Building for the future Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2009

Joel S. Pizzuti comes from a pretty good legacy of success, but he still worries about his company.

Sure, for more than 33 years, The Pizzuti Cos. has seen its share of downturns and recessions. But through that time, the company founded by Pizzuti’s father, Ronald, has become one of the best-known names in Columbus, opened offices across the country and has grown consistently. Still, this particular storm is a rough one.

“Certainly we’ve been through a number of recessions and come out of them stronger,” Pizzuti says. “But the major difference it seems today, as compared to economic recessions in the past, is that the access to capital is just not there. The challenge today is that we’ve been at a standstill to a certain degree, and until capital becomes more readily available, this is going to persist.”

But Pizzuti, who serves as the company’s president and COO, hasn’t let a downturn knock his company off its long-term path. Pizzuti and his father have worked to construct a master plan for the company, and while slight course corrections have been made, they’ve taken great strides to keep people on track at the $252 million real estate services firm. It’s not easy to keep a company of that size moving forward in a downturn, but Pizzuti has kept the company focused on its strengths and looked to add innovation to what it already does well. During that time, he’s addressed course redirections candidly with his people and helped them keep the context of the overall vision.

Stick with what you know

Not surprisingly, Pizzuti is quick to mention his father on his short list of mentors. He also mentions him when thinking about the best advice he’s ever been given.

“He’s always preached sticking to what you know, stick to what you understand, don’t try to do everything,” Pizzuti says. “When times are good, don’t try to stretch too far into things that look interesting that may not be part of your core business or things that you don’t understand particularly well, and when times are challenging, like they are now, that pays dividends.”

This mindset has helped The Pizzuti Cos. last through the years. Like most, Pizzuti didn’t know the extent to which the economy would fall in the last year, but four years ago, he helped get Pizzuti Solutions off the ground. The new division wasn’t about jumping into uncharted territory, it was about business balance.

The division is focused on public-sector, fee-based work and isn’t totally dependent on borrowed money. It’s not exactly the company’s traditional bread and butter, but it’s certainly in the same spread. So how do you expand into something like that? You start with your talent pool. In good times or bad, if you want to adapt your business while sticking to what you know, you need to understand what skills you already possess in your industry. If you do a survey of your talent, you’ll probably find people have an array of experience in similar business extensions.

“We’ve got 14 people with 100 years of public sector experience,” Pizzuti says. “They understand the ins and outs of public-private partnerships, and it’s been incredibly successful. That’s given us a nice balance in our revenue year over year, and when the private development returns, which it inevitably will, we’ll be that much stronger.”

If you take stock of your people and find that you don’t have a lot of room to spread out, don’t panic. You can also use down cycles to do your homework on other things you’ve wanted to do. You might not have as much timeline work, but you can certainly get your ducks in a row to prepare to take off when better days arrive — much like Pizzuti has.

“Certainly development activity is down, but we have a number of really exciting projects and we’re taking this time to get those prepared for the inevitable recovery, so going through the zoning processes, planning them, getting the master plans done, working with all the communities to get everything approved, working with the municipalities to get the infrastructure done and really set things up so that when the economy does improve and things do return to some sense of normalcy, we’ll be ready to capitalize” he says.

Innovate your space

Another thing about sticking to what you know is that it doesn’t mean you can’t be innovative. During a good business cycle, that means pushing for something slightly new. During a down cycle, that means creating more value-added products or services.

“These times are interesting, and it teaches us a lot of things,” Pizzuti says. “No. 1, the best companies that do things in the most effective ways will certainly survive, get through this and be stronger on the back end. But, to get through these times, it’s important to be creative, to exhaust every idea we can to keep people interested in what we’re developing, to keep our projects moving even though it’s challenging right now.”

That tone needs to be set at the top.

“Always set a tone of entrepreneurialism and wanting to constantly drive to be the best in your industry and always be innovative and keep on pushing the creative envelope,” Pizzuti says. “When that starts at the top, it permeates through the entire organization.”

Setting that tone requires you to open up your mind to employee ideas on how to reshape what already exists. Pizzuti is in weekly contact not only with people in the company’s Columbus headquarters but also those in the Chicago, Atlanta and Orlando offices. The goal is to make everyone feel included in the brainstorming.

“We have open lines of communication with every person in every city,” he says. “We are intimately involved in every deal; we’re working candidly with everyone, whether it’s one of our chief development guys or moving all the way down to accounting, maintenance, property management — there’s an open-door policy and there’s a lot of collaboration between us and them.”

But including people in innovation conversations alone doesn’t do it all. If you really want to hear new ideas, you have to ask people for them. Pizzuti notes that his team leaders are like specialized industry experts for their particular subject matter.

“A lot of the best ideas in our company don’t come from me or my dad, they come from all the smart people that work with us,” he says. “Everyone knows that in their particular area of expertise they have a deep understanding of it and if they have an idea or a concept or they think we should push a certain initiative, we take it seriously.”

All of this means you have to be willing to check your ego to hire, promote and listen to people smarter than you.

“That’s the culture we’ve had at our company for a long time, and it’s worked pretty well,” he says. “Again, we hire the smartest people we possibly can, and part of the reason we hire them is they do have good ideas. That makes my life easier.”

Pizzuti has seen his people adapt to the downturn with ideas like a promotion for its Prescott Place development that put a Smart Car in the driveway of new sale agreements. Letting employees tackle an innovative project like that won’t just help you get through tough times, it also means you’ll have better employee engagement and commitment. At The Pizzuti Cos., the average employee tenure is more than nine years, a rarity in a field known for its turnover.

Put course corrections into context

While Pizzuti is working hard to keep his company on track and innovate within a comfortable space, he concedes that this is one tough time. Because of that, his company, like most, has had some projects that have slowed. You have to address those things with your people because being stagnant will lead to worry, but he says you must do it in the proper context.

“A lot of leadership comes from communication and delivering a clear message,” he says “A message that explains the vision of our company, where we’re going, why we’re doing things and then it goes to the next level, which is effectively communicating with all of our associates how we together achieve that goal and what we expect from each and every one of them.”

To make communications clear, you can’t sugarcoat them. Instead, you have to honestly address things that have been taken off course slightly and tell employees how those adjustments still fit into the overall plan.

“We’ve been very honest with all of our associates,” Pizzuti says. “We have told them what we think the challenges are, and we’ve consistently done that. It’s been a little over a year since things started to get tough in our industry, and we have taken the position that sharing with them exactly what’s going on, why we think that’s happening and what our plan is to move through this challenging period. That way people aren’t asking questions, people aren’t wondering, and that’s been very effective.”

Doing that means having those honest conversations with employees, but it also means regularly refreshing the context of their daily work. For example, when employees are doing a little more preliminary work on project approvals and the like, they need to hear why that’s part of being ready to take flight when the downturn is over. Providing that framework helps motivation.

“Again, it’s about communication and sharing with people where we’re going and why we’re going there,” he says. “When we’ve explained to folks, ‘This is what we’re doing for the next six to nine months; this is where we need to focus our energy and time,’ all of our people get it. And they know there is a light at the end of the tunnel and they’re excited.”

Once you’ve communicated your vision and expectations to employees, you then must stay sincere to your original vision or plan. When times are tough, drawing up a brand-new vision makes people nervous and they have a hard time believing in you. But if you revisit your vision and explain alterations in a way that you believe, you’ll get buy-in.

“It’s critical that the leader believes in what he or she is preaching, and if that is the case, then it’s critically important to deliver that message clearly and concisely,” Pizzuti says. “But equally important is the idea that he or she has to follow it themselves. So we try very, very hard to stick to the path that we set.”

That means you don’t change your core ideals, you simply adjust them to the market. If your quarterly budget will be different due to external forces, you explain that, but you don’t scrap the whole budget and start over, you use it as your reference point for alterations.

“I don’t think the core way we want to run our company, the tone we want to set, ever changes,” Pizzuti says. “Now our day-to-day decisions or our quarter-to-quarter decisions can change — they’ve changed a lot in the last 18 months — but it’s my job to take that information, figure out what we should be doing and explain that, explain why it is the case, and then push in that direction. It’s more important to be consistent about how we’re doing things and why we’re doing them.”

How to reach: The Pizzuti Cos., (614) 280-4000 or www.pizzuti.com