Patent protection offers many benefits to entrepreneurs and innovators, allowing companies and people to profit from their novel ideas and providing incentive to develop more. But the process of applying for a patent can be time-consuming, expensive and confusing.
According to Tom Donovan, partner in the Chicago law firm Barnes & Thornburg, for small businesses, the key to successfully pursuing patent rights is to approach the patent process seriously and intelligently. A competent approach ensures that patents obtained will ultimately have competitive value to the company, meaning your money isn’t wasted on protecting inventions that will never make it to the marketplace.
Smart Business talked to Donovan about the steps involved in the patent application process.
When in the process of new product production should a business or entrepreneur look into getting a patent?
Patent applications should be filed, or at least considered, very early in the process of developing new products. It is always a good idea to file patent applications as soon as possible, because a delay in filing a patent application in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and foreign patent offices can result in a loss of patent rights.
Having said that, in cases where the product is far from completion and additional development work is anticipated, it may make economic sense to wait until the product is more developed. It also may make sense to file a provisional patent application if the invention is not yet completed.
But, again, it is important that any decision to delay in preparing the application is made with keen understanding of what could result in loss of patent rights.
How does the patent application process work?
There usually are two steps. The first step is to conduct a patentability search to obtain an understanding as to whether the invention might be patentable.
The second step, assuming that the patentability search comes up favorable, is to have your patent attorney prepare and file a patent application that covers the invention. The first step is optional, although in most instances it is a good idea.
Who should be involved in the patenting process?
Patent counsel and individuals associated with the company that can make informed decisions in connection with technical, budgetary and marketing issues.
The technical person may be either the inventor or someone responsible for the research and development or engineering staff. The budget person is someone that has the power to authorize the cost of filing and prosecuting patent applications and who also understands the company’s budget. The marketing person is someone responsible for trying to sell the invention.
At large companies, these individuals may all be different, but at smaller companies there may be one or two individuals who can consider all of these issues when making patent decisions.
How long does the process take?
In the U.S., once a patent application has been filed, it can take from about 18 months to three or more years for the patent to issue.
How much does the application typically cost?
It depends upon the technology. The total fees and costs to prepare and file a U.S. patent application usually range from about $5,000 to $10,000, depending upon the technology. If the technology is complex, the total fees and costs could be higher.
What are the benefits of having a product patented?
In the U.S., the key benefit is that it gives you the right to exclude others from making, using, selling, offering for sale or importing the invention covered by the patent.
And how long does that protection last?
A U.S. patent expires 20 years from the filing date of the application.
So you have to apply for a patent in each individual country?
Yes. Patent rights are territorial. If you want patent protection in a particular country, you have to obtain a patent for that country. Just to clarify, there are some countries that have joined together to form regional patent offices where you can obtain a single regional patent that will be recognized in individual countries, provided certain steps are taken. But the point is the same you need to have patent protection within each country.
Are there any tips you could offer to companies looking to secure a patent?
Yes. Patents can be critical to a company’s success, so companies should take very seriously the decision-making process involved in pursuing patent protection. There are four important components to that process.
First is technical what is the invention? Next is budgetary can we justify the costs to obtain a patent? Then consider marketing is there a market for this invention? And finally, the legal aspects is the invention patentable and what will be the potential scope of the patent?
It is important to consider all of these components when deciding what inventions should be protected.
Tom Donovan is a partner in the law firm of Barnes & Thornburg. His practice focuses on intellectual property. Reach him at (312) 214-8329 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ron Blake, president and CEO of Rewards Network, joined the company in March with an important mission return Rewards Network to consistent profitable growth.
During the past year, the company had experienced a decrease in the number of customers, which resulted in decreased sales.
Rewards Network offers members cash back or airline miles when they register their credit card with the company and visit participating restaurants and hotels. But the company ran into problems when its restaurant base began to decrease in 2004, Rewards Network lost approximately 300 restaurant merchants because they were either dissatisfied with the results or because they went out of business. And as Rewards Network’s restaurant base began to decline, so did its sales.
For Rewards Network to be profitable, consumers must join the network and visit participating merchants. And for consumers to be interested in the Rewards Network, there must be a variety of merchants where they will save money.
Blake joined the company at a critical time, and his first task was to find a way to retain merchants. Without them, Rewards Network would lose members and sales would further decline.
The concept seemed simple enough if you improve the company in one area, it will improve in the other. But where do you start?
Learning the company
During his first eight weeks on the job, Blake followed account executives and conversed with clients. He learned about the products and services the company offers and then learned about his customers’ problems and their issues with those products and services.
“With any business, when times are challenging, it’s very difficult to take that time out and go invest that time in the field,” says Blake. “One of the advantages of coming in as the new CEO was the ability to take that time to listen to move the organization forward with a coherent plan.”
After listening to his customers and learning about the company, Blake came up with a phrase that would become the driving force behind his turnaround plan - “Think like a customer and act like an owner.”
“You have to satisfy customer need to be successful in the marketplace,” he says. “You have to understand your customer and you have to listen to your customer.”
The restaurateurs Blake talked to had different problems and needs, but they all had one thing in common they wanted someone to listen to their problems and help them solve them. And they didn’t feel that Rewards Network had listened to them in the past.
“You have to know what their language is versus your own internal language,” says Blake. “We, as a company, have grown over the years talking about our products and services in ways that are somewhat foreign to the restaurant owner. When he thinks about how much money he wants to spend on marketing and advertising, he doesn’t want to hear some fancy term for how our product works. He wants to know, ‘Is that going to be 4 (percent) to 6 percent of my cash flow a month?’”
With valuable information from his customers, Blake began to develop and implement a turnaround plan for Rewards Network that centered around communication.
Selling the Rewards Network Way
Blake realized that everyone in the company needed to know everything there is to know about the products and services offered. They needed a uniform selling plan that everyone could follow and understand.
“There was a very strong need to get some commonality and focus in terms of how we presented our product and service to the customer,” says Blake. “As a result of that, we have instituted a companywide training program that is very customized to us. It is called Selling the Rewards Network Way. It’s the approach to selling and servicing our customers that we want everyone to use.”
At the end of the training process, there is a certification program, and all sales associates and managers must be certified in Selling the Rewards Network Way.
And what exactly is that? It’s Blake’s philosophy that Rewards Network must become a customer-first company. Employees must put themselves in their customers’ shoes, listen, understand their customers’ problems and service their customers the way that they would want to be serviced.
Rewards Network employees learned firsthand from Blake what it means to be a customer-first company.
“I had a companywide conference call scheduled to make some rather significant announcements a couple months ago,” says Blake. “I was actually with a customer listening to their concerns and needs, and it went longer than it should have. I sent my administrative assistant a note on my Blackberry that said, ‘Put the company call on hold for 30 minutes. I am not leaving this customer.’ It was one of those days when small things make a big difference.
“Interestingly enough, when she sent the note out, she said ‘Ron is with a customer. This is what it means to be a customer-first company.’”
That made it clear to everyone that the customer comes first, no matter what. Then they also needed to understand how they fit into the company’s bigger goals.
Upon his arrival, Blake provided all employees with a one-page plan for the company. It listed 10 objectives for the next 18 months. Those were only shared with Rewards Network employees, who then had to write a one-page plan that tied in with what their function and responsibility are and how they fit into one of those 10 objectives.
“I told the employees, ‘If you find yourself doing anything other than these 10 objectives, then stop,’” says Blake. “It’s our roadmap.”
Blake saw a need to restructure the sales compensation plan. He wanted a plan in which people are compensated based on the profit of the deals they sell.
“We needed to focus on a sales compensation plan for our associates that clearly aligns their interests with the shareowner,” says Blake. “Our (new) sales compensation plan is tied to gross margin. They know by selling the right product and the right service that they are going to do well in their business and that the shareholder will do well over time as a result of that.”
Blake started working on changing the sales compensation plan immediately upon arriving at Rewards Network, and the new plan became effective July 1. Now employees who make a more profitable deal receive a better reward than those who make a less profitable deal.
The company is also focusing on the retention of merchants, so employees are rewarded for renewing business. The result is an employee incentive to sell the more profitable products first and renew current merchants, which is crucial to profitability.
Employees responded positively, perhaps because the plan includes provisions that keep employee compensation consistent through the end of the year.
“If they need to retool their portfolio of restaurants, they have time to do it without taking a hit personally,” says Blake. “We wanted them focused on the market and our customers and not their paycheck. So we made sure our people had a minimum level of compensation that they could expect from here until the end of the year.”
After employees have had time to complete their training and build solid relationships with their clients, they will return to a plan that has a fixed and variable component.
“I would call what we have right now a floor to ensure that as people transition to the type of customer relationships we want to build and to have more one-on-one contact that they will not be hurt by that,” says Blake. “We have given them six months to retool things so that when we hit the ground running in 2006, they should be able to make or exceed what the current minimums are.”
Blake’s turnaround plan is geared toward achieving long-term results. He has faith that by forming closer, more personal relationships with clients, he can return the company to profitable growth and keep it there.
“One of the things you hate to see in this organization is not increasing our restaurant base,” says Blake. “And one of the reasons for that to be honest is we didn’t spend enough time working with our clients after the initial sale. With a little more focus and a little more attention, we can increase the retention of customers and help grow our customer base as time goes on.”
Blake plans to take on a lot of that responsibility himself by making sure that he meets and talks with as many customers as possible.
“Selling and servicing companies is a very one-on-one experience,” he says. “Customers buy from people, they don’t buy from companies.”
And that is why he is spending so much time training and communicating with his employees. He encourages them to continue contact with customers by picking up the phone and calling them after the initial sale, by stopping in for dinner to see how things are going. Blake wants to implement a more consultative selling process than what was used in the past.
“The challenges this company faces really revolve around our ability to execute,” he says. “The market is there. The question is, will we be able to do it in a fashion that is consistent with our customers’ needs and meet them?”
Blake is right the market is there. Dining out has become a way of life in America. Rewards Network has a 20-year track record and a long history of success. The company still has more than 10,000 restaurants and 11,000 hotels in its portfolio, as well as 4 million members.
And Blake is confident that the future of Rewards Network is bright.
“We’re a $300 million company with plenty of room to grow,” he says. “The opportunity out there is quite huge for us.”
How to reach: Rewards Network, www.rewardsnetwork.com or (877) 491-3463
After more than 20 years in the banking industry, Jim Lynch recognized there was an opportunity to personalize banking for business owners and entrepreneurs.
Lynch, president and CEO of Leaders Bank, founded the company in 2000 as an alternative to large, impersonal banking institutions. He prides himself on forming close relationships with his clients, something he felt had become obsolete in the banking world due to the large number of mergers and acquisitions.
In the five years the bank has been in business, it has grown to about $300 million in assets, with high customer satisfaction rates and low employee turnover. Lynch believes this success is a result of his employees, people who are experienced in the banking industry and who share his belief that customers and employees should be treated as leaders.
Lynch’s management style is grounded in the philosophy contained in the book, “First, Break All the Rules,” by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman. While the common business management philosophy, is that you should treat everyone the same and try to overcome people’s weaknesses, Lynch believes everyone is different and should be treated accordingly.
And rather than trying to improve on people’s weaknesses, he believes you should put people in positions where their strengths will be utilized and their weaknesses supported by others.
Smart Business spoke with Lynch about his vision for Leaders Bank and how his unconventional management style benefits employees, customers and shareholders.
What was your vision when you started Leaders Bank?
I have been in the banking business for 27 years and always as a lender to the lower end of the middle market, defined as privately-held businesses under $50 million in sales volume.
As I saw all of the mergers and acquisitions occur, I noticed that two things were happening a whole layer of bank employees were being displaced and a whole layer of customers were being displaced. The customers, in particular, were often privately-held businesses and entrepreneurs.
My idea was to start a bank that focused on privately-held businesses, their families and other entrepreneurs. I knew there was an opportunity there. I wanted to focus on that niche and hire experienced bankers who could respond quickly to customer needs and provide an alternative to the depersonalization created by the banking consolidation.
How do you sell your vision?
When you say ‘selling the vision,’ there are really three groups you need to sell to prospective employees, prospective customers and shareholders.
I’ll start with prospective employees. These are people with banking experience who have become frustrated with the obstacles often found at larger institutions. They want to make a positive difference in a growing organization over the long term.
We provide our employees with an environment that is both challenging and very supportive. All original 10 employees are still here. A critical part of my daily responsibilities is to make sure that this is always a good place to work.
As for prospective customers, they often learn about our vision from satisfied clients and come in to find out about how we can help them. We talk with them to determine what level of service they need, and then we provide it.
We call it our ‘ease-of-doing-business-with-us’ quotient. That doesn’t mean we’ll always say yes, but we will always clearly articulate the parameters and try to arrive at a mutual understanding.
When we approached our five-year anniversary, we thought we were doing pretty well on behalf of our customers, but we thought it was time to ask them. We used (Walt Denny Inc.) to do a customer survey, and the results were very gratifying. Well over 95 percent of the customers surveyed who classified us as their primary banking relationship rated us very high in terms of overall satisfaction.
With our shareholders, we describe how we compete in the marketplace and convey our long-term vision in straightforward terms. I communicate with our shareholders on a regular basis, which includes providing our quarterly financial statements to them.
How has your Cultural Health Program contributed to your success?
I have been managing people in this business for a long time. Traditional management practices say that you should treat everyone the same, and during the employee appraisal process, you should not only focus on what they did well but also focus on their weaknesses and what can be done to improve their weaknesses.
I have always thought it’s better to focus on strengths and support people in areas where they are weak and put them in positions where they are strong.
There’s a set of rules that we have to follow, but everyone is different and everyone deserves different treatment. When I find an employee who is great with customer service, we make sure that person gets to work with customers. If that person has too much paperwork, we try to give that person support for that aspect.
If an executive is great at bringing in new business but hates sales reports, we put that person with someone who helps with the reports. By empowering them to accomplish what they do best, employees feel they are valued and that the quality of the work they do does makes a difference.
To discover individual strengths of our employees, each person participates in the Gallup Organization’s StrengthsFinder Profile. That was put together by utilizing information from the Gallup Organization, which was developed through a poll taken of experienced managers from throughout the world.
It came up with a set of behaviors that the best managers utilized. Every employee participates and has a private interview with our consultant to discuss their strengths and how to develop them in the workplace.
Research shows the best managers don’t treat everyone the same. They focus on strengths and not weaknesses. We need to put our employees in a position where they can utilize their strengths and let’s recognize what the weaknesses are and not work so hard to change them but to make sure that they are supported.
This approach nurtures personal job satisfaction, which translates to low turnover and high levels of employee and client satisfaction.
How did you achieve such rapid growth without any mergers or acquisitions?
We’ve hired the right people who are experienced and have done a good job of bringing in relationships in the marketplace. That’s No.1.
No. 2, we have been successful in raising the necessary amount of equity to support that growth.
Three, we have a very active board of directors that has helped guide us and generate business.
And four, we have a very active shareholders group that hasn’t just invested money with us but does business with us and actively refers business to us.
How to reach: Leaders Bank, (630) 572-5323 or http://www.leadersbank.com
The law recognizes both wrongful taking and wrongful use as actionable. These wrongs and their subjects overlap the legal disciplines of intellectual property, employment and unfair competition.
“The best approach to trade secrets is to think about them early, identify the subject, and figure out how to protect them with security and legal measures,” says David Brezina, a partner at Barnes & Thornburg LLP. “When a problem occurs, don’t pigeon-hole it but explore all alternatives.”
Smart Business spoke to Brezina about how to protect your company’s valuable trade secrets.
How are trade secrets pigeon-holed?
By pigeon-holing I mean identifying a particular area of the law that you think covers everything about your trade secrets.
When employees take trade secrets as they leave, you might initially react by categorizing the problem in a particular area of law. But general knowledge and skill may well be transportable to a new job, absent other limitations. You might call an intellectual property lawyer, an employment lawyer or a commercial litigator. Seeing all three points of view will help.
What can be protected?
With intellectual property, the general rule is that you can’t protect an idea, just the embodiment of an idea. You can’t protect an idea for a cop show about a street-smart veteran cop and his wisetalking rookie partner, because all cop shows have that. But if you write a specific script and someone takes too much, that’s copyright infringement.
It’s the same with trade secrets. They’re not a piece of protectable property unless they rise to certain standards. General skills, such as setting up a lathe, programming a computer or selling, are probably things that can’t be protected.
On the other hand, specific business secrets that are not generally known and give a company a competitive advantage may be protectable.
A mechanism needs to exist to enforce those rights. In most states, the theft of trade secrets gives you the right to go to court. But the same situation may be covered by other legal theories. If material has been copied, for example, it may be a copyright infringement. And there may be contractual rights, other intellectual property rights or other theories involved.
What about loyalty between employer and employee?
It may be that the employee ethically owes it not to take trade secrets and stab the employer in the back. Perhaps the employee had to sign an employment or non-compete agreement at the time of hire. Or he’s at least taken a paycheck and legally must follow a policy manual that forbids removing confidential information. Employment lawyers are very familiar with employee loyalty disputes.
A company also needs to make sure it maximizes protection of intellectual property from the beginning: trade secrets that are protectable are protected. If it’s not treated as a secret, then it’s hard to say someone took a secret. But by protecting it, you are acknowledging that it’s a secret.
You can protect other forms of intellectual property by registering copyrights and trademarks, and applying for patents.
Is protection a legal or security issue?
Legal protection depends on the nature of the subject. If your secrets are all on a computer, are passwords changed regularly? Does someone monitor the passwords? Is there a limitation on the number of copies that someone can make? All of these are security issues.
A thumb-drive security device or physical locks can prohibit unauthorized people from getting into the network. Thorough personnel and IT policies can provide pretty high security and be evidence that you’re treating the information as secret.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, sloppy employee practices can make it harder to prove secrecy. For instance, if an employee types in a password while someone is looking over his shoulder, and then the entire database is illegally downloaded, that’s not an employee issue but it’s definitely a trade secret issue.
How can intellectual property be protected?
If information is in a tangible medium such as a database, list, blueprint, drawing, plan, spreadsheet or text, you can copyright it.
Here’s a good example of illegal infringement. An office sub lessee steals some blueprints from the lessee, our client. The sub lessee later declares bankruptcy and claims ownership of the blueprints. We present our copyright certificate and reclaim the blueprints.
If you send your property to the Library of Congress to be copyrighted, you may give up secrecy unless you follow the right procedures. But you can withhold 49 percent of the material and still get copyright registration and preserve your secrecy if you follow proper procedures.
DAVID BREZINA is a partner at Barnes & Thornburg LLP. Reach him at (312) 214-4802 or email@example.com.
The surveys were conducted by Robert Half Management Resources, the world’s largest project consulting firm providing senior-level accounting and financial talent.
Smart Business spoke with Mike Shapow, Chicago vice president of Robert Half Management Resources, about how professionals can become successful consultants and how companies can make effective use of consultants and temporary workers.
What is your advice for someone who is considering becoming a consultant?
Start by doing a hard self assessment to figure out what you’re good at. This may involve further developing the skills and training you already have. Successful consultants tend to be specialists, not generalists, so avoid the temptation to say ‘I can do that’ for every opportunity.
Once you’ve identified your focus, you need to get the word out. Getting involved with professional associations is an outstanding way to become visible. In our business, we are always looking for talent, so we attend a lot of association events.
What are realistic expectations for someone entering the field?
It can be challenging for a consultant to line up a new engagement while working on a project. A lot of people underestimate how difficult that is. Most people are skilled at being able to sell themselves, or have a strong and specific professional skill set. Very few people have both. That’s why working with a professional staffing firm is an excellent step. They will serve as your talent agent to place you in situations where your skills can be most effective.
How should businesses select consultants?
A lot of people are conditioned to respond to the rsum, and that is a mistake. So many times there are really good candidates who don’t write good rsums, and vice versa. Some people look great on paper but don’t deliver. Companies should interview the prospective consultant with someone who understands the skill set, so they can have a more substantive discussion and get a better feel for the candidate. If you’re working through a staffing company, you can arrange a two- or three-day ‘working interview’ where the consultant is actually on the job. In the unlikely event that the consultant is not a good fit, some companies will pay the consultant but not bill the client, which provides a good opportunity to assess without risk.
How can companies effectively manage consultants?
Consultants should be managed just like regular employees. That means make sure they understand expectations, know the limits of their project, and have someone available to turn to.
When companies are unhappy with their consultants, it’s usually because they hire them and never talk to them again. They don’t give them the tools and resources to be successful. A common example is to exclude consultants from day-to-day communications, such as meetings and e-mails. That’s a mistake. It might be easy to leave consultants out because they’re is working on a special project, but they miss out on a lot of valuable informal communication.
Describe some situations where consultants can add a lot of value.
Consultants are great for companies in transition. That might mean a company that is relocating, downsizing, in the middle of a merger or acquisition, or in bankruptcy. It is hard to hire permanent people when you can’t tell them what the future will look like. Consultants understand this and can work under those circumstances.
Special projects are another good opportunity to handle with consultants. If companies need to create new financial reports, tax research, special financial analysis, or help integrating a new ERP system, consultants are a good option.
Consultants are also very valuable when there is sudden change, such as someone taking maternity leave, an unexpected resignation, or when there is greater-than-expected response to an early retirement offer. Having a consultant in place, even if he or she is only an 85 percent fit for the position, takes the pressure off the company to hire the first person they see.
MICHAEL SHAPOW is Chicago vice president of Robert Half Management Resources, based in the firm’s Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., office. Reach the author of “How to Market an Information Systems Consulting Niche” at (630) 368-0307 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
As CDHPs gain in popularity, so do the many options, like HSAs, that are available alongside those plans. Recent statistics show that enrollment in consumer-directed health plans has grown to about 4.9 million, according to findings recently published by Inside Consumer Directed Care.
“HSAs can offer many advantages to both employers and employees,” says Bill Berenson, vice president of sales and service for Aetna’s North Central region. “For employers, HSAs, in concert with high-deductible health plans, promote employee engagement and accountability for health care spending, which has the potential to help lower health care costs. Employees earn tax-free interest on account dollars, and they can roll over unused dollars for future health-related expenses.”
Smart Business spoke with Berenson, who answered some general questions about HSAs and how enrolling in an HSA offers employees an opportunity to save on health care costs or build a tax-free savings account for future expenses.
What is a health savings account (HSA)?
An HSA plan is a tax-advantaged account created to pay for qualified medical expenses in conjunction with high-deductible health plans. An HSA can be used to pay health plan deductibles or qualified expenses; help pay for future medical, COBRA or certain retiree or long-term care insurance premiums; or, if allowed to grow over time, earn tax-free interest.
Is there an annual cap or maximum amount that may be contributed to an individual’s HSA?
HSA contributions are limited to a plan’s annual deductible, which is determined by an employer, or $2,700 for an individual and $5,450 for a family, whichever is less. If the employee participates for less than the entire taxable year, the limit is prorated on a monthly basis. These limits will be adjusted for inflation in future years. Individuals age 55 and over may make an additional ‘catch-up’ contribution of $700 per year in 2006. This amount increases $100 per year until 2009 when it will be $1,000.
What expenses are eligible for payment through the HSA?
HSA can be used to pay for most qualified expenses as defined by the IRS Code 213(d). These expenses include, but are not limited to, medical plan deductibles, long-term care insurance premiums, COBRA, diagnostic services covered by the employees’ plan, over-the-counter drugs and LASIK eye surgery. A copy of IRS Publication 502 to review a list of allowable expenses can be obtained by phoning (800) 829-3676 or by visiting the IRS Web site at www.irs.gov. Employers and employees should consult with their tax adviser to determine eligibility requirements and tax advantages for participating in an HSA plan.
Can an HSA be used to pay for nonhealth-related expenses?
Yes. Employees may withdraw money from their HSA for items other than qualified expenses, but it will be subject to income tax (unless they are age 65 or disabled) and an additional 10 percent penalty tax on the amount withdrawn.
How are contributions made to an HSA?
The employer’s benefit plan may allow employees to make periodic contribution to their HSA as part of their annual benefits election. Otherwise, they may contribute to their account through payroll deductions, if applicable; automatic deductions from their bank account; or by check or money order. At any time, a lump sum contribution may be made, in any amount up to the maximum limit. If employees do not fund up to their permitted limit in any year, they have until April 15 of the following year to complete their HSA contribution for that year.
How are contributions to an HSA taxed?
If contributions are made as part of an annual health benefits election and submitted as part of the employee’s payroll deduction, then those contributions may be included in their income. Other contributions made to the HSA can be deducted from their income when they file their annual federal income tax return, even if they do not itemize deductions.
What happens to any remaining money in an HSA at the end of the year?
At the end of the year, any money remaining carries over to the next year.
Does the money in the HSA earn interest?
Yes; an HSA can grow over time. Interest earned on an HSA is not included in the employees’ income for federal tax purposes. There is no minimum balance required to earn interest. In addition, once their HSA balance reaches $2,000, they may have the HSA investment service available to you.
BILL BERENSON is vice president of sales and service for Aetna’s North Central Region. Reach him at (312) 928-3323 or email@example.com.
Create a strategy. HPI had been a company, prior to our arrival, without a strategy. Most of the late ’90s at HPI were characterized by a series of acquisitions and dispositions. There was not a very good job done of integrating those businesses.
Because that was the main thrust of the strategy, a number of things that are absolutely crucial to success and survival in the consumer products industry new product development, brand development, people development had been secondary concerns. We found ourselves in possession of a company that had really been trying to sell itself for most of the time since 2000 and had been sustaining itself by not investing in the business.
Execute the strategy. We put together a management team that is really pretty good at operating a business. By operating a business, I mean focusing on what is really important customer relationships, managing the manufacturing, managing the supply chain, keeping an accurate track of costs and expenses and working capital, and just good at the basics.
The second thing we did is we strengthened the area as it relates to how we interact with customers. We built multilevel relationships with our customers. It was no longer just the salespeople, but all members of our organization got involved in the selling process, so that we had not just the ability to tell a better story and tell it more clearly, but we were also more accessible and able to listen to what our customers were saying.
We invested in resources to develop new products and enhance existing ones. We took a very long and hard look at the whole image of our company and, in particular, our brand, and embarked on a process to enhance the relevance and attractiveness of our brand.
Build a brand. The image of our company, until the middle part of last year, was one that was anchored very much in the low-end of the markets in which we operated and did not bring much creativity. We were kind of boring.
We brought good service, reliability, our quality was OK. One of the first things we did was we decided in the areas in which we operate, we have to be the subject matter experts.
We have to transform that knowledge into enhancements to the product and enhancements to the presentation that made sense to the retailers so that they looked at us not just as people who deliver boxes of stuff, but who actually could tell them how to sell consumer problems.
Lead the way. I see myself as the person who makes it possible for everybody else to succeed.
That’s my mission. I’m somebody who basically makes sure that we have the human resources and the other resources so that we can all do our jobs well.
If there are issues, I work with other members of the team to address them quickly so that they don’t slow things down or get in the way. I also try to be the spokesman for what it is that we are trying to do and what is it that we believe in and help people understand that and stick with it.
Walk around. I try and maintain one-on-one personal contact wherever I can, which just means walking around. I don’t believe that you learn much or achieve much by sitting in front of a computer screen. I’m often not comfortable with how little time I do spend out there.
I’ve gotten into the habit of sending people e-mails and just letting them know, ‘By the way, this has happened, and this is great,’ and, ‘By the way, this is not happening, and I’m concerned, and this is what we should do about it.’
Be accountable. About twice a year, I get up in front of every one of our employees in all of the different locations and I just make myself accountable to them for how the business is doing and give them the opportunity to ask questions and share with them what our expectations are of them.
It’s just taking opportunities formally and informally to have dialogue. And dialogue in my book is basically listening.
Know what you want to accomplish. Every challenge is different. Every CEO has to know very clearly what it is he or she wants to accomplish and be able to enunciate that clearly so that other people understand. When you have all of the people on your team on the same page, then you have an effective organization.
Watch for results. (The job) was an opportunity that came out of the blue. It’s not an easy one, but it’s a lot of fun. It’s really started to become exciting, because we’ve been here long enough now to know that some of the things I talked about are beginning to show results, beginning to get traction.
The things that we’ve put in place have really laid the groundwork for a future that for most of the 1,000 people who were here before we came wasn’t anywhere near as rosy as it now looks like it could be.
HOW TO REACH: Home Products International Inc., (800) 327-3534 or www.homz.biz
It reverberates in everything Knoll does, from his business to his personal life.
Knoll was a master distributor for Sunoco from 1987 to 1995 when he got the itch to develop a fuel that would make things go faster.
The result was Torco Racing Fuels Inc.
Torco has grown into a complete high-octane fuel blending, storing and resale facility, becoming one of the top private energy reserve movers in the country. Knoll has blended his own fuels and currently has 13 patents and trademarks on race fuel and performance products.
Knoll has learned that being diversified is the name of the game. In addition to his fuels, he has also innovated and trademarked his “Skull” product line. This trademark is on everything from the race cars he owns or sponsors to clothing items, bottled water and, later this year, car care products. He also anticipates expanding his packaged products such as accelerator additives into retail stores, developing a reality TV show and partnering with others to market his Skull brand name on sunglasses, barbecue sauce and marina gear such as surfboards and wet suits.
The company has seen great growth during the last two years and forecasts continued growth for the future. Knoll credits his motivation to seeing other people getting excited, making them laugh and seeing them enjoy life.
How to reach: Torco Racing Fuels Inc., www.torcoracefuels.com
Schmidt Associates has grown into a full-service facility design firm with strong ties to leaders in government and education in the state of Indiana and a growing national presence. What started as a one-man dream has become a 98-person firm.
Schmidt had the vision to invest in revitalizing the Indianapolis downtown area long before it was recognized as a vibrant urban neighborhood. His perseverance and consensus building was instrumental in obtaining money to improve facilities in the Indianapolis public school system.
Schmidt implemented an innovative gate system of quality management at his firm to ensure excellence in service and design. Projects do not advance to the next stage until every item in the previous stage has been checked off. This system, coupled with a structure of continuing internal and external 360-degree feedback, supports the firm’s reputation for really listening.
Servant leadership is implemented as an integral part of how every employee of Schmidt Associates is expected to live out his or her work. It is taught at orientation and supported through the culture of the firm.
Schmidt also provides 100 on-site educational opportunities, quarterly off-site retreats and encourages an intentional approach to growth and development with career paths and advocates to facilitate advancement.
How to reach: Schmidt Associates, (317) 263-6226 or www.schmidt-arch.com
He joined CoolSavings in 1996 as its third employee as vice president of sales, and in 2001, Moog was named president and CEO of the company.
CoolSavings was an Internet-based coupon service where people could register and select coupons from a variety of product providers.
Moog was named CEO when the company had reached the end of its original business model, consistent with many of the dot.com startups at that time. Moog’s first task was to significantly reduce employee levels and decide what, if any, the vision of CoolSavings would become.
Under his leadership, the core business was dramatically changed. The name of the company was changed to Q Interactive (QI) in 2006 in order to more accurately reflect the change in core strategy and the company’s ability to offer a variety of services to its customers.
With the company’s change in core strategy to lead generation, QI developed an extraordinarily sophisticated, scaleable and reliable technology and analytical infrastructure that provides for Internet-based marketing that is 100 percent at the permission of the recipient.
This is a huge differentiating factor from the majority of Internet-based marketing approaches and provides businesses the opportunity to obtain qualified leads for product sales.
How to reach: Q Interactive, www.qinteractive.com