Dennis Seeds

When Dave Moroknek first started nine years ago as president of MainGate Inc., the event retail and merchandising company had one customer, and that company accounted for 80 percent of its revenue.

Moroknek knew putting most of your eggs in one basket wasn’t a safe thing to do. Not only could that practice punch holes in MainGate’s business success, it could deliver a knockout blow if the main customer left or went broke.

This was Moroknek’s chance to diversify MainGate. Before joining the company, he was senior director of marketing and consumer products for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He had also worked for the National Basketball Association where he increased licensed children’s products from 2 to 10 percent of the overall NBA licensed products business. And he had begun his career in the marketing department of the New Jersey Nets basketball organization.

Moroknek, thus, was no stranger to exploiting a niche.

“Since then, we’ve gone on a major diversification program, so when we look to grow, we look to see what area might be lacking a little between our e-commerce business, our event business and our wholesale business,” he says. “We want to make sure each of those represents about 33 percent of our revenue. We utilize that when we are sitting in there and discussing, ‘OK, who are we going to pursue? What area of business?’

“That’s not to say other opportunities may not pop up during those times that are still a good fit,” says Moroknek, who a year later also became CEO. “But when we sit there and strategically plan where our next million dollars of revenue could come from, we try to see which one of those areas needs a little more of a boost to maintain that diversification.”

But while that may sound a simple thing to do, there is much to do to accomplish it. The road takes you through discipline in your choices, company culture, technology advances and leadership development.

Here’s how Moroknek takes advantage of his company’s niche and builds success to the tune of $56 million in annual revenue.

Find what fits best

In finding an opportunity to grow and diversify, probably the most important strategy is having the ability and determination to say no when it’s not the right opportunity. The temptation to add to your revenue may be hard to resist. But in doing so, you may be fragmenting your business when you want a strong, united presence instead.

“You could add to your top line by diversifying but it has to be core to what you are doing,” Moroknek says. “Having the discipline to understand where you want to be and stay on that path while you are in the growth mode is one of the most important things you can do. It’s just so important to stay on that strategic mission as you are going through that growth phase.”

Discipline is not a case of being born with it or not; it’s something you can learn.

“I think you can honestly learn it like anything else in business,” he says. “You learn from your mistakes. If it sounds good, you take it on until you see it’s pulling people in the wrong direction and it’s being counterproductive to that vision you have of where you want to be.

“After a couple of those miscues, you learn discipline, and you realize it’s OK to say no because the one thing you learned in business is that opportunities are bountiful. They are not limited.”

You don’t have to grab on to every opportunity that comes your way. There will be others.

“You have to make sure the business is right, the partner is right and it’s going to be a good long-term program for you and the company you are partnering with because it has to be great for both parties,” Moroknek says. “It’s unfortunate that discipline is often learned after a couple of mistakes.”

The road to discipline has to go through mistakes, but when these are chalked up as learning experiences, they take on a new light. Making good growth decisions comes easier with experience.

“A lot of it is intuition, however,” he says. “When you sit in a presentation or you meet folks and talk to some of those business partners, I think you get a good feel if your companies can work well together.”

When you work with a company that is one of your customers, it is in close partnership, so your visions are aligned in terms of what is the common goal for both entities.

“If those aren’t aligned, I think both companies are better off walking away and finding someone who is a better fit for them philosophically,” Moroknek says.

“You have to find that common goal, that common mission. If it’s not syncing up, again, there is plenty of business out there. Find the one that’s right for your company.”

When reviewing potential partners, don’t throw away all your work; it might be of use down the road.

“There have absolutely been those times when we said, ‘You know what? We like where you guys are headed, but right now, the timing is not good for us; either you’re not fully developed in your brand or we just took on another really major big brand, and we don’t want to bring you on and make you feel like you’re not our most important customer,’” Moroknek says.

“So don’t do something that’s going to hurt what you’ve already developed by not giving the customer the service you’ve come to be known to offer.

“You learn from mistakes like those; sometimes saying no is going to grow your company faster than saying yes.”

Stay on top in your niche

Once your company has become a leader in your niche, that edge can be easily lost. Knowing your niche and remembering the core principle that brings you sales are important for success.

“We impress upon our associates that we can never lose sight that we don’t sell anything anybody needs,” Moroknek says. “So we better make sure they want it.

“If you look at the businesses we’re in — for the most part, the entertainment and sports industry — these people are choosing to spend their disposable time going to a sporting event, shopping for that item online or spending their weekends or nights with us. We need to be part of that entertainment package, and we need to make sure they’re having fun and that we can get them to spend their hard-earned money on something that, again, they don’t need.

“You have to make it look good. You have to make it seem like a fair value, and you have to make them have fun while they are shopping with you.”

Fun on the job doesn’t happen spontaneously. It appears that way, but it takes a commitment to happen.

“We have a whole program that is instilled from the day you walk in here called TCE, total customer experience,” he says. “It deals with everything the customers see, feel and touch during their entire interaction. If you’re a fan going to a football game, we might get 10 minutes with you while you are shopping in one of our stores — but we make sure our employees have fun facts they can share with the masses shopping.”

Most everyone likes to know some interesting trivia. Those little bits of knowledge that are footnotes in sports and entertainment can be like gold.

“Like, ‘Hey! This is the hat that Andrew Luck is going to wear this year,’” Moroknek says. “Or, ‘Hey! Did you see that this is the shirt that Reggie Wayne wore at the press conference?’”

So how do you get them to spend and still walk out with a smile on their face?

“It’s everything from the music that’s playing to the clean atmosphere to the friendly nature of your customer service people,” he says. “You want to be helpful; you don’t want to be overbearing. Customer service is where the core values of your company are on stage. Show them you offer the best customer service in the industry.”

Word of mouth is by far the best marketing tool you have, and your goal is to maximize that to its fullest. Take, for example, phone orders.

“You can even hear somebody smile on the other end of the phone. You know when they are in a good mood or not in a good mood,” he says.

Another key to staying on top of your niche is investing in technology. In today’s economy, not investing in technology can bring about serious setbacks.

“We’re investing a lot of money in not only technology for our e-commerce system, which is the fastest growing part of our business, but for how we transact sales faster inside a stadium, how we do things better on mobile applications, how we take orders on tablets and iPhones — all the things that continue to change in the world have a very strong application to our business,” Moroknek says.

“You need to have a very strong technology group, a very strong e-commerce group that’s challenged every day to find out what is the next thing and make sure you are ahead of the curve and not behind it,” he says.

Develop your leaders of tomorrow

If you are a niche business, it’s not like you can go to any street corner and find a great candidate to be one of your managers. You’re looking for specialized skills. A better source is to look internally, find the talent and develop its leadership qualities.

“Part of your business strategy and planning is to make sure you have succession and growth plans where your people can step up,” Moroknek says.

“One of the great things about our base of 242 employees is we are constantly filling leadership positions, showing them growth as we grow, and that they have a chance to step up. We spend a great deal of time with our middle management team, training and developing them so when a new piece of business comes on board, they are really ready and trained to step up to that management role.”

One of the more effective methods is to choose a select group of middle managers and train them in all areas of the company so that they will get a comprehensive background.

“We have a corporate trainer who handles the majority of the training, but then we have special disciplines,” he says. “There’s a person appointed in each area of expertise to assist those individuals and help them grow into the roles and have the experience we want them to have to be well-rounded managers.”

It’s the role of the executive leadership to make sure the managers are on the same page.

“We are very hands-on with our directors and meet with them on a weekly basis not only from an operational standpoint but also as to how are they fitting in, what challenges are they seeing,” he says. “We really try to create a mentoring and coaching program for those business leaders.”

One caveat, however, your managers may feel they are being overwhelmed by such a comprehensive training program.

“What you have to do is instill a culture that makes them feel their work right now will pay off in the long run and that they are getting more opportunities to do more things early in their career than they would have with most companies because you are growing so rapidly,” Moroknek says.

“You see the cream rise to the top in a lot of those situations. It’s easy to pick out who are your future leaders. You have to be very cognizant of not making it an unreasonable workload. The thing I was always taught was that you always tend to rely on the people who you think of as stars and you wind up letting the non-stars get away with more. So you have to make sure everybody is an equal playing field and feels just as important.”

What may be the toughest challenge to leveling the playing field as you are growing is to enlist your managers as agents of change.

“You’ve got to be flexible and teach your people not to be afraid of change,” he says. “So many people are afraid of change, and growth is scary because it is ever-changing and evolving. Adapting to a culture that change is good, that we are going to make mistakes but we are going to learn from them along the way, being flexible, making the best decisions possible and sticking to your long-term strategy of knowing where you want to be – that’s how things are going to turn out OK. So, absolutely, not only do you not want them to be afraid of change, you want your people to be change agents.”

How to reach: MainGate Inc., (317) 243-2000 or

The Moroknek File

Dave Moroknek

President and CEO

MainGate Inc.

Born: Suffern, N.Y. It’s in Rockland County about 30 miles from the George Washington Bridge.

Education: Undergraduate degree from Hartwick College, Oneonta, N.Y., and I actually wound up going to graduate school at Indiana University. I studied business administration, and received an MBA in sports marketing from IU.

What was your first job?

I remember it well. I had a shoe-shining business. I used to go door-to-door with my shoe-shining kit, and then I would set up shop outside the Thrift Drug Store and shine shoes for people who were coming out of the store. I charged $1. It absolutely was the beginnings of being an entrepreneur, understanding the customer and just going after business.

Who do you admire in business?

There are a lot of people I admire. I think the person I tried to learn the most from was my father, Stan Moroknek. He owned the Thrift Drug Store. It was kind of a neighborhood pharmacy for all the years when I grew up. He taught me many lessons, but two were most valuable: the first one was just to work hard. The hours that he put in were incredible, running his own business, his own pharmacy. Along with that was customer service. My dad knew 80 percent of the people who came into his store. He knew their spouses, their kids. He knew what medications they were on. But the thing that really stands out to me, this was before the day of the 24-hour pharmacy, is at least once a week, my dad would get a call at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning — some family had just left the hospital and their kid needed a cough medicine or something. My father would open the store and get that family the medication. From a business perspective, from a customer service perspective, from caring about people and hard work, that will never, ever fade in my memory.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

I think the other best advice I got besides that from my father was from someone who once told me, and I tried to live up to, to surround myself with people who were better and smarter than I was. And don’t be afraid to let them be the success that they can be. I’ve really taken that to heart.

What’s your definition of business success?

I would define business success as the growth enthusiasm of each of our team members. If each of our team members is enthusiastic and growing and successful, then our company is going to be successful. So I do my job as I give everyone the tools they need to be successful. I guide them along the way, and then at the end of the day, it’s going to roll up into one big success story.

Jim Danko had just started college when he had to make a life-changing and risky decision: to stay in school or to follow a road less traveled: drop out of college, go into business and finish school later.

Danko had worked at the corner of his street for a small one-man medical equipment company for five years — since he was 14. He had learned enough to run the business if he had to. And what happened was something the 19-year-old didn’t expect.

“The owner died; actually, he committed suicide, and I was the one to find him,” he says. “And I was the one that the family asked, ‘You’re the only one who works here full-time; would you be willing to drop out of college and help run this?’”

Danko thought seriously about the opportunity.

“I was willing to do it if they would provide me the opportunity to buy the business,” he says.

While he took over the business, he was never able to come to terms on its sale, so he decided he would start up his own company.

“I had some experience; I had an opportunity,” he says. “There was no guarantee I was going to succeed — it was somewhat of an educated risk.”

Taking that educated risk, and getting his parents to take a second mortgage on their house to help supply cash for the business, paid off quite successfully.

“Where my mother might have said, ‘No, stay the course, finish up your college,’ my father was a little bit more of an entrepreneur, and I opted to drop out of John Carroll University and start up a company,” Danko says. “I finished my undergraduate degree later.”

Business growth followed and by 1990, corporate facilities were booming.

“We were in our biggest year ever and someone came along and made me an offer for my business,” he says. “I was really interested in getting into the academic world, and again, I ended up opting for the road less traveled, to sell out during a big year.”

He enrolled in graduate school and received his master’s degree from the University of Michigan.

After stints of leading educational programs at institutions, such as Dartmouth College, Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., Villanova School of Business and the universities of Michigan, Washington and North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he became president of Butler University last year.

Lest you think that all that educational experience has transformed him into a traditional academic, think again. Danko uses his nontraditional leanings to blend some solid business practices that he learned into the college world: recruitment and retention of employees (including faculty), service to customers (students, that is), strategic planning, consensus building and innovation.

When he served as dean at Villanova for six years, the school went from being unranked to being ranked consistently among the top 20 undergraduate business programs in the country. Also during his time there, financial donations more than quadrupled.

At Butler, Danko wants to duplicate and even surpass similar accomplishments. At his installation, to kick off his message, he announced the formation of the $5 million Butler Innovation Fund to nurture creative thinking and fast track ideas, curricula and collaboration.

Nontraditional paths? Educated risks? Is that what Danko feels what today’s leader needs?

“I think it is a combination of the education and the practical side that really puts you in a position to be a more effective leader,” he says. After all, managing 1,025 employees and annual revenue of $189 million is no small task for an uninspiring leader.

Here’s Danko’s recipe for leadership: mix risk-taking, self-assessment, stewardship, add some experience, and you will be on your way.

Take risks and look long term

Whether it’s a business decision or a life decision, you have to take risks sometimes.

A number of successful companies, for instance, that are still operating were founded in one of the bleakest economic time of all — the Great Depression.

“You have to have the ability to be somewhat of a risk-taker, an educated risk-taker, and sometimes opt for what other people might tell you doesn’t seem to make sense,” Danko says.

Whether you feel you have to be born a courageous risk-taker or you can learn to take calculated chances is something that can’t be answered definitively with a yes or no. But rather, the matter of experience figures into the answer.

“I’ve taught entrepreneurship at Michigan, and I taught it at UNC, Chapel Hill; I don’t know if you are born a risk-taker, but I do think that some people have a higher tolerance of risk-taking, and it is probably something that you build up in life through experience,” Danko says.

One’s life experience, it’s often been written, is the sum of wins and losses.

“There is something about life experiences where maybe taking a few risks that worked out may not mean you are always going to succeed, but I think the practice of taking a risk is something that improves over time, and thus you are more prepared when the opportunity comes up,” he says. “There is a bit of nurture to it.”

When the opportunity arrives, you will be more prepared for that, realizing that there is a chance for failure and success but at least sometimes you know what it is like to get out of your comfort zone.

“You have to have an opportunity; it’s not just, ‘Hey, I think I’m going to just do this,’” Danko says. “Then step back, and look what is the opportunity that you are confronting that makes sense. I know now what I would have told myself then: ‘This seems like it’s got a shot. You could always finish college. There’s nothing written in stone that you have to get your degree done by the time you are 22.’”

You need to resist being too shortsighted if you take a risk. Being more focused on the near future may lead to disappointment.

“If I would’ve followed some advice, I might have listened to those you said, ‘Why would you want to do that?’ — you have to kind of weigh all of all those,” Danko says. “I think people who live more in the moment tend to be a little more risk adverse. You have to look at the longer term.”

A longer-term focus can be developed through experience, especially in new positions of increased responsibility.

“The higher you get up the leadership path, the more you have to have a longer term focus,” he says. “You can’t just stop and say that it is all about the present, because there is so much that is about the future.”

Do a self-assessment

Introspection need not be a dirty word. Although some leaders may think otherwise, you have to do self-assessment in order to find your talents as a leader who can take risks.

“It’s the most important leadership attribute or trait that a leader needs to have,” Danko says. “Start with the ability to be self-aware and self-reflective. It truly is leadership development. You get better with age and with experience. But the only way that you are going to get better is if you are aware of your strengths and weaknesses and if you have some self-awareness of the need to improve.”

A lack of self-awareness can make matters worse. It can cause difficulty such as in working with other employees and achieving goals.

“I was asked recently by a professor here why some leaders do not admit their mistakes,” Danko says. “My answer was I think it is a lack of confidence, and some of that also comes from a lack of self-awareness. They don’t even realize some of the mistakes they are making.

“With confidence, some awareness that none of us are perfect and a focus on your own development, which means you are open to seeing some of your deficiencies, it makes you better prepared to admit failures and put you in a better position to successfully move forward.”

Some who have a mental block about introspection may need to work on defeatist attitudes. Others may, in effect, fear success because it may be unfamiliar territory.

“I think none of us are perfectly self-aware because it is hard sometimes to judge ourselves or to assess ourselves, but I do think that it is critical that you understand the importance of going through some assessment process,” Danko says.

“I’ve seen some people who just fail at it,” he says. “I think they might have just a blind spot about themselves that they are just not going to make it. If you read the examples of leadership failures, whether they are in the corporate world or the academic world, I think there is a number of people who are destined for that.”

You have to have an open mind about peer assessment and 360 assessments and having people provide you objective input into your strengths and weaknesses.

“Those who are close-minded to assessments are probably not going to be as successful, but again some of those will be, too,” Danko says. “But I think the ones that are not, frankly, they just have such a blind spot to their own weaknesses that they are never going to improve.”

Leave a legacy

When goals are being discussed among company leaders, one of the most concise is often the advice, “Leave your company better off than when you came.” It simply means to lead with your talents, skills and risk-taking qualities to shepherd your business to new heights.

“You need to be driven for the larger cause for the success of whatever enterprise you’re currently involved in,” Danko says. “Treat it as if it’s your own. You have to talk to your managers, and you need people to think as if they really are legitimate stewards of the operation to start thinking how they can leave this place much better off than it was when they came in.”

When it is time to evaluate your performance, look at the whole enterprise, and ask yourself the question. If you have adopted self-assessment practices and been willing to take risks, you will be able to judge how good a steward you have been.

“If there is some willingness to take some risks in your career — so someone who tends to be a little bit more innovative — that is someone who really likes the leadership scope,” Danko says.

Once you are OK with stepping out of your comfort zone, you can use that ability to take risks to not overextend your duties with newfound confidence but to have an impact at the upper levels of the company.

“I really did have this interest in a higher scope of leadership so it made me have to take moves that other people might not have decided to do,” Danko says.

“It’s not like you need a bigger scope of operations but that you’ll like the breadth of responsibility of the decisions around strategy and really engage at the highest level of an organization in terms of its of its success and failure,” he says.” It’s getting back to the issues of being self-aware and self-reflective. You have to experience failure. It’s not like all the decisions that you made in life worked out. You can’t take yourself too seriously.”

How to reach: Butler University, (317) 940-6000 or

The Danko File

Jim Danko


Butler University

Born: Cleveland, Ohio

Education: John Carroll University for my undergraduate degree in religious studies, of all things, and an MBA from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor

What was your first job?

When I was a young kid, I delivered the Cleveland Press. I’ve said this before to people: the opportunity to be a newspaper delivery person is a golden one. There was something about that paper route. I wanted every paper in those houses by 4 o’clock. And they had to be. It was like a zero defects mind.

I remember standing out there waiting for the newspapers on the day JFK died in November 1963. The papers usually get dropped off at 3:15 p.m., but on that date, it was closer to 5:30 p.m. because they held the presses.

What is the best business advice you ever received?

I found out about this Philadelphia guy who sold 200 Exercycles the year before, and I thought what the hell is this guy doing? So I met him, and he came up with a system where he took out commercials. He got an 800 number, and he was advertising: “call now for an in-home demonstration of the multiaction exercise machine.”

He said, “Jim, you make your pitch, and then you shut up. The next person that talks bought it.” So either that customer bought it or you just bought it back because you talked yourself out of a sale. It’s a negotiating tip that I have told I don’t know how many people since that time and even in my own career, even if I am asking for a gift or asking for a job, when you ask a question or whatever it is, you make your pitch and then you just shut up. It’s that quietness that forces people on the other side of you into doing something. It was a little piece of advice, but it was one of those things that has always stayed with me.

Whom do you admire in business?

Especially in the business world, I like people who have done a good job of turning things around or who have pursued things in a thoughtful way. I mean Alan Mullally right now at Ford has been incredible. I met him when I was at the University of Washington and he was at Boeing. He came out and talked with our students. I was very impressed with that, and the job he has done at Ford is terrific. Also, Jeff Immelt of General Electric; he’s a Dartmouth alum, I met him up at Dartmouth when I was there, and I had him come to the Villanova school of business to speak last year, I was very impressed with him again. … These are both guys who were thoughtful; they don’t take themselves too seriously. They’ve got senses of humors, there’s confidence, there is willingness to talk about the gambles they’ve made, and there is willingness to say they’ve made mistakes.

What’s your definition of business success?

The definition of business success is be better off than when you arrived. And are you better off, have you really developed as well? I think it is kind of twofold when you talk about success. It’s got to be both for the place and for also you personally.

Drew Alexander is probably one of the first to admit that supermarket-anchored shopping centers are very recession-resilient. Good properties in good locations don’t hurt either, as well as good practices. But that’s not the entire story.

Alexander, the president and CEO of Weingarten Realty Investors, which dates back to his great-grandfather’s first dry goods store in Houston, knows that good people are a large part of the equation. And it was the conjunction of being a new parent as well as a manager of people that gave him the insight that there are a lot of similarities between the two roles.

“I found the two things surprisingly similar,” Alexander says. “I think you need to be as consistent and honest as you can. You need to set reasonable goals. You need to show tough love and sometimes separate some people or punish kids when they’ve done something wrong. You should be supportive when folks are down and a bit of a cheerleader when things are tough — and they have certainly been tough for the last several years.”

Is it easy being a tough-love parent/tough-love boss?

“It can be difficult, but I think the keys are leading by example of doing the right thing of working smart, thinking through things, gaining the knowledge in one’s mistake and really treating people as you would want to be treated,” he says. “I think there are a lot of similarities.”

When you have tenants such as Target, Walmart, Ross, Marshalls or TJ Maxx anchoring shopping centers, you could well expect the $542 annual revenue Weingarten received in 2011. But again, the rest of the story is the family-themed culture that has helped keep occupancy above 90 percent not only in the recent financial crisis but in the mid- to late 1980s crisis as well, when the Texas economy was devastated as the oil business crashed.

Here how Alexander imparts a family spirit at Weingarten Realty that helps drive its success with the 16 million square feet in commercial property and shopping centers it owns across the nation.

Communicate casually

Most organizations recognize that communication is a top priority in operating a business. Meeting with your direct reports and having them cascade the information down to other levels is a very common method. But it shouldn’t be the only one.

“It is also important to spend some casual time with employees, to go to lunch with them, to have a cup of coffee with folks and to meet with them in their offices, maybe have a drink after work occasionally and hear what’s going on with them,” Alexander says.

The talk may even include some disagreements about operations. While they are eventual — you can’t expect agreements all of the time, you can learn to exercise control how you respond so you don’t make matters worse.

“Always try to walk the talk,” Alexander says. “When somebody disagrees with you and says you’re wrong, or when somebody gives you some difficult feedback or says that something isn’t working, always try not to retaliate in any way, shape or form.”

In short, the easiest answer is to control your tongue. But it may be one of the hardest things to do since you’re feeling you have to defend your opinion among feelings of resentment, frustration and anger.

“Don’t get into an argument,” Alexander says. “Maybe ask a little bit more about why they think that to really solicit other feedback. I may not always agree with it but I learned a long time ago if you want the honest feedback then you have to accept it graciously.”

Keep as much of the anger out of the conversation — this way you will not be as tempted to say anything that could be construed as hurtful.

Delegate responsibility

How your business is structured will affect how it you manage it. A business with one central location is akin to a nuclear family — and a company with a headquarters and several offices is not that different from an extended family.

But the key to effectively managing either is delegating authority.

The first step, as in raising children or grooming a new manager, is that you walk before you run. So start your own informal training course for delegates.

“When you have a new manager you need to try people with a little bit of training wheels,” Alexander says. “Give them a project, see how they do. I’m a big believer that the vast majority of the time if people come to you with a proposal, they should have a recommendation for what they want to do.

“You can allow exceptions, but you should always be signposted in advance as they come in and say, ‘Look, I thought about this for a minute, and I am really struggling. I don’t have a recommendation, I just want to role play some different scenarios off you and brainstorm with you for a minute.’”

With a solid proposal in hand, the would-be manager will have covered his or her bases and can move on to the review process.

“If they signpost up front, you can be a lot more tolerant about it versus if you perceive that they are coming for you to do their job,” he says. “You need to be a big believer that you want people’s recommendation. Then you evaluate the quality of folks because obviously you don’t want to delegate the same amount of responsibility to everyone because everybody’s ability and skill sets are not the same.

“You have to take a measured approach of trying things out small and giving people more and more responsibilities; then you check with them frequently at interim status reports,” Alexander says.

The last step is to judge the talents of your potential managers after your trial runs are complete. Obviously, you should focus on the traditional qualities of a good performance but keep an open mind.

“I think work ethic is important, but in today’s world, it’s increasingly hard to even judge that on any sort of scale because in part of the communications age that we live in ... I have colleagues who are obsessive about checking e-mails over the weekend when I’ve actually said you are entitled to but you don’t have to!

“So I don’t think burning the midnight oil is even a differentiator any more because it’s just too hard to measure,” he says.

What is easier to measure is the potential manager’s proposal for his project. It should be clear what the recommendation is.

“I use the example that it’s like junior high school math,” Alexander says. “You’ve got to show your work. You have to tell why you favor making that decision. What are the key factors? Even when people come to a conclusion that is different than yours, you like to see how their thought process works.

“Then a lot of times if it is a little more of a tactical decision about how to do something, I am a big believer that if somebody has a plan to get from point A to point B that’s a little different than mine, but they feel very strongly about it, I’d rather have them work their plan that they are passionate about than work my plan because, unless, it’s sort of like a burden of proof thing, that what they are proposing is substantially wrong.”

Along with reviewing the specific proposal, you should look at how it fits into the bigger picture.

“Look at how the judgments are made, what were the factors and don’t get so hung up on the details,” he says. “I use the analogy of driving directions. There are tons of different ways to get from point A to point to B. If you want to take the scenic route because you think it’s pretty, or if somebody else wants to go on the freeway and deal with the traffic, I don’t care.”

Once you have chosen your delegates, make use of them. Assign them as much as you feel they can handle.

“If you run a pretty decentralized organization, the troops who are in the field — the folks and the COO — are your boots on the ground and make the vast majority of decisions,” Alexander says. “When it comes to major capital expenditures acquisition and new development, the CEO obviously gets involved but even then the troops are the ones who input most of the data to create the pro forma so they have a lot of input that drives the return on investment and whether or not it’s above your hurdle rates.”

The CEO may ask a lot of questions about their assumptions and method and point out some inconsistencies from other deals.

“But generally even then, they are driving it a lot,” he says. “So whether it’s your CFO or COO, you may get involved in something but you would tend to delegate a fair amount either directly or just by the nature of your processes. You would really only get involved if there are big dollars or longer-term, human resources involved, anything to do with the brand or investor relations.”

Earn loyalty

There are some differences, obviously, in terms of the unconditional love a parent has for a child. You can’t fire a child. If a worker is not performing, you have to protect the right things.

“I don’t know any CEO who likes firing people,” Alexander says. “It is something every manager recognizes that you have to do it for the good of the organization. The people who I have talked to who are so-called turnaround specialists don’t like the idea of going into an organization and eliminating a third or whatever of the workforce but they do it because they think it is necessary so that the company survives.”

The termination process is difficult but you will be doing the right thing for all the stakeholders.

“I was fortunate enough that I took over this company from my father, Stanford Alexander, and still work closely with him,” he says. “So you look back and find that a lot of the things that your father taught you as a kid are important today. As a firm, you pride yourselves on integrity and your desire to do the right thing for all your stakeholders, shareholders, retailers, associates and vendors and to take the very long-term view.”

One of the major benefits to come from instilling a family spirit in a company can be a tremendous loyalty from your associates

“This translates into some very hardworking people, who are creative and passionate, who care about the company, care about their co-worker, are very team-oriented people who help each other and are nice to each other,” Alexander says.

“By running a public company but with a little bit of the spirit of a family that cares — that loyalty will show up for you in tenure, work ethic, passion and esprit de corps.

The folks will care about the company. They have a lot of emotion and feeling toward it. You obviously will want to offer competitive salaries, have good benefit programs, a nice work environment, a lot of wellness programs, education programs and scholarships to associates’ children for college. Do a lot to hire and retain good quality people.”

Simply put, with everyone pulling in the same direction, the team will reap the benefits.

“A consultant once used the expression with me that there are basketball teams and then there are track teams,” Alexander says. “In basketball, the team wins and everybody wins. In track, it’s nice when your friend wins his or her race, but you really want to win your race.

“You really want to be more like a basketball team where everybody wins. You may be the QB gets a lot of the attention and gets asked to do the interviews, but it’s really about the whole team. If a lineman doesn’t do what he is supposed to do, then all of us are going to suffer. So we are all incented to pull in the same direction.”

How to reach: Weingarten Realty Investors, (713) 866-6000 or

The Alexander File

Drew Alexander

President and CEO

Weingarten Realty Investors

Born: Fort Worth, Texas. I go by Drew, and my real name is Andrew. But nobody other than my high school principal called me that.

Education: I started out at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and did a couple of years there. Then I transferred to and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. My degree is a bachelor of business and administration with a focus in real estate.

What was your first job?

I was about 7 years old and we had the supermarket company at the time. I worked in the stores helping customers unload their carts to be checked out. I wasn’t a carryout at the other end of the process because my mother didn’t want me in the parking lot. She thought I would get run over. So I was doing a job that doesn’t exist anymore. I helped the customers unload from their cart to the conveyor belt to be checked out. One of my other jobs in the supermarket was labeling all the prices on things.

I think I learned from that job to go to college and work in something that wasn’t so manual. Also, I think I learned the value of customer service. I got paid a whopping 10 cents an hour, but frequently, principally housewives would say, ‘Now you’re a nice young man, do you get paid?’ And I said, ‘Yes, ma’am. I get10 cents an hour.’ ‘You’re so hard-working. Here’s a quarter.’ Occasionally, I got a dollar. That was a lot of money in the early ’60s to a kid. I think I put a lot of it into baseball cards over the years.

What was the best advice you ever received?

I think that would go back to advice from my dad in terms of doing the right long-term thing and treating people as you would want to be treated.

Whom do you admire in business?

I think many of the strong leaders, Warren Buffett, Jamie Dimon, Steve Jobs. And certain parts of this are their creativity and passion although certainly not everything. Then as I mentioned before — my dad. It’s corny, but it’s the truth.

What’s your definition of business success?

It ties into the goals, and that’s where I think when you get to the end, whatever that is, having done the right term thing is a success. So clearly there are things that go into that in terms of share price and total return for shareholders, being well thought of by all the stakeholders and that would be shareholders, employees, vendors, tenants, etc., but that’s where I think if you are doing the right long-term thing, then all those other things will flow from that.

Kelly Mooney didn’t see it coming. In fact, virtually no one did. She of course had followed the bigger issue, the technology and the proliferation of innovative computer and mobile devices, but Apple, true to its tradition of secrecy, didn’t give any sort of advance notice that the iPad was coming.

“There was no heads-up from Apple and how to develop for it so you had to learn super fast,” she says. “You had to hire and train people whose skills and mindsets were adaptable, flexible and open to constant evolution and then be able to put that sort of training in place really quickly.”

That was one of the reasons why Mooney, CEO of Resource, and her team developed Resource Interactive University. It was created not just because of the tablet computers alone but because in the digital world, progress is moving so fast that daily learning was needed to keep up with it.

So the largest female-owned and operated marketing agency in the country, founded in 1981 by Nancy Kramer when she landed her first client — Apple, developed RIU as an in-house educational center. It has a full-time professor and dozens of other people inside the company who are constantly teaching and developing curriculum.

“There is daily learning available inside our company, and there is a required number of education credits that you have to have every year to be considered for an increase or a promotion,” Mooney says. “We are making that just a given; it’s part of how we think about talent not as an expense but as an investment in our people and in our future.”

The professor teaches a number of the courses and organizes other subject matter experts in the company to develop their curriculum and their learning objectives and to deliver their course material in a way that is interesting and compelling.

“You get credit if you attend the course; you get more credit if you teach a course, so the professor organizes and leads that effort,” Mooney says.

Other learning opportunities are possible; for instance, with area universities.

“More recently, we joined with the Ohio State University with a first-ever partnership of its kind for Ohio State and co-developed a course in digital marketing. We developed the content and OSU is administering the course. It's an online course, and we will jointly share the revenue.”

The professor is the only staff teacher, but a futurist is on board as well.

“We have a full-time futurist who has been studying cultural trends and the cultural trends that are happening in the world that impact the strategies that we bring to our clients,” she says. “So those are things that we are doing on our dime and on our time in advance of any request a client would make.”

Resource has seen double-digit growth the last several years — 50 percent from 2008 to 2010 alone — and doesn’t expect it to abate.

“We see in our next five years that we have the opportunity to double the size of the business, and that's what we're focused on right now,” Mooney says.

Here’s how a culture of continuous learning helps the $57 million Resource continue to innovate and expand the capabilities of its 375 associates.

Building a case

When the game is changing quickly, you have to find ways to keep up, or you will lose out. Your competition will surpass you. It’s a simple as that. Innovation has to be part of your ongoing strategic priorities. Learning the needs of your clients and developing a service, application or product to meet that need requires innovation now more than ever.

“The services we offer today are materially different from the services we offered three years ago, which will be materially different from the services that we offer three years from today,” Mooney says. “The needs of clients just continue to rapidly evolve.”

Sending out an email or a video that is to be watched by associates has limited success. That’s why it is more effective to teach in person and to investigate classroom or huddle room learning.

“I think you will find out you will share information more rapidly than you were before by having [a university] put in place,” Mooney says. “You will be connecting the dots across the company because as you grow in size and across geographies, it is sometimes hard to keep track of who knows what and who did what.

“Learning has become more of a personal sharing experience for people. We always have the Internet. We have e-mail, we have other ways of sharing, but to learn in person and with people also builds the camaraderie and helps people connect the dots in a more human way inside your company.”

Any type of training or teaching program needs its students to attend regularly. It is critical to get the buy-in not only to have the associates be present for all classes because they have been asked to, but that they want to.

If you have difficulty selling the idea of a university to your board, you may take a tip from Resource— the company uses a mandatory attendance policy that comes with benefits.

“We have a required education credit that you have to have every year to be considered for a salary increase or a promotion,” Mooney says. “It’s around 20 credit hours per year of learning.”

If you track each associate on the learning units earned, it will ensure that each is staying up to date with the education being offered.

“Our GPAT process — goals priority and action track — is a quarterly check-in with the manager and individual being managed,” she says. “A part of it is where you are on your learning credits. We called them reverse education units, REUs. The check-in is to find out if you are ahead of schedule or you are behind and need to get it in gear, so there's a mechanism four times a year that allows us to check in with each associate.”

Think of thought leadership

It’s often said that a company’s most valuable assets are not its facilities or its product lines, but its employees. Taking the comparison further, employees who are part of a continuing education program are more valuable, and those that are educated to the point of being thought leaders are beyond them in value. It becomes clearer how important an education program is.

By sharing the depth of your expertise so that you offer practical information custom-tailored to your clients’ and your prospective clients’ needs, you can position your company as a trusted resource and a recognized thought leader.

“We generally think of thought leadership as the research, the analysis, the synthesis, a point of view development that is uniquely ours that we published in some way, shape or form; sometimes it's a white paper, sometimes it is a video, sometimes it’s a speech that I or others give at a cross-industry event that takes a form that can be shared,” Mooney says.

Thought leadership sounds like it might be the buzzword of the moment. But it often brings positive results, although a bit unusual than what you might be used to.

“With thought leadership you may see different dimensions of success or results,” she says. “We've definitely seen it bring in more clients. I was giving a speech and right afterward we had seven or eight outreaches from members of that audience: ‘Gosh. Wow. Tell me more, and how can we begin talking to you guys about this?’”

With that kind of a response, it serves as a form of marketing that is intangible but effective.

“Instead of just putting a brochure or an ad out about ourselves, it’s become the way we communicate — here we are,” Mooney says. “It definitely brings in more clients; it brings in a certain type of client, and it’s a good match for us. The average size of the engagements we get has definitely increased with our thought leadership efforts.”

When you think of the education package that’s available for employees, it’s a benefit that many job candidates will look at seriously, bringing you a better supply of job candidates that can help differentiate your company when they come on board.

“It definitely will attract associates who want to be a part of a company that is in a forward-thinking way,” she says. “When I do my on-boarding, I’ve had a number of people in every class say, ‘This is really great. We never had this in the organization I came from. We didn't have access to this sort of learning opportunity.’ It might not be the only reason that somebody is drawn to us but it is probably one of the reasons.

“I think that our investment and our commitment to thought leadership in understanding how the consumer and technology are changing, what are the implications for the client, investing in that and being one step ahead has been a differentiator for our company for many years.”

Expand as demand requires

An exciting and innovative university-type program will demonstrate how employees are receiving it in an expedient manner: how many are signing up for the classes.

“We are seeing a lot of engagement, and I think we are seeing a lot of courses are overfilled so we've had to expand a number of them to address the demand,” Mooney says.

“We’ve seen a lot of our associates raise their hand and offer to be instructors, which has been great because they get to showcase their expertise in a kind of way that they maybe didn't have before. I think we are getting to see a whole new crop of leaders emerge in the process.”

The RIU is in its third year at Resource. A pilot project was held the initial year, and last year was the first year of the full rollout. In addition, for the first time, RI now has a dedicated space for its RI:Lab, which Mooney feels has become the catalyst and the fuel for the rest of the company.

“We have a dedicated team of about 10 folks, a very defined process and a series of activities that allow for and invite innovation and reward innovation inside the company,” she says. “The bigger goal with the whole innovation process is to build an innovative culture so that it is everybody's job to innovate in the role that they have.”

Thought leadership is only one benefit that can come from the university. The education program also helps to speed up new employees’ onboarding.

“The other thing that we are seeing is since we have a formalized onboarding program with RIU apart of it, it really helps us get new associates ramped up and productive more quickly,” Mooney says.

“So they have a very organized way of learning about the company, how we work, how they fit into it and what our priorities are. It's helping us get some productivity gains that we didn't have before.

“I am still a big proponent of on-the-job learning. I think there is nothing more better than being thrown into it and having to figure it out, but this is about trying to provide some guidance resources that help people find their way as they are learning on the job as well, so those things kind of go in tandem.”

How to contact: Resource, (614) 621-2888 or

The Mooney File

Kelly Mooney



Born: New Lexington, Ohio. A tiny little coal mining community in southeast Ohio. It’s not involved in coal mining anymore, but it was when I was growing up.

Education: The Ohio State University. I majored in industrial design.

What was your first job?

I had my first paper route when I was 10 years old. I only had nine customers but it took me like two hours to deliver the papers because the customers were spread out all over town. But I thought it was cool that it was my own. It was a weekly paper, and I learned how to run my own business.

What is the best business advice you ever received?

My first boss out of school was awesome. He was actually my professor at Ohio State, and then he was my first boss at Richardson Smith, which was a design firm based in Columbus. I remember he said to me, I was only about 22 at the time and I didn’t really quite know what he meant, but he said to me, ‘Never compromise your values. Know what they are, write them down, and never compromise them.’ It really wasn’t until later when I felt like I was working with some people where my values were being compromised. I didn't even know what that advice meant until I fully experienced it as a wiser, 30-year-old at the time.

I remember calling him, and I said, ‘Now I know what you meant and this was (such) meaningful advice to me.’  I was working with somebody who was really disrespectful of individuals, who used a lot of foul language to criticize the work, had a bad temper and who was just very unappreciative. I couldn't watch it anymore and couldn’t be a part of it. I realized like, ‘Wow, my values are being compromised.’ The advice my first mentor gave me probably was what ultimately drew me to Nancy Kramer and to RI.

Whom do you admire in business?

Where to start? I, of course, admire the innovators. I admire Mark Zuckerberg for all he is doing at Facebook and Cheryl Samberg who is his right hand as CEO of Facebook. I admire Sergey Brin and Larry Page at Google.

But there is a whole bunch of people that I work with every day that I admire equally. I have a reverse mentor in organization. He just turned 30, and he and I meet every month. He teaches me just the most amazing stuff. I’m sure he is learning from me indirectly but really we set up these sessions for me to learn from him what he sees in the world, what the trends are and what it means.

What is your definition of business success?

We really view it through two lenses: if our clients are successful and our associates are fulfilled, feel that their careers are growing, and they are growing as individuals. So those two dimensions are what really make our business successful at the end of the day so … I am not a financially oriented person. It sounds ironic as a CEO; of course, I understand those are my responsibilities and I am accountable for them but I don’t run the business fully by the numbers. There is a lot of what we do that comes from it just feels like the right thing to do and is the right thing to do and a lot of times by doing the right thing, the numbers follow.

Erik Wiik had more than 20 years in the oil and gas industry but he knew about a year ago that the market was coming back — and it was time to step up recruiting efforts.

But Wiik and his management team were looking for a longer-term solution: offering employees a safe workplace that would help engage, retain and attract talent.

The worker shortage started when the federal deep-water drilling moratorium of 2010 had started to fade away and more work was coming to Aker Solutions North America, where Wiik is regional president.

However, there wasn’t a supply of new employees available to add to the company.

“We just can't get enough people, and a lot of our leadership has been asking ourselves, how do we attract people, how do we develop them, how do we develop leaders, how do we make sure that we maximize the human capital,” Wiik says. “It's really my biggest challenge.”

When the traditional methods of recruiting employees weren’t bringing the results he desired, Wiik turned to some nontraditional methods. For example, NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston was reducing its activity, and Aker Solutions sought some of the engineers who were available as subcontractors.

The company obtained about a dozen engineers and has set a target to obtain up to 50 people from the NASA environment.

“They have skills that apply to what we are doing,” Wiik says. “Not directly, but some of the experiences they have are actually very relevant.”

But the value proposition of a safe workplace seemed to be a better offering than stopgap measures when it came to filling vacancies and keeping employees engaged.

Efforts to have a safe work environment were nothing new; in fact, the company had started a program, Just Care, in 2003.

“We had to reduce the hazards that we were working under,” Wiik says. “We set out on a journey we called ‘Just Care.’ “It was all about the individual’s attitudes toward himself or herself, their working environment and their colleagues; it was about making the company be more aware of hazards, and thereby taking action and changing behaviors so that no one gets hurt.”

Aker Solutions was able to reduce the number of incidents to one-third of what it had 10 years ago just by changing the attitude. The company drives home the message that the focus is on personal responsibility for health and safety issues.

“One of our values is to make sure that nobody gets hurt, and that when they leave for home in the afternoon are as healthy as they were when they came to work in the morning,” Wiik says. “And that is really a value proposition that we have — that we are able to stand behind both for the employee and their family, of course.”

Here’s how Aker Solutions has expanded the role of safety as a value proposition for the 1,273 employees in North America.

Make your values criteria for success

Many companies Wiik was familiar with all had similar values — the ideals were all about results and integrity. It was obvious these terms were in the public domain of businesses and were commonplace in mission and value statements.

“But I think it is important to pick values that actually reflect what you intend to do,” he says. “So if you are a company that plans to work very closely with your customers and is going to be very intimate with your customers, you need to make sure that you have values that reflect that.”

Aker Solutions sees its values as the compass that guides its policies, operations and ultimately, behavior.

“That way, you can make sure that you are describing very important success criteria for not only your employees but for the company as well,” Wiik says.

Taking the example of safety, one of the most important concerns a company should have for its employees, Wiik drew the picture how as a company value, health and safety really mean something.

“That vision was that it must be possible to have zero incidents, meaning that we should have a vision that nobody gets hurt,” Wiik says. “That was kind of hard to accept for any of our engineers; they know statistics, and they say, ‘Well, eventually somebody is going to get hurt, right?’ And we said, ‘No, you cannot have that. You need to have a vision that everybody believes it is possible to avoid any of the accidents that you have had and may have in the future.’

“So we set that as our vision and everybody accepted it: ‘Yes, we will work toward that and do everything we can in order to reduce the hazards.’”

While some hazards are less likely to present themselves in the workplace than others, if a company takes a proactive stance to prevent accidents, it’s important to assess which hazards are the highest risk to your business and employees. If it is part of a company’s values that it will do the planning, training and documenting to manage financial and human costs of injuries, it says a lot about the company’s attitude toward employees.

Get a vision and training

To begin a campaign to inspire employees to use safe practices or achieve another goal, it starts with a vision. A vision doesn’t have to be as extensive as constantly picturing in your mind a group of factories humming along, producing a product consumers are clamoring for. Basically, it is a certain condition at a point in time.

For Wiik’s health and safety vision, it was to have so few episodes of injuries in a period of time that the company over time was actually measuring the contributing factors more than the incidents themselves.

Working toward that goal involves developing an extensive training program for the procedures. All employees should receive the training.

One example includes the advanced 3-D simulators, which enable Aker Solutions and customers to train personnel for offshore oil rigs while they learn at safer onshore work environments. The simulators increase safety by allowing crews to train as long as they want without concern for rig downtime.

“New employees should go through the same training just to make sure that they are aware of their surroundings, to make sure that they take the time they need in order to plan their work and make sure they do everything they can in order to avoid getting themselves into trouble,” Wiik says.

In addition, management needs to be trained from the lowest level all the way up to the CEO to make sure that you are able to lead by example. In addition, leaders need to adopt the attitude and behavior and demonstrate that they do care about the initiative.

“You also need to train leaders to do risk analysis on the workplace, and also to intervene in the workplace with people who plan to do certain operations — how do you go about and do some intervention in order to make sure that they don't get into something you don't want them to.”

The company will help build its relationship with employees by providing tools employees will need such as rulebooks on specific methodology on how to do work-safe analyses, how to prepare for work and how to identify hazards.

Make your observations

Measuring performance and feedback is by no means a new method of management. While the idea may go back more than 50 years, the application of the process changes each time it is molded into use by a company.

Incidents should be recorded not to point fingers but to find out why and how they happened.

“First of all, you've got to be positive,” Wiik says. “So it's not like you are reporting your buddy because he didn't put his hard hat on. You are not looking for that kind of reporting. You are looking for neutral reporting.”

You will gather more useful information if you record not only the accidents and near-accidents that occurred, but also any activity seen to be contributing.

“We started to measure every time an employee submitted an observation card indicating that there might be a hazard or even promoting good behavior,” Wiik says.

“We count every inspection any leader makes, we count any activity, training hours and all the things that we were hoping would lead up to a reduced incident rate. So by measuring all that, we also changed the behavior of everyone because everybody knew that they would be measured.”

Once the measurements process is about to start, it is essential to point out that the company is seeking a balance.

“Employees can either report bad behavior or good behavior. Also, it is all about participating,” Wiik says. “So we measured participation more than content necessarily just to get everybody engaged.”

By making such a practice a competition, people will want to participate.

“When they saw that the team that submitted the most reports and the most assessments of safety got the coolest rewards, it became a sport to be active and to participate,” he says.

Getting employees to participate in program may take some effort. If a firm is small, you can get everybody together easily and frequently. If it is large, it takes conscious planning of what you want to do.

“Have an employee engagement plan; I think that’s important, regardless how big the company is, because then you at least have a plan,” Wiik says. “Make a conscious decision of what you intend to do. You put it down on a piece of paper that you share with your colleagues and then you go about and do it. Then you can make adjustments of things don’t work.”

Several types of criteria can decide rewards. Aker has a monthly drawing among those who had submitted observation cards. They win a gift card and similar prizes. The company also picked certain observations that added the most value and the nominees got special rewards. An annual President’s Award for Excellence is given to recognize outstanding improvements in safety.

Encourage employees to contribute across the company to step out and do more than what you just ask for.

“You are part of a team, you are part of a department, but you really need to see how you can contribute to everybody in the company, and if you have ideas and so on, you want them to do that,” Wiik says. “That’s how we also measure that sort of engagement and activity, so the more people reach out and help others in the company to resolve their problems, the more engaged they are.”

How to reach: Aker Solutions North America, (713) 685-5700 or

The Wiik file

Born: On the west coast of Norway, in a fishing village close to Molde.

Education: I went to Texas A&M University and majored in engineering.

What was your first job?

I was 9 years old, and close to my house there was a fish factory. They processed cod from the Atlantic Ocean. Back then, with the fishermen chopped the head off the cod and then they turned in the fish — that became filet. But the head also had some valuable food. Cod tongue is actually a delicacy in Norway. What I did with my friends during the cod season was to go to the fish factory, get all those heads for free, and we would tear out the tongue and sell it on the street. That was my first job. I made a lot of money, enough money to buy a bicycle. So it was a good business. It was all profit. They were happy that you took the fish heads.

What is the best business advice that you have ever received?

Share my leadership role with my team. Everybody in my team has at least two jobs: One is the job that they have which is to run a business unit or run a department, and the other job is to share my job and be part of the team to run the business. I have really seen some great results of that. A mentor that I had gave me that advice.

What is your definition of business success?

I think the definition of success is if you can do it again. If it can be repeated, then it’s success. So if you had a good project and did a good deal once, that’s not good enough. If you can repeat it, that’s a success for me. The other part of the definition would be if my team can do it on their own next time without me, that is also the definition of success.

Cameron Mitchell has a challenge that will not go away: having enough capital to keep his diverse portfolio of restaurants operating and expanding.

Mitchell’s constant concern for funds in a capital-intensive business has taught him that there are lots of ways to keep the momentum going, but one approach is a sure solution:

“Constant finagling,” he says. “It depends on the situation. It’s like we might have to hold a part of the distribution to make things work. Or we might re-up with the bank, increase our line of credit at the bank, or we might demand a landlord give us tenant improvement dollars sooner versus later. It just depends on all sorts of things.”

The sure thing is that Mitchell continues to set his sights on expanding his current concepts and developing new ones. The company has 18 units with seven individual themes as well as a catering company and a sister company, Rusty Bucket Restaurant & Tavern. Plans are to introduce the Ocean Prime concept into several major cities in the U.S., including New York, Chicago and Houston.

“The situation is all driven by development,” says Mitchell, president, and who founded Cameron Mitchell Restaurants LLC in 1993. He’s a classic example in the restaurant business of going from the dish room to the board room. His first position was as a dishwasher at a Columbus steakhouse. From there, with a degree from the Culinary Institute of America, he worked his way up and became head of his own restaurant company. Mitchell has received numerous awards from organizations to recognize his success.

Keeping the status quo is not on his mind, even though it means steering through a sometimes stormy sea in terms of the restaurant industry.

“You may have multiple developments at one time. So just the way the timing is may make it tight. It just depends, you can’t always dictate when your new locations are going to open, so you might have three restaurants in a year to do and they all open within three months of each other.

“Sometimes you might end up OK this month, and then next month you are tight,” he says.

Maybe not exactly what you’d expect to hear from someone who in 2008 sold two of his most popular themes, Mitchell’s/Columbus Fish Market and Mitchell’s/Cameron’s Steakhouse — a total of 22 restaurants — to Ruth’s Hospitality Group for $92 million.

But Mitchell didn’t rest. He has spent the years since that sale reinvigorating Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, developing new concepts and new locations.

Even though annual sales are $70 million, the thought of deciding he had reached his goal hasn’t entered his mind.

“I think it is impossible to get to that point because I might be where I want to be but the company has 2,400 employees now, and they have dreams, goals and aspirations — people are building their careers with the company,” Mitchell says. “And if I say, ‘Hey, I’ve had enough. I’m fine,’ well, that kind of messes them up. I can’t do that. So we continue to grow and develop the company for the betterment of all our people, our partners and our communities in which we do business.”

Here are some of Mitchell’s tips on the challenges of getting and managing capital to keep your business operating and on an expansion journey.

Prepare your case

Market entry strategy, mergers and acquisitions, organic and inorganic growth — you’ve heard all of the buzzwords about expanding your business. And in this age of the entrepreneur, you’ve heard about vision, passion and energy.

Combining those ideas can result in a motivational quotient that can’t be beat. The only missing ingredient is capital.

Shopping around for lenders or investors who are favorable to working with your market area is a good start.

“Some lenders have different tactics, standards and loan profiles,” Mitchell says. “Some are comfortable doing particular industries and some are not. Find ones that are comfortable in your field.”

Likewise, evaluate how comfortable you are with them. Look for indications that would open the door to a transparent relationship, where you feel free to discuss all aspects of your business necessary for your success.

“You want to keep them abreast of your information,” Mitchell says. “Let them know if you are running into potholes, let them know first, and why. Just be upfront with them. Better to ask for permission than ask for forgiveness.”

Before you make your pitch, there are five things you want to have prepared: a good story to tell, a good plan in place, a strong development plan, answers to all potential questions and solid economic models.

While all these steps are important, the first step should be to tell a good story, one that relies heavily on your character. Lenders want to hear about honesty, dedication, ethics and your values.

“Hopefully you’ve built some integrity and a reputation over the years, that you do what you say you were going to do, and your word is good, and I think that starts with that,” Mitchell says. “It starts with character.

“Before you get a loan, a bank likes sound numbers and absolutely that’s going to be important. But if they don’t feel you’re a good character, they might not want to lend you any money. So it starts with that, the good story, good track record and a good plan.”

You also have to be concerned about the costs involved with a bank loan. Rates and terms can vary widely. Banks are usually the cheapest but they are the toughest. When things go wrong, they want to know about it.”

Banks have to decide who gets a loan and who doesn’t and borrowers who have borrowed one or more times and have paid back one or more loans on time will get preference.

Venture capitalists, on the other hand, usually make high-risk loans and aren’t really interested in the profit prospects of your business. Low-risk and low-profit ventures are music to a banker’s ears rather that the dissonant sounds of high risk businesses or those with no record of successfully paying back loans.

If the bank loan route doesn’t seem to be the one for you, try limited partnerships, either with investors or private equity firms. There are trade-offs with each. Both are in it for the money which they hope to earn by investing in your business.

“Investors are in for the long haul, usually don’t have control and they don’t have recourse, but they want a much bigger return,” Mitchell says.

You may want to try a private equity fund, which is normally a limited partnership with a set term of five to 10 years.

“It’s the most expensive form of capital but yes, it is an option,” he says. Mitchell says this is his least favorite choice, and he has not taken that route over his years in the business.

“The thing with that is you usually give up a piece of control for that,” he says. “And they want to be on the board, and they want to have control, and they want to bring their guys to help run the company. It just gets to be a little bit trying. They may want to get out after five years. They typically want to have a sale transaction then. You may not be ready for that.”

Manage the capital that you have

If you can’t get an infusion of capital or it will be some time in coming, your alternative is to manage what you have. While that may involve the “finagling” Mitchell mentioned earlier, another method is to let your foot off the gas, but not step on the brakes.

“The best way to manage your capital is by your throttle,” he says. “By reducing developments, and slowing down developments, you let the business catch up if you’re behind.”

Putting a freeze on new expansions is effective, but it may come with a price.

“It’s not always a good option to stop growth and stop development,” Mitchell says. “In my opinion, it should be kind of the last option. But it’s definitely a good option if you need to raise cash.”

A better position to be in is building your identity and company culture to withstand the challenges of rapid growth. That way, there is less danger of expanding too fast.

“Maybe some people lose their way, but not us,” Mitchell says. “We hold our brand and our culture very, very dear to our heart. We work on them every day, and take care of them every day. It helps to strengthen the business.

“I wanted to write our philosophy and create the culture and values of the company that I wanted to build. So once I got that written, I went about the process of building a company around that culture. I’m still doing that today.”

How to reach: Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, (614) 621-3663 or

The Mitchell File

Born: Columbus, Ohio.

Education: Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, N.Y.

What was your first job?

A dishwasher. I was a junior in high school, and I was about 16. It was at the Cork ‘n Cleaver steakhouse. It’s not around anymore; it was an old chain from years back. I learned to fall in love with the business, and I worked my way up.

Whom do you admire in business?

I’ve had lots of mentors and people but Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines is probably one of my big heroes, as is the late Dave Thomas of Wendy’s. There are just a lot of great people out there; also Jim Collins, author of ‘Good to Great.’

What is the best business advice you ever received?

Surround yourself with great people. Get the right people on the bus.

What is your definition of business success?

Building a company that is able to give back to the community. Help others build their businesses. Have your people build their careers and be successful with you. And reward your partners.

If Mark Carney ever needed confirmation that building a social media following for HCC Medical Insurance Services LLC was a good investment, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti proved it.

The Haiti earthquake caused substantial damage to the infrastructure of capital Port-au-Prince and nearby areas. Cell phone and fiber-optic service was affected and radio stations were knocked off the air for a week in what is one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere.

“We had a number of individuals and groups who were insured members,” says Carney, president and CEO of HCCMIS. “We had provided insurance products to a number of missionaries in Haiti.”

As a result, it was nearly impossible to get through to the members. Fortunately, HCCMIS had in place a social media outreach strategy that included multiple Twitter accounts, more than a dozen Facebook pages and a number of blogs.

Twitter with its short message service of up to 140 characters per tweet was particularly important in reaching policyholders via smartphones to respond to their questions and concerns and disseminate information.

“The tweeting during that period of time provided a great value to our policyholders, and even with the damage to the infrastructure, we were able to communicate and get the message out,” Carney says.

“Unfortunately, the world has seen a number of crises since then, and I think clearly your social media strategy has got to be part of what happens during a catastrophe. So we had a significant earthquake in South America, we had the 2011 tsunami in Japan, there have been earthquakes in China, there have been railway shutdowns in India, the list unfortunately goes on. It's about once a month.

In the past three years, HCCMIS’ innovative effort using online marketing and outreach has helped the company to triple all online revenue and total premiums for 2011 reached $60 million. Here’s how Carney enhances his customers’ experience through social media.

Decide the goal of your presence

Google has reported that as many as 97 percent of U.S. consumers search for products and services online. That fact alone has spurred many companies to join the online bandwagon. But before you make a knee-jerk decision to do that, give some thought to what will be your most effective online presence.

Carney says that even in his own company the launch into the social media field didn’t come out of a well-calculated process. But the dedication and enthusiasm of his marketing people carried the day.

“To begin with, it was, ‘I heard this and we should do that,’ and unfortunately there was not much thought into why we should begin a social media presence, and I guess maybe that's the way these things start out,” he says.

One of the best approaches is to avoid the temptation to be all things to everybody. Instead, stick to your niche. Re-identify it if you have to.

“From our perspective, the broad goal was to try to enhance the insurance experience through our staff by the way of a process that was personal and timely. That process was social media,” Carney says. “I think that is one of the reasons why the social media aspect of what we are doing has been recognized by the industry.”

By providing technologically advanced solutions to customers, HCCMIS has earned a spot as a leader in its niche: the travel medical insurance industry.

“We went about early on looking at simple tweets regarding our business, and our leadership in the marketing area helped us pull together a process by which we could really impact our business through social media,” Carney says. “Those would be all of the brands that you would expect: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and so on.

Broad concepts can be proliferated through an online vehicle that has a small-town feel.

“You should try to take advantage of those community-style relationships that are online,” Carney says. “For instance, it is evident that it is positive when it comes to travel. You'd be surprised at the number of people who post, ‘I'm traveling to India next week.’ They are posting to their community and issues invariably come up regarding ‘What happens if …’ and ‘Has anybody bought one of these types of products?’

“Those are the issues that you should try to take advantage of. Again, if you can assist someone in the purchase process, if you can make sure from an experience standpoint that it is positive, even if it is not as positive as hoped — can we get it addressed? Can we get it addressed quickly? Can we be seen as getting it addressed? Those are all the broad concepts that you should be trying to accomplish through the social media strategy.”

Get on board

Above the surface, a social media presence looks simple, engaging and easy to use. Below the surface, there are many intricate segments that have to work in harmony and take time and effort to develop.

Any new venture is going to cost money. That’s why it is critical to get buy-in particularly at the upper levels for a social media strategy. A financial commitment will also show the lower levels how you see value in the strategy.

“You have to understand the value and how you translate that value at some point to a product sale,” Carney says. “You also have to have a strong financial model that's supportable, because a technology strategy can be expensive.”

Once Carney realized that a rationale had to be developed to support a major technology upgrade at his company, he crafted it in terms that all employees would understand.

“We updated the systems that handle the transactions and then most recently we upgraded the back-end systems in order to be able to address on an online real-time basis our key stakeholders and their needs,” he says.

“So if think about our stakeholders being our policyholders; our brokers that help sell our product; our providers that provide services; and our vendors that support those services, we figure out how we can address as much of that online as we can in order to meet the needs of someone who is sick in a hotel room in China and does not speak Chinese.

“It's a bit troublesome when you take your child to the doctor in the United States, so you can imagine if you were a missionary in Africa trying to take your child who is with you to a clinic where you really don't understand the language and you know your child is ill. Taking those examples and thinking in terms of your ability to help folks out ties together the mission with the project.

In addition, you should be prepared for a mindset adjustment when your social media policy is being developed and initially launched.

“I think part of this is that you need to grasp that it is sort of unfolding right before your eyes,” Carney says. “And you’ve got to be nimble enough to have an IT organization behind you that can make adjustments as necessary. It is not really very static.”

For the overall technology strategy to be supportable, the pieces of the puzzle have to fit together.

“So you're talking about a customer service component of what you do, you're talking about a marketing piece of what you do, you are talking about a sales piece of what you do,” he says. “All of those roll up into an overall technology strategy.”

Under the surface, there are also technology concerns that your IT department will have to work out.

“So ease of use, accessibility of web browsers being able to address all of the various tools, be it Google Chrome, be it IE 7, I mean you can just go down the list of the opportunities,” Carney says. “And dealing with technology issues around the world, I mean 40 percent of our search comes from outside of the United States. So from our perspective, it becomes a question of localization and where we have our servers. Our organization has a firm footprint in the United States and in Europe. How do we take advantage of our brand in those markets and how do we expand into other markets in order to take advantage of the burgeoning markets of Brazil, Russia, India and China? Those are really critical issues for us as we go forward.”

Finally, be aware that your social media strategy can impact you and Google and Yahoo.

“As you look at search engines and how search engines determine relevancy for websites, the social media strategies deployed by companies are playing an increased role in determining the relevancy of the webpage,” Carney says.

In other words, how much you and your followers use Twitter and Facebook and text about your company affects your placement on a search engine page.

“Where your website shows up in a search engine really depends on how much activity that you receive,” he says. “There are obviously lots of reasons why you do what you do with social media, and one of those is in order to make sure that you appear on the first page whenever you can.”

Be driven to improve

It is often the involvement of employees with the process and the technology that will help lead to successful outcomes.

“We’ve grown the company since its acquisition in 2008 by HCC Insurance Holdings, even while upgrading all the systems, by almost 50 percent,” Carney says. “For the domestic travel market, it has probably grown by 7 percent so even with that I think we are doing things right.”

Of the various ways to keep the 100 employees motivated and engaged, an online suggestion box is especially fitting for a company that uses technology.

HCCMIS deployed a process called “Driven” this past year which is a website internal to the organization and is part of the operating system improvements.

“We created a process to reward employees based upon suggestions to improve our efficiencies that end up being implemented,” Carney says. “We have a specific process in place. A group evaluates the suggestions and selects the best ones. The people who made the suggestions are rewarded based upon the impact the organization undergoes as a result of those suggestions.

“It's all part of the equation for us. It should be an important piece of what you do to recognize people who cared enough about your organization to make the suggestion. For instance, printing can be a big issue. People like to have fulfillment documents with them when they travel. Can they download them themselves, or do they want the company to send them?”

You should ensure that a process to reward employees for suggestions goes across the entire organization.

“It has to be obviously because when you have a company that is so dependent upon technology, you are always worried about unintended consequences,” Carney says. “So what happens if you change this, and how does that translate into other departments? The process for the most part involves trying to invest in and improve the workflow — minimizing steps along the way to allow as much of the work to be done upfront as possible so it is not adjusted later.”

How to reach: HCC Medical Insurance Services LLC, (317) 221-8037 or

The Carney File

Birthplace: Indianapolis, Ind.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in science from Purdue University

What was your very first job?

Serving in the Marine Corps.

What was the best business advice you ever received?

Learn how to sleep on an airplane.

Whom do you admire in business?

L. Ben Lytle. He was the executive who was the catalyst for the transformation of Blue Cross Blue Shield in Indiana into WellPoint, one of the leading health benefits company in the United States. Lytle understood very early the significant role information systems and the Internet would play on a health care company’s ability to compete.

What is your definition of business success?

Success in business can be succinctly summed up as creating value for stakeholders.

Carney on maximizing customer services: We want to make sure that we can provide interactions on a more broad basis: making sure that the call centers that we provide behind-the-scenes for us are able to handle multiple languages, that we are able to do online chat, and we look at all those strategies in order to try to maximize customer services.

Scott Rusch knows what it is like to be president and CEO of the family business, Anomatic Corp.; so does his brother William B. Rusch. They’ve steered it through the highs and lows of the business cycle. But the lows are not necessarily the largest challenge; rather, it is the highs, Scott Rusch says.

“The biggest leadership challenge typically comes when things are going well,” he says. “I think companies often think of the biggest challenge is when you lose a customer, the economic climate is difficult or conditions are bad. What I have found is truly just the reverse.

“When business has had serious challenges, when Anomatic’s business has had difficulty, whether it be from economic events like 9/11 or the recession of 2009, there is generally a kind of feeling within the organization that there is a challenge, that there is a burning platform that everyone has to respond to,” Rusch says. “So during those difficult times, I have found that people respond and they’re willing to change, they are willing to respond very quickly and do whatever is necessary to make sure that the business survives.”

If you allow your company to develop a feeling that you can be a little complacent and coast now, it will often do damage.

“I think the more difficult thing, frankly, is when business is doing well, and if you have had some success, it is very easy to kind of take your eye off the ball or do things in your business that may not be the right things for the long term,” Rusch says. “I think it’s easy to get a little careless sometimes, so it is really important that you don’t lose your discipline on costs, investments or accountability of your team to execute the plan. In some respects, you have to use constraint.”

It pays to understand the business cycle. The main thing is that there are going to be good times and bad times in any business.

“What you don’t want to do when things are going well is to expect that there is no way for the business to retract or go down,” Rusch says.

You want to always be aware that it doesn’t just always go straight up to the sky. So in those boom times, you may be tempted to expand, to do things that are more risky because you may be emboldened by your past success or you may feel like you really have a nothing-can-stop-you type of mentality.

“But you have to be careful because I think hubris can occur and can lead to problems down the road,” Rusch says. “Overexpansion, too much hiring, too much equipment brought on, new technologies, and new acquisitions — all those kinds of things when businesses are doing very well may not get a careful scrutiny than they would if the business were going through a bad economic cycle.

“I think it’s just that kind of discipline on whether it would be acquiring a piece of equipment or making a new hire that you want to make sure you are doing those things with the full support of your customers, that you know exactly where the business is going from one month to the next, one quarter to the next, one year to the next before you make those decisions.”

Anomatic Corp. has made a name for itself in the anodized aluminum field. Founded in 1966 by William C. Rusch, it is now one of the largest in the world in the category of anodized aluminum. It manufactures caps, covers and packaging components for the cosmetics industry. Scott Rusch has been president and CEO for the past one and half years, succeeding his brother.

Here’s how Scott Rusch assesses business problems in good times and bad times, and how he pursues solutions to them.

Stay within your competencies

Any assessment of a planned improvement in operation or expansion needs to show the multiple reasons for it to come to pass. But ultimately you should compare them to your core competencies to see if each is consistent with those proficiencies.

“I think it is important to stay within your core competencies, remembering what it was that really made you successful,” Rusch says. “They should be consistent, and complementary perhaps, but certainly something that you want to make sure that your customers really are looking for as far as additional value.

“As long as what you are adding is important to your customer, you are probably OK. But every company has core competencies, and if you get outside of them and just assume, ‘Well, I was good at this, and I’ll probably also be good at that,’ you may not be. You want to remember what was successful for you and stay true to that.”

While your company may have had many customers on a long-term basis, it is just as important to inquire regularly what kind of vendor they want as it is to ask all the others.

“Just ask them,” Rusch says. “They will tell you. They will tell you what kind of vendor they want you to be, what kind of services they want you to provide, how you can improve your service. My experience is that you ask, and then you listen. Don’t speak for a while and then let them just tell you and then respond based on what they are telling you they are really looking for.”

It often takes a lot of time and effort to make sure that you understand how their needs are changing, but it will be worth it.

“In our business, because of being in the personal care industry providing metal packaging in our market, it is very tied to what consumers want to buy in the stores,” Rusch says. “What most of our customers talk about today is speed to market and very short lead times. They want to collapse the cycle between what’s being sold in the store and what’s being manufactured in the plants.

“So when you think about that, what’s really is important is to become very good at planning, making sure that you eliminate any bottlenecks in the system so that you can shorten the cycle of replenishment.

“If you do it well, you’ve made that customer very happy because they don’t have to discount products in their stores, they are asking for production of things that are actually selling — and you won’t have extra inventory, you won’t have obsolescence. Those are things to really focus on as well as focusing on speed for current products to market and bringing new products to market much quicker.”

Use continuous assessment methods

Continuous improvement is a frequent goal that many companies seek in order to achieve a higher level of success. But under the surface of that goal is continuous identification and assessment of problems. It may be a little surprising, but past home runs can be definite problems and barriers for the company.

“I think that part of your past success can be a hurdle in terms in trying to really identify problems,” Rusch says. “Organizations often will say, ‘Well, this worked before for us, so let’s do it again,’ but the reality is that it may not work for you in the future.

“I think that you need to stay nimble and react to market changes, and you have to always try to reassess your business, understand where the problems are today and where future problems may exist,” Rusch says. “So stay very focused on where, for instance, technology is going.”

Once you identify a current or future problem, there are actions that can be taken. The first involves obtaining a commitment from your employees.

“What we try to do here as a team when we have identified a problem is that in order to get input from everyone and get people galvanized around making improvements, we first want to try to create a sense of urgency,” Rusch says.

“To do that, you have to communicate to everyone very effectively what the problem is: why it is a problem, why change is needed, and how it would best serve the business, the company itself and also the customer to make those changes.”

When you try to create a sense of urgency, you should avoid the trap of using panic methods that are ineffective.

“People don’t respond to screaming and yelling, ‘Hey everybody, get on board,’ big flowery rallies and that kind of thing,” Rusch says. “What people respond to is when you communicate why it is important to your customer, where your customer is headed, why certain activities that may be going on in the company are detrimental to servicing that customer, and if we lose a customer, what the impact would be on the company.”

If your company has a sense of urgency, it avoids the slower pace of business as usual.

“I think that as long as you communicate very clearly and connect the dots between activities or deficiencies that you have as an organization and how that is affecting the customer and the relationship that you have with the customer, it is pretty easy to create that sense of urgency,” he says.

“You have to really act in a way that makes your customers believe that you have their best interests at heart and that you are doing everything that you can to make them successful as an organization.”


Communication problems are at the heart of almost all conflicts involving people. People can build up resentment if they don’t know what is going on around them. That’s why it is important to clearly communicate why you need to make changes or improvements — the second step after creating a sense of urgency.

“I think for the most part, you can handle it is just through meetings that you have, manager meetings, where you talk very openly about the challenges of the business,” Rusch says. “That’s primarily how we do it.”

If you keep an eye on the ebb and flow of the conversation, you will be able to tell if you are building consensus.

“At the end of each meeting, you will pretty much reach a consensus or if you don’t, you can reconvene, but my feeling is that you always want at every meeting, and especially when you are talking about major items, to be able to assign some actionable items,” Rusch says.

You can set up the ground rules for your meetings so that there is a strict discipline to leave those gatherings with action items that everyone has to do — and with necessary reviews for more action. For the follow-ups, a manager or leader who is very results-oriented should get involved. This is someone who knows you can’t control everything that goes on in the business but is accountable for staying focused on the results.

“I think in that way, you tend to not get bogged down with things that lead you astray from your goal, and I think it’s very important for the leader to say, ‘I am very results-oriented,’” Rusch says.

To measure if you are getting results, you should use a variety of metrics. Develop your own to keep meaningful tabs on what you want to follow. “We have a yearly plan,” he says.

“We set goals for the company, whether for growth or profitability or any of the other metrics that we look at, and we review those every month and track and share information with all the managers.”

If an initiative toward those goals is falling apart, it needs to be identified and dealt with promptly. In most cases, there are reasons for the problem and these deserve to be explored.

“Those reasons help you to reassess where priorities have to be for the organization,” he says. “And take immediate action on them. You can’t wait. You have to address things as they come up immediately, and put together corrective actions.”

How to reach: Anomatic Corp., (740) 522-2203 or

The Rusch File

Scott Rusch

President and CEO Anomatic Corp.

Born: Chicago. I was born and raised in the Chicago area. I moved to Columbus after finishing school in 1975 so Columbus has been home since then.

Education: Texas Christian University, Ft. Worth. I earned a bachelor of science degree in business administration from the M.J. Neeley School of Business.

What was your first job? My first job was working in a grocery store, stocking shelves. I did that when I probably was in seventh grade, in Round Lake, Ill., north of Chicago. My brother and I both worked for the family business when we were teenagers and through college. We were brought up in the business.

What was the best business advice you ever received? My dad, William C. Rusch, said to have a good, strong process behind you, and go sell on that. That’s really what he did because he invented our core technology of the Anomatic system for anodizing. We are one of the largest in the world in the category of anodized aluminum packaging.

Whom do you admire in business? I always had a great amount of admiration for my dad. He has since passed, but he was an innovator and a born salesman always very confident of being successful.

What’s your definition of business success? We define success as making the business stronger, financially, and I think that financial success is key to any business. We also make sure that we talk and think a lot about sustainability in many different ways, sustainability in terms of environmentally making sure that our business is doing the right thing for the environment. Anodizing is an electrochemical process so there are things that have to be controlled in that part of the business but also sustainable in terms of reinvestment in the business.

We need to make sure that our technology is kept current, our machines are in very good working order, our employees have the ability to improve themselves through education or advancement within the business. All those things are really critical to us. That’s how we really look at our business as a success.

Want to be successful? Have the best culture.

So many companies treat human resources as an afterthought, or it’s only part of a staff member’s role. For example, the secretary has HR in addition to other duties.

The No. 1 priority

HR should be the No. 1 priority. A great culture can lead to great success (and higher profits).

Why is it that when a company needs to reduce staff, generally, the first place it makes a cut is within the HR department?

In my view, HR is the single most important department in your company and is a direct reflection of how you value your employees.

If your company has a part-time HR person, that tells me a lot about how you are going to treat your employees and their concerns. HR is a full-time job and an integral part of your team.

How you manage your people is a top priority. Not only should HR be the last to go, HR absolutely should be represented at the executive level.

Employees spend an incredible amount of time and emotion working to gain your approval.  Whether they were deprived of it by their parents or need approval to bolster their adult confidence, it’s a powerful force in the workplace.

As a leader, you should tap into this.

Recognize the importance your approval plays with your team: a few lines of praise in an e-mail; recognition for a job well done in a meeting; personal thanks for extra time on a project. It doesn’t have to be big. In fact, the simpler and more low-key, the better.

Do offer approval. Give it often.

The best places to work really do thrive on creativity, energy and a well-defined structure. You need all to keep a business grounded and sharp. It keeps the workplace balanced.

Hire creative people and make them part of top management. Encourage continuous improvement from everyone. (One large improvement is easy to copy; lots of little things make copying next to impossible.) Insist on short, five-minute daily huddles to promote effective communication, ideas, and employee accountability.

Every company’s culture is a mixture of differing attitudes, beliefs, backgrounds and behaviors. But it is your internal communication that speaks most clearly about your organization’s true social culture.

Think internally

How does your internal communication stack up? Think about how management gets important and casual information to employees.

• Is one-on-one discussion encouraged?

• Is internal communication casual or highly structured?

• Is most communication e-mail-driven?

• Are employees a part of the conversation, or “told” what to do?

• What‘s the typical location for company meetings?

• Are employees free to relax at company-sponsored events?

Observe the attitudes

Don’t tolerate bad attitudes. If a person isn’t happy, help them find it at another company.

A recent study at Baylor University published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior found that working with chronically rude, mean or bullying colleagues has far-reaching consequences. The study showed that this type of stress and tension often followed the employee home, causing unhappiness with a spouse or family and can even travel to the spouse’s workplace.

Bullying and mean-spirited behavior simply does not belong in the workplace. Whose job is it to make sure it doesn’t occur? Whoever is at the top. Leadership trickles down.

Make sure your leadership includes clear communication about behaviors that won’t be tolerated. Always live and breathe your workplace values.

Mistakes are OK

Allow staff to make mistakes. It’s how they learn.

“It was my idea, so I’ll ride it out until it works.” Recognize a little of yourself in there?

Thing is, there’s nothing better than making a mistake. It’s a great way to find a better way. To re-tool. To create understanding. To show your team you know when to say when, and head in a better direction.

It’s when you don’t realize your mistake — maybe letting your ego get in the way — that you lose. It’s the people that keep making the same mistakes that are the idiots.

Move forward. And eat a little humble pie in the process. It keeps you in shape.

Finally, and most importantly, give frequent performance reviews and schedule yearly wage reviews for everyone. Separate the wage reviews from performance reviews. If their performance doesn’t warrant an increase, tell them. Honesty is better than not letting them know.

David Harding is president and CEO of HardingPoorman Group, a locally owned and operated graphic communications firm in Indianapolis consisting of several integrated companies all under one roof. The company has been voted as one of the “Best Places to Work” in Indiana by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. Harding can be reached at For more information, go to

Finalists -- Media

Brian Fitzgerald and Aaron Broder’s high standards for life and business are focused on putting forth maximum effort in whatever they do. Not only did this common factor bring the business partners together, but it also allowed them to grow Evolve Media Corp. into the successful digital media company it is today.

Broder’s determination to be successful is rooted in the idea of not only working hard but also working smart. When he encounters an obstacle, he feels it’s important to understand why the obstacle is there in the first place and how best to avoid it in the future. Meanwhile, when Fitzgerald sets a goal, he does everything in his power to fulfill it.

He credits his laserlike focus for allowing him to get where he is today. It’s this combination of working smart and sheer determination that has made them such a winning team. While they may have differing approaches, there’s no question that both Broder and Fitzgerald are risk takers. Neither man had any prior knowledge, experience nor preconceived notions of the industry, and yet they still took a leap of faith and launched the company.

Within Evolve, Broder and Fitzgerald have built an ad sales training program for college graduates. The company is a leading gateway for young people to learn digital media. They have also created an open company culture where the person best positioned to lead and produce will be given the responsibility no matter what age, gender or ethnicity.

These efforts have had a tremendous effect on company moral. The changes have had a positive effect on all employees who feel their input is valued. Employees in general are able to build a career within the company.

How to reach: Evolve Media Corp.,