Gregory Jones

Karri Bass loves to do consumer research. As a former Procter & Gamble employee, she constantly thinks about what drives consumer behavior toward a particular product.

That desire is what led her to launch Illumination Research, a marketing consulting company that was founded on a passion for uncovering what makes consumers tick and translating those insights into business-building ideas.

“When I was working in marketing for P&G, a huge part of our job was to better understand the consumer,” says Bass, principal and insight strategist at Illumination Research. “We want to figure out how they think, not only about the product category that we were marketing but in general.

“Who are they as a person? What motivates them? What different segments are there in the marketplace and to really understand that in order to be able to translate all that knowledge into business and ideas.”

Illumination Research was founded in 2005. It now has 25 employees and the capabilities to show its clients exactly how consumers would respond to new product offerings — and offers those clients advice on how to improve.

Start with packaging

One of the marketing aspects that Bass helps clients with at Illumination Research is packaging and how that packaging grabs a consumer’s attention.

“Say a client of ours might be launching a new product,” Bass says. “Part of what they need to do is create a package that breaks through the clutter on the shelf and grabs the attention of the customers. The package has a lot to do with getting attention and speaking to them.”

As an example of finding what catches a consumer’s eye, Illumination utilizes a mobile, virtual wall that projects a life-size simulation of a shopping environment such as a store aisle.

“Before companies ever have to invest in making physical mockups of packages, we can show them on this giant computer screen in the context of what a product will look like,” she says.

Technology and innovation such as this helps Illumination show its clients how a product will look and simulate where a consumer may focus attention depending on what is on the shelf.

“A lot of times, we’re just trying to understand which packages in the aisle or which one of their new designs do the best job of getting consumers’ eyes on them,” she says. “In those cases, we might recommend they do eye tracking with the research.”

The company literally has consumers wear special goggles that track where their eyes go on the shelf to see if the package is even noticed.

“Then we want to understand once they see it what are they communicating about it,” she says. “In addition to innovative technology that allows clients to see how consumers relate to a product on a shelf, Illumination also poses questions to consumers and clients to understand the total messaging and purpose behind a product and how the company wants it to connect with a consumer.

Communication: oral and visual

“At the end of the day, it’s about the communication,” Bass says. “We have certain lines of questioning to get out the messaging and what’s coming across through the words and through the visual. It’s a marriage of both.”

Over the years, Illumination Research has been able to groom its process for understanding the consumer, which has helped deliver stronger results for clients.

“Every time we do interviews with consumers, you’re able to see what kind of questions better help them articulate their feelings,” Bass says. “A lot of our job is thinking on our feet, and we have to very quickly adapt from interview to interview with consumers and figure out what will yield the information that we will understand.” ?

How to reach: Illumination Research, (513) 774-9531 or

Tammy Tedesco graduated from the University of Michigan in 1989, and just three years later, she started Edibles Rex, what was then a small restaurant. She initially started the small carryout café restaurant with the hopes of having job security and avoiding the potential of losing her job.

Tedesco worked hard at her new business, but at just 23 years old, she had a lot to learn as the business grew. One thing Tedesco did realize was that she had to continue to reinvest in her business if she expected it to grow. For the first seven years, she didn’t take a paycheck and relied on a second job to keep her going. Slowly, but steadily, Edibles Rex became much more than a restaurant.

“From a restaurant, it evolved several times,” Tedesco says. “Every time we evolved was to meet a client’s needs. Three years after being in the small restaurant, I could see that we couldn’t expand that way. A client asked us if we would come and manage a facility and be the in-house caterers.

“That really put us in a new direction and allowed us to grow.”

About three years after that, Tedesco had another customer ask if the company would ever consider feeding school children. At that time, charter schools were on the rise in Detroit and they needed outside food service since these schools didn’t have the facilities to do it themselves.

“So instantly we became a school food provider and started out with about 2,000 students,” Tedesco says. “We have since grown our school business to 10,000 meals a day.”

Today, Edibles Rex has 80 employees and is one of metropolitan Detroit’s top food and beverage catering and events services. However, the company has struggled at finding capital and space big enough to support the growing business — and that has been Tedesco’s quest as president and CEO.

“Our biggest challenge has been access to capital,” she says.

Tedesco was part of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneurial Winning Women class, which opened valuable connections and taught her important business skills.

“I feel if we could have tapped into that eight or 10 years ago, we might be in a different position right now,” she says.

No matter the path taken, an entrepreneur’s work is very hard and you have to be willing to sacrifice to achieve success.

“It takes determination and keeping your eye on the vision, and if you believe in it, it will happen,” she says. “I knew that I only had myself to rely on. Early on, you should get yourself a mentor or someone who could be your cheerleader and your advocator to keep you going because there were days I wanted to give up.

“It’s really about loving what you’re getting ready to go into and knowing there are going to be a lot of dark and challenging days. You’re not going to know everything, and you have to be OK with that. A lot of people get a little too arrogant about what they know and they’re not willing to be open to advice. I was willing to get any kind of advice that would make my life easier.”

That kind of determined attitude has been crucial in Tedesco’s success. She is now passing that attitude on to her employees who work with customers every day.

“To this day, we are a catering company and we sell great food, but the No. 1 thing that we sell is customer service,” Tedesco says. “By us taking care of our customers, they come to us with new ideas for our business. It’s always about trying to work out kinks for our customers. I tell our employees that I’m not their boss, and I don’t sign the paychecks — our customers do. By taking care of the customers you’re taking care of your paycheck.” ?

How to reach: Edibles Rex, (313) 922-3000 or


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Five years ago, TaKeysha Sheppard Cheney had a successful, secure corporate position with American Electric Power (AEP) working in sustainability. At that same time, Cheney became increasingly involved in numerous women and girl initiatives in her community as a volunteer. It became a growing passion of hers and she knew she had to do something more about it.

“I have a strong interest in business and helping women who are like me and serious about their careers or their businesses but, at the same time, understand how important it is to be engaged in the community,” Cheney says.

That passion led Cheney to start The Women’s Book, a media company that shares resources for women in business, in 2009. Cheney, CEO, began her new venture while still at AEP, but soon realized that she had to make a choice between one or the other. The Women’s Book won.

“The decision to leave my corporate job was a turning point because there was a lot of security there,” Cheney says. “The reality was that I did have to make a choice because it became too much.

“It was a big leap, but I felt that it had traction and potential, and it was what I needed to do. Now I had to figure out how to navigate this big move.”

With a new business under way and a number of uncertainties in front of her, Cheney pushed forward with The Women’s Book. She now had a lot to juggle day-in and day-out.

“One of my biggest challenges is juggling all my interests,” she says. “I’m very entrepreneurial and I come up with a lot of ideas. Half the battle is prioritizing which ideas to act on and which things to get involved with in the community. At the same time, I have a business to run, and it takes a lot of my time.”

While prioritizing is a big challenge for Cheney, she always puts her family first.

“I have a very supportive spouse, but he definitely tells me when things are off,” she says. “I’m also the eldest of seven kids, and it’s important that I spend time with them as well. They need to know that I value them and not just my business.”

Cheney says the key to prioritizing is being honest about what’s most important to you.

“Is advancing your business or your corporate career a high priority for you?” Cheney says. “Is spending time with your family and with your spouse really a priority? If it is, then you have to make time for it.”

Cheney makes sure that she spends time on the things that are most important in her life, but she has never been one to believe in the word “balance” but rather the word “juggle.”

“One month you might spend more time on your business than you do your family, or you might spend more time one month on your family than you do your nonprofit,” she says. “That’s OK. You just have to take a regular assessment once a month or every other month to look at where you’re spending time.”

These kinds of challenges and obstacles are what keep Cheney excited to take on each new day.

“The reality is that if there weren’t any obstacles, life wouldn’t be as much fun and certain goals wouldn’t be as worth it,” Cheney says. “There’s value in having to work hard and those obstacles do exist. You have to acknowledge that and figure out how you are going to deal with them.” ?

How to reach: The Women’s Book, (614) 678-8008 or


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Dr. Shannon Phillips and her husband moved to Cleveland 10 years ago to pursue opportunities at the Cleveland Clinic. Her husband was recruited to run a research program at the hospital and she took the move as an opportunity to go back to graduate school and get a master’s degree in public health at John Hopkins University.

“I made the emphasis of my work patient safety,” Phillips says. “It struck me that we had opportunities to make care more reliable and that would make it safer and build a culture that didn’t find it acceptable to not reduce variability and bring standards to what we do.”

Phillips loved the work she was doing in her master’s program and translated it to her work at the Children’s Hospital as a way to make things better, safer and of higher quality. The Cleveland Clinic took notice of her efforts, and in 2007, she became the first patient safety officer for the Quality and Patient Safety Institute at the Cleveland Clinic.

“I tried to turn my attention to culture and high reliability for the whole organization,” she says. “It’s been a great challenge and a great deal of fun, and those two combined makes for the perfect job.”

Going back to school ultimately was one of Phillips’ biggest turning points, because had it not been for that, she wouldn’t have gone into the work she is currently doing.

“Being able to make changes or improvements to health care that impacts dozens, hundreds or thousands of people was the space that spoke to me,” she says. “The opportunity to be able to stretch my leadership and capabilities in this space in the Children’s Hospital was a blessing.”

There are those opportunities that people get in front of them all the time where you have a choice to make about what you want to do next.

“In the professional realm, I think about whether an opportunity will leverage me and what I’m capable of bringing to the organization,” Phillips says. “Does it use my strengths well and do I get to grow new skills that I haven’t had the opportunity to stretch before? If I’m not going to grow as a person, that opportunity wouldn’t be very fun and my answer would be no.”

Taking a challenge and turning it into a positive experience and a fun one is what Phillips is known for being able to do. Her attitude is what has driven her career.

“I’m the sort of person that tries to make lemonade out of lemons,” she says. “I’ve taken advantage of learning as many things as I can from the places I’ve been and that’s tremendously helped me in what I’m doing now. Attitude matters a lot. Attitude is differentiating.”

People are always quick to focus on what’s not working or what can’t be done. You have to find ways to remain positive.

“When it comes to your attitude everybody is tired and pushed and busy and the next new thing may feel like the tipping point,” she says. “You have to sometimes reflect on it and prioritize what’s on the top of the plate. Spending a little effort in that space makes it feel not quite so overwhelming.”

In Phillips’ position, it’s very hard for people to look at you as a potential leader if you are the person that everybody would describe as a Debbie Downer type.

“You have to rise to the challenge with the right attitude and then you’re seen as someone who gets things done,” she says. “You may be the person who gets things done but doesn’t have a good attitude. Opportunities are always going to go to the positive person first. It causes a lot less ripples and a lot less trouble if you don’t have to contend with attitude. It’s a reflection on you.” ?

How to reach: Quality and Patient Safety Institute at the Cleveland Clinic, (800) 223-2273 or


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Nancy Udelson is the face of the Alzheimer’s Association, Cleveland Area Chapter. For more than five years she has been its executive director, ensuring the Cleveland Alzheimer’s Association is getting proper funding and advocacy.

While Udelson’s current position has been the most rewarding one she has ever had, the job came after having been an alumni director at Cleveland State University and Case Western Reserve University. Throughout her career, Udelson has overcome several challenges, including a critical turning point when she was laid off from Case and didn’t know what she wanted to do next.

“I had already been an alumni director at two universities and didn’t really want to do that,” Udelson says. “I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. I started working my network and a friend of mine asked if she could send my resume to the Alzheimer’s Association, and I said sure.”

It turned out that the executive director position was vacant, and while Udelson was interviewing for a development position, she was asked whether she would like to apply for the executive director job.

“I had to think long and hard about it and whether or not I wanted to work that hard at this point in my life,” she says. “I decided I did and was planning to work for a long time. This was the first position that I had with a mission-driven organization that was something that I felt was incredibly important. That’s how I made my decision to come here.”

When Udelson was, in effect, rewritten out of her position at Case, it was a turning point because it gave her the opportunity to step back and ask what she really wanted to be doing.

“When I look back on my career and the positions that I’ve had, each one seems to build on the one before it,” she says. “It wasn’t by design, but it did seem to work out that way. I feel like the position I have now is really truly the culmination of all the years that I’ve been working.”

The most important key to Udelson’s success and her ability to transition into the next role in her career has been maintaining a network of friends and colleagues.

“You have to keep in touch with people and keep a list of who you’ve worked with that have gone on to other positions that you stay in touch with,” Udelson says. “Having a really good network is critical to moving ahead in a position whether you’re early, middle or late in your career. For anyone to think that they can do it all by themselves, it’s not true.

“You never know where you’re going to end up and who might be the right person to pick up the phone and call. You can’t be afraid to ask for help or ask for information or assistance. You have to have confidence.”

In addition to keeping a strong network, Udelson has overcome challenges and been able to move to the next stage in her career by having a positive attitude and being willing to gain new skill sets.

“You have to learn how to roll with the punches in life,” she says. “When something doesn’t go right, like when I got divorced, I could have stayed in bed with the covers over my head, but I couldn’t. I got up, took care of my kids, got a job and put one foot in front of the other.

“As much as you are angry, hurt or crushed or whatever the various emotions you go through, you have to think about yourself and the skills you have, what you’ve gained, what you have to offer and try as hard as you can to move forward. Had I not done that, I don’t think I’d be in the job I have today. You have to put your best foot forward.” ?

How to reach: Alzheimer’s Association, Cleveland Area Chapter, (800) 272-3900 or


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Lisa Schiffman has always been an entrepreneurial, creative person throughout her career. She is always looking for opportunities to do things differently or start something new. At Ernst & Young LLP, Schiffman has been given those opportunities to make a difference as the Americas director of marketing and communications, Strategic Growth Markets.

“Ernst & Young has always given me the resources, the space, the time and the trust to go down a new path and see what would become of it,” Schiffman says. “It’s really important to know yourself and what your go-to skill set is.”

When you’re in the working world, you have to know what it is that people come to you for as opposed to going to someone else.

“That’s a very valuable thing to know because it enables you to navigate things that leverage that most optimally and move away from things that underoptimize that,” Schiffman says. “Most people don’t ask themselves that question enough.”

Asking such a question is what gave Schiffman a eureka moment in 2008 when she had the idea to create an Entrepreneurial Winning Women Program at E&Y. The annual competition and leadership development program identifies women entrepreneurs whose second-stage businesses show real potential to scale up but need to overcome barriers — and then helps them do it through five crucial accomplishments: Think big and be bold, build a public profile, work on the business rather than in it, establish key advisory networks, and evaluate financing for expansion.

“We knew if we could apply our resources to these women, big things could happen,” Schiffman says. “When you look at what gets in the way and why don’t more women entrepreneurs get over that inflection point and realize that real strong growth curve, there were a number of things.”

First of all, in some cases, it’s a failure to think big enough.

“That recognition that you have something that can really get big and you’re the one who can take it there is probably the most important moment in the program, because from that, all else proceeds,” she says.

Another obstacle is sometimes women have more of a tendency to work in the business than on it.

“We can get caught up in some of the operational details and not necessarily recognize the need to step away from some of the daily operations,” she says.

“If you’re holding on to too many things and your head is down every day and you’re not thinking about what’s next, you can inhibit your own growth. If my role is the CEO, it can’t also be the CFO, COO and CIO. I have to bring that talent in.”

A great way to gain that talent is through advisory networks.

“One of the things that can help an entrepreneur a lot is being surrounded by people whose experience is different than yours, whose expertise complements yours and who can provide you some guidance,” Schiffman says. “An advisory network is really important because none of us has a full complement of experiences that are required to grow a company.”

Lastly, you have to consider what kind of financing options you’ll need as you grow. Ernst & Young helps women make contacts and build relationships with outside investors as well as gives them education about financing and expansion.

But the main takeaway from Entrepreneurial Winning Women is that you can’t be afraid to seek help when you need it.

“Don’t be afraid to ask questions on topics that matter that you don’t have the experience to know about,” she says. “People are a bit hesitant sometimes to probe and learn more. Most people are extremely generous and will spend a moment to offer some advice and insight from their own experience. We could all expose ourselves more to that and be better off for it.” ?

How to reach: Ernst & Young LLP, (215) 448-5000 or Ernst & Young is currently accepting applications for this year’s Entrepreneurial Winning Women Program through June 28.


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Lisa Oliver has been working in the banking industry ever since she graduated from college. She went to work for KeyBank in 1990 and has been the Cleveland district president for the past 10 years. However, her career wasn’t as straightforward as one might expect.

Oliver has come face-to-face with numerous challenges and obstacles throughout her career, and having to overcome those is what made her who she is today.

Early in her career, Oliver struggled with self-confidence in her ability to climb the ranks of a male-dominated industry. She also had to overcome a punch or two to her ego when she was turned down for certain jobs or promotions.

“Many times, you see people who have a desire to move quick and get into the next role and grow and make more money,” Oliver says. “You tell that person they’re not ready for the next job or you tell them no; that was an early challenge for me.

“I was a middle-market relationship manager and the leadership role on our team opened up, and I put my name in the hat for that job. I didn’t get that job. A gentleman from outside the bank got that job. It really upset me. I felt I was qualified and was the next person in line.”

The way you handle that scenario is a huge challenge in anyone’s career and can predict future successes. Oliver had to take the lessons from being passed over and ask the questions to understand why. She began to dig deeper at work and viewed her position at Key as a career rather than just a job for a paycheck.

“That was a huge confidence factor that came from sticking with a career and viewing it that way and not as a job,” she says. “What I realized was it was also helping me grow as a person. My confidence professionally came from failing and fixing it.”

Oliver has seen people achieve success much quicker than she did but believes she was much better off failing and then climbing to the top.

“Those people who have moved quickly and have had little mini successes will eventually have a huge fall,” she says. “When I look at my career, and this goes back to being told, ‘No, you can’t have this next job’ or not winning or being the best or being on top of the pile, that has always been something that has driven me to try harder and learn more.”

Oliver has always been her own biggest critic. That desire to always be a little bit better, improve and make sure you’re willing to understand what your weaknesses are helps build confidence.

Oliver has done that over time. Her ability to gain confidence and find more purpose in her career ultimately led to her getting a leadership role at KeyBank. That role would be the turning point in her career.

“There was a group that reached out to me that was interested in having me go from middle-market into the business banking space and they were looking for a team leader,” Oliver says.

“Being given that opportunity was hugely transformative for me. It helped me start to think about the future and not just what I had to do in that day or that week. What do we want to achieve this year? How do I want people to excel? What will be my next career move and to what is this a building block?”

That process ultimately led to her current position at Key in Cleveland.

“So much of it is about attitude,” she says. “There is a saying about attitude that whether you think you can or that you can’t, you’re right, because you will direct yourself down that path. Whether you know it or not, you are the person who undermines your career, not anybody else, and you have to be aware of that.” ?

How to reach: KeyBank, (216) 689-5580 or


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Twenty-five years ago, Fred Potthoff and his partner took out a $300,000 line of credit to start their own company. Potthoff backed his half by putting up his house and his retirement savings, and from that moment, it was a race against time to see if he and his partner could sell enough before running out of money.

Fast forward to today, and the company they started, Kroff Inc., a leading water and wastewater treatment and recycling services company, has more than 80 employees, eight different businesses under the Kroff name and annual revenue of more than $50 million. Potthoff’s entrepreneurial gamble paid off, and today, he isn’t stressed about making enough money to survive but rather about finding the right talent to keep the company at the top of its game.

“We are a bottom-up run organization, and we go by the philosophy of hiring bright, creative, entrepreneurial people and giving them the right tools. Then we get out of their way to let them flourish,” Potthoff says.

Even with the company’s eight different businesses, Potthoff has remained an integral part of its hiring process and ensuring that great talent enters the company.

“Some people are surprised when they talk to me first, second or third in the organization as one of the original owners,” Potthoff says. “I tell them, ‘This is the single most important thing that I do in the course of my workweek or month.’”

Since Kroff’s inception in 1988, the company has experienced an average of 24 percent growth every year. The attention to his company’s hiring process, which he calls motivational fit, is what Potthoff focuses on to make sure Kroff Inc. will continue to grow.

Here is how Potthoff hires the best available talent.


Find the best fit

Kroff Inc. has seen some incredible growth over the years and that success is a direct result of the people Potthoff has been able to hire. In fact, each of the organization’s eight businesses started with ideas from sales associates.

“Aside from the original company, my partner and I didn’t come up with any of the other ideas,” Potthoff says. “It was people in our organization coming to us and us listening to them and running with that idea.”

When Potthoff interviews candidates, he is interested in trying to spark that kind of enthusiasm and interest in the company.

“It doesn’t mean that everybody who comes here is going to run their own company, but it’s part of our culture,” he says. “People who fit in well here think that way and look for opportunities. When we interview, the key is looking for that kind of person, so we’ve all been trained in behavioral interviewing and that’s an important component of trying to identify the right person.”

Behavioral interviewing is a key component at Kroff because when the company was first started, Potthoff put a lot of stock into resumes and conventional interviewing. While resumes can provide wonderful statistics about how much somebody sold or how many new accounts they created and a lot of facts and figures, they aren’t as effective at finding the best fit as behavioral interviewing.

“In behavioral interviewing, you get into specific examples and you try to drill down and mine for a number of examples where they’ve shown an attribute in the past,” Potthoff says. “If they say they have an entrepreneurial bent, you say, ‘Give me an example of when you demonstrated this in your past job.’

“Whatever the attribute is, we want specific examples where they’ve done it before and they can tell us a clear story about why they have that talent and where they manifested it.

“It’s a more difficult interview process because often they have to think and dig down to find an example, but that’s what you want. Then you know you’re getting the right person if they can give you a lot of examples where they have demonstrated this capability before.”

While this technique of interviewing has resulted in strong employees for Kroff, it isn’t without its drawbacks.

“Behavioral interviewing is a challenge; you have to sit and wait sometimes for the person to think of examples because you want them to give you very specific, very concrete examples,” he says. “So the interviewing process takes a little patience whenever the candidate is in front of you.”

In Kroff’s case, the company hires a lot of sales engineers, and one of the first challenges is finding an outstanding chemical engineer who wants to have a career in sales.

“Sometimes it’s mixing oil and water, and we’re often looking for personality attributes that aren’t in one person,” he says.

Another challenge is where to find the best talent. The best candidates may be the passive candidates, not the ones shopping their resume around.

“They are the ones who are successful who are doing a great job wherever they are,” Potthoff says. “To try to get their attention sometimes is difficult.”

The third thing Kroff does to find good talent is to check references or see if someone has worked with that person before.

“If you depend on the interview process and the resume, it’s more of a crapshoot,” he says. “If you can find somebody in your organization or get references from reliable people who have worked with the person, then your chance of having success with that person is greater.”

To overcome these challenges and have help in the search process for talented employees, Kroff often utilizes the services of recruiters.

“We’ve picked two or three that we work with and we bring them in to our office and try to educate them to make sure they understand exactly what we’re looking for, because when you’re dealing with recruiters, they’ll often throw resumes at you in hopes you’re going to hire somebody,” he says.

“It is important to invest some time with the recruiter and say, ‘This is exactly what we’re looking for, and don’t send us anybody else.’”


Translate talent into success

While a company’s success can benefit greatly from its products or services, Potthoff believes his hiring techniques and the talent he has been able to bring in are the true difference makers.

“You can have the best products in the world and you can have the best computer software and order entry, but it really comes down to quality people,” Potthoff says. “The key component of our success is that we’ve been very fortunate for the most part in hiring great people.”

Another key component of Kroff’s success has been that Potthoff has done a good job of listening to ideas.

“It’s one thing to give lip service to somebody, but if somebody comes to you with a good, creative idea, you can’t summarily dismiss it because maybe you tried it before or it seems a little harebrained,” he says. “You have to be willing to listen and trust the people, and if you think it’s a great idea, be willing to move and invest in it. When you do that, the culture responds to it.”

A lack of listening is one of the biggest mistakes many companies make.

“I don’t think many companies listen well enough to the people in the field who have their fingers on the pulse,” Potthoff says. “If you’ve hired the right people, they’re closer to the action and the opportunities than somebody sitting up in a corporate office somewhere.

“I’ve seen it in the past where some vice president comes up with an idea about what market the company should go after. It may be a brilliant idea, but oftentimes, it’s not. I think you are better served by getting intelligent, creative people and listening to them when they come to you with a market opportunity, because they’re in a better position in a lot of ways to see opportunities.”

To incorporate this kind of thinking into your organization you have to make the behavior part of your company’s culture.

“View company meetings and company culture as a meritocracy, which is the way we look at it,” he says. “In other words, if we are in a manager’s meeting, I set the tone for the meeting. It’s not myself and my business partner pontificating about where the company is headed and what we’re going to do.

“When you present ideas, everybody has to chime in with what they think the best idea is, and we will hash it out here and the best idea will rise to the top.”

This mentality is an easy thing to say, but it’s a hard thing to accept because you have to set your ego aside and listen to comments and criticism.

“That’s where some entrepreneurs and business owners go array because they are so vested in the company,” Potthoff says. “The way they got the company off the ground is the right way to do it, and it’s hard for them sometimes to hear somebody criticize it. It is vital to stay vibrant and alive, so you have to listen to the new people that you bring in.” ?

How to reach: Kroff Inc., (412) 321-9800 or  



Be involved in the hiring process.

Utilize resources to help you find the best talent.

Once you have the talent use it to grow your business.


The Potthoff File


Fred Potthoff

Co-founder and co-owner

Kroff Inc.


Born: Latrobe, Pa.

Education: He attended Shippensburg University and got a bachelor of science degree in business.


What was your very first job?

I was a lifeguard in the town of Latrobe. It was a great summer job.


What is some business advice you would give to others?

The bulk of my time in business has been in specialty chemical sales … and if you graphed how much time I spend listening and how much time I spend talking, I probably listen 75 percent of the time and talk 25 percent of the time. For anybody in business, that is a good ratio. You can learn a lot more and get a lot more accomplished if you use that ratio to build your business and career.


Who do you admire in business?

Andrew Carnegie.


If you could have a conversation with someone from the past or present, who would you want to speak with?

I’m a history buff, so there are a lot of people that I’ve read about over the years that I’m intrigued with. Out of the Founding Fathers, I think the most fascinating person to speak with would be Thomas Jefferson. I think he is one of the most brilliant people that I have ever read about, and how fortunate we were to have him as one of the founding fathers.


What are you looking forward to in the future of your business?

What excites me now and what motivates me is watching people underneath me do well personally and professionally.

When you stay in a hotel there are so many things that could go wrong. The hotel could lose your reservation, a TV remote control might not work, a light could be burnt out, the air conditioner may be noisy, or in David Kong’s case, the room may not contain an iron and ironing board.

On a trip to Germany to attend a black-tie event, Kong’s attire became wrinkled while traveling. His hotel had no extra irons or ironing boards, but the staff took his clothes and got them ironed. The next day, the staff bought a new iron and ironing board for his room and also sent a fruit basket to apologize for what had happened.

“My impression of the hotel went sky high, because they went out of the way to make it right,” says Kong, president and CEO of Best Western International Inc. “When something goes wrong, it’s an opportunity to build guest loyalty if you take care of the problem correctly.”

The customer experience is exactly what Kong is focusing on to keep the Best Western brand relevant after nearly seven decades. Headquartered in Phoenix, Ariz., Best Western International Inc. is the world’s largest hotel family with more than 4,000 hotels in more than 100 countries and territories. The company has 1,200 corporate employees and annual revenue of more than $6 billion worldwide.

Over the past eight years, Kong has been working diligently to build and capitalize on Best Western’s strengths surrounding the customer experience.

Here is what he and his team at Best Western have done to keep the company’s brand relevant through the years.


Unlock potential

When Kong joined Best Western, most of his friends couldn’t understand why he would make the move to Phoenix to work for the midscale hotel.

“I saw tremendous potential at Best Western, and I wanted to be a part of the team to unlock that potential,” Kong says. “When I started as CEO, I wanted to define the key strengths of Best Western but also look at how we can make the brand more relevant and contemporary.”

The Best Western brand is 67 years old, making it the most senior hotel brand. Kong’s objective was to not appear as anything less than relevant and contemporary and to fit with today’s customer tastes.

“In that regard, we had a concerted effort in separating from hotels that detract from the brand, meaning they didn’t provide the cleanliness, upkeep or service that the brand should be known for,” he says.

Best Western split from more than 1,000 hotels during the last eight years and implemented standards that ensured delivery on the brand promise. The hotel family also created partnerships with Harley Davidson, Disney, AAA and others to not only penetrate those customer bases but better position the Best Western brand.

“We’ve done a lot in terms of how we keep the brand relevant and contemporary and deliver on the brand promise,” Kong says. “That was just step one. You have to do the basics.”

Kong also thought that Best Western needed to be known for certain aspects of the hospitality industry, so the company launched the I Care Clean program, which uses UV wands for cleaning and black light for inspecting cleanliness in rooms. It also launched the Descriptor program, which allows travelers to choose the Best Western that meets their needs out of the company’s three different hotels — Best Western, Best Western Plus and Best Western Premier.

“Ultimately, when I talk about unlocking potential and looking at who we are and what we stand for and capitalizing on that, it’s really about what is Best Western,” Kong says. “If you look at how Best Western is different from any other hotel brand, it’s because we have some very caring, sincere, salt-of-the-earth type of owners in our brand who are very passionate about the brand.

“The big opportunity for us was to capitalize on that, because that is something we have at Best Western that nobody else has and we want to turn that into something that’s relevant to the consumer.”


Connect with the customer

To drive that desire forward, Best Western crafted its vision statement to lead the industry in superior customer care. Today, everyone talks about customer service, but in this digital world, the human touch is disappearing very quickly.

“Everybody is focused on innovation, efficiency and productivity like using kiosks to check in and ordering food and beverage from a tablet computer, and there is very little chance to interact with the guests,” Kong says.

“Our industry is the hospitality industry, and it’s about hospitality and caring for people. We have made that our vision, and we started to create programs to capitalize on how we care more than anybody else.”

If you’re looking to keep your brand relevant or expand upon it, you have to find what you want to be best at.

“Take a look around you, study the environment and assess what the unmet need is,” Kong says. “I talked about us living in a fast-paced digital world and ‘humanity’ is disappearing because people are so focused on efficiency and productivity. So our unmet need was that ‘humanity’ was disappearing.

“Then you have to define yourself. Look at yourself and see if you have any attributes that can be leveraged to capitalize on that unmet need. The third thing is to begin to develop a plan to meet your end goal. The last thing is you set measurements and you make continuous improvement.”

To make the message of caring and top-notch customer experience stick, you have to ingrain it into your culture.

“That cultural shift is what we are working on now,” Kong says. “To live our vision, we have to make sure that every single employee cares. We have put together a cultural change initiative that involves selecting the right employees and giving them the right training and resources.

“It involves aligning all our business systems and business processes along this caring initiative, so at the end of the day, all our people, systems and processes are all aligned to deliver superior customer care.”

Creating this culture change is so important because a lot of companies simply have a program of the day, which is a one-time event rather than a system for creating a company mentality.

“Employees can see right through that,” he says. “It doesn’t stick. You have to have the right people in place. They have to feel empowered. They have to feel like they have all the tools to do what it is that you want them to do. There needs to be compensation systems and performance management systems aligned with that, and it has to be customer-centric.

“All those things need to be lined up. That’s how you can affect the cultural change.”

In addition, the leadership team has to be involved for the cultural change to take effect and for it to be sustained.

“If the leader doesn’t walk the talk, then employees see right through it,” Kong says. “If the leader is always, every day, every moment, living what he is preaching, then people get invigorated and inspired by that. The leadership is everything.”

Through these brand relevance initiatives, Kong and his team at Best Western want to be the dominant player in the broad midscale market.

“If you take all the industry measures, whether it is revenue per available room, market share in that respect, our relationships with all the major buyers, whether they are travel agencies, big corporations or independent travelers — in all those aspects, we want to have the superior market share,” he says.

“Every company should set goals for themselves, because if you don’t set goals, you don’t know whether you’ve gone there or not, and you can’t stay on that path.” ?


How to reach: Best Western International Inc.,

(800) 780-7234 or

Back in 1988, actor Paul Newman wanted to find a way to give back to children, and not just any kids but kids who were in serious need of a chance to act like kids. So Newman started the Paul Newman Association of Hole in the Wall Gang camps dedicated to serving children with serious illnesses.

Today, the association is called Serious Fun Children’s Network. It comprises 14 camps, one being Flying Horse Farms in Mt. Gilead, Ohio, that provide summer activities where kids can be kids and forget their illnesses for a week.

“We serve children with heart disease of all kinds, including heart transplants, children with all forms of pediatric cancer, kidney disease, severe asthma, children with autoimmune disease, and children with gastrointestinal disease and blood disorders,” says Mimi Dane, Flying Horse Farms’ president and CEO. “We do traditional camp activities like archery, swimming, boating, fishing, arts and crafts, and a canine program.”

Flying Horse Farms was founded in 2009 and became a member of Paul Newman’s Association in 2011. The group serves children ages 7 to 15. This year will be Flying Horse’s third summer season of camp.

These camps hit home for Chuck Fowler when he was first introduced to the Serious Fun Children’s Network by Cleveland Clinic’s head of pediatric cardiology, Dr. Gerard Boyle. Fowler, who is CEO of Fairmount Minerals, a producer of industrial sand, lost his 14-year-old daughter, Angie, to melanoma.

“One of her great desires was to be able to get outside and play rather than be sitting in the hospital room the whole time, and she wasn’t able to do that,” Fowler says.

Fowler has since been extremely active at Flying Horse Farms. He joined the board of directors, the finance committee, and the building and maintenance committee.

“We took this as an opportunity to honor our daughter Angie but also make it possible for other kids to experience camp and the outside and, as Paul Newman said, ‘Raise a little hell,’” Fowler says.

Flying Horse Farms hosts camps for families, a residential camp for the children with serious illnesses and a sibling camp for brothers and sisters who aren’t ill but would still enjoy having fun at camp. Flying Horse offers two things that make it different from most other camps around.

“One is we have a full-time medical staff here,” Dane says. “We have a full-time medical director and a full-time nursing director for each camp that we have.”

The other thing that makes Flying Horse different from most other camps is that because having a child with a serious illness is a big weight on the shoulders of those families, the camps are free of charge.

“As a consequence, we really rely on our corporate donors, our individual donors and fundraising,” she says. “It costs about $2,500 a camper for a person to come to camp.”

Organizations such as Fairmount Minerals and individuals like Chuck Fowler are critical to the work that Flying Horse has done.

“The corporate support that we’ve had, both at the CEO level from Chuck and from Fairmount Minerals, has been invaluable to us,” Dane says. “Chuck has been very supportive with his time, talent and treasure.”

In addition to serving on the board, Fowler and his wife helped put up the capital to get Flying Horse Farms started.

Much of that success depends on the support of Flying Horse Farms’ donors and fundraising efforts. Flying Horse and Fairmount host an area event called Campfire. This year, the event will be held at Severance Hall on April 19.

“It is a celebration of the legacy of Paul Newman and of Flying Horse Farms,” Dane says. “A reception will begin the evening followed by a performance within Severance Hall and then a dinner and dessert reception will be afterward. We will be joined by Clea Newman, Paul’s daughter. ”

The first Campfire event was held in 2011, of which Fairmount Minerals was a presenting sponsor. It will have that role again for the 2013 event. ?