Cincinnati (1116)

Wednesday, 26 December 2007 19:00

Reaching new heights

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Adults with full-time jobs and full-time family lives may be hesitant to return to school to achieve a master’s or any other higher education degree, but the benefits for both them and their employers are too numerous to ignore.

Many schools specialize in helping adults make a smooth transition back to academia, says Debi Milne, enrollment counselor at the Cincinnati campus of Mount Vernon Nazarene University. And earning a higher degree increases the employee’s chances for advancement with a current employer or even a position with a new employer.

Smart Business spoke with Milne about the benefits employees, their community and their employers can reap from them pursuing higher education.

What are the biggest adjustments adults have to make when going back to school?

As an enrollment counselor, I see prospective students every day who are apprehensive of returning to the classroom. As a graduate student myself, returning after a long absence from the classroom, I was very nervous about completing my master’s degree at this point in my life. There was a 20-year span between graduating with my bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1986 and returning to earn my master of science in management in 2006. By the time I finished my first course, however, it felt very natural. The design of the program using a ‘cohort’ model helps to facilitate this. And, the first course in my program was designed specifically for students returning to the classroom after an absence. The adjustment is made much easier by the fact that you attend only one course at a time, albeit at an accelerated pace. I’m considered a full-time student since I complete 12 hours per semester, and I find this single-minded focus on one class at a time to be very beneficial to me.

How can one balance work with school?

As an enrollment counselor, the comment I hear most often is how much students appreciate a one-night-per-week format. This frees up a second class night per week that’s prevalent in so many other programs. It also allows the family to better adjust to the student’s absence from home in the evening. In my family, the night I have class is when my husband and son have a special dinner together, play sports, do homework, etc. Moreover, I purposely schedule time during the week to complete homework and participate in family activities. Since my husband is also attending MVNU one night per week, planning ahead has worked well for us. It’s also a tremendous benefit that class projects can be specifically tailored for projects students may have at work. It’s like double dipping: You get paid for doing homework and get a grade for work projects.

Can a school provide counseling to a new adult student regarding how to get organized and effectively manage a job with classes?

Many universities offer an introductory class to help students adapt to requirements and expectations and to gain organizational skills to help them succeed. Student advisers also provide assistance in helping students make the necessary adjustments. MVNU’s business programs include a course in personal development. Topics include: personal goal development, adult learning methodology, temperament type analysis, adult study skills, time management, library research, literature review, personal assessment and other subjects relevant to goal achievement in an academic environment.

What kind of flexibility can an adult student expect with class schedules?

Programs that are designed with working adults in mind usually feature courses in the evenings and on weekends and sometimes online. All of MVNU courses offered at the Cincinnati campus meet the same night once per week from 6 to 10 p.m. From the very first night, students are registered for all courses in their program and given a schedule documenting every week that each course meets and all holiday breaks. Students know what weeks they’re in class or on breaks for the entire length of their program, typically 20 to 22 months. This allows them to schedule vacations when it would have the least impact on their class attendance.

How do you convince adults that pursuing a higher education degree is worthwhile?

According to ‘The Value of a College Degree’ by Kathleen Porter, the long-term benefits of a college education for an individual and one’s community far outweigh the costs. For example, a bachelor’s degree holder earns about $2.1 million during one’s lifetime as compared to only $1.2 million for a high school graduate. Besides the economic benefit, there’s also a correlation between higher education and cultural and family values. In addition, the community experiences all the benefits of its members having more disposable income, increased tax revenues and greater productivity among workers. Clearly, earning a degree increases the employee’s chances for advancement with a current employer or even a position with a new employer. Higher education is a win-win situation.

DEBI MILNE is an enrollment counselor at the Cincinnati campus of Mount Vernon Nazarene University. Reach her at (877) 431-9610 x6408 or Debi.Milne@mvnu.edu.

Wednesday, 26 December 2007 19:00

Growing pains

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In 2001, Christopher Cole and Jim McCarthy formed Intelligrated Inc., a supplier of integrated material handling systems, services and products. The company started out of a rented building and had 17 employees, the majority of whom had worked together before and knew how to work as a team.

But as business started booming, the company needed more employees to complete the work. The work force swelled to more than 500 people, and Intelligrated has added 150 people in the last two years alone.

The rapid expansion pushed them into a new office and manufacturing facility in London, Ohio, and five other offices across the country for sales, engineering and support.

While growth is good, it also presents its own set of challenges.

“When we started, it was easy, we knew everybody,” says Cole, Intelligrated’s CEO. “Now, it’s difficult to keep that close, small-company feel.”

With a rapidly increasing number of employees who are now spread across multiple locations, Cole has had to change his leadership style and many company processes to match the larger structure of the company.

Here’s how he has conquered some of his biggest challenges as he’s taken Intelligrated to new levels of success.

Growth requires planning

In order to grow, you must develop a plan for growth and what kind of employees you need to achieve it.

Cole mapped out a plan and put together a budget of how many people the company needed. It is difficult to project how many people you will need at a certain time, but he has tried to have enough people to perform the jobs the company is committed to while not having so many people that they don’t have work to do.

“We’re looking as far into the future as we can, always with the idea that we don’t hire to peaks but to the consistent growth curve,” Cole says.

The type of employee you hire is also important. Intelligrated looks for people who are happy, want to be part of a team, have a passion for the business and can share that with the customer.

“You have to like working with other people,” Cole says. “Find people who can work with others and get enjoyment out of seeing other people succeed.”

Cole says you’re not always perfect with hiring, but it’s easy to spot problems, mainly through reference checks.

Potential hires at Intelligrated also interview with several people, and those executives then complete an online survey regarding the candidate.

“If you get the people together and ask them the question, the reactions of some are going to change the minds of others,” Cole says. “If you do it in a blind survey, you get a much better raw impression of what everybody thinks. If areas come up that look like they might be issues, you can probe deeper to make sure either those impressions are wrong, or if they send up a red flag, you move on and find somebody else.”

Employee referrals are useful when hiring, and Intelligrated pays a bonus to employees who bring in new hires.

“People don’t want to recommend people to come to work in their company unless they believe they’re going to fit in and be good,” Cole says. “The best source of finding people is our own people. The person they’re bringing in, because they know someone inside, it’s easier for them to have a mentor to get a faster start.”

While Intelligrated takes its time hiring the right employee, sometimes that employee just doesn’t fit.

“You think every time you hire someone that it may take an adjustment time, and that they’re going to work out,” Cole says.

But that isn’t always the case. He says it’s better to let someone go sooner rather than later, but it’s natural to want to give someone time to succeed after you’ve made an investment in him or her. The company tries to give every new employee as much support as possible through its various orientation programs as well as requiring supervisors to meet individually with employees each quarter to make sure they are working toward the right goals.

If someone is not performing, you need to step in and help. “See if there is something you can do to change the job or change them to a different job that will make them successful,” Cole says. “At the end of the day though, they might be better off finding a different career.”

The demands of rapid growth can also overwhelm some of your original core employees. These people helped you reach your initial goals, but they may not be the ones to get you to your new goals.

This has happened a few times at Intelligrated, and Cole has worked with those employees to figure out where they could add value to the company.

“When you have an employee performance problem, the natural tendency is to hope it will get better,” he says. “It doesn’t get better until you confront it. Do it in a non-emotional, factual way, and then work to improve the performance. If it still doesn’t happen, then help that person find a different career where they can succeed.”

Integrate new employees

In a growing company, new employees are constantly coming in. These employees not only need to learn their job but integrate into the company’s culture and learn to work with other employees.

“By hiring people with different backgrounds and skill sets, we learn new things and ideas and don’t become stagnant by just talking to ourselves,” Cole says. “It takes new blood in an organization to help stimulate that.”

When employees arrive at Intelligrated, they get an initial orientation on the basics, such as benefits and job expectations. After two or three months, employees participate in a “Welcome to Intelligrated” program, where they learn the company’s inner workings.

“It’s after they’ve been here long enough to know what they’re doing and their department does, and they know quite a lot about the company but not everything,” Cole says. “It’s after those months that people have a lot of questions or don’t know somebody who they see every day but is not part of their department.”

Training courses like the ones Intelligrated conducts allow employees to interact with each other and form relationships.

“It’s both a huge productivity and satisfaction boost,” Cole says. “People know a lot more people in the company, even if they don’t work with them. If they have a question, they have contacts who they can ask.”

Supervisors also go through a training course to learn about personality types so they can better communicate to others. This has helped the team become stronger.

Cole says new employees need to know they are a productive member of the team, even if they are not part of the original group that got the company’s growth going, and to prove that they are, Cole gets them involved in projects soon after they start.

“It’s tough to come and join a group that is already working together,” Cole says. “We’ve taken steps to welcome new people and to learn from them. You’re not the new person very long because there’s always someone else who’s newer.”

Welcoming new people can be as simple as introducing them to other employees. An e-mail is sent out when a new employee joins Intelligrated, which includes a brief bio and photo, so everyone has a bit of information on the new hire.

“We try to get it publicized so people know who’s coming in and it’s not just, ‘Gee, who are you?’” Cole says.

Change with the times

One of the biggest challenges of a growing company is the strain it can put on the culture, whether it’s simple communications or just building relationships with those that work for you.

“We had a culture with the core group, and the key is sustaining that as we bring new people in, learning what they can bring and adding that to what we’re doing without losing the passion and ability to have fun and delight customers,” Cole says.

As the company has grown, he has developed more means of recognition and rewards to show appreciation to those doing a great job. In smaller companies, it’s easier to recognize each employee personally for a job well done, but it’s harder in a larger company. Intelligrated has also developed regular celebrations to acknowledge successes, which has helped employees feel like part of a winning team and motivated them to reach goals, including reaching sales of $100 million in 2006.

Communication is another challenge that faces high-growth organizations, and you need to change the way you communicate as more employees are added to the mix.

“When we were small, I was sure everyone knew what the vision was,” Cole says. “As we’ve grown, I have to work constantly at communicating with employees, in person and in groups, to make sure everyone knows how we are doing, what we need to do better on, and to make sure that everyone is part of the process. It’s spending less time doing things myself and more time communicating the vision.”

Cole says time spent with employees changes in a growth situation, from personal, one-on-one meetings to larger company meetings so you can communicate to more people at one time.

Getting feedback and listening to employees is also key in making sure everyone is headed in the right direction.

“You need to listen twice as much as you think you need to and communicate twice as frequently with all employees,” Cole says. “It’s making sure that you’re getting out and seeing enough customers and different parts of the organization and listening to input from different sources. It’s important to get a diverse amount of input, not just from the same handful of folks.”

Getting out of your office, visiting and walking around are ways to get to know employees and customers and find out what is on their minds.

“Talk to the people who don’t directly report to you and as many customers as possible,” Cole says. “Your customers are the window to how well your organization is performing.

“I walk around and people see me or Jim or the management team, and we travel to job sites and to customers, so that as many people as possible can see that the vision is common throughout the company, what we’re doing and can join together and make us more successful.”

Cole also attends training classes with employees, and tries to sit with people he doesn’t know so employees know that he wants to get to know them and hear their ideas.

“You have to make an effort to get out and meet other people,” he says. “I wish I knew everybody as well as I know some of the people, but I work hard at it.”

You cannot touch every aspect of your organization, so it is important to train your managers to carry your vision and culture down through the organization. Communicate and make sure they understand your vision, and share as much information as possible.

Cole meets monthly with his management team, and then individually for assessments. He also meets quarterly with all employees to discuss company projects. During these meetings, he also talks about the overall direction of the company and reinforces his message.

Even as he and the company have evolved to face the challenges of growth, there’s more expansion on the horizon for Intelligrated. Cole hopes to add at least 200 more employees over the next three to five years, reach revenue of between $400 and $500 million, and add new products to meet customer needs.

And while rapid growth can bring on complicated challenges, he relies on a simple piece of advice to survive.

“Surround yourself with the smartest, best people and work hard on articulating a vision of what is possible and where you’re going,” he says. “Learn from your mistakes and never let them get you down. Keep forging ahead.”

HOW TO REACH: Intelligrated Inc., (513) 701-7300 or www.intelligrated.com

Sunday, 25 November 2007 19:00

Evans Nwankwo

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Integrity is more than just a business buzzword to Evans Nwankwo. It is an essential pillar of his business philosophy that has allowed him to grow Megen Construction Co. from a start-up nearly 15 years ago to a growing $41 million company today. Nwankwo, a native of Nigeria who emigrated to the U.S. to attend college, founded Megen in 1993 after more than 10 years in the construction business. His journey from international college student to president and CEO of his own company has shown Nwankwo the importance of integrity and a straightforward approach when leading people. Smart Business spoke with Nwankwo about the importance of integrity, vulnerability, and other traits and skills of effective leaders.

Set a good example. Integrity is something you cannot preach. There is a saying that, ‘What you’re doing speaks so loud I can’t hear what you’re saying.’

It comes down really to demonstrating that type of character. That, to me, means communicating, not just through e-mail but through speaking in person. Most of the time, if people see decisions made with integrity and see it across the company, they’ll see that you stood by your company’s values and think things through before making a decision.

Show that you’re human. Trust is not something that develops overnight. Trust is something that comes with time.

My direct reports see me be the same person year after year. A larger part of a successful business relationship is constantly being who you are and not changing. That’s how you build that trust.

I also am not afraid to show that I don’t have all the answers. I try to be vulnerable with that so somebody sees that I am not invincible and that I don’t have all the answers.

It does more for my direct reports than for me. If a leader puts himself up on a pedestal, it seems like he is way up there and untouchable. But with vulnerability, people start to see that, ‘Hey, this guy is just like me, someone who needs to take a break every now and then, or someone who needs to leave early to take his kids to soccer practice. He’s human.’ Having a level of vulnerability as a leader allows people to realize that I am just like them.

Maintain your culture. Promoting the culture can be very difficult to put into practice all the time. It’s like saying you’re going to be able to go out there and lose 25 to 30 pounds. That’s not really the hard part. The more difficult part is to keep weight off.

This culture is our DNA. With our people, it has to be a constant. So I have to promote the same culture to everyone, and that’s reflected in the way we do things on a daily basis. That’s the most important way to keep a culture long term.

You need to be very careful when it comes to hiring the people that will carry on the culture. You might have heard the saying that, ‘You have to hire slowly and fire quickly.’ I try to take a great deal of time to hire, but that hasn’t always been the case.

A project pops up, and sometimes we picked the first person who came through the door. Usually, we spend a great deal of time over the course of several interviews to really get to know someone and check out references.

Communicate face to face. Building a detailed communication culture is great, but the better way to communicate is through example. The things that you want to see in others, you need to show the same character yourself.

It takes more than words to communicate. Having said that, there are some fundamental ways to communicate. Here, we have what we call ‘Megen University,’ where we teach and communicate the technical aspects of what we do. We communicate our culture and share examples from experiences we’ve had on different projects, how we handled a situation, how we learned by example.

Making time for communication depends on the size of the company. As you grow, it becomes more difficult to touch everyone in the company on a daily basis. Now that our company is a fairly large size, it is difficult for me as a leader to touch everyone.

I try to counteract that by making sure that my executives get in touch with everyone constantly, so that the cultural pipeline stays constant and that is communicated all the way through the company. However, I do still walk around as much as I can. It is very critical, and it’s how you stay close to the ground level.

If you don’t have time, make time. There is no secret to making time for one-to-one communication. Many people make time for what they think is important.

Because I believe it is the best form of communication and of great importance, I place it high on the priority scale. I work with my assistant to schedule meetings many months ahead over the span of a year.

And during the meetings, it’s a very relaxed environment. We try not to make it very formal. I want to make it informal in a sense so I can learn about my employees’ personal lives. If they are comfortable enough that they are able to share with me what is happening outside of work, it helps me to be able to relate to them and better manage them.

Different people have different ways that they respond to communication, but oneto-one is the most effective. That’s why I have one-to-one meetings with every person who reports directly to me. You want a communication situation where you are able to get feedback.

When I am across the table from an individual, face to face, I can get a sense of all aspects of communication, be that the voice tone, the body language, in a sense, feeling the heartbeat of what is going on with my colleagues. To have one-to-one relationships, one-to-one meetings, has been important for us. I’ve seen how good it has been at creating dialogue.

HOW TO REACH: Megen Construction Co., (513) 742-9191 or www.megenconstruction.com

Sunday, 25 November 2007 19:00

Just a little patience

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Business moves in cycles. Into late 2007, we saw a volatile stock market, good interest rates and a generally good economy. However, there are signs — the increasing national deficit, a slowing in housing and auto markets, and the consumer credit card crunch — that indicate we are moving into an economic slowdown.

Smart Business spoke with Dennis Gramann, a vice president in the business banking group at Fifth Third Bank in Cincinnati, about how an economic slowdown can present opportunities for the alert business manager.

Is it a good time to buy capital goods?

A company’s ability to purchase capital goods is dependent on the strength of its balance sheet. Companies with sufficient working capital and a strong debt to worth ratio have capacity to take on additional debt and allow for capital expenditures. The opposite is true for companies with a weak balance sheet. They will look to sell assets to reduce debt to improve cash flow and improve margins. They may even be looking for someone to acquire the business. There are always winners and losers in an economic downturn. Companies who control expenses, watch margins and make smart capital investments prior to downturns are primed for expansion when the economy turns for the better. They have greater flexibility and capabilities to grow their businesses.

Is it currently a good time to sell commercial real estate?

Anyone who reads the paper sees that the residential real estate market is hurting. It is not a great time to sell homes. But the commercial market has shown remarkable stability so far. Of course, the local market dictates the situation. There are areas of expansion and growth that will drive the commercial market values upward and produce strong sales activity.

What about interest rates?

The belief here is that the prime rate may drop another quarter at the end of the year.

We hope that will spur some economic incentive for business growth. Long-term rates have not had any dramatic change in the recent past. You might see short-term rates go down even more depending on the Fed’s view of the economy and inflation. Overall, long-term rates are still fairly low.

How can you keep your best workers happy?

If you look at the business models today, the majority of companies are going to performance-based pay. They offer a good base salary with incentives and bonuses based on what the employee brings in the door or contributes to the company’s bottom line. It’s always a good idea to pay good people for what they contribute. But, there are other areas to examine. Look at all of your expenses — employee expenses, insurance costs and other overhead expenses. Go to your vendors to get materials costs down. Make sure that all of your customer relationships are profitable ones. This process can make for difficult decisions , but it is necessary to allow the company to be a viable business.

What advice are you giving customers about planning for sales growth?

The place to start is to look at your niche market and see what successes and failures other businesses in that market have had. If you are in manufacturing and fabrication in the auto business, you might want to revisit your projections. In other industries, the economy may be going strong. Your individual industry is the paramount concern when planning sales growth. But good companies always find ways to go forward. Talk to your banker and to your accountant. They can benchmark your business against others in your industry. Look at your current ratio, working capital, debt-to-worth. If you are in line with other companies in your field, you’ll likely come through okay. If you are not, work with your banker and accountant to see what changes can be made to improve your company’s financial strength.

Do slowdowns mean the time is right to buy competitors out?

The answer is yes. There could be some excellent buys with very little premium. This might also be a good time to look at increasing market share, since the competition could be priced out of the market. But you can’t stay stagnant — look for diversification.

Is it a good time to refinance lines of credit?

Lines of credit are risk-based and based on a company’s strength. If you think you deserve a better rate, go ahead and ask for it. But it is not a given.

What other opportunities should a manager look for during a downturn?

Look at opportunities in other areas related to your basic business. You might be able to use your current equipment to expand into another product line. Diversify. There will be opportunities when other companies fall by the wayside. Smaller businesses can do only a little of this, larger ones more. Or, partner with someone in another industry with similar processes or process requirements. Diversification will help maintain the revenue stream in a downturn.

DENNIS GRAMANN is a vice president in the business banking group at FifthThird Bank. Reach him at dennis.gramann@53.com.

Friday, 26 October 2007 20:00

David Hodge

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The best teachers are the ones who are always learning. It’s a universal truth of leadership that David Hodge says he has seen proven time and time again in his years as an academic administrator. Hodge, who has been president of Miami University in Oxford since summer 2006, says the best leaders are always seeking input — always tapping the potential of others in the organization. And he says the only way you can do that is by reaching them, which means you must have finely tuned and well-polished communication skills — and you must use those skills to challenge your people to think. It can be a difficult task when you’re leading an institution of 4,000 employees and more than 20,000 students, as Hodge does. Smart Business spoke with Hodge about how good communication gets employees involved in setting the course for an organization.

Start building a fire. I’ll give you a quick story about how this works. I was meeting with a group of classified staff in May at a half-day workshop. I gave to them a story — it probably never happened, but it doesn’t really matter. A group of visiting executives were wandering one of Boeing’s plants, and they came to a custodian. They didn’t know the person was a custodian, but they asked him, ‘What do you do here?’ And the custodian responds, ‘I build airplanes.’

I thought, ‘What a great statement, what a great story that demonstrates what you’d like people to think about what they do.’ So I turned to our group and asked, ‘What do we build?’ It was a rhetorical question. I wasn’t looking for an answer, but almost immediately from the left side of the room, someone said, ‘We build students.’ But no more had that person stopped speaking than someone from the other side of the room said, ‘We build the future.’

There are classified staff doing what is usually most of our more routine jobs in the university, and they got it. And others in the room are agreeing. So I don’t know if it’s more to teach or unleash the passion that is in people, but I think that I love that story because it says so much about our staff and how the bigger picture is part of what motivates people.

Communicate in more than one way. You have to have multiple ways of communicating. There is no one absolute way. People will listen to certain kinds of messages, and other people listen to other kinds.

Some like to read things, others like to be told things, some like to be in a meeting and have a conversation back and forth. So for the message to be heard, you have to say the message over and over again in multiple ways, in every way possible.

Know what your core message is, and say it again and again. Use examples to illustrates those core messages every time out. Examples might be praising somebody or drawing attention to somebody else.

A mistake many leaders make is they’re afraid that they’ve already said something once and thinking that people are going to get bored if they say it again, simply to say it again. However, first of all, we’re typically talking to different groups all the time.

Secondly, all good messages need to be repeated over and over and over again to reinforce that notion. Each of us has our own ‘a-ha’ moments where we finally get it. That just takes time and a relentless commitment to communicating the core messages. You can’t be afraid to keep communicating, even if you’ve said the message once before.

The second point is all of us deepen the level of learning and our level of understanding by continuing to grapple with the same core issues. There is a superficial level of what is the mission of your organization and what is your identity if you can give a one- or two-sentence answer in all of that. But for us to feel that in our bones and to understand how each of our actions actually plays a role in that is a continuing process of discovery. That’s why core message plus an evolving set of examples leads to a deeper understanding of who we are, where we’re going and how we each can make a difference.

Make communication a two-way street.

You have to ask good questions to get good feedback. Setting up a complaint box or suggestion box is a pretty ineffective way to do that.

You have to be with groups of people and ask real questions. I come back to that example with the classified staff when I asked, ‘What is our product?’ and I didn’t think about it as a real question but a rhetorical one. But the more we ask questions, the more chances people will have to actively think about something.

Telling people stuff is a very passive process, and we know that it doesn’t lead to very deep learning. But posing questions that we’re trying to solve together, the literature is overwhelming that it is a much deeper level of learning, plus you get commitment and passion and vision.

It’s about active versus passive learning, right there, that dichotomy. You can see this in teaching all the time. You get up there and just lecture to people, their brains are not engaged in a deep learning way. It’s a very superficial learning. Even if they’re not given a chance to answer the question, if you pose it in a way that everyone in the room is wrestling with the question, you’ve gone a long way toward achieving active learning.

HOW TO REACH: Miami University, www.muohio.edu or (513) 529-1809

Friday, 26 October 2007 20:00

Benefits of higher education

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The business world is more competitive than ever today. Companies compete for market share, and people compete for jobs. It’s not as easy as it used to be, and often a higher education degree can be the difference between you and another person vying for the same job.

Jennifer Garrabrant knows that all too well. That’s why she’s currently enrolled in the Master of Business Administration (MBA) program offered by Mount Vernon Nazarene University (MVNU) at several Ohio campuses, including Cincinnati. So far, she’s seen her pursuit of higher education result in numerous promotions at work, and she’s not stopping there.

Smart Business spoke with Garrabrant on how she’s been able to juggle a job with school and what skills she expects to have once she completes her degree.

How has pursuing a higher education degree helped your career?

I received my bachelor’s degree in business administration from MVNU in July 2006. In October 2006, I started the MBA program with an expected completion date of July 2008. My education is definitely going to help me reach my career goal, which is to become a college professor. With that in mind, I’ll go straight into a Ph.D. program after I complete my MBA.

Achieving that does not happen overnight. I’ve still got a long way to go before I get there. In the meantime, I’m working full-time in the banking industry. I started out as a teller and, within nine months, was promoted to customer service representative (personal banker). Two years after that, I was promoted to assistant branch manager. One of the requirements for that position was a business degree in finance, business administration or a related field. So my degree had a lot to do with helping me get promoted at my current place of employment.

What are the skills you’ve attained that you can now use to attract an employer?

I have gained many skills throughout my educational experience, including research skills, which are gained through working on many research projects; written communication skills, which are gained by using practical, real-world applications through case studies, short and long essays, etc.; oral communication skills, which are gained through giving multiple presentations in each class; organizational skills; management skills; computer skills; and interpersonal skills, which are gained by working on group projects and presentations.

Other skills I’ve attained include communicating effectively, coaching skills, leading by example, project planning, analytical and problem solving skills, motivating people toward a common goal and team building skills.

Would you recommend higher education to other adults?

I would strongly recommend higher education to other adults. Having a bachelor’s or master’s degree will make a person much more marketable to employers. Many of the positions I came across throughout many job searches required a bachelor’s degree. I’m also beginning to see that many companies are looking for people with a master’s degree. Higher education is very important, and you’re never too old to go back to school. There was one gentleman in my Bachelor of Business Administration program whose goal, after completing his degree, was to retire!

How have you been able to juggle school with work or other responsibilities?

Working full time and going to school full time has been very challenging as it requires a great deal of time and commitment. Were it not for the Adult and Graduate Studies program offered by MVNU, I don’t know that I would have been able to continue my education. The Adult and Graduate Studies BBA and MBA programs are designed specifically for working adults. I only attend class one night a week for four hours — usually from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. — and only have to worry about one class at a time. Depending on the program, it can take from 19 to 21 months to complete. There’s a heavy workload — some classes more than others — and a lot of on-your-own study time. There’s also a low student-to-professor ratio, which allows for more individual attention.

How would you compare yourself now to when you entered the program?

I’m much more confident now than when I started my BBA program. Most people have a fear of speaking in front of others, and I did too. I used to be terrified to talk in front of a crowd of people. But because I had to make several presentations in my classes, I’ve become a lot better, and that’s just one more skill I attribute to higher education. I’ve also learned what it means to lead by example, to solve problems by thinking creatively, to motivate people toward a common goal and to build a team that works efficiently and effectively together. I’ve grown not only in business knowledge but as an individual as well.

JENNIFER GARRABRANT is a student in the Master of Business Administration program offered by Mount Vernon Nazarene University. For more information contact MVNU in Cincinnati at (513) 722-2085.

Friday, 26 October 2007 20:00

Sorting out the lending process

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One never goes for a business loan without some apprehension, but there’s no reason to fret about approaching a bank to borrow money. That’s why the bank is in business.

Smart Business spoke with Jim Schroeck, vice president of business banking at Fifth Third Bank, about the lending process.

How should a business prepare when going for a loan?

The first thing a new business should do in preparation for a business loan is develop a written business plan that clearly demonstrates that the owner understands the products the company is offering along with the markets it plans to serve. Included in the business plan should be a description of what the business intends to do, forecasts for revenue and expenses for the first three years, a market analysis that demonstrates that the market will support its product, and a brief bio of the owners showing that they have experience in their particular fields.

Businesses established for more than two years should be prepared to provide the bank with accountant-prepared financial statements or tax returns for the past two years, along with all the owners’ personal tax returns. In addition, you should have a clear idea of how the funds will be used, with supporting documentation, such as purchase invoices or purchase contracts, when acquiring equipment or real estate.

Do I start with my accountant or my bank?

Along with your attorney and banker, an accountant is a vital partner for any successful business. For a new business, your accountant will provide assistance with forecasts and valuable feedback of the viability of your business plan. These forecasts should be included in your business plan. For established businesses, the banker will want to review financial statements or tax returns prepared by an accountant, so it’s important to establish a relationship with an accountant who can provide guidance throughout the process.

Whom should I approach at the bank?

It is always best to start with a local lending officer who will likely have a good understanding of the market you’re doing business in and will be accessible throughout the process. A local lender can be a valuable resource throughout the loan process by having knowledge of the current trends in your market, along with key business contacts that can be useful to the future success of your company.

Is a written business plan required?

For businesses less than two years old, a written business plan is preferred to demonstrate that the prospective borrower has an understanding of his or her industry and the markets he or she is serving. For businesses more than two years old, a business plan is generally not required; however, you will want to provide a detailed plan for the use of the loan proceeds and demonstrate the ability to repay the loan based on the results of the past two years.

What other factors will the bank consider?

In addition to the company’s ability to repay the loan under the terms of the note, the bank will look at the personal credit of the owners, which provides a good barometer in determining how the business will repay its debt. Those business owners who have below-average personal credit scores are considered to be higher-risk business borrowers to the bank. Also, the bank will want to know what collateral you can provide to support the loan. Any assets, like equipment, property or anything with tangible value, can secure a loan since they can be sold to generate funds for repayment in the event of default.

Who sets the interest rates and terms on loans?

Things like interest rates and terms are set by the loan officer and are negotiable for most commercial loans. Interest rates are set based on a number of factors, including credit strength of the applicant, type of collateral offered, cash flow of the business and the overall relationship you maintain with the bank. The stronger each of these factors is, the lower the rate may be relative to other applicants.

Terms are set based on the purpose of the loan proceeds. Generally, lines of credit used for working capital are set for a year at a time and reviewed annually, while loans to finance equipment are set for five to seven years. Loans to acquire real estate are normally set for five to seven years, with a longer amortization of 15 to 20 years to match the useful life of the asset being acquired.

How long should I expect to wait to hear back with a decision?

Depending on the complexity of the loan request, you should expect to hear back from your loan officer within 48 hours of submitting a complete loan application. Decisions on loan requests less than $50,000 are generally made within 48 hours, while larger requests may take up to 10 business days for a formal decision.

JIM SCHROECK is vice president of business banking at Fifth Third Bank. Reach him at Jim.Schroeck@53.com.

Friday, 26 October 2007 20:00

Certificates of insurance

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You invest in the proper insurance protection for your business assets and liabilities. But have you considered your potential risk from the work completed by subcontractors and vendors? If these parties don’t have insurance, you could end up paying dearly for their mistakes.

“It is important that business owners know that the people doing work for them or providing products and services have insurance,” says Bob Wood, manager of the Underwriting Practices Group at Westfield Insurance. “If an uninsured contractor causes injuries or damages during a project, the owner might have liability for the contractor’s actions. This responsibility comes from the fact that the work was done for the benefit of and on behalf of the owner.”

You clearly want to reduce the risk of having your insurance company pay for the actions of other businesses that work with you. Spending a little time investigating contractors’ insurance status before you sign a deal can save you from spending a great deal of time and money after an incident.

Smart Business spoke with Wood about certificates of insurance and their role in business owner risk management practices.

What are certificates of insurance?

Certificates of insurance are documents that insured businesses can obtain to give evidence that they have insurance coverage. These certificates include information about the effective dates of the policy, the limits of liability, the insurance company providing the coverage and the certificate holder, or the entity requesting the certificate. These certificates are different than the policies that insured businesses have as a guarantee of their coverage. Businesses don’t use certificates to negotiate benefits with their insurance provider; instead they have them as a way to show other parties, like hiring companies, that they have the appropriate coverage. If the certificate of insurance and the actual policy contain different provisions, the insurance coverage will follow the specifications outlined in the actual policy.

What are potential consequences when business owners don’t collect the certificates?

As noted before, if an accident occurs and the subcontractors or vendors do not have insurance, the business owner could end up incurring the liability. This would mean additional expense for the company and potential increase in its premiums. This situation can be avoided if businesses require that the people working for them prove that they have insurance coverage.

Even if entities working for a company do have insurance coverage, not collecting certificates of insurance could still cost a business owner. When hiring companies choose not to keep records of these certificates, they are not following good risk management practices. When their insurance company audits their policy, it might charge additional premiums for the increased potential loss exposure incurred by not verifying proof of insurance. Not having a certificate of insurance doesn’t invalidate any insurance that contractors or subcontractors might carry, but it does show that business owners are exposing themselves to preventable additional risk.

How can companies obtain certificates of insurance?

Business owners can easily obtain certificates of insurance by requesting them from the subcontractors or vendors that want to work with them. These entities can, in turn, access the documentation from the insurance carrier that provides their coverage. Hiring companies should insist that they receive the certificates promptly so they can review them prior to authorizing the contractor or subcontractor to start work. Once businesses have allowed third parties to start work on a project, the contractors have less of an incentive to follow through with the documentation. Also, if uninsured businesses even begin work on a project, business owners have opened themselves up to unnecessary liability. Business owners need to use reasonable care in reviewing the certificates, but generally, they don’t need to validate the certificates of insurance.

What else should owners know?

If a contractor will perform a significant amount of work for an owner, the hiring firm should secure additional protection. Business owners should discuss contractor, subcontractor and vendor insurance requirements with their attorney prior to signing substantial contracts. The attorney can provide advice regarding limits of insurance and other terms and conditions.

One of the common recommendations for owners entering large deals with contractors is that owners should ask to be added as an additional insured on the contractor’s policy. This goes one step beyond the risk reduction provided by simply collecting a certificate of insurance. This distinction assures that the policy of the party most in control of the losses applies first. This protects hiring parties by preserving their own insurance limits and reducing their risk of loss. The certificate of insurance should outline the owner’s additional insured status.

BOB WOOD is manager of the Underwriting Practices Group at Westfield Insurance. Reach him at robertwood@westfieldgrp.com or (330) 887-6883. In business for more than 158 years, Westfield Insurance provides commercial and personal insurance services to customers in 17 states. For more information, visit www.westfieldinsurance.com.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007 20:00

Richard Daniels

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There is a difference between what you think you’re communicating and what other people think you’re communicating. Richard Daniels first read that message years ago, and it has stuck with him to this day. The president and CEO of McCullough-Hyde Memorial Hospital in Oxford, which posted 2006 revenue of $48 million, says that internal communication isn’t a simple matter of verbal pitch-and-catch between a business leader and his or her employees. Instead, it’s a sometimes-complicated process that takes a good deal of maintenance to keep working. Daniels says good communication takes many forms, both written and spoken. And if you want to truly engage your employees, keeping them informed and reinforcing your company’s vision and values, then, he says, communication is something you have to tackle every day. Smart Business spoke with Daniels about how to use communication to empower your work force.

Communicate in many different ways.

Communication is a hard thing to measure. You might think you’re doing a good job, but you don’t realize it until you get feedback.

The big issue is how to have some objectives and evaluation by others as to whether there is good communication. The methods we’ve used have been all sorts of things, everything from direct working with the managers, the managers working with the staff, attending meetings within the departments so you have the direct interaction with your front-line people.

Every employee gets something in writing, so there’s not a possibility of distributing it differently or a possibility that some may read it and some may not. We try to get things directly into people’s hands. So it’s all the traditional stuff, things on bulletin boards that we have throughout the facility. There really is no one way to communicate that is more or less successful than another way.

However, you need to communicate through different means because some people are visual people and some are not. Some people understand communication best verbally. Some understand better if they have a chance to read it and think on it. People have different levels of understanding of the organization or the issues in particular areas.

Particularly in health care, we have everything from on-the-job training to clerical or environmental services to nutrition services. Some might not have Ph.D.s but are people who are very well-educated and very knowledgeable in very specific areas. So people have different levels of capabilities in terms of understanding and appreciating the information.

Take an employee’s perspective. I don’t know who said it first, I read it a long time ago, but someone said, ‘When you are communicating, there is what you want to communicate and what you actually do communicate.’

It’s what the recipient of the communication heard, so there are many factors that go into how things are communicated and how things are understood. To expect that one way or method, even if it’s repetitive, will be successful, that might not necessarily be the case.

You can never be totally sure that people are hearing what you are saying. You try to get feedback by directly asking people or through asking the front-line managers, ‘How are the people in your area reacting to the information? Are you getting questions from people?’ But it’s still subjective and iffy at best.

Get your best players on the field. The biggest thing with communicating your vision would be to set the base, which would be the values that go with mission and vision of the organization.

That tends to happen when you get the core group that has been a part of the organization for 10, 20 and 30 years involved. They are kind of the base around which a lot of other people come and go over time. The longer-term people have kind of internalized in a general sense the direction of the organization, the philosophy.

A certain amount of that rubs off on the other people. That occurs, and the other part of that is, periodically, you try to reinforce that with more formal education or training programs or other ways to get the point across differently.

Recognize your employees. You try to recognize people on a personal basis, by saying, ‘thank you,’ face-to-face. One of the advantages of e-mail is that you can hit a whole bunch of people very quickly when there is a particular success.

One of the things we started doing several years ago is budget $50 for each employee in a department, so the department manager has money set aside for however they want to use it. They can buy a $10 gift card to give to a person as a measure of thanks for extra effort.

The point is to give the recognition. Even though it’s not a big deal in terms of dollars and cents, it’s a big deal to the recipient, no matter how large or small it is. It’s the process of the recognition, not necessarily the value of the reward itself.

Keep it real. You try to be straightforward with whatever is going on, so that there isn’t any hidden information or hidden agendas. People trust what you are doing, and you try to be fair and consistent and reasonable with how you go about change. Things are always bound to change, and there will always be new challenges you have to face, which means you need to have a philosophy about how you do it.

HOW TO REACH: McCullough-Hyde Memorial Hospital, www.mhmh.org or (513) 523-2111

Tuesday, 25 September 2007 20:00

Keep fuel in your tank

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What would you do if you lost a customer that represented more than 60 percent of your business? How about if a key employee jumped ship and joined the competition? When customers pay late, equipment is tied up in repair and vendors come knocking, business owners can run out of the “liquid” that fuels business operations: cash.

“Hopefully, a banker is talking regularly with customers and asking relevant questions along the way so there is an indication that a business may be heading toward a performance downturn before it happens,” says John Covington, vice president of business banking at Fifth Third Bank in Cincinnati. “I can’t stress enough the importance of ongoing dialogue with your banker.”

Smart Business asked Covington how business owners can plan for tough times and work through them with successful results and, in effect, a stronger relationship with their bankers.

What obvious signs indicate to a banker that a business is in trouble? What can cause a ‘tough time’?

Usually, bankers suspect when businesses are experiencing a challenging operating cycle. The trick is to pay attention and be prepared before events impair their ability to pay any principal and/or interest due. Businesses may appear on an overdraft report and rely on overdrafts to cover checks written to suppliers or employees, or banks may notice lack of timely correspondence. Owners may delay sending in financial statements or ignore phone calls from the bank. Finally, the financial statement may reveal that an operating covenant has been violated.

The events that can cause owners to pay late or not at all range from a slow economy, lengthening inventory turns, increased competition, changing technology, different payment terms from customers or vendors to losing a key employee or customer. Bankers who do their jobs are asking about these issues before they become concerns for business owners. Similarly, owners must be honest about changing business conditions and how this will affect their ability to perform and, ultimately, pay the bank.

When an owner approaches the bank during a tough time, how will a banker work to develop a solution?

It’s always better to plan for a potential problem so you can work through tough times rather than waiting to react to them. But business owners who are tied up in daily operations often let financials slide too far before realizing they must turn around their situation before a ‘tough time’ sabotages the business’s potential for success. That said, bankers will review company financial statements and compare performance to past years, quarters and months.

Furthermore, how did the company perform relative to the established financial covenants? Just because a company may trip up, a covenant does not necessarily mean a bank will ask for its money back.

Set appropriately, financial covenants serve as an early warning system that, when breached, forces dialogue between the banker and the borrower. Bankers dig for reasons and ask, ‘Why? Why is inventory turning slower? What is putting a crimp in cash flow? Is it different vendor payment terms, slow-paying customers or unexpected operational expenses? Why did a key employee leave? Did the business offer him or her a profit-sharing plan or incentives to stay? What is the company’s customer concentration profile — should the business work to diversify?’

After reviewing the ins and outs of the business, bankers will address areas where owners can cut back. For example, if the income statement shows a business is not earning enough money to pay for its operations, then an owner must either generate additional profitable revenue or remove a layer of expenses. The banker then works as an adviser, helping the owner to work through scenarios to improve the financial outlook of the company.

What preventive measures can owners take so they aren’t putting out fires?

Develop contingency plans to address risk factors in the business, and update those plans on a regular basis. For example, one of my clients lost a customer that represented 80 percent of his business. This was a big loss, but the owner knew how to react. He had a plan. First, he recognized that relying on a customer for such a large portion of overall revenues was risky. But the company’s overhead structure was such that the owner could control expenses and make adjustments if necessary. He planned to pay down the building loan so he wouldn’t have this fixed, monthly payment. He had a ‘skeleton staff’ he could rely on if he had to cut labor. So when he lost this customer, he acted on his plan. Today, his business is smaller, but it’s still profitable. Because he could react quickly, his business didn’t miss a beat, and his financials did not suffer.

JOHN COVINGTON is vice president of business banking for Fifth Third Bank. Reach him at john.covington@53.com or (513) 530-0791.