Meredyth McKenzie

Monday, 23 February 2009 19:00

Homeowners’ silver lining

Today’s low mortgage rates and home prices have provided a silver lining to first-time homebuyers or those looking to refinance their current mortgage. While it may not be a good time for all (such as those who want to sell their home or those who do not have enough equity to qualify for a loan), these low rates are still providing substantial opportunities to homeowners.

“If you need a house and it’s your house for the next three, five, seven years, it’s a great time to be looking and getting yourself into home ownership,” says Carmen Inclan, residential lending division area sales manager, Fifth Third Bank, Tampa Bay.

Smart Business spoke with Inclan about how getting a mortgage loan has changed, why now is a good time to refinance your mortgage and what to do if you might already be in trouble with your mortgage.

How can new homeowners get a loan today, and has anything changed with the process?

All the complex, sophisticated types of mortgage financing that were around a few years ago during the real estate boom are not available today. The banks and agencies have placed restrictions to keep from falling back into some of the questionable lending practices that were rampant throughout the United States. Though the process has not changed, the criteria have been adjusted, and it is now more difficult to qualify for a mortgage loan. A few years ago, if you had good credit, you could get a loan with minimal paperwork. Today, we are back to the requirements that were in place in the early 1990s. A down payment, consistent income for a two-year period, and a good or excellent credit rating are required. Welcome back to traditional financing, where debt-to-income ratios have been lowered to 1990s levels.

Is this a good time for homeowners to refinance their mortgages?

This is a fantastic time to refinance a mortgage. Rates are at 40-year lows. I’ve seen rates hit these levels, but they didn’t last that long. If anyone can save at least 1 percent or more on his or her mortgage, this is definitely a time to discuss refinancing opportunities. Have your banker complete an analysis, discuss how long you plan to own your home and determine your housing objectives for the next several years.

What should people who are already in trouble with their mortgage do?

Troubled mortgage borrowers should call the bank where they send their mortgage payment, ask for the loss mitigation department and speak with a loss mitigation specialist to see if there are any hardship programs available to restructure their existing mortgage. It sounds easy to do, but it depends on what company owns the mortgage note, as not all mortgage servicers own the mortgage notes that they service. When making the call, know that the company may not necessarily have the decision-making ability to renegotiate your loan. The servicer must contact the mortgage note holder to determine if modification is an option. This is where a lot of people are slipping through the cracks. They are having a hard time reaching someone at a lending company who has the authority to discuss loan modifications. If homeowners are sending their payment to the same company that owns the note, they are going to have much more success finding someone to help them restructure their loan.

How long should we expect these low rates to last?

We will know in the next six months how much longer this cycle of price depreciation in housing is going to last. When Congress performs activities to stimulate the economy, it doesn’t happen from one day to the next; it takes time for those activities to take hold in the marketplace. Once the stimulus packages are executed by Washington, we should have a better idea of how far ahead the light at the end of the tunnel will be.

CARMEN INCLAN is residential lending division area sales manager, Fifth Third Bank, Tampa Bay. Reach her at (813) 306-2585 or

Monday, 23 February 2009 19:00

The relationship builder

Even with his busy schedule, Gary Cady is never too busy to get out and visit his employees. It could be a spontaneous meeting in the lobby of Torrey Pines Bank to discuss news or recognize some of his 123 employees or the more structured road show each quarter to visit the bank’s seven locations.

“There’s no more important task that I have than motivating people and creating an environment for a motivated person to succeed in,” says the president and CEO. “It makes my job easier if they’re motivated and accomplishing things to the best of their ability.”

Cady’s focus on employee and customer relationships has helped the bank reach 2007 revenue of $27.4 million.

Smart Business spoke with Cady about how to develop relationships with your employees and customers.

Q. How do you develop trusting relationships with your employees?

Open communication from both standpoints is important. It’s just not what maybe I have to say but what I have to hear, listening to expectations of employees, both professional and personal — just understanding what my expectations are and for me to understand what their expectations are.

Just listening and taking time. Sometimes it’s away from the workplace; it’s just having a lunch or breakfast, maybe a place that doesn’t have the distractions in the workplace. Ask open-ended questions and truly listen to what they have to say.

In some cases, it works better for it to be spontaneous. It might be as simple as grabbing somebody and going out to lunch with them on a last minute or for a breakfast. In some cases, it maybe needs to be more structured.

I’ve worked with people before who like to have organized, structured, one-on-one meetings, (but) mine tend to be a little more spontaneous. That comes across just more genuine; that you want to spend some time with them and find out what’s going on.

Q. How do you become a better listener?

Silence is a powerful tool, and too frequently, people want to respond quickly. Slow it down and let silence be a powerful tool. The person who is talking, if they realize that you’ve waited to absorb what they’ve had to say, you’re more likely to hear it, but they’re more likely to believe you’re listening to them.

Sometimes, it’s hard for me to know whether employees are listening to me or the ideas I’m trying to get across. Time will tell, will be the answer. You can clearly ask them to repeat and just affirm what you’ve tried to communicate, but even listening and understanding may be two different things. Their future actions will be a real determinant of whether they were truly listening and understanding the concepts or ideas you were trying to get across.

Be direct with them and form an action plan to help them work on that. Sometimes there are classes or outside seminars people can go to. A lot of times, people don’t even realize they’re not good listeners until they’re presented with that as a potential issue.

Q. How do you develop trusting relationships with your customers?

In our business, an awful lot of groundwork is laid upfront when you first establish a relationship with a prospective client. What people don’t want in any relationship is surprises, so as long as you lay out in front what you expect — and even if it may not be what they want to hear — at least they’ve heard from you what your expectations are. Most of the better relationships, those communications occur upfront, and there’s a clear understanding moving forward on a pretty solid foundation.

There needs to be times when you’re spending time with them to see how their business is going and let them know how your business is going. Things change over time, and nothing remains the same. So as the environment’s changing, how are we adapting to that, how are they adapting to that?

I encourage our officers to go out and spend as much time at the client’s place of work rather than here at the bank. You learn a lot more about people in their work environment than when you’re in your own work environment.

It’s as simple as periodically asking questions about clients. Nobody likes to not have the answer, so if they know you’re going to be frequently asking questions about their clients, they’re going to be prepared to have those answers.

Q. What’s the benefit of creating relationships with employees and customers?

Certainly during good times, things are easy, but during difficult times, if you have a longer-term relationship with people, you tend to be able to react in a way that works for both parties, rather than trying to gain new trust or expertise.

You’re able to take care of customers during both challenging times and times that are stronger economic times.

HOW TO REACH: Torrey Pines Bank, (858) 523-4600 or

Monday, 23 February 2009 19:00

The personal touch

With so many different people to deal with on a daily basis and with the inception of technology such as cell phones, e-mail and BlackBerrys, it’s hard to feel like you’re creating any personal connections in business today.

However, that personal touch is still out there, and relationship banking is one way to get it. Relationship banking gives you the satisfaction that someone knows you and cares about the financial side of your business.

“When you consistently work with the same experienced person that has a sincere interest in your concerns and successes, you know you’re not alone,” says Clayton Kinlan, a relationship banker with Brentwood Bank.

Smart Business spoke with Kinlan about how to develop a relationship with your bank and how relationship banking can help your business.

What is relationship banking?

In a word, trust. When relationship banking is done properly, you trust your banker to the point that he or she is the first person you call to discuss business dealings, even when you have needs not related to banking. With this rapport, both parties know the abilities of the other and are comfortable enough that they become referral sources. Many of us have learned the value of networking and generating referrals. On average, all of us know 250 to 300 people. Who in business doesn’t want referrals, the most profitable form of advertising?

In an action, relationship banking means being proactive. It’s having a banker that knows the obstacles you’re facing and does something to lessen or eliminate them. You don’t want a banker who follows the 1990s banking approach of: ‘How do I reach my goals?’ You want a banker that says: ‘How can I reach your goals?’ A good relationship banker will work for you all the time, even when you’re not expecting it.

How can businesses develop a relationship with a bank?

Really, your banker should be developing a relationship with you. Look for a banker that reaches out to you personally through phone calls, e-mails, handwritten notes and/or visits. And make sure your banker is doing this when the bank doesn’t need anything. This shows you that you are not ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ If your banker does this consistently and sincerely, you know he or she has a genuine concern in your needs and wants.

What can banks provide to businesses through relationship banking?

There are two primary benefits to be gained by utilizing a relationship banker — stability and peace of mind.

Speaking to stability, the relationship banker should become your contact for whatever needs you may have. Ideally, at the inception of the relationship, you should be introduced to team members that you will interact and conduct daily transactions with. But, your relationship banker is your point person, the first one you call for deposit, lending, cash management and online banking needs.

Speaking to peace of mind, the relationship banker should be consistently reaching out to you without the hidden agenda of fulfilling a bank requirement. He or she should be providing you an outlet to review your changing needs and the options available to meet them. Your banker should customize products and packages to meet your special needs. Take, for example, a nonprofit organization. A good relationship banker will put together a package that increases cash flow, provides FDIC insurance exceeding traditional limits and improves the organization’s time management.

If small business owners know they can have their banking and financing needs serviced, face to face, without having to leave their places of business, their time management will be greatly improved. True relationship banking means a long-term commitment with the customer.

What happens if businesses don’t develop good relationships with their banks?

‘What is your name?’ and ‘Oh, you have an account with us?’ are painful things for a customer to hear. If you hear this from your banker, you know you’re simply conducting a transaction and not participating in a relationship with the bank. At this point, there are two events occurring — first, you’re just a number to the bank and, second, you, the customer, have become frustrated. What you’re missing is someone who will respond quickly to a need and seek solutions that may not already be preprinted on a promotional piece. In these historical economic times we’re living in, just think of the lost opportunities that are occurring by not having a relationship banker that you trust.

CLAYTON KINLAN is a relationship banker at Brentwood Bank. Reach him at (412) 409-9000 or

Rick Bryan was ready for a change. He and his staff at Bryan

Equipment Sales Inc. had been going through the same old

process each year to develop the company’s key strategies for the

coming year. They all knew it was time to move on to something

new. “It had kind of gone through its cycle,” says Bryan, the company’s president. “We had been doing that strategy session for the

last eight years and had done well with it, but eight years is a long

time to do the same type of strategy planning.” Just as the company was itching for something different, Tom Jones, the company’s chairman, happened to meet a gentleman from a consulting

firm at a chamber of commerce meeting. Over the past two year,

the consultant has helped the company, an independent distributor of STIHL power tools and products, develop a new planning

process that is more technical and allows for more interaction

from employees.

Bryan says that you can get stuck in the same old routine, day in

and day out. Having initiatives and goals in place can help keep

employees on track, so they know what they should be working

for each day. They have also helped the company continue to grow

during the past 60 years in business.

“It’s important that we set initiatives and goals that are tied to our

growth goal that everybody throughout the company can look to

and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do this year, and we’re going

to do it because we feel like we’re going to hit X percent growth,’”

he says. “We believe that if we do X, then at the end of the year, it

is an element to our success.”

By developing strategies each year and involving employees in

the process, Bryan has set a path that his employees have bought

in to and are striving to reach together.

Develop the strategies

The first thing you have to do is to figure out exactly what you

want to achieve for the year. Bryan and 11 members of his staff

spent several days off-site with the consultant to come up with the

company strategies for the year.

Using a consultant helps to get the process started. Bryan says

you should find someone who fits your culture and understands

your company and your industry. Seeking advice from your local

chamber of commerce, trade associations and professional advisers can help you in finding the right consultant to use.

With the help of the consultant, the company uses a technology-based compared analysis system, which puts all the choices up on

a screen for the staff to sift through.

Before the meeting, employees are given a particular topic to

research and then report back on how the company is achieving it,

why it is important and how it could be improved upon. They also

look at the challenges, risks and opportunities for that topic over

the next year. These are then used when coming up with strategies

for the coming year and also to get employees involved in the


“You come up with 20 ideas that you think are going to take you

to the next level and then you do comparisons,” Bryan says. “This or this? This or this? Which is more important? Do you like this

one slightly, moderately or more than the one above? Or do you

like the one above slightly, moderately or more than the one below

it? You ask that against every bucket of opportunity, and it narrows

it down for you of what the whole group thinks is most important

and will achieve the objectives for the year on revenue and profit.”

The top choices are ranked in order, so then you have to narrow

down your ideas to the ones that are the most important. It needs

to be a manageable number of ideas that you can actually work on

implementing throughout the year. Bryan drives this process to get

the staff to agree on the best strategies for the company.

“You could come up with 10, but we are firm believers that you

can’t do more than five or six things,” Bryan says. “You can do the

other ones, but you need to pick five or six that people can remember. If you pick 10, nobody’s going to be remembering, you’ll just

never be able to remember it or act on it. It’s better to do five

things right than 10 things halfway right.”

Some of the strategies the company picked to focus on for 2009

include accessory sales, improving forecasting and selling into

different segments of the market more efficiently.

While this type of strategy development might seem fast, since

the company spends less than two days actually determining the

strategies, the method is more interactive because of the technology and easier to develop conclusions on the best strategies.

Getting employees involved in the process also helps them

understand the strategies better, and in turn, they help others

understand them, as well.

“As a group we’re always going to come up with better ideas

than a single person could,” Bryan says. “It tentacles out through

the entire organization. If we’re all involved with it and all can

verbalize it and repeat it and live it, sleep it, drink it, eat it,

breathe it, then the rest of the company does also.”

You also need to make sure you’re involved in the development

process, as it shows employees that you are a part of the team and

care about the strategies of the company. Bryan was right there with

his co-workers, presenting a topic and suggesting ideas regarding

strategies. He says if you’re not going to be part of the process, you

might as well not even be in the room helping with it.

It’s easy to come out of strategy development sessions, but you

also want everyone to understand the strategies before you start

the implementation phase, so you need buy-in.

“If you buy in to the fact that the five or six things you pick are

going to make a difference over the next 12 months to help you

achieve your revenue and profit goals, then you need to buy in to

it and your managers need to buy in to that so that it permeates

throughout the entire organization,” Bryan says.

Developing that buy-in goes back to making sure you pick the

strategies that are the most important for your company.

“If you just pick five things that you don’t think are going to help

you at all, then yeah, it’s going to sit on the shelf and nobody’s

going to buy in to it,” Bryan says. “It does start with that process

of, ‘These are five or six things that we’re either not currently doing

or not performing as well as we think we can, that we believe in

our hearts will make a difference in our next 12-month results.’ If

you honestly don’t believe that, then the process was a waste of

time and go back to work and do what you were doing before.”

Implement the strategies

Once your strategies are in place and you have formed that

buy-in with those involved in the development, you need to start

implementing the strategies and involving the employees. Each

strategy at Bryan Equipment is given an owner, and that person

then sets the timeline and action plan for the year to achieve that

strategy. Having an owner in charge of each strategy makes sure

that it is being worked on and achieved by employees.

“You’ve got to have an owner; somebody’s got to be accountable in the end,” he says. “Did it get done or not, was it successful or not, did it achieve results and goals at the end?”

Developing the timeline and plan is the sole responsibility of the

owner, but the staff is there to provide guidance to him or her.

The goals within the plan have to be measurable so employees

can actually reach them.

“If it is not measurable, then it is not worth doing,” Bryan says.

“Would anyone watch the Super Bowl if we did not keep score?”

You need to make sure the timeline proposed for achieving each

goal is reasonable and that all resources needed to achieve it are

available to the owner of each goal. All numbers and statistics for

the goals are measured, then reviewed monthly to determine what

type of progress is being made.

Employees are measured through progress reports, and once they

achieve the goals, they are compensated through bonuses. Tying

bonuses directly into the action plan not only holds employees

accountable but also gets them motivated about achieving the goals.

“The employees are recognized at the end of the year with, hopefully, a substantial check that shows they achieved their goal that

helped us all reach our sales and profit goal,” Bryan says.

There are points, though, when working on the strategies, that

employees learn that the goals may be set too high and need to be

readjusted. Bryan says as long as employees bring evidence as to

why the goal is too high and everyone agrees on it, the goal can be


As the year goes on and challenges come up, it’s easy to let the

strategies slip away. You need to keep them at the forefront and reinforce them so everyone remains focused on them.

“You get reactive,” Bryan says. “It’s in the upfront process that these

five or six or however many you might come up with are always

proactive and going to make a difference for the following 12 months.

We meet monthly with our staff. The first three slides we show at

every meeting every month are our mission statement, our strategy,

and our five or six initiatives for the next 12 months, so it’s in front of

every employee monthly.”

Bryan says the strategies the company has developed through

this process have led to successes and helped the company grow.

For example, one of the strategies in 2008 was to achieve 58 percent of orders coming through their system electronically. The

company was at 40 percent at the beginning of 2008 and had

already reached 60 percent by September.

Bryan says developing and implementing new strategies can help

you deal with changes that happen to your business.

“If you continue to do the same thing every day and expect change,

that’s not going to happen,” Bryan says. “The initiatives and strategies are trying to get out of that, doing the same thing day after day

after day, and then looking at yourself at the end of the year and saying, ‘Why didn’t we grow?’ Even if we picked six bad ones and then

don’t grow, at least we tried something. If we come in and do the

same old, same old every day, I’m not sure we would make it another 60 years.”

HOW TO REACH: Bryan Equipment Sales Inc., (513) 248-2000 or

Monday, 26 January 2009 19:00

Getting to know you

When Jacqueline Neal arrived at Glory Foods Inc. in October 2007, she took some time upfront to meet with all of her employees.

She asked them what they liked and didn’t like about the company, things they wanted to change, and she asked if they had any advice for her as the new president of the company, which posted 2007 revenue of $73.6 million.

Doing so allowed Neal to learn about her 25 employees on both a personal and professional level and establish a rapport with them at the manufacturer and distributor of Southern-style, heat-and-serve food products.

“People feel more connected to the company,” Neal says. “They feel like the company’s looking out for their best interest, and it feels like home. It does feel like a second home in a way, and that leads people to do a much better job.”

Smart Business spoke with Neal about how to develop that trust and how to be open with your employees.

Be open with your people. It’s doing what I say I’m going to do. It’s making sure that you follow up. I try to make sure that I get back to everyone, even if it’s not as timely as I would like.

It can be as simple as a drive-by at their cubicle or an e-mail, just a quick message to say, ‘I did hear you; I don’t have an answer yet, that’s why I haven’t gotten back to you.’ You get the reputation for following through on what you say you’re going to do.

Walking around the building and talking to people helps. You do it when it feels natural; I don’t think it should be a forced thing. I do make it a point to at least every day get out of my office and make sure I’m not holed up there with my head in the computer.

It depends on your personality. Some people are better at the one on one or small groups, so you can do a lunch and learn or a brown bag — grab a few people and sit in the conference room and just have lunch.

Or take people out one on one or call somebody to your office and say, ‘Hey, I just want to find out how things are going.’ It depends on your style — if you’re more comfortable in groups, then it’s easy to go to an area and just have a conversation. If you are more comfortable with the one on one, there are lots of ways you can create that without creating the stress in the employees.

Ask employees for feedback. The 360-degree feedback [in which each employee receives performance feedback from a supervisor and from four to eight others] is another way of making sure that it’s open. It’s hard to develop and know what you need to work on without the feedback.

The first time you see it, it’s a little frightening, but if you embrace it in the right spirit in which it’s intended, meaning it’s important to just hear what other people think, you can develop your skills and abilities to the best of your ability.

Before implementing 360-degree feedback, a leader should schedule a meeting with employees to have an open conversation about this type of review process. Specifically, explain what 360-degree feedback is, how it works and that it is completely confidential. Critical to developing people, 360-degree feedback helps employees see what impact they have and how they are perceived among their peers, superiors and subordinates.

And it’s also sharing results. I’m going to sit down with the management team and share the feedback I got. It’s not an easy thing to do to stay focused and admit some of these things, but there’s no way it’s going to get better and improve.

I want them to know that I heard them, and I didn’t just brush it under the carpet, so that’s important; it builds trust.

Encourage the management team to make time for one-onone meetings with their direct reports so they can share and discuss feedback. It’s important to keep open channels for honest and constructive communication. You set the stage for consistent, open communication that helps to avoid surprises when it comes time for a formal review.

Recognize your people. Every major study I’ve seen says that higher pay typically falls at No. 5 or 6 when you rank the things that people care about most at a company. The things that rise to the top tend to be respect, responsibilities and recognition — it could be public recognition, awards, it’s things like that that get people jazzed.

You can pay people a lot of money, but if they don’t feel respected, they’re going to burn out, they’re not going to stay and be productive.

It’s important to understand the culture. ... And if you’re a new leader coming to the organization, talk to some of the people who have been around for a while and find out what’s been done in the past.

Different people might like more public recognition; some might like it more privately. It’s important to recognize and respect the work culture. But most people like getting as little as a thank you — it could be a note on their desk or a cookie that says, ‘Thank you for what you did last week,’ to the bigger, broader, make a real big deal about it, put your picture up, (have the) most valued employee. It’s something as simple as recognizing their performance in front of everybody in the company.

You can also ask the employees what ideas they have for recognizing people. You might get some that say, ‘Just give me the cold, hard cash,’ but most people would be surprised as to the creativity that you hear from employees if you just ask them.

HOW TO REACH: Glory Foods Inc., (614) 252-2042 or

Monday, 26 January 2009 19:00

Sifting through change

The start of a new year means change. One big change affecting businesses is the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) Amendments Act, which keeps the three-part basic definition of disability the same, but makes other major changes to the Act.

“Congress’ original intent was for the definition of disability to be construed broadly, but in their handling of cases, courts have narrowed the definition of disability to the point where the Act no longer covers the people Congress originally intended it to cover,” says Megan Kreitner Ouzts, associate with Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC.

Smart Business spoke with Ouzts about how to deal with the changes and what can happen if businesses are not prepared for them.

What are some of the major differences in the ADAAA?

One of the biggest differences is that the ADAAA overturns the Sutton trilogy of cases, which held that ‘mitigating measures’ that help individuals control or cope with impairments must be considered in determining whether an individual is disabled within the meaning of the ADA. The result of these decisions had been to exclude from the ADA many people, such as those with insulin-controlled diabetes, whom Congress intended to cover. Now, generally speaking, no mitigating measures will be taken into account except ordinary eyeglasses and contacts.

Another big change is that the ADAAA now provides two lists of major life activities, the first of which includes, for the first time, major bodily functions defined as functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine and reproductive functions. The second list is different than the ADA’s original list in that it contains not only most of the major life activities previously recognized by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but it also recognizes several new activities, for example, bending, reading and communicating. The Amendments Act also states specifically that an impairment can be a disability even if episodic or in remission.

How does the ADAAA affect businesses?

More people will qualify as disabled under this Act because Congress has been very clear that the definition will be construed broadly. This means that more employees are going to request accommodations from their employers, who will inevitably find themselves dedicating more resources (financial and administrative) to analyzing and, where appropriate, providing these requests.

Additionally, the ADAAA is going to change how we litigate disability cases because there are going to be fewer threshold cases. By this I mean that, in the past, employers often fought ADA claims by disputing whether a person was ‘disabled’ under the Act. Employers would win cases at the summary judgment phase by taking advantage of the narrow definition of disability. But now, because the definition of disability will be construed so broadly, lawyers will be fighting less about whether plaintiffs are disabled. This will result in a focus shift in litigation. The new battlegrounds will be, for example, whether the employer offered a reasonable accommodation or whether the person could perform the essential functions of his or her job with or without an accommodation.

How should businesses make adjustments?


  • Train supervisors to engage in the interactive process and properly document requests for accommodations. Teach them how to handle requests, inform them of the expanded definition of disability, discuss available accommodations, and caution them to expect more administrative legwork.



  • Make sure your company policies conform to the new law. Consult legal counsel to revise policies and handbooks if needed.



  • Remember, employers are not required to remove an essential function of a job when providing an accommodation. Revise job descriptions to be sure all essential functions of a job are included, and determine whether those already listed are truly essential.



  • Pay attention. Changes may still occur as the EEOC promulgates new rules interpreting the ADAAA. It is also likely that the Department of Justice, which issues regulations for the ADA, will promulgate new regulations and hold a public comment period to address any proposed new language.


What else should businesses know about the ADAAA?

If a company is not engaging in the interactive process in good faith and chooses not to properly document that process, it’s going to open itself up to liability. Documentation will be critical, as will obtaining buy-in of supervisors and human resources professionals who handle requests. Document all aspects of accommodation requests, the process with the employees and, of course, which accommodation was eventually chosen and why.

Companies should not feel as if they have to offer every accommodation that is requested. Under the ADAAA, employers are under no obligation to provide employees with the exact accommodation requested or the ‘best’ accommodation. They need only provide a ‘reasonable’ accommodation, which means, at the very minimum, one that does not cause the employer undue hardship.

MEGAN KREITNER OUZTS is an associate with Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC. Reach her at (678) 406-8736 or

Friday, 26 December 2008 19:00

A winning philosophy

People are important to Curtis J. Moody. As an athlete and student at The Ohio State University, he learned from coach Fred Taylor that you always win with people and that it’s important to have the right people on your team.

And to create that winning team, Moody makes his 170 employees feel important at Moody•Nolan Inc. by celebrating birthdays and anniversaries and by hosting company gettogethers.

“It lets people know we understand there’s a human side to what they’re doing, and it’s not just all about them coming in here eight hours a day and that’s all we know about them,” Moody says about how he operates at the $24.7 million architecture, civil engineering and interior design firm.

Smart Business spoke with Moody•Nolan’s founder, president and CEO about how to attract the right people to your company and how to develop relationships with them.

Q. How do you find employees who have the qualities you are looking for?

The best source is our employees themselves to determine if they know others in the industry who would be a good fit. Our preference is to talk to our people, talk to people they know and to seek out others who would be a good fit.

It has to do with whether a person can work independently without having to be totally supervised on a regular basis. We like to find people who are self-motivators, who can work independent and work in a team environment.

We’ll look to see if they’ve been in those situations and what their experience was. Sometimes, individuals will say what their preference is as far as working environment. ... Sometimes, we’ll see that through resumes, and other times, it’s actually hard to find that out until you actually hired the person.

Q. How do you create an environment where employees can work independently?

We don’t have the kind of firm that everyone has a supervisor and that supervisor’s looking over their shoulders to make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. In most cases, they’re given something to do, and then we’re waiting to see if they get it done.

You reach a certain point of growth that you recognize that a lot of creative ideas — not just your own — are important. If you listen and never implement any ideas from staff, it doesn’t set a positive example; it basically says that you don’t value their ideas. The way you show value is by implementing ideas of others, regardless of who they came from.

It’s important that we have strong relationships, healthy relationships among our people.

Q. What are the keys to developing strong relationships with employees?

Keep it simple. Follow the basic tenets of what does the employee want to get out of their job.

In most cases, it’s they have certain skills and want to be able to exercise them? And have you provided the environment where they can exercise their skills and they are noticed for exercising their skills and given the appropriate accolades when they are?

Showing respect means appreciation for what other diverse talents exist within your company, whether they are large or small — for example, we appreciate our receptionist because she does such a good job at making that first impression. When people call, they like talking to that individual and want to know if the rest of the firm is like that person. We respect that just as much as the talented designer who wins awards for us.

Q. How do you set an example of respect for employees to follow?

It’s not just us saying, ‘Do as we say, but do as we do.’ Over the years, we’ve been able to do that, and therefore, it doesn’t necessarily have to be communicated in words all the time. ... ‘Have you ever seen such and such act this way or act in a negative way?’

When you have to answer, ‘No, I haven’t seen the head of this division act a certain way,’ then that example is one you should be following. The same way with me. ... I can’t expect others to behave a certain way or handle themselves in a certain way if I myself am contrary to those standards.

It’s a matter of personality. There are plenty of leaders who are outgoing and can contribute to how comfortable their people are. In my case, and maybe other cases, where we’re not necessarily outgoing, it’s important to self-assess what you’re comfortable doing. The importance is to understand each person’s strengths that can be capitalized on and used as an example of what you hope will show your employees and clients that you are dedicated to serving them.

If anything, you’re trying to respect them, and they, in turn, will respect you back. If you are not respectful to your people, they will not recognize you as someone who is caring or has concern about their well-being.

HOW TO REACH: Moody•Nolan Inc., (614) 461-4664 or

Friday, 26 December 2008 19:00

Greg Achten creates vision at Merrill Lynch

Greg Achten thought he knew everything

about Cincinnati. He grew up there, went

to college there and even started his career

there with Merrill Lynch Wealth


But when Achten returned to the city in

February as director of the company’s

Greater Cincinnati complex after spending

18 years away, he realized the market was

quite different than what he thought it was.

“Even though I thought I knew the market, I did spend a lot of time relearning the

market with a different lens just so I didn’t

miss anything,” he says.

Spending that time relearning helped

Achten step into the director’s role with no

preconceptions and ready to tackle any

challenges that lay ahead of him.

One of the first challenges Achten had to

face was creating a vision. Merrill Lynch,

which was recently bought by Bank of

America, has an overall company vision to

“be the essential partner and to go beyond

financial solutions for our clients.” But the

company is large, with 60,000 employees

and offices in 40 countries, and Achten

wanted a vision specific to Cincinnati that

would rally his 180 employees to work

together toward a common goal.

“It’s important to have a vision locally just

so everybody has something they can buy in

to and build toward,” Achten says. “It’s

important for employees to buy in to something and be part of something that’s bigger

than just their day-to-day role, and that’s

what the vision enabled us to do. That drives

the receptionist’s behavior, it drives the

financial behavior, anything interacting with

clients, what we do behind the scenes.”

Achten dove into creating the local vision

to “be the premier solution for financial

services in Cincinnati” by focusing on getting to know the $107 million organization

better, getting feedback from employees

and holding employees accountable for

achieving the vision.

Get to know your people

Achten couldn’t start creating a vision

without any information, so he first needed

to get to know his organization and the

people in it. He did a fast overview of the

company and knew employees were delivering a high level of service to clients, but

he wanted to dig deeper and know more

about the individuals he would be leading.

“People don’t care what you know until

they know you care, so it’s important for

me to come in, get to know the individuals,

what they were trying to accomplish, get to

know their practices and how they interacted with their clients,” Achten says.

He spent most of his first 100 days there

meeting with employees, mainly the 116

financial advisers. He spent between a half-hour to an hour with each employee, sometimes over lunch or dinner, to learn about

him or her personally and professionally.

Achten didn’t set an agenda for the conversations, but he let the employees dictate

the direction.

“I wanted to know about them and their

family and interests, and just what they

were looking to accomplish in life, what

they were looking to accomplish within the

firm and how they interacted with clients,”

he says. “Just everything they were comfortable talking about — it was fairly casual, and I took a lot of notes.”

Listening is one of the keys to making

these conversations successful, so employees know you are actually interested in

what they are sharing. Achten says he did

about 85 percent of the listening and let the

employees do the majority of the talking

during conversations.

“It was through listening that I gained a

true understanding of who the advisers

were as people, what they needed from

their leader in order to provide the premier

client experience and what vision they had

of the Merrill Lynch office,” he says.

To prove he had listened, Achten met

with all employees once he completed the

process to share what he had learned.

“I just shared with them, here’s who we are as people, and I wanted them to understand that I heard exactly what they had

told me — not individual personal things,

but as a group, this is who we are, this is

our business, these are our business metrics — so everybody saw where I was coming from,” he says.

Spending time getting to know your

employees requires a significant commitment. Achten worked many long days to

meet with every employee. But even though

you need to commit time to your employees,

you also need to make time for the other

daily duties and challenges that may arise.

“As much time that I put into getting to

know people, I always blocked enough

time to deal with the crisis situations that

may come up or trying to get information

out ... and continue to get ideas out and not

just bunker in for three months and not be

visible,” he says.

From these conversations, Achten was able

to learn about the quality of the people, both

personally and professionally, and the level of

service they were delivering to clients.

“I felt like, in a fairly short amount of

time, I got a lot of feedback from the organization, and I was able to connect to people

there, so then when we went to phase three

... there was much more buy-in because I

took the time to get to know them upfront,”

he says.

Achten says you need to actively listen to

get to know them better.

“Knowing your employees inside and out

will inevitably make their professional

experience more fulfilling,” he says. “This

professional fulfillment then motivates

advisers to deliver the highest caliber of

client service.”

Get feedback

Once Achten understood his people, he

needed to work on forming the vision.

Getting feedback from employees played a

large role in creating that vision.

“A big part of my leadership style is I’m

inclusive — I want ideas,” he says.

“Ultimately, I’ll make decisions, but we’re better as an organization

when our best people are sharing ideas and we’re getting input

from all parts of the organization.”

Achten formed groups from the four subsets of employees in his

organization — the leadership team, financial advisers, client associates and operations staff — to get direct feedback on the vision.

The boards are voluntary, and Achten asked for board member

nominations from employees. He looked for people with a positive

attitude who had an influence on the company culture — people

who collaborated with others, placed an emphasis on the client

experience and were determined to improve the business.

Before jumping into work, Achten provided a direction for the

groups to head during the meetings. He wanted the discussions to

deal with what the organization could do to make the client and

employee experience better.

“I emphasized the importance of, No. 1, being collaborative and,

No. 2, working within the context of our overall mission,” Achten


He met with these groups quarterly to get feedback on the vision,

and he still meets with them to get the pulse of the organization. He

says these groups are able to help with identifying and solving issues

that might stand in the way of fulfilling the vision.

Employees know who their representatives are and are encouraged to go to them with questions or feedback.

“If they have suggestions on how we could do things better, they

funnel it through that group,” he says.

While feedback was abundant, Achten needed to remember that

it was his responsibility to make the ultimate decision.

“At the end of the day, the decisions are mine, but I make better

decisions as a whole when I get more feedback,” he says. “The

quality of decisions ... it’s crazy not to listen to everybody through

the organization when you’re making decisions. More input is better.”

Getting feedback from your employees, along with taking time to

get to know them, allows you to form the vision together as a team,

which creates more buy-in.

“If you come in and try to instill your vision without any input,

then you’re just not going to get the buy-in,” Achten says. “There

are innovative ideas inside of every organization, and those ideas,

if harvested, will make the client experience better and will ultimately drive revenue. It is hard to get buy-in from employees if

they are not fully heard first.”

Implement the vision

Once Achten had a good sense of his environment and received

feedback, it was time to implement the vision. Because of the time

he spent connecting with employees and seeking their ideas, it was

easy to communicate the vision to them and get buy-in.

“The win we were able to get early on was spending that upfront

time to get to know people and understand where they’re coming

from so when we get back to them and say, ‘Hey, have you looked

at this or tried this,’ they’re much more receptive to new ideas if

they know that you spent the time listening to them,” he says.

While it’s important to communicate the vision, you need to

make sure employees have the necessary tools to achieve it.

Achten provided training, such as wealth management training, to

improve employee skills in areas related to the vision. He says

training needs to be tailored to the individual. By listening to what

employees are interested in, Achten can recommend what training

is best suited for them.

Providing tools is important, but you need to hold employees

accountable for using these to achieve the vision. Every employee

at Merrill Lynch has quantitative goals that are measured by individual and overall office financial productivity and qualitative goals that are measured by client testimonials, business referrals

and the length of time the client has been with the organization.

“At the end of the day, accountability to metrics is important, but

nothing is more important than the accountability our team has to

our clients,” Achten says.

He says holding employees accountable is not just about looking

at the numbers.

“Accountability is threefold — accountability to yourself as a professional, accountability to clients as essential partners, and

accountability to your team and the larger company,” Achten says.

“Find out what motivates your employees, and do your best to tap

that motivation and turn it into strong results for the business and

the client.”

Publishing numbers is a way to hold employees accountable.

Achten publishes positive numbers from the organization’s client

satisfaction index regularly, sometimes weekly through a memo.

The organization also has a bimonthly strategy session to discuss

metrics and celebrate successes.

Celebration can also be with a group or individually. Celebrating

and sharing helps build the team, but you also need to deal with

those unsuccessful numbers.

Achten meets one-on-one with employees who do not meet their

goals to map out a plan to turn them into successes, whether it be

facilitating network opportunities with clients or sponsoring additional training.

After spending so much time developing a vision, it should be

fresh on the mind of employees. But you need to work and keep

that vision front and center so employees do not lose focus.

“If it’s not front and center, then there might be employees who

are less on the front lines and others who lose sight of it,” Achten

says. “For example, if the receptionist isn’t continuously reminded

of the mission of being the premier solution in Cincinnati, she may

let the lobby go and not look at its quality. Every employee needs

to be reminded of what we’re trying to accomplish — and the more

regularly you can do it, the better.”

Developing a vision specific to the organization’s four offices has

helped get employees on the same page. Achten says when developing a vision, especially if you are new to the organization, you

shouldn’t assume anything.

“Until you get there and get in the group and see the numbers,

hear what’s going on, feel the client experience and get in there,

don’t make assumptions,” he says. “I would encourage other leaders who are coming into something that is working but want to

take it to another level, spend some upfront time to get to know

the people.”

HOW TO REACH: Greater Cincinnati Complex for Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, (513) 579-3600 or

Tuesday, 25 November 2008 19:00

The good and the bad

Even with his busy schedule, Douglas W. Burke takes the time to get to know his nearly 100 employees. Each month, he takes a small group of them out to lunch to form strong relationships with them and to keep the lines of communication open.

“We want to make them have happy, productive lives here,” says the CEO of DefenseWeb Technologies Inc., a provider of customized software solutions for federal health care. “Part of that is having a relationship with them so that if there are issues, they can come to me or their managers.”

That commitment to open communication has helped the company reach 2007 revenue of $11 million.

Smart Business spoke with Burke about how to create relationships with your employees and keep your communication honest and open.

Q. What are the keys to open communication?

Just making a commitment to doing it and then doing it. Following through on the commitment, walking the walk and talking the talk are No. 1. Being honest at all times — you can’t have a quality relationship without being honest. And always being straightforward and upfront.

The most important thing is to make yourself available to all employees — open and approachable, whether it is an admin staff member or a vice president.

Be honest to the extent you can — relationships are built on trust. When you cannot disclose everything, there are ways of being more honest. Ask your employees what else can you be sharing with them or telling them to make them feel more a part of the process.

Follow through on what you say you are going to do; if you make empty promises, they will tell you, and you will lose trust. Listen to your employees and take what they say seriously. It might not be easy to hear, but if you have developed a culture of honest communication, your employees will tell you the truth.

One of the things I’ve been accused of in the past is that I tend to emphasize the positive things; being a CEO, you’ve got to be overly optimistic about how things are going to go. I got some survey feedback about two years ago that I wasn’t talking about anything negative, and people wanted to hear the bad news as well as the good news.

I took that to heart and started talking about things that weren’t going as well.

Q. How do you balance sharing the positive and negative with employees?

It’s a common thing for CEOs, being more overly optimistic salespeople. If you focus on the bad news, you’d just be depressed and never get anywhere. The goal would be to choose the bad news wisely and try to get some lesson out of it.

It’s important to connect that bad news to lessons learned and is there any sort of silver lining in the bad news. The danger in not doing it is that your employees may look at you like you’re spinning everything, and then you lose credibility and trust from that.

Being honest with bad news can help motivate employees to strive for that next goal.

Q. How do you develop trusting relationships with employees?

Open, honest communication is No. 1. Then giving employees positive and constructive feedback on a continuous basis, not just at the annual review. Regular formal feedback — quarterly and yearly - is better than just yearly. Doing what you say you are going to do and follow up on it; if you can’t do it, say why.

Allocate your time carefully. I schedule one hour of every day for anything I cannot anticipate. This keeps my schedule from backing up most of the time. Be realistic about how long things will take and stick to your schedule.

Talk to employees and find out what they want. How could they get closer to the CEO, how would they like their relationship to be? Asking the employees is an important part of the communication process, what’s going on and how could I get to know you better, what would be a more effective way to communicate?

You get more dedicated employees and less corporate politics. If your first goal is making your company a great place to work, then the results are increases in profitability and productivity.

Q. What is the benefit of open communication?

You build a relationship. It’s incredibly expensive to recruit employees, and it’s incredibly expensive when we lose employees, so we want to keep our employees happy, motivated, challenged and rewarded at all times so we keep them as long as possible.

The best way to keep employees happy, motivated, challenged and rewarded is to offer them what they want out of a position — competitive pay and benefits, challenging technical projects, a strong vision and mission, an interesting work environment and flexibility when you can.

You also must make a practice of noticing when people are doing well.

HOW TO REACH: DefenseWeb Technologies Inc., (858) 272-8505 or

Tuesday, 25 November 2008 19:00

People first

Scott Bowling grew up in a family of business owners, with his father and grandfather both running businesses.

From these two men, Bowling learned many of the lessons that he has incorporated into his role as president and CEO of Exceptional Children’s Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides services to the developmentally disabled.

“What I learned was to be good to people, treat them well, be consistent and have integrity — do what you say you’re going to do,” Bowling says.

Bowling also learned how important it is to have the right team of people. He has developed his team of 440 people at his organization, which has an annual budget of $27 million, and he makes sure they are an important part of decisions.

Smart Business spoke with Bowling about how to develop the right team and how to develop relationships with employees.

Q. What qualities do you look for in your team members?

Of course being smart in their particular area of discipline or business. I also look for people who have a good work ethic, are hardworking and who believe in the spirit of working well with others — teamwork is of paramount importance. Assembling a good team is where it needs to begin.

An employee demonstrates his or her work ethic in a variety of measurable and visible ways, including time spent at work, productivity meets or exceeds expectations, works well with others, as evidenced by good communication, approachability and positive relationships.

Q. Once they’re identified, how do you develop team members to work together?

Involve everyone in the development of the organization’s strategic plans and emphasize everyone’s role in the plan’s successful implementation. You constantly reinforce this is where we’re going, this is why and this is what we’re going to achieve together.

Communicate regularly on the progress everyone is making on the organization’s plan and regularly acknowledge and celebrate progress and success. Celebrate those milestones along the way. Everybody has a part, everybody has a role in the success, and that’s important that you communicate that to them.

On a quarterly basis, each person who has a specific responsibility to carry out the action needed to meet a strategic objective will provide a written quarterly progress report. Reports from members of the team are compiled and distributed to all team members to acknowledge the progress we’re making. It also gives me the opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate the progress, which tends to generate momentum to continue along our productive path.

Q. How do you encourage employees to excel in their jobs?

Acknowledge and reward good performance. There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not giving someone kudos for a job well done. There’s the oral communication, the pats on the back. Then there’s the more formal acknowledgements in writing a memo to their personnel file acknowledging a success story or an achievement that’s been made.

Provide opportunities for employees to step up to handle additional responsibility within the organization. Stay abreast of best and current practices and encourage and provide ongoing staff training. Review performance informally and formally on a regular basis.

We have clearly defined performance objectives for each employee. These objectives are established using the organization’s strategic goals and objectives. On a regular basis, each employee’s progress made on their individual performance objectives is monitored through written reports or other measurable outcomes.

As employees demonstrate their ability to meet objectives, over time, they are given additional responsibility within the organization.

Q. How do you deal with a person who may not fit in with the team?

Identify privately, clearly and professionally how and why he or she is not meeting expectations. Offer the tools and time he or she needs to get on board and produce the desired results.

If there are other areas in the organization where his or her skills would be better utilized, offer that alternative opportunity. If necessary, separate employment before he or she becomes a drag on the rest of the team.

Q. How do you develop trusting relationships with your employees?

Do what you say you’re going to do. Give credit to and acknowledge those who achieve desired outcomes. Developing a system to identify, track and monitor tasks and priorities helps to ensure things get done according to the timelines we’ve established. ...

Recognition along the way is important. We like to celebrate progress, and when we reach a goal not only celebrate it and acknowledge the individual but also the larger picture we need to celebrate and communicate to all of our employees what the team has accomplished.

HOW TO REACH: Exceptional Children’s Foundation, (310) 204-3300 or