For Andreas M. Schulze Ising, running a global company is both his biggest challenge and his biggest advantage. The president and CEO of Advanced Polymer Technology Corp. doesn’t get to work within the confines of one country operating in a certain way with a standard set of rules and regulations. However, he thrives on the ability to draw from different environments and points of view to advance the capabilities of the 200-employee global manufacturer of polyurethane-based materials, synthetic turf products and sports flooring applications.
The company has development teams around the world to aid in its global business, but keeping those teams in contact and working together is a constant, yet well worth it effort.
“When you’re just focused on one country, it’s an easier task because government and guidelines and the mentality of the folks in a certain country that you’ve experienced work in a certain way,” Ising says. “When you mix and match those and you work in the American industry and you have to incorporate the German way of thinking or the way things are handled in Australia or Hong Kong or China, then you really have an interesting task.”
Advanced Polymer Technology’s ability to pull from very different environments and perspectives allows the company to be an industry leader in innovation. It’s that ability that landed it the task of supplying surfaces to the Olympic authorities for the games in 2012.
Here’s how Ising keeps Advanced Polymer globally connected in order to develop innovative quality products.
Develop a global framework
Advanced Polymer manufactures and installs running tracks, tennis courts and artificial turf for rugby, football, soccer and many sports facilities and schools across the globe. The company has to be able to understand how business works in different parts of the world in order to succeed.
“It’s always a little bit of a struggle when you have locations, specifically production environments on a global basis,” Ising says. “You have to provide those folks with the right truths to make them understand how things work on a global basis. When you have brand names that you market globally, you have to make sure that you comply with the rules and regulations in a certain country but use those to excel the company and get everybody on the same boat to make sure things are going in the right direction.”
One of the key things to running a successful global business is to really provide people with a direction.
“You have to be able to see beyond the future and what the market requires,” he says. “How can the folks on hand and how can doing innovation fit into that picture and excel the company forward? Give them a straight line and the proper advice and have a plan for how the company can survive so people have a clear idea of what the next steps are. It’s very important to make sure that on the global level that this mission is clear across boundaries and clear across the country. It has to go beyond the local customs and how people think on a local basis. Because as a global company, it’s very important that the mission statement and the brand strategy is very clearly defined and can be grasped by everybody to make sure that it’s a team environment and teamwork that goes forward and extends in the right direction.”
To help Advanced Polymer keep tabs on how things are going in other countries and where each region can benefit from one another, Ising uses a global development team.
“We have a global development team of Ph.D. candidates … on hand in Europe and the states and Australia, and they create and test products to the market,” he says. “They have such an influence from the local markets and they understand the local requirements, so when you put all that together, you don’t just have the creativity of a specific area or a certain way of thinking whether it be German, Australian or Chinese, you actually cross the boundaries by having these guys talk together. It’s a very simple tool and it gives you a platform where ideas get brought to the table and discussed.”
If you operate on a global scale or even if you just operate in one country, you have to have a way for different regions to communicate and share ideas that can benefit the business.
“We look from three different directions from three different continents on similar products that we can enhance and modify based on local demands or local requirements,” he says. “As you can imagine they have very, very different conditions in Australia versus in Germany. In the United States, you have not just forest areas, you have deserts and extremely cold areas where the requirements for certain flooring products or sports flooring products are very different. There are different performance characteristics that are very dependent on the environment, temperature and light. Having the input from these different continents gives you quite an interesting mix of ideas and points of view and perspectives of what is right. The most important thing is to have an open mind and try to see things in a different global environment from that perspective.”
Innovate on ideas
Different perspectives are what allow you to develop ideas. You have to bring people in who actually look further beyond this perspective to help progress the company forward.
“In the end it’s all about innovating things,” Ising says. “It’s all about coming up with this new product. It’s always being a step beyond the competition. That’s probably one of the key focuses. We have a company that works in many different directions not just the sports flooring industry, but we make polymers for optical materials and you can imagine how extreme the bandwidth is between a simple tennis coating to something that will find it’s way into an optical application.”
While working on products for different industries creates challenges for the company, it also allows it to find innovations it otherwise wouldn’t find.
“For example, a running track that has up to 70 percent renewable resources,” he says. “With all these different technologies we have on hand in all these different areas, we have done a great job overlapping amongst those areas and coming up with a whole range of products.”
Whenever possible you have to allow your employees who operate in different areas of the company to interact so they can offer different perspectives and ideas and be challenged to innovate.
“You have to always be able to challenge somebody to step out of their own bubble and look at it from a customer basis, but also from a very fresh angle,” he says. “I think that’s also a key in our company since we have the global approach you always get all sorts of views out of very different perspectives. You have to make sure that you don’t get stuck with a certain way of looking at things. You always have to be able to challenge what you do and look at it from a different person’s perspective, a different market perspective, or a different requirements perspective because only then will you be able to overcome these problems and get this aha effect.”
You have to understand that when you’re looking at a problem for so long, it becomes the same old thing. Putting a different spin or twist on a situation can get you another step in the right direction.
“When you work within the sports environment you are always challenged,” Ising says. “You’re always challenged by the athletes, by the directors and the guys that actually use the products. There’s always an idea that comes from this market. On the other hand being so versatile and not being just a sports flooring business, but having a lot of high-tech applications like the optical industry, you challenge the standards that are not common in the sports flooring side or the industrial flooring side. You get a complete different set of requirements and you get a complete different set of eyes that look at things and can tell you how that is met. Then you have to have the ability to take those estranged views from a different environment into a more common environment and sometimes it has a very eye-opening effect.”
The biggest key for Ising and Advanced Polymer’s innovation comes from the fact that the global employees communicate in meetings, over the phone, and through e-mail platforms to provide different opinions from different environments that trigger the thought process and make products better.
“The key is you have to really challenge people,” he says. “You have to really everyday make sure that you ask the right questions, that you have people on your team that do the same thing, that really push that question and have good ideas and different perspectives on things so that you have a good discussion that will shed light from different angles on other things to do.”
Maintain a collaborative environment
In order to keep people in your company interacting with one another and sharing ideas, you have to make sure communication between them is easy.
“You have to always be able to communicate,” he says. “I have to communicate from my perspective to the communicators and I try to convey the message to them to do the same things within their teams — have an open mind, have an open ear, listen to people and really try to give good feedback and really try to question things in a positive way, in an upbeat and creative way.”
Advanced Polymer also uses a simple platform to communicate ideas to everybody within the corporation to get instant feedback.
“You come to work in the morning and you open up your e-mail and besides your normal e-mail, you have these little idea snippets, these little comments, these little challenges every day that people can take a look at and think about the day-to-day business, but again be challenged or poked to comment on these questions or ideas,” he says. “Everybody uses it in the company. Any request that goes into a development project is going to be put on that and discussed instantly.”
You don’t have to be on time for conference calls and forced to wait because not everyone is dialed in and you don’t have to fly anywhere to speak to someone.
“You get these things and you can respond very, very fast and it makes things so much easier because you really have an instant feedback and people can attach pictures and excel sheets and it’s out there for everybody,” he says. “To have a quick idea discussed amongst your peers that are involved in this is so much easier. It’s also kind of fun, because you don’t have to elaborate forever, you just put this out there and the idea is taken further by other colleagues in the organization.”
It is very beneficial to have ways for employees to share ideas amongst one another, but you also have to determine which ideas are the best.
“We have certain levels of R&D work that is basically on a more creative level that we discuss once a month in a management meeting where we look at these things and determine what has potential, what fits into our vision of the company, and what we can move forward,” Ising says. “Based on those decisions there is always something in there that we can take and actually incorporate into existing products or we go ahead and work it into new ideas and new products. It’s really a process of listening to the folks in your company. It’s a function of that and it’s a function of your market intelligence. What does the market tell you that you need? What are your potential possibilities within the company? It comes down to understanding what your company is able to do and reflecting that into the market environment.”
At the end of the day you have to have a passion for what you do and a drive to constantly do it better.
“That’s what sports are all about — being competitive and looking beyond your means and trying to exceed the next challenge and that’s what we do at our company very well,” he says. “It’s all about innovation and it’s about the people your company has and bringing that together.”
HOW TO REACH: Advanced Polymer Technology Corp., (724) 452-1330 or www.advpolytech.com
- Develop a global framework and mission that allows you to best utilize your team
- Get different perspectives to unlock hidden innovation
- Implement communication methods to maintain innovation and best practices
The Ising File
Born: Muenster, Germany
Education: Master’s degree in textile polymer chemistry from Bergische Universitat Wuppertal
What was your very first job?
I had many jobs during my childhood since my parents emphasized that life is not free. The one that stuck most with me was working as a delivery boy for medications in my mom’s pharmacy. We had to bike for miles to drop off prescriptions come rain or shine from 20 degrees to 110 degrees. Sometimes the work was more than one could endure. But what counts is getting the job done.
Who is someone you admire in business and why?
This would be my first boss. He touched me because of his vision and the ability to turn that into reality. He was probably the best listener and had that amazing ability to bring the right people together to achieve highest results.
What is your favorite country to do business in and why?
It is most certainly America. A country filled with people wanting to live the American Dream creates an environment of fast pace but also the desire to move ahead with business and life to create that amazing environment all Americans live in. Things happen in the U.S.; people try, try to excel in their own life/career and move others with them. The U.S. also provides a very pragmatic business environment that gives everybody the tools to become great entrepreneurs.
Do you have an APT product you are most proud of?
APT has worked for a very long time to be the industry leader in quality. Our product lines prove that. We have lately focused on environmental-friendly products within the polyester and polyurethane-based product families, utilizing many renewable resources in our formulations. Latest developments created a new generation of running track based on the legacy track, Rekortan, used in the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany, called Rekortan G13 that is based on up to 70 percent renewable chemistry. It’s not only a track that runners will love for its accommodating features but will also provide a surface that will exceed the current requirements for sustainable and green building and construction codes.
David Rascoe, president of Thermal Industries Inc., a manufacturer of windows and doors that employs more than 400 people, has come face to face with several critical business challenges. The company has experienced a drop in sales, a lack of consumer financing and, most importantly, a lack in consumer confidence.
“To overcome these challenges, it’s been kind of an all-hands-on-deck approach,” Rascoe says. “When it comes to getting in front of the customers, all of our key managers and executives get in front of customers to understand better how we can add value to the business and find better solutions to meet their needs.”
The company continues to work aggressively with its customers to step up in its struggling areas.
Smart Business spoke to Rascoe about how he meets customers’ needs through adding value.
Meet customer needs. You’ve got to be personally committed to being in front of your customers and having a constant direct communication with your sales and marketing teams to have a grasp on the current environment. The organization needs to be flatter in these times to improve the flow and speed of communication. You’ve got to be actively engaged and driving, in our case as a manufacturer, the product-development process.
It’s a time commitment to personally being out with your rank and file in the field, talking to your large customers and, most importantly, talking to prospects as well to understand better what your organization has to do to compete more effectively, whether it is on the sales training side, the marketing development side, or product development and support.
The focus has to be on how you add value to your customers versus just selling a product. You have to find a unique solution to their business problems and have a commitment to being in the field with your sales team to best understand the challenges and, more importantly, the opportunities where many may only see problems. That fuels the engine and fuels the growth.
Add value. It’s like how real estate is location, location, location. When you’re trying to find the value-adds and be innovative, it’s people, people and people. You’ve got to have the flow of ideas and communication within your organization, and you’ve got to have the recognition to those who generate ideas. Not necessarily financial, but recognition that they get for making the kind of contributions through various methods.
We look to bring a lot of our contract customers in to our factory to do tours, and it’s less to learn about the product and, more importantly, to meet the people. Through the exchange of dialogue and communication, you gain ideas both on existing products that you have and product opportunities that they see out of their markets. Some of these things happen through discussion on the shop floors and some of them happen in the engineering area where you’re showing them how you do testing and some of them happen in your showroom where you’re walking through your product with your marketing and sales folks. When your customers truly believe you care, this breeds this kind of communication.
Communicate to find answers. Our innovation is very much a product of a 360-degree feedback loop where we have service technicians who are in consumers’ homes and are continuously getting feedback about products, and we continually mine that data. You’ve got to be talking to customers and trying to understand the pain they’re experiencing and looking for the unique solutions that can add value for them and their process. This isn’t necessarily led by executive management. It’s led by these teams at the field level. They’re the ones on the street that see these things, and they’re constantly engaged in discussing what these opportunities are. We may not all agree that these are good opportunities for the company, but they can all be opportunities.
Through this process, your people have to get very good at the art of probing and asking solid and investigative questions to gain insight to problems that your customers don’t yet recognize as their problem and provide a solution. A lot of times, people are talking about one thing that’s their problem, but it really is a symptom of another problem. So it’s going through that investigative questioning process to help determine what might be a unique solution that we can provide. That sometimes can be through something different in our manufacturing, something different in our product development or something different in a basic service we provide. It could be just for that customer or it could be for all of our customers.
You never want to stop learning from others, so it’s a great thing to keep reading and keep engaged not only within the industry but outside the industry. I get some of my best ideas and impetus to do things from reading outside of our industry and applying those ideas and strategies within the scope of our business.
HOW TO REACH: Thermal Industries Inc., (800) 245-1540 or www.thermalindustries.com
On a Saturday in early March 2010, Will Knecht was delivering some product for customers when he got a call on his cell phone, “Will, come back to the forge, it’s on fire.” He hustled back to find his flagship store, corporate offices and work shop of Wendell August Forge up in flames.
Knecht, president of the company, a retailer and manufacturer of handcrafted metalware and giftware that employs 106 people, couldn’t believe what he was seeing. As firefighters went to work, Knecht says he didn’t think the damage was going to be as bad as it ended up being.
“As that was burning, I had a very interesting peace about me that day,” he says. “I wasn’t anxious, I wasn’t stressed; it was what it was, and I really trusted the Lord that he knew what he was doing even though I didn’t.”
As the fire roared on, more Wendell employees came to the site where Knecht led them in a prayer, which ultimately set the tone for rebuilding and moving forward.
“As we broke that circle it was absolutely like the lights had been turned back on, and we were all about what do we do next. What are the next steps? What do we need to do to get back up and going?”
To add pressure to getting back to work and refocused, the company had just landed its biggest order in its history.
“We got an order from the Pittsburgh Penguins … two days before the fire,” Knecht says. “We were able to create 20,000 replica tickets of the last game at the Mellon Arena and we were able to deliver those on time.”
The Penguins order was a game changer for the company and following the fire it helped to keep Wendell August motivated and in business.
“That order took on added significance because it was the rallying point,” Knecht says. “We were going to deliver that and it put everything in focus.”
The first step Knecht had to take was to rally his employees and change their demeanor from wondering what was next to focusing on getting past the fire.
“As you can imagine … there was a lot of fear,” he says. “This fire wasn’t the end of the game. This was the closing of a chapter or the closing of a book on Wendell August and at the same time, that day was the opening and writing of a new book. We conveyed that confidence to each of our employees and said, ‘We’ve got to go about getting it done now and turning this around. This is a temporary setback, but we’re going to be OK.’”
Knecht did everything he could to continually communicate that Wendell August would make it through this hardship.
“Having faith, for me, was the cornerstone, but what that gave me was a sense of purpose and direction and clarity that it was incumbent upon me to communicate,” he says. “My job became the chief communicator inside and outside. I had to provide the stability. They had to see in me a calm and peace, strength, confidence, and they had to see a future focus.
“Bad things are going to happen. It might not be a fire, but a company might lose its biggest account. A company might lose a key employee. The leader’s job is to overcommunicate a sense of calm, a sense of focus and a sense of direction. That’s what we were able to do immediately after that fire. You have to communicate that clearly, directly and consistently. That’s what they needed from me. They didn’t need me to make the product or make a big sale. They needed me to calm and steady the ship.”
Eventually the company got itself back on track, and Knecht had to keep his employees motivated.
“When you go through a cataclysmic event like we did, it’s all about the here and now and getting us through today,” he says. “Then you change gears when you get through an event like that and you have to execute and get back to business basics. You’ve got to stay the course. You need to overcommunicate and you as the leader need to become the bridge to move on to the next phase of life. Put it behind you and change your demeanor, communicate and focus and then begin to throw the vision forward and cast that vision for the employees.”
HOW TO REACH: Wendell August Forge, (800) 923-4438 or www.wendellaugust.com
Wendell August was opened to exciting opportunities because of the fire and being forced to think in new and different ways.
“There is a realization on all of our parts that we are an almost 90-year-old company, so we’ve got a tremendous foundation, but we’re basically rewriting the book and we have this blank canvas now to paint on,” says Will Knecht, president. “There’s an energy and there’s an excitement about some of the new directions we’re headed.”
The Penguins order put the company into the realm of licensed products, which is today a big focus that the company is moving on significantly as part of the future.
“That Penguins order … and the success that we had with that allows us to talk to some teams in Major League Baseball and the NFL and other NHL teams,” he says. “You have to look outside of yourself and think differently and open your mind. One of the things we did was we weren’t stuck in a ‘This is how we’ve always done it.’ We as a company opened our horizons and we looked at what the possible was. What can we do now that we have this great foundation of a company yet a blank canvas to paint? That’s what I would challenge business folks who go through an event such as this to open their mind to the opportunities sometimes you don’t see when business is going as business as usual.”
Gary Kiedaisch is charged with leading one of the strongest consumer product brands in the country. The chairman and CEO of No. 1 cooler manufacturer Igloo Products Corp. understands that achieving the top spot didn’t happen overnight or by accident. It took Igloo’s industry awareness, brand building and unmatched innovation to keep the manufacturer atop the cooler industry.
The $250 million, 1,200-employee company originated the cooler category in 1947 and for more than 60 years it has held the No. 1 market share. Kiedaisch has helped excel Igloo’s brand and its products and has the ongoing challenge of keeping the company relevant and continuing its reputation as the top cooler manufacturer.
“We have, in my humble opinion, the best products in the category,” Kiedaisch says. “I don’t think anybody has a lineup of coolers like Igloo does. We live, eat, sleep and breathe coolers.”
While Kiedaisch can enjoy the comfort of leading a No. 1 market share company, he hasn’t been resting on his laurels. Here’s how Kiedaisch combines a strong brand with industry leading innovation to help grow Igloo Products Corp.
Build and advance your brand
Research shows that three in every four U.S. households own at least one Igloo cooler. Igloo has achieved this level of market penetration by being the best at what they do.
“We specialize in coolers,” Kiedaisch says. “Our two main competitors, Coleman and Rubbermaid, are generalists. The cooler business for them is a fraction of their whole. Coolers are our shirt, and with them, they are a sleeve on their jacket.”
Igloo’s ability to continually produce high-quality, durable cooler products is what helps drive the company’s reputation and relationships.
“We are delivering to our customers a truly great product that they need and we have good relationships with them,” he says. “What that shows is our branding and they’re going to then put our brand on the shelf front and center because retailers want to know what they’re buying and that consumers have confidence in it. That’s the first stamp in the marketplace.”
There’s a reason you don’t see a lot of marketing dollars for coolers and that is because the cooler itself is a billboard.
“Once you sell a cooler, it’s not going to get used only by one person one time and put away in a closet,” Kiedaisch says. “The first time it gets used it’s probably going to get used by at least three, maybe four, maybe five people. It’s going to be taken out repeated times and when it is taken out it is going to be the center of the party. You use it when you go to the beach or going to camp. I’ve got some contractors restoring a property in New Hampshire and at lunch time they’re all sitting around their Igloo coolers and its part of their daily life. They live with those products.”
The many uses of a cooler along with the quality and durability of each one of them have helped Igloo sell more than 20 million coolers a year, which exponentially builds the brand.
“You’ve got 20 million impressions going to the marketplace multiplied by two, three, four or five, utilized four or five times a year with a life cycle of how ever many years coolers go on and you just have a huge penetration in American households,” Kiedaisch says. “That’s why the brand is so well-known and recognized.”
To make your brand well-known and recognized you have to not only have a product that people want to use, but you have to associate your brand with things that your products are regularly used for.
“In sporting goods products there are many, many likes; for example skis,” Kiedaisch says. “You watch the Olympics and you see the skiers coming down and at the end of the race they pick up their skis and there’s a big billboard with the name of their ski right beside their head and that’s what’s commonly called sports marketing. I call it opinion-reader marketing and hundreds of thousands of consumer products companies use that strategy.
“It’s the same with car racing. I think it’s great that Chevrolet is on a NASCAR because that’s a Chevrolet engine and that’s a pretty tough piece of equipment. When you get a company’s brand on a NASCAR vehicle that has nothing to do with automotive or mechanical or engineering or doesn’t have a part in the vehicle, that’s just trying to get your name in front of the consumer demographic, but there is very little correlation between the two. It’s a very expensive and very indirect way to build a brand.”
Igloo tries to team up with events or activities that directly correlate with the use of its products.
“We sponsor the FLW Tournament, which is the biggest bass fishing tournament in the country,” he says. “We’re on television with bass fisherman and … they have to bring these fish in for weighing and they have to keep them alive, so they put them in an Igloo cooler. That’s similar to the NASCAR race where our equipment and gear is being used by the celebrity. That is direct cause and effect and the person choosing a cooler at the moment of decision is going to recall, ‘This is the one that’s used by all those FLW guys, I see on TV all the time.’”
Discover avenues to grow
In order to lead a consumer category for more than 60 years, you need more than a good product to continue that dominance. You need to have strong employees that can recognize the right business strategies.
“Anybody will say that the toughest leadership challenges are always getting the right people focused around the right business strategies and having them executed and implemented with precision,” Kiedaisch says. “The most important thing is to really surround yourself with experts in fields of the discipline that you do business in. If you’re in the consumer products business and you sell products through whatever it is that’s your specialty, you need people that understand the habits and behaviors of not only the end user but the retailer that you’re dealing with and how they interface with their consumers.”
Kiedaisch has been able to surround himself with people who are experts in the cooler industry and that expertise has led to growth for Igloo.
“Since 2008 we’ve grown this company significantly,” he says. “We’ve grown more than 20 percent and in the specialty channels outside of Walmart, we’ve grown close to 30 percent. It’s come from recognizing what we do and doing what we do better.”
Igloo’s strong brand and market dominance has led to penetration in 70 percent of American households in a category that has penetration in 90 percent of American households.
“You could argue the market is saturated and there’s no room for growth or you could argue that it’s a staple of life that the product that you make, almost every household needs one or two or three,” Kiedaisch says. “All you really need to do is bring them new reasons to buy one — compelling new reasons to buy a replacement or take new consumers. It’s a combination of sustaining what worked before and also bringing new innovation into the category to improve it.”
To continue to grow your company, your products and your brand you have to be in the right mind set. You can’t be turned away at the first sign of adversity.
“You have to make sure that you know your business and never, never, never give up,” he says. “If what you try today or this morning didn’t work quite as you wanted it to, take a look at it and see what went wrong or what assumption was incorrect and keep going until you get the result you think you want. That’s not to say you go until death. Sometimes certain strategies are wrong and you need to course correct. You only course correct when there is clear evidence that the direction that the group felt the company should be going is unquestionably proven to be wrong.”
When you are trying to be new and different and make a stand in an industry there are always people who will disagree.
“There are a lot of naysayers, especially when you’re trying to do something new and you’re trying to be great, that are going to want to slow down or dumb it down or maybe not chase that ring and then you settle,” Kiedaisch says. “The worst thing that I’ve ever seen other executives do is settle. That’s when you get companies that don’t have great performance in their products, great performance in their innovation, great performance in their financials, and they don’t have, in my opinion, motivated and happy executives and employees.”
Innovate the industry
Kiedaisch and the employees at Igloo refuse to settle for anything less than their best. The company is always looking for the next innovation to keep its products relevant.
“It’s all about the quality and efficiency of the product,” Kiedaisch says. “It’s got to outperform anything else that’s out there in the marketplace and that’s what we’re constantly working on. If you’re not constantly reinventing your product there’s no reason to replace it, there’s no reason for somebody to be motivated to buy it, and you’re not going to have very good sales.”
Reinvention is what Igloo is great at. The company explores numerous avenues to make a good product even better.
“Take for example our soft-sided coolers,” he says. “The original soft-sided coolers are just square sewn together boxes with insulation in them and they were lunch boxes and they looked like that. What we’ve done is we’ve developed a series of bags, totes and across-shoulder messenger bags that are insulated and have fashion and design to them that women will carry to the office or men will carry to a boat that doesn’t look like it’s your lunch pail, yet it is.”
Igloo looks to other industries and product functions to get inspiration for its innovations.
“What we did was we studied the women’s handbag business and how women carry their daily accessory needs,” he says. “We look towards the luggage industry and we look toward the refrigeration industry to see what they’re doing. I don’t know who came out with wheels first, but I would bet that the luggage industry came out with wheels first and you can’t buy a piece of luggage today without a wheel on it.
“We’re in the food transportation and storage business. If you’re in that business you look at what other companies make products that move personal items by an individual and you can learn things from those people as to what you can do with your company.”
Igloo did something similar when designing its new rickshaw-inspired glide cooler. It took a page out of the Chinese lifestyle.
“We looked at the Chinese rickshaw and saw these frail people carting around two heavy people in a two-wheel wagon,” Kiedaisch says. “The art to it was the balance of the rickshaw and that the handle is set away from the wheels and acts as a lever. So we created a cooler that has a handle that extends out much like a rickshaw and you reduce the weight of lifting it by 50 percent and you also move yourself further away from the cooler so if you’re pulling it the cooler is far enough behind so it’s not bumping into your Achilles tendon.”
Kiedaisch doesn’t just look to similar industries or functions that could contribute to a cooler. He also watches how consumers utilize the products.
“We wander around a lot,” he says. “I’m often accused of being a chief product manager myself. We respect the fact of how the product plays. We watch how people use products. We look to related industries and how they manufacture products and what you can bring to the consumer in ways of better performance or better value and then we will incorporate it into the product. I probably on any given day of the week will see four or five innovative new things that the team will check and see if there is something we can do to incorporate that technology into our products.”
Innovation doesn’t stop at finding new ways for a product to be used it also applies to the ways you make a product.
“I’d challenge what technology ends up being used in the manufacturing or materials that are used in your products,” Kiedaisch says. “If Igloo didn’t do that we’d still be making metal fabricated coolers and they’d be horribly expensive.”
HOW TO REACH: Igloo Products Corp., (713) 584-6800 or www.igloocoolers.com
- Build your brand and align it with uses that directly correlate
- Use your brand and turn it into growth for your products
- Take what you do best and innovate to make it better
The Kiedaisch File
Born: Cambridge, Mass.
Education: Attended college for two years and was studying pre-law before joining the military.
Do you have a favorite Igloo product?
My 28-quart personal cooler that I use to travel to and from my boat with.
Who is somebody that you admire in business?
I admire Jack Welch and Steve Jobs. I say Jack Welch because when he ran General Electric, he had his hands on the ball. He had constant meetings with his employees and he was always motivating his employees and sharing where the company was and where it was going. I say Steve Jobs because he not only [ran the company] but he was the chief product development guy and he understood that the wellness of Apple Computers is as good as the last innovation you came up with and he drove that.
If you weren’t a CEO what job would you have?
If I were not running a company, I would be a lawyer of some sort because it is very similar to what I do. It’s getting the facts, preparation, presentation, cause and consequences, and it’s high stakes, winner takes all.
Cool facts about Igloo:
- Igloo is the No. 1 cooler brand in the world
- No. 1 market share in the U.S.
- No. 1 cooler brand used in the marine channel
- No. 1 cooler brand used on commercial worksites
- No. 1 brand recognized by consumers in the cooler category
- Igloo adds more new coolers to its line each year than any other cooler brand
- Playmate is the most recognized cooler product in the U.S.
- Almost three in every four U.S. households owns an Igloo cooler
- Igloo offers more than 500 different products
- Igloo coolers are sold through more than 15,000 outlets in the U.S. and around the world.
Ash Shah cut his teeth at a large global trading company that traded in petro chemicals and plastic polymers. After four years in the industry, he decided to start his own business, Impex Group Holdings LP, a worldwide supplier of plastic films and packaging products.
Shah, founder, president and CEO of the $28 million company, now had to deal with the tough entrepreneurial world and the challenges of finding the right employees and growth opportunities. Fifteen years later, he continues to keep those challenges his top priority.
“I think we have been very fortunate of having very good people work in our company,” Shah says. “It’s always a challenge regardless of how large or small or growing or not growing a company is. People are really the key asset more than the products and more than anything else.”
Smart Business spoke to Shah about how he has been able to find the right employees and take advantage of growth opportunities.
Find and retain employees. To retain employees, you have to offer the right package and so on, but it’s also the corporate culture and whether they fit well and you fit well and working as a team. Retaining is more important than finding, especially in the current economy. With unemployment, there are quite a few good candidates out there. So finding isn’t as much of a challenge as retaining them.
You have to make sure that teamwork is very important regardless of how small or large your company is. Having that team culture and that feeling of everybody being a part of the organization … that bonding or family-type togetherness goes a long way. Money is obviously important for everybody, but over the years I think it’s actually more important that they grow to enjoy and like coming to work and working with their counterparts.
It’s like any relationship: a lot of give and take, understanding, and appreciating. For every organization it will vary. It’s difficult to say that one rule applies to everybody, but you have to see within your organization what types of people there are, what their likes are, how can you make it a cohesive unit, and as an entrepreneur, having that cohesive teamwork is really what is going to help any leader grow. People are your main assets and you have to take great care of them.
You cannot please everybody. If an employee doesn’t fit within the corporate culture, despite trying a few times, if it’s not meant to be then that is a good time for them to depart. It’s not at any given cost you have to try and make sure you retain an employee, you don’t. In a genuine situation, you try to understand what their issues are. If they’re valid and if it’s something that a company can do to address that issue and as long as it all makes sense and within reason, the employee can be retained. You have to try to do anything within reason to try and retain employees.
Stabilize growth. The key factors of success in our case have just been responsible growth, keeping our eye on the ball and the matured product that we deal in. With the economy not being good, the basic staple food product packaging products — the plastics, the paper, the foil, which are the main substrates we deal in — actually have grown because more and more people aren’t going out to restaurants and they are buying food from the grocery stores and cooking from home.
As you grow, you have to sustain the growth and not grow too fast or too slow and you have to maneuver the ship in the right direction and that’s a challenge. If you grow too fast, it can have some negative implications and same if you grow too slow. When you’re growing at a pace of 50 percent or so … and you’re growing fast, just like we have for a couple of years, if there was a period of slow down or any major recalls, and you’re growing at a fast pace, it is difficult to pull back and try to maneuver.
Growth is obviously good and important and in most cases very beneficial for the company and its employees, but a sustained growth is even more important. That continued sustainable, matured, responsible growth for any company would be very positive. It is difficult to kind of benchmark or difficult to gauge the speed of growth.
To every specific industry, the leader has to focus on the basics of the financials. You have to constantly do checks and balances whether it’s monthly or on a quarterly basis. If the owner or the CEO feels like the growth is too fast, look at sales or accounts that are not much of a profitable account and whether you really need that account. It all goes back to checks and balances and making sure the bank mandated ratios are met and those ratios are not going too much into the danger zone. For every company, every industry, every sector, the leader has to see if this is a sustainable growth or not.
HOW TO REACH: Impex Group Holdings LP, (281) 416-4449 or www.impexfilms.com
All Steve Shifman is hearing and reading today is how companies aren’t hiring, aren’t investing and aren’t growing. While that has certainly been the trend over the last couple of years with economic uncertainty still looming, Shifman has had the opposite challenge at Michelman Inc., a 250-employee global developer of water-based coatings for flexible film packaging, paperboard and other products.
“We’ve kind of bucked the economic trend during the downturn of the last few years,” says Shifman, president and CEO. “We continue to expand both here in Cincinnati and also around the world, and we’ve continued to hire.”
The company hasn’t been cutting costs or staying conservative to ride out the uncertainty. Instead, Shifman and his employees are embracing the position they are in and are hiring top-level talent and developing strategic plans to allow the company to keep growing for years to come so the organization can capitalize on its opportunities.
“It’s not growth for growth sake,” Shifman says. “Growth is important because we know that by doing that, we can continue to bring in the kinds of capabilities, skills and tools that will help our customers to win.”
Here’s how Shifman developed and led a strategic growth plan to allow Michelman to achieve its mission of helping its customers and continue to grow.
Formulate a direction
A strategic plan helps paint a picture for your organization of where you ultimately want to take the company. It provides a clear direction and strategy to get you there.
“We’ve made some decisions on the kinds of investments we’d like to make and what we’re prepared to do in order to grow the business a little bit more rapidly, particularly because we’re trying to find new solutions to help customers to win,” he says. “We started serving some of these industries and we recognized there’s more growth potential within these industries. There are more needs that need to be filled, let’s go invest around those industries so we can bring in new solutions and hire new people and build new facilities that will help us to serve those industries better.”
Shifman took this focus on customers and industries and made it the top priority for Michelman’s strategic plan.
“It’s very important to start with the customer in mind,” he says. “There are different ways you can organize a business. There are some businesses that organize around their production and they’re primarily manufacturers and some businesses are primarily around technology and those are right for them. In our case, our business begins and ends with our customers and we understand the markets and the industries we serve so well, so we start with those industries and with those customers and then we try and understand the kind of skills we need to serve the customers well — the kind of resources, assets, the kind of depth, the kind of distribution networks, etc.
“You have to understand who you’re serving. Understand what their needs are and help them to understand not only their needs today, but the needs they’re going to be facing over the next five or 10 years. Help them look around the corner to figure out where their businesses are going. Everything starts with the customer, starts with the industries and the markets that we serve and then we work closely with those industries and those customers to figure out where we think the future is going and then come up with our tactical plans to get there.”
In order to understand who you are serving you also need to understand the marketplace.
“We very much take an outside-in view of the marketplace,” Shifman says. “What I mean by that is we’ve organized our businesses around sets of customers in certain industries that have similar problems or similar challenges. That’s important to us, because instead of being a company that simply sells products, we’re a company that really focuses on industries that have needs and then we build solutions for those industries and then we build teams of people around these industries that have expertise. We work to hire people out of the industries that we serve. They understand the industries, they speak the language, they understand the challenges, and they can help us design solutions for those industries in a way we feel many of our competitors can’t.”
While there are many ways to put together a strategic plan and countless reasons for one, all those differences are moot unless you have smart people to help you.
“You have to get really smart people in the room to be part of the process,” Shifman says. “Plans created by one or two people off on high and handed down to the masses and say, ‘Here, go implement,’ tend to be less successful than those that are created by people who are actually going to be involved in executing, particularly in a business like ours where understanding the industries and understanding the customers is so critical. Also, have a grand vision. I believe in setting very large strategic goals for our company that challenge the company. If you really want to improve in something, set big goals. Don’t set them in the abstract. Set them because you know that by achieving these goals, you’ll continue to create a better place for your organization in the marketplace.”
A strategic plan or new direction will only be a success if you can build buy-in around it and gain support for what you hope to achieve. To do this, you must focus on communication.
“I’m a lucky guy, because I get to spend most of my time talking and communicating within the company and then also going out and seeing customers,” Shifman says. “It starts with me because the person in my seat in any organization has to be the one driving the grand vision. So it was incumbent upon me to have a big picture for where I thought we could take the company. We spent a lot of time as a team, first of all, making sure we’re all bought into this grand vision, because if the entire team is not bought in, then it’s probably not going to work. We work very closely together and we work very hard to make sure the team is completely aligned around it. Then it’s an awful lot of time spent with other members of the organization.”
Alignment is critical to the success of any strategic plan. To achieve that alignment you have to have the necessary communication tools.
“We do have some pretty well-tested communication tools that we use,” he says. “I spend a lot of time personally with our business units and business unit leaders visiting our facilities around the world and our people who are out in the field. It’s a lot of regular communication. It’s one-on-one communication. I write a letter to all of our employees every month that I send home, because I want their families to read it. We have lots of company-wide meetings and we have video conferencing systems. It’s just an ongoing communication process. It’s not a one-size-fits all and it’s not a once in a while, it’s constant. Can we do it better? Of course, there’s always a way to improve upon it, but I think it’s something we focus on a lot here and we make sure we are working hard to keep people aligned with what we are trying to accomplish.”
To aid in the communication efforts and provide total understanding of the tasks required by your employees, it helps to be transparent.
“One of the words that I try to live by is transparency,” he says. “I happen to believe that there are very, very few secrets within our business. We try to make our plans and our objectives and our results within our organization transparent, because it’s hard to hit a target you can’t see. If you make it transparent and you make people a part of the process and treat them like adults, they’re going to behave like adults and they’re going to be part of the process.”
It’s not enough to be transparent on one aspect of the plan or be transparent only for a little while. You have to make transparency and communication a big part of the strategic planning and buy-in process.
“It’s about transparency and it’s about rigorous, regular, constant, robust communication and dialogue,” he says. “Nothing is off limits to talk about, to debate, and to discuss within our organization. It may not be right for everybody, but within our organization, that really contributes to the culture of Michelman. It makes everybody feel as though they’re a part of the business, they’ve got a voice, they can assert an opinion. They’re not just told to do something. They understand why they’re being asked to do something. They have a chance to really debate and discuss that so that they know they’re a part of something bigger, they’re not just doing a job on a daily basis. It really is something that’s been baked into the DNA of our organization.”
Measure your plan
While a strategic plan begins with a vision for the company, a clear mission of what you’re trying to accomplish and the support of your organization, none of it will be beneficial if you don’t measure your plan on a regular basis to make sure you hit goals.
“We’ve got a lot of robust systems in-house that allow us to measure our business on a day-to-day basis, but we also have this high-level strategy map and balanced scorecard that tell us that we’re moving in a perfect strategic direction,” Shifman says. “Our strategy map is our high-level map of where we’re going strategically and we use a balanced scorecard. The balanced scorecard is not how we manage the business, but it helps us to know that we’re on our strategic path.”
The steps to measuring your strategic plan are to first, have a plan to measure and second, be sure to collaborate with others on your team.
“Many people just operate on a day-to-day basis and there’s probably no long-term plan of where they’re trying to take the business,” he says. “At Michelman, we have a very solid past and that past has helped to inform who we are today and we also have a very clear picture of where we’re trying to take the business. And that picture isn’t something that I keep to myself. It’s one that I have approved by my board. It’s one that my executive team is actively involved in helping to create. It’s one that we communicate actively and we share transparently.”
Once you have a plan and vision in place and buy-in from the company, you have to make sure you discuss and measure specific areas of the plan.
“Make sure you’re debating and checking that plan so it isn’t just something that you pull out of thin air, but something that you’ve actually imbedded and something that a team can buy in to,” Shifman says. “Measure yourself against the plan and be willing to adjust if things change. We have long-range plans, but it’s like talking about a battle plan — once the bullets start flying sometimes the plan gets tossed out the window. Our plan is not tossed out the window, but sometimes reality on the ground forces us to adjust our plan, so we need to remain flexible.”
Remaining flexible is exactly why you have to constantly measure your performance against your plan, otherwise if things change, your plan won’t be effective.
“Be willing to change that plan slightly if things that are happening dictate some needs to change the plan,” he says. “You have to also surround yourself with extremely good people, because it doesn’t matter how smart the person at the top is, it really comes down to the people on the team who are really helping to build the organization and execute the plans.”
No matter the reason for your strategic plan, always understand what you are trying to achieve.
“We need to continue to grow in order to continue to build the resource capabilities that our customers are demanding from us,” Shifman says. “With growth come the resources to be able to invest in new facilities, invest in new technologies, invest in new skills and new people.”
HOW TO REACH: Michelman Inc., (513) 793-7766 or www.michelman.com
The Shifman File
President and CEO
Born: Springfield, Ohio
Education: Graduated from the University of Colorado and received an MBA from Xavier University
What was your first job and what did you learn from that experience?
I worked on a beer delivery truck in Springfield, Ohio. I was a driver’s assistant. I wasn’t even old enough to buy beer, but I schlepped cases of beer off the truck into bars and restaurants. I realized just how hard people work. I also worked in a warehouse for these guys and there was zero training and one of my first days they tossed me the forklift keys and said, ‘Here, go move this pallet.’ We had guys regularly putting forks through the tops of trucks and you’d see pallets full of beer and wine falling off of the forklift. I realized that’s not the kind of work I wanted to do, and getting an education was going to be really important to me.
What is the best business advice you’ve ever received?
Surround yourself with really smart people. Recognize what your real strengths are and build a complementary team of people who have the skills and experiences that come together to create an organization.
What is your definition of success?
We define success at Michelman, first and foremost, by whether or not we are helping our customers to win. If we help our customers to win, then we have a right to win as an organization. Personally, I think success is adding value and giving back and being a part of something bigger. I’m a lucky guy. I have a chance to run what I think is an outstanding organization and I also have a chance to work actively in the community. I feel like I’m successful because I’ve got a beautiful wife, wonderful kids and a great family.
What are you looking forward to in your industry?
All I hear about and all I read about today is how people aren’t hiring and people aren’t investing and people aren’t growing and everyone is waiting for a signal from the government before they do anything. In our case, I couldn’t disagree more. Over the last number of years during a period of uncertainty, we continue to hire, we continue to invest and we continue to grow. I’m looking forward to the next few years because we plan to do a lot of the same. We’re on a rapid growth path, because we believe very much in the future of our business. I’m excited about our growth opportunities, because we’re not waiting for others to figure this thing out.
Samuel Bennett is used to being an individual contributor. Bennett, principal and eastern region client management practice leader for Buck Consultants, an employee benefits consulting firm, has had to adjust to a new mentality in his new role as leader of the Cincinnati office.
The 40-employee office has had to overcome challenges of a tough economy where everybody needs to work a little harder for less. Bennett’s job is to motivate employees and continue to right-size the business.
“The biggest transition into a leadership role out of sales is really making sure people you work with are successful and not just yourself,” Bennett says. “The best thing a leader can do is inspire others to be successful.”
Smart Business spoke to Bennett about how he is adjusting to a leadership role and motivating employees.
I always go back to, as a company, why are we here? Where are we headed? It’s easy with all the noise of the economy to get internally focused, but what I find is our people are happy and more motivated when they’re focused on the client stuff and not on the internal stuff.
You have to find and focus on the priorities both of your organization and internally on your relationships with your staff. It should be a combination. The staff should be well aware and motivated with the company direction and understand where you’re headed, but also see what their personal value is in that whole scenario and be able to connect that. I think all companies are headed in two directions. They want to grow and they want to be profitable, but if you make your clients happy all that other stuff takes care of itself.
Get to know employees and clients
There are very few people in my office in the first six months of my tenure where I didn’t buy them lunch, take them to breakfast, meet them for a drink or whatever it is to just figure out what it is that they’re about. It’s just a personal relationship-building exercise. You can transfer that over to clients too and getting to know clients on a personal basis. What their needs are, where they’re at in the organization and what their expectations are. It’s more of a communication thing and if you take the time to get to know the employees and the clients, a lot of times you’re headed off in the right direction because most employees and clients will tell you exactly what they want and exactly what they need.
You’ve just got to create that avenue of communication. It’s hard. When you’re in a leadership role you’re tugged in 25 different directions, but if you don’t make the time to build those relationships and you’re focused on the tasks, you’re missing out on the big piece of it.
You have to learn as much about every individual as you can, because there is no single way to motivate everybody. Everybody has their own little thing that motivates them. Some are motivated by money. Some want autonomy. Some want some credit when things go well. You have to figure out each individual and what makes them tick. Does it work when you kind of spread it like peanut butter and treat everybody the same? I think you leave half the people out when you approach it that way. When you individualize it and really learn what makes everybody tick, you can adjust your style to meet what motivates them.
That takes a while to do. That’s not something you read in a book or is easy to figure out. It takes a little time. There’s no one way to be a true leader, but you can learn from everybody you interact with every day. Adjusting your style to fit your individual employees is more successful than to say, ‘Here’s my style, everyone adjust to me.’
HOW TO REACH: Buck Consultants Cincinnati, (513) 784-0005 or www.buckconsultants.com
After forming a company that designed software for applications such as FedEx Ship, QuickTime for Apple and Palm computing, Doug Engfer found an unlikely application for computer software.
His partnership with Palm led him to his co-founders, Saul Shiffman and Jean Paty, who had been doing diary-based research with clinical patients. Together they formed Invivodata Inc., a $25 million, 150-employee software solutions organization with a focus on patient reported outcomes for biopharmaceutical companies.
“What we’ve been dealing with lately is the outcome of 10 long years of work to not only build a company, but build a market,” says Engfer, president and CEO. “What we’re seeing right now is the positive outcome, the benefit of that longer-term focus.”
The company’s innovation of electronic diaries and ability to build a market and utilize the resources available in it, have allowed the company to grow at 40 percent a year.
Smart Business spoke to Engfer about how to grow your company with a long-term vision.
Build a market. You have to clearly identify all the stakeholders in your entire ecosystem and understand where you can make a difference and how you can make a difference with each of them. For us, it all starts and ends with the patient. Our mission is to amplify the voice of the patient in clinical research.
There are lots of other players out here who contribute and we’ve done a good job over the years of understanding the needs of each of those constituent groups. You have to really understand all the stakeholders and think broadly and orthogonally about that. Who are some of the strong outside influencers that might make a difference within your market and whose toes are you going to be stepping on? You have to understand who is going to be reacting negatively to what you do and figure out ways to be able to co-op those folks and maybe involve them in those solutions in a way that helps you advance your cause.
Keep up with change. In order to understand what’s going on in your market and optimize and maximize your chance to be able to respond to it and help your organization change, you need to listen well to all concerns. You have to listen to your market both positively and negatively.
We regularly poll our customers on their satisfaction with what we do and it’s tracked as a key dashboard metric. We talk to our customers about our products and services and our product road map to help them understand where we’re going and to get their insight. We engage intimately with our key partners. Given that we have a special relationship with many of those partners, we’ll divulge to them where we think we’re going in order to hear how we can better fit in with what they do. We listen very carefully to our competitors and how they’re talking about themselves and how they’re talking about us. We pay attention to where we think they’re going so we can identify potential threats to our continuing progress and at the same time understand when they have good ideas whether those good ideas apply to what we should do.
In this day and age, you cannot survive as an innovative growing company if you have a centralized idea factory. That model just doesn’t work. You’d never know where the good ideas are going to come from. It’s the people who are closest to your customers and closest to your delivery who often have the best ideas and the most innovative and impactful ideas.
Form an innovative culture. The culture has to be one that builds on mutual relationships of trust and accountability. People need to feel that they’re not going to get punished for bringing up an issue. The organization has to be able to distinguish between good mistakes and bad mistakes and see those good mistakes as opportunities to improve and see those bad mistakes as opportunities to solidify improvement and make sure that you avoid them.
Folks need to feel free to innovate in order for that innovation to happen and for an organization to prosper. You have to trust each other to be engaged in what you do, to care about what you do, trust people to listen to your ideas and help you build them and support you in exploring how to deploy those things.
The lines of communication need to be bi-directional and need to be open. It’s something you’ve got to reinforce every day. You’ve got to reinforce by your actions not just your words. Model those behaviors and demonstrate that you’re going to be able to listen well to what people are saying and help them articulate what it is they need in a constructive way so the organization can absorb those ideas and move forward.
HOW TO REACH: Invivodata Inc., (412) 390-3000 or www.invivodata.com
Ted Teele left his job as CEO of one of the largest sales organizations in the gift and home décor industry for an opportunity he saw as new and different. He saw the growth and potential of social media and how that platform could be used in the industry. His idea formed a company called SnapRetail LLC, a 55-employee wholesale supplier of marketing solutions.
“We were looking around and we could see how social media was in an uptick,” says Teele, CEO. “We saw this big opportunity because in our market were these 100,000 independent retailers selling gift products and furniture and home accent products and they all know marketing was changing but they needed somebody to help get them there.”
Teele capitalized on discovering an opportunity in his industry and began to focus on helping independent retailers evolve and adapt to new marketing strategies.
Smart Business spoke to Teele about how to recognize and grow new opportunities.
How do you form partnerships?
When you are working on a partnership arrangement, it’s very important to be able to model the arrangement financially from the perspective of the partner; what is the benefit to them? The way you do that is you ask really good questions and understand what the partner needs.
You should come up with a list of at least five companies that you most want to partner with and then come up with a value proposition. The first meeting should be all about understanding them. You may have some ideas about the value you can provide and you should talk about them, but you’re probably not going to have a complete proposal. You don’t want to come to somebody with a complete proposal when it comes to partnerships because you don’t understand what they need. Once you understand what a partner needs then you can come back to them with some ideas on how you could help meet those needs. If you are able to show value, then they will look at you as an equal.
How do you find the right partnerships for your company?
You have to learn who would be the best partners and who would get value. The first thing is to identify who the companies are that you want to go after. You have to be important to them too. You have to find people that have similar goals. Part of it is just asking. Partnerships allow you to build a brand, extend yourself broader, and get more information.
What are some keys to finding new opportunities?
We’re living in a world that is changing very quickly. If you’re running a company and you’re looking around, whatever your specialty was 10 years ago is now vanilla. You have to create a new special sauce and that’s true for individuals and it’s true for companies. So many companies just hold on to their old business model and they hold on for dear life. You have to be willing to make transformational decisions. You have to be able to adapt to the changing world and you have to be solving a problem that needs to be solved.
How do you find the right people to help grow the company?
There are two parts of hiring any person. There’s the buying and the selling. The buying is finding somebody that is right for the job and selling is having that person want to work for your company. Some CEOs spend too much time on the selling and some CEOs spend too much time on the buying. You’ve got to find the proper balance.
You need to find people that have the right skills, know what they’re doing and don’t need to be told what to do. The second thing you need are people that fit the culture. They have plenty of options and you want them to want this option. You have to be relevant. If you’re not relevant you’re not going to be able to hire great people. People want to solve big problems.
HOW TO REACH: SnapRetail LLC, (877) 459-7627 or www.snapretail.com
When Michael Brunner looks at all the challenges posed by the economy over the past few years, he has always stayed true to one thing: client satisfaction. While the economy has put everyone in a tough situation, Brunner makes sure that his clients are the No. 1 priority. M.J. Brunner Inc., a 220-employee, $200 million full-service advertising agency, understands that in a down economy you have to be stronger to push through or you don’t survive.
“One of the things I learned along the way is something that we absolutely have to and we did do is stay close to our clients,” says Brunner, chairman and CEO. “It is so important to remember that you’re not the only person going through this, they are as well. The last thing you want is to work your way through the down period and then find that once you’re through it, your client feels that you were very little or no value to them during that time.”
It is through the company’s continued effort to deliver success and its focus on a people-first culture that allows the ad agency to work with companies like H.J. Heinz, Huffy Corp. and GlaxoSmithKline.
Here’s how Brunner focuses on the client and consumer relationship and a strong culture to get great results.
Get close to customers
When tough times are eminent, it is critical that you find ways to help your clients improve their business. If you do, those efforts will be rewarded.
“I found it just makes more sense to get even closer, to be more sensitive and more aware of the issues and the challenges that they have,” Brunner says. “If you can find a way to really help them through that period, you’re going to be so much more valuable and particularly at the end of the downturn that relationship has probably been strengthened considerably. That’s one of the things that we’ve done or at least we’ve tried to do. In many cases, we’ve done it by being as creative as we can or inventive or imaginative in looking for answers to questions that they’re facing and problems that they’re having. It can go in lots of different ways, but when they need you most is probably when you need to be most sensitive to that need.”
Creating client satisfaction in a down economy takes more creativity and the ability to get results with fewer resources.
“You have to be very sensitive to their needs and to their problems and then help them solve those problems, which may mean you most likely have to invest more in resources than you normally would,” Brunner says. “That’s hard because in most instances their spending is probably down. I call it basic human nature. If I stay with you through a tough period or if I help you through a tough period, most likely when that tough period is over, you’re going to remember that. You just may have to do more with less in those kinds of times. You may have to find ways to answer problems that are very difficult, because you don’t have the resources that you normally would to do it.”
One of your most important resources is your team and the partnerships they make with clients.
“Our customers and clients are satisfied when we are building and delivering successful programs that drive results for their organization,” he says. “It takes a tremendous amount of communication and work that requires partnering with the client so that you clearly understand whatever their specific issues and needs are. One strategy isn’t going to work for every client. If the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. Every client is very different and has very different kinds of needs and has different marketing issues. Can there be similarities? Of course, but one size does not fit all. One size fits one and the challenge is finding the right size.”
To figure out the unique qualities of the clients you are working with, you need to have people responsible for those clients.
“The way we do that is we put teams on those businesses and those teams work with those clients over periods of time and the knowledge gets deeper and hopefully our approach gets stronger and better with each passing year,” Brunner says. “One of the first questions you have to ask is, ‘What problem are we trying to solve?’ Then you apply the necessary resources.”
Whether times are tough or not, it’s not enough to produce good results for your customers. You have to be looking to produce great results.
“If you’re not doing a good job with your clients you’re not going to keep them,” Brunner says. “That’s really the price of admission. It’s a matter of creating a program or campaign that catapults a client to the top of their category, one that achieves dramatic results, one that fires up the entire internal organization, one that’s built around a big game-changing idea that transforms their business; a radical departure from the norm. Those are the kinds of things that I would say are going above and beyond.”
To offer that kind of result, you have to really get inside your client’s business and they have to be willing to let you in.
“You really have to understand the nuances of what they do, how they do it, how they make a profit and the best way to do that is to saturate yourself in their business,” he says. “The best way to try and understand what the client is all about is to try and live the client’s world. You’re not going to be able to do it forever, but you’re going to try and learn as much and as quickly as you possibly can about what factors ultimately become important to help you grow their business.”
Understand the consumer
A big part of getting close to your customers is to understand who they do business with and who their consumers are.
“It’s important for us to make sure that we’re lockstep with today’s consumer,” he says. “Today’s consumer is equipped very differently than yesterday’s consumer. I say that because that’s due to marketing technologies. One of the things we did was launch a lab called B-Hive lab and essentially it’s an idea incubator and it’s focused on inventing new ways to engage people on the go through emerging technologies. It’s incumbent upon us to make sure that we’re understanding the technologies that are in the consumer’s hands so that we can take those and make those meaningful to our clients situations. If we’re not out there in front, then why should the client invest in us or expect us to be the agency that handles their brand? Things like that are investments that you make when you look at your existing clients and you say, ‘Those clients are very important to us and we need to be ahead of the curve.’”
Staying ahead of the curve is critical when it comes to keeping pace with consumers. If you don’t, you won’t be effective for your clients.
“You want to know how their consumer thinks, how they behave, how they act, what drives them to a purchase,” Brunner says. “The better you understand what they do is imperative so you can put the kinds of programs together that will be most effective in terms of driving that purchase intent and getting them to be interested in whatever your clients’ products and services are.”
To find out what drives consumers to make certain choices you have to put in the effort.
“Some of it is plain old-fashioned hard work,” he says. “You need to learn the category and then you need to learn where your client is in that category and what the factors are. There’s no short cut to do that other than just spend time digging in. On the consumer side, you have to look at the past research and design different tools that will allow you to get to the way the consumer thinks.”
Create a winning culture
The culture of your company says everything about your business and when client service is your top priority, you have to have employees that enjoy their work.
“If you do not have a motivated and inspired employee base, you will never have clients for a very long time,” Brunner says. “If you don’t have a motivated and inspired employee base, then I don’t know how you can be doing the best job you can for your clients, because they’re cross-purposed then. There is uncertainty. I want them to know where they stand so we can put all of our energy, all of our efforts into the clients we have so we can be mutually successful. We can win and the client can win. That’s what we want at the end of the day.”
To keep a company running well with employees that strive to deliver the best results possible, you have to have a culture that breeds success.
“We have a culture here that’s dubbed people first,” Brunner says. “It’s about letting the people in this organization know that they’re important, that they are critical and that they are the difference in terms of what we do and that we will make all decisions in that direction. We will make decisions that will let them know how important they are and try to constantly find ways that either reward them or incentivize them to perform at the highest levels.”
No matter what your business is your people are the ones that make it successful or not and you have to be able to recognize and reward that fact.
“Ultimately, your own internal resource is what makes the difference at the end of the day,” he says. “Make sure that your top performers are rewarded and that you provide an environment where people not just feel comfortable, but they feel challenged and they know that there is an expectation of growth. They expect the company to grow and you expect them to grow.”
To grow your culture you have to be open and honest with employees about how the company is doing and where it is going.
“Communicating and being honest seems pretty simple but it’s not always done,” he says. “You have to let them know where you stand. It’s important for them to know where the organization is. You serve no greater good by telling them one thing when they’re seeing the company perform in another way. I think one of the most important attributes a CEO can have is to go out and be honest and frank with the entire employee base. I think they deserve that. They’re making decisions on their livelihood by working in your organization. At the very least you should be able to be candid with them and let them know where the organization is.”
Communicating the position of the company allows you to focus more on the task at hand.
“If you’re letting everyone know where you stand, then you can put all your energy and all your effort into trying to accomplish whatever it is that you want as opposed to trying to send mixed signals or not sharing information and making people worry,” he says. “If you’re making people worried then how productive can you be. All those things do not bode well for client service.”
Having a people-oriented culture is more than just letting people know where the company is. It’s letting them know where they are as an employee.
“It’s letting them know how they’re performing,” he says. “It’s having meaningful, honest appraisals and evaluations on an ongoing and regular basis. If you don’t do that then they don’t know where they stand. What you ultimately want to do is give them that opportunity to improve, to be better, to be stronger, and you want to do your best to make sure that happens.”
HOW TO REACH: M.J. Brunner Inc., (412) 995-9500 or www.brunnerworks.com
- Remain close to customers to meet their needs
- Understand your customers’ consumers to better serve them
- Create a culture that breeds a winning attitude
The Brunner File
Chairman and CEO
M.J. Brunner Inc.
Education: Bowling Green University, Communications and Education; MBA from the University of Pittsburgh
What was your very first job, and what did you learn from that experience?
I was a paper boy. Delivering newspapers in many ways was the perfect primer. I quickly learned that better service meant better tips. I also learned how to manage money.
What got you into advertising?
My dad always had an interest in advertising even though he spent his career working in a steel mill. Obviously, it was enough of a spark. I also had two cousins that were in the industry, and I found it fascinating.
What kind of ad was the first one you worked on?
A newspaper ad for Isaly’s
What is your favorite type of advertisement to create?
One that gets noticed
If you could invite any three people to lunch, past or present, whom would you invite and why?
I would invite Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus. After a thorough discussion on their approach to life, we would go out for a round of golf. I can’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon.