Meredyth McKenzie

Tuesday, 26 August 2008 20:00

Belief system

It’s not unusual to see employees at Covario Inc. playing Wii, rocking out on Guitar Hero or interacting with each other at company-sponsored events. It’s all part of the culture that CEO Russ Mann has created for the company.

But creating a successful culture isn’t solely dependent on the leader; it must also include things that employees are interested in, says Mann. And to make sure that happens, Mann created the Culture Club to help plan activities for his 100-employee company, which creates software for Fortune 500 companies to boost their rankings on Internet search engines.

“You need to have willing participants, because if the team isn’t into the idea, then they’re not going to execute it,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Mann about the keys to creating a successful culture.

Q. What are the keys to a successful culture?

You have to believe that culture is important. Create an active action plan around culture, and then execute and follow through.

Some people don’t necessarily believe culture is that important. Some people think it’s important but don’t think they can do anything about it, so they don’t create an active action plan and try to do things once a month, and some people will do one thing here or there and say, ‘Oh, this isn’t working; maybe we should give up.’ But you have to keep up with it.

Delegate it to the team and make sure the team is committed to following through. I work with human resources and the folks on the Culture Club and ask them, ‘What’s the calendar of events for the next three to six months, do you have enough budget, and do you need more budget? How does this tie into our core company values and some of the marketing initiatives with our new products?’

Q. How could another leader develop a successful culture?

It’s all about the team.

I try to make it the culture that the team wants, not the culture I want. ... That’s not what’s going to make them happy to come to work and do their best for the client; what’s going to make them happy is creating a culture they want.

Another CEO might say, ‘I want to create a culture club,’ and the folks there might say they don’t think that’s a good idea. The CEO should say, ‘What do you think would be a good idea; what would you guys like to do?’

Commit to a budget. You can’t do all this stuff for free, and it doesn’t have to be a lot of money. You do have to create some guidelines.

You have to have the idea, get the team participation, fund it or commit to whatever resources are required and then back it from the senior level, show that you have support, that the senior team supports the initiative. If you’re going to have the front-line team or middle management do it, you have to still give them support. You can’t just say, ‘You guys go do it,’ and then walk away and complain about it later.

Q. How do you show support and get involved with the culture?

You’ve got to recruit the right kind of people. You don’t always want to focus on PLUs — people like us — or people like me. Just having people who care about culture is important, and then making it clear that I’m focused on the fact that I believe that good culture will make for great client satisfaction, and great client satisfaction will yield to great business results.

And then actually participating. You’ve got to show that you’re not scared to look silly or to make fun of yourself a little bit, to be serious out there but to also be fun. Some executives think they always have to be so serious for their team or they’ll lose credibility, but by breaking down a little bit and mixing it up with the team, we all have a little more fun, we all trust each other more, and they get to see the real person.

That builds a sense of trust and communication and team-work that makes for a high-culture, high-performance team.

You have to have the belief that it’s going to add value, because if you don’t believe that, you won’t succeed at all. Have some signs of results. Any hard-nosed executive still wants to see results, and culture is notoriously soft and difficult to measure.

I look for signs of that in our place. When we throw these events, do people show up or not? Do people talk about it later? Do I hear that everyone had a good time? Do I sense that there is high-value communication happening, not just partying and drinking? I hear stories.

Q. What are the benefits of a successful culture?

It does have tangible business benefits. Client problems are getting solved faster ... because we have more communication in the team. People feel more energized to come to work, and they’re happy about the kind of work and the place.

HOW TO REACH: Covario Inc., (858) 397-1500 or

Tuesday, 26 August 2008 20:00

Striving to be No. 1

Although it’s the best-selling brand for fillo dough and mini fillo shells in the country, Athens Foods Inc. still faces a challenge to distinguish itself in the marketplace.

Because it faces tough competition from brands such as Pepperidge Farm and Pillsbury, the company has to work hard to create a marketing campaign to encourage consumers to buy its products, says Bill Buckingham.

“Those folks have deep pockets, and we don’t have the funds like they have,” says Buckingham, Athens’ vice president of sales and marketing. “But we do have a marketing strategy, and it’s important that our sales force goes out and talks to our customers and conveys our message that this is what Athens is doing in terms of educating their customers.”

For several years, Athens has been working with Benghiat Marketing & Communications on its evolving marketing plan, using Benghiat’s smart marketing approach, which creates results for clients based on attainable and measurable goals and helps them better understand their customers.

Buckingham meets each August with Benghiat’s founder and president Russell Benghiat and with Athens’ Chairman Eric Moscahlaidis to begin the process of developing the strategy for the coming year for the 200-employee company.

“It’s not something you put together in a couple of weeks; it takes months of planning,” Buckingham says.

“We define the problem or opportunity in terms of customers, competitors, organization or production capabilities, and then establish clear and measurable goals and objectives,” Buckingham says.

Establish longer-term goals first, and then determine what needs to be accomplished each year to ultimately accomplish those goals.

“It is helpful to create quarterly goals to break down the process,” Buckingham says. “It may also be necessary to incorporate research if all of the necessary answers are not known.”

Once the plan is complete, Athens executives meet with the sales force to explain the plan.

“It’s a trickle-down effect,” Buckingham says. “We start with our sales force, the sales force educates our direct buying customers, and then we leave it up to Benghiat to educate the consumers.”

Executing a marketing plan requires extensive communication. Athens uses a blend of traditional and new media advertising, public relations and direct-to-consumer outreach programs to promote the use of its products. It employs press events, Internet news, a consumer recipe contest and an online community for consumers to chat with each other.

Once the plan has been implemented, measuring results is imperative to judge its effectiveness. Each month, Athens receives a summary of the number of visitors to its Web site to gauge how many new consumers it is reaching; in a single year, the company has had as many as 1 million hits.

But even after you’ve gone through the process of creating, communicating and implementing your marketing plan, you’re still not done. A good plan isn’t something that you do once and never look at again. Instead, you need to revisit it frequently to make sure you are working toward your goals.

Do your research and listen to your customers to identify whether changes in your market require adjustments to your plan. For example, Athens identified that its consumers had nutritional concerns and, as a result, changed its product to make it healthier. The company also reduced its packaging size to meet retailer needs and to better fit on store shelves.

Implementing a marketing plan can help increase both sales and consumer awareness, says Buckingham, as well as give you goals to reach for. And by keeping a constant eye on the plan, you can continue to find new ways to implement it to make buyers more aware of your service or product.

HOW TO REACH: Athens Foods Inc., (800) 837-5683 or

Finding a good marketing partner

Working with a partner can help make your marketing planning process easier, says Russell Benghiat, founder and president of Benghiat Marketing & Communications.

Here, Benghiat shares his tips for finding a marketing partner that works for you.

  • Look at results. “As you’re talking to them, find out what measurable results can they obtain for you. The more clarity of purpose there is, the better job they’ll do for you and the more responsible you can hold them and the more focused you will be.”

  • Test their knowledge. “What is their knowledge of their business and your industry and needs or knowledge of the specific situation?”

  • Determine what type of relationship you’ll have. “Do you want a firm that can be a consultant, an adviser to you and lead you, or do you have all the planning you need in-house and want someone who can say, ‘Do this brochure.’”

  • Test the chemistry. “How well do you click? You want to look at the specific team you’ll be working with at the firm, not just the people who are coming out to sell to you because those are the people you’re going to be in contact with day in and day out.”

  • Get referrals. “Ask for referrals from similarly situated companies in your industry but those who are not competitors. Talk with your current partners and vendors ... people who you trust and admire and can ask, ‘Who’s doing a good job for your key customers?’”

HOW TO REACH: Benghiat Marketing & Communications, (216) 831-8580 or

Wednesday, 25 June 2008 20:00

Visionary guru

Inder Guglani compares creating a vision with being a movie: You need to be able to close your eyes and see the movie or vision and how it will come together.

“If you see it, you can describe it to everyone and get them excited,” he says. “If you cannot describe your vision, you don’t have a vision.”

Guglani’s focus on vision has helped grow, an online marketplace he founded in 2000 for freelance talent in creative markets, to 2007 revenue of $18.4 million. The company employs 20 people and 10 contractors and has more than 100,000 freelancer profiles on its Web site.

Smart Business spoke with the founder and CEO of about why your customer is the key to forming a successful vision.

Q. How do you create a vision?

Understand who your customer is and what their needs are. Focus on their needs today and understand how these needs are going to evolve over time.

You need to be able to see it before you go directing other people for the achieving of the vision. If you’re wrong in your research and vision, you’re not going to get the results you’ve desired. But that’s the risk you take and what drives you to work harder in understanding your customers better.

Have a finger on the pulse of all the interaction that is occurring between the customer and personnel who are interacting with the customer. You can understand the issues the customers are dwelling on. Talk directly to customers and understand how they’re evolving and where they plan to be in the future.

Q. How do you keep your finger on the pulse of customer interactions?

Read the interaction, at least all that is documented. Talk to the folks who are interacting with the customer. Go out on a sample basis because you can’t afford the time of meeting every customer, but pick a few folks who you believe have a representative profile of the average customer.

Every interaction is a data point, and the more and more data points [you have], you either validate your vision or find contradiction, and if there’s contradiction, you have to get to the bottom of it and resolve it. If your vision is a good one, then every issue should either have a resolution today or be resolved sometime in the future.

Q. How do you live your vision and sell it to employees and customers?

If your vision is a good one, the selling should become easy. If you’re able to sell the customer on the long-term vision, then your confidence has already grown to bring that vision to your company and sell it to employees.

It goes from understanding customer needs and developing a vision, expressing the vision, selling it to the customer, bringing the vision into the company, explaining and deriving an operating plan of the vision, selling that plan to employees, and then showing how they benefit from executing the plan.

Make sure your employees understand your customers today as well as how your customers will be in the future. It’s your job to bring the customers’ needs through your vision to the tables, desks and minds of your people so they can execute on it.

Q. How do you get employees to understand customers’ needs and the vision?

Start with customer feedback. Put it on the board and explain the motivations behind the interactions the customer is sharing. Present the vision and how that takes care of the motivations that are generating the interaction.

The vision gives them a framework, which empowers them to make a lot of decisions independently. That reduces management oversight and overhead costs.

Q. What if an employee does not understand the vision?

Understand the motivation of the employee. There could be a communication problem, or this employee’s motivation may be different.

There is no better way than one-on-one interaction. Put the truth on the table, share what you’re seeing and ask them to reconcile why what they’re doing is deviating from your expectations. If there are some hurdles, that gives a task list of what to focus on to remove those.

If there’s no hurdles — they’re just not motivated — you better question why. It may be true that you have the wrong employee for the company, vision, job or task, and it may require you to make a change.

Q. What is the benefit of having a successful vision?

Getting there is simpler. If you’re able to see where you’re going, you’ll take the shortest path to it. That’s the lowest cost, most efficient way of getting where you are today to some point in the future, and that can be your little competitive edge.

If you continue to do a good job, over time, your resource base continues to grow and your leverage continues to build. If you can execute it well, layer by layer, year by year, you keep going from strength to strength.

HOW TO REACH:, (412) 687-1316 or

Friday, 25 April 2008 20:00

The right signs

Craig Hurlbert says great leaders inspire employees to believe in their vision and be passionate about their jobs.

But while the ability to do so is the mark of a great leader, the co-owner and CEO of Turbine Air Systems Ltd. says you shouldn’t overestimate your importance to your business. Instead, by putting the focus on your employees, they, in turn, will help your company succeed and make you a better leader.

Hurlbert has focused on his 200 employees by building relationships, establishing an open and honest culture, and developing a set of values for them to live by at the provider of turbine inlet cooling solutions for the energy industry, which posted a 20 percent increase in revenue from 2004 to 2007.

Smart Business spoke with Hurlbert about how to hire the right people to help you grow your company and how to establish the relationships, culture and values to help them succeed.

Find the right people. Spend time with them and find out if their passion is across the board or unique to their work. Do they have the intellect to do what you need them to do? Do they have a passion for life to put behind the intellect to inspire others to make it happen? Do they have the character and integrity to make it happen in line with your values?

History is a good predictor of the future. If they’ve gone about with passion and you talk to people who’ve been around them and ask, ‘How did they do this?’ you can tell whether or not that person has the energy level you’re looking for.

You do your best to pick, and you get better over time. References can help, but, at the end of the day, it has to be your call. You’ve got to believe in this person and let them know you believe in them.

Believe in and trust your employees. Believe that you have confidence in this person, and when you communicate it, it will come across that way. When you’re hiring an individual, look at them and say, ‘I know you’re the right person for the job; I’m excited that you’re in this position. I support you 150 percent, and I will be there when you hit the tough patches along the way.’

It’s one thing to say that, but it’s another thing to actually do that. At every single turn, be there for them. Don’t let them come to you and whine and whimper with every issue they have, but let them know you’re there to help them.

There’s no quick fix. It takes time to build that trust; that’s not something that happens overnight. If your actions are consistent, caring and in line with your values, then trust is a natural byproduct. People sometimes try to build that trust too quickly and expect that because you’re in a position of leadership, they’ve earned it. Earn that trust through consistent actions over time, and once you’ve been there and done the right things, then the trust is there.

If it doesn’t come, you know that you’ve done everything you can to develop it, and maybe that relationship is not meant to be.

You have a much higher probability of the business succeeding and behaving in line with the corporate values. You have dedicated people who aren’t afraid to hide problems. It’s more fun to work enjoy being around; you just enjoy it a lot more.

Create an honest and open culture. It starts with an expectation that you’re going to have an open culture and that dissenting views are welcome. Make sure it’s there. It starts at the top, and you need to drive that through all levels. Have consistent dialogue with team members in different forms, such as meetings and newsletters.

It helps coordinate the whole business together to achieve a great result for the customer.

If you have people who are playing to one sheet of music and another group playing to another sheet, the probability of a good end result is diminished. But now everybody knows where you’re going and understands the values and how you’re going to get there.

Live your values. Sit down and go through them. Here is what we believe is important to the business, beyond strategy and people, this is how everybody is going to behave from the top down.

That exercise is great; however, that doesn’t set the values. You have to systematically live those values at the top every single day, and if you don’t, the company will never achieve them.

Commit yourself. Pick things that you’re willing to live up to. If you live those values over time, then the culture emerges around those values. Take a stand when those issues come up.

Set the expectation from the beginning that this is the way you’re going to behave. People will hold others accountable to the values if you have a culture where the values are important. If you’re not living the values, you’re making a mistake.

Do some soul-searching and ask why you don’t believe in these values. Maybe you don’t believe in them, and if that’s the case, you need to do the first step over again. You have to believe in it yourself, and if you can’t, then it’s going to be impossible to drive them through the organization.

It defines and gives the business a language to speak from and something that you can hold on to.

HOW TO REACH: Turbine Air Systems Ltd., (713) 877-8700 or

Wednesday, 26 March 2008 20:00

A unified team

Bob Dagostino says it’s important to let employees know you care. And while that may be hard to do in a growing company, he says it’s important to take the time to get to know people.

The founder and president of Dagostino Electronic Services Inc. also tries to instill the values of love, dignity and respect in his 85 employees. Many may be afraid to use those words in the workplace, but spreading those values creates a team that is proud of its work and of the company for which it works.

“If everyone treats everybody like that, the world gets a lot easier to work in,” Dagostino says.

These values have helped Dagostino grow his company — which designs, sells, installs and maintains communications systems for voice, data and video networks — to 2006 revenue of $20 million.

Smart Business spoke with Dagostino about how to align values and vision among employees and how to become a better listener.

Q. How do you make sure employees are living your company’s values?

If you don’t talk about it, it’s not going to happen. Talk about it and have an open discussion of what these values mean to you. When people step over boundaries, get them to accept that this is the way you wish to be treated. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

If anyone is not making decisions or interacting with anyone in a way that does not live up to these values, then they shouldn’t be part of the organization.

Q. How do you let employees know you care?

Know your people. If you’re trying to reward someone, something that you enjoy to do after hours might not be the same that the employee enjoys. If I give them a ticket to a baseball game, yet they don’t like baseball, what are they going to get out of it? You’ve got to know what they do and enjoy, and try to align with that.

Talk to and communicate with them. Work closely with them and care about the things that are on their mind, not only with work but their personal life. It’s not to be probing but to get a sense of wellness.

Q. How do you make sure you’re hearing what people are saying?

It starts off with patience. Have meetings with key personnel on a regular basis and have nothing disrupt those meetings. Plan an agenda so that key topics are addressed. Those meetings are your opportunity to communicate with management to make sure you look at the issues, plan and solve the problems together.

Q. What are the benefits of being a good listener?

You are able to learn when you listen. You learn the needs of customers and management. If you don’t know a problem, you can’t solve it.

To be a good listener, you’re able to hear the problems that others are challenged with and try to take the proper action to resolve those hurdles.

Q. How do you craft a strong vision for your company?

It’s a simple message that everyone can remember. Not something that’s hanging on a wall that you try to impress someone with, but just a simple statement, a vision that everybody knows and can remember. ...

It boils down to communication. Sit with the stakeholders who will be involved in that vision; try to paint the big picture and exchange ideas.

Every vision breaks down into tasks to accomplish it. Every task needs to be assigned to someone and measured, and then you need a maestro on top who’s orchestrating the whole thing.

When the vision comes together, every stakeholder has a strong sense of involvement and accomplishment.

Q. How do you determine the core values of your employees?

Core value alignment. Don’t tell them your core values, but ask probing questions that will get them to talk about things that they’ve experienced. Ask them about a situation in their business experience that challenged their integrity, and get them to talk about it.

You will be able to determine their core values based upon questions you ask them. If you told someone, ‘Here are the three core values of our company;does that align with you?’ they’d be crazy not to nod their head and say yes.

Q. How do you make sure employees are aligned with your vision and that you are living it each day?

By their actions. Just look at their actions and ask yourself, ‘Does this truly align with the vision that we have here, and is it going to be healthy for the company?’

Execute what you’re preaching. Get feedback from others, unsolicited feedback as to what others see as your core values and what you’re thought of as a leader. Separate the person from the issue, and don’t attack the individual giving you feedback.

HOW TO REACH: Dagostino Electronic Services Inc., (800) 864-4166, (412) 306-7307 or

Wednesday, 26 March 2008 20:00

Storopack reaches new levels of success

John Mellott once bought a company on a handshake.

There was no signed contract or phalanx of lawyers, just two

men and a lot of trust. Mellott and the owner set a price parameter, and the seller trusted Mellott enough to sell him his business

and close up shop before the paperwork was finalized.

“He said that in his 40 years of business, he had not dealt with

anybody he would have that kind of trust in,” Mellott says.

Trust, integrity and passion have been the cornerstones of

Mellott’s long career.

He’s also been told he is hard to keep up with, and even though

he is set to retire as president and CEO of Storopack Inc. in

September, he still has a passion and energy for the packaging

materials industry.

In 1978, Mellott founded the U.S. headquarters of Storopack, a

member of Storopack Group, the world’s largest manufacturer,

converter and recycler of expandable polystyrene packaging

materials, and has spent much of his life building the business

during the last 30 years.

Mellott took the company from one employee to 300, from one

location to 17 locations nationwide and from no sales to 2006 sales

of $130 million.

Here’s how Mellott has conquered the challenges of growth to

lead Storopack to new levels of success.

Build for the future

Mellott says building a business requires preparation and staying


“Set down your objectives and keep a focus,” Mellott says. “It is

easy to lose your focus as you start down the path. Figure out what

is the service you’re trying to provide and focus on being the best

you can, as opposed to trying to serve all masters or build the company too broad.”

Keep your focus by communicating your goals to everyone.

“We communicated it with our vendors and, in some cases, our

customers and, most importantly, our staff,” Mellott says. “They

knew our focus and could make input to modify that focus. They

were part of developing it.”

A business plan not only needs to be focused but flexible, as

changes will come up along the way.

“You need to plan but don’t overthink it,” Mellott says. “Don’t try

to write an absolutely perfect plan because you can’t. Tomorrow

morning something’s going to be different.

“Sometimes it’s easy to look straight down the road, but you’ve

got to look around corners. It’s the, ‘What if? What if that doesn’t

work? What if you have overlooked something?’ Have the ability

to be flexible and adjust your game plan. A plan is like a road map,

but it’s not a bible. You don’t exist to fulfill the plan; the plan exists

to guide you as you go down the road.”

He says to look at what your customers are doing and to stay on

top of your industry to make sure you are not passing opportunities up.

“Don’t get so bound up that you have blinders on, but keep your

eyes open as to what’s going on,” Mellott says. “Look outside the

box, but focus inside the box because that’s where the business is.

It’s OK to be thinking outside the box, but, at the end of the day,

you better focus back inside because that’s what you do.”

A solid business plan not only keeps your goals in focus, but it

also gets everyone working as a team.

“Everybody is working for a common objective, and it promotes

not only camaraderie but helps build synergy within the company,”

Mellott says. “People understand that this is the focus and this is

how my job fits into the accomplishment of that and why I am

important in meeting those objectives.”

Staying focused also allowed Mellott to develop close relationships with everyone in his industry, including competitors. Much

of Storopack’s growth came through a series of 28 acquisitions,

most of which came from those relationships.

“We made a practice out of having a dialogue with those people

with whom we competed, so as they matured and decided to step

back from the business, we wanted to be their first phone call,” he


“We had always been careful about our integrity, so they understood that we were like them, we were in business to serve an

industry but that we wanted to do it in an ethical and fair manner.

That allowed us, when they were ready for sale, to sit down, talk

and negotiate a sale as opposed to them being afraid to talk to us.”

Mellott says the road isn’t easy, and you will fail at times, but it’s

important to learn from those failures and not let them hold you


“You have to focus forward and use the past as an example of

what does or does not work, but don’t dwell on it,” he says.

Mellott says start at the top, and if you focus forward instead of

backward, employees will do the same.

“Everybody makes a mistake once in awhile, but your approach

to that will help build the concept of looking forward not back,” he

says. “Tell them, ‘OK, you made a mistake, but that’s behind us; let’s

not do again. Let’s keep going.’ If you keep bringing that mistake

up, you get people focused over their shoulder. They’re looking in

the rearview mirror rather than forward.”

Hire the right employee

Successful growth comes not only from having a good plan in

place but also hiring the right people and putting them in the right


“That’s what makes the company progress; that’s how the company grows,” Mellott says. “You can have outstanding people, but

if you have them in the wrong job, they’re not happy and not contributing to the company.”

Storopack used an industrial psychologist to develop a profile of

the top 20 employees in the company and the characteristics it

wanted in future employees. Mellott looks for people who are

extroverts and are not afraid to share responsibility and credit

once a goal is accomplished. Potential employees are also interviewed by several different people so the person is exposed to the

company as much as possible.

Using this kind of hiring practice helps you get quality employees

who are right for your company.

“It’s expensive to hire and train people, and then have them

leave,” Mellott says. “We want to do the best we can to hire people who fit the company and are going to be happy here. You’re

not wasting resources training people who are only going to be

with you for a short period of time.”

After hiring, you can find out if the person is in the right position

through his or her attitude and job performance.

“When a person comes in every morning with a smile on their

face and they’re excited about getting to work, there’s a good

chance they like what they’re doing,” Mellott says. “Some people

come in with a sour look, and they may do a good job, but they’re

not excited or happy about what they’re doing.”

If the person is not in the right position, find out what would be

the right position for him or her.

“It’s not unusual that an employee doesn’t truly understand what he

likes to do,” Mellott says. “They aspire to do what they think is best for

them financially, or whatever, rather than what they like to do. Help

them through testing and feedback and tell them, ‘Here are the things

you do well and are comfortable doing.’ Then they understand their

strengths and weaknesses and likes and dislikes.”

When you have the right people in place, you know to whom

to delegate. With 17 plants scattered across the country, delegation has been a key to Storopack’s success.

Mellott says to monitor employees to make sure you picked the

right person for the task.

“If you picked the wrong person, you need to be ready to step

in and take care of that but not too quick,” he says. “It’s not wrong

for somebody to fail, as long as they don’t continue to do it and

make the same mistake. When you delegate, you will always

have some failures, but catch those failures early and help the

employee correct it.”

Have confidence in yourself and your employees so you

know the task you delegate will get accomplished. Mellott says

you find out your strengths by living up to the same standards

you set for employees.

“You know your thought process and if you made the best

result,” he says. “We are our own best critics if we’re honest

with ourselves. We know when we did something we could

have done better.”

Mellott says it’s important to be thickskinned and not to be

afraid to seek feedback from others when something has gone


“Invite the feedback of the people who work for you,” he

says. “The more honest atmosphere you create with them, the

more they will come to you with honest feedback. You’re not

looking for people who will come back and tell you, ‘That was

perfect,’ but tell exactly what they observed and what could I

have done better. Don’t be afraid to be criticized, as long as it’s


Lead by example

Mellott says setting a good example helps create employees who

are successful and excited about coming to work.

“That enthusiasm spreads, it’s obvious to your suppliers and

customers, and it helps a company grow,” he says. “Most people

like to work with somebody who’s excited. They want to associate with people who are positive and excited about what they’re


Mellott lets his passion and energy come through during meetings with employees, and then watches to see how employees

spread that enthusiasm throughout the company.

“Don’t preach it, don’t tell them to do it, but watch what they do,”

he says. “Watch the enthusiasm and energy with which they

approach things. It doesn’t mean that somebody has to work 20

hours a day, but when they work, they approach it with vigor and

an enthusiasm that spreads.”

The way you act influences how employees act and how they

view your commitment to the company.

“If you have a boss who’s enthusiastic and talks and acts that

way, it sparks that within you,” Mellott says. “If you have a boss

who’s always down, it sparks that within you, too.”

Integrity is another key quality that Mellott has emphasized

throughout the company. He says integrity is being honest with your

employees and customers and doing what you say you’re going to


“Employees will follow,” he says. “If you’re telling them to lie to

a customer or a vendor, it becomes a part of their thinking. Build

with your employees the integrity in saying, ‘Look, we made that

mistake; let’s get it corrected, but let’s not be afraid to tell them we

made a mistake.’ Rather than trying to fix responsibility for the last

happening, you’re trying to prevent the same activity from happening in the future.”

Mellott says being upfront with customers not only sets a good

example for employees but also builds loyalty with customers.

In a large and growing organization, it’s hard to get to know every

employee. But Mellott says it’s important for employees to know

you care about them, even if it’s just in small gestures.

“When you’re in front of employees, walk around and introduce

yourself,” he says. “Walk up and ask them, ‘How are you doing?

How’s this or that?’ Or just say hi. But communicate, say hello, be

friendly. With a smile on your face, greet them and say thank you.”

Although Mellott is preparing for his retirement, Storopack will

continue to grow because of the foundation he has put in place

through a forward-thinking business plan, the right employees and

a good example he has set for them. Mellott says you can be a successful leader by having integrity, staying focused and being willing to make mistakes.

“Leaders who make mistakes stand up and say, ‘We made a mistake. What can we learn from it? Let’s go,’ as opposed to dwelling

on it.”

HOW TO REACH: Storopack Inc., (513) 874-0314 or

Sunday, 24 February 2008 19:00

Listen up

Walter C. Greig is a collaborative leader who has created an open atmosphere at ESI Inc., where his 400 employees can interact with each other on ideas and projects. The president and CEO of the industrial product engineering, design and manufacturing company gets involved in that process, as well, and likes to sit down with employees, listen to them and get as much input as he can before making a decision.

The collaborative environment at ESI, which has two divisions — Enduro Systems in Houston and Intersystems in Omaha, Neb. — has helped the company grow revenue 27 percent during the past three years.

Smart Business spoke with Greig about how to use trust and honesty to build a collaborative environment.

Put the right team in place. We look for honesty and creativity. Find people who are creative and have the courage to voice their opinion, who are not so overtly shy that they won’t tell how much value they have to offer to the organization.

Have people who can honestly state their opinion and be honest, whether it’s about a success or a failure.

I listen in an interview and have people tell me about themselves and their families. Their resume is what they’ve done, and that’s either right or not and can be checked. If somebody tells you about their family, it tells you about them and what’s important to them.

Bite your tongue and listen. It’s hard to listen. It’s the sitting on your hands kind of stuff.

It’s posing a question and having this interesting combination of patience and the courtesy to let somebody either succinctly answer a question or walk themselves into a corner they can’t get out of because they’ve confused themselves through the process.

When you’re busy, the easiest thing to do is assume that everybody has properly understood you when you first make your mad dash through the office. There’s a reluctance on the part of groups to ask questions. You stand there and say, ‘Does everybody understand what it is that I’m saying?’

Even if they don’t, nobody’s going to say anything because they probably want to get out of the meeting as fast as they can or don’t want to look silly, unintelligent or think they’re wasting your time.

Recognize that, that exists. Try and have as many small, one-on-one or small group discussions as you possibly can. We have our general communications meeting every quarter, where we tell everybody what’s going on. We encourage teams to get together with one of our managers, sit down, and try and make sure that they understand what’s going on.

In a smaller group, pose the question and then listen. Listen to the questions, what the concerns might be, and then address them at that level.

It’s hard because it demands time, and that’s always one of our worst enemies. If it’s important to you and the health, integrity and culture of the organization, you have to take the time to understand what the people are telling you.

Build trusting relationships. You can only get people to trust you by being honest. Communicate what you’re going to do and do it.

There’s no way you can walk through a plant or an office and say, ‘You people have to trust me because I’m not going to lie to you.’ They want to believe that, but they’re only going to believe it when they see it in action.

It’s like in a family. You can’t do anything if you don’t trust the people around you, and you have to have them trust you.

You have to spend all of your time ensuring that whatever it is you tell people you’re going to do, you’re going to do it. It’s like in relationships — 100 things done right are quickly forgotten when you do one thing wrong.

You can tell your employees 100 times over you’re going to do something and do it, but the one time that something is important to that individual — somebody was going to have Saturday off and you tell them no — that event has spectacular ripple effects, not only throughout the organization but throughout that person’s family life.

Build a vision from values. A vision has to be something that you believe in. You can’t say, ‘I need to create a vision, so I’m going to buy some books and read what Donald Trump says. He had a cool vision, so I’ll adopt it.’ You can’t do that.

It’s the hard part of sitting back in a quiet room and reflecting on what it is that you’re doing. What are you trying to accomplish in your business? Hopefully, it’s not just to make money because that’s the upside-down version of why you should be running a business.

In order to share that vision with people, you have to communicate what you think is worthwhile. If you don’t honestly believe this stuff yourself, then you’re not going to be able to passionately communicate it to anybody. If you believe in your business, when things are going absolutely 180 degrees the opposite way that you thought they ought to be going, you have a belief in your business model and that your business has a reason to exist.

You’re going to persevere and keep pushing yourself and your employees ahead.

HOW TO REACH: ESI Inc., (713) 358-4000,

Sunday, 24 February 2008 19:00

Business 101

Zinner & Co. LLP had been facing a staffing crunch for several years, and Robin Baum knew it was time to do something about it.

“One of our senior managers came to us and said we needed to implement a formal training course to bring employees up as quickly as we could,” says Baum, managing partner at the accounting, tax and wealth management consulting firm.

Changes in the accounting field, such as new education requirements and the implementation of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, were making it increasingly difficult to recruit employees. So the company created “Zinner University” to grow its own employees up through the ranks.

“A training program makes people feel like they are valuable members of the company,” Baum says.

To develop the training program, Baum solicited feedback from managers as to what to include and gathered information from exit interviews with former employees and feedback from recent hires.

“They can look back and say, ‘If you had spent more time with me on this process, I would have been able to be more effective,’” Baum says.

That information was then used to create a program that covered areas including learning the Zinner culture and acquiring technical skills and expertise in various areas, then putting academic knowledge into practice.

“If you do a concentrated amount of training and do not follow up with the ability to apply what you learned, someone retains only what they can apply and continue to use,” Baum says. “We were originally going to spend two weeks and teach them everything but found that they only retained what they put to use within the month after training. We’ve broken it into more manageable segments so that prior to getting client assignments, we make sure that element of training is complete. You have a better retention rate by doing so.”

And throughout the process, Baum keeps everyone involved.

“We do a monthly staff meeting and talk about the program,” Baum says. “A lot of times, if people feel they’re not being included in something they should be, it can cause a breakdown in communication.”

The results of Zinner University have benefited the company in more ways than one. In addition to training employees capable of moving up the ladder, it turns trainees into trainers who can move the program forward.

“It eases the burden that one person isn’t accountable for training within that area,” Baum says. “It also gives people a level of participation and recognition that they are somebody other people go to for information. It’s engaging for not only those who are training but the participants because in a short period of time, they can become the trainer.”

Baum says for a training program to succeed, you have to be committed to investing the time, effort and resources it takes to make it an ongoing venture.

“Recognize that a training program is not close-ended, it is something that should continue and be part of the culture,” she says. “Getting people engaged and enthused is the key to making a program part of your culture. Enthusiasm is contagious, and the more people that you have invested in the program, the greater the success factor

A leader’s role in corporate training

When you establish a corporate training program, it’s important that you support it, says Don Zinner, a partner at Zinner & Co. LLP.

“We support the people in charge, make sure they are doing what they set out to do and follow up on that,” Zinner says. “We set the tone for the program. If we don’t set the tone or support it, it’s doomed for failure.”

Support a training program by getting involved, communicating and getting feedback from those involved to see what the positives and negatives are.

“It’s one-on-one conversations with people going through the program and making sure we are getting the commitment from them, and then the people who are doing the teaching,” Zinner says. “Make sure the program is ingrained into the company culture and find out if there are any problems with it.”

Zinner says it’s important to keep tabs on the goals of the training program, so that you are reaching these within a certain time frame and that you are staying on track.

“Getting feedback is important — from the supervisors and employees,” he says. “Make sure there is continued communication and commitment to the goals.”

HOW TO REACH: Zinner & Co. LLP, (216) 831-0733 or

Sunday, 24 February 2008 19:00

Effective communication

Daily communication among employees can come in many forms, but more executives prefer e-mail over other communication methods.

A recent survey conducted by OfficeTeam showed that 65 percent of 150 executives surveyed preferred e-mail communication over other forms. This compares to 34 percent of executives who preferred e-mail in a similar survey conducted in 1997.

The survey also showed that 31 percent of executives prefer face-to-face meetings, while 3 percent prefer paper memos and 1 percent prefer voice mail.

“Benefits of electronic communication are the immediacy and historical context it provides, including the ability to maintain a record of conversations and obtain project updates from co-workers and business colleagues,” says Diane Domeyer, executive director of OfficeTeam, a staffing service specializing in the placement of administrative professionals.

E-mail may be preferred, but executives receive an overwhelming amount of e-mail each day, so it’s easy for messages to get overlooked. OfficeTeam offers these five tips to avoid having your message lost in the shuffle.

  • Make it clear. State your purpose upfront and follow it with details, so important points will show up in the recipient’s e-mail viewing pane.

  • Avoid copying everyone. Only forward messages to those directly involved with the topic, and don’t hit “reply all” if others don’t need to read your response.

  • Keep it brief. Don’t expect others to read a long message or e-mail chain. If the background information is important, forward it, but provide a brief summary rather than saying “see below.”

  • Don’t cry wolf. Only mark a message urgent when it is truly critical that it be read immediately.

  • Provide context. Describe the e-mail contents in the subject line so the recipient can prioritize messages and search for your note in the future. When appropriate, include the required action and deadline.

Domeyer also says that face-to face-communication or a phone call can help accomplish tasks more quickly.

“When people find themselves spending time searching for precisely the right words, it’s often a sign that the topic warrants an in-person discussion,” she says. <<

HOW TO REACH: OfficeTeam, (800) 804-8367 or

Tuesday, 29 January 2008 19:00

One of the team

Brian Margarita has created a work atmosphere that feels like home and has made his 70 employees at TalentFuse Inc. feel like part of a family. But while employees do have fun, there’s also serious business taking place at the information technology staffing firm. When Margarita, who serves as president, founded the company in 2001, he made the mistake of growing the culture first and didn’t pay enough attention to the work. But through constant performance monitoring, employees now understand that work-life balance and fun have helped the firm reach 2006 revenue of $6.6 million.

Smart Business spoke with Margarita about how to find and maintain the balance between having fun and reaching your goals.

Q. How do you maintain a work-life balance within your company?

Measuring the key performance indicators and keeping an eye on the statistics of the business; we make sure everyone grades themselves on a weekly report card, so everyone knows how they are doing.

Give consistent feedback. It’s not just negative feedback, it’s positive, as well. Have lots of incentives. Keep people on track of the minimum standards for a weekly basis.

Q. How does this benefit employees?

Human beings like consistency, so let them know they can come to work and it’s fun and safe. If work feels like an atmosphere that is predictable and you know what you can do good to get rewarded, it’s a safe place to be. It makes the employee in control of their own destiny.

Q. How do you make sure employees are keeping on task in a fun environment?

Track key performance indicators on a weekly basis. You have a fun and open environment, but you know you’re going to be turning a report in at the end of the week.

Be consistent. Goals that aren’t measured are just dreams. When you stop being consistent and looking at people’s goals, it stops.

Human beings need a positive and negative consequence for all behavior. It’s like renting a movie. If there was no late fee, you would have 100 movies in your house.

There needs to be something good or bad that happens from everything that people do. Look at what people are doing; otherwise, they just get sucked into the fun environment.

Q. How do you make sure you remain consistent?

When things aren’t going well, it’s easy to be consistent and get them back on track. But it’s hard to maintain consistency when things are going great, and you need to constantly remind people for their numbers and actions.

If you have a couple of great months in a row, you automatically assume you’re going to have another great month, but the opposite happens because people tend to back off a bit.

If you don’t have a peer or executive team to go to, give written goals to a friend who is a business owner, just things you are going to get done, and hold each other consistent to these. Once a week, share two or three things, then talk at the end of the week and ask, ‘Did you do X, Y and Z?’ It’s another level of accountability to have.

Q. How do you communicate culture to employees?

During the interview, we tell people they’re going to be able to ask every single question they possibly can because we want to find out now if we’re the right fit for you and if you’re the right fit for us, not two months from now.

There is no right or wrong answer, but you’re trying to determine if they’ll fit in to the culture.

You get to know who you’re hiring, and you can bring the risk down. It’s a big shock if you have that fun and open culture, so when you bring somebody in that everyone loves, and then two months later, they don’t work out, people forget that the person didn’t work out for the numbers, they just feel like they’ve lost a friend.

Q. How do you model culture?

Spend time with your people. You can’t instruct the culture unless you are part of it. You have to go to the user meetings with people, the networking events, the trade shows, the lunches with your staff or on sales calls with your staff. You have to make yourself a part of the culture and constantly be reminding people what the culture is and how you do things.

Be involved in the company. Put yourself on the floor with people so they see you as a peer. You have to maintain a level of respect, but the idea that respect is going to be earned from a boardroom or an office 10 or 1,000 miles away doesn’t work anymore. People want to see you lead by example, so you have to be personally involved with them. People aren’t coming to work anymore to get a paycheck and a gold watch.

HOW TO REACH: TalentFuse Inc., (858) 456-0060 or