The 32-year-old founder and president of Vosges Haut-Chocolat has built a burgeoning chocolate empire one luscious and exotically flavored truffle at a time. In seven years, her company has grown from a single owner-operated retail shop into a $4.5 million business with 50 employees, five stores and thriving online and catalog sales.
The firm earned spots on Inc. magazine’s list of the 500 fastest growing companies in the United States in 2004 and Markoff herself has garnered attention and accolades from both the culinary and business media. Bon Appetit magazine crowned her Food Artisan of the Year last year, and she was a finalist in Ernst &Young’s Entrepreneur Of The Year competition in 2004.
She’s achieved all this by mapping out her own route and doing things her own way.
“I’ve always done things that may not seem logical or sensible in order to maintain my creative spirit,” says Markoff. “And I apply the same approach to running this business.”
Markoff studied psychology and chemistry at Vanderbilt University, and headed to culinary school in Paris three days after graduating. She worked in restaurant kitchens from Spain to Thailand but ultimately decided to reinvent chocolate. Everything she does has a surprising twist, from using Indian curry, ancho chile powder and sinus-clearing wasabi in her chocolate creations to providing staff at corporate headquarters in Chicago with a meditation room and weekly yoga classes.
She dilutes her brand by marketing her signature products side by side with whatever else grabs her fancy currently leather jackets, lingerie and scented candles. And she puts personal satisfaction her own and that of the people who work for her before bottom line goals.
While not exactly thumbing her nose at conventional wisdom, Markoff has disregarded, defied and disproved many tried and true fundamentals of the candy kitchen and the corner office.
Traditionalists and MBAs might find many of her ideas a touch too New Age for their taste, but she combines her highly personalized style with sales savvy and a brilliant knack for self-promotion.
Her star is clearly on the rise. Her high-end products featuring a global grocery cart of ingredients are an Oprah favorite, and the company reported a whopping 392 percent growth last year.
Smart Business got this on-the-go gourmet to slow down long enough to share her ideas about her vision for Vosges and how she gets her staff to invest in it.
How do you run your business?
I’m definitely not your typical executive. I suppose you could say I’ve established an alternative corporate culture. And doing the unexpected is fun.
Establish a supportive, welcoming workplace where people feel they can be themselves. This creates an environment that encourages new ideas and one where everyone is motivated to work very hard and put their heart into everything they do.
The key is to be flexible and responsive to employees’ needs and interests. For example, my bookkeeper prefers working from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. rather than 9 to 5. That’s fine with me. Another one of my staff cares for her elderly mother. When she has to take her to the doctor, I allow her to have paid time off and don’t count it as a sick day. She never abuses the privilege and truly appreciates the consideration.
We have no dress code - that’s another small way to nurture individuality.
We also have a very malleable and adaptable structure. I had a young woman in operations who had a real interest in marketing but no experience. When a position opened up in that area, I gave her the opportunity to move into it, and she’s doing a great job. In another case, I decided to make our corporate headquarters in Chicago green, and I handed off the responsibility to an employee with a personal passion for environmental consciousness.
And when I learned that an employee was very involved in V-Day [dedicated to ending violence against women and girls], it become one of our charities of choice, and I tapped her to manage our giving program.
I’m a big believer in exploring and exploiting the talent we have in-house and building on it.
Is it working?
We’ve had almost no turnover. We continue adding employees but rarely replace any, and have had no trouble recruiting talented, energetic people. They’re attracted to us precisely because of who we are and how we’re different from other companies. This is a place where people want to be. Good things come from nurturing your team.
Is that why you have a yoga studio at the office?
It started because it was part of my life and I wanted to fold it into the mix of my business day. But employees are very enthusiastic. Attendance at the class is optional, of course, but most choose to come. And I have no doubt that the relaxation and yoga’s effect on the mind, body and spirit is beneficial to them and to the company.
What’s your biggest business challenge?
I fight against becoming institutionalized because I think if we do, we’ll lose the innovative edge that’s brought us so far. I’m also determined to stay true to the integrity of the product, which gets harder as we continue to grow. Sometimes that means not accepting the standard answers or the most practical solutions.
What’s next for you and the company?
We have three stores in Chicago, one in Las Vegas and another in Soho in New York City. Now I’m looking at opening at least one in Los Angeles and expanding retail operations into Japan. There’s a lot of interest in our products there.
The business keeps moving in new directions. I think that’s because I don’t put borders around my thinking. I just let things evolve naturally. I have so many ideas that if I wasn’t busy with the details of running this company, I’d probably be starting 10 more businesses all at the same time.
Dealing with the bank keeps me grounded. But I would like to get back into the creative end of things, do a little more right-brain thinking and a little less left-brain stuff.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
Talking about world peace through chocolate. My chocolate creations cross international boundaries. I like to think of them as a way to introduce people to different cultures and bring them together in a nonpolitical arena.
My mother always told me there are no limits. I think that’s a good rule for life and business.
How to reach: Vosges Haut-Chocolat, http://www.VosgesChocolate.com
Then, while making deliveries to high-end executives, Levin made an important discovery: Even in the most lavish of homes, office furniture looked like it belonged at a corporation. Residential office furniture was not an option in the marketplace at that time, something Levin decided to change.
In 1998, he founded Home Office Solutions, which specializes in high-end, ergonomic home office furnishings. Levin’s idea took off, and today, Home Office Solutions Group consists of three retail stores around Chicago and three Web stores: www.UltimateBackStore.com, www.OfficeDesigns.com and www.HomeOfficeSolutions.com.
Gross sales have increased from $5 million in 2001 to $20 million in 2004.
Smart Business talked with Levin about the importance of the Internet in the growth of his company and how he plans to continue growing Home Office Solutions Group.
How did you use the Internet to grow your company?
The Internet is an international market, not just a local market. In January of 1999, we moved our store to Yahoo and became part of Yahoo shopping.
Back in those days, the Internet was still in the Stone Age. People were hesitant to shop online, but they trusted Yahoo. Getting on there was our first exposure. We also advertised on other search engines. So that brought our product to the marketplace nationally and internationally. In the spring of 2000, we really started to see an increase in online orders.
With 90 percent of your sales made over the Internet, how do you ensure quality customer service?
When we started Home Office Solutions, our motto was, ‘Service to exceed Nordstrom.’ Being a retailer and a shopper, I felt that Nordstrom had the highest level of customer service and had highly trained employees dealing with their customers. I felt that if, on a bad day, we are just as good as Nordstrom, then we are going to be successful.
Being a smaller company, we were able to micromanage every word that came out of our associates’ mouths. We gave them extensive training. We have 90-day training for sales and customer service reps before they are allowed to talk with customers. In the retail industry, that is like years.
We also use successful people who know the techniques to train the new people. Sometimes your best people don’t want to be training other people, they just want to be selling or dealing with the public, but we force them to train.
You sell Herman Miller products and have a good relationship with the company. How do you establish relationships with other companies and turn them into profit?
The way to establish relationships with other companies is to be able to bring their product to the marketplace in a venue that is superior to other dealers. One way is to have phenomenally trained staff on their product and product knowledge.
Another way is to have a large inventory of their products and not have to rely on them to ship products for you. The third way is to give them input from our customer base on what people are looking for and questions that they ask.
We have around 3 million unique visitors a year to our Web site. There is a fair amount of communication coming from the public to us that we forward on to Herman Miller. They need to know what is going on in the marketplace, too. They can do marketing studies, but the best study is to talk to your high-profile dealers.
How has your company grown to meet to the changing needs of consumers?
We keep adding products all of the time. Every month, a new product comes out online. With us being No. 1 in high-end ergonomics products on the Internet, the manufacturers like Herman Miller and Steelcase come to us with their new products in the development stage. They ask us how we feel about the product and where we think it would be in the marketplace compared to their competition.
How we continue our growth is we are doing a complete new software platform, which is connected to all of our stores and our warehouse. It is going to help us grow the company in the future.
How did your company continue to prosper after Sept. 11, while many others suffered?
When Sept. 11 happened, I started to hear about how people were afraid to leave their homes and afraid to go to the shopping malls, and all this hysteria that the media created. This led me to believe that people were going to nest.
One of the rooms that I thought people were really going to spend time in was the home office. I just knew that was going to happen. And it is actually what happened. The home remodeling business went crazy. People stopped taking vacations and they took that money and put it into their homes.
We were right there ready for people to upgrade, redo or for the first time do their home office. We were already there with the products, ready to go. We were also able to ship furniture in the same time frame that Amazon ships a book.
What are your growth goals for the future?
We are looking for about 25 percent growth for this year. We are already exceeding that.
Why? Because, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, health care costs rose just 7.5 percent in 2004, a far cry from the 11.4 percent rise in 2002. But while costs may be rising less dramatically, employers’ health benefits costs remain a challenging financial responsibility as they demand an ever-larger share of overall operating expenses. In addition, health care cost increases continue to outpace pay increases for most employees, making it ever more difficult to afford coverage.
In response to these challenges, health insurers have been proactive in offering employers and employees new tools to manage these costs. For example, there are more plan designs than ever before, including the newest consumer-directed plans, which marry high-deductible coverage to various employee accounts for health-related savings.
In addition to these high-profile plan approaches, there are quieter innovations in the health arena that can deliver significant savings for employers.
Some of the more visible programs available involve the concept of health care management. For example, disease management programs identify and provide targeted services to members with certain chronic illnesses who, based on statistics, are likely to enjoy better health if actively helped with their conditions.
These programs reach out to people with such conditions as asthma, coronary artery disease, chronic heart failure, diabetes and low back pain. They also focus on helping women who are experiencing high-risk pregnancies, helping them stay on a healthy course to avoid unnecessary complications.
Services might include outreach and support from the insurer’s medical management team, all designed to assist the member with getting the right care from her physician every step of the way.
Some of this may sound familiar, but what’s different is how medical data are used to assess risk factors and check for errors, gaps and omissions of care that may help clinicians seize opportunities to improve health and wellness. As they process claims, insurers compile millions of pieces of data related to diseases, treatment paths and costs. The data can help alert physicians to risk factors for serious diseases, such as high cholesterol and obesity, which can lead to heart disease or diabetes.
Alternatively, data may show patterns that might link certain conditions. For example, an insurer’s data may indicate that many patients with chronic lower back pain also experience depression.
With this knowledge, the insurer’s medical staff can work with health care providers to ask the right questions, detect related exacerbating conditions and get patients more comprehensive treatment that can improve their health and help them stay at work or return to work more quickly.
Beyond seizing these opportunities, this powerful data allows the insurer to gain insights into potential treatment conflicts that could escape the attention of the patient’s doctor. In fact, some insurers offer programs that proactively alert doctors to potential areas of concern.
The bottom line is that insurers can now provide practical, timely, clinical decision support to physicians and patients, which can help to improve patient safety and medical quality, reduce medical costs and improve employees’ productivity.
Take a look
Might your company benefit from applying some of these data-enabled health plan approaches? It may be worthwhile to investigate your options by taking a closer look at the options in your existing health plan or by consulting with your insurance broker or consultant regarding the available options in your market. The choice you make might take your plan to the next level of effectiveness and quality improvement, empowering your employees and their doctors with better tools for health and potentially lowering your health plan costs in the bargain.
Thomas J. Scurfield is vice president of sales and service for the Aetna’s north central east region and is based in Cleveland. He has more than 25 years of experience working in employee benefits and holds both the Chartered Life Underwriter and Certified Employee Benefit Specialist designations. Reach him at (330) 659-8020 or ScurfieldT@aetna.com/.
Wellner is president of Corporate America Family Credit Union, an organization founded by 15 employees in 1939 as the Automatic Credit Union, named for Automatic Electric Co. Later purchased by GTE Corp., the credit union that began with $75 in assets has seen, as Wellner terms it, “explosive growth” in the past few years and now boasts more than $575 million in total assets, serving nearly 100,000 members employed by more than 500 sponsor companies nationally.
Smart Business spoke with Wellner about how the industry has changed and how he plans to move a much larger organization forward.
How did you get involved in credit unions?
I fell in love with the concept. Isn’t this a wonderful thing to do for people? It’s been a labor of love for 30 years.
How has the industry changed during those three decades?
When I first started 30 years ago, credit unions tended to be very, very small, they tended to be inside a manufacturing facility, inside a telephone company headquarters or something like that. There used to be the feeling that this credit union is only for the people of (a specific company). Nobody else could use it.
The hours tended to be very limited. They tended to focus on small, signature loans they didn’t have a broad array of services. So the general public, unless they worked for that company, didn’t even know the credit union existed.
There was a time when people used to say credit unions are the best-held secret in the United States because they do such a wonderful job for the limited number of people they serve.
How has the organization grown so quickly?
The rapid growth is a function of our business plan, which is driven by our strategies and the mission as agreed to by the board of directors and our staff. One of the keys of that is diversification. Probably 20 years ago, we were pretty much a single-sponsor credit union that slowly, slowly was reducing its employment substantial layoffs.
The strategies that the staff and board agreed on were diversification of the membership base, diversification of a concentration of assets, members and loans in one geographic area, and because of that, we started to expand aggressively on a national level. And because of the type of products that credit unions offer, it is a business recipe that is very, very popular.
When we started to present it nationally, it was received extremely well.
In what other ways has the organization changed?
It’s changed remarkably, and mainly from the delivery of a product. It’s one thing to say you are a not-for-profit financial cooperative, but how do you create that service and get it to the marketplace?
Back in the ’80s, they had the deregulation of interest rates and savings rates, which offered great competitiveness in the marketplace.
The Internet and PC banking, telephone auto-response systems, ATMs all of these are service-providing methodologies. One of the reasons why our credit union is as successful as it is, we have been somewhat leading-edge when it comes to technology. We’ll embrace something that gives our members the very best service they can get without necessarily going to a branch office.
What is the ultimate goal for the credit union?
We are interested in becoming the primary financial institution. Equal to that is we’re interested in serving all of our members. And we’re very interested in working in an area where other financial institutions have been unwilling or don’t desire to work and that is serving the underserved.
We’ve a full range of products. In Chicagoland and many other places around the country, payday lending has become one of the evils that regulators are trying to counterbalance and regulate. Credit unions are well-positioned to work into that area and offer an alternative to the payday lenders.
When we get somebody who qualifies for a payday lender, we want to bring them in and we want to give them some educational opportunities to have a checking account and an ATM card.
Why do so few who have the opportunity fail to take advantage of what credit unions offer?
The percentage is very low for two reasons. The main reason is that from a community charter standpoint, the 25 miles (the radius inside which those residing may join the credit union if they do not match other membership criteria) that is somewhat new for us. If you look at just the Chicagoland area, there are 4 million people in Chicago. We’re just scratching the surface from that standpoint.
From a sponsor-company standpoint, which is our majority focus, we probably are in the area of 30 (percent) to 35 percent. In some places, it may be 80 percent. The selection opportunity is very broad.
What is the growth plan for CAFCU?
With the help of HeisleroGordon and our marketing department, we are constantly going to the sponsor companies, putting on employee orientations, talking to people about the opportunities credit unions offer from a financial services standpoint. We have a desire to improve our penetrations. We are constantly looking for ways to make ourselves more and more convenient for more and more people.
We have a department with 21 people in it whose only purpose is business development to communicate what we do, the values and purpose of credit unions, to employees that are currently in our field of membership, our sponsor companies and to future perspective sponsor companies.
How was the organization able to absorb so much growth in a one-year period?
Probably half to two-thirds of that growth came via merger (with three other credit unions). Along with the additional members, we got some pretty excellent staff people. A lot of that seed work, to build and develop relationships, was already done.
We received the mergers mainly because we have the economies of scale, we have invested in the future in terms of all of the service delivery aspects that we have, and so by merging with these three different credit unions, they were able to give their members all these services, which we have invested in without going through all that R&D.
What is the benefit of that growth?
There is a certain definite economy of scale. You only need one data processing system; you only need one president. The interest structure that backs up the services to the branches has a limited fixed cost.
Once you’ve covered that, the incremental advantage is enormous. You can grow and prosper based on that limited infrastructure.
What is your approach to strategic planning?
The strategies tend to be somewhat long-term. Our strategies tend to be 10 to 15 years out. These are not ‘I want to reach a certain asset size; I want to reach a certain income level.’ These tend to be strategies relative to diversification, in terms of where geographically the company wants and needs to go.
We deal with a strategy of service delivery. That strategy mainly is there so we are saying to ourselves continually, we constantly need to be leading edge technologically; therefore, our long-term strategy is to be at the highest level of technology.
What is the biggest business challenge you face?
I’m going to say to handle growth, to be very honest. We have had explosive growth. So we bring a lot of new people through merger or through new branches, and I want to make sure that every person knows why we are in business and how we are different than other financial institutions.
It’s an ongoing effort, and to reinforce that fact that when we are dealing and here’s another difference with a member, we are dealing with an owner; we’re not dealing with a customer. And we have to understand that our business is to do their business, not the other way around.
We even have signs that we post in every person’s workstation, in every branch, in hallways. It goes something like this: A member is the most important person in this office, whether in person, on phone or by mail.
HOW TO REACH: Corporate America Family Credit Union, (800) 359-1939 or http://www.cafcu.org
Before joining Citigate Sard Verbinnen, Wilks served as managing director and head of the Chicago office of Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide for six years. He has more than 19 years of combined agency and corporate experience, with areas of expertise including strategic positioning and reputation management, investor road show development, crisis communications, annual report writing, IPOs, spin-offs and corporate restructuring communications.
Prior to joining Ogilvy, Wilks headed the investor relations and technology practices for Fleishman-Hillard, Chicago. Before that, he was head of investor relations for Ball Corp. for six years. During his tenure with Ball, Wilks was featured by Institutional Investor magazine as one of the leading investor relations professionals in the United States as selected by a poll of security analysts. Earlier in his career, he was at Ogilvy Adams & Rinehart in New York.
Citigate also announced that Ron Culp, who established the office in 2003, will continue as chairman, and Debbie Miller, a principal and 10-year veteran of the New York office, will relocate to Chicago and join Wilks’ team.
Eric D. Belcher joined InnerWorkings as executive vice president, operations. Belcher will oversee all service delivery functions, supply chain management and InnerWorkings certified supplier network. Previously, he was chief operating officer for MAN Roland Inc., where he oversaw sheetfed operations throughout North America. Prior to assuming that post, Belcher served as CFO.
Belcher holds an MBA from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business and a bachelor’s degree from Bucknell University.
Patrick Cary joined Duane Morris LLP’s Chicago office as a partner in the firm’s Trial Practice Group. Cary previously worked at Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman and Dicker LLP.
He specializes in directors and officers insurance coverage work and litigation regarding claims of securities fraud, breach of fiduciary duties, antitrust violations, lender liability and wrongful employment practices. Cary has also represented individuals and organizations in securities arbitration.
Prior to joining Wilson Elser, he was an attorney for the National Association of Securities Dealers, the primary private-sector regulator of the securities industry, in its Chicago office. He holds a bachelor of arts degree in political science from the University of Notre Dame and a law degree from Marquette University.
HURON CONSULTING GROUP
Seth Palatnik, managing director of Huron Consulting Group, was named head of the company’s Valuation Practice. For more than 20 years, Palatnik has been actively involved in valuation and corporate finance matters. He has broad experience in valuing companies, partnerships and intangible assets.
Prior to joining Huron in 2003, Palatnik was a partner and national director of the Valuation Services Practice at BDO Seidman LLP. Before BDO, he was a senior manager at KPMG Peat Marwick and spent several years in the industry as a financial analyst.
KNOCKOUT HOLDINGS INC.
David E. Malone was named COO of Knockout Holdings Inc., exclusive developer and marketer of the new George Foreman’s Knock-Out line of household and automotive cleaning products. He replaced Ahmed Shaikh, who had been serving as president and COO and will remain with the company during the transition.
Previously, Malone served as senior vice president of Mesirow Financial and project executive for Illinois Property Asset Management LLC, where he provided real estate strategy and consulting to the state of Illinois. Prior to that, Malone served as chief procurement officer for the city of Chicago from 2000 to 2004, where he was responsible for overseeing contract awards and purchases.
Malone has also served as director of worldwide procurement for RR Donnelley & Sons Co., director of purchasing and supplier development for Avery Dennison Corp. and commodity manager at Xerox Corp.
Doug Zell founded Intelligentsia Coffee in 1995 and focused on providing the highest-quality coffee possible.
Quality is how Zell has differentiated his business in a crowded market. He provides a product that has led Intelligentsia to become, according to CoffeeReview.com, the "highest-rated roaster in the world."
Quality is the focus of the entire coffee-brewing process. Zell chooses the finest growers from Mexico, Nicaragua and Rwanda, and requires an extensive six-month training program for employees before they become baristas.
Zell has also created a wholesale business, selling to the likes of Whole Foods, Frontera Grill and Charlie Trotter's. Intelligentsia also sells to other local coffee shops and is expanding its wholesale program to other parts of the country.
Zell says experience, talent and skill are the basis of his hiring campaign, but for Intelligentsia, talent outweighs experience. His baristas recently placed second, fourth and sixth in the U.S. Barista Championships.
Employees starting at all levels have a chance to move up in the company. They are encouraged to take part in community activities, and Intelligentsia makes monetary and in-kind donations to various charities.
Zell says that one of the greatest rewards is to economically help countries that are not as wealthy as the United States by doing business there. The company is able to help supplier countries by paying growers more than competitors do.
Growth is in the future, but Zell says the focus will always be on the quality of his product.
When Matt Moog joined CoolSavings Inc. as president and CEO, the company was solely focused on its branded desk station Web site that attracted consumers and businesses.
CoolSavings had developed an extraordinarily sophisticated, scalable and reliable technology and analytical infrastructure, allowing it to collect more than 6 billion data points on its more than 30 million registered U.S. households.
Beginning in 2002, Moog rethought the business to leverage this technology to create a distribution network. The growth strategy now encompasses providing best-in-class marketing in four key intertwined services: lead generation, e-mail, coupons and loyalty. The coupons business was enhanced when CoolSavings acquired a company with the technology to provide coupons that could be printed from a desktop.
In 2005, a separate brand -- freestylerewards.com -- was established for the loyalty business, and it is projected to generate exponential growth. The company continues to invest in flexible technology and targeting analytics.
One of Moog's biggest accomplishments was re-establishing employee moral and confidence after the Internet downturn. He accomplished this with open and honest communication with all of the employees.
Each month, Moog produces an internal newsletter that discusses the state of the business, current developments with the company, financial results and future goals and developments. Retention is high, and the continued growth of the company allows it to attract passionate, engaged and talented resources.
By using open communication, working with his team and reinforcing performance-based goals, Moog has made CoolSavings into a winning company.
Gian Fulgoni left his job as president and CEO of IRI Inc. in 1998 to co-found comScore Networks, the first market research company to provide services that continuously measure consumers' buying and browsing activity on the Internet and integrate that data with attitudinal information.
Because the percentage of visitors to a given Web site who actually make a purchase is small, the sample size requirement for reliable measurement of purchasing behavior was estimated to exceed 1 million consumers.
Currently, comScore has a panel of opt-in consumers that allows the company to provide timely insights into consumer behavior and attitudes that can be used to build successful marketing, sales and trading strategies.
When a consumer agrees to join the comScore panel, his or her PC is configured to surf the Web through comScore's network of nearly 700 high-performance data collection servers. This allows comScore to capture data from millions of PCs, without the burden of updating changes in software functionality across such a large population.
Consumers benefit as well, with panelists' Web connection speeds increasing by as much as 100 percent. This innovation is now part of the offering of most major ISPs, three years after comScore offered it to its customers.
Fulgoni strives to increase the depth and quality of data to help clients develop marketing strategies and tactics that deliver superior ROI and provide the marketplace with the only accurate means of measuring the success of e-commerce ventures.
When Dick Blaudow decided to leave his job at Caterpillar in 1985 because of an uncertain future, he left with an idea to provide IT and infrastructure support for factories.
His idea and leadership were so compelling, 35 others from Caterpillar left to join him at his venture, Advanced Technology Services.
Blaudow says three key strategies have led to the growth of the company.
* Outsourced factory maintenance. From inception, he focused the company's strategy on providing IT and infrastructure support for his customers' factories. The company has grown substantially and has the potential for significant future growth by selling outsourced factory maintenance services.
* Service quality initiative. During 2003, the company invested in a service quality initiative that aligned the company's employees with the strategic goals of the business. A continuous improvement mindset was implemented in all the company's activities.
This has proven successful because the company brings on a significant number of employees when an outsourcing project begins. These new employees are trained in methods that Blaudow has practiced since the company's inception.
* Reinforcing the company's mission. Every new employee attends a detailed, two-day orientation that focuses on the company's history and future. Blaudow attends each orientation meeting and speaks to the new employees.
Employees are also encouraged to participate in charitable organizations. The continuous improvement initiatives are ongoing to ensure employees not only improve relative to job performance but also in regard to life-balance considerations.
Dale Smith Jr. joined his father's company, H.D. Smith Wholesale Drug Co., in 1974, and worked virtually every job in the organization, learning the business from the ground up.
In 1984, Smith Jr. became president and CEO of the company, and under his leadership, it went through significant growth in the 1990s. From 1995 to 2000, Smith acquired or started up operations in Texas, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and New Jersey, focusing on improving operations, integrating the acquired businesses and improving margins.
Two techniques illustrate Smith's entrepreneurial spirit.
* Expansion philosophy. H.D. Smith expanded to establish independent distribution centers in each major metro area. A key aspect was to establish sales forces and customer relationships in an area prior to locating a distribution center there. This provided for profitable operations immediately - an important concept in a business where margins are very thin.
* Customer initiatives. Dale Smith Jr. has led several programs to make customers successful in a world where the vast majority of drug purchases are at the major chains. The idea is to have loyal, profitable customers as the backbone of Smith's growth and expansion plans.
Smith's vision has made the company the fourth-largest national drug wholesaler.