inc.

Jurich has adopted a “consult and decide” style, which allows her to make decisions inclusively yet independently and within the framework of SunRun’s highly aligned, loosely coupled culture.

“I would say it’s different for every decision,” she says. “I really like to go to the people who are on the ground, the people who are really seeing the day-to-day information from the customer, from the partner. … If you have the alignment that we are going for, they typically can give you the right decision.”

Furthermore, when people feel they’ve been heard and there’s been a rational decision-making process carried out, they are also more inclined to support a decision even when they don’t agree with it.

“It’s that ability to have the real strategic foundation and not be afraid to share that and make tough decisions,” she says. “People want to see that out of the leader. They want to see somebody who is going to make the tough calls and who really has an authentic basis to make those decisions.”

How Mike Vinton leads The Vasco Group to new levels of success

Mike Vinton, president, The Vasco Group

Mike Vinton was just venturing into the business world out of high school when he found his vision. There was a catch — he didn’t have any formal education on how to operate a business, much less on being a leader. However, it didn’t stop him.

“I knew at that time, there was no doubt in my mind that was the kind of work I wanted to do,” he says, after a stint on a tennis court project in Michigan inspired him to be a sports contractor.

“When you fall in love with doing something, you will know it,” says Vinton, president of The Vasco Group. “It’s just an overwhelming desire to get up and go do it. And somehow, some way, in spite of any circumstances good or bad, you’re going to make it happen. You become willing to do just about anything.”

Despite the obstacles faced, being relentless and doing the right thing along the way brought rewards. Vasco’s 2010 was the best financial year in its 44-year history.

“If the spark starts to burn inside any man ― if it truly is a passion, a vision ― he will go to just about any length to explore that to make it happen,” Vinton says.

Once illuminated with a vision, the would-be leader would do well to seek out mentors.

“Watch other leaders ― what they are doing, how they act, how they treat people,” he says. “Just try to do what the winners are doing.”

People that are successful usually are willing to share advice.

“The big part is asking for help,” Vinton says. “Once you ask, I’ve found that people want to help. I’ve been blessed in that respect in that people have always taken me under their wing and helped me.

“Mentor other young people that want to be leaders. Read leadership books nonstop, and study leadership styles.

“I heard someone say a long time ago that if you want to keep wisdom and knowledge, you’ve got to give it away. That was always modeled for me and that’s what I try to do as a leader today.”

Pick a mentor that works in a different industry.

“Choose people that you came across in relationships,” Vinton says. “I had a commercial real state developer take me around and show me his properties. We would discuss what a leader would do in certain situations.”

Then as you develop your skills, the time comes for more specific mentoring. In a competitive field, it’s a reality check that no one is going to share tips to a possible competitor. But a suitable alternative can be found through associations. Securing a board position on an industry association puts you in touch with professionals from all over who are open to helping.

“I’ve never had people in the industry help me until I was part of national business organizations that did not include local contractors,” Vinton says. “I got many contacts that way.”

The camaraderie will help develop the principle to treat other people as more important.

“One of the most important leadership principles is servant leadership,” Vinton says. “Learn it, teach it and model it for young leaders that serving people in your area of influence is more important than yourselves. Give others the credit when things go well.

“As a leader, be intuitive and aware of the people around you and make yourself available to them on their time.”

How to reach: The Vasco Group, (800) 487-0422 or

M&A synergy

When it comes to acquiring another company, there are two tips that shouldn’t be overlooked: Be patient, and see that synergy ― when a combination is greater than parts alone ― is a component of the decision.

“Make sure you have synergy between the two companies ― that the company fits with your core competencies,” says Vasco Group President Mike Vinton, whose vision included company expansion into other cities and states.

“Get your key people together and ask, ‘Does this create synergy or does this create division?’ That’s a huge thing in making sure that synergy is a part of it.”

Your management team needs to have complete buy-in that the two companies can work hand-in-hand, each pulling its own weight, with no negative feelings.

As the team gets on board and supports the decision, not just the leader’s edict, negotiations can go forward. Timing is everything in acquisitions.

“Don’t be in a hurry,” Vasco says.

Take your time, and be ready to cancel negotiations if a red flag appears.

“I walked away from a deal once. The fit was not good. Three months later, he called me back and said he was ready to start talking again. We did a deal within a month.”

How to reach: The Vasco Group, (800) 487-0422 or

How hiring an executive coach in a downtime lays the groundwork for a rebound

Jeremy Hittle, president, Hittle Landscaping Inc.

When Hittle Landscaping Inc. lost 30 percent of its revenue during the recent housing market crash, President Jeremy Hittle had some difficult decisions to make. The first one was how to bring the $10.4 million family-owned company out of the funk. That took teamwork and some painful choices.

But equally as tough was to decide whether or not to hire a pricey leadership coach who could teach the Hittle management team the skills needed for long-term prosperity.

“It was expensive and it was difficult to spend the money in times like those, but it had to be done,” Hittle says.

“When the housing market crashed, we had to react to it quickly. Getting the upper management team together to fight the fight was a lot better than me just fighting it myself.”

The decision to hire an executive coach often requires considerable discussion. A business must tie it to an analysis of expenses, how to increase revenue and how to increase efficiency.

“You need to discuss what’s a better way to manage your business, manage your people, manage your customers,” Hittle says. “The lists will get very long and very hard to manage. How can you ask the employees to work harder? You can, but what’s that going to get you? So better leadership skills are a great way to improve efficiency, morale and communications. That’s where efficiencies come from. Efficiencies don’t just come from working harder.”

Hittle asked consultants to suggest a coach, and he hired one who had also written a book on leadership. Weekly and biweekly sessions helped the management team set goals and provided different ways to think about situations.

“It really makes a difference,” Hittle says. “There is a lot of frustration today in leadership. Frustration just doesn’t help. It’s kind of like carrying around baggage when you’re trying to be a leader.”

The personal leadership development benefits can be significant.

“It’s been great. It’s fascinating when a person does decide to consider his own leadership style, develop upon that and grow on what he’s found,” Hittle says. “I know it’s been huge for me, and I have had several employees step back and say, ‘Wow, I better understand my job now. It’s not just to tell people what to do. It’s about being supportive. It’s about accepting better who you’re managing.’”

The term “supportive” is a key operative word that is stressed in the leadership sessions.

“Employees need to know how valuable they are to the organization,” Hittle says. “You don’t want them to feel like they are employees ― you want them to feel like business owners. They all should feel like they have their own small business that they run beneath them. They feel like those beneath them are the employees that they employ, that they support, encourage and direct.”

That support helped the company reclaim 60 to 70 percent of the revenues that were lost and racked up near-record profitability for 2010.

Compassion is another focal point of leadership training.

“Listening, understanding what they want, and giving it to them,” Hittle says. “It’s not being a leader by directive. That’s not what to shoot for. Shoot for trying to nourish their needs, and your needs become their needs.

“A lot of leaders don’t quite understand it because they just want to have the first and the last say-so, and they expect it to be done that way. I don’t believe that works very well.

“Usually people that excel to a leadership position are firm-minded thinkers,” Hittle says. “They don’t realize that you have to open up, be a little vulnerable, and ask for some help and do some self development ― to try to pass along the message that we can all be better.”

How to reach: Hittle Landscaping Inc., (317) 896-5697 or

Trimming and pruning

With a significant portion of its business tied to the housing industry, when the market hit bottom in 2009, Jeremy Hittle and his management team had their plates full learning how to be better leaders while they trimmed and pruned Hittle Landscaping’s operations to weather the storm.

“It was my job to not give direction but to convey a message,” says Hittle, president of the 140-employee company.

“The message was that we are in trouble, and we need everybody’s help. I spent a lot of time in 2009 making sure that nobody thought otherwise. I tried to make sure that they knew that the company’s challenges were their challenges ― that we were all in it together.”

The solution was plain and simple: Everyone needed to be in concert and do some brainstorming.

“The only possible way to get out of a downturn like that was to come up with 50 ways that would help,” Hittle says.

“Obviously we had to lay off some employees, and we changed things around,” Hittle says. “Nobody worked any overtime. We worked four days a week instead of five. We saved on travel.”

Steps taken to recover from the downturn are lessons that likely will be retained.

“We are constantly working on reorganization. Even today, it’s about how we are going to change today to deal with tomorrow, just like we did back in 2009.”

How to reach: Hittle Landscaping Inc., (317) 896-5697 or

Strategic gains

Bill Sadataki, founder and managing member, SB Equities LLC

Whenever Bill Sadataki looks at a new real estate investment for his firm, SB Equities LLC, he considers numerous factors, including access to labor, transportation, infrastructure and market stability. All of these come into play when he and his partners evaluate investments in the Akron-Canton region, and a prime example is the company’s investment in the Akron-Canton Regional Airport (CAK) industrial business park in Green, Ohio.

“We believe that the CAK park is a logical choice, because it’s really got a prime location, provides economic incentives and foreign trade zone benefits,” says Sadataki, a founding and managing member of the SB Equities. “It’s got great highway access and it’s also adjacent to the Akron-Canton airport. All of those things make it attractive.”

Sadataki adds that one of the most important considerations in a new investment is: Is it going to appeal to the market and its users in future years?

“We’ll look at the market as whole and try to identify which areas have historically been the most viable and the most attractive to users,” Sadataki says. “Then we also look at going forward; is that likely to continue or has there been a shift in the market? So when we looked at the current and existing tenants in the park [and they] are all high-grade and mostly national companies like Goodyear, Diebold, InfoCision, ASC Industries — all of the buildings in the park are kind of an institutional quality. It seemed logical to us that as that park builds out and extends into future phases, we wanted to be involved with it, because it’s clearly an area that’s going to be a growth area.”

The benefits of investing in Akron-Canton’s pro-business environment have spurred Sadataki’s and his partners’ continued investment in the area and their strong advocacy of the region’s investment potential. In addition to purchasing the leasehold interest in the CAK park as well as two buildings within it, the firm also became the property manager and leasing representative for the balance of approximately 40 acres of vacant land. Having this vertical structure has positioned SB Equities to both attract and accommodate new users but also to participate with local and regional public entities such as the city of Green, Summit County Port Authority and the Akron-Canton Airport in the future.

“We try and be pretty vocal proponents of the Akron-Canton market whenever we get a chance,” Sadataki says. “We also, through brokerage activities, are in a constant state of promoting the region to client companies, trying to attract new business to the area. We’ve kind of put our money where our mouth is in terms of investing right in our core markets of Akron and Canton. I think that that, if nothing else, as you are talking to people, it shows confidence. And you’re not asking them to be pioneers. You’ve already done that. The pioneering work has been done by others. We’re just trying to keep it moving along.”

Ongoing and improved cooperation between the city, county and other entities continues to stimulate a more positive environment in the Akron-Canton region for existing businesses as well as start-ups and prospective investors or business entities looking at the area. For example, new businesses seeking to shorten project timelines are aided by the region’s focus on economic development, which makes it easier to accomplish tasks such as securing building permits or looking at economic incentive packages.

“In some areas of the state, it’s very difficult to get things moved from the conceptual phase through realization,” Sadataki says. “It’s been my observation that in the Akron-Canton area, people are really interested in getting things done, not just prolonging the process. So projects can either move forward or not move forward, but they can do it in a more expeditious manner. I think that’s pretty key to anyone who is looking to make an investment.”

How to reach: SB Equities LLC, (216) 831-3310 or

K.B. Chandrasekhar keeps the vision alive at Jamcracker

K.B. Chandrasekhar, CEO and chairman, Jamcracker

In a span of six months, K.B. Chandrasekhar found himself in the position of having to reduce his company’s headcount from more than 250 people to a handful of employees between its India and California operations. For the 24 months leading up to 2000, the party had been nonstop, but when the dot-com bubble burst, Chandrasekhar suddenly had to keep the doors from closing on his business.

“So we know for the next two to three years nothing would happen, but you have to keep the lights on and keep the engineers motivated and other people motivated in developing the product,” says Chandrasekhar, chairman and CEO of the cloud technology company, Jamcracker.

“The question is, at that time, how do you move from the party binge to develop a sober mode and still keep the core employees? But at the same time, you have to go through the painful exercise of probably reducing the company size to a fraction of it was before, then grow back up in a manner that positions itself for the market to come back and then take the leadership.”

After reducing head count, it can be just as hard to convince people who are invaluable to your company to remain loyal and stay motivated.

“I think the challenge is constantly looking at what kind of people you need to stay ahead,” Chandrasekhar says. “Our business is all about people business. If they are great people, we know we can scale great heights.

“Many of the times, I think this is where the leadership comes into play, because you have to lead from the heart at that time, in terms of the vision and the conviction and why this is going to be big in the future. In the near term, it’s why we all have to sacrifice. At the same time, keep the faith at a heighted level so we are sustained for success.”

To do this meant opening up the channels for honest and open communication about how Jamcracker would move forward. Because people can see every day what is happening in the company and outside, hiding news just erodes employee trust, so transparency for Chandrasekhar was critical.

“In tougher times, people want to ensure that they hear from you a little more regularly, and you also use electronic communications whenever possible,” he says. “So a judicious mix of the two helps you stay in front of your crowd.

“It is being upfront about it rather than trying to sugarcoat it. But at the same time keep emphasizing the vision, and where we are going and why this is a great opportunity as the next big thing.”

When people’s jobs are vulnerable, it’s critical that a leader demonstrates to the people that he or she is also willing to make sacrifices to commit to the long-term vision.

“I must be willing to put myself up to say, ‘Here is my resignation letter,’ if I’m not performing to what I said I would perform,” Chandrasekhar says.

Even though the company was losing money, Chandrasekhar was passionate about getting Jamcracker back on track. So he invested his own money to show his team his renewed commitment.

“We bought out all the other investors to bring in my own money, because we said this is going to take a longer time and other investors may not be around to make it happen — or rather, may not have the appetite to make it happen,” he says. “That boosted the confidence of all employees by reminding people that, ‘Chandra believes in it.’”

By keeping the vision at the forefront, Chandrasekhar has successfully built Jamcracker back from a low of 11 employees to 200 people in 2011.

How to reach: Jamcracker, (408) 496-5500 or

Switching gears

In addition to empowering your team, K.B. Chandrasekhar, CEO and chairman of Jamcracker says successful growth requires leaders to sense when to let go of conservatism and know when to move into high gear.

Here are Chandrasekhar’s tips for how to prepare your company for when the market turns.

Set a scalable structure.
“Most times companies implode because they are not able to scale effectively. The key is to put in a structure that will enable a company to scale successfully when the opportunity is in the market.”

Be flexible.
“Second is what I call the willingness to change the rules as the situation demands, because you are not the only stakeholder in the company. There are a number of stakeholders in the company, which means you must know when to really take risks and when not to take risks. You are constantly juggling between growth, value, creation and just management.”

Feel it out.
“If you are an early stage company and entrepreneur, you may not have all of the parameters to back up everything that you do, which means you are going to rely a lot on your intuition, on your gut and your perception of where the market is going. It’s important to have that third dimension of that.”

How Fleet Response grew during the recession

Scott Mawaka, president and COO, Fleet Response Inc.

While many businesses have used the economy as an excuse to pile work on employees the past few years, Fleet Response didn’t buy in to that thinking. Despite the tough economic times, the company, which provides fleet management services, takes time to make sure its people aren’t buried. As a result, Fleet Response grew during the downturn from $47.4 million in revenue in 2008 to $58.4 million last year and earned a spot on the Weatherhead 100 list of fastest-growing companies in Northeast Ohio this year while also celebrating its 25th anniversary.

“In our marketplace is the fact that we’re at the highest level of service, and if our employees are burnt out or experiencing too heavy a workload, that performance will show up in their ability to keep up in the quality in their work,” says Scott Mawaka, president and COO.

One of the biggest keys to growth has been making sure employees don’t get loaded down with too much work. It can be challenging to figure out work loads, but Fleet Response has built systems around performance metrics to gauge employee activity levels and determine what’s manageable and what’s not. Allison Lanzilotta is the vice president of business development, and one of the big tasks she does daily is analyzing the activity by looking at data to make sound decisions.

“There’s a lot of information you can get and a lot of different ways you can look at it,” she says. “Start somewhere. Look at it every week, every month, and chart things out, and you’ll see what makes sense and what the right numbers should be. … You can’t look at every single number at the beginning. You’ve got to focus in on a few key things and go from there, otherwise you’ll be overwhelmed with all the information.”

For example, on the call center side of the business, two numbers she gauges are how many calls each representative is taking and the length of hold times. In the claims department, she looks at the total number of claims employees have in their portfolios versus the optimum number they’ve determined for peak service.

Beyond just the numbers, Mawaka also gauges workloads by walking around to ask employees how they’re doing.

“Are they able to keep up with their work load?” Mawaka says. “Are they excited about a new client? If they’re terribly busy, you will get their opinions delivered to you, and it’s something where you can talk to the other people involved with them to understand if it’s just a point in time where work was above the norm or if it’s a routine that we need to address [with an] increase to employment.”

As volumes pick up, it’s important to communicate your intentions with employees and thank them for their extra efforts.

“You put a lot on your employees, and you want more and more, and, ‘Oh, here’s another client — and another.’” Lanzilotta says. “It’s great, but you want to appreciate all the work they’re doing and let everyone understand that we’re doing well, we’re growing, and we’re going to keep motivating people by letting them know we’re not going to bury them. We’re going to get the right staffing and reward them appropriately.”

Those rewards come in the form of midyear and year-end bonuses and sometimes additional time off, but beyond that it’s many little things throughout the year too, such as hosting lunches, company outings and parties. 

“Your employees are the lifeblood of the organization from day to day and a reflection of how we’re doing,” Lanzilotta says. “It’s very important that we don’t just keep piling things on our employees but we stop and appreciate some of the successes as they come along.”

And if your employees can’t work effectively, your business won’t grow.

“It’s all about the people,” Mawaka says. “It’s what matters most in the world. Medicine, manufacturing or service — it’s all about two people working together to succeed.”

 How to reach: Fleet Response, (216) 525-3870 or

Focusing on clients

Fleet Response’s people focus the past few years hasn’t been limited to employees.

“Everything starts with people — that’s both internal and external,” says Scott Mawaka, president and COO.

To grow, the company has also made clients a major priority because they’re experiencing stress just as much as employees are.

“They’re wearing more and more hats,” says Allison Lanzilotta, vice president of business development. “The more that we’ve been able to provide them flexible service and accommodate administratively, [the more that] we’ve been able to bring on new clients.”

Providing flexible services starts with building stronger relationships. Initially, Mawaka approached its largest clients to offer discounts in exchange for extending contracts in order to ensure revenues for Fleet Response and familiarity and savings for clients.

Fleet Response people also went to clients’ offices and vice versa to ask what has challenged them and what they need help with.

“Often, they know right off hand some things that take a bunch of their time that they’d love to get off their plate,” Lanzilotta says. “It’s really keeping that communication line open, not just via e-mail but face to face and phone, if that’s the only option.”

As clients talk about problems they have, customize your services and offerings to help meet those needs.

Mawaka says, “That was probably one of the key facets of growth for us over the past few years was just exploring new angles with our clients and communicating with them about challenges they had internally.”

Scott O’Neil shares his product launch secrets

Scott O’Neil had moments during the launch of MarketSmith where he just felt completely lost.

“I’ve been in a few meetings where they bury me and I just say, ‘Please, just draw me a picture,’” says O’Neil, president of the 200-employee investment research firm.

MarketSmith is a wholly owned subsidiary of William O’Neil + Co. and has developed the next generation of the company’s popular Daily Graphs Online investment research service.

“The launch was very professionally done, but it was nerve-wracking,” O’Neil says. “It was tough launching a whole new major product like that.”

The biggest challenge in launching a new product is figuring out when you’re ready to unleash it on the world.

“They always want a little more time to make sure fit and finish is really good and solid and tight,” O’Neil says of your product team. “You kind of have to force them with deadlines. So there is that tug of war. When you get down to that moment, if that product is not quite ready and you launch, you’re going to pay in multiple ways.”

So what steps can you take to make sure your product is actually ready to be launched? You can start by getting a number of different people to test your product.

“We would take it out of the technologists’ hands and put it into a business analyst’s hands on their desk,” O’Neil says. “They would work it and they would try to break it and give it the going over.”

It’s important that some of these people that you have testing your product are people from outside of your primary circle.

“It never hurts to get a fresh opinion or an opinion from the outside,” O’Neil says. “For instance, a couple times over the years, I might find someone that is much more my senior that has just been in business longer with lots of experience. I’ll sit down and have a cup of coffee.”

It can’t just be you judging whether your product is ready and it can’t just be your cronies who can be counted on to praise every word that comes out of your mouth or every product that you develop.

“It’s impossible for an individual to be an expert in numerous different fields,” O’Neil says. “If you have a team and it’s a high-caliber team and there are experts in various fields, you are significantly stronger as an entity.”

As you’re getting feedback from people, if it differs from your expectations or if you find that people don’t necessarily love what you’ve come up with, don’t just dismiss it in favor of your own idea. Your people have to believe they’re not wasting their breath by offering their opinion.

“That boosts morale and gives them tremendous energy to really want to accomplish something,” O’Neil says. “Then of course, the person that sits next to them sees that person and they say, ‘Gee, coach. Give me the football and let me run.’”

Of course at some point, you need to stop fiddling around and either launch your product or try something else.

“At a certain point, you have to draw the line on what’s going into the product and just launch it,” O’Neil says. “You have to say, ‘I’m sorry, you’re going to have to wait for the next bus and that will be version 1.5.’”

If you do it right and take the right amount of time to plan, you should have a solid launch.

“Absolutely in spades I’ve seen this where we were prepared for a lot of road bumps when we launched and we really didn’t have very many because of all this front-end preparation,” O’Neil says.

Engage your team

Scott O’Neil doesn’t want to make every decision at MarketSmith. If you are making every decision in your business, you may be headed for trouble.

“You have to push authority down and I mean far,” says O’Neil, president at the 200-employee investment research firm that is a wholly owned subsidiary of William O’Neil + Co.

“I don’t mean just down a little bit. In the end, you have to trust people that they will accomplish the task. They have to believe they control their destiny.”

O’Neil talks about the work environment at MarketSmith on a regular basis. He wants work to get done, but he wants it done in a way where everybody is taking part in the journey.

“Create an environment that is conducive to everyone’s growth,” O’Neil says. “Your company will grow and your customer base will grow. Another very important point. You want positive, can-do people. Cut loose disruptive, negative people. You don’t have time for that. They’re infectious. Over the years, I’ve removed two individuals for general negativity. I’m not proud of that, but that was the reason.”

O’Neil says it’s the failure to involve others in your business that dooms many leaders.

“They don’t always listen,” O’Neil says. “I can tell you probably over half the decisions in this company, I’m not making. I don’t make them. We’ve got a lot of competent people and they are out there doing it.”

How to reach: MarketSmith,

Todd Beckman took The Tan Co. to the next level

Todd Beckman wants his employees at The Tan Co. to think of really big things and really big goals that they want to accomplish in their lives. If for some reason they’re not sure how to proceed with these lavish wish lists, they need only step into Beckman’s office for guidance.
On his desk, they’ll find a picture of the house Beckman wants to build some day and a model of the car he’d like to eventually own.
“I just always try to keep myself moving forward,” says Beckman, founder, president and CEO at the 400-employee chain of tanning salons. “Usually, I do that not only with the business or family, but with some sort of a toy. A car, a boat, a house. I have that in front of me at all times. I just do things like that to keep my head in the game. We have to constantly be hitting on all cylinders to hit those goals.”
The growth of The Tan Co. from a small two-salon operation in 1994 to more than 70 locations across 13 states today can be tied directly to ambition, Beckman says. The trick is to get your people to share the passion and energy that you possess as leader of the company. You’re going to need it if you want your business to grow.
“I have goals that I want to achieve for the year and we work toward achieving those on a weekly basis,” Beckman says. “Everything has to work. Otherwise I don’t achieve my goals. So I have to come in and be excited and positive about where we are going and what we are trying to do so everyone wants to follow that.”
There is a board at the corporate office of The Tan Co. and Beckman has employees post their dreams and aspirations on the board for all to see.
“It can be anything,” Beckman says. “It can be anything from a purse to a car to a house. Whatever they think they want to achieve. Even to be higher up in the company.”
The goal is to get your people to adopt an attitude of continuous improvement that will hopefully come through in their work.
“That’s the whole trick of it,” Beckman says. “I have to make sure that everybody is working hard and that I am leading them as hard as I can to make sure we can achieve our goals. It’s impossible to do it on your own.”
On the business side, you need to work with your people to set goals that they can pursue and not just blindly assign them without any dialogue.
“They feel like they are part of the company and that they’ve helped to make those decisions,” Beckman says. “They come into the office on a weekly basis and we go over where their store is at and what kind of numbers they are doing. Then they talk about their numbers in front of their peers. A mix of all of that is what motivates our people to want to work here.”
You need to demonstrate that you are working hard, that you have goals that you’re pursuing and numbers you need to meet and that you’re part of the team if you want to get support. Your belief and confidence in your ability to achieve those goals can make a huge difference.
You can’t let yourself get down when challenges arise.
“You just can’t allow that to happen,” Beckman says. “Even in the worst of times and the worst of days, you just have to figure out a way to not go into the office with that attitude. That’s what I try to do. It’s not easy, but at the same time, if you’re going to be leading, you’d better be on your game.”

How to reach: The Tan Co., (866) 668-2626 or

Learn to unwind
Todd Beckman starts each day at the gym with a workout and a three-mile run. It’s a crucial step in his ability to be an effective leader at The Tan Co.
“If it wasn’t for that, it would probably be a lot harder of a struggle for me,” says Beckman, founder, president and CEO at the 400-employee chain of tanning salons.
“You just relieve a lot of stress and anxiety when you’re at the gym running. I run three miles a day and then just do a workout. That helps me.”
It also puts Beckman in a better position to deal with employees who are going through a tough time and get to the root cause of what is bothering them.
“We’ll sit down and talk to them about it,” Beckman says. “It’s just really going over the whole wheel again and starting from scratch. What is it you’re not happy about? Where is it that you want to go? What is it you are trying to achieve? Why aren’t you achieving it? It’s just going through the steps. That’s what all of our training is all about. We’re constantly helping people to be better.”

How to reach: The Tan Co., (866) 668-2626 or

Solution driven

Rumia Tanayalete Ambrose-Burbank, president, Vendor Managed Solutions Inc.

While Vendor Managed Solutions Inc. has been extremely successful in its industry, President Rumia Ambrose-Burbank is still contending with challenges.

Her company is an integrator for maintenance repair and operations that supplies maintenance repair and operations (MRO) products and services to clients in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. And the major challenge it faces is trying to thrive in an industry in which 99 percent of its competitors are a handful of billion-dollar-plus companies that have established a market presence over the course of decades. VMS has had to develop a value proposition that is so unique in the market that potential customers can’t say no, which Ambrose-Burbank has accomplished as a female business leader in an industry dominated by men.

The company’s unique value proposition is based on a self-funding model that places a priority on identifying savings opportunities before customer engagement, and a guarantee of savings across the customer’s indirect supply-mail chain. The fees of VMS are covered in the savings, and if the company doesn’t save year over year of the contract in item pricing, inventory and materials management, VMS pays back its fees. Ambrose-Burbank and her staff were the first to bring the model to the market for indirect material.

VMS’ business model is gaining momentum as companies look to reduce costs outside of the traditional, direct-material route. Ambrose-Burbank plans to capitalize on that fact through a structure marketing and management approach.

VMS anticipates doubling revenue within the next two years, based on the current account growth as client business grows, and through the acquisition of new customers.

How to reach: Vendor Managed Solutions Inc., (248) 658-4521 or

Driving change at Adache Real Estate

Adam Adache, founder, president and CEO, Adache Real Estate LLC

Adam Adache needed to make a big change at Adache Real Estate LLC. If it was going to work, he couldn’t give in to the panic that was consuming much of the real estate industry.

“You have no option but to make it work,” says Adache, founder, president and CEO at the 20-employee real estate company. “You have to have that mentality. You run a business and a business is always susceptible to a bad economy and things that might happen along the way. You might have to change your business model. But in your mind, you have to be confident that you’re going to make it work.

“If you have that mentality, you’re not going to sit there and think about the worst-case scenario. You’re going to spend time analyzing and really diving into the heart of the problem and finding out what your true obstacles are. That’s when you’re going to make your decision and make your changes.”

The change Adache had to make was a merger of his firm’s project sales and marketing division with its bulk real estate division. The economic crash was leaving a growing number of distressed properties unsold and Adache needed a way to get them off the market.

By merging these two divisions, he thought the firm would be better able to use its resources to cobble together deals that would get the properties sold that were bringing down the rest of the market.
“We convert an offer that is rejected into a new opportunity and that new opportunity is still a revenue-driving opportunity,” Adache says.

The challenge for Adache was he couldn’t just gather everyone together and tell them, “Everything you’ve been doing is bad and it doesn’t work anymore.”