Financial Services

FINALIST

Loren Bendele has been an entrepreneur from the day he started selling Blow Pops out of his backpack at school. His mother and father owned a popcorn and yogurt shop, and Bendele would buy the Pops wholesale to sell to fellow students. It was a profitable venture until he was asked to stop by his teachers.

But Bendele’s career in business had begun.

In 2007, Savings.com was Bendele’s effort to build an online coupon site that built consumer trust with coupon codes that always work. He put in the time building relationships with bloggers who could create buzz for his business and with companies who wanted to offer their coupons on his site.

Bendele’s ability to relate to people and build those strong relationships is due at least in part to his time spent as a stand-up comedian. While it’s not a path many leaders follow to business success, being up on stage helped him develop his storytelling skills and his ability to read people.

One of his keys to attracting customers and quality employees alike is not only a belief in his self and what he is selling, but the ability to get his audience to believe, too.

Bendele didn’t have a crystal-clear vision of what his business was ultimately going to look like, but he knew he wanted great people and an office dog. A sign hanging on the office door that says “Dog on premises” and the smiling faces on the people who work at Savings.com indicate he has met those goals.

But Bendele is not satisfied with what he has achieved to this point. He is developing a grocery application that would be available on all smartphones. It would allow consumers to walk into a grocery store and look up the best deals within the grocery store as well as download any available coupons.

Bendele is hopeful that within five years, Savings.com will be the most dominant player in grocery couponing.

How to reach: Savings.com, www.savings.com

Published in Los Angeles

Retail & Consumer Products

WINNER

Hezy Shaked has faced many different challenges throughout his life. So when he and his wife, Tilly, realized that $3,000 was not going to be enough to complete their cross-country journey of the United States, Shaked was not shaken a bit.

He was committed to being the provider his family needed, so this young man who had been born and raised in Israel took his first U.S. job at a garage. His living accommodations were under a staircase, but Shaked remained positive about his future.

He took inventory of what he could do and focused on the idea that all humans need clothing. So he took a few retail items and a strong work ethic and traveled to an Orange County swap meet.

Things began to come together and Shaked evolved from a few items at a swap meet to a truck full of new clothing and apparel to the opening of his first retail store in Los Alamitos, Calif.

As the founder, chairman and chief strategy officer of Tilly’s Inc., Shaked continued to focus on providing value and working hard to get his customers what they wanted. He was willing to make investments to build the infrastructure he needed to keep his company growing.

This high level of commitment is also evident in the way Shaked goes about hiring employees and building a strong culture. He understands how much his employees depend on him for their livelihood and makes sure they see it every day. He is willing to spend money to make things happen, but is careful about those decisions so that he doesn’t put the future of the organization at risk.

It’s a spirit that allows the company to succeed and allows Shaked to help those outside Tilly’s who really need it. The company has consistently supported a number of charitable causes through both its time and monetary donations.

How to reach: Tilly’s Inc., www.tillys.com

Published in Orange County

When you’re a powerhouse player in your industry, the key to success is often the ability to step back and take stock of who you are, where you are and where you’re going. Sometimes, an existential approach is intuitive; it’s easier to self-reflect when you’re beginning a new venture or making a monumental change.

But what about when you’re experiencing success? Taking stock when you’re on top is far from redundant; in fact, figuring out where your accomplishments have come from makes you more likely to duplicate them. Here are some suggestions for seizing the moment and sizing up your business.

Don’t agonize — organize

Rather than rely on the year’s end to inspire a big-picture appraisal, set quarterly dates to dissect core activities, finances, human resources and sales/marketing strategy.

Not only will it save you from feeling overwhelmed by the immensity of an annual assessment, but it will help you reassess and realign continuously, which can help make transitions more seamless — especially when they are unexpected.

Turn projects into projections

A few years after launch, Petplan transitioned to being an entirely paperless organization. Initially the transition was a success, and operationally, the project had already paid dividends.

But as time went by, it became apparent that we needed to create a tangible product for our clients. We decided to publish a glossy pet health publication for policyholders to help communicate our company’s core values and add a “touchable” touchpoint to our customer communications.

To our delight, Fetch! magazine was an overnight success and has grown its readership from 50,000 to more than 250,000 in just a few short years. The magazine project led to some new projections about ad revenue, and we eventually began selling space in its pages.

Because of big-picture thinking in small, regular doses, we were able to take an internal project, build off it to create something new, and then leverage that to add to the company’s overall profitability.

Find a fresh set of eyes

When trends need to be changed, getting back on the right track is essential, but sometimes the people closest to the “problem” are the least likely to be able to solve it. One of the best ways to chart a new course is to bring new talent to the table. This could mean finding a mentor, hiring a new executive or perhaps finding a visionary investor.

When we launched Petplan, we focused almost exclusively on sales, and all of our customer communications reflected that. Soon, it became clear that we needed to rework strategy to include not just sales but customer service.

To help us course-correct, we turned to Vernon W. Hill, the founder of Commerce Bank. Vernon joined our board as chairman and brought extraordinary experience around customer satisfaction to the company.

This year, in an effort to evolve partner veterinarian relationships, we’ve placed a heavyweight at the helm of our veterinary channel: Steve Shell. A fresh set of eyes can invigorate vision — whether it comes from the people above you or the employees you entrust with managing the daily activities of your business.

When you commit to unplugging from the daily drudgery to assess the scope of your operations a few times throughout the year, you’ll soon find that the only place to go is up.

Natasha Ashton is the co-CEO and co-founder of Petplan pet insurance and its quarterly glossy pet health magazine, Fetch! — both headquartered in Philadelphia. She holds an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business. She can be reached at press@gopetplan.com.

Published in Columnist

Roger Andelin believes in the power of storytelling — so much that even an e-commerce business composed of people from the impersonal sales and technology fields can benefit from the skills of a good storyteller.

Andelin had served as the CIO of Internet retailer Buy.com for six years before leaving to take the same position with The Washington Post, one of the most famous and influential newspapers in the country. It was during his stint with the newspaper that Andelin, an executive with a commerce and technology background, discovered how to take good storytelling and apply it in the world of commerce.

“I became a lot more aware of the power of storytelling and the power that can have in a business, especially on the commerce side,” Andelin says. “Commerce was missing that.”

When the opportunity arose for Andelin to return to what had, in the interim, been renamed Rakuten Buy.com, he felt he could utilize the sum total of his experience as an executive, splicing together his e-commerce background with a newfound knowledge and appreciation of storytelling to open new doors for the company.

“When I sat down for the first time and heard about our chairman’s vision, it resonated through and through,” Andelin says. “The idea was [that] we want to give merchants a voice in our marketplace. Let’s connect our merchants with their customers; let’s bring a new shopping experience to the table.

“It was very different from the typical model in our space, which is you come in and search for a product, put it in your cart and check out. It really brought back a lot of the nostalgia in the commerce business, which was missing on the Internet and electronic side. We had a chance to bring that back to the whole process.”

After accepting the president’s role at Rakuten Buy.com — which was rebranded as Rakuten.com Shopping in January — Andelin set out to tell the story of the company’s new vision and how it would be realized. He wanted to get every executive, manager and associate in the Rakuten system to believe in the vision and to feel motivated to carry out the plans that would make the vision a reality.

Define your drivers

Any retail business — whether in the e-commerce space or reliant on a bricks-and-mortar network of stores — will always be driven by the numbers. The number of customers you can get to your site or store will convert to a number of sales, which will convert to a number of repeat customers.

But to realize the new vision for Rakuten.com Shopping, Andelin needed to promote something else. He needed to promote loyalty. It’s something that can’t be directly quantified on a balance sheet, but Andelin realized, soon after he took over, that it would be an essential ingredient in the success of the vision. It would be, in short, a primary driver of the business moving forward.

“The business really boils down to the number of visitors that come to our site and our conversion rate to how many of those visitors buy from us and what the average value of that order is,” Andelin says. “So once you look at those drivers, those KPIs [key performance indicators], you look into it and see what is it that drives that component. Traffic, or visits, are driven a lot by advertising but also by loyalty.”

As such, Andelin wanted his team at Rakuten.com Shopping to focus on driving customer loyalty and merchant loyalty. Since the staff at the company is, in large part, composed of people with technology backgrounds, it was a different concept.

“What happens is that technology departments often get focused on a feature,” Andelin says. “They’ve been asked to deliver A, B and C, and at the end of the day, they deliver that, but it doesn’t always yield the business value that was expected. So by shifting the emphasis away from the actual feature we’re delivering and getting the teams focused on delivering business value, it fundamentally shifts the whole project pattern in a very meaningful way.”

Andelin and his team began to implement initiatives, such as a reward points program, as a formalized way of building merchant and customer loyalty. But he also wanted to see his team deliver value in more fundamental forms.

“One of our objectives, for instance, is to increase the voice of our merchants online, to help them connect more with their customer base,” he says. “That is one of the main things that is going to separate us in a meaningful way from our competition. That technology stepping in and facilitating that communication is something that would be pretty unique for a merchant.”

Give people a voice

You can craft a well-thought-out vision that aims the company toward new heights of prosperity, but none of it will matter if you can’t achieve buy-in from everyone in your company.

It’s something that Andelin acknowledged early in his tenure, and it’s why he embraced the role of storyteller from his first day on the job. Employees can hear about the vision, they can learn the drivers, but until they see tangible ways that the vision will lead to a better, more profitable company — and by extension, more earning potential and job stability at their level — they won’t completely buy in.

“Alignment can be challenging,” Andelin says. “But I have found the best way to do it is to very clearly articulate the problem or very clearly articulate the vision and then explain why the solution we’re all working toward will resolve that.

“You start to get individuals to understand the vision or the problem by articulating it very clearly. They see it and recognize what you are doing and why you’re doing it. People generally get that. It’s when the communication isn’t there that the team starts to falter and lose the passion for what they’re doing.”

In order to tell a story, you need a means of communication. Authors have books, journalists have mass media and directors have the cinema. At Rakuten.com Shopping, Andelin has, among other things, weekly “asakai” meetings that utilize technology to bring together people from Rakuten’s U.S. operations and beyond.

During the weekly meetings, senior management reinforces the vision and values of the organization to employees throughout Rakuten’s footprint. The meetings are another way Andelin is using technology for storytelling.

“What we say at the weekly asakai meetings goes all the way down to daily huddles, where each department will get together and talk about their departmental issues,” Andelin says. “The thing to remember is the teams you are leading have to get it. The business leader has to be open enough and accessible enough, to the point where if the team has questions, they feel able to ask those questions.

“If they have concerns, they have to get those concerns out on the table and walk through them.

“One of the most powerful ways to reach consensus is not by reducing the conversation but by increasing it. It is through conversation that leaders and managers are able to convey the vision and get individuals to come on board with the direction of the organization. Communication is absolutely key.”

Show your wins

Every story has a beginning, middle and end. In Rakuten.com Shopping’s case, the story is still in progress. If you don’t have final results to show your people, you need to show them progress and trends. Keeping employees in the loop is another essential way to bring them on board with your vision. You have to demonstrate the wins you are tallying and the progress you are making toward realizing your vision.

“As an example, we ran one of our summer sales at the end of August, right after I started,” Andelin says. “We measured the sale based on year-over-year performance — so, how we did on these days versus the same days the prior year? That event ended up giving us a fairly sizeable increase in our number of orders, in visitors coming to the site, all of the key metrics that we’re looking at. Those wins really help focus the team.”

If you’re going to tell a story that it’s going to serve as a motivator for your people, the story has to inspire. That doesn’t mean your people have to leave the meeting or conference call ready to climb Mount Everest, but it does mean that they leave as believers in what the company is doing.

“It’s a fairly basic idea that winning is contagious,” Andelin says. “It builds confidence; it helps you to solidify a repeatable process. It shows us what we need to do to drive sales during a particular event. If we get really good and learn those things, we can repeat it, and we can grow our business to improve step-by-step, by improving those processes. Everybody gets excited, and it really becomes a companywide initiative, because everybody has a little piece of it. So when you start to achieve your vision, everybody feels good.”

How to reach: Rakuten.com Shopping,

(949) 389-2000 or www.rakuten.com

The Andelin file

Roger Andelin

President

Rakuten.com Shopping

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned? You want to take accountability for when things don’t go smoothly and perfect. At the end of the day, if you screwed up, take responsibility for it, figure out what happened and move forward. That is one of the most relieving principles in business. It’s a liberating principle for all leaders, as opposed to passing blame and making excuses.

What traits or skills are essential for a leader? Having a vision and being able to communicate it on both an individual and group level. Leaders have to be approachable, accept criticism and be able to defend their positions with logical, rational arguments backed by data and facts. Authoritarian leadership doesn’t fly nowadays. You have to win the minds of intelligent people who are used to thinking for themselves, are well-educated and have fabulous opinions.

What is your definition of success? There is a sense of irony around it, because as soon as you start to define success, you limit yourself. If you define success as you see it, you just cut yourself off from other areas where you could be a success. You have to kind of know success when you see it, just like knowing what art is, or knowing what sounds good in music. So many things drive success, to define it is almost impossible.

 

Takeaways

Tell a great story.

Communicate it to your people.

Show evidence of success.

Published in Los Angeles

Every company has its baby photos. Monoprice Inc. is no exception.

A decade ago, the Internet electronics retailer was a small start-up. The company’s owners wore many hats, dictating almost every aspect of the company’s culture, strategy, systems and processes.

That was then. The “now” for Monoprice is the company that CEO Ajay Kumar has fronted for the last two years. It’s a $121 million player in its space, growing at a rate of 25 to 30 percent every year. With rapid growth and a workforce of 250, Kumar can’t possibly dictate every angle and nuance of the company’s day-to-day operations.

“When you start a small company and grow it, you can manage every aspect of it,” Kumar says. “You can be hands-on, making every decision, involving yourself in every detail.

“But now, we have to have all the appropriate controls in place to manage the company. We have to have the right organization, accountability, reports, metrics, all that stuff, so that it’s not just the top person running the whole thing. You need the structure and controls in place to make it all work.”

By the time Kumar took over, the CEO’s role had evolved into a global-view position. Instead of laboring in the trenches, Monoprice needed its CEO to define a vision, work with his leadership team to put goals and processes in place to achieve the vision, create metrics to measure progress against the goals, and build a team that could achieve and exceed the goals.

“My leadership style is that I am hands-on but not a micromanager,” Kumar says. “I want people who are capable of executing what I need done in each functional area. In addition to the goals and metrics, we need the right people in the right places throughout the organization.”

At its heart, Kumar’s biggest challenge has been to harness the ability to look ahead and anticipate what his company will need in the coming years.

Create a vision

Vision equals direction. Without a well-defined vision, a company is operating without a compass or a rudder. That’s a recipe for turning growth into stagnation and eventually into mere survival.

That’s why Kumar’s first job upon taking the CEO’s role was to define a vision and ensure that the vision and the reasoning behind it could be adequately explained to the Monoprice team.

“I was able to have a vision for the company coming in, since I had a lot of experience in this industry,” Kumar says. “I had a lot of experience in terms of sourcing products from Asia, getting products made rapidly. The consumer electronics business is something I’ve been in for a long time, so I had a good idea of what the vision needed to be for the type of company we are.”

Kumar’s vision was to produce products equal to or better than big-name brands in terms of quality and compete on price.

“We didn’t want to get into selling any product line if we didn’t feel we could generate at least a 30 to 70 percent advantage over the retail selling price,” he says. “That creates a certain amount of discipline as far as launching products. We don’t want to be randomly launching products.

“We want to launch products where we have a price advantage. The way we do that is we don’t sell other brands. A lot of Internet retailers are selling other brands. We don’t do that, so we are eliminating a whole layer of markup.”

By not carrying outside brands, Kumar and his team also attempted to make a statement about their belief in the quality of their products — a move made, in part, to bolster consumer confidence in the product lines.

“If we sell other brands, we’re, in effect, saying their brands are as good as ours, but they are much pricier, so why are we selling them?” Kumar says. “It’s like saying their products are a step up from ours. That is a key part of our vision: The products we make need to be as good as the famous brands. If the quality is the same but the price is lower, people aren’t going to go anywhere else.”

Related to that, Kumar incorporated a sense of focus into the vision. Monoprice would compete on price and quality but would also compete by becoming an expert retailer in a focused space, as opposed to carrying a broad spectrum of seemingly unrelated offerings.

“A lot of Internet retailers carry tons and tons of products that all seem kind of random,” he says. “It doesn’t feel like a portfolio.

“Our goal is to pick product lines that we want to be in. If we want to be in the Apple accessory area, we need to come up with the right mix of products in the portfolio. Not too many, not too few, because our goal is to become a destination for each product line that we want to be in.”

With the vision focused on those three factors, Kumar then had to roll it out to the company at large — complete with a compelling set of processes and incentives aimed at motivating people throughout the company.

Make them follow

To drive the entire company toward realization of the vision, Kumar had to give all 250 people a reason to get on board. He had to show everyone in the company how their performance related to the company’s ability to achieve its overarching goals and turn the vision into something concrete.

Kumar and his leadership team started by rolling out the vision with a companywide presentation, with an opportunity for dialogue and feedback. That planted the seed, but Kumar says the seed sprouted thanks, in large part, to the company’s bonus plan.

With a bonus plan anchored in corporate-level metrics, Kumar steered every person in the organization, regardless of department, toward the goals that would help Monoprice realize his vision.

“I think a bonus program is always tricky,” Kumar says. “Do you measure people based on department results or overall company results? Some companies go down one path and some go down the other.

“Early on, I decided our path should be aligned along one set of metrics at the corporate level. We decided to focus everyone on three metrics that drive our bonus program: sales, profit and cash flow. Some people in some functions might not be able to directly impact all three of those, but we wanted everyone thinking about all three.

“The thing I like about having the metrics at the corporate level is that everyone in the company is focused on the same thing. It’s the same bonus program whether you are a warehouse worker, customer service person, IT or even myself. It keeps everyone working in the same direction.”

The disadvantage to developing a bonus plan driven by corporate-level metrics is that some people in certain areas of the company might not feel a high level of urgency to meet the company’s goals.

To avoid coasting, Kumar and his team have devised department-level metrics. Since those metrics don’t directly impact the bonus program, Kumar relies on a culture of accountability to enforce them.

“They’re producing against those department-level metrics, they’re showing plan versus actual against those metrics, so there is a little bit of accountability and professionalism at stake when you’re executing on that plan in front of your peers,” Kumar says. “That, in and of itself, will drive a certain level of motivation.”

Find the talent

You can have a well-defined vision, and you can develop metrics and incentives that ensure people are working toward realizing that vision. But your people provide the momentum that will really power your company toward the goals you have set. Without competent employees, nothing gets done.

Kumar believes in attracting top-notch talent but not without first understanding the roles that he needs to fill. He wants talent, but he doesn’t want to simply stockpile talent for talent’s sake, without a plan for utilizing it.

“One of the key things before you go recruit people is making sure you have an understanding of what, exactly, you want from a particular role,” Kumar says. “Some folks may go out there and hire a generic person for a generic role. What I try to do is figure out exactly what I want to get from a particular role.”

Then, when you bring a candidate to the office for an interview, make sure your line of questioning aims to ascertain whether the candidate is a match for the criteria you have established.

“One of the things I like to do is get into the details of what they did at their past job and how they did it,” Kumar says. “When you look at resumes, sometimes it will say a person saved 30 percent or grew sales by $50 million, but you start digging, and they didn’t do it all themselves. They didn’t drive it. I’m looking for people who generated benefits at their previous jobs, and I want to know if they can do the same thing at this company.”

How to reach: Monoprice Inc., (877) 271-2592 or www.monoprice.com

 

The Kumar file

Name: Ajay Kumar

Title: CEO

Company: Monoprice Inc.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

I am a big believer that what you don’t work on is as important as what you do work on. It’s important to know when you should pass on an opportunity. In most companies, it is too easy to get bogged down on doing too many things. It is the nature of a high-performance person. You want to get things done, but you can’t do everything.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

Having a vision that makes sense, creating a sense of buy-in, recruiting the right people, drive, performance, being a good two-way communicator, facilitating teamwork, and providing a coaching and mentoring approach to growth. One of the primary things people want to get out of a job is what they learn from their boss.

What is your definition of success?

For me, it is setting goals and then achieving them. That might seem very metrics-oriented, but if you don’t achieve goals, it won’t be a fun place to work. People won’t feel like the company is successful. If you set goals and don’t make them happen, you don’t get that sense of accomplishment. People start to feel like you’re wishy-washy.

Takeaways

Develop a strong vision.

Create buy-in on the vision.

Hire the right people.

Published in Orange County

As Jerry Azarkman watched new stores open in Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz., he felt proud that Curacao, the company he launched at the age of 24 with a mere $20 in his pocket, was beginning to expand beyond its Los Angeles roots.

But he was also concerned about the sales volume at these new stores. They just weren’t doing as well as the stores located closer to Curacao’s Southern California headquarters.

“The L.A. store’s volume is much higher,” says Azarkman, co-founder, co-owner and chief marketing officer for the Latino-oriented retailer that’s corporate name is Adir International.

“The number of credit applications approved at the Phoenix store is much lower than the stores closer to headquarters. Why is it smaller the further you go? All these things gave me a thought about the implementation of direction. The further you go, the communication kind of slows down, and it doesn’t get there.”

Azarkman wanted to turn that around and ensure that wherever he opened a store, whether it was next door to his office or 1,000 miles away, it would offer the same quality of product and service to Curacao customers.

“The biggest challenge is as you grow, your structure grows and there are more layers of management and communication,” Azarkman says. “That communication has to be the same from level to level all the way down to the front lines. The challenge is when the communication doesn’t get to the level you want it to get to.”

It’s a common problem for growing businesses and Azarkman wasn’t casting blame about it. He just knew that his 2,600-employee company needed to adapt and rethink its communication channels to ensure that everybody was on board with what was happening.

“I’m involved in the philosophy of the company, which is keeping employees motivated so they can do their jobs at a top level,” Azarkman says. “They really want to do that. They’re not doing it out of fear. They are doing it because they believe in it.”

That attitude would be the key to helping Curacao achieve continued growth.

Demonstrate your commitment

One of the biggest changes Azarkman made with Curacao was to change the company’s name. It may not sound that meaningful to the internal operations of a company to change the name from “La Curacao” to Curacao and redesign the company logo, but it provided Azarkman with a vehicle to demonstrate the company’s commitment to digging deep and looking for ways to provide even better service to its customers.

To get things rolling with this process, Azarkman brought in an outside consultant to make an honest assessment of what needed to change.

“We hired a company from the outside because you cannot believe in your own judgment,” Azarkman says. “You’ll create an impression that you’re much better than you actually are. It’s better for somebody from the outside to look at you than for you to look at yourself.”

The firm came in and set up focus groups in the communities where Curacao did business.

“They did focus groups with our customers, with customers that left us three years ago, with people who had never been in our stores and in communities that had never heard our name,” Azarkman says. “Out of that, we learned a lot about what the community thinks of us, what changes they are expecting us to do and what changes we have to do.”

The groups provided a great deal of feedback, including the suggestion that ultimately led to a new name and logo. It was a good foundation to begin transforming the business. But the key to providing what your customers are looking for is asking the question with the knowledge that you’ll need to keep asking it again and again.

“Expectations change with time,” Azarkman says. “You create an expectation, a standard, and then the next day, you have to go and create a much higher standard and create a ‘wow’ in the minds of customers that walk in the store. When they leave the store, you want them thinking, ‘Wow, I never thought I was going to get that value or that experience.’ To get to that point is a constant struggle.”

Earn employee support

Azarkman needed his employees to buy in to the pursuit of superior customer service without feeling as though they were being punished or forced into something that didn’t fit their skill sets.

“If they’re not buying in to it and they are going to be forced into doing something that they don’t believe in, it’s not going to happen,” Azarkman says.

There needs to be something out there, a reason to work harder and exceed customer expectation.

“What’s it in it for them?” Azarkman says. “What are they going to gain out of it? A better career path, higher income, more security, better stability for the company? You put all those things together, and you’re going to create a team that is really going to be motivated and dedicated and really cares about the company because they are part of the company. They are working there because they belong there. They are part of it.”

A comprehensive training program at Curacao, known as the University of Curacao, bolsters employee engagement. It helps promote an environment of learning and growing that Azarkman says is one of the keys to achieving growth.

“You need to know how to motivate people and get them to perform better,” Azarkman says. “You have to provide the tools that they need. Managers are tool creators. They create tools for their associates to perform. If they are creating the right tools and then people are using the tools that have been created for them, the success is going to be there.”

Azarkman refers to the sale of a television as an example of the outcome he seeks in training his managers and employees.

“Let’s take a Sony television,” Azarkman says. “You can buy it anywhere in town. You can go on the Internet and find 10,000 places to buy it. The difference is what is coming with that television. What value am I giving to that customer with that TV? What is the additional value?”

If everybody is thinking about ways to please the customer and is able to bring up those ideas without fear of reprisal, the result is a strong culture and a strong company that consistently exceeds expectation.

“It’s not that you create a ‘wow’ in the minds of customers and that stays,” Azarkman says. “Today, you’re meeting expectations. Tomorrow, it might not be enough.”

Don’t lead with fear

The effort to drive home that message to stores near and far away from Los Angeles and ensure that everyone is pushing toward those goals on a consistent basis has to begin with you.

“You have to make sure that all your executives are really buying in to it,” Azarkman says. “If anybody has a doubt or has something they don’t agree with, let’s put it on the table, fix it and make sure we all agree. Get one direction you can all agree on and go from there.”

If you want to learn what needs to be fixed in your business, you’ve got to be willing to accept criticism.

“The minute there is fear, all the communication channels are shut off and they are not going to be willing to open their mouths and discuss issues or concerns that they have,” Azarkman says. “If the leader is creating fear and the people have to work with that fear, it’s not going to last too long.”

Companies that insist on coming up with reasons why a problem doesn’t really exist are only setting themselves up for a bigger failure down the road.

“The communication will determine the success or failure of the company,” Azarkman says. “If there are real problems that need to be addressed and you don’t put them on the table, they will accumulate until there’s an explosion because people were afraid to bring it up.”

One of the solutions to the problem of lower sales volume in the Arizona stores was to enact rotating management teams between the more established stores closer to Los Angeles and the newer, less experienced stores in Arizona.

It’s a step that can help you better assess your team and weed out the people who aren’t going to be a part of your future.

“You need to check performance and evaluate each person,” Azarkman says. “You always have to create a bucket of people that are performing. Unfortunately, some do not perform no matter how much you try to educate and help them. So you have to let them go so you can keep your company healthy.”

Fortunately, Azarkman has more talented people on his team than underperformers who have to be let go. Curacao has more than 2 million credit applications on file and continues to expand. Azarkman says it all comes back to the philosophy of customer service.

“If the customer gets service above expectation, it means you’ve done something to maintain and keep that customer,” Azarkman says. “It’s small advice, but it’s big if you keep it in mind.”

How to reach: Curacao, (866) 410-1611 or

www.icuracao.net

The Azarkman File

Jerry Azarkman, Co-founder and co-owner, Curacao

Born: Tehran, Iran. I moved to Israel at the age of 6 and grew up in Israel. I came to United States at the age of 21. There was a good community of Jewish people living in Iran before the fall of the Shah. There were probably about 1.2 million Jews there. My parents felt that it was going to extreme Islam already in those days. And in 1961, they decided it was not going to be a stable country to stay in, so we moved to Israel.

Education: I did three years of computer language study at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel. It’s a university. I took some evening courses while I was in the military service.

Who has been the biggest influence on your life?

My father, Oscar. Any time I’m in a problem, I go back to things that he told me. The things I’m passing to other associates in the company, it’s come from the first lessons of motivation that my father passed to me and my brother.

What one person would you like to be able to meet and why?

Albert Einstein. First, I would like to see his philosophy about life, religion, God and how science is connected to religion. What did he really see? Maybe the guy is so extremely smart that he had to bring himself hundreds of levels down to talk our language so we could understand him. I would like to know what level he is.

Takeaways:

Don’t be afraid to seek outside input.

Work with employees on new initiatives.

Don’t lead with fear.

Published in Los Angeles

Robin Sheldon had reached a critical point in the life of her business.

Through her strong will and determination, she had built Soft Surroundings from a small business that produced a single catalog for women’s clothing in 1999 to one that has seasonal catalogs, a chain of retail stores and an e-commerce website.

She didn’t do it entirely on her own, but Sheldon was definitely the driving force behind the company’s growth. However, she was beginning to realize that if she wanted the company to continue to expand, she was going to need some help.

“When you are part of a creative process as well as the traditional business side of the business, it’s very hard to let go of getting your fingers into absolutely everything,” says Sheldon, the company’s president and founder. “But there comes a point when you realize that you’re putting your business in jeopardy by doing this.”

Sheldon needed to get more people involved in the management of the 530-employee company. She also had to find a way to prioritize the really important things that needed to be done and separate those from the tasks that either could wait or didn’t need the same amount of effort to complete.

“So what that led to was the assessment of the type of people we needed to be hiring with what particular skill sets,” Sheldon says. “For myself, it was a matter of setting up my goals with parameters and guidelines that would get me to the point where I could let go.”

The challenge for Sheldon would be setting up that structure so she could get more comfortable with delegating tasks.

Know your priorities

Part of the problem Sheldon has when it comes to delegating is the high level of confidence she has in herself.

“I have an expectation of myself that is probably way too perfect and hard for anybody else to achieve,” she says. “I’m going to expect more from myself than I am from anybody.”

The result is that Sheldon believes she can do it all. And she saw no reason why it couldn’t be done to the absolute best of her abilities. But she finally started to understand that perfection isn’t always necessary.

“I realized I have to be satisfied with ‘good enough,’” Sheldon says. “I have to identify the few areas where it had to be great.”

There are certain tasks in any business that don’t have anything to do with the customer and have a negligible effect on the bottom line. These are tasks that just need to be done.

“You’re not going to drive yourself over the edge of the cliff trying to make it perfect,” Sheldon says. “You can get it ‘good enough,’ and that’s going to be good enough.”

Then there are things such as the photography that appears in her seasonal catalogs.

“We spend a great deal of money and time on our photography to give the customer an aspirational experience that is emotional so she forms a connection with the product,” Sheldon says. “She understands we are trying to do more for her than just sell her stuff. That’s a place we don’t give. You don’t want to settle on things that are integral to your brand.”

The solution for Sheldon to determine what requires maximum effort and what just needs to get done is a formula known as good, better, best.

“When people come to me and say, ‘I have 10 things that I’m supposed to have done in 48 hours,’” Sheldon says. “I’m being told that all of them are equally important. I ask them to go back and discuss it and come back and tell me if it’s a good, better or best. That helps people a great deal. Sometimes you have to talk to other people involved to see if you’re headed in the right direction.”

It was a lesson Sheldon wanted to impart on her team, but one she also needed to try to follow herself.

Have a plan for delegating

The next step for Sheldon was to accept that within those priority tasks that need to be done right every time, it would be OK to delegate.

“It’s a process,” Sheldon says. “You have to put some good planning behind it. But in order to do that, you have to have the right people. You have to have a very clear understanding of what motivates each individual person. They are not the same. You can’t treat them the same.

“You have to learn each person and figure out how you’re going to make them happy in what they are doing, productive and wanting to do more.”

One of the biggest mistakes you can make in business is assuming that with a few brief words in your office, an individual can take a task and run with it.

“You can ruin a perfectly good career if you take somebody who is a super performer for you and you elevate them into a management position and don’t give them any management training,” Sheldon says. “Before you know it, you have a perfectly good person who has such good skills, but now is floundering in the job because you didn’t give him or her any management training.”

Develop a plan for the person you want to give responsibility to and then share your plan with that person. Take the time to see how the person feels about it and go over areas that you’ll need to work on with the person.

“I have high hopes for being able to give you some new responsibility and I know you’re up to it,” Sheldon says. “I’m thinking this is the area that we will work with and here’s the goal. Let’s sit down together and come up with how we’re going to do this.”

A key barometer that helps Sheldon know if she’s done her job training or if she needs to do more, or perhaps has chosen the wrong person, is whether she hears her name invoked as tasks are being worked on.

“‘Robin says,’” Sheldon says, repeating the phrase she doesn’t want to hear. “If I’m hearing that too much, it means people aren’t taking responsibility for their own work and they aren’t becoming their own experts. They are having to rely on my name to get their jobs done.”

Sheldon’s goal is to make sure the person has all the knowledge and skills to make it happen on their own.

“They don’t need to use my name,” Sheldon says. “They will build their reputation and their confidence by saying, ‘This is what we need to do, and I believe this is the way for us to do it.’”

Help your people

If you run into a situation where you have a leader who isn’t invoking your name but is struggling with the role of leadership, you need to step in and give them some support. Sheldon recalls a manager he was training who wasn’t getting respect from the people she was trying to lead.

“She had to follow up on projects and things that needed to be taken care of regularly,” Sheldon says. “She just couldn’t get their respect. We worked on that for six months together.”

What Sheldon found was that this new leader was struggling with the language she used to engage people in tasks.

“One of the areas we dug into was, ‘How do you get your point across in a pleasant way? How do you get people to want to help you and want to do what you need them to do?’” Sheldon says. “There’s a whole psychology there, and we studied it. Now she is a power negotiator, and she’s still here.”

The act of delegating has to be about more than just you saying to your employees, ‘Hey, you need to do this now.’ It’s a process that you have to be actively engaged in if it’s going to be successful.

“For me, things get tested,” Sheldon says. “It could be our clothing design. It could be our creative print design. It could be copy. It could be many things. As soon as I can get to a comfort level where I’ve seen it go the way I’d like it to go three or four times in a row, then I back off. I only check every now and then.”

When you do check in on how your people are doing, don’t just look for problems.

“None of us probably give positive feedback as often as we should,” Sheldon says. “If your business is moving fast, chances are you might be leaving that out and that’s so important. Along with positive feedback is making time to care about these people.”

The numbers show Sheldon is making the right moves with her business as the company hit $120.8 million in 2011 revenue. Two new stores were announced in Boston in September, and Sheldon feels good about the future. She says keeping it fun will be a big key.

“If you don’t allow people to feel they are having some fun in their job, you may lose them sooner than if you give them a little relief now and then,” Sheldon says. ?

How to reach: Soft Surroundings, (800) 240-7076 or www.softsurroundings.com

 

The Sheldon File

Robin Sheldon

president and founder

Soft Surroundings

 

Born: New York

 

Education: University of Denver. I was actually working on an English lit degree, which had nothing to do with what’s happened the rest of my life. I wanted to write, but not in journalism. I was not a business person or thinking about business much at that time. It’s an unusual situation, not one that most women would find themselves in today. It’s interesting how somehow the business finds you.

 

What was your first job?

I was a research assistant to a newspaper in Long Island, N.Y. I started to fall in love with the written word. I have a book that I’m working on and I do it when I get a moment to breathe. Maybe I will get to finish it someday. It’s a mystery, certainly fiction.

 

What is the best advice anyone ever gave you?

In the world of business, it’s, ‘Know your customer.’ I guess that came from Dennis Pence, who is president and chairman of Coldwater Creek. If you can put yourself in your customer’s shoes and see what you’re doing from their perspective, it will change the way you do things and it will make you more successful. We all get lost in our own little world and think we know why we’re doing things. Sometimes we’re doing things that the people we’re trying to do them for don’t want.

 

 

Takeaways:

 

Know what tasks require maximum effort.

Help your people achieve their potential.

Make sure you praise a job well done.

Published in St. Louis

It was a bitter pill for Robert Pasin to swallow.

Radio Flyer Inc. had spent decades producing millions of its iconic red steel wagons for children across the United States. The children who grew up with them had bought them for their children and those kids bought them for their kids. It was a tradition that could go on forever, or at least that’s what the company had let itself believe.

But as the 1990s began, a new wagon, one made out of plastic, had begun appearing in stores and was an instant hit with consumers.

The part that was most painful to accept for those who worked at Radio Flyer was that they had not made this new plastic wagon. Even worse, as they looked at the way their company was set up, they weren’t even capable of competing by making a plastic wagon of their own.

“We were a manufacturer, a steel stamper, and that’s what we were really good at,” Pasin says. “The way we were running the business was we were looking at what we could make in our factory and then figuring out if we could sell it.”

This mindset led the company to start a line of wheelbarrows and garden carts in the 1950s to go along with its wagons, all of which were made out of steel.

“We weren’t in touch with the external environment as much as we needed to be or should have been,” Pasin says. “So we weren’t talking to consumers. We weren’t asking moms what they wanted in a new wagon. That’s why we were really caught off guard.

“If we had been doing those things, we would have known that this is something that consumers wanted.”

This was the challenge that faced Pasin, grandson of company founder, Antonio Pasin, less than a year after taking over the company as its CEO.

“There was justifiable fear,” Pasin says. “We were scared that we weren’t going to stay in business.”

 

Accept the challenge

The fear was palpable around the offices of Radio Flyer. Complacency had played a role in where the company now found itself, but Pasin and his team had to find a way to get past that. They needed to act quickly if they were going to save this company that had become such a symbol of 20th century Americana.

“We had to come out with a plastic wagon if we were going to stay in business because this was where the market was going,” Pasin says. “The challenge was that we really never had sourced a product before. Everything we had ever done, we made it ourselves. We didn’t have anybody in our company who knew anything about plastic, and we didn’t really have a product development team.”

Pasin didn’t try to sugarcoat the daunting challenge that Radio Flyer faced.

“We were just really honest, and we said, ‘Here are the facts, here’s what we’re going to do, and we’re going to keep treating people here as well as we possibly can,’” Pasin says.

It was an urgent time, no doubt about it. But Pasin didn’t feel it was time to panic, and he wanted to make sure his people didn’t feel it either. Plastic wagons were on everyone’s mind, but Pasin was also thinking about mission, vision and values. These things would play a big part in the company’s approach to making plastic wagons.

“We went through a process that included everyone in the company,” Pasin says. “The best way to achieve change is to involve everyone in the change as much as possible. In our case, we were changing the culture, and we asked everyone a lot of questions over the course of a year.

“We had a companywide discussion and it started with, ‘What was the company like on the first day you started?’ We got vastly different answers from people who had been here for 40 years and people who had been here for months. But while the answers were different, there were these recurring themes that kept coming out.”

Those themes were integrity, passion and excellence. Radio Flyer had indeed dropped the ball by not staying in touch with its customers as their needs and desires changed. But the products the company was making were as well-made and strong as they ever had been. And that was something to build upon.

“It just became very evident that we had this great bedrock of a culture to build on, and it was really powerful,” Pasin says. “No matter what, there’s got to be some gem in a business or hopefully more than one gem. Otherwise, you’d be out of business. There’s got to be something good in there. The task of the leader is to find that gem. Figure out what’s unique or different about it and then build on it.”

Pasin saw how strong his team was and the talent that each person brought to the table. He just needed to figure out how to take all of those pluses and use them to build a process to make plastic wagons and then stay in touch with consumers to be more proactive and less reactive about the next big thing.

“If the leaders can go through in a very methodical and thorough way and unearth all that information, it becomes very clear what needs to be done,” Pasin says. “It doesn’t mean what needs to be done is easy. It’s very difficult or it already would have been done.”

Set clear goals

Pasin wanted goals to be much more structured and clearly stated at Radio Flyer. It would help the company make a great plastic wagon, and it would ensure that, decades later, the company would not find itself in a similar situation of being out of touch with its consumers.

“Everybody in the company has five goals,” Pasin says. “Those five goals line up with the team goals and the team goals line up with the company goals. So there’s tremendous line of sight and alignment throughout the company for what we’re working on. ‘Here’s what I’m working on and here’s how it’s impacting the success of the business.’”

As a business, when you set goals, it’s critical that they align and that they be meaningful. Otherwise, what’s the point?

“They have to meet the SMART criteria,” Pasin says. “S is for specific. M is for measurable. A is for achievable. R is for return on investment. T is for time-bound. We work really hard to make sure everybody’s goals are smart in that way.”

There were some people in the company who provided evidence that they weren’t a good fit for what needed to be done going forward.

“I had a couple of guys say, ‘OK, now that we’re going to have these goals, how much more am I going to get paid?’” Pasin says. “I said nothing. These goals are not above and beyond. They are not extra. This is the most important stuff you’re supposed to be doing in your job. Those people aren’t in the company anymore.”

Make tough decisions

As the company got into the details of making plastic wagons, Pasin gradually began to realize that a big change was going to have to be made: Radio Flyer was no longer going to be a manufacturer.

It happened over a period of years, but it was clear if the company was going to make plastic wagons and branch out into tricycles and scooters too, something had to go.

“There is no way a company our size can be great at all those things,” Pasin says. “One of the questions we asked ourselves to help us get clarity was if we weren’t doing this today, would we start doing it? And the answer was so clearly no.”

Pasin wanted to build relationships with design firms and have product development teams that would have their fingers on the pulse of consumers. In order to do that the right way, manufacturing would have to be cut.

“What are we passionate about?” Pasin says. “What can we be best in the world at? What drives our economic engine? Those three questions are huge questions. We decided that what drives our economic engine is profit per product. Not profit per product line. We had a lot of products we were losing money on.

“We decided we’re not going to do that anymore. We’re going to be much more rigorous on making sure that here’s a revolutionary idea for the business. We’re going to make money on everything we sell.”

Twenty years after the company faced its demise, Radio Flyer is flying high. Sales that were only $20 million in 1992 now top $100 million and the 70-employee company’s debt is minimal.

Pasin credits the success to a methodical approach that has the company positioned better than it’s ever been to continue growing.

“I would just sit down and list out on paper what I thought all the biggest problems in the company were and then I would do a ranking of what are the biggest problems,” Pasin says in offering advice to other leaders who find themselves in a tough spot. “Usually the biggest problems relate to the biggest opportunities. Then I would go to my team and say, ‘Hey guys, here’s what I think are our biggest problems and how we can make them opportunities.’” ?

How to reach: Radio Flyer Inc., (800) 621-7613 or www.radioflyer.com

 

The Pasin File

 

Born: Chicago

 

Education: Bachelor’s degree in history, University of Notre Dame, MBA, Kellogg Graduate School of Management, Northwestern University.

 

What was your very first job?

My first job was working on the packing line in the factory. I was 18.

 

Did you see yourself becoming the CEO?

I would say no. I was starting to get very interested in the business, and I saw myself working in the business, but not necessarily as CEO.

 

What one person would you like to have met in the world and why?

The first person that comes to mind would be my grandfather — I could have lunch with him and talk to him about what’s happening in the business and ask him questions about his early experiences. I never got a chance to do that while he was alive. I think it would be fascinating at this stage of my life to be able to do that.

 

Pasin on building a good team: The most important thing is are the people committed to where the company is going and are they highly committed to doing a great job. If I were ever to go into a turnaround situation, that’s the first thing I would do. For the ones who aren’t, move them out of the company as fast as possible. It’s the best thing for the company and it’s the best thing for those people. If they are not committed and into their jobs, they are just dying a slow death of meaningless work. I’d much rather have them do that somewhere else or find meaningful work that will make them happy.

Published in Chicago

AWARD RECIPIENT – Retail and Consumer Products

Rhonda Shear

president

Shear Enterprises LLC

Rhonda Shear has continued to reinvent herself over the years, evolving from successful actress to traveling comedian to self-made businesswoman.

In 2003, she acted on the desire to own her own company and invested all she had to found St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Shear Enterprises LLC — an intimate apparel company.

She designed the ?rst eight products herself and connected with other start-up companies in the manufacturing industry that would work with her on small minimum orders and cash management.

Today, Shear Enterprises has grown from a staff of three to a staff of 25, but Shear still designs all of her products personally.

Aiming to make fun apparel ?attering for all body types, she pays particular attention to style, fabric, color and sizing. To further set her company apart, she uses the highest quality materials and takes risks to ?nd new ways to reach her customers.

Recently, Shear launched Rhonda Shear TV — covered on both Roku and Yahoo TV — to move beyond retail outlets and traditional shopping networks.

Taking risks to further differentiate, she also is launching a swimwear line, a fragrance line and a cosmetic line to complement her intimate apparel products this year.

Dedicated to her community, Shear has been involved in charities such as Habitat for Humanity, St. Jude’s and the American Cancer Society.

But her real passion lies with organizations focused on breast cancer survivors and breast cancer detection education.

In addition to donations of money and time, Shear is working on a bra that will accommodate the needs of women who’ve been through breast cancer surgery, soliciting the advice of medical professionals.

HOW TO REACH: Shear Enterprises LLC, www.rhondashear.com

Published in Florida

WINNER – Retail and Consumer Products

Kyle Krause

owner, president and CEO

Kum & Go L.C.

Growing up as the “boss’ son,” Kyle Krause knew he’d need to work 10 times harder than any other employee at Kum & Go L.C. to earn the respect of his co-workers.

So from the time he started pumping gas at the company’s ?rst convenience store — owned by his father and grandfather — Krause was constantly asking himself what he needed to do to one day take their place as an owner of the business.

As the owner, president and CEO of Kum & Go today, Krause continues to think big as he applies the lessons and coaching provided by his father and grandfather to lead the company’s expansion and growth.

His vision is to make Kum & Go the No. 1 convenience retailer in the United States by 2021.

But while he knows that expansion is critical in reaching this milestone, Krause says that the ultimate goal isn’t about being the biggest business.

It’s about being the best. That’s one of the reasons why he’s abandoned the company’s previous growth-through acquisition strategy to focus on growing through new store construction and new markets.

In 2011, Kyle unveiled his KG Vision, a 10-year plan to reach the 2021 goal, which includes rolling out new “5K” store models designed around customer convenience and needs.

To develop the new store design, Krause had three full-size mock-up stores built in a warehouse, asking select employees and customers to visit them and provide feedback on how to create the very best customer experience.

Under Krause’s leadership, Kum & Go continues to raise its standards for service and quality, driving toward the vision to be No. 1.

Currently, the company is the ?fth-largest, privately held, company-operated convenience store chain in the U.S.

HOW TO REACH: Kum & Go L.C., www.kumandgo.com

Published in St. Louis
Page 1 of 11