EMERGING, AWARD RECIPIENT

Geoffrey Barker had some solid experience as an entrepreneur when he noticed something in common with his previous two technology-related start-ups: Both companies had been tagged by patent trolls (those who purchase a patent just to sue another company claiming that a product infringes on the purchased patent). The legal issues escalated and, ultimately, led to defense costs of more than eight ?gures.

So Barker and his partners in 2008 founded RPX Corp., the ?rst defensive patent litigation company in the intellectual property market. It has become a leading supplier of patent risk solutions, offering defensive buying, acquisition syndication, patent intelligence and advisory services to technology companies worldwide. Being the ?rst business of this kind resulted in unique challenges, including learning how to build the right team for a new venture that is trying to accomplish something quite innovative in the market and identifying the right blend of employees and resources.

Under Barker’s leadership as co-founder and COO, he focused not only on obtaining individuals with top skills and an impressive education, but those with great aptitude and attitude. Barker promotes the ?rm’s innovative, honest and entrepreneurial culture to attract and retain talented individuals.

Barker also thinks that employing people should include signi?cant investments in training and professional development for them. As such, RPX is investing to create a best-in-class analyst training program to recruit and develop the next generation of business leaders. Barker believes that developing the skill sets of employees will not only bring value to RPX, it will create more dynamic professionals who will contribute to the company and society for years to come.

HOW TO REACH: RPX Corp., www.rpxcorp.com

Published in Northern California
Saturday, 30 June 2012 20:01

Dan Lubeck: Triumphant transactions

The sale of a private company typically is a life-changing event for the stakeholders. Its impact transcends multiple aspects of the sellers’ lives — finances, time and balance to name a few.

For investors in privately held companies, recognition and incorporation of these factors is fundamental to success. It enables the investor to structure transactions that meet the needs of the sellers and that have realistic post-closing expectations.

As important as this is to the investor, we believe it is equally important for the selling stakeholders. Sale transactions have a much higher likelihood of closure and success when the sellers have a clear vision of their personal goals in the transaction. We want sellers to describe the lives they desire at the close and after — their true aspirations. A successful sale structure will address those aspirations, while also meeting the needs of the investors and debt providers.

Developing the vision

Ironically, it is common for sellers not to have a clear or complete vision for their desired post-sale lives. If so, developing this vision becomes an important part of the early discussions. We often suggest a simple but powerful exercise where sellers describe their current lives, the lives they desire and how the transaction will advance or deliver them there.     

While valuation and terms are key considerations, there are others that frequently are relevant.

Time and balance

Sellers must honestly assess if and how much they want to work after the close. If they want to continue to work, how do they want to spend their work time? Where do they most and least enjoy spending their work time? Where is their work time the most valuable? For sellers of companies they tightly control, are they truly ready to partially or completely let go? Old habits — particularly ones that have been effective and created a lot of wealth — die hard. Driving these questions are nonwork interests, relations and passions to which the sellers would like to give more time. Hopefully, for the sellers and for the transaction, they have many of these.

Health

It is better to sell your company while you have the time and capacity to enjoy it.

Wealth diversification

This is a frequent aspiration for sellers we transact with. It is common that a seller’s largest asset is his ownership stake in the company, most often created over a long time period. It may make sense for those sellers to take some chips off the table, even if their company is poised for ongoing success. One of my wisest friends, who is a manager of significant wealth, once said, “All of my rich friends sold early.”

Partnering

A very common aspiration for sellers we transact with, and one we greatly appreciate, is the desire to partner to facilitate growth and improvement. In these transactions, sellers accomplish partial realization, address other aspirations and continue to lead the company — but now with the added support of a new, interest-aligned partner.

Working capital

Another common feature of partnering structures is provision of working capital. These transactions typically are driven by growth, and meeting the sellers’ aspirations of adequate working capital is essential.       

Key employees

Sellers often aspire to reward and protect key employees. This can be accommodated in many ways.

If you are contemplating selling part or all of your business, these steps can help create a clear vision of your future and how to make that vision a reality with a successful transaction.

Dan Lubeck is founder and managing director of Solis Capital Partners (www.soliscapital.com), a private equity firm headquartered in Newport Beach, Calif. Solis focuses on disciplined investment in lower-middle-market companies. Lubeck was a transactional attorney, and has lectured at prominent universities and business schools around the world. Reach him at dan@soliscapital.com.

Published in Los Angeles

Whether your business is just getting started or just hitting its stride, finding the right office space is one of the most important decisions a CEO can make. And not just because office space is one of the biggest fixed costs for a company — or, for that matter, because the average CEO spends one third of their waking life in their workspace.

The truth is, your office is much more than just space. It can affect what talent you attract, which vendors you’ll do business with, which mentors you’ll gain access to and just how effectively you’ll transform your customers into fans.

As a young business in the midst of explosive growth, with a workforce that has more than doubled in the past two years, discussions about office space are a near-daily occurrence at Petplan. As a result, we’ve learned a few critical points to consider when choosing office space:

Location, location, location

Legendary actor and comedian Bob Hope once said, “I’ve always been in the right place and time. Of course, I steered myself there.” The location you choose for your business — whether it is your corporate headquarters, regional offices, customer care center or brick-and-mortar retail outlets — will, quite simply, impact every other aspect of your business.

If you’re getting started, your office location will impact the employees you’ll attract, the suppliers you can use and the customers you’ll win over with your competitive advantage — all of which are critical to the pace you’ll set for your business and the successes you’ll achieve.

If you’re already established and are considering a move to accommodate future growth, location becomes an even more critical part of your decision-making process. The right location is an opportunity to reinvigorate your teams, advance productivity and increase employee satisfaction. The wrong location has potential to turn a minor disruption into an HR crisis. When considering potential office space, place the most importance on its location.

Culture cultivator

A close second to location in terms of importance is culture. What kind of culture do you want to create with your organization? Do you really need individual offices? How can the space be optimized for collaboration and productivity? For Petplan, culture is king. We strive to maintain the classic “start-up culture” — an open culture in which everyone is a hands-on contributor and shares ideas and opinions. So for our office, we prefer an open floor plan that promotes interaction across all employees, including staff, managers and executives alike.

 Your office space is more than a place to work. Consider how it can solve the needs of both your business and your employees. Does the building have adequate parking? Access to ground transportation? Proximity to rail or air transport? Are there facilities, such as restaurants, shops, dry cleaners and overnight couriers on site or nearby? Is it safe? Does it allow pets (obviously, an important one for us)? Seek space that answers questions critical to the needs of your business.

One to grow on

Just as you wouldn’t seek a technology solution that merely answered today’s needs without any consideration for the future, seek space that allows you to be nimble. Is there contiguous space available? Is the landlord willing to work with you as you grow? Picture your business 24 months from now — does the space support your needs? Can the building provide additional solutions?

Make a good impression

Your office is an extension of your brand. If your office is dull and disheveled, chances are your business will follow suit. Choose a space that reflects your brand’s personality, and will allow your team to communicate that personality, and your business’ core values, to the world at large.

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. Originally from the U.K., she holds an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business. She can be reached at press@gopetplan.com.

Published in Philadelphia
Saturday, 30 June 2012 20:00

Honoring the best of the best

Each year in June, Ernst & Young celebrates entrepreneurial leaders across the country as part of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year Awards. This year marks the 26th year in which Ernst & Young has recognized those leaders.

Over the years, we’ve learned that entrepreneurial leaders are a little different from the rest of us. They can take ideas and put them into action where others cannot, and along the way, they lead others into a better future. We call this “turning vision into reality” as that is exactly what entrepreneurs do.

In recent years, we have had a slower economy and we have seen the start of a recovery. However, during challenging economic times, entrepreneurial leaders step up to the challenge, as you will see with this year’s finalists. The companies represented at this year’s Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of The Year Gulf Coast Area Awards grew the number of people employed in excess of 30 percent and grew revenues in excess of 40 percent during the last two years combined. There can be no doubt that these entrepreneurial leaders, through their vision, will bring our country back to prosperity.

Ernst & Young has been recognizing these risk-taking visionaries for 26 years, and over that time, it has recognized more than 8,000 entrepreneurial men and women. The Entrepreneur Of The Year Award has grown to be recognized as the leading business award. While Ernst & Young is proud of this accomplishment, the credit goes to the thousands of entrepreneurial leaders who have been recognized over the years. The fact that the program has endured and grown for more than 26 years is a true testament to the entrepreneurial leaders themselves.

The program now celebrates entrepreneurial leaders in 26 U.S. regions each year. The regional award recipients then participate in the National Entrepreneur Of The Year awards in November in Palm Springs, Calif.

At that ceremony, 10 award recipients are selected and one is selected as the National

Entrepreneur Of The Year overall award recipient. The National Entrepreneur Of The Year overall award recipient will then participate in the World Entrepreneur Of The Year in Monte Carlo, along with award recipients from 50 other countries. This truly is the world’s business award.

The National Entrepreneur Of The Year Program is the culminating event for a five-day Strategic Growth Forum that had more than 1,500 participants last year. This is the only event of its kind that is focused on the CEOs of companies. The panelists and speakers are unparalleled and have included special guests such as George W. Bush, former president of the United States, and Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Air. This year will feature Frederick Smith, chairman, president and CEO of FedEx Corp., and Irene Rosenfeld, chairman and CEO of Kraft Foods. The content of the program is focused on strategic growth strategies, from initial public offerings to expansion in high-growth markets.

We are honored to present the 26th Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year Awards and to recognize the entrepreneurial leaders of the past, present and future that make this the greatest country in the world to do business. Turning vision into reality, which benefits all of us.

Todd Zuspan is a partner with Ernst & Young LLP ?and is the director of the Entrepreneur Of The Year Gulf Coast Area program.

Finalists & Award Recipient

Business Services

Joe Fowler, Stress Engineering Services Inc. (Award Recipient)

Antonio R. Grijalva, John W. Allen, G&A Partners (Finalist)

Richard Eichler, Hart Energy Publishing (Finalist)

Curtis Brown, Rimkus Consulting Group Inc. (Finalist)

Charles Schugart, U.S. Legal Support (Finalist)

Consumer Products & Services

Earl Hesterberg, Group 1 Automotive Inc. (Award Recipient)

Melvin Payne, Carriage Services Inc. (Finalist)

Donald Klein, Chesmar Homes Ltd. (Finalist)

Drake Mills, Community Trust Bank (Finalist)

Jerry Lasco, Lasco Enterprises LLC (Finalist)

Distribution & Manufacturing – Energy

Terry Looper, Texon LP (Award Recipient)

Thomas Amonett, Champion Technologies Inc. (Finalist)

Ray Rice Jr., RB Products Inc. (Finalist)

C. Jim Stewart IV, Surfire Industries USA LLC (Finalist)

Ron Farmer, US LED (Finalist)

Exploration & Production

Scott Smith, Vanguard Natural Resources (Award Recipient)

Matt McCarroll, Dynamic Offshore Resources (Finalist)

John D. Schiller Jr., Energy XXI Ltd. (Finalist)

Alan Smith, QR Energy LP (Finalist)

Health Care & Health Care Services

Richard Zuschlag, Acadian Ambulance Service (Award Recipient)

Dana Sellers, Encore Health Resources (Finalist)

TJ Farnsworth, SightLine Health LLC (Finalist)

Taseer Badar, ZT Wealth Inc./Altus Healthcare Management Services (Finalist)

Logistics & Industrial Services

June Ressler, Cenergy International Services LLC (Award Recipient)

John Magee, Crane Worldwide Logistics (Finalist)

Carolyn Doerle, Doerle Food Services LLC (Finalist)

Brian Fielkow, Jetco Delivery (Finalist)

Sandy Scott, Sprint Industrial Holdings LLC (Finalist)

Oil Field Services

Cindy Taylor, Oil States International Inc. (Award Recipient)

Darron Anderson, Express Energy Services LP (Finalist)

Chris Beckett, Pacific Drilling (Finalist)

Christopher DeClaire, Vantage Drilling Co. (Finalist)

Oil Field Technology

Richard Degner, Global Geophysical Services (Award Recipient)

Robert Stewart Sr., Lime Instruments (Finalist)

Peter Duncan, MicroSeismic Inc. (Finalist)

Allen Howard, NuTech Energy Alliance Ltd. (Finalist)

Transformational CEO

Bob Beauchamp, BMC Software Inc. (Award Recipient)

Technology

A. Jay Harrison, Mav6 LLC (Award Recipient)

James Taylor, Arun Pasrija, CHR Solutions Inc. (Finalist)

Rick Pleczko, Idera (Finalist)

Andres Reinder, PROS Holdings Inc. (Finalist)

Published in Houston

When SugarHouse Casino opened its doors to the public in September 2010, the buzz was palpable throughout the region. Located on the Delaware River, it is Philadelphia’s first casino, and its debut came with a full royal fanfare: media headlines, applicants clamoring to apply for jobs and a leadership team assembled from a pool of experienced gaming industry experts from around the country.

At the center was Wendy Hamilton, the casino’s general manager. Like everyone else associated with SugarHouse, she basked in the glow of the casino’s debut. But she also knew the spotlight wouldn’t always be this bright.

“It was all new, novel and exciting,” says Hamilton, now in her second year running the casino. “We were all making decisions every day that were going to determine who we are and how we would do business for the rest of our lives here. It was really a high energy and exciting time for everyone. But now, it’s not so new anymore and it is not as exciting. The media isn’t as interested in everything we do. So the challenge has become about how we ensure this is still a great place to work, ensure people still enjoy coming to work every day when it isn’t so novel anymore.”

It happens to virtually any business that opens to a heaping helping of pomp and circumstance: At the outset, it’s an event. After some time passes, it becomes a job. Even if the Phillies are in first place this month, by now home games have become a matter-of-fact part of summertime life. The buzz surrounding Opening Day is a distant memory.

Replace the crack of the bat with the ringing of slot machines, and you have Hamilton’s predicament over the past year-plus.

“It is something that the leadership team here thinks about every day,” she says. “We are always looking for new ways to keep the team engaged, ways to get everybody on board with what we are doing.”

Plug yourself in

Maintaining a high level of engagement with your employees comes down to how you communicate. That is the simply stated version of the solution. What Hamilton has discovered is that you need to choose your interaction points for the best possible impact.

In an organization like SugarHouse, which employs just more than 1,000, you can build communication touch points through a variety of mediums. The tried-and-true methods include newsletters, e-mail blasts, speeches and videoconferences.

But what works best for Hamilton and her leadership team, and what she emphasizes, is relationship-building through informal interaction. Hamilton walks the casino floor, visits the employee lunchroom, chats with cashiers during a lull in business, so she can learn what they are learning. Hamilton says it is critical to develop a sense of familiarity between the casino’s executive team and the employees working the floor, because those employees talk to customers every day. They find out what customers like and don’t like about their experiences at the casino, and can help the executive team to identify issues at ground level before they become major problems.

“We are in a very consumer-oriented business, in a very high-touch industry,” Hamilton says. “For example, we do a lot of giveaways to certain customers who are worth a certain dollar level to us. They are usually invited to the casino at a specific day and time to pick up their gift. Let’s say it is a set of pots and pans, which is a gift that creates some logistical concerns. A set of pots and pans is not easily handed over to a customer and carried around the casino for the rest of their visit.

“So what might happen is an employee relays a suggestion from a customer about doing the pot and pan giveaway at the end of the visit, so they can just pull up to the valet stand, put the package in the car and drive away. On the executive level, it might make more sense to us if we give the package away at the promotions center, but the people at ground level will have a better feel for the details of the situation.”

Through their daily observations, employees can formulate common-sense suggestions that can have wide-ranging positive results over the long term. But if you don’t put in the time and effort to connect with them and develop a sense of familiarity, they won’t feel engaged, their enthusiasm for the job will wane and they won’t come to you with their ideas.

“I like knowing people’s names, knowing what part of the casino they work in, and even knowing a little bit about them personally,” Hamilton says. “If you can keep it casual and informal, it’s not a big deal to run into them somewhere and ask them to help you out with something. You can comfortably ask them about a new potential policy and how it might impact them in their area of work. It keeps the communication very quick, easy and efficient.”

You won’t be able to use every single idea that an employee brings forward. But even when you have to reject an idea, or table it for a while, you can still use that as an opportunity for connection, engagement and motivation.

“When you can’t use an idea, there ought to be a reason,” Hamilton says. “Either it is a good idea for your purposes or it isn’t. If it is a good idea, you use it. If it isn’t, you need to explain to the person why it won’t work. If it is a regulatory reason or something along that line, just tell them that. More often than not, it’s going to be a situation where you like the idea but you just can’t use it right now. It might be something you can do a couple of months from now. If that is the case, you have to tell them it is a great idea and there is a better chance of it happening in a few months. But it all comes back to how you communicate with the person in that situation.”

Though you can’t often develop the same level of familiarity with customers that you can with employees, you can take some of the same informal communication principles and apply it to how you interact with customers.

“I find that the little tidbit you get from a five-minute conversation with a customer is as valuable as the customer surveys we send out,” Hamilton says. “It’s a lot of being around the operation, being there while they are playing or while they are having dinner. You just ask them what is going good about their experience and how their experience could be better. I would say it is difficult sometimes in a business setting to really get a group of executives used to just being there and having those kinds of conversations – the type of conversations you would have around your own water cooler in the executive offices. You need to be able to talk like that to your customers and your employees because that is where you are going to get the real information.”

Build your team

If you’re going to keep your employees engaged over the long haul, your communication philosophy has to become a fundamental building block of your culture. Putting words on a piece of paper, or stating it to your work force, is only the first step, however. You need to promote your communication philosophy, and you need to have a leadership team that fully buys in to your plan and can implement your communication strategy.

At SugarHouse, Hamilton had the advantage of building her own leadership team from scratch, and doing so months before the casino opened its doors.

“We were very lucky here, because at the time we were hiring, this industry was experiencing some turbulence in other markets like Atlantic City and Las Vegas,” she says. “What it meant was, people who were some of the experts in this business, people who had been in a certain field for quite a while and might have turned us down under other circumstances, were willing to take the risk and come here. The field was kind of open to us.”

After Hamilton made the first couple of management hires, a chain reaction developed as those hires then started recruiting via their own professional connections.

“Once I had one or two people on board, those people did the same things, helping me by recruiting some of their own peers to fill out their own teams,” Hamilton says. “We also hired a number of people who applied to us cold, but it helps to have connections through somebody that you are working with, and you’re able to reach out and recruit through those connections.”

As Hamilton was recruiting to build her leadership team, and her team was recruiting to build their departmental teams, she emphasized three overarching traits that all management-level team members needed to possess.

“They needed to be smart, like any executive would, and they need to be a bit clever about solving problems,” she says. “Beyond that, they also need to be people who can interact in a social setting. If they are people who can function in their neighborhood or in their kid’s school, it’s largely the same thing. Sometimes you have to train people to have those informal conversations at work, because it’s not how they were coached previously. But anybody who is smart and fairly social can pull it off once the main idea is introduced.”

When building a team that can stimulate dialogue and engage employees, you need to consider your culture first. If you want to build a management team that can promote open communication, that concept first needs to be a part of your organization’s core values. If you can’t define your values accurately, you won’t be able to hire to fit your values.

Through her professional connections, Hamilton knew of many people in the gaming and casino industry with a high level of technical competency in their areas of specialization. But by getting to know those people over the years, she developed a sense of who would fit the culture at SugarHouse and who wouldn’t.

“I can name a couple of good finance folks, but I knew right away the one who would fit perfectly into the culture we wanted to build here,” she says. “You really have to be committed to making sure that you don’t have someone who might be very strong on the technical side but won’t add anything to the culture. But while you want everybody to identify with your culture and values, you don’t want to hire people who are all the same. So I don’t like to use the word ‘fit’ when it comes to culture. You don’t want to end up with 10 vice presidents who all have the same type of personality.”

Good team-building falls under the heading of “chemistry.” It’s a nebulous word when it comes to social interaction and what it means to have everybody working together. But somehow, the issue of chemistry must be addressed if you’re going to have a unified management team, and in turn, a unified, engaged and motivated company at large.

“At the end of the day, it’s up to you to make the call about whether a person is a good cultural fit or whether they simply bring the technical skills,” Hamilton says. “You could have the best people, but if they don’t fit with the culture and won’t get along with certain people, it weakens the team.

“You want to create a team that likes being together, a team that will look out for each other and have each other’s backs. Everybody has strengths and weaknesses, and if you build a team that is complementary, the job gets done, everybody plays a part and nothing falls apart because of a conflict or somebody’s weakness.”

How to reach: SugarHouse Casino, (877) 477-3715 or www.sugarhousecasino.com

The Hamilton file

Born: Philadelphia

Education: Degree in biology from Duke University; MBA in finance from St. Joseph’s University

First job: I sold saltwater taffy on the boardwalk in Ocean City, N.J. when I was 14 years old.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

Don’t take it personally. Let me define that a bit. On one hand, people do their jobs well because they take it personally. However, some days you just can’t get a hit. And when things aren’t going your way, that is when you have to be careful to not lose enthusiasm. Sometimes, things are going to get tough and something is not going to go right. But especially in a leadership role, you can’t let it affect your energy and enthusiasm. You still have to project a positive attitude, because people are going to look up to you.

What is your definition of success?

Obviously, you need to be producing a quality end product. But for me personally, I want to be able to assume those things are happening. It sounds ridiculously simple, but success is when you as the leader have the people around you fulfilled and your employees are happy. You want an environment where people enjoy coming to work. That, to me, is when you can say you are successful in your role.

Published in Philadelphia

The recession was going in the Dumpster.

No, not just figuratively — it was physically going to be thrown in the Dumpster.

On a windy day in the fall of 2009, Kim Yost, then the newly named CEO of Art Van Furniture Inc., carried a large sign bearing the word “recession” to a large waste disposal bin at the back of the main warehouse.

“I literally threw it in the Dumpster,” says Yost. “I then went back to the Dumpster several months later and threw the word ‘no’ into it.”

Yost did it because Art Van needed to get its momentum back. Like countless businesses across the country, the home furnishings retailer was sagging under the weight of the recession. Like countless businesses across southeast Michigan, Art Van’s problems were exacerbated by a local economy that wasn’t in great shape even before the recession. The faltering economy was compounding the crisis – acting as a refrigerator dropped on top the piano that Michigan businesses were already carrying on their backs.

When it is an arduous grind to merely slow the rate of damage, most business leaders are not just going to feel the result when looking at their balance sheets. They’re going to see it and hear it in the attitude of their employees.

Despite a decades-long reputation as one of the region’s and country’s leading home furnishings retailers, Art Van wasn’t immune to the recession’s effects, at the cash register, sales floor or the water cooler. It was up to Yost to make a series of bold moves to re-energize all 2,600 employees at Art Van, in spite of the economic environment in which the business was operating.

“We had to get the organization to go in a completely different direction,” Yost says. “The first thing we had to do was get our attitude completely to the point where we were no longer going to participate in the recession. I went out and publicly announced across the entire organization that the recession was over at Art Van, and we had to take our minds, our hearts and our business in a new direction.”

As Yost fashioned a new direction for Art Van, he kept one overarching belief in mind: small wins in the short term can generate big wins in the long term.

Seize the opportunity

Taking over as CEO in the October 2009, Yost was able to find a potential win simply by turning the page on his calendar. November means Thanksgiving, and Thanksgiving immediately precedes Black Friday and the Christmas shopping season.

“We immediately attacked the possibility of breaking an all-time company record for Black Friday sales in 2009,” Yost says.

Yost wanted to turn the Black Friday sales mark into a universal company goal. He wanted to create a companywide buzz around breaking the record. And, above all, he wanted his employees to leave the thunderclouds of the recession outside, bringing a sunny disposition inside the walls at every Art Van location.

“What we did were three things,” he says. “We started to act and perform as if the economy was terrific, as if we were back in the early 2000s. We developed our flier, our television campaign and the look of our stores to consistently resemble what we did in the early 2000s — say, the year 2001. From a marketing point of view, that was what we did when the economy was at its best.

“Second, we had a series of sales contests and sales promotions internally to encourage everybody to break the record. We were moving in a new direction, so we had to get that small win really early. The last thing we did was we created a game book. I have been playing sports since I was young, and I had a history in my professional career of creating game books that are unique. So we put together a Black Friday record-breaking game book for November 2009 and used that as our checklist.”

There were 32 steps the company needed to complete in order to break the record. Yost and his leadership team educated the work force on each step, what it would take to address each step and, in turn, break the sales record.

The methodical and comprehensive approach to staff motivation had the desired effect. Not only did Art Van’s associates focus on breaking the Black Friday sales record, they stepped up their game overall. Art Van broke the sales record, and the momentum from the campaign carried over to ensuing big-sale days.

“In November 2009, not only did we eclipse our company record, we did it again the day after Christmas, which is another very important sale date,” Yost says. “Then on New Year’s Day, which is another very big-event promotion for us, we broke another record. So by the time we had Black Friday, the day after Christmas and New Year’s Day, we were now creating momentum.”

After the rapid-fire success of the three sales events, the seeds for a long-term culture shift had been planted. It was up to Yost and his leadership team to feed and water the seeds until they started to sprout, then bloom, then bear fruit. Yost sent his team to all Art Van locations to recap the success of the campaign and illustrate a plan to sustain and increase the momentum moving forward.

“The leadership went out to all our stores and went through detailed discussions on how we were able to change the momentum,” Yost says. “We showed videos centered on inspiration and motivation, our tactics and strategies, we went over the success of the three promotions and what it took to do it. We literally spoke to every employee about what we were trying to accomplish.”

Write the book      

The information exchanged at the on-site meetings helped to produce the company’s first annual game book. The offspring of the game book used to launch the Black Friday sales campaign, Art Van’s first annual game book, “Clarity of Purpose,” took the motivational concepts used to spur the success of the sales campaign and extended it to motivate employees to accomplish the company’s goals for the whole year in 2010.

“In the three years that we have now been going in a different direction, we have produced three annual game books — one for 2010, one for 2011 and one for 2012,” Yost says. “Every single person in the organization was aligned behind the business plan. We re-enacted that same business plan for our 2011 game book, ‘The Next Level,’ and for 2012, which is called ‘Act Now.’ So we have made three separate roadmaps to success for each of the past three years.”

The game books for each year have been written by Art Van’s 16-member executive leadership team through a collaborative process. Each book outlines a series of specific initiatives that will receive the lion’s share of the company’s resources.

“We only have three resources that we can put into motion: time, money and effort,” Yost says. “Those key initiatives get all three of those resources for 12 months. We build on it, we communicate on it, we execute on it. But the focus has been that all 16 of us worked with collaboration to identify those key initiatives, and more importantly, to develop initiatives right throughout the organization, getting absolute alignment from stock room to board room, putting us all on the same path.”

Art Van has 2,600 direct employees, but once you factor in external support staff that also needs alignment on the vision and goals of the company — such as those who work for the company’s advertising agency, suppliers and key product providers — the number is closer to 3,000, according to Yost. That means the messages in Art Van’s annual game books have to reach a vast audience working at many different locations both inside and outside the company’s hierarchy.

“When you make the decision to park the recession in the Dumpster, as we did back in the fall of 2009, you make the decision to embark on a new course,” Yost says. “That means you have to get everybody marching alongside you. It takes a lot of heavy lifting, and a lot of triggering and communication, to get people to where they need to be.”

Yost and his team launched Art Van Television to help increase the profile of the company’s strategy. The in-house television network broadcasts in all Art Van locations, keeping employees updated on company events and promotions, and other information pertinent to the strategic direction of the company.

“We have over 100 50-inch flat-panel television screens all across our organization,” Yost says. “We are now able to broadcast all of our daily happenings to the organization in real time. Special events, activities, different promotions we are working on, the launch of our brand promise, which is a new program we just launched for our new brand initiative. All of that is communicated daily on AVTV. The screens are all throughout our corporate office, our distribution network and our 40 stores. All employees get exposed to it on a daily basis.”

Get interactive

Conveying your strategic plan and objectives comprises a large part of what it takes to point your company in a new direction. But it’s not the whole story. You need to give your employees a chance to have their say. If you don’t give your employees at all levels and locations a chance to voice their opinions and offer feedback, you can’t expect total engagement in the future direction of the organization.

When he began to fashion Art Van’s new direction in late 2009, Yost didn’t want to just physically prod his work force to sell more. He wanted to mentally stimulate them to think about how things could work better – how internal systems could improve, how new promotions could bring customers into the stores, how Yost and his leadership team could do their jobs more efficiently and effectively.

The answer for Yost wasn’t just about more sales and marketing muscle. It was about a better attitude and thousands of employees coming to work each day empowered to do their best work.

“If you’re going to aim your company in a new direction, you first need to capture the minds and hearts of your team,” he says. “That is why I literally needed to park the word ‘recession’ in the Dumpster. It was because we needed to change our vocabulary. We needed to get rid of words like ‘no’ and embrace change. And it’s all going to start with the leadership.”

As the leadership goes, so goes the rest of your company. You and your leadership team have to be the ones to set the example, develop the proper attitude, reach out to employees and keep the dialogue moving. If you don’t lead from the front, you can’t expect anyone else to step up and do it.

“We have a saying here that goes, ‘Speed of the leader, speed of the team, quality of the leader, quality of the team,’” Yost says. “We, here at Art Van and as leaders overall, get the team we deserve. As much as I’d like to give you the magic bullet that you can put to any business and it will miraculously start to improve, it is all about leadership. Every day, our leaders come to work inspired and motivated to take their teams to the next level.

“To have leadership that is motivated and inspired, you have to have them winning. When they are winning, it’s much easier to keep the momentum, and then you have to challenge them, every day, every week, every month. Another thing we say around here is ‘Winning isn’t everything, but wanting to is.’ There can be no complacency. You have to want to win every day.”

How to reach: Art Van Furniture Inc., (586) 939-0800 or www.artvan.com

The Yost file

Born: Red Deer, Alberta, Canada

Other projects: Yost is the author of “Pumptitude: Pump Up Your Attitude and Gain Altitude,” available at www.pumptitude.com.

Yost on managing growth: Speed wins, slow loses. But you have to have controlled and profitable growth, and each organization has a different ability to adapt. What I’ve found so terrific about our team is that this is a team of very fast and quick-adapting individuals. We have 91 leadership-level individuals, including sales managers and store managers. They enjoy the speed and the tempo.

But you can get to a point where you have to judge how much your team can absorb and execute to the degree of quality, and you have to pace yourself. This is a marathon, not a sprint. You do that by giving them achievable goals within short term ranges, and give them the ability to relish the success of that goal — maybe a bit of a breather — and then you get on to the next one.

If you are in dense enough forest, you have to give your team the ability to get a little bit of a clearing. They catch up, get organized and regroup, and make another little clearing. Then you let them catch up and regroup, and they hit the forest again, and so forth. So we have been very careful to watch our tempo and manage our speed, to manage out some of the things we have done to balance out the execution.

Yost on how the recession has changed the business world: I tend to refer to this recessionary time as the ‘brave new world.’ It is not going to go away even in the distant future, and we need to embrace the fact that it is here now and it exists, and so instead of going out of business, we need to go out for business. We have gained market share over the last three years consecutively, we have nine quarters of same-store sales increase, and nine quarters of consistent market share growth.

Published in Detroit

Abby Stancik, a financial adviser, was happy with the results she was getting from her workouts at Overload Fitness. But there was another aspect with which she was even more impressed.

“I really do like that the trainers take your workout as seriously as you take it,” she says. “There is not a lot of chit chat. And beyond that, though, all the staff is very knowledgeable in nutrition.”

She was very interesting in the connection between nutrition and fitness.

“That is as important to me because you can work out like crazy, but if you are putting junk in your body, you’re not going to get the results that you want,” she says. “Overload’s trainers give you good guidance on that. They’re very knowledgeable; they have tools at Overload to measure your body mass index, so it’s really kind of all-encompassing facility.”

At Overload Fitness one of the core values is to over deliver, says Jeff Tomaszewski, vice president and co-owner.

“We pride ourselves on going above and beyond the call of duty or what is expected of us from a client,” he says.

While Overload believes it offers the most efficient and effective exercise program available, the staff doesn’t stop there.

“We want the client to have a world-class experience every time,” Tomaszewski says.

From uniformed staff, to a 67 degrees temperature in the facilities, a ban on mirrors and music, a continuous training of staff on customer service and more, Overload offers world-class customer service.

“We have discussions about not only exceptional customer service experiences but also terrible ones,” Tomaszewski says. “At each monthly staff meeting, we ask each person to share an experience in which they implemented world class customer service in their personal lives. This has a dramatic effect on changing behavior, and it is truly amazing to hear some of the stories that come from this exchange.”

How to reach: Overload Fitness, (440) 835-9090 or www.overloadfitness.com

Published in Cleveland

When PartsSource Inc. launched its ePartsFinder online locator for hospital equipment parts in 2006, the company’s leaders were confident it would resolve any issues regarding customer response time. After all, it enabled customers to receive replies to requests for parts pricing and availability in 30 to 60 minutes, dramatically faster than any other company hospital equipment parts provider.

But over the last couple of years the company realized that sites like Amazon.com and Orbitz were beating it by providing instantaneous pricing and availability for parts. Therefore, being the fastest company in its market niche was no longer good enough. PartsSource’s president and CEO, A. Ray Dalton, challenged his company’s IT department to build an application within ePartsFinder that would deliver instant information on pricing and availability to customers. Essentially, he was demanding that ePartsFinder become as quick and reliable as Amazon.com.

Last October, the company launched the new application, SmartPrice, and after some tweaking and training of employees and customers on how to use the service, customer feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, the company reports.

In addition, PartsSource has found that strong customer adoption of the new service has quickly taken hold. The company is experiencing a surge in new users, the first such upswing since its launch of ePartsFinder six years ago.

PartsSource also reports that it is seeing increases in parts requests and customer satisfaction scores since launching the SmartPrice application. As the company adds more parts to the available SmartPrice matrix, it is experiencing additional increases across the board in each of those key metrics from its entire customer base.

PartsSource’s mission has always been to improve health care delivery while reducing associated costs. Due to changing demographics and health care reform, the need to help its customers reduce costs further will increase dramatically over the next decade.

HOW TO REACH: PartsSource Inc., (330) 562-9900 or www.partssource.com

Published in Cleveland

At Post-Up Stand Inc. every department is focused on customer service and the ways to make it better. Alon Weiner, vice president and co-founder of Post-Up Stand Inc., a manufacturer of tradeshow displays, banners and stands, is helping provide customers with service they come away satisfied with and a product that keeps them coming back time and time again.

The employees of Post-Up Stand take pride in their work and realize the importance of delivering a quality product to customers. No matter what an employee’s position is within the company, they are considered part of the customer service team. From the accounting department to production, all employees work with the customer in mind.

New employees undergo training sessions to ensure they are prepared to handle the questions that come in from customers.

New hires are handed a binder filled with product specifics, procedures and pricing at the start of training to assist in the customer service education process. These employees will also go through a shadow program with senior account executives for the first month of employment. They spend time in each department to learn the complete order process and gain knowledge of the product portfolio.

Training doesn’t end there. New hires also have to be familiarized with the company’s website to understand how the navigation works in order to assist any customers with online issues and questions. Post-Up Stand doesn’t just train new hires. Existing employees get reviewed through incoming calls, client surveys and are offered continuous training on new products and services.

All of this is in an effort to make every customer experience a positive one. The company aims to meet every deadline given and goes above and beyond what customers expect. Employees are trained to never say no and more often than not they are willing to go the extra mile by staying late to the job done.

How to Reach: Post-Up Stand Inc., (216) 332-0530 or www.postupstand.com

Published in Cleveland

For The Ritz-Carlton, Cleveland, every guest that walks into the hotel is considered a VIP. This exceptional treatment of its guests is standard practice and Joseph Mattioli, general manager, makes sure that level of service is consistently being offered.

In fact, customer service is woven right into the hotel’s credo, which reads, “The Ritz-Carlton is a place where the genuine care and comfort of our guests is our highest mission. We pledge to provide the finest personal service and facilities for our guests who will always enjoy a warm, relaxed, yet refined ambience. The Ritz-Carlton experience enlivens the senses, instills well-being, and fulfills even the unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests.”

Every employee of The Ritz-Carlton uses the credo as a guide to providing top-level service. Each employee is empowered to make a guest’s experience special in a personal way. For instance, by noticing a guest’s interest in music, an employee can arrange for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tickets to be delivered to his or her room or if a guest has obviously had a rough travel day, a glass of his or her favorite wine is sent to the room.

The anticipation of needs also plays into how the hotel recognizes guests. If a guest only orders Diet Coke while dining in the hotel, wait staff will have a Diet Coke poured and brought over to the table prior to the request or even have a personalized beverage amenity in their guestroom awaiting their arrival. Even children get special attention and are offered toys during the check-in process. For guests that frequently stay overnight, milestones are recognized by the staff through cards signed by staff they have been in contact with.

The customer service provided transcends the physical product of hotel guest rooms and meals. The Ritz-Carlton strives to deliver a unique, memorable and personal experience to people visiting the hotel, making them Ritz-Carlton guests for life.

How to Reach: The Ritz-Carlton, Cleveland, (216) 623-1300 or www.ritzcarlton.com

Published in Cleveland