Lori Murray

Don't talk to everybody and don't apologize

A local consulting firm tripled revenues in one year by overhauling the way it sells.

By Teresa Dixon Murray

It seemed that everything was going well for Q Integrated Networks Inc., until Michael Mata was faced with a disturbing reality: Like many young entrepreneurs, he was the president and chief salesman.

Company growth had forced him to spend more time managing and sales suffered.

That had to change.

"If I was going to grow my company beyond what I could sell, I had to have a systematic approach to sales," Mata says.

He hired outside sales consultants both to overhaul his own sales approach and to help him adopt a program that he could easily duplicate for others.

Today, a year and a half after he began the training through Sandler Sales Institute, Mata says his company's sales have more than tripled, his staff has expanded to 11 and he's opened two additional offices. Sales for the Cuyahoga Falls computer systems and software development company last year neared $1 million, and revenues exceeded the '97 figure in just the first quarter of this year. That's some return on his $10,000 investment, he says.

Mata is one of about 30 executives currently participating in the local Sandler program, launched three years ago. Consultants Bill Art and James Dagley, who have offices in Cuyahoga Falls and Canton, license the national Sandler program for this region.

Dagley notes that dozens of sales training programs can provide good results. The Sandler program, he says, "is a communication system, rather than a selling system."

Mata doesn't care what it's called. He says it was perfect timing for the help his business needed a year ago. Here are some of the ways he has overhauled his sales system:

Not everyone is a prospect

Much of Q Integrated's success with the new approach can be attributed to how Mata and his staff spend their time. They identify true prospects sooner and waste less time on clients who will never buy.

Mata says he previously measured how hard he worked based on the quantity of sales calls. Now quality matters.

At one time Mata and his staff set appointments by phone with almost anyone who would say yes to getting together. Now, they try first to make sure the meeting will be worth their time. "Once I come through the door, there's a 90 percent chance I'll close," Mata says.

By phone, Mata and his two salespeople take prospects through various steps of the program, such as building rapport and gauging pain. They then try to determine how serious the prospect really is.

"I'll say, 'How about if we get together in about three or four weeks?' If you say, 'OK,' then that tells me it's not that important to you."

That leads Mata to other questions which assess whether the customer is truly busy or whether he or she is agreeing to a meeting out of curiosity or to milk him for information. If it's not the right motive, "you might get to the point where you say to the person, 'It doesn't look like a fit here.' "

Mata says the program shows results quickly. "Your sales go more smoothly. You know which ones are going to close, and you cut out a lot of those headache clients."

Mata's hit list today is considerably smaller, which is right in line with the philosophy Dagley recites: "Everybody is a suspect, not a prospect."

Stop doing proposals

Mata says his selling process used to be a merry-go-round of proposals. In the end, he had lots of bids but few jobs.

He realized that many executives requesting a proposal have already decided on another vendor-they simply want another bid on file. In other cases, they use the information he provided in a proposal to educate themselves and to know how to ask his competitors better questions.

A proposal from Mata involves preparing a network design blueprint-a sophisticated document that can take hours of time from Mata and his technicians, who bill at $125 an hour.

"We did proposals like they went out of style," Mata recalls.

Mata says he's learned to value both his information and his time. "Proposals don't take me to the bank," he says. "In our industry as a whole, some people willingly give this information away. ... Everything in our industry is a commodity."

Now, Mata gives a bid if the network is already designed. That takes less than an hour to prepare. But he tells clients he'll charge for a full proposal if they don't hire him.

He acknowledges that it'll take a while to change the industry mindset.

"One guy even threatened to report me to the Better Business Bureau," Mata laughs, "because I wanted to charge him for a proposal.

"I'm sure there are a handful of clients we lose because we don't do proposals," he adds, but he says he believes the time saved more than pays for the occasional job he loses.

Talking money isn't taboo

Many sales programs teach people to skirt the dollar-sign issue until the prospect is locked in. Mata takes the opposite approach. "I find out whether price is an issue almost immediately. If so, we get out.

"If $2,000 is your maximum for a certain project, I'll say, 'I've got to stop you right now. I'm going to tell you I don't think I can do this for that price. ... You're talking $15,000 to do all of these things.'

"I look to see if you fall off of your chair," he says. If the project is completely unaffordable, Mata wants to know now because he won't try to talk someone into spending more money than they plan.

Don't apologize if you're expensive

Besides wasting Mata's time, proposals have actually worked against him because he tends to be higher priced. He doesn't try to hide that, but finds that it doesn't serve him well to have his detailed numbers sprawled out before a client knows what they mean.

Bill Art of Sandler suggests that vendors such as Mata can reply to a request for a proposal by saying, "I can't remember the last time I was the low bidder."

Mata is more direct. "I tend to be the highest price."

And he doesn't apologize for that.

"Wal-Mart is very inexpensive. They have economies of scale to their advantage. Being a much smaller company, you don't have that."

He tells people: You get what you pay for.

Accept "no" as a good answer

Salespeople are conditioned to dread the word "no." But it's a good answer if it keeps them from wasting time.

When Mata's on a sales call, he says, " 'Yes' is OK. 'No' is OK. 'I've got to think it over' is not OK."

Definitive "yes" answers don't necessarily mean a signed contract, but an agreement that it's worth taking the next step toward a decision. Mata establishes "continual up-front contracts" of expectations, so both sides know what to anticipate from a given conversation.

Close deals faster

When Mata planned budgets and cash flow previously, he knew that the average time from first meeting to contract was three to five months.

Today, it's two to five weeks.

"I wanted to reduce my product cycle," he says. "It was hurting the business."

Most of the decrease stems from all the wasted meetings Mata and his staff no longer attend. "It was a lot of chasing the wrong prospects and starting to target the audience we wanted."

Not even halfway through 1998, Mata expects to nearly triple sales again this year, projecting $2.5 million to $3 million. How much has the new sales approach meant to his business?

"How about everything?" Mata answers quickly. "It's part of the culture now. It might have even saved my business."

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:07

The price isn’t right

Bonnie Smith ran a non-profit venture for almost three years. It wasn’t that way intentionally. It just took her that long to realize she was undercharging.

Smith launched Wigs on Wheels, an in-the-home wig distributor, in 1994. Today, not only does Smith earn enough so that she could quit her job, but she also has sold two franchises, in Cleveland and Columbus.

She finally learned her lesson: “If you have a good service and if you charge the right price without hurting the customer,” she says, “you’ll stay busy.”

Smith, a former executive secretary at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., stumbled into her business somewhat accidentally. After both she and her 17-year-old daughter started losing their hair because of a genetic hormone imbalance, she was forced to shop for wigs. Her daughter’s hair has improved, but Smith still needs a wig.

“I hated shopping for them. I didn’t feel the salespeople were helpful and I just felt conspicuous,” she says. “I thought, ‘There has to be something better.’ “

She became inspired to provide an alternative, but says, “I wanted to do something different than just another wig store. I wanted to be more like a friend.”

Working full time at Goodyear during the day, Smith started her business slowly: She spent evenings and weekends for most of 1993 researching the industry, talking to the manufacturers and developing a marketing plan and brochure. She began marketing it in January 1994 to doctors’ offices and hospitals but initially got a lukewarm response because she was a newcomer.

“Occasionally they would send me someone,” she recalls. She made those referrals count, however, and built the business on word-of-mouth. Customers liked her personalized service and the privacy of an in-home consultation.

Most of her clients are cancer patients, and Smith reasons they’re going through enough without the stress of shopping for a wig. In addition, the patients—with reduced immunity— are more vulnerable to the germs in open public places like stores.

Patricia Latham of Summit Oncology Associates in Akron says Wigs on Wheels is the only local in-home service of which she’s aware. She includes Smith’s card in referral packets for new patients.

“It’s a service that’s very much needed,” Latham says. “She really has that empathy for people, and it’s turned out very well for the patients we’ve referred.”

Based on strong feedback, Smith got serious in 1994, hiring Cleveland franchise attorney Thomas Brule of Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs and spent $3,000 to trademark the name Wigs on Wheels. Brule’s other clients have included KFC and Physicians’ Weight Loss Centers. “I wanted to do it right,” Smith says.

But in 1994, she was still working full time at Goodyear. She generated only $25,000 in sales. A wig that cost her $30 might be priced at $65. That allowed for barely any profit after she figured in for her time, travel expenses and other costs.

“It was bad,” she muses. “Because it was only me I had to answer to. If I felt a person was struggling, I’d adjust the price even lower... I provided a great non-profit service.”

By 1995, Smith began getting better prices from the manufacturers. “As they got to know me and I did more volume, I was able to secure the best price,” she says.

Smith also raised her prices slightly to allow for a modest profit. She maintains that she’s able to charge slightly less than most stores and still make money because she doesn’t have the overhead of rent, utilities, signage and cash registers. She also doesn’t have to pay someone to sit in a store all day.

Last year, Smith sold nearly 1,000 wigs while working part-time—the result of a job-share program with Goodyear. Smith retired this April after 15 years. Now she’s confident Wigs on Wheels will prosper.

Smith projects sales will exceed $100,000 in 1998, based on an average of three customers a day. About 75 percent of Smith’s sales are in the Akron area; the rest are in Stark County.

Wig wearing is growing more popular, Smith says. About half her customers have insurance to cover the costs.

Already this spring, she’s sold two franchises at $10,000 each, including training, the operations manual, vendors’ pricing and support. Barb Sabat, a former Cleveland Clinic nurse, purchased the first franchise in March. A Columbus businesswoman bought her franchise a month later.

The franchisees must buy their own $1,000 start-up kits from Smith, who obtains the kit for the same price. They also take care of their own phone lines, business cards and related expenses.

Smith plans to charge royalties totaling 5 percent of sales once “they’re doing well,” she says. There’s no written time frame for that, she shrugs, explaining she doesn’t feel right charging royalties in the start-up phase.

“My husband’s been giving me a hard time,” Smith chuckles. “He said you did this initially with prices and now you’re doing it with the franchises.”

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:07

How technology saved a business

Jeff Slesnick had two choices last year: Figure out how to dramatically increase sales at Slesnick Auto Parts or close.

A monstrous increase—say doubling sales in one year—was an admirable goal, but it was a laughable one as well.

That is, until, Slesnick invested $10,000 to link electronically to nearly 2,000 other auto parts suppliers nationwide. The system allows Slesnick to offer walk-in customers an inventory database of 47 million parts nationwide—everything from that hard-to-find front bumper for a 1970 Skylark to an alternator for a 1990 Pontiac 6000. This allows Slesnick to be a one-stop resource and allows him to earn a modest profit on someone else’s inventory.

More significantly, the system lets those 2,000 outlets sell his inventory. He can peddle hundreds of parts daily without the overhead of a large store and sales force.

A means to survive

Slesnick Auto Parts in Canton started in 1980 as an extension of Slesnick Iron & Steel Co., the now-42-year-old business founded by Jeff’s father, Stanley. Started as a scrap yard, the business today employs 50 people and supplies aluminum and stainless steel to businesses including plumbers, heating and cooling contractors and truck body shops. Auto parts is one division; Slesnick Structural Steel is the other.

The company, run by Stanley and sons Jeff and Edward, stumbled into auto parts because the scrap yard acquired a large number of wrecked autos and it had extra warehouse space.

But after 17 years, Slesnick Auto Parts last year generated a modest $250,000 with a slender profit margin. “There isn’t enough volume with just the local market,” Jeff Slesnick says. “If we were going to stay in this business, we had to do something. We had no choice.”

Slesnick had wanted to purchase the ADP Parts Services software system for seven years, but its high costs and incompatibility issues made it an unwise decision. By last year, the costs had dropped in half and the system was compatible on Windows 95 and was Year 2000 compliant. In addition to the $10,000 start-up costs, Slesnick pays a $1,000 membership fee. He expects that this year both the system will pay for itself and sales will increase 50 percent.

Boosting volume and profit margins quickly

The ADP system works simply: A Slesnick employee enters in the car, year, model and the part being sought. The modem taps into the national database and, in less than a minute, indicates which dealers have the needed part and how much it costs. Slesnick can then call the dealer, verify the part’s availability and cost, and arrange to have it shipped overnight.

The dealer could charge Slesnick the $35 distributor price for an alternator for a late-model car, for example. Slesnick would then charge $50 (the same price he would charge if it were his own part), plus $10 he paid to ship it. That transaction would bring the original supplier a 40 percent profit margin and bring Slesnick a 30 percent profit margin. The customer, meanwhile, has a part he needed without hassle—with only the overnight shipping costs added.

“This is the Information Age,” Slesnick says grinning. “I can say, ‘Yes, I have that part, or ‘Yes, I can get it for you, here’s what it will cost and here’s when you’ll have it ...

“I don’t have to call eight different scrap yards and the customer doesn’t have to run all over town.”

Slesnick says he’s generating 50 to 100 requests a day and matching and selling 20 to 50 parts a day through the ADP system.

Going after ‘real money’

The software capability is linked directly with Slesnick’s plans to become a more sophisticated supplier. To build desired volume, Slesnick must deal with more body shops and auto dealers. Demand from individuals has plummeted, as Saturday morning mechanics find they can’t repair their cars as they once did.

To provide a resource, Slesnick has had to increase inventory and improve inventory management.

The salvage yard carries 400 to 500 cars at one time, but most of them are scrap. Slesnick hopes to increase the percentage of late-model wrecked cars purchased from auctions. “That’s where the real money is,” he says, explaining he might spend $450 for a 1992 Corsica but harvest and sell $1,000 worth of parts.

Slesnick carries 6,000 parts in inventory now and hopes to double that by year’s end. Within five years, Slesnick hopes to have 80 percent of sales from his own stock.

The software then allows Slesnick to track all of those parts and cars. “I can look it up on the computer and find the part or say, ‘That Buick you need is in Row A and it’s car No. 12.’”

The supplier can also become a resource to body shops trying to develop quick estimates. “If someone needs a door for a Buick Century, I can tell him it’ll cost about $200 regardless who he buys it from.”

Slesnick says his computerization shows that even non-technical businesses are benefitting from—and being forced into—the Information Age. “Companies that are going to be in business in the Year 2000 have to provide service. I might not be able to give them the best price, but I can provide them with information and service.”

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:06

A better Better Business Bureau

Technology has allowed the Akron Better Business Bureau to make it easier for consumers to find out who's good to do business with, and requests for information is soaring.

Traditionally, consumers could get basic information about member companies and charities by phone. Last year, a 24-hour-a-day information line was added to obtain information about specific companies.

Last spring, the BBB launched its Web site, where visitors can find out whether a company is a member or can access company profiles. This summer, the bureau started a fax-back service for obtaining reports, member lists or complaint forms.

"We are seeing a major increase in the number of contacts," says Victor Wlaszyn, president of the Akron bureau.

The six-county office has 2,300 members.

Phone calls to the 24-hour line have jumped from 300 a day to 550 a day. Calls come late into the evening and occasionally in the middle of the night.

The Web site is seeing some 6,000 hits a month, with 4,000 unique users.

"What's interesting is the vast majority are going into our member lists and not the full-company profile," Wlaszyn says. "They seem to be satisfied just knowing a company is a member of the bureau."

From 12 to 18 percent of Web visitors access company reports, he says.

On the new fax-back line, awareness is just starting to build. The line gets about a dozen requests a day, mostly new users, even though the same information has been there all along.

"The technology alone brings out a unique group of people," Wlaszyn says. "Before they may have hesitated contacting us. Now they have more ways. Maybe that's the difference."

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:05

The customers are mine

Randy Muntean lost a key salesman at CopyRight Inc. in January, and with that employee, one of his biggest customers left too.

Muntean learned a valuable lesson about the copier company he founded in 1989: In a cutthroat, high-turnover industry like copier sales, he had to make sure his customers never got too attached to one of his 11 employees. Muntean had to make sure customers were instead loyal to CopyRight and himself personally.

Muntean, who worked for seven years as a salesman at Copeco, says it's an issue facing many business owners, though perhaps it's more critical in an industry that averages 100 percent employee turnover annually.

Today, he proclaims, "I am the business. I have to be."

Muntean employs four salespeople, but he makes half the sales himself. Sales doubled in 1997 to $1 million. Maintaining customer loyalty with his half is easy. It's the rest he worries about.

"With the major accounts others sell, I stay involved one way or another. I'm in on the close or final installation.

"I know that contact," he says. "I can call that person three months from now and he'd know me."

CopyRight has about 650 customers, and Muntean maintains that he knows enough about each of them individually to feel in control. "I keep all of that information in my head," he says.

Vicki Smith of ABB Service Inc. in Massillon, a six-year CopyRight customer, says Muntean has made his presence known at her 125-employee company. "He put in a lot of our new machines himself," she says. She acknowledges that while many businesses might not know the owners of the companies they patronize, "Anybody here could call Randy if we needed to. We know that."

While CopyRight salespeople and service technicians might be the first point-of-contact after a sale, Muntean makes sure he personally maintains relationships with his customers.

"I write letters and call, and check in with them periodically. They know my door is always open."

CopyRight offers lifetime performance guarantees, which Muntean wants customers to know isn't just his salesperson's word or his company's word, it's his promise. "Anybody can call me anytime of day," he says. "I've given people my home number to reach me on the weekends."

The promise of customer satisfaction has been tested, such as in the case of the Stark County Recorder's Office, which has problems with one of three copiers it purchased from CopyRight.

A copy-guard unit, which allows a copy debit card to work, kept malfunctioning. Muntean paid to replace the unit only to have it blow again, then paid for an electrical contractor and other specialists to figure out the problem was caused by the building's electrical system.

He says fixing the problem-which had nothing to do with the machine he sold them-has cost him $2,000. "But the point is that I'm here to take care of the customers.

"I've replaced whole machines before at no cost, no matter the reason. You have to do that today," he says.

Muntean has developed a safeguard for maintaining personal contact. He personally renews maintenance agreements, which guarantees regular communication beyond nice letters or courtesy calls.

These efforts explain why he wasn't too concerned this spring when his sales manager resigned to go to another copier company. So far, he hasn't lost any of the manager's customers.

The tenure of CopyRight's salespeople ranges from a few weeks to two years. His five technicians have been with him for one to five years.

Muntean makes sure his employees also know he's active in every aspect of the business. "I'll unload a truck. I'll deliver a machine. Whatever I have to do, I'll do it. I don't care."

CopyRight projects a 20 percent to 30 percent sales increase in 1998. Muntean admits he's not in danger of becoming "too big" anytime soon, but says he sees $4 million to $5 million as the maximum sales he wants to reach in today's dollars.

"You can grow to the point where you lose touch with your customers," he says. "I want to be bigger but small enough to care about the customer. If you get too big, you're chasing your tail."

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:03

Letting a stranger decide

Hugh Rice has fielded dozens of phone calls from panicked business owners staring at retirement with no successor in line.

Rice is senior vice president at Denver-based FMI Corp., the management consulting firm that helped Jerry Welty solve a similar problem.

According to Rice, only one company in three in the construction industry will make it to the next generation, largely because of a lack of planning. "My advice is that if you haven't started succession planning by the time you're 50, it's too late," Rice says.

In construction, one in three executives plans to turn the company over to family, while nearly half look to non-family employees, as Welty did.

One of FMI's services is to identify that non-family successor.

The process involves sending a team of FMI consultants into the company to interview each employee and management. FMI looks at the skills of various employees and the company culture to narrow a field of possible successors. One of the questions posed to employees is who they think is qualified to take over.

While that bottom-line question isn't rocket science, Rice says most companies need an outsider to meet individually with employees because workers "probably will not be very forthcoming to their boss."

The most important characteristic is leadership.

"Leadership is one of those funny things. It takes followers to have leaders. It's nice to know ahead of time whether the employees believe in the person."

Once a field of candidates is identified, FMI conducts skills assessments and personality tests. "There is a certain personality style that is generally held by the people who run these kinds of businesses," he says.

"We assume basic qualities like honesty, integrity and understanding the industry," Rice says. "We look for being results-oriented and aggressive and having good people skills. It's relatively easy to summarize."

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:45

Making your work force smarter

Roughly 91,000 individuals in Greater Columbus are considered illiterate by the national definition, according to the most recent statistics available from the national census report.

That means they can fill out a bank deposit slip and read basic signs, but they are unable to read a bus schedule well enough to determine where they want to go and how to get there. Perhaps more startling, another 36,000 Columbusites cannot read or write at all. Some of them may be working for you.

“Being unable to read is not a recognizable sign. You can’t see it on someone,” says Gina Ficociello, president of The Literacy Initiative in Columbus. “They may say, ‘I don’t have my glasses with me.’”

That is why several Central Ohio companies have created lifelong learning centers where all employees, regardless of their educational levels, can further their skills — or, in some cases, simply learn to read.

About five years ago, C.O.W. Industries, an East Side precision sheet metal machining and manufacturing company, invested $150,000 in an on-site learning center. CEO John Burns, like most Central Ohio employers these days, says it is difficult to find good workers, but the company has had lots of luck with first-generation Americans, who Burns says have great attitudes but may be limited in their abilities to read and write English. The learning center was created to address that need, as well as the total education needs of the work force.

“I think there is a direct correlation between investing in education and learning and productivity improvements,” Burns says.

Another payback comes in the form of increased morale and self-esteem. C.O.W.’s learning center provides classes from math and English training to blueprint reading. One hundred of the company’s 120 employees have participated in learning center courses.

“If you hold out for skilled employees, you will have a lot of empty positions,” says Tracie Patten of Techneglas, a South Side manufacturer, which received a 1999 Governor’s Excellence Award for its learning lab.

As technology increases in the manufacturing setting, companies require more from their employees. According to Patten, you can either tell workers to go out and get the skills they need or you can help them do it. Techneglas has taken the latter approach. By doing so, it offers several options, including tuition reimbursement and a learning lab with six computer stations available to employees 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

One 30-year-old employee, a single mother with three boys, was only eligible for two positions when she started working at Techneglas, Patten says. After obtaining her high school diploma and spending lots of time in the learning lab, she is now eligible for 18 jobs within the company.

“If a company offers these resources, it is an amazing benefit,” Patten says. “You end up with a motivated worker. And that’s a great employee to have.”

Lori Murray (Lori3204@aol.com) is a freelance writer for SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:36

Don't leave it to chance

When George Harmanis, vice president of accounting and controller at Glimcher Realty Trust in Columbus, recently took a three-week vacation, it didn't create the kind of chaos in his department you might expect.

In fact, it was business as usual, according to Janelle Mikusa, vice president of human resources at Glimcher.

The managers in the department, who typically reported to Harmanis, were prepared to run the department in his absence -- and they did, Mikusa says.

While this leave was planned, that's not always the case. When unanticipated leaves are necessary, workloads are often shifted.

"We just step in and make sure the work gets done," says Mikusa.

Cross training is important when situations such as these arise. But it's not only important to be prepared, it's critical that employees maintain a good attitude throughout the co-worker's absence.

Companies such as Glimcher are frequently faced with managing employee leaves of absence. From maternity leave and other long-term medical conditions to custody issues or the care of elderly parents, employees sometimes find themselves needing extended time off.

"The nature of the leave determines if it is paid or unpaid," says Mikusa.

Some associates, such as nonexempt employees, are eligible for short-term disability insurance. If they don't purchase it, they can use vacation or sick time. Exempt employees, such as managers, are eligible for salary continuance during a leave of absence, but they are not necessarily paid for the entire leave. For guidelines on how much to pay, the company turns to its short-term disability insurance company.

The real challenge lies in keeping things running smoothly during the employee's absence.

"Occasionally we hire a temporary worker," says Mikusa, especially in clerical situations.

When the leave is sudden, work can be spread throughout the department. This is usually left up to the department head, since he or she knows the workload and what others can feasibly take on.

What if the employee doesn't return? Sometimes it happens, Mikusa says.

Recently a worker on maternity leave decided not to return, but asked to be rehired seven months later. The company granted her request.

"When people don't return after having a baby, it doesn't cause turmoil," says Mikusa. "We have the opportunity to shift the workload around."

At the Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA), supervisors have the right to grant employees a leave of absence lasting not more than six months, says Diane McLinn, manager of employee and labor relations. At COTA, there are two groups of employees -- bargaining and administrative.

When someone in an administrative position goes on leave, other workers assume the duties. This can stress out or overload employees, so if the job is clerical, a temporary worker is often hired, McLinn says.

Staffing needs created by bus drivers and maintenance personnel on leave, however, are posted so other drivers and workers can bid for the extra work. This is done by seniority and frequently results in overtime pay. While this may be costly, it's a fact of life, says McLinn.

"If an employee is out on salary continuance and we have to also pay for a temporary, it can be costly," agrees Mikusa. "But if the person on leave has a history with us, it's a good price to pay for that employee to come back to work." Lori Murray (Lori3204@aol.com) is a free-lance writer for SBN.

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:10

In Brief

In Brief

By Teresa Dixon Murray

Why read lobby magazines when you could look at this?

Searching for something different for that new office design? You've got the indoor tree and mock fountain. Now what? How about turning one of the lobby walls into a mural?

Local commercial artist Joanne Murray has seen a growing demand for murals in offices and homes where people want a final touch that is far more personal than any wall border from Wal-Mart.

Murray, owner of Murray's Art Studio outside of Wooster, has focused on custom-painted signs for most of her 14 years in business. The majority of her clients are in Canton, Akron and Medina.

In the last year, she's fielded many requests for murals, which can be crafted on walls, movable panels, doors or folding screens. She works independently or with interior designers to give businesses and homes a unique, visually intriguing atmosphere.

"Clients explain their ideas to me, I capture their vision and then bring it to reality," Murray says.

One of her more prominent murals is an 1800s-era street scene on the first floor of The Vault restaurant in downtown Akron. She's also completed murals on walls in houses featured in local Parades of Homes.

While Murray also dabbles in furniture painting, stenciling and lettering, she enjoys the challenge of murals. "I love making blank walls and spaces say something."

Only the serious need apply

The Executive Committee, an international organization known simply as TEC, this spring launched two new groups, one each in Akron and Canton. Its Cleveland chapter, which included CEOs from Cuyahoga, Summit and Stark counties, currently has its maximum 14 members from non-competing companies.

Members use the peer group as a sort of board of directors that helps the CEO make major decisions, gives ideas to boost profits and suggests ways to improve business practices, says Richard Mueller, facilitator of the Northeast Ohio groups.

The simple guidelines limit TEC membership to CEOs with at least $3 million in annual sales and 25 or more employees. Criteria for a newer group, called Emerging Entrepreneurs, requires $750,000 in annual sales and at least five employees. That's the easy part.

  • A CEO must pay an $800 fee to be considered for membership, $400 for Emerging Entrepreneurs.

  • Prospective members submit to a 90-minute panel interview. "We see what value we can bring to them and what value they can bring to us," Mueller says. Many are denied if it doesn't seem they'll fit in.

  • Once selected, members pay a $725 monthly fee for TEC, a $450 monthly fee for EE.

  • The group meets once a month for four hours, along with quarterly resource meetings that last two hours. Mueller says the average CEO continues his membership for 7.5 years.
  • Here are a couple of the big catches:

    • Members must bare all with regard to financials and should expect to follow the advice of the consensus. "We have a strong model of accountability," Mueller says. "If the group recommends you need a new facility, we'll ask you every month how you're doing on your plan to find a new building...If you ask for advice, there's some expectation you're going to listen. If you don't take it, we won't give it anymore."

    • Members may not miss monthly meetings. Vacations, company crises and family emergencies are no excuse. "We've tracked down people in a hospital and had a four-hour conference call," Mueller says. "You can't miss a meeting unless we're coming to your funeral."

    If all of that sounds a bit abrasive, then you've just weeded yourself out.

    Business talk rides the airwaves

    Cable television stations MSNBC, CNNfn and CNBC have plenty to keep the attention of local business junkies. But the expansion of a local radio program may be just enough to give the TV remote back to your kids.

    WERE 1300 AM has increased to two hours its "Focus on Business" program which airs from 6 to 8 p.m. every Monday. The 3 1/2-year-old program was renamed from "Small Business Success."

    Each week, interviews of business owners and people offering business resources are mixed with special reports on Wall Street, the Internet, national marketing and Northeast Ohio business activities.

    It's tough enough to find good employees these days. That's one reason GOJO Industries Inc. in Akron doesn't force employees to quit when they marry a co-worker.

    GOJO, a skin care products manufacturer with 700 employees, has three married couples and three others who are living together.

    While GOJO has made a formal policy allowing married employees, most privately held companies do not address the issue until faced with co-workers who are about to wed, says Jim Kurek, an attorney and chair of the labor department at Akron-based Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs LPA, with offices in Canton, Cleveland and Columbus.

    Many family businesses already have a spouse or in-law of the owner involved in the company. While it might seem this sets a precedent for the rest of the workforce, most managers don't think about the issue until that grapevine winds its way to their door.

    A generation ago, it was commonplace to have blanket policies prohibiting co-worker relationships. That was the same mindset that scoffed at flexible time and casual dress. Times change, and so does the workplace.

    "Most employers in this area tend to be tolerant of situations where employees date," Kurek says. "I think there's a degree of sensitivity to allow people to be people."

    Besides, he adds, "with people spending as much time as they do at work, as long as you have men and women together, fraternization will occur.

    "Most employers are reluctant of going to the extreme of prohibiting it unless a problem comes up."

    Kurek says most of his clients have no problems with their married employees, but he advises them to take a few proactive steps:

    • Confirm with both parties that the relationship is consensual to protect the employer from harboring sexual harassment.

    • Don't allow spouses to supervise one another.

    • Don't allow spouses or any relatives to work in checks-and-balances positions, such as one in charge of payables and another in charge of signing checks.

    Most employers are sophisticated enough-and frankly, desperate to keep good workers-that they will allow couples unless there are problems. Companies, however, are legally entitled to have anti-nepotism and non-fraternization policies. "The hard part with the dating is how do you enforce it," Kurek asks.

    "The bottom line," he says, "don't do it if you don't plan to enforce it.

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