Frank Venegas Jr.’s company, The Ideal Group Inc., was facing what you would call, well, not an ideal situation.

The year was 2008. Even if your company didn’t file for bankruptcy or face an existential threat, you probably had a bottoming-out point about that time or thereafter. At some point, your company probably reached a nadir, and you knew the only place to go was up.

The Ideal Group’s low point came when the company had to slash nearly 14 percent of its workforce. For founder, chairman and CEO Venegas, the staff reduction was a fork in the road. He could have chipped away at his staff little by little, reducing the short-term trauma level, but potentially forcing his company to go through multiple rounds of demoralizing cuts.

Or he could take the lump-sum approach, get it all the cuts over with at once, causing more short-term trauma, but beginning the healing process sooner.

Venegas chose the latter approach.

“At that point, we were probably operating the company at 30 percent larger than what it needed to be,” Venegas says. “What we told everyone was ‘Here is where we are at, we are going to cut it really hard and heavy, and we are going to do it one time, instead of doing it every month.’ And we were fortunate because we were able to hold true to that. We did it once, and we held on.”

As the saying goes, laws are like sausages; you really don’t want to know how they are made — you really don’t want to know how staff cuts are made. It’s a stomach-turning process for just about every business leader to decide why one group should remain employed and other group members should lose their jobs.

But in uncertain times, information is your company’s lifeblood. Venegas quickly realized that if his industrial manufacturing, distribution and solutions company was to recover and emerge stronger, he’d have to lead the way.

That meant keeping his remaining employees in the loop regarding the company’s status, why the cuts were happening and, perhaps most importantly, the reasons to get excited about the future.

“You can’t do much about the short-term morale of the remaining people,” Venegas says. “The only thing you can do is keep them up on what you’re doing as a company, and be honest and forthright. You try to give them new opportunities whenever possible, and really establish an entrepreneurial culture where people have the ability to try new things and make some mistakes along the way.”

Create a culture

Employees do come to work for a paycheck. They rely on your company for the money that provides food, shelter and other basic life necessities. So to say money has nothing to do with fulfillment of employees is flat-out wrong. Money is a factor.

However, it’s a basic factor. If you can’t provide competitive wages, the discussion regarding talent retention ends there. But if you can satisfy an employee’s financial requirements, employment does become about something else.

In short, once the money matter is settled, fulfillment is a matter of engagement. Employees want opportunities to think, create and innovate. They want a leadership group that is responsive to their input.

Employee engagement is increasingly critical when a company has to do more with less.

Ideal’s staff cuts were the product of a customer base that was about 70 percent automotive. When the U.S. auto industry took a historic nosedive during the depths of the recession, the ripple effect hit Ideal. While the company was able to endure the shock better than some of its competitors, sales slipped to under $100 million in 2009, making cuts necessary.

While those left behind had to deal with the collective morale damage and other fallout, Venegas saw an opportunity. Ideal had to do more with less, but the opportunity was there for his remaining staff to flex its entrepreneurial muscles and demonstrate their versatility.

Entrepreneurship is something that has always been a part of Ideal’s culture, but Venegas realized the time was right to embrace the concept anew.

“When you walk in here, and see the way the company looks, the way we run the company, it doesn’t take you a long time to realize that we are a highly entrepreneurial and change-oriented company,” Venegas says. “We’re like a Silicon Valley company in that we do things far differently than anybody else.”

The key to developing and maintaining a focus on innovation within a company is to educate employees, which is as simple — and as complicated — as communicating with them. You have to reveal your vision, your strategy, your methods and, when possible, your financial numbers, to your people.

If you can paint a detailed picture regarding where the company stands, and where each person fits into the larger picture, you stand a much better chance of motivating employees and keeping the idea stream flowing.

Venegas likes to keep his employees apprised of where the company stands financially, whether the numbers show a profit or a loss. Though some leaders might look at a financial loss and see something that would damage employee motivation, Venegas believes the act of informing employees is a motivator in and of itself.

“You get people to buy into an entrepreneurial culture by making money,” he says. “So for our purposes, we want our people to know whether we are making money or not. We run a monthly financial statement for each of the six companies that we have, and those are reviewed not only by senior management but also by the people who lead those companies — which we call BUMs, or business unit managers. They are in charge of their balance sheet, P&L and the whole deal.

“You just make it really clear for everyone to see whether you are doing well or not so well. Everybody should be able to hold their eyes open and take a look.”

Informed employees have a better idea of how to formulate new ideas that walk in step with what the company needs. They feel more empowered to take calculated risks, live with the consequences, and if the plan fails, to turn it into a learning experience for next time.

“We don’t box many people into any particular role,” Venegas says. “My brother and I own the company, and I guess we were taught how to take things apart and put them back together. A lot of times, if we didn’t need this part or that part for a given project, we didn’t get it.

“So we were always looking at how we could build things faster, less expensive and more reliable. That is a concept we’re always trying to pass on to our people here.”

Feed their careers

Venegas believes employees want four things out of an employer, apart from financial compensation: consistency, opportunities to express their ideas, opportunities for promotion and the chance for longevity.

“My CFO just celebrated her 15th anniversary here,” Venegas says. “When she initially came to work for me, she was a graduate intern from the University of Michigan. Obviously, she wasn’t the CFO when she first started, but she grew into that position, she demonstrated great learning habits, and it has been a real blessing to have her here.”

To Venegas, the long tenure of his CFO reinforces the importance of career development as an employee motivator. In particular, Venegas values hands-on employee development that coaches his team to think, create and innovate in a real-world setting, formulating ideas that will be relevant to the company moving forward.

“Our career development operates every single day,” he says. “We are a very well-managed company. The key, I believe, is to set your missions in a very clear way, establish performance metrics and go through them frequently. We go through them not only on a monthly basis, but on a weekly basis.”

Venegas also has his team conduct frequent meetings. Though many business heads view meetings as one of the biggest time-wasters on the company schedule, Venegas still sees value in getting a group of people together in a room to exchange ideas, and share what is working and not working in the company’s operations.

“People say meetings are a waste of time, and that is their opinion,” he says. “But here, it really gives us time to open up and talk. Here, our meetings are pretty open, and you can say what you want. When someone proposes an idea for a new project, we start out with a white board, and begin listing the pros and cons. There is no particular recipe regarding the how and why of the projects we pick, the things we are going to go after.

“But I do find that it is pretty apparent over the course of the meeting whether it makes sense or not. We can generally see whether we’re filling the white board with reasons why we should do something, or reasons why we shouldn’t do it.”

As long as the conversation remains respectful and all viewpoints are considered, Venegas says his team will come to a consensus on how to proceed. If there are any disagreements or conflicts, those have to be addressed in order to get everyone back on the same page.

Motivating employees means respecting them — their work, their opinions, their careers, their ideas. Venegas has promoted that viewpoint at Ideal, and it has helped lead the company out of the recession to $201 million in revenue last year.

“We look at our company values during our meetings, and our mission statement, and from there it’s really not that hard to put together what we have to do in order to be a success. I remind our people — and sometimes, I have to remind myself — that we went through this whole recession, and we’re still here. We remain strong, and we didn’t have the problems of some of our competitors and other companies.”

How to reach: The Ideal Group Inc., (313) 849-0000 or

The Venegas file

Frank Venegas Jr.

Founder, chairman and CEO

The Ideal Group Inc.

History: I started the business 33 years ago because I won a Cadillac in a card draw. I sold it a few days later, took the money, put it in my banking account and started Ideal.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

My grandfather always told me that if you do what the boss doesn’t want to do, you’ll have a job every time. Also, you need to create a reason why you’re in business. Do what someone else in the market isn’t doing. You could be in the window-washing business, but it might be how you present yourself. Maybe it’s how you let customers inspect the final product. But you do something a little different, and that draws the customers back to you.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

Have integrity and don’t lie. I’d say that’s the most important thing by far. Once you’re not honest, no one wants to work for you.

What is your definition of success?

Being happy in anything and everything you do and seeing everybody around me fulfilled. I lost $18 million on a business deal in 1998. I did something that I should have thought harder about. The company made it back, not because I was a great leader, but because of the people who work for me. It takes a whole bunch of effort from a whole lot of people to keep a company happy.

Published in Detroit
Wednesday, 01 August 2012 20:00

Michele Fabrizi keeps MARC USA client focused

Michele Fabrizi has always had a philosophical difference with the way most advertising firms approach business and client relationships. Having worked on both the client and business side of the industry, she has become tired of continually seeing firms focus strictly on creating a strong ad with no regard for what the customer really wants and ignoring ideas because they came from a non-senior person, male or a female.

Fabrizi, who is president and CEO of MARC USA, a 280-employee, $300 million full-service advertising firm, was attracted to Marketing Advertising Research Consultants because the company did business the way she thought all firms should operate — with the client at the center of the business model.

In her first two years at the helm of MARC she oversaw 200 percent growth, much of it the result of her ability to get the firm to focus on the client’s needs.

“I am very much about building a business model that is centered on the clients and getting results for our clients,” Fabrizi says. “That DNA and some of the other philosophies such as it doesn’t matter who has a big idea whether they’re junior or senior, male or female, that idea is wrapped up, and we work to get it up and going. Those were very different from the experiences I had at larger shops and on the client side.”

With this philosophy driving the business and Fabrizi reinforcing it, MARC USA has been able to break barriers and foster innovation within the company, creating growth and client relationships that help transform brands.

“It’s been really exciting to build a company that is based on what’s right for the clients,” Fabrizi says. “It’s about breaking things and being innovative. We can do so much more for our clients and be more innovative and invest in the business which you couldn’t do in a public company.”

Here’s how Fabrizi keeps MARC USA client-focused while building relationships that foster growth and innovation.

Build a client relationship

Good business runs on developing and cultivating strong relationships. Simply having a good product or service no long assures repeat business or a place at the top of your industry. Look to make a lasting impression by playing to client needs.

“It sounds simple, but first of all you have to really have to want to hear and listen and get to know people,” Fabrizi says. “If you ultimately think either that’s not important, you’re not interested and it’s a waste of time, or you know more, then you can’t do it. If you think you know more about their business and you want to spend all the time talking, you can’t do it. It’s really about truly wanting to get to know someone on all levels, business and personal.”

Part of developing a deeper relationship lies in how you conduct your meetings, getting off site, and not just across the conference room table.

“Through those kinds of conversations, you can really get more insight, not just into the person but what’s really critical in their business that they feel is important that might not come up in the conference room,” she says.

“There’s a whole basic relationship management that really is critical in your client’s business at all levels. It’s really doing a relationship plan at all levels for all the key people you have to come in contact with. Making sure everybody has their ownership and accountability on that is the only way you’re going to be able to get the information and insight beyond what you can garner on your own to figure out how to help the client be ready for this big idea or the challenge that they’re facing.”

The best relationship people are the ones who really are very thoughtful and plan and study the business. Particularly in this day and age, everything is so fast. Everything is so 24/7 that it becomes very important for the high-touch part.

“Frankly, in our business, that’s very important to touch the consumer across all channels, online, in-store, word-of-mouth,” she says. “Having that kind of ability is important to us in our business in order to be effective communicators and it has to be integrated.”

To integrate better communication and high-touch capability, MARC focused on a team environment and training.

“Team is about behavioral modification, trust, and how to get people to talk,” Fabrizi says. “As part of our culture and our people and talent, we continue with team dynamic high-performance training at all levels, with my senior leaders all the way down. There’s nobody in the company that doesn’t get that training.

“If you’re training people how to work effectively among themselves, that transfers to their clients and relationships.”

To aid the culture of teamwork and a client relationship focus, MARC decided to move to one P&L statement. Instead of having each client listed under separate P&L statements, they combined them to make the overall environment more collaborative and team- oriented. The company wanted the best solutions for its clients and didn’t want people fighting over P&L.

“With the one P&L what we did was created a mindset shift in our employees, because you just can’t say, ‘Work together,’” Fabrizi says. “It won’t work. With that being freed up and the other training and tools that we give them, literally an integrated team gets together and will talk about the issues of a client and come up with ideas. It’s about breaking convention and being innovative.”

Get results through innovation

MARC USA has a heritage of doing things differently and bringing innovation to the industry. The company even created an off-the-wall word to describe its unique capabilities.

“We’re using breakthrough research techniques and new technologies to drive innovation every day,” Fabrizi says. “That’s what I’m about, what’s next? At MARC we say what we do is a word we made up because there is no word for what we do. It’s called ‘wezog’ and it’s how we think. It’s what we expect from our people. It’s a critical component of our long-term client relationships. It means doing things the way they haven’t been done before — thinking outside the box.”

The firm builds successful brands and drives sales through its creativity, insights and technology and the results are changing the game for clients.

“It’s a key reason why we have such strong, long-lasting client relationships,” she says. “It’s really about not doing things the way they’ve been done before, being highly collaborative with clients and finding ideas to break assumptions and challenge conventions. This is the kind of thinking that really helps brands strive in good times and in bad times.”

There are three words that clients use to describe MARC: passion, vision and collaboration. If you’re going to deliver on those three, you have to have the people power that’s going to do that.

“That’s how I’ve taken the company into the future, and it’s such a right thing for the business now,” she says. “It’s not about what’s nice and what the competitors are doing. People come in with ideas that are not founded.

“We do a lot of innovative techniques and strategic alliances on deep-seated emotions. Good enough is not good enough, particularly when you look at the business challenges that everyone’s facing.”

These days, consumers are more in charge than ever. They have more choices, they have more information and they have more ways to shop. It is up to firms to deliver something that is not a one-size-fits-all solution for clients.

“Sometimes our ideas are rethinking how they do business,” Fabrizi says. “Our initial ideas may not even be advertising ideas, but ideas that would protect their ROI and more along the lines of business solutions, but eventually could become advertising and marketing solutions.

“We have a very deep practice in behavioral science and behavioral economics so that we can really understand at a very deep, deep level. What we do is almost like brand therapy where we get the consumer to qualitatively express their conscious and subconscious thoughts so that we can really empower them to explore their thinking beyond the literal.”

To get those results you need to evolve and create tools and systems that help to provide new ways to connect with the consumer. In order to do this, you have to be up close and personal in your clients’ business.

“In any business today, whoever your clients are, if you’re not intimately involved, I don’t know how you’re going to survive,” she says. “You have to have trust so they’ll share data and the pain points, or you just can’t get the kind of revolutionary ideas that are going to get the kind of sea change results that are needed.”

Look for opportunities

In a business that constantly strives for new and innovative ideas, you have to reinforce what it is you’re trying to do within your company — and it’s the CEOs job to lead the charge.

“The secret is you have to get the senior leaders to buy in to it to make radical change,” Fabrizi says. “If you can’t do that, you will not be successful. If you want that type of environment then you need to keep saying it in every which way and reinforcing it and so do the leaders or it won’t happen.

“To me this is about transformation and how do you adjust your company in this day and age when you’ve got so many pressures. It’s really looking at your business and saying, ‘Why are we doing it this way? How do we do it differently?’”

In the world of advertising it’s all about being unique and having the ability to take advantage of opportunities when they arise. You have to plan for this in order to bring opportunity to fruition.

“Again, it’s thinking out of the box,” she says. “It’s not doing things normally. It takes time to do that, and it’s not a quick fix. What are the fundamental core things about the business that if nullified or changed or innovated, within a period of a year or two, could dramatically catapult the company forward so it’s not just parity?

“That’s what you’re seeing out there is a lot of parity, and you see a lot of tactics. You see very little really strong core business strategies. It’s very tactical and that’s short-term, so that means you’ll always be running, running to catch up because those things are very easy for competitors to emulate.”

Those strategies and plans are the responsibilities of the senior leadership. Those tactics have to be driven forward as the day-to-day business continues to function.

“That falls squarely with the CEO and the senior leadership and even the management level,” she says. “If they don’t think it’s important, they’re not adding those insights, they’re not worried about it, they’re not planning it and they’re not getting together to collaborate on it, you’re going to lose your way.”

The other key part is collaboration among your leadership in these processes.

“You have to have people who can help you make that idea happen,” she says. “If somebody within the organization has an amazing idea and I get hold of it, it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh — we’ve got to do it.’ I don’t care where it comes from. In this day and age we all have egos, but at the top you have to have less ego and more ability to know when you have to follow and listen, as opposed to constantly being the brilliant, fearless leader.”

How to reach: MARC USA, (412) 562-2000 or  


- Get to know your clients on a business and personal level.

- Use client relationships to deliver results.

- Find opportunities to grow.

The Fabrizi File

Michele Fabrizi

President and CEO


Born: Pittsburgh, Pa.

Education:  Received a bachelor of arts degree from Carlow University

What was your very first job and what did you take away from that experience?

My first job was helping out in my father’s music store. I saw how he took the time to listen to people and treat each student or customer as an individual. It was a very powerful lesson in many ways — how to develop people, how to deliver excellence in service, and how much you can learn about a customer’s needs if you pay attention to what they say and also what’s not said. He understood that emotions drive choices long before neuroscientists proved this.

Who is someone you admire in business?

Tena Clark — writer, musician, entrepreneur and head of DMI Music. She was one of the first people to understand that brands have a sound DNA and built a very successful company to deliver this vision. We’re very like-minded and that’s why MARC USA partners with DMI to use music to help brands forge strong emotional connections with their customers.

What are you most excited about for the future of your industry? Why?

Developments in brain science and technology are taking us in amazing new directions. While some people claim technology separates people, we’re using it to make stronger connections than ever and to deliver highly customized, personalized one-to-one experiences with brands.

If you could have a conversation with any one person from the past or present, to whom would you speak with and why?

Leonardo DaVinci — truly a visionary who also got things done. He combined left-brain and right-brain thinking to envision and then create things not even imagined by anyone else around at his time or for many years after.

Published in Pittsburgh

K’NEX Brands LP has been taking a bigger and bigger bite out of its market ever since Michael Araten took over as president and CEO in 2006. In the past six years, the manufacturer of building toys has formed partnerships linking the K’NEX brand with brands such as Nintendo, Sesame Street and NASCAR.

This year, the company will introduce a line of toys licensed by Rovio Entertainment, makers of the “Angry Birds” video game franchise.

The tie-ins that Araten and his leadership team have orchestrated are having a major impact on the company’s bottom line. In 2008, K’NEX produced about $100 million in North American sales. In 2011, the company’s North American sales had jumped to $150 million.

Given all the success that K’NEX has had, what is Araten’s first tip on managing growth?

“I would tell other leaders to be lazy,” he says.

No, Araten hasn’t discovered the secret to building a highly successful enterprise from your living room couch. But he has developed a good grasp of what a CEO should and shouldn’t be doing when piloting a company through a growth phase.

“What I mean is, the first question when I’m looking at a task is, ‘Who needs to be doing this, and is there a way I can put this in someone else’s hands?’” he says. “The key for the CEO suite is to recognize who has what talents, and make sure they do what they are great at. If you don’t have the ability to do something yourself, what you want is someone on your team who can help you accomplish the key things you need to do, so that you can execute your growth strategy.”

Araten has been able to successfully manage the growth of K’NEX through strategic planning and effective delegation — knowing where he wants his company to go, and who can take it there.

To Araten, the plan is the known quantity, and the people are the variables. The success of K’NEX — or any company — is dependent on how well the team executes the strategy.

“If you have the right people executing on the plan, it will go really, really well,” he says. “If you don’t, it doesn’t matter how good the plan is, it just won’t happen. That’s why the linchpin in all of this is assessing the talent of your people and making sure they’re doing what they are really good at.”

Draw a map


The first step in any journey with a destination is to plan a route. When plotting a journey for your company, your route is outlined in your strategic plan.

Araten gathers all his top thinkers together for periodic strategy sessions, during which the team assesses growth opportunities that have either been presented to K’NEX or that the company is considering pursuing. The strategy team members weigh avenues for growth against a number of internal and external factors.

“It’s a risk-reward calculation, really,” Araten says. “How much reward do we think we can get for a given opportunity, and how much risk is related to that reward? We look at how much risk we want to take, how much inventory we want to build, what does our distribution channel look like, and build a plan around that. Once we agree on how much upside there is related to how much downside, we go and execute on that plan.”

To develop an accurate strategic plan, you have to know what market factors stand the biggest possible chance of affecting your business. K’NEX exists in a market that is seasonal in nature, and produces a product with a very specific appeal to consumers. With that in mind, he set boundary lines for what his team could consider regarding growth opportunities.

“We’re a seasonal business, so there is a little extra risk involved with that,” Araten says. “With every opportunity that comes along, we also have to ask ourselves if it makes sense as a building toy. Not to single out ‘American Idol,’ but even though the show is very popular, it probably wouldn’t make sense as a building toy.”

When Araten and his team did research prior to signing a licensing agreement with Nintendo last year, they started by figuring out the type of reach Nintendo had with its brand and video game characters, and by extension, the type of reach K’NEX could expect with cross-branded building toy products.

“We started by asking how many users of Nintendo products there are in the U.S. and around the world,” Araten says. “For example, we know that 40 million Wii units have been sold and another 70 million Nintendo DS units. We looked at Q Scores of various characters, and those scores have always been in the top five over the past decade.

“We also did a survey of our key customers, so we knew that retailers were open to carrying a new product. So we took all of that information, looked at our budgets in several categories, where we’d find placement in North America, Europe, Australia and other places, and decided that we were comfortable making, let’s say, a $10 million investment in inventory.”

Good growth opportunities in the manufacturing sector usually center on two areas: new customers and new products. You either increase what you offer to customers, or you increase the pool of customers to which you offer your existing products. In most cases, your growth will result from a mixture of the two, and you need to account for that in any strategic growth plan.

In the toy industry, executives such as Araten are fighting a constant battle to stay current. Kids quickly grow bored of their current toys and parents are always on the hunt for the next smash-hit birthday or holiday gift, so the leaders at K’NEX have to harness their creative and collaborative power to stay a step ahead of demand.

In that battle, the wins you already achieved can act as a critical springboard for future wins.

“When you look at our history, our first big licensing deal was with ‘Sesame Street’ back in 2007 or ’08,” Araten says. “Once we had ‘Sesame Street,’ and people saw how good we were performing and how well we could capitalize on the opportunity, licensors started coming to us with ideas.

“We were the ones who approached Nintendo for that deal, but we’ve had a lot of other brands come to us. That is where you want to build a checklist into any strategic plan that it makes sense for you. That you can reach consumers with marketing and distribution, and that the idea is a good match for your company. As I said, we want to make sure it’s an idea that makes sense as a building toy.

“We’re also starting to leverage technology so that we can ship directly to consumers in pretty much every country on earth. We want to be able to ship to anywhere from our warehouses in the U.S., so we are modifying our websites to be able to launch in a variety of countries that make sense. We’re working on both of those, and that is why we’re so interested in product relationships with global appeal.”

Invest in human capital

A strong culture that embraces solid core values is a central component of any high-growth organization. But to have that type of culture, you need to first build a team that can embody and promote your values.

Many leaders reference the principle of getting employees in the right seats on the bus, as popularized in Jim Collins’ book, “Good to Great.” No matter what metaphor you use to illustrate it, the concept is true: In order to have a strong culture that can enable growth, you need the best possible people positioned throughout your organization in a way that allows them to grow as employees, and allows you to leverage their talents and skills for the best possible effect.

Araten says much of what he has learned about people stems from years of experience, which has helped him develop a reliable gut instinct regarding whether a prospective employee fits in the company, or whether a given team member fits in a specific role. But that isn’t enough. You also need to be able to ask the right questions.

“Some of what I do I’ll refer to as a ‘friendly deposition,’” Araten says. “You ask people a lot of questions about why they are doing what they’re doing, you apply common sense to what the answers are, and you see if they’ve thought about all the potential angles to a given problem or scenario.

“If they have experience dealing with that scenario in the past, that is something to consider as well, Araten says. “In some cases, you’re going to have some new employees with limited experience, so some of what you are able to do is going to depend on where you are in your life cycle as an organization.”

In assessing a person for a job, promotion or assignment, you need to get to the core of their thought process. If you can peel back the onion layers on how they process information and solve problems, you’ll get a much clearer view regarding how they might fit your team.

“You have to look at the thought process of how they came to their decisions,” Araten says. “If it makes sense, it looks like the probabilities are in your favor, and you can move forward.

“There is never a scenario where you have perfect information or a guarantee of success, so you just try to get as close as you can, make the move with the information that you have at the time, and the results are the results. More often than not, when we take that approach, things seem to pan out in our favor.”

If you hire or promote an employee into a new position, and the person falters out of the gate, making decisions that don’t bear fruit, you need to get to the heart of what is going wrong. It might be the person, or it might be the process. In either case, you need to get your hands on as much information as possible so that you can address the issue.

When K’NEX launched its line of Nintendo products, the team overseeing the launch made a miscalculation in the budget. Admittedly, Araten was not happy, but he didn’t go on the warpath, point fingers of blame at everyone involved. Instead, he used it as a learning opportunity.

“On a couple of the items, we underestimated somewhere on the order of $100,000,” he says. “We thought it was going to cost $100,000, but it ended up costing $200,000. As part of our review on all the product lines, this comes up, and you could tell the person who was telling this to me was a little nervous. But we went through why it happened, whether we missed anything, and found that our logic was sound.

‘In the end, we learned some things about what we could have done differently. We ended up improving some of our internal mechanisms.”

If you encounter a similar situation, Araten says you should do three things.

“One, figure out if the person in charge asked the right questions, and if the questions were based in logic,” he says. “Second, if you would have done anything differently, what is it and did the person you put in charge know it – or should they have known it? Three, teach them how to ask better questions. Oftentimes, as the CEO, you will have a much broader view of the organization, and will think to ask questions that the team or department leader didn’t. That’s part of the learning process. If everybody knew all the questions to ask, we’d have hundreds of CEOs in the organization.

“If you value teaching in your organization, teach people what questions to ask so they improved their logic. Then, the next time a situation arises, it goes smoother and reaches an even better outcome.”

How to reach: K’NEX Brands LP, (215) 997-7722 or

The Araten file

Born: Montreal

Education: Political science degree from Stanford University; juris doctor from the University of Pennsylvania Law School

First job: I worked as a part-time sales guy at a leather and fur store in suburban Philadelphia.

Araten on building a high-growth organization:

I think you have to develop a culture, along with some mechanical things. You need to be able and willing to reinvest in the mechanical infrastructure, but to me the more important thing is that you need to create a culture where it is OK to take a chance going fast, where you forgive people their mistakes as long as their logic is good. So I think it is setting that tone from the top and letting your leadership team say it to the rest of the crew.

We are going to go a hundred miles an hour to try and take advantage of these opportunities, and we are going to miss some stuff. But as long as the logic is sound, what we miss shouldn't be critical. Whatever mistakes we make, we will learn from and move on. It is easy to say, but the more critical part is the first couple of times you make those mistakes and learn from them and move on. That is what people really remember.

Araten on reinforcing a culture through communication:

I have one-to-one meetings with my leadership team every week. We are sitting together for at least an hour each week making sure that we understand what the priorities are and the logic behind the major decisions that we are making. When things go awry, it starts with me asking how we are going to learn from it so that it doesn't happen again, and then moving on. Then, encouraging them to do the same thing with their teams.

On the flip side, you want to make sure that you are giving positive feedback whenever possible, whenever they are doing things that you really like. We have a few mechanisms in place for that, such as awards that any employee can give to any other employee when someone goes above and beyond the call of duty.

Published in Philadelphia

When Michael Hilton looks at a soda bottle, he isn’t thinking about whether it tastes good or if it will quench his thirst. He is thinking about all the ways his company can incorporate better applications to make the bottle.

Historically, bottle labels were applied by rolling the bottle in a pot of glue, which would result in the adhesive dripping and covering areas of the bottle that didn’t need to be. The application Nordson Corp. developed was a pattern spray on the bottle. The leading edge of the label is placed on the bottle, it is wrapped around and receives a coating on the trailing edge, which saves 20 to 30 percent in adhesives.

“It’s a big seller for our customers,” Hilton says. “That’s one way to drive growth — create applications with technology.”

Driving growth is what his objective has been since being named president and CEO at the beginning of 2010. Nordson Corp., a more than 4,000-employee manufacturer of products and systems used for dispensing adhesives, coatings, sealants and biomaterials for several end markets, has been a strong company, even during the recession years. When Hilton arrived, he saw the company as an $800 million organization that could become a $2 billion or $3 billion business.

“If you step back, [Nordson] was surrounding the customer [with a] globally well-positioned [team], a talented team, and a team that executed,” he says. “That’s a very good foundation to build on.”

Globally, Nordson has a presence in more than 30 countries and has been well-established in locations such as China, India, Brazil, Europe and Japan for a long time.

“For a company our size, that’s a great global footprint to have to take advantage of opportunities for growth,” Hilton says.

To benefit from those opportunities he had to evaluate the business and understand the key areas that needed attention and resources.

Here is how Hilton is improving the operations and processes of a good company to make it a great one.

Cover all the bases

Coming into a company as its new president and CEO usually carries a lot of weight. Hilton didn’t want to just come in and make random changes. He had developed a relationship with his predecessor Ed Campbell, and he used that relationship to listen to any advice Campbell provided to understand the business.

“Initially, I spent the first couple of weeks largely with Ed getting a download on everything you would expect from the business to the customers to the investors to the organization, and he was pretty helpful in terms of his long history at Nordson,” Hilton says.

Hilton’s time with Campbell was short-lived, but impactful. The keys to the company soon belonged to Hilton and he had to now get out of the headquarters facility and visit the business around the world.

“As soon as I could I really looked to take the opportunity to travel and meet some customers, see our facilities globally and get a better handle on what we do day-to-day,” he says. “There is only so much research you can do from afar and only so many reports you can read, and until you have an opportunity to touch it and feel it, you don’t really have the same perspective.”

It was obvious to Hilton that Nordson was a very good company and performed very well in a difficult time. The company was fairly solid and there were strengths in its business model.

“If I step back and look at what were the key strengths that I found, one was how we surround and support the customer,” he says. “If you think about the underlying technology, the direct sales approach and really a service organization that is incredibly responsive to its customers, that’s as good as I have seen.”

Hilton has previously operated in a number of different businesses all with one major company, but six different business models.

“I think I have a pretty good operating field of different approaches in everything from commodity businesses to specialty businesses and high-performance businesses, and this is very high-performance, so it was a great foundation to inherit,” he says.

The biggest key for a new incoming CEO to understand what a business is about and how it operates is to listen.

“I didn’t rush to form any particular opinions,” Hilton says. “It’s a complicated business so you need some time to get to a level of understanding before you can sort through and think about what has to happen next and take the company forward.

“As somebody who’s been in the industry 30-plus years before I came here, you can have a tendency to feel like you know what needs to be done. You have to wait a little bit and make sure you have enough input. It’s a bit of drinking from the fire hose, but it does give you a good perspective of the day-to-day.”

While listening is crucial to a CEO’s understanding of the business, visiting different locations in person is also important.

“You have to get out to facilities so that you better understand what you do and how you win in the marketplace and there’s no substitute for that,” he says. “Also, you have to take time in the nonbusiness environment with folks, whether that’s on the weekends or at dinners just getting to know people in the organization.”

Those same things go for getting to know your leadership team. Demonstrating that you’re a regular guy is a crucial step to cementing relationships.

“It is really trying to put the leadership team at ease when you come in,” he says. “Particularly in the time when I was coming in we were just starting to come out of the recession and the best thing for the business was to figure out how we could win in the recovery phase and to win more than our fair share of the business.

“You need the team motivated to do that. I’m here to learn and I think I have some experience and value to offer, but I don’t want to come in with a preset agenda that said we have to do A, B and C, because I didn’t know enough.”

Take the next steps

Once Hilton had become comfortable and did his due diligence within the organization, it was time to take the things the company was good at and find ways to make them even better.

“If you look at what we’re really good at — the surround the customer piece, the global position and the execution — what else do we really need?” Hilton says. “I came down to focusing on three areas. No. 1 was, ‘What can we do from a strategic standpoint to take us to the next level?’ No. 2 was, ‘How can we create more leverage across the enterprise?’ No. 3 was talent development.”

The first thing that Hilton and Nordson performed was a rigorous review of the business.

“We have these businesses, what can they deliver over the next five years from a growth and performance standpoint?” he says. “Historically, the company grew organically at about 6 percent and historically added about 1 percentage point from M&A. We concluded that we ought to be able to take that 6 percent and make it 8 percent.

“If we continued to improve our bottom line performance, we’d have more cash to reinvest, so we should at least set a goal to add from an M&A perspective, not 1 percent, but at least 2 percent and maybe more. So how do we go from something that looks like 7 percent growth to 10 percent growth on a sustained basis?”

First, Nordson looked at ways to exploit emerging markets by improving technology and applications.

“If you think back from a strategy standpoint of how do we get more organic growth, emerging markets is a big play, using technology to create new applications, and using new technology to help our customers recapitalize are all very important,” he says. “So when I looked at what we’re spending on technology, I said, ‘Even though we’re the leader and absolutely have the best technology out there, we’re not spending enough on technology. We’re spending too much on supporting our existing products.’

“So we’re increasing the absolute amount we spend on technology and we are shifting more of our technology spend from supporting existing products to developing new.”

Another step Hilton took to drive growth was changing the strategy of how the company went about mergers and acquisitions.

“We had to add a couple of points organically,” he says. “How do we move from an opportunistic and episodic acquirer … to being a more consistent acquirer? We identified four areas of interest to us — medical devices, flexible packaging, cold materials and extending our test and inspection business. You have to use strategy to drive organic growth with technology. Use strategy to drive M&A activity in areas that make sense. We’ve made three acquisitions this year which added 4.5 to 5 percent to revenue.”

The next thing the organization focused on was what it could do across the company that would benefit each business.

“One of the assessments that I made when I traveled all around is we had done a really nice job of adopting lean technology, but it plateaued in terms of our performance results,” he says.

“Much of the company’s margin improvements from 2002 to 2007 came from the Lean initiative. We went from 12 to 13 percent operating margin to 17 percent. Last year we did 26 percent, so we’ve moved the bar quite a bit and we have more to go. We have kind of stalled out on the Lean activity.”

To drive the next wave of continuous improvement Hilton appointed a senior experienced operations employee to build a small team and give him direct reports on improvement.

“As part of that we’ve identified two things; one we’re in the middle of executing now is optimizing our global supply chain,” Hilton says. “That’s really to allow us to distribute things where the demand is and do that in the most efficient way. The second big area is around segmentation, which is understanding from a product and customer standpoint what we provide, what are our offerings, where are we making money and do we have too many products?”

The third piece of the puzzle for Hilton regarded the company’s talent. He was pleased when he traveled around the globe to see the quality of the talent Nordson had in the organization, particularly at the leader roles.

“The challenge for us, like many companies, is if you really want to grow substantially, you need to add resources and you need to do that across the globe,” he says. “To do that, we need to build up our management capability in all areas. We have good people, but just not enough to support our growth ambition.

“One of the key areas of focus is how do we enhance our overall talent development and management approach.”

When Hilton did the first review of succession planning in the organization, his direct reports went a couple of levels down and he noticed there were a lot of gaps. The company focused initially on how address that.

“We made a number of rotational moves to broaden people’s skill sets and capabilities,” he says. “Then we took a step back and said, ‘OK, for the folks that run the businesses and the functions that report to me, what kind of skill sets do we want those folks to have, both from a content or expertise standpoint and a leadership standpoint?

“Given those skill sets, what kind of positions below them would be good feeder positions that would help them develop those skill sets and capabilities and where is the key talent in the organization who could move into higher levels of leadership and management?’ We got more thoughtful in development moves and giving folks different experiences.”

Add to your strategy

Now that Hilton had spent the time understanding the business and identifying the areas where the company had the best opportunities to improve, he had to make those changes part of the company strategy.

“If you step back, these are the things that I think we need to do to help us move from that $800 million to a $2 or $3 billion company to give us 10-plus percent revenue growth and some additional leverage that gets us into teens earning growth and be a top-quartile performer,” he says.

“We had a Lean organization and one that hadn’t gone through a rigorous strategic planning approach in the past so some of the concepts were new. I brought some help in from the outside to help put some structure and discipline in and to add some resources that we didn’t really have.”

Those changes resulted in 2011 revenue of $1.2 billion. One of the keys to more organic growth was Hilton’s strong belief in leading the merger and acquisition activity in the market.

“If you can be the one out there driving the activity, you’re going to end up with a better set of deals to add to the portfolio,” he says. “If you’re driving it, you’re probably out there establishing relationships early on. It might be two, three, or four years until somebody decides they want to sell, but if you have a relationship it enhances your own knowledge of their business and therefore reduces the risk.

“It also gives you a first shot at business. The more knowledge you have, the more you understand what you’re going to do with it once you acquire it.”

For Nordson, the company looked at logical extensions of what it does today and what would fit its business model.

“We put a set of criteria together,” Hilton says. “For example, 40 to 45 percent of our business is recurring revenue through parts, services or consumables. We like that because it gives us a steady nature to our business. So when we look at things to buy, whether it has a recurring revenue component is an important area to check the box on.

“We look at whether the company is a technology leader. Is it a performance sale so that I can take advantage of my technical sales force? Is it regional, but I could take it global and use my infrastructure? We look at all those things and use a set of criteria that says this is a good deal for us.”

In June Nordson acquired two more companies, Entrusion Dies Industries and Xaloy, bringing the the total to five acquisitions in 2012. Hilton made certain these two companies fit the Nordson strategy.

Another thing Nordson is changing strategically about its M&A activity is how it manages the companies it acquires.

“Historically, we tried to buy good companies and leave them alone so we didn’t screw them up,” he says. “We like to still buy good companies but now we’re looking at what we can do to make them better, how we integrate them into the business that we have, and if it’s a new area, what else can we add to it down the road. You need to do that to deliver the performance, but also sustain the business.”

A key ingredient to sustaining the business is having top-level talent capable of keeping pace with the growth you want to see. That talent has to be intertwined with the strategy for everything to operate smoothly.

“There is no substitute for going out and spending time with your organization and making your own observations,” he says. “Talk, listen and see your folks in action. See them with a customer and then you’ll get an initial reaction, but then you have to test that with folks.”

By doing this analysis you are able to get a sense of the gaps in the organization and moving forward, it is easier to see where talent development and your strategy line up.

“If you’re doing the initial round of visits, you get a sense of what you have in the organization,” he says. “You get a sense of the skill sets and capability at a high level of one or two levels down from the folks that work directly for you so you get a sense of depth in the organization and breadth in capability. Then you weigh that up against what you’d like to do.”

The other thing Hilton did was seek out a few trusted advisors to help him while going through the talent process.

“Find one or two people that you feel pretty confident with who could be trusted advisors without any particular point of view and be objective to bounce ideas off of,” he says. “If you have that kind of open relationship, it ties into some of the other things in terms of how you gauge your own leadership.”

Most importantly, as you go through an evaluation process of your business, you have to be willing to put resources behind the things that need improvement if you truly want to create measurable results.

“Get help from outside your organization and put resources on it,” Hilton says. “It doesn’t happen without some resources on it to develop, and it doesn’t happen overnight.

“This is a really, really good company that I inherited. We’re making some positive changes. I think we can make it considerably larger and just as good in terms of the performance, if not better. I’m pretty pleased about where we’re at and about our prospects. The folks have risen to the occasion, but I don’t want to exhaust them because we have a long way to go.”

How to reach: Nordson Corp., (440) 892-1580 or

Published in Cleveland

Yogurtland has been a frozen dairy-powered rocket for Phillip Chang. The president and CEO of Yogurtland Franchising Inc. founded the chain of self-serve frozen yogurt bars in 2006, and in the six years since, has grown the company to more than 170 locations, owned by more than 100 franchisees and employing more than 2,100.

But when on a stratospheric trajectory sometimes things don't always go according to the script.

Which is why, several years ago, Chang threw out the script and began concentrating on the actors in his company.

"Before then, even though our stores performed pretty well, some people's behavior didn’t reflect the culture we wanted to have," Chang says. "We didn't see enough of the honesty side, the respect for each other, the desire to help each other."

Chang quickly realized that if he were going to build a stable culture that embodied high ethical and moral standards, he needed to find the people first. So he started to shift how he and his leadership team recruited, what they valued in prospective employees and franchisees, and what constituted a great hire.

In short, Chang began focusing on candidates' hearts first and their heads second.

"When the company started, I had hired too fast, and because of that, some people had a lot of experience as far as the technical side of things, but they didn't have high moral standards," he says. "So I started looking at this in terms of two areas. One was the culture, in terms of the level of ethics and honesty, and the other side was their technical experience.

"I looked at how each candidate performed in both areas, but I set my bar very high on the ethical side and was more generous on the technical side. You can teach technical skills, but you can't really teach ethics and morals."

Since refashioning the company's recruiting and hiring practices, Chang says it has had a profound impact on the culture of the company.

"It has been big for us," he says. "We now look at our company more as a family."

Ask the right questions

If establishing your ideal culture starts with hiring the best people, then hiring the best people starts with asking the best possible questions during the interview process.

Chang wanted to develop and nurture a culture that embraces high ethical and moral standards, but also promoted the idea that Yogurtland behaves something like a large extended family.

Though many company heads talk about the family atmosphere that exists in their companies, making the leap from professional colleague to something more familiar is difficult, and one that can't happen without close involvement from upper management.

Chang wanted a constructive bond to develop among the people in Yogurtland's Anaheim corporate office, so he started by developing bonds between himself and his team members. He developed relationships with his people in which he got to know the significant things happening in their personal lives.

If there was a way Chang could leverage Yogurtland's resources to help an employee realize a significant life goal, he wanted to help.

"In our situation, I think it’s important to look at a company as family members," Chang says. "When you have a parent, sister, brother, and you're working together, you're thinking about the ways you can help them and make their life better. You're asking 'How can I teach them to fish?' That's why, maybe you don't want to just hand them a prize, but you want to figure out a way that you can help them realize the dreams they have for their own lives."

One of the first questions Chang asks a job candidate has nothing to do with the lines on their resume. It has everything to do with trying to learn what really makes the candidate get out of bed each morning.

"For every single person I interview, I ask them what is their ultimate goal in life," he says. "That gets them to think deeply and reveal some truths about who they really are. Their goal can be relevant or irrelevant to our company, but I want to know what their goal is. If we hire them, I want to customize a path for their dreams.

"Maybe someone wants to buy a house for their mom. It really has nothing to do with us, but we look at the numbers, we put together our collective wisdom and try to see a way this person can achieve their goal. If that person can finally buy a house for their mom after so many years, that is very motivating for them.

"We see it as something we're not obligated to help with, but if you truly view your people as family members, as a brother or sister, that is my role. If they see me and those of us in the company going above and beyond to help them, they start to see and believe that we act as a family."

Finding those life catalysts is a critical component of motivating employees at their jobs. Employees do come to work each day for a paycheck. Without income, they don't pay their mortgages or utilities, don't make car payments and don't buy groceries. But the sum total of what constitutes gainful employment doesn’t begin and end solely with what ends up in each employee's bank account every two weeks.

People want to work at an organization where they can make a lasting difference. What defines "lasting difference" changes from person to person, but the greater need is always there. As the leader, it's up to you to ask the questions, both of your current and prospective future employees, and find out what truly motivates them.

"In a lot of cases, I don't think financial compensation is the real motivation for people," Chang says. "When they hear the company is trying to achieve something beyond just the numbers and financials, when they see that we come together as a company, we reach out and help each other achieve our goals so that we can achieve our overall company goals, that is a common motivation where people see we're not just out to make a profit. We don't come to the office each day just to make money. It's more than that."

Perform daily maintenance

It's easy to project enthusiasm about a new strategy or a culture shift at the outset, when everything is new and exciting. But how about a month after, or six months after, or a year after?

At some point, you will leave behind the rush of blazing new trails and exploring new frontiers, and sustaining what you worked so hard to develop and roll out will be a matter of daily maintenance.

At Yogurtland, Chang considers his company’s cultural conversion a success. The atmosphere around the company's corporate offices — and by extension, at franchise locations — is based on Chang’s vision of a company that behaves as an extended family. It is a commonplace occurrence for Yogurtland associates to build and sustain meaningful and fruitful interpersonal relationships.

But if Chang were to rest on his laurels and consider the mission accomplished, he would run the risk of allowing his culture to backslide into the bad habits he spent several years eradicating. That's why he makes sure to create regular interaction points between him and his team, so that he can continue to reinforce the principles he introduced at the outset of the company's culture shift.

The company's rapid growth adds an extra layer of complexity to the equation.

"Right now, we have a corporate office of 40 and it is already difficult to reach to all levels," Chang says. "The only way is to remain vigilant about communication. In our regularly scheduled meetings, what we're discussing isn't just about simply store operations or the numbers we are trying to achieve. We discuss more than that."

Chang tries to address technical issues quickly so that he can spend more time reinforcing the culture. Whenever possible, he wants common-sense, uncomplicated solutions to issues involving the company's infrastructure. Since maintaining a great culture is hard work, he wants the nuts and bolts of running his company to be as simple as possible.

"When we need to visit the technical side of things, we can be pretty quick in figuring out what the best solution could be, and then put that in a memo to whoever it concerns," Chang says. "That way, it's in an e-mail, everybody reads the e-mail, and if the subject needs to be addressed in one of our meetings, we are all prepared beforehand. That hopefully leaves us more time to address our culture and how we are putting ideas together for the future. The meetings are where we really dissect what is going to help the company’s future. So we want to spend a lot of time on those big-picture, conceptual ideas."

Don't compromise

Chang says the new culture at Yogurtland has affected the way he runs the business on a fundamental level. Like most CEOs, Chang used to focus on strategic planning before anything else. Everything — from hiring to culture to job descriptions — stemmed from the strategic plan laid down by management.

But as Chang advanced deeper into his new philosophy of focusing on people first, he discovered talent was his most important asset, and motivating that talent was his most critical task. Now, he values talented people who embrace the culture far more than he values strict adherence to any organizational strategy.

Yogurtland still has an overall direction and goals, but the method by which those goals are achieved is now largely up to input from his team.

It is something that requires a level of adaptability that might extend beyond the comfort level of some business heads. But Chang views it as an essential part of his leadership philosophy. He'll compromise on how something gets done, but he won't compromise on who does it.

"Typical company leaders, they will do strategic planning and everything related to that first, and then try to fill out the team by putting people in the right positions," Chang says. "We do it the other way around. As I've said, I find the right people first. That takes a level of risk, because sometimes you find a really great person and you know right away where they're going to fit in the organization.

"That's where it gets kind of strange, because what I've learned is that if I find the right person who fits the culture, someone who is honest, humble, receptive, confident and wise, that is where you really can't compromise. You can be pretty generous regarding how you hire for technical skills. If you've hired someone who is smart and receptive, they can catch up their skills fairly quickly. That is why you find the person first, then do the planning.

"If I were starting a company from scratch again, I now know that is how I would do it."

How to reach: Yogurtland Franchising Inc., (714) 939-7737 or

The Chang file

Born: Seoul, South Korea

Education: B.S. in mathematics, Sogang University

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

One thing that has impacted me throughout my career, and what I keep emphasizing to my people, is that you need to surround yourself with the right people. You need the right employees, the right partners and the right people around you in everything you do.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

The ability to build a great team. You need to have the ability along the technical lines of what it takes to run a business, but you can’t go anywhere without a great team. And that comes back to how you communicate with people and share your goals.

Chang on the CEO’s role in sustaining the culture: As the company has grown, I’ve tried to set myself as more of a cultural leader, rather than an operations leader. I try to focus more on the bigger goals and being a good role model, demonstrating our cultural principles by example — honesty, high morals and so forth. As the leader, you are constantly watched by everyone, and they have to see me embody those core values at every turn, because they are going to follow my example.

Published in Orange County

When the recession hit, the only direction Bob Fish could turn was inward.

Up until then, it had been the best of times for Fish, the co-founder and CEO of Biggby Coffee. The chain of franchised coffee shops – which is based in East Lansing, but maintains a substantial presence in metro Detroit – had been growing by about 50 percent per year. But when the bottom fell out of the economy in late 2008 and early 2009, all Fish could hear was the sound of screeching brakes.

“Prior to that, it was pretty easy to get financing for new franchisees,” Fish says. “When we had the collapse, it became much more difficult for even our current operators to get financing. So it slowed our growth down, and that slowing had a morale impact. We fell back to about 20 percent growth per year.”

The good news was, Biggby Coffee — which is the brand name of Global Orange Development LLC — didn’t face an immediate existential threat. But growth slowed to a crawl, and Fish realized that if he didn’t reposition his company, the situation could quickly worsen. In an industry segment dominated by corporate titans such as Starbucks and McDonald’s, Fish’s burgeoning company couldn’t afford to slide any further. He needed to rally everyone at the corporate office and throughout the franchise chain, and to do that, he needed to draw the company closer together.

That meant Fish needed to revisit and refine what it meant to communicate with and engage his people.

“With our operations, we began to essentially change the style of our leadership,” Fish says. “We moved to a style that would be one that involved a higher degree of communication and a higher degree of inclusion between our office and our operators. We felt the need to get in touch with people on more of an in-person basis.”

Get tuned in

Fish believes one of the most powerful actions a business leader can perform is to get up in front of his or her company, and relate to them on a face-to-face basis. E-mails, videoconferences and newsletters all have their place, but nothing carries the weight of your words coming directly from your mouth.

“Communication is one of the most paramount things a CEO has to do,” Fish says.” You can have great ideas and a great vision, but if you are unable to articulate that to the balance of the community you are serving, it just doesn’t matter. The component that makes the real difference is to be able to create environments where there can be a dialogue on what you are communicating, and by extension, inclusion in the process of decision-making.”

As the economy slumped, Fish soon came to the conclusion that if his company was to maintain a healthy outlook, he’d need to create opportunities for educating employees and franchisees about the Biggby’s present state, and for facilitating an open dialogue about the company’s future.

“That manifested itself in the form of increasing frequency of in-person meetings,” Fish says. “At that point in time, we instituted what we called ‘in-market meetings,’ where I would go to each (designated market area) and hold about a three-hour meeting. We would discuss the current economics of the organization, and also cover what was going on in the immediate promotional period. We run promotional period cycles, and we’d talk about the performance of the previous cycle and what we were expecting in the coming cycles. Overall, that process created about six market meetings every 60 days.”

Fish also recognized the need for better lateral communication among the franchisees. As the company grew and fought the effects of the recession, Fish wanted to have a system in place by which franchisees operators could speak with each other, share best practices and find common ground on issues that affected the entire chain.

“What we did was to help establish something called an independent franchise association,” he says. “We have encouraged our franchisees to band together as one voice, creating an association that they could use to roll up their thoughts and opinions from throughout the franchise community, and then bring to us in corporate in a cohesive manner.”

One of the biggest keys to effective communication is high engagement. You have to have the attention of your audience if your words are going to mean anything to them. To engage, you have to give them compelling reasons to get involved. And to give them compelling reasons, you have to know who they are and what motivates them.

Fish identified the two constituencies he serves as CEO — consumers and franchisees. Consumers get involved in the business by purchasing the products and referral advertising through word of mouth. In order for consumers to engage — and stay engaged throughout the recession, when disposable income was drying up in households across America — Fish realized he’d need to know what his franchisees wanted and needed, and address those areas.

Through his avenues for communication and dialogue, Fish learned his franchisees wanted a voice and a tangible way to impact the direction of Biggby moving forward. Communication was only part of the equation. The ideas submitted by franchise operators had to turn into something that had a real impact on the business.

“Typically, change comes out of strategic planning,” Fish says. “Today, we do strategic planning with all department heads at the corporate office, but we also include two board members from the (International Franchise Association), so that we can represent that community in our strategic planning. Those board members have full votes, full participation and so forth. Very early in our operation, we have folded our operators into that dialogue.”

Form your process

Fish knew that in order to keep employees engaged and active in shaping the future of Biggby, he needed to form a process that turned employee and franchisee ideas into reality. The process was critical, because employees needed to see the system in action. A handshake and a promise doesn’t get you very far if your people don’t see the organization working toward results.

With that in mind, Fish divided the process of considering and implementing employee ideas into three parts: strategic, tactical and execution.

“All ideas are brought to the table at any given time for strategic planning,” he says. “Once decisions have been made at the strategic level, we have to deconstruct the idea and prepare it for the next level of feeding, which is tactical. That’s where we hash out the particulars regarding how we are going to execute it. Then we move into the execution phase, which is more or less a checkbox that tells us whether the task was performed or not.”

The process happens every day at Biggby on a small scale, but during the company’s recent revision of its catering business, Fish saw that his team could scale the process to tackle bigger issues.

“Our catering area in the past was relatively stagnant,” Fish says. “We weren’t getting any growth out of the area, so out of our strategic planning, we decided that we needed a way to stimulate bulk beverage orders. Through our market meetings, we came to the conclusion that our presentation on catering and education of consumers was poor, and it was delivered in the exact same manner as every other concept out there.”

The leadership team’s solution was to re-launch the catering business under the name “Grabbit2Go,” make it more responsive and throw marketing muscle behind it.

“We made sure the consumer knew that catering was not something you’d have to worry about days in advance,” Fish says. “It was something that you could make a relatively spontaneous decision on and still be accommodated.”

Out of the strategic planning phase, Fish and his team moved the idea into the tactical phase and hammered out the process for how the new catering setup would be implemented at the store level. Then, the concept was rolled out to the franchisees, who offered feedback on the concept, suggesting changes and refinements that would make the new service easier to implement.

“We then took that information back to headquarters, tinkered with the program until we had a formalized version and launched it on Nov. 1 of last year,” Fish says. “The process worked, because in that month alone, the new catering program contributed an additional 16 percent to our catering and sales area. And because we had to use beverage vessels that were purchased and reused, it also contributed 14 percent to merchandise sales.”

Normally, Fish says, getting franchisees to make the investment in reusable mugs and cups would have been a hard sell. But because the franchisees were actively involved in shaping the plan, they were actually anxious to see the program rolled out.

Throughout the recession and recovery of the past two years, Fish has geared Biggby to continue growing. He believes growth is his primary responsibility as CEO, and any change that any CEO makes to the leadership philosophy of the company should be made with growth in mind. Fish’s decisions have helped Biggby stay on a growth-focused path. At the end of 2011, Biggby had 139 units owned by 82 franchisees, employing about 2,500.

“The purpose of facilitating change as a CEO is to ensure growth for the company,” he says. “At our company, there are two pathways we can follow: same-store sales or adding new stores to the system, and I have to understand how to grow the business along those lines, and engage our people in stimulating growth. As the CEO, it’s your obligation to make sure that you understand all the components of your business, that you can measure every component and decide whether it is working or not, whether it is adding value.”

Change is going to happen, whether you want it to or not. So it is always in your best interest to ready your processes and engage your people in management of the change. If you haven’t geared your people to deal with change, your whole company will stagnate, and it won’t take a historic recession to cause serious problems.

“At this point, I bring ideas to the table just like everyone else here does,” Fish says. “I use my ideas to address the concept of change for the purpose of growth. This company started off in 1995, and the company we have now is remarkably different from the company we had back then. For me, it is really about managing the idea of change for growth, and understanding that change for growth is essential to remain a growing system.”

How to reach: Biggby Coffee, (517) 482-8145 or

The Fish file

History: Bob Fish co-founded the first location of what would become Biggby Coffee in East Lansing in March 1995. The second Biggby location opened in Lansing in October 1997. The company began franchising locations in 1999, and the chain had grown to 139 units operated by 82 franchisees as of the end of 2011. About 2,500 people are employed throughout the Biggby organization.

Fish on prioritizing ideas: If you have engaged people at the table, each one of those people understands what is important. This might sound a little ludicrous, but we vote on the items. There may be 25 or 30 items that are on the table to discuss, and we give everybody five votes. We approach the items from most amount of votes to least amount of votes. It is sort of magical out happens, the highest priority items do end up on the top.

Fish on travel time: Keeping everyone engaged on an in-person basis is time-consuming, but necessary. If we look at 2012 today, 85 percent of my business time is booked. All of those meetings are already booked for 2012, and I only have about 15 percent flexibility in my schedule.

More from Fish on the change management process: I think the most important part of managing change is — and it becomes almost an academic process — is you have to make the case for the change and you have to be able to articulate the vision. When we move forward with the process, there is a mini-white paper done, which makes the case for change and creates the vision. But when we get to the actual launch is where we have to make sure the skills, incentives and resources are there, and there is actually a plan in place to make it happen.

Published in Detroit

I am bullish on Houston and proud to be part of a "can do" attitude in Texas. The bottom line is that our Houston economy continues to remain healthy, with overall leasing activity strong in the second quarter of 2012. The main driver in the Houston market is simple — strong job growth.

Our city added almost 90,000 jobs between May 2011 and May 2012 and our unemployment decreased to 6.9 percent, from 8.1 percent one year ago. Landlords continue to report strong velocity in leasing activity, resulting in over 1.4 million square feet of positive absorption in the second quarter, pushing the year to date total to 2.4 million square feet.

With all the positive news, the key is the energy sector. Some of the recent growth includes the expansion in North Houston and Woodlands, including Exxon Mobile's North Houston Campus, which is under construction, and Anadarko's second corporate tower in the Woodlands. Other submarkets are growing, including Phillips 66's recent announcement regarding plans to build a headquarters in West Houston, along with Apache's acquisition of the Galleria area land for a new headquarters building.

Although obviously one of the strongest office markets in the country, I believe the Houston market still will face some challenges due to mergers and company consolidations that will result in new sublease space hitting the market. At the end of the second quarter overall, we had almost 1.1 million square feet of sublease space available citywide, and in the CBD there is 360,500 square feet available, primarily in the Class A properties.

With the strength in our economy, our clients are now making longer term lease commitments (5-10 years) compared to a year ago. Landlords are now evaluating their tenant mix in their buildings, and if the tenant prospect has solid credit, they are offering aggressive tenant allowance packages to entice them to commit long term.

John S. Parsley, SIOR, is the principal and director of the Houston office of Colliers International. Reach him at (713) 830-2140 or

Published in Houston
Wednesday, 11 July 2012 19:11

Health care reform upheld

By now you've probably seen the headlines that the Supreme Court announced its decision on health care reform and are wondering what it all means. What parts of the laws have been upheld? As a business owner, what will you need to do to comply with them?

In general, all of the tax provisions in the health care reform laws have been defended and will continue to be phased in over the next two years. Here's what you need to know about what that means for you and your business.

The individual mandate and business "play or pay" are here to stay.

Under the health care laws, both business and individuals are required to buy or provide, respectively, health care insurance or else pay a tax. Both of these parts of the legislation have been upheld and go live in 2014.

The Individual Mandate

For individuals who do not obtain sufficient health care coverage, there is a tax of either a fixed dollar amount or 1 to 2 percent of your income, depending on your income level and the year. There is a minimum income level under which the tax does not apply.

How this impacts you:

If you're currently uninsured, you'll need to get sufficient insurance by 2014 or you may face this tax.


Play or Pay

This component of the law impacts businesses. Play or pay requires that minimum insurance coverage be offered to employees or else forces the business to pay a tax of $2,000 per employee. There is no penalty for the first 30 employees and there are some exceptions for small businesses.

To help ease the transition to compliance with this requirement, there is a health care tax credit available for certain small businesses. This credit remains in effect and is currently available to certain small employers who provide more than 50 percent insurance coverage to their workers before the "play or pay" goes active in 2014. The credit will be modified, but will remain in effect, once the "play or pay" provision goes into effect.

How this impacts you:

If you have more than 50 employees and don't offer insurance, you'll need to develop a plan to comply with play or pay.

Increased Taxes for High-Income Individuals

Individuals with high wages or investment earnings will face additional Medicare taxes. Starting in 2013, high wage-earning salaried or self-employed individuals will be required to pay an additional 0.9 percent Medicare tax. Additionally, a 3.8 percent Medicare tax will be imposed on certain higher income taxpayer's investment income. Combined with the effect of the expiring "Bush tax cuts," this is set to raise the top capital gain rate to 23.8 percent in 2013.

How this impacts you:

If you're a high-income individual (over $200,000 in adjusted gross income), you should discuss your employment and investment options situation with your tax advisor to develop a tax planning strategy to mitigate this increased tax burden.

Depending on your type of business and tax situation, other parts of the Supreme Court decision may impact you in the months and years ahead. Be sure to contact your tax advisor to explore how your short- or long-term business or tax plans may need to be modified.

Joseph Popp, JD, LLM, is a senior tax associate with Rea & Associates, Inc. He can be reached at (614) 923-6577 or

Published in Columbus

The Smart Leaders Awards Luncheon is a recognition event honoring the brightest and most innovative corporate leaders in the local business community while bringing to light the strategies they used to attain their level of success.

The keynote speaker on July 19th will be Michael Dalby, the president and CEO of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce. As growth in technology, health care, finance and retail sectors continues region-wide, Dalby will discuss how the Chamber helps organizations forge ahead.

2012 Honorees:

Bill Balderaz, President, Fathom

Tom Feeney, President & CEO, Safelite AutoGlass

Chris Irion, CEO, e-Cycle

Janet Jackson, President & CEO, United Way of Central Ohio

Rich Johnson, President & CEO, ViaQuest, Inc.

C. Bronson Jones, VP & General Manager, Banner Metals Group

Brad Kitchen, President, Alterra Real Estate Advisors

Nancy Kramer, Founder, Resource Interactive

Bob Loversidge, Jr., President & CEO, Schooley Caldwell Associates

Farah Majidzadeh, CEO/Chairperson, Resource International, Inc.

Tim Owens, Partner, Chair, Employment & Labor Law Practice Group, Lane, Alton & Horst

Rusty Ranney, President & CEO, Live Technologies LLC

Michael L. Reed, President & CEO, Application Link

Bill Schottenstein, President, Arshot Investment Corporation

Chris Shirer, President, Madison & Fifth

Published in Columbus
Saturday, 30 June 2012 20:00

Honoring the best of the best

For more than 25 years, Ernst & Young has celebrated the entrepreneurial spirit of men and women pursuing innovation and entrepreneurial excellence in their businesses, their teams and their communities.

The blood, sweat and passion they’ve poured into their businesses and the triumphs they’ve achieved stand as a testament to the role they play as visionaries, leaders and innovators. Ernst & Young founded the Entrepreneur Of The Year Program to recognize this passion for excellence and to build an influential and innovative community of peers.

We have gathered here and in 25 other cities in the U.S. to welcome the men and women who are regional finalists into our entrepreneurial Hall of Fame and to toast their commitment to succeed. We applaud them for launching their companies, opening new markets and fueling job growth.

So let’s celebrate their achievements, their perseverance and their tireless pursuit of business excellence.

Kim E. Letch is a partner and program director for Entrepreneur Of The Year, Orange County.

John Belli is the office managing partner for Ernst & Young, Orange County.

Finalists and Honorees


Mike Morhaime, Blizzard Entertainment (Winner)

Jonathan Ord, DealerSocket Inc. (Finalist)

Jim McCluney, Emulex (Finalist)

Life Sciences & Public Service

Joe Kiani, Masimo Corp. (Winner)

Charles Dunlop, Ambry Genetics (Finalist)

Dan Merkle, Lexipol LLC (Finalist)

Consumer Products

Andy Fathollahi, Incipio Technologies (Winner)

Jeff Walker, Super D (Finalist)

Bill Duehring, Felt Bicycles (Finalist)

Real Estate & Hospitality

Gary Jabara, Mobilitie LLC (Winner)

David Kim, Jerome Fink, The Bascom Group (Finalist)

Alessandro Pirozzi, Cucina Alessa (Finalist)

Business Services

John Raymont, Kurion Inc. (Winner)

Mike Manclark, Leading Edge Aviation Services (Finalist)

Heidi Golledge, CyberCoders (Finalist)

Published in Orange County