Connie Swenson

Tuesday, 23 October 2001 10:47

Not just girl talk

Carleton Fiorina, Anne Mulcahy and Andrea Jung are names you probably know.

These women are the top executives of Hewlett-Packard, Xerox and Avon Products, respectively. But they represent more than just a handful of women reaching top-level management positions at multinational corporations. They are validating the many ways in which the standard terms of doing business have changed.

In times of war, women have always filled labor voids in fields and factories. Today, women in management ranks represent the inevitable progression of a work force that has, over the last quarter of a century, become infiltrated by female professionals reaching executive levels at almost every company.

Women-owned businesses in the United States are growing three times faster than any other segment. Women executives at public companies are reaching top-management status at similar rates.

While you might not be affected by (or care that) Anne Mulcahy is president of Xerox, you have no doubt noticed that many of your human resource policies have been revamped over the last few years. From more liberal flex-time rules to federal maternity leave laws, the policies that govern your work force have evolved drastically, and many are the result of demands made by the growing force of female workers.

But those aren't the only noticeable changes women have brought to the workplace over the last years. The ways in which we socialize and exchange leads with each other is now affecting more than just the women we network with; it affects the men we do business with, too.

Not all deals can be made on a golf course these days. Women have figured something else out, too -- That a willingness to be vulnerable, to let down your guard during a business transaction, can build a virtually indestructible bridge with a client.

Just as men found that bond on the greens, women are finding possibly stronger bonds through personal connections.

The other day, I heard our sales manager, Scott, trying to pacify a woman client who was upset about our company's billing terms. (For the record, Scott is not only a great salesperson, but one of the most considerate people I know.)

After many faxes and voice mails among the client, Scott and our office manager, I got the impression that the advertiser was what we would simply label as difficult. So difficult, in fact, that the next time I saw the sales rep (who is no longer with the company) who had originally made the sale, I quizzed her on how she had managed to close such a tough deal.

"A hard sell? she laughed. "We would have coffee and cigarettes together and talk about men. I don't even remember having to sell her at all."

So when you think of companies like 84 Lumber and Fidelity Investments and J. Crew, don't just acknowledge their phenomenal success stories; acknowledge also the changes these women owners are carving out for every workplace. Connie Swenson (cswenson@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Magazine.

Tuesday, 26 November 2002 06:43

Just ask

It's easier than you think to get expert advice on how to run your company. Just ask your customers.

I recently attended a focus group for a new product launch, and was surprised at how forthcoming the participants were with their feedback. Then it occurred to me how rare it is to be asked for your opinion. And when you are asked, it's as if someone has paid you a compliment, so you want to answer with care.

Prospects, current customers and, most important, ex-customers, can offer valuable insight on how your company is run.

While a phone call or written surveys can produce honest opinions, a lengthier discussion in the form of a focus group can harvest more valuable feedback. Think about it: It's one thing to refuse a phone call or a piece of mail; it's a lot harder to sit in a room with your peers and not speak. Focus groups bring out more detailed information by allowing the facilitator to ask follow-up questions and by offering a discussion-oriented forum.

Marketing experts will tell you it's not so much where you hold the group but who you invite and what questions you ask. If your customers are high-level executives, it will take more effort to get them to commit their time -- you may have to offer compensation, such as the promise of a networking opportunity over a good meal.

Beyond that, here are a couple of things I picked up on from the session I attended. Don't forget to tape the meeting -- you can use it for your own future reference and as a training tool for employees. (For some reason, employees are more apt to make changes based on a customer's request, rather than on an order from a superior.)

And let those who attended the session see the implementation of their ideas. Remember, requesting someone's opinion is a form of flattery. Making an investment in their opinion is a true compliment.

Monday, 30 September 2002 07:39

Ease of use

Akron ad agency Hitchcock Fleming & Associates is using cutting-edge technology to provide its clients with easy access to their marketing materials.

The new digital asset management system is a centralized, Web-based database of electronic marketing components, set up so clients can share, create and distribute ads at any location, at any time.

Companies use digital asset management systems to increase efficiency, minimize costs, improve legal compliance and streamline the entire communications process, says Shirley Shriver, HF&A's vice president of marketing services.

"All of the assets are in one repository, so you know where it is and you know where to go get it," says Shriver.

HF&A's digital asset management system provides clients with access to a private Web site, which guides them through a process to build customized fliers, ads and other marketing materials, based on pre-made templates. The site houses the artwork and text of all of the client's products, along with current promotional copy. The software guides the user through an easy point-and-click process that builds a piece of promotional material that fits his or her needs.

Once a piece has been created, it is converted into a PDF format, which is then easily e-mailed to other company employees for approval or to a printer.

"The real benefit is to allow field people, if they have 1,000 stores, to go in themselves and develop a flier that meets with the brand constraints, or to give access to local newspapers if they have an access code," Shriver says. "Clients have control over the brand at a local level."

She says the system has saved HF&A clients thousands of dollars in mailing, communication and art production costs. Some of the large, multinational agencies use similar systems, but to Shriver's knowledge, HF&A, with 74 employees, is the only local agency offering clients this advanced level of digital asset management.

HF&A's interactive division, called Buzzwerks, started developing the system in 1998, based on software customized for the agency. How to reach: Hitchcock Fleming & Associates, (330) 376-2111

Monday, 30 September 2002 07:32

Leading examples

It was just a few short months ago when the title "CEO" commanded a sense of awe and respect. Today, a few bad seeds have made the title fodder for late-night jokes about greed and excess.

As we hear stories about exorbitant salaries paying for $2,000 trash cans and luxury vacations, it's easy to forget about those leaders who, over the years, have balanced their success with a strong sense of right and wrong.

While we certainly can't vouch for the ethics by which anyone runs his or her company, we can present examples of successful CEOs who recognize and appreciate what it took to get to where they are today.

This month, you'll find many examples of a new term the media has pegged -- good CEOs-- among the winners of this year's Business Growth Award.

Every year, Cascade Capital Corp., an Akron-based development corporation, recognizes businesses in a six-county area that have maintained strong sales records over the last five years. This year, the criteria for the award were more difficult than ever to meet, given the state of the national economy and the overall climate for doing business.

Nevertheless, 41 local companies are being honored later this month for achieving those goals. (Last year, 34 companies were recognized.)

As the media sponsor of the awards, we have devoted a special section in this issue to celebrate this year's winners. While all of the winners had worthy stories to share, we chose five companies to profile, and will share the other stories in upcoming months.

The companies we profile represent a diverse group of industries, from law to construction. While the CEOs you read about come from different industries and backgrounds, they all share a common devotion to hard work and respect for the American Dream.

We hope their stories help remind us of what a good leader truly is.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:56

Health Design Plus Inc.

Ruth Coleman always knew she wanted to own a business. Not only does she come from a long line of entrepreneurs — her father owned an engineering firm and her brother owns a sheet-metal contracting company — Coleman started laying the foundation of her company 10 years before she incorporated.

The right lineage and methodical planning resulted in Health Design Plus, a health care management and administrative consulting firm.

Coleman, a nurse with a master’s degree in communication, saw first-hand how HMOs operate from her experience as a vice president of Doctors Hospital, Alliance City Hospital and Western Reserve Health Plan. She knew she could create a better mousetrap.

“There were a lot of things we had done well and there were some problems with the HMO model,” she says. “I knew I could go out to employers who self-fund their health benefit plans, provide managed care and bring in the good things and leave out the problematic things.”

Health Design Plus, based in Hudson, has about $5 million in sales and 70 employees. With just 12 clients, the company’s strategic plan is to service a very limited number of mid- to large-size companies that self-insure their health care benefits, Coleman says.

The services the firm provides are high end, and its administration fees are, well, not cheap.

“We’re far from the low price spread,” Coleman admits. “Our market is not price driven at all.”

Coleman’s theory is that if you pay for first class services, such as a nurse for every 3,300 employees, an 800 line staffed by medical professionals and a progressive disease state management program, you save in the long term on the big ticket item: claims reimbursements. And for a self-insured company, the 10 percent management fee is just that: only 10 percent of the total expense.

How to reach: Health Design Plus, www.hdplus.com

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:52

Giving back

Fran Doll is known for her benefits. The benefits, that is, that the founder and chairman of Superior Staffing offers her employees.

She’s a legend in the employment business for paying for her employees’ haircuts; giving them three-day weekends so they can run errands; passing out AAA memberships; and providing even her temporary workers with direct deposit, so they don’t have to wait for a paycheck to be mailed.

But what many people don’t know is that her generosity extends well beyond her company. Doll has always placed charitable giving at the top of her priority list, and she’s successfully instilled this philosophy in her employees.

She and her staff have supported Akron’s Haven of Rest Ministries for nearly 10 years. Her staff “adopts” families in need during the winter holiday season, supporting them with clothes, gifts and money. Superior Staffing has an on-site “closet” of donated professional clothing for men and women who need a professional temporary position but may not be able to afford to dress the part.

And Doll has a new pet charity: The American Cancer Society. Doll, who was diagnosed with cancer in November 1997, sits on the board of the Cancer Society and is willing to give almost anything to help others deal with the illness.

“One of my new motivations in my life is to work to try to help somehow — whatever way I can — to raise money for research, to help women who are recently diagnosed, to help women who are losing their hair. Anything I can do to help anybody in this situation, I would gladly do,” she says.

For those who perpetually put off charitable giving until tomorrow, Doll could be an inspiration.

At what point in your career did you start getting involved with charities?

It started before I opened (Superior Staffing) because I was of a mindset that whatever I made, I wanted to share. I saw too many companies where the owner or the president or the CEO wasn’t concerned about giving back to employees.

I worked for companies like that, where those people had everything and they wanted to keep it that way. Whereas I wanted to be rewarded for my work and for the responsibility of owning it, but I also wanted to share it.

And I also was raised by a grandma who said, “Whatever you give you will get back 10-fold.” Now what she didn’t tell me is it’s not always by the person you think it’s going to be. But you will get it.

Was there a person or a company who inspired you?

I’m going to answer that with a resounding no. I had no role model for this. These ideas just came to me — like giving the staff free hair care — because I was getting a perm one day and it cost $50 and I thought, this is a big chunk of money and this company can afford it much easier than each person on the staff.

How do you decide what to give?

What I have tried to do for people are the things that if someone had thought to do for me, I would have been beside myself with gratitude.

How do you motivate your staff to contribute to these causes?

My staff has always backed me on this. Yes, I could go in and say, “I’m demanding that you send your clothes to the Haven of Rest and I’m telling you that the company is going to be sending money to them.”

It’s not like that. These are people who will sit at a staff meeting and say, “I know what, every time a customer refers another customer to us, let’s send money to the Haven in that company’s name.”

That’s the kind of people we have. They are the ones who thought up adopting a family. It’s a team.

Do you believe it’s every company’s obligation to give back to its community?

I think it’s every person’s obligation. If you worked for a company (like I used to work for companies) that didn’t do anything charitable, does that mean I shouldn’t have done anything charitable on my own?

Do you believe that business owners have more of an obligation to give back than individuals do?

I started out feeling if there’s anything to be made, it is absolutely my responsibility to share it. With my employees, No. 1. They’re the ones who are working for us and they’re the ones who are bringing in the revenue. So they have to be treated with absolute utmost respect and appreciation.

You must feel a responsibility to add to other people’s lives, and you’ll never be sorry. You’ll never be sorry.

How to reach: Superior Staffing, (330) 253-8080

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

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:52

A lesson worth listening to

The visitor was in for a long ride.

After hitting the “down” arrow, he assumed he was taking the elevator down a mere floor to the hospital’s ground level. Instead, it climbed to the roof, and there was no stopping it. Most of the passengers ignored the visitor’s complaints, but by the time the car reached the top of the building, it was clear someone had been listening.

“Where are you trying to go?” the listener asked.

“The main level,” the visitor replied.

Then, as the other passengers waited to get off, the listener apologized for the direction the elevator took, gave the visitor directions to his destination, pushed the “G” button, and then pushed the “close” button.

The visitor stood dumbfounded as the doors met, in disbelief at the attention he had just received. He would have been even more shocked to know that man who had listened was Albert Gilbert, CEO of the hospital.

That was just the beginning of my trip to Summa last month. I was accompanying our staff photographer on this month’s cover shoot of Gilbert. I cleared about an hour out of my schedule to make the 10-minute drive to Summa, meet Gilbert, and watch another harried CEO tell us to take some quick shots of him at his desk.

Or worse, we’d get there and he wouldn’t even agree to be in the photo.

“Take it of my employees, or the building,” is not uncommon. (It’s inconsequential to them that their employees aren’t even part of the story. And they don’t listen when we tell them that the piece is not about their building.)

I got to Gilbert’s office just in time to hear our photographer ask the CEO to make the trip to Summa’s rooftop. As windy as the day was and as unsafe as that roof appeared, Gilbert was more than agreeable.

After posing patiently through three rolls of film, happily smoothing his hair or fixing his jacket after every unexpected gust of wind, Gilbert waited for the photographer to pack up and then guided us back down to his office.

“I can’t thank you enough for your patience today,” the photographer told Gilbert.

“You have a job to do,” Gilbert replied. “And everyone’s job is important.”

As the photographer waited for his lights to cool , I stood nervously in Gilbert’s office, uncomfortable that we had taken up so much of the busy CEO’s time.

“Sit down,” he said to me. “Tell me about your job.”

So I sat down in the CEO’s office, and the listener continued to listen.

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

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:50

Global leader

Canton-based Diebold Inc. has a history that’s rich in innovation. Founded in 1859, Diebold was one of the first manufacturers of security systems in the country. Now, 140 years later, the company has stayed true to its roots, with security products ranging from the vault that houses the Hope Diamond to the weather-resistant ATMs at the new Cleveland Browns Stadium.

Since the 1960s, Diebold has been a pioneer in ATM technology. Diebold’s product lines also include electronic security and bank facility systems, such as drive-through teller equipment. The company’s primary customers include banks and financial institutions, hospitals, universities, public libraries and utilities.

Under the leadership of Robert Mahoney since 1985, Diebold has expanded its product line to include automated drug dispensing and inventory control systems for the health care market. Another product line, card security systems for colleges and universities, enables students to use a single card to access campus facilities, as well as make purchases from campus retail establishments.

The company has yet to rest on its laurels.

“We file for over 200 patents a year,” says Mahoney, the company’s chairman and CEO. About 40 percent of those applications become patents, consistent with the national average.

Even with 80 new patents a year, the company continually challenges itself technologically. Mahoney says he encourages innovative thinking among his 7,000 employees (including 1,000 at the Canton headquarters) by communicating with them on a regular basis over a number of different channels and offering remote education through the Internet.

In addition, Diebold fosters an entrepreneurial environment, which encourages people to take calculated risks without fear.

“Each developmental area within Diebold, in a sense, is set up like its own company,” Mahoney says. The philosophy gives each employee within those areas a greater sense of ownership.

One of the projects Mahoney now leads is helping banks transform their facilities so they can offer a wider range of products, including insurance and financial management services.

“It’s a huge opportunity, with over 650,000 bank branches in the world,” he says.

In addition, Diebold has invested in databases that will provide information on where customers shop, where they bank and the actual routes they take during the day (footprints). The information will be used to help banks transform into selling-oriented facilities, he says.

“We’re getting into professional services, outsourcing and consulting,” Mahoney says. “We’re not just a manufacturer.”

After a disappointing year last year — income before taxes dropped 35.5 percent to $119.8 million — Mahoney led a realignment effort that is proving successful. The effort, which included consolidation of facilities and the elimination of some jobs and noncore products, has saved the company $22 million.

Mahoney is focusing on bringing innovative, cost-competitive products to market more quickly and boosting worldwide sales. Diebold has offices in Argentina, China, India, South Africa and several European countries. Its manufacturing operations are in Ohio, Virginia, California, South Carolina and Argentina.

How to reach: Diebold Inc., (330) 490-4000 or www.diebold.com

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:50

Breaking the mold

When Thomas Murdough Jr. was a young salesman with Wilson Sporting Goods, he had the glamorous job of contracting out time on his company’s rotational molding machines, cumbersome and labor-intensive equipment used almost exclusively by job-shop operators to produce hollow plastic products — in Wilson’s case, hobby horses.

Never one to accept the status quo, Murdough believed he could get a variety of products made on the machines and set out to prove it. The result: a contract to manufacture 100,000 bedpans.

The experience helped Murdough become an expert in the process. Before long, he set up his own rotomolding operation — from a barn in Aurora.

From that inauspicious beginning, Murdough has built two leading manufacturing companies: Little Tikes, which he sold to Rubbermaid for $50 million in 1984, and The Step2 Co., which he founded in 1989 after leaving Little Tikes.

Both companies — now fierce competitors — use rotomolding to shape extremely sturdy, brightly colored toys for kids, most notably playhouses, sandboxes and kiddie cars.

Step2 posted $100 million in sales last year and had 1,000 employees. Little Tikes, founded in 1970, had $500 million in annual sales and about 3,500 employees worldwide. But Murdough is doing everything in his power to close the gap.

Most recently, the company unveiled a plan to open A Step Beyond retail stores to sell Step2 products. The first store opened in March in Mayfield Heights. The plan calls for opening 30 to 40 stores within the next five years.

As if he hasn’t had enough on his plate, in recent years, Murdough led one of several investor groups that sought to acquire the new Cleveland Browns franchise. While his group was considered a serious contender, it dropped out of the bidding once the price escalated well beyond his personal limit of $350 million.

SBN magazine has talked with Murdough many times in the last five years. Here he adds his thoughts on innovation to his earlier comments on staying competitive.

How would you rank Step2 as an innovator against the competition in your industry?

As one of the best, by staying in touch with the customer and market and matching our processing expertise to market opportunities. Step2 is product-process driven.

What systems have you put in place at Step2 to foster creativity and innovation in the workplace?

Our design staff is isolated to their own building next to our main office building. They have their own dress code and a very relaxed, creative atmosphere — very unstructured. The product development team reports directly to the CEO.

How do you know that you are staying on the cutting edge of your industry?

We know by the incoming orders, consumer feedback and by the imitations, or knock-offs, of our products.

How do you determine market trends?

We do it by listening, by actively seeking out consumer preferences. Our questionnaires, which go on every new product, tell us a lot about what the consumer is thinking. ... These are open-ended questionnaires. They’re not computer [tabulated], which means people actually say what they mean. We get 8,000 to 10,000 of these in a given year. We learn a lot from these.

We also ... log 800 to 1,000 calls a day on our 800 number, and at any given time, in an eight-hour period, we can do a survey of people who call that day and get a quick response. They are bona fide consumers of our products. If we have something specific we want to look at, we can just ask everyone that day and do great research fast.

You mentioned the written surveys you get in. How many of those do you actually look through?

I look through almost all of them. And besides me, usually three or four other people, people in marketing and manufacturing, also go through them.

Is that where you started getting the idea a few years ago to move toward some smaller products?

Most of our top retail customers supply us with shelf-life information. We get reports ... that give data on every product we sell to them. Those tell us exactly how many they sold, sales by region, sales for that week, how many they sold that week vs. the same week last year, and at what price.

So there’s a wealth of information in reports like this. Staying close to your customers is the key.

You’ve said you get ideas from consumers, from employees, from your R&D staff, from your retailers. How much of a decision to go with a particular product is just gut instinct?

It’s a pretty significant percentage. A lot of it has to do with our approach to manufacturing. I don’t want to elaborate too much on this, but many of our competitors use a process that requires them to spend a tremendous amount of capital dollars in developing a product.

Our process, for all of its deficiencies, and there are many — our process is very labor intensive. It’s unable to hold high tolerances ... can get into a new product considerably faster and for considerably less money than our competition. That’s because we’re buying cast aluminum molds. That allows us to get finished product into the marketplace, into our test stores (as fast as eight weeks from conceptualization) ... and find out early on what the reception is to that product.

So, we’ll probably take a greater degree of risk with certain of our products than much of our competition. When we see we’ve had a winner, then we add additional molds, maybe as many as 20, if the volume so dictates.

What’s a product that was a sleeper success?

The most recent one, I don’t want to tell you. It’s going to be big, and our competitors don’t know it yet. But a recent sleeper was our building-block table. ... To be quite honest, I wasn’t even sure we should make the product, because there are so many Lego play tables out there.

What’s unique about our product is the storage underneath this nice sturdy table. It retails for $20, and when we introduced it two years ago, it just flew out of here.

Do most of those products end up having a long cycle?

The ones I’m talking about, yes, and that has a lot to do with our approach to marketing. ...We spend a very low percentage of our sales dollar on advertising. A lot of people are critical, thinking we’d move things a lot faster if we spent more on advertising. ... [But] you can’t have a $20 price point if you’ve got a big advertising load. We think that a $20 price point and our customers’ margins are more important than the short term burst you get from the advertising.

It’s not that we don’t do advertising. We did close to $1 million in advertising in 1997. And that’s just print media.

How much attention do you pay to what your competition is doing?

A lot. We constantly worry about our competition. I want to know — it’s a natural instinct, I guess. It is a very, very competitive industry. All of the industries we’re in, like with the home and garden products, are very competitive in this day and time.

It’s quite unlike the first go-around with Little Tikes. It was a competitive industry then, but we stood alone with rotational-molded plastic products and virtually did not have a direct competitor. Now we have Fisher Price and Little Tikes and of course all toy manufacturers are competing for the buyer’s dollar ...

So I want to be aware of what my competitors are doing. We take great pride in being unique and innovative and being a leader in this industry. Our objective is none other than to be No. 1 in the industries we’re in.

How much do you look at what others are doing, either to validate your own efforts or to snicker at what they’re trying to push?

We get knocked off a lot, we get copied, and we want to know about things like that. We want to know what they’ve done, what their price is. Unfortunately, in this day and time, integrity has to a large degree gone out the window. That’s sad.

We can’t protect ourselves with patents. The only way we can protect ourselves is by being the low-cost producer, by getting out in the market first, and then counting on the buyers [retailers] to respect all of those issues we’ve provided to them. ...

If consumers can get a buck off a product from somebody else, they’ll overlook your brand.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:46

Off the clock

I usually don’t have the time or patience to read all of the e-mails that have been cc:’d to me. You know, the not-so-funny jokes, Web site links, lists of bizarre facts and those motivational tips of the day or week. OK, so I do read the motivational tips.

But normally, when I see an e-mail that’s been copied to me and 19 other people, I’m skeptical of its value. There was one, however, that made it to my in-box from three separate acquaintances. It’s obviously making the rounds, so you may have seen it already.

If not, I thought is was worth sharing, not only for the shock value, but to perhaps spark discussion within your workplace about whether employers should have any jurisdiction over what their employees do on their own time.

I must run a disclaimer, though. Like everything you find on the Web these days, it’s hard to check for accuracy. I, by no means, am assuming the following statistics are factual, but I’d be surprised if there weren’t some grain of truth in them.

So here it is: The following statistics apply to a well-known organization. Of its 500 professional employees, 29 have been accused of spousal abuse; seven have been arrested for fraud; 19 have been accused of writing bad checks; 117 have bankrupted at least two businesses; three have been arrested for assault; 71 cannot get a credit card due to bad credit; 14 have been arrested on drug-related charges; eight have been arrested for shoplifting; 21 are current defendants in lawsuits; last year, 84 were stopped for drunk driving.

Who, you may ask, is their employer? The answer is, you are. The organization is our U.S. Congress, and you are paying their salaries.

As their employer, you may find these employees’ personal-time behavior shocking. You may even decide to fire a few of them (with your vote, of course). But would you fire your own employees if you found incidents like these in their records? Or shouldn’t you care, if their work records are stellar?

I asked my employer if he cared what his employees do on their own time, and this is what he told me: “I don’t care what people do on their own time, as long as it doesn’t affect my company. However, if someone is doing something that does affect my company that can be measured in loss or harm, then it does affect me. Then I care.”

Even though I wouldn’t make it as a statistic in any of the aforementioned categories, I was still, for some reason, relieved to hear his answer.

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