Connie Swenson

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:50

A contender

I heard the new editor of Ohio’s largest newspaper speak to a group of Northeast Ohio journalists the other day. He agreed to answer questions from the audience after he finished speaking, which I thought took some guts.

You see, Ohio’s largest newspaper is not always thought of as Ohio’s most well-respected newspaper. Especially not to a roomful of reporters — most of whom work for the competition.

After the first few obligatory innocuous questions, a reporter asked, somewhat rhetorically, what the editor thought the best newspapers in the country were, and where Ohio’s largest newspaper ranked.

The editor listed the usual suspects: The News York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe and The Miami Herald. Then, he told 150 journalists that he was going to dodge the next part of the question.

Take note: If you’re ever interviewed by a reporter, dodging a question is the worst thing you can. The subject always comes out looking worse than if he had given any sort of answer at all.

But this editor knows his trade. And he escaped the inevitable with this simple explanation: You see, he said, Ohio’s largest newspaper ought to be a contender to be one of the best newspapers. It has the budget and the ambition. See me again in a year or two.

That got me thinking. Those ingredients — budget and ambition —are pretty commonplace. You might even have them. What’s not as commonplace is the mindset, knowing that you are contending on a world-class level, not just a local level.

I had the distinct opportunity to meet some world-class contenders when I was working on the Innovation in Business section this month. Ed Tromczynski, of Twinsburg-based PlanSoft, has grown his company from a offshoot of Conferon to the leader in computer-based conference planning. And he has some of the biggest names in the hospitality industry backing him up.

Ken Thompson, who owns PlastiCards, reads the Los Angeles Times to keep up on trends. Then he jumps on them. Time and time again, he has developed niche products and taken them to market faster than any company anywhere.

And I had the pleasure of talking to Robert Mahoney, CEO of Diebold, who had just returned from China the day before. Diebold, founded in Canton in 1859, is the epitome of a world-class contender.

Who’s your competition?

Connie Swenson (cswenson@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:50

A nimble plan

Edward Tromczynski knows how to listen. That, an open mind and nimble feet have fueled Twinsburg-based PlanSoft from an idea to a $60 million company in just seven years.

Along with partner Bruce Harris, Tromczynski founded PlanSoft in 1992 with a simple idea: To provide meeting planners with fingertip access to hotels, airlines, buses and all of the services that go into a meeting. The idea took shape while Tromczynski was working with Harris’ Twinsburg-based Conferon, the largest meeting planner in the U.S.

“The hospitality industry, as an industry, is incredibly inefficient,” Tromczynski explains.

Everything from searching for hotels with appropriate accommodations to registering guests was — and still often is — done manually.

“Meeting professionals usually use expensive brochures, CD-ROMs, Web sites,” he adds. “There’s never been a source for you to say, ‘I’m looking for all the hotels that have 500 guest rooms in the Midwest.’ You’ve never been able to do that in our industry.”

Until PlanSoft came along. In1992, Tromczynski and Harris developed Ajenis, a software program that lets meeting planners set up meetings entirely electronically. The destination hotel receives a clear, organized plan of every detail included in the meeting. That’s a lot of information, considering that a side event for a mid-sized conference can include up to 200 details.

Tromczynski and Harris then developed the idea for a complete meeting planning Web site, The PlanSoft Network (plansoft.com). The site gives details on more than 21,000 meeting facilities and suppliers. Viewers can browse the site for the exact specifications they are looking for and collect all of the information they need —including price quotes — to plan a meeting.

Changes in the industry contributed to the need to expand Conferon’s product menu. Tromczynski says that much like travel agents, Conferon was being squeezed by the amount of free, easily accessible information on the Web. To counteract that, he and Harris developed the cutting edge technology to boost Conferon forward. While PlanSoft is now a separate entity, Conferon uses the applications sold by PlanSoft to expand its ability as a meeting planner.

When the Ajenis prototype was unveiled, the partners realized that they needed the backing of their industry.

“It was clear that we couldn’t do this on our own,” Tromczynski recalls. “So we went out to the two big groups of meeting professionals.”

With a don’t-take-no-for-an-answer attitude in hand, the two lined up investors in the industry, including the two largest associations of meeting planners — Meeting Professionals International in Dallas and The American Society of Association Executives in Washington, D.C. Both groups now own a piece of PlanSoft.

In an even more important deal, the two partners got three of the biggest competitors in the hotel industry to invest in PlanSoft: Hyatt, Marriott and Sheraton.

That’s where the good listening skills come in. “When the industry says, ‘No, it has to be modified,’ you can’t close your eyes to that,” Tromczynski says. “You have to keep on listening.”

Now, with big-name industry backing, $11.25 million raised and 100 employees, PlanSoft is poised for its next move. Tromczynski says the possibilities are unlimited in this $100 billion industry.

One of his short-term goals is to teach his employees how to be better listeners. With an eclectic group of programmers, creative types and sales people, in PlanSoft meetings, ideas were often shot down before they reached the table. Now, he’s imposed what he calls a “green card/red card” process into every staff meeting.

Employees must first share reasons why an idea can work (green cards) before they give their objections to it (red cards).

“When someone says it’s not going to happen, you have to really, really be able to listen,” Tromczynski says.

How to reach: PlanSoft, (330) 405-5555

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:49

It’s all in who you know

Raymond Heh knows the value of building strong contacts. As a regional president of Bank One, Heh spent 10 years in the Akron/Canton area from the mid-’80s to mid-’90s, building and nourishing his network.

It wasn’t until he was relocated to Cincinnati three years ago that he realized how important that network had been. “My phone didn’t ring,” he recalls.

Heh’s phone is ringing again. He returned to the Akron/Canton market this spring, and has spent the last six months re-establishing his contacts, making new connections and advocating the importance of “who you know.”

How important is networking to your position as a president of Bank One?

It’s really extremely important, because the way things get done in the community really centers around the people you know, and that’s the network you’ve developed.

It’s important in two senses: One, it’s very important to the community itself and community activities, boards and organizations, because they rely on the leaders in the community to help them accomplish what they need to get done, and the network of people you’ve developed are the people who help you get things done.

It’s equally important from a personal business aspect — in this case for Bank One—because we get a lot of our customers from the network of people we’ve developed and that we know — whether I know them personally, or whether the people that work for me know them.

If they are aware of a situation with a potential customer or prospect for us that needs banking services, because they know me or they know someone who works for me, they call us up. It’s also very important from a business development point of view.

How much of your time do you spend out in the communities you’re responsible for?

I’m probably in the office about 50 percent of the time and out 50 percent. If I were better organized, I’d probably be out of the office 80 percent, because that’s really when you’re getting something done.

Sitting here moving paper around doesn’t accomplish a whole lot for me. I’ve got three markets that I’m responsible for, so I need to spend time in each of those markets. Right now, I’m spending the bulk of that time in Akron, but over time, that will equal out.

Much of that time is spent getting reacquainted with customers of the bank — people that I had relationships with or knew prior to leaving for Cincinnati. Part of that time is getting involved with community activities. Since coming back, I’ve been asked to go back onto the ARDB Executive Committee.

I’m also on the College of Business Administration Advancement Council at the University of Akron and there will be a couple of other things that I will be involved in. About 10 to 15 percent of my time right now is spent in community-type functions and the rest with customers and prospects.

How do you get your employees to subscribe to this philosophy and become involved in their community?

You can’t just tell them they need to be involved. It won’t work. They may go through the motions, but it really won’t work. The people we have in management positions have had that as part of their personal makeup — they want to be involved in the community.

It’s one of the things that over time leads to becoming a manager in the company. What we try to do is help them get involved in things that they may be interested in that may be both beneficial to the community and to the bank.

What advice would you offer someone who was new to a community and wanted to get involved?

No. 1, they have to have a desire and an interest, because if they don’t, it just doesn’t work. But if they are interested in making an effort to get involved, one of the best things they can do is to get into the Leadership Akron program or the Leadership Canton program.

These programs are tremendous jump-starts because you have the opportunity to learn about organizations and to meet people that it might take you many years to meet without going through a program like this. What they will find if they make an effort and if they tell people they’re interested, is that communities are very open to their participation.

Community organizations need people who are willing to work for them, willing to contribute time and effort. If you express a willingness, you’ll find yourself inundated with offers and opportunities to get involved and you’ll probably end up having to pick and choose, because you can’t do everything.

How has the concept of networking changed over the last 20 years?

From a business point of view, I don’t think it’s changed dramatically. I’ve been in many different communities throughout my career and it’s the same virtually in every community: You need to develop a network of people that you can call on for assistance, and that’s basically the way business gets done.

From a community point of view, it’s changed a lot. In a community like Akron, it used to be you had a small group of people — power brokers in the community. It used to be if you needed something to get done in Akron, you could get the heads of the rubber companies together and they could get it done if they decided that it needed to be done.

It isn’t that way any more. It’s a much broader group. That’s resulted from several changes. One, people move around a lot more. You’ve got new faces and new people involved, so networking and building a network to get things done is a constant process.

It isn’t that you build a network and it stays in existence, because the faces are always changing. If you look at Akron, the rubber companies aren’t all here in the same sense that they used to be, so you can’t just go to them and expect to get things done. You have to attract a much broader group of people, whether they’re small business owners or heads of banks or heads of rubber companies or people in organizations like the ARDB.

They’re here. But you have to seek them out and put a network of people together to get things done.

How much of your business comes in through the contacts you’ve established?

Probably the bulk of it. We have a very active calling program on prospects — companies that aren’t doing business with us — and we do get business that way. But it’s much easier and probably a more frequent occurrence that somebody calls us up and says, ‘I have this friend or I have this client that needs banking services, are you interested?’

It becomes much easier for us to go out to that business with that kind of an introduction rather than calling them and saying, ‘Hey, I’m from Bank One, and you don’t know me, but can I come out and talk to you?’

Who’s in your network?

Probably everybody who is active either in a business sense or in a community sense in Akron and Canton. Obviously, because I’m in banking, it becomes very important to my organization and to me to have active contact with law firms and CPA firms.

But it’s also very important to have active contact with the business leaders in the community and people who are generally active in the community, because these are the people who know what other people are doing. These are the people who know what’s going on in the community.

And that’s the help — from a business point of view — that you need.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:47

A new millennium, a new marketplace

As one of the first plastics companies in the area, Akron’s Ferriot Inc. has had to continually adapt its focus to meet changing market demands throughout its long history.

The company was founded by three Ferriot brothers in 1929. At the time, Ferriot manufactured decorative rubber products, including hot-water bottles and dolls. During World War II, the Ferriot brothers switched their focus to maritime needs, including machining tank treads for the Cadillac Tank Plant, small-caliber bullet dies and gas mask molds.

After the war, the company became firmed established as a mold manufacturer for the rubber industry. But by 1940, it was clear market needs were changing again, and the brothers switched their focus from rubber to plastics. The switch was one that many companies would make years later, but, as the current President and CEO Gordon Keeler Jr. says, “We got in on the ground floor of the plastics industry.”

Keeler, who is the grandson of Gene Ferriot, one of the founding brothers, is now facing entirely new market demands as he leads the company into the next century. And he plans to adapt to those needs proactively, just as generations before him have done.

Ferriot’s business is now separated into four divisions: rapid prototype; tool-building; injection-molding; and finishing and assembly. With $20 million in sales and 225 employees, Ferriot has maintained a steady growth record over the years.

But in 1999, the mold-building industry saw a 34 percent drop in business nationally, Keeler says. That affected most die manufacturers, including Ferriot.

Keeler plans to compensate for that decline by building business in Ferriot’s other divisions. To do that, he says, the company needs additional room to grow.

“Our sales have been stagnant over the last two to three years because we’ve been out of room,” he says.

Last month, Ferriot moved into a new 200,000-square-foot facility on enough land in the Akron Square Industrial Park to let the company double its production area when needed.

With the same foresight as his predecessors, Keeler leased land from the city of Akron in 1998 to give the company room to expand its process capabilities. When Ferriot’s 10-year lease expires, the land will be deeded to the company.

Keeler says Ferriot’s rapid prototyping division will also help the company face global market pressures.

“Unfortunately, we’re in a global economy, and the large OEM [original equipment manufacturers] are seeking out the lowest possible pricing wherever it is in the world,” Keeler says. “A lot of our large customers are going overseas for tooling and molding. It’s going to have an effect on Ferriot, as well as other manufacturers in the U.S. that deal with large OEMs.”

Keeler says Ferriot’s rapid prototyping division was created to confront that change by giving customers the capability get to market more quickly. He says speed is an area that mold manufacturers will have to learn to succeed in to compete globally. With many large-volume jobs going overseas, where labor is cheap, U.S. manufacturers will have to focus on time-sensitive and smaller-volume jobs.

“Years ago, it used to be that you’d seal a deal with a handshake, and as long as you serviced the customers, you generally had a long-term relationship,” Keeler says. “Unfortunately, the days of long-term relationships have gone out the window with the global economy. There’s so much pressure on pricing that the loyalty that customers gave top suppliers is almost a thing of the past.”

The forecast for the industry is not all gloom and doom, Keeler is quick to point out. Statistics show it will grow 8 percent a year over the next several years, mainly due to ongoing conversion from metal and other materials to plastics.

“The plastics industry is a healthy and striving industry.”

Connie Swenson (cswenson@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:46

Follow the customer

There aren’t many bells and whistles on Roberts Express’ Web site (www.roberts.com). In fact, if you’re looking to log on to order a pick-up or to get a price quote, you may be disappointed.

But most of Roberts’ customers are far from disappointed. The company prides itself on satisfied customers. That’s because the $200 million company has poured its IT resources into technology that its customers won’t ever see on a computer screen. But they will be aware of it when, for instance, their phone calls are answered in less than two seconds.

In fact, sales dollar for dollar, Roberts spends twice as much as its competitors do on technology, says Joel Childs, Roberts’ vice president of marketing.

“The question is not, ‘Are you state of the art?’” Childs says. “The question is, ‘Do you have the right systems, from the standpoint of customer needs and cost structure?’”

Roberts Express specializes in providing fast, precise transportation services to a wide variety of mostly infrequent customers. Unlike UPS, or Roberts’ parent company, FedEx, there is no typical Roberts customer.

“A good customer for us is 10 to 12 times a year,” Childs says.

An average shipment size is 4,000 pounds. Examples of shipments Roberts has made include emergency NASA deliveries, automotive parts needed to keep assembly lines running, and once, a forgotten slide carousel needed for an important presentation.

Roberts works with a network of independent contractors who operate more than 2,000 vehicles throughout the United States and Canada. Roberts’ intricate computer systems allow its customer service agents, based in Akron, to give customers an exact pick-up time (deliveries are guaranteed to arrive within 15 minutes of the quoted time) and price when the order comes in.

Roberts’ trucks are installed with satellites and computers, so dispatchers know where each truck is at any given time. When an order is placed, a dispatcher sends a query to the computer-selected driver, complete with a job description, including what the job will pay. If the driver accepts the job, the dispatcher follows up with directions and special instructions. Every transaction is made via computer.

The average call time for the customer is 3.5 minutes.

Joe Greulich, Roberts’ MIS director, explains the company’s investment in that crucial behind-the-scenes technology: “You’re having a heart attack. I’ll give you my PC, or I’ll give you my phone. You can choose which one to use to get the ambulance. I’d say, get on the phone and dial 9-1-1. And our customers are largely telling us that, too.”

“Some of our customers measure their downtime in thousands of dollars a minute,” adds Childs.

In 1988, when Greulich left Wang Computers to lead Roberts’ IT department, there were seven IT employees. Now, there are 30 in his department, and technologists in several other departments.

Roberts’ management has always understood the importance of investing in technology, Greulich says.

“In the ’80s, when I first came here, there was a phone and computer on every desk. That was not common then — but it showed their commitment to technology.”

Now the company has 500 computers, or 1.1 per employee. In one room, 16 test computers are set up for IT employees to experiment with new technology.

It’s not that Roberts’ management doesn’t see the advantages in having a useful Web site. In fact, the site now offers Web-based tracking services for customers through its Customer Link Tracing System. With a password, customers can click on and get real-time status reports on where their shipment is.

Greulich’s department is also testing a program that will quote delivery prices on the Web. He expects it to be up and running within a few months.

The key, emphasizes Childs, is to offer Web-based services that respond to customer needs.

“If it’s not customer-driven, it’s not smart,” he says. “Just because I think it’s a great way to do it, what’s it going to do for the customer?”

Childs gives the example of the Web site and the voice response unit offered by his bank.

“I know who’s efficiency was considered when they designed the system. It was not necessarily the customer’s,” he says.

“The challenge for us, to put things out on the Internet, is to make it very simple for our customers so they don’t have to know a lot,” says Greulich. “The program can know a lot for them. That’s what we’re struggling with now: To make it simple for our customers.”

As far as the Internet is concerned, Childs says, “It’s going to be a longer process for us. A lot of things have to happen. The key is, the customer is where it matters. The customer is going to have the choice.

“If you want to do it by phone, that’s fine. If you want to do it through the Web, that’s fine, too. You pick.”

How to reach: Roberts Express, (800) 762-3787 or www.roberts.com

Connie Swenson (cswenson@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:45

Building better service

Most businesses would be hard-pressed not to list customer service as a top priority. But the definition of good customer service varies as widely as do types of businesses.

So your coffee wasn’t served with a smile this morning; you still may return tomorrow for another cup. But if you’re buying a big-ticket, emotionally charged item such as a home addition, satisfaction takes on a whole new level of importance.

As the executive vice president of Macedonia-based Patio Enclosures, Jerry Fox admits a growth spurt last year left his company with some room to improve its customer-responsiveness record. In January, he helped launch a new program called JUMP (Job Update and Milestones of Progress), designed to improve communication between the $70 million company and its customers.

Fox speaks frankly of the indications that such a program was needed, and how it was implemented.

What indications did you have that made you realize that you needed to put a program like this in place?

When we have complaints from customers and you can see the frustration. Normally, lead time (in building a sunroom) is eight to 10 weeks. We had such a banner year last year that in some markets, that lead time stretched to 16 weeks, 18 weeks.

How did you know that customers were getting frustrated?

If they didn’t feel like they were being adequately serviced by the local branch, they would call into headquarters. They’d tell you up front, “No one tells me what’s going on. I’ve seen the salesman, I haven’t heard from him in five or six weeks. I call the office to find out what’s going on, but I think you should be telling us what’s going on.”

In most of the cases, we’re within the (eight to 10 week) time frame. That’s not good enough, though. We felt that if we became proactive in supplying this information, it would hold down the natural frustrations of waiting a certain period of time.

Everybody wants it now. And of course, you can’t do that when you’re in a custom manufacturing environment. So in order to hold down that frustration level, we felt that if, at certain times during the whole process, we initiated the contact, even if it’s just leaving a message on an answering machine ... this will hold down that frustration level, and keep them involved in the whole process.

How often during the construction process are you in contact with a customer?

The first step is actually done the day of the sale. They’re given a construction guide. It’s a description of the whole process. And then each time that we make contact with customers, we remind them to refer to that guide, but add, “Mr. and Mrs. Jones, your room is on order, and we expect delivery the second week of February.”

And then in the second week of February, when the room is delivered to the location, we make contact saying, “Your room has been delivered and we will be contacting you shortly with the exact installation date.” So there are no surprises. They always know what’s going on.

After we sign the contract, there are actually nine contacts that we make with the customer, keeping them informed.

Once you saw a need for the program, how was it developed?

We went out and surveyed all of our (41) locations, asking them, “What do you do to keep your customers informed?” This was done in mid-1999. The survey was sent to all of our operations supervisors. And they submitted what they did.

Some did nothing, some did a lot, some did a little. And what we did is we took the creme de la creme, and we took all of the types of contact that were going on, and we put them in a set program. And each one of these contacts is triggered by an activity. When the permit is issued by the building department, saying that it’s OK to build this room in this community, we notify the customer, “Your permit has been approved.’”

There are nine activities that take place that trigger nine contacts with the customer. And we really believe that this will bring down that frustration level in the upcoming year.

How do you monitor that contact from headquarters?

This is a mandatory program, and (each location) will be audited. Each of our locations, once a year, receives an operational audit, and we will audit, because all of those nine contacts have to be logged in to what we call the job jacket. And so they are signed off on either by the operations supervisor, or the sales secretary who mailed out the postcard, or the installer who left the note on the door. So everybody involved in this program has to check off that the customer was notified. It’s a mandatory process, because the need for this was so obvious.

We do this at our window of opportunity. In other words, if you don’t inform the customer, and they’re calling you irate and frustrated, it’s normally at a time when you’re doing something else, and the phone rings and you have a mad customer.

By us becoming proactive, we can better schedule our time for making these contacts, because if you don’t call them, they’re going to call you. And they’re not always going to call you at the best time.

Have you noticed a trend among companies recently to improve customer service?

There’s no doubt about it. So often you hear about customer service, and that the customer is king, and a lot of times it’s just lip service. You say that, and you go about SOP, and you’re not really servicing the customer.

This program was developed because we heard a loud and clear message from our customer base as to why they were frustrated. It’s simply a lack of communication.

Would you have responded the same way 10 years ago?

Times have changed. Circumstances have changed. We’re in the remodeling business, and in the construction business there’s a serious shortage of skilled labor. Kids want to come out of school and become computer programmers. They don’t want to wear a tool belt and climb up and down a ladder anymore.

This has been evolving over time, and our sales are increasing. We don’t sell a product you need, we sell a product you want. The demand for sunrooms is very high right now ... And today’s consumer in this computer world wants everything now.

With the high backlog of business, and the strain of having an insufficient labor force to put the product in, we have to be very responsive to our customers. Conditions have changed. It wasn’t like this 10 years ago.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:38

Do something

A friend of mine, who evidently has more confidence in me than I do, let me man the wheel of his sailboat last week as he walked to the bow to raise the sail.

It took about 30 seconds before the rudder became caught up in a turn and started to whip the boat around in a perpetual circle. My first reaction was to let go of the wheel and call for help. And boy, did I get reamed for that decision.

There's a maritime rule every sailor knows, I was informed, and that is, if you're headed toward an iceberg, you have three options, and two of them are correct. You can choose to avoid the obstacle. You can choose to hit the obstacle. Or you can choose to do nothing. The only wrong decision you can make is to choose to do nothing, he said. (Which is exactly what I did when faced with my first crisis at sea.)

There's a reason why sailors say every maritime rule applies to life in general. (And why there are so many metaphors and analogies in "Moby Dick.")

I returned to work the next day looking for ways I could avoid choice No. 3 in performing my daily job. And in this new awareness, I found some examples of companies which are, in a sense, making a conscious choice to do something.

I'm not referring to things that are part of the normal course of the day. Here are three ideas I ran across:

1. Donate one day a year of your staff's time to a charitable cause. The agents who work for Realty Executives Commitment in Canton spend a day each July building a house for Habitat for Humanity. While the company donates $5,000 toward the home, the 44 employees donate a combined 350 hours work hours that day.

2. Collect your used computer equipment and donate it or recycle it. There's a company in Columbus that restores old computers and resells them (retrobox.com or (800) 393-7627), or you can pay a recycler to dispose of your equipment in an environmentally friendly manner (backthruthefuture.com or techrecycle.com). This costs, on average, $15 a computer (including the monitor). Retro Box will erase your hard drive so information can't be stolen. Also consider donating your equipment to a local charity. And if you're having trouble finding a grateful recipient, don't forget your employees. It's cheaper than paying a recycler, and you'll reap the benefits of a happy worker.

3. Revamp your benefits offerings. Our HR manager informally asked employees to critique our time off plan. When employees were asked informally, and somewhat anonymously, what they thought was missing, many mentioned they'd like to be able to take a day off when they weren't really sick and weren't really on vacation. So she made a few simple (and free) changes in response to that frank feedback. Employees now accumulate a pool of days off, so if they want to go to an Indians game on a warm August day, it's just as valid as staying at home with the flu.

Next month: Why Captain Ahab was never really CEO of his own ship.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:37

Customer driven

According to Howard Cleveland, founder and chief creative officer of Fairlawn-based DigitalDay, there are only two things that drive the innovation process: the client and the environment.

"I can't do anything to motivate people here," admits Cleveland. "All I do is get good clients for them."

To prove this, he says his firm turns down 10 to 15 projects a month. That may sound crazy for a rapidly expanding company, but for Cleveland, it's the only way to do business.

"I can't say, 'For an extra $5,000, you have to be innovative,'" he says. "People are innovative because they love what they do. We have great clients we love to work with. That's what motivates people."

To drive that point home, Cleveland recently went so far as to fire himself from the position of CEO so he could spend more time finding those great clients. In May, he handed over the reigns to Jim Zedella, now president and CEO, and took a new title he found more suitable: chief creative officer.

"I can't create opportunities sitting around here talking with my attorneys and banks," Cleveland says. "You create opportunities being with your customers."

Some of the opportunities he has created of late include a new marketing firm, Cross Town Traffic; a business incubator, HATCHBOX; and a wireless company he hopes to launch within the next month.

DigitalDay's client list includes National City Bank, FedEx Custom Critical, Arhaus and Sherwin-Williams. The firm has competed with national, often highly recognizable public companies, to win many of its contracts, Cleveland says. Fewer than 50 percent of its clients are local.

"We look for clients that are passionate," Cleveland explains. "Then, they can see the value in us. By them seeing the value in us, our people are motivated. Everybody's motivated by somebody wanting them. Our clients want us. They don't treat us like vendors, so in return, our people want to go the extra mile for them."

Cleveland says it's normal to find DigitalDay employees working on projects until one in the morning. And there are many occasions on which employees coming into work in the predawn hours run into others just leaving for the night.

Recently, Cleveland noticed that a new employee was consistently showing up for work between 4 and 4:30 in the afternoon. When he asked the employee about his somewhat strange work schedule, the newcomer said, "I didn't know you guys had working hours."

"He just figured that's the way we work here," Cleveland recalls. "He saw people working late and he saw people early in the morning. He just assumed you could work whenever you want.

"What does that say about your environment? It's not very strict. If people love to work, they're going to work. They're going to be here. If they hate to work, they're not going to show up." How to reach: DigitalDay, (330) 668-6669

Connie Swenson (cswenson@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Akron/Stark.

Monday, 29 April 2002 17:07

In the name of progress

While "the bigger the better" may not always be true, in this case it is.

You've probably noticed that SBN has been going through some changes lately. Last month, our format changed as we transformed ourselves to look and feel more like a traditional magazine. Our size shrank, and our newsprint pages were replaced with a glossy, thicker paper stock. If you didn't notice your fingers were clean after reading the magazine, you may have noticed there was significantly more color throughout the pages.

This month, we're continuing our evolution by combining what were two separate editions of SBN: Akron and Stark County. Now, we are providing our Akron- and Canton-area readers with editorial content that encompasses the entire region, with stories on companies from Medina County to Wayne County. We've made a commitment not to eliminate any of the local articles or sections you're used to reading; we're just offering you more in one magazine.

This month, you can find out which are the most successful companies in Stark County through our coverage of the Business Excellence Awards of Greater Canton. And you can read about one of the area's most successful restaurateurs, Akron-based Ken Stewart, and find out why he's expanding his business after years of success.

As the editor of both the Stark County and Akron editions of SBN for the past several years, I've always struggled with the decision of what articles to run in each edition. For example, over the past year or so, we have covered business practices at companies such as Smucker's and Timken for our Stark County edition, and oftentimes not had the space to run those pieces in our Akron edition.

Now, you'll have the opportunity to learn about these and other successful companies, even if they are located in Orrville (as Smucker's is). If you're like most growing companies, you know there are business opportunities well beyond your neighborhood.

We're going to make sure you find out about them.

Thursday, 28 March 2002 04:52

Doing business with the government

Any person in business can procure work from the government. Whether you, as a business owner, decide to take advantage of that opportunity is probably based on many factors.

While many businesses thrive on the contracts they procure from the government, more businesses shy away from the process for a variety reasons. Perhaps they think their chances are slim because they don't hold a minority business enterprise status, or they don't have the right contacts, or they don't have enough money to gain the right contacts.

While it does essentially come down to who you know, the process may not be as complicated as you expect.

"The more you participate in the political process, the more active you are in your community that you're trying to do work in ... that increases your chances to do work for that governmental entity," says Lou Berroteran, vice president, government relations, for the Akron Chamber of Commerce.

Berroteran's job is twofold: He advises companies on how to get work from the government and lobbies elected officials locally and in Columbus and Washington to pass legislation that will help companies back home. Both roles position him squarely as an advocate for business, but before accepting the position for the chamber, he saw things from a different side. His experience as director of administration for Summit County and as district director for Rep. Tom Sawyer gave him first-hand knowledge of the procurement process, he says.

Beyond filling out the paperwork, Berroteran says your best bet is to let the elected official in charge of the department you want work for "see that you want to be more than that person who gets the work and walks out.

"The companies that are going to participate in the community and that have something at stake because they have an office here and employees that live here, by and large are the ones that are going to provide the best level of services," he says.

In fact, the city of Akron states on its vendor application form that "purchases are normally made from firms located in the city of Akron whenever it is cost effective."

If you are an active member of the community you're seeking business from and you have filed a vendor application (which can usually be obtained from the city, county or state's purchasing department), the process is not always a slow one.

"If the need's there, it can happen relatively quickly," Berroteran says.

How to reach: Greater Akron Chamber, (330) 376-5550