Dustin S. Klein

Friday, 19 July 2002 06:58

Ups and downs

(Ups) to Charter One Financial Inc. In an otherwise soft economy, the Cleveland-based bank has been tearing up the acquisition and expansion trail. It recently snapped up Chicago's Alliance Bancorp and moved much of its banking services online. Could this be groundwork to make the bank a player in a potential National City or KeyCorp M&A?

(Downs) to the auto and manufacturing industries. No matter what happens with the rest of the economy, a litany of layoffs and plant closings reveal that these two sectors are in serious trouble. Let's just hope they don't pull the rest of the economy into a sustained tailspin.

(Ups) to Cleveland Browns' management. Butch Davis, a no-nonsense guy with a history of breathing new life into struggling franchises, is a perfect match for the underachieving Browns. He should have an immediate impact on the wins column.

(Downs) to Hank Kassigheit. The Cleveland Lumberjacks hockey club owner should have weighed his pocketbook a little more carefully before buying the team last October and assuring the IHL that he had enough cash flow to make it through the 2000-2001 season. Poor ticket sales -- a problem before he bought the club -- isn't a good reason for the mess he's in.

(Downs) to energy suppliers, who are reporting record earnings in the midst of a nationwide energy crisis and skyrocketing natural gas and oil prices. We're for free trade and deregulation as much as the next business owner, but something smells rotten about the current state of affairs.

Thursday, 18 July 2002 12:42

Walk this way

A few years ago, I told the story of Terence Profughi, CEO of HiTecmetal Group Inc. (SBN October 1998).

Profughi mastered business acquisitions so cleverly that he developed a 74-page manual dedicated to the process. It detailed everything from how to target a potential acquisition to integrating separate janitorial services. One thing in particular struck me about Profughi's experience -- he understood how to walk away from a deal that didn't make financial sense.

When analyzing a deal, it's imperative to think with your head and not your heart. It's easy to fall in love with a company and want to make the deal work. But if the numbers don't jive, grit your teeth and walk away.

The reasoning is simple. Why invest in a business in which you have little or no chance of getting a return on your investment just because you like the company? It's better to wash your hands of a bad deal than to step into a hole that's only going to get deeper.

Recently, I faced a similar situation.

In April, my wife and I bought the house we have rented since late 1999. But the deal almost didn't happen.

The landlord and I agreed upon numerous parts of the deal -- sales price, part of our rent wrapped into the down payment, even how we would split the costs of repairing housing violations the point-of-sale inspection would uncover. It appeared, on the surface, that we had thought of everything. I was even eligible for additional financing from the city to help rehab the property.

But, as I've written in my column numerous times, an essential part of business is to always be prepared for the worst. And, like the myriad hitting and pitching instructors in baseball who teach skills to younger players but never could quite do it for themselves, I didn't practice what I preached.

The point-of-sale inspection revealed several significant housing violations that, on top of the rehabilitation project, would have cost us more money than we would ever get out of the house later and more money than we truly could afford to ante up without going further into debt. In essence, it was a potential money pit. But, we wanted the house.

For several weeks, I worked with the mortgage lender. He could have lent us enough to make it work -- but my wife and I continued to question how much money we were willing to invest. Was it worth stretching our finances to the limit or were we better off waiting to buy a different house?

Finally, I turned back to the seller and explained that unless he was willing to renegotiate the deal, we would walk. He acquiesced, and together we made the numbers work.

Today, we're first-time homeowners and couldn't be happier. It is an example, however, of how fragile a deal can be.

The lesson is easy: In life -- as in business -- when the numbers don't work, walk away, even when your heart says otherwise. Dustin Klein (dsklein@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Magazine.

Friday, 28 June 2002 06:16

Leading edge litigation

Robert Weltman is used to breaking new ground.

The senior partner of Weltman, Weinberg & Reis Co. LPA is credited with heading one of the first collections/creditor's rights law firms in the nation to adopt the use of computers, develop the untapped probate field, represent buyers of bad debt and recognize and capitalize on the importance of the credit union movement.

Weltman overcame three key challenges to expand the law firm founded in 1930 as Gardner & Spilka. The first was adopting a corporate structure rather than the structure of a traditional law firm.

"Applying good, sound business principles is something lawyers have very little training to do out of law school," Weltman says, adding that he hired several department managers, including an executive director, marketing director, CFO and IS manager, to build a management staff. "We're unusual because we have a ratio of 10-to-1 laypeople to lawyers because of the debt collectors and clerical support."

The second challenge was integrating technology.

"Technology is a must," he says. "We need information at our fingertips. When I started here 40 years ago, we worked off collection cards. Today, everything is computerized, and in 45 minutes, the firm processes an amount of claims equal to a month's work of processed claims in 1962."

That connectivity has allowed Weltman to expand into four cities and employ more than 725 people.

The third challenge is continuous -- dealing with marketing and advertising regulations by bar associations. The problem, Weltman says, arises because the firm must compete with collection agencies that are not law firms and not bound by the same guidelines.

"Attorneys are governed by the professional code of ethics," Weltman says. "Collection agencies and collection agencies that are law firms are governed by the fair debt collections practices act, so there's an ongoing battle to keep abreast of all those regulations. We have to make sure we're in total compliance to do our job right."

The same regulations restrict the firm's marketing abilities.

"Most of our marketing is from the public relations standpoint," Weltman says. "Most of our clients are referral business. We can advertise but we cannot market or solicit business by, say, knocking on doors. Luckily, our reputation is such that people recognize our name." How to reach: Weltman, Weinberg & Reis, (216) 685-1040

Friday, 28 June 2002 05:45

Bob Smith

Few people understand the unique relationship between big business and small business, something Robert C. Smith discovered during eight years of active board leadership and volunteer roles with the Council Of Smaller Enterprises and the Greater Cleveland Growth Association.

Smith is president and CEO of Spero-Smith Investment Advisors Inc., which specializes in investment counseling for individuals and small business owners. His firm has about $250 million under management.

He served as the 2000-2001 chairman of COSE. Now he has a new role -- chairman of the Growth Association. He is the first person to make the move from the top spot at COSE to the top spot at the Growth Association.

"I have had an opportunity to provide leadership on a number of initiatives -- from our work to help ensure business's voice in the deregulation of electricity in Ohio to the formation of the COSE/Growth PAC -- that were important to large and small businesses," Smith says. "It was that experience that helped the Growth Board leadership have an appreciation of how a COSE leader can take on a leadership role on behalf of the entire Growth Association."

During his time with COSE and Growth, Smith has had input into the naming of former U.S. Rep. Dennis Eckart as the Growth Association's president and CEO and the hiring of Steve Millard as COSE's executive director.

As COSE chairman, Smith initiated and led efforts to better connect COSE and the Growth Association. And, under his leadership, COSE established the Innovation and Competitiveness Fund, which will assist small businesses in those areas.

SBN sat down with Smith to talk about the differences -- and similarities -- between big and small business, and his new role at Growth. You can read the interview at www.sbnonline.com.

You are the first person to come from COSE to the Growth Association. How can that experience help you in your role at Growth?

I have the advantage of first-hand knowledge of the programs, products and services that are core to the association's largest constituency -- small business. COSE's long history as a membership-driven organization has truly made it the largest and most successful small business organization in the country. Further, the experience I've had in leadership at the Growth Association beyond COSE, especially the finance committee of the Growth Association, has helped me have a deep understanding of the financial drivers of the organization.

Additionally, as a six-year member of the Growth Association Board, I have had an opportunity to provide leadership on a number of initiatives -- from our work to help ensure business's voice in the deregulation of electricity in Ohio to the formation of the COSE/Growth PAC -- that were important to large and small businesses. It was that experience that helped the Growth board leadership have an appreciation of how a COSE leader can take on a leadership role on behalf of the entire Growth Association.

What attributes do you have that will complement what Dennis Eckart is doing?

Dennis and I have a shared vision of the interdependency of COSE, the largest local small business organization in the country, and the Growth Association as the largest chamber of commerce in the country. Having said that, my experience as a small business owner, COSE volunteer, COSE board leader, as well as a Growth board leader, all go to complement Dennis Eckart's skill as our president and CEO.

It takes a strong board/staff partnership for a mission-based organization such as the Growth Association to be effective. I think Dennis and I bring a good combination of stewardship and expertise to our roles.

What is the Growth Association's role in fostering a stronger business community in Northeast Ohio?

A recently completed strategic plan includes three major initiatives, all geared around our three core competencies: membership, advocacy and economic development. Our Membership Services, which we are significantly enhancing, are geared toward making it easier for small business owners to have access to key information that is important to better understand our programs.

We are also focusing on improving the way we relate to and engage our region's larger companies. Our advocacy initiatives are geared around improving the legislative and regulatory climate to make it easier for our businesses to grow and expand in Northeastern Ohio.

And our economic development initiatives, which are going through a major analysis, must be designed in a way that businesses can easily access the resources in the public sector as well as the nonprofit sector.

It's been said there is a dearth of new leaders in Northeast Ohio to replace the Joe Gormans of the world. What's your view on up-and-comers in the region? Are there any unheralded leaders we should know about?

I think this discussion in our region has taken on too much focus on the individuals and not enough on the work our organizations must do on behalf of the community or their constituency. I'm reminded of a book, "Built to Last," by James Collins, which destroys the myth that the truly outstanding businesses in our country are built by outstanding leaders with strong charisma.

The truly outstanding businesses are built by people who put in place legacies and systems that serve the business well to many generations beyond a current leader's duration. There is a model being utilized more and more in our region on major initiatives that outline a role for a champion and a sponsor, a champion being a key civic leader, oftentimes a board leader of a civic group, and a sponsor who would be a chief staff officer or a staff leader of an appropriate civic organization.

Clevelanders constantly look for the next great thing to take the economy to the next level. Realistically, what do you believe are the key components to revitalizing the region's economy?

We are having a major re-evaluation of our economic development initiatives inside the Growth Association and the region as a whole, and have engaged the McKinsey Co. in a joint project with Cleveland Tomorrow, funded by the Cleveland Foundation. Some of the findings from their studies indicate one, although we treat our businesses as appropriate leaders in the public/private partnership and as significant vendors on major initiatives, we do not typically treat them as clients in terms of economic development and generators of job growth.

Two, our economic initiatives tend to be responsive and not targeted toward companies of specific size or companies with higher growth potential. Three, we must begin taking steps more rapidly to improve the business climate in our region -- for example, the state inventory tax, which is a significant burden to our manufacturers and distributors, creates major disincentives for these companies to grow and expand here in Northeast Ohio.

And four, as a region, we don't reward risk. I've observed on many levels the apprehension around risk that leads us to a continuation of the status quo, despite studies and analysis that would help us accept risk and take steps to truly impact the region in a much more significant way.

Perfect world scenario: What is the snapshot of the Growth Association two years from now, at the end of your term?

My focus is an engaged board that provides appropriate board leadership and a resolve to allow the staff to have adequate and appropriate staff, money and time to execute on the major initiatives in our strategic plan. I would also like to see an organization that is much more focused and project-driven.

Currently, we have more than 70 initiatives going on or about to be undertaken at the Growth Association. Most of these tend to look more as ongoing programs, as opposed to projects.

Our plan calls out that we will be much more project-driven, which means we'll have the staff and financial resources devoted toward specific objectives, measurable outcomes and conclusions so that as we take on new projects or initiatives, that will be in conjunction with a planned elimination of other programs. We cannot afford to dilute ourselves with too many undefined initiatives the way we have traditionally.

I would also hope that we could provide leadership regionally. Despite much discussion about regionalism, there are a lot of very sound legal and political reasons why the Balkanization of our region has occurred.

The board and staff leaders are very committed now toward exploring our opportunities to work toward more regional solutions and help in identifying a matrix that will allow for high levels of performance in a local area, as well as making decisions consistent with the good of the region and the people who live and work in our communities. How to reach: Spero-Smith Investment Advisors Inc., (216) 464-6266

Friday, 31 May 2002 12:00

Who am I?

Editor's note: Editor Dustin Klein is working with Business Volunteers Unlimited to be presented as a candidate to serve on the board of trustees at a Northeast Ohio nonprofit organization. SBN will chronicle Klein's experiences through excerpts from his diary.

I've often thought I had pretty good self-awareness, an understanding of who I am, my strengths and weaknesses, and my interests.

But how often do you really sit down and take an assessment of yourself? When, outside of a tragedy, does it become necessary to break down your skills, passions and beliefs, then question each of them until you're absolutely sure of the answers?

That is exactly what's necessary when considering your involvement with a nonprofit organization's board of trustees. I found myself questioning what it is I'm really good at, what ideals I believe in and in what types of organizations I'd be willing to invest my time and energy.

You can't take getting involved with a nonprofit organization lightly. It's about as different from a lazy Sunday morning round of golf as it can be. On the golf course, you can leave your "A" game at home and only your scorecard will suffer. But fail to follow through with a key task at a nonprofit, and the organization's ability to serve its clientele or fulfill its mission can be jeopardized.

This is just some of what I learned from filling out the "Volunteer Trustee Institute Candidate Information Form," the first step of Business Volunteers Unlimited's process to match board of trustee candidates with suitable nonprofit organizations.

I breezed through the first page in less than 10 minutes, providing the basics: name, address, education, profession, employment history and previous volunteer and board experience. Then I turned the page to assess my skill set, and reality set in.

The assessment form is broken down into 10 sections: management, marketing, finance, insurance, writing and communications, real estate and facility management, legal, computer information and management systems, languages and "other." Within each category, you're asked to check the skills that describe your background, training and experience.

I quickly knocked off the obvious ones like media relations, public speaking, press releases and community relations. Then, because I've owned, run and helped start up companies, I checked off strategic planning, market research, pricing, retailing and budget and financial planning.

There were others I'd experienced, but as I put pen to paper I realized that just because I was forced to execute these tasks didn't mean I was proficient at them. So I left many off. Why set myself up to fail? It's better to know one's weaknesses and stay away from them than to tread in areas where the chance of success is minimal.

This is a lesson any good business leader should understand from Day One. You must always be willing to ask yourself how you can be most effective within the organizations you're involved with.

In the next section, I described the types of organizations that interested me. I checked off 21 boxes in seven of nine categories. It was difficult to accept the next part -- that although my interests bridge numerous causes, I could choose only three as priorities.

I tend to drift toward groups with missions to create sustainable impacts within greater communities, such as welfare-to-work programs and furthering education, rather than single subsets of a community, such as drug treatment or disease awareness.

It's important to recognize your interests and understand that you can still support causes you don't want to be an activist for. Besides creating the greatest impact based on your experience and skill set, if you don't believe in an organization's mission or feel like you can connect with its audience, you won't get the most out of the experience. And the organization probably won't get the most out of you.

The three types of organizations I named as priorities were Family, Employment and Job Training, and Jewish. It was from this focused grouping -- and my skill set and experience -- that the folks at BVU went to work going through their files to find a dozen or so organizations that would be a good fit.

In my next entry, I'll delve into the process of picking a small group of nonprofit organizations to be presented to as a potential member of the board of trustees.

Tuesday, 30 April 2002 07:48

Ups and downs

DOWNS to IBM's decision to move its IBM Pittsburgh Lab research operations to North Carolina, taking 136 jobs with it.

DOWNS to the loss of health care benefits and cuts to pension payments to LTV Steel Co. retirees. Isn't a promise is a promise?

UPS to Allerton Marketing Communications Inc. for its role in launching Colgate-Palmolive Co.'s Navigator toothbrush. Allerton provided creative and production services for both computer-based and printed sales presentations used by Colgate-Palmolive's sales force to sell the product to retailers in the United States and Canada. We suspect that "down in the mouth" has a quite different meaning at Allerton these days.

UPS to ALung Technologies Inc., winner of the $50,000 grand prize in the EnterPrize business plan competition.

DOWN to Supervalu Inc.'s shutdown of its Belle Vernon grocery distribution center. It's tough to blame the company for closing, in light of its loss of a big contract with troubled Kmart Corp. Still, 300 jobs will be lost as a result.

UPS to Sit-N-Scoop Pet Care Services, a provider of in-home pet care and pet waste removal services. Owner Sue Kerr is expanding the service to customers in the east and southeast suburbs. Kerr's company offers services that range from dog walking to transporting pets for grooming services to picking up mail and newspapers. We hope she cleans up.

UPS to Citizens Bank's plans to hire 100 employees and add Saturday hours at some branches.

DOWNS to AirTran Airway's decision to discontinue its low-bucks service between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. While Pittsburgh air travelers groan and complain about US Airway's high ticket prices, it seems they would rather gripe than switch, despite the opportunity AirTran offered for a $68 round trip fare.

UPS to Boston Market Corp.'s decision to test a new exterior prototype at the Waterfront in Homestead. We might not always be in a big hurry to change, but we think we'll show them we're not completely chicken.

Thursday, 28 March 2002 11:17

Ups and downs

DOWNS to "pass throughs" employed by contractors to direct business on stadium and convention center projects to white-owned companies while it was made to appear the business was going to minority contractors. A report by a Sports & Exhibition Authority board member says contractors undermined the goal of 25 percent minority contractor participation and 10 percent female contractor participation on the stadium and convention center projects.

DOWNS to Allegheny Ludlum Steel Corp. for violating the Clean Water Act. The company was slapped with an $8.2 million fine for 1,122 days of violations of the law at its mills on the Allegheny and Kiskimenetas rivers. That's the second-highest fine levied by a court for violations of the Clean Water Act. In 1997, Virginia-based Smithfield Foods Inc., and two of its subsidiaries were ordered to pay a $12 million penalty for Clean Water Act violations.

UPS to Mellon Financial Corp.'s decision to free up employees' 401(k) money for other investments. Maybe the Enron affair will prove to have a cleansing effect. Others ought to follow its lead.

UPS to a poll by Manpower Inc. that found 33 percent of area businesses plan to recruit workers this quarter.

UPS to Marc USA's winning of the Pennsylvania Lottery -- it's ad account, that is. Tierney Communications, which has handled the account since 1977, has filed a protest. Poor losers, maybe?

UPS to a $20 million round of venture investment in Cellomics Inc. by Oxford BioScience Partners, more evidence that the region's new economy will show its promise in biotechnology.

UPS to a plan to revive conversion of the Armstrong Cork complex in the Strip District into apartments, although we've heard it before. There have been plans for two decades to do the same, and the building is still inhabited by pigeons and littered with the refuse of transient squatters. Jules Marling of Chicago, a partner with Charles L. Hammel III, says a late summer or early fall start could be in the offing.

Thursday, 28 March 2002 08:45

Removing the rose-colored glasses

When I was a child, my parents used to take me downtown to visit my grandfather's law office on Public Square. We rode the Rapid Transit system, which rumbled down the tracks from our home in Shaker Heights through the industrial areas of Cleveland's east side and then spilled into the belly of the Terminal Tower.

I would gaze out the window, watching with wonderment the neighborhoods and buildings we passed by. Even as a young boy in the early 1970s, I understood that we lived in an industrial town, built on more than a century of manufacturing.

Today, my daily commute from Shaker Heights to SBN's offices in Lakewood takes me along I-490 past the LTV Steel plant. I still look out the window, much like I did as a child, and watch the smoke stacks where plumes of smoke and shafts of fire used to rise into the air as a symbol of the steel maker's fortitude.

Despite LTV's misfortune, not much has changed. Cleveland remains a manufacturing town.

There has been a disturbing trend over the past decade as the region's business leaders have disagreed about what the region's economic future is. Because of this, there has been no clear leadership to replace the erstwhile business generals of the past. Too many groups have unsuccessfully chased the cold vapors of what they thought was the next great thing.

Admittedly, I got caught up in the dot-com mania, purported by national pundits to make its way into Cleveland and turn the region into the next Silicon Valley. Besides stepping up SBN's reporting on e-business and technology, I stuck both feet in the water and plunged into two pie-in-the-sky ventures.

Luckily, I was smart enough to keep my day job.

And, like my brethren in the media, I've kept a close eye on the rising swell of biotechnology. With success stories like Athersys, it has been all too easy to anoint it the next great thing. The truth is that it's not.

Lost among this mindless chase for a single economic cure-all has been the gradual embrace and integration of technology into the area's traditional manufacturing base. It's being used to improve productivity, reduce overhead and make companies more competitive.

But manufacturing is just one piece of our economic future. The region also has a rich tradition in banking and finance, health care, and education. With the addition of the emerging biotech industry, today's regional economy stands at an important crossroads. Simply put, which direction are we going to go?

That is a question that's difficult to answer, but one thing is certain. There is no panacea waiting to be discovered.

Cleveland's economic future lies not with some overnight sensation, but in its economic past. Success hinges on our ability to recognize that and use it to develop the future. As business executives and leaders, that responsibility is in all of our hands. Now is not the time to forsake it.

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Tuesday, 26 February 2002 12:11

Reaching the masses

The allure of technology is that it is supposed to reduce time, improve efficiency and create cost savings. Unfortunately, it doesn't always deliver.

But when Ernie Hawk turned to technology to tackle KraftMaid Cabinetry's problem of disseminating training information to more than 3,000 representatives nationwide, the solution worked exactly the way it was intended.

KraftMaid, which manufactures built-to-order cabinetry out of its Middlefield plant, sells its products through a nationwide network of dealers, including home centers such as Home Depot and Lowe's. Representatives at each organization must be trained about KraftMaid's products and certified in numerous areas in order to effectively sell.

Methods included in-field training, which consisted of a lecture, lecture-based paper materials and a book of overhead product configuration slides presented by one of KraftMaid's 150 sales representatives or a member of its training staff.

This led to many challenges, says Hawk, the company's director of training.

First, there were profitability issues associated with producing multiple training courses for each of the company's product lines. Then there was the problem of regulating consistency among trainers. Finally, training methods failed to ensure the information stuck in the dealer representatives' heads.

"We simply didn't have the resources to effectively meet the demands of our customers," Hawk says.

So Hawk collaborated with Cleveland-based Fathom Interactive to develop a series of computer-based training courses to replace KraftMaid's lecture-based efforts.

"CBT overcomes many of the challenges faced in traditional training methods," he says.

The first version of the software was aimed at kitchen fundamentals and took about 90 days to get into the field. A second version, designed to instruct dealers in design principles, followed shortly.

In a nutshell, the CBT application transforms KraftMaid's basic training materials into a self-paced, highly interactive course that allows students to take the class at convenient times and repeat and review it as often as they require. When interrupted, the student can mark the course and return to it any time to review and continue. When the student passes all eight modules, Hawk certifies him or her.

Hawk says in its first year, the program has:

* Produced greater knowledge and sale of value-added options through deeper understanding of dealers' roles and value in cabinetry applications.

* Improved consistency of training materials and delivery.

* Provided a quicker response to dealers' training needs because of standardized materials.

* Lowered training costs per staff teaching hour used.

* Increased the scope of in-field training, allowing the sales employees of thousands more dealers to take courses.

* Enhanced student retention of materials.

* Allowed for in-depth training because dealers' sales employees quickly became well-versed in basic kitchen fundamentals.

Hawk says the company is looking at ways to expand its CBT offerings.

"We're currently developing a distance learning program that includes live Internet training," he says. "The first version of that should begin in March." How to reach: KraftMaid Cabinetry, (440) 632-5333

Thursday, 31 January 2002 05:25

Ups and downs

(ups) to the introduction of S&H greenpoints by Shop 'n Save, a twist on the savings stamps concept. An old idea with a digital turn might be enough to shake up the local retail food marketplace, gain an "advantage" on market leader Giant Eagle and bring a little excitement to grocery shopping. Time will tell if customers give it their stamp of approval.

(downs) to Jones Brewing Co.'s fall into bankruptcy. There's trouble brewing for the little company that's struggled for years to stay afloat. If it's forced to continue making beer at its Smithton facilities, Jones might not survive, but the bankruptcy court hasn't looked favorably on a waiver of a labor contract to allow Pittsburgh Brewing Co. to produce the Jones brands.

(ups) to FreeMarkets for beating analysts' estimates -- even if Amazon.com got most of the ink -- and posting an operating profit while some of its competitors are taking a shellacking in the market. The dot-com revolution is alive after all, and in Pittsburgh, of all places.