Cleveland (5895)

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:44

Healthclips

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Depressed about the flu

Experiencing an illness, such as the flu, causes psychological stress that can make people feel mildly depressed. It can also trigger depression in those who are prone to it.

“If someone is already depressed, that person is less likely to take care of themselves, such as getting a flu vaccine,” said Dr. Toby Goldsmith, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Florida. “Like any stress, the stress associated with being ill, such as missing work, may trigger depression in someone who is prone to depression.”

Goldsmith said a study shows those who are chronically stressed do not respond to the flu vaccine as well as others, and may be more vulnerable to the flu.

Warning signs can indicate if you are heading down a slippery slope toward being overstressed and include not sleeping well, fatigue and avoiding your usual day-to-day activities, such as watching television and eating.

If you are not back to your normal routine one month after having the flu, Goldsmith recommends talking with your physician to make sure something else might not be causing your symptoms. Source: Dr.Koop.com

Stress kills

A recent study by Canadian scientists showed that highly stressed heart patients did not respond as well as others to medication for angina and chest pain. The American Heart Association says patients with heart failure should take steps to reduce and manage stress to reduce strain on their hearts.

Of stress management in general, though, the American Heart Association (AHA) says that “the available data do not yet support specific recommendations for its use as a proven [prevention or treatment] for heart disease.”

How you cope with stressful situations may make a difference, especially if you habitually react to stress in ways that feed physically harmful emotions such as chronic hostility. Stress management is not about avoiding stress but, rather, learning to manage its recurring effects.

Everyone who drives gets cut off in traffic now and then and gets a burst of adrenaline produced by fear or anger. Some people can quickly relax and return to a normal physical state. Others stew about the incident, and make things worse by discussing it with others who share their hostility and feed it with stories of their own.

In heart failure, the heart muscle is weakened and the patient needs to take care not to make it work harder than necessary. It’s important to reduce physical symptoms of stress — a pounding heart and heavy breathing — as much as possible. Though avoiding all stress may be impossible, you may be able to adjust your activities to avoid stress triggers such as rush-hour traffic or long hours at work. Source: Lifescape.com

Smokers die

While cigarette smoking has been well established as a major cause of heart disease and stroke, some studies have suggested that its harmful effects are muted in smokers with low cholesterol levels.

Now, a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association reveals that cigarette smoking significantly increases the risk of these diseases — even in low-cholesterol populations.

Look in the bottom drawer

Don’t skip meals. Eat a variety of foods every four or five hours. Keep snacks such as power bars, trail mix or dried fruits handy to fill in when time doesn’t permit a real meal.

Breathing uneasy

For some people, asthma is a minor annoyance — just a cough or two after they run. For others, it’s a life-threatening condition they live with every day. The number of cases is on the rise — more than 17 million people in the U.S. have the disease, an increase of more than 75 percent since 1980. As the number of patients has risen, so have the larger consequences of the disease.

Today, asthma is one of the top reasons for hospitalization of children, causing kids to miss more than 10 million school days a year and adults to miss 3 million days at work. It is responsible for more than 10 million doctor visits a year and will be responsible for more than 5,600 deaths this year, more than twice as many as 20 years ago.

Smoke is not a nutrient

Secondhand smoke, also called passive smoking, can have terrible effects on kids. Children who are exposed to smoke have more ear infections, asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis and a respiratory virus called RSV than children of nonsmokers. Children exposed to smoke have lower lung capacity and slower lung development than unexposed children, says Dr. Nancy Snyderman.

Over the long term, these kids are at increased risk of developing lung cancer and other conditions associated with smoking and stand a much greater chance of becoming smokers themselves.

Many parents may be unwilling or unable to quit smoking. But if they understand the dangers to their child, they may at least be willing to stop smoking around their children and inside the home.

The piercing truth

The American Dental Association doesn’t sugarcoat its opposition to oral piercing, which it deems a public health hazard. In fact, oral piercing would be obsolete if the decision rested solely in the hands of the ADA, according to Dr. Gary C. Armitage, a dentist and chairman of the ADA’s Council on Scientific Affairs.

That the topic had a place on the agenda of the group’s 139th annual session, held recently in pierce-happy San Francisco, says a mouthful about the widespread popularity of the practice, even among folks who floss every day. Oral piercing can result in a number of adverse oral and systemic conditions, according to the ADA.

Common symptoms after piercing include pain, swelling, infection, increased salivary flow and gum injury. In addition to the risk of infection, which is especially high due to the vast amounts of bacteria in the mouth, problems include airway obstruction after swallowing jewelry, prolonged bleeding, chipped or cracked teeth after biting jewelry, scar tissue, speech impediment and interference with X-rays.

The ADA joins other venerable medical institutions and organizations that have seen fit to address a wide range of concerns about puncturing body parts, including — but by no means limited to — ears, eyes, mouths and noses, as well as necks, nipples, navels and sundry genitalia.

The American Academy of Dermatology has taken a position against all forms of body piercing with one exception: the ear lobe. Skin specialists cited nickel allergies, cyst formations, chronic local infections and granulation tissue (fleshy bumps that form during the healing process of some wounds) as reasons not to pierce.

The ear lobe has been singled out because it's made of fibro-fatty tissue and has a good blood supply, which is crucial in case infection sets in, says Dr. Ronald Wheeland, a Santa Fe dermatologist. The piercing sites deemed especially problematic by the academy involve cartilage which, once infected, can whither and shrink because of a paltry blood supply, and complex tissue structures such as the nipples, which are more than simple skin and fatty layers.

The uncomplicated navel, although it has no ducts like the nipple or cartilage like the nose, has not received the same tacit approval from the academy as the ear lobe. However, individual doctors seem not to be as concerned about piercing the umbilicus as they are about other body parts.

As a precaution against the transmission of blood-borne diseases, the U.S. and Canadian Red Cross won’t accept blood donations from anyone who has had a body piercing or tattoo within a year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have deemed nonsterile piercing a serious health risk.

Although HIV transmission is a theoretical possibility — the virus that causes AIDS dies at room temperature — hepatitis is the real worry. Hepatitis B and C can be transmitted in as little as 0.00004 milliliter of blood and can survive on blood-contaminated surfaces, such as instruments and doorknobs.

Cancer or clueless?

An estimated 4 to 6 percent of a doctor’s patients are considered hypochondriacs, says Dr. Brian Fallon, an associate professor of psychiatry at Columbia University in New York and co-author of “Phantom Illness: Shattering the Myths of Hypochondria.”

For them, a headache is not caused by stress, but a brain tumor. Fatigue is not attributable to a poor night’s sleep, but AIDS. In a desperate quest to reassure themselves, they may visit doctor after doctor. Even after tests rule out a particular disease, they feel little relief.

The new wonder drug.

A recent study suggests that vitamin C may actually help people with hypertension, or high blood pressure.

A report in a recent issue of the Lancet, an international medical journal published in Britain, presents the results of a small trial of vitamin C as a treatment for high blood pressure. Researchers from the Boston University Medical School and Oregon State University studied the effect of daily 500-milligram doses of vitamin C on the blood pressure of 39 people with high blood pressure.

The study subjects included 20 women and 19 men who were approximately 48 years old. At the beginning of treatment, their systolic blood pressure, measured when the heart contracts to pump blood, averaged 155 millimeters of mercury. Their diastolic pressure, measured between heart contractions, was about 87 millimeters of mercury. A person is considered hypertensive if his or her systolic pressure is greater than 140 millimeters and diastolic pressure is greater than 90 millimeters.

Patients were randomly assigned to receive either the daily dose of vitamin C or a placebo. Neither the researchers nor the subjects knew which pills were given to which patient.

Subjects took the pills for one month, after which their blood pressure and vitamin C blood levels were measured. As expected, vitamin C supplementation significantly increased the vitamin’s blood levels. In addition, there was a significant decrease of 13 millimeters of mercury in the systolic pressure of subjects taking vitamin C. Those who received vitamin C also had a small decrease in their diastolic blood pressure, but this decrease was not statistically significant. The greater the change in the blood level of vitamin C, the greater the decrease in blood pressure.

How about a friendly wager?

The following signs and symptoms indicate compulsive gambling:

  • increasing the frequency and the amount of money gambled;

  • spending the majority of free time thinking about gambling;

  • spending an excessive amount of time gambling at the expense of personal or family time;

  • being preoccupied with gambling or with obtaining money with which to gamble;

  • feeling a sense of euphoria, an aroused sense of action or a high from gambling;

  • continuing to gamble despite negative consequences such as large losses, or work or family problems;

  • gambling as a means to cope with uncomfortable feelings;

  • “chasing,” or the urgent need to keep gambling, often with larger bets or greater risks to make up for losses;

  • borrowing money to gamble, taking out secret loans or maximizing credit cards;

  • bragging about wins but not talking about losses;

  • frequent mood swings — higher when winning, lower when losing;

  • gambling for longer periods of time with more money than originally planned;

  • lying or secretive behavior to cover up extent of gambling. Source: Drkoop.com.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:44

Dealing with catastrophe

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Robert Thompson walked into the small manufacturing plant and was amazed.

“This company did some very, very technical types of manufacturing,” says Thompson, COO of Complient Services Group, an organization that provides solutions to workplace compliance issues. “This was a beautiful, pristine, gorgeous facility. You’d walk in there and you’d think it was the safest place in the world.”

It wasn’t. An audit by a Complient safety inspectors revealed serious OSHA violations, not the least of which was a lack of an updated emergency preparedness plan, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirement.

“There are all kinds of emergencies,” Thompson says. “But there are four major categories: weather, nonweather, fire and medical emergency. The types of emergencies are almost unlimited. You can’t be perfect, but you need a prudent and reasonable system for your employees to prevent injuries.”

But in the normal course of a business day, many people take basic safety issue for granted, focusing instead on larger issues, such as whether noxious fumes are escaping in the plant or whether safety rails are properly secured.

“People, in many instances, think that they’re complying with OSHA by posting something on the bulletin board or making sure that they’ve got a written document somewhere, or maybe they’ve shown a safety training videotape,” Thompson says. “All those are elements of a program, but people really should think in terms of having an effective program. And having an effective program is getting a perspective and understanding all the things that you’re required to do and understand how it fits your workplace.”

Every preparedness plan must incorporate four components — a written preparedness program; an employee alarm system to alert employees in the event of an emergency; identification of the types of evacuation used in an emergency; and the training of a sufficient number of persons to assist in safe and orderly evacuation.

This was missing at the manufacturing plant.

“In order to make these little tiny parts out of metal, they had to use a lot of very sophisticated machinery to do it,” Thompson says. “And some of the machinery that they had was very high quality machinery that had been manufactured maybe 40 years ago. These machines, even though they ran well and they did what they were supposed to do, didn’t have some of the safety (devices) on them. They weren’t required 40 years ago.”

There were no shields to protect fingers, hair or clothing from getting caught in spinning cogs or rotating drive belts.

The company had other problems as well. As the business grew, its electrical needs increased. Instead of laying the proper conduits and grounded receptacles, it had simply run heavy-duty extension cords.

It was one of those “things that you learned when you were a kid,” Thompson says. “You’re not supposed to put 15 plugs in an outlet. It will overheat and blow up and potentially cause a fire. It had become so common that they were doing this that they really didn’t notice it anymore.”

That attitude is not unusual, he says.

“It requires a lot of discipline and it requires constant vigilance to ensure a safe workplace,” Thompson warns. “And in some cases, it isn’t high on the list, because people are busy doing other things or distracted. Somebody has to be responsible for safety in the workplace and you want to get that responsibility down to every employee.

“You want everybody to understand that management is concerned about safety in the workplace. And you want the employees to understand that management cares and wants them to care about safety in the workplace.”

If that manufacturing plant did have an emergency, even a minor one, it wouldn’t have been prepared.

“They had a first aid kit,” Thompson recalls. “And there were like three Band Aids, some adhesive tape and a tube of ointment that had been expired for two years. Did they do that because they were mean, bad people? No. They used up the stuff and it wasn’t somebody’s job to go take care of the first aid kit.

“It’s not going to do you any good if somebody slices their hand. What are you going to do? Wrap a dirty rag around it?”

There are other considerations that affect the health of employees, but most people don’t think about the consequences.

“If something bad happens in the workplace, it’s not only going to injure somebody, or perhaps that person will lose their life; what’s going to happen is that it’s going to lower morale, it’s going to lower productivity and it’s going to raise insurance costs,” Thompson says. “There are lots of other things that you don’t really think about. If you have an effective program, people feel that they’ve been trained well, that management cares, and if something does happen and it’s responded to in the appropriate way, they’re going to think, ‘Hey this is great. We did the right thing.’

“People want to do the right thing.”

Thompson suggests that companies bring in a safety expert to complete an audit of the facilities, both internally and externally. It’s important to know not only what hazards your employees face in your workplace, but hazards your neighbors may pose, as well, that might have an effect your operations.

“It’s a real easy thing to not be aware,” Thompson says. “But not being aware isn’t an excuse, particularly if something happens and people don’t respond to it properly.”

How to reach: Complient Service Group, (440) 498-8800

Daniel G. Jacobs (djacobs@sbnnet.com) is senior editor of SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:44

Caller RIP

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In the good old days of market research, it used to take a small army of telephone operators calling hundreds of numbers and a flotilla of survey takers drifting through the local mall to get a good sample.

But no more. Technology, as it has so many times in the past, is rapidly making telephone surveys as outdated as eight-track tapes.

“It has to do with the fact that it’s harder and harder to talk to people on the phone,” says Amy Yoffie, vice president of market research with Research Connections, a firm specializing in Web-based research. “People have answering machines and caller ID, and a lot of people are associating market research with sales calls. Response is going down dramatically.”

As the masses continue adding bricks to their electronic wall to keep out unwanted calls, they are also going online. Companies are inviting customers to fill out surveys via the Web. Retailers are forming virtual focus groups. Marketers are doing more research while spending less.

Companies using the Web get a higher response and higher quality information,” says Yoffie. “People are able to answer the surveys when they want. They can be thoughtful about the questions, as opposed to being interrupted in the middle of dinner.”

Response to telephone surveys can be 40 percent or less. Web surveys fare worse, with only about 20 percent responding to an invitation.

While this should increase as more people go online, consider one important difference: “You don’t have the labor cost of interviewers making phone calls. The cost of doing another increment of interviews is much lower. To do another 100 interviews is a negligible cost compared to the phone.”

So while phone surveys have a better response rate initially, it’s cheaper to do it by Web.

Research firms use a variety of methods to develop a pool of candidates. Some have the general populace fill out their demographic information and invite them to specific surveys for a chance to win cash or other prizes. A company might have an e-mail list of its customers, or a pop-up window can be utilized to entice visitors at a Web site to fill out a survey.

Turnaround time is fairly quick. A survey can be put up overnight, with thousands of invitations sent out simultaneously. A more specific survey, aimed at a narrow demographic group, might take longer — both in designing the survey and finding enough qualified candidates.

Most of the larger online research firms have established pools of people to choose from to invite to take a survey. If a particular population isn’t on file, there are opt-in e-mail lists that can be purchased to meet the need.

So is the phone survey doomed?

“I think there will always be a certain amount of market research done by phone,” says Yoffie. “It may be for hard-to-find populations, like people that don’t have Internet access. I expect within three to five years that the phone survey industry will be cut in half.

“Door-to-door interviews used to be very common, but now are dead. I don’t believe the phone survey will ever be dead, but people that think it will stay at the level it’s at now are kidding themselves.”

How to reach: Research Connections (which has recently been acquired by Talk City), www.researchconnections.com

Todd Shryock (tshryock@sbnnet.com) is SBN’s special reports editor.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:44

Batteries not included

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In a spacious hardwood-floored studio office along Euclid Avenue stacked high with film equipment and computers, Greg Petusky and Johnny Wu spent the last 18 months building their electronic media company from the ground up.

They became business partners in 1998, with hopes of opening a photography business. When it promptly flopped, they decided to give the media business a try, tapping into Petusky’s love of filmmaking and Wu’s knowledge of computers.

Since then, Media Design Imaging has gone the low-key, independent route. The pair recently completed an action film called “Twisted,” a music video that is being delivered to homes across the nation on Media One’s Road Runner high-speed cable modem and a television commercial for an underdog Internet company.

Given MDI’s independent spirit, it is ironic the company is garnering attention from a new project inspired by corporate giants such as Microsoft and Budweiser — digital business cards. The specially cut, three-inch compact discs play in any personal computer with a CD-ROM drive and can be packed with up to 50 megabytes of information — the equivalent of 9,000 simple pages of text or a dozen Web pages.

Cleveland-based Paratus Inc. — an Internet technology and marketing services firm — went to MDI last year with an offer to partner on a project for Washington, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, asking the small firm to help develop the content for the discs.

“We finished it in a week, turned it in and they loved it and want to do more,” says Wu. “So, slowly from there, we got more business. It’s a very cool concept.”

The work has been a benefit for MDI, which can now sink profits from the digital business cards back into its filmmaking ventures, as well as generate awareness about the company.

“We don’t just want to concentrate on one target,” says Wu, “But, at the same time, we don’t mind outsourcing ourselves to do some work and market ourselves.”

So, while its main focus remains films, it appears MDI has more digital business card work heading its way, if the rising buzz about the new technology is any indication. Paratus CEO Frank Sulka says he is has already heard from several local companies considering an investment in digital business cards, now that it has become a cost-effective marketing strategy.

As with traditional business cards, the more you buy, the better the price. The design and burning of 1,000 digital business costs about $3,000, while an order of 10,000 comes in around $1 each.

How to reach: MDI, (216) 623-0822; Paratus, (440) 796-8536

Jim Vickers (jvickers@sbnnet.com) is an associate editor at SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:44

A convenient change

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When Robert Stein assumed the top spot at Dairy Mart five years ago, he looked at the path the 61-year-old convenience store chain had taken and realized it was the wrong one.

An explosive acquisition phase during the mid-1980s left the organization with many older stores that could not compete with petroleum giants like BP and Shell, which had entered the convenience game in a well-funded fury and threatened the company’s long-term survival.

Simply put, Dairy Mart had overextended its resources and was in dire need of a makeover from the 1970s convenience box concept to which executives had strictly adhered.

“We just weren’t managing our existing network of stores as well as we should have,” says Stein, CEO of the convenience store chain. “If you combine that with the oil companies getting into convenience when they weren’t before ... That was a loud wake up call. We said, ‘Wait a minute, that’s our business.’”

Stein decided to move Dairy Mart’s corporate headquarters from Connecticut to Ohio, so executives could be closer to the Midwest stores at the heart of their operations. In 1998, those corporate offices were relocated to a new building in Hudson.

Meanwhile, Stein sold off and closed older stores at an incredible rate to raise the capital needed to secure prime corners of real estate for new, larger stores that offered gasoline and food, like the oil companies with which they were doing battle.

Dairy Mart posted a $1.5 million loss at the end of fiscal year 1998, but during the following 12 months, Stein’s new strategies started to catch the eyes — and wallets — of consumers. A new marketing focus and strategic partnerships helped the chain reach profitability by the end of fiscal year 1999.

The impressive turnaround was not lost on Convenience Store Decisions, an industry trade magazine that named Dairy Mart the year’s top store chain from a field of 2,900 companies. To hear Stein tell the story, the rebound was simply a matter of pruning the company’s weak links and giving customers a reason to walk in the door.

“We just had a lot of internal things we had to fix,” Stein says of Dairy Mart’s past, delivering the words with the stony cadence of a football coach “We used to be a deal company. We were making deals and getting bigger, but we weren’t saying, ‘Wait a minute. What do we have here? And how do we make what we have better?’”

When Dairy Mart executives purchased the popular Northeast Ohio Lawson Milk Co. stores from Consolidated Foods in the mid-1980s, they also swallowed stores from five other independent companies.

Along the way, Stop-N-Go, Dutchland Farms and Sunnyland Farms stores ended up under the Dairy Mart banner. By 1987, after three years of steady acquisitions, the chain reached a total of more than 1,200 stores in 11 states.

Such explosive growth did not come without its own set of challenges, namely keeping a fresh face on an aging network of stores. Another stumbling block was the fact that the integration of gasoline into the convenience store concept was a trend that could not be ignored. That posed a problem, because many Dairy Mart stores were tucked into neighborhoods, which made such an investment physically impossible.

To raise money for capital improvements, Stein sold off the former Lawson Milk Co. ice cream plant in Cuyahoga Falls and dairies the company owned in Ohio and Connecticut. He gradually closed smaller and older stores that did not fit his vision for the chain and sold the original Connecticut Dairy Mart Chain so management could focus on stores in the Midwest.

Those moves whittled the chain to half the size it was during its peak period of acquisitions. Today, about 30 older Dairy Mart stores are closed every year and 20 new ones are built, depending on where the company can find land.

“(Closing stores) doesn’t matter to me because it’s not how many we have, it’s how good we are,” explains Stein. “We went into a whole quality vs. quantity mode. We’re in a position now where we’re going to grow the quantity, but in a quality fashion.”

Early in the revitalization period, Stein decided to replace the dated blue and white Dairy Mart logo in favor of something friendlier and more contemporary.

“We wanted one that gave the feeling of friendly and homey,” explains Stein, who ended up with today’s much stronger red and blue uppercase “DM” logo.

This reimaging campaign included the remodeling of stores, installation of new pumps for locations that already offered gas and setting aside bigger marketing budgets for the next three years to make sure consumers were aware of the changes. Stein focused mostly on billboards and radio, media that were sure to catch the person on the road, Dairy Mart’s prime customer.

One of the most successful marketing strategies, however, started out as an experiment. After initially offering ATMs inside his stores, Stein pulled them out because they were not making enough money for Dairy Mart or the bank. But with the proliferation of ATMs elsewhere, it soon became apparent he would have to find some way to bring the machines back.

He wanted to test the idea of a no-fee ATM. Customers would still get hit with a small surcharge from their bank, but would escape the extra $1.50 to $2 charge for using Dairy Mart’s machines. Stein found a bank willing to go along with the plan, as long as Dairy Mart paid a fee to subsidize the service.

He budgeted extra marketing dollars to make up for the cost of the machines and found the promise of a no-fee ATM brought people in the door. Better yet, they were buying Dairy Mart products during those quick visits to grab cash.

“It’s just one of those things that touches a chord with people,” says Stein, who still seems a little surprised at how well the idea was received. “I think it gives them the residual feeling of, ‘Gee, these people are doing something good.’”

On many of the 170 Dairy Mart billboards that dot Ohio is an ad that prominently displays the Millstone Coffee brand the convenience store offers.

Stein is banking on the fact that visitors to his stores will be enticed by a coffee that is not just a dark liquid dumped into a styrofoam cup. It’s part of a branding plan to tie Dairy’s Mart’s name with popular products that, by themselves, will bring people into stores.

Stein landed an exclusive deal with Proctor and Gamble to sell brewed Millstone to Dairy Mart’s morning customers, an agreement sweetened by the fact that the brand is currently the subject of a national television advertising campaign pushing the sale of Millstone coffee beans in grocery stores.

He also struck a deal with Chevron to provide gasoline for stores in Kentucky and Indiana, and is looking for a similar arrangement in Ohio. The presence of a brand name and logos on the overhead canopies, he says, has increased gas sales and prompted customers to buy a higher octane gas than they would if they were buying a store brand gasoline.

“What you get with that is a clear and recognizable brand,” explains Stein. “Marketing, over 100 years, has taught people that branded gas is better than unbranded gas.”

Finally, Mr. Hero restaurants were included in Dairy Mart stores as Stein aggressively pursued his goal of making food service a viable traffic builder. He is serious about it, going so far as creating a new six-person department charged with developing Dairy Mart's food service strategy.

This spring, Dairy Mart will roll out a line of breakfast offerings that will compete against McDonald’s and Burger King in the battle for the stomachs of early morning commuters.

It's all part of Stein's master plan to evolve Dairy Mart from the simple jug of milk and loaf of bread convenience store business that sustained it for years. Stein knows the corner store is not what 21st century consumers want anymore. They want a place where they can buy a hot sandwich, grab a cup of coffee, fill their gas tank and buy a newspaper, all in one stop.

And he’s more than ready to provide it, announcing last year plans to build 90 new convenience retail stores during the next two years.

“It’s going to take time, because you can only build so many stores a year based on capital and finding the land, but that’s what we’re going to be doing for the next several years,” says Stein. “There is plenty of business out there.”

How to reach: Dairy Mart, (330) 342-6600

Jim Vickers (jvickers@sbnnet.com) is an associate editor at SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:43

Would you like fries with that?

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The phrase “clean out your desk” doesn’t necessarily strike fear into the hearts of employees at HGR Industrial Surplus.

Odds are, no one has been fired. More likely, one of the salespeople just sold a desk to a customer. Besides, a new desk will probably arrive in one of the 30 weekly truckloads to HGR’s facility, located in Euclid’s former Fisher Guide plant.

HGR’s entire office — with the exception of the computer system — is furnished with surplus materials from other companies, explains Paul M. Betori, president of the two-year-old business. For that reason, just about everything is for sale.

“What separates us is our whole approach to selling surplus equipment,” Betori says. “We’ve had everything including the kitchen sink, and we’ve sold it.”

Here are three of Betori’s tips for balancing customer loyalty with company profitability:

View everything as a commodity

Betori’s approach incorporates a melange of selling styles, including a touch of street vendor. After a difficult haggling session, he’s been known to settle the deal with the flip of a coin.

His salespeople are taught to always be prepared. It’s not uncommon for them to return to their desks and find the chair has been added to someone’s order.

HGR employs a price-slashing policy similar to that of the national clothing retailer Syms. Customers roam the floor browsing the company’s huge inventory, and if a piece hasn’t been sold after three months, its price is cut. Every subsequent month, the price is cut again until it’s sold. Betori also empowers his salaried salespeople to negotiate deals at will.

Last year, this approach helped HGR reach $7 million in revenue. Betori says he expects to exceed that by more than $500,000 this year, and he’ll do just about anything to reach that goal.

Include fun in your operations

Betori tries to inject humor into just about everything the company does. The monthly catalog features a drawing with head shots of Betori and his sales staff pasted over cartoon bodies.

That attitude not only works with customers, it works with employees as well. In fact, Betori admits the levity may actually mean more to the employees.

“We’ve got to come to work,” Betori says. “We might as well have fun.”

Every Wednesday, no matter the weather, HGR hosts a barbecue known affectionately as “Vincenzo’s Café,” named for the man who cooks burgers, chicken and kielbasa for customers. On days with the free lunch, HGR’s walk-in business doubles.

Explains Betori, “We try to create that impulse buying that you get in a retail store.”

Give customers what they want

Free food isn’t the only way to draw customers. Betori also offers drawings for Indians tickets, sidewalk sales and other promotions and recently gave away a Bahamas vacation.

Among the myriad rows of used equipment, customers find what they’re looking for, and often things they didn’t know they needed. Betori says its common for someone to come in to pick up, say, a $40 filing cabinet and leave with thousands of dollars worth of equipment.

With experiences like that, it’s not surprising that HGR turned over its inventory roughly six times last year in an industry in which once or twice is considered good.

Despite this, Betori admits some of his competitors may have a slight edge when it comes to some aspects of business, delivery or set-up, for example. But he claims his overall approach keeps customers coming back.

They don’t need appointments, and Betori insists that his staff be as “user friendly” as possible. That means being honest, as well.

Says Betori, “It’s not a sales pitch to tell somebody it’s a hunk of junk.”

How to reach: HGR Industrial Surplus, (216) 486-4567 or www.hgrindustrialsurplus.com

Daniel G. Jacobs (djacobs@sbnnet.com) is senior editor of SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:43

Virtual classroom

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Owners of organizations of all sizes struggle with where e-learning fits within their companies.

How can they leverage the technology infrastructure? What is the best e-learning solution? How should they determine which departments will benefit the most from e-learning? And, what, exactly, is e-learning, anyway?

E-learning is defined as courses taken via the Web, anytime and from anyplace that has Internet or intranet access. The primary mystery surrounding e-learning is understanding who leads the strategy.

Deciding which software to purchase for your Web server is the responsibility of your network administrator; designing a training strategy is handled by the chief learning officer or the manager of training. E-learning is a blend of technology, training and department management problem solving.

Understanding which areas e-learning can affect is the beginning of designing your company’s e-learning strategy.

Technology skill gaps

More organizations are searching for employees with Web technology skills. Insourcing, or growing your own, is an accepted method of developing technical skills in-house and is becoming a proven growth strategy.

E-learning is an inexpensive solution for building skills. Training keeps topflight technical talent from jumping ship in the face of aggressive recruiting tactics. So what do you need to start?

1. Identify critical skills needed for technical staff development.

2. Prospect from key areas of your organization while supporting current needs.

3. Retain employees through training for your technical know-how.

4. Design a career path and provide the training necessary to overcome the skill gap.

Help desk

Organizations must decide how to establish a help desk that provides the best support to end-users. E-learning offers a cost-efficient solution. According to a 1996 study by Gartner Group, the average direct cost to provide support to employees is about $350 per year.

E-learning provides a high-tech Internet learning solution that reduces costs to about $40-$90 per employee each year. When an organization monitors the calls received by the help desk, a customized solution can:

  • Increase the level of knowledge of the help desk employee;

  • Reduce the time spent on a call;

  • Improve the productivity of the end-user; and

  • Decrease training costs of the help desk.

Organizations are finding that e-learning reduces the turnover rate for help desk personnel as training increases skills and reduces boredom. The help desk is a good source for filling technology skill gaps.

End-user training

Why send employees to an eight-hour class when they can take courses at their workstation, when they need them and at a significantly lower cost?

If your work force is geographically diverse, employees can access the answers they need from work, home or on the road. Most e-learning solutions can be completely outsourced and externally hosted. Popular business applications, such as Office 2000, Windows, programming, network training, financial applications, soft skills and more are available and at significantly reduced costs.

According to International Data Corp., the average annual productivity loss per employee is about 10 percent of their total salary for just asking, “How do I do this?” questions about their (IT) desktop applications.

Benefits

Employees recognize the need to maintain and grow their skill set. Organizations are finding e-learning is an inexpensive incentive opted for by employees.

By implementing e-learning, organizations can increase the flexibility and reach of their training support to every employee. In addition, most e-learning solutions provide valuable information useful for performance testing and productivity evaluation of employees. Compared to CD-ROM purchases and traditional classroom-based computer training, e-learning costs up to 90 percent less.

And that will impact your company’s bottom line.

Darla Root (djr@beandance.com) is president of BeanDance, an e-learning solution provider based in Cleveland. Contact her at (440) 257-8687 or on the Web at www.beandance.com.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:43

Trade rumors

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Growing businesses often use barter to help manage their cash flow. Excess inventory or services can be traded on an informal basis for small transactions, or larger deals can be worked with a local trade exchange.

With the local exchange, you typically pay an initiation fee, and upon approval, can list a certain amount of your product. Let’s say you make boxes. You list $5,000 worth of boxes in the exchange, so you have $5,000 credit to use toward other services. The exchange may charge the buyer and/or the seller a transaction fee of 6 to 10 percent.

For a smaller company, this can be a great way to keep the cash flow strong while gaining access to products or services you otherwise would have to pay for. For medium-sized companies, there’s a high-powered form of barter referred to as corporate trading.

“With a trading company, a business sells the excess inventory or discontinued product or merchandise,” says Bill Levitz, managing director of New York-based Argent Trading. “It might be a good product, but last year’s model, or maybe the blue ones didn’t sell.”

The minimum sized deal is $250,000 in wholesale value. There are no fees or expenses.

“The trading company buys the inventory for $250,000, and pays them in asset purchase credits —each one equals a dollar. These credits enable the holder to use them as partial payment for goods and services.”

Possibilities include advertising, hotel, travel, printing and even manufacturing.

“You are buying everything at market price, not list,” says Levitz. “You also have the ability to put in your contract where the product cannot go.”

This protects your territory from becoming flooded with discounted merchandise.

To use corporate trading:

  • Deal with a reputable exchange. Check its references and how long it has been in business.

  • Develop a plan on how you are going to use your credits if you trade.

  • Be aware that if you can get more than 60 to 70 percent of any deal in cash for your inventory, then you shouldn’t trade it. Once it drops below 60 percent, trading becomes an option.

  • You should be getting about three times as many credits as what the real market value is for your product.

  • Know that trading isn’t risk free, but the risk is manageable.

“Know who you are dealing with and make sure you trust them,” says Levitz. “Make sure you meet the owners and talk to them. It’s worth a little extra time to check them out.”

How to reach: Argent Trading, www.argenttrading.com

Todd Shryock (tshryock@sbnnet.com) is SBN’s special reports editor.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:43

Spiritual workplace

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At the end of Grace Software Marketing’s first year in business, president and CEO Jeff Roberts wasn’t sure his company would survive the next 12 months.

But where others may have turned bigger marketing efforts or a beefed up sales staff, Roberts turned somewhere else. He turned to his faith in God.

“I said, ‘Lord, this is your business’,” recalls Roberts, who shared his views on spirituality in the workplace at an Employee Resource Council breakfast in December. “Whatever you want is what I want.”

As if his prayers were answered, over the next few weeks Roberts landed a handful of new customers. One spent $250,000 with the company during a 12-month stretch.

Roberts says he isn’t trying to make a case for increased sales through prayer. In fact, he bristles at the notion of merging spirituality and business as a kind of “lucky rabbit’s foot.”

He merely believes the religious principles and ethics at the cornerstone of his 56-employee business have created a positive environment that led to his company’s 5,000 percent growth during its first six years and the ability to land heavy-hitting clients including IBM and Sun Microsystems.

Roberts wasn’t sure at first whether this mix of spirituality and business sense was going to work and readily admits there was much prayer and soul searching before his attempt to create a faith-based business.

“I really didn’t think it would be possible to incorporate my personal faith — far and away the most important thing in my life — with my business,” he says.

His efforts ultimately paid off, and several studies show Roberts is not alone in the quest to merge religious beliefs and business. A Business Week survey found 48 percent of workers in the United States had talked about God at work within the past 24 hours, while the Fellowship for Companies for Christ International reported there are 10,000 business-based prayer groups that meet regularly across the U.S.

Then there is the nation’s sixth largest Pizza Hut and Taco Bell franchise, in Austin, Texas, which cut employee turnover in half by hiring a company chaplain.

But making religious beliefs part of the mission statement doesn’t come without its own set of legal risks, particularly if employees feel pressured to conform to certain beliefs to be hired or promoted. Roberts, though, has found a way to integrate his spiritual beliefs with his management style without making his workers uncomfortable. In fact, just the opposite has happened. Employees describe the atmosphere at Grace as “safe” and say it is the best place they have ever worked.

Here’s how Roberts did it:

Don’t preach

When making religious principles part of a company’s culture, Roberts says it is important not become an evangelist who tries to sway employees to a certain religious viewpoint. Instead, he suggests business owners focus on integrating religious teachings about morals and ethics into the daily operations of the business.

“It’s not my place to preach to my employees,” says Roberts. “In my company, we’re incorporating biblical teachings into secular terms. We are creating an ethics-based company.”

Share your philosophy

It is illegal to weed out qualified candidates or fire people simply because their morals do not seem to fall in line with the company. Instead, Roberts explains to potential hires the ethical philosophy behind the company so candidates can decide whether they fit into the culture.

After a lengthy interview process, new hires are expected to sign off on a corporate constitution pledging to uphold the values of the company and making sure their co-workers do the same.

“Religion doesn’t come up,” explains Roberts. “But the issue of integrity and ethics comes up a great deal and it’s very thorough and multilayered. We ask them to read and make a commitment to our corporate constitution and make it very plain to them that if they aren’t prepared to do that, this is the wrong kind of company to work for.”

Lead by example

When creating a faith-based business, Roberts says it is important to show employees that the company culture and values cannot be swayed by money. Since the inception of his business, Grace has made it a moral rule not to do business at the same time with companies which are in direct competition in the same niche.

His rule was tested when he had to walk away from a potential client poised to spend $250,000 to $500,000 with Grace simply because he had already been contacted by one of the man’s competitors.

“I walked away from it because of a potential conflict of interest or ethics,” explains Roberts. “The traditional world says that’s absolutely stupid. But what went on to happen was the company who we had first been talking to, which hadn’t spent much money with us, ended up spending a lot of money over the next three years.”

Be consistent

If you are going to make religious principles part of business, it is vital to allow your employees’ respective religions to be important to them. That means being flexible when they need days off to celebrate religious holidays and not playing favorites among different religious beliefs.

Roberts suggests business owners thoroughly research Equal Opportunities Commission guidelines before trying to merge religion with the workplace so they do not expose themselves to legal risks.

“I think it’s prudent for someone to be aware of the EOC requirements, because if you don’t know what the rules are, you can’t live within them,” he says. “You can’t really endorse (religious beliefs) and you really have to be respectful with people who choose not to be interested or not to buy into something.”

How to reach: Grace Software Marketing Co., (216) 321-2000

Jim Vickers (jvickers@sbnnet.com) is an associate editor at SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:43

Reality in the e-business world

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In 1862, Congress passed the Homestead Act, which allowed anyone with $10 and a frontiersman’s attitude to acquire 160 acres of unoccupied land and stake a claim in the West.

By 1900, nearly 400,000 families had filed for land under the law. But many homesteaders struggled financially and were forced to sell their land to wealthy landowners, who, in turn, built the huge ranches that pepper the West today.

Sound familiar?

Being first doesn’t guarantee prosperity or even long-term success. In fact, a similar scenario is unfolding today on the Internet.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Amazon.com wasn’t the first online bookstore. That distinction goes to Bookstacks Inc., founded in 1992 by Clevelander Charles Stack (see SBN April 1999).

While Stack’s site was mildly successful, it didn’t have the financial backing of Amazon. In 1996, Stack sold his company to Cendant Corp. for about $4.8 million and launched a new Internet firm, Flashline.com, which sells digital software components.

Cendant added Bookstacks to its Internet mall operations, hoping to gain ground against not only Amazon, but the growing field of online bookstores that suddenly included traditional brick-and-mortar giants Barnes & Noble and Borders.

Last year, Book Stacks’ marginal profitability caught up with it and Cendant put it on the block. For nearly nine months, the company sought a buyer who could integrate Bookstacks into its online operations.

Those efforts failed. So with little fanfare, Bookstacks closed its operations on Halloween and quietly faded away into the darkness of cyberspace.

A few days later, on Nov. 3, Cendant sold Bookstacks’ URL — www.books.com — to Barnes & Noble. And though neither party will say exactly how much money changed hands, it’s been reported the URL fetched between $4 million and $7 million.

The lesson of Bookstacks’ story is simple: When planning a Web initiative for your business, don’t worry about being the first one up and running. Odds are, someone, somewhere, has already thought of your great e-business idea. And they’ve probably put out their shingle on the Net.

In the big scheme of things, the strategy of getting there fast is losing steam. If you look around the Web, the notion of broad-based, all-encompassing Web sites and portals is quickly being replaced by specifically targeted portals for niche markets.

It’s not much different from traditional marketing — define your audience, focus your energy and resources, design your initiative, then implement your plan.

It’s as simple — and as difficult — as that.

As for Bookstacks, its fate was similar to that of many of those original homesteaders who had great ideas and a vision to build a home for themselves in the West. They may have been quick and claimed the land first, but a lack of finances and inability to adapt led to their downfall.

What’s more, future generations will forever associate books.com with Barnes & Noble. And except by a select few, Bookstacks’ history will be forgotten, much like those original homesteaders.

If you’re worried about your company’s e-solution, the bottom line is this: Spend your time wisely and develop a strong, strategic Web initiative that won’t be outdated by the time you employ it. And, most important, don’t worry about being first.

Instead, worry about being the best.

Dustin Klein (dsklein@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN.