Connie Swenson

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:44

First impressions

Matt, our sales manager, bounced into the office the other day with a look of amazement on his face. “You’re not going to believe this,” he said to me as he handed me a copy of an article from that day’s Arizona Republic, “but this was my client.”

The article gave a gruesome account of a Phoenix businessman who had been missing for days, and had been found — well, some of him had been found—”legless, armless and headless” in a trash bin.

Matt, who sold advertising space for a weekly newspaper in Phoenix before moving to Akron, then added, “I always knew Ira was shady.”

“Shady?” I asked.

Matt explained that the first time he met Ira, a local bar owner, he kept Matt waiting for 45 minutes. When he finally arrived, he couldn’t stay focused on the conversation. His eyes darted from doorway to doorway as he fidgeted with his pen.

Nothing but problems ensued after the contract was signed. Invoices weren’t paid, and when Matt went to collect, he was often sent on wild goose chases, waiting at various locations for meetings that never took place.

Matt may not have predicted the grim ending to Ira’s life, but he did know, from that very first encounter, that something was awry in this man’s business dealings.

If he had trusted his first impression, Matt could have saved himself the energy he spent chasing the guy around town. (Matt found out that Ira still owed the paper for ads even at the time of his death.)

Too often, I kick myself for not trusting my first impressions. How many times do we hear how important they are, only to not pay any attention to them when they hit you in the face? How many times do we tout their importance, then show up for our next client meeting in “casual-day attire.”

Walking into FedEx Custom Critical (formerly Roberts Express) headquarters the other day, I was struck by how congenial the receptionist was. As I waited for our photographer to finish his work, she actually offered to go to the pop machine to buy me a Coke!

But it wasn’t just her demeanor that impressed me. Her “desk” was set up as a large island in the middle of the lobby. It was decorated with a few tasteful personal touches, including a vase of fresh flowers. In a display holder lay a stack of business cards that read: “Kathy McDonald, Leader of First Impressions.”

There was no searching for the right cubicle with the slumped over secretary who will “be with you in a moment.” Here was a lobby that was set up to greet the visitor. And a receptionist who knew how to do it. I mean a leader of first impressions.

(Phoenix police still haven’t found Ira’s killer — or his head.) Connie Swenson (cswenson@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:42

Only the strong survive

The same week we were putting the final touches on this month’s cover story, a national consulting firm made headlines with its prediction that most Internet-based retailers will be out of business by 2001.

Forrester Research, based in Cambridge, Mass., surveyed 50 leading online retailers, and concluded that the majority of them won’t be able to compete in the next few months, as competition intensifies and funding disappears.

In another independent, yet equally discouraging report, an Ernst & Young consultant to start-up companies told the Associated Press that out of the 30,000 e-tailers that exist right now, only 5,000 will survive.

What does all this mean for the local companies we spoke to for our cover story? Probably the same fate that awaits their competitors.

Because the Web has no geographical boundaries, the successes or failures of the area’s Web-based companies will most likely follow the national average, because they are competing in the same cyberspace.

In addition, many established national and international retailers set up very successful Web sites years ago, with the advantage of prepackaged customer bases. Why would one necessarily shop at homefurnishings.com, when a known quantity like sears.com already exists?

Is this all bad news for our smaller, local e-tailers? Not necessarily. As the cyber marketplace becomes too crowded, a natural weeding out will occur. What will be left is a marketplace with less competition and a growing, more intelligent customer base.

This doesn’t mean that the Wal-Marts will beat out the trendier entrepreneurial start-ups, either. Five years ago, where would you have gone to purchase a book? A store called Amazon, or Barnes & Noble? Now look at who has the market share in that area.

The report also points out that not every doomed entrepreneurial cyberventure ends in bankruptcy. Large companies are increasingly buying out smaller, Web-based ventures for their marketshare, concept, technology or, in some cases, simply for their address, leaving the owners, in many cases, with a windfall.

Of course, we wish the best for our local Web companies; many of which, like Twinsburg’s PlanSoft Corp., have found their niches and achieved market dominance. One thing is for sure — the gloomy news about the industry will not be the last cybertrend we’ll be talking about this year.

If there is one thing that is predictable in cyberspace, it’s change.

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

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:41

Round three

Diane Robinson, who spent the majority of her professional career as a nurse, is living proof that one can find success in a range of professions.

Robinson is about to embark on her third restaurant venture, when Piatto opens this month on South Main Street. Robinson, who recently sold her successful Treva restaurant to focus on Piatto, began her second career as a restaurateur in 1993 when she opened Two Sisters, a small, popular café, with her sister.

When the space limitations of Two Sisters became an obstacle, Robinson closed the café and opened Treva in June 1998. In late April, Robinson sold Treva to her sous chef, Cathy Rinehart, to open Piatto with partners Jeff O’Neil and chef Roger Thomas.

How did you get your start in the restaurant business?

I spent 22 years as a nurse. This is a midlife career change for me. I never even was a waitress in college or anything. We started in ’93 at Two Sisters, in a little café, in a much smaller way. It was easy to see the limitations on our cooking and what we could do there —so it ended up growing into this bigger business. We closed that when I opened Treva.

Would you say it’s been a benefit or a detriment not knowing about the industry when you went into it?

It’s definitely made it more challenging. I had a lot to learn. Even the computers and the whole booking system were new to me, so after spending my whole adult life as a nurse ... I had to learn this business. It made it harder, but I’ve learned a lot in two years.

Did you have a clear vision of what you wanted Treva to be when you opened it in 1998?

Yes. I think that helps. Even the space. I can sit in a space for a while and pretty soon start deciding how it’s going to turn out. It was an all-brick building with three long narrow bays and we opened it up and blasted out all the brick and brought the street right in there.

We wanted a real urban-type restaurant because I thought that was lacking in Akron. And I also felt that fine dine was too stuffy. I thought that you should have that quality of food in a casual atmosphere, so if you just want to bop down at the spur of the moment and you’re in jeans, you can still have a wonderful piece of grilled fish.

Casual food in Akron means burgers and fries. So I thought fine dine should be accessible to everyone in a casual atmosphere.

What’s the biggest obstacle that you’ve had to overcome?

It’s hard to just say one. They’re all obstacles, really. Dealing with chefs. Right now we have a very mobile community of chefs. They don’t stay 10, 20 years in one restaurant like they used to, so that’s kind of discouraging.

You just get excited and get going about food, and the next thing you know, they’re on to another restaurant. That’s hard, but truthfully, this whole business is a challenge, but it’s a passion if you love it. You get into it and you’re hooked.

What advice would you give someone who was starting a restaurant today with very little experience?

Find a mentor. When we started Two Sisters, we hooked up with WEGO. They hooked us up and she sat down and helped us write a business plan so that was our first step. We went to the library and looked up small businesses. It’s the business end that you really have to figure out.

The menu end and what’s good and what people like is the easier part for me. The business end you have to figure out because it is a business and they’re very expensive businesses to run. You could dig yourself a hole really fast if you’re not careful.

How would you describe the response to your attempt to bring sophisticated dining downtown?

It’s been very good. It’s always been a challenge to bring people downtown and I wanted to do it downtown ... I hate what’s happening with this mall/chain type thing. When I go to a city to visit, I go for the unique places in the city, and that’s what’s exciting.

I made a commitment to that, although it probably would have been easier to do business in Montrose, or one of those kinds of places, but I think that the response has been great.

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

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:39

Preparing for growth

Louis Perry Jr. says he always wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps.

In 1992, after graduating from the University of Dayton, Perry took a job as a draftsman for his father’s engineering company, Louis Perry & Associates. After a three-year training program, he became a project manager, managing the design-build side of the operation. As that division grew, Perry asked his father if he could break it off and form a new company that would specialize in design and construction.

He says he realized his father’s firm had a strong reputation in the design industry, but not in construction.

So in 1996, he established The Perry Group. By its second year in operation, it was bringing in $4 million in revenue. That grew to more than $10 million in 1999, and Perry expects revenue to double again this year.

He is able to team up with his father’s architectural and engineering firm on projects, and says he has a high percentage of repeat business, which contributes to his success.

To keep up with that growth, Perry, who will be 31 this year, has become involved in the Cleveland chapter of the Young Entrepreneur’s Organization, and was recently accepted to attend a leadership program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology called Birthing of Giants. The one-week class, sponsored by Inc. magazine, is held once a year for three consecutive years and was developed to teach leadership skills to business owners under the age of 40.

Perry was one of 60 applicants from all over the world who were selected to participate.

“It’s great to hear about how other people do business, and you learn from others all the time,” Perry says. “A lot of these people are in the same age group, running into the same problems you’re having.”

In addition, Perry is trying to keep his company on the cutting edge of his industry by maintaining the ISO 9001 certification it received last year. He says it is rare for companies in the construction industry to have this certification, but he is hoping that accomplishment will set a precedent for others.

He is also investing in research and development for the equipment side of the business, which sells scales, weight products, customized machinery and control systems for manufacturing facilities. He is working on improving the control and accuracy of the products to “stay ahead in quality, accuracy and flexibility so that we can be ahead of our competition.”

The Perry Group employs 25 people in its Wadsworth offices. How to reach: The Perry Group, (330) 334-6070

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

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:39

Food for thought

As he enters his 30th year leading one of Akron’s best-known retail establishments, Russell Vernon, CEO of West Point Market, can say he’s truly seen the good, the bad and the ugly.

But what sets this entrepreneur apart from the crowd is his ability to turn the latter two around.

In 1991, Vernon was accused by the local chapter of the NAACP of not hiring enough African Americans. For the next four years, Vernon found himself battling the Washington office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) over his alleged hiring practices. The fight eventually cost him $67,000 in legal fees and hundreds of lost labor hours, while casting a gray cloud on the reputation of the specialty foods market his father founded 60 years earlier.

Vernon can now say that battle is behind him.

“I feel good. I don’t feel good about the fact that the government has freedom to do these things,” he says. “I could have bailed out at $20,000 — if I wanted to be extorted.”

By choosing to fight the allegations to the end, Vernon helped create a better environment for small businesses today. He says his case was one of many that prompted Congressional hearings on EEOC practices, which resulted in six new requirements that the EEOC now has to meet to acquire funding.

Incredibly, Vernon can say that the West Point Market has increased sales every year for the last 64 years — even during his four-year legal battle.

Today, he’s is concentrating on his ninth expansion, to start this month, which will add 5,000 square feet to his prepared foods and café areas. He is putting together a transition plan, in which he will hand over the position of CEO to his son, and assume a more public position as chairman. He says that by September, he would like to be less involved in the day-to-day operations of the market, and more involved in public relations and customer contact.

He has also hired an executive with Boston-based Au Bon Pain to take on the position of president and chief operating officer.

In concentrating on expanding the position of his Akron market, Vernon has not lost sight of the global opportunities available to retailers via the Web. After launching westpoint-market.com, Vernon has received orders from as far away as France and Switzerland. While he admits that the revenue from those orders just covers the cost of filling and shipping them, he realizes that he must have a Web presence.

“We haven’t, like many businesses, realized the return yet, but we must be there,” he says of the Internet.

Right now, he says, the site is more informational than lucrative, but he hopes it will help draw customers to the bricks and mortar store, where they can appreciate the thing he says sets the market apart from its competition — customer service. How to reach: West Point Market, (330) 864-2151 or www.westpoint-market.com

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

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:37

Trendsetter

They say the trendiest of the trendy are those who have a complete unawareness of what anyone else is doing, yet are instinctually on the very cutting edge of their industry.

If you point out to 28-year-old Greg MacLaren that the menu he created for his Twinsburg restaurant resembles, for lack of a more local example, nationally recognized Lola in Cleveland, MacLaren will look you straight in the eye and tell you that not only hasn't he been there, but on the rare occasion that he does eat out, he goes to Luigi's.

MacLaren is the owner and executive chef of MacLaren's Cuisine, located in an industrial park on Darrow Road in Twinsburg. While unlikely, the location seems neither to have helped or hampered business for this 40-seat bistro.

MacLaren says that after only a year in operation, he's booked on weekends, which he credits to word-of-mouth advertising and glowing reviews from Northern Ohio Live, The Plain Dealer and Akron Beacon Journal.

How did you get your start in the restaurant industry?

I started out in the business when I was 16, taking out trash and moving kegs at Blossom Music Center, working part time during the summers and after school. I stayed in the business through college.

After college, I started working 80- to 120-hour weeks. I decided I had to make a change. This restaurant was the brainchild of me and my mother-in-law [Gayle Murphy, who died this year].

What is the most important thing you learned in your first year?

I always knew that restaurants were a tough business, but until you own your own, you don't fully understand what a difficult business they are. The profit margins can be really thin sometimes, and we're wildly open to [variables like] the effect of the weather.

You end up becoming a closet prognosticator -- you're back there saying, 'Let's see here, it was kind of cloudy today, so business was down a little, or the Indians are in town, so it seemed like we had one less table.' You end up reading signs. It's a crazy business. It's a lot of work, but I get a lot of enjoyment out of it.

Have you met the goals you set for your first year?

I think we're reaching them, but really my goals are beyond this, too. When we first opened, we weren't doing as well as we had hoped. It's kind of a weird location. But after we got our first exposure in The Plain Dealer, business really took off and it hasn't slowed down since.

Our word-of-mouth is really good. That's very important to restaurants. We have a lot of regulars and people say nice things about us, and that's really helped. I'd say we probably ended up doing what we'd hoped we'd do, thanks to rallying in the end.

What are your plans for expansion?

It's something we've talked about, but we're going to wait to see what happens this fall. In August and September, things slow down a little bit with people on vacation. We chose this location in anticipation of greater growth in Twinsburg and Hudson, two really rapidly expanding communities.

I've always just kind of seen this as my first venture. When we expand, we'll always have this, but we have a couple of other concepts that I'm going to start shopping around to expand into. A year from now, I believe that I'll have opened something else. I'm looking at communities like Hudson. A venture that would be different from this, but mutually reinforcing. A way to spread out labor, spread out food costs.

Because that's what you battle in the restaurant industry. We'd be looking at a different concept, but one we could put a smaller satellite kitchen into. We'd use this as a central location for all the preparation.

When you develop new ideas or concepts, how aware are you of what your competition in the industry is doing?

You can't totally ignore industry trends, but what I try to do is to find food that means something to me, so it's not just on the menu because it seems flashy or exciting. Food means a lot to me -- it always has -- so I try to find things or make up things based on my memories or my experiences.

You tend to see something great and you tend to assimilate it, but by the same token, you don't want to be a clone. I've had people who are great fans of the restaurant and what I do here tell me not to go in places because they're afraid it might change my style.

This is a tough business and it can be very difficult to succeed in, especially being independent with one small restaurant. As much as independent restaurants are becoming popular and trendy, by the same token, they're always in danger of being stamped out by the national chains that are well financed and can go in anywhere they want. The saving grace of the small restaurant is the popularity of the chef, the new cult of the chef.

If it wasn't for that, it would be a scary landscape. How to reach: MacLaren's, (330) 425-7979

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:34

A moral question

The owner of my company always says, "It's not what you do and then talk about, it's what you do and don't talk about. That will come back to you tenfold."

Because the company I work for is relatively small, our employees are aware of the owner's strong sense of moral obligation, even though he is the last to publicize his good deeds and charitable contributions. But for many larger companies, when the owner doesn't speak of his or her good deeds, the company's ethics become nebulous.

Last year, Ken Starr's report showed that President Clinton's personal secretary, Betty Currie, told a grand jury that she helped arrange visits between Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and helped to keep the relationship secret.

According to a recent survey by the International Association of Administrative Employees, employees often feel pressured to join in behaviors that are ethically questionable. The survey found that 83 percent of respondents had told a "little white lie" to protect a supervisor and almost 60 percent had lied about a boss's whereabouts.

Many employees learn how to respond to ethical dilemmas in business by observing their leaders. I think it's safe to assume that Currie had seen her boss handle various situations in a dishonest manner. Thus, when she was confronted with a situation in which she was pressured to act in a less-than-honest fashion, as the loyal employee she was, she acted in accordance to her company's culture.

SBN talked to several local business leaders about the subject of ethics in the workplace in the story on page 7. Some of the entrepreneurs we spoke to said they would only do business with companies that shared their ethics.

But how many companies do you know of which publicize the morals upon which they do business? If their vendors don't know, then how can those leaders expect their employees to know?

We are seeing more and more written about business ethics, maybe due in part to the questionable choices made during Clinton's years in office. Whatever the reason, most colleges and universities which offer business degrees are now including mandatory business ethics courses as part of their curriculum.

The topic is not going to go away. Instead, it will most likely become more mainstream as companies look for ways to distinguish themselves in this ever-changing marketplace.

Perhaps now is the time to put your company's ethics into writing, then set up a system to hold employees accountable for conducting business according to the values you have stated.

Even if you think your employees share your values, if you have not publicly stated what they are, you could be setting yourself up for a controversy that could be at best embarrassing, and at worst illegal.

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

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:33

Defining leadership

The debacle surrounding this year's presidential election brought to light many issues relating to democracy and leadership.

While we will most likely see many policy changes as a result of the chaos that ensued after the election, one debate that will never be put to rest concerns the definition of a true leader.

In trying to halt the Florida recount, and to sway Al Gore to back down, George W. Bush's camp argued that a leader should be decisive and magnanimous and concede to the larger interest of the people. While Bush wasn't willing to tailor his own behavior to fit that definition, he righteously tried to force those expectations on Gore.

Bush's message was clear: If you had the people's best interests in mind over your own, you would give up your fight.

Bush tried to assume the role of leader by planning his transition and his new administration while the results of the election were still in limbo. A good leader takes responsibility, and is prepared, was his explanation.

Gore, on the other hand, charged Bush with being arrogant, and not respecting the promises of democracy and the rights of the people. Gore defended his actions by calling on his own definition of what a leader should be -- a leader should fight until the very end, in any possible, legal and responsible way. And a leader doesn't take command until officially called to do so.

Chances are, you agreed with the leadership qualities exhibited by the person you voted for. (I know I did, and I won't tell you who that was.) Supporters of each candidate accused the other of acting selfishly. Gore was selfish for not giving up; Bush was selfish for planning an administration before the final vote was counted.

But how many leaders do you know, including yourself (be honest), who don't exhibit selfish qualities?

I believe that holding firm to your ideals is a critical quality for a good leader. And it is that quality that is often defined as selfishness.

Face it, even in a democracy, and always in a private business, a leader must make hard and fast decisions. And those decisions may not always appear to support the interests of the constituency -- whether that constituency is your customer base or your employees.

The defining moment comes when the results of your decision materialize. Only then can you accurately judge your actions. Connie Swenson (cswenson@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN.

Friday, 28 June 2002 05:41

Dr. Robert Sturkey

When Cuyahoga Falls dentist Dr. Robert Sturkey left his practice 10 years ago to become director of diversity at Walsh Jesuit High School, no one expected the Walsh graduate to convince Archbishop Desmond Tutu, civil rights attorney Morris Dees and Martin Luther King's daughter, Yolanda King, to help him with his job.

Yet Sturkey lured these speakers, among others, to Walsh -- a high school with a black population of less than 2 percent -- to teach students about social justice issues. Now, as he is preparing to leave his position at Walsh, he continues his personal mission to help develop our youngest generation.

This month, he and Olympic gold medalist Madeline Manning-Mims are bringing several Olympic gold medalists -- including Manning-Mims, Mark Spitz and Kerri Strug -- to Akron to participate in Camp Olympic, a four-day program for children. The camp aims to aid in physical, character and attitude development of those who attend.

"One of the things that we've been pretty careful about is selecting gold medal Olympians who are high-quality, high-content individuals," Sturkey says.

While the curriculum will include sports, he stresses that components such as attitude, leadership and discipline have just as much to do with an athlete's ability to succeed as physical talent.

"That's as much a part of the camp as the physical," he says. "Our goal is that the outcome of the four days will plant the seed of moral and physical excellence in this group of America's future leaders."

Sturkey, who is a marathon runner, hopes to set up similar camps across the country after this year's Akron camp.

He expects 200 children to attend, 50 to 60 of whom will qualify as disadvantaged and whose expenses will be covered by local business sponsors. In fact, Sturkey estimates 65 percent of the cost of running the camp will be covered by business sponsors who want to invest in their next generation of leadership. Camp Olympic runs July 15 through 18. For more information, call Dr. Sturkey at Mercury Management Corp., (330) 253-4964.

Friday, 28 June 2002 05:36

Getting along

Dealing with conflict is a natural part of doing business. The difference between a dispute that becomes debilitating and one that gets resolved is often a result of the way the parties deal with the conflict, says Ned Parks, a partner in Signal Tree Resolutions.

The two-year-old Akron company helps businesses learn to deal with potential and existing conflict. Companies including Nestle USA and Akron's Main Street Gourmet have used Signal Tree to train employees on how to deal with conflict.

Parks and his partners, Albert Couch and Norma Delp, have been called on to both conduct conflict resolution training classes for employees and to mediate disputes.

"Sometimes we are hired after a conflict has already occurred, and sometimes they'll ask us for help and they're not really sure what the problem is," says Parks.

Signal Tree has helped resolve disputes between departments, between individuals, between businesses, or, one case, for a company that was "just really unfriendly to work in."

He says it's often more effective to bring in someone to mediate a dispute because that person is trained in conflict management, is impartial and is not a coworker of anyone involved.

"The beauty is that it's someone from the outside who's doing it," he says. "It's a safe environment because we don't work with them. As soon as this project is over, they'll probably never see us again, so they feel very comfortable telling us what they've got on their minds, and we can distill that information down and say, 'These are the common themes, this is the next recommended step ... "

Parks emphasizes that mediation is different from arbitration, in which an arbitrator, frequently a lawyer, is hired to resolved a dispute by making a decision for both parties.

"In mediation, the mediator doesn't make the decision, the people do," he says. "It still can be (legally) binding. They (both sides) come to their own decision. It's little more time-consuming but a lot more rewarding and a lot longer lasting."

Mediators are not substitutes for attorneys. While many attorneys are trained as mediators, mediators by trade are specialists in problem-solving, not the law.

" Most conflict has nothing to do with the law," Parks says. "We're here to help solve the problem, the attorneys are here to say if the resolution is legal.

"Too often in this society we say, 'I can't do anything because I don't know about the law.' Well, you can certainly make an agreement to get along with someone. There's nothing illegal about that. All I am practicing is peacemaking." How to reach: Signal Tree Resolutions, (330) 867-3247