Connie Swenson

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 li ke 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 09:50

Breaking barriers

Karen Brown, president of DataNow Corp., has made a name for herself by breaking the mold. “We don’t really go by old models or old ideas because the industry that we’re in is not an old industry,” she says. “So generally, we look at everything fresh, including new innovations and creative ways to use older things, too.”

Brown has subscribed to that philosophy from Day One. She founded the business, which specializes in electronic workflow solutions, out of her home in 1992. As she added employees over the years, she found that she could tap into a wider and better-qualified pool of job candidates if she completely disregarded where they were located.

“It actually happened by default rather than design,” she says. “When I decided to expand my staff, the virtual office had already been working for me for years, and we decided to try it in an expanded version and it worked really well.”

Now, with 20 employees, DataNow still has no offices. All employees work out of their homes, and interact with customers and other employees via e-mail and the Internet. Staff meetings are conducted over the company’s intranet.

With today’s shortage of good tech people, Brown uses programmers as far away as New Zealand, most of whom specialize in Lotus Notes and Java. “On certain projects, it’s just as seamless to the customer as using someone who’s entirely local,” she says.

In England and New Zealand, Brown says, the technology job market is flooded with Asians and Russians who will program more cheaply than their counterparts in this country. Because of the competition, she says good programmers often look to make money outside of those countries, which creates a great opportunity for U.S. companies with virtual offices.

Brown is able to give her employees the freedom to think creatively by avoiding traditional job descriptions when they are hired.

“Generally, when we hire someone, instead of saying, ‘This is our definition of this job,’ we talk to the person and find out where they will bring value to the company and what makes them happy,” she says. “We try to tailor each job to the individual person’s skills. If we like somebody, we’ll make a job for them that fits.”

This month, Brown will break another rule, this time one of her own. She’s opening a physical office in Barberton, “a think tank place for developers,” she says.

While she won’t require employees to work out of the office, she says it will provide a place for people to work collaboratively, when necessary. “We decided that we were getting better results out of our developers when they could work in teams. It’s going to be interesting to see what they come up with.”

So far, Brown’s strategy seems to be working. DataNow has been recognized in its industry as a finalist in the Lotus Beacon Awards for the last two years. Brown has been selected as a regional finalist in the 1999 Working Woman Entrepreneurial Excellence Awards in the Innovative Approaches category.

How to reach: DataNow, (330) 645-1255

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:48

Getting around the job glut

One of the most hotly debated issues facing technology companies today is whether to buy or to make.

The question doesn’t refer to products, but to people. Employment demands in the IT industry are growing six times faster than the overall job rate, according to a federal government report released in June.

Employers still haven’t agreed on whether it’s better to pay top-dollar to get the perfect skill set to fill an IT position, or to make the investment in training a current employee or not-so-perfectly-matched candidate to fill the position.

Employers on the “buy” side of the debate say the short life cycles of technology products and applications make it nearly impossible to invest time into training. In addition, companies that do invest in training IT skills could be encouraging their competition to steal their employees before the investment has paid off.

One local technology company, The Anderson Group, has found its own solution. While owners A.J. and Barbara Vasaris admit they still almost always have open IT positions, they say they have an easier time finding candidates because they value other skills and attributes — such as culture, personality and business acumen — as highly as tech skills.

The Vasaris’ hiring philosophy is based on personal experience — and success. Neither worked in the technology industry before starting The Anderson Group, which designs and implements computer network systems. Barbara Vasaris started the company in 1987 as a bookkeeping service, and A.J. came to the business with a background in construction project management. Both are self-taught in the areas their company specializes in, fueled by a strong appreciation of how technology can assist in almost any business project.

The Anderson Group has since grown to $2 million in sales and 27 employees. With sales projected at $20 in four years, finding technology candidates will probably continue to be one of the Vasaris’ biggest concerns.

A.J. Vasaris says a candidate who fits the company’s culture is more than 50 percent of the way there.

“We painstakingly go through a process when we hire,” he says. For one, every employee meets the candidate, and the candidate is scored higher on his or her personality than on his or her technology skills.

Vasaris says the scrupulous process reduces turnover. Finding employees who fit into the company’s culture to begin with cuts the risk of employees being lured away by a better offer.

Vasaris adds that any lack of tech skills is made up for through the training the company offers. Not only does The Anderson Group bring in experts for group training, but its facility houses an experimental area, called “the sandbox,” where employees are encouraged to spend time “playing” with the latest in computers and software.

In addition, teaching business skills is just as important as technology skills.

“We’re trying to instill in everyone the business aspect,” he says. He wants every employee to know the answer when a client asks, “What’s the return on my investment?”

[They have to] “understand how to justify spending millions on services and equipment and software,” he says.

There’s one more benefit in not placing a high value on a candidate’s tech skills, Vasaris adds.

“They’re not a bunch of geeks ... That’s one competitive advantage.”

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

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:47

A cause worth sticking with

Tony Szambecki minces no words when he talks about his philosophy on community service.

“If you’re going to be in business in a community, if you’re going to live there yourself, you need to be involved.”

Szambecki is the co-founder of Hallrich Inc., a Kent-based company that owns and manages 79 Pizza Hut restaurants in Northeast Ohio. Twenty years ago, he and co-owner Scott Richie decided to focus their charitable efforts on children, and they’ve been doing that ever since.

“There was no master plan,” Szambecki says. “There were a lot of people asking us for time and money and we had to decide some way to filter through [the requests] to decide who we were and who we weren’t going to support.”

After the group agreed that the company should not get involved in politics or religion, children’s needs just seemed like the logical answer.

Szambecki says Hallrich’s first contributions were in the form of local Little League sponsorships. Today, it donates $400,000 a year in product giveaways to the Book It! program alone — just one of several programs it sponsors.

The program, which was started by Pizza Hut nationally, awards students with free Personal Pan Pizza certificates for reaching reading goals determined by their teachers.

Hallrich also helped develop the Pizza Passport program, now offered nationwide through the Pizza Hut system. Pizza Hut donates “free pizza” cards to schools, which sell them for $10 to $12. The schools keep half of the money, and the other half goes to American Shores Enterprises, the company that runs the program. Szambecki estimates that Hallrich’s Pizza Huts have helped raise $1.7 million for Northeast Ohio schools through that program.

Although those large programs are successful, Hallrich doesn’t ignore the smaller requests that gave the company its philanthropic roots.

“Most contributions we do are $300, $500, $1,500,” Szambecki says, listing purchases such as school band and Little League uniforms.

Hallrich has also loaned its corporate offices out for evening phone solicitation campaigns.

“There are things you can do that don’t cost money,” Szambecki advises. Most importantly, “Take a step,” he says.

One of the unique aspects of Hallrich’s philanthropic efforts is that most of the money is not raised through employee donations. That is not to say Hallrich employees don’t support, and learn from, those programs. It’s just that most Pizza Hut employees are too young to be in a position to give away part of their wages.

“It’s not a period in their lives where [they’re] very charitably-inclined,” Szambecki says. Instead, he hopes the company is setting an example for its young employees, one that stays with them throughout their careers.

“Most people don’t understand business and they think it’s an evil thing if you’re successful ,” Szambecki says. “They assume you’re cheating and that’s absolutely wrong. There are good people and bad people in all walks of life and in all businesses ... That’s what we try to impart in the people who work for us.”

How to reach: Hallrich Inc., (330) 678-0684

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

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:47

Room to grow

At 16, Landmark Plastics would be considered a teen-ager — especially in an industry in which many companies are entering their third century. Still, with 200 employees, Landmark is certainly a contender.

Bob Merzweiler, a CPA, started Landmark in 1984 with his father, who retired soon after following a career working in many different plastics businesses. At the time, the two saw a opportunity in making packaging products for the greenhouse industry, based on the large concentration of greenhouse growers in the Ohio and Michigan areas.

Landmark’s early years gave the company a jump-start in the industry, says Merzweiler, president and CEO. “The greenhouse industry was going through a very rapid growth at the time, because the Kmarts and Wal-Marts of the world were expanding rapidly and adding garden centers.”

Landmark uses two manufacturing processes: injection molding, which is how its hanging baskets and pots are manufactured; and thermo-forming, which is how the annual flower packs and trays are produced.

Merzweiler won’t disclose sales figures for the privately held company, which moved into a new 225,000-square-foot facility near the Rubber Bowl four years ago.

Because Landmark manufactures and markets its own product line (as opposed to a piece of another company’s product), it has not faced many of the competitive hurdles that its peers in the plastics industry have, Merzweiler says. In addition, it’s had the rare good luck of having almost no foreign competition and very little local competition.

Still, being part of an industry with such a strong foothold in the area has not gone unnoticed by Merzweiler.

“We have a lot of support services available to us that you probably wouldn’t have in a lot of other areas,” he says. Merzweiler says that the number of resources available in the area not only entered into his decision to create the business, but that Landmark frequently leans on local programs for personnel training and technical assistance.

“If you require assistance with machinery maintenance, there are people that supply parts and work on them here. There are [also] people in machining businesses that can assist in making tooling, and a lot of other resources in terms of training programs geared toward plastics.”

Landmark uses training programs offered by the University of Akron for both its management and hands-on processors, and the company has enrolled employees in programs offered by the local office of the National Tooling Institute. In addition, Merzweiler helped found the Polymer Processor Association, a statewide organization based in Akron, and is on the national board of the Society of the Plastics Industry.

“From those opportunities, you get a pretty broad insight into what’s going on within the industry in general,” he says. “The national group views Ohio as No. 1 in the country in plastics processing. A lot of people refer to this area as the Polymer Valley.

“I would agree that it is, and I don’t see anything that’s going to change that.”

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

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:44

Fast ride

When Michael Conny started MAC Trailer Manufacturing in 1992 with an $8,000 loan from his parents, he was sure of one thing: He wanted to be independent.

After spending the last 10 years out of high school working for other trailer manufacturers, he realized there were things — a lot of things — he could do better. What he didn’t know was that the more success and independence he achieved, the less he could leave those other companies in his industry behind.

Over the last eight years, Conny has build MAC Trailer in Alliance into a $60 million company. He expects revenues to reach $75 million this year.

Conny started MAC Trailer in a single bay garage in Alliance. Repairing trailers in the garage, and using an outhouse as a sales office, he grew the company to $700,000 in sales within a year and a half.

In 1995, armed with a $50,000 loan from the City of Alliance and the Stark Development Board, Conny built a 12,000-square-foot facility at his present location, on Commerce Street in Alliance and expanded his business from just repairing trailers to also building them from scratch. He made his last payment on that loan earlier this year.

Before his first expansion was completed, Conny started to plan his second. By the end of 1995, less than three years after starting the company, sales had reached $3.5 million and MAC employed 35 people.

“It was a snowball and it rolled in the right direction, building momentum,” Conny says of his early growth. “I had no idea that it was going to do that. Every time I built an addition, I wouldn’t think to look for the next addition — which cost us a great deal to build again, because I would have to do things three times.”

When he finally faced the growth potential that his industry held, he started to plan his expansions. After his fourth expansion, he started looking ahead.

“In 1998, my eyes opened to how big a market I was really in, and how far I could take this business.”

That year, Conny purchased 20 acres near his facility. Twenty of those are undeveloped, leaving MAC with plenty of room to grow.

“I didn’t want to let it slip away from me,” he says. “As long as the economy holds up, we’ll be here for the next rise in the economy also.”

As MAC grew at such a phenomenal rate, Conny realized people were paying attention to his company.

He has maintained an open policy when it comes to talking about his company. He has divulged his private company’s sales figures to the local and trade media, and in the applications for awards of achievement he has won. (He was a 1999 finalist in the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year competition.) But the public recognition of his success has brought with it another form of recognition, from his industry.

“When you’re open about your business, it’s a double-edged sword,” he says. “The people who want to create a problem for you are more aware of what you’re doing. But to get growth and attract good people, you have to be in the public eye. I’m struggling with that.”

One of his recent struggles involved $2.8 billion Mack Trucks, a subsidiary of Renault of France, which manufactures and distributes heavy-duty trucks and truck component parts.

While Conny has agreed not to discuss the case, according to a complaint filed in September 1999, the counsel for Mack Trucks sent a letter to MAC Trailer in late 1998, charging MAC with trademark infringement.

MAC Trailer states in the complaint that Mack Trucks had been aware of MAC’s existence for at least four years prior to the letter, primarily through meetings at truck shows, where both companies were exhibitors.

But it wasn’t until September 1998 (the year MAC’s sales grew to about $30 million) that Mack Trucks sent the letter, charging MAC with using “virtually the identical mark on such closely related and complementary goods as trailers.”

Conny’s attorneys responded to Mack by explaining in a letter that not only are the two names spelled differently, but MAC is a supplier of trailers and Mack is a supplier of trucks. Three months later, in December 1998, Mack Trucks sent another letter to MAC, stating that “the only acceptable resolution from our point of view is a complete cessation of use of MAC in any form ... ”

MAC responded by filing suit against Mack Trucks for a “declaratory judgment.” In other words, says patent and trademark attorney Roger Emerson, who is not affiliated with the case, “He (Conny) may have just gone into court and said, ‘I’m getting threatened for something I don’t think I did and I need you to step in here and adjudicate this’ — basically to decide this ahead of time.”

The court didn’t have to rule, because the two parties reached a settlement agreement after Mack Trucks responded to MAC’s complaint with a countersuit. Although Conny can’t discuss the case, he did confirm that the companies had reached a settlement, and MAC Trailer will not change its name.

“All I am permitted to say about this is that we will continue to keep the MAC name,” he says. “It’s been a great drag for a year and a half.”

Just as the copyright infringement case reinforced the importance of having good legal support, four IRS audits that MAC was hit with last year reminded Conny how valuable his accountants are.

“Listen to the team that surrounds you, from assistants to professional people,” Conny advises. “When you find out you can trust the team that surrounds you, use everybody’s opinions and knowledge as a group. Don’t think that your idea is the best idea. I think that’s been part of my success.”

The lawsuit and audits are also signs that Conny’s job has changed. As MAC pushes the $75 million mark, Conny is no longer the president of a small company.

“Before, when I grew the company to $40-$50 million in sales, I was on top of everything,” he says. “I no longer can be on top of every single thing going on in my company, and that’s something that, as an entrepreneur, you don’t see coming.”

Conny says it’s critical that he surround himself with competent, loyal people, especially now that he is being pulled further from the day-to-day operations .

“There’s a lot of people and a lot of things that take a swing at you,” he says. “In preparing to go to the next level of business, in order to grow any more, I have to make sure I have the right people around me. It’s more important now than ever.”

The right people for Conny now are the same people who were there in the beginning. Conny still relies on the managers he hired when MAC was doing about $1.5 million in sales. MAC’s vice presidents, Steve Taylor, materials and Joe Dennis, sales, and MAC’s corporate vice president, James Maiorana, were hired in 1994. Controller Robin Ward was brought on in 1995.

Maiorana was hired as a plant manager in 1994 to oversee a staff of 10. The former night shift foreman for Trail Star Manufacturing is now managing a staff of 400, but you wouldn’t know it from his modesty.

Our success “came from a bunch of good people working hard, building a good product, standing behind the product and taking care of the customer,” Maiorana says. “Really, all we did was get up and come to work every day. It’s really seemed pretty easy.”

How to reach: MAC Trailer Manufacturing, (330) 823-9900

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

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:39

Planning ahead

They said he couldn’t do it.

That was nearly five years ago, and he’s clearly proven them wrong. Today, PlanSoft President Edward Tromczynski owns one of the rare dot-com companies that is actually making money.

Tromczynski attributes PlanSoft’s success record to two aspects of the business that set it apart from the Internet crowd: the tools on the site, such as calculators, search engines and budgeting modules; and the fact that PlanSoft is not waiting for customers.

The company, which employs 150 people, designs, develops and markets Internet-based e-commerce applications for the convention and meeting industry. The business was founded by Tromczynski and Bruce Harris and incorporated in 1996. Both partners came from Conferon Inc., the company Harris founded in 1971, which provides services for managing large meetings and conventions.

To date, the partners have secured more than $46 million in funding for PlanSoft, through both strategic and venture capital investors.

PlanSoft markets two main products — its Web site (www.plansoft.com) and Ajenis event planning software. The products join meeting planners with hospitality service providers, making the process much more efficient for the planner.

Both sides of the market (the planners and providers) are also equity owners in the company. The two largest meeting professionals associations (the American Society of Association Executives and Meeting Professionals International) and three of the largest hotel chains (Hyatt Hotels, Marriott and Starwood Hotels & Resorts) own stock in the company. Hence, PlanSoft doesn’t have to wait for customers, because its customers are its owners.

“Many of the business-to-consumer or business-to-business sites take the stance of, ‘If they build it, they will come,’” explains Tromczynski. “In our case, it’s the guys that are building it who are coming. They’re much more committed.”

Tromczynski adds that having equity owners on both sides of the market is helping the company overcome some of the challenges that dot-coms face today. And as it prepares for a public offering early next year, that position can only be beneficial.

“All these tech stocks are going up and down right now,” he says. “A lot of them are you and I creating shoe.com and hoping consumers come and buy shoes on the Web. All those stocks are having trouble. On the business-to-business front, where people are trying to match buyers to sellers without any equity ownership to those parties — they’re really struggling too.

“We have both the buyers and seller who own pieces of our company.”

While he says the company is targeting the first quarter of 2001 for its IPO, it is in an enviable position of being flexible on the date.

“There’s a lot of companies who can tell you their cash runs out before they can get to the public market, or they barely get there and find themselves trying to change their company into a public company, but they don’t have the money to do it,” he says.

Fortunately, PlanSoft has a strong enough cash flow that it can wait for the right market conditions.

As of last month, plansoft.com attracts about 85,000 user sessions each month, people logging on and actually doing business. When you consider that most of those sessions result in the purchase of a couple hundred thousand dollars worth of products or services, the numbers are impressive, even if the revenue is a small piece of that pie.

“We thought early on one of the ways we can keep these very committed people using our Web site is to bring them tools,” Tromczynski says. “And now we’re starting to reap that.

“A lot of people haven’t done that. They’ve built an advertising model, they have a lot of good information you can read, they have some community activities, but they don’t have tools.” How to reach: PlanSoft, (330) 405-5555 or www.plansoft.com

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

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:38

Tangier Restaurant & Cabaret

Ed George started working in the restaurant business when he was 15. At the time, his father owned a small restaurant called Tangier on East Market Street.

Growing up, George worked every position there, from busboy to coat-room clerk. When he graduated from college in 1963, he began to take over the operation (now relocated to West Market Street).

Over the last 40 years, George has watched many transformations of Tangier's customer base and has expanded and changed his venue throughout the years to keep up with those changing lifestyles. As he candidly points out, "It's really a tough business to be consistent at, but we're going to keep trying."

He's now in the process of leading his Akron landmark, known for big steaks, late-night parties and glitzy Middle Eastern décor, into a new, more reserved era.

When you took over your father's restaurant in 1963, what was your primary mission?

When you're in the restaurant business, I don't think you're trying to achieve a great wealth. All of us in this industry get a great satisfaction out of a satisfied customer. That's the thing that attracts us to the business. I think the more that you make people happy, and the more people that have a great experience in your restaurant, the more you want to continue being in the business and expanding.

In the end, of course, it becomes a profit thing. You have to make money at it. But there are easier ways to make money than being in the restaurant business, because one of the hazards of our business is that you have to continually reinvest your money back into the business. It's a labor of love to be in this business.

When did you finally feel that you had things under control, and that you were truly running a successful operation?

We were such a small restaurant that we were busy all the time. Then we had a great demand for banquets, and we didn't have any banquet rooms. So in 1965, we made the existing restaurant a banquet room, and then we bought quite a few homes in the area, and knocked them down to expand our restaurant.

Have you ever thought that you overexpanded, or have you always been able to utilize the space?

In '65, we didn't overexpand. Because then banquet space was so much in demand, that in '75, we did the expansion that exists now -- when we built the entertainment room and we built the other banquet rooms. That all came from demand.

We needed more entertainment space, we needed more banquet space and we needed a larger dining space. Would you build this many square feet today? I think you would if you were going to be a banquet center. In dining, I really don't think you need this much space today.

Has the demand for banquets decreased?

The demand doesn't decrease. You just have to be more aggressive and keep people aware that you have the facilities. When you've been around as long as we have, you have a different, changing consumer, and as your customers retire and move, you have a different consumer.

You have to do better marketing, better PR, and give a little more attention to your customer today. The toughest thing we're all fighting in the industry today is the tight labor market. And the toughest thing to find today is good service.

How has your typical customer changed?

How has everybody changed! No. 1, smoking has changed. Drinking has changed. Drinking and driving has changed. Health has become a big issue. They've all become factors in our business which all of us have had to deal with.

When Tangier was packed all the time, it was until 2:30 in the morning. Those times have changed. People weren't concerned in those days as much about their health. Nobody knew what high cholesterol was. It was just good. People have more awareness today.

How have you kept up with those changes?

A lot of our Mediterranean foods fit into the health mode. There are a lot of vegetarians today, but on the other hand, you have the other people who are coming back to steak again, as you see all the steak houses being rejuvenated. Steak will never go away.

How have you compensated for a decline in alcohol consumption, and for people not staying out as late?

That's why we book entertainment. Usually when people go out to see entertainment, there are more alcohol sales. The alcohol sales have decreased in the more responsible part of the population, people who have families or are a little older.

But if I took you to some of the younger joints in town, you wouldn't think alcohol consumption has dropped. Maybe it's dropped in the way that instead of having five martinis, people will have a bottle of wine. They still drink, it's what they drink. There's much more wine, much more beer.

Tangier is again about to go through a major transformation. Can you share any of those plans, and how they will accommodate today's consumer?

We're such a destination location. That's why entertainment does so well here, and that's why banquets do so well. You come here because there's a reason to come here. What we're trying to do is become a little bit more casual, and have more of a fresh look. More Middle Eastern foods, but a little less of the look we have.

People like brighter places today -- more outside light. I'm going to use some of my facilities in a different way, but exactly how, I'm not sure yet.

What advice would you give someone today who was starting a restaurant?

You're nuts. You have to either love it or hate it. There's no middle ground in our business. I was single until I was 45, and people ask why. Well, how the hell can you get married when you're here morning until night? You walk to your car at 3 in the morning. Nobody wants you. You're never at a family function; you're never at Thanksgiving; you're never at Easter. Now I realize what a tough business I'm in. I just happen to love the business. How to reach: Tangier Restaurant & Cabaret, (330) 376-7171

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

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:37

Games people play

We've all heard the stories about the company with the basketball court in the lobby. No one's quite sure which company that is, or where it is, but we've all heard the rumors.

"It's an ad agency," one of my co-workers remembers.

Anyway, the point is, the idea of playing basketball at work is not as far-fetched today as it was when that story first started circulating. Today, ask CEOs of growing companies how they "play" at work, and most will be able to come up with their own version of a game.

That's one of the influences that Internet companies have had on business. While the jury's still out on the effect of casual dress days, there's a reason that successful companies today have to inject fun into their workplaces.

Walk into Fairlawn's DigitalDay, and you'll be hard-pressed to find an employee sitting at a desk, in a cubicle, "working" in a traditional manner. I've been to its offices a couple of times over the last few months, and I've observed employees having creative discussions while lying on couches, eating and walking outside.

As I was talking to founder Howard Cleveland a couple of weeks ago, he looked outside his window and spotted two employees strolling through the grass on a beautiful August day. He smiled. It seems he actually likes to see that.

"They're working right now," he offers. (I didn't ask. I figured they were.)

Cleveland also gives his CGO (chief grocery officer) $500 every week to shop for the staff of about 90 employees.

"That's a lot of cheese doodles," he points out.

While almost every restaurant you can think of is within a quarter-mile walk from the company's new Fairlawn headquarters, employees rarely leave for lunch, Cleveland says.

"People like to stay here and they collaborate when they eat."

Suddenly that $500 doesn't sound like all that much money. I begin to think: 90 employees times five lunch hours. He's getting 450 hours of collaboration for $500.

In Canton, at Realty Executives' headquarters, visitors are greeted by a talking plant. The Realtors (don't call them employees, Fran Drennan warns) have monthly birthday parties, picnics and holiday celebrations.

Why is it necessary to have fun at work today? There are two reasons. One, with the unemployment rate at an all-time low, employees know they can walk at just about any time, and two, as Cleveland says, if people love their work, they're going to want to work; if they hate it, they're not going to produce. It's that simple. Connie Swenson (cswenson@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:35

A time to heal

Bill Crocker is mad. After 29 years in the restaurant industry, he is forced -- again -- to rebuild his reputation, damaged this time by an event that lasted only a few short minutes.

On Aug. 5, a man entered Crocker's Restaurant in Cuyahoga Falls and pumped three bullets into Crocker's chef, Mark Burton, in plain view of a crowded room of Saturday night diners. Fredrick Nelson, who is on trial for a death penalty charge of aggravated murder, then scalped his victim before fleeing across the Ohio border into Pennsylvania, where he was arrested by a Pennsylvania state officer.

Now Crocker is trying to recover. Again.

"It happens a lot of places, but you never think it's going to happen to you. Then, it happens right beneath your nose," Crocker says. "There was a lot of grief early, then there was madness. I got mad that the restaurant was victimized ... and the staff members who work here were victimized, and that the customers who were here were victimized.

"Crocker's is a neighborhood restaurant. The majority of these people were hurt by this incident. This is where they bring their family, their children. People were hurt by this."

Crocker is no stranger to adversity. Between 1979 and 1993, he owned, and then lost due to financial difficulties, three popular Akron-area restaurants: Bill Crocker's Restaurant, Starboard Tack and Billy's.

Five years ago, he started over, opening his newest venture, Crocker's Restaurant, in Cuyahoga Falls, turning it into a profitable, family-oriented, neighborhood establishment. Two years ago, he reached his million-dollar sales goal -- "a key goal that I had hoped for" -- primarily by building a loyal local customer base.

Crocker, who is known to greet his customers at the door with a towel draped over his shoulder, works every shift except Mondays.

"If you're going to put your name on the sign, people expect your presence," he says, even if his presence there keeps him away from his wife and family, which includes a 1-year-old son.

Crocker still does this, knowing that owning several restaurants, or even one higher-volume restaurant, would allow him to hire a layer of management that would give him the freedom not to have to work five days a week. But he has no desire to try to bring back the old days.

"I was a horrible administrator of three businesses," he says frankly. "I wouldn't let go of control of things. I went from being totally adequate to totally inadequate. When you administer three businesses, you start to lose contact with the customer."

His attorney and friend, Bob Meeker, knows that Crocker's trump card is his presence.

"Bill Crocker is his own best public relations firm, and his own best image maker," Meeker says. "He has his own little brand of charisma -- and he draws people for that reason."

It might just be that charisma that ultimately helps him overcome the August tragedy.

Within a day of the incident, Crocker was bombarded with phone calls and cards from peers consoling, sympathizing, and most important, advising.

"I received input from other people who have had the same experiences, who actually called me on the phone and said, 'Look, I just want you to know how long it took us to get back on our feet,'" Crocker says.

He says that someone even called from The Cathedral Buffet, which had a hauntingly similar experience several years ago.

"Universally, most of them said, 'Just keep doing what you're doing on a daily basis. And don't do anything too terribly different," he says.

Crocker followed that advice when the restaurant reopened the following weekend. He cleared his calendar of all off-site meetings and made sure he was at the door to greet every customer, at every meal, for the next two weeks.

"I thought that I would be the best person to respond to any kind of thing anyone would ask -- until I felt as though we were settled down a little bit," he says.

Meeker agrees that it will be Crocker's personal attention to the business that will allow him to overcome the recent setback.

"He's been bearing down on this issue of re-establishing the business, and we've been watching closely as it builds back," he says. "I'm sure it's going to build back."

Crocker's customers weren't his only concern. He also had to address the reactions of his employees, especially those who had witnessed the event.

"I could tell from the reaction of the employees who were there that night that it would be extremely important that they get some help, as soon as he could arrange it," Meeker recalls.

While Crocker admits "it wasn't the first thing I thought of when this happened," at the advice of his attorney, he set up a crisis intervention program for employees the following Tuesday.

Even though the session wasn't mandatory, every employee showed up.

The counseling session was run by the Victim's Assistance Program of Akron, a private, nonprofit social service organization founded in 1972. The center, which is funded through grants from private foundations and contracts from the cities of Akron and Cuyahoga Falls, is barely known, yet assisted nearly 20,000 people last year.

"The business community's last thought on their mind is for a tragedy to reach the workplace," says Katy Lehner, assistant director, and the licensed social worker who worked with Crocker's employees. "But when it does, and when that happens, they're at a loss."

Lehner ran a one-day program for Crocker's employees that followed the same model used for the victims of the Columbine High School shootings and for the employees in the federal building bombing in Oklahoma City.

"The main goal is to allow the victims and the witnesses an opportunity to ventilate and to process what has happened," she says. "A lot of times, an event happens, life goes on, and that's it. Our goal is to go in there and educate them on crisis reaction. When someone experiences a crisis, they're going to have a normal reaction to a very abnormal event."

Lehner says that an event like the shooting at Crocker's is not something most people are ever going to experience.

"So people that haven't been through something like this aren't going to be prepared for the reactions that follow," she says.

Lehner set up the program for Crocker's employees around four key questions: What were your reactions? How did you respond? How are you responding now? How do you see yourself responding in the future?

"When someone is the victim of a shooting or something like this, what you often find is that your senses just pop in," she says. "Things might be sticking out in your mind, like 'I can't get the smell of blood out of my nose,' or 'Any time I hear a car backfire, I think something's happening again,' or 'All I heard was people screaming -- complete chaos.'"

She says that the goal of the session is to walk people through the experience and their reactions, to prevent post-traumatic stress.

"To go into a group setting and hear that other people have experienced the same things really helps to validate that 'No, I'm not going crazy. Everything that I'm experiencing is perfectly normal,'" she says.

Meeker says that addressing the aftermath immediately will work in Crocker's favor. He should know. In the '80s, Meeker owned The Balch Street Athletic Club, which he has since sold to the city and the county.

When he owned the club, a man accidentally drowned in the swimming pool.

"It was always my worst fear," he recalls.

He quickly made the decision to close the pool, empty it, acid wash it, then renovate it. Soon after, the coroner found that the drowning victim had the AIDS virus. But because of Meeker's swift reaction to the incident, it didn't affect his business.

"My members really appreciated how I had handled it," he recalls. "It didn't affect my membership at all, because I took immediate action."

Three months later, Crocker is still working to build back the business volume he had before the incident. He has moved an assistant chef into Mark Burton's position and continues to work every shift except Mondays, greeting as many customers as he can.

And while business is still down, he has no plans to give up.

"After 29 years of working weekends and nights, magnified by the fact that I have a 1-year-old son at home and my wife would like me to be home more, it's probably getting to me a little more right now than it ever has," he admits. "But I've made my own bed here."

In fact, he is moving forward with plans to buy his building on Front Street.

"For us to be visible and to start to heal and move on is important," he says. "I know that's the way Mark would have wanted it. Mark loved the restaurant business, he had such a passion for it. He lived it, walked it, talked it in his professional life.

"He would have wanted us to do exactly what we're doing." Connie Swenson (cswenson@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN.


A lesson learned?

A police investigation concluded that the wife of the alleged murderer, one of Crocker's waitresses, was having an affair with the victim, Mark Burton.

So, the age-old dilemma comes to bear, once again: How do you separate work and personal lives? And can an employer enforce a separation policy?

"From a business standpoint, many businesses have a policy that people that work in the business are not permitted to date," says attorney Bob Meeker. "Some places don't even let married people work at the same establishment."

Meeker says that while the concept is a good one, he's not sure of the legality of regulating it.

"You could say policywise that you would ask your staff not to socialize where they work, but it falls on deaf ears," says Bill Crocker. "It seems that the nature of this business is that people have the tendency to socialize. When the business closes at midnight or 1 a.m., there's not a lot of choices."

Crocker has made it a personal policy not to socialize with employees after hours, but doesn't think it's something he can enforce across the board. He and Meeker agree that, for now, it may just have to be a decision each employee makes.

"This is a really good lesson for us all," Meeker says, "but particularly for the Crocker's workers who have had to go through this: Why it's important to have your personal life in control, and not coming into the workplace.

"It's a tough lesson for us all to learn."