Visions of success Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2008

Locking yourself and your executive team in a cabin for several days until you agree on a common vision for your company may not be how most CEOs develop their strategic plans, but it worked for Steve Peplin.

Twelve years ago, Peplin, the co-founder and CEO of Talan Products Inc., took the leaders of the 75-employee metal stamper into the wilderness to hammer out a mission and vision. Occasionally tempers flared, and someone had to go fly-fishing for an hour to clear his head. But Peplin says the results were worth it: Talan has enjoyed steady growth, and in 2007, it posted revenue of $25 million.

“I used to think of it as so much fluff, but it’s really important to get everybody on the same page,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Peplin about why you should incorporate visuals into your communications and how to cut the fat from your operations.

Q. How do you develop a vision?

One of the most important aspects was to have the partners — not just the employees — the partners had to be of a common mindset. By formalizing it and writing it down, you just go back to it. It’s right there.

Some people make very broad ones, like, ‘We’re here to make money.’ Then that’s it — anything that makes money is fair game. Nobody can say you’re not focused enough. You can say, ‘Hey, it says right here in our plan that our goal is to make money.’

I’ve seen vision statements like that. Ours is much more specific. It’s specific enough without being too specific.

Q. How do you get everyone to buy in to your vision?

The key thing is communications. Communication is everything, whether you’re building relationships with your significant other or your kids or if you’re training a dog or a horse — communication is everything.

How do we get them on board? By partnering with them. Everybody goes to the vision statement so you’re all singing off the same sheet. You all have the same goal for the same success.

By partnering, we share all of our numbers with them. We share the whole P&L; we show them exactly what we’re making, the gross profit for every week, every month.

It’s like having 75 people with their eye on the ball. It’s not just the coach knowing the score of the ballgame and not the players. Now, everybody knows. When there is a problem, everybody sees it; everybody works together.

Another thing we do is a little rewarding during the year. We don’t just wait until the end of the year and give them a bonus check. All along, they see where the problems are, and they see where the successes are.

Q. How do you communicate effectively?

Communication has to go both ways. I don’t just talk to everybody — it has to be a dialogue. I want to get feedback from the employees and feedback from the customers. Communication is not just, ‘Hey, let’s listen to me talk.’

It has to be a two-way street. Written communication is very important. I give these talks but nobody really remembers that stuff. It’s all fluff. Visuals — if it’s written, it’s clear, it’s concise, and you can refer to it.

You should have things that are simple. Visuals are good; we use a lot of charts and graphs around the place. We use a lot of metrics because our whole business is built upon being a low-cost producer.

We have to be the most efficient, lowest cost way to make something. We’re not selling brand equity; we’re not selling advertising or some kind of ephemeral concept. We’re selling parts. The guy who gets the contract is the lowest cost bidder.

It’s very important we take all the fat out of everything everywhere. So we have a lot of metrics. What gets measured gets approved.

Q. How do you make sure your metrics are working?

Measure, measure, measure, and then report it to people so they can see it. We take it down to the individual performer’s level. Of course, most of it is companywide, because we do not want to promote competing with your co-workers.

We try to make it clear that you are not competing with your co-workers; we are all working together, competing with the rest of the world as a company.

But having and measuring metrics are huge. You have to always be improving. You are going to fluctuate a little, but you can take that out. You just have to have positive trends.

Everybody wants to be part of something that is working and successful. Nothing succeeds like success.

It’s like [how] having a professional sports team in your town makes the town fired up. Having a successful metric like sales or productivity rate or whatever it is you’re measuring, if you are really doing well at it, it just permeates the culture.

HOW TO REACH: Talan Products Inc., (216) 458-0170 or