Meredyth McKenzie

Tuesday, 25 November 2008 19:00

Know thyself

Dennis P. Drent says that you can’t lead others if you can’t first lead yourself, so you need to develop your self-awareness and know who you are and what your values are. In turn, that self-awareness will allow you to develop a vision for your organization.

Drent has developed a vision for Veterinary Pet Insurance Co. that will not only help the pet insurance company continue to grow, but it’s also one that he believes in and can live each day.

“You do have to have that natural passion for the business and believe in what the business does, and if you don’t have that, any other vision will be false, and people are going to see through it, and it’s not going to work,” says the company’s president and CEO. “The key is you have to actually believe it.”

Creating a strong vision that he believes in has helped Drent grow the company to 2007 revenue of $148.9 million with 425 employees.

Smart Business spoke with Drent about how to create a vision for the future of your company.

Determine the present and future. You have to figure out where you’re at — here’s where we’re at today, what realistically can we accomplish with the company, what do we want to accomplish with it, where do we want it to be in three years, five years, 10 years? Then start working backward.

It has to be genuine. You have to believe in the noble purpose of your vision. People want to do business with a company that is transparent, trustworthy, caring and easy to do business with.

Transparency is underpromising and overdelivering. Trust starts with simply being competent. Customers begin to trust you when you deliver on basic promises with no hassle. The company must demonstrate character. Character mostly includes doing the right things for the right reasons.

Company values need to be well-defined and communicated to all employees.

If you’re just in it to make money and you’re not genuine about your vision ... if your real vision is, ‘I just want to get rich,’ anything else you do ... people are going to see through it because your behavior is going to be all about making money. So you have to have a genuine vision of what you want the organization to do.

Understand what the vision means for your employees. You have to look at understanding what’s in it for the people. You have to think about what’s in it for the employees. The vision has to be compelling to the employees, as well, what’s in it for them and try to convince them.

Most employees assume the CEO is in it for the money and is overpaid. Part of selling your vision is to convince employees you are genuinely concerned about customers and employees as much as making money for your shareholders and yourself.

Once people realize you are genuinely trying to improve the lives of everyone — customers, employees and shareholders — you gain credibility, and they are more likely to follow your lead.

It’s a good idea to first see what the employees think the vision is or should be. Ask them what they think are the company values. Whatever the vision, it has to be genuine and have some greater purpose that employees can feel good about. The vision has to provide guidance, set expectations, inspire and give employees a glimpse of what’s in it for them.

People always want to know where you’re going. ... They want to know why you’re going there and want to understand it so they want to be able to buy in. They want to know that where you’re going they can sign up for that because it meets their values and what they’re trying to accomplish in their lives.

If you don’t have that, you resort to sort of the herding cats, people go all over the place, there’s no alignment to what people do every day to where the organization is trying to go, and without that alignment, you don’t know where you’re going to end up. If you don’t put that stake in the ground, the organization can’t get aligned behind it, and therefore, you don’t know where you’re going to end up.

Communicate. A visual aid is helpful in conveying a vision to employees. A leader needs to talk about the vision all the time.

The more you talk about the vision and test it against decisions that are made, the more clarity you get. It’s an evolving process. The core vision stays the same. You just get a deeper understanding of what it means to live the vision the more you put it to work.

The best way to reinforce the vision is to ensure every decision you make is congruent with the vision.

Give people time to align with the vision. Be patient. Give people time to align themselves to that vision, because you just don’t pronounce a vision and everybody jumps on board. It takes a lot of repetition and a lot of communication in different ways for it to take hold.

Each person is different. Some people will accept the vision immediately as they will see the benefits to both the company and themselves. Perhaps, most people fall into the category of waiting to see if the vision is lasting and determine what is in it for them. This takes about two years. After two years, there will still be a portion of the organization, say 10 to 20 percent, that will remain skeptical. After two years, however, these folks will begin to select out of the company.

There will, of course, be the approximately 5 percent of people who will always see the company in adversarial terms.

HOW TO REACH: Veterinary Pet Insurance Co., (714) 989-0555 or

Tuesday, 25 November 2008 19:00

All ears

Jeffrey Sopp makes it a point to take time out of his busy schedule as a president and CEO to listen to his 40 employees and to his customers.

Each day, Sopp calls at least two customers to see how they’re doing and to find out what Expesite LLC can do better for them.

“A good leader has to listen carefully not only to the CEOs and CFOs but also to the people who are the end users, the people who affect the business every single day,” he says.

Sopp’s focus on listening has helped him grow the company, which provides Web-based project management for construction and real estate development, to 2007 revenue of $5.3 million.

Smart Business spoke with Sopp about how to become a better listener to help develop trust with your employees and clients.

Q. What are the keys to being a good listener?

Listening skills are not always innate, they have to be somewhat learned. You develop great listening skills by spending a lot of time with a variety of different people at a variety of different levels.

When I walk around my office or when I’m on sales calls, I try to spend quality time by sitting down and talking with people and not asking them stuff that’s just business related. I am interested in their families and how their kids are doing.

It’s the management by wandering around and not be disingenuous when you ask questions. Ask questions about what the person just said, ask clarifying questions.

The way to build loyalty is to spend time with people. If you don’t spend time with people, you can’t build that loyalty and you can’t fool the troops. So you’ve got to be genuine with your questions, and if they ask you to do something, you better darn well follow up on it.

The benefit is building great relationships, and the result is top- and bottom-line success.

Q. How can a leader become a better listener?

No. 1, they’ve got to be prepared to invest the time. And it’s not a one-hit wonder strategy, it is something that has to be part of the DNA, not only in the leader, but the customers — internal or external — need to know that that is part of the culture that that leader is going to develop.

They have to practice effective listening, and effective listening means it’s two-way communication. ... It’s asking a lot of questions about what that person just said, not in the back of their mind worrying about what issues they have when they get back to their office.

They have to be prepared to always follow up and follow through with that particular discussion he or she just had, whether that’s in an e-mail or a handwritten note or a phone call to show appreciation, because it’s an investment on that other person’s time, as well.

Q. How do you listen to customers and stay close to them?

It’s building the relationships and spending time with them. You have to be with them face to face, you have to travel to their locations, you have to get out of your office so it’s not always on the phone or it’s not always on e-mail ... either playing golf with them or having lunch or dinner with them, but being physically with them, building that relationship.

That’s how you better understand what that customers’ needs and wants are and, more importantly, how you can help provide some solutions for them. And that, in turn, builds better relations.

When I hear something that’s great news, I will send a quick e-mail or a quick note to them, congratulating them, and I always try to put a personal touch to it — but do it sincerely. The worst thing somebody can do is to be disingenuous when they’re trying to congratulate a client.

Q. How do you foster a spirit of trust with employees?

You have to let people know what your intentions are, that you want to get better every day, that I am smart enough to know that I don’t know it all, and you give them permission to be candid and open and honest.

Leaders don’t always have to do it themselves. One of the things I’ve learned is that I don’t have to be the smartest man in the room, but I need to be able to ask questions and keep my ego in the trunk of the car and know that there are people who know a lot more than I do, and I can trust them to help make my company and myself get better.

The trickle-down effect of that allows their associates to feel like they can come with new innovative ideas or suggestions that will be listened to but not always implemented. It’s an environment where people can come in and talk about the good, the bad and the indifferent.

Trying to go through and being a successful leader, you’ve got to make sure you foster this trust environment at all levels within the organization.

HOW TO REACH: Expesite LLC, (614) 917-1100 or

Sunday, 26 October 2008 20:00

A helping hand

Robert Olson isn’t afraid to jump in and help his employees if they have a problem, even on something as simple as calling a stubborn vendor.

“I’m doing it not to straighten the problem out, but I’m doing it to show my people that I’m there to step up and help them in any way I can,” says Olson, founder and CEO of R.D. Olson Construction and founder, president and CEO of R.D. Olson Development.

Olson’s willingness to help his nearly 200 employees has helped him grow both companies, which he founded in 1979.The construction company posted fiscal 2007 revenue of$147 million, while the development company posted fiscal2007 revenue of $110 million.

Smart Business spoke with Olson about how to engage employees and why being a leader is like being a gopher.

Look for the right people. They treat others with respect. ... That will show their ability to work with people. Their own ability to communicate is important, to communicate their ideas.

[Look for] people who when they give their word, they will do something and follow up —basically do what you say you’re going to do.

You can see it a little bit in their eyes about how they respond to questions. You want to craft questions that elicit the responses that are in line with what you’re looking for.

They’re who gets the work done, who makes it happen. If you’re doing it by yourself, you’re going to fail; you’re not going to get much done. The more ability you have to empower your people, the more leverage you get. It’s all about leveraging. You need to leverage your time in every way you can, and this is through people.

Value and reward people. There’s the financial reward, which is important, but even more misrecognition and recognizing people when they’ve had a success and bringing that out.

It gives them personal recognition, which just makes them want to succeed more, and it also shows the group what you consider to be a success. It’s huge; it goes a long way.

It’s not one person. The president can’t do that on his own; you’ve got to get your executives who have to have this mentality, as well, and recognize your people. The president, his job is to recognize the people immediately below him but always recognizing everyone along the way.

The day-in and day-out recognition comes from your leaders, your executive staff. You’ve got to push that down and keep it going ... just again highlighting when someone’s done a great job.

Show respect for employees. When someone is not performing well, it’s fair to have the conversation of your expectations and what exactly is it that they’re not doing.

But you close it with respect: ‘Thank you, I appreciate you hearing me out. I’m looking forward to working with you to improve this. Let me know what I can do to help you do abettor job.’

You’ve got to just be on board to help, be willing to help. The higher up the ladder you go, the more you become the gopher, the water boy. You go get it, make it happen, help your people to get it done and be willing to do that. And not just talk it, dot — be willing to talk the talk.

Look within. A vision sort of comes from (within), what that vision is, what you think it should be, and it has a lot to do with your personal core values, your own expectations, your own life experiences that set up your vision.

That also includes collective wisdom that you’ve garnished from other people who you respect and understand your business.

It’s just this collective gathering of experiences and information all filtered through yourself.

Engage your employees. Vision’s great, but if you don’t get engagement from everybody, it just falls on deaf ears.

I always ask questions. Ask a lot of questions to try and get them to come to their own conclusion of what I see is the right choice and get buy-in. Through this, maybe there’s an adjustment from the collective wisdom — ‘That sounds great, but what about this?’ I start by asking questions and then get everyone engaged, and then it’s like we’re all as one group marching up the hill together rather than one man.

It gives everyone a common goal. Everyone understands where we’re going and has a copy of the map. So everybody is empowered to do what it takes to achieve the vision.

Show employees how the vision affects them. You have to ask the question, ‘What is it they can do to help you achieve the vision, which has become a goal? What is it that they do?’ Each person is different. ...Everyone has a different role to play, and there are different things that they do to help achieve that vision.

They need to understand what the overall goal is so then you break it down, what does that mean — if you’re a person in accounting say, ‘Your job is incredibly important to this vision,’ and let them know how important their job is. Everybody has a hand in making the organization successful and achieving its goals and vision.

HOW TO REACH: R.D. Olson Construction and R.D. Olson Development, (949) 474-2001 or
Sunday, 26 October 2008 20:00

Straight shooter

Samuel W. Grooms is a natural-born communicator, and he has no trouble talking to anyone, whether they are employees, clients or strangers. For example, he recalls visiting his daughter in Brooklyn, N.Y., and striking up conversations with people on the subway, only to be elbowed by his daughter, telling him not to do that.

Grooms employs that same open communication style with his 126 employees at Hy-Tek Material Handling Inc., where he openly shares both the good and the bad news about what’s happening at the material handling distributor and integrator of engineered conveyor and storage systems.

“Of course, everybody wants to hear all of the good news, but you also have to be honest with people,” says the president and CEO of the $41.75 million company. “I’m not going to lie to them. If things aren’t exactly where we need to be, I’m going to tell them where they are and what we need to do to get there.”

Smart Business spoke with Grooms about how to be honest with, listen to and trust your employees.

Communicate honestly. The key to communicating that people appreciate is always being honest. They [have to] understand in good and bad, this is where we stand, where we’re at, what’s going on and the like, and you [have to] explain what’s going on and can let people know where you stand and what you’regoing to do to either improve or continue getting better at the rate you are.

If you can’t do that, you better find somebody within your organization who is good at it. I don’t have to try and figure out what story I told somebody, because [if] you start telling lies and you’re not honest with people, all of a sudden you’re going to be telling more lies to try and figure out what lies you told. People have to know when you’re talking to them that you’re giving it to them straight, and they are going to be able to take it to the bank one way or another.

If you want people to believe in what you’re doing, you’ve got to be straightforward and honest with them.

Shut up and listen. That’s the one thing that too many people want to do all the time is tell you what’s going on and what’s wrong, but they don’t want to offer a suggestion. The best thing we can do is discuss mutually what the issues are and then mutually discuss what we’re going to do to solve the problem.

It’s like a football coach —at the time out, we’re sitting there talking with the quarterback about what play we’re going to run. At some point, we’ve both got to agree, and then you’ve got to get out of the way and let them go run it and have faith they’re going to do it. And if they’ve got to ad lib a little bit, well, that’s OK, too; that’s going to help them grow.

There’s never a situation where you’re sitting, whether it’s one on one or a group where you don’t say, ‘Here’s where we are, here’s where we’ve got to be and what we’ve got to accomplish.’There’s never a circumstance that you don’t ask, ‘What do you think we have to do?’

It’s amazing what people will tell you when you ask them, what people will do when you give them a chance to tell you what they think.

Put faith and trust in employees. If you’re going to do everybody’s job, then you don’t need everybody. There’s no way in the world that I’m either smart enough or have enough hours in the day to do everything that we need to do.

You have to get good quality people, (who are) able to trust me, and I can put my faith in them and know they’re as committed to doing the things we need to be able to do. Then have the faith that with their knowledge and training they have the ability to go out and do whatever they have to do to make it happen.

It’s nice to have people who you can go and get honest feedback ... that you have people out there who are going to be honest with you, good or bad. You’ve got to take what they’re telling you as the truth and gospel if you have that kind of relationship and know that they’re only telling you what you need to hear for the organization.

Trust is a two-way street, and you better be honest with people when you’re telling them something, and you’ve got to give them the ability to tell you something if you want honest feedback. You’ve got to be able to listen to it, digest it, sometimes not like it, but be prepared to listen to it and deal with it the best you can. That honesty in the relationship is a two-way street.

Assess your strengths and weaknesses. One of the things you’ve got to do is know what you are good at and not good at, and if you’re not good at something, you better be good at going out and finding somebody who is. Make sure you understand what your strengths and weaknesses are. People tell you what your strengths and weaknesses are a lot of times. I’ve got to find the people who have those capabilities and characteristics. It’s knowing what their capabilities are, seeing whether they’ve grown within your organization or how they’ve come to you from outside the organization, making sure they understand what the goals and accomplishments you have to reach are going to be, and then getting out of the way and let them do their jobs.

HOW TO REACH: Hy-Tek Material Handling Inc., (614) 497-2500 or

Thursday, 25 September 2008 20:00

Moving ahead

When Manouch Moshayedi founded STEC Inc. in 1989 with his brothers, Mike and Mark, they were ready to give up after six months because they were exhausted and not making much headway. But instead of giving up and going back to their old jobs, the trio pressed on and built a successful company that designs, manufactures and markets high-performance storage and memory solutions.

“If you think what you’re going to be doing is right and it’s going to work out, don’t give up in the first six months or a year just because you’re not making huge headway,” Moshayedi says.

Moshayedi and his brothers focused on setting achievable goals and creating an open atmosphere at STEC, which has grown to nearly 750 and posted fiscal 2007 revenue of $188.6 million.

Smart Business spoke with the company’s co-founder, chairman and CEO about why it’s important to hire people with common sense to help you reach your goals.

Set achievable goals. We’ve got longer goals that everybody knows and bought in to, where we want to be, what we want to do three years, five years down the road. The key to setting long-term goals is to have measurable results that can be broken down into shorter time frames.

For example, a long-term goal that may take five years to achieve needs to be broken down into smaller time segments, with measurable results at each increment — six months, one year, two years, etc.

The goals have to be achievable. If you set goals that are not achievable, people will become disenchanted and know they will never meet their bonuses and commissions, and you will get employees who are just there to collect salary and not be motivated. Set up goals that are realistic for people to meet.

Sit down with your management and figure out, these are the numbers you should be hitting. ... Set up goals that stretch people to almost their limits, but at the same time ... if they do stretch themselves, they will get there.

Having good goals means that everyone who works for you is happy, motivated and making a good amount of money. The company can move forward, and you can constantly increase those goals and achieve the growth.

Set goals together with employees. The people who are getting those goals, who are supposed to meet those goals ... those guys are always communicated with, and everybody has bought in to those goals.

It’s not like in a vacuum, we sit down and say, ‘This person has to hit 10 million bucks.’ If we have given that goal to that person, that person has already accepted that 10 million bucks and knows that he can achieve it — he has to stretch it to get there, but he knows he can achieve it.

If, however, it doesn’t happen, then we’ll have to examine to see what happened ... Whatever problems that they were, then try to discuss it and better it the next quarter.

Don’t hide behind walls. I know lots of CEOs who are just impossible to get a hold of. ... They’re constantly busy with one thing or another, they’re out of the office, in the office, whatever they’re doing, they’re busy. So [you need to have an] open-door policy and not have lots of walls to jump over and also constantly going out and talking to everyone and sitting down with them for five minutes and making sure that they feel comfortable talking back to you and telling you what they’re thinking about.

If leaders are more comfortable working with direct reports to start fostering open communication, it is a good place to start. Even small steps toward open communication can have positive results. Open communication will trickle throughout the organization through the managers and their teams.

Create an open atmosphere. You have to be easy with yourself and easy about talking to everyone and communicating with everyone. And at the same time, don’t take yourself that seriously that you think you’re above everyone else and no one can tell you anything and everyone else is wrong and you’re the only one who’s right just because you’re the CEO.

Keep in mind that management is as important to the success of the company as those in other positions are important. A team environment in which everyone is working toward a common goal is vital. Every team player has a significant role with equally important contributions.

You get the right feedback from people. You can be in an organization where everyone is a yes-man, and as a result, you make hugely bad decisions and everybody says, ‘Yes, yes.’ Having that open communication, having people dare to say, ‘No, that is wrong’ is the most important thing. Have people who are honest and not afraid (for) their jobs because they’re saying no to you.

Find people who have common sense. We find people who are motivated about what we do, somebody who is excited about coming and working with us, who has been successful in past jobs, who is reliable and has got integrity and is trustworthy.

Having common sense is amazingly important. Even though everyone thinks, ‘That’s common sense; that’s easy,’ you wouldn’t believe how many people don’t have common sense. If people don’t know their right hand from their left hand, then it’s going to be difficult to get communications going.

HOW TO REACH: STEC Inc., (949) 476-1180 or

Thursday, 25 September 2008 20:00

Healthy decision

Lisa Bargmann spent more than 20 years working in the home medical equipment and infusion industries at numerous companies. But, in 2003, she decided to jump in head first and start her own company, Bargmann Management LLC. The founder, president and CEO began as an independent consultant, but after five years, she has turned the one-woman business into a successful company with nearly 80 employees.

The company provides business solutions for the home medical equipment and infusion (intravenous drug) health care industries, working in the areas of education, training and consulting. This specialized area of health care is important for patients across the country as more health providers allow patients to heal at home instead of in hospitals.

Because of the complex nature of the health care industry, Bargmann created Homecare Collection Services in June 2004 to help with the professional billing and collection service. HCS began operating out of Bargmann’s home with two part-time independent contractors. But when business grew beyond the home office, Bargmann opened an office in Akron and brought in her husband, David Bargmann, as executive vice president and chief operating officer to run internal operations, along with several more full- and part-time employees.

The growth has continued for the company since. It now employs 77 people and anticipates hiring between three and four full-time employees per month during the next year. Because of this growth surge the company moved into a new office in 2007.

In addition to employee growth, the company is also growing its infrastructure. It purchased $300,000 of technology in 2007 from local businesses that included enhanced mail handling, automation, voice-over Internet phone systems and electronic document imaging. Management is also working on the purchase of $150,000 of new software and hardware that will allow automatic phone dialing campaigns.

Employee wellness has been a major focus at HCS. The company sponsors numerous health awareness programs, including smoking cessation programs and on-site Weight Watchers programs to promote healthy living. The company is also involved in numerous community programs, such as the Light the Night Leukemia Walk for Life.

HOW TO REACH: Bargmann Management LLC, (330) 645-8200 or

Wednesday, 25 June 2008 20:00

An honest leader

Integrity is a key word for Bill Heifner. That word appears almost everywhere at Renier Construction Corp., from the back of business cards and in the company logo to the company mission statement and a plaque on the wall.

Committing himself and his company to integrity helped the founder and president when he failed to follow through on part of a project, then admitted his mistake right away to the client and vendor.

“It hurts to say that, but in the end, the vendor pitched in to help me because we had a great relationship, and I’ve treated him with integrity,” he says. “My client appreciated it, too, because nobody’s perfect, and I didn’t try to push it off on somebody else.”

This commitment to integrity by Heifner and his 50 employees has led the general contractor, which focuses on building auto dealerships, to 2007 revenue of $41 million.

Smart Business spoke with Renier about how to live the value of integrity and how to model that to your customers.

Be a good role model. In one of Lee Iacocca’s books, he made a comment that in any well-managed company, there’s a little piece of the person at the top that permeates down through the company. If you’re a good role model and conducting yourself with the highest degree of integrity, then that goes through the company and resonates to the people who actually have contact day to day with clients.

You have to have impeccable integrity. Integrity sets the tone for anything that you do when you’re somebody’s mentor because they’re looking up to you and basing a lot of their thoughts and thought process with how you deal with day-today challenges. If you put integrity at the top, then everything else follows suit.

If you realize that you make a mistake, and the harder you try to cover it up, the easier it is that somebody’s going to find out about it. When they find out about it, it compromises your integrity so poorly that it takes you so long to recover from it [that] it’s just not worth it.

Satisfy your customers. You have to have 100 percent customer satisfaction or a high level of customer satisfaction to maintain your client base. If you do that, it’s easier and you can improve your sales success ratio by working with satisfied, happy past customers.

Anytime they need anything, they pick up the phone and call you. If you have a good relationship and take care of their needs and they have complete trust and confidence in you, those customers will call you.

The most important thing is listening to the customer. A friend of mine told me that God gave you two ears and one mouth, so you’re supposed to listen twice as much as you talk. We have to spend a lot of time listening to their needs and understanding their goals, operations and what makes their business work.

Be sincere. I’ve seen people who will sit with a client and put on a good show that they’re genuinely interested in what the customer wants, but at the end of the day, they’ve already formulated in their own mind what they think the customer wants. You need to concentrate on spending time with customers.

I was recently in a situation where I was courted by a furniture vendor. It was an hour meeting, and the salesman talked for 50 minutes and didn’tlisten. When he left, I looked at him and said, ‘So what’s important to me?’ and he had this deer-in-the-headlight look.

I said, ‘The problem is that you didn’t listen,’ and we went on about our separate ways. It’s important to listen.

Understand your customers. You have to understand their business and take the time to understand the mechanics of their business, how it operates and how you can be a financial benefit to them. If you can’t provide a service that they want, then there’s no benefit to them, and the likelihood of you doing business is pretty slim.

I try to learn as much about a new client as I can before I ever meet with them. With today’s technology and especially the Internet, you can look at their Web site and Google them. It does show when you talk to them that you’ve taken the time to learn all you can, that you’re interested in their business and in them.

Believe in and live your culture. If you truly believe it, it’s your culture, it’s your values, and it says who you are. It also says what you stand for, and if you’re a new customer, hopefully, the new customer feels they know what they can anticipate and what they’re going to receive from us.

You can’t talk about it, and you can’t tell people about it; you’ve got to practice it. You can’t give it lip service. You have to practice the principles of integrity, and if you practice those principles, then it makes the stock in your integrity go up significantly.

The easiest thing to do is to look in the mirror and determine what you’ve told people ... that you’ve lived up to their expectations. I measure my performance not only with clients but also with my constituents in the office. I am the president of the company, but I firmly believe that my job isn’t any more important than anybody else’s in the company, and we all have different levels of responsibility, and the person at the front desk isn’t any more important than I am.

It all comes back to living the core values.

HOW TO REACH: Renier Construction Corp., (614) 866-4580 or

Monday, 26 May 2008 20:00

A passion to succeed

Ash Robinson is passionate about helping people develop along a career path.

And to share that passion and motivate employees at JW Tumbles, a $9.1 million national chain of children’s fitness and learning centers, she rewards them with “Tumbles Dollars,” which they can spend on a team or another employee doing a great job — “sort of a pay-it-forward kind of thing.” Robinson, owner, president and CEO of JW Tumbles, says this creates a team environment among her employees — 18 in her office and 270 at franchises nationwide.

“It’s a great reward to see people grow and move up,” she says.

Smart Business spoke with Robinson about how to find the right employees, motivate them and become engaged with them.

Q. How do you find the right people for your team?

Our culture is well defined, and either people are passionate about those things or they’re not. It’s almost a self-filtering process because people who aren’t [passionate] usually aren’t interested in us.

Situational-based questions are a great way to find out how a person reacts and handles themselves. Spend a lot less time talking about the job and more talking about them.

Q. How do you ensure employees are in the right positions?

It’s constant feedback and being engaged with their work. If they’re not in the right position, re-evaluate.

Handle it sooner than later, and bring it back to the job description and whether or not they’re successful. If you have another position they’d be great at, move them to that spot. If they’re not right for your company, amicably part ways and allow them to be successful somewhere else.

Q. How do you become engaged with employees and stay open to feedback?

Set up a system to formalize the feedback process. You can never have enough feedback with your employees, whether it’s criticism or praise.

Create a schedule. Go to employees’ workspaces once a week to ask how they are doing, what they’re working on and what you can help with.

When an employee hits a home run, let everyone know. When they make a mistake, correct it as soon as possible and make sure they have an active role in the solution.

Utilize all communication tools, from e-mail, project management software, phone and face to face. Add more face time whenever possible.

Q. How does an open environment benefit the company?

It’s efficient, in that problems are flushed out quickly. It’s a great place to work if you feel like your boss appreciates what you’re doing and knows what you’re contributing. People know what others are doing and are respecting each other’s contributions.

There are drawbacks. When employees embrace the open-door mentality to the extreme, you may be interrupted more often than necessary. I’ve empowered my employees in specific areas, built their confidence, put trust in their decision-making and designated certain times as ‘do not disturb’ blocks.

This inspires employees to focus on their individual progress.

Q. How do you motivate and empower employees?

It’s giving employees confidence and trust. If I have confidence in them, they have confidence in themselves. Give them ownership for projects and acknowledge when they are successful.

Give them the opportunity to make mistakes. You don’t want people making $100,000 mistakes but easy ones because that facilitates the learning process. When they mess up, say, ‘Here’s what happened, this is where you went wrong, but that doesn’t change anything about what a great job you have and all you have learned.’ It’s having them know that you trust them and their decision-making ability and allowing them to make smaller decisions.

Get comfortable in the areas in which mistakes make less of an impact on the company’s overall objective. If you outline the goals and expectations of a particular position, you reduce the severity of any potential mistake.

Motivating and rewarding is about recognition and making sure that you’re communicating and acknowledging it.

It takes your company to the next level, and you get better results. It makes life easier because you can do a lot more than you could by yourself or with the wrong people.

Q. How do you implement an employee reward system?

Start one at a time. Don’t overwhelm because you don’t want to come off as cheesy. If you go in and say, ‘I hired a consultant or I read an article on how to motivate employees,’ it comes off as insincere.

... Be real. If you are sincere and care about your employees, they buy in to it. It’s hard because you have so much to do. Put things on your calendar and find something good an employee did, so you don’t get too busy and forget about them. If you put it into a system, it makes it easier.

HOW TO REACH: JW Tumbles, (858) 794-0484 or

Monday, 26 May 2008 20:00

Words of wisdom

Bruce Violette relies on the tried and true to lead his business, touting ideas like, “Do what you say you’re going to do,” and, “If you don’t take care of your customers, someone else will.” Sticking with those old ideas has helped Violette grow Business Partner, a one-stop marketing firm that merged with FranchisESource Brands International in 2007 and posted 2007 revenue of $9.4 million.

“It’s making sure the job is the No. 1 priority of all personnel and reinforcing this constantly,” says Violette, who founded Business Partner and served as its president before moving into a consultant role while retaining part ownership. “It’s being visible and focusing on your customer base.”

Smart Business spoke with Violette about how to live your values and create a team to spread them.

Q. How do you make sure you’re doing what you say you’re going to do?

Communication is important and making yourself visible. I spend as much time as possible interacting with employees and showing a concern for them and our customers. That whole interaction and communication process is important.

Q. How do you create that interaction and ensure open communication?

The biggest thing is coming across and maintaining a team atmosphere, where you’re not some figurehead sitting in an ivory office somewhere that is inaccessible. Just getting in there and hearing about them and the customers and portraying a team atmosphere.

Interact with them and create that team. It’s the whole approach that 10 heads are better than one. Too many times, executives almost are like political leaders; they kind of lose touch with what’s going on. Get down on a production floor, interact with your employees, personally witness some of the things that are going on and be involved.

Talk to customers and employees. You have to get out there and be involved.

Q. How do you create a team and motivate employees to keep working together?

You’ve got to have the right people. It starts in the hiring process. We look for people who can be team players. Look for employees who ask questions.

I’ve had interviews where I’m asking questions and getting short answers and nothing is coming back the other way. Look for people who can come in and be inquisitive. It’s going beyond the resume.

Q. How do you get an employee involved if they’re having trouble fitting in?

It’s making them more involved, asking them questions and putting them in situations. We have think-tank sessions, where we might have three employees come in and discuss current client needs.

It’s bringing them into conversations, making them involved and seeking out what they think about things and trying to get them to open up and be comfortable.

Q. What is the benefit of having the right team?

You’re going to have a superior product or service you’re delivering to your customer. You’re going to have increased customer loyalty. You’re going to have better and stronger performance from the team.

Employees also enjoy doing a good job and getting an ‘atta boy’ or an ‘atta girl’ from customers.

Q. How do you create a relationship with the customer?

Being visible. There’s a lot of potential as far as efficiency and increasing your business just by concentrating on your customers and uncovering missed opportunities with them. Every day when I walk in, that’s the main thing on my mind. You have to understand that the customer is the boss. There will be ups and downs, but the strong companies with the strong customer loyalty that focus on these things are the ones that survive.

It’s back to doing what you say you’re going to do. If you quote a job for a customer and have a deadline, you’re making that promise that you’re going to deliver something and the quality that they’re expecting on the date that they’re expecting.

You don’t want to oversimplify things, but simply, do what you say you’re going to do. There are so many companies that are going so fast and have that ‘churn ’em and burn ’em’ mentality and are not doing what they say they’re going to do.

If you just slow down, take care of your customers and do what you say you’re going to do, you will do well.

Q. What is the benefit of creating those solid, trusting relationships with clients?

When things get tough and times get hard, that real dedication from your customer and belief in you prevents them from seeking out your competition. That strong customer loyalty is going to help you retain your customers and going to afford you leads for prospective new customers.

HOW TO REACH: Business Partner, (724) 864-9464 or

Friday, 25 April 2008 20:00

All in the family

Craig Weatherwax was the class clown in high school, and he continues to use his sense of humor to create a fun family atmosphere at Oceanside Photo and Telescope Inc.

“I do a lot of hands-on, on-the-floor experience with my employees,” says the owner, president and CEO of the $17 million, 22-employee retail camera, telescope, binocular and microscope company. “We try to keep it on a first-name, friendly basis. There’s a lot of kidding and joking that goes on. It makes it fun to go to work.”

Smart Business spoke with Weatherwax about how to create a feeling of family among your employees.

Q. How do you create a fun team environment?

Lead from the top. We try to evaluate everybody as a group, reinforce how departments are doing as a whole and make employees understand that we’re all in this together.

It’s the, ‘This is a marathon, not a sprint’ concept. You can’t get hung up on the bad days, but understand that in the long run, it’s all going to work out.

If your employees see that you take a personal interest in the growth of the business and that you like it and like being with them, that’s something you can’t instill in somebody; it has to come from the heart.

Q. How do you model that culture?

It’s not contrived; it comes naturally. You can tell if people are happy with what they’re doing, and it’s important that people are happy at work. I try to express that and let them make fun of me because you’ve got to give as well as take.

You can’t belittle employees or think less of them. They’re human beings, they have feelings, and you have to be aware of that. A happy employee is a good employee.

Q. What are the benefits of a fun work environment?

Everybody pulls for everybody else. You have your sibling rivalries a little bit like you do in a family, but it’s all done in fun. The family relationship allows people to help others with product knowledge or with how to handle a certain situation as opposed to being competitive and cutthroat.

Q. What are the keys to being a hands-on leader?

A lot of what you do as a leader is to set the tone for the workday. If you’re having a bad day, you maintain that within yourself and exude a feeling of confidence and patience. You can make a good day better or a bad day worse just by how you handle situations and problems.

Q. How do you get better at being confident and patient?

Look at the big picture. Some people get hung up on the specifics of a particular event and fail to look at the big picture. It comes with time.

If you take a step back and focus on the business as a whole as opposed to the specific incident that’s happening, it makes it much simpler to try to have that patience and exude that confidence.

Q. How do you balance being a hands-on leader and knowing when and how to delegate?

Experience. Evaluate each individual situation. Surrounding yourself with good people is important; there’s no substitute for a good staff. Sometimes, you rely on them more than you ever know.

Don’t lose sight of the big picture, and never put yourself too far above the rest of the people because you’re all working toward the same end goal. A lot of people think that you can go into business,

create a business model, and that’s as far as it goes, but being able to be there on a day-to-day basis allows you to make the kind of changes that you need. You can’t sit in a big office and expect things to work smoothly.

Communication is the most important thing you can do to be able to understand and listen to your employees and the people in the chain of command. Listening is an under-rated talent. A lot of people forget that the people down below have a better understanding of what makes your business grow and be successful.

You have to have an open mind to be able to understand and listen to what they have to say. Having preconceived ideas might hinder your ability to listen effectively. If you listen to them with an open mind, it makes a huge difference.

Q. What are the benefits of listening to employees and having open communication?

It helps you understand the building blocks of the business and allows you the ability to change. Many businesses get static in their growth potential because they don’t listen. The employees then, because they’re working with the customer on a day-to-day basis, have a better understanding of what the customer wants, and what the customer wants is going to make your company grow and change in today’s environment of constant change.

HOW TO REACH: Oceanside Photo and Telescope Inc., (800) 483-6287 or