From franchisee to franchisor and from both sides of the Atlantic, Jim Hunter has seen all the faces of franchising.
Through it all, the president and CEO of the handyman franchise operation House Doctors, has observed some secrets to success that are steady across oceans and industries.
“Most successful franchisees have energy and enthusiasm and pride in their business,” says Hunter, a native of Scotland who oversees the national operation made up of around 450 employees in 103 territories. “If you get that in your office and in your team, then that overflows.”
So Hunter starts with enthusiastic franchisees. Then he accelerates the training process to get them up and running before their energy has time to fade.
Since he started this “Fast Start” program, his franchisees are opening their operations 70 percent faster than before. And last year, the program paved the way for both the fastest-growing and the highest revenue-generating franchises in House Doctors’ history.
Smart Business spoke with Hunter about how to build enthusiastic franchises.
Find enthusiastic candidates. I’ve seen some great franchisees who have built a fantastic business and went on to create great wealth. All of these very successful franchisees had three main traits: One, a very strong determination to succeed that enabled them to overcome any challenges that they had. And they had a real energy and enthusiasm and pride in their business and what they were doing. Finally, all of the really successful franchisees are able to work in partnership with franchisors and follow a proven system.
[We] always start with a discovery process where the franchisor is learning as much about the candidate as the candidate is learning about the concept. It’s very much a two-way interview process, first by telephone and then when we meet during discovery day at our home office.
As part of our discovery day, we have the candidate complete a personality profile questionnaire. We compare the results to existing successful franchisees and look for similarities. We’re not only looking for the personal traits like determination and enthusiasm for the concept but also certain business skills based on their work history.
We start off with an overview of the company: how it started, where it came from and where we’re going. The vision and the buy-in really start with the discovery day. [You can see] they’re excited and they’re giving a response like, ‘Oh yes, I see what you mean,’ and, ‘Yeah, I agree with that. Wow, that’s the way to go.’ They’re giving positive responses to what we are telling them. If they didn’t, then we wouldn’t award them a franchise.
Get details out of the way. Training starts before the actual classroom training. We have to prepare the new franchisee for business ownership. The Fast Start program is made up of over 100 items on a checklist, and we go through every step with new franchisees over a four- to five-week period before they come to classroom training.
It covers everything from putting together your business plan to ordering your first van.
The Fast Start includes things like, ‘Have you got an accountant?’ and helping them set that up, right through to starting to do their business plan and the marketing plan.
It’s all in order of when you need to get it. For example, you can’t get your fliers or your business cards printed until you have your telephone numbers.
A CEO probably has had the experience setting up a business or being involved in these types of things before. But you’ve got to imagine that the new franchisee may not have. Based on our experience of what’s needed as someone sets a business up, we started right from the basics. It could be something as basic as registering your computer and ordering fliers that are going to go out after you open. But they’ve all got to be thought of and done prior to you starting the business. If you start up your own business without something like this, then possibly you could forget something.
Attention to details is important and getting the details in the right order. We’ve done a lot of the details before our training so when they’re coming to train, they’re already enthused.
Involve your team in training. When they go into the classroom training, it takes them right from the basics to completing their business plan, completing their marketing plan, completing their budget, and everything to do with personnel to marketing their business to dealing with customers. We term it as, ‘How to run your business.’
We use all our internal staff because these are the guys and gals who will be working with them. Obviously, the marketing manager comes in and does some marketing. The graphic designer will come in and do the stuff on controlling the logo, for example. We have the legal department tell them about insurance and trademark stuff.
Each member of our team takes part in the training. We don’t have a trainer, per se, but that’s good because it obviously gets them familiar with the people who they’ll be dealing with.
Hit the ground running. Everything is aimed at opening them as soon as possible after training because we don’t want to lose the vision. We don’t want them losing excitement. We want them to get out into the marketplace fresh with what they’ve learned.
We intend them to go straight from training. ... They have everything they need to start their business as soon as they finish their training.
Other franchise systems struggle with getting their people out and up and running quickly after training. They would be sitting in training and still trying to organize their company, still trying to organize the fliers and still trying to order their van. They’d be coming out of training still trying to do these things.
By doing that Fast Start, they’ve done all that stuff before they go into training. During the training, they’re focused. And then when they finish training, they can actually hit the ground running.
How to reach: House Doctors, (800) 319-3359 or www.housedoctors.com
After all, he’s in charge of protecting those who protect us. As the president of the Security & Survivability division of global defense contractor BAE Systems, he provides products to keep government officials and military personnel safe in high-threat areas. Russell heads three lines of business that produce vehicle armor and restraints, protective materials, and personal gear.
To do that, he has 4,000 of the parent company’s 106,400 employees under his wing.
And, as if those responsibilities didn’t demand enough of his attention during regular office hours, Russell also took his senior staff on a recent tour of all 10 locations — including one in Germany — to conduct town-hall meetings at each office.
So with all that weight riding on him, Russell’s schedule is understandably packed. But no matter how busy his day is, he makes time for one thing: his employees.
“You’ve got so much on your plate,” he says. “It creates anxiety as a leader because you’ve got this long list of things you need to attend to. If somebody comes in, you spend time with them. You’ve got to force yourself to do that.”
After seeing other leaders bark out orders like a commander-in-chief, Russell knows the difference that interaction can make. When you take the time to listen to employees’ viewpoints, you make them contributors rather than just assets.
Whether employees come to him to share ideas or receive their evaluations, Russell espouses the philosophy of listen first, talk second.
“In my career, I think what’s helped is listening to people,” he says. “That’s one of the key leadership aspects that has been important.”
But a listening ear is just the beginning. Russell also engages employees in conversations to explore all the facets of an issue and eventually land on the same page.
The time Russell spends listening to employees manifests in improvement all around — whether it’s their development, his growth as a leader or the overall sense of buy-in that comes from understanding each other’s perspectives.
“I very much rely on key talent around me to help me make good decisions,” Russell says. “If you don’t have people around you that you trust to give you advice that you can take, then you’re just a very limited leader.”
Give questions, not answers
The quickest way to get employees pointed toward your desired outcome is to simply tell them how to get there. But Russell has learned that the best way to rally his troops is to take the time to guide them toward the answer — not just hand it down as an edict.
“There is a cliché, old-school style of pound the fist on the desk and demand results and yell and scream,” he says. “It might get people to jump for a little while, but ultimately, it generates a lack of respect that, in the long run, doesn’t work toward good results.”
Like many others, Russell has reported to those leaders in the past. Before you even finish explaining the problem, they start spouting their solution.
A more motivating approach requires not just a patient ear but actually engaging in a two-sided dialogue. After you discuss their ideas, take time to explain your own.
“Listening is engaging people in the process,” says Russell, who takes the same disciplined approach when making family decisions at home.
Even if you don’t adopt employees’ ideas, you can still achieve agreement. Focus your efforts on bringing them on board with the direction you do take.
“It’s certainly easier just to say, ‘Well, I’m the boss. We’re going this way,’” Russell says. “Then they may not be fully engaged behind the idea.”
Employees want to be involved in the creation of a solution — even if it’s your solution, not theirs. To get their buy-in, give them questions instead of answers. Approach it like a gentle debate, presenting information and counterarguments to help them see a perspective other than their own.
Russell, who doesn’t like the connotations of conflict carried by the term “debate,” thinks of it more as a realization process.
“Obviously, turning back to them and saying, ‘OK, so what do you want to do about this?’ is a good thing to do,” Russell says. “[Ask,] ‘Have you thought about it this way?’ Bring up points that they may not have thought about.”
Of course, you won’t have to personally lead each employee to a revelation. While some of them are conditioned to present an issue and immediately ask for direction, others will offer their own suggestions without a nudge. In those cases, you’ll just serve as a sounding board while employees arrive at the solution unassisted.
Regardless of how involved you are as a guide, the sequence should always be the same: Listen first; talk second.
“Generally, I try and give people the opportunity to chime in [and] give their idea before I give mine,” Russell says. “You’re anxious to move on to other things but spend the time to listen to people. The biggest reason is it motivates them. It empowers them.”
Reflect on employees’ progress
Thanks to his busy schedule, Russell doesn’t have time to evaluate every employee’s performance on a daily or even per-project basis. But that doesn’t mean he neglects his employees’ development altogether when their personal development review comes around every year.
He does, however, rely on them to carry some of the weight. The process begins with their self-assessment. Russell asks employees to come to their review prepared with their own list of personal strengths and weaknesses. After they evaluate themselves, he steps in.
Instead of keeping track of an employee’s every high and low, Russell takes the time to review their big-picture strengths and weaknesses a few times a year. It’s sort of like throwing the spaghetti on the wall and seeing what major issues still stick after several months.
“It’s only when you sit back and you reflect that you highlight more high-level positives and negatives,” he says. “Sometimes you deep-dive into a project or a program and how somebody behaved or specific incidences that have occurred, but it’s just a reflection.”
Even though hindsight is 20/20, you can’t rely on memory alone to judge an employee. For example, plenty of performance-measuring data and feedback from others feed into Russell’s reflections. Engaging these other resources not only saves you from having to know everything about each employee, but it also provides a more complete assessment than you alone could.
“Tangible measurements are a good thing,” Russell says. “Unfortunately, not all businesses are set up to provide tangible measurements to all functional areas.”
“Some people you can hold directly accountable, especially if they’re running a business and you’re looking at profitability or customer satisfaction metrics,” he says. “But it’s the functional support areas that are a little bit tougher to get tangible measurements on.”
So when specific data is lacking, yo
u can make up for it by turning to the people around that employee for their input.
Throughout the year, their feedback comes informally as either complaints or kudos. But Russell also asks for it directly through 360-degree evaluations of directors, vice presidents and other managers. Colleagues above, below and beside those employees are asked to rate them on topics such as performance, customer focus, interest in developing others and teamwork skills.
“When the person who’s doing the assessment isn’t known — a discreet type of evaluation — you’ll get more honesty,” says Russell, who lets employees choose whether they want to leave their names on the online form.
Even if you’re not doing every aspect of the assessment yourself, the combination of cut-and-dry data, employees’ own observations and evaluations from co-workers will give you enough fodder for a conversation. Even meeting with your direct reports — and having them do the same with the employees under them — illustrates that the leadership cares about the development of its team members.
Don’t rush through reviews
Employees who walk into Russell’s office for their personal development review shouldn’t expect to stay at the receiving end of the table. Instead of rushing through the process, he uses their assessments as a quid pro quo opportunity, opening his ears to their criticisms so he can improve, too.
“That’s another one of those old-school approaches: a superior fills out an assessment, you go into a room for 15 minutes and the superior tells the employee what they did bad and good, and that’s the end of it,” Russell says. “It’s got to be much more than that. There’s got to be open dialogue, not just a one-way assessment.”
But it’s not as easy as simply asking them to evaluate you. Thanks to the innate hierarchy of corporations, you have to create an environment where they feel comfortable pointing out their boss’s flaws.
“Humbling yourself goes a long way,” he says. “People are typically nervous sitting across from a superior. When you let that person know that you don’t know it all, you’ll generate an openness.”
You can tell employees frankly that you welcome their feedback. Russell, for example, opens the meeting by saying the review is as much about their improvement as his own. But that won’t erase the apprehension if employees are scared to point out a superior’s weaknesses or prepared to only play defense and justify their job.
They’ll be more likely to follow your initiative than your invitation, so you have to set a pace that shows you’re receptive to criticism.
“One of the biggest things to do is get somebody to relax, because a review is worthless if they’re intimidated,” Russell says. “One thing that you can do is point out things that you know that you need improvement on yourself.”
When they hear you admit that you don’t know everything, they’ll see you as a leader who’s willing to learn and eager to improve. If you take the first crack at yourself, they won’t be as intimidated to offer their observations.
Russell reiterates to employees that he relies on their support because he rose through the organization so quickly, riding the wave of a series of acquisitions. Most recently, for example, he held the position of senior vice president of Armor Holding Inc.’s Ground Vehicle Survivability Division. So he had already proven himself capable of running a billion-dollar business by the time BAE acquired Armor in 2007.
Still, he realizes that the experiences and observations of his employees can make him an even better leader as the company grows. Taking the time to hear employees’ praises and criticisms is a small price for the payoff: the opportunity to improve yourself and your leadership style.
“I just may not have as much experience as somebody else who’s been doing this for a lot longer,” Russell says. “I would be foolish not to take the advice of a bunch of smart people around me.”
How to reach: Security & Survivability, BAE Systems, (513) 881-9800, (800) 697-0307 or www.baesystems.com/sss
Basic insurance covers direct damage to your property and its contents in the event of fires, hurricanes, freezing pipes and many other perils, but what about the money your business would have been making during that time?
Business interruption insurance can help your company keep making money — even when it’s physically impossible to do business.
Rick Theders, CEO of Clark-Theders Insurance Agency, Inc., says this coverage should be part of a comprehensive property insurance program that encompasses loss of income as well as the extra expenses that result from a business interruption.
“The intent of business income insurance is to keep you in the same place you would have been in if your business had not been interrupted by a responding insurance peril,” Theders says.
Smart Business spoke with Theders about how this coverage can help you stay in business.
How does business interruption coverage work?
If your building is struck by lightning and catches on fire, your insurance is naturally going to pay to repair or replace the building and the contents that were damaged. The extension of coverage to loss of business income is going to continue the income that you would have had if the business operations had not been interrupted by damage caused by the lightning strike.
If you are a manufacturer that produces items for your customers, the lightning strike may have caused you to call your customers and say you were going to deliver items to them tomorrow, but now the business is temporarily shut down. The customer might wait for you to get back in business, but more than likely, it will cancel its order with you and take its business elsewhere.
In that regard, your business would be impacted because of your customer’s decision to take its business elsewhere. Business income insurance would pay for that loss of income.
The intent of the insurance is to cover the cost of your profit and overhead that you count on to sustain your business. It wouldn’t cover the cost of raw materials that you didn’t use to not make that product or the energy costs. But it would cover payroll of key employees and lease or mortgage costs you’ve committed to pay. That’s important because your bank might say, ‘I am sorry you had that fire, but you still owe us your monthly payment.’
Also, it would cover your estimated profit. If you would have made a 20 percent profit generating those products to customers, it would pay for that loss of profit.
How can you cover the extra expenses that can result from business interruption?
Business owners can get a combination of loss of business income coverage with extra expense insurance. In the same situation with the lightning strike and fire, the manufacturer’s extra expenses to generate the product and deliver it to the customer are covered, including relocating to a new space, moving equipment that was not damaged to that location and changing the utility services to the new location.
The customer still receives the product it ordered from you, but it’s much more expensive to generate because you couldn’t do it at your primary business location.
You can even subcontract that part. Ask a friendly competitor to make the item, or ask if you can use its facility after it closes for the day. You’ve incurred extra expenses to maintain your business elsewhere.
The extra expenses are money that insurance makes available to continue operations and not be forced to pay the loss of business income because you are still going to make income off your business practice.
This same insurance applies for all types of businesses, not a particular industry. You still need to see customers. Your customers might be able to go to a temporary location and the insurance would pay to advertise to them, to send out special mailings and to pay overtime for staff.
This combined coverage is the broader, better form of insurance. It says to the insurance company, ‘Just help me stay in business as best as I can during this misfortune.’
How can you develop a plan for business interruption?
You should develop a risk management process. Your insurance agent should ask you, ‘What keeps you up at night? What would the consequences of an event to your business be that would just devastate you? What makes you most vulnerable?’
If that is an earthquake, then here’s earthquake insurance. If it’s losing electrical power, here is some insurance that is going to respond to that concern. Part of that is asking, ‘What other plan can we work with you to put in effect so you have continuation of power?’ You can invest in a generator in the back of your business, so if power is interrupted, you start up your personal power generators to continue your business.
Another peril of insurance that you can choose to buy coverage for is utility service interruption. That takes care of the same loss of business income and extra expense losses but also includes damage done to the utility service of electric power. You can also purchase coverage for overhead transmission lines.
Try to plan ahead. Find that critical thing that would cause financial distress or concern. Then find out what you can do to buy insurance to reimburse you for that concern or, better yet, help you continue your operations.
Rick Theders is the CEO of Clark-Theders Insurance Agency, Inc. Reach him at (513) 779-2800 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mark Sneider has been watching competitors expand in an attempt to combat the down economy. They’re offering discounts and looking beyond their core markets for business.
But Sneider knows he doesn’t have to do anything new to succeed. Instead, he zooms in on best practices his employees have been using all along.
“It’s all about staying true to approaches that have been effective and adopting new approaches that we know have been effective for others,” says the founder, owner and president of RSW/US and its sister company, Lead Architects. “It’s staying true to your core. The last thing you want to do is look scattered, not focused and not value-added.”
Sneider encourages employees — nearly 20 between the two lead generation and business development consultancies — to share their best practices to add value to the company. That approach has led RSW/US to double-digit growth since its 2005 inception.
Smart Business spoke to Sneider about instilling a value-added mindset in your employees and encouraging them to learn from each other.
Establish a value-added mindset. When new employees start, I tell them there’s one thing that they need to remember, and that one thing is adding value. Tell your people to constantly add value to your existing client base. Add value when we reach out to prospects, and then the last value-added dimension manifests itself internally — let’s think about ways we can add value to our own organization by finding new ways to improve processes.
Adding value is a hard thing to do because it’s easy just to take the staid and set course of action. The hard thing to do is to take the step back and think about what extra step can I take to improve this situation.
It’s really just showcasing the variety of ways beyond the expected that you can bring value. I tell prospects that we don’t like to think of ourselves as just a lead generation firm. By positioning ourselves that way and talking about all the other things that we can do, that’s how we set ourselves apart.
Showcase and share best practices. Get your salespeople to think about ways that they can add value to the prospects’ world. It could be things as simple as find an interesting article and push it out to that prospect. If they happen to click through to that article, use that as the mechanism to then circle back with that prospect and try and engage with them. It’s giving them a reason why they should sit down with you. It’s fairly 101ish kind of stuff, but people forget about it when they’re in desperate straights. Learn what their needs are, and then showcase how the solutions that we’ve provided for our clients parallel their situation.
You’re going to have salespeople that just follow the predictable course of action. And then you’re going to have some salespeople who are constantly adding value — they’re probably selling more than anybody else. Let’s find out what they’re doing and how they’re talking about it. It’s getting them together to brainstorm, to speak to all of the things they do for their clients. The salespeople need to be talking about those other things. Then draw those that we think present the greatest value and package them to help others figure out how to talk about them.
One of our good performers … put together a whole PowerPoint presentation and presented her ideas to the organization. The organization knows that she’s one of the star performers, and they know that the benefit to them in mirroring some of those approaches is going to be of value to them in their own selling efforts.
It’s easy to say they shouldn’t feel threatened or like less of a salesperson because of it. The key is getting a peer to make those presentations versus having management push those things down.
There was some collaboration between this woman before she made this presentation and myself, making sure that she was sending messages consistent with the messages that I wanted to be sending to the rest of the organization.
Mandate practices to get results. Then make sure that we’re following through on those things, whether it be managers managing these salespeople or weekly status meetings talking about what’s going on, how programs are going — as long as they know that the intent is not to single out and punish but to get them to a better place. So I think a lot of it has to do with how it’s positioned, and it’s got to start at the top.
If you’ve got some butthead running the organization who focuses more on mistakes and doesn’t applaud successes, then that’s going to be a tough thing to effectively move forward to an organization. So if you recognize you’re the butthead, maybe you have other people kind of manage that through the process and follow through on it, people that are a little bit more forgiving.
You have to be able to show results, certainly. Like in our case, [employees] clearly see the success that this person has achieved as a result of the work that they’re doing. Some of it has to be forced upon [others] in order for them to see results. So there are certain things you just have to mandate and make sure that they’re following through on.
Every quarter, we set specific objectives for the team as a whole. It’s just going back and reviewing those objectives, making sure that what we’re doing is helping us achieve them, having open dialogue about the things that they’re doing, the tools that they’re using.
It’s communicating that there’s some basic requirements that have to be set up upfront, that, ‘These things have to be done this way in order for this organization to move ahead. We have data points that suggest if it’s followed through on the way we’re suggesting you follow through on it, here’s what it can do for you. You can sell more. You can get more commission. You can have happier clients.’
How to reach: RSW/US, (513) 559-3101 or www.rswus.com
Everyone around George Vincent is cutting back. And that’s reason enough for him to do the exact opposite, because he can pick up their losses to fuel his growth.
“In a tough economy, it’s easy to cut expenses,” says Vincent, the managing partner and chairman of Dinsmore & Shohl LLP. “But you can never cut your way to prosperity. At some point, you’ve got to continue to add high-quality people.”
In 2008 alone, the law firm welcomed 91 new lawyers, bringing the total employee count to nearly 800. Many of the new employees came from downsizing firms. Vincent says they’re attracted to a firm that strives to grow while others hunker down. And he, of course, is attracted to talented employees who can bolster his firm against the dwindling competition and position it to be stronger when the upturn comes.
“A lot of firms were not looking to grow last year,” says Vincent, whose firm reported 2008 revenue of $133.3 million. “There were a lot of unique opportunities because of the economy that allowed us to grow.”
Vincent’s plan for growth is twofold: strengthening the firm’s presence in the 10 regions it currently serves and expanding geographically beyond those. But it all starts with finding the right employees and integrating them smoothly into the firm.
“No matter what the economy looks like, on a relative basis, high-quality people will outperform,” he says.
Hire for future growth
When you hire, you’re adding new employees today with the hope they’ll contribute to growth tomorrow. To make that transition smooth, measure them on both aspects to see how they’ll fit your company now and in the future.
First, consider how candidates will mesh with your current focus and culture.
“You want to have people who are compatible with the rest of the folks here,” says Vincent, who tries to detect a sense of humor in addition to the obvious requirements — legal skills and integrity. “If you don’t have a sense of humor, the day’s awful long and it’s hard to interact with folks.”
When Vincent hires new lawyers, it’s not as simple as adding another body to the ranks. In most cases, new hires come with specialized practice areas and existing clients in tow, so he’s not just evaluating individuals. It’s more like vetting tiny self-contained businesses.
Similarly, you have to compare candidates’ strengths with your company’s core. Vincent stacks their expertise against his firm’s existing practices and also considers requests for additional services that clients have made. If you can match an incoming supply of employees with existing client demand, your growth is automatically tied to future customer satisfaction.
That takes you to the second half of the vetting process, in which you look at the candidate in relation to your company’s future.
“You want to bring in people who you think will succeed longer term, who will be able to utilize our platform to expand their practices and will be able to ideally use other services that we can provide that their [previous] firm didn’t provide,” Vincent says.
It’s important that employees care about improving their own careers. To get a glimpse of their personal drive, just ask where they see themselves in 20 years.
“You can’t predict the future,” Vincent says. “But you’ve got to decide whether the people you’re talking to have the drive and the passion to succeed and to take their practice further than it’s previously gone.”
If a candidate has a vision to grow and succeed, he or she will feed your company’s vision to do the same. But you need to make an effort to tie the two together from the very beginning. Explain your firm’s outlook so you can see how the candidate matches up.
“Let’s talk about your vision for your practice,” Vincent tells candidates. “How can we make 2+2=5? How can we be accretive to each other?”
Finding employees who fit your company would be wasted time if you didn’t then integrate them into it.
“Integration of new folks is the hardest task that a firm faces,” Vincent says. “You can explain things many, many times. But until folks actually join, they can’t understand how we do things.”
So about 10 years ago, to further instill the firm’s expectations, Vincent started a leadership academy with a yearlong program for new employees as well as other courses geared toward preparing associates for partnership. The academy covers technical skills as well as practical skills like relating to people.
“A lot of folks don’t really understand what it takes to succeed,” Vincent says. “Some folks are lucky and can do it almost intuitively. Other folks, you’ve almost got to say, ‘Here’s what it takes. Here are the things you have to do. Here are the things you’ve got to start thinking about now.’”
Any orientation should start with broad explanations of your firm’s core beliefs. At Dinsmore & Shohl, one of those overriding principles is client service. New employees are inundated with the repetition of how important it is.
“You have to have a handful of overriding principles that you enunciate over and over again so everybody understands, ‘OK, here’s what the vision, the philosophy, of the firm is. Let’s try and manage our work against those philosophies and against that vision,’” Vincent says.
As you continue to drive those principles in, you should also break them down into actionable examples for employees to practice. Define what each one actually means.
“You try and instill in folks, ‘It’s a service business. You’ve got to deliver the service to get the business,’” Vincent says. “What does that mean? You enunciate the principles: ‘Return a call the day you get it. Empathize. Understand the client.’”
Zoom in on those details, but you should always keep them within the context of the big picture.
“It’s keeping your focus on … the core beliefs of the firm and making sure that that continues to be enunciated,” Vincent says. “It’s easy to become diffused, but let’s come back to the core values and let’s maintain that focus.”
Repetition alone won’t make the vision sink in, even as you explain it in details and definitions. You need to personalize the message, showing employees examples of those concepts in action.
Vincent starts by giving employees self-assessments to help them realize their strengths. Then they know what tools they’re best suited to use when they begin practicing the principles.
“You tell folks that you have to utilize your strengths and maximize those strengths because everybody approaches people in a different way,” he says. “What works for you may not work for me, and vice versa. So it’s really knowing who you are, what strengths you bring to the table and how you can deliver those strengths to somebody.”
The next step is showing a path to success by letting new hires observe employees who use a variety of approaches to put the principles in action. You want employees to see that whether they are out entertaining clients or just researching intensely — or anything in between — there are others like them in the firm who have been successful.
Vincent assigns new employees to mentors based on similar traits, interests and even backgrounds, such as where they went to school. But finding a perfect personality match isn’t crucial, because the mentorships are revolving rather than long term.
“We try and make sure that the associates are not assigned to just one partner, that they’re interacting with multiple partners and seeing different ways to do the same thing,” Vincent says. “The message is, ‘Look at what other people are doing. Take the things that work and understand the things that don’t work so well.’”
The goal is to show employees that underneath the umbrella of core principles, they do have several options to exercise their freedom. Once they see there’s not a right or wrong way to do things, you begin empowering them to take their career into their own hands.
“You’ve got to get people to think outside of the moment,” Vincent says. “A lot of folks don’t think that way. You’ve got to help them to see, ‘I’m not just an employee. I’m building a career that’s going to pay dividends, not just for the firm but for me, as well.’ You want people to personalize the success of the firm.”
Letting them observe other employees’ personal successes will encourage that mindset.
Vincent has already seen the benefits of the leadership academy as new employees develop more consistent perceptions of his expectations.
“It helps people to understand expectations in a much more concrete way, as opposed to having someone in the office take you aside and say, ‘You need to be doing the following three things,’” he says. “People hear a common message from different people, which is a good thing.”
Check employees’ integration progress
After employees exit the leadership academy, you still have to keep following up with them to make sure they stay aligned with the vision. That’s partially done by continuing to repeat your core beliefs.
“You can never communicate enough,” Vincent says. “The communicator always thinks he’s communicating plenty. The people hearing it always want more. You never know [when you’ve communicated enough] because some people tell you straight up, ‘Hey, I still don’t get it.’ Other folks will say nothing.”
Besides keeping your outward communication flowing, you also have to make sure employees are receiving your message and acting on it.
Vincent spends nearly two months pooling partners’ evaluations of each associate whom they’ve worked with throughout the year. Trying to distinguish common themes from case-by-case rarities, he compiles the data into a written message for each associate. But the annual basis of those kinds of evaluations can leave a lot of gaps, so he also relies on informal evaluations throughout the year to check employees’ behavior.
“The informal process, which we encourage, is talking to the associate about each project: ‘Here’s what you did well. Here’s what you didn’t do well. Here’s what you should be thinking about the next time,’” he says. “That daily teachable moment thing is more beneficial than the formal process.”
So don’t wait for the annual evaluation. You should always be gathering information about how employees are integrating into the firm. Ideally, that information should come from a combination of metrics and personal interaction.
“You can look at statistics. You can look at billable hours. You can look at fees collected,” Vincent says. “You can look at things like that, but those are kind of sterile. They really don’t tell you. You’ve got to be out and about and answering questions.”
He says that the hardest part of his job is making time to go around and talk to employees about their transition into the firm.
“How’s it going? Is it what you expected?” he asks them. “Are there things you’d like us to be doing or things that you’re thinking about that we’re not thinking about? How do your clients feel?”
Vincent also looks at how often his associates are cross-selling and directing clients to other people within the organization, which shows their comprehension of the entire firm’s offerings and how to use them.
As you evaluate employees, keep in mind that you empowered them to personalize the firm’s priorities to make them work for their particular practice. That means you need to expand your idea of what successful employees look like. You have to consider what their strengths are and evaluate them based on those rather than expecting them to excel at every single thing they do.
“Some folks, it’s easy to see [success] because you can see it in everything they do,” Vincent says. “Other folks, it’s in their written work; they bring passion, style and flair to what they write. Other people, it’s interacting and mentoring folks in the office and managing projects internally.”
“One size doesn’t fit all,” he says. “The goal is to understand people’s strengths [and] put them in positions where they can maximize those strengths.”
How to reach: Dinsmore & Shohl LLP, (513) 977-8200 or www.dinslaw.com
Chances are you’re feeling the pinch of today’s economy in ways you never expected. With the recent banking crisis, you may be hesitant to share your worries with your bank for fear that it may see you as a risk. And your concern may be well-founded, as more than 40 percent of banks reported a reduction in credit lines to small businesses, according to a survey by the Federal Reserve.
But now, more than ever, is the best time to buddy up with your banker to develop a strong relationship that can help pull you through hard times and can ultimately save you money.
Forming a partnership with your banker makes sense, as you both share a common goal: the financial strength of your business. By talking candidly with your banker about all aspects of your business, you bring a financial expert to your inner circle of decision-making. Along with your accountant and attorney, your banker can help you streamline efficiency and keep you on the track to financial soundness.
“You need to make sure you have a banker and just not a bank,” says Adrian Breen, market president for the Butler/Warren market, First Financial Bank. “There is a difference. You need to have a trusted adviser in your team of professionals.”
When you make time to talk with your banker regularly, you ensure that you receive the best services possible as well as the advice you need to keep your company running smoothly even when the economy is bumpy.Keep communicating
Communication is key during any climate, but keeping the lines of communication open becomes of utmost importance during downtimes.
“Banks are focusing now, more than ever, on relationships and not just transactions,” Breen says. “The key in this environment, and at all times, is just don’t inform your banker, include your banker.”
Like in any new relationship, those first discussions can feel a bit awkward. But each time you sit down with your banker whether during a quarterly meeting or through a monthly phone call it becomes more of a friendship. The most basic way to begin building the relationship is by inviting your banker to visit your business, so that he or she can visualize your passion.
“It is so critical that (businesses) have a good relationship with their bank and that their banker knows their business and is an advocate for them within the bank,” Breen says. “To do that, you have to have a lot of dialogue going back and forth.”
From the onset, you must convey to your banker a sense of openness and eagerness to discuss the various aspects of your company. Additionally, there should be an understanding that both sides are in it for the long haul. You must assure your banker that you are committed to a lasting relationship, and your banker should demonstrate a desire to become a long-term business partner.
Discussing a vast amount of information will help your banker understand that you respect the partnership and are looking to the future.
“We want to know the good and the bad,” says Mark Reitzes, regional president of the Southern Ohio/Kentucky region for Huntington Bank. “It’s like a marriage; you can’t have a healthy relationship unless you’re willing to share both.”
While it’s easy to share positive news, such as unexpected revenue, some executives may find their heart racing when they think about telling their banker that a major account is hovering near bankruptcy. However, discussing matters quickly and honestly can pave the road to an amicable solution. Bankers detest surprises, so ensuring that you are their first line of communication is paramount
“No one reacts well with surprises,” Reitzes says. “If we know it upfront, we can react to it and help the business work through it.”
While a banker may not be thrilled to hear of financial shortcomings, he or she will ultimately respect a client who does not hesitate to share important information.Maximize the relationship
With a trusted adviser on your side, you can work together to develop a plan to prosper. To make the most of the partnership, go over your business plan together and discuss how to improve efficiency. Even if your company is thriving, you can always benefit from the sound advice of a financial professional who can help you look to tomorrow.
From there, you can analyze the effectiveness of your current plan and figure out what changes you could make to improve your overall success.
As a CEO, it’s your job to update the bank on any changes in your industry. Your banker can then help you plan your next best step, whether it be trimming costs or planning an expansion. It’s also a good idea to ask for your banker’s opinion on how you can take advantage of the low interest rates offered today. Refinancing may lessen your payments and free up cash for other investments.
“If we understand what’s going on with the company and the management’s being upfront and open with us on what their challenges are, it gives us a lot of flexibility to be able to work with them on restructuring their situation,” Reitzes says.
Once you have a relationship with a bank, it may be tempting to shop around for additional services. However, remaining loyal to one bank for a variety of products even when you could get a slightly cheaper price elsewhere may actually save money in the long run.
“The better we know you, the better we can serve you,” Breen says. “By sticking with one bank, you’ll get access to a lot of different departments and then your business name becomes a household name at the bank. Those companies have the best chances to succeed.”Find the right products
Banks today offer more services than ever before, and tackling the list on your own can be overwhelming. Once your banker understands your company, he or she can assist you in selecting products and services that can streamline your workday and improve your bottom line.
A popular item for businesses is remote check depositing, which allows an employee to scan an image of a check and deposit it instantly to its account from the comfort of the office.
Though some services have a fee, the benefits can outweigh the costs. For example, compared to traditional check depositing, remote deposits can save time and money by eliminating the need for an employee to drive to the bank.
In today’s market, cash is king. Products are available that can maximize your cash flow. Your banker can also provide advice on the best use for additional money such as investments or paying down loans.
With the nature of banking constantly evolving, a business must trust its banker to match the business with appropriate products. A company should review its banking products annually to stay fresh on the offerings.
You could say Mike Winner crunches numbers. Give him parts of four insurance companies, for instance, and he’ll come out with one. Or start with a territory that expands across 47 states, and he’ll condense it to eight.
But he explains his math with a simple — albeit improper — “1+1=3.”
Don’t question his computing skills, though. He became chief financial officer of Ohio Casualty in May 2004, three months after joining the company as senior vice president controller. Then Liberty Mutual Agency Markets acquired the company, closing the deal in August 2007.
At that time, Ohio Casualty’s CEO retired and Winner stepped into the role of president and CEO. Then the crunching began.
Liberty already operated eight regional companies that covered most of the U.S. So rather than overlapping footprints, Winner had to condense Ohio Casualty’s coverage to a regional focus, which meant picking up business from three of Liberty’s existing companies to complement some of Ohio Casualty’s existing business.
“One of our challenges then was how did we take parts of four different companies and merge them into a new organization,” Winner says. “We didn’t want to lose anything, so we tried to … take the strengths of all four of those organizations.”
That focus on magnifying strengths translates to Winner’s 1+1=3 philosophy. That guided him as he named a new management team by looking into all four merging companies for the right talent. Together they built a plan and a vision to carry Ohio Casualty forward, keeping the rest of the 530 employees up to date with constant communication.
Find change drivers
Winner could have been overwhelmed with all of the changes swirling around his company after the acquisition. But when the deal closed, he locked his focus on the search for a new management team.
While some acquisitions veer toward a win-lose situation — where the acquirer stays in power and the acquired company loses people — Winner implemented Liberty’s 1+1=3 philosophy.
“That incorporates trying to pick the very strongest and the very best talent from the new combined organization,” he says. “It’s easy for you to immediately go back to people you’re familiar with and want to pick them and not challenge yourself to really consider, ‘OK, what are the strengths of some of the other people coming on board?’”
You have to lay aside your background and look at each potential executive objectively. This process should start before the acquisition is even finalized.
“One of the key areas you evaluate prior to closing any acquisition is the quality and depth of the management team of the acquired organization, including their ability to assimilate into the new combined organization. That would include employees that may be ready to step into a larger more significant management role,” he says. “You would compare their strengths and weaknesses to those of your current management group.”
In addition to spending time with the candidates when possible, Winner scrutinized their past performance reviews to find their strengths.
Specifically, he suggests keeping your eyes open for signs of their ability to adapt and drive change, traits that a newly merged company will require. Examine the demands of each role to identify additional characteristics.
“For each role, you should identify what core competencies are critical for success in that role, especially as you integrate companies together,” he says. “You then evaluate the individuals’ strengths and weaknesses in those core competencies to determine whether or not you believe they have the necessary skill set to achieve the objectives and goals for that role.”
To gauge those competencies during the interview, ask the candidates for examples of the traits in action.
As you zoom out to consider how the team will mesh as a whole, opt for diversity.
“By picking people from different parts [of the organizations], what you do is you bring different philosophies,” he says. “You bring different backgrounds and different mindsets, which allow you to then, over time, challenge each other.”
Make a plan of action
Winner’s second step was crafting a plan with his new team to direct the rest of the integration process. Because every function of the organization was affected by the acquisition, they wanted their plan to reflect them all.
“One of the challenges is you can try to do too much,” he says. “And what you end up doing in that case is you don’t do any of them well.”
They quickly realized they had to boil down their outlook to three to five critical objectives.
But they couldn’t do it alone. The first move was bringing in an experienced project planner — something Winner highly recommends doing.
He then asked not only the senior management but also the regional vice presidents and their territory managers, as well as agents — which the company views as customers — what was critical to them in the new organization.
As the responses came in, they listed them on a spreadsheet and assigned someone to summarize the key themes. This helped categorize responses by culture, product or service, and so on.
“That allows you to dig a little deeper into what were some of the key themes and then say, ‘What do we need to do about it? How do we need to plan?’” Winner says. “Coordinate the integration to address the concerns that are coming out.”
While they evaluated input, Winner and his team were also debating the changes they knew the acquisition would require.
“That’s one of the benefits of having a management team that came from all parts of the organization,” he says. “They brought different viewpoints, and they brought different experiences and so we had a very open discussion and dialogue about, ‘OK, if we had to narrow it down, what are those three to five critical things we have to get done?’”
They also brought in experts from across the organization to help them predict any challenges that their plan might present.
After you identify your broad goals from senior team discussions and other input, draw out the details by breaking initiatives down into steps.
For example, Winner’s objective of rebuilding relationships in the company’s shifting footprint encompassed steps to transfer underwriting support to offices inside the new territory, to tell agents who they would report to now and to open two new offices.
“The important thing is you have to have detailed project plans,” says Winner, who relied on his project planner to drive the team to the right level of detail. “You have to have specific dates as to when you’re going to accomplish something and who’s got responsibility for it. They’ve got to be detailed enough and actionable enough.”
The integration plan Winner devised with his team outlined what to do without directly stating the desired result. He realized that he couldn’t just lay out the steps and hope the vision decanted itself.
“People can take that more informal communication and they can kind of weave it the way they want to weave it,” he says.
So his team got more specific about the end goal of their plan. The process begins as a conversation about the backgrounds of your management team. That’s why it’s important to build a diverse team so it can serve as a repr
esentative from all sides of the organization.
That conversation forms a base of understanding where your employees are coming from. But you have to be willing to move on from there.
“We all bring our own backgrounds of what’s made us successful in whatever we’ve done, and so your first move is always to go back to where you’re comfortable and what’s made you a success in past,” he says. “As a leader, you have to be very willing to set those types of things aside and be very willing to listen, to adapt to change and to take a different process.”
So you start talking about the future. To overcome the differences surrounding who you were as separate companies, build common ground around who you want to be as an integrated company.
Your integration plan can serve as a guide because it lays out what you’re working toward. You can’t just skip the step of defining what that is.
“You think about it when you’re growing up: ‘Who do I want to be when I grow up?’” Winner says. “Well, in this case, it’s, ‘Who do we want to be when we get through this integration? How do we want ourselves defined?’”
Asking those kinds of questions, like, “How do we want competitors to think of us?” or, “Where do we want to be in five years?” can direct you. Simply articulating the answers can provide a clear goal to give employees direction and encourage their buy-in.
“It allows employees to then feel a greater sense of the organization they’re a part of,” Winner says. “Then it positions them much better to communicate that message and support that message to our agents as they work with them.”
Communicate to build consensus
As he got people and plans in place for the integration, Winner’s main priority was communicating to keep the company unified. But no matter how much communication he did, he wasn’t satisfied.
Fortunately, he got a chance to increase his efforts the second time around.
Just more than a year after Liberty acquired Ohio Casualty, it completed the acquisition of Safeco Corp., adding another company for Winner to integrate. Safeco will gradually become Liberty’s exclusive source for personal lines of insurance, and regional companies, like Ohio Casualty, will begin to focus solely on commercial lines.
This ongoing process will make constant, consistent communication even more important for Winner.
“The one lesson that I came through that process with is take what communication level you think you need and double it,” says Winner, who’s increasing his communication commitments by attending town halls at each office every quarter and setting up agency visits and dinners. “You can’t underestimate how much it takes to communicate, not only to employees but to your … constituents. You have got to stay in front of them and communicate constantly through that process.”
The first round of communication should strive to reassure employees and customers about the changes. To do that, share your plan, outlining how you’ll tackle the integration. It helps to deliver this message personally.
“That face-to-face communication from the leader of the organization, I think that helps to send the message of confidence,” says Winner, who also uses those environments to get feedback directly from employees.
Then keep everyone informed of your progress throughout the process, reiterating your main objectives as you do.
Use a variety of methods to make sure the message gets out. For Winner, written communication is the easiest way to circulate updates.
Winner’s updates often combine past and present. He’ll identify what the company has achieved in the past month as well as the goals on deck for the next couple of months.
That, he says, encourages consensus by building employees’ confidence in the plan.
“They can become overwhelmed with all the change and everything that’s going on,” Winner says. “But if you can show them the accomplishments along way, that, ‘Hey, we are getting things done, we are on project plan, and here’s what we’re going to do in the next 30 to 60 days,’ I think it starts to help break it down into something more manageable.”
While Winner still has some work to do, it all comes down to finding the strengths of everyone involved.
“You have to be very open to change,” says Winner, who led the new Ohio Casualty to 2008 revenue in excess of $700 million. “To be successful, you’ve got to be very willing to listen to the strengths of both sides of the organization — in our case it was four sides of the organization — and try to pick the very best aspects.”
How to reach: Ohio Casualty, (800) 843-6446 or www.ohiocasualty-ins.com
After joining The Bank Stock Group Inc. in 2000, Ric Dillon quickly transformed the company into a money management firm, which was reincorporated as Diamond Hill Investment Group Inc. in September 2001. Since then, total assets under management have grown into the billions of dollars, and the firm now employs 50 people.
Dillon’s diverse investing strategy has played a big part in Diamond Hill’s growth, but as important has been Dillon’s approach to management, compensation and employee relations. When the company reincorporated in 2001, Dillon, as CEO, revitalized a stagnant board of directors by compensating them exclusively in the form of mutual fund shares, which must be held for the duration of the board member’s directorship.
Dillon takes the concept a step further, by paying approximately 60 percent of all bonuses to employees in the form of company stock.
The main risks that Diamond Hill now faces are directly related to the recent volatility and dramatic decline in global markets. Not only has the company’s fee-based earnings potential been negatively impacted, but so has its ability to attract new capital to investment vehicles.
Dillon and his leadership team have addressed these risks by emphasizing the merit of its combined long- and short-term investment strategy, which has helped Diamond Hill weather the economic downturn. Despite the decline of equity values in 2008, the company has maintained a fairly steady level of total assets under management, due to the acquisition of additional capital from new and existing investors.
It’s all part of a well-rounded leadership strategy that has allowed Dillon to keep Diamond Hill growing in tough times.
How to reach: Diamond Hill Investment Group Inc., (614) 255-3333 or www.diamond-hill.com
David Schottenstein has a well-known name in the world of business. His grandfather helped found the Schottenstein Stores and American Eagle. But over the past few years, the young entrepreneur has focused on making a name for himself.
While attending boarding school in Venice, Italy, Schottenstein developed a passion for Italian suits and custom clothing and decided to make that his business. At age 20, he bought factories in Hong Kong and founded Astor & Black Custom Clothiers, realizing his vision of producing high-quality, custom-made clothing.
In the ensuing four years, Schottenstein has developed a clientele that includes CEOs and professional athletes. The company has no brick-and-mortar presence; sales are dependent on 60 representatives who travel the world, assisting clients in finding the right fabric, patterns and fit for their custom-made creation. Clients’ orders are then shipped overseas for assembly, and the finished product is shipped directly to the customer.
Schottenstein has found three factors that have helped Astor & Black separate itself from the current economic trend, allowing his business to grow at a time when so many clothing companies are struggling to even tread water. First, consumers are more cost-conscious, and the price of Schottenstein’s suits has not risen since the business began operations. Second, many of Astor & Black’s clients enjoy having a representative come to their homes, instead of having to go out to shop. Third, Schottenstein has a reservoir of talented sales representatives who were seeking work in the current economy.
A heads-up approach to business has helped Schottenstein make his presence felt at a young age.
How to reach: Astor & Black Custom Clothiers, (614) 857-9000 or www.astorandblack.com
When Steven Fishman took over as chairman, president and CEO of Big Lots Inc. in 2005, the closeout store chain had generated $27 million in annual profit and $4.4 billion in annual sales. It was a good start, but Fishman saw much more in the Big Lots name.
The company needed a new strategy to realize its larger potential, so upon taking the helm, Fishman designed and implemented a strategy he named “What’s Important Now,” or “WIN.” The WIN strategy focused the entire Big Lots corporation on three specific areas: merchandising, real estate and cost structure.
The merchandising aspect of the strategy focused on giving customers higher-quality merchandise, better values and more brand-name products from which to choose. The real estate aspect focused on improving Big Lots’ return on investment through slowing the rate of opening new stores, improving the efficiency and profitability of existing stores, closing nonperforming stores, and adding new point-of-sale systems in new and existing stores.
The cost structure aspect focused on reduction of inventory at distribution centers by moving more inventory to stores and putting more decisions involving the handling of merchandise and work scheduling in the hands of store-level employees.
The new strategy showed results early in the process. In 2006, Big Lots turned a profit for the first time in the second and third fiscal quarters — traditionally loss quarters for the company. In 2008, the company generated $255 million in operating revenue on $4.6 billion in sales — almost a tenfold increase in profit on a slight increase in sales.
If you ask Fishman the key to becoming a successful entrepreneur, he would tell you to develop a culture of accountability. And accountability starts at the top with Fishman, who knows it is his job to set the vision and make the tough calls to drive Big Lots to continued prosperity.
How to reach: Big Lots Inc., (614) 278-6800 or www.biglots.com