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Special Report: Education Featured

10:07am EDT July 22, 2002

Lewis R. Smoot Jr. has a goal. He wants to be CEO of the Smoot Corp., the company his father, Lewis R. Smoot, and grandfather, Sherman R. Smoot, have built to nearly 300 employees and $110 million in revenues since its 1946 founding.

Recently promoted to vice president in the Sherman R. Smoot Co. of Ohio division, the youngest of these three Smoots knows he’ll need guidance to attain that goal.

“The old saying used to be ‘Follow in someone’s footsteps.’ My father says, ‘Don’t follow in my footsteps; make your own tracks,’” Smoot says. “But I can always look over into his footsteps and see what he did.”

While Smoot realizes a lot of his training will come from his father and other company officers “that have more years of experience than I have,” he also follows the Smoot Corp.’s dedication to further education. Employees, based on performance, can go to school at the company’s expense. Education is essential, he says, not only for personal development but to compete in the changing construction industry.

“We have to keep up with it, or we will be lost in the shuffle and just another contractor,” Smoot says.

He takes advantage of any professional seminars or training programs that come his way, like the Ohio State University Fisher College of Business Executive Development Program he attended in 1996. That program taught him how to deal with employees and better understand finances.

Training and education may also fulfill a personal goal, as it has for Marci White, owner of home-based ProtoCall Inc. in Upper Arlington, which produces on-hold messages for businesses. Last month she completed the requirements for an undergraduate degree from Ohio Dominican College after a span of 11 years.

Some executives also return to the classroom with a specific mission, like Mary Robinson, owner of the Pie Place in the North Market. Through the Ohio Foundation for Entrepreneurial Education’s FastTrac II program, Robinson devised a business plan—and made her 10-year-old business 15 percent more profitable.

“More doors have been opened for us because of more people we’ve met since the class,” Robinson says, adding that she’s expanded her business in areas such as catering.

Joe Bioty chose the same path. As president of the industrial division of Lake Shore Cryotronics Inc., a 150-employee Westerville company, he had been struggling to teach himself how to write a business plan when he learned of the FastTrac program.

“We were in business and, as I like to explain, we were a house of cards. What we really needed to do is build a solid business plan,” he says of his division, which supplies measuring devices for velocity and position control on machines.

The plan he developed provided a road map, enabling him to introduce products, double his division’s employee count to 40 and realize sales growth of between 40 percent and 60 percent.

The road these executives traveled helped them see the value of continuing education and training, a realization Smoot says his father never let go.

“At his age of ripe old 63, he is still learning things,” Smoot says. “So what makes me think that at 40 I don’t need to learn anymore?”

Sacrifices made

Continuing their personal development, though it came with benefits, was not a smooth path for these executives.

“My brain was starting to hurt every single week that I went,” laments Robinson, who at age 60 had only taken a smattering of classes in baking and business since she receiving her college degree in 1967.

Although her classes were held in the evenings, Robinson found that the program took her away from her business at times. She put 16 hours a week into the 12-week FastTrac program, studying on her day off and even skipping work another full day each week to tackle her coursework.

The evening FastTrac classes made life easier for Bioty, however, since he was able to work each day, but the coursework and business plan took a toll on his family commitments.

“I took the family on a Thanksgiving vacation, and the plan was due the next week. I spent my entire weekend behind closed doors with my laptop computer,” Bioty says.

White could empathize.

“I felt like everybody sacrificed some for me to pay those tuitions,” she says, referring to the business income she used to pay her $1,200 tuition every six weeks to acquire her business administration degree. “We didn’t do without, but there were things that were a little tighter than before.”

Still, her family was supportive.

“My husband tried to pick up and take over for me in a lot of ways, and my kids have cheered me on during my tests; they’ve always asked me my grades,” she says. “When I don’t feel like going to class, they push me out the door.”

White chose Ohio Dominican’s Learning Enhanced Adult Degree program—also called LEAD—because it allowed her to focus on one course at a time and attend class one night a week to finish her degree in two years. She had already struggled through 11 years at Ohio State, fitting in classes whenever she could, to complete the first half of her bachelor’s-degree requirements. She needed to make time to get it done.

Time, however, was the hardest element to come by for all these executives.

“There are a lot of other commitments that you just have to give up,” White says. “That’s the bottom line.”

Goals achieved

The results these executives saw after venturing back into the classroom quickly made up for the struggles to get there.

“When I came back, I told my father that’s the best $10,000 that’s been invested in me,” says Smoot, who gained a new realm of business knowledge through the OSU program.

“You learned that in business everyone has the same problems as you do,” he says. “The only difference is what you produce.”

Smoot specifically gained skills in employee-relations issues, realizing the importance of operating as a team and seeking others’ opinions.

“You have to listen to people in dealing with people. You can’t go into a situation with a preconceived notion of what the outcome could be, because you’ve only heard one side of the story,” he says.

Robinson’s gains were more tangible. She’s got a better handle on the Pie Place’s paperwork, and her business is more profitable than ever. The key to pushing up her profit margin, she says, was realizing her prices were too low.

“What FastTrac taught me was to stay competitive—to stay right in line with the other competition,” she says. “People think that because you have a lower price, your products aren’t as good. So when I raised my prices, I sold more pies. Isn’t that funny? I thought when I raised prices I was going to scare [customers] away. They never said anything about it.”

In fact, she’s now selling approximately 10 percent more.

Bioty was so impressed with the FastTrac program that he stayed on after graduation and became an instructor. In addition, he’s started a “network notebook,” which he uses to keep in touch with instructors and the business peers that were his classmates in order to share ideas and invite them to speak in his classes.

White applies daily what she learned in school.

“For me, the accounting and statistical classes were a challenge but certainly helped me to be able to look at my financial statements better and have a clearer understanding of what they’re really saying,” she says.

Smoot, a self-proclaimed “advocate of change,” plans to continue furthering his education.

“As long as I am able, I will be learning something to make myself better to help this organization and to help the community,” he says. “If you don’t cont inue to change in your life, my saying is ‘your pond will become stagnant.’”