Mark G Scott

Anyone who has been a fan of the “Fast & Furious” movies had to do a double take upon hearing the news that actor Paul Walker had been killed in a car crash. It just didn’t seem real that the 40-year-old actor, who rose to fame in high-octane street racing scenes in the fantasy world that is Hollywood, could have died that way. Sure, life imitates art sometimes, but this was just too much to comprehend.

Tragically, it was true, and the actor, who was known for his philanthropy and was hosting a fundraiser that same day to help the survivors of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, was gone.

At the time this column was written, production on the seventh installment of the “Fast & Furious” movie franchise had been put on hold as the studio regrouped to figure out how to deal with what had happened.

Life is fleeting

It was another example of how fleeting life can be and how you just never know when your whole world can be thrown upside down. As human beings, most of us thrive on consistency and stability and the idea that we know what’s coming next week, next month and next year.

There are those adrenaline junkies, of course, who love the next challenge and relish the chance to take everything they know and throw it out the window in favor of a new, more exciting plan of action. It’s the kind of personality trait that is portrayed in movies about fast cars and heists made from the rooftops of cars traveling at more than 100 mph.

But whichever type you are, you are not immune to the possibility of your life changing in an instant. And it’s a lesson to all of us to cherish every moment and opportunity we get in life.

Maybe it’s focusing a little bit more on your business and the steps that your company needs to take to achieve its full potential. There are so many things out there to distract us in social media and in our daily lives in general.

It’s easy to get sidetracked or push a project through without giving it your full attention. But there’s a customer out there who is depending on you to come through. That project is just as important as the one for that customer you helped when you weren’t as busy.

What are the priorities?

But at the end of the day, while your business is a critical part of your life, so is your family. So are the families of your employees. Few would argue that family is more important than business.

As you look to do your best at work, make sure you’re leaving enough to be the best you can be at home too. Those moments with your loved ones are moments you don’t want to miss. It’s not always easy, but you’ve got to find a way to be great at both ends and help your employees do the same.

As you start 2014, make it a point to find that balance in the way you go about your life both at work and at home. You just never know when life is going to throw you an unexpected curve.

Mark Scott is senior associate editor of Smart Business Los Angeles, Smart Business Orange County and Smart Business Chicago. If you have an interesting story to share about a person or business making a difference in Los Angeles, Orange County or Chicago, please send an email to

Seth Priebatsch is one name that David Bookspan won’t soon forget. Priebatsch is the founder and CEO of LevelUp, an alternative payment service business where consumers can go to merchants and charge their purchases through a QR code.

“LevelUp is in a lot of different cities now and they are just killing it,” Bookspan says. “Seth is a force of nature. He was a 17-year-old freshman at Princeton when he came into DreamIt. He was full of energy, scary smart and just a rock star. He needed some additional business support and we connected him.”

DreamIt Ventures is a seed-stage accelerator and startup fund. Plans were announced on Dec. 11 to open DreamIt’s new world headquarters at the University City Science Center, one of the oldest and largest urban research parks in the United States. It will be part of a new Innovation Center jointly established by UCSC and Drexel University.

Drexel is committing $3 million to DreamIt Fund II, a $30 million fund to invest in startup companies participating in the accelerator program.

“One of the objectives that Drexel has is to create an innovation neighborhood in west Philadelphia and they saw DreamIt as an opportunity to anchor that neighborhood,” says Bookspan, the founder and managing partner of DreamIt Ventures.

Since its inception, DreamIt has launched a total of 127 companies, including 74 in Philadelphia.

Priebatsch is one of the entrepreneurs who got his start with the accelerator. So are Jack Groetzinger and Russell D’Souza, founders of Seat Geek.

“Seat Geek is the largest ticket service for event ticketing,” Bookspan says. “It can show you what are the best deals, and it does it through an algorithm they have developed that judges everything from the specific setup in the arena to the demand for tickets. They also use predictive analytics to tell you whether you should buy now or wait.”

Plant the seeds

There are some misconceptions even within the business community about the difference between an accelerator and an incubator.

“It’s important for fledgling companies to have office space where they can work and incubators can provide that and also provide support services for those companies,” Bookspan says. “But accelerators are much more about finding out in a short period of time whether the business has potential and can succeed. An accelerator is for a very short defined period of time. The companies either fly or die.”

In the case of LevelUp and Seat Geek, neither company had a problem taking flight.

“A lot of early-stage companies hit a valley of death where it’s difficult for them to raise the next round of funding,” Bookspan says. “The DreamIt fund provides that source of capital as well as an extraordinary return profile for the investors in the fund.”

A tough economy is often a motivator for would-be entrepreneurs to take a go at launching their dreams.

“Since big business is not providing as many opportunities or careers during down economic times, very talented people are much more willing to pursue their own dreams,” Bookspan says.

The biggest challenge Bookspan faces is keeping up with the demand for supporting startups in new cities.

“Philadelphia is emerging as a fantastic startup community,” Bookspan says. “Companies locate themselves where there is a confluence of four different aspects: capital, talent, customers and lifestyle. Philadelphia is now making big strides to have the convergence of capital and talent. There are also a large number of businesses that can be early customers for these companies in Philadelphia and certainly in the Northeast.”

How to reach: DreamIt Ventures, (212) 564-3665 or

It was a question Janice Leone just had to ask. She was on an airplane, and just happened to be seated next to a passenger who was an airline pilot.

“I said to him, ‘Do you ever get scared up there?’” Leone says. “‘Do you ever get fearful when you’re flying the plane?’ He looked around and said, ‘Nope. I might get a little apprehensive about 50 mph crosswinds. But I’m not fearful.’”

The conversation moved on to something else until 20 minutes later when the passenger asked Leone to tell him what she did for a living.

“I said I own my own business and he says, ‘Now that I would fear,’” Leone says with a chuckle. “It’s all a matter of perspective.”

Leone is president and CEO at Corporate Interiors, a company which helps companies develop ideal workspace environments.

“We do all the vertical and horizontal lines that you see inside the envelope that people work in,” Leone says. “From the acoustical control systems to the lighting to the walls and all the internal building blocks and furniture down to the contract flooring, that’s what we do. We put all of these solutions and products together to help companies with some of the current issues in the workplace.”

It’s been a successful company that has experienced steady growth and now has more than 130 employees. But there have also been some challenging times and Leone says one of the keys to managing the ups and downs is not giving into fear. One of the toughest times was back in 2008 when the recession hit.

“There is a tendency to pull the first lever you know how to pull and that’s to reduce your headcount,” Leone says. “That’s easy to do. So over six months, I would bring leadership back into a room, and it was a huge workshop for us. We lived, breathed and ate taking our company in the right direction.”

Leone says proposals would be put on the table to make staff reductions, but each time, she resisted.

“I would say, ‘We have to go back to the drawing board because when we come out of this, I want a greater commitment, a greater connection to our workforce than we have right now,’” Leone says. “‘That won’t do it for us. I won’t budge from that.’”

In the end, schedules were adjusted for everyone, including leadership, and while a few people were let go, it wasn’t a lot. And things did turn around for the positive.

“It wasn’t easy, but we’re in better times now,” Leone says. “I think we’re stronger than we were before we went into this.”

Here are some key principles that guide Leone and her leadership of Corporate Interiors.


Be yourself

Culture may not always be top of mind in the leadership of your business. But it is there and it is visible for everyone who comes in contact with your company to see.

“It’s reflective of who you are,” Leone says. “We can walk into a lot of companies and get a sense of who they are not only from the exterior of the building, but the interior. From the time we walk into a lobby, we can tell what kind of company we’re walking into.”

Many workplace cultures are going through dramatic changes as companies seek more open workspaces and collaborative working environments. It’s what Corporate Interiors is all about, but Leone is still conscious of the need to manage a culture, whether it’s that of her customer or for her own business.

“The more you make it open and collaborative, the byproduct of that is more potential for disruption and distraction,” Leone says. “There is a huge and delicate balance between creating these environments.”

Leone was thinking about culture when she made the decision to not make significant staff reductions, she thinks about it with her customers and she thinks about it with her company going forward in 2014.

“The human spirit is very important to me,” Leone says. “The encouragement and recognition of people and the total engagement of our leadership group is very important to me. I believe in contact leadership. Sometimes I refer to it as post-heroic leadership. The lead positions are heavily engaged in the journey and the work. They are able to roll up their sleeves and get intimately involved.”

Leone is happiest when everyone is working together and feels empowered to meet the challenges that the company faces. And she wants people to feel comfortable being who they are and not to feel like they have to put on a show in order to impress her or the company’s clients.

“We have a 100,000-square-foot operational center outside Wilmington,” Leone says. “We take clients through for a facility tour. Our warehouse supervisor says to me, ‘Janice, I’m not a presenter.’ I said, ‘I don’t want you to be a presenter. Tell them what you make a living doing and what you are so good at doing.’

“He’s been with me 15 years and clients gravitate toward the genuine nature of people, not through some contrived formula or saying something because they think they have to. The best people to present to our clients are the people who are natural at it. They are not there to give a canned speech.”


Let people shine

The companies that thrive in today’s economy are the ones that work as a team from the person at the top all the way down to the lowest level of your organization.

“The lead positions in our company are partners to our sales representatives,” Leone says. “They are aligning resources and putting support resources around them. They are not at a distance. They can get involved to the point that the success and the results are focused at the individual project manager, the sales rep and the design of that team.

“The lead position had a lot to do with it, steering it, nurturing it, supporting it and getting the resources lined up. But at the end of the journey, the spotlight is on the individuals and that team. And our leadership understands that. Our leadership group is made up of people who are doers. They are engaged and know the detail of our process and the detail of our strategy.”

Leone goes back to the skies for an analogy to demonstrate the connectedness of her leadership team.

“I’ve seen lead positions in other companies where they are 30,000 feet off the ground,” Leone says. “I often say we’re not 30,000 feet off the ground dropping leaflets. We’re in the crop duster that is low to the ground. That’s the difference. Sometimes in corporate America, you are 30,000 feet off the ground. You’re not heavily engaged in what’s going on.”

Leone says it’s a philosophy she has followed since she was working out of a small satellite office years ago in Delaware.

“We had maybe 18 people, totally full of energy, full of great fight and tenacity,” Leone says. “They just needed structure and prioritization and the resources and infrastructure to help them do what they needed to do. The expansion and growth was exponential because of our ability to get the yield and essence out of people. They were part of something and everybody wants to be part of a winning team or a company that is growing.”

Leone wants the leaders within Corporate Interiors to feel like they are running their own businesses. With that in mind, she is open with them about the details that illustrate how the company is doing.

“We have all kinds of statistical information that goes to them,” Leone says. “At 6 a.m., I call it a push report that goes to every one of our lead positions. It has all the metrics that we run our company by. I have lead positions that are very good at what they do. When I think I need to jump in and steer something, quite frankly, I don’t beat around the bush.

“We have a hearty conversation about it. We come out of the conversation with a unified front and a direction. It might be an altered one from the one I have because they in turn might have had a hearty conversation with me. We just feel it would be strange not to have that kind of conversation.”

One of Leone’s key tenets of leadership is to build a team without asking people to shed their identity.

“Let them take risks or do something creative or do something that at the beginning might seem hard to do, but is achievable. Let them step out and have the freedom and empowerment to do things. That’s what I would encourage business owners to do.

“There is more potential in the people that make up your company than some leaders see. It’s just not apparent to some of them. I’m amazed at some of the things that I see our people accomplish, and I tell them that. There’s just a sense of honesty.” 



  • Never forget who your employees are.
  • Don’t force employees to perform.
  • Help your talent to blossom.


The Leone File:

Name: Janice Leone
Title: President and CEO
Company: Corporate Interiors

Born: Wilmington, Del.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in business, West Chester University of Pennsylvania, West Chester, Pa.

Did you want to be a psychologist? No, but it’s not totally unrelated to what I do. I think I learned more through my experience of owning this business than I would in a degree. I just met with a bunch of alumni from West Chester, and it was a great college. But what it teaches you is the basics. It’s all up to you on how to apply it in life.

What was your very first job?  I used to cut my neighbor’s flowers and sell them on a little card table until my neighbor started yelling at me for selling their flowers.

Who has been the most influential person in your life? My mother. She just passed away in June. You prepare yourself all your life for the departure of your parents. In my eulogy to my mother, I said that she used to say to me, ‘Where did you come from?’ It was in a funny way. In the eulogy, I said, ‘I came from the essence of you,’ because of her strength and her sensibility. A lot of who I am — my tenacity, my sense of center and balance — it all comes from her.


Learn more about Corporate Interiors at:



How to reach: Corporate Interiors, (610) 631-5400 or

The fear is gone and employers are ready to hire, according to Rona Borre, founder and CEO at Instant Technology LLC.

“Over the past year, things have really opened up,” says Borre, whose firm specializes in IT staffing and recruiting. “Where technology used to be a cost expense, it’s really looked at in a very different light. It’s a thing that drives the business to make it go forward. CEOs are running their businesses very differently than they did five years ago.

“There is a huge demand for good technology talent and a very small shortage on supply right now. So for people wanting to move forward on projects, they are aggressively hiring. They know this is the key to their business and to their future.”

This demand is reflected in statistics compiled by Instant Technology. In Greater Chicago, job postings in the Web-based and databased technologies increased by 15.2 percent from 2011/2012 to 2012/2013. Postings in the data space jumped even more, by 222.6 percent during the same period.

“As big data is a newer technology, created to house and analyze the new forms of data tools are capturing (audio, video, image and others), it has been an incredibly large growth sector,” says Matt Brosseau, director of recruiting at Instant Technology.

Borre says in terms of skills, mobility is one of the biggest needs that companies will be looking to hire for in 2014.

“I even see a lot of Fortune 100 companies trying to grow out their teams and hire permanent labor in the space as opposed to contracting those types of positions out,” Borre says. “Secondly, security seems to be very big and continues to grow. There’s not a lot of talent in that space. A lot of companies are developing and working with their internal employees on getting them trained. So mobility, security and a lot of development.”

The days of looking to simply integrate new technology into your business are long gone. In 2014, technology is the lifeblood of every aspect of what your company does.

“Everything falls on technology departments to run their organization whether it’s analytics, infrastructure or the digital footprint,” Borre says. “All that stuff is a driving force for the future of business. Technology has really opened up and it’s a very aggressive marketplace right now.” 

Move fast

Another thing that seems to be out the window, at least in the technology sector, is conducting multiple interviews with a job candidate.

“Right now, you have to hire talent quickly,” Borre says. “Candidates coming back in for three and four interviews doesn’t really happen anymore. They really try to condense it and get the candidates on board as quickly as possible.”

Companies are looking to be dazzled, but Borre says they also want people who can adapt quickly and think deeply about their business.

“They want people who have more than just technology experience, but also a lot of business acumen,” Borre says. “They want people who can whiteboard problems, who understand their business and who can utilize technology to enhance their business. More employers are beginning to have a strong business sense along with understanding technology.”

With demand high, the advantage rests with the candidate who is willing to learn. The good news for those seeking work is it doesn’t take long to get up to speed.

“You can go in for a month or two and get basic skill knowledge in mobile and Web and iOS and Android and really get an impact very quickly and probably get hired because the demand is so great,” Borre says. “Being trained and tooled is easier than ever. Some of the technologies are so new and people don’t have a lot of longevity. So getting involved as soon as possible can really benefit somebody and they can see more of an immediate impact than ever before.” 

How to reach: Instant Technology LLC, (312) 582-2600 or

Jay Dettling needs newly hired employees at Acquity Group to hit the ground running and quickly become productive members of his team. The digital marketing company focuses on helping customers engage their clients and has grown between 30 and 40 percent annually for more than a decade.

The bar has been set high and Dettling will continue to push it higher as the company grows beyond 700 employees. But that doesn’t mean he is naive to the fact that hiring is an inexact science or that other companies out there are pursuing the same top talent that he wants to bring to Acquity Group, which is part of Accenture Interactive.

“One of our biggest challenges, and inherently my biggest challenge, is building the organization and recruiting the people we’re adding to the organization,” Dettling says. “We’re competing with our competitors to offer our employees a value proposition that is compelling. But we’re also competing with our partners, who in many cases are our technology partners who are trying to grow their staff to provide their services to clients.”

Dettling looked at the process Acquity Group used to make hires and felt it needed a makeover.

“What I decided to do was reorganize the recruiting group and more closely align it with our hiring managers, the people that are running the delivery groups,” Dettling says. “The solutions were focused on bringing the recruiting team and the hiring managers more closely together so they shared their goals. What are we trying to do and how are we going about doing that?”

It wouldn’t make the process perfect, but that wasn’t his goal. Dettling was confident that with more alignment and communication between the people with needs and the people trying to fill those needs, it would lead to better hiring results.

“That is a choice we need to make to be successful and it has helped propel our growth,” Dettling says. “Other companies have other priorities and they aren’t as focused on recognizing their employees as such a large asset.”


Open the dialogue

Dettling wanted to establish metrics that would enable the company to better track the hires that were made and whether or not they worked out. But he also wanted to spur regular dialogue to talk about the process and what was working and what wasn’t.

“There is no shortage of questions that come up along the recruiting process in terms of fit and experience level and all that sort of stuff,” Dettling says. “What we wanted to do was create an environment where we could address those questions quickly and foster better communication between the teams.”

He wants to avoid a situation where a manager needs a person and basically tells the recruiting team, “Hey, go get us someone who can do this job.” He wants everyone to work together to find the best person for that job.

“We restructured some of our weekly meetings so that we had people with an eye on shared goals, on the metrics and on communicating more openly and more quickly with each other,” Dettling says. “We wanted to improve our responsiveness as it relates to understanding, ‘Should we offer this? Is that experience good enough for what we’re looking for?’”

Dettling’s goal is to remove the guesswork so the people doing the interviewing know the answers to these questions. He also wants to build stronger brand awareness so that candidates not only understand the job description, but what it is that Acquity Group represents.

“We had spent a lot of time building the brand with prospective customers, but had not as heavily built it with prospective candidates,” Dettling says. “That’s really important in recruiting.”

Dettling turned to his employees to share their personal insights as to what it’s like to work at Acquity Group. When you get your employees engaged in selling the high points of your company, you’ll create a new energy and make your organization more inviting to potential new hires.

“Have some existing employees provide some testimonials online so people can read the job description, as well as a whole wealth of information they can consume to form an impression,” Dettling says.


Get the answers you need

One mistake that is easy to make when interviewing job candidates is failing to probe for more detail when you ask about past experience.

“You have to be keenly focused on understanding what the candidates have done themselves versus what they and their team have accomplished,” Dettling says. “Many times, it’s easy to fall into a natural conversation flow with a candidate and you’ve asked for experience, and they start to talk about what their team accomplished.

“You have to be focused on understanding what they did. What did they bring to that team? What approach did they bring to the table? What key decisions did they make? Try to isolate what that person contributed versus what their organization, project team or department actually accomplished.”

It’s a crucial point for Dettling because his company is all about coming up with unique and innovative marketing solutions for its clients. He needs people who can think on their feet and satisfy those clients.

With that in mind, Dettling likes to provide interviewees with a case or challenge that they need to solve.

“In a case meeting, we present them with a challenge that is like a client challenge that we face,” Dettling says. “See how they react to shreds of information to fill out a complete story and reach a conclusion. That’s another way we can measure if they can act on their feet or if they struggle when they don’t have every data point from A to Z.”

Dettling steps back for a moment and shares that a person who isn’t as quick on his or her feet can still be a great contributor to your organization.

“Evaluate the candidates who can work in ambiguous situations and extend from that ambiguity and create structure so you can accomplish a goal,” Dettling says. “Separate them or differentiate them against those who work better in a structured environment. Frankly, we need both and we need to put them in two buckets.”


Never stop learning

If you’re hired at Acquity Group, your relationship with the recruiting team does not end after your first day, first week or even your first year on the job.

“The team is comprised basically of our recruiting team and our professional staff management, basically our practice leaders,” Dettling says. “They oversee the on-boarding of our employees and their overall career path. It’s a full life cycle for our employees. The team that brings them on board is the team that also manages their career. If we know this person’s strengths and weaknesses, we know how to effectively put them in the best position to be successful and to deliver value for our clients.”

You need to make time to keep an eye on the future. Think about what your people are doing now and what you might need them to do going forward.

“We have a lot of folks that are mapping our project opportunities to the expertise we have amongst our staff,” Dettling says. “There’s a daily, if not hourly focus on what are the skills and experience that our clients are looking for. We are always looking for ways we can help our employees grow and expand and be challenged.”

Expectations need to be on the table during the interview phase and they need to be adhered to so your people understand their role in your organization. That doesn’t mean they can’t be changed, but you at least need a baseline from which to work.

“Everyone is much better informed as to what the path to success is with that candidate as opposed to a situation where someone creates a job requisition and then someone just hires them and the employee shows up and never shall the three coordinate and collaborate,” Dettling says.

Take the time to think about who you are as a company and whether you’re meeting the expectations that you have set for yourself and your business.

“What are your value propositions?” Dettling says. “Make sure you actually believe what you’re saying relative to what you tell your job candidates.”

And here’s one final piece of advice for how to know when you’ve got a good candidate across from the table at an interview.

“The best candidates we bring on board are the ones that convert,” Dettling says. “They might be listening, listening, listening and then they turn to engage and then they turn to actively asking a lot of questions and demonstrating a lot of interest. Initially, it’s ‘Tell me what you have to offer’ and then it flips. They are the aggressor selling themselves. That’s the ideal path. If it doesn’t follow that pattern, it’s probably not set up for a good outcome.” 



  • Get your recruiting and delivery groups on the same page.
  • Know how your people think.
  • Show the way to growth.


The Dettling File:

Name: Jay Dettling
Title: President
Company: Acquity Group

Born: South Bend, Ind.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in economics, University of Notre Dame; master’s in business administration in marketing and finance, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.

What is special to you about your Notre Dame experience? It was a positive environment to be part of and a very spirit-filled and energized group of people.

What was your first job and what did you learn from it? Mowing lawns and then I was a newspaper delivery boy. I think I got my entrepreneurial lawn business to three lawns and then I said, ‘I think I can scale this faster being a newspaper delivery boy.’ It was the South Bend Tribune. It taught me the importance of customer service, punctuality and how weather can affect your job.

Who has been your biggest influence? What I’ve tried to do is really glean a lot of attributes from a variety of people who have been leaders in my life or people who I’ve looked up to. I think you’re always in a state of learning. I try to approach every conversation with the idea that I can learn something and be self-reflective if I have the opportunity to be after that interaction.

Dettling on making changes: Be open-minded to refine what’s not working. Ask questions to all people involved in that process about what’s not working or what you could be doing better. There may be things you assume are really working well that aren’t working really well or they were last month, but conditions change and maybe that approach doesn’t work as well now. It’s an important part of your business. Manage it as a dynamic process.


How to reach: Acquity Group, (312) 427-2470 or

What happens when all your hopes, your dreams and all your excitement about the future are smashed to pieces in an instant? One moment you’re on the road to being the best in the world and the next — well, you feel empty.

As we begin 2014, many fans of the Chicago Bulls are still processing feelings of despair and heartbreak over the loss of Derrick Rose to a second major knee injury in less than two years. The devastating injury on Nov. 22 leaves the Bulls on a similar path to the one the team followed last season. Rose’s teammates will likely step it up again and grind out wins under the leadership of Coach Tom Thibodeau.

Chance of a miracle fades

They won’t give up on their dreams of a title, but realistically, the Bulls are out of the running as far as this season is concerned. And unlike last season, when many held out hope Rose would come back and save the day, there is no expectation of a miracle this time.

So what do you do when there is seemingly no hope to achieve the goals you had set for yourself or your organization?

There are a number of business leaders who look at the current state of the U.S. economy and see no hope. They see companies laying off employees, and others shuttering branch offices or cutting back on what they do.

Things just aren’t going to get better, they mutter to themselves. We’ll keep going out there every day to crank out the widgets and sell to the customers we’ve got, but we’re never going to be the business we thought we were going to be.

If that’s the attitude you take toward your company, you’re right. You never will be that business of your dreams. Going back to the Bulls, some people wouldn’t blame Rose’s teammates if they didn’t work quite as hard at practice or didn’t take that charge under the basket. The odds that they’ll win an NBA title this year are slim.

But they haven’t given up and they haven’t stopped fighting for every loose ball. Part of it is no doubt the leadership of Thibodeau who won’t let them simply go through the motions before trying again next season.

Optimism must step in

You can’t dwell on the things that are holding you back and then use those obstacles as an excuse for your failures. Change your strategy. Find another way to reach new customers or develop new products and services. Look for other ways you can meet the needs of the customers you already have.

Most importantly, come into work with a sense of optimism about the future and about what your business can be.

One cautionary note: This doesn’t mean you lie to your employees or pretend that the challenges your business faces don’t exist. All that does is make you seem out of touch and deflate the confidence of your people. Be realistic about those challenges, but engage your team to find solutions. Allow them to show the talent that led you to hire them in the first place.

If you have to reset your goals, then do it.

Just don’t give up. When you do that, there really is no hope.

Mark Scott is senior associate editor of Smart Business Chicago. If you have an interesting story to share about a person or business making a difference in Chicago, please send an email to

Robert J. Ciaruffoli isn’t afraid of hiring too many people to come work at ParenteBeard LLC. His fear is exactly the opposite — a situation where he wakes up one day, looks at his team and realizes he doesn’t have enough people to service the accounting firm’s clients in a high-quality manner.

“It takes a long time to build up your reputation, but you can destroy it overnight by not providing your clients with great service,” says Ciaruffoli, chairman and CEO of the $170 million accounting and consultant firm.

“Because we were in a growth mode, if anything, we overhired in anticipation of growth in certain areas. If it came time to redesign our system and we were a $50 million firm, we built it for a $100 million firm so that it was scalable and we wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel every other year.”

It’s not a mindset shared by everyone in today’s business world. Many leaders remain skittish about ramping up their payroll even as they bring in a steady stream of new business. Ciaruffoli says it’s a dangerous path to follow.

“I’d rather be in a position where I have extra people around to take on work as it comes in the door as opposed to being in a position where we have work, and we can’t get it done,” Ciaruffoli says. “And because we can’t get it done and get it done right and on a timely basis, we have unhappy clients out there. The cost of an unhappy client is significantly greater than having several extra team members on board.”

Ciaruffoli takes an aggressive approach when it comes to hiring, but he’s not reckless about it. There is a great deal of conversation with his leadership team and a thorough study of important trends that help guide the effort to keep ParenteBeard appropriately staffed. It’s one of the reasons the firm has grown from $32 million in revenue when Ciaruffoli arrived to $170 million today and more than 1,000 employees.

“Every aspect of our administration had to make sure that we were not only meeting our current needs, but also anticipating our future needs,” Ciaruffoli says. “We knew we had growth plans in place and we were going to be able to execute them.”


Talk to your team

If you think you’ve got a pretty good handle on whether your company needs to hire more people, that’s great. You still need to talk to your team.

“You try to anticipate what your turnover is going to be and then hire accordingly,” Ciaruffoli says. “But before you even get to that point, you have to wake up every morning, look in the mirror and admit that you don’t have all the answers and you have to listen to your team.”

Those in-depth conversations with the leaders in your organization are crucial to learning whether your observations match what they are seeing on the ground level.

“Gather all that input before you make an organizational decision that we’re going to hire X number of people or we have certain strategic hires that we’re going to have to go out in the marketplace and recruit,” Ciaruffoli says. “Nobody is that good that they have all the answers by themselves. There is no substitute for listening well to your leadership team and the organization as a whole.”

Listening is sometimes a tough skill for leaders at the top of an organization.

“It’s one thing to have people who are willing to speak up,” Ciaruffoli says. “There is another part of that equation. You have to have people on the other end willing to listen. If people have something to say or something that is on their mind, it may or may not sway a decision. But it’s important that they be heard. It’s important that I hear what everybody has to say so I have all the information I need to make a decision.”

It comes back to the idea that Ciaruffoli doesn’t want employees feeling overburdened and in a situation where they feel like they’ll never be able to climb out of the hole they are in. If more staffing is needed, he wants to know about it.

“People need to feel loved, feel that they contribute to the organization, feel that they have a meaningful job and feel that they have the ability to learn and grow in an organization,” Ciaruffoli says. “If not, in this mobile society that we have today, it’s all too easy for people to find another position somewhere else.”


Look below the surface

Ciaruffoli puts a lot of stock in the referrals he gets from employees when a position opens up at ParenteBeard.

“They are putting their reputation on the line,” Ciaruffoli says. “They know it can come back to bite them. If they recommend somebody who doesn’t work out well, whether the individual on the other end is going to hold them accountable or not, I think most human beings would hold themselves accountable for that and feel bad about it. Nobody wants to be put in that position.”

In order to get good referrals from your existing employees, you need to have an environment that those employees would want to encourage others to join.

“We need to have people who want to be here and have the ability to perform,” Ciaruffoli says.

Beyond that, Ciaruffoli likes to see candidates who have done something in their life that is meaningful.

“What has this individual done with their time?” Ciaruffoli says. “What activities have they been involved in? Besides book smarts, what have they learned about life? Sports, the military, the Peace Corps, working in a restaurant, you learn a lot about people and teamwork. Those other qualities they bring to the table are extremely important.”

The other part of hiring is what you do on your end to select candidates. Ciaruffoli says it’s almost impossible to get a good read on a candidate after just one interview, so multiple touches over multiple dates are imperative.

“Somebody can have a really good day or a really bad day,” Ciaruffoli says. “It’s important to have those conversations multiple times. What we saw the first time, did we still see it in the individual the second time?

“For me, a second or third interview is less about skill sets and more about the individual as a human being. It’s about getting to know them, the things they like, the things they don’t like, their family, how they react in certain situations, the chemistry. It’s all about getting comfortable with the candidate.”


Lend a helping hand

Once you’ve made your choice and decided to hire, you need to do your best to make it a smooth transition for the new employee. It can make a big difference in the time it takes to get a person up and running in their new job.

“One big mistake a lot of firms and organizations make, and we’ve learned by our mistakes also, is trying to cram too much into an orientation program,” Ciaruffoli says. “It’s basically like opening a fire hose in terms of information flow. You force that information on somebody and it’s impossible to retain it.”

ParenteBeard has developed a 4 ½-day orientation program that is about half business and half team building.

“They’ll have a lot of hand-holding upfront to make sure they understand process, policy and procedures,” Ciaruffoli says. “We’ll also spend time talking about audit philosophy and tax and consulting philosophy. We want them to know what we do as a firm and most importantly, what their role is, and what our expectations are for that individual.”

The program is customized for different levels of the company. So someone entering at the management level will have a different experience than someone joining the firm straight out of college. But much of what is covered is the same no matter who you are or what you do.

“We look at the history of the organization, the culture and the strategic direction of the firm,” Ciaruffoli says.

“HR policies impact everybody. Technology policies impact everybody. So those types of things are important. But no matter whether they are right out of college or experienced, people are always very interested in the firm’s strategic plan. Younger people want to know who they are going to work for and what is the direction of the firm.”

The ability to speak intelligently about these topics with new hires and have a strong system for finding and welcoming new employees into your organization will help position you for steady growth.

“You need to have people systems in place,” Ciaruffoli says. “There are two major components of that infrastructure. The systems themselves and the people involved in those systems. The key for us was making sure we had the right people in the right position as we experienced a significant amount of growth over the years.” 



  • Don’t go it alone.
  • Nurture your culture.
  • Make a good impression.


The Ciaruffoli File:

Name: Robert J. Ciaruffoli
Title: Chairman and CEO
Company: ParenteBeard LLC

Born: Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

Education: Certified public accountant; bachelor’s degree, King’s College, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

What did you learn from working on a farm? I’m the oldest of 10 children and everybody contributed. I worked on a farm for two summers picking strawberries, tomatoes, beans, weeding and doing miscellaneous other things. I hated it. Very quickly I came to the realization that it was something I didn’t want to do the rest of my life. I needed to do whatever I could to make sure I didn’t end up in that type of position. But it was a job and I was able to make some money doing it.

Who has been the biggest influence on your life? My father. I observed a lot about work ethic and doing whatever it takes. If you have to work two jobs, you have to work two jobs. Whatever you do, you have to do it well because you cannot afford to be unemployed in this life.

How much did being the oldest contribute to the kind of person you are? It had a lot to do with it. My father was a blue-collar worker, and we had a large family.

What one person would you really like to meet? Pope Francis. I find him very intriguing and I find his management style very interesting and would like to hear about his approach to change management. He’s making a lot of changes for the better and it would be quite a treat to talk to him.


ParenteBeard Social Media Links:

Twitter: @ParenteBeard


How to reach: ParenteBeard LLC, (215) 972-0701 or

Gary Mulloy discovered a company in the midst of a major transformation when he became chairman and CEO of Money Mailer in July 2010. He just wasn’t sure it was the right change for the direct mail marketing company.

“The senior management team had a vision that it wanted to be a different kind of company with a different mix of products and services,” Mulloy says. “And it wanted to do that with different clients than the company was currently servicing. That theoretically can be done. But that is such a departure from what you have as a business that you disconnect yourself from all the living parts of your company.”

Money Mailer faced a changing world and needed to adapt, just like most industries. Mulloy understood that, but didn’t think completely abandoning some of Money Mailers processes, which were still quite useful, was the right strategy.

“The reality is it needed to embrace technology to make what it was as a direct mail business that much stronger,” Mulloy says. “It’s not a threatened, at-risk business. It is a business that needs to learn how to thrive with technology.”

The company, which has about 100 employees and 185 franchise owners, currently reaches 17 million households across the country with its traditional coupon envelope. Full direct mail services account for about 50 percent of industry revenue. When Mulloy arrived, Money Mailer had been named the No. 1 advertising services franchise company in Entrepreneur Magazine for the seventh consecutive year.

So there was a lot to like about what Money Mailer had built and Mulloy wanted to show his team that it wasn’t time to just throw it all out the window in the name of change.

“I look at companies stumble and generally it’s because they misunderstand the complexity of actually achieving the success they see others achieving,” Mulloy says. “If they are objective and step back and look at their own success, they understand that complexity.”


Explain yourself

One of Mulloy’s first actions was to stop new technology initiatives he felt had no relationship to Money Mailer’s client base or the skill set of its core team members. It wasn’t about abandoning technology, but pursuing a better way to integrate it into the company.

“I sold off businesses that had been acquired that were not related to our core business and the skills and strengths of our team members,” Mulloy says.

“As a strategy, that was a total departure from what they had embarked upon. But it was welcomed by the team members and the franchise community because it was something they could understand, could relate to and could talk to their clients about.”

It wasn’t good for everybody at Money Mailer; some employees had to go as a result of Mulloy’s change in direction.

“But people were so energized and positive about where we were headed; they understood that as a cost of getting there, it was a necessary step that needed to be made,” Mulloy says.

Any time you’re making a significant change in how your business operates, and especially when you’re letting some people go, you need to help those who remain understand why the company is going in that direction.

“I have to constantly be talking to people,” Mulloy says. “One group of franchisees asked me if I had been a school teacher because I present data and situations in such a logical way. I am constantly talking to them and providing them with data and information that helps put realism in the communication that gets shared with them every day. I wanted them to understand we’re part of a vital, growing business.”

You also need to be aware of the different constituencies your business may have. Whether it’s employees, customers or in this case, franchisees, you need to do your best to speak to each group on their level.

“Franchisees are business owners themselves and therefore have much stronger points of view and much larger demands both in time and money,” Mulloy says. “There needs to be an element of fairness, consistency and thoroughness in everything so that everyone’s needs and desires are recognized in the decision-making process.

“That doesn’t mean they always agree with you. But they do respect you are trying to do what you believe is the right thing in a balanced way across the entire company.”

Mulloy’s goal was to position Money Mailer to offer direct mail marketing services with both leading-edge technology and the same client-driven approach for which it was known.

“The best blend for our clients in reaching the ultimate consumer is to put the two pieces of business together,” Mulloy says.


Reach out to your people

One of the biggest changes Mulloy implemented at Money Mailer was a move away from being a printer.

“We decided to outsource all our printing,” Mulloy says. “It took us more than two years to find partners to work with, to come up with business processes and procedures that would allow us to execute our very complicated mailing product on every mailing cycle working through the partners and all the people in the company that contributed to that effort.”

It was a strategic move to allow more internal effort to be directed toward integrating new technology into the company’s direct mail campaigns. Mulloy wanted a company that could offer a unique portfolio of consumer directed marketing services online, on mobile phones and through direct mail.

It made sense to Mulloy and he tried to convey that logic to his people. But that doesn’t mean he was always confident he had done the right thing.

“Did I have any sleepless nights over it or wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and ask myself if this was really the right thing to do?” Mulloy says. “Yes I did. But you go back to the decision-making process of where you were and where you want to get to.”

One thing you can’t be afraid to do is spend more time strategizing when there are still unknown variables in your equation.

“Too many decision-makers or CEOs like to feel that their image should be one of the decision-maker,” Mulloy says. “That makes the decision theirs and therefore, if they change that decision, it might look bad. Approach it in a more collaborative way. Work with people and share with them what you’re trying to do and how you’re trying to get there.

“Get them to fully embrace the objective as well as help put together the road map that is going to get you there. Then all of you own it, all of you have evaluated it and certified it, but all of you can also change it if you suddenly feel something is wrong.”

If something does go wrong and it was your fault, you’ve got to own it. Show your people that you are human just like they are, and that just because you’re the CEO it doesn’t mean you’re immune from making mistakes.

“It isn’t cockiness or arrogance or, ‘I’m the leader, you have to listen to me,’” Mulloy says. “At some point, I am the leader, so I do have to make certain decisions. I do have to resolve conflicts and mediate and make decisions on certain things. Some people will like my decisions and some people won’t. All I can ask is that they respect the fact that I’m making educated decisions and I’m trying to do it in a way that is respectful and is committed to a long-term strategy for all of us as one team.”


Looking ahead

As he looks to the future of Money Mailer, Mulloy sees lots of reason for optimism. He has his sites set on the next phase of the company’s evolution, a geographic expansion.

“The limitation to our revenue today and our absolute level of profitability is that we are in a limited distribution geographically in the United States,” Mulloy says. “Our big opportunity is to take this really terrific business model with all of these wonderful elements we’ve added to it with technology and outsourcing and everything and now apply that business model to a geography that is two, three or four times larger than what we are today. The volume follows from that.”

While Money Mailer is privately held, Mulloy did disclose that the company wants to triple its current size in five years.

“I think we could exceed that,” Mulloy says. “Our revenue base has a major growth opportunity and that’s an exciting thing to lead a team toward. It’s to help them see that we’re going to create a much larger business and create a lot of job opportunities for people to join our team.”



  • Explain yourself.
  • Know you’re not perfect.
  • Build on the momentum.


The Mulloy File:

Name: Gary Mulloy
Title: Chairman and CEO
Company: Money Mailer

Born: Chicago

Education: Bachelor’s degree in marketing, University of Illinois.

What was your first job and what did you learn from it? I worked in my family’s hardware store, Soukups Hardware, in Glen Ellyn, Ill. I was a salesperson on the floor from the age of 8. I learned how to work with people, how to meet their needs and how to help them creatively come up with ways to solve their hardware issues. What screw goes with what? How do I hang this? It was just basic selling skills. All those things have stayed with me.

Who has had the biggest influence on you? No. 1 would be my grandfather who ran that hardware store as a family business. Even though everyone working in the business was not family, they were made to feel like family. Next would be my wife, Jodi, a terrific person I’ve known for 20 years. She has always helped me to continue to believe in people. Her faith in the goodness of people always brings me back from darker moments and tougher times. All of us in leadership positions have darker moments or times we feel let down or pessimistic. She keeps me centered.

What one person would you like to meet? Nelson Mandela. Everything he went through in his life, he stayed focused on the goodness of people. How he did that through the things that he faced growing up, being imprisoned and all those kinds of things, and still ended up being a healing and uniting leader of South Africa at the end of his life is amazing to me.


Money Mailer Social Media Links:



How to reach: Money Mailer, (800) 624-5371 or

Amber Cox has never had a bad day working at California Pizza Kitchen. That doesn’t mean every day is free of stress or that she never faces situations that require her to step out of her comfort zone.

As a bartender at one of CPK’s new prototype restaurants that recently opened at Westfield Topanga Mall in Canoga Park, Calif., Cox often has to think fast to keep things moving.

“I have a regular who comes in quite often,” says Cox, who started bartending at the Topanga location in July and rapidly moved up to become the bar trainer. “When he does order, it’s usually on the complicated side. There was one occasion where he asked us to do something that we actually don’t do.”

Cox dashed back to the kitchen and found the expediter that night. She mentioned that this was a regular guest who brings lots of business to the restaurant and added that it was important to her personally that CPK find a way to take care of this guest and his request.

“The expediter was like, ‘No problem. What do you need?’” Cox says. “The guest was touched that the expediters, the managers and the servers were all rallying together to make sure he got exactly what it was that he needed. That kind of thing happens so often at this store and that’s why I love it.”


Let personality shine through

The experience between Cox and this particular patron is an example of the culture that G.J. Hart envisioned for CPK when he became CEO in August 2011. He wants employees who are more focused on guest satisfaction and less concerned about following a mental checklist each time a guest walks into the restaurant.

“Think about your favorite restaurant that you frequent often,” Hart says. “Why do you do that? Inevitably, the answer is not food first. It’s because they know who you are. It’s the old ‘Cheers’ model. They give you this great experience, it feels great, they know who you are and oh, by the way, the food is good.”

So how do you build a culture where employees are eager to find ways to satisfy your customers and can do it with a smile? It begins with letting people bring their natural personalities to work.

“We hire people because we like them, we like what they are saying and we like how we feel when we speak to them,” says Matthew Ross, an assistant general manager at the Topanga CPK. “When you hire them for that, and then you turn around and go into a service model where it’s, ‘Do these nine steps exactly this way,’ you’re contradicting the whole point. It’s a lot easier to say, ‘Hey, we really like you. Bring that to the table.’”

Lauren Rose, who works with Ross and Cox and has been with CPK for about three years, remembers what it was like before Hart arrived. She says the new way of doing things has made a big difference for everyone.

“It’s way less robotic,” Rose says. “We used to have a script that we would say when we went up to a table that included offering a specific starter, an alcoholic beverage and a non-alcoholic beverage. We’re supposed to move past that now and become more comfortable with the guests and really make them feel like they are getting their own personalized experience.”

The effort to make CPK more and more appealing with each visit stretches beyond the guest experience at the table. Rose says employees are engaged in all aspects of the way CPK does business.

“We’ve had new uniforms, improvements in our menu and one of the most recent changes of adding gluten-free pizza dough, which we highly anticipated,” Rose says. “The company is always evolving and does a great job of figuring out what interests people and how to keep them coming back. CPK is becoming way more modern and is reaching out to a younger demographic.”


Talk about what works

Building leaders in your organization comes down to the same principles, whether you’re a chain of pizza restaurants, a manufacturer, a marketing firm or any other kind of business.

“It’s really about wandering around your troops,” Ross says. “I like to wander around and go from group to group, table to table, or from the bar to the back of the house and to the dish area. I’m just wandering around to get a feel for what’s happening in the restaurant. The more you spend time with the staff and speak to them before their shift, during their shift and after, they’ll tell you more and more and share with you.”

Ross has identified a couple of people at his restaurant who have leadership potential just by the way they act when they are at work.

“Nobody has any idea that these two would want to move forward,” Ross says. “They don’t tell anyone anything about it. They don’t particularly coach others. But I can see it in them. I can see the light. That’s where the leadership of management comes in. You start to move in their direction and say, ‘How would you like to run the safety committee? How would you like to do a walk-through of the restaurant with me and see how things really operate?’ It’s that light that comes on in their eyes. You can see it right away.”

Another part of it is having open conversations with employees about what they are doing right and why it’s working so well.

“You just say, ‘Lauren, tell us how you sold so many desserts last Friday? How are you speaking to your guests to get so many compliments? Or Amber, how are you driving these repeat guests in a store that has only been open for four months?,’” Ross says. “That’s attributed to their happiness on the job and leads to their ability to teach others and they always jump at the chance to do that.”

CPK plans to continue to roll out its new “de-chained” restaurant model and Cox says she can’t wait to see what happens next.

“This is the first company that has made me stop and go, ‘Wow, I actually have a potential future here,’” Cox says. “All the managers I talk to love what they do and I haven’t had a single experience yet that has dissuaded me from wanting to further my career with this company. I’ve had nothing but encouragement from my management staff and all the other higher-ups I’ve had the opportunity to interact with.”

Execution has been and will continue to be the key, Ross says.

“The line of demarcation has been broken down,” Ross says. “G.J. invites our employees to have lunch with him and have meetings with the corporate teams. There is just this exchange of information, ideas and feelings that just was not there before. It’s a pleasure to see it unfold and see all the things they talk about happen.” 


How to reach: California Pizza Kitchen Inc., (310) 342-5000 or

G.J. Hart was a big fan of California Pizza Kitchen before he took over as CEO in August 2011. One of the reasons he liked the restaurant chain so much was its willingness to be different from its competitors in the pizza industry.

“It was unique, a place that created a special experience for folks because it dared to be different,” Hart says. “You can’t rest on the status quo in any business, but in this business in particular. It just moves too fast.”

When he arrived at California Pizza Kitchen, Hart, who previously helped Texas Roadhouse grow from $63 million in 1999 to more than $1.2 billion in 2011, saw an organization that wasn’t quite as pioneering as it once was.

“CPK had gone through significant ups and downs, ownership changes and challenges,” Hart says. “It had just morphed to where the innovation wasn’t as forefront and top of mind as it was over the years.”

Hart wanted to get the company back to its innovative roots. He felt CPK and its 13,180 employees were at their best when they stepped out and tried new propositions instead of following a more conservative philosophy.

“I felt it was an iconic brand that had made its way in casual dining in a way that was unique and different than many others,” says Hart, who is also the company’s president and executive chairman.

When CPK opened its first restaurant in Beverly Hills in 1985, it used an open kitchen to prepare hearth-baked pizzas such as The Original BBQ Chicken, Thai Chicken and Jamaican Jerk Chicken. The company has expanded from California to more than 260 locations in more than 30 states and 11 countries, as well as in airports, concession stands at sporting events and the frozen food aisle of grocery stores.

“How do we effectively bring what was the best of CPK and CPK’s history forward and make it relevant today?” Hart says. “I like to say it’s brand evolution and not revolution, which is why we call our strategy the next chapter. It’s really getting people to be open-minded and to use their brains more than going through the motions because it’s worked over the years.”


Build your foundation

Hart’s initial goal at CPK was to talk to people at all levels of the organization. It involved speaking to thousands of employees, as well as managers and general managers in 40 cities over a period of four months. Hart wanted to share his thoughts, but he also wanted to hear what his employees thought about what CPK could be.

“They get to know you by the way you interact with them,” Hart says. “So for me, it’s seeking to understand where they are, where they want to go as individuals, where they feel like we are as an organization and truly listening to them and asking a lot of questions.”

As employees saw how curious Hart was in what they were telling him and how engaged he was, they began to share their feelings.

“As I ask the questions, they’ll sometimes think twice about how to answer,” Hart says. “That leads to the next part, which is, ‘OK, what would you do about this?’ It’s starting to build that collaborative spirit, which is done through communication. And it’s through communication that people start to build trust. Trust is earned over time, it develops and they start to feel more confident.”

In those first encounters, Hart was fully aware that people were trying to get a read on him just as much as he was trying to get to know them.

“There has been a lot written about my leadership beliefs,” Hart says. “Right or wrong, they are mine. I like to take ownership of them.”

When you can be transparent and confident in who you are and can get the people you lead to do the same, you begin to develop a framework to make things happen.

“They test you on that,” Hart says. “It’s like, ‘What are you doing when no one is looking?’ I always feel someone is looking, so the behavior needs to be real and genuine. Once they figure that out, you start to break down barriers and things start to come together.”


Understand what you do

During his first 15 months at the helm of CPK, a lot of time was spent on what Hart likes to call the “blocking and tackling” of the business.

“Are we doing the business fundamentals the correct way?” Hart says. “Are there ways that we need to address hospitality? There were many. Are there things we need to address with the menu and execution? There were many. Do we need to continue to work on being able to deliver guests the experience they deserve for their hard-earned money? There were a number of ways we looked at that.”

The dialogue was ongoing with back-of-the-house employees, front-of-the-house employees, dishwashers, hosts, etc. Summits and roundtables were held to get at the key factors that would separate CPK from its competitors.

One of the results was the creation of a mission statement, something that many organizations have, but don’t follow.

“Most mission statements tend to be too long and diluted,” Hart says. “Ours is pretty easy to understand and people really latched on to it. It talks about passion, being committed to inspire and California creativity. We got people aligned around that and then we started to develop a longer-term strategy based on those near-term needs that we learned.”

A critical component to any company in the restaurant industry is customer service. On paper, it seemed like CPK had an effective system that covered all the bases.

“We had a very structured approach to service,” Hart says. “There are nine steps you take to execute a guest experience once you arrive at a table as a server. ‘My name is so and so and I’ll be your server. Would you like a drink?’ And so on.

“That was great, but it had not evolved over time to have sensitivity for the overall guest. We were treating a couple with two screaming kids the same way we might be treating a couple that was on a date night. That sensitivity got lost because the structure wouldn’t allow it.”

Hart didn’t want CPK customers to get the service they expected. He wanted them to get service that went above and beyond expectation and would resonate with them — to the point that they would want to return and tell their friends and family to check out CPK.

“We started to focus on the overall experience of hospitality,” Hart says. “We went from a sequence of service to being much more sensitized to the guest’s needs. How do we wrap those needs around providing a model that gets them addressed, but still stays focused on the details that matter?”

When Hart talked to employees, he would discuss situations and ask whether a particular action taken in response made sense. It got them thinking. Then he introduced a scenario in which they had just met Hart and a group of his friends who made plans to visit that person’s house for dinner in the near future.

“Let’s go two weeks out and tell me what you might do to prepare for that dinner,” Hart says. “Then I’d go from two weeks to one week to the day of the experience. It wouldn’t take long until they’d say things like, ‘I would make sure I learned more about you and what you might like for dinner.’ I’d say, ‘Why would you want to do that?’ They would say, ‘I want to make you happy.’”

It would continue until employees began to think about what they could do to please customers and no longer think of just a checklist.

“The lights start to go off,” Hart says. “Let’s make it stimulating enough that they want to be part of the solution. When you do that, it starts to make sense and when it makes sense, it’s because you answered the ‘why,’ the ‘what’ and the ‘how.’”


Moving forward

As employees become engaged in more personal customer service, CPK has also started changing physically. The company has opened two new locations as part of its “de-chaining” strategy, which moves away from the “expected, shiny feel of a fast-casual restaurant” to a more local, earthy scheme that is “rustic, organic and relaxed.”

One new location opened in Canoga Park, Calif., another in Sawgrass, Fla., and more locations are in the works under this new model.

“It’s creating discipline and the systems in place to allow, or at least try to allow the voices to be heard,” Hart says. “We’re pretty good at that and we’re getting better over time. It will improve as this collaborative approach is really embraced and understood totally in this environment.” 



  • Ask lots of questions.
  • Give some thought about what you do.
  • Let employees think.


The Hart File:

Name: G.J. Hart
Title: President, CEO and executive chairman
Company: California Pizza Kitchen Inc.

Born: Hilversum, the Netherlands

Education: Business management degree, James Madison University. In 2012, Hart was elected as a charter member of the JMU Hospitality Management Hall of Fame. About receiving the honor, Hart says, “It’s probably one of my proudest moments. You always think about your history and about growing up and I worked through college. It’s cool to be able to be recognized.”

What were some of your earliest jobs and what did you learn from them? I was a Little League umpire, a dishwasher at Howard Johnson’s and then a teller at Kmart. They taught me about being around people and being in the people business. More important than that, is hard work. I’ve never lost sight of the fact that what a lot of folks do every day to make their living is hard, hard work. You have to be willing to pay the price and earn it.

Who has had the biggest influence on you? A fellow who was my first major boss, and who has since passed away of Lou Gehrig’s disease, a big German guy named Jerry Steinpres. I worked for him when I was in the poultry business. He’s a very tough, hard-nosed guy. He was a mentor in a lot of ways because he cared about me and my development. I also learned what not to do.

What is your favorite menu item at CPK? I have lots of favorites, especially since I’m helping to develop some of them, but The Original BBQ Chicken pizza is still my favorite.


California Pizza Kitchen Social Media Links:

Twitter: @calpizzakitchen


How to reach: California Pizza Kitchen Inc., (310) 342-5000 or