Keeping it simple Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2009

Greg Muzzillo is a simple guy and believes business is the same way. He doesn’t want to waste your time and expects the same from you. So if you’re not going to buy from him, don’t give him the runaround.

“Just tell me, ‘I’m buying from the president’s brother, and he owns a print shop, so you don’t have a ghost’s chance in a ding dong of getting business here,’” says Muzzillo, president and co-CEO of Proforma. “Tell me that, and let’s get it over with.”

The same simple philosophy also applies to things like mission statements: Don’t make it long and drawn out with big fancy words that are impossible to remember.

“If they actually thought about the core element of what drives their business and the two or three or four things that they absolutely have to do well and that all of the other paragraphs and pages of their strategic plan hang off of and just focus on those two or three or four elements, then that would be simple,” he says. “Sometimes people don’t think in an outline fashion. They think in a paragraph and book fashion, and all those key elements are on page 45 and 83 as opposed to being a heading of two simple outlines.”

Case in point: Muzzillo’s mission is to make his franchise owners’ dreams come true. That’s it. Short, sweet and to the point.

“I think business is very easy, and I think business is very simple, … ” Muzzillo says. “If you make it simple and don’t make it complicated, then you can communicate that easily. They get it, and they get on board with it because it’s simple and easy to understand.”

This methodology has served him well. He started the print and promotional products supply company 31 years ago with just $200, and then expanded it with a franchising model in the mid-1980s to create a network of independent distributors who could work together to build stronger supplier relationships. His approach worked so well that Proforma has twice been named to the Inc. 500 list and today has more than 650 owners and sales of $350 million.

“We recruit great franchise owners and help our franchise owners’ dreams come true,” Muzzillo says. “That’s not complicated. It’s very simple, and there’s a lot of power in simple.”

Here’s how Muzzillo has grown his business through the years by sticking to the basics.

Get the right people

Muzzillo has given up trying to find every single right characteristic in a potential leader.

“You know, I quit playing God a long time ago,” he says. “I used to think I knew. Now I can tell you what we’re not looking for.”

Instead, when it comes to finding a new leader of one of his franchises, he focuses on what he’s not looking for — someone with a criminal background or someone with bad credit. That’s it.

Like most things with Muzzillo, it’s pretty simple. Taking the approach of knowing what you don’t want in an employee can often be more worthwhile than trying to make sure someone has every characteristic that you could possibly conceive.

For example, Muzzillo has been absolutely amazed by some people who have joined Proforma as franchisors, but he probably wouldn’t have given them the time of day had he been looking for specific characteristics instead of what he doesn’t want. One man in particular put millions of dollars of profit into Proforma’s pockets before he retired, but Muzzillo questions whether he would have made the cut with a different approach.

“If you would have said come up five key ingredients and if people don’t have these five key ingredients, they can’t come in — he never would have made it,” he says. “Give them a shot. I’m not smart enough to be God.”

When hiring employees, Muzzillo relies partially on personality testing.

“You want to make sure they have a good fit for the position, … ” he says. “It’s a little bit of intelligence testing and a little bit of personality testing to make sure we’re putting the right people in the right spots.”

The intelligence testing addresses different questions centered on math and reading. The personality profile asks questions to candidates to understand them more. Questions include: Do you prefer to work in a group? Does it bother you to work in a group? And did you steal from a previous employer?

Prospective employees also go through a couple of interviews, often with the entire team that they’ll be joining because that team doesn’t let just anyone join its family.

In addition to the testing process and interviewing, Muzzillo also says there’s one other way to get to the heart of a person.

“There’s nothing like a woman’s intuition,” he says. “You know you have it or you don’t, and I don’t have it, and I’m not trying to be sexist, but I think women have an intuition that men don’t.”

While he doesn’t do much of the hiring these days, when he did, he would ask the receptionist what she thought of a particular candidate and actually relied half on testing and half on his receptionist’s intuition to make a decision.

“She would know,” he says. “‘You should see how he acted in the lobby waiting,’ or, ‘You should have seen how arrogant he was,’ or, ‘He wouldn’t even wear the name badge,’ or, ‘Man, what a great guy’ — they knew.”

Above all, take your time in hiring and focus on one position and one person at a time.

“We can grow one good person at a time,” he says. “One good staff person at a time and one good franchise owner at a time can create a really big thing. Really, our focus is just one good person at a time.”

Trust your people

Back when the business was first starting, Muzzillo asked his franchise owners if they thought it would be a good idea to have some sort of franchise advisory counsel. They all liked the idea, and the first official thing that they did was kick Muzzillo out.

“They say, ‘Now, Greg, this is going to be our advisory council; we’re going to do it our way,’ and they kicked me out,” he says.

This was frightening and very hard for Muzzillo, who says that he was scared to even let them vote on what color the business cards would be.

While it may seem scary to let your people take over, it can also make life simpler for you, because they can handle things and make decisions that you otherwise would have spent time doing.

The key is getting the right people on the advisory council. He notes that sometimes you may have good intentions of setting a group for your employees, customers, vendors or, in this case, franchisors, but sometimes those good intentions are sidestepped by people who talk too much but don’t have anything to really say.

“Set up a formal network to listen to as opposed to random people,” he says. “Sometimes if you just want to listen to random people, the wrong people make the most noise, and it’s not necessarily the noise you want to hear. But if you set up a network of peers that elect and govern themselves, my experience has been that the cream always rises to the top.”

For Proforma’s council, it consists of eight elected regional representatives and then four elected officers, for a total of 12 people.

“When we hear from people that have been elected by their own peers and respected by their own peers, we’re not hearing the noise of people who would rather hear themselves talk as opposed to accomplish things,” Muzzillo says. “We’re hearing significant, meaningful talk from our top producers, who themselves know how to filter the good from the useless from the people that they represent.”

Council members are elected for two-year terms, but the elections are held each year, so that half of the council changes out annually. This helps ensure that it keeps running smoothly while still getting fresh blood involved.

Having a council of people that doesn’t include you also helps people buy in to your mission, vision, values and goals.

“The franchise owners proved to be loyal to the vision,” he says. “Not necessarily to my ideas but loyal to the vision, and at the end of the day, they’ve helped people become like-minded. They helped people who were rowing in the wrong direction start rowing in the right direction in a way that not even I, as CEO of the company, could get them to row. … Sometimes your peers can get you to see something in a different way that other leadership can’t get you to.”

For example, a while back, Proforma needed to find a new bank. While negotiating with one, the bank told Muzzillo that it thought it could make it work, but there was a certain wording in the franchise agreements that it wasn’t comfortable with, so the bank needed nearly all of the 120 franchise owners to change it.

“I remember thinking, ‘If we don’t get this done, I don’t know how we’re going to survive as a company,’” Muzzillo says.

Instead of trying to convince 120 people that they should do this, he instead went to the president of the advisory counsel and explained the situation. That person understood and convinced 118 of those people to change their agreements, which was more than enough to make the bank feel comfortable giving them money.

“To this day, that’s the franchise agreement that we have,” he says. “Those were the terms that helped us grow like a weed, and I know I never would have gotten it done without their peers telling them to.”

Focus on the best work

When you have so many different things on your plate, sometimes it can be hard to simplify and just focus on what you really have to in order to move the business forward.

“It comes down to what’s the value of your time,” he says. “All work’s not created equal.”

Muzzillo teaches a class about how to grow a business in his industry, and in it, he poses a question.

“If there are three desks in your office that you could go to, and one pays $400 an hour, one pays $40 an hour, and the other pays $20 an hour, what desk are you going to go to?” he says. “They all say, ‘Oh, I’m going to go to the $400-an-hour desk.’ You’re all liars. I tell them right to their face — you’re liars because the $400-an-hour desk is the hard stuff.”

He says that the $400-an-hour work can be filled with failure, such as making a big proposal for a big company and losing, being rejected for sales, and other painful things.

And this is true, no matter what industry you are a part of.

“There are some things that are $400-an-hour work, and there are some things that are $40-an-hour work,” he says. “A lot of people don’t think that way. A lot of people just think there’s work, and a lot of people just think there’s their to-do list. It all mushes together in their head. … Some of it is really going to get you a return on your invested time, and some of it’s just really going to be a waste of time, and yet, it’s hard to discern which those are.”

Sometimes you may think that the $20-an-hour or the $40-an-hour work is what’s most important.

“Sitting behind your desk and being CEO of Me Incorporated, with your name out there, oh man, that feels really important, and sometimes it’s easy to fall into doing the $20-an-hour work, the $40-an-hour work, avoiding the $400-an-hour work all day, and going home exhausted but never doing anything that is the right stuff all day,” he says. “The key really is for every businessperson to figure out what’s the $400-an-hour work, and what’s the $40-an-hour work, and figure out how to get rid of the $40-an-hour work and to do more of the $400-an-hour work.”

One of the biggest $400-an-hour tasks is getting business that you don’t have yet. He says you can do this by getting business that your current customers aren’t already giving you, getting new customers altogether, hiring salespeople to get it or acquiring your competition.

“It’s not going and calling on your favorite customers and bringing them another box of doughnuts,” he says.

Muzzillo has a rule he lives by that is also pretty simple.

“You will eventually get paid for the work you do,” he says. “If you love doing accounting … then you’re eventually going to make $20 an hour. Good for you, right? Because you’ve chosen the wrong thing. You can. You own the business. Nobody can fire you. It’s a choice. Doing the right thing is a choice. Nobody can fire you over the wrong choice, but if you make the right choice, it will show up.”

While it may be harder to focus on the right work because it’s scarier and often attacks your pride, Muzzillo says you can’t let your pride get in the way when you have those feelings.

“If you let your pride run you when you’re running your business, you’ll never be proud in line at the bank,” he says. “But if you throw pride out the window, you’ll be very proud in line at the bank.”

For example, when Muzzillo quit his job as an auditor at what eventually became Deloitte LLP to start Proforma, he had a lot of rough days.

“It was kind of embarrassing,” he says. “Here’s Greg. He used to be this big important auditor, and now he’s running around, schlepping around a briefcase, begging people to buy printing from him. It wasn’t prideful, but I said to myself, ‘Greg, you’re going to be proud someday in line at the bank, and the only way to get there is to not worry about being proud from 9 to 5.’”

Today, Muzzillo accredits his success to that rule.

“If I didn’t have this rule, I’d be nowhere today or my head would be falling off my shoulders because I have pride,” he says.

He says that instead of focusing on the today, you should focus on what your dream is. For example, he tells his franchisors to make their goal visible to them by writing down on a business card how much they want to make and in what year they’re going to do it. Then put that card in an easy to see place in their wallet, so every time they open the wallet, they see that card and are reminded of what the big goal is. He had one franchisor do this for 12 years and that franchisor reached $100,000, then $250,000, then $500,000, and that franchisor is now working on $1 million.

“Focus on whatever the big dream is, that big goal, and then try to think of all those things that are going to get you there, and try not to do all those things that are going to get in the way, and it’ll happen,” he says.

Lastly, sometimes when no other motivation is forcing you to focus on the right stuff, it just comes down to a good old, suck-it-up mentality.

“When I was building my business, it was sort of like going to the gym, which I hate to do,” Muzzillo says. “But once you get started, it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, now we’re going.’ Once you get into the groove of selling, you’re in the groove. Once you go to the gym, it’s kind of like half the battle — the rest is easy.”

How to reach: Proforma, (800) 825-1525 or