Lori Murray

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:33

That stinks!

Many people equate bowling alleys with smoke-filled rooms. George Hadler, president of the Columbus Square Bowling Palace, wanted things to be different at his 64,000-square-foot, 64-lane facility.

Built in 1983, the center, which includes a lounge, restaurant, two meeting rooms and management offices, features five large exhaust fans that run 24 hours a day in the main concourse. The fans are built into a hole in the roof and suck the smoky air from the area, while a carbon filter inhales the odor.

The cost of putting in the fans? Close to $30,000. But Hadler says the expense is worth it.

"You may not like paying for it, but you can't afford to lose half your business," he says, noting that accommodating nonsmokers -- which comprise 50 percent of his customers -- became a top priority for him in 1994 when the Franklin County Board of Health banned smoking in virtually all buildings open to the public. The ban lasted only a month before a county judge ruled it invalid.

Since then, however, Hadler has become a true believer in cleaning up indoor air.

"We get positive comments from nonsmokers and smokers about how much they appreciate the quality of air in here," he says. "I think everybody in the hospitality industry should do this. It's just good business."

Hadler is such an advocate of cleaner air, in fact, that he spent another $15,000 on air filtration systems for the meeting rooms and offices in his establishment. The small units, which resemble mini air conditioners, are attached to trusses in the ceiling. Hadler says installing the systems didn't interrupt business and he considers them just another cost of doing business --like payroll or heating bills.

"A good experience here says more than anything else," he says. "People tell other people when they've had a good time."

Peggy Lett, co-owner of Basso Bean Coffee House in the Short North area, says smoke wasn't the only problem at her business -- although it was a major issue. Excessive heat in the kitchen area and strong food odors were concerns as well.

"Some people used to walk in and then walk out," she says.

That just wasn't acceptable. She and co-owners Steve Swartz and Chris DiPaolo first upgraded the cooling system with air filters that sucked out the stagnant air. Then they installed an exhaust grill at the back of the shop to pull used air out of the building, and a heat removal hood over the cooking island.

"The hood eliminated odors and lowered the temperature in the kitchen by about 40 degrees," Lett says.

"You never see a smoke film in here whatsoever," she says of her business, which happens to be the only Short North coffee house that permits smoking. "There's no smoke hanging in the air."

What did it cost?

"In the thousands," says Lett, who says it's difficult to pinpoint since extensive remodeling was done at the same time. Still, she insists it was worth it.

"We now keep everyone happy -- the smokers and the nonsmokers, although even smokers did not like the atmosphere before."

Hadler and Lett are not alone in their quest to make their establishments more comfortable -- and healthy -- for customers. The Ohio Coalition for Indoor Air Quality was formed last summer to address not only the issue of cigarette smoke, but nuisances such as mold and mildew.

The coalition offers low-cost assessments of indoor air quality at hospitality sites and discounted pricing on heating, ventilation and air conditioning services and equipment.

You have to "do what you can," Hadler says of improving air quality. "It doesn't cost that much money and it's not that difficult." How to reach: George Hadler, president, Columbus Square Bowling Palace, 457-6650; Peggy Lett, co-owner, Basso Bean Coffee House, 221-2326; Ohio Coalition for Indoor Air Quality, (800) 795-5867

Lori Murray (Lori3204@aol.com) is a free-lance writer for SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:10

Sales & Marketing

Tangier resists peddling its logo

By Teresa Dixon Murray

When Tangier Restaurant & Cabaret opened in the World War II era, management developed a logo because that's what businesses were supposed to do.

The simple script logo had a half-dome built into the T, which identifies the restaurant's Mediterranean roots.

Forty-five years later, the logo is one of the most recognizable in the Akron business community. But items bearing the logo are hard to come by. You don't see Tangier ballcaps or dome-covered T-shirts or keychains with a sea-blue T.

"If you're an exclusive restaurant or exclusive anything, it's probably not a good idea to have your logo splattered everywhere," says Ellen Zban, director of customer relations and marketing. "But with the entertainment aspect of what we do, we have a little bit of leeway to be more lavish."

The restaurant had a gift shop until about a year ago, which featured Tangier merchandise, including a coffee mug with the logo and a wine with the Tangier label.

The only other premium products-existing in a few customers' cupboards-are practically collector's items: sherbet-style dessert dishes the restaurant once gave away with lavish desserts.

The famous logo was nearly dumped about 10 years ago, when owner Edward George agreed it was time to tweak it with a more modern look.

The T in the logo was stripped to eliminate the dome. Executives thought maybe it was cleaner and they began using it on some internal documents. But the new logo was ditched because it just didn't feel like Tangier.

When you've got a good thing, George decided, keep it.

While Tangier has resisted mass marketing its logo in the past, it might start distributing some premium products in the future, Zban says. Management has toyed with distributing Tangier pens or other items at various travel shows.

The closest the restaurant comes now, Zban says, is new buttons for the staff with the logo and the employees' names. Management developed the large buttons to help customers know who can help them navigate through the 50,000-square-foot complex. "This place is so huge, we really try to make it as personal as possible."

While the size could be an intimidating, executives bring the concept full circle back to the logo. Marketing efforts carry the familiar image and the slogan: "You'll find everything under the dome."

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:09

Too big, too fast

Declan Smith and Pete Anderson purchased Extrusion Services Inc. five years ago when it had 10 employees and nearly $1 million in annual sales.

In 2 1/2 years, sales at the extrusion manufacturer and fabricator tripled. That rapid growth left Smith, Anderson and their employees in a blur. Quality had dropped, morale was low and the partners were exasperated.

One day Smith and Anderson realized they barely recognized the company they had once been so proud of.

"With rapid growth," Smith says, "you spend most of your time filling orders. It's difficult to detach yourself and look at the big picture."

Two years ago, they did just that. The pair put a moratorium on growth and forced themselves to reclaim their business. Today ESI has 30 employees and nearly $5 million in annual sales. Smith is CEO; Anderson is president.

They don't pretend to be a model business yet, but Smith says, "I think we're a whole lot stronger now than we were six months or a year ago." Here are some of the ways they did it:

Create a sense of ownership

ESI designs, manufacturers and assembles some 100 pieces of custom equipment a year for the rubber and tire industries.

ESI had developed loyalty among manufacturers who wanted quality with a personal touch. On many jobs, it wasn't unusual to have nearly every employee involved at one point or another.

"A lot of the guys in the shop knew the customer when they walked in," Anderson says.

When quality began to suffer, they hired a quality technician to check the final product. But more importantly, they adopted a system that tags every job with a sign-off sheet: Each employee must sign off on his portion before sending it down the line.

"When people have to put their name on something, they take more pride in it, and they're going to make sure it's right," Smith says.

The system started in late 1997. Today a piece of equipment might contain anywhere from 10 to 25 different sets of initials. "They like the approach, but they had to get used to doing it," Anderson says.

Back that ownership with money and authority

It's one thing to expect your employees to take ownership; it's another to show them the feeling is mutual.

Two years ago the owners launched a 401(k) program with benefits paid based on profits. Their money became the employees' money.

In addition, Smith and Anderson tried to recreate the atmosphere that existed in the good old days. With only 10 employees, there were few formal meetings. When workers had ideas, they simply spoke up. If people thought the idea was good, it was rolled out the next day.

ESI drifted away from that, to the point where many didn't feel like they had input.

Today, Smith and Anderson frequently ask the 16 shop workers what can be done better on a given job or with a certain procedure. "Maybe it's something we hadn't thought of," Anderson says.

The owners jumped on the chance to get employee input when they moved three years ago into a new 25,000-square-foot facility off Home Avenue.

Employees were asked ways to make the layout of the new building better.

"If the employees feel they have more control over their work," Smith says, "they'll do a better job."

Don't forget to talk

ESI had few systems for communicating. It wasn't critical in a workplace where you could yell across the shop and everyone could hear you.

But as sales mounted and employment grew, that tin-can-and-string method broke down.

The engineering department overbooked projects, assuming the shop would want to work overtime. Or a shop worker would learn that a customer was upset about an order, but wouldn't tell the salesperson. Then the salesperson would walk in for a service call and get blindsided by the angry customer.

"We were always rushing and running so fast, the communication started getting less and less. We had to make sure we got it back, like it was when we had only 10 people," Anderson says.

Design meetings now include both the engineers and the shop workers. "Before, engineering would meet by themselves and then say to the shop, 'Here, build it,'" Anderson says. ESI has found that jobs can be completed better and faster when everyone involved in a job helps plan it.

Communication issues involving customers have been addressed through the hiring of a customer service liaison. All customer service issues come through that central source, and she distributes memos and information to everyone.

Smith still shakes his head remembering times when two people who sat next to each other didn't always pass along information. They just assumed the other knew. "It isn't just a big company problem," Smith says.

Realize employees work to live

Three years ago, many ESI shop employees were working 50 to 60 hours a week and salaried employees were topping 70 hours. Smith and Anderson, meanwhile, were working what they called "unproductive" 80-hour weeks.

While some shop workers enjoyed the fat paychecks, the harried atmosphere affected morale and efficiency, Smith says.

"You burn people out that way," he says. "Some people quit, and we had the potential for losing people we didn't want to lose."

Smith and Anderson say they had no choice but to nearly double the shop positions, and today they keep shop workers' weeks at about 45 hours. In addition, they allow each worker to set his own starting and quitting times, as long as it's the same every day. This allows workers to accommodate personal or family needs.

As for Smith and Anderson, their work weeks have slimmed to 55 to 60 hours, almost on their own. Anderson says much of their time was spent handling problems and unexpected phone calls. As the management of their company improved, the demands on their time have dropped.

You must spend money to save money

Smith and Anderson wrestled with creating new positions for various reasons.

The sales department has expanded from one to four as ESI has stopped its reliance on manufacturers' reps. On the engineering side, the company had two engineers five years ago. Last year it had four. Now it has eight. Smith and Anderson hope that translates into higher sales, because they believe ESI will be doing such a better job on design and quality.

"It was one of those decisions," Anderson says. "'Which comes first-the chicken or the egg?' We just said, 'This year we've got to bite the bullet.' Now the pressure is on."

The workload on the engineers before might have led to some of ESI's quality problems, he says. Now the engineers have a longer and more relaxed concept-and-design phase, and they're not pressured to spit out designs on impossible deadlines.

"If you don't have time to do something right on the front end, you'll have to take care of it on the back end," Anderson says.

"Sometimes before we would just make the same mistake over and over again, and that would cost money ... These positions are well justified."

Good customer service is proactive

ESI historically had few written procedures or systems for documentation. That wasn't a problem when ESI had only 15 regular clients. The details were easy to remember.

"We were a little bit loose before because everybody knew how to do things, or at least we thought that," Anderson says.

In addition to the new customer service position that feeds communication through a single source, ESI now keeps a central filing system on each customer with information such as service calls and warranties. "It's just better documentation and relying less on memory," Smith says.

Part of the documentation is a structured customer service follow-up procedure, including calls the day of delivery and a week after delivery to ensure everything was received, to check whether the equipment works well and to answer any questions. ESI also asks for feedback on the design.

"We had an erratic follow-up system before," Anderson deadpans. "If you remembered, you called them."

This new process helps the custome r and ESI. "You learn from what you did right. You learn from what you did wrong," he says.

Adds Smith: "We're finding out some things we might not find out otherwise."

And everything is documented. A suggestion now might help with another job next month or even with a job still in the shop.

Smith and Anderson can't help but look ahead as their potential market grows beyond its North American core. They hope to expand international sales from 15 percent to 20 to 25 percent next year. Overall sales could double again five years from now.

But the partners have a bigger goal. "One of the things we want to make sure we do now-that we didn't do before-is control that growth," Anderson says.

"Improvement is a continuous effort," he adds. "We've made more steps forward than backward, so we're OK."

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:09

In brief

The accidental CEO

Last fall, Gary Smith was looking for an investor for Signa StorTech Systems Inc., the North Canton company he purchased two years ago.

What he found instead was a job offer-one too good to pass up.

Smith, past chairman of the Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce, this spring was named CEO of High Plains Corp. in Wichita, Kan. The publicly traded $100-million-a-year company is among the nation's largest producers of ethanol.

High Plains' board of directors courted Smith because of his executive and sales management experience in the fields of alternative fuels, automotive engines and industrial manufacturing, says board Chairman Daniel Skolness. Prior to StorTech, Smith served in executive positions with Canton-based Hercules Engine Co., White Engines Inc., Cummins Engine Co. and Hoerner-Waldorf Paper.

As president of Hercules, he successfully directed the company through a transition from focusing solely on the military market into one branching to commercial truck and bus markets for its natural gas engines.

Smith, 55, will retain ownership of Signa along with partner Skip Dragoli. Smith's son, Chad, whose title has changed from director of sales to general manager, now runs the 30-employee specialty fabricator and powder-coating firm.

"Truly I wasn't looking for this," Smith says. He had broached conversations with a couple of the High Plains board members he knew through the industry and his Minnesota roots. One of the board members is a former boss.

"I hoped maybe they would be interested in investing in Signa. Their interest was in getting me involved with High Plains."

The 16-year-old High Plains has seen sales turn flat and hasn't deployed its assets as well as it might, Smith says. "They needed somebody to help them solve some problems. If we turn things, I'll be well rewarded."

Smith and his wife Jan, who adopted Canton as their home in the mid-1980s, will keep a home here and will retain local ties, including returning for Hall of Fame week and continuing a few volunteer efforts.

"I sit here sometimes at night and I miss my friends and I miss the things I built there," Smith says. "If I don't like it at High Plains, I can come back. When you can have the best of both worlds, it's nice."

When the pressure builds, can you stay in 'The Zone?'

The Pro Football Hall of Fame isn't the only Canton-based business with an NFL connection. The Tuscany Institute is a performance consulting company gaining national recognition for its work with football players like the San Francisco '49ers' J.J. Stokes.

Timothy Moore founded the company 11 years ago while living in Michigan. During his tour of duty in Vietnam, Moore became fascinated with the performance of soldiers under the pressure of battle. Some succeeded and some failed. Moore decided to try to answer the question of why.

Moore is a filmmaker by trade, so he is not an expert in either psychology or physiology. But he says he has made a few useful observations by watching and talking to people working under pressure. "The thing that they give up the quickest is their emotional stability," he says. Without that stability, they leave what professional athletes call "The Zone" and they fail.

Moore developed a package of techniques to help his clients regain their emotional stability, to relax so they can focus on doing their best. "It comes down to how we perceive the world. Do you have more energy to go on vacation or to have a root canal?"

Moore has a proprietary sound system called Sensoria, which he is protecting as a trade secret; customized series of movie clips; a book of motivational words, images and resources he calls Tuscany's curriculum; and a 100-question Sensoria Enquiry, which he gives at the beginning of his work with clients.

The description of his consulting techniques is foggy because Moore doesn't share details with people until they are clients and have signed non-disclosure agreements. It's a corporate necessity, he says, but a marketing handicap. His limited circle of clients are professional football players, corporate executives and professional golfers who have all had performance crises that endangered their jobs. He found them through whispered word-of-mouth referrals.

Moore says he has had success with athletes because they understand instantly that being in "The Zone" means having relaxed confidence. He has had a harder time getting his message to executives, because so many believe that they work better when stressed out and meeting others' demands. Moore would like to turn their thinking around. "If you're the leader, you have to make sure that you get what you need," he says.

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:07

Toe-to-toe with Tom Murdough

In 1989, Thomas Murdough Jr. left Little Tikes in frustration. Today, the business he founded in 1991, Step 2 Co., has become one of the most threatening competitors to the company he helped build into a world leader.

Little Tikes, with about 3,500 employees worldwide, posts more than $500 million in annual sales. Step 2 stands at $100 million in sales and 1,000 employees.

Today there are rumblings that Rubbermaid might sell the toy company, which last year saw a double-digit drop in sales—even as Step 2 sales rose 4 percent before an anticipated 1998 increase of 15 percent. Meanwhile, Rubbermaid is being restructured to reduce jobs and expenses by as much as $200 million a year by the end of 2000.

For a man with a competitive streak like Tom Murdough, all of this must be an energizing call to action. Murdough himself is as circumspect in his public comments as you would expect a smart CEO to be. But to an outsider, it seems like an obvious moment for him to do something big—take advantage of the moment to somehow gain the upper hand, or even try to buy back Little Tikes.

It would be the ultimate competitive stroke. The thought, when placed on the table before him, elicits a mischievous smile.

But Murdough has another little project he’s been working on for most of this year. He’s in the last weeks of his effort (according to the vague schedule available at press time from the National Football League) of his effort to buy the new Cleveland Browns franchise.

Murdough recently took time out to talk with SBN about the growth of Step 2, about the nature of competition, and about whether he’s going to reclaim his first love.

Step 2, like Little Tikes, has been known for its big outdoor toys, but now you seem to be focusing on smaller products priced under $20. Why?

We came out with the under-$20 retail products two years ago and they were tremendously successful. They’re very effective in opening up a lot more shelf space for Step 2. This move [also] has been the result of recognizing a trend for consumers’ desire to spend less money....

How do you determine these market trends?

We do it by listening, by actively seeking out consumer preferences. Our questionnaires, which go on every new product, tell us a lot about what the consumer is thinking...

These are open-ended questionnaires. They’re not computer [tabulated], which means people actually say what they mean. We get 8,000 to 10,000 of these in a given year. We learn a lot from these.

We also ... log 800 to 1,000 calls a day on our 800 number, and at any given time, in an eight-hour period, we can do a survey of people who call that day and get a quick response. They are bona fide consumers of our products. If we have something specific we want to look at, we can just ask everyone that day and do great research fast.

You mentioned the written surveys you get in. How many of those do you yourself actually look through?

I look though almost all of them. And besides me, usually three or four other people, people in marketing and manufacturing, also go through them.

Is that where you started getting the idea a few years ago to move toward some smaller products?

Most of our top retail customers supply us with shelf-life information. We get reports ... that give data on every product we sell to them. Those tell us exactly how many they sold, sales by region, sales for that week, how many they sold that week vs. the same week last year, and at what price.

So there’s a wealth of information in reports like this. Staying close to your customers is the key.

You’ve said you get ideas from consumers, from employees, from your R&D staff, from your retailers. How much of a decision to go with a particular product is just gut instinct?

It’s a pretty significant percentage. A lot of it has to do with our approach to manufacturing. I don’t want to elaborate too much on this, but many of our competitors use a process that requires them to spend a tremendous amount of capital dollars in developing a product.

Our process, for all of its deficiencies, and there are many—our process is very labor-intensive. It’s unable to hold high tolerances— ... can get into a new product considerably faster and for considerably less money than our competition. That’s because we’re buying cast aluminum molds. That allows us to get finished product into the marketplace, into our test stores (as fast as eight weeks from conceptualization) ... and find out early on what the reception is to that product.

So, we’ll probably take a greater degree of risk with certain of our products than much of our competition. When we see we’ve had a winner, then we add additional molds, maybe as many as 20, if the volume so dictates.

What’s a product that was a sleeper success?

The most recent one, I don’t want to tell you. It’s going to be big, and our competitors don’t know it yet.

But a recent sleeper was our building-block table. ... To be quite honest, I wasn’t even sure we should make the product because there are so many Lego play tables out there.

What’s unique about our product is the storage underneath this nice sturdy table. It retails for $20, and when we introduced it two years ago, it just flew out of here.

Do most of those products end up having a long cycle?

The ones I’m talking about, yes, and that has a lot to do with our approach to marketing. ...

We spend a very low percentage of our sales dollar on advertising. A lot of people are critical, thinking we’d move things a lot faster if we spent more on advertising. ... [But] you can’t have a $20 price-point if you’ve got a big advertising load. We think that $20 price- point and our customers’ margins are more important than the short-term burst you get from the advertising. It’s not that we don’t do advertising. We did close to $1 million in advertising in 1997. And that’s just print media.

We take this approach: Let the product be king. The mothers are so quick to pick up on something good.

You hesitated a second there, like you thought it was stereotypical to say mothers. Is that un-PC?

I say it all the time. Mothers buy 80 percent of our products. And you women spread the word so fast it boggles my mind.

How much attention do you pay to what your competition is doing?

A lot. We constantly worry about our competition. I want to know—it’s a natural instinct I guess. It is a very, very competitive industry. All of the industries we’re in, like with the home-and-garden products, are very competitive in this day and time.

It’s quite unlike the first go-around with Little Tikes. It was a competitive industry then, but we stood alone with rotational-molded plastic products and virtually did not have a direct competitor. Now we have Fisher Price and Little Tikes and of course all toy manufacturers are competing for the buyer’s dollar ...

So I want to be aware of what my competitors are doing. We take great pride in being unique and innovative and being a leader in this industry. Our objective is none other than to be No. 1 in the industries we’re in.

How much do you look at what others are doing, either to validate your own efforts or to snicker at what they’re trying to push?

We get knocked off a lot, we get copied, and we want to know about things like that. We want to know what they’ve done, what their price is. Unfortunately, in this day and time, integrity has to a large degree gone out the window. That’s sad. We can’t protect ourselves with patents. The only way we can protect ourselves is by being the low-cost producer, by getting out in the market first, and then counting on the buyers [retailers] to respect all of those issues we’ ;ve provided to them... If consumers can get a buck off a product from somebody else, they’ll overlook your brand.

When you were with Little Tikes, you didn’t deal with Wal*Mart or some of the other big discounters. What happened?

That’s all that’s left. Wal*Mart, Kmart, Target, Toys R Us. Those accounts and probably six others represent 70 percent of our business. And they have a finite amount of shelf space.

We believe our long-term success hinges on our customers’ ability to sell our product in volume and to be able to maintain a reasonable margin.

Which brings us to the sensitive topic of retail pricing. What are the issues you deal with?

When you allow a Wal*Mart or Kmart or somebody like that to irresponsibly use you as a loss leader, it destroys the market opportunity for your other customers and effectively shortens the life of the product. Because when a customer can no longer make money on a product, they drop it.

Let’s say one store sells your product at $24.95 instead of the $29.95 we ask. All of a sudden, that becomes the expected price in consumers’ minds.

If the others still sell it at $29.95, all of a sudden their business slows down like hell and they’re going to look at their shelf space, and they don’t want to give product away....

There are retailers in this extremely competitive environment who would take those products that they’d paid maybe $14 for and run them out at $14.99.... They don’t care what effect that has on the manufacturer. We fight with our retailers to make sure they don’t do that.


I called one just yesterday and said, ‘You broke the price on our Wagon for Two.’ ... We can legally control it .... They will forfeit their advertising rebate. We give them a rebate at the end of the year of maybe up to 3 percent of the sales dollars based on their adhering to our minimum ad pricing policy.

And yet, we see these kinds of products on sale all the time.

That’s the Rubbermaid influence. It may work in housewares, but the nature of the toy industry is very, very different and I don’t want to get on that subject.

What about stores like Marc’s that have prices way below everybody else’s for your products?

That’s the classic case of people cutting the price, and we’re actually going to stop selling to Marc’s for a while.

Retailers, it seems, are putting the squeeze on manufacturers. And we all know that times are tough at Little Tikes. There’s talk that Rubbermaid might be willing to sell Little Tikes. Are you interested in buying it?

I don’t think I’d better comment on that. There are lots of different issues surrounding that question. Let me just say that ... um, I don’t know ... I don’t know. I’d love to tell you more but I shouldn’t.

It seems you might have your hands full anyway with the NFL bid right now. If everything worked out and you purchased the franchise, how would that affect operations at Step 2?

Initially, getting the staff in place would take some time, and I’ve already talked to all of our people in the company about that ... I’m expecting to put in long days, and there’s no question the Browns are going to take time initially... Once I’d get the right people in place, and the direction is set, then I’ll be able to continue to focus on Step 2 again. Believe me, we’re not going anyplace. Step 2 is more important than ever.

I’ve gotten into this thing with the Browns because I want to make sure It’s done right, and I mean that. This is a big chunk of my family’s net worth tied up in this. If it doesn’t happen, I’m going to be upset. I’m going to do it.

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:07

Good chemistry

Dan Wilson was getting ready to walk out the door for lunch when a customer from Georgia called in a panic. The man was trying to gather samples for analysis from the soil around some underground storage tanks.

The problem: The customer didn’t know what to do.

How many samples should he take? Where should he dig? How should he ship them?

All he knew was the phone number for the company that was supposed to do the testing—CasChem Laboratories Inc., in Canton. He dialed it on his cellular phone.

Which is how CasChem’s co-founder, Dan Wilson came to spend his lunch break that day coaching a small, new customer through the process.

It also helps to explain why the customer, Georgia’s Department of Environmental Control for Underground Storage Tanks may rank among CasChem’s largest accounts this year. Wilson says the agency expects to spend at least $75,000 with CasChem this year, and that the figure could actually surpass $200,000.

“It was well worth the 45 minutes,” Wilson smiles. It also validates one of CasChem’s guiding principles: Make it easy for your customers to do business with you.

Founded in 1991 by brothers Don and Dan Wilson, CasChem has grown to 22 employees and more than $1.5 million in annual sales. Nationwide, the environmental industrial testing business is worth $4 billion a year and characterized by highly competitive (read: commodity) pricing.

While CasChem boasts of clients in 37 states, most of its work comes from the Midwest. Even so, it counts 12 certified labs as direct competitors.

Seven years ago, when they were getting started, the brothers quickly learned that quality was difficult to sell because customers didn’t appreciate the esoteric chemistry of their work. Besides, environmental testing is one of those things people generally do only because they have to.

They have found that, in order of importance, price ranked first, second and third.

But in the last decade, according to the American Council of Independent Laboratories, one of three environmental labs in the United States has gone out of business.

The reason, the Wilsons believe, is that lab owners tend to view their work as more science than business.

“They were more technology-oriented, rather than marketing-oriented,” says Dan, CasChem’s vice president.

The Wilsons built their business around the idea of making the unfamiliar field of chemistry less intimidating and less of a headache to the average customer.

For a client whose background is in management or manufacturing, mounting environmental mandates are difficult to keep up with and quality protocols can be confusing. “We make it very easy for them to do business with us,” Dan says.

It’s a process that’s served CasChem well so far; sales have grown an average of 11 percent a year, the last five years.

At the same time, a policy of going the extra mile for customers has its own dangers. It’s possible to go too far.

“It’s difficult,” acknowledges Don, the company president, “to decide where to draw that line.”

Part of that decision lies with evaluating the profitability of individual customers—and figuring out, based on a number of factors, who the best customers really are.

That’s a work in progress for the Wilsons, and we’re going to make you wait until the end of this story to see how they’re managing.

First, here are the elements of CasChem’s program for selling service rather than quality and price.

Be everything your customer needs

The Wilsons started in business drilling oil and gas wells, but sold that fledgling venture because of market conditions.

They turned to the more promising field of environmental testing, predicting mounting government mandates would create a gold mine.

CasChem started with the testing associated with underground storage tanks, and has since expanded its testing capabilities in response to customers.

“People were coming in and saying, ‘Would you be interested in starting to do this test?’ “ Don says.

At one level, these requests are handled by the book: an evaluation of equipment and other costs, followed by calculation of profit potentials.

In most cases, however, the brothers have added services—even low-margin tests—to help establish their reputation as a one-stop shop. “You’re always looking at the costs,” Don says. “But you’re trying to provide the service to the customer.”

Quite simply, they’ve found it’s easier to build a business if your customers believe they can always come to you first. Today, CasChem’s standard repertoire includes 75 types of tests. “It grew a lot faster than we anticipated, that’s for sure,” Don says.

Such was the origin of transformer testing, which CasChem started in 1993, based on client demand.

Today, it accounts for 26 percent of revenue.

In addition, services like these have helped increase business in other areas. One of Whirlpool’s Ohio plants, for example, started using CasChem only for transformer testing, but now sends its waste-stream profiling business to CasChem too.

The Wilsons know that not all of their services can be comfortably profitable. That’s a calculated strategy.

For example, CasChem offers inorganic testing, which is labor-intensive and therefore very low-profit, to try and lure organic testing, which is higher profit. “We’ve added these to make it a one-stop shop,” Dan says.

They remain conscious, however, of the risk of spreading themselves too thin. “As the saying goes, you can’t be a jack-of-all-trades,” Dan says, “and a master of none.”

Eliminate the biggest customer headache

From their first day in business, the Wilsons believed one way they could differentiate their company was by offering free shipping or courier service. It’s a small gesture, maybe $10 cost for overnight shipping, but it goes a long way toward making things easy on customers.

CasChem provides the containers and coolers for the sample, assembling the type and number needed, shipping them to the customer’s doorstep and arranging the return overnight shipment.

All of that might cost $30 on a $360 bill. And because of the price orientation of customers, “It’s a cost we basically had to eat,” Don says.

CasChem also provides daily courier pickups within a 60-mile radius—encompassing about 30 percent of the company’s business. “We’ll go and do whatever we have to do,” Dan says.

Bonnie Butner, a CasChem project manager/sales, says CasChem could never get away with passing these costs along. Customers have realized they’re king in a saturated industry. “It’s ferocious competition,” she says. “We have clients who are solicited daily and offered a better price for something we’re doing. This never happened three or four years ago ... Then our customers will call us and ask, ‘Can you match this price?’”

Don says CasChem won’t get caught up in bidding games. If a competitor drops the price that drastically, he says, it will show in quality or turnaround, and the client will be back.

Be the first place anybody’s going to call

For all of its efforts, CasChem is still too small to be a one-stop shop.

But the Wilsons still want their customers to assume CasChem will have an answer to whatever need arises, even if that means finding another company to perform a specialized test.

Dan points to a recent occasion when he spent two hours calling pharmaceutical labs all over the country, trying to develop a short list for a customer who needed a test CasChem doesn’t provide.

It wasn’t just a matter of tracking down names and phone numbers. “I had to call them all and ask them the right questions to make sure they could do it properly, to make sure they could meet our standards,” Dan says.

CasChem’s vice president faxed a list of a half-dozen labs to the executive, who had been a CasChem customer for five years. “I wouldn’t do that for just anyone,” Dan says.

Because many CasChem customers believe the Canton lab can either fulfill their need or find someone who can, the strategy works. CasChem doesn’t charge for its fact-finding expeditions, but more than recoups that money in the long run.

Not long ago, a local woman contacted CasChem, seeking analysis of her drinking water. She thought her husband was trying to kill her. “I gladly referred her to another lab,” Butner says.

Know what extras your customer wants

CasChem four years ago added actually gathering samples—not just analyzing—to its list of services for customers in the 60-mile local radius. “We sort of grew into it,” Dan says.

“The customer sometimes wants to be removed from the whole process.”

Add employees your client can’t afford

The Wilsons attribute some of their growth to their willingness to be an all-around resource. CasChem, for example, employs a quality assurance consultant who works separately from management and the lab to serve as a client’s confidante, advocate and even guardian angel.

“Most labs say, ‘Send in your sample and we’ll analyze it’. They won’t baby-sit you and say, ‘You should be doing this and testing for that,’” Don says.

“Why do businesses in Indiana and Georgia come to us? We stay abreast of the regulations in each state. We know more than most of their local labs.”

CasChem routinely handles these calls even from non-customers. There is a price on that time spent on the phone, Don acknowledges.

“I look at attorneys that charge for phone consultation ... and wonder whether we should. But you just take the extra step. And a lot of times you feel it goes unrecognized. But it comes around.”

Simplify pricing

The construction of new homes and buildings is notorious for cost overruns. Lab analyses aren’t far behind, Don says.

Dating back to its built-in, free delivery, CasChem adopted a flat pricing structure so customers aren’t quoted one price and charged for a larger amount.

“There are labs out there that will nickel-and-dime you,” he says. “People want to know what to expect. They don’t like surprises.”

Don’t profiteer from others’ crises

The need for an environmental test doesn’t always fit neatly into an 8-to-5 weekday. Customers often ask CasChem to take rush a job, and the Wilsons will agree on a case-by-case basis. They charge a little extra to cover costs, but emergencies aren’t a profit center.

Butner estimates that 40 percent of her underground storage-tank customers are rush jobs. Ten percent of the company’s jobs are rush. “In this field, people have to have their results right away.”

“You’re not making a huge premium,” Don says. “It’s a service.”

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:06

Business her way

If you want to increase sales, conventional wisdom says launch a high-voltage marketing campaign with radio ads blaring about 20 percent discounts and coupons offering buy-one, get-one-free specials.

From her first day in business as owner of Ace Carpet & Upholstery Cleaning nine years ago, Sharon Schweitzer vowed she would never offer even so much as a penny off her base price. Discounts, she believes, can crucify a business almost as fast as sluggish receivables or underperforming employees.

It's a contrarian view, to be sure, one of many for the third-generation owner. Her workload has stayed between 700 and 800 jobs per year after her first year, and she's raised prices only three times. Her growth has come from bigger jobs from the same customers. If they're happy with their living-room cleaning, they'll get the whole downstairs next time.

Sales during the last five years have grown a modest 18 percent, providing her with predictable cash flow and unwavering profit margin.

Fulfilling a goal

Sharon Schweitzer worked for five years as an industrial engineer for The Timken Co., focusing on plant efficiency and setting production and piecework rates. Employee incentives were based on her findings-making her unpopular with some but also shaping her into a good judge of the value of time.

Her father, Albert D. Schweitzer, ran Canton-based Ace Carpet, which he had taken over from his stepfather, Leroy Hossler. The company was founded in 1948 and passed to Albert Schweitzer in 1957.

Sharon Schweitzer, who earned her M.B.A. from the University of Akron while working at Timken, says she knew she would one day become the third owner of the small, residential carpet-cleaner. "My long-term goal my whole life was to take over the business," she says.

Schweitzer's layoff from Timken in 1985 pushed up the planned succession, and Schweitzer bought the name, equipment, customer base and goodwill.

Since then, she's been content to keep the company fairly small, with only herself and three employees, two of which are part time.

Taking away excuses

Carpet cleaning is one of those services people get because they need to. If people think they can get a better price next week or next month, that's all the excuse they need to put it off.

Schweitzer aims to take the excuse out of the equation.

"You'll never find a coupon or hear of a discount advertised," she says. "My customers all know that."

Her rationale is twofold: First, she doesn't want people to think they can haggle her down or benefit from waiting. Second, she wants all customers to be charged the same price for the same service. "I don't want to tick anybody off. Everybody gets a fair price."

The one-price strategy succeeds in making her life easier. Further, it helps establish an expectation of quality. She doesn't have to worry about someone thinking she's hurrying through jobs to keep her profit margin up. Discounts are funny that way, she muses. They might increase the quantity of jobs, but you earn less or hurry to save the additional required time.

Even though her flat 25-cent per square-foot rate sounds simple, she still has trouble communicating it to some who rationalize they deserve a discount for multiple rooms or if two neighbors get their carpets cleaned on the same trip. Sure, Schweitzer's travel time and transportation costs are lower on these jobs, but that's figured in her pricing to make up for clients located 45 minutes away with only one room. If she's inclined to reward volume, she makes it up with a complimentary spot-remover kit.

No apologies

Schweitzer often gets requests to submit bids on jobs. If price is the definitive issue, she says she'll almost always lose. Her price seems reasonable and is competitive among the six other certified carpet cleaners in Stark County.

The competition is thicker than that, however; 58 non-certified cleaners are listed in the Yellow Pages and often have lower prices.

"Someone will say, 'I had an estimate for $400, and you'll charge $700. Will you match their price?' I'll say, 'No way. Here's my estimate. Call me if you want me.'

"You get what you pay for," she says. "I'm not price-competitive."

Schweitzer tries to convince people that carpet cleaning is no different from other industries: There are different levels of quality and service.

She points out that some companies might charge extra to move a sofa or treat a spot-basics that she thinks customers should expect to be included.

The three-year freeze

While she's proud of what she considers higher-end prices, she's reluctant to raise them. Her last price increase, which was three years ago was 3 cents per square foot, meaning a price increase of $15 on the average 500-square-foot job. Her price on stairs rose from $1.50 to $2 per step.

"I don't think I lose any customers over the increase," she says.

"I stay really busy at the price I'm at," she adds. "I could work 12 hours a day, but I won't."

Schweitzer, who books jobs generally a week in advance, has a client base that's 90 percent residential. She shuns business customers because they expect discounts for high volume, and they often require cleaning at night.

She accommodates same-day emergencies, perhaps involving a disobedient pet, as best she can with no extra cost. Pets, in any event, help drive her business because of the hair they shed. About 70 percent of her customers own pets, and Schweitzer makes a point to become friends with the animals as well. "I carry dog bones in my truck. The dog is my bread-and-butter."

Raising awareness, and then sales

Schweitzer believes that many consumers get misled or receive poor service and that affects all carpet cleaners.

Schweitzer has produced a Consumer's Guide to Carpet Cleaning, which she distributes free on request. The booklet outlines 18 carpet-cleaning rip-offs, common mistakes and misperceptions, as well as maintenance tips. She also offers a free five-minute consumer awareness message-accessible through a separate phone number-to help people know what questions to ask of a carpet-cleaning company. She also tries to reinforce the importance of value and price.

"Whether they're going to become my customer or not, I want to educate them," she says. "Maybe I didn't get them this time, but I'll get them next time."

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:04

Share and share alike

Take two people who are strong-willed and opinionated by nature, throw them together for 10 hours a day, put thousands or millions of dollars at stake and what do you get?

You get a volatile, dynamic and sometimes rewarding phenomenon: the business partnership.

The IRS knows of more than 1.6 million partnerships in the United States, and the total has been growing nearly 6 percent a year since 1990.

But if there's anything that rivals the staggering 50 percent divorce rate of married couples, it's probably the failure rate of business partnerships-though you won't find any reliable statistics to back that up.

Most of us don't have to scroll too far on the mental Rolodex to come up with acquaintances who used to be someone's partner.

John Blickle, who served for three years as president of Sorkin Thayer & Co. in Akron, couldn't imagine ever being in a partnership. "As an accountant, I saw a lot of horror stories I just didn't want to be a part of."

Today, however, he is half-owner of the well-known enterprise Heidman Inc., which runs 30 McDonald's franchises in Greater Akron. His partner, Richard Heidman, founded the company more than 40 years ago.

If longstanding marriages are harder to find nowadays, longstanding partnerships between unrelated, hands-on owners is even harder. How do the successful ones make it work?

SBN talked with four sets of partners, each facing a different set of circumstances. Within their success stories you'll find some common threads, based on principles of mutual respect, compromise and commitment.

Picking battles with care

Richard Heidman and John Blickle
Heidman Inc. dba McDonald's

When McDonald's corporate office this summer rolled out plans for a throwback promotion in which the workers would wear tie-dyed shirts, John Blickle cringed. Oh, he liked the idea, but he wasn't eager to spring it on Richard Heidman, his partner in 30 McDonald's franchises in Greater Akron.

At 77 years old, Heidman is Blickle's senior by 30 years. Blickle knew that his partner's age and old-fashioned work ethic would combine to make him explode at the thought of seeing his workers in tie-dye.

"I knew Monday morning at 8 o'clock wouldn't be the right time to talk to him," Blickle smiles. When they did talk, Heidman reacted as Blickle expected. "He said, 'No, it would look like hell. You don't want to buy something from someone wearing a T-shirt like that.'"

While Blickle favored the idea, he had already decided not to push it if Heidman felt too strongly.

That diplomacy is a staple of their business relationship.

"Some things are really critical to Richard but not as much to me," Blickle says. "If either one of us feels strongly about something, we'll say so ... Invariably it works out."

"We're both control freaks," Heidman laughs. "It's amazing we get along."

For the record, Heidman did grudgingly agree to the three-week tie-dye promotion because he thought the teen-age workers--who are well aware of how in-demand they are in this tight labor market-might enjoy it. "It's something that's different and keeps them interested," Blickle says.

While he's glad his partner agreed with his idea, Blickle notes, "It's not about winning or losing. If it had gone the other way, I'd have been OK with that."

Heidman says a good partnership should be built on respect. For them, that means understanding what's important to the other person. "Give in when you have to and fight when you have to," he says.

That respect also means appreciating the other person's areas of expertise. In their case, Heidman is the McDonald's veteran who is battle-tested when it comes to marketing and politics. Blickle, an accountant and lawyer by trade, has gained expertise in operations and today handles the general administrative responsibilities. "I might have an idea," Heidman says, "but he can come up with very good reasons why it's not good because it would hurt the bottom line too much."

Heidman and Blickle are also careful not to second-guess each other once a decision has been made. A comment that's strictly off-limits to both: "I told you so."

For example, Blickle recalls a difficult time several years ago when an employee was failing at the job, even though the person was well-liked. Heidman wanted to fire the person and Blickle resisted. That went on for three years, until Blickle finally concluded the situation had to be addressed.

"I just told him he was right and I was wrong and that was it," Blickle says. "He didn't throw it back at me."

Blickle joined the company in 1983 by buying out the interest of four other partners. At the time, Heidman owned 18 McDonald's. With nearly double the number today, the company employs 1,500 people (equivalent to 800 full-time employees).

Blickle acknowledges he was apprehensive about becoming anybody's partner, but says today, "I've never had an issue that I wasn't treated fairly on."

While Heidman had equity partners before, none were active in operations. Having a hands-on equal stirred his fears about coexisting, but under McDonald's Corp. requirements for franchisees, Heidman had little choice as he started to look toward succession. Owners must be active operators. "It's been better than I thought," he says. "Two heads are definitely better than one."

First friends, then partners

Linda Littler and Laura Carey
Carey & Littler Staffing Inc.

Linda Littler and Laura Carey started Carey & Littler Staffing Inc. two years ago knowing almost nothing about running a business. But the two felt confident because they knew each other well.

Their unexpected path to ownership occurred after Littler was fired from a temporary staffing firm, where she'd been for seven years. In a show of support, Carey quit the same company three days later-after working there five years-and announced they would form their own company.

It seemed logical because together they knew the industry. Littler had worked on placements; Carey had worked in outside sales. For five years, the women had worked side-by-side and, despite a 14-year age difference, they had become close friends.

"We had sort of a partnership even before we were partners," Littler says.

"It was such a natural," Carey says, "because of our work habits and ethics and friendship. When we clash, that is our foundation."

Carey & Littler have a somewhat unconventional partnership: They own equal shares even though Carey works only part-time in the office so she can maximize time with her three children, ages 3, 9 and 11. She spends about 20 hours in the office, and puts in perhaps 15 more at home, while Littler holds down the fort full-time in the office.

They reason that the pendulum will swing in a few years when Carey's children are all in school and Littler scales back to take care of an elderly aunt.

Littler acknowledges the arrangement is less than risk-free, and says people are surprised to find they have equal ownership. But it goes back to the friendship and trust.

While they haggled about whose name to put first in the company, Littler eventually agreed to put Carey's first for the practical reason that it appears earlier in alphabetical Yellow Pages listings.

Littler says it's important for prospective partners to iron out basic goals and philosophies ahead of time. But Carey goes a step further. "I would never have started the business with her if I hadn't known her for so long."

The women spend a good amount of time together outside of the office, too. Like many partners, they say they usually know how the other feels about an issue. In their case, one often catches herself finishing the other's sentences.

While their start-up phase has been successful-they became profitable at seven months and have opened a second location-they realize sustaining a business is even harder than starting one.

They agreed from Day One on a way to keep the peace in case they ever encountered a colossal disagreement. "We sa id if we ever had an impasse, we would hire a mediator to work it out," Carey says.

Knowing they have that option helps them discuss issues more freely. "It's a safety net," Carey says. "We're glad though because we haven't had to use it yet."

Left brain meets right brain

Marie Collins and Kathy Gargoline
Control Systems Inc.

For 22 years, Marie Collins ran Control Systems Inc. with her husband Ray. When he expressed interest in semi-retirement three years ago, she sought out a hands-on partner, even though she and her husband still owned the whole company.

She turned to Kathy Gargoline, a 17-year-employee who had started at Control Systems as a receptionist and progressed over the years to assistant accountant and then director of finance. Gargoline was promoted in 1995 to general manager, with responsibility for day-to-day operations of the Hudson ignition-equipment manufacturer. Collins, who is president, focuses on the big picture.

While Gargoline didn't own any equity three years ago, she was passionate about Control Systems and took some of the credit for its growth. "I already felt like I had ownership," she says.

For her part, Collins says, "I trust Kathy's judgment like my own."

Collins this fall decided to formalize those sentiments by making plans to offer a minority interest to Gargoline and possibly to a couple other key employees as well.

Collins sees the move as a sort of reward for two decades of dedication. But in reality, she has considered Gargoline a partner for years.

"A lot of companies, when they're small and family-owned, they like to have their hands in everything," Gargoline says. "I've had the flexibility to basically run the company as it needs to be run."

Collins and Gargoline say they've made their relationship work by focusing on their own areas of the 10-employee manufacturer. Collins handles strategic issues and marketing. Gargoline handles finance, including monitoring cash flow and margins, as well as daily operations.

It seems to be working: The first year after they entered their new roles, sales grew 20 percent, followed last year by a 38 percent increase.

"I might look at what we want," Collins says. "She's looking at what we can afford."

She describes it as a powerful combination of left-brain/right-brain personalities. "We're a good match that way," Collins says. "I think it would be detrimental in a small company if you had two people who thought a lot the same."

The women say they do have disagreements occasionally but work through them logically. "You need to listen to each other and you need to look at the issue from the other person's perspective," Gargoline says.

And once a decision is made, it's a joint decision. They succeed together and they fail together. "It's not, 'You shouldn't have done this. 'It's more like, 'We shouldn't have done this,'" Collins says.

Gargoline adds: "We learn from our mistakes."

Values steer the relationship

Vince DeCarlo and Frank Paternite
DeCarlo, Paternite and Associates Inc.

Vince DeCarlo and Frank Paternite were co-workers for one year in 1973 at Tremco Manufacturing in Cleveland in the fledgling field of computer systems.

The two went their separate ways and met up again a few years later on a moonlighting project in Chicago.

In 1976, they formed DeCarlo, Paternite and Associates Inc. as a two-man company developing custom software for manufacturing applications. Today DPAI is the oldest and one of the three largest privately held information technology consulting firms in Ohio, with sales nearing $20 million, 170 employees and offices in Independence, Akron and Orlando, Fla.

Even though DeCarlo is president and Paternite is vice president, each owns 50 percent of the business.

One of the secrets to the longevity of their partnership has been dividing the primary areas of responsibility. They capitalize on their own strengths and stay out of each other's hair.

Paternite oversees technology and legal matters while DeCarlo handles sales and marketing and finances.

"That's pretty much the line we divided," DeCarlo says. "To make a partnership work, you each have to have your own role, and those roles have to complement each other."

"Vince is the visionary," Paternite says. "I'm more the analytical type who figures out how to make it work. He's the dreamer. I act as a pessimist. Together we come to an understanding."

"I dream about all kinds of stuff," DeCarlo laughs. "Frank's role has always been to bring me back to reality."

DeCarlo says their ability to sustain the business revolves around three values: communication, dedication and determination.

"Our communication skills are textbook," he says. "We have an open dialogue and each person is given the opportunity to make his case.

"There has never has been a decision we haven't been able to agree on," he adds. "We might have to go have a cup of coffee. Sometimes we might even have to go down to the bar, and it might take two or three drinks, but we come together."

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:04

Can your company survive your illness?

We all probably know at least one business owner or top executive who's been struck with a serious illness. In most cases, the person, and the company, would probably have benefited from early detection.

Executives are not immune to health problems, and they might even be more susceptible if they're so busy that they neglect regular checkups.

That's the reason that the North Canton Medical Foundation launched its Executive Health Program. The full-service medical practice is targeting the 50 largest-area employers in hopes of providing annual physicals to all of their executive staffs. The marketing push focuses on how much companies suffer if a top executive is off work for an extended time or even dies from an undetected ailment.

The physicals, which are paid for by the employer, generally include a head-to-toe exam, a pulmonary check, blood count, cancer screening, chest X-ray, urinalysis, hearing and vision exams and other basic screenings. This level of exam costs $640 per person.

"If they invest in their executives, they're investing in the future of their companies," says Joan Bowser, Executive Health coordinator.

So far, about a dozen Stark County companies have contracted with North Canton Medical, including The Hoover Co., The Timken Co. and Diebold Inc.

At Hoover, the program covers the top 10 officers and managers. "So far we're very, very happy with the program," says Hoover spokeswoman Jacquelyn Love. "It's very positive for the employees and the company."

North Canton Medical provides red-carpet treatment for the executives, including opening at 7:30 a.m. to accommodate work schedules and avoid typical doctor's office waits. "It's pretty elite treatment," Bowser says.

Executives benefit by having their companies pay for comprehensive physicals. The companies benefit by keeping their important executives in better health.

Dr. John Humphrey, medical director for the practice, says the program serves as a sort of kick in the pants for executives who might procrastinate. "Most of us have access to health services, but this motivates them and systematizes their exams," Humphrey says.

"Most of us know what we should do, but we put stuff off because we have anxiety over it. Every intelligent woman knows you should have a mammogram every year, but so many women don't get them. This makes sure they get them."

Humphrey adds that the exams don't substitute for regular care, nor is the practice trying to steal business from existing family doctors. "This should supplement your health care, not compete with your primary physician."

The practice forwards information to the employee's family doctor, but not to the company management. "I enter into a doctor-patient relationship with these people just like everyone else," Humphrey says. "Clearly the companies have to honor that."

Many major clinics nationwide have started offering such executive programs, Humphrey says. Popular executive choices are the Mayo Clinic and Greenbriar Clinic.

"We, as a country, are getting a lot more into early detection and preventative care," Bowser says. "The bottom line is we're pushing this as an investment in a company."

North Canton Medical Foundation, which has 44 physicians and 270 employees, launched the program earlier this year, both to provide a community service and to try to build a business. "If they need a specialist down the road," Bowser says, "maybe they'll think of us."

How to reach: North Canton Medical Foundation (330) 305-5060

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:58

Early detection of health problems

Early detection and treatment can go a long way toward keeping health care costs in line.

Just look at Barberton-based Malco Products Inc., which manufactures, packages and markets chemical specialty products. Malco, which has nearly 300 employees, has organized five annual health and safety fairs with CorpCare, an occupational health service of Akron General Hospital. Since beginning the health fairs, Malco has helped 10 employees identify dangerously high blood pressure levels, six learned their cholesterol was at a critical level and five discovered previously undetected diabetes.

By helping employees discover their health problems and seek treatment, Malco has protected its health claims history. If the conditions weren’t identified, operations and hospital care might have cost more than $500,000, according to projections from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Healthy People 2000.

In addition to the concern about claims, Malco wants to look after employees and ensure they’re healthy enough to stay on the job, says Joan Freeman, Malco’s director of human resources. If someone is ill, she says, the company must absorb related training costs for a replacement worker.

Malco holds the health fairs during the work day; it’s worth the disruption, Freeman says, because fewer employees would attend if they had to drop by on their own time.

“We lose time, but we feel it’s a good trade-off. If we have healthy employees, we save in health care costs,” Freeman says, adding that the fairs supplement ongoing health and safety training programs. “We’re trying to catch problems early. We’re trying to catch someone’s blood pressure before they have a heart attack.”

Malco spends about $2,000 on the fair for screenings, decorations, food and speakers’ fees. Freeman, who organizes the event with help from a part-time nurse, offers these tips for holding your own health fair:

1. Appoint a committee to coordinate food, decorations, signs and set-up/tear down.

2. Work with a third party to line up companies that can support information booths on insurance, smoking and other topics.

3. Schedule different departments at different times, rather than tying up everyone for the day.

4. Give employees enough time to visit each station or display (Malco gives each group 45 minutes).

5. Build the program around screenings, such as cholesterol, blood pressure, vision and glucose.

6. Offer variety each year. One year, a Health Rider was raffled off. Other years have featured demonstrations on topics including stress relief and women’s defense skills.

7. If an expert is hired to speak, make sure he or she is outgoing and approachable.

8. Involve top management from the start and make sure they participate in the event.

9. Follow up with workers, especially if screenings reveal problems.

Although Malco prefers the day-long fair, companies can plan smaller events, says Harry Kuhn, CorpCare director. Illness and injury on the job aren’t new, but Kuhn says area companies increasingly are showing an interest in health and safety education as a tool for retaining workers.

In addition to fairs and other educational programs, some companies ask doctors, nurses and other medical professionals to assess working conditions and recommend changes, he says.

How to reach: Malco Products Inc. (330) 753-0361; CorpCare: (330) 384-6578

Michael M. Murray is a freelance writer.