Thursday, 28 June 2001 20:00

Masterfully speaking

Change is an unavoidable reality for every business owner.

To maintain an acceptable level of success, a company must keep pace with advances in technology, internal growth and the competition. The cost of failure is high not only for the business, but for the company leadership as well.

In ''How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation'' (Jossey-Bass: A Wiley Company, December 2000, $24.95, 235 pages), Bob Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, developmental psychology professors at Harvard Graduate School of Education, have compiled examples of individuals struggling to transform the way they work. Kegan and Lahey lay out the importance of using the proper words to facilitate lasting change.

Here are three issues they tackle in their book.

Barriers from within
''There is currently a huge gap between the aspirations for change within organizations and the capacity to create and implement it,'' Kegan explains, adding that he contests the internal obstacle that convinces people they want everything to remain part of the status quo.

Language typically used within the workplace conveys rules and polices rather than public agreement, Kegan argues, thus building an environmental barrier that must be knocked down before change can be attempted. Understanding that internal conflict and learning how to use positive communication to overcome it are the first steps toward creating lasting personal and organizational change.

Personal immunity
Have you ever wondered about that widespread, contagious language used in many organizations that slowly poisons the environment? It's called BMW --bitching, moaning and whining -- and it often develops as a defensive mechanism by employees with unaddressed issues.

Kegan and Lahey say BMW can be defused if leaders recognize and acknowledge employee complaints. By directly facing problems, the real issues can be addressed and removed as impediments to change.

Kegan says the language of personal responsibility is not often used. Acknowledging one's own responsibility in everyday situations promotes productive internal conversations and an opportunity to learn from the stories we tell ourselves.

Maintain a healthy balance
To move forward with productive change, people must not only examine their communication style, they must also disturb the delicate faade they have created to protect themselves against change within their work environment.

Kegan and Lahey say too many adults hold tight to the belief that because they are grown ups, their assumptions must be the truth. That creates a faade that says it's not important to look at alternative options as potential realities.

But, the authors contend, by looking at your assumptions rather than looking through them, they will no longer be a lens to the world. The assumptions will simply be food for thought, not locks on the doors of change and improvement.

Worth the time?
Although ''How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work'' is loaded with logical theory that is strongly supported by examples, the ideas are, unfortunately, too buried. While trying to focus in on its worth, it's easy to get lost in the book's academic wording.

But good business leaders make time to explore within as they hunt for new productive ideas to move their company forward. And for those readers who have the patience to persevere, Kegan and Lahey offer more than a lion's share of productive ideas designed to help business owners get started on the path to lasting change.

How to reach: ''How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work,'' (800) 956-7739

Jossey Bass website

Published in Cleveland
Thursday, 30 August 2001 20:00

The Fisher King

In early 2000, Peter Nauert, chairman of Ceres Group Inc., approached Jim Fisher with what seemed like a backward idea during the dot-com explosion: He wanted to sell insurance over the Web, but rather than just deal directly with consumers, Nauert wanted his agents involved.

The concept was a distinct departure from that of Ceres' competitors, such as Progressive, that were eliminating agents from the transaction.

The project demanded sophisticated software. For prospective clients, it needed to be polished to keep the average shopper from clicking away from the site. On the back end, it had to be easy to use and update because agents needed to design their own Web pages and connect them with the hub site, QQLink.

"They said, 'Our agents made our company what it is,'" recalls Fisher, president of IdeaStar Inc. "(Nauert) wanted to create a Web site where you (as a client) can assign yourself to an agent and buy the policy from the agent or online. We had to create the technology to make all that happen. We have almost 2,000 agents cooking on this right now."

IdeaStar's flagship software, GalaxyBuilder, has quietly helped several Cleveland-area companies make a loud splash on the Web, but has drawn scant attention to IdeaStar itself. In short, GalaxyBuilder allows a nontechnical person to create a professional, multifunctional Web site in a few simple steps.

It's the foundation for Ceres Group's QQLink Web site, which connects customers to more than 1,600 insurance agents represented individually by unique Web pages. The idea was Nauret's, but the technology was all Fisher's.

"We've sold more than $1.3 million in annual life premiums so far this year," says Nancy Zalud, senior vice president at Ceres Group and a co-developer of QQLink. "Nearly half of that was in the month of May. IdeaStar helped us set that up. They've been very flexible in changes and adjustments that we've made."

Another company aided by IdeaStar's technology is e2grow.com. Founded by Dennis Barba Jr. in 2000, the community portal site provides neighborhood news, sports and business directory information to consumers but generates revenue by giving local small business owners a Web presence. A subscription fee lets business owners build their own sites and connect with customers directly in their area through e2grow.

Like Nauret's, Barba's business plan seemed to go against the grain. Instead of trying to reach a worldwide audience like many content driven sites, Barba's focus is to attract a local but Web-savvy audience. In the company's first year, Barba launched community portals for eight Northeast Ohio communities and four in the Seattle-area, and landed investors in 14 states. Fisher sits on e2grow's board of advisers, as well.

"We wouldn't be here without them," Barba says. "We got it done on time, and most importantly, within our budget. It's been a good relationship."

Fisher isn't solely responsible for Ceres and e2grow's Web successes, not by a long shot. But it is an unusually humble gesture for Fisher not to slap an IdeaStar or GalaxyBuilder logo on the sites or tie his name to them in some way.

"The fact remains, it's their responsibility to take the technology and make the business models work," says Fisher. "I'm glad I'm relieved of that. e2grow and Ceres bear the responsibility. But it is kind of cool to see it happen and see it work."

Fisher's process is straightforward: He signs a licensing agreement with clients, giving them permission to use his technology, while he agrees not create the same product for a competing client in the same industry.

"If you came to us and said, 'Give us a Web site builder, we'd say you have to cut a deal with e2Grow," Fishers says. "Customers want solutions that aren't all proprietary and locked down. They want to be able to modify and customize it. That's what's killing some of these big solution providers."

IdeaStar was called ProShows until 1999. Founded by Fisher in 1984, ProShows helped companies plan, organize and run business events and seminars using slide shows, videos and Microsoft PowerPoint presentations.

About 10 years later, Fisher added Web site development to his list of services. Steadily, the Internet services outpaced the other business segments until it was time for Fisher to reposition the company as an Internet solutions provider. Thus, IdeaStar was born.

So far, the key to Fisher's successful Web projects has been in the painstaking development process.

"We do plenty of listening to the customer or the market," Fisher says. "We strive to capture their vision and then devise unique solutions. Typically, it will be a business developer and one of our lead developers who work through this visioning process. It's the collaboration of a nontechnical and a technical person that's necessary to understand and execute the new innovation."

Once Fisher and his team are on the same page with the client, he turns the project over to his developers. Wayne Largent, IdeaStar's director of development, is an authority in an evolving school of programming called Extreme Programming (XP). If you couldn't guess by its name, XP is different than traditional software creation. Developed in the early 1990s, XP cuts development time in half, but is only beginning to gain widespread acceptance. Using templates and open code standards, the ultimate goal of XP is to get the technology to market more quickly.

"It used to be developers would have these very long development periods and very rigid methodology," Fisher says. "But in the last 10 years, there's this new phase where you go in and you pound away and you learn as you go and the client adds things and you add things."

Once a prototype is built, the original development team reassembles for a review and examination of the results. A final prototype is then ready for the arduous testing and piloting process. At the end, the project goes to the marketplace, where it's constantly measured and tested to find ways to improve it.

"At this point, either it's a winner or a dud," Fisher says. "So far, we've had all winners, but these are the risks we take using XP."

In the business world, risk is a given, and Fisher's risk-taking looks to be paying dividends. He's working on a new sister piece of software for GalaxyBuilder called CorpMeetings.

This product is also geared toward the nontechnical person. CorpMeetings traces back to Fisher's ProShows days when he helped companies organize business events and seminars.

"For people who plan meetings at corporations, it's a nightmare to get all the people registered," Fisher says. "I know what these poor people go through."

CorpMeetings automates event registration and management using opt-in e-mail. The software helps create, publish and maintain multiple registration sites, tracks participant registration and produces reports and registration information. It even sends a follow-up e-mail after the event.

"We're not going after the super-big conference or convention market," Fisher says. "We're looking for banks, law firms, large corporations, medium-sized corporations who spend a lot of time, preparing, tracking and managing the event registration."

If there's anything Fisher has learned from his time at IdeaStar, it is that going in a different direction --especially on the Web -- is usually a good thing.

"We've seen in the last year that the Web is not a business model in and of itself," he says. "It is simply a tool that can enhance existing businesses. There are some businesses that can use the Web solely as a business model, but it's pretty difficult."

How to reach: IdeaStar, (216) 587-9300

IdeaStar website

Published in Cleveland
Thursday, 13 September 2001 07:29

Zen and the art of motorcycle business

If you're not familiar with SuperTrapp, odds are you're not a motorcycle enthusiast.

The Cleveland-based manufacturer is well known in racing circles for its line of high-performance exhaust systems for motorcycles. According to former general manager Larry Trevathan, SuperTrapp's products appeal to the emotional horsepower of the recreational and hobbyist industry.

But like any company with a product dependent on discretionary income, SuperTrapp felt the brunt of the economic downturn that hit in mid-2000 and sent the recreational market skidding down the same tight and winding road.

Spending on discretionary products almost always trails economic fluctuations -- remember what the early '90s luxury tax did to sales of high-end automobiles and the marine industry -- and even though the company backs its products with power, SuperTrapp was not immune, says Trevathan, who in June and was replaced by Jon Hedges.

Hedges, recruited from Summit Racing, a well-known distributor in the performance after-market in Akron, has his work cut out for him with domestic sales running on empty. The slump that cost SuperTrapp 35 percent of its work force could have put an end to the after-market supplier just as easily. But it didn't. Working within a global rather than national market saved the day. To that end, Hedges says he is confident of the future and plans to build upon one of the company's core strengths -- its quality.

The large and fragmented market of more than 200 suppliers worldwide typically enjoys annual sales of between $300 million and $500 million. And, although it would be the easier road to follow, SuperTrapp has not put all of its sales efforts into the affluent American market that ties prestige and status to fast and furious motorcycles.

Instead, the privately held business survived and is on the rebound because it established sales in foreign markets. It is those markets that are providing SuperTrapp with much-needed growth during these soft economic times.

And, because business agreements are diversified on a country-by-country basis, the foreign sales that constitute 30 percent of the business are profitable and continue to fuel the company's engines, especially in the European markets.

The bulk of SuperTrapp's products -- 80 percent -- are sold through dealerships. Sales to original equipment manufacturers account for the remaining 20 percent.

For nearly 20 years, the company has worked with international distributors throughout Europe, including Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom, as well as in Japan.

Many countries have more stringent noise and emissions standards than the United States and the bikes can also vary dramatically from American-made counterparts, depending on where they are made. So to keep product development costs down, SuperTrapp established partnerships with organizations that provide research and development work on the targeted motorcycle brands on a country-by-country basis.

Under the agreements, partner companies develop products, submit testing to regulatory agencies and register with governmental authorities. After meeting compliance regulations in accordance with local laws, SuperTrapp manufactures and exports the product under its own name.

In 1988, after creating a strong reputation in the motorcycle after market, SuperTrapp was purchased by Dreison International Inc. and moved from its original location in California to Cleveland. In 1991, Dreison purchased exhaust system specialist Kerker Inc., which produces complementary systems, and merged it into SuperTrapp. Dreison's management housed the company in 75,000 square feet of manufacturing space under the leadership of SuperTrapp's management team.

While one Cleveland plant handles production and exporting, the "development activity has been decentralized in order to handle the issue of logistics," says Trevathan.

In Germany, dirt bikes are popular because of the country's narrow, condensed streets and the need for maneuverable, basic transportation. SuperTrapp's partnerships work there because the motorcycles are similar to American-made dirt bikes. The German dual sport bike is ridden as a dirt bike and is street legal. Hedges says German noise regulations are very strict, and the rest of Europe will eventually follow suit.

Japan also has very stringent laws regarding noise, a result of the souped-up exhaust pipes sold by SuperTrapp. Working inside Japan requires a different strategy and a slightly different structure -- the touch of the Japanese bike is very different than that of the American. So in 1998, SuperTrapp forged a relationship with a major Japanese manufacturer that handles all developmental work and manufactures the products under a private labeling agreement.

"It just makes sense for us to set up somewhat of a satellite manufacturing arrangement," Trevathan says. "It's our brand name and some of our technology."

So far, the strategy has worked, Hedges says, and SuperTrapp enjoys a significant share of Japan's market.

As the company pulls itself up by its bootstraps to overcome the downturn in the U.S. economy, other manufacturers are copying technology that made SuperTrapp products unique 20 years ago. But they've got a difficult gap to overcome. While those features helped establish the product over the years, its global presence leveraged the brand.

That leaves SuperTrapp in much better shape than its last 18 months would indicate, and though Hedges admits he faces a challenging future, the company's diversified customer base at least gives him an edge to work with.

How to reach: SuperTrapp, (216) 265-8400

Deborah Garofalo (dgarofalo@sbnnet.com) is associate editor of SBN Magazine.

SuperTrapp website

Published in Cleveland
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