Fink learned a lot when he transformed his company from providing contract security guard services to traffic control services in 1993. “We’ve all seen (traffic flaggers),” he says. “We took that rather modest occupation and turned it into an industry.”
But before he could accomplish all of that, Fink had to learn the market as well as what it would take to make it a successful business venture.
At a recent Smart Business Live luncheon, Fink spoke about acting the part of a successful entrepreneur.
Carving a niche
The most essential business practice is one learned during childhood, Fink says. Competition. “Competition is healthy,” he says. “Play to win — isn’t that why we keep score?”
To better your odds, Fink emphasizes knowing your limitations. You can’t be everything to everyone, so choose one market and work to be the best in that arena. “Mistakes are the greatest learning tools,” he says. “If you talk to successful entrepreneurs, they’ve made a lot of mistakes.”
The trick is to make smart mistakes. Fink learned that at an early age from his father. “There are risks, son, and then there are damn-fool risks,” he says he was told.
Avoiding the “damn-fool risks” takes work. “Do your own due diligence — it’s your business,” Fink says. “I knew at a point in the 1990s that I didn’t want to stay in the security business. Before I moved to the next step, I looked at the traffic business for a long time.”
Find a niche market that is not being adequately served, Fink suggests, then serve it. “Forty-one thousand people last year were killed or injured in work-zone accidents, so there was a need,” he says of his own niche. “Most of the time, in an entrepreneurial venture, you’re creating the need.”
Knowing the business
Fink’s business savvy hinges on the old adage that knowledge is power. “Read every bit of business press that could affect your business,” he says.
And when you’re not reading the headlines, get the latest news from your employees and customers. “Ask your customers and employees what they’re thinking before they tell you,” he says. “I have a rule, personally: I don’t ever want to be surprised by bad news a customer could tell me, because I should know that already.”
Fink says he constantly monitors the state of affairs to avoid surprises. “I want to know daily how we performed,” he says. “What did we do right? What did we do wrong?”
It’s important to follow up on everything. “When [our] cost moves by a penny, that’s cause for concern,” he says. “You have to look into that and find out why it’s happening.” And always remember, at the end of the day, you are responsible for knowing your business. “You have to understand what’s at risk,” Fink says. “Anything an adviser tells me, I try to check independently. There is a time and place for groupthink, but at the end, you have to make that decision.”
You also have to keep looking at the next step and not be afraid to make tough decisions. “Never stop looking for good merger/acquisition opportunities,” Fink says. “I love my business, but it’s a material thing. It’s not my wife, it’s not my child, so I don’t get too emotional about moving on to the next game.”
Whatever you do, make sure you do it to stay ahead of industry trends. “The speed of business today is breathtaking,” Fink says. “Someone’s always thinking of a way to make their business bigger, better and more efficient; you should, too.”
Fink describes the entrepreneur as a dreamer. “My world is the world of ideas,” he says. “If you’re not thinking about it, it won’t be a plan; it will be an accident.”
That being said, don’t get caught in the particulars. “Establish a good operating process, but stay out of the details,” he says. “I want to keep my mind focused on the big picture; I have people that will help me with the details.”
Make sure you have trustworthy employees operating your business. “Trust, but verify,” Fink says. “Watch what they do, not what they say”
Of course, listen, as well. “Listen more than you speak; you learn more that way,” he says.
HOW TO REACH: Area Wide Protective Inc., (800) 343-2650 or www.awptrafficsafety.com
Jon Ratner is leading the charge for Forest City Enterprises to focus on its ecological impact.
It all started in Denver in 2004. Forest City Enterprises took on a 4,700-acre mixed-use renovations project, transforming the former Denver International Airport into the Northfield Stapleton development. Ratner used the Stapleton project as a chance to incorporate some of his environmental interests, not knowing the initiative would shake up the entire company culture and eventually make sustainability a corporate core value.
Two years later, Forest City created a department of sustainability, and Ratner found himself the first vice president of sustainability initiatives at the 88-year-old family business. Now, the company had a “triple bottom line” to meet — financial, social and environmental.
The company works to improve the ecological footprint of its managed portfolio. Forest City claims more than 35 million square feet of commercial space and 40,000 residential units, and now developments receive a retail tenant handbook that offers sustainability guidelines and requirements. Last year, it completed 27 retro-commissioning projects, which represented more than $500,000 in savings.
Additionally, Ratner wanted to promote employee ownership of sustainability, so he launched WorkGreen, a program that incorporates internal sustainability as an underlying theme to Forest City’s corporate culture. In order to make an otherwise vague concept — sustainability — immediately relevant to employees, WorkGreen outlines seven specific areas of impact: energy, water conservation, waste and recycling, procurement, transportation, health and wellness, and community involvement.
By taking measures such as installing low-flow bathroom fixtures, putting in energy-saving bulbs and instituting a power management program for office computers, the $10.5 billion commercial and residential real estate giant is saving big — both for the planet and the company’s bottom line.
The benefits are almost immediate. Within the first year of implementing the power management program for Forest City’s 2,400 computers, the company projected both financial savings of $140,000 and environmental savings of 3,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Every office is contributing to the cause. For example, in Boston, a shuttle service now reduces vehicle trips by 600 per week, and in Denver, the office’s used printer cartridges are donated to a local school, which recycles them for a fund-raiser.
HOW TO REACH: Forest City Enterprises, (216) 621-6060 or www.forestcity.net
“Do good. Do well.” It’s a nice philosophy, and it’s one that Fairmount Minerals Ltd. swears by. The industrial sands producer is a corporate do-gooder, and all those good deeds pay off well.
CEO Charles Fowler and Chief Financial Officer Jenniffer Deckard know that their ability to manage the company relies on earning the trust of the communities in which it operates. Their commitment to social responsibility has translated into a companywide commitment that puts Fairmount on the map within its industry. And the entire mantra springs from the idea of promoting sustainability.
Sustainability is something Fairmount Minerals takes seriously, which is why the company operates 11 committees dedicated to various sustainability development initiatives. To keep it all organized and on track, an annual Corporate Social Responsibility report outlines explicit goals to reach. The 2007 Corporate Social Responsibility report listed more than 50 goals associated with such complexities as land reclamation activities and greenhouse gas emissions, for instance.
With half of employee bonus compensation hinging on successfully realizing the goals laid out in the Corporate Social Responsibility report, there was plenty of incentive to make sustainability the centerpiece of the corporate strategy. And it paid off, literally and figuratively. The company achieved more than 97 percent of its objectives, everyone got their bonuses and the company saved almost a million dollars.
By using a conveyor system to transport sandstone instead of the trucks traditionally used for the same purpose, Fairmount cut back on the amount of harmful carbon emissions it produced, while also saving $400,000 a year on operating costs. Similarly, simply recycling the bags used for shipping sand saves the company $500,000 a year.
But it’s the personal reward that Fairmount employees feel about their work that yields the most impressive results. Last year, the company could boast more than 4,800 hours of community service by its 410 employees, earning recognition from the National Association of Manufacturers with the organization’s first-ever Sandy Trowbridge Award for Excellence in Community Service.
HOW TO REACH: Fairmount Minerals Ltd., (800) 237-4986 or www.fairmountminerals.com
Steve Peplin hopes that the squeaky stair will be a thing of the past. For the past 20 years, Peplin has led Talan Products Inc., but in the past year, he created a new, exciting joint venture with Canadian entrepreneur Eric Gobeil.
Gobeil created the Universal Stair Bracket, which makes constructing stairs more efficient and stable, and after Peplin saw its success in Canada, he wanted to not just manufacture the units, but he wanted to create a whole new organization, so with that, GoPro Construction Solutions was born.
It was a perfect match. Gobeil had the product, and Peplin had the experience and resources. As CEO, Peplin has watched Talan balloon to a $25 million metal stamping company, expanding 19 percent between 2005 and 2007, all during a time when the industry trend was to fold under economic pressure.
Now, the entrepreneurial duo will face those economic pressures head-on with their new joint venture. As a Talan affiliate, GoPro has the advantage of having experienced Talan executives as well as new sales and marketing talent to give the company a leg up in its infancy.
GoPro is the product of Peplin’s “intellectual capital,” a strategy he put in place at Talan to ensure that his company was growing from within and not relying solely on the successes of customers. Traditionally, metal stamping companies make parts to order, but Peplin’s vision took the company to another level.
By investing in intellectual capital, he outlined specific goals to develop a line of proprietary products manufactured by Talan and marketed directly or through partnerships.
Gobeil’s Universal Stair Bracket is the first product that GoPro will market, but Peplin says that it is certainly not the last.
“This is just the first of many innovative construction products we will be introducing,” he says.
His innovation is catching attention, and WIRE-Net President and Executive Director John Colm has said before, Talan is a “poster child for business unusual.”
HOW TO REACH: Talan Products Inc., (877) 419-2805 or www.talanproducts.com
There are more than 6 billion people populating the world, and
Dennis J. Roche is doing everything he can to tell them about
Cleveland. As president of Positively
Cleveland, the city’s newly renamed
convention and visitors bureau, Roche
is getting creative in his approach to
promoting the Northern Ohio city as a
business-meeting and tourism hot
In order to get the word out on
Cleveland, Roche first had to get the
word out on Positively Cleveland. Until
last year, the organization was known as
the Convention and Visitors Bureau of
Greater Cleveland — quite a mouthful
and relatively generic. So, after surveying 11,000 meeting planners and 100
travelers about possible logos, the
Convention and Visitors Bureau of
Greater Cleveland became Positively
Cleveland. The same year, Roche led the
organization to a new, more visible home in the historic Higbee Building on Public
Square. It found a new virtual home, too,
with the creation of a new Web site. It
was a positively better situation all around.
In the same year that it
acquired both a new name and
a new location, Positively
Cleveland attracted new friends,
as well. Roche and Joe Roman,
president and CEO of the
Greater Cleveland Partnership,
got together and brainstormed
ways to join forces in order to even more
effectively market the Cleveland area.
The result was Cleveland Plus, a regional brand composed of Positively
Cleveland, Team NEO and the Greater
Cleveland Partnership. Soon thereafter,
the highways were dotted with cars
proudly sporting the Cleveland Plus
But Roche knew there was still more
work to be done. While administering a total rebranding of his organization, he
simultaneously headed efforts to advocate for the Medical Mart and convention center project. When he
wasn’t meeting with industry
leaders to create Cleveland
Plus, Roche was lobbying for
the new center, handing out literature at public events, maintaining yet another Web site,
speaking publicly on the subject and rallying at public hearings.
In addition to attracting outsiders, he’s
working to get Clevelanders jazzed up,
as well. An online “Be a Tourist in your
own Hometown” sweepstakes, a
MySpace Web page, a YouTube video
and logo T-shirts keep everyone energized.
HOW TO REACH: Positively Cleveland, (216) 875-6600 or
But Hallberg learned an essential business lesson from that period: always be honest. “We told everybody everything all of the time,” he says.
By being honest and paying as he could, he dug out. Ten years later, MemberHealth has skyrocketed to become one of the top pharmacy benefits providers and took the No. 1 spot on the Inc. 500 list in 2007 after growing revenues more than 20,000 percent over three years. In September 2007, Universal American Corp. bought MemberHealth for about $630 million.
At the recent Smart Business Live luncheon, Hallberg spoke about how growth can be your best friend or it can kill you, and to save yourself from spiraling out of control, he recommends knowing the who, what and how of your business plan.
In 2006, Hallberg had to more than double his staff by taking on an additional 500 employees in a one-month period. Usually, his hiring process was long and complex to ensure they’d be a good fit with the company, but he didn’t have that luxury this time.
Rather than risk a cultural shake-up by hiring the wrong people in a panic, he brought in temporary workers. “As we saw the ones that were really spectacular, those we converted to permanent people,” he says.
With these new people, Hallberg found the perfect job for the employee, rather than the other way around. “We would actually modify jobs to fit a hire,” he says. “When we saw a candidate who was an outstanding candidate, we would modify what we thought we wanted to hire for in order to capitalize on the strengths of that particular person.”
The same can be done with a company veteran. As the business evolves, people’s responsibilities evolve with it. As the leader, set benchmarks to monitor employees’ work. If people struggle, catch it early and work with them. “Maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses,” he says.
When managing growth, you may have a plan, but everyone needs to know what he or she is doing, so meetings have to be direct, effective and clear up any confusion. “You’ve got to have agendas,” Hallberg says. “If you walk out of a meeting, and you don’t have a chart that says who’s responsible for what, then you haven’t done justice to the opportunity of a meeting.”
That list also needs to include the timeline of each person’s task and how they will accomplish it. That way, at the next meeting, you can follow up with every person about the details of each task.
To make sure information is flowing even when there’s not a meeting, each day at MemberHealth starts with team huddles. It lasts about 10 minutes and ensures that everybody communicates their goals and needs to their fellow team members.
Huddles comprise two topics — the “No. 1” and the “What’s up.” The former involves each person in the huddle articulating their top priority for the day. The latter is an opportunity to report business updates, including the bad news. “We go right through the line,” Hallberg says. “We write this up on a whiteboard every day, and whatever your No. 1 is today, you should be able to report tomorrow that it was done. And if it wasn’t, and you’ve got your No. 1 sitting on the board for several days, ‘OK, what gives?’ Your associates — your team members — need to know both the good news and the bad news about what’s going on.”
More important than the plan is following through on it. “Generally speaking, people get the concept of what it is they’re supposed to do, but they often flounder when it comes time to execute the plan,” Hallberg says.
That may be because the plan wasn’t detailed enough, but more often, it’s because the plan is outdated. “You really have to be willing to understand that you have to take a completely fresh look at everything that you’re doing and completely open it up again,” he says. Otherwise, your company will outgrow your plan. And at that point, growth is no longer helping your company — it’s killing it. “Great ideas are interesting, but one of the things that my people hear from me all the time is, ‘It ain’t about the idea; it’s about the execution of the idea,’” Hallberg says. “Growth is the tangible evidence of a successful execution. It’s the product of working hard and, most importantly, working smart.”
HOW TO REACH: MemberHealth LLC, (866) 684-5353 or www.mhrx.com
If brothers and co-CEOs Dave and Mike
Catan were going to keep their company
competitive, they were going to have to get creative. The craft industry was changing. The market was more competitive, and
craft retailers demanded a more sophisticated distribution process to cater to customers’ growing needs.
The Catan brothers were up for the challenge. They have witnessed the craft business explode into a $32 billion industry in
the past decade, and through maintaining
flexibility and innovation, they managed to
keep Darice Inc. the No. 1 arts and crafts
distributor in the United States.
A new 750,000-square-foot distribution
center made the entire company more efficient, enabling better customer satisfaction. Radio frequency technology made
paperless order processing possible, for
instance, which significantly reduced both
processing time and paper waste.
But the real secret to the Catans’ success is the company’s innovation center.
Mike and Dave realized that in order to
keep Darice excelling beyond the competition, they needed to invest in product innovation. That meant
investing in employees’ creativity, which meant investing in
creating a place that fostered
Thus, the innovation center
was born. The center has two
functions: to inspire confidence and creativity in employees as a workplace and in customers as a showplace for new,
So far, the center has been
well worth the investment.
Since its completion in August
of last year, research and development at Darice is a booming
part of the business. The creative services department more
than tripled in size, growing from a modest five-person staff to 16. The growth attracted the attention of David
LoPriore, who relocated to Cleveland
from New York City to act as executive
director of creative development.
The Catans did more than simply grow Darice internally; they
broke down traditional barriers
by forging partnerships with
small creative companies that
had great products but lacked
production and marketing distribution capacities. Now, Darice is
not only one of the few craft distribution companies that can
boast developing new, original
product lines, but it is also marketing products that it would otherwise never have had access to
without the licensing agreements
that the Catans furnished.
HOW TO REACH: Darice Inc., (440) 238-9150 or
Apogee is a fitting name for the sailboat Luis Proenza built with his wife, as it means “furthest or highest point.” When on land, Proenza is busy taking the University of Akron to new heights, and bringing the entire region along for the ride.
Since acquiring the president’s office at the university in 1999, Proenza has always focused on energizing the entire Northeast Ohio region. To illustrate his point about regionalism, Proenza likes to show a satellite image of Ohio. By just looking at the image, nobody can separate Cleveland from Akron or the university from the city — the entire Northeast Ohio area is one luminous blob.
Proenza takes that “satellite approach” with the university, which is why he has placed such an emphasis on economic development.
Under his stewardship, UA rose to the top of the polymer industry and became a beacon for the role of universities within their locales. Staying on course toward jump-starting the region’s economy, in September 2006 Proenza made UA the first higher education institution to be a full member of The Fund for Our Economic Future, a philanthropic effort comprising 85 entities. In order to join, Proenza arranged for UA to make the $100,000 minimum contribution over three-year installments.
But UA goes further than charity. To help bring jobs and money to Northeast Ohio, UA undertakes joint research and licensing agreements for technologies developed with such organizations as Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and The Cleveland Clinic. When the University of Akron Research Foundation opened, it streamlined the entire process, turning $270,000 of UA licensing revenue in 2001 into $6.3 million in 2007. The center became a single point of contact to merge industry and university, offering opportunities for research and development, entrepreneurship and economic development as well as help for navigating patenting and licensing processes. The result? A unique partnership between UA and the entire Akron region that proves beneficial for everyone involved. Just ask Lorain County — the joint venture between UA and Lorain County Community College that Proenza and LCCC President Roy Church created increased education opportunities in the area and is changing lives and, in turn, the regional economy for the better.
HOW TO REACH: University of Akron, (330) 972-7111 or www.uakron.edu