Richard Ross Featured

12:18pm EDT May 22, 2006
Richard Ross has been selling candy since he was a teenager, starting with jelly beans in the late 1970s. The business spiked when President Ronald Reagan revealed that he favored the colorful confection.

He founded Galerie in the 1980s, and since then, Ross has taken his company in a direction that is far removed from that single simple candy item. Indeed, he’s created a niche he calls innovative confectionery gifts, products that combine candy with other giftware and serve the whims and needs of mostly big box retailers such as WalMart and Target.

His creative approach has helped the Hebron, Ky., company to grow into a $72 million a year enterprise that employs as many as 1,500 during peak production seasons.

Ross acknowledges that his success hasn’t been all his own doing, and he credits a reliance on outside advisers and executive coaches, and a willingness to delegate operational responsibility to his senior management team.

With no shortage of opportunities, Ross says one of his biggest challenges is knowing which ones to take and which to pass on. And those decisions, he contends, are best made with the help of an informal network of trusted advisers, often other business owners.

Ross spoke with Smart Business about how he selects the right opportunities, the right people and the right advisers to grow his company.

Create a clear, simple vision. We always had a vision, mission and values statement, but when we were growing, we outgrew what those things were. So we put out a new one, which people didn’t really understand. So we went and did it again, where we made it very simple, and we spent a year really working with people, communicating it.

That’s why we say we make innovative confectionery gifts. We went from trying to be all things to everybody — not just being innovative confectionery gifts, but gifts, confections, just trying to please the client by giving them everything they wanted — to being more focused.

Do your best at your best. The bigger you get, the harder it is to grow, so I think that the most important thing is focus on doing it best, being the best in class at what you do versus being all things to everyone.

I think we have learned as we’ve grown that we’ll be more successful, our clients will be happier, we’ll be more profitable if we focus on what we’re best in the world at versus being good at a lot of things. We’ve got to focus on how do we do it better and better.

Our goal is not to be a commodity but to be a niche.

Know when to say no. You make a bad decision, it can put you out of business. I call it conservative risk management, having the discipline to say no.

You get a thousand opportunities and you want to do every one. You’ve got to have the discipline to evaluate them, say yes, say no, so you’ve got to get outside help to make those decisions.

Tap the experience of outside advisers. From Day One, I always had an outside group of two or three advisers that I could rely on when I didn’t know what I was doing. As the company grows, you get into uncharted territory.

The advisers will change as you grow because you’ll outgrow them. Get the right people to give you the coaching and the input to help you make the right decisions.

To be a good leader, you’ve got to spend time outside the business developing relationships with owners of other companies that can help you, not just relying on your professionals but also on people who have experienced what you’re going through.

Hire for qualities, not just competencies. We look for people who are trustworthy, who believe in trust, who have integrity. We look for people who want to be team players, not out working on their own but actually want to be part of a team.

We look for people who have courage, who want to become better, who want to be challenged and be pushed versus just going to work and going home.

We look for people who want to win. We look for innovation. We’re an innovation company, so we’re always looking for new ideas.

In the old days, it wasn’t like that. We hired people who had experience in our area. Today, we’re actually more interested in the individual and the contribution they can bring as a person versus their skills. We’re able to train them to understand our business, but you can’t train integrity, you can’t train courage and a desire to learn.

Move from entrepreneur to leader. As the company grows, it becomes more complex. You’ve got more facilities and more people, you have a responsibility to provide job security for the people who work for you.

Your No. 1 asset is your staff, so you really don’t have a choice. Either you get out of the business, or you learn how to manage it. So I had to learn how to make the transition from entrepreneur to leader.

I’ve always led the business, but when it’s smaller, you have control over what’s going on. As you get larger, you have to give up control and have more disciplined processes, so I decided to hire somebody from the outside to teach me how to be a better president. So instead of yelling and pushing, you focus on debating and rewarding and being clear on direction.

Engage teams to solve problems. We have what we call critical success factors. We have a five-year strategy that we redo every year. We look at it, we update it and we set very specific critical success factors that the company has to meet.

Each department has a team or we have cross-functional teams that determine what we need to do to meet those critical success factors, which will make sure we meet our objectives for the year. Last year, for instance, we needed to improve our forecasting, so we had established a critical success factor and in it, we had very specific measures about how to automate our forecasting processes, the disciplines we needed to forecast more accurately.

Now, a year later, we have an automated forecasting system that’s easy for the sales group to enter data and a tool for operations to be able to evaluate if we’ve put together the disciplines and processes to make sure it’s happening correctly.

How to reach: