C.J. Cross

Tuesday, 23 October 2001 10:50

No big secret

When it comes to building a successful business, Jeg Coughlin Jr. says hiring good employees is key.

While that may sound like simple advice, the Jeg's Automotive vice president knows finding and keeping such workers can be a challenge -- especially in times of low unemployment.

"We've been fortunate to retain quite a few key associates over the years," he notes.

Close to 20 percent of the company's current work force of 307 has been employed at Jeg's for at least 10 years.

That's about 60 people, including five who have reached the 20-year mark, six who have made it to 25 and one who's been a Jeg's employee for more than 30 years.

Coughlin says the 41-year-old Columbus-based business follows three basic rules to attract good employees:

  • Offer a great benefits package, he says.

  • Provide a clean, safe and secure working environment, which includes maintaining a comfortable temperature level year-round.

  • Offer "very competitive" wages.

"This company is built on the success of our associates," Coughlin says.

And what may be surprising to some outsiders is that numerous associates at the automotive-based business are women.

Nearly one in three Jeg's employees is female. Companywide, Jeg's employs 93 women and 214 men. In its distribution center, there are 42 women and 69 men. That's fine with Jeg's since, according to local attorney Miles Gibson, industry research shows female workers in warehouse operations tend to have fewer accidents, are more careful and are less likely to steal merchandise than their male counterparts.

Gibson, with the law office of Gibson & Robbins-Penniman, is an attorney for Jeg's. No such comparisons of workers at Jeg's Automotive have been done, Gibson and Coughlin say.

Still, Coughlin says his female associates "can speak intelligently on different aspects of our market," which is especially important since catalog sales account for about 80 percent of Jeg's business.

What might be seen as a large percentage of female laborers in a largely male-dominated field may be a result of Jeg's history. As a family business, women might see the company as offering a more relaxed and comfortable atmosphere, Coughlin says.

Started in 1960 by Jeg Coughlin Sr., the business has grown from an automotive parts store on 11th Avenue in Columbus to three Central Ohio retail stores, four calling centers, a chassis division, two distribution centers and a corporate office, as well as racing teams.

Coughlin Jr. and his brothers -- John, Troy and Mike -- now run the business.

In late 1999, Jeg's opened a state-of-the-art distribution center in southern Delaware County. The $24 million facility requires less lifting than traditional centers -- a perk for employees.

Another perk, Coughlin says, is the company's world-renowned race team, a source of pride for employees. Many Jeg's workers enjoy motor sports, he says.

"It's a candy store for the adults, almost," he says.

And having fun can help keep workers happy.

>"We try to have a nice, casual, fun atmosphere," Coughlin says. "We're here to do work -- that's for sure -- but if we can have fun doing it, that's a benefit." How to reach: Jeg Coughlin Jr., Jeg's Automotive, 294-5050 or www.jegs.com

C.J. Cross (CrossRoberts@aol.com) is a free-lance writer for SBN Magazine.

Tuesday, 23 October 2001 10:48

Young guns

Father doesn't always know best. That fact doesn't offend Gus Thomas, whose sons are now leading the company he founded 20 years ago and pushing it to greater financial heights than he ever did.

Thomas started Datafile in 1981. Since his retirement in 1996, his sons, Andrew and Jim, are credited with increasing the company's profitability an astounding 900 percent and annual revenue by 51 percent.

"They put it together better," Gus says of his sons taking charge of the company that converts data and documents to microfiche, microfilm or CD-ROM and provides storage for those files.

Andrew, Datafile president, and Jim, vice president, restructured the company by automating and reorganizing its operations with the latest technology. Gus never realized how much new technology could help the business since, even though he hatched the idea behind Datafile, he did not have firsthand knowledge about how the processes and equipment worked. Instead, he had relied on managers to run the show and make sure the company operated efficiently.

"These managers did a good job of producing our product but did not seem to have any ideas on how to improve the production process or expand the business," Andrew says. "When Jim and I took over, the ideas started immediately."

Andrew and Jim had the advantage of already knowing several aspects of the business, Andrew says, since both of them had worked for the company on and off since its inception.

"We were both heavily involved in operations, then later I was involved in the accounting, and Jim was involved in sales," Andrew says. "We both learned every task in the business through the years leading up to 1996."

The brothers didn't wait until they were in charge to make suggestions about business operations. However, they were "careful not to step on the toes of current managers," Andrew says. "Once we took over, there was a clear authority to make the changes."

They started transforming the company immediately.

"It's funny how the ideas start flowing when it's your own money at risk," Andrew says.

Money talks

Profitability started increasing the first year under Andrew and Jim's direction.

"My brother and I took a close look at every component of our business," Andrew says. "In each component, we invented better ways to accomplish the tasks. This process also forced us to further organize our operation, which resulted in a higher level of quality control and faster turnaround to our customers."

As a result of investing in new equipment and software, and hiring employees who were more qualified, Datafile's production turnaround improved by 200 to 300 percent in most cases, and quality control improved dramatically, too, Andrew says.

Those results fell directly to the bottom line. Prior to the younger Thomases taking control, a typical profit margin for Datafile was 4 percent. Today that margin has reached 36 percent.

The fact that Datafile has hit new profit records under Andrew and Jim's leadership is even more impressive considering the company also purchased a larger building in 1999. Until then, the company had been renting a 4,500-square-foot facility in Worthington.

"We had been there 10 years. We were crowded and needed to expand," Andrew says.

The brothers sought their father's input, however, before inking the purchase deal.

"I was able to provide some guidance -- warning them about such things as location, size, applicability to their business, locating financing for the purchase."

The 10,000-square-foot facility they decided to purchase in Powell was financed through The Ohio Bank.

"I guess I act as a consultant sometimes," Gus says of the advice his sons seek from him.

"He drops by the office every couple of weeks and we have coffee and take that time to pick his brain," Andrew says. "His insight is crucial. There are so many opportunities out there, and sometimes you need someone to remind you to keep focused on your main business."

Why 2 heads are better than 1

Gus considers himself a good businessman. According to the elder Thomas, his strong point with Datafile was, "getting the business started from zero. I started the company. They just took it from what I did and improved it."

When he ran Datafile, Gus didn't delegate many responsibilities.

"Early on, as owner and president of Datafile, I was in charge of marketing, sales, hiring, setting up sales procedures and pricing, personnel management, purchasing of equipment and supplies," he says.

A general manager took control of day-to-day operations, and the only other employee at the time was the office manager. By the time he retired, Datafile employed 10, as it does today.

"My leadership style has always been fairly autocratic," Gus says.

His sons' strong point is that they have different areas of expertise, Gus says, pointing out Andrew's background in accounting and Jim's in marketing.

"You have two people working on two different things, while I was working on all of it," he says.

Among Gus' duties was attracting clients. But, after years of conducting business operations day in and day out, coming up with new ways to sell Datafile's services wasn't easy.

"Younger blood comes in and has new ideas on the marketing," he says.

Andrew and Jim have used advertising and marketing consultants much more than their father did, for example. And, upon taking over, they took a close look at customer accounts to determine profitability and adjusted pricing where they deemed necessary, Gus says.

"They were able to create procedures and make capital expenditure purchases that improved overall efficiency," he says.

And although Gus says customer relations were strong under his leadership, his sons have managed to improve the company in that area, too.

He says his sons treat every customer with "respect and patience. They made an effort to introduce themselves to customers and made telephone follow-up calls to ensure customer satisfaction on the completed work."

The result: Datafile has retained long-term working relationships with most of its customers, Andrew says, pointing out that OhioHealth, Columbus State Community College and Honda have been on its client list for more than 12 years.

No generation gap

Gus says he always hoped his sons would one day want to take control of Datafile, but he wasn't going to force it on them.

"They would have to want it to do it," he says.

Had his sons not been interested, Gus says he probably would have tried to sell the company. But when he started talking about retiring, Andrew and Jim were enthusiastic about taking his place.

"I was surprised and elated that they wanted to continue the business I had worked so hard to build," Gus says.

Andrew says he "kind of guessed" he someday would be a Datafile executive. Jim says he had other plans; trained in aviation and marketing, he was a pilot in the early 1990s. But his experience with working at Datafile in the past helped attract to him to his current leadership role.

Because his sons are "personable and hardworking and have the educational background for business success," Gus says he left Datafile in their hands with confidence.

Another Thomas son, Pete, does not have an ownership stake in the business, but works at the company. Although Gus wouldn't say why Pete isn't an owner, he notes it "does not imply anything negative about the situation."

In fact, Pete is considered by his brothers to be an integral part of Datafile.

"Pete does not have a business interest in the company but is very important to our image," Andrew says. "He is in charge of pickup and delivery of Datafile's product. He is the face of our company, and the customers absolutely love him."

Gus says he is pleased with what his sons have done as the new generation of Datafile leaders.

"I had brought Datafile to a certain point," he says. "They have expanded the business and brought new energy, efficiency and profitability with their fresh vision.

"They've done an excellent job. I'm really, really proud of them that they've progressed so well." How to reach: Datafile, 885-9050 or www.datafile-corp.com; President Andrew Thomas, andy@datafile-corp.com; Vice President Jim Thomas, jim@datafile-corp.com

C.J. Cross (CrossRoberts@aol.com) is a free-lance writer for SBN Magazine.

Tuesday, 23 October 2001 10:50

Less cursing, more sleep, more fun

Doug McIntyre

Title: partner/co-founder

Company: Zero Base Advertising

Approximate/projected annual revenue: $23 million

Number of employees: approximately 35

Doug McIntyre has his work cut out for him this year.

The 43-year-old partner with Zero Base Advertising wants to become the oldest rookie in the NHL. McIntyre, a frequent amateur hockey player, also wants to "stop using expletives when talking to the media," get more people to sign up to be organ donors, eliminate "boring" advertising and "learn to sleep more than three hours per night."

"They say entrepreneurs sleep like a baby: Wake up every couple of hours and cry," McIntyre jokes.

But he's not really laughing. Lack of sleep isn't healthy, his doctor has told him.

Maybe getting more rest will help McIntyre reach his goal of creating an advertising campaign "that becomes part of pop culture." He says he's thinking of national success along the lines of the Budweiser "Whazzup?" campaign.

"I didn't want to go down the path of boring resolutions," he says. "I think some of these are possible."

Steve Sasser

Title: CEO

Company: Frontstep

Approximate annual revenue: $129 million

Number of employees: approximately 900

Another Columbus executive is resolving to make 2001 a fun year for himself and the employees of his 20-year-old company after coming off a year of transition.

"As you know, change is difficult sometimes," says Steve Sasser, CEO of Frontstep -- formerly Symix Systems. "We're going to have more fun" in 2001.

Another bonus to the new year: "We're glad we'll never have to hear the word 'Y2K' again," he says.

David Milenthal

Title: chairman

Company: HMS Partners

Capitalized billings: $200 million

Number of employees: approximately 200

When asked if he makes New Year's resolutions, David Milenthal says, "none that I keep."

The chairman of HMS Partners says he tends to focus more on goals in general than on resolutions made for the holiday.

One goal which doesn't seem to disappear from his to-do list is to be more organized.

"It's a goal that will always elude me," he says.

Milenthal says he also wants to use his talents more "in the world of public affairs and the community," to have more balance in his life and to be on time.

Jim Hopkins

Title: president

Company: Hopkins Printing

Approximate annual revenue: $13 million

Number of employees: approximately 100

Like Milenthal, Jim Hopkins is a goal-setter regardless of the time of year.

"Business people typically set goals," he says. "New Year's resolutions are not generally my style."

Still, changing the name of his company is a 2001 resolution Hopkins already has accomplished. The business was known as J.F. Hopkins and Associates until the start of the year. It also has a new location in the CityGate Business Park off Steltzer Road.

Typically for Hopkins, however, instead of the first of the year, vacation time is when his mind most turns to goal-setting.

"I revisit things that I'm going to change when I get back," Hopkins says. Vacation is a time for "reflective thinking" and looking for a "fresh perspective" for him.

"Most stories that you read about businesspeople -- a high percentage of them have goals that they write down," Hopkins says. He considers doing so "a guide for the subconscious life" and a means to keep track of things that are committed to oneself.

"Your internal thinking process just kind of takes control," he says.

Hopkins looks to business-focused self-help books for guidance. Among his recent reads: "Living on the Fault Line: Managing for Shareholder Value in the Age of the Internet," by Geoffrey A. Moore.

Cameron Mitchell

Title: president

Company: Cameron Mitchell Restaurants

Approximate annual revenue: $48 million

Number of employees: approximately 1,100

Similar to Hopkins, Cameron Mitchell is a goal-oriented person but isn't much into making resolutions.

The president of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants in Columbus most likely, however, shares a resolution of sorts with many other Central Ohio business executives: Make 2001 another great year. C.J. Cross (CrossRoberts@aol.com) is a free-lance writer for SBN.

Tuesday, 23 October 2001 10:49

A head start

Derek Harp got down to business before going into business.

The chief knowledge officer of Vigilinx Inc. and co-founder of LogiKeep, which was acquired by Vigilinx in February, conducted extensive market research on what corporations wanted in a network security service more than a year before actually offering LogiKeep's product on the market in May 2000.

"We wanted to build the greatest mousetrap people actually wanted, not just one we thought was really neat," Harp says.

So instead of trying to sell something, then seeking users' input, LogiKeep asked for input, then decided what services to offer. It used a software mock-up was during market research, and potential users spelled out their desires for features and functions.

"We built a better product that way, at least that's my perception," Harp says.

How he did it

Focus groups and phone interviews with companies in LogiKeep's target audience were used to conduct research, at a cost of $60,000 -- a total Harp considers an excellent investment.

"It was one of the best-spent $60,000 I think we've spent in our history," he says.

Between early 1999 and August of that year, the company conducted six two-hour focus group sessions -- one each in Boston, Atlanta, New York and Chicago, and two in Washington, D.C.

Participants were senior-level decision-makers in the area of security at companies with which LogiKeep hoped to do business. LogiKeep got feedback about what, exactly, they wanted out of a network security service -- and how much they were willing to pay.

Harp says using focus groups in the security world gave his company a better idea of what his potential customers needed to have addressed first. Meeting businesses's needs depends on budgeting and level of importance, he says.

"Maybe we were offering them shelter, and they were still looking for food," he says.

Mike Mozenter, who started working with Harp last November as an interim VP for LogiKeep, says he probably wouldn't have suggested the use of focus groups for Harp's business prior to its launch.

Mozenter says he has seen focus groups done with "a good number of companies," but Harp's use of them is unique since they aren't commonly used in the world of technology. The bigger issue in that realm is market feedback, he says.

That's not to say Mozenter thinks the $60,000 investment didn't work to LogiKeep's advantage.

"They uncovered some features and functions that they would need for customers," says Mozenter, who is also a partner with Bizlogx, a Columbus company that outsources sales and marketing services.

Had he been working with Harp during LogiKeep's initial product development, Mozenter says he would have suggested the product be tested in the marketplace prior to seeking outside input. Service reps could have presented the product to customers displaying the highest need for them. Then, they could have obtained "an off-the-record" opinion from those users, he says, and the product adapted accordingly.

One problem Mozenter admits he has encountered with technology-related companies that operate this way is they often stress the value of their products without listening enough to what consumers need or really want. Using logic and challenging assumptions are two keys to fighting this problem, he says -- and focus groups can utilize both components.

"A focus group is sometimes a real eye-opening experience," he says.

Focus group pitfalls

Although using focus groups early on is something Harp says he wouldn't have done differently, he warns there can be some pitfalls.

  • Pricing information that was obtained was not as helpful as he had hoped.

    What participants said they were willing to pay and what they actually were willing to pay didn't match.

    "You have to look at it through a special lens," he says of information recorded in focus groups. "You can't take it as gospel."

  • What people say can be of little value if those being questioned aren't the decision-makers for the product you are selling.

    "You have to get the right people in the room," Mozenter says.

    That is a main factor in why Mozenter doesn't think focus groups are the best use of funds in some companies' early stage of existence: "You're not sure who you're trying to sell to."

  • Participants can be caught up in a presenter's "sales mentality," causing feedback about products and services to take a backseat to buying. And, the buying that can result may be emotional but not true; participants can be tempted by what's being sold while they're in the focus group but lose interest outside of that context.
"Just because you can get someone excited doesn't mean they'll buy," Harp says. How to reach: Derek Harp, 336-4340

C.J. Cross (CrossRoberts@aol.com) is a free-lance writer for SBN Magazine.

Tuesday, 23 October 2001 10:50

Finding a better way

Doing business as usual wasn't working for Trattoria Roma, a small, family-owned Italian restaurant, when it moved from Morse Road to Grandview last June.

Business tripled within months of the move, and the busier location was turning familiar operation annoyances into problems. Handwritten orders could be difficult to read, for example, and sometimes required kitchen staff to take time out to ask servers to interpret them.

Servers didn't use uniform shorthand for dish descriptions, causing order mix-ups, and charges for extras and substitutions weren't well recorded. In addition, servers had to go to the kitchen to explain special requests.

"The manual way we were doing it wasn't an efficient way of doing it," says Shawn Mason, general manager of Trattoria Roma. "We knew in the first month that the manual system was just not the way to do things down here."

So as of Oct. 2, all orders began being recorded electronically.

Mason says switching to a computerized system has simplified matters for servers and kitchen staff.

Although various programs are available, MICROS was selected by executives at the 10-year-old restaurant. Based on advice from business colleagues, it seemed the most appropriate, Mason says.

"The people who were using MICROS seemed to come back the happiest," he says.

The fact that MICROS is available through a local company -- Brolin Retail Systems -- was a major deciding factor, too, according to Mason. He says he appreciates the 24-hour help line the Dublin company offers.

Introduction to MICROS included 16 hours of training -- divided into two sessions -- for the 48-person staff.

"Everyone here is really catching on very quickly, and it's a very easy system to use," Mason says. "We even kept our registers around for the first few days, just in case we ran into any problems, but we didn't need them."

While making day-to-day operation easier is a clear advantage, Trattoria Roma projects an added bonus: a 15 percent increase in productivity.

Mason says the estimate is based on expected time-saving in a variety of instances: Servers aren't heading to the kitchen with special orders, since those can be noted electronically, and kitchen personnel aren't tracking down servers because of illegible handwriting.

MICROS also saves time by keeping a supply inventory. And, it tracks the restaurant's busy and slow times, so staffing schedules can be adapted accordingly.

"Everything is just more efficient," Mason says.

Ed Hechler, president of Brolin Retail Systems, says other MICROS capabilities include:

  • Timecard functions

  • Gift certificate generation

  • Accounting programming

"The system offers a complete revenue picture for the restaurant at any given time," says Christopher DiPaolo, who -- along with his cousins Rich DiPaolo III and Mark Mizer -- is a Trattoria co-owner.

Although he would not disclose a purchase price, he did say Trattoria Roma's system was "in the five-figure range."

Hechler says MICROS systems range from $13,000 to $17,000, depending on the number of terminals. After the initial investment, expect to pay roughly 7 to 12 percent annually for system upkeep and continued technical support, Hechler adds. Leasing a system may cost $250 to $350 monthly, he estimates.

Trattoria Roma bartender Aaron Tinnerello says MICROS makes it easier to keep bar tabs, allows him to work more efficiently with the servers and gives him inventory updates. He used older MICROS versions at previous workplaces.

Server Stephen Smith, likewise, was accustomed to computer-based ordering; he used Digital Dining elsewhere. While Smith says he liked some aspects of Digital Dining over MICROS, he notes he is still learning the latter. And computer tracking, in general, beats the alternative.

"It's better than hand writing everything out; it's a lot less confusing," Smith says.

Chef Jaime George agrees, saying there aren't a lot of questions from the kitchen to wait staff because of unclear orders or unfamiliar shorthand.

"If they order something with no onions, there are no onions. It's simple," he says. How to reach: Shawn Mason, general manager, Trattoria Roma, 488-2104; Ed Hechler, president, Brolin Retail Systems, 766-1234

C.J. Cross (CrossRoberts@aol.com) is a free-lance writer for SBN.