Connie Swenson

Tuesday, 23 October 2001 10:49

Affecting change

So you want to change the world?

You can start a revolution by changing policies within your own company, says C. Keith Cox, a Medina-based management consultant.

Cox, president of Tirawa Consulting Inc., believes that work now plays such a large role in most Americans' lives that business owners can affect change within their communities -- and eventually, the planet -- simply by turning their companies into values-driven organizations.

Cox founded his company late last year, after spending the last three years as a senior manager for marchFIRST in Cleveland, and the seven years before that with the organizational change management practice of Ernst & Young. He named his new practice "Tirawa" to reflect the spiritual side of the workplace. The word is Native American for "Great Spirit."

When Cox started at marchFIRST, the company had just been formed out of the merger of two "very different companies," he says. His first order of the day was to help form one corporate culture for the organization that everyone could feel part of.

"They needed to create an organization that brought everybody together as one, to help unleash the potential of their people," he says. "We started by doing a culture assessment. If you're going to have an organization that reflects the needs and values of the people, you need to talk to them.

"You need to figure out what is important to them. What do they stand for? What do they want to focus on, not just at work, but outside of work?"

Cox now helps other companies create values systems for their organizations. He says it's more important now than ever for a company's values to match the values of its employees, because home and office lives have become almost inseparable.

Not only are we spending more time at work, we are almost constantly connected to work through voice mail, e-mail, and mobile phones.

"When your personal values are aligned with the organizational values, your job is just not a job, but it becomes an extension of whatever your personal mission is," he says. "It unleashes creativity, innovation, all those good things that people can bring to work every day -- or they can leave at home."

He says companies today need innovative employees so that they can react to changes in the marketplace more rapidly.

"The way you get to those things is by having committed people, individuals that really go the extra mile for the company, " he says.

But he says it's not just good business sense, it's the right thing to do.

"We need to become more focused on the common good. If companies become more values-driven, the impact can become monumental."

He says companies need to become more socially responsible, because many problems in society can be traced back to corporate America.

"As a society, we need to focus more on taking care of each other, our communities and our planet," Cox says. "If we all just focused on each other and the common good, it would be a lot better than just how much money we make."

So, how do you become a values-driven organization? Start by finding out what your employees' values are, then create a set of five to eight core values for your organization that reflect those. When your organization's values match at least some of the values of each employee, it will be easier for employees to rally around them.

Once you have determined what those values are, follow through by building them into other parts of your company, from HR policies to performance assessments to recruitment.

For example, if work balance is a value, what programs and policies do you have in place to promote that?

"Do you have day care, do you give people time off when they need to take their child to the doctor? Are you having meetings at 6 at night?" Cox says. "You need to make sure that all your actions and all your communications are consistent with what you want to stand for as an organization."

If customer satisfaction is a value, are you measuring your employees' performances based on the satisfaction level of your customers?

"For me, this work is important because I can help make the world a better place by changing our collective consciousness one person, one team, one organization at a time.

"For those that think you can't change the world, you're wrong," he says. "You just have to do it one step at a time." How to reach: Tirawa Consulting Inc., (330) 723-2222 or keith.cox@tirawaconsulting.com

Tuesday, 23 October 2001 10:48

Growing your own

You've most certainly noticed that the economy has shifted gears over the last few months. Companies are cutting back, tightening their purse strings.

And while the unemployment rate has been slowly rising from an historic low, I've observed a trend that seems to contradict the statistics economists are feeding us on a daily basis: Most companies are actually hiring right now.

That's right. As they tighten their budgets, they're still looking for good workers to fill critical roles. At the same time, their present employees are being asked to do more with less, and the need for skilled, results-oriented workers has become more of a priority.

If you're one of those companies looking for exceptional workers, you're probably not finding the worker pool you need from your classified ads. A new economy begs for a new way to take action. Here are some examples of what your peers are doing to attract new workers.

Akron's FirstEnergy Corp., a diversified energy utility operating company, comprises the nation's 10th largest electric system, serving 2.2 million customers. Deregulation, mergers and a unique challenge caused by the prediction that 40 percent of the company's work force will retire within the next eight years have forced management to look for new ways to find employees.

As a result, FirstEnergy is working with Lakeland Community College in Kirtland and Stark State College of Technology in Canton to develop a replacement strategy called Power Systems Institute. Students of the program spend half of their class time (2 and 1/2 days a week) at a FirstEnergy facility, receiving hands-on training from company instructors. The program takes 21 months to complete, and graduates are given special consideration for employment at FirstEnergy.

Many of the large auto dealers in Akron and Canton have already figured out how to grow their own qualified employees -- they have joined alliances with local technical schools to ensure the skills and training of their future employees. Over the years, it's been more difficult for auto and truck dealers to fully staff their service departments. Through these alliances, dealerships have been able to participate in educating future generation of mechanics.

And for those smaller- and mid-sized companies that may not have the financial resources to contribute to the education of future employees, Stark Truss Co. of Canton offers another solution. This growing company has maintained a tradition of hiring employees while they're still in high school. Many of those hired in their teens have grown through the ranks to reach management positions.

In addition, the company doesn't frown on nepotism. In fact, employees are encouraged to recommend family members for open positions. The theory is that relatives of Stark Truss employees already know the hard work that's expected of their family members. Connie Swenson (cswenson@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Magazine.

Tuesday, 23 October 2001 10:47

A mold for success

Akron sits in the center of Northeast Ohio's Polymer Valley, which, as a whole, boasts 400 polymer-related companies that employ 30,000 people. One quarter of those companies are based within the city of Akron.

In its April 30, 2001, issue, Newsweek magazine named Akron as one of 10 new tech cities. The article read, "The New Economy may be slumping, but ... these 10 cities have become important players in the information age."

One of the companies helping to put Akron on the map is The Plastic Lumber Co., housed in Canal Place. With revenue that has grown "every year but one," according to President Alan Robbins, The Plastic Lumber Co. brought in sales of $5.2 million last year, employs 50 and is continuing to grow by expanding its product offerings.

Robbins, who started the company in 1989 in 12,000 square feet of space in Canal Place, isn't a polymer scientist or an engineer. In fact, he is a stockbroker who was hired by a client in the plastics industry around the time of the market crash of '87.

"In the process of doing that, I discovered a number of areas for recycled plastic materials," he says. "That was a time when recycling from a post-consumer standpoint was starting to come to the forefront, and there were no real technologies available for the material coming out of a milk jug, which is high-density polyethylene. As a food carrier, it couldn't go back into food again."

Robbins, who had gained an understanding of the plastics industry by working for that client, and who, as a stockbroker, clearly understood the financial aspects of running a business, wanted to find a marketable new product for the post-consumer No. 2 plastic material. He, along with a short-term technologist, created a process to mold shredded plastic milk jugs into the dimensions of lumber. But more significantly, they discovered a way to color the recycled material in hues that matched the natural colors of lumber, a far cry from the black, low-end products that milk jugs had previously been used for.

Robbins says that at the time, there was a similar technology available in Europe, but it relied on equipment which was both slow and expensive. In addition, the local technologies, which were new and proprietary, were not for sale.

"So we pretty much were confronted with having to develop our own," he says.

"We're taking what is a disposable dairy bottle that has a one-time use cycle, and we've taken it to a durable. Not many people can do that with a recycled material. We're unique in that regard."

Because Robbins was aware that a new material can take years to gain the acceptance of the building industry, the first products he manufactured with the technology were simple and nondescript: parking stops and speed bumps.

"These two products were the cash cow that allowed us to complete all of our other work," he says.

He used the proceeds from those products to develop a line of lumber molded into 48 industry-standard dimensions in 11 colors. The first market he tapped was the park and recreation industry. A line of commercial-grade picnic tables, benches and waste receptacles was created to compete with pressure-treated wood furniture.

As it turned out, the timing of the plastic products could not have been better. The park and recreation industry was starting to shun both redwood products (which were not environmentally correct), and the chemicals used in pressure-treated wood.

The Plastic Lumber Co.'s products were durable, low-maintenance and environmentally correct, due to the use of post-consumer recycled materials.

Robbins continued to grow that business by expanding the line of outdoor furniture and adding a line of weatherproof signage. He was able to develop that market by sticking to products he could sell through the same distribution channels.

"I tried to add breadth and depth to markets ... You can do that with the same ad, the same trade shows, the same catalogs," he says.

Today, 50 percent of the company's revenue comes from that distribution area.

After establishing the park furniture market, Robbins continued to build the company by marketing the unconstructed lumber to outdoor deck builders (which now accounts for about 25 percent of sales), and developing a new line of specialty products for the spa industry.

He is following the same marketing philosophy that he used to grow the park and recreation line. A catalog of spa accessories was developed that included steps and planters that competed with, yet complemented, existing redwood products.

"I thought we had good, winning products in the spa market, but it was a whole new distribution market," Robbins says.

To take full advantage of that distribution channel, he expanded the line to include other products traditionally sold by hot tub dealers. Those products were not necessarily hot tub accessories.

"What we learned with the spa market is that hot tub dealers don't just sell hot tubs. They're selling grills, they're selling pool tables, they're selling outdoor furniture," he says.

Robbins is acting on that discovery by developing a prototype for an Adirondack chair and other casual outdoor furniture. He is also experimenting with new technologies and expanding the offering of rotational molded products.

The Plastic Lumber Co. used 4 million pounds of recycled plastics last year.

"That's about 24 million dairy bottles taken out of the waste stream," Robbins points out. "An average picnic table weighs a little under 300 pounds, so it's equivalent to about 1,800 milk jugs. You can see the economic impact that we can have when we do this." How to reach: The Plastic Lumber Co. Inc. (330) 762-8989

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

Why Akron?

Ninety-four of the region's 400 polymer companies call Akron home.

Resources such as the University of Akron's Goodyear Polymer Center and Canal Place continue to help attract polymer companies to the city. But there's a network of private companies that really supports the industry.

While scientific research is important to a company, knowing that a piece of equipment can be fixed immediately, or that there will be enough power available in your facility when it's time to expand, or that an additive supplier is just around the corner are even more critical to entrepreneurs like Alan Robbins.

"I always said that if I had done a nationwide search, I probably would have ended up right back here," says Alan Robbins, president of The Plastic Lumber Co.

"There's an infrastructure here in Akron beyond just the University of Akron. We use their (the university's) resources where applicable, but more important are the issues of equipment, tool and die maintenance ... these kinds of things are the bread and butter of what runs an industrial plastic or rubber manufacturing facility."

Tuesday, 23 October 2001 10:47

Smooth move

Most CEOs can only hope the inevitable transition when it's time to move on goes this smoothly.

On June 15, Bruce Simpson, CEO of FedEx Custom Critical for the last 13 years, retired. His successor, Jack Pickard, has been with the company for 15 years in a number of key position in sales, marketing and operations. Before being named CEO, he was most recently vice president of service.

The transition took about 90 days, Pickard says, and besides replacing himself, very few positions in the company were affected.

Simpson had worked at the company since 1983, first, as director of sales, then moving into a vice president position, and then, from 1988 until June 2001, as president and CEO. During that time, he gained a reputation as one of the Akron's most accessible CEOs.

When Simpson started with the company, it was a growing niche shipping service called Roberts Express. The Akron-based company was quickly gaining a national reputation as the premier nonstop, door-to-door ground shipping service for critical deliveries such as hazardous or temperature-sensitive materials, high-value products and other shipments in need of special attention.

In 1998, Roberts Express, which had been owned by a family of companies called Caliber, was acquired by FedEx. Its name was changed to FedEx Custom Critical a year later.

Becoming part of the $20 billion revenue FedEx corporation was a positive experience for Simpson.

"I can't tell you how upbeat we were from a leadership standpoint," he recalls. "There were some challenges as a part of the Caliber family. The Caliber Group was struggling from a financial standpoint, and we have always been able to -- thankfully -- continue to grow and be a profitable entity. We were thrilled when we were acquired by FedEx. It's a magnificent corporation. It's a powerful brand name. We had an excellent fit from the standpoint of where our services could be identified and distinct within the services that they provide.

"From a cultural standpoint, we were obsessed with the customer just like they are."

The acquisition was one of the landmark events Simpson navigated during his tenure as CEO. When small- to mid-sized companies are bought out by larger corporations, the experience does not always yield such positive sentiments on the part of those being acquired.

"First of all, they (FedEx) did a lot of homework," Simpson says. "People have different motivations for selling. A, the purpose of the strategic fit: What would be the synergies and market strategies that would be purposeful in that process? And B, (the buyer must do) a cultural assessment. What is the definition of the culture? When you say, 'How do you define your culture?' people sometimes roll their eyes. You can have a mission statement down on the wall, but do you really believe in it? Do you walk the talk? Do people understand it?

"All the things that we have about our culture fit with FedEx."

After seeing through the acquisition and name change, Simpson began to plan his retirement. He decided that on his 61st birthday, he would move with his family to Hilton Head, S.C., to live year-round. While he will stay on the board of directors of FedEx Custom Critical, he passed the reigns of leadership on to Pickard.

"He's been my planned successor for a long time," Simpson says. "He's got dynamic capabilities, leadership qualities and an understanding of our business and all the appropriate future vision that I think is necessary."

Simpson was reluctant to pass along any advice with the job title.

"I think leadership is a subject that thousands of books are written about every year," he says. "He'll be a good leader. The important thing in this whole process is to continue to perpetuate the culture that we have, that really, in addition to this unique service that we provide, stimulates us.

"The essence of this very company was to meet perfect expectations of your customer. How we define that and measure that was so foundational to our ability to grow and develop and create the market."

After a month at the helm, Pickard says the transition really did go as well as Simpson had predicted. He credits the fact that Simpson had been his boss for 15 years.

"As transitions go, this thing has really been smooth and seamless," he says. "All of the players are really familiar to everybody. It's not like you're bringing someone in from the outside.

"There's a lot to be said for stability at top management."

So far, Pickard is continuing to lead the company's growth. On July 25, he led the ceremonies at the groundbreaking for the company's new headquarters in Green, which is being constructed to accommodate a staff that has grown by 100 since January. How to reach: FedEx Custom Critical, (800) 633-6530

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

Tuesday, 23 October 2001 10:47

In praise of innovation

Look up the word innovate in the dictionary and you'll find it means "to introduce new methods, devices, etc."

But not every successful company has introduced a new method, product or service to the marketplace. There are plenty of examples of prosperous companies that have built their customer base on the simple principles of quality, value and/or exceptional customer service.

There are also countless examples of highly innovative companies that have fallen hard and fast. Think of all the defunct dot-coms that unabashedly threw their concepts out on the Web for the world to scrutinize.

But there's something heroic about the failed entrepreneur who risked everything to take his or her innovation to market. That coffee shop that couldn't make it on Main Street just doesn't bring the same sentiment.

Four friends come to mind who, in the last two years, gave up lucrative careers and risked their families' and friends' wealth to join or found dot-com ventures that now lie in a cyberspace graveyard. They are struggling with debt as they search for ways to support themselves and their families.

One waits for his first child to be born as he lives, jobless, on his family's farm. In one year, he risked and lost $1 million on a Web site concept he believed in. Do we write this off as eccentric stupidity? Most wouldn't. The timing may have been wrong, but the idea had a lot of potential.

I know he and many others will recover, not because they will find secure jobs in corporate America, but because they will try again and again until they find an economy and marketplace that are more accepting of their ideas.

That perseverance is what we are celebrating in the section in this issue on SBN's third annual Innovation in Business Awards.

All of these companies have found success by turning their innovative ideas into sound business models. Some are in the rocky high-tech industry, some in more traditional industries, like public relations and marketing and overnight shipping. The common bond among all the winners this year is that they overcame some degree of trial and error to achieve their dreams.

Read their stories and find inspiration. Connie Swenson (cswenson@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Magazine.

Friday, 30 August 2002 10:54

Getting out and staying out

I can't tell you how many business owners I've talked to over the last month who've lamented their lack of ability to go forth with their growth plans.

The biggest culprit? Banks are tightening their standards on credit underwriting, and other nontraditional sources of capital aren't in a risk-taking mode.

This observation is backed by the latest quarterly data collected by the Fed on banks' lending trends. According to the Fed's survey, the percentage of banks that plan to impose stricter terms on small business borrowers has risen steadily over the past year-and-a-half, and is higher now than it has been the past few years.

Most banks worth their weight in assets will admit that it's just harder to get approved for loan these days.

The problem with this conservatism is that we need a certain level of risk to drive our economy. If small business is truly the backbone of the economy, and capital is the fuel that drives most companies, then the tightening of lending standards can only send us back into the recession mode that we're slowly climbing out of.

Some economists are saying a double dip recession is on the horizon. The term "double dip" refers to an economic condition that has reached a low, found a temporary floor, and then dives again.

Many economists are just now admitting that the high unemployment rate, lack of consumer spending and low consumer confidence we've experienced over the last year was really a recession that officially began in March 2001.

They're admitting this now that there's evidence it might be ending. But if banks and other lenders don't fuel entrepreneurism, the double dip forecast could become a reality.I can't tell you how many business owners I've talked to over the last month who've lamented their lack of ability to go forth with their growth plans.

The biggest culprit? Banks are tightening their standards on credit underwriting, and other nontraditional sources of capital aren't in a risk-taking mode.

This observation is backed by the latest quarterly data collected by the Fed on banks' lending trends. According to the Fed's survey, the percentage of banks that plan to impose stricter terms on small business borrowers has risen steadily over the past year-and-a-half, and is higher now than it has been the past few years.

Most banks worth their weight in assets will admit that it's just harder to get approved for loan these days.

The problem with this conservatism is that we need a certain level of risk to drive our economy. If small business is truly the backbone of the economy, and capital is the fuel that drives most companies, then the tightening of lending standards can only send us back into the recession mode that we're slowly climbing out of.

Some economists are saying a double dip recession is on the horizon. The term "double dip" refers to an economic condition that has reached a low, found a temporary floor, and then dives again.

Many economists are just now admitting that the high unemployment rate, lack of consumer spending and low consumer confidence we've experienced over the last year was really a recession that officially began in March 2001.

They're admitting this now that there's evidence it might be ending. But if banks and other lenders don't fuel entrepreneurism, the double dip forecast could become a reality.

Friday, 30 August 2002 10:49

Dr. Thomas Gaylord

As chief information officer for the University of Akron, Thomas Gaylord, Ph.D, has his work cut out for him.

His job: To give students in Akron the technology tools to compete in science and engineering with their counterparts in San Francisco, New York and Asia . The caveat is that he must do this on a very limited budget and with the approval of a constituency that doesn't always value entrepreneurial risk-taking.

"There is no more difficult job in the public sector than the chief information officer job at a university, because we don't have all the resources to do everything everyone wants us to do, so we have to be playing the razor's edge to accomplish something," he says. "I cannot bowl a single gutter ball. This type of structure is unforgiving.

"If I make one big mistake, I'm history. Risk-taking is not particularly valued in this industry."

Even within those parameters, Gaylord has found success. His most noteworthy achievement during his two-year tenure: Implementing a completely wireless campus. Students and faculty at the university's main Akron campus, as well as its Orrville branch, can access the Internet from any classroom, dorm room, green space or sports arena, with one exception -- the opponent's side of the football stadium.

The Wired for Wireless program was unveiled a year ago, at a cost of $1.7 million. The University of Akron is still the only public university in the state with a completely wireless campus.

For someone who sees the advent of the Internet as "the biggest paradigm shift in education since the blackboard," this was an important accomplishment.

"It's going to change education in a massively huge way," he says.

Gaylord predicts the Internet will soon allow educators to provide to 100,000 people courses that are as high quality as individual instruction within a classroom. And that same model can be used in a workplace, he says.

"We can see a company that has employees all over the world will soon be able to provide educational content to a sales force, or a repair group, anywhere," he says. "We can provide this education across the world, at basically the price that it would be costing you to deliver it to an individual person. We have to leverage technology so that we can compete." How to reach: The University of Akron, www.uakron.edu

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:54

Shifting into high gear

"

You’d be hard pressed to find a better example of the American dream than Michael Conny.

Conny, 35, started his career as a welder. With $8,000 borrowed from his mother and step-father, he worked out of a single-bay garage, and using an 8 by 8-foot outhouse as an office, made trailer repairs. Within seven months, to keep up with orders that started to stream in from referrals, he hired 10 employees.

His first break came when an acquaintance asked him to build a trailer from scratch. The trailer took a month and a half to complete, but the workmanship spoke for itself. The customer then placed an order for 20 trailers, and Conny realized he had to double the size of his business.

“It all happened so fast,” Conny says. “You have to be the type of person that doesn't get disgusted and give up.”

After that first order, Conny says the hardest part was convincing people to leave a company they had done business with for 30 years, and give his MAC a chance. He says the only way he could do that was by offering a higher-quality product at a lower price.

“It was very hard to keep my overhead and my costs down,” Conny says of that strategy. “I had to go a long time before I took any money.”

Watching those trailers roll down the street with his initials emblazoned in red on the side was a good reminder to Conny that he truly was accomplishing something.

In 1998, just six years after he incorporated MAC Trailer Manufacturing, he posted revenues of $37 million. This year, he expects that to jump to $50 million.

But he’s not exactly resting on his laurels.

“I guess I’ve made it in some people’s eyes,” says Conny, “but I’m not happy with my achievements in life yet. There’s a lot of growing left to do.”

Conny’s ultimate goal is to own the market on dump trailers built in the United States. He expects to achieve this with a simple philosophy based on a quality product and an honest work ethic. “You work hard every day, you’re honest with the people you sell to, you’re honest to your employees, and the rest falls into place.”

Ironically, Conny’s biggest competitor, East Manufacturing Corp., is located “right up the road,” as Conny puts it, in Randolph, Ohio.

Right now, East Manufacturing is No. 1 in the industry, leaving MAC with the No. 2 slot. And that's just not good enough for Conny.

One of the obstacles Conny will have to overcome to take over that No. 1 slot is finding and keeping qualified workers. Recruitment has been a constant struggle for Conny, and other manufacturers, as unemployment rates drop to all-time lows. But instead of lamenting the hurdle, Conny faced the problem head-on.

Last month, he opened an on-site training program for new workers.

“I knew I had to personally take charge of that problem and handle it,” he says

Now, he can hire less-qualified — but still motivated — workers, who go through a three-week training period at the pay level they were hired in at. “We now hire anybody that can come to work and has a good track record,” he says.

Conny’s banking on that investment. Orders are still streaming in to this company that does no advertising. Last month, Kemphart Trucking of Pennsylvania called to place a 30-trailer order — another new customer who heard of Conny’s work through a referral.

Conny wants to hire 100 more workers this year to keep up with sales of his current line and two new lines he hopes to unveil in the coming months: aluminum flatbeds and steel dump trailers.

While adding 100 employees will bring his personnel count to 410, the welder-turned-company-president is sure he has what it takes to run a mid-sized company.

“I feel I could run IBM. No matter what the business is, it’s a relationship business: It’s a relationship with your employees, it’s a relationship with your customers. As long as we have open lines of communication ... we can get the job done.”

Judge’s comments: “Mike Conny epitomized for me the American Dream. You can do it. You can start as a farmer and end up with a (multi-million dollar) company. When he walked out of the room, I just wanted to stand up and wave the flag. That is the capitalist structure at its best. That story epitomizes again for me the American Dream. He’s so humble about it.” Diann Rucki

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:53

The right stuff

A year ago, Dolf Kahle, CEO of Twinsburg’s Visual Marking Systems, had a problem. The manufacturer of product identification for industrial companies — “decals, labels, nameplates,” he says — had noticed that his company wasn’t growing as quickly as it had earlier in the decade.

“I had five sales people working in five territories, and they were expected to go into that territory and handle the existing clientele, grow the existing clientele and find us new business,” he says. The problem? “They were spending a lot of time calling on little accounts, and those little accounts were taking up way too much time.”

Looking for a solution, Kahle called Marc Miller, president of ChangeMaster Corp., a 12-year-old Twinsburg company that helps companies better utilize their sales force to make their companies grow.

“We try to understand what’s holding them back from doing better,” Miller says. “And that can be a lot of different things.”

When Miller and Kahle met, Kahle remembers, “He started to go through his discovery process to find out who I was and what I was looking for.” Afterward, Miller suggested he put Kahle’s sales team through the same drill to see what their strengths were and how they could best contribute to the company.

“One night I had a sales training session where we were role playing and doing telephone work,” Kahle remembers. “He sat in and listened and said, ‘You have some serious problems separating the service people from the sales people.’”

At that, Kahle and Miller committed the next 12 months to rehauling the department, and Kahle’s business hasn’t been the same since.

Miller took VMS’ five sales territories and turned them into three. He assigned two sales reps to each territory, one as a regional sales manager and one as a service representative.

“The head of that sales team finds new business. The other takes care of existing business — calling the accounts, taking care of the quotes, taking care of their questions, freeing up that aggressive, outgoing, find-the-new-business sales person’s time so that they’re doing nothing but that,” explains Kahle.

“That was the earth-shattering revelation,” he pauses. “I had been so successful for so many years, but all of a sudden it wasn’t working.”

The solution was simple, Miller says.

“We put them into teams, more according to who they were, their capabilities,” he says. But the sales people’s strategy needed work as well. “They were calling everybody who bought a label or a decal on this earth,” he says.

Kahle agrees: “What we were getting was the little guy who was saying, ‘I need five trucks done with decals,’” Kahle says. “We’d do their decals for them, but we weren’t going to see them again for another five years. It takes a sales person a lot of time to do those five trucks versus going to Telxon [Corp.] and getting all their business which comes in every day.”

When Miller made this discovery, he laid down the law.

“We said to them, ‘You can only call on $50,000-plus opportunities,” he says. “They were measuring activity, trying to get them to make 40 calls a day on the phone, which was a major mistake. We wanted them to be more strategic. To maybe make three calls a day, but [to] work on $50,000 opportunities.”

Miller helps companies come to these conclusions through a process that includes evaluating sales people with behavioral, personality, cognitive and aptitude tests.

“They use them before they make a hire,” he says, “so they don’t shoot themselves in the foot.”

He also evaluates how sales teams create and manage their leads and how they face their customers and their market.

“We test for competency by watching simulations and role plays,” he says. “The key is [for companies to] end up with a highly effective or skilled sales force.”

And what does Kahle think of his results?

“Instead of talking to one or two new large accounts a month, we’re now talking to a minimum of 12 a month,” he says. “That’s the minimum goal. And they’ve achieved that goal and more every month.”

That doesn’t surprise Miller. After all, he says, his mission is to do just that.

“Our training is very strategic,” he says. “It’s not about how to handle objections. It’s not about how to close. It’s not about how you make a presentation. It’s about how you add value [to the company].” How to reach: Visual Marking Systems: (330) 425-7100; ChangeMaster (330) 487-0300

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

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:51

Sprint to the finish line

Ken Thompson says he’s at a low level in his life. The consummate entrepreneur, who has owned up to 18 businesses at one time, only owns four right now.

For a man who, at age 62, runs marathons and long-distance races for fun— including one he just finished from Florence to Faenza, Italy, (“most of the other runners had dropped out through the night,” he says) — it’s hard to believe there could be a low level.

Thompson spends most of his time these days running PlastiCards Inc., the corporate name for his three printing companies: Rainbow Printing in Green, Ultra Plastic Printing in North Royalton, and Daylux, a division of a N.J.-based company he just purchased. At work by 5:30 most mornings, Thompson starts his day with a copy of the Los Angeles Times. Not that his local Akron Beacon Journal doesn’t provide enough news. It’s not news Thompson is looking for. It’s trends. Trends that fuel ideas.

“I don’t know why it emanates from the West Coast,” he says. “I’ve often used things I’ve seen there as a leading indicator. It’s the first place you saw white hose. It’s the first place you saw black nail polish. It’s the first time you saw environmental law on emissions on companies like ours.”

Some of the trends Thompson has jumped on lately include highly resilient photo ID cards and weather-resistant cable markers. The idea for the photo ID cards came after the tragedy in Littleton, Colo. Suddenly, there was a surge in the demand for ID cards with magnetic strips. Most of the cards on the market could take about 2,000 to 3,000 bends before they cracked. Thompson developed one that could withstand 20 times as many bends, at a lower cost.

“We’re just starting to get a tidal wave now,” he says of the product line’s sales.

The idea for weather-resistant cable markers? While most people are just realizing that they are being offered cable service by two, three or even four different companies, Thompson saw this coming. He also foresaw a potential problem when the cable repair workers climb a pole to find several indistinguishable cables.

The solution? Weather-resistant markers. That idea was confirmed recently when the largest cable company in the U.S. placed an 80,000-piece order.

Thompson describes his business philosophy with one word: Opportunist. But not in the negative sense, he assures. He just jumps on every opportunity that presents itself.

“You hear the adage all the time, ‘When opportunity knocks, you’ve got to get up and answer the door,’” he says. “I contend that you better stay in the starting blocks, coiled tight, ready to spring forward to answer the door first. It’s not just enough to have an opportunity and walk to the door. You’ve got to be there first.”

The next opportunity Thompson is planning to take advantage of is a climb to the top of Mt. Everest. Like everything else, he must jump on this opportunity fast, because it’s illegal to climb the mountain past age 65.

But even as he nears that cut-off age, in true Thompson fashion, he is planning a 100-mile run to the base of the mountain first.

How to reach: PlastiCards, (330) 896-5555