Nancy Byron

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:55

Hard choices

Valerie Coolidge realizes some people don’t understand the life-changing choice she’s made. But that doesn’t bother this entrepreneur-turned-full-time-mom.

“This is a very unpopular position — being at home with the kids — but it’s probably the most important job I can do,” says Coolidge, who just last year seemed to be on the fast track to corporate success with her Westerville-based Gourmet Gifts business.

The company, which Coolidge operated from her home, had grown rapidly since its 1993 founding, recording double- and even triple-digit revenue increases at times.

Keeping up with the rising demand for her flavored cakes and chocolate-dipped coffee spoons made Coolidge a slave to her company. The long work hours interfered with her family life. Her religious faith took a backseat. Yet she continued fostering her company’s growth because that’s what she “did” for a living; it defined her; it was her job.

“My sister in Pickerington told me I was too smart to just be a stay-at-home mom,” Coolidge recalls. “I bought into the lie.”

Five years later, Coolidge realized what she’d done.

A hobby gone amok

Coolidge enjoyed baking. When she quit her job as an IS manager in 1990 to spend more time with her then-elementary aged children, she had more time to bake. And Coolidge had one “killer” rum cake recipe. All her friends knew it. So did their friends, and their friends’ friends. Soon, Coolidge had quite a following — and an enterprising idea.

In December 1993, she started selling her cakes to bring in a little extra money. After Coolidge’s first full year in business, Gourmet Gifts had grossed about $1,000. The next year, those sales figures more than doubled. Then she had a little run-in with the law.

Turns out that state and city leaders didn’t look kindly upon Coolidge selling alcoholic cakes in a dry precinct. Her options were few: shut down the business or find a nonalcoholic flavoring that carried the same appeal as her original recipe.

“After the liquor problem, I thought about giving it up, but I kept getting calls,” Coolidge says. So she went to work experimenting in her kitchen and developed an orange-flavored cake that received rave reviews from friends and clients.

“It didn’t take long for things to get out of control,” says Coolidge, noting the switch to nonalcoholic flavorings allowed her to start wholesaling her cakes to local retailers.

Not only did Cheryl & Co. and Cookie Bouquets begin ordering from Gourmet Gifts, but Coolidge also signed up with the Columbus Gift Mart, a showcase for companies looking to wholesale their products nationwide. Almost instantly, Coolidge knew she’d made a mistake.

“I immediately got hundreds of orders I wasn’t ready for,” she says, noting that her business grew nearly 500 percent that year alone. Quickly hiring others — including three of her own children — to help her was the only way she could hope to catch up with the ever-accelerating demand. By the time Coolidge hired her seventh worker, her once-small, kitchen-based business had engulfed her entire basement.

“It got so big, so out-of-hand,” she recalls. “I was not in control.

“To add insult to injury, I was making pennies on each product,” she adds. Coolidge’s cakes were selling for between $2.50 and $15 each and the chocolate-dipped spoons were wholesaling for 60 cents apiece.

“I didn’t do a thorough cost analysis,” she admits. “For as hard as I was working, I had to change something.”

Coolidge consulted one of her mentors, Cheryl Krueger-Horn, founder of Cheryl & Co., the popular cookie and confections maker in Westerville.

“I asked her, ‘What am I going to do?’” Coolidge recalls. “She showed me her path and what that entailed — the sacrifices she had to make. It wasn’t a pretty picture. She made some horrendous sacrifices to get where she was. I didn’t want to do all that. So I tried to scale my business down.”

Less is more

Coolidge’s first move was to pull her products out of the Columbus Gift Mart.

“I didn’t want that volume — especially at that low margin,” she says.

With that flood of business subsiding, Coolidge let all but one of her employees go.

“Cheryl [& Co.] was still ordering 20,000 spoons at a time, so I still had a big business,” Coolidge says. “But instead of the beast controlling me, I was trying to control the beast.”

Although her scaled-back operations made her life more manageable, Coolidge still wasn’t content. She questioned whether she was being a good mother with so much of her focus wrapped up in the business. Religion had always been a big part of her life, too — every product she sold included the Christian symbol of a fish on the label — yet she sensed that the path she’d chosen wasn’t the right one.

“I really felt like I was being called out of the business,” Coolidge says. “I had five kids, and as long as I had the business, my time was being diverted. My parenting skills were suffering. My children were not getting the time they needed. I realized I could be a better witness [to God] by giving up my business — not by putting little fish [symbols] on my labels. I had to get my own house in order before I could go out and witness to others and my own house was not in order.”

It was June 1998 when Coolidge had this revelation. Within two months, she’d sold her $25,000- to $30,000-a-year business and returned to her full-time role of mother and wife.

“I never had a moment of regret,” she says. “This is the best profession I could think to have.”

The right fit

Dinene Clark, owner of Cookie Bouquets Inc. in Westerville, also knows what it’s like to be both a mother and an entrepreneur. She’s been doing it for 16 years.

“I had a lot of faith in this concept ... so I kept plugging away at it even when it got really tough,” says Clark, who developed the idea for her signature product while resting in the hospital after the birth of her first daughter. “I think there is somewhat of a luxury in having your own business because you can be more flexible with your time. If you have to take time off during the day to take a child to the doctor ... you can make up that time somewhere else.”

That same flexibility, however, can easily drive a home-based entrepreneur like Coolidge to overwork herself, she adds.

“It’s always there,” Clark explains. “Since she operated the business out of her home, she could never leave it. It’s very hard to have a business in front of you all the time. Ultimately, I think she made the right decision.”

Coolidge agrees.

“I don’t want to come across as this is the only answer,” Coolidge says. “It’s a tough choice. I created a product; I proved I could do it; I proved something to myself. But I was trying to be somebody through my business. I thought I needed to have a name for myself, to make money, to keep up with the Joneses. I don’t need all that. Less is more for me.

“Even the Apostles had to give up their day jobs,” she quips.

“When I came to the realization I didn’t start the business for the right reason — that my self worth wasn’t attached to the business — that made it easier.”

Now Coolidge spends her days helping her children, who range in age from 6 to 17, with homework, packing their lunches, planning and preparing meals, gardening, babysitting for friends and emotionally supporting her husband.

“Those are all things that are important to me,” she says.

The same goes for volunteering at Northland Terrace Medical Center and at her parish, St. Elizabeth Catholic Church, two things she rarely had time to do prior to selling her business.

“People don’t understand how I can be so happy doing nothing outside the home,” Coolidge says. “It’s a privilege to me to have the time to serve. I enjoy my life so thoroughly now. I don’t think it gets any better than this.”

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:50

Do you know Jack?

Jack Faris, president and CEO of the National Federation of Independent Business, visited Columbus earlier this year to meet with Gov. Bob Taft and a handful of local business owners. During his trip, Faris took time with SBN to reflect upon his years at NFIB and the state of independent business today. Here’s what he had to say:

Q. You’ve been leading the NFIB for seven years now. What do you consider your greatest accomplishment in that time?

A. No. 1 would be that I’ve not embarrassed my mother in those seven years. I’m real proud of that. I came up from Nashville, Tenn., to Washington, D.C., to take on responsibility for an organization that, at the time, was taking on a pretty major battle with the [White House] administration over health care. I think that we, through our organization, were able to win a large battle with the administration. That would be something we’re pretty proud we’ve done.

Q. What has been your biggest disappointment in the past seven years?

A. My biggest disappointment is it still amazes me that small businesses across the country still have not coalesced as a voting block. We’re trying to get small businesses to understand that one twig is easy to break but many twigs together are hard to break. I’m disappointed I haven’t been able to get more [involvement]. It’s really hard to do it. Most business owners are just so busy. But once they do get involved — look out.

Q. What one piece of legislation would you most like to see Congress pass?

A. Sunset the IRS code. The one tax that small business fears the most is the IRS because of the complexity and the uncertainty. It’s not the one we pay the most. We pay the most in payroll tax. But if you said, ‘If there’s one thing that could have the most significance to small business, what would it be?’ it would be having a new, simpler, fairer tax code. We are not going to let that go. We’re going to continue to fight that. But we don’t see that being passed with this Congress and this president.

Q. What piece of legislation currently being considered by Congress do you fear most?

A. The biggest thing would be a bill like the Patients’ Bill of Rights. It would open Pandora’s box in health care. That would be such a disaster for small business. So many would have to drop their coverage. They wouldn’t be able to run the liability risk.

Q. Are business owners today more or less politically active than in the past?

A. I think they have been more active in the last two or three election cycles than they have been overall for some time. Ninety-two percent of our members vote on a regular basis. Sixty-four percent get involved in campaigns in some way. We’re pretty ‘God, flag and country’ people, so we’re going to find a lot more support in the political process with our members than with Frank and Bob Public.

One of our concerns is there’s a great deal of apathy. People are losing their sense of pride in the White House, which is a byproduct of this whole affair situation. It has nothing to do with business, but people are just fed up with the whole thing.

Q. What prompted you, personally, to become politically involved?

A. Frankly, it goes back to 1950 when my father, who owned and operated a service station, ran for the school board. I saw the struggle he went through. He taught me early on that if you don’t get involved in the process in your community, you’ll have to live with what others decide.

Another reason was Joe Rogers [a friend] owned a construction company and adamantly believed construction’s biggest obstacle was government. Not the weather, not the economy, but government. Owning my own business [a management consulting firm] for 12 years, it was something I had to face. I really believe our whole economy is dependent on small business. We don’t need our government being our biggest problem.

Q. Are independent businesses better off today than they were 10 years ago?

A. Yes. I think we’re better off for two reasons. No. 1, because we’ve had a sustained growth in this economy, which has allowed us to get debt paid back and carefully expand. We’re more concerned about the death tax than before because we have more [wealth] than before; we’ve had more financial success.

The second thing being better off is, 10 years ago the debate was, ‘What was the new tax? And where will we get it?’ The debate today is, ‘What are we going to do with this surplus?’ The economy has been so good. So our direction has gone from trying to stop things to getting things accomplished.

Nancy Byron (nbyron@sbnnet.com) is an editor and statehouse correspondent for SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:49

Slow your roll

Everybody is moving too fast these days. We send documents via fax because it’s quicker than FedEx. We’re hooked on e-mail because it allows instantaneous responses 24 hours a day.

We don’t leave the office — or home — without a cell phone anymore because we can’t imagine driving even a few miles without being able to check voice mail and return calls on the road. Why?

Isn’t technology supposed to make our lives simpler? Instead, it’s forcing many of us to adopt a lifestyle that’s both unrealistic in its demand for speed and unhealthy in its stress-inducing nature. How did this happen? My theory: Few of us know what to do with idle time anymore. We’re so used to doing multiple things at once and utilizing every moment to its absolute fullest that we know no other way. How very sad.

We’re a generation that measures success by what we accomplish each day — not by what we experience. Think about that. How many of you keep “to do” lists not just on your desk at work, but on the refrigerator or kitchen table at home? I’m guilty as charged.

And how do you measure a “good” day at the office or a “good” weekend at home? By the number of items you’ve crossed off your list, of course. I’ll admit I’ve had days where so little on my list was getting accomplished that I actually added some items I’d already done just so I could cross them off. It’s amazing — even a bit frightening — the sense of satisfaction and relief a little checkmark can give me.

I’m the type that keeps a business magazine or paperwork in the car at all times in case I get stuck in traffic or arrive at an appointment early. I can’t stand “wasting” my time waiting. Every moment has to be “productive” and there’s always so much to do. Heaven forbid I take a couple moments to relax and enjoy the world around me.

My mother used to be like this. She was a high school teacher. Not only did she bring home papers to grade each night, she also organized the school’s computer club, advised the National Honor Society, tutored students and spent her summers editing textbooks. She never went to bed before 11:30 p.m. and she was up by 5 in the morning.

In her “free” time, she belonged to three camping clubs, sang in the church choir, helped upkeep the church farm, hosted church groups at our house, cooked, cleaned and attended every gymnastics meet and band concert my sister and I participated in during our youth. If it wasn’t on her calendar, it simply didn’t get done. How could it? Her dance card was full.

She was one amazing, but overworked woman. The stress she put upon herself to do all this was evident, but it took a near tragedy to slow her down. She got breast cancer. The surgery and chemotherapy that followed pushed her to take early retirement — and to stop scheduling every waking moment of her life.

Today my mother is cancer-free and happily exploring the country by motorhome with my father. It’s obvious she cherishes life now more than ever — and not just because she once feared losing her own. She simply couldn’t slow down enough to realize what she was missing.

I see myself headed down the same path — trying to squeeze too many things into too little time and never pausing to catch my breath. I know many of you are traveling down that path with me. Let’s not go there.

Let’s stop judging our lives by the number of checkmarks we put on our list each day. Let’s stop thinking of unscheduled experiences like mentoring a fellow employee or saving a customer relationship as time wasted. Let’s start listening to sports radio instead of voice mail in the car.

We all need a break now and then. Let’s not wait until some awful experience forces us to take one.

Nancy Byron (nbyron@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Columbus.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:44

It’s reality, folks

Executives at Nationwide had to know the decision would be controversial. They did it anyway. Good for them. I hope other Central Ohio companies follow suit.

After all, extending benefits to employees’ financially dependent relatives, roommates and domestic partners thoughtfully addresses the ever-evolving needs of today’s work force. It’s not a political statement. It’s not condoning — or condemning — any particular lifestyle. It’s simply recognizing and acting upon a need for change.

Traditional insurance coverage for spouses and dependent children isn’t enough anymore. Some households now include aging parents who can no longer care for themselves physically or financially, but either don’t want to live in a retirement home or can’t afford it.

Other households include younger employees who share expenses with college friends who have no insurance or siblings who work part time and aren’t eligible for benefits at their own companies. Then, of course, there are families that include domestic partners — of the same sex or different — who depend on each other financially.

Face it: The once-heralded “nuclear family” is becoming increasingly rare. Whether we like that or not, it’s reality. Companies which recognize and address that shift on the homefront are apt to come out on top in the office.

Extending benefits to more loved ones will not only ease the minds of employees who fear the financial fallout of a sudden medical emergency involving someone they care about, but it is apt to make for a more loyal work force as well. Employees want to work for a company that cares about them. This policy change shows Nationwide not only cares for its workers as human beings with responsibilities outside the office, but that it recognizes employees face differing circumstances at home.

Some business owners may be hesitant to extend benefits to more members of their employees’ households since the cost of health care is expected to rise this year. Yet experience has shown that very few nontraditional dependents actually elect such coverage.

Other companies shy away from offering benefits to nonmarried couples and extended family because they fear negative publicity from those opposed to alternative lifestyles. That’s cowardly. Doing what’s best for your employees is what matters here. It takes guts to stand up for what you believe is right.

Kudos to Nationwide for daring to do just that.

Nancy Byron (nbyron@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Columbus.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:41

Editor's column: Humor me

I’m not much for preachy columns — or whiny ones, for that matter.

But with my eldest daughter going through a cry-and-moan-at-anything-that-displeases-me phase, I think that urge to vocalize discontent may have rubbed off on me. Get ready; you’re going to learn about my three biggest pet peeves in the workplace.

Say-nothing phone messages.

Few things annoy me more than callers who only leave their name, phone number and a message to “Call me back.” Yeah, I’ll get right on that.

I like to be prepared when I return phone calls and I can only do that if I know why a person is calling. There’s no risk of a detailed message getting butchered by a busy receptionist when the message is being recorded on voice mail. And if you must leave your message with a human being (heaven forbid), a simple two or three word indication of what the call is about shouldn’t pose a problem for the message-taker.

Your calls will be returned much sooner if you display the simple courtesy of telling people why you want to speak with them. Trust me on this.

Basic grammar and spelling mistakes.

I cringe whenever I see a misspelled word or poorly constructed sentence in business correspondence. Sure, I’m an editor, but others notice such blunders, too. And bungled language and clerical errors make you look, at best, sloppy and, at worst, ignorant.

The most common mistake I see in corporate brochures, letters and signs is the misuse of the apostrophe s. Making a word plural does not require an apostrophe — even if the word is an abbreviation and, therefore, written in all capitals. It’s CDs, not CD’s. It’s photos, not photo’s.

Silly examples? Hardly. The first was taken from a sign at a local book store. The second, from a photo envelope distributed to customers of a Columbus-based camera shop. Better watch yourselves out there.

Relying on computerized spelling- and grammar-check programs won’t necessarily solve this problem, either. If I’d let Microsoft Word alone proof this month’s cover story on SBA award winner Paula Innis, for instance, “Business Person” would’ve been “BusinessPerson” and “two sisters” would’ve been “two sister’s.”

Worse yet, what do you think Associate Editor Joan Slattery Wall would’ve thought about being referred to as Joan Slithery Wall? Clearly, putting blind faith in such programs can be disastrous.

Computer virus warnings.

When the subject line on an e-mail says anything about a virus warning, I won’t even open it. It goes right in the trash. I’m just so sick of people forwarding warnings of “devastating” viruses they haven’t checked out.

“This virus will wipe out your entire neighborhood; DON’T open it!!” Enough already. If you don’t recognize the sender, don’t open the attachment. And if you do recognize the sender, but the subject line starts with FW:, chances are it’s junk anyway, so toss it. How hard is that?

Now do me a favor and take me off your paranoia distribution list. I don’t have time for that nonsense. After all, I’ve got a whole stack of “say nothing” phone messages to return.

Nancy Byron (nbyron@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Columbus.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:39

Better off apart

Carol and Steve Kender didn’t think twice about going into business together. After all, they’d spent virtually their whole lives doing everything else as a couple — why not this?

“We grew up together. We were high school sweethearts. We raised a family together,” says Steve Kender, former co-owner of ASK Water Sports Inc. “It was sort of natural that we would be good business partners.”

How wrong that logic turned out to be.

The two had been married 14 years when they decided to start their own business, ASK Diving School, in 1974. Carol took the lead role in the business, making it her full-time project, while Steve continued his high school teaching career. Four years later, however, Steve decided to put his teaching skills to work full-time in the business. That’s when the real difficulties began.

Our management styles clashed,” Carol says matter-of-factly. “He’s an excellent instructor — he has a Ph.D. — and he’s a good salesperson, but he’s not a real good business manager.”

For instance, “he’d give his friends all sorts of special pricing,” Carol says. Then, when she’d chastise him for doing so, he’d fault her for paying too much attention to the books and watching the inventory too closely.

“We had major disagreements over management direction,” Carol says. “I tend to be pretty much a take-charge type person. I have little or no patience with somebody that can’t see the whole forest instead of the trees. That created a lot of stress.”

So did the competitive nature they shared.

We’re both really, really strong people,” Carol says, noting both of them were trying to run the business, which was renamed ASK Water Sports in 1979 to reflect its expanded offerings on the retail side.

“Carol was the shy, quiet, I don’t think very confident person when I first met her,” Steve says. “But she matured and changed ... and gained in confidence and stature. She became a totally different woman than the one I married. She became in charge — of herself and, eventually, of me, too.”

The power struggles that began at work didn’t always stay there, either.

“When you’re married to the person and you’re working with them all day, you’re never off,” Steve says. “Twenty-four hours a day you’re living, thinking and talking business. It got the be the thing that eventually split us up, in my opinion — not knowing when to turn it off and be wife and husband.”

One more try

In 1982, the Kenders marriage officially ended. Their partnership, however, remained intact.

“It wasn’t as awkward as you would think,” Carol says of working with her ex-husband.

“When we got divorced, the lawyer took care of it. There was no animosity; no items of contention,” Steve adds. “Because it was just so tough to work and live together; we thought we could work together and not be man and wife.”

That, too, turned out to be a bad decision.

“It made it worse,” Steve says. “We were more competitive, probably.”

After about a year, Carol decided she’d had enough. She approached Steve about buying him out.

“There were enough things about the business we weren’t agreeing on and I knew he wanted to move to Florida,” Carol says. “So I offered him a couple boats that belonged to the business and gave him some cash and he signed over his stock to me.”

“At the time, I thought I was getting out real good,” Steve says, noting the business was in the red when Carol bought him out. “I figured she never could make that business run.”

Steve took the money and the boats and moved to Florida, where he got a job managing a diving store.

Although the entire business was on Carol’s shoulders from that point on, she says she wasn’t worried.

“Actually it made things a lot easier,” she says of being sole owner. “There was no conflict anymore. There was no more, ‘Am I going to have to worry about him changing the rules after I make them?’ Not having to have someone else involved in the decision making made running the company a lot easier.”

Since the partnership split, ASK Water Sports’ revenue has grown 15 to 20 percent annually, Carol says. In addition, its assets have climbed and its debt structure has diminished.

“Part of it is the strong economy; we’re a discretionary money business,” Carol says, adding that the company is about 60 percent ahead of its financial projections this year. “I’m not saying it’s because of the split ... but at that time, there was no business plan. In any partnership, you have to set guidelines. You have to set a business plan and follow it. You have to figure out who’s going to do what part of it and then let that person do it. Having clearly defined objectives would’ve made things a lot easier for us.”

“She pulled it together,” marvels Steve. “I’m very pleased with her and for her. I have to give her credit ... she’s doing great with it now. I never would’ve believed it.”

In hindsight

Now that several years have passed, the Kenders can see more clearly where things went wrong — and what they would do differently if they had it to do again.

“The No. 1 rule would be to set guidelines down about the dos and don’ts,” says Steve, who is now co-owner — with his new wife Linda — in a Florida-based business called Mango Man Cool Ties Inc. “The first thing on my don’t list would be: ‘Don’t continue working after hours at home on the business — unless it’s an absolute necessity.’ You need to pay attention to your kids and family and not the business when you’re off hours.

“If you can’t set rules and follow them, the best thing is to not work together in business.”

As for Carol, she realizes she should’ve done a better job making sure she and Steve were compatible business partners before he became more involved in the operations.

“You have to find somebody with complementary talents,” she says. “If you can recognize somebody has strengths and you can fill in the weaknesses, then I think a business partnership would work out.”

Though their own partnership — and marriage — failed, the Kenders have managed to maintain both a business relationship and personal friendship through it all. Steve is one of ASK Water Sports’ suppliers; Carol stocks his Mango Man ties — many of which feature brightly colored marine life patterns — in her Dublin area dive store.

On the personal side, the two phone each other about twice a year, Carol says, and even attended their 40th high school reunion in Montana together last year. They also met up in Las Vegas this past January, Steve says, and went out to dinner.

“We’re friendly,” Steve says. “Why be nasty? That’s not going to do me any good — or her any good.”

Carol agrees: “Being friends is a lot easier.”

Nancy Byron (nbyron@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Columbus.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:34

Buying time

Time clearly is more precious than money these days -- and to more than just the well-to-do.

The truth of that statement really struck me a few weeks ago when I saw something odd happening in my neighborhood. It was an early fall day, and the typical chorus of lawnmowers hummed in the thick afternoon air.

I'd passed several freshly cut lawns when suddenly it struck me. Those lawnmowers weren't being pushed by homeowners or neighborhood kids looking to make a few extra bucks. The vast majority of them -- at least on this particular day -- were being propelled by employees of professional lawncare services.

I was stunned. I don't live in New Albany or Bexley or Upper Arlington, where you might expect to see hired landscapers hard at work on every block. I live in a modest development of starter homes owned primarily by singles and young families. Disposable income is not abundant in this demographic and most of my neighbors seem perfectly capable of maintaining their own lawns.

Yet they're trading money for time by paying someone to do their yard work so their time can be spent in other pursuits, such as family, friends or career.

I suppose the reason this is happening is less important than the fact that it is happening. Some enterprising business owners have noticed this trend, too, and are capitalizing on it. If you're not among them, you'd better get there -- and quickly. The opportunities are countless.

Who wouldn't pay a little extra to have their car picked up directly from the office to get basic maintenance, such as an oil change, done while they're at work? Or, for that matter, who wouldn't cough up an extra 25 or 50 cents to get a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread from a drive-thru? Call me lazy if you'd like, but when I have two sleeping children in the back seat of my car, the last thing I want to do is drag them into the grocery store just to buy a couple items on my way home.

This quest to save time -- or at least to reprioritize how we spend our most productive hours -- is also fueling the e-commerce trend. The Internet enables customers to do business when they have time rather than being confined by traditional work hours.

If I need to transfer funds at the bank, buy postage stamps or renew my driver's license, why should I have to rearrange my entire day? I'd much rather hop on a secure Web site late at night when I have time to think of such matters and take care of it that way.

I don't have to leave home, I don't have to interrupt my work day, I don't have to wait in line. What's not to like about that?

If you really want to serve your customers -- and perhaps even attract more of them -- start offering what they truly value: more time.Nancy Byron (nbyron@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Columbus.

Wednesday, 30 January 2002 10:25

The power of change

When you think "power" in corporate Columbus, a few names immediately come to mind: Les Wexner, John Wolfe, maybe Alex Shumate.

Who wouldn't salivate at the thought of having one of these giants on their board -- or among their friends? They're tremendous string-pullers. They have their hands in just about every significant idea or event connected to Central Ohio. They exude power. They're in a class by themselves.

Or are they?

These are the survivors of the once-small, tight-knit fraternity of CEOs who used to reign over corporate Columbus. Not even 10 years ago, their ranks included the likes of J.W. Wolfe, John Fisher, John McCoy, Frank Wobst and Gerry Mayo. This power trust ruled this city with an iron fist. Their vision was the city's vision. No one dared second-guess them.

Much has changed. Death and retirement took a toll on many of these business "titans," and the remaining members of this once all-powerful clique have shunned the old mindset of exclusion.

They've turned to consensus building. They've found leading with modesty is more effective than bullying with fear. They've discovered the power of inclusion.

The leaders we've selected for this year's SBN Power 100 list reflect that new mindset.

Look at Bob Walter, CEO of Cardinal Health. His company has not only grown to be the top revenue-producing company in Central Ohio, but the largest pharmaceutical distribution business in the country.

He's earned the right to be cocky, yet he's quite the opposite. He's maintained an extremely low profile and offers his opinion on community matters only when pressed. His humble nature in the face of great success has brought him immeasurable power.

Then there's Jerry Jurgensen, who stepped into Dimon McFerson's shoes at Nationwide less than two years ago and found them a pretty good fit. Granted, Jurgensen is still considered new in town, so he's putting on a happy face, but I just don't see this guy getting haughty. He's just too genuine. His confidence and natural leadership have catapulted him into the top 10 on our Power 100 rankings.

A city needs strong leadership from the corporate community, but it shouldn't be overpowering.

These CEOs are striking the right balance. Public officials actively seek their opinions. That's important. After all, industry drives our economy, and making changes in public policy without first weighing the potential impact on private business could have devastating and far-reaching effects.

Those who lead the Columbus business community today are the types of leaders we need. They're approachable. They're level-headed. They're real people. That's a pretty powerful combination. Nancy Byron (columbus@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Magazine.

Tuesday, 23 October 2001 10:49

Talent manager

Imagine trying to manage Jesse Ventura, the flashy, outspoken professional wrestler-turned-politician whose upset victory in the 1998 Minnesota governor's race shocked the nation.

Steve Konrad, program director for 610-WTVN radio, doesn't have to imagine. He's done it. In fact, Konrad brought the job of managing "Jesse the Mouth" upon himself.

When Konrad was program director of a talk radio station in St. Paul, Minn., he personally recruited Ventura to host the morning show there.

"I knew he had things to say and that he was a beloved guy," Konrad explains. "Those are two things you're always dying to find, and I had it in one package."

Konrad says he first heard Ventura "yammer a little bit" about his philosophies during an event Konrad's Minnesota station was involved with in the early '90s.

"That was in the back of my head," Konrad says. "Then the 80 percent voting rate he got when he was elected mayor of Brooklyn Park (Minn.) told me he's not just the flash of showbiz. There was some substance to him."

In the spring of 1994, Ventura started lighting up the phone lines at AM 1500 KSTP with his controversial opinions on political and social issues.

"It really blew some people away because people thought he was just going to be some dumb wrestler guy," Konrad recalls.

Although Ventura found quick success in his new radio career, his widespread celebrity in the Twin Cities didn't make him unbearable to manage, Konrad says.

"He was not an egomaniac," he says. "He's very thoughtful. He's very humble, which doesn't really fit the profile. He's a normal guy with a house and a wife and kids. He has a heart of gold and he's entertaining as hell."

Still, it couldn't have been a piece of cake to manage such a lightning-rod personality.

Case in point: In his autobiography, "I Ain't Got Time to Bleed," Ventura admits to calling a Democratic Minnesota legislator a "little commie" during a live interview and later, after realizing his error, apologizing on air by saying, "You're right ... I shouldn't have called you a communist. I should have called you a socialist."-- a comment Ventura notes the lawmaker didn't seem to take any better.

Another time, Ventura reportedly munched on some chocolate-covered hemp seeds in the broadcast booth while discussing whether the crop, known best for producing marijuana but also used to make rope and cloth fiber, should be legalized.

"I never had a problem with Jesse that we couldn't talk about," Konrad insists. "He's a good guy."

The on-air talent Konrad now oversees at WTVN may not be as flashy or in-your-face as Ventura, but the same principles of management apply.

"A lot of it comes down to mutual respect," Konrad says. "If that is there, that's really the foundation."

Here's Konrad's formula for laying solid groundwork when managing superstars.

Keep 'em happy

Bob Conners is the most consistently No. 1-rated morning radio host in Central Ohio, so making sure he's content at WTVN is paramount to the station's success.

"The morning show is probably the highest profile show of a radio station, and given his longevity in the market, his knowledge of the city and of the people and what they know and what they like to know about, (Bob's) very important," Konrad says.

"He's been No. 1 forever," echoes Mike Elliott, producer of The Bob Conners Show, which airs from 5:30 to 9 a.m. weekdays. "They don't call him The Morning Monarch for nothing."

Indeed. According to Arbitron ratings for fall 2000 -- the most recent available; winter ratings are due out later this month -- WTVN ranked first in the 5:30 to 9 a.m. timeslot with an 11.3 share. A share is the percentage of people, ages 12 and older, listening to the radio. The next highest share for that timeslot was WNCI at 8.8.

"He's No. 1, and by a comfortable amount," Elliott says of Conners.

Looking back at the same ratings period a year earlier, WTVN had an 11.9 share in Conners' timeslot, nearly three full points ahead of any other Central Ohio station. In the fall of 1998, Conners' show was first with a 10.8 share.

"He has consistently performed double-digit shares," Konrad says.

In fact, the only time WTVN's morning show ratings seem to dip is when Conners is on vacation. That's why station executives agreed to let Conners do his show from Florida this winter. They wanted to keep their superstar happy -- and on the air as much as possible.

"They treat me very well," Conners says. "The people I work with are top-shelf people."

That, too, is by design. Konrad wants his superstars to be comfortable with those around them. If a producer change is needed, for example, Konrad includes on-air talent in the interview process.

"They don't have final say, but I typically follow their lead," Konrad says. "It's their show. Their butt's on the line every day. They need to be on the same page. So I'm kind of partial to letting the talent dictate who they want to work with."

After all, if a personality clash can be avoided, why not do it? Everyone winds up happier. And happy talent is productive talent.

"This can't necessarily work in all situations, but you have to like the people you're working with," agrees Joe Bradley, who produced "The Bob Conners Show" for nearly five years before moving to afternoons to produce for John Corby. "If you don't, that's the first major impediment to being able to work with them and have them work well for you. That doesn't mean I'm over at Bob's house every day cooking out steaks on the back patio. But I don't know how hard I could work for someone I didn't like. It sounds awfully simplistic, but it's what works for me."

It also works in Konrad's game plan.

"I need the talent to get along with and respect the producer and vice versa," he says. "If that respect isn't there, it's going to be a problem."

That doesn't appear to be an issue with Conners and Elliott.

"Bob trusted me from the get-go," Elliott says. "There's been no second-guessing, no discomfort."

And everybody at the station is respectful of Bob, Elliott adds.

"A lot of folks would love to be in his shoes."

Realize their value

WTVN calls Conners a Columbus landmark, "as essential as the first cup of coffee," and the "Morning Monarch" in station promotions.

His face grins down from the occasional billboard advertisement along heavily traveled commuter routes. He makes personal appearances on behalf of the station at selected events. He even has his own e-poll on the WTVN Web site -- and a personal photo gallery showing him posing with a variety of citizens and civic leaders, as well as staffers and family.

"When you have someone of his stature and popularity, you definitely want to play to that strength," Elliott says.

Conners can appreciate the station's need to promote his name and face.

"First of all, I'm a product, and I'm their product," Conners says. "How they see fit to use me is up to them. They've never done anything I've seen as out of line."

Leveraging star power like Conners' to help market WTVN may be beneficial to the business, but it comes at a price -- generally top dollar.

Although Konrad won't say outright if Conners is the top paid talent at WTVN, he concedes that "in a general sense, the morning show is the highest visibility and the morning drive is the highest listening population, so at any radio station, the person who does the morning show is going to be the highest paid."

"They're paying me for good ratings," Conners says. "And I'm trying to perform the best I can. But ratings are a byproduct of what I do. What I do isn't for ratings."

Being top-rated year after year, however, would appear to put Conners in the driver's seat when it comes time to renegotiate his contract. Not so, he says.

"They have the leverage," Conners insists. "They have the radio station where I want to be."

Even if your company superstar has an attitude like Conners', negotiating with top talent can be a delicate matter. You want to pay them enough to keep them satisfied, but you have to work within a budget.

"I have no interest in ripping them off or jerking them around," Konrad says. "I want them to be happy. I want them to feel they're fairly compensated. And I want them to be comfortable.

"Obviously we have to balance that with (the fact that) this is a business. I can't give the talent the bank," Konrad continues. "That's dumb. But it's not about negotiating. It's about discussing -- 'Where are you at? I can't go that high because blah, blah, blah.' I've never been in a knuckle-busting, poker-like game of negotiating contracts. All that does is create animosity. And you can't go through all that strife and not go on the air and have people say, 'Geez, what's he so bitter about?'

"Whatever is on their mind is going to come out of their mouth."

Conners says negotiating his contract -- which includes a noncompete clause -- "takes normally about 15 seconds. As in all work agreements, there's give and take. You ask for a high number, they offer you a low number and you know they're going to meet you at a middle number."

So how, as a business owner or manager, do you decide what your top performer is worth?

It all comes down to expectations.

"How much revenue total is in the market? And how much of that do we think this talent can garner for us? That all translates into dollars," Konrad says. "There is some subjectivity to it and you can't get around it.

"But if they're (top talent), their compensation is going to reflect that."

Watch the egos

Despite all his years in the catbird seat at WTVN, Conners is still largely described by co-workers as "a regular guy." The fame hasn't gone to his head, they say.

"For as popular as he is, there's the potential for him to have a huge ego, but he doesn't," Elliott says. "He doesn't like to be gushed over. He's very humble -- especially when he's in a position where he doesn't have to be. It's very refreshing."

Conners says he's actually a bit embarrassed by the Morning Monarch nickname, pointing out that a newspaper reporter bestowed that title upon him years ago.

"I've never billed myself as that," he says. "I just don't perceive myself as that. I don't want to be the king of anything. I'm serious about what I do, but I don't take myself seriously."

Perhaps that's why Conners is regarded as so approachable.

"I can't imagine Bob not getting along with anyone," Konrad says.

"If you're the new, part-time accounting person and you want to shoot the breeze with Bob in the hallway, you can do that," Bradley says. "He's just a regular person who does something very well that entertains and informs lots of people."

Conners also recognizes he didn't get where he is all by himself.

"If there's one thing to say about Bob, he's quick to share the credit," Bradley says. "He's not quick to point the finger."

"I've worked for lesser talent that's had bigger egos," Elliott adds. "He's set up to have a gigantic ego and be very difficult to work with and want everything his way, but that's not the case at all."

"That whole ego thing is stupid," Conners says. "People from time to time will confuse pride with ego and I'm proud of what I do. I'm just not involved with all that ego, id, whatever you want to call it.

"You have to be proud of your product, and if someone misreads it, you'll never be able to talk them out of it."

Give up some control

Since superstars tend to take pride in their performance, they often want to call the shots. But how much latitude can you give such talent without losing control?

"I don't know that free rein is the answer," Konrad says. "I think they do want some boundaries. You just have to be sure everybody knows those boundaries."

Konrad offers the example of a talented radio personality he used to work with who "every third week came marching into my office demanding that her producer be fired."

That clearly was overstepping her bounds.

When problems like that arise, Konrad says it's imperative to figure out the true source of your superstar's discontent -- which isn't always obvious from the typical, 'This just isn't going to work for me,' complaint.

"I have to find out: Where's the pea under the mattress?" Konrad says. "And how do we move that pea out from under the mattress? It's usually a very small problem that they perceive as being a big issue.

"The secret radio joke," he continues, is superstars are "a lot like children." They squawk over seemingly insignificant issues, presenting them as "melodramatic and larger than life traumas," Konrad says.

Fortunately for Konrad, Conners and WTVN afternoon drive-time host John Corby seem to behave themselves despite their stardom. That means Konrad is more comfortable relinquishing control to them since he knows they won't abuse that power.

"They're professionals and I pretty much stay out of their hair as far as dictating what they should do," Konrad says.

Elliott does likewise with Conners.

"You really can't put restraints on somebody," Elliott says. "Obviously, he's the guy with the microphone, and if he doesn't like the way something is going, he's definitely in control. But he'll trust my judgment. If I say, 'We definitely need to talk to this person,' he may not agree, but he'll do it. And if he says, 'I really want to tackle this topic,' far be it from me to say, 'No, we're not going to do it on your show.' After all, it is The Bob Conners Show."

"Every business has creative people that drive their business," Konrad concludes. "There is no cookie-cutter way to deal with creativity. That's why it's called creativity instead of science. Each person is different.

"I hope I treat everybody fairly, but there's no way I can treat everybody the same." How to reach: Steve Konrad, WTVN, 487-2476 or SteveKonrad@ClearChannel.com

Nancy Byron (nbyron@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Magazine in Columbus.

Tuesday, 23 October 2001 10:48

What are they afraid of?

We've created a government by the people and for the politicians. Sad but true.

Nothing has made that more clear than the attempts earlier this year by certain state GOP-types to keep under wraps their communications with staff members, and even each other, as they work toward legislative agreements. That certainly isn't being done for the people. It's being done for the handful of state officials who want to cut deals behind closed doors and not have to explain how they arrived at these deals.

These officials don't want the public to know what favors got swapped to reach a compromise. They don't want the public to hear their self-serving motivations for supporting or opposing a certain piece of legislation. They don't want the public to see the ugly side of politics -- or of themselves, in particular.

Well, it's too late. We've already gotten a good glimpse, even without having to peer through the keyhole.

The fact that the Supreme Court had to actually order the release this spring of documents used by state officials in school funding meetings that were closed off to the public should tell you there's something awry here. The public has a right to know what's being said -- and done -- when government leaders get together to debate an issue. And if Gov. Bob Taft, Sen. Richard Finan and House Speaker Larry Householder had nothing to hide in these school funding discussions, why would they try to withhold the records? Makes you wonder.

These guys are public officials. As such, they aren't -- and shouldn't be -- afforded the same level of privacy as the rest of us. Their actions should be subject to near-constant monitoring to ensure they are acting in the best interests of their constituents. I'm not talking about 24-hour, Big Brother-type surveillance, but let's face it: These politicians signed up for life in a fishbowl when they ran for elected office. Now it's time for them to live with that choice.

Trying to stifle public input by locking citizens out of meetings and suppressing documents used to reach important legislative decisions are perfect examples of how politicians are abusing their power. Senate Republicans even went as far as to bury in the state budget bill for 2002 an obscure amendment protecting legislators' communications with staff members from court subpoenas.

Although Taft thought well enough to veto that line item, it still prompts the question: What are they trying to hide? They may insist it's nothing, but to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare, Me thinks thou dost protest too much. Elected officials are supposed to be public servants. It's time they start acting like it and stop saying and doing things for the advancement of their own political careers rather than for the benefit of the public good.

We see these shenanigans for what they are: Legislators running scared -- scared of exposing their true agendas, scared of allowing the public to scrutinize their data, scared of looking foolish or childish for the way they behave during heated debates.

Whatever the reason, these fears will certainly pale in comparison to what they'll face come election time. It's called voter backlash. And it's what politicians ought to fear most. Nancy Byron (nbyron@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN Magazine in Columbus.