Dustin S. Klein

Monday, 26 March 2007 20:00

Rumbling and grumbling

We live in a fast-moving world where the de-mands are high and a premium is put on speed. Business goals are bigger than in years past, time to market is shorter, projects are more expansive, and often, the funds allocated to accomplish what’s necessary are smaller.

It’s no wonder that in such a rush and with so much to accomplish, business leaders often choose to aim high and wide, then drive their team toward premature ulcers in an attempt to tackle everything at once in a macabre corporate scrum.

But there’s no need to get indigestion by trying to gobble up everything at once. Rather, smart leaders accomplish the improbable by splitting the lofty, aggressive goals into smaller, easier-to-digest chunks and developing smaller projects with achievable deadlines.

Project management, by its very nature, is easier discussed than executed. Even the most organized executive can find him or herself knee — or neck — deep in the nuts and bolts of a major project and suddenly be unable to determine which tasks should take top priority and which should be relegated to later.

That’s typically where the bad decisions happen, the project derails and the pain in the pit of your stomach begins.

An easy way to avoid reaching this point — and to keep from getting overwhelmed — is to begin every major undertaking with a lengthy project meeting designed to define the scope of the project, set the time-line, create deadlines and associate the key names on your team with the tasks.

Even if you’re just managing the overall vision for the project — for example, a critical corporate expansion, introduction of a new product or service, divestiture of a business unit or entire line, taking the company public or a merger/acquisition — this step will, in retrospect, become the most important, and therefore, requires your attention.

From there, it’s a matter of making sure your team — or project leaders — is sticking to the schedule, tracking the progress and achieving the smaller milestones along the way.

As you rack up milestone after milestone, don’t forget to celebrate, and suddenly that monster project won’t seem so overwhelming anymore. More important, you’ll successfully digest it piece-by-piece rather than as one unsettling chunk.

Your company’s internal digestive system will thank you for it.

Contact Editor Dustin Klein at dsklein@sbnonline.com

Sunday, 31 December 2006 19:00

Want to take you higher

Every CEO in the world has a hiring story nightmare, typically the one where the dream candidate was identified, wooed and hired, and then crashed and burned in spectacular fashion.

No matter what your nightmare, the lesson is always the same — make that hire count.

Over the past three years, we’ve made a lot of hires as our company has expanded across the nation. Here’s what I’ve learned from the times I’ve done it right and, more important, when I’ve done it wrong.

  1. Clearly define the skill set. But be willing to hire not just for the immediate position but for other positions you anticipate creating later. Sometimes you can be a bit short-sighted when you fall in love with a candidate who has exactly the skill set you want today but doesn’t really have what’s necessary to handle other tasks inside your company or department. Identifying the right skill set for your organization is therefore more important than finding someone with the right skill set for a specific position.

  2. Identify future leaders. Now’s the time. If your business is in growth mode, make sure to build in growth opportunities for the employees and your business; you never know what you’re going to need in a year or two. If you have an employee with a diverse skill set, it’s never too early to identify, hire and groom tomorrow’s leaders.

  3. Be patient. If you’re a savvy CEO, you don’t just throw money at your problems. Nobody likes pain. And if you have an open position — new or existing — that stays that way for too long, somebody’s going to suffer with a heavier-than-anticipated workload. Often, that’s the tradeoff. Making the right hire is simply too important to get it over with just because you need a warm body and you don’t want your staff overextended.

Put out the word that you’re looking for the right person rather than just a person. You’ll be amazed at how willing your team is to pitch in and do the extra work. In the case of hiring, short-term pain is almost always worth it for the long-term gain.

Contact Editor Dustin Klein at dsklein@sbnonline.com

Friday, 24 November 2006 19:00

Man of action

Robert E. Comben Jr. is known as a business leader who gets projects accomplished. Comben, president and CEO of Vocational Guidance Services, has expanded programs, services, partnerships and the physical reach of the 116-year-old nonprofit since he was named to its top spot in 1997.

VGS provides vocational training, work experience and job placement services for Northeast Ohio residents challenged by disabilities and/or economic disadvantages. Among VGS’ more notable services is the manufacture of women’s dress pants and skirts for the U.S. Armed Services. Under Comben’s leadership, VGS is one of the largest and most successful private, not-for-profit training agencies in Ohio, serving clients in 16 Ohio counties.

“VGS serves in excess of 5,000 consumers every year with barriers to employment,” Comben says. “We will competitively place into the community more than 1,000 people (each year) with significant disabilities or other barriers to employment.

And on any given day, we are providing almost 1,000 employment slots in our social enterprises.”

Much of this has happened on Comben’s watch.

He helped expand the nonprofit’s services into Columbus, where VGS clients serve on cleaning crews that manage 15 buildings at The Ohio State University. Comben forged innovative relationships with organizations such as Dress for Success Cleveland, which two years ago became a partner of VGS and is housed in VGS’ East 55th Street headquarters.

And most recently, Comben spearheaded construction of a 36,000-square-foot training center to better serve the thousands of people VGS provides services for each year.

A 2002 graduate of Leadership Cleveland, Comben also has been instrumental in expanding VGS’ programs — including 60 new programs launched between 2004 and 2005, and another 32 programs launched during the first 10 months of 2006.

One example is VGS’ Retail Sales Training Program — an eight-week course funded in 2005 by Key Foundation that trains people with disabilities and economic disadvantages for careers in retail sales by teaching them customer service, floor sales, loss prevention and safety, inventory, merchandising and computer literacy.

Students practice their skills in a paid, three-week practical course, and the program provides trained candidates for Northeast Ohio retail employers that have difficulty attracting and retaining retail employees.

HOW TO REACH: Vocational Guidance Services, (216) 881-6014

Friday, 24 November 2006 19:00

Making a difference

Last year, we at Smart Business Network aimed to light a fire under the business community by launching an initiative to help fight poverty in the region through our Pillar Award for Community Service awards program.

This year, we’re proud to say we’ve given grants to several nonprofits across Northeast Ohio to help them in their battle against poverty. But, the fight continues.

Too many people continue to fall through the cracks of society. Cleveland, once again, was given the unwanted mantle of being named the poorest large city in America, and all across Northeast Ohio, the gap between the haves and have-nots is growing.

Luckily, this region is filled with people who care. Northeast Ohio continues to be one of the most generous areas in the United States. Our populace is comprised of people who have giving hearts.

Being philanthropic isn’t mandatory, but it’s the right thing to do. Those of us who are blessed to be part of the haves should do our part to help the have-nots any way we can, whether it’s through volunteerism, corporate philanthropy or personal philanthropy.

Just like last year, we’re looking to you in the business community to join us again. Here’s how you can help.

First, read this month’s issue about the Pillar Award for Community Service. For the ninth straight year, along with our founding sponsor Medical Mutual, we’re honoring those organizations and people in Northeast Ohio that have demonstrated a giving heart.

Next, consider joining us on Dec. 7 at Landerhaven at the Pillar Award recognition banquet, where a portion of the ticket sale proceeds will be donated to The Pillar Fund, Smart Business Network’s grant-making fund.

Finally, consider a donation — either corporate or personal — to The Pillar Fund, which provides grants to nonprofits across Northeast Ohio whose missions are to fight poverty. This year, CVS/pharmacy has offered to match $5,000 against other donations from the Northeast Ohio business community.

To get involved, contact me at dsklein@sbnonline, or our CEO Fred Koury at fkoury@sbnonline.com. We may not be able to end poverty in Northeast Ohio, but working together, we can certainly make an impact.

Contact Editor Dustin Klein at dsklein@sbnonline.com.

Saturday, 28 October 2006 20:00

Passionate one

At one of our recent Smart Business events, I met the CEO of a company that, in five years, had grown from start-up to around $20 million in annual revenue.

It was clear from our conversation that he was a savvy business leader who had found his niche and built a successful, fast-growing business around it. It was also clear he was very passionate — not just about his business, but about everything he discussed.

We spoke for maybe five minutes, and in that brief time, I became infected. A portion of the energy he gave off when discussing his company — how lucky he felt he was and how excited he was to be at our event — transferred to me. As a result, I walked away revved up and ready to tackle the world.

There is no correct way to be a business leader. Every consultant, management guru or otherworldly wise guy you ask will give you different advice. The truth is that some leaders have quiet strength, while others are outwardly more energetic.

And, just as true, every business leader who cares about his or her company has passion. If they didn’t, they would most likely flounder and fail.

Imagine what it’s like to be an employee at this CEO’s firm, or at any company where the CEO displays larger-than-life charisma and energy. Does he charge through the offices every day sharing his energy with everyone else? Is he capable of instantly turning around someone’s day through a quick turn of the word? And, on a larger scale, is there a direct correlation between a leader’s energy, business know-how and the company’s success?

Over the years, I’ve come to believe that energy alone won’t make or break a leader’s ability to command respect and successfully lead. Passion will never be a replacement for good old-fashioned business know-how and common sense.

But even so, it at least appears anecdotally true that the leaders who possess that uncanny charisma have the ability to quickly rally the troops to advance a cause or raise morale in a pinch. And in a burgeoning organization, infectious passion can become that X factor needed to carry a company and its employees more easily through the tough times.

Tuesday, 01 November 2005 06:18

Virtual project manager

Twelve years after Dave Conway founded iSqFt, a developer of software products for general contractors, he’s made a few converts in an industry notoriously slow to adapt technology.

Actually, it’s more than a few converts — he’s shown more than 10,000 contractors the light.

Conway runs one of the nation’s fastest-growing businesses; last year, iSqFt ranked 50th on Inc. magazine’s annual Inc. 500 list.

“Right now, my top challenge is to keep the organization and its structure in sync with the pace of growth,” he says.

And growing it is. Over the past four years, Conway has driven sales growth of 496 percent and expects this year to close in on $15 million in revenue. Since last November, he’s hired 75 new employees, bringing his staff total to 185.

“We’re doing it by continually looking at the old adage that structure follows strategy,” he says. “We’re trying to continue to modify and organize our people and our company in a way that supports sustained growth.”

Smart Business spoke with Conway about the techniques he’s used to spur such rapid growth.

How have you built converts among general contractors?
The adaptation of technology in the construction industry is inherently slow. It’s a high-risk, low-return business, so inertia is kind of built in.

Changing a process is not something that is readily done, but we have created online and in-person training seminars that expose the technology and the value [it] delivers to prospects.

How do iSqFt’s products benefit them?
There are two primary products. Both create efficiencies and save clients money. One is a subscription service that enables trade contractors to go online, look at documents for commercial construction projects and search, sort and evaluate those projects to determine which ones they want to bid on.

The second enables general contractors who are frustrated with the costs and risks associated with free construction to better manage communication, their database and directory of subcontractors, and better manage their documents.

How have partnerships with industry associations helped your efforts?
Construction is like politics in that it is local. To have the credibility of a well-established trade association in a local market gives us a platform to educate, communicate and develop a market.

We’ve made several, including with the Associated General Contractors of America. Those are very important relationships, and we spend a lot of time and energy cultivating them. If we put our energy and our resources behind strengthening our partners’ position in a local or regional market, then ultimately, we both end up stronger.

How difficult has it been to attract and retain employees during this growth spurt?
Retaining has not been a challenge. Attracting the right folks at the right time, we’ve had some challenges with that. But we’ve worked hard, at least in our local market, to make people aware of our company and what we are doing.

Have you found any drawbacks to the growth?
Bringing new people in and communicating to make sure everyone is on the same page is a challenge. Communication is critically important. We’ve got a whole range of things that are both internal and external.

I’ve actually traveled more in the first six or seven months of this year than I have in the previous two years combined. That’s all about communication. It’s all about getting in front of our partners, customers and prospects and letting them know what we’re all about.

How much of your job becomes, instead of managing the organization, selling the value of it?
The No. 1 salesperson in the organization is typically the CEO. Whether I am selling the culture of the company to new employees or I’m selling an application to a prospective contractor, it’s always selling.

From my perspective, selling is a principal component of what a CEO in a fast-growing company does every day.

Does that allow you time to set the vision for growth?
In almost every selling situation, the vision for the company gets explained. You have an opportunity to share your view of the future with prospective customers, prospective employees, current customers, current employees and partners.

And because it evolves, sometimes you have to get back out in front of them for a second or third time.

What challenges have your recent acquisitions posed?
During the nine to 12 months leading up to the acquisitions, the amount of work that was required to gain the confidence and trust of the companies we were acquiring so that we ultimately got a transactions completed was tough. It takes a lot of energy before a deal gets done to get the deal done.

Some of the acquisitions didn’t include a tremendous amount of employees to integrate, but there were technology integration challenges — customer conversion issues, for example. If I was using this product and then upgrade or modify the product, I have to get retrained.

Do you envision future growth will be organic or through additional acquisitions?
Both. The acquisitions we typically make expand our geographical coverage and/or the scope of our service offerings, so there’s kind of an organic component post-acquisition. The future looks extremely bright.

We’re continuing to expand geographically and expand our product offering. This industry’s adoption of technology is still in the very early stages. There is a tremendous opportunity for us to continue to grow our business by offering innovative services and being at the forefront of leading this industry.

How to reach: iSqFt, (513) 645-8004, www.isqft.com

Thursday, 29 June 2006 06:43

Promotional productivity

When Greg Muzzillo founded Proforma in 1978 with a college friend after graduating from Baldwin Wallace, he simply wanted to be an entrepreneur and run a successful business. It was a modest dream.

Within four years, he’d built the then-business forms company to $1 million in revenue and was well on his way. By 1986, Muzzillo realized that there was only so far he could grow the business, so he set out to develop a new business model that was scalable.

After buying out his partner, he settled on a business-to-business franchise model and transformed the company from selling simple business forms to a wider spectrum of print and promotional products.

Today, Muzzillo runs the company with his wife, Vera, who is co-CEO. Together, they have built Proforma into a burgeoning business with more than 650 member offices and franchisees scattered across North America serving more than 30,000 business clients.

Muzzillo’s franchise business model is simple. It relies on a 100-person support team at the company’s worldwide support center in Cleveland to provide tools and information to franchisees in order to help them succeed as individual Proforma businesses.

According to Muzzillo’s model, Proforma owners don’t just buy a franchise.

“They invest in a system to utilize our brand name, operating systems, marketing clout, educational tools, technology and ongoing support,” he says.

Proforma owners are supplied with proprietary software to run their businesses, and Muzzillo’s support center helps franchise owners obtain bank lines of credit, create marketing materials, e-commerce solutions and business acquisitions, as well as providing accounting and credit support.

This, Muzzillo says, leaves Proforma owners free to concentrate on the most important aspect of their business — selling.

To assist in keeping prices down, the corporate entity developed and manages Preferred Limited Partners, a network of preferred vendors that offer products at a reduced cost to Proforma owners.

Muzzillo says he views his role these days as helping franchise owners do exactly what he set out to do when he founded Proforma 28 years ago.

“People come to us with their dreams,” he says. “It’s important that we value those dreams and we do everything to ensure they have the ability to make them happen.”

HOW TO REACH: Proforma, (216) 520-8400 or www.proforma.com

Wednesday, 28 June 2006 12:46

Cleaning up

When Diana Richards took the plunge into entrepreneurship she nearly drowned.

In 1995, four days before her 50th birthday, Richards founded Vacuum Systems International Inc. in a rented Valley View warehouse with $25,000, a card table, a folding chair and a fax machine. She believed she could build a market for a vacuum cleaner hotline and repair business, targeting large retail chains as customers because each client represented hundreds, if not thousands, of stores.

Within a few months, Richards was out of cash. She convinced a bank to loan her $35,000 against her last asset — her home, then rented it to tenants and moved into her warehouse.

Six months later, nearly on her last dime, Richards’ perseverance and positive thinking finally began to pay dividends — VSI landed 1,000 stores. Three months later, she secured another 3,500 stores as clients, and VSI’s ascent began.

Today, VSI services more than 60,000 retail stores for such high profile clients as Gap Inc., CVS/pharmacy, Dollar Tree Stores Inc. and Sterling Jewelers Inc. The company boasts more North American retail stores in its Vacuum Helpline Program than any competitor.

Richards’ program allows associates in retail stores who have trouble with vacuum cleaners to call the hotline, have a call center technician evaluate the problem and either assist in repairing the vacuum cleaner or send a replacement unit to the store.

As the company has grown, Richards also made sure to focus on her employees’ growth. VSI’s new building, which the company moved into in February, includes an employee library filled with positive thinking tapes and books. Employees are also encouraged to take continuing education classes, and VSI is currently underwriting one staff member’s complete college costs.

“Every person that works at VSI is treated with respect and dignity,” Richards says. “They know their problems can be brought to leadership and we will listen. Without them, and our belief in what they do, the company would not be successful.”

How to reach: Vacuum Systems International Inc., (800) 997-8227 or www.vacuumhelpline.com

Thursday, 25 May 2006 12:47

Keeping up with the Joneses

Throughout its 20-year history, Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur Of The Year Award program has honored the most successful entrepreneurs.

Next month, as part of the 20th anniversary celebration, Ernst & Young will honor three of its alumni — Hyland Software (2001), Swagelok (1995) and RPM Inc. (2003)

All three companies are run by CEOs other than those honored by Ernst & Young, but the entrepreneurial spirit remains alive and well at each. Here’s what’s been happening at these dynamic firms in the years since they were honored.

Hyland Software
In 2001, Hyland Software stood tall among the dot-com crash survivors. When the bubble burst in 2000, many software companies folded their tents or drastically scaled back operations. But not Hyland. Under the direction of co-founder Packy Hyland, the company was 120 employees strong and offered approximately 20 to 30 software modules under its OnBase document management umbrella.

Hyland turned over the company reins to his brother, A.J. Hyland, in 2001, and today, Hyland Software boasts more than 525 employees and 80 software modules.

“It’s been prolific growth,” says A.J. Hyland. “We’ve used a channel partner approach for distribution and laser focused ourselves on vertical expertise.”

That’s a dramatic difference from five years ago, when the company sold its software across nearly every industry. Today, Hyland focuses on just five industries — financial services, health care, insurance, government and education.

“We’ve aligned the company to specific expertise,” says Hyland. “A lot of our growth is now working with our customer base in those verticals and developing new modules to fit their needs.”

The company has also expanded in the international market. Hyland staffs offices in London and Brazil, and by year-end, it will open an office in Japan.

Swagelok Co.
When Joe Callahan was honored in 1995 as an Entrepreneur Of The Year, he had spent more than three decades building a legacy of innovation at Swagelok Co. In 2000, Callahan retired and was replaced by president and CEO Art Anton, who is helping transform Swagelok from a traditional manufacturer of high-quality fittings and valves to a more responsive organization dedicated to helping customers solve difficult problems.

Under Anton, the 3,300 employee, $1 billion private company has been adapting to the global economy and a global customer base. Swagelok is expanding not only its product lines but also its order fulfillment strategies, says Anton.

The company is transitioning from a make-to-stock fulfillment model based on stainless steel components to one that responds faster through make-to-order, configure-to-order and engineer-to-order products, including plastics

Anton’s strategy was enabled by the company’s recent investment in a new center in Solon, which houses assembly, finished goods warehousing, customer service and order fulfillment.

“The new order fulfillment center is part of our overall strategy to reduce costs and increase speed to market,” he says.

As part of its new vision to truly understand the needs of the customer and act on them, Swagelok is also enhancing the service offerings of about 200 authorized Swagelok sales and service centers. These services include on-line quoting and ordering, punchouts and technical support for product selection and application decisions.

RPM Inc.
When Thomas Sullivan was honored with an Entrepreneur Of The Year Award in 2003, his company was in the midst of changes. He had stepped down as CEO of the venerable company two years earlier, and his son, Frank, had assumed the reins and begun a major corporate restructuring.

Today, under Frank Sullivan, RPM has completed that restructuring, which included consolidating its number of business units from 30 to six. A spate of acquisitions had created too many units reporting to RPM, and Sullivan shuffled his deck to organize the companies into six segments that allowed for better management.

RPM, which built a reputation for its aggressive acquisition strategy and years of profitable earnings, continues to do both.

Recent acquisitions include Illbruck Sealant Systems, Tamm’s Industries and Custom Building Products’ ready-to-use patch and repair product line to bolster the company’s DAP product line. Last year, RPM closed its books with just over $2.5 billion in sales and profit of $105 million.

So far this year, Sullivan says the company remains on track to increase both of those numbers.

In April, RPM announced record third-quarter sales of $612.5 million, an 18 percent increase over the previous year. And, in the quarter that is traditionally RPM’s weakest, its third quarter net loss was $2.7 million, nearly 44 percent better than the previous year.

“We continue to be encouraged by what we’re seeing in our top line,” says Sullivan. “Strong demand continues to drive organic sales throughout the business, producing 10 percent of our growth this quarter. Acquisition growth was 9 percent, reflecting mainly the purchase of Illbruck Sealant Systems. With strong sales momentum carrying into our fourth quarter, we expect to achieve record sales and earnings for the full fiscal year.”

How to reach: Hyland Software, www.onbase.com; Swagelok Co., www.swagelok.com; RPM Inc., www.rpminc.com

Thursday, 25 May 2006 12:16

Focused on growth

If you ask Tim Seifert the key to success, he answers without hesitation: diversification.

Seifert Cos. was founded in 1985 by Jim and Tim Seifert, who together saw a need for engineering services in the Greater Canton region. Today, the group’s vision is broader and includes design and programming services and a marketplace without boundaries.

Seifert Cos. is made up of three separate corporations — Seifert Technologies, Seifert Engineering and Seifert Associates. Combined, the three entities employ more than 100 people and have offices in Massillon, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Florida and Tennessee.

“We were originally founded as an engineering firm,” says Tim Seifert, president and CEO. “Over the years, we added staffing, IT consulting and design/build services.”

Seifert’s Software Development Group was founded in 1996. Since then, it has become a full-service IT service provider offering network design and administration, hardware and software procurement, application development, and Web hosting and development. The group has also developed and launched three proprietary software products that are sold worldwide.

The opportunity to diversify comes from management’s ability to see opportunities to expand the company’s product and service offerings without going outside its core target industry base of engineering, manufacturing and information technology, Seifert says.

“Time and time again, we listened to what our customers had to say,” he says. “And we devoted resources to develop a unique set of services and product lines.”

The company invests heavily in training and equipment. Last year, it spent nearly $100,000 on software upgrades for its engineering team and is planning to build a 10,000-square-foot machine assembly building next year.

Seifert says much of what his company does is dictated by market shifts.

“The local landscape has changed dramatically,” he says. “There’s no question we face adversity in manufacturing. We have adjusted by opening satellite offices, which act as hubs and divert engineering work through our Massillon office. It allows us to provide the background of our corporate office staff to a much broader area within the U.S.

“Although the local manufacturing base has declined, our engineering services have remained constant and, in many cases, improved.”

How to reach: Seifert Cos., (330) 833-2700 or www.seifert.com