Joan Wall

Monday, 31 December 2001 07:17

Granting authority

When you've tapped out your U.S. market, where will you go?

Judy Huang, president of 889 Global Solutions Ltd., takes her clients to China.

Patrick Callahan, president of Globid LLC, consults clients in increasing export sales.

The two are among business owners nationwide fighting to improve the United States' international trade by pushing support for the Trade Promotion Authority bill.

The TPA, passed in December by one vote in the U.S. House and yet to be heard in the Senate, would allow the president to have more authority to discuss trade agreements.

"Ohio is an export-dependent state," says Dana Smith of DBS Consulting, a public affairs consultant who does work for the Ohio Alliance for International Trade, of which Huang is a member. "In fact, last year, Ohio sold more than $29 billion worth of exports to more than 200 foreign markets."

A compromise, bipartisan version of the bill includes objectives addressing labor and environment issues and improves consultations between the Administration and Congress. Congress would retain the right to approve or reject, but not amend, trade pacts made by the president.

The TPA, supporters say, will open new markets worldwide to American goods and services, boosting the economy, providing job security for Americans whose work depends on exports and encouraging entrepreneurship. It also levels the playing field by removing trade and investment barriers that have hindered American exports.

"It reduces tariffs and makes the relationship between the two countries much easier," says Huang, who has been meeting with members of Congress to show her support for the bill.

The TPA, however, has met with heated opposition, which has been exacerbated by the Sept. 11 events.

The United Auto Workers union, for example, took out full-page ads to oppose the TPA, often referred to as the Fast Track legislation because of its name when it was in effect from 1974 until it expired during the Clinton administration.

"It does nothing to enforce core labor standards like preventing child and prison labor. It does nothing to protect our environment," the ad says, outlining jobs lost and trade deficits since the implementation of NAFTA seven years ago.

"It's a bad time to threaten American job security," the ad points out, referring to the war on terrorism.

At ExhibitPro in Columbus, Mike Kurilec's domestic trade show business was impacted by the terrorism, but his international clients, who make up about 10 percent of the company's business, were unfazed.

"We have one client that does a lot of work in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. They were here the day after (Sept. 11) talking about a new exhibit going over there. Terrorism for them is just part of life, being on guard," he says.

Despite the terrorism threat, Callahan says, international trade supporters are undaunted in their efforts to increase trade.

"What I'm hearing is this is the time for American business people who have relationships overseas to strengthen those," he says, "to let everybody know we're here to do business and these recent events aren't going to stop us."

For more information about the Trade Promotion Authority, visit www.tpa.gov. To contact your U.S. representative or senator to voice your opinions on the bill, go to thomas.loc.gov and use the House and Senate directories for the 107th Congress. How to reach: Patrick Callahan, Globid Inc., 487-9617 or pcallahan@globid.com; Judy Huang, 889 Global Solutions Ltd., (614) 231-5531 or globalsolutions@columbus.rr.com; the Ohio Alliance for International Trade, Dana Smith, DBS Consulting, (614) 487-8155 or dbsmith@columbus.rr.com; United Auto Workers, www.uaw.org; U.S. Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., a sponsor of the TPA compromise bill, (202) 225-2915. For more information about international trade and the TPA, visit the Ohio Business Roundtable's site at www.gotrade.org.

Joan Slattery Wall is senior editor of SBN Magazine in Columbus.

Monday, 31 December 2001 07:04

Test yourself

Ross Products employees don't have to look far to see the nutritional company's customers.

Their pictures line the walls in the plants -- senior citizens, babies, even members of the employees' families.

"It's not too hard to understand who our customers are and the role we play in making it right for them," says James Hughes, divisional vice president for the company's Quality Center of Excellence for Nutritionals. "It's not like a light bulb doesn't work and you take it back. Our products are expected to work every time somebody uses them."

Quality, then, becomes the focus of Ross, a division of Abbott Laboratories that makes adult and infant nutritional formulas such as Ensure, Similac and Isomil.

"We measure quality in about 50 different ways," Hughes says.

From an Abbott-wide focus on consistency in quality to measuring and evaluating every minute detail of production, Ross' commitment has paid off.

For example, Hughes says, Ross receives tens of thousands of lots of supplies and raw materials from vendors in a year.

"Less than 2 percent of all the lots we get in the world have a problem where we wouldn't accept it," he says.

By constantly measuring production systems, Ross has reduced the chances of having variances outside process control limits by 76 percent.

"If you do it right the first time and reduce concerns out there, that reduces costs. You don't have to rework product, throw it away and get returns (from customers)," Hughes says. "People will say having the highest possible quality will cost you money, and we say having the highest possible quality will save you money."

To reach such success, Hughes says, Ross must ensure quality in every aspect of the company: management, employees, production and customers.

Management

"You have to have an organizational commitment to quality," Hughes says. "In general, that's just where everyone in the organization from top to bottom believes that quality is a key business strategy and thinks it's necessary for the success of the business."

In 1999, Abbott executives decided to centralize the company's quality functions. All seven of its divisions had quality structures and processes, but by creating a new corporate Quality Center of Excellence, the company could create initiatives to specialize in regulating quality in its three global lines of business: pharmaceuticals, medical devices and nutritional products.

Employees

Continuous training and employee involvement ensure quality through all facets of the organization.

"When someone asks, 'How many people do you have in your quality group?' I'm tempted to say 5,000 -- that's everybody in the company," Hughes says, adding that it takes well-trained, well-informed and well-motivated people to maintain quality.

"You've got to have a lot of eyes and ears out there to make sure if something does get caught, it's caught on the line and you fix it there," he says.

Employees were even involved in a contest to determine a slogan for the company's dedication to quality. Some 450 suggestions were made. The winner, "Quality is the cornerstone to excellence," came from an employee at the Alta Vista, Va., manufacturing facility and is now used on company stationery.

The company offers recognition, awards and gift certificates -- anywhere from $50 to a couple hundred dollars -- to employees for quality initiatives.

Production

"The sophistication that goes into our products and processes is for most people mind-boggling," Hughes says.

Ross conducts thousands of quality checks throughout the manufacturing process, done not just by quality center employees but by workers in the production plants.

Not only do you have to have tools to ensure quality, but you must measure the results to find out how you're doing, Hughes says.

Quality starts, of course, with the raw product, so Ross has a vendor certification process.

"We're very, very quality conscious to the point where people say it's tough doing business with us based on how tight we have our specifications," Hughes says.

Vendors, however, understand the importance of such strict rules, which include testing and regular routine audits of their facilities.

Greg Warner, senior vice president of research and development for St. Louis-based DuPont Protein Technologies International Inc., says in the more than 30 years his company has been a supplier for Ross, it has had to demonstrate its ability to deliver reliable, dependable soy protein on a consistent basis.

"Consumer products offered by Ross, including clinical nutrition and infant formula, are manufactured to some of the highest global standards," he says. "Because soy-based infant formula is used as the sole source of food for infants, what can be more important than getting that right?

"By focusing on achieving some of the highest quality infant formula ingredients, we were able to apply those lessons throughout our other soy protein applications through the years."

Customers

"Quality to our customers is basically trust," Hughes says, "because of the types of products we make. Our customers trust we're going to deliver those life-sustaining, life-saving products day in and day out."

The company prints an 800 number on its products so consumers can offer feedback and suggestions.

"If there's a problem out there, especially moms with kids, they're not bashful. They will call us," he says.

Common complaints, he says, used to be those regarding dented cans. As a result, the company developed plastic, recloseable containers.

Over the years, Ross has found, even as sales and production have increased, problems including returns from customers or discarded product due to mistakes have gone down.

"It wasn't always like that," he says. "If you increased your sales by X, your complaints were going to go up correspondingly."

Quality, Hughes says, must be incorporated into the culture of your organization.

"As much time and effort as we put into those areas, they can always be improved. That's the one thing you've got to realize, is it's a continuous improvement process itself," Hughes says of quality assurance. "You're never there." How to reach: James Hughes, Ross Products, 624-5441 or james.hughes@rossnutrition.com; Greg Warner, DuPont Protein Technologies, (314) 982-3196 or gwarner@protein.com. For more information about quality and product development at Ross, visit www.ross.com and click on "Quality Assurance."

Joan Slattery Wall(jwall@sbnnet.com) is senior editor of SBN Magazine in Columbus.

Monday, 31 December 2001 06:54

The business of war

They've seen it all before.

Today's terrorism war jitters are, in some ways, a repeat of history for Columbus area business founders who successfully made it through the second World War. Their memories of WWII are nearly overshadowed by the preceding Depression, and the nation's business climate and federal support made for a very different pre-war picture than we faced late last year.

The country was on the upswing after the Depression just before the war. After the war, the three, all members of Junior Achievement of Central Ohio's Business Hall of Fame, watched the country move into a recession.

Stick to it, they'd tell today's business executives. Everything will turn out fine in the end.

Fighting chances

Florence Zacks Melton, co-founder of R.G. Barry Corp., was a housewife with two small children before the war began. She and her husband had moved to Columbus in 1941, didn't have a car, had just closed a failing business and lived on Sheridan Avenue trying to pay off all the people to whom they owed money so they wouldn't end up in bankruptcy.

"As far as making a comparison (to today's war), you couldn't make much of a comparison because it was a quiet time," Melton says. "It was a time when everybody was focused on family, and there wasn't the thrust to get rich in those days. We lived more modestly and expected life to bring in a decent living. We all aspired to do better, naturally. It was the American way to think.

"Of course when the war broke out, that was a whole different story. The country unified and produced, and everybody worked."

That is, if they weren't called away from their jobs into service.

Ret. Maj. Gen. Ray Mason Jr., founder of Columbus Truck and Equipment Co., hadn't even received his diploma from The Ohio State University before he was called into duty to use the officer training he was receiving. He ended up in the Army's Fourth Armored Division during the war and continued military service until his retirement in 1976.

Back home, his father, a pioneer in the motor trucking business, had founded commercial Motor Freight and struggled with finding rubber to repair tires.

"When the war got cranked up, why, the people couldn't get new trucks or new automobiles and had to fix the old ones," he remembers.

"Once in a while, one of the letters from my wife would mention that they didn't or couldn't go here, there or other places because they didn't have enough gasoline or were trying to hang onto the tires. People in this country ate well and had clothing, had shoes and had transportation and were much better off than people in Europe were," he says, noting the homeland never really got 100 percent into the war and was never forced to make the sacrifices other countries did.

American businesses, however, did suffer from the shortage of skilled workers, who had been called into service.

"We lost a lot of employees, and it was hard to get replacements, too," says John F. Schoedinger, retired president of Schoedinger Funeral and Cremation Service. "Half of them weren't competent, but we had to take what we could get. I used to say if somebody walked by the front door that was warm, we'd go out and grab them by the arm. It was really hard to get qualified help. We just had to work double time."

The economy, nonetheless, picked up, he remembers. During the Depression, businesses had done a lot of work for no money to help people out. During the war, he says, they had no problems with collections.

When Mason returned from the war, he founded his own business in 1949, not realizing the country was on the verge of a recession. If he had known, he says, he might not have started the business, but it worked out fine.

"Most things work out to our benefit if we just stay with it," Mason says, "just keep punching."

Stick to the battle plan

Their experiences make these war-seasoned entrepreneurs more cautious in light of today's war and economy.

"I'm very concerned about the economy like everybody is," Schoedinger says, "and I'm trying to tell the younger ones not to be so elaborate and extravagant and try to cut down on their expenses personally and in the business. Sometimes we get carried away with expanding, I think, at the wrong time, which I think is right now.

"The Depression makes an impression on you. Of course, they don't want to hear about that."

As a housewife, Melton says, the stock market and economic situation never really entered her psyche. Now she looks at the stock market exchange listings every day and has firm opinions on what could change the economy.

"The only advice I can give is if we were not structured on the quarterly report and we would have investors who were willing to work with forward-looking merchants and forward-looking businesses that were creative and had a longer range of reporting, it would make some sense for anybody to go into business," she says.

"What's lacking today," she surmises, "is the understanding that profit in business is a two-way street, that you have to be willing to invest not just in the possibility of a quick buck. You have to have a long-range and clear vision and patience."

Mason says the way to get through a war or economic recession is to get back to basics.

"I think it's pretty simple. Most business guys, if they're on the ball and have any good business sense at all, you just buckle down and look for any efficiency, any improvement you can without losing sight of the fact of taking care of the customer. They'll come back," he says matter-of-factly. "We all have that lesson large and small to keep learning and keep doing it." How to reach: Florence Zacks Melton, R.G. Barry Corp., 864-6400; Ret. Maj. Gen. Ray Mason Jr., Columbus Truck and Equipment Co., 252-3111; John F. Schoedinger, Schoedinger Funeral and Cremation Service, 224-6105

Joan Slattery Wall (jwall@sbnnet.com) is senior editor of SBN Magazine in Columbus.

Thursday, 29 November 2001 06:16

Get noticed

You've probably heard a multitude of suggestions regarding how you should send your news releases to the media:

"Print it on bright pink paper. That'll get their attention."

"Send it in an 81/2 x 11 envelope. It's more noticeable than the standard business size."

"Include a gift or promotional item. They'll owe it to you to print your news."

From the horse's mouth, so to speak, let me tell you how we, at SBN in Columbus, at least, really want to receive releases.

1. Don't fret so much about presentation. Sure, bright pink is, coincidentally, my favorite color, and an odd-shaped box filled with goodies and your news release will pique my curiosity, but that has nothing to do with whether I'll print it.

We read all of the news releases we receive, whether they're dressed to kill or show up in Plain Jane attire. You can send it by fax, e-mail or U.S. mail. In fact, one of my few big wishes for news release senders is that they'd staple the pages together. We get hundreds of pieces of paper through our mail and fax each week, some of which inadvertently lose their way from the rest of their own pack.

2. What really matters about your release is the content. Get to the point. Don't bury your most exciting, most timely announcement by starting your news release with a history of your company.

If you want to include background information, attach it separately. It could even save us a phone call or help us notice another story idea about you.

3. Lose the jargon. You're an expert in your field, but others might not understand your lingo. An oft-used piece of advice: Tell it like you would to your mother.

4. Give perspective: How does this achievement compare to past achievements? Where does it place you nationally? Regionally? How do you stack up in your industry? Why or how did you do it?

5. Be precise. Don't assume we already know something about you, like your title or the location of your company. Don't forget to give dates, locations and deadlines where appropriate. And for heaven's sake, check spelling and titles. Your mistakes could end up in print.

6. If you include a picture, label it on the back. It's best to put the person's name, title, company and the date on a label and affix that to the back of the picture so you don't run the risk of ink seeping through and leaving a blotch on someone's nose.

A paper clip could mar a photo the same way. If you do clip the photo to the news release, be sure the news release is between the clip and the photo to protect it. We prefer color pictures, but we also can use black and white. Polaroids never reproduce well.

Don't be offended if you don't hear anything from us about your news until it's printed. There's no way humanly possible we could respond to each and every release we receive.

A final word of advice: Give us a name and phone number or e-mail address to contact. Don't let us miss out on your big story just because we couldn't get in touch with you for more information.

Tuesday, 30 October 2001 07:31

Reach for the sky

You just never know where you'll find your next customer.

For Utica-based Velvet Ice Cream Co. Inc., one came from high above the earth.

Well, not literally.

But a Delta Air Lines traveler from Arizona saw Velvet featured in the airline's Sky magazine and went home to visit Velvet virtually. After looking at the Web site, she decided she just had to try the company's sugar-free varieties -- all four of them, in fact.

''One of the girls came in and says, 'Mike we've got this lady from Arizona, and she wants us to ship some ice cream. What do I do?''' says Mike Dager, president and CEO of Velvet. ''I said, 'No. 1, take the order!'''

Velvet's feature in Sky magazine resulted from the work of Lee Esposito, principal of Lee Esposito Associates, a Columbus-based publicity firm.

It's not the first time Esposito's taken Velvet to the skies; in 2000, the company's Ye Olde Mill, where visitors can see ice cream being made and learn about its history, was featured in the in-flight magazines of Midway and America West.

The magazines suit Velvet's wishes to garner more national publicity.

''Let's face it, at 35,000 feet we have a captive audience,'' Esposito points out.

''In-flights are read, first of all, and what I liked about in-flights is they are designed to be kept. They are taken off the plane.''

Here are some of the tactics he used to get the company featured:

* Have a plan.

''There was a method to the madness,'' Esposito says of choosing Sky, ''and that was a prestigious in-flight magazine, with an airline where Columbus was on the route, where there was a section in the in-flight that did work for the client, and targeting certain months.''

Esposito also knew the magazine generally published toll-free phone numbers and Web sites in some of its features, and Velvet had both.

The article ran as Esposito hoped, in a summer month -- June, which also happened to be National Dairy Month. He also would have been happy with July, National Ice Cream Month.

* Don't give up.

Esposito spent nearly six months staying in contact with the editor of Sky's section called ''The Best,'' where he wanted the article placed.

It's a good thing, too. Initially, the information he mailed to Associate Editor Nancy Oakley was misplaced.

''He called back about the time I was preparing the June issue and suddenly a light bulb went off. He said, 'You can actually go to visit the place,''' remembers Oakley, who works for Greensboro, N.C.-based Pace Communications Inc., which publishes Sky and other in-flight magazines.

The idea fit two criteria of ''The Best'' features: Velvet was a travel destination -- not far, in fact, from Delta's hub in Cincinnati -- and an ice cream cone would be just the right vertical artwork that Oakley looks for in her ''The Best'' section, which suggests items to readers such as art museums to visit or hotel rooms to stay in.

''For this particular instance, I have to credit Lee Esposito,'' Oakley says. ''He was just persistent, but not in an annoying way at all, and timing had a lot to do with it.''

The resulting two-sentence piece, written by Sky, included Velvet's phone number and Web site after its blurb about the company:

''Chocolate, strawberry, butter pecan, black walnut and burgundy cherry are among the 500-odd flavors that Ohio's Velvet Ice Cream Company has manufactured over the years. You can watch the process, sample the wares and check out an ice-cream museum at Velvet's headquarters, a restored 19th-century mill in Utica, in -- where else? -- The Licking Valley.''

Esposito also issued a press release regarding the Arizona customer Velvet gained from the Sky publicity.

* Be flexible.

Esposito offered Sky magazine a product photograph to use with the text, but Oakley says because the magazine enlarges photos and uses them as silhouettes, she often has better luck sending the products directly to a photographer.

The designer wanted something colorful, so the first thought was to use sherbet. Dager nixed the idea, pointing out that sherbet crystallizes as it gets warm. Ice cream would stand up better to the photography studio lighting. In the end, Velvet shipped Mint Chocolate Chip, Butter Pecan and Cashew, and Raspberry Fudge Cordial flavors to the studio in New York City.

The company used the same packing and overnight delivery methods to send the Arizona customer her order.

Having such publicity gives a push to Velvet's efforts to expand nationally, Dager says.

A wholesaler, it sells and distributes its product to retail outlets such as Bob Evans and Consolidated Stores, and to grocery stores including Kroger, Big Bear and Giant Eagle. Velvet also has food service clients such as hospitals, schools and restaurants, reaching 13 states.

Dager continues to hear comments from people who have seen the article.

Shortly after it ran, he got an excited phone call from a Newark Uniglobe travel agent who had seen it on her way to Florida for a national convention.

''We've been getting calls from friends, family, business associates, suppliers that are traveling,'' Dager says. ''It's just amazing what the little press release like that will do for you.'' How to reach: Lee Esposito, Lee Esposito Associates, 421-2701 or esposito@newsangle.com or www.newsangle.com; Mike Dager, Velvet Ice Cream Co. Inc., (740) 892-3921 or www.velveticecream.com; Nancy Oakley, Sky magazine, editorial@delta-sky.com

Joan Slattery Wall (jwall@sbnnet.com) is senior editor of SBN Magazine in Columbus.

Tuesday, 30 October 2001 07:13

Money in the bank

In his 25 years in the business, Allen Alwood has sought his share of financing -- and heard his ration of approvals and denials.

What might surprise you, however, is that he's not discouraged by the rejection.

''I don't mind getting turned down from one or two banks,'' says Alwood, CEO of Virgil Alwood Florist Inc., a nearly 50-employee business with revenue exceeding $2 million. ''It shows me where I have a problem and I need to fix it.''

In fact, he's even shopped around his loan requests before he was quite ready to apply so the denials would help him fix flaws in the business plan of his four-generation family company.

Alwood has sought financing in the past to buy out another floral business, expand his own, get working capital and remodel his buildings. He's obtained various loans ranging from $10,000 to $500,000 from banks such as Huntington National Bank, Key Bank and Heartland Bank.

In the process, he's learned a lot to help him work with his current bank, Bank One. Even so, he's glad he had a head start.

''I have a degree in business administration finance and marketing, which I'll tell you is a salvation,'' Alwood says.

Kim Swanson, a partner with Squire, Sanders & Dempsey LLP who has advised Alwood on some of his bank transactions, says business owners often seek funding from sources other than their bank, such as friends, family members or franchisors. That decision, he maintains, might not always be the best.

''There is a level of independence by getting your financing from the bank rather than from your franchisor or family,'' Swanson says, acknowledging the option might be more expensive at first. Future financing, however, comes easier.

''One thing that's most true is when you show a bank you can pay back your loan, they want to lend you more money,'' he adds.

Alwood, Swanson and Melissa Ingwersen, president of Bank One's Columbus market, share their advice about building a relationship with your banker.

Be prepared

If you're new at seeking financing, do some homework.

Ask around, Alwood says.

''Hypothetically, you're opening a dairy bar. Go to the other side of town and talk to a guy -- not your competitor -- and say, 'How did you get funding?' He may share with you,'' says Alwood, who joined a group of floral industry executives from across the nation to discuss trends in the industry, staffing and financing.

Also ask sources, such as your trade associations, accountant or banker, about special financing programs that might apply to you, Swanson says. You might be eligible for block grant loans, funding available to minority business owners, special financing options for specific areas a city or county wants to develop or bonds for businesses in your industry.

To research your choice of bank, look at its Internet site or ask your accountant or lawyer for advice, says Swanson, who currently represents Bank One.

''You'd prefer to be in the top half of the borrowers of a small bank than the bottom half of a bigger bank,'' Swanson says. ''The more you mean to your bank, the more likely they're going to be willing to cooperate with you during hard times.''

Once you've chosen a bank, you'll likely have a meeting with a commercial lending representative. Bank One, Ingwersen says, generally sends lenders to the business instead of calling a meeting at the bank.

''We, as bankers, really value being out with our clients in their place of business,'' she says, noting it gives them a chance to see how the business works, meet the management team and learn more about the reason the business owner wants the loan.

At the first meeting, she says, the banker generally will want a description of the business: what you do, your key suppliers, your competitive advantage, for example. Bank One also generally requests three years of annual financial statements to understand how the owner does business from year to year.

Don't worry, Ingwersen says, if you don't have everything bankers request at the first meeting; just be willing to get it for them later.

They'll also need an explanation of why you want the money, of course.

''You can't build a blue sky: If I do this, millions of people are going to come into my store,'' Alwood says. ''You've got to be realistic.''

Do the math

Being realistic, however, doesn't mean you need to have your request figured out to the penny.

''A range is a good starting point,'' Ingwersen says.

Alwood points out there are many factors to consider when figuring out how much money you'd like to request in a loan or line of credit. Say, for example, you're adding on to your building or constructing a new one. You'll have to:

* Define the project, including hard costs, such as the materials and labor; soft costs, including business permits and other paperwork for which you may need the help of an attorney; and contingency costs -- in case something goes wrong.

* Make a comparison between your current and expected expenses. For example, if you're currently renting but plan to use your loan to buy a building, you'll credit your current rent amount toward your new debt.

* Look at the short-term effects. If you're in retail, will an expansion project adversely affect sales during construction? If you're moving, what will it cost to advertise to let your customers know about your new location? If the new location has better traffic, what's the potential of better sales?

* Point out any oddities in your financial reports. Alwood calls them ''add-backs,'' or unusual expenses that occurred in the previous year that won't happen again. For example, you may have paid cash for a new piece of machinery you expect will last 10 years.

You don't have to prepare your request by yourself.

''I strongly recommend that small businesses have an outside accountant,'' Swanson says, adding the outsider also gives a banker some level of comfort that someone other than the owner of the business put the numbers together. ''It makes your business look more professional and makes the banker think, 'These people are moving to the next level.'''

Choose an accountant who has counseled other businesses in your industry or of similar size so he or she can share experiences others have learned from.

Once you've given your information to the banker, he or she will likely return to you with a proposal. Keep an open mind, Ingwersen says, pointing out that a good banker shouldn't just take your request and say, 'Yes' or 'No.'

''Our bankers are highly trained to do a lot of financial modeling,'' she says, noting that the banker may return and suggest something else, like a different loan amount, term or form of financing.

''That's where a bank adds value,'' she says. ''We're not order-takers.''

On the flip side, don't be shy if there's something you don't understand.

''A good banker should be an adviser, just as a good accountant and a good attorney,'' Ingwersen says. ''A good banker should be providing solutions on a whole myriad of financial situations, from commercial to personal -- and people should expect that from their bankers.''

Build trust

Obviously, one of the best ways to improve your relationship with your banker is to pay your bill on time.

But it's actually more complicated than that, Alwood, Ingwersen and Swanson point out.

''Bankers are human beings, too,'' Swanson says, adding that the banker often receives bonuses based on how many loans he or she makes. ''In many cases, he really wants to make a loan, so he's looking for evidence to take to his superiors (to approve the loan).''

One sure way to build trust is to show the banker you're willing to take some risk on your project.

Alwood says since he has a labor-intensive business, he's got no equipment to put up as collateral. He also does most business on credit, so he doesn't have a lot of accounts receivables.

''I don't have a lot for the bank to come in and say, 'I feel comfortable; I can put my hands on this,''' Alwood says. ''Until we were able to put real estate under our bottoms, we were frustrated dealing with banks because they couldn't see past the fact that we didn't have assets,'' Alwood says, adding that the situation has become easier because his company now has real estate -- facilities on Bethel Road and in Reynoldsburg.

The early days, however, forced him to find other ways to show a bank he was dedicated to his projects. For example, he's borrowed against deposits, such as certificates of deposit. He's also borrowed against payments he owes to a vendor, an option that requires trust on the part of both parties. If you have a vendor to whom you pay $50,000 a month, he says, you might ask whether you could pay it back over a 12-month period to free up some cash for you for another project.

And when he bought a building, he asked the previous owner to take some of the financing; the deal ended up being 10 percent cash from Alwood, 45 percent financing from the bank and 45 percent financing from the previous owner.

''My approach has always been you've got to have earnest money,'' Alwood says. ''The bank -- and whatever lending institution you're looking at -- doesn't want to feel they're the only person with risk.''

Don't forget that the bank also wants to increase its own business.

For example, very large corporate clients, such as those with more than $500 million in sales, likely have multiple banking relationships, Ingwersen says.

''Within that group, they need to be having discussions with their bankers on what their bankers' expectations are for a return on the relationship,'' she says. ''Those customers probably should be looking at the services that they purchase from financial service companies -- anything from investment management to pensions to treasury management -- and considering whether they are rewarding the banks that participate in their credit with an opportunity to bid on the noncredit aspects of their financial package.''

Tell the truth

Be honest with your banker -- even if you think it will hurt your chances of getting or keeping a loan. You might be wrong.

''We actually do finance people who have losses -- not sustained losses, obviously -- but we absolutely understand the concept of a bad year or a transition year,'' Ingwersen says.

If you have bad news, make sure your banker hears it from you first.

''If you've got problems, go and tell the banker you've got problems,'' Swanson says. ''Probably, he will work with you.''

The banker might restructure your loan in a way to keep it current or allow you to delay a payment. Lying or covering up information, on the other hand, thwarts your chances of cooperation.

''If it appears a business owner is hiding information, intentionally or not, that's not the basis for any relationship, whether it's personal or professional,'' Ingwersen says.

In the end, both sides of the relationship should be perfectly clear and open.

''There shouldn't be any magic or mystery about how we make our decisions,'' Ingwersen says. ''A banker should be able to give them counsel, and a client should be able to ask questions.''

Don't have preconceived notions about a bank or what financing you might receive, Ingwersen adds, as each situation is different.

''I can't cookie-cutter my solutions, because it's not appropriate. Just like not everybody wears the same shoe,'' she says. ''It's the reality of our business.

''If I understand your business as a banker, then I can be much better assured of getting that size 9 orange shoe that fits you perfectly as opposed to the black wing tip, size 7 that doesn't work.'' How to reach: Allen Alwood, Virgil Alwood Florist Inc., 552-1624 or valwoodflorist@aol.com; Melissa Ingwersen, Bank One, 248-5471 or melissa_ingwersen@bankone.com; Kim Swanson, Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, 365-2700 or kswanson@ssd.com

Joan Slattery Wall (jwall@sbnnet.com) is senior editor of SBN Magazine in Columbus.

Tuesday, 23 October 2001 10:50

Dimon makes an exit

Undergoing quadruple bypass surgery would cause anyone to view life differently.

In Dimon R. McFerson's case, the February 1999 operation certainly opened his eyes -- to the world outside his corporate duties as chairman and CEO of Nationwide.

"I enjoyed the break," he says of the six weeks he spent away from the office recuperating.

A leadership position, he points out, stays with you 24 hours a day.

"I would say the time I had in '99 was the only time my wife and I had in eight years," adds McFerson, who spent more than 20 years with the company, the last eight as CEO of the $115 billion-asset organization. "I can't count more than four times when my wife and I took a week off."

The experience helped him confirm his notion that he should begin thinking about retirement.

"I figured eight years is like two four-year terms," he says. "I felt like I had done the major part of the job I wanted to get accomplished."

In his tenure as CEO, McFerson repositioned Nationwide to enter the new millennium with three major businesses: personal lines of insurance, retirement savings and asset accumulation, and asset and money management.

Under his leadership, Nationwide grew to become the fifth largest auto and home insurer in the nation. Nationwide Life Insurance Co. is the country's 12th largest life insurer in terms of assets.

Still, his decision to retire wasn't easy.

"I'll miss being a CEO," says McFerson, who officially stepped down from his CEO position Sept. 15 and as chairman Dec. 31. "That's where the action is, and there's no one to backstop you -- you're the last person. There's a lot of excitement. There's a lot of variety. But at the same time, I'm looking forward to reclaiming my life."

No wonder, considering he not only dedicated time to Nationwide, but also gave up private time to such community and industry affairs as United Way of Franklin County and of America; the American Red Cross; COSI; the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce; The Columbus Foundation; the Insurance Information Institute; Insurance Institute for Highway Safety; and the International Cooperative and Mutual Insurance Federation.

"I would admit that it's probably hard for anybody having been a leader of an organization -- particularly of a large organization -- to walk away," he says. "I think the longer you prepare for it, the easier it is."

Breaking the news

McFerson's loyalty to his company made him careful about leaving it.

"Because I love Nationwide and think so much of the company and the organization, I wanted to make sure they had time," he says.

McFerson informed Nationwide's board of his retirement decision in winter 1999, more than a year before he made the public announcement that he would be stepping down.

"I did not want a lame duck situation," he says. "I'm proud of my board that they kept it very confidential."

His 14 fellow board members, in turn, respected his decision and quietly set about the task of finding his replacement.

Meanwhile, it was business as usual at Nationwide.

"My role with the company didn't change at all," McFerson says. "Our board is unique. Because of the cultural tradition of Nationwide, they wanted to be in the leadership position of driving the process. Sometimes a board will totally acquiesce to the CEO for that decision, but because of the background of Nationwide and the way our board has operated over the decades, the board needed to play a major role in that CEO succession process."

His role in the search, then, was to make sure the process was in place -- and advise the board to be cautious.

"I encouraged them: 'Don't rush this,'" he says. "Let's take our time and go about this carefully and thoughtfully."

Nationwide's outside board members formed a search committee, chaired by Arden L. Shisler, board chairman of Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. and president of K&B Transport Inc. trucking company in Dalton, Ohio. That committee sought help from the Atlanta office of Heidrick & Struggles, an international executive search firm that has an insurance and financial services practice.

It was the first time the board used a search firm to help with the process, Shisler notes.

"There was a definite advantage to that," Shisler says. "It really helped us bring outside expertise to that process, from people that do that every day. They offer insight and help that we don't have within our organization."

In addition, he says, "An outside firm helps take some of the politics -- and that's only natural -- out of the process."

"Nationwide's a national organization, and the board wanted to make sure they had the opportunity to interview inside candidates and outside candidates and do the appropriate benchmarking," McFerson says of using Heidrick & Struggles in the process.

The outside firm interviewed each board member one-on-one, then gave the board a synopsis of what it, as a unit, wanted to see in McFerson's successor.

Among the qualifications sought: "Fiduciary responsibility, gets along with the board, understands where the future is in financial services, is energetic -- all those things that are important to a board," Shisler says.

Although he acted as an adviser for the board during the search, McFerson had no say in the final decision of who was named as his successor.

"The board wanted to control this process. I had the opportunity along the way to talk about the inside candidates -- who they knew very well. That was all weighed and considered with the work of Heidrick & Struggles and the board," McFerson says.

McFerson made his retirement announcement public in mid-May 2000; by the end of the month, his successor, W.G. "Jerry" Jurgensen, was introduced.

Making the transition

McFerson put a lot of thought into how to hand over the reins to Jurgensen. He wanted a seamless and smooth transition.

"Jerry and I, we spent a lot of time together in the first few weeks just talking about people and customers and businesses and regulatory issues and the community," he says. "I'd do it in one-hour sessions because, in my view, if you do it in two to three (full) days, you get overloaded."

His systematic approach also let Jurgensen have some independence.

"At the end of the day, he had to get out and meet people and see for himself," McFerson says, noting that Jurgensen would then come back to him for more input.

"He was very respectful of me as CEO, and I was respectful of him knowing he was coming in from outside and needed some input on what was happening," McFerson says.

Shisler attributes what he calls an "extremely smooth" transition to the relationship between the two.

"Both Mr. McFerson's and Mr. Jurgensen's ability to sit down and work with each other through the transition made it absolutely wonderful -- much better than I expected," he says, noting that he would expect conflicts in any transition.

Cooperation of company staff presidents and senior vice presidents during the transition also helped, he says.

"It was a total combined effort, I would say, in Nationwide to make it work, and it worked very well," Shisler says.

Jurgensen, who answered questions about the transition through a written statement to SBN, also attributes the smooth process to the cooperation of everyone at Nationwide.

"The biggest challenge for me was that I was the first Nationwide CEO to be named from outside the organization," he says. "It means that not only do I have to learn the organization, but the organization has to learn about me as well. As a result, I have been spending a lot of time reaching out and speaking with various groups of Nationwide employees and managers.

"Joining Nationwide has provided me with the opportunity to learn a new industry. While I come from a financial services background, the property and casualty business is a new area for me."

Jurgensen is no stranger to CEO transitions, having gone through four during his 10-year tenure with First Chicago Bank.

"Through those experiences, I learned that in order for transitions to be successful, people's heads and hearts must be in the right place," he says. "I want to thank Dimon McFerson and the management team for making this transition so smooth. Dimon has been gracious, patient and understanding."

Addressing employee, customer fears

During the transition phase, McFerson had the task of reassuring employees and customers of the leadership change.

"I think the most important things are your customer relationships," he says. "At the end of the day, you have to make customers realize this is an orderly transition -- McFerson will still be around to make sure that will be the case."

He and Jurgensen needed to get in front of customers, suppliers and distribution channels to let them know the company would continue to serve them.

"When an organization our size goes outside for a new CEO, it could be inferred that's going to be a change in direction -- which it's not," McFerson says. "Clearly Nationwide was and is a strong company, and it's serving its customers and community very well, and it will continue to do that."

Inside Nationwide, McFerson says, employees knew he was approaching age 65 -- the mandatory retirement age at the company.

"That creates a certain anxiety," he says. "A change in leadership brings a change in business practices, there's no question about that."

Already Jurgensen has made some changes: tapping Washington, D.C., attorney Michael S. Helfer, one of the key figures in crafting the Financial Services Modernization Act, to oversee the newly created Office of Strategic Planning; promoting Donna A. James to executive vice president and chief administrative officer; and elevating Richard D. Headley to president and managing director of Nationwide Global Holdings.

Jurgensen says he's excited about the prospects for Nationwide.

"This is a very good company," he says. "Our ambition is to make it one of America's great companies."

He knows he'll face a state of flux in financial services thanks to regulatory reform.

"As the financial services industry evolves, Nationwide will need to evolve as well," he says. "It is my job as CEO to help the company traverse these new roads (and) look for and act upon new opportunities in this new era of financial services modernization."

Breaking the ties

McFerson and Jurgensen agreed the transition should last about 60 days -- then McFerson would physically move out of the Downtown offices, even though his stint as company chairman didn't end until December.

"The organization needed to know I was retiring," McFerson says. "There's never a right time for anything -- you just have to say, 'This is the time.'"

Shisler agrees, noting the board learned a lesson when McFerson took over the top seat at Nationwide from John E. Fisher in 1992.

"We allowed the transition to be way too long for the first time," says Shisler, who chaired the nominating committee that chose McFerson as Fisher's successor. "Allowing Mr. McFerson and Mr. Fisher to be together for almost a year -- that was way too long. The new person, whoever he or she might be, has ideas and has the excitement of the new job. They want to make their mark, implement the programs they see are important."

McFerson says his move into Nationwide's top spot was different because Fisher had been CEO for 11 years, but almost all the board members were new at that time, so Fisher felt he needed a longer transition out of the company. McFerson, however, decided that when the time arrived for his own departure, two or three months would be enough.

"The lesson people have to recognize when you're changing leaders is: recognize it may be hard, it may be difficult, but when the change is made, you have to make it as easy as possible on the new person," McFerson says. "Step aside, give up the corner office and remove yourself from the highly visible position -- but not immediately. The new person needs you there to talk to. I don't care whether it's an inside person or an outside person, you know a lot. They need to be able to pick your brain."

At some point, however, the successor needs to go it alone.

"It's just when the job is yours, the organization knows it's yours, and even though you don't know anywhere near as much as you need to know, you just kind of have to go on with it," McFerson says. "You watch a CEO for a long time, and I had the opportunity of doing that with John Fisher and I thought I knew what it was all about. But I'm here to tell you the majority of the job you don't see.

"What you think is going to happen, that does happen, but there's so much more of the job. ... You just have to learn that on your own."

Life on the outside

McFerson says he and his wife, Darlene, have decided to call Central Ohio their permanent home, especially considering their seven children and 21 grandchildren all live here.

"I will continue to be active in community affairs and church activities -- but I won't be working morning, noon and night," he says.

He'll spend about six more months as chair of United Way of America and then retain a seat as past chair. He was just appointed to a nine-year term on The Ohio State University Board of Trustees, and his seat on the board of governors of the Columbus Foundation expires in 2003. He's also still chair at COSI for at least another two years.

Meanwhile, Nationwide leadership has made sure Jurgensen is making the rounds in Columbus, meeting one-on-one with community leaders.

"My first summer in Columbus has shown me a great deal about Nationwide's commitment to this city," Jurgensen says. "It is clear to me what Nationwide means to Columbus and what Columbus means to Nationwide. It is great to work for a company that has the capacity and the willingness to make such a difference."

Time for himself

McFerson does plan to leave open some of his time for personal goals.

"I want to improve my computer skills. I want to do some family genealogy. I want to organize my life better -- do some estate planning. I've done some, but I want to do more," he says. "I have a lot more ideas and things I want to do than I have time to do."

He has no plans to consult for a fee.

"I may help somebody or an organization once in a while. If I do, it will be pro bono and of very limited duration," he says. "This is my time now."

Meanwhile, he's still just a phone call away for Jurgensen.

His advice to his successor: "Listen very carefully to as many people as necessary who have some knowledge on issues where important decisions are going to have to be made," he says. "It's been my experience that when you are the CEO, you are the final decision-maker and you can't possibly know it all."

McFerson remembers a particular piece of advice he received from his own predecessor at Nationwide, John Fisher.

"He said to me many times, 'Measure twice and saw once. You might make a mistake measuring once, so before you saw, measure again to make sure you've got it right. Then saw.' That was sound advice," McFerson says.

He says it amazes him how one person at the top of a corporate pyramid makes a difference in the organization.

"When you're that one person, you have a lot of responsibility to people -- to thousands and thousands of people. That's what kept me awake at night -- making sure I was doing the right thing for them and doing the right thing for the company," he says. "When you think about that one person and the responsibility they hold, it's pretty awesome." Joan Slattery Wall (jwall@sbnnet.com) is associate editor of SBN Columbus.

Tuesday, 23 October 2001 10:50

Bet your bottom line

Every November, Ross O. Youngs, president and CEO of Univenture Inc., takes a look at the future.

By April, the start of his fiscal year, he'll have forecasts of the company's financial well-being through that year -- and the next three to five.

How good are his predictions?

In 1993, he told SBN his company would reach $20 million in sales by 2000; that goal was reached at the end of his 1999 fiscal year. By the beginning of November 2000, the company was running less than 1 percent off that year's sales forecast.

His secret: information overload.

He looks at industry trends and talks to different departments within his now-$25 million company and enters all the variables into an Excel spreadsheet. Then he rearranges the numbers -- What if raw material costs go up? What if a new product bombs? -- to see what effect such changes will have on the big picture.

"I like to do it because I've got the challenge of producing those results," Youngs says of financial forecasting, "but you've also got the challenge of trying to have an impact on those results.

"It's part of the challenge of business if you can find efficiencies, sell more product to customers, do whatever you can do. You're not going to really understand unless you lay it all out and review it."

Put it all in writing

Youngs hasn't always been so adept at financial forecasting. His worst miscalculation, predictably, came when he started the compact disc packaging manufacturing company in 1988.

"I probably showed us hitting $20 million within four years," he says, noting by the end of those four years he had a $1 million company. "But that was based on very little knowledge. You might as well just take a swipe out of the air."

Now, his financial forecasting is filled with knowledge from every realm he can think of.

"You take pieces of the puzzle," he says. "The more contributors, the better."

Here is some of his advice:

Don't go it alone.

Key contributors to his process are representatives from his sales and finance departments. He also gets input from manufacturing, engineering and product development.

Look at trends in your industry.

Youngs looks at every segment of his business independently to see where it's going.

He's fortunate, he says, because he has many different customers and product introductions each year.

"We don't have one huge, big customer. Our biggest is 6 percent of our business," he says, which is a safeguard.

Even if he lost his biggest customer, his company wouldn't feel much impact because its growth rate is higher than 6 percent.

"It's harder for companies to forecast if you have a couple of large customers," he says. "They can pull the rug out from under you pretty quickly."

Likewise, Univenture's many product introductions allow Youngs to make a better overall prediction. Even if he's off on one product's numbers, another may make up for it, averaging out to the bottom line he expected.

Consider all your variables.

In 1999, Youngs hoped to introduce in November a new product, the UniKeep, an enclosed case that holds up to 12 discs in protective sleeves, and sell about 66,000 a month.

In reality, the product was promoted in November but the first delivery wasn't until March. Between March and the following November, the company delivered nearly 1 million units.

"This year it will be tougher to decide how many we're going to deliver. We've got a little bit of a trend, but we're going to put more advertising on it," he says.

Because he keeps his forecast in a spreadsheet, he's able to make adjustments as the fiscal year progresses. For example, he can see what would happen if Univenture expands sales geographically.

Youngs estimates both a high and a low end of what he expects to sell and uses those figures as variables. Then he considers the marketing plan -- how the company will promote the product and how many will be sold or given away.

"That becomes a piece of all the information that goes along with all the other pieces," he says.

Pay attention to the details.

In financial forecasting, Youngs says, it's not necessary to count every penny going in and out, but you need to prioritize.

"We choose which categories are more critical in having an impact on our projects," Youngs says. "You could spend a long time just getting details, but some are not as critical."

Youngs looks at components that are greater than 5 percent of Univenture's business when he does financial forecasting, but he doesn't let that benchmark tie him down.

"If a component that's 5 percent is growing, then you've got to pay a little bit more attention to it," he says.

Don't panic.

If Univenture has a horrible month, Youngs won't go back in to his predictions and knock off results for the rest of the year.

"In April and May of (1999), we had fallen off our predictions by nearly 15 percent," he says. "By August we were on track."

This fiscal year, he has one segment missing its mark by 50 percent and another beating its mark by more than 100 percent.

"That's the nice thing about having multiple things to look at," he says.

Share.

Youngs lets the rest of the company in on his goals. They're regularly monitored, too.

Bulletin board postings, for example, keep track of the status of product sales.

He also sets his targets high.

"We're not a public company. I do that to help everyone realize we're going to have to stretch," he says. "When I put out numbers internally, I'm putting out the goal numbers, not necessarily the prediction numbers."

Have a safety net.

"Financial forecasting is really dependent on what you do at the top line," he says. "We start at the top line of what we're going to sell and plug in what it's going to take to achieve that.

"It's harder for new businesses. You don't know. You can't be that confident," he says, "and because you can't be that confident, you should have backups (in case your revenue projections fall short).

"We have the capability, because we're growing, to scale back our growth plan at virtually any time without affecting our current condition," he says of Univenture's backup, which he also calls a "disaster recovery plan."

Back to the beginning

While Youngs says his first few years of business were the most difficult for financial forecasting, changes in his company now will produce challenges again.

"In essence, we're back in the first few years again," he says. "New products make it like a new business."

He's bringing out a highly protective disc-mailer package, and he's wondering whether two of his newer segments will continue their growth rates of 140 and 180 percent.

He'll also introduce a larger version of the UniKeep to accommodate other items such as sheets of paper, collectible cards or business cards. Instead of just promoting it in the compact disc industry, he'll introduce the UniKeep to all industries that handle paper.

For those predictions, he'll use another piece of information: input from studies and focus groups.

"This UniKeep product we're going to put out (this) year is going to have tremendous impact. How do you predict that? One scenario out there is if we got 6 percent of the U.S. market, we'd be a $300 million company," he says.

Youngs is not afraid to offer forecasts, but he's not being too specific because of those factors.

Here's his call: Univenture should be in the $30 million to $35 million range for this year and the $100 million to $300 million range by 2005. How to reach: Ross O. Youngs, Univenture, 529-2100 or www.univenture.com

Joan Slattery Wall (jwall@sbnnet.com) is associate editor of SBN Columbus.

Tuesday, 23 October 2001 10:49

Room for improvement

It's likely not a report card Gov. Taft will put on his refrigerator.

After all, it gives a failing grade to state government's service to small businesses.

The Governor's Small Business Advisory Council has spent more than a year examining ways to create a more positive small business climate in Ohio and evaluating the government's past performance in this area.

"We view ourselves as customers to state services," advisory council chair Joseph Jeffries told Gov. Bob Taft when he visited one of the advisory council's meetings late last year. Jeffries owns Reisbeck Food Markets Pharmacy in St. Clairsville.

"Everybody has a report card of how customers see our companies," Jeffries explains later when asked about the scorecard the 22 advisers gave Taft to illustrate their perception of the government. "Unfortunately -- I don't think it's any reflection on the governor himself -- but it's a mess."

In the areas of customer service, flexibility, accountability, health care reform, mandates and regulations, tort reform and business-friendly environment, the council says the state "doesn't meet customer expectations."

The only two areas that do meet expectations are tax reform, for which the council cited good progress with Tax Commissioner Thomas M. Zaino's leadership, and work force development, led by new efforts of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, as well as the state's Workforce Development Board. The members also note changes within the state's Bureau of Workers' Compensation have exceeded their expectations.

Like any good teacher, the council makes recommendations for improvement:

  • Provide an ombudsman for communication between small business and the government.

  • Reinitiate tort reform efforts.

  • To improve health care issues, create a small business advocacy office at the Ohio Department of Insurance, create a standardized insurance claim form and insurance card to reduce administrative costs and create more health insurance pools.

  • Arrange for state agencies such as the Bureau of Workers' Compensation, the Department of Job and Family Services and the Department of Taxation to share information instead of having businesses report the same information to so many separate agencies. At the governor's request, Zaino is looking into this issue.

  • Create an incentive for graduates from Ohio colleges and universities to remain in the state to work and/or start their own businesses; better market state and federal government programs accessible to the small business community; and establish a state tax credit for small business owners who invest in the education of their employees. Taft's executive assistant for business and industry, David Celona, is tracking these ideas along with work force development suggestions from chambers of commerce.

"We got a number of specific recommendations we will be taking up with Karen Conrad (manager of the Ohio Department of Development's Office of Small and Developing Business) and departments such as the Department of Insurance and the Department of Job and Family Services," Taft says. "I assume there will also be some discussions with legislators."

Mandates and regulations will be the focus of the council's April 12 meeting, when members hope to speak with representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health. Other issues on the council's plate are work force development, tax reform, legal reform and health care.

Taft says he will remain in touch with the council members by listening to their comments and using them as a focus group on other issues.

"I hope it will continue," he says of the council, "because it will keep us on our toes and hold us accountable to small business." How to reach: David Celona, governor's executive assistant for business and industry, (614) 728-4156; Karen Conrad, Office of Small and Developing Business, (614) 466-2718 or kconrad@odod.state.oh.us; Joseph Jeffries, Reisbeck Food Markets Pharmacy, (740) 695-7050; Gov. Bob Taft's office, (614) 466-3555 or Governor.Taft@das.state.oh.us; Thomas Zaino, state tax commissioner, (614) 466-2166

Joan Slattery Wall (jwall@sbnnet.com) is an associate editor and statehouse correspondent for SBN Magazine.

Tuesday, 23 October 2001 10:49

Bill Heifner

Last year, Bill Heifner was on a 3,200-mile, cross-country trip on his Harley -- which he calls his "self-propelled battery charger" -- when he joined several motorcycle friends at a late morning stop for food.

The eating establishment grew strangely quiet when a 6-foot-8-inch man -- towering over Heifner's 6-foot-3-inch stature -- entered. He had massive biceps covered with tattoos and wore a black vest and a black hat pulled down almost covering his eyes.

"He was the kind of guy who'd be your worst nightmare to see in a dark alley," says Heifner, president of Renier Construction.

"There were eight of us and one of him, and we were all sticking together," Heifner says.

Heifner gathered up his nerve and gave the man a hearty "Good morning."

"He said, 'Well good morning. How are you?' right back," Heifner remembers, mimicking the jovial voice.

In the ensuing conversation, Heifner learned the man had a bachelor's degree in engineering and a master's in computer science and worked from a virtual office in Estes Park, Colo., as a computer hardware designer for Compaq.

"I said, 'I have to tell you, you can't judge a book by its cover,'" Heifner says.

The incident was no oddity for Heifner, who says he enjoys meeting people and has plenty of opportunity to do so both in his motorcycling hobby and his commercial and industrial general contracting business.

In fact, he credits a lesson his father, owner of a small retail store, taught him about dealing with people for the success of Renier, whose revenue exceeds $25 million.

"He would continually drill into my head the most important person in my life was that customer walking through the front door," Heifner says, noting the second half of his father's advice: "If you don't take care of your customers, they don't come back."

The lesson apparently paid off, considering that in 1999, 40 percent of the sales at Renier came from repeat customers. Clients of the 50-employee company include Dayton Freight, MPW Industrial Services and A.D. Farrow's Harley-Davidson -- where he found his interest in motorcycles.

Heifner uses the same philosophy of integrity with the subcontractors who do work for his clients. In fact, in 1999 the American Subcontractor Association named Renier "Contractor of the Year," which told Heifner the subcontractors realize his company values its relationship with them as much as with its clients.

Denny Griffith, president of the Columbus College of Art & Design, where Heifner serves on the board, says Heifner leverages confidence with wisdom and analytical caution, yet he's also a good listener and quick to offer words of praise to others.

"There's almost a proprietary enthusiasm and glee he gets from getting people together and kind of stirring the pot," Griffith says. "He's not a real exuberant leader -- he's a quiet leader. But in social settings, in the board setting -- and we can extrapolate from that, in a business setting -- he really cares about people very deeply and likes to bring people together and really embellish their strong points."

Heifner is especially fond of boasting of the accomplishments of his wife, Sandy, an interior designer, and his daughter, Alexis, a sophomore studying international business and Spanish at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.

Heifner's people skills extend to his ability to join others on a mission to solve problems.

During Mayor Greg Lashutka's administration, Heifner was asked to serve on a committee to help streamline the city's building and inspection procedures. Concerned that after their job was finished things might regress, the members stayed on and now meet monthly to monitor the changes.

"It's amazing the cooperation there's been on that," Heifner says of the city and private industry. "It's a storybook tale of how you can work together on the private side and the public side if everybody takes down barriers and works together toward a common goal."

Heifner, who also serves on the boards of Columbus Academy and Rahal Columbus Charities Pro-Am, says he doubts he could have been as successful in other cities as he has been in Columbus.

He often reflects on his own company's success with the help of a tattered manila folder he keeps in a credenza behind his desk. Inside is a ledger sheet with a business plan -- handwritten when he started the company in 1980.

He notes the $1,500 office equipment line item was a significant investment at the time -- especially considering he'd just quit his job at a large company and his wife was pregnant.

"In 1981 if you looked at our tax return, we could've qualified for food stamps," he says. "When you're in that situation, it forces you to get things in perspective and makes you work all that much harder." How to reach: Bill Heifner, Renier Construction, 866-4580 or bheifner@renier.com

Joan Slattery Wall (jwall@sbnnet.com) is associate editor of SBN Magazine in Columbus.