Kurt Kaeser Featured

8:00pm EDT September 18, 2006
 As president and CEO of Kaeser & Blair, Kurt Kaeser has learned to keep an eye out for the next big change. The family-owned promotional advertising firm has been through more than 100 years of changes since its inception in 1894, operating through both world wars and the Great Depression without interruption. The ability to anticipate a shift in the big picture has enabled Kaeser to make adjustments, and today, Kaeser & Blair is stronger than ever, with 128 employees and 2005 revenue of $76 million. Smart Business spoke with Kaeser about the importance of flexibility in business and how to get buy-in from your employees.

Keep your ego in check.
I’ve seen some businesses that have a CEO who has a heck of an ego — a guy who doesn’t let other people have input, doesn’t let the company grow, doesn’t want to get rid of anything because he’s too afraid to show weakness.

They think they need to be a dictator. A dictator with an ego is the worst thing that can happen to a business. They just need to realize they may not be Superman; they may not be able to do everything. They need to value other people’s opinions, let some other people do other tasks, and be willing to delegate.

Have a vision, but be willing to adjust it.
Seeing the big picture is important. You try to visualize where you’re going to be in five years or 10 years, and then sit down and see exactly how you’re going to get there.

If you had a road map of exactly what we were doing 10 years ago, I don’t think we have taken that course. You’re constantly making some adjustments.

Vision is being able to see the big picture, having an idea of where you want to be and trying to come up with a plan to get there. But be willing to (adjust) your plan. We do a lot with the Internet and technology, but we don’t have crystal balls.

You can’t tell what it’s going to be five years from now or 10 years from now, so you’ve got to be flexible in seeing how those things can apply to your goals, and you’ve got to be willing to adapt them.

Watch your costs.
You can’t overspend. You’ve got to be conservative when it comes to money. We try to do it a little bit at a time, like maybe we need a new phone system. Well, maybe we can make this phone system work another year or two. Maybe it would be nice to have a new, faster computer. Well, maybe we can live with this one for another year or two.

It’s easy for other people to spend your money. So you have to be willing to say, ‘We need to look for some other solutions that don’t cost us as much.’

When we do make expenses, we look at when the payback is going to be. If we purchase something that will save us money, is it going to take us five years to recover that cost? There’s not really a line in the sand. It’s going to vary according to what you’re purchasing and what the circumstances are.

Get input.
We really have a team approach here. We share responsibilities and feed off each other’s skills. With most major decisions, we talk about everything and have discussions so everybody has some input, then we all try to get on the same page.

It’s tough to build excitement, but we try to treat people with respect and value their opinion. We try to be a part of it instead of just doing it. If we’re introducing a new program, like a new catalog that’s coming out, we try to show people what it is to get them onboard with it.

We try to keep everybody involved, instead of just saying, ‘OK, here’s the new catalog, you’ve got to sell from this new catalog.’ From the very start, we try to ask for their input, and say, ‘We’re thinking about putting out a new catalog. What do you think should be in there?’

They know what we’re trying to accomplish; they know what the goals are. Make sure they’re all aware of what’s going on and how you’re trying to get there. We try to paint the bigger picture, but each department has their own goals to accomplish.

Don’t overextend yourself for growth.
We have been fortunate in that we’ve had a little bit at a time. We’ve had some years with double-digit growth, which is great, but sometimes trying to control costs is difficult. We’ve had to add on to our building, and taking it a little bit at a time is the way we’ve managed it.

The last time we were thinking about adding on the building, a small addition, and I had a builder come in and he said, ‘Oh no, you’ve got to be thinking 20 years down the road, you need to build a 40,000-square-foot building, which is what you’ll need 20 years from now.’ I think I’d be broke right now if I had done that.

Taking baby steps has been the success for us. If I had taken that guy’s advice and we would built have this big fancy new building, the cost would have been ridiculous, and we didn’t need that. Maybe we will 20 years from now — I hope we will 20 years from now.

But there’s nothing wrong with doing a little addition every five years. It’s slow and steady growth and managing a little bit at a time.

HOW TO REACH: Kaeser & Blair Inc., (800) 642-9790 or www.kaeser-blair.com