Dennis Seeds

Doug Brown beams with pride when he compares his company, Fusion Alliance Inc., to the industry statistics for delivering successful information technology.

“Statistically, 70 percent of IT projects fail or never go live,” he says. “In the last two years, we have been a successful 98 percent on time and on budget.

“Ninety-eight percent is obviously off the charts in the abilities of IT solution providers,” he says.

While Brown, founder and CEO, is understandably proud that his company has been the top one in its segment since 2000 in Indianapolis, he knows it took a lot of solution-based work.

“It takes connecting the right people and having a good internal process to take business opportunities through the process of solution visioning to the technical aspects of the solution and then to the solution builder,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Brown to find out how to deliver successful solutions.

Q. What is the role of leadership in achieving a 98 percent success rate as you did?

I believe that effective leadership has the ability to see problems or challenges before they become a serious issue. The leaders are able to identify the root cause of a problem versus the symptoms.

They also are able to proactively define what needs to happen to deal with a problem.  Businesses face challenges every day. The ones that identify them early and are effective in driving the necessary change to deal with them proactively are the ones that succeed long term.

Q. What are some of the other keys to successful solutions?

It’s really the combination of people, process and the right systems and tools.

You have to get very good at life cycle management, scoping projects and having requirements designed and constructed all the way through quality assurance.

But a major key is people with the right experience. You should identify risk early, and you have to be very good at managing and mitigating risks based on experience and good process. That’s the key: really good, experienced people along with really good process and quality reviews through the life cycle of a project. Then make sure that you are identifying credible risk, and you’re mitigating that risk. You will need a pretty exhaustive checklist to go through, before you even bid on projects, to assess risk. Put that in your proposal: ‘Here are the risk areas we see with the project, even going into it.’ So create customer awareness early.

Q. What approaches should you follow to ensure that good, experienced people get the job done?

Have a clear vision for the organization and a business plan with clear and measurable objectives and goals.

Have roles and responsibilities of leadership and the employees clearly defined.

Company leadership should have a servant-leadership management style.

Executives should demonstrate that employees are truly empowered to execute the plan.  The role of executives should be to mentor and guide employees in the empowerment model.

Living your core values every day and creating a culture of integrity, ambition and a desire to serve your customers is foundational to long-term success. Challenge your employees to always be asking how they can create value for your customers, the organization, their peers and their career.

Finally, employ good people. Good people follow good people. The brightest talent enjoys working with other talented professionals on interesting projects. They like to deliver solutions that have an impact on customers and preferably society as a whole.

Q. You said businesses face challenges every day. How does this impact the ability to drive a company?

I think it is critical to the best of the organization to carry around the vision and then driving that through a business frame that’s very metric-driven ? people know what we’re measuring and what we are trying to achieve. That is a key to driving an organization.

Another point is to live your core values every day ? a culture of integrity, ambition and desire to serve your customers. A lot of companies say that but the staff must see it when you live it versus when you don’t, so I think when they see that consistently, that you’re living those things every day, that’s what really gets them to buy in to the culture.

How to reach: Fusion Alliance, (317) 955-1300 or

Dick Giromini had never seen the likes of it ? a drop in business that would bring just about any company to its knees.

Giromini, president and CEO of Wabash National Corp., was in shock as he and other executives in the transportation equipment industry saw the recent economic downturn cause nearly an 80 percent drop from the peak in 2006 to the sinking operating levels in 2009.

His challenge was one of survival. In the first quarter of 2009, Wabash National sales dropped by more than half from the same period in 2008. The manufacturer of flatbed trailers, dry freight vans and refrigerated vans wanted to avoid what other companies ended up facing ? a restructuring filing.

“We were burning cash. It was really trying to find a way and a means to carry the company through the toughest period it ever faced,” Giromini says.

All the traditional cost optimization moves were made, including consolidation of plant operations and idling of work locations. Unfortunately, some 40 percent of the salaried work force and nearly 70 percent of hourly employees were laid off.

A shared-sacrifice approach was taken with the remaining workers: senior executives took 17.5 percent pay cuts; all the rest of the salaried workers took 15 percent; and hourly workers took a 5 percent pay cut.

“However, the drop in volume required us to do even more,” Giromini says.

What he did next ? to keep the company operating and indeed to rebound ? was to secure a private equity cash infusion of $35 million.

“We met with many potential investors and went through an assessment process. A number of them made investment proposals, we selected one and then went forward.

“The process took several months. It was nip and tuck as we continued to manage cash availability to be able to continue to pay suppliers, and I give a lot of credit to them with their extended payment terms as being part of the solution that helped us get through this.”

It was the final touch that saved the company, and after 14 months of astute management and economic recovery, Wabash National was free of its commitment to the private equity firm, and was back to being a public company. Many laid-off workers returned to work.

Here’s how Giromini took the steps to douse the fire that was burning Wabash National’s cash and injected fresh air into the $1 billion company.

Get the data and be decisive

When faced with financial challenges, you cannot afford to stall or appear uncertain of what to do.

“One of the most important things I learned early in my career was to be decisive,” Giromini says. “You can’t be afraid to make the decisions. You have to collect as much information as you can, but there is an element of gut-feel that has to come into this and also knowing that you’ve got to move.”

Taking a long period of time, for instance to wait and see what the market will do or the fear of acting lest it be a mistake, can be detrimental.

“I had one boss who would use the expression, ‘paralysis through analysis,’” he says. “That’s the one thing you have to avoid in business. You have to be able to collect as much information as possible, but you have to do it in an expeditious fashion. Then you’ve got to go.

“Never be afraid to make decisions, because you’re probably making far more decisions than the fellow who is afraid to make them since he may think he is batting 80 percent on decisions, but only makes 10 decisions. You make 100 decisions, bat 50 percent and you make 50 good decisions in that light.

“That’s the way I’ve always tried to operate, and I think leaders need to be decisive and act fast when faced with that kind of challenge.”

You’ve got to trust your judgment on that, and take the actions and move forward. That is critical to your success. Employees have to see that you are in charge and have a plan to execute.

“They have to buy in, they have to understand the burning platform that exists, the need for quick action, the need to buy in, and so I think it is very important to keep them informed about the process to assure that the support is there to be able to implement the actions necessary,” Giromini says.

Get a grip on fear and rumors

If you have a good relationship with employees when an economic downturn starts, consider yourself fortunate. If you communicate well with them, it probably will increase your chances of getting the buy-in needed to help turn around the situation. However, it may make the human side of employee cutback decisions more miserable for you.

That’s not a case for building only superficial relationships between management and labor so you can avoid some pain during financial straits. In the least, you have to take stock of your emotions and communicate to your work force that you are doing all you can do to survive the situation and to lessen fears.

“Fear is in the hallways, in the office, and in the aisles of the plants,” Giromini says.

“Those were tough, tenuous times. The work force and the community all understood when they didn’t see trailers in the lot waiting for customer pickup. That’s not a good sign, and when they didn’t see cars in the parking lot and saw all but one shift and not even that on Fridays, that’s not the normal way our business operated.”

When facing a dire situation, company employees may resort to drawing conclusions of their own and starting rumors. Management should expect that this is probable and should have a game plan to deal with them.

“Your senior management needs to go out and make sure that the message was received,” he says. “You’ll need to get in front of the work force to deliver a message, and you have to make certain that the communications are frequent and to the point so you can minimize as many of those rumors as best as you can.”

You’re never going to get them all. But you have to do the best you can to reduce them.

“My role was to be out there to continually reassure the work force, both the salary and hourly work force, that we were doing everything that we could and that we were going to get through this thing ? and to stick with us and see it through,” Giromini says.

“When I was able to communicate the actions that we had to take, they also understood that that we were doing it on a basis of who could deal with it the best. The executives and salaried workers took the bigger cuts, and we tried to preserve as much of hourly workers’ earning power as we could.”

One advantage that will be in your favor is if your corporate offices are connected to your main manufacturing operations. This will help break down the barriers that can prevent the flow of communication, and barriers in general.

“We don’t have any exclusive executive cafeteria, or any of those types of things,” Giromini says. “We don’t have reserved parking for executives. So I park where everybody else parks, and it’s first-come, first-served. I dine where everyone else dines. Our folks tell me, they know me by first name, they understand and trust when I tell them what the situation is.”

Meanwhile, during a downturn, your management team will be gaining experience that only comes once in a great while. It will make them a lot more knowledgeable, a lot more capable, and they also will go forward with confidence that no matter what any economy throws at them in the future, they are going to know how to deal with it.

“I’m really proud of them,” Giromini says. “It’s made them all better leaders as a result of having gone through the experience they went through in 2009.

“I like to tell them that they added tools to their toolbox that others who may be in the industry for 40 years and never have the chance to have those tools added. What we hope is that we never have to utilize some of those tools ever again. But they’re there.”

This is also time to build strong, healthy relationships with your suppliers as you do with your customers. You will accomplish long-range benefits if you view your suppliers as partners.

“You are only successful in this if you have strong relationships with your suppliers,” Giromini says. “They are only successful if you succeed also, so believe in reaching out. Have a high level of engagement with your suppliers. Start regular webcam teleconferences with them on a monthly basis so that they know what’s going on in your business. Also invite all of your major suppliers in for an annual supplier conference.

“We’ve enhanced the engagement with suppliers as the years have evolved but I think having an episode like we all faced in 2009 ? and many of our suppliers faced a very similar challenges that we faced ? I think it always does bring you closer. I think any time you face that kind of a challenge, it’s just going to make partners truly realize who their real partners are.”

Diversify and develop

While your company is trying to keep its head above water during an economic slowdown, remember you have to be ready for the finish line. Many companies learned the hard way when a customer that accounted for a large part of its business went under. It’s time to keep a focus on diversifying and developing.

“Never lose sight on diversification efforts for your business,” Giromini says. “Stay focused on finding ways to diversify from a sole dependence upon an industry to leveraging both the physical assets and the intellectual assets you have as an organization into other areas.”

Once you establish your survival game plan, it’s an opportunity to go revisit your core values, especially that of developing solutions for customers, to strengthen your position when the recovery picks up steam.

For instance, Wabash National formed a products group for its Duraplate composite panels. Rather than being used only in trailers, the panels are used in the manufacture of all PODS storage containers.

“Developing solutions is based on working with customers, identifying what their needs are,” Giromini says. “That’s the value you bring to the customers in the area of innovation; working with them and saying, ‘What are the problems that you have? What are the things that could make you more cost-effective, make you more productive, could help enhance your bottom line, relative to your product?’

Then you go back and your engineers work with your customers to develop solutions to those problems.

“Now with the recovery picking up steam and hopefully with the work we’ve done and the diversification efforts in our business, we’ll continue to grow and actually be able to have record levels as we go through the cycle over the next three to five years,” Giromini says.

How to reach: Wabash National Corp., (765) 771-5310 or

The Giromini File

Born: Syracuse, N.Y.

Education: I have a bachelor of science degree in mechanical and industrial engineering and a master of science in industrial management, both from Clarkson University, in Potsdam, N.Y

What was your first job?

There are three or four that all could’ve been clearly characterized as my first job: babysitting, mowing lawns, shoveling snow or my paper route. I did all of those. Interestingly, as I think about it, I was in high demand, and I know now why because I only charged 25 cents an hour. I don’t think I was very smart as a salesman, but I could sure bring in the volume.

Whom do you admire in the business world?

Rather than focusing on a single person, I tend to think about what attributes that I admire. I really do admire those individuals who are able to lead their companies to outperform what the norm may be for their industry ? finding ways to be creative, innovative and having a business model that provides for long-term sustainability of their business but that has flexibility to allow them to adapt and adjust to the ever-changing business and economic environment that they face.

When we look at that, we look at the sustainable models of year-over-year improvement ? those are the businesses, and there are many of those. I think it’s unfair to single out a person because industries are so different.

On a more personal basis, the person that I certainly respect and admire is my dad who really is the one who taught me those basics that live with you forever. He said no matter what job you ever accept, for whatever pay you’ve accepted, you do that job to the best of your ability because that’s what you’ve agreed to. That’s a contract that you have entered into.

I’ve always believed that, and I kind of think it follows along with ‘your word is your bond.’ So that was the way we were raised, and he always taught us just good solid, core values of relationships and doing business that I never thought would translate into how I would act or perform years later.

What was the best business advice you ever received?

I had a boss when I was just a young graduate out of college who was talking about decision-making. He said, ‘You never want to be afraid to make a decision.’ His point was not to shoot for a 50 percent success rate but to make good decisions. The only way you can do that is to make a decision in the first place. So I’ve always remembered that throughout the years.

What is your definition of business success?

It goes in line with the attributes that I admire. I would like to look back and say that we were able to build a business model that was sustainable, we were able to build one that was flexible, we were able to adapt to whatever the operating environment this economy would throw at us ? it’s a global economy now. There are challenges continually that you have to be aware of and you have to be able to adapt to. That’s how I would view success, as being able to have that model that is sustainable, that means you are able to create jobs, sustain jobs, provide for families and be recognized as good corporate citizens that support the communities that you operate within.

Donna Fisher had written about networking already and wasn’t necessarily looking to write another book about it –— until Jerry Teplitz asked her to collaborate with him on an element of networking that had never been written about before.

The result was “Switched-on Networking: Balance your Brain for Networking Success,” a 253-page book that shows how to do Brain Gym exercises and movements combined with Fisher’s networking strategies to have a positive impact on your business success.

“In this book with Dr. Teplitz and the Brain Gym processes, he’s able to demonstrate very specific processes to assist people to switch their brain regarding any aspect of networking that’s been challenging, uncomfortable, difficult or awkward for them,” Fisher says. “So it does give a whole new element to it.”

Q. What is different about the approach you and Teplitz describe?

The idea is about balancing the right and left hemispheres of the brain so you are working with the whole brain. Then you’re not just working logically or just working creatively with all aspects of the brain. The Switched-On part applies to the fact that we basically switch off that part of the brain that relates to some negative networking experience that we have.

So let’s say that we have a negative networking experience, or let’s say we really bought in to the idea that our parents told us not to talk to strangers. That’s in our brain, and that part of our brain possibly will override wise choices for common sense where we are in an environment to network, and it’s appropriate to meet someone new. The idea is to switch off that part of the brain that is causing us to relate to that past negative experience and switch it so that we become able to make wise, positive choices based on current information.

Q. Would people who are already familiar with networking find the techniques helpful?

I think it can be helpful to people at any level of networking. I just have this philosophy that we always have the opportunity to grow, learn and expand. We are learning more and more about the brain, how the brain works and how we can utilize that so the data is new information for a lot of people — for people who have been networking to be able to now apply that is a whole new thing.

Basically, the first half of the book is the brain optimization information. The second half is the networking skills information with the brain processes applied to each situation. For instance, one area is on how to approach people and how to have conversation. If people had difficulty in that area then they are told which brain process will help them best in switching that to a positive. So they are able to go through the process and the great thing is that people can say, ‘I’m already good at that, that’s not an issue for me,’ or then they can say, ‘Oh yeah, that shows up sometimes as an issue. I think about calling someone and then I talk myself out of it, or I think about going over to say hi to someone and then I avoid doing that, or I know it’s important to follow up right after I meet someone but I procrastinate.’ So they can see for themselves what are the areas that if this was switched for you, your networking would become easier, natural, effective and efficient.

Q. What is the major component that drives successful networking?

My thing all along, even before this book, has been to share information about networking so that people can have more fun with it. When they have more fun doing something, they are going to do more of it. Then they are going to get more value from it, and so are the people around them. Networking is not necessarily about meeting people. It’s very easy to meet a lot of people. But the thing is, are you connecting with people? So instead of thinking about meeting people, think about are you connecting with people, and what would have you connect with people more.

How to reach: Donna Fisher, (713) 789-2484 or

Randy Velarde was uncomfortable a few years ago with what he was seeing in his financial reports. The president of The Plaza Group, a petrochemical marketing firm he founded in 1994, was used to seeing double-digit growth.

The company had hit a plateau in terms of moving forward in sales and volume, and he realized something had to be done.

While it was happening during the recent economic downturn, that alone did not account for the disappointing growth. Besides, Houston wasn’t hurt much when the housing bubble burst. The Greater Houston Partnership reported that the downturn in the city was short and shallow, and the region began recouping its job losses sooner than most.

So what was going on?

Velarde knew that the company had a very strong foundation. After all, 15 years of impressive growth didn’t happen by chance. It was time for an in-depth look. Velarde, some of his key managers and the board of directors decided to spend a couple of days off-site studying the James Collins and Jerry Porras book entitled, “Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies” as their guide.

What they came up with were five statements that had been the company’s core values, and would still be, but with new emphasis.

“We spent a great deal of time going through ideas and arriving at what are the five core values of our organization,” Velarde says. “The idea is that as you move forward, because the core values have clearly been a part of your past success, do your best to continue to live by those core values that have brought you such great success.”

Since that time, sales growth has resumed the trajectory that The Plaza Group was used to in its early years, with more than 35 percent growth over the last four years. Sales for 2011 were $273 million, 38 percent over 2010 revenue.

“I couldn't be more proud of our entire organization embracing, living and breathing our core values,” Velarde says.

Here’s how he and his team went about defining the company’s core values, taught employees to embrace them and created a feedback system that ensures the core values are a top priority.

Getting to the core

The term foundation is a key one when a company considers its core values. Those values not include operation procedures, business strategies or even cultural norms. They do include those basic tenets that are so fundamental that they survive the most strenuous challenges from any source. So analyzing your foundation will give you insight into areas such as how you treat people, how you make decisions and how you value honesty and integrity.

For The Plaza Group, with its 15 years of operation behind it, this was the solution it needed.

“I think there is a maturation process for any business,” Velarde says. “I think after 15 years, this was the correct tonic for where we were. If you are just starting out, I don't know if it would be. Everybody conducts themselves with their own set of core values individually. But that may not be the most important element, depending on where you are at in business. It may be a case where you need capital instead.”

He ruled out a need for capital and focused on what had been driving success. The process of defining your core values is simple, yet it takes considerable time to get it right. Where it can become time-consuming is when you weed out what values you have had that brought you success — from those values you hope you could possess.

“It really is a very long process because Collins and Porras walk you through arriving at your core values and want you to make sure that they’re not those values you wish you had,” Velarde says. “It’s about spending the time necessary to make sure you determine those values that are a part of your DNA and have been a part of your DNA — and again not what you wish you were but what are those core values.”

If the analysis is on the right track, you will be able to focus your microscope on what’s inside your DNA.

“It’s one of those moments when you realize what are those things you want best to live by, of course, knowing that at some point in time you may make a mistake — we’re all human — but you want to ensure that your entire organization understands what is your DNA,” Velarde says. “It's not just a plaque you put up on the wall.”

Velarde and his group settled on five as a good number for the values.

“I think we wanted to arrive at a number that was not too big that the whole organization would say, ‘Wow, that's an awful lot.’ You didn't want one but you didn’t want 10. By picking five I think we were very comfortable.”

When the team was finished with its assignment, it had found five realistic and embraceable core values for the company: to be honest and forthright, to treat people with respect, courtesy and professionalism, to provide exceptional service to customers and suppliers, to be opportunistic, and to be financially responsible.

Each value should be reviewed as to its history and importance to the organization. This effort calls for insight and introspection.

Velarde notes that it was clear to the team that the company has never been in a corporate lawsuit with suppliers or customers, that fact sunk home the idea of being honest and forthright.

“That's what I would call a good accomplishment given our litigious society,” he says. “I think it speaks to honesty and forthright. What does that mean? Well, there have been conflicts, there have been matters in which one party feels one way and the other the other, but there is a way to manage that and be successful. I've never been in a room with people with black robes on.”

If exceptional customer service isn’t the top of your list, it should be. Treat every customer as a platinum-level customer.

“They are your very best customer,” Velarde says. “There is no distinction, there's no screen that comes up when the phone call comes in showing they're a platinum color or a silver color or a gold color. Treat every one of your customers with the highest level of service that the company can offer.

“For every one of these core values, we spent a lot of time wordsmithing it,” he says. “The quality of being nimble was something that was at least proposed. I think we all agreed that opportunistic was a little more specific. But it does include an element of nimbleness: being able to move swiftly, more quickly than competitors because of your size and your lack of overwhelming bureaucracy.”

Leading by example is a process

Getting employees to follow core values that have been a part of your company doesn’t seem like a difficult task. However, it’s not just something like hanging framed copies of your core values on the walls.

“I think leading by example is the best way, and it’s a process,” Velarde says. “It not only includes me but our managers and our board of directors. Employees will observe the commitment and embrace these values at each level, which I think is very positive in terms of establishing their own level of conduct.”

Each core value can be demonstrated by an example. One incident that happens with some frequency in business transactions is a dispute over an invoice. A short case history of the event, when told to employees, will demonstrate how a core value led to a satisfactory and successful outcome.

“I have many examples of where a supplier has undercharged us,” Velarde says. “If you kind of said, ‘Well, they will never know; we’ll pay the lower price and make more profit,’ that’s not following the core value of being honest and forthright.”

By following the core value and informing the supplier of the error, it is leading by example, and goes far in developing a deeper relationship with the supplier.

“Your team should say, ‘You know what? We are advising you of an error, that we owe $100,000 more than invoiced,’ and I can tell you that there is nothing more impressive to a supplier. They’ll say, ‘Wow!’ In big companies, a lot of things go unnoticed, maybe for a very long time or even forever. But now you’ll be noticed.

“Every time you call back to your core values is essential to your company’s personality and your company’s culture.”

With management focused on calling back to the company core values by setting examples, the focus will cascade down through the organization and each core value becomes strengthened as part of the company culture.

Check adherence to values

In a competitive market, feedback is often seen as some of the most critical data you can obtain to help you succeed. Monitoring how well your employees are performing is an important part of your operation, and a logical place to start is with a team from the heart of the company.

Once Velarde had the five core values in his toolbox and management was all squared away on its role to lead by example, a core values team was formed to observe the pulse of the organization.

“My key managers begin every meeting with a question: Are we abiding by our core values?” he says. “And I have my own core values team I meet with about every 60 to 75 days to make sure that we’re doing well with our core values.”

A team made of four members of folks in the trenches, as Velarde calls them, is composed of representatives of the customer service, supply chain and accounting department and the commercial team.

“You want to make sure you have a finger on that pulse,” he says. “In some companies, managers may just tell you what you may want to hear. I want to make sure that this is a part of every level of the organization.”

The core values team concerns itself with both positive and negative feedback, lauding the cases where a core value was followed with a successful outcome and expressing concern over potential violations of core values.

“Are you living by them?” Velarde asks. “Where have there been mistakes? Yes, there is a mistake here and there, but is there a trend? Maybe there is a violation — you know, where the organization or an individual may not have been in concert with your core values, and that’s OK; mistakes are made.

“But what you want to do is nip in the bud anything that may resemble a trend. There's no harm in a mistake; we are all human. We’re not perfect, but make sure there is no bad seed growing within the organization, violating your honesty, your financial responsibilities.”

Some issues can be resolved by just going to your manager to expose an issue. For larger issues, you can establish a formal corrective action process. There are multitudes of ways that can be used, depending on the situation.

Matters such as the earlier mentioned invoice error are brought up by the team to show an example of a core value guiding employees to successfully handle a sensitive error.

“If you do every one of those core values correctly, success is at the end of the road,” Velarde says. “The kind of growth we have experienced has been in conjunction with our entire organization embracing our core values.”

How to reach: The Plaza Group, (713) 266-0707 or

The Velarde file

Born: Albuquerque, N.M.

Education: University of New Mexico, with a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering; master of business administration degree from Baldwin-Wallace College. I was with Shell Chemical at the time, and I had been transferred to Cleveland.

What was your first job?

I was sanding and stripping furniture for my godfather, who was in the refinishing business. I recall that vividly; talk about hard work. I think I was a teen. It was a great experience, though. Hard, hard work. At that time, my godfather had a great team that enjoyed the camaraderie, and it impressed me.

Whom do you admire in business?

I must say that Andrew Liveris has done a terrific job with Dow Chemical Co. as chairman, president and CEO. He’s been a great example of a leader who has been through some challenges and has absolutely navigated his way very well through those challenges. He’s done a remarkable job of steering the ship so it is well-positioned.

What is the best business advice you ever received?

My first boss at Dow Chemical Co. was a very strategic thinker. He impressed upon me the value of the detail that one could go through to manage a sales territory. There was a great deal of strategic thought that went into it. His strategic thinking example has stayed with me. I learned something very important from him.

What is your definition of business success?

I have found that the greatest satisfaction in leading a business is getting the buy-in from the team, your team, and that strategy is not only your business strategy but also your core values. With that buy-in, knowing that if everybody does their job, excellent results are almost inevitable. The success happens to be the end result of such a strategy executed and the embracement of core values by your organization. The results don’t lie, and following a very strong strategy with an incredible team that embraces your core values leads to those results.

Mike Figliuolo was tired of leadership constructs that resulted in cookie-cutter leaders. Using his idea that a leader must follow a philosophy that is truly his or hers, he began to teach others how to state their leadership values using maxims.

“Write down, on one sheet, 15 to 20 emotionally powerful statements or reminders of personal events that will serve to guide your behaviors on a daily basis,” says Figliuolo, managing director of thoughtLeaders LLC. “Your maxims will become your leadership conscience. They will help you make difficult decisions.”

To reach even more would-be leaders, he has written “One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership.”

Why do you feel the leadership maxim approach is effective?

What is different about the book is that it looks at leaders holistically, and it looks at four aspects of leadership to make sure you are well-rounded and you have integrity: leading yourself, leading the thinking, leading your people and leading a balanced life.

For many years, the standard was to pattern yourself after your boss. If extroverted new leaders try to model themselves after introverted predecessors, is it a train wreck waiting to happen?

Often. Leaders are going to have a different set of experiences that defines them and their philosophy. There’s really power in saying, ‘You can go ahead and be you.’ And that’s what authenticity is about. It’s being real and basing it on your experience.

One of your maxims is, ‘What would Nana [his grandmother] do?’ Give an example how that came into play.

Once, while in the military, I bartered through a gray market to replace a missing tool. I ignored, ‘What would Nana say?’ I might have learned better ways to resolve my situation. The only redeeming aspect is it regularly reinforces my belief in the strength of my maxims to help me make the right decisions regardless of the circumstances.

In the second case, I noticed a client’s error in a contract that would have paid me substantially more than was agreed. I asked myself, ‘What would Nana say?’ I told the client about the error. The long-term value of doing what Nana would say was far greater than the short-term benefit of some extra cash.

When choosing your maxims, how do you know if they are going to be workable?

There’s a little test of a maxim in each chapter that forces you to go back and say, ‘Is this maxim a solid one?’ If it doesn’t evoke that emotional, visceral reaction in you or you look at it and say, ‘That’s really not me,’ then you are on the wrong path because this whole method is all about saying who you really are. Getting back on track is so easy because, inherently, everybody already has all the answers. All the book does is give you a method to pull them out and articulate them.

What is the real benefit in writing down personal maxims?

If you want to really unlock your potential as a leader, you have to just share who you are. People don’t follow a title; they are going to follow an individual. It’s actually a good thing to be you. So if you want to be effective as a leader and build that trust with your team, they need to know who you are. Stop pretending … stop using words like synergy, leverage and optimize, and for crying out loud, tell your story!

How to reach: thoughtLeaders LLC, (804) 241-9757 or

When Ken Kemerer looks at the 80 percent revenue growth SilMix Ohio has achieved since 2001 when it was purchased by Wacker Chemical Corp., he gives a lot of credit to getting involved in industry associations.

Not that it was the only factor ? a rebranding effort three years ago was also part of the mix ? but being an active member of industry groups was a must.

“That’s where the networking is huge,” says Kemerer, director of SilMix Ohio, a manufacturer of custom silicone compounds. “We have added 50 customers since 2009, and we truly believe this branding and networking has resulted in the new customers.”

To get going with industry group networking, you need to research the organizations through universities, libraries or the Internet.

“In the rubber industry for instance, the American Chemical Society is an umbrella group that has a rubber division and a subset for regional and local groups,” Kemerer says. “You want to support financially and technically through manpower and participation all those groups. We support basically all those groups in North America now.”

In terms of support, it means more than paying membership fees.

“You can sponsor their websites, sponsor their fundraising, their golf outings and donate to their scholarship funds,” he says. “The regional groups have technical meetings. You can give technical presentations at their meetings. The technical service is important because other companies may not have an expert on site and you can provide that technical side of the industry.”

The fact that you are at a regional conference giving a presentation and answering questions about your specialty goes far in establishing your brand.

“It’s all about the networking in getting the name out, so that if people are not familiar with your specialty, and they have questions, yours will be the first name they think of,” Kemerer says.

One thing that obviously helps the initiative is encouragement from company ownership.

“Our owner is a corporate citizen, which means we have a responsibility to the industry,” he says.

This attitude should underlie your involvement in the industry groups ? you are not just giving a presentation as a sales pitch for your company.

“The industry groups had been the only place to get knowledge unless you hired somebody who had been trained by somebody else,” Kemerer says. “As the Internet has come along, and online training, they have changed, so the industry groups are really providing networking opportunities on a high level. It’s almost more of an awareness than technical training. These opportunities are out there.”

With your interaction in the industry groups, you are advancing your knowledge throughout the sector.

“There are not that many technical experts out there if you are in a niche,” he says. “Yes, it’s self-serving when you present, you may get your name known as somebody who has the answers, but it is not just about that. It’s also about corporate citizenship.

“There are many opportunities to present new and innovative things if you can in particular areas such as the medical field. That’s on the cutting edge as is helping customers in the industry become aware of new ways to do things or new developments.”

One other fact to keep in mind while attending or presenting at a conference is that your competition may be present, and while it is wise to guard what may be trade secrets, with care, you can still deliver an effective presentation. Don’t use it as a soapbox to show your differentiation.

“We do see competitors, but we see them more on a regional level,” Kemerer says. “We all have the same general purpose products. Some competitors may also be your customers ? so you want to keep good relationships, a good working knowledge and make sure you don’t cross any of them.”

How to reach: SilMix Ohio, a division of Wacker Chemical Corp., (330) 628-5017 or

Formula for rebranding

If your company can’t decide where your rebranding should start, do what Ken Kemerer did at SilMix Ohio: look to your “Pillars of Success.”

“We identified our ‘Pillars of Success,’ that’s what we call them ? our customer service, our technical service and our flexibility, and we made them our focus,” says, Kemerer, director of the custom silicone compound manufacturer.

With that simplified mission statement, it gives you a basis to build a branding and marketing effort that will represent your company well.

“We built three different advertising ? let's say modules ? based on those,” he says.

“Identify your pillars of success, and then customize your advertising both visually and verbally along those lines so you can publish it in different media ? magazine, newsletter and website. Have a variety of pictures, so they don't get stale. Use text that describes each pillar of success.”

Then to help support the industry groups, use the same collateral to expand your brand to that outlet as well.

“It worked out real well for us for the past three years, and now it is a good time to have a new angle and still build off the same things ?­ and more as video opens new opportunities,” Kemerer says.

Tom Dailey had been CEO at Inc. only a short time when he realized the company, no longer in start-up phase, was settling down and becoming larger ? and it needed to join the big leagues where formal accounting and strategic planning were mandatory.

“The company’s performance was flattening out, quite frankly,” he says. “We were having some challenges with revenues and expense management.

“Sometimes that is an awkward period in companies’ developments because they are moving from an environment where decisions were made quickly and things weren’t very well-documented. You could sort of do things on the fly and go forth into an environment that is more formalized because you are getting bigger and more money is passing through your hands. At times, that’s a little bit of a challenge for various companies, and that’s definitely where we were.”

Previously, Dailey was in charge of a large organization of more than 2,000 people with a large call center ? and knew the challenges involved in changing a company’s processes.

Working through the challenges took a vision, and more importantly, connecting with employees so they know that they play a part in making the vision a reality.

Adding to the situation was that 2 employees just didn’t feel like management was communicating enough with them.

“Today, it’s not enough to articulate the vision and ask people to follow,” Dailey says. “People have to understand why a company is going in a certain direction and more importantly, people want to understand what role they play in the big picture of achieving a vision. It’s not just enough to say, ‘March this way.’ You have to say, ‘March this way; here’s why we’re going this way, and here’s the key role you play.’

“So one of the things that I think is you cannot over communicate to people; it’s literally impossible to over communicate,” he says.

So Dailey reached into his CEO bag and pulled out some tools that helped the company achieve 20 percent growth per year to reach $325 million in revenue.

Here’s how he led the Internet payment processing company to become a stronger company in a tough economic environment using a clear mission statement, effective communication techniques and by encouraging the workforce to take on the mission.

Clarify your mission first

In order to lead people, you have to communicate constantly. Many business executives are proponents of the principle that the best way to motivate employees is to communicate with them, and Dailey was one of them. The first step he took was to work on the message to communicate.

“Nearly three years ago when I joined the company, we had this very verbose, long paragraph of a mission statement that had been developed by committee. It included every buzzword that you could imagine and was posted on every conference room wall,”

Dailey says. “If I walked around the building and asked anybody without looking at a sign to tell me what the mission statement is, very few individuals in the company would have been able to answer correctly. Even if they could have, it wasn’t really meaningful. It was just the buzzword mission statement.”

In other words, it was full of clichés like “think out of the box,” “maximize employee engagement” and “to drive value-added processes in a profit-maximizing system.”

Dailey would have no part of it, and wanted to reduce the mission statement into a single line.

To do so involves taking the simplest definition of your company’s purpose and formulating it so that it can be remembered and applied. It may take some time, and in Dailey’s case, his team worked on it close to a year.

“We wanted to make sure we got it right. We kept coming up with different iterations of it,” he says. “Finally, we had a moment of clarity that said, ‘Let’s get rid of all these. Let’s get rid of every word in the mission statement that isn’t core to what we do.’

“That’s when we ended up going from a mission statement that was some nebulous paragraph down to a mission statement that was one sentence.”

Getting to the point where clarity is achieved often crystallizes everyone around the mission.

“We are an Internet payment processing company, so our new mission statement says, ‘We help sellers sell more.’ And that’s it,” Dailey says. “That’s our whole mission statement. Just the mere fact of us clarifying that, and articulating it to everyone, I can tell you that everybody in this company can recite our mission statement now.”

The clarity of such a simple statement makes it easy to remember and easy to apply against any improvement, revision or project to see if it is in line with the mission statement.

“When we did our recent budgeting and planning process, the mission statement was our litmus test for everything we did ? every expense, every project, every strategy,” Dailey says. “We threw them up against that mission statement and asked, ‘Does that help us get closer to helping sellers sell more?’”

Little by little, the test separated the items that would support the mission statement from those that didn’t ? a method that was another of Dailey’s principles.

“I don’t think progress is always achieving big things; a lot of small wins along the way can move you forward as well,” he says.

Use multiple delivery methods

When you get in a room together with your employees and everybody understands the vision and has a stake in the game, you get much more passionate discussion among people about what you are trying to do, because they suddenly want to do things in the most efficient way.

To obtain that understanding requires communicating effectively ? and that may mean using several delivery methods.

“One of the things I’ve learned over time is that not everybody responds to communication in the same way,” Dailey says. “Not everybody learns the same way, and not everybody processes data the same way. Some people you can send them an e-mail and they will go off, read that on their own, digest the data and that will be meaningful for them. Other people need to see it graphically. Still other people are going to respond much better to a meeting or an individual conversation.”

To reach the largest number of employees, you should employ a number of media. You may want to institute all-employee meetings, e-mail communication and an internal newsletter that pops up every morning when an employee logs on to his or her computer that includes snippets of what’s going on during the day. You can’t just use one channel, because one channel is not going to be meaningful to every individual.

“That was a tricky lesson for me because we tend to think that what works for me is going to work for others,” Dailey says. “I’ve learned over the years that it’s not true. There are a lot of different ways of thinking and processing data. You’ve got to understand that if you are going to try to get through to everybody, you’re going to have to employ a number of different methods.”

The next steps involve the attempts to carry out the vision and monitor the progress.

One of the ways you’ll know if you have been successful with your message is when everyone in the company can articulate the vision.

“You can do some fun things where you walk around the building, and just ask somebody randomly, ‘Hey, what’s the mission statement?’ If they answer correctly, you can give them a gift card or something like that,” Dailey says. “When people understand the vision, when they are engaged in it, then you know you’ve really gotten through to them.”

Be aware, however, that there’s a difference between inspiring people to achieve the vision and intimidating them to do so.

“You can lead by intimidation or you can lead by inspiration,” he says. “I find that over the long run, inspiration is far more effective than intimidation.

That gets back to the whole buy-in for the vision.

“I think you have to empower your employees to achieve the vision,” Dailey says. “So many companies are scared to empower the employees who actually deliver on the promise to the customers, because they are afraid the employee could do something wrong.

“You may embrace that ? part of empowering people to satisfy customers is that occasionally somebody will do something that might be different from what you would otherwise have thought it would be. But along the way, you are going to have satisfied more customers than you might have otherwise done.”

Keep the momentum going

If you want to satisfy customers and stay true to your mission statement, you have to keep your communication avenues to employees capable of growth and revision. Once you have spent a lot of time and effort to clarify your mission statement and your employees begin to embrace it, you need to exert the same effort to make sure it thrives in your company. That means introducing new avenues to reach new levels of engagement.

“The people who are closest to the processes are typically the ones who are best equipped to tell us better ways of doing things,” Dailey says. “So make it a safe environment for people to understand that you welcome input and that you don’t necessarily consider yourself to have all the answers. Create venues, whether they are the round-table type of thing or a suggestion program.

“That’s all just part of empowering people to help make improvements in the company. It will make your job easier because, you know what? You don’t have all the answers. Welcome other people’s ideas. People come up with great ideas.”

A round-table meeting is an opportune time to solicit some off-the-wall suggestions. Ask

employees if they had a magic wand and could change one thing about the business ? anything ? what would that one thing be?

“You will be amazed at the input that you will get back,” Dailey says. “Sometimes there are really good ideas and sometimes there are only very small things. But I think people appreciate the opportunity to participate in that way.

“Once, I came in on the third shift and one of the employees said, ‘I really wish the second shift would not leave dirty dishes in the break room sink, because I feel like I have to clean them.’ That was a small thing in the grand scheme of things but it was a big matter to that person, because she felt she had to clean up the break room because of the second shift. It was a very easy thing to fix. It’s not always the big stuff that causes people to be more satisfied.

“If you can eliminate some small hassle in a person’s life, sometimes that goes a longer way than something you might perceive is a bigger deal.”

While this method is sort of an informal one for employees to make suggestions, you should also offer a formal method.

Employees can submit a written suggestion, and it could go to an innovation committee that reviews it and then decides whether or not it can be implemented. However, you have to have an established feedback loop because people don’t want to feel like their suggestion went into a black hole.

“You have to come back to them and say, ‘You know what, we looked at your suggestion and we’re going to adopt it,’ or, ‘We looked at your suggestion, and we considered it but we can’t adopt it for the following reasons …’

“So the people will at least understand it got a fair review,” Dailey says. “With respect to walking the talk, if you ask people for their input, and they give it to you and they see that nothing happens to it, you would have been better off not asking for it in the first place as they will perceive you as just giving lip service.”

You should plan to solicit suggestions from the broadest range possible of employees.

“When people know that their opinion counts, they get much more engaged in the business,” Dailey says. “Along those same lines, if you really want to understand how you can improve your processes, don’t talk to the managers. Talk to the person who does the process. More often than not, if you give them the opportunity, those people are going to have a lot of answers about how to improve your business.”

How to reach: Inc., (614) 921-2450 or

The Dailey File

Born: Chillicothe, Ohio. After college, I spent about 25 years in Chicago working there, and then I came back and took this opportunity.

Education: The Ohio State University. I studied social and behavioral sciences. I didn’t end up being a therapist. Sometimes people talk to me about, well, did that have any relevance to business? I think so; some behavioral sciences have a lot of things to do with business.

What was your first job?

My very first job was a paper route. It was interesting because back then, the carrier also had to do the collection. So I had to go to all 96 of those people every week and collect the money, then fill out the receipts for the customers, then remit the money balance and reconcile the money. You talk about empowerment ? I was a 13- or 14-year-old kid and was basically doing collections, reconciliations and remittances and so forth. That taught me a lot about responsibility. You are really running a business, and that’s probably what got me interested in business in the first place. It probably improved my social skills, my responsibility and everything else. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. I thought it was great.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

Don’t assume you are the smartest person in the room. Somebody I consider a great mentor of mine once told me that, and I have never forgotten it. He was my boss and mentor fairly early in my career who was constantly saying that phrase and advising me not to let my position go to my head. I’ve always tried to live by that, and it always really served me well.

Whom do you admire most in business?

Probably Jack Welch, former chairman and CEO of General Electric. Here’s a guy who has intensively focused on goals and mission and has a fantastic track record of achieving them. I’m a little bit of a Jack Welch disciple.What is your definition of business success?

What's your definition of business success?

If we leave the company each day in a little better shape than it was when we got there that morning, to me that’s success.

When Blake Lundberg heard the news about the NFL ending its deal with his company, he knew it was time for a Hail Mary pass. For 11 years, the Sports Licensed Division of the Adidas Group LLC manufactured licensed apparel and uniforms for the league. But the NFL said a competitor had outbid Germany-based Adidas and its Reebok brand.

The company was about to lose a big piece of its revenue. Some analysts say the NFL job was worth $200 million annually to the Indianapolis facility.

“The lifeblood of the licensed apparel and headwear business is your license with these leagues or universities,” says Lundberg, vice president and general manager. “You depend on those deals; if you don’t have them, you simply can’t survive. It’s that straightforward.”

He was used to changes happening quickly, and this didn’t give him a whole lot of time to find new sources for revenue and ramp up employment to support them before the contract ran out. But the time factor wasn’t the biggest concern ? hot players and hot teams came and went, and to keep in business, usually meant having an ace or two in the hole.

“A product can become pretty obsolete quickly,” Lundberg says. “When Peyton Manning got hurt and he’s not going to play for the year. Or when LeBron James decided to move to a different team. When Barry Sanders retired out of nowhere. Once Michael Vick left the Atlanta Falcons, nobody wanted a Michael Vick jersey.

“The obsolescence of a product is critical. It’s a mix of, ‘I’ve got to have the right finished goods on the shelf and specific players,’ and, ‘I can’t have too many in case they become obsolete based on a player trade, a player retiring or a player getting injured.’”

Fortunately, the division management team had experience with reacting quickly to changes to find solutions.

The most logical route was to take a step back and see if there was some new business that could be developed and to possibly transfer and build up some operations the division could take on from other parts of the Adidas Group.

Lundberg and his talented leadership team had the business acumen to study the company’s strengths and convince Adidas corporate officials to transfer more existing business, such as from the NBA, to centrally located Indianapolis. A big selling point was that the plant could turn around products quickly as compared to other companies that had facilities in foreign countries where it can add weeks to the process.

In addition, some promising new lines were examined. They would be added in previously untapped areas such as high school sports uniforms and apparel, NHL team uniforms, club sports and sportswear connected with the Crossfit Exercise program.

Here’s how Lundberg focused his employees to take on new challenges and drive revenue for the 1,350-employee company.

Focus the managers

A company should really understand its strengths and weaknesses if it wants to succeed and grow. Lundberg was fortunate in that his management team knew it had bench strength ? most members had been in their positions for years and knew how to assess a situation to find a solution fast.

It was no accident that the team had a mixed bag of experienced managers. Many came from previous incarnations of the company, going back 12 years or so. Lundberg found that to encourage flexibility and creative thinking, some company veterans could anchor the group while some fresh but experienced faces from outside the company as well as outside the industry would add additional insight.

“The management team today is virtually the same that it was years ago,” he says. “We took over the management of Logo Athletics [a previous incarnation] and young Logo Athletics people stepped into more important roles. They really knew this business.

“The other thing we had the ability to do is to go out and hire industry veterans, people from Nike, people from Starter, people from Pro Player, people from our competitors that had really gone all by the wayside. Then we hired outside the industry, so people were experts in IT, and human resources and event planning.

“That really was an interesting mix if you think about it. The one thing that we have done the best is to have kept that group together. You all should really understand your strengths and your weaknesses. You can go into a staff meeting and disagree and have issues and argue constructively, and then come out, locked arms, on the same page, and say, ‘Here’s what we’re doing.’”

Look at people options

When a company launches a new line of products for a new division, it brings some challenges for its production team as well as for its human resources department to add more staff. You can tap an agency to send you temporary workers or you can add full-time workers. Either way, you’ll have to decide how to handle the workflow if the new business means running extra shifts around the clock.

“You will definitely face some service challenges ? ‘Hey, I’m doing all my existing business, plus now I’m going to pile on all this new business?’ And you probably have a finite amount of capacity,” Lundberg says.

He found mixed results with the temporary employee route for production work, and suggests the full-time seasonal route instead. This ideally would allow for more control over product quality.

“We don’t try to use the temporary route, for the most part,” he says. “We’ve looked at that. We might try it again.”

What you do what to try as you ramp up hiring is to look for people who can think on their feet and who will be in synch with your company.

“You’re looking for good talent, people who have the ability to adapt and people who have the ability to learn,” Lundberg says. “When you interview people, look for who’s going to fit within the organization. You might not hire the person who is technically right for the job. You really should be concerned with somebody who fits in.”

As far as compensation issues, your company’s practice should be to reward the best performers, as is done in many industries, but with a twist.

“Institute a labor incentive plan, not a piece rate,” Lundberg says. “Base it on engineering standards, accuracy and productivity and efficiency. You grade out at the end of every week.

“If employees are above standard, they get paid a bonus and an incremental bonus based on how much they are above standard. If they are below standard, they’ve got X number of weeks to get back up to standard. If they don’t, they’re out.

“It’s a very, very objective measurement tool to use in distribution and manufacturing. There are two schools of thought. I’m going to pay you X dollars an hour, you come in and I am paying you to do a job, and it is what it is, or I’m going to pay you X dollars an hour with an upside for the people who are really good.”

Going hand-in-hand with your search for manufacturing employees should be your search for qualified management trainees. There, a different approach is needed to bring you results.

“It’s very different to hire people in the front office versus hiring packers, screen printers, embroiderers and people who work on the shop floor,” Lundberg says.

His experience showed him that recent college graduates are the preferred material for management trainees. On-the-job training offers senior management an opportunity to observe the would-be managers.

“Design a 24-month program,” Lundberg says. “You rotate through, say, six different departments, four months per department, to get you to the 24th month. Then you slot them into a full-time job, something that they like, that they’ve learned, for the first 18 to 24 months.

The time spent in the program will serve to groom trainees for their specialty.

“I have a tough time believing that the majority of new college graduates know what they want to do,” Lundberg says. “They want to go to grad school or they want to be a lawyer, they want to be a doctor, or in some professional environment, something like that. We’ve seen that.”

Keep a diet of change

Lundberg readily admits he doesn’t know how to define the word normal. But that’s not a drawback. He’s taught himself that his “normal” can be best defined along the angle of constant change. And it’s his role to see that his employees are flexible and disposed to change.

“You’ve got to be willing to adapt to your environment,” he says. “I think you’ve got to treat people with respect. You’ve got to hire good people and let them do their job. I think that’s very important.

“Create an open atmosphere because you need to make decisions quickly,” Lundberg says. “You can’t be worried about somebody coming to you every time they need to make a call. They’ve got to be able to make it on their own.

“Develop an atmosphere where people enjoy coming to work, give them a good work environment so they can drive and succeed, and give them the ability to make a decision without being afraid of being wrong. Give them the ability to go out there and make decisions on their own and succeed,” he says.

“I think that the majority of people want to do a good job. You’ve got to give them the environment for them to do that in.”

That environment is one that encourages creativity, openness, trust, communication, problem solving, flexibility and feedback. Along with the responsibility of creating that atmosphere comes the opportunity to make errors and be accountable for them.

“People are going to make mistakes and that’s OK,” Lundberg says. “You can’t wait an hour, two hours sometimes to make a decision. You’ve got to make it and move on. People can’t be afraid of making mistakes.”

There are reasonable limits, however ? try not to make the same mistake twice.

“And don’t make it three times,” Lundberg says. “You can’t be afraid in business to formulate your decision; base your actions on those decisions, move forward, and if you’re wrong, you’ll have to re-evaluate, you’ll have to course-correct, and then you have to move on from there. It’s definitely important that you hold people accountable.

“Don’t be a big micromanager. You hire people, and for the most part, they will be extremely successful. Empower people down to the lowest level possible. You want to truly give the associate out on the floor the ability to make specific decisions, obviously within reason.”

At the management level, people obviously are empowered to run their department ? and you’ve got to be able to deal with the departments that are feeding you, a sort of internal customer service, as it were.

“So it’s not only dealing with external customers; it’s dealing with internal customers as well,” Lundberg says.

The goal with these internal customers is to motivate them to always want to get better.

“I think the one thing you have to do a great job of is to encourage people to look for a better way to do things,” he says. “Your IT department probably has a huge list of IT improvements because people are looking for a better way. I think you should keep the workforce motivated to not settle for the status quo.

“Good people breed success. I don’t care what industry you are in. If you hire quality people, and give them the opportunity to thrive and succeed, I think your company is going to be successful, and I don’t care what you are doing.”

How to reach: Sports Licensed Division, Adidas Group LLC, (317) 895-7000 or

The Lundberg File

Born: Bellevue, Wash., outside of Seattle. I actually grew up in suburban Detroit.

Education: I went to school in North Carolina, Wake Forest University. I got a bachelor’s degree in science and business and math there.

What was your first job?

I slung newspapers for The Detroit News. Then I worked at an asphalt plant when I was in high school.

What was the best business advice you ever received?

Be ready to change, because if you don’t, somebody is changing around you. Our business always has something changing here: a new league that we are dealing with, a new big customer, a new process in the back, adding screen-print equipment, adding new facilities. I sit and smile and think, what would it be like to sit back and take a breather for a year?

Who do you admire in business?

This is going to sound sort of corny, but I really admired my father, Dick Lundberg. He owned his own road construction business back in the ‘70s in suburban Detroit. Business then went from absolutely doing very well to doing not so well. He was committed to keeping us in Plymouth until my sister and I graduated from high school. He was 50 years old at that point and I thought it was an amazing thing. I can’t see myself switching careers at 50. Incredibly difficult. I definitely admired what my dad did.

What is your definition of business success?

Giving people an opportunity to succeed and obviously growing a profitable business year over year. You need to continue to grow and you’ve got to do that with the bottom line in mind. You’ve got to grow the bottom line faster than the top line.

Lundberg on working at Adidas: I think people enjoy coming to work for a major sports brand ? for an Adidas or Reebok. To be able to work for two of the largest three sports brands in the world, I think is a great benefit. I think it helps us to attract good people. We’ve got people who want to come to work here because it’s the sporting goods industry. There are people who are passionate sports nuts out there, whether you are right out of college or you are five, 10, 15 years removed from college, they are like, ‘Wow, how cool would it be to work for one of the major sports brands!’

Mike Kahoe was not happy with the 15 percent increases for health insurance premiums that his company, Group Management Services Inc., was facing each year. It was time to take control to lower health insurance costs for the 50-some people on the plan.

Once Kahoe, president of the $24 million professional employer organization, searched for some information, he was swayed over to a plan of wellness for his business. He believed he could cut the health insurance premiums significantly ­? and there were other benefits.

“At the end of the day, you have a bunch of people who you work with that are healthier and happier,” he says. “And that means happier customers.”

Here are some of the steps he took to reach his goals.

“One of the first steps is to get nurses to test everybody’s cholesterol and blood sugar levels, height and weight and so on,” he says.

This will establish some base-line statistics that you can work on to improve, and the recommendation that some health behaviors need to change has more substance coming from a health professional.

“You should use nurses rather than staff,” Kahoe says. “A lot of times, it’s delegated to an HR person who tells you to quit smoking or says you should quit smoking. I just don’t think it’s very powerful. I think when a nurse or a doctor tells you, it’s a different story.”

The company leader needs to support the efforts.

“Don’t be afraid to get involved in it personally. Take a look at yourself first,” Kahoe says. “People tend to replicate your behavior; for example, if you’re out back smoking a lot, I think it’s bad for the company.

What Kahoe found out about his personal base line became a driving force for the program.

“Honestly, at the time, the thing that was most shocking was that I might have been the biggest violator of all,” he says. “I was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, working hard and not watching what I was eating. I was also on the obese level, and I really didn't like that term associated with me.”

The second step is to develop the programs by getting information from health sources on popular initiatives such as smoking cessation, weight loss and healthy eating programs.

“We just put together some programs and some incentives for people to quit smoking and live healthier lifestyles.” Kahoe says. “We had some weight-loss competitions and things like that.”

As soon as he knew what his initiatives would be, Kahoe devised ways to make it easier to stay focused on goals.

“There has to be a carrot, and there has to be a stick,” he says. “I think the people that are making bad choices in their behavior should pay a little bit more for health insurance. I mean it takes a little bit of work to be healthy, to get on a treadmill for a half-hour a day or whatever it takes. I think those people should be rewarded for the work they put in.

“If you are a smoker, you pay a little bit more for your insurance, but can get a bonus if you quit; if you are a nonsmoker, you actually get another contribution to your health savings account every year to help fund your health insurance.”

As a last step, you should invest in tools to help employees reach their goals. Kahoe built a workout room where there are treadmills, an elliptical machine and weights.

“It gets very heavy usage,” he says. “The goal is just one more way to get people involved.”

After the programs have been in effect for some time, you should see some impressive results.

“We are down to single digits for the percentage of smokers, we cut in half the obesity numbers and the overweight numbers. Our health insurance costs were cut in half and continue to go down every year. Your people are just healthier. You should get less sick days and a happier environment.”

How to reach: Group Management Services Inc., (330) 659-0100 or

Peer support

When Mike Kahoe, president of Group Management Services Inc., wanted to start some wellness initiatives at his company, he knew that peer involvement would be a key point.

Getting people involved starts with your initial event, which is a type of health inventory. You should make it voluntary to participate in the health professional-run event, which includes blood pressure, cholesterol tests and blood tests. With some promotion, you should get a high rate of involvement in the kick-off event. You want to get as many involved as possible to be a success.

“We had almost 100 percent participation,” he says. “People need some awareness and a little bit of a nudge sometimes.”

A good idea is to open the programs to all employees, not just the ones enrolled in the health care plan. This will help unify the participants even more. Team members will give each other encouragement.

“It would be a complete failure if you don’t get the employees inspired,” Kahoe says.

A smoking cessation program featuring a bonus for quitting can start small, but with participation and positive results, it will likely grow.

“A lot of people will encourage each other,” he says. “Once it catches on, and 10 people quit smoking, I think the other people could figure out that they could too.”

Juuhi Ahuja knows uses a simple phrase to describe what it takes to find the talent that has helped her company, Wise Men Consultants, earn a spot on recent lists of Houston area fast-growing companies multiple times.

“We are a fast-paced, aggressively growing company, so getting the people who have the required level of ‘fire in the belly’ to grow both professionally and financially is my biggest challenge,” says Ahuja, founder, president and CEO of the $29 million business, which has grown since 1997 from a staffing company to a provider of international full-range solutions.

“It’s about attracting and keeping the good talent who can be the right mentor to the company’s younger talent and be interested in growing.”

Smart Business spoke with Ahuja on how she finds employees with an inner glow that guides them to success.

Q. What initial approach should a company take in finding the right talent?

I have made a lot of mistakes along the way, not that the talent was wrong, but the fit was not right. But I would say that more than anything else, when you look for a person, look for similarities in attitude. That is an important key because that will make or break the person.

You may not even mind hiring people who have less talent and less experience as long as they portray the right attitude, which resonates with your philosophy.

Putting a candidate through several interviews takes time but it is better than making mistakes. We've had to fire people because they did not have the ‘fire in the belly’ that we were looking for. So take your time. It also proves that the candidate is genuinely interested if he will wait to go through your process. Weed out the people who are just looking to make a jump for the sake of a jump.

Q. What other qualities should an interviewer look for in a candidate?

Look for people who are good solution providers ? somebody who should be able to take no for an answer and be persistent but at the same time know that knocking on this door is not going to bear any fruit.

You want somebody who believes in intuition, or a gut feeling. You want somebody who is a person who believes in data, but backs it up with 20 percent intuition. The way I define intuition is a good feeling, or bad feeling, in the gut, combined with market intelligence and hard data of some success stories with clients ? and just an inside feeling that yes, this will work.

Q. While an interviewer can’t spot ‘fire in the belly’ by looking at a candidate, are there any outward signs, such as body language, that are helpful in evaluating a job seeker?

It is in the person’s best interest to find something (that) he is passionate about, and it is also in your best interests to find a passionate person for the job. Passion is what you really look for in people ? that they should run to work.

Yes. Not walk to work. I think it is very true that people who walk fast think fast and tend to act fast. People who have a sluggish gait or ... I can’t say talk very slowly because I have had very, very good luck with people who talk slowly and measured, but I have very accurate insight into intuition and gut feelings. I have found that somebody who is open, gregarious, walks fast and enjoys a fast pace is more successful.

Q: What also increases your odds of getting a good fit?

It is also about letting a person flourish. If the environment is not to the employee’s liking, he is not going to be as excited. I think excitement and enthusiasm are keys to life. Life is really beautiful. You don't want to go into an environment that irritates you and irks you on a daily basis.

I mean life is so beautiful; it can’t be wasted. I have had employees say this is the best place I have worked for, and I know they are protecting themselves. We may still let them go after giving them two or three notices. They are not doing themselves a service or realizing that they need not be in this environment but need to be in a different one, which will make them come alive.

How to reach: Wise Men Consultants, (281) 679-6740 or