Dustin S. Klein

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:47

Art of illusion

Bob Leon had seen everything. At least that’s what the president and owner of Colortone Audio Visual Staging and Rentals thought before he was hired in 1995 to stage a program for News America Corp. on Marco Island, Fla.

After all, Leon had toured as a roadie with the Allman Brothers Band and Billy Joel during the 1970s, where he experienced first hand the chaotic rock and roll lifestyle.

“One of my jobs for the Allmans was running out on stage between songs to pour shots for the guys,” he recalls with a devilish smile.

If you look closely at Leon, past his gray-streaked, short-cropped hair and businesslike manner, you can steal a small glimpse of his rock and roll past. And, if you’re willing to press hard enough, the energetic and engaging Leon will grin and finally tell you, “I lived on a bus during those years. We did a lot of wild things. Looking back, it wasn’t my idea of fun.”

But even the most raucous adventures Leon experienced before turning in his backstage pass for a corporate job with a New York audio-visual firm, didn’t prepare him for what happened in Florida.

“It was the last day of the conference,” Leon recalls. “We’d come down to Marcus Island with the Big Apple Circus to stage News America Corp.’s team building exercises. At the end of each day of the conference, the company’s employees were broken up into small groups and worked with the circus performers —clowns, jugglers, tightrope walkers.

“They were learning things like building pyramids, walking tightropes and playing sonatas by rubbing the edges of water glasses. And on the last day of the conference, a Saturday, the company execs took all the employees out on a dinner cruise.”

The employees, Leon says, didn’t know their destination was a deserted island just across an inlet bay from Marcos Island.

“While they were out on the cruise, we were supposed to set up a circus tent on the island and run generators because there wasn’t any electricity available. They provided us with some pontoon boats to get the equipment over there.”

Shortly after the first boat left — filled with clowns, circus rings, trapezes and other circus props — a storm hit.

“We’re loading the pontoon boat with all our electrical equipment and listening to the radio,” says Leon. “And we hear the clowns on the first boat tell us they’re passing through the inlet bay and taking on water. They say the water is extremely rough and they’re not sure if they’re going to make it. So I look at all our electrical equipment and my staff and say, ‘No way, we’re not taking the chance.’”

Meanwhile, the dinner cruise was slated to dock at the deserted island in a few hours, so Leon improvised.

“We scrounged up a 65-foot yacht, quickly loaded up the equipment and cruised over to the island. Half our crew never made it to the island. The clowns helped us set everything up.”

When the cruise ship finally docked, the tent was set up. And, as they say in show business, the show went on.

“The employees got a real treat that night,” Leon recalls. “The Big Apple Circus performers put on their show, then the employees dressed up in the clothes of the groups they worked with all week and performed their own stunts in front of the rest of the employees.”

Such is the life of Leon. His company, Colortone, is in the business of creating illusions for its clients in the form of business conferences, symposiums and events. Put another way, Leon develops and presents experiences for his clients’ clients, who are the ones the events are designed to impress.

In the five years since Leon bought Colortone from its New York-based owner, he’s yet to face anything quite as daunting as that Florida experience. He has, however, built a growing upstart company, which raked in more than $3 million in revenue last year and is on pace to eclipse that by year’s end.

Along the way, he’s developed a laundry list of rules, three of which Leon swears are necessities in the event staging business.

Maintain good communication between your office and the client

“We’re in the miracle business,” explains Leon. “You can’t pull off a miracle unless you know what it’s supposed to be.”

That requires constant communication among everyone involved — Colortone, the client, catering managers, drayage companies and contact people at the location where the event will be held. “Without a doubt, good communication is the most important thing.”

Conversely, bad communication can kill an event. “We did a house tour for Owen-Corning in October,” says Leon. “They gave five houses a $100,000 makeover with some new products. An ad agency in Chicago hired us to do the unveiling of each house.”

Leon’s team designed 20-foot-high towers with big pink drapes in the front of each home, then awaited Owens-Corning’s tour bus, filled with 80 vendors.

“They were going house to house showing off the new products. The plan was that when they pulled up, stopped and got off the bus, we’d drop the drape,” he explains.

The first house unveiling went off as planned. The bus pulled up. The vendors climbed off. Colortone dropped the drape. But there was one problem: the ad agency — Colortone’s client — never explained Colortone’s staging plans to its client, Owens-Corning.

Says Leon, “They (Owens-Corning) hated it. And they cancelled it on the spot. We did that first house and that was it. Bad communication is always a terrible thing in our business. Especially when you consider that everything we do is unique. Every time we go out there, it’s to try and do something with an event that’s never been done before.”

Remain calm

As anyone who’s ever been in charge of an annual conference or overseen a symposium knows, putting on an event can be a stressful job. It’s not uncommon that somebody’s neck is on the line for the success —or failure — of the event.

“And more often than not, we deal with meeting planners who aren’t really meeting planners,” says Leon. “They’re receptionists, assistants and sometimes managers who are booking space.”

That’s why it’s important for Leon and his staff to be professional and maintain level heads, no matter what problems crop up. If, for example, the keynote speaker’s microphone fails, or the video you’re supposed to show happens not to have any sound, it’s easy to let the entire event fall apart rather than think quick on your feet, says Leon.

“We’re very good at remaining calm,” he says. “Part of that is the relationship we build with the client. If they’re comfortable with us, then we don’t stress out when something doesn’t go exactly that way it’s supposed to. We just find a good solution.”

A good show, explains Leon, is the one where no one even realizes Colortone is there.

Be prepared

That ability to stay calm makes it easier to be prepared for anything, says Leon. Like the time a few years ago when the company staged Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur Of The Year awards conference in Cleveland and everything that could go wrong did.

“We set up and rehearsed all day,” recalls Leon. “Everything worked fine. Then, we opened the doors.”

As the award winners, finalists and other conference attendees walked into the room, a sudden power surge knocked out half the video system and all the sound equipment. Says Leon, “The emcee goes up to the podium to speak, and the front speakers aren’t working. We look at the screens behind him and realize the cameras have lost their balance as well. It was too late to do anything then, so we ran a video.”

While the attendees dined, Leon and his staff hurriedly went to work behind the scenes. They had brought enough back-up equipment — wires, cables, microphones, duplicate video units — to replace the bad parts. They quickly rewired the entire sound system, tested it, then plugged in new video equipment to replace the components which were fried.

“By the time dinner was over, we were up and running,” Leon says. “Nobody was the wiser.”

The near-tragedy became a running joke between Leon and Ernst & Young.

“They told me they expected to be redeemed for the mix-up,” he says. “About a year later, after we handled four other of their events, I got a message that said, ‘You’ve been redeemed.’ I keep that message on my wall.”

Leon claims it’s that unique ability to hide the mistakes that sets his company apart from the competition. “We’ve never had a show crash,” he maintains. “That’s about the closest it’s ever come.”

Last year, Leon’s efforts caught the attention of the Salt Lake City Olympic Committee, which contracted Colortone to stage the worldwide unveiling of the 2001 Winter Olympics mascot.

That spurred Leon to open an office in Salt Lake City, which in turn led to other business opportunities in the West. Besides the unveiling, Colortone Utah has staged numerous events over the past 18 months, including a conference for 12,000 people at the Delta Center, a medical conference for 1,500 in Dallas and a 5,000-person event in San Francisco for the Direct Marketing Association. He operates a five-person staff in Utah that complements his 20-employee operations in Cleveland.

The Olympic Committee was so smitten with the success of the mascot unveiling that it contracted Colortone for two other jobs. The first covers 68 separate small meetings, at which Olympic Committee officials pitch potential corporate sponsors for the 2001 Winter Olympics. Colortone has been handling the meeting staging, including wall-to-wall screens and a full-scale presentation for the corporate prospects.

The second job is more expansive.

“We’ll be projecting images of the slalom, giant slalom and speed skiing events at Snowbird Resort,” he says. “It’ll be a direct feed during the event, so people at the resort can either watch the guys coming down the mountain on the giant screens, or watch the guys outside.”

More recently, Leon’s company has branched off into once-familiar territory — staging concerts. It’s an outgrowth of some of the larger business conferences he’s staged, where entertainers were used.

“We use a lot of color and sound,” he says. “That attracts attention and creates excitement. We’ve taken that theater philosophy that we use to stage business conferences and applied it to the entertainment field.”

The irony hasn’t been lost of the former roadie.

“It’s kind of fun to be working again in the entertainment industry,” he mused a few months ago. “I’ve learned a long time ago not to be surprised by anything that happens. Every time I think I’ve got it figured out, I’m off by a long shot.”

How to reach: Colortone Audio Visual Staging and Rentals, (216) 741-9600 or www.colortone.com

Dustin Klein (dsklein@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:46

Ups and Downs

(Ups) to the stock market. After a rocky start early last year, the market rebounded and soared, mirroring the robust economy and giving new life to the old phrase, “You can’t keep a good man down.” SBN’s advice: Ride it as long as you can.

(Downs) to computer viruses, which got meaner and more destructive as the year progressed. One of the nastiest was W95.Babylonia, which came disguised as a Y2K fix and spread through ‘Net chat rooms. This makes us wonder about the future of cybersubterfuge. Will we one day log on to the ‘Net and watch our computers explode?

(Ups) to corporate community giving, which is on the rise. Last month’s Medical Mutual of Ohio Pillar Award for Community Service demonstrated that business owners do make a difference in their communities 12 months a year. Keep up the good work into the next millennium!

(Downs) to the Y2K bug. The repair bill hovers around $100 billion. That’s the equivalent of $365 per person in the U.S. No matter what happens next, this is the most expensive modern peacetime catastrophe ever. All this over two lousy digits.

(Ups) to productivity, which continues to climb. Companies are more efficient with fewer workers. At the same time, labor costs continue to decline, keeping inflation at bay. The good times continue to roll.

(Downs) to business owners who eschew technology and e-commerce. You know who you are — if you still do all your business on paper and by hand, clinging to the false assumption that the Internet is a passing fad, this is the year you’re in for a real surprise. Our solution: Adapt now or get ready to close your company’s doors. Remember, dinosaurs once ruled the world.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:46

Handle with care

I have a friend who was convinced that Y2K spelled the end of the world. For years, he warned me to take precautions for the catastrophic events that were sure to accompany the changeover from 1999 to 2000.

“You’d better not have anything stored on your computer that you want to keep,” he said, “It’ll disappear come Jan. 1, 2000. Mark my words, all hell will break loose.”

My typical response was to shrug and assure him I would be prepared.

Well, if you’re reading this in the confines of your comfortable office, it’s safe to assume my friend wasn’t right about the end of the world. But he wasn’t far off on his other warnings, especially about the fate of my computer. I lost everything, but it had nothing to do Y2K.

The bottom line is that I should have known better, especially considering how many stories I’ve written — and read — about backing up computer data. So when my computer hard drive crashed a few months ago, I, like many other people, simply sat there stunned, gaping in disbelief, wishing I’d taken the time to back up my information.

Simply put, there was there was no reason why I couldn’t have found five minutes a day to connect a Zip drive (there was one conveniently sitting in my filing cabinet) and copy everything over.

The end arrived with an ominous clunk, short-lived and loud. A co-worker in my office at the time offered this sardonic prophecy: “That didn’t sound too good.”

Moments later, after a few hastily rendered prayers and a desperate call to our IT director, nearly three years of data was gone — phone numbers, interview notes, half-written stories and memos counted among the MIA.

But in tragedy, I learned a valuable lesson: Preparation is something you do, and you don’t put it off until tomorrow. That applies to business owners in every aspect of their operations, not just information management. You never know when the bottom is going to drop out and leave you standing there with a dumb look on your face.

Just because things are going well today doesn’t mean the gravy days will continue. In fact, most bad things will happen to your business the moment you become complacent. There’s an old axiom that says it best: Prepare for the worst and hope for the best. I always viewed that with a grain of salt. Now, however, I see it differently.

Being prepared is more than keeping up with the latest technology, watching your competitors to see what they’re doing, or even putting a little bit of money away for a rainy day. It’s the realization that technology is nothing more than a tool to help you make your business more efficient. Blind reliance without back-up measures can lead to disaster.

But more important, preparation is an action that occurs today, not tomorrow, because tomorrow never comes. If there’s a moral to the story, it’s that you can, indeed, learn from your mistakes.

That said, Happy New Year.

Dustin Klein (dsklein@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN. He has spent the last four months piecing his database back together and now backs up his information daily.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:45

Ups and Downs

(Ups) to athletes who give back during the holiday season. Cavaliers forward Shawn Kemp, Browns quarterback Ty Detmer and Indians first baseman Jim Thome and pitcher Steve Karsay are among the many Cleveland athletes who entertained children and passed out toys for those less fortunate last year. They give real meaning to the term “role model.”

(Downs) to Goodyear for changing the name of its blimp from “The Spirit of Akron” to “The Spirit of Goodyear.” While the move may be designed to raise corporate awareness, it’s a slap in the face to the city that’s supported the company for more than 100 years.

(Ups) to Y2K consultants, who raked in the dough by the truckload while making the changeover from 1999 to 2000 occur with little fanfare. People may grumble that Y2K was nothing more than media hype, but for those who spent countless hours rewriting code and handling mediation duties, it was a not only a job well done, but the creation of a microindustry that helped drive the economy the past two years.

(Downs) to the battle over which TV stations — and cable companies — will show the Fox network and which won’t. While they quibble over extended agreements and whether to show the Ohio News Network, the real losers in this fight are consumers, who are sure to rebel. Conspiracy talk begins for all those “X-Files” followers.

(Downs) to OSHA for ruling that companies that allow employees to work from home are responsible for federal health and safety violations that occur at the home work site. The decision, which affects nearly 20 million Americans, is a major blow against the growing telecommuting practice that makes employees’ lives easier without sacrificing productivity. What’s next for employers? Mandates to ensure employees’ cars and diets don’t put them at risk?

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:45

Schools of thought

When Jane Applegate told her editor at the Los Angeles Times that she wanted to turn in her investigative reporter’s notebook to interview small business people instead, her colleagues thought she was nuts.

“I wanted to write about people who actually earned money instead of stealing it,” she explains.

The year was 1988, and Applegate had a long-range plan. She immersed herself in the world of entrepreneurs, learning the issues that affected their day-to-day operations and their lives. Twelve years later, she found herself a pioneer riding the wave of small business growth.

Not only does her syndicated column on small business issues run in newspapers nationwide, but she’s leveraged her expertise and knowledge culled from thousands of business owners to found her own company, The Applegate Group Inc. Last month, Applegate told a crowd of small business owners at the 1999 COSE Annual Meeting her six strategies for rethinking business for the next millennium.

Think big

“As small business owners, we often think small,” Applegate says. “We think we don’t have a lot of power or money. But, the reality of the matter is that we’re the engine that’s been driving this economy. We employ more people than the Fortune 500 companies.”

Applegate says in order to conduct business with larger companies, smaller business owners must first recognize that the size of their firm does not matter. What matters, she says, is what products and services the business can supply, and how effectively it can deliver them.

It’s easier at the top

Always make contact with high level management in a company you’re looking to do business with, Applegate says.

“Things happen much more quickly when you start at the top. Always insist to start talking with someone that has decision-making power,” she says.

She also suggests a letter or phone call to the president preceding any meetings with lower level representatives.

“It packs a much bigger wallop!”

A “no” is as good as a “yes”

As anyone who’s ever had a proposal sit in limbo for weeks, or even months, knows, getting a response lets you move forward — either on the deal, or in search of a different prospective client.

“Small business owners tend to be at the mercy of clients or prospective clients,” Applegate says. “And often, they take forever to make decisions.”

Set clear deadlines for proposals and contracts and, more important, stick to them.

“You’ll get some funny looks at first,” she says. “But then those large companies see you want an answer one way or another and you’re serious. It will change the way you do business.”

Never work with people who give you a headache or stomachache

If you do, it spells disaster for your company.

“I know you don’t want to hear it, but get rid of your most toxic customers and employees,” says Applegate. “You will never be as successful as you can be if you’re working with people who make you sick.”

The result, she says, will be akin to other business moves you make: Close one door and another opens.

Market hard and smart

“That’s the biggest challenge we have,” she says. “Finding creative and innovative ways to stretch your dollars.”

Applegate says your company’s best resource is often not who you think.

“The owner or top manager is your best marketing person,” she says. “They know the most about the company and have the most at stake.”

Get wired, but do it smartly

If you don’t have a Web site or Internet strategy, your business will be left behind, Applegate warns.

“Every small business owner will need some sort of presence on the ’Net. Think about it. In the past, we’d ask each other for phone numbers or faxes. Now, we ask for e-mail addresses. And, you look ridiculous if you don’t have one.”

How to reach: The Applegate Group, www.janeapplegate.com

Dustin Klein (dsklein@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:44

Reaching out

The art of the deal is changing rapidly. It’s increasingly more common to close a deal via e-mail and build relationships by hammering out thoughts on a keyboard and zapping them into cyberspace.

But e-mail, as many people have come to realize, has a sterile feel to it. It’s difficult to infuse e-mail with the emotions and personal touch that exist in a face-to-face meeting.

Studies show that 55 percent of what we learn or perceive from other people comes from their body language. Observation is a key ingredient to business success. Another 38 percent of information is derived from tone of voice, but only 7 percent comes from the actual words used.

Those numbers speak volumes, says quality service consultant Karen Leland, co-founder of the Sterling Consulting Group and co-author of “Customer Service For Dummies.”

“We must incorporate proper attitude, tone and meaning through our written words,” she says. “And this is no easy task.”

So where does that leave us in this cyberage? How can we build — and maintain — relationships through the written word? Leland and her partner, Keith Bailey, offer three tips to make your business e-mail more effective and include that all-important personal touch.

Repeat key words and phrases.

In a reply message, use some of the more important words and phrases that the original message sender used. For example, says Leland, if the sender used phrases like “feel strongly,” “feel relieved,” “mutual goals” or “move forward,” try to incorporate those words into your reply.

It helps build a sense of connection between you and the e-mail recipient, and if it’s part of an ongoing business negotiation, it will help you close the deal with a much more “human” feel.

Use sensory language.

Research shows most people naturally use words that relate to their senses of seeing, hearing and feeling. The three main points of sensory-specific language your customers and business associates will use are:

  • Visual — “I see your point of view.”

  • Auditory — “I hear what you are saying.”

  • Feeling — “I feel your pain.”

“By using the same type of sensory language as the person you are communicating with, you add a dynamic, compelling and rapport-building quality to the messages you send,” Leland says.

Furthermore, “visual writers prefer to paint a picture or create an image of what they want to communicate. Writers with an auditory style use words that give tone to what they are saying. And, writers who have a feeling style use words that touch on the emotional content of their messages.”

Compose G.R.E.A.T. e-mails.

Make sure your e-mails pass the G.R.E.A.T. test:

Goal — Have you specified what the purpose of the e-mail is?

Relevant facts — Have you provided enough up-front information?

Emotional tone — What mood have you set for the e-mail?

Action — Did you make a specific request?

Time — Did you request a timeframe for a reply?

Leland says if you find yourself thinking that it’s only an e-mail, and your business associate, partner, client or supplier won’t care how it’s presented, think again.

“Building rapport is essential in the business world, whether in person or electronically,” she says. “Take your e-mails seriously and use them as a tool to improve customer service, build good, solid relationships and exude professionalism.”

How to reach: Sterling Consulting Group, (415) 331-5200

Dustin Klein (dsklein@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:43

Don’t shoot the messenger

Few things are more difficult for a business owner than breaking bad news to employees.

How you disseminate that information is imperative to your company’s future, because the message your employees receive could very well mean the difference between moving forward as a team and getting mired under a thick cloud of mistrust.

Consider the case of Medical Mutual of Ohio. In 1997, the health care insurer underwent a major upheaval at all levels: It changed presidents, the board of trustees and, in a further blow, lost its identity — the Blue Cross and Blue Shield logo.

Medical Mutual survived the changes, emerging under new leadership with a new name and a committed work force, due in large part to good communication between new management and the employees, explains Terrie Bemer, Medical Mutual’s manager of human resources.

“While it was happening, the entire situation was like a bad divorce,” recalls Bemer, who discussed the ordeal in October at the Employers Resource Council annual meeting. “The parents were upstairs fighting and the kids were downstairs waiting, unsure of what would shake out. During the transition, we didn’t know who was in charge and who we’d offend with comments or questions. Communication was flowing up, down and sideways.”

And when the management group — led by current CEO and chairman of the board Kent Clapp — gained control, employees still weren’t sure what would transpire, or even if their jobs were safe.

“That’s when communication became the key,” says Bemer. “Kent Clapp gave messages daily about what was happening in the company. He created an internal newsletter and top management actually started walking the floors to be more visible to the employees.”

Three years later, times are better for Medical Mutual. But for others, the results aren’t always as positive.

“A lot of companies do front end work in delivering bad news,” says Cindy Cardwell, director of client services for Interim Career Counseling. “But changes aren’t planned well on the back end.”

In cases in which the changes include massive layoffs, those employees who remain with the company face yet another hurdle: navigating the three distinct phases change creates. How business owners deal with these phases, Cardwell says, determines just how successful an organization will be in the aftermath.

Endings

When the status quo ends, Cardwell says, your employees’ first reaction is to ask, “What about me?” She suggests managers be proactive and take the following actions:

1. Listen to the employees. Many may go through denial and be very concerned about the future of their jobs.

2. Accept their reactions. Don’t dismiss their concerns. “Don’t take their comments personally,” Cardwell suggests. “They’re often angry, upset and worried.”

3. Find builders. “There are always people in the organization comfortable with change,” she says. “Find them and solicit them to be leaders to help with the process.”

4. Communicate. Keep the lines of talk open and be willing to explain what’s going on whenever you can.

5. Keep people focused on the changes. Don’t let employees harp on the losses, Cardwell suggests. Get them focused on moving forward as a team.

6. Talk about the truth. “Always talk about the truth or you’ll never enlist good employees again,” she warns. “It’s very difficult to rebuild trust and relationships.”

Transitions

Once your employees have accepted the end of an era at your company, they will enter a neutral period in which they may not be sure what is expected of them, Cardwell says.

“This is where it’s time to set standards, because your employees need to know expectations. Their first question here is, ‘Where do I fit in this new arrangement?’”

She suggests getting employees involved in the troubleshooting process that’s sure to occur as the company undergoes changes.

“You’ll quickly find out who your leaders are,” Cardwell says. “And don’t let them hide. When enough key players get involved, it creates the momentum to carry the change process forward.”

New beginnings

This is high feedback time, when you test the new thinking and behavior, says Cardwell. It occurs after your company has finished making its changes and worked through the transition period.

“You start looking at the net effects and ask, ‘Did we cut costs effectively and meet our goals?’” she says. “People need new images, and you should celebrate successes and reward employees who helped get through the tough times.”

There’s a benchmark connected with change, Cardwell says, and that is the ability of you and your employees to be productive in a new context.

“Most important,” she says, “is your ability to carry the change forward. Many new beginnings get derailed and never get back on track because they were not followed through on.

“Whatever you do, don’t let the communications slow down.”

How to reach: Medical Mutual of Ohio, (216) 687-7000; Russell Rogat/Lee Hecht Harrison, (440) 331-4400; Interim Career Consulting, (440) 460-3210

Dustin Klein (dsklein@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:39

Testing the waters

If knowledge is power, then William Nelson wields a mighty hand.

Not only does Nelson, president and CEO of Solon-based Accutest Clinical Lab, know what his customers want from a testing laboratory, he also knows what his competitors’ customers want.

“We go out to prospects and talk to them,” Nelson says. “We have to understand their needs in order to build a program that suits them. It’s an aggressive sales approach, but one that turns our weaknesses into strengths.”

Those strengths have helped Nelson take Accutest from a start-up in 1993 to a full-service medical testing laboratory with 30 employees and a client base that blankets Northeast Ohio. Accutest serves physicians in private practice by providing testing facilities that complement a physician’s work.

“The greatest thing we really do is talk to our clients all the time and communicate,” Nelson says. “We find out their thoughts and needs. It’s all about customer satisfaction.”

One way Nelson gathers information, beyond utilizing his external sales force, is to quiz clients through surveys. The feedback proves useful because it allows him to incorporate that information into his planning and determine which services are most beneficial to his clients. With a 70 percent reply rate, Nelson is certain he’s got his finger on the pulse of his customers’ businesses.

“One thing our clients know is that when we get feedback, we act on it,” he says. “It’s not just lip service.”

All this has happened despite major changes in the health care industry that have shaken out physicians and service providers through reduced Medicare reimbursements. But Nelson has remained standing. In fact, he says, the changes have paved the way for even greater growth for Accutest.

“It’s helped the lab business,” he says. “There have been decreasing reimbursements from managed care, which is who primarily pays the bill for health care. But because managed care has taken physicians out of the loop with billing, it’s helped us. We used to bill the physicians, they used to mark it up and bill the managed care company.

“But now, the managed care companies have two separate fee schedules and direct the billing directly to us. So it’s helped us a great deal by generating additional revenues and growing our client base.” How to reach: Accutest Clinical Lab, (440) 519-0888

Dustin Klein (dsklein@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Cleveland.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:39

Duplicating a successful business

Paul Hanna embodies his company’s motto, “Commitment to Excellence.”

He hasn’t missed a day of work in more than five years except to spend vacation time with his family, he’s put his faith in leadership and laid down the challenge to his 120 employees at Meritech Blue to meet the high demands of clients.

So it should come as no surprise that one of Hanna’s more ingrained sayings at Meritech Blue is “A satisfied customer is not loyal, only a completely satisfied customer is loyal.”

Hanna’s “Commitment to Excellence” is a pledge of reliability, accountability and total customer satisfaction. Since 1995, he has built a successful provider of office technology, including digital copiers and Internet faxes, on that pledge. He’s also put everything on the line by believing that through preaching excellence in customer service to his employees, his company could rise above the competitors.

That belief has paid off. It’s helped Hanna affect true change within his industry, transforming it from a simple box sale business to solutions sale, which gives Meritech Blue the unique opportunity to build relationships with customers at all levels, starting with office copiers and extending to printing, faxing, computers and document imaging.

These moves have also helped Hanna win numerous awards, including Ernst & Young LLP’s Entrepreneur Of The Year award in the category of Business Services this year.

Behind the moves are several practices that Hanna instills within his staff, including a six-step sales process that has helped Meritech Blue’s team ascend to the forefront of the highly competitive office products industry:

1. Find the prospect.

2. Find “Mr. Right,” the ultimate decision-maker.

3. Arrange a demonstration.

4. Build rapport.

5. Do the demo.

6. Close.

Hanna has also tied a four-part demo package to the process to ensure Meritech Blue is able to get its complete message across to consumers.

1. Sell yourself.

2. Sell Meritech Blue Inc. and the manufacturer.

3. Sell service — “Commitment to Excellence.”

4. Sell features, advantages and benefits.

But Hanna knows that following through with those processes means constant improvement through training.

“Your company’s success is tied to several things,” Hanna says, “and one of the most important is how well your employees know the product and your sales process.”

To that end, Hanna hosts weekly sales meetings to educate the sales staff and monthly managers’ meetings, where departmental ideas and questions can be raised. Improvement, however, doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and Hanna also tries to instill a healthy atmosphere of motivation beyond simply meeting sales numbers.

At Meritech Blue, employees are rewarded for their commitment to excellence — they earn shopping sprees for their families at local malls, annual bonuses and semi-annual trips.

Employees also get involved in Meritech Blue’s commitment to giving back to the communities that support the company. It hosts the Berea Children’s Home Annual Golf Outing and blood drives for the American Red Cross and employees pack food for the hungry at the Cleveland Food Bank.

Hanna’s philosophy is simple — if you expect the best out of life, you will get the best. How to reach: Meritech Blue, (216) 271-4800

Dustin Klein (dsklein@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Cleveland.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:38

Aiming at the new economy

Howard Cleveland’s eyes light up when he talks about the speed at which technology is driving changes in business.

As owner of Digital Day, a Fairlawn-based Internet and multimedia development firm, Cleveland says he’s so busy that he’s learned the importance of adapting quickly so that the changes not only don’t pass you by, but that you’re helping drive them yourself.

Cleveland has been a major part of two changes recently that have helped him expand his business and assume a larger role in the fate of start-up Web ventures in Northeast Ohio. They’ve also led to his being named Entrepreneur Of The Year in the category of e-business by Ernst & Young LLP’s Entrepreneur Of The Year awards.

The first change occurred in March, when Cleveland acquired a cross-town competitor, Quest4mation, which specialized in back-end integration and e-commerce, and merged it into his company, Mozes Cleveland & Co., which handled front-end strategy, branding and client-side work.

Cleveland says the move paid immediate dividends for the newly christened Digital Day by expanding Cleveland’s client base. Digital Day beat out numerous competitors to land the redesign of National City Bank’s Web site to incorporate the financial giant’s burgeoning e-commerce capabilities.

Explains Cleveland, “We were able to leverage Quest4mation’s contacts, get in there and win the business for the new firm.”

Digital Day’s revenue has also been a beneficiary of the merger.

“Last year, we did $2.7 million,” says Cleveland. “This year, we did that in the first quarter. We’re on a run rate of close to 8-plus million this year.”

It’s a growth rate that’s still surprising to Cleveland, who founded Mozes Cleveland in September 1995 with a focus on new media design and integration in an emerging field — Internet business.

While Digital Day’s core mission remains the same — to aid its clients in designing Internet and e-commerce strategies, then building the Web site to get them to their goals — the company’s reach is much greater. That’s due in large part to Cleveland’s desire to expand regionally beyond its Northeast Ohio home —he’s in the process of finalizing a joint agreement with a Chinese entrepreneur to open Digital Day East in China — and his quest to stay on the cutting edge.

“The next big thing is going to be wireless and developing content for wireless entities,” he says. “We’re looking pretty heavy into that now.”

It’s a direction that isn’t surprising, considering Cleveland’s past. He began his career as a reporter for the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram before switching to corporate marketing at Nordson Corp. and Preformed Line Products. He then moved into representing high-tech clients as part of then-Watt Roop & Co.’s marketing group. It was there that Cleveland began to focus on digital convergence — the merging of computer, voice, data and image communications technologies that eventually led to expansion of the Internet.

And it’s been Cleveland’s foresight that goes hand-in-hand with the second major change — the establishment of an e-business incubator, Hatchbox.

Hatchbox, which was launched in mid-March with two fledgling e-businesses as clients, provides technical and creative expertise in the design of high-end Internet, intranet and extranet solutions, as well as legal, accounting, capital planning and business planning to spin-offs and start-ups.

The idea for Hatchbox came from Cleveland’s own clients.

“Over the last year or so, people have come to us with ideas,” he says. “People have wanted us to help build (their companies). We’d take a look and realized it took more than a developer. It took legal services, accounting and business planning services, so we worked on two of those businesses and realized they took a lot of time and more expertise than we had by ourselves.

“So it dawned on us to take a model from Idealab or garage.com and found our own incubator.”

As strategic partners, Cleveland approached Jim Hill at Benesch Freidlander, and Dett Hunter at Arthur Andersen. Says Cleveland, “The next thing we knew, we had formed a partnership and launched an incubator.” How to reach: Digital Day, (330) 668-6669; Hatchbox, (330) 665-1716

Dustin Klein (dsklein@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN.