Kelly Tomkies

Thursday, 11 March 2004 12:06

Developing profits

Attorney Franz Geiger always knew he wanted to be part of the real estate industry. After practicing law for six years, he made his move, interviewing at large commercial real estate companies, including the Daimler Group.

Although he didn't get the job at Daimler, Bob White, principal with the company, remembered Geiger when, one year later, NP Limited Partnership, the company formed to develop Polaris, was searching for a managing director. White was a construction partner of the partnership and told the founders -- Bob Echele of Anheuser-Busch, Don Kelley of Donald W. Kelley and Associates and Bob Weiler of the Robert Weiler Co. -- that they should talk to Geiger.

"I was the first and only candidate that was interviewed," says Geiger.

Now his love of real estate and the law enables him to handle the daily challenges of managing a development that totals more than 6 million square feet.

One of these challenges is balancing the myriad administrative and legal tasks with those that Geiger describes as revenue-producing. To find that balance, he takes advantage of technology to automate and complete tasks in a timelier manner.

Geiger says he's also learned to be more flexible.

"I wear many hats," he says. "Trying to do it all is hard to manage."

But thanks to Polaris's location, says Geiger, new retail and office tenants continue to stream in.

"There is a lot of appetite for commercial development at Polaris," Geiger says.

Smart Business spoke with Geiger about Polaris's success and its competition.

Why do you think the Polaris area is so attractive to businesses?

The primary reason is its location. It's right at 12 o'clock. It's equidistant from all the northern suburbs and different residential areas. It's very convenient to get to that location.

And there's a lot of growth in southern Delaware County. A natural population shift has occurred there.

Bob Echele was a real estate director for Anheuser-Busch and lived in Delaware. He saw that area developing. He knew a new interchange was planned in the area, and after discussions with ODOT, NP was assembled. The interchange ended up right in the middle of the land they purchased.

It's always easy to see potential in hindsight. But back then, no one thought there would be growth outside the outerbelt. Now people are talking about needing another outerbelt.

We have 300 acres out of 1,200 left to develop. We project that those 300 acres will develop at a slower pace because the area has already absorbed a lot of development, and it can only absorb so much. We need to make sure we are building the right type of product with this acreage and strategically develop it with retail and office space.

When the area is maxed out, the partnership will eventually dissolve. It was created to have a finite lifespan. We probably won't get out immediately -- we will manage and hold on to the properties. We tried to develop a long-term investment. But we won't maintain it indefinitely, just until market conditions are so favorable that we have to sell.

If the economy remains stable, I foresee that we will continue to develop and manage the properties for the next 10 to 15 years.

What are the biggest changes you've seen in the commercial development industry in the past five years, and how have they affected operations?

One of the things that has changed is the office market -- it has tanked and seen very little growth. The retail market is still strong, but the office side has struggled.

There is not the demand with the economy as it is. Companies are constructing their space, reducing their work forces. And the prediction that tech companies were going to get venture capital and explode, needing space, never panned out.

Interest rates have gone down and the costs to do a deal have gone up. It's been a major struggle the last few years. We are happy just to be stable, without losing tenants. We've done pretty well. Fortunately for us, we are a mixed use development. Like Wal-Mart that has multiple products, with both office and retail real estate, when one use is down, the other is hot.

The Polaris Mall has a strong regional draw, so we haven't done a lot of office development, but we are very strong in retail.

What are Polaris' biggest competitors and how do you get an edge over them?

In the office market, we are in the city of Columbus, but we compete with the suburbs. What we sell is location. It comes back to having freeway frontage.

The suburbs offer more incentives to companies for locating there, so our edge is our location. We are trying to convince the city to get more aggressive with incentives, but since it is larger than the suburbs, it has more diverse priorities, like the downtown. It's harder to sell the concept of incentives because the city views them as giveaways.

On the retail side, our closest competitors are the Easton Mall and the Tuttle Mall. We are all large developments with a lot of attractions and unique retailers that overlap. We compete, but they are our peer group, too. Most of the other malls in the area are not on the same scale and are really not competitors.

Retail is so strong and the area is hot, so any time there is a new concept looking at this region, we are in the running.

What are your biggest operational and personal challenges, and how do you meet them?

For me, it's balancing the mundane tasks with those that bring in revenue. The other part of that is managing technology and making it work for you.

We have invested in products that help to make my life easier. I am the president of the owners' association. I manage third-party consultants, handle legal work, prepare and manage budgets and status reports. The biggest challenge is to remain flexible and spend the most time where it will be profitable. I feel that my time would be better spent out finding new business rather than reviewing a legal document -- but I have to do it all, so finding that balance is a challenge.

What will be the next Polaris in Columbus?

I don't think we'll see another Polaris or Easton any time soon. Polaris, Easton and Tuttle are positioned well. Polaris is still developing, and we want to make it even more of a regional draw. We don't have a theater yet -- there's still a lot of opportunity here. I don't think there will be any developments started in the area to rival the existing ones in the next 10 years.

What are your thoughts on the downtown's development?

I don't think downtown's situation is as dire as we think. Compared to a lot of other cities, we have a very nice downtown. With the residential development there, you'll see the need for retail, but it may be more like grocery and more service-oriented development.

The other issue there is to bring back businesses to the downtown to give it more stability. It is a convenient place for people to work; we just need to make it a more attractive place for them. HOW TO REACH: NP Limited Partnership, (614) 841-1000

Sunday, 01 February 2004 16:25


Running a 350-employee law firm with seven offices is not easy, especially when meeting clients' needs and expectations can seem like a challenge equal to that of shooting at a moving target.

But that's just one of the challenges Baker & Daniels' Managing Partners Brian Burke and Thomas Froehle face every day.

"I think our clients' needs have changed and evolved because the pace of doing business has increased," says Froehle.

He says clients expect their attorneys to understand both their business and their industries, and to respond quickly to changing business environments. To keep up with their clients' businesses and industries, Burke and Froehle created the position of client manager. Those in that position are responsible for the client-firm relationship and for keeping the attorney team informed of important changes relating to the client's company and industry.

Burke and Froehle also keep employees informed of issues and changes that affect the firm.

"Communication is something we're working on all the time," Froehle says.

"Leading and assisting people is our highest calling," says Burke.

Burke says the keeping employees in the loop results in more than effective employees. Happy employees become ambassadors for the firm and make it easier for it to recruit new attorneys, says Burke.

"A sales pitch can attract talent, but if you don't live up to it, they won't stay with you for long," he says.

Burke and Froehle agree that the biggest personal challenge each faces is juggling the demands on their time.

"Lots of things come up that take lots of time," says Burke. "It's up to us to redirect our attention to things that add value to the organization."

Smart Business spoke with Burke and Froehle about the changing needs of the firm's clients and how regulatory changes have affected operations.


What do you think makes the firm successful, gives it a competitive edge?


Burke: There are two things that set us apart -- talent and service expertise. And our associates are exceptionally committed to service.

One of the ways we assess client needs is through client assessments. We've done them for a number of years. We spend about an hour with a half-dozen clients each month going over our service to them. We ask for a candid assessment of how we're doing, and we make changes and improvements based on these assessments.


Froehle: We stress to our clients that we are problem-solvers and partners. Our clients want us to help them figure out what to do, not just advise them and walk away.


How have your clients' needs changed in the last five years, and how has the firm changed to meet them?


Froehle: Our clients' businesses have become more complex and specific. In turn, we must be more specific and more responsive. We need to know the business and industry of our clients better so we can render services in a quicker time frame or pace needed by the client.

Our lawyers can't be expected to be experts in every business, but we do have team practice groups that focus on particular areas of the law and industries.


Burke: It all comes down to speed. We are moving much faster, and as service providers, we need to be nimble and invest the time to stay knowledgeable so that we can respond before we get that call.

We established a structure that accommodates client needs. We now have client managers that are responsible for the oversight of the client-firm relationship. They invest the time and energy to know what the client business is about and have a reasonable grounding of the industry.

We also expect our associates to have an understanding of the client's business; that's all part of the nonbillable hours we spend relating to customers.


Have accounting regulatory changes affected how you advise clients or operate the firm?


Burke: Yes. I think regulatory changes affect what we do substantively and as a matter of process. There is a great uncertainty among our clients, and we advise them to be proactive, to be sure they are taking appropriate measures to comply and understand all the changes.

Transparency seems to be the word of the day. We advise clients to be transparent to their clients and within the organization. And we operate with greater transparency in our own operation.

We try to make sure that our associates have a better understanding of how we function and the nuts and bolts of how the law firm works. We are trying to communicate more effectively and pass along a broader range of information in a timely manner.

The point there is having the information is likely to build trust, and that's a very important part of the fabric that holds the organization together.


What are your biggest operational challenges, and how do you meet them?


Froehle: We are a people business. We don't have to worry about some things that other companies or industries might, but what is challenging with all of our associates and more and more locations is communication.

That is something we're working on all the time.

We make ourselves accessible to all of the partners so that they feel plugged in and understand the direction we are going. As we get bigger, that will become more challenging.

We get together and visit management and try to be proactive with the partners. We are careful not to rely too much on e-mail; it can be impersonal. Brian and I collaboratively stay in touch with the other professionals and staff members.

This also becomes important when it comes to recruiting and retaining talent. We have been affected by the brain drain here, and we try to make sure we are finding and attracting young talent and those with established careers.

We've been fortunate in identifying and attracting people that are predisposed to stay in the area. Now we are strategically identifying those that don't traditionally think of us to put Baker & Daniels on their radar screens.

We also ask our lawyers to find prospects rather than wait for a resume to fall in our lap.


Burke: The fact that we're communicating with people here helps with recruitment. Our lawyers become our most important ambassadors and recruiters of others.


What is your firm's stance on marketing and business development?


Burke: We want to be more thoughtful about our business development. We're not sure that spending time on marketing is productive or an optimal use of our time. We are rethinking all of that.

Rather than advertising or casting a wide net, we have changed our staffing model. We no longer have a marketing director. Instead, business development is headed by a lawyer in the firm and supported by public relations professionals. It's a nontraditional approach.

We are trying to do more selling, and we are positioning our staff to that end. We have initiated a sales training program that is part of our reorientation process. It includes improving communication skills and identifying where the opportunities may lie.


Froehle: Our firm's view is that business development is handled best at the practice level. Our lawyers can target potential clients. And those in charge of marketing will market individual groups and develop business for each instead of at the firm level.


What areas are you working on to improve for your clients?


Froehle: I think as the pace of business continues to increase, we need to be mindful and always be thinking of ways we can be the most responsive and client-focused. That means continuous improvement and staying ahead of changes.

As we get bigger, the communication piece will help us better integrate our multiple offices. We will develop cross-team processes that will mean better client services, offering the best group of lawyers for our clients.


Burke: The first thing is to become better aligned with our clients, continuously improve our knowledge and relate as a team.


What are your biggest personal challenges in managing the firm?


Froehle: Time management and prioritizing -- thoughtfully identifying what is the most effective use of my time. We may walk in the door in the morning with a sense of what we're going to do during the day and go home having never done what we set out to accomplish.

We have to do the most important activities and focus on where we can have the most important impact.


Burke: We have to stay focused on our leadership and management activities, the ones that will bring the biggest results to the organization. How to reach: Baker & Daniels, 317-237-0300or

Sunday, 01 February 2004 16:18

All ears

In the highly competitive appliance industry, H.H. Gregg is a steadily growing presence, due in large part to its third-generation CEO Jerry Throgmartin, whose mantra is putting the customer first.

"Everyone [at H.H. Gregg] has the mindset of trying to devise strategies that are consistent with what the customer wants from us," says Throgmartin, who as a college student began working at the company his grandfather, Henry Harold Gregg, founded in 1955.

But for Throgmartin, the importance of listening to customers goes deeper than simply trying to beat the competition by leading the way in what he

calls "the revolution in service."

Shortly after he was named store manager of H.H. Gregg's first superstore in 1979, then-24-year-old Throgmartin was diagnosed with lymphoma, a form of cancer that requires a bone marrow transplant. The diagnosis took the family by surprise, and Throgmartin spent the next two years visiting doctors at the Indiana University Medical Center before receiving an experimental transplantation procedure at a Houston medical facility.

That experience opened Throgmartin's eyes to the importance of doing all you can to satisfy a customer. And, while he is reluctant to go into detail about what happened, his actions speak louder than words.

In 2000, he pledged $500,000 on behalf of H.H. Gregg to the Indiana University Cancer Center to endow the H.H. Gregg Professorship in Oncology for cancer research. And he serves as chairman of the IU Cancer Center Development Board.

A lot has changed over the past 24 years, not just for Throgmartin but also for his company. Back in 1978, when he came on board as a salesman, H.H. Gregg ran just five stores in Indianapolis, Kokomo and Anderson. And, there were no national superstores of any kind, to speak of.

"When I got in the business, the market was dominated by small independents," he says. "We kind of flew by the seat of our pants. There was very little planning."

Those days are long gone. Today, the industry is dominated by large regional and national chains such as Best Buy, Circuit City and Wal-Mart, and strategic planning has become a crucial component of success.

"Every day we wake up and have to compete," says Throgmartin.

And although the industry is price-driven, the company has found its niche as a full-service, consumer-oriented operator.

"Most of the national stores are limited serve or self serve," says Throgmartin. "There's not a lot of sales assistance or service."

H.H. Gregg offers consumers a wide range of services, starting with the sale, the delivery and service of the product after the sale. While this business model carries operational challenges, it distinguishes the company from its leading competitors. It's also well received by today's consumer, who, thanks to the Internet, is more informed - and demanding - than in the past.

"Consumers today are more shopping-savvy," Throgmartin says. "They want to make sure they're getting a good deal."

H.H. Gregg provides its customers with good deals by carefully monitoring overhead, keeping costs under control and maximizing efficiencies while its CEO plots the company's next steps.


Standing out from the crowd The "revolution," as Throgmartin calls it, began during the mid-1980s, when national electronics and appliance chains arrived in H.H. Gregg's Indianapolis backyard.

Facing the deeper corporate pockets of companies such as Fretter Inc. and Highland Superstores Inc., Throgmartin, his father, Don, and his grandfather had to develop a strategy that separated them from the competition.

They recognized that as a smaller store, survival was dependent on identifying H.H. Gregg's key strengths and building upon them. They decided if they could build upon their commitment to the customer - an area the three believed was the company's greatest asset - H.H. Gregg would outlast the competition.

"As the company grew, we demanded that the new people we brought on had the

same level of commitment as us, and understood what we were about," Throgmartin says. "At the end of the day, it's our people that give us a competitive edge. We have a very good culture here, and the way we do business reflects that."

By the mid-1990s, Don and Henry Harold had retired from day-to-day operations, leaving Throgmartin as CEO. And the culture the three of them had instilled within the company and its employees had paid off.

In 1998, H.H. Gregg operated 18 stores in Indiana, Tennessee and Kentucky. Three years later, the chain launched operations in Ohio and stood at 41 locations. Today, with 54 stores in five states (the company expanded into Georgia in 2002) and annual revenue at more than $680 million, that core value of commitment to the customer is communicated companywide consistently and constantly.

"We talk about customer satisfaction frequently," Throgmartin says. "And with all the employees we hire, we train and convince them that their success is dependent on customer satisfaction. If a person believes that, he or she will perform better. Really good people's attitudes rub off on others. As long as we maintain that culture, we'll be successful."

To reinforce this, Throgmartin created a program in which 25 percent of employee bonuses are tied to customer satisfaction ratings, which come from monthly customer surveys and supervisor roundtable meetings. These meetings also have led to the development of new corporate policies, including H.H. Gregg's delivery policy.

Most consumers would like to know to the minute when their appliances will arrive at their doorstep. And while Throgmartin acknowledges that it's an expectation currently impossible to meet, the company calls the customer 40 minutes in advance of delivery and meets him or her at the home.

"That's as close to a formalized delivery appointment that we can get," Throgmartin says. "You just never know what you're going to find when you arrive at the customer's home. We feel it is better to underpromise and overdeliver."

H.H. Gregg's sales approach also differs from that of its competitors.

"We are competitively priced and offer a shopping experience that appeals to a large number of people," he says. "Our salespeople are knowledgeable of the products, can relate that experience to the consumer and be informative.

(They) don't have to be pushy."


Steady as she grows

As the 35th largest regional appliance retailer in the country, according to TWICE (This Week in Consumer Electronics) magazine, Throgmartin is growing H.H. Gregg according to a carefully thought out plan.

"We first want to maximize our infrastructure before expanding outside our current boundaries," he says. "We like to put multiple locations within a market to leverage our advertising and distribution center."

This strategy explains the company's explosion into Ohio, where it now operates 22 stores, the most in any state. Throgmartin says once he believes a market has reached maximum capacity in this fashion, it's time to look for new markets to explore.

Among the criteria for a new market, all stores need to be within a day's drive of the nearest distribution center.

"It allows us to leverage our inventory," Throgmartin says. "We don't have to carry a lot in the stores and replenish stock."

And because H.H. Gregg now has a distribution center in Atlanta to support its eight Georgia locations, Throgmartin says the company plans to open stores in nearby eastern Tennessee and the Carolinas.

"We are planning good, steady growth," he says. "We plan to fill out our current markets and maximize those and Atlanta before we look at anything else."

Throgmartin predicts it could be three to five years before those markets reach their full potential, especially in the Atlanta/Carolinas region.

"We plan to open 10 to 15 stores in the Carolinas," he says. "It's a very exciting area with a lot of growth. There's a lot of work yet to be done there."

Another determining factor in Throgmartin's market strategy is whether another company already offers a full-service appliance store in the area. If there is none, the company will move forward.

"In the Columbus area, there was a large independent retailer that went out of business," he says. "We stepped in to fill that void."

Finally, store location is based on being near thriving retail centers. It's even better if a Sears or Best Buy is nearby, despite the fact that they are competitors.

"We look at where the nationals are and get close to them," Throgmartin says. "It makes it convenient for the customer to shop."

Expansion has been a significant though satisfying challenge, Throgmartin says, especially in the area of maintaining the company's supply chain.

"Moving product efficiently in a timely fashion will always be a challenge," he says. "Our goal is a just-in-time system with as few moving parts as possible."

All of this is done with Throgmartin's primary goal in mind -- pleasing the customers that keep H.H. Gregg in business.

"We have to compare where we are and where the customer wants us to be and change," he says. "Being good today doesn't make you good tomorrow."

How to reach: H.H. Gregg, (800) 284-7344 or

Friday, 30 January 2004 08:05

Retaining the best

I frequently hear CEOs of successful companies say that the No. 1 challenge they face is attracting and retaining high-quality employees.

Despite the surge in unemployment and a growing employee pool, it is still hard for companies to find and keep talent.

Today it takes more than adequate pay and benefits to keep employees happy -- it takes a positive, nurturing work environment. And it seems that some employers are still struggling to create a workplace that will invite and retain employees.

I have a friend who is clearly a valued employee where she works. Her supervisor tells her she is valued, and she has received cash bonuses and raises to reinforce that message.

Yet she is not happy in her job most of the time, because she does not feel that she is contributing to the mission of the department or to the company in a significant way. The projects she is given to work on do not utilize her strengths or give her an opportunity to grow and learn.

Despite the money and words of encouragement, this employee is honing her resume and thinking seriously of looking for employment elsewhere, simply because she is being underutilized.

She has discussed this issue with her supervisor, who knows she is unhappy. But instead of working with my friend to determine how she might better serve the company and develop her abilities, the supervisor gives her more projects that are simply routine.

Not every company can satisfy an employee's need to grow, learn and contribute. Sometimes an employee's skill level doesn't match his or her desired job "wants." But a savvy manager knows how important it is for every employee, especially those who are skilled and ambitious, to have the chance to develop.

It is not only vital for retaining the employee but for the future success of the company. Employees who are given a chance to spread their wings are more likely to contribute the most to the bottom line. They are the managers and executives of tomorrow.

But if those impulses are stifled, they will spread their wings and fly elsewhere.

Friday, 30 January 2004 08:00

Solid foundation

The Columbus Foundation President and CEO Doug Kridler is determined to spread the word about the organization's mission and its value to the community.

"The vast majority of people in this region aren't fully aware of the myriad ways the foundation can work for them," says Kridler, citing the common misconceptions that the foundation is a fund-raising organization and that it is only for the use of the wealthy.

"It takes just $10,000 to set up a fund," Kridler says.

To battle these misconceptions, Kridler has tightened the focus of the organization and placed a new emphasis on the donor.

"Before I came, no one could tell me what business the foundation was in, in a short concise manner," he says.

One of the first things Kridler did as the leader of the organization was to develop its mission statement: To assist donors and others in strengthening and improving the community for the benefit of all.

Kridler also renamed some departments to better reflect the organization's new focus. For example, prior to his changes, those assisting potential donors were called advancement officers.

"That sounded to me like, what can you do to help us, instead of us helping you," Kridler says, so the name was changed to the more appropriate Donor Services.

Another challenge Kridler has faced was maintaining the Foundation's $700 million value during the weak economy of last few years. Kridler says the foundation's funds have lost less than 10 percent of their value, much less than those of other large national foundations. The foundation's investment strategy --diversifying its asset classes and offering shares of closely held companies, limited partnerships and real estate -- has paid off.

"Nine out of 10 national foundations lost money in the last two years," says Kridler. "We did better than eight of those nine."

Smart Business spoke with Kridler about increasing awareness of the foundation and the challenges of managing the organization.

How has growing the foundations value been a challenge the last few years, and how did you meet that challenge?

The decline of the stock market has been an enormous challenge when it comes to appreciating securities. Now the market is improving, but it's not at the point it had been back before the economy's decline. There aren't a lot of dynamic opportunities.

We adjusted to find asset classes that maintained value. We made the transition into real estate, which also offers robust tax advantages, partnership interests and shares of closely held businesses. That's one of the virtues of the foundation -- the ease with which it can handle these kinds of gifts. It's inherent in our structure.

People hear we are valued at $700 million and think, 'They're way out of my league.' There is a lack of awareness that we work with donors of all sizes to encourage, create and add value to charitable giving.

In 2002, nine out of 10 of the largest foundations in the country lost money. Our track record of preservation of capital is very strong. Our philosophy is that, in essence, we would rather give up $1 on the up side in exchange for not losing $1 on the loss side. Our conservative portfolio is about preservation and growth, not just about growth and nothing else.

Are you looking at new ways to increase awareness of the foundation?

Not many people are aware that they can give gifts of real estate, partnerships and closely held companies, so to the public it might appear that we have identified new ways to give a gift.

But we haven't invented a new product. We tend to stay with tried and true vehicles. A person may not have a lot of cash to give, but a portfolio with significant real estate that can be converted into charitable assets.

The first thing we do is make sure that the adviser community is aware of what we do. A lot of people have a legal or financial adviser, a respected professional. We make that community aware of the diverse opportunities we can present.

Secondly, we do some direct mail pieces, and lastly, we do some marketing and advertising, but we don't have a large budget for that.

What are your biggest operational challenges and how do you meet them?

There are always greater efficiencies achieved through technology. The foundation is ranked seventh in the nation for the dollar amount of gifts received, and 12th when it comes to expenses. We try to keep our operating expenses low.

The challenge is to see where we can invest in technology to make us even more efficient, to see what technology we can invest in that we can afford without raising our management expenses beyond what's appropriate.

The community foundation field is not big enough nationally to be attractive to software developers, so we are coming together as a group to aggregately develop software that can give you daily valuations of your funds instead of monthly; and process grant requests.

Currently, we batch them and they are processed the next business day, and with multiple hands touching the process, it adds to the expense along the way. That is our biggest operational challenge.

What areas/processes are you working to improve?

Externally, demystifying the foundation, helping people understand how we work and how we can work for them. We are so happy and proud of our successes. The foundation works well for the community.

However, there's still an enormous improvement we can make to help people understand that we are not the exclusive province of the wealthy by any stretch of the imagination.

One way to meet that challenge is to be very clear and specific about what your mission is and what defines your success and distinguishes your organization. We have done extensive work in that area. One of the things I heard that sealed the deal for me to come here was the answer to my question to the governing committee -- 'What business is the Columbus Foundation in?' I got a long list of what they wanted to do.

You have to be able to answer that question clearly and simply before you can be disciplined and focused in strategic planning or presentation to the public.

I started there, then we looked at department names. Some department names undermine the welcoming feeling we want donors to have. First there is a fund-raising element to the names and terms like development and advancement.

Then we say look at our Web site and talk to an advancement officer. That's just one more step in the confusion. The arrow comes from you to us. We reversed the arrow, and now we have a department called donor services; we're here to add value to your hopes and goals and build a more vigorous community, and it all starts with the customer.

What are your biggest personal challenges in running the organization?

Time. This is a much more dynamic organization than people think. There is great fulfillment in working here, and I want to work as hard as humanly possible. There are no limits to what one can give and still come up short.

I spend seven days a week here and I am energized by that, but I am still finding it difficult to have enough time to do all that I can do.

There are always needs in the community. Complex problems are not solved easily, and it takes thoughtful research, patience and investment solutions. I have always been intrigued how mature professionals are careful to watch expenses and shop right, build and maintain wealth, but are so carefree, with little diligence when it comes to charitable and social investing.

It takes due diligence, which is another advantage of the foundation. We do the research, and we know how charitable and social organizations in Columbus work.

How to reach: The Columbus Foundation, (614) 251-4000 or

Wednesday, 17 December 2003 10:57

Real profits

It's only been a decade since Duke Realty Corp. went public, but in that time, the real estate investment trust (REIT) has grown more than tenfold.

"When we went public, our market capitalization was $600 million," says president and COO Dennis Oklak. "Today, it's $7.3 billion."

That growth is due in large part to the company's 1999 merger with Atlanta-based Weeks Realty, which essentially doubled Duke's city base. Before the merger, it served its home market of Indianapolis, as well as Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland, Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Louis and Nashville.

With the merger, it added Atlanta, Dallas, Raleigh, Jacksonville, Tampa/Orlando and South Florida. That gives Duke interest in more than 108 million square feet of property, and it owns or controls more than 3,800 acres of undeveloped land.

For two years after the merger, the company did business as Duke-Weeks Realty Corp., wanting to capitalize on the brand recognition each company had in its home market. But in July 2001, Duke Chairman and CEO Thomas Hefner decided it was time to drop "Weeks" from the name and return to the company's core identity.

At the time, Hefner said he believed the Duke Realty name would "strengthen the company's brand awareness" in all of its markets and more closely position it as a "dynamic operating company that transcended any particular person or family."

Since then, he's been proven correct.

Duke has successfully weathered the downtrodden economy, and in November, Hefner announced he would be stepping down from his position, leaving the company in solid financial shape and with a bright future.

In April, Oklak will assume the role of CEO.

A real estate veteran with a strong financial background and a penchant for deal structuring, Oklak joined Duke in 1986 as tax manager and later served as vice president, treasurer and chief administrative officer. In 2002, he was named co-COO.

With his expertise, Oklak was a logical choice to succeed Hefner and build upon the company's successes. To do that, he will focus on maintaining the company's business model, which has proven effective. He's also committed to ensuring that Duke continues to recruit, hire and retain top employees.


Slow and steady growth

Now that the company has worked through its growing pains, Duke's business model is simple but effective -- make the most of its current markets and minimize risk.

As a specialist in office, industrial and retail spaces, Oklak calls Duke a vertically-integrated enterprise and says much of what the company accomplishes is handled internally.

"All aspects of the business are in-house," he says. "For the most part, we do it all. We build and own the property. And we manage it."

Duke's portfolio consists of roughly 75 percent industrial properties, 24 percent office space and 1 percent retail. In general, the REITs nationwide that are attracting investors are those that own residential buildings and retail centers, according to the 2003 Real Estate Investment Survey, conducted by National Real Estate Investor and Marcus & Millichap Real Estate Investment Brokerage Co. Office and industrial specialists are at the bottom of the list, primarily because of the sluggish economy and job losses.

But despite the nationwide trend and Duke's weighted holdings, it has bucked industry trends and maintained a profitable portfolio, even with lower occupancy rates industrywide.

"All of our cities are profitable," Oklak says. "Occupancy rates are down from normal, though. Right now, about 87 percent of our portfolio is leased. Back when the economy was strong, we had rates in the mid-90s. But we are still profitable at this level.

"We're doing great for this level of economic activity. We're holding up fine. But it's tougher to get growth when the real estate side isn't there."

While he can't point to any one city within Duke's portfolio that consistently outperforms the others, Oklak does say the industrial market is doing better than the office market, and that the Indianapolis industrial market is one of the company's star performers.

Because of this, Oklak says he has no plans to expand Duke's territory. There are three main reasons.

First, Duke is continuing to pull together the Duke-Weeks companies into one cohesive unit.

"It takes time to absorb everything and operate efficiently," Oklak says.

Second, the slow real estate market makes growth a challenge.

"No cities look good to us today," Oklak says. "We're always monitoring the markets, but we'll stay in the Midwest and Southeast and adjoining markets as we continue to grow over the next few years."

And finally, it takes a sizable city to sustain a Duke office.

"Every office has property managers, a construction team, a pre-development team," Oklak says. "It's a full-service office. It takes a larger city with a lot of volume to support that."

Beyond those factors, Oklak says that Duke faces other challenges to growth that come from the real estate industry in general.

"Every industry is constantly changing," Oklak says. "Ours changes at a slower pace."

Changes that have crept in include building requirements for industrial and office facilities.

Says Oklak, "The industrial structures we build today are larger, have thicker floors and require different racking systems for inventory. When it comes to office space, businesses expect offices to have the latest, most efficient technology."


Risk averse

To minimize risk, Duke practices management by committee.

"We have a lot of internal committees throughout the company that monitor all of the company's functions," he says. "For example, our weekly business committee meets to review significant transactions."

During those meetings, all significant property transactions are reviewed and approved by senior managers, as is the company's balance sheet, says Oklak, a former public accountant.

"We have solid internal accounting controls," he says. "Most of the committees have their own separate area of responsibility, so there is not a great need to interact. When interaction is required, issues are discussed by both committees whose input is required. Generally, there is a consensus built among members of the committees.

"But in the unusual case that a consensus cannot be reached, issues are resolved by the CEO or president," Oklak says.

Another aspect of minimizing risk is to develop an employee strategy.

Says Oklak, "It's always about people. You can never have enough great people in the right places."

And to ensure the hires are there, Duke relies on multiple channels for recruiting.

"We use a combination of industry networking and placement agencies to identify the brightest talent in the real estate industry," says Oklak. "We then give the individuals authority to use their skills and work hard on making sure our compensation rewards them properly for their contributions to the company."

Retention is always a challenge, and to keep key employees in place, Hefner, Oklak and the other senior managers have been developing a pipeline, identifying key positions and grooming successors.

"For the last two years, we have been focusing on developing a formal succession plan so we can have back-ups of all key positions," Oklak says.

The plan affected 100 employees and included Oklak's own transition to CEO.

"We basically went down three levels of reporting from the CEO to determine our key positions, which amounted to about 100 associates," says Oklak. "We then used some outside professionals to perform a formal evaluation process of each individual's strengths and development needs. We then designed development plans to improve each associate's performance so that they will be ready for additional opportunities as they arise."

As far as opportunities go, Oklak's arrives in April. How to reach: Duke Realty, (800) 875-3366 or

Thursday, 11 December 2003 05:41

From politics to policies

After a national search, the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce hired a local -- Mayor Michael Coleman's chief of staff Ty Marsh -- as its president and CEO.

"All of my previous experiences lend themselves to this position," Marsh says.

Although he says there will be the usual adjustment period of getting to know the staff and board members, Marsh is confident he can hit the ground -- or the streets of the city -- running. He says his biggest challenge will be to position the region to take advantage of a rebounding economy.

"We all know now that Columbus is not a recession-proof city," says Marsh.

He will focus the chamber's efforts on economic growth and development, seeking to attract companies to locate here, and will address Columbus' ailing downtown.

"The downtown is the single largest employee base in the region," Marsh says. "Therefore the chamber will work to ensure that base is strong and growing."

Marsh, a former senior vice president of government relations for the chamber, is intimately familiar with the organization's mission and goals and knows where the region needs to step up its efforts.

"We need to play up our strengths more," including things such as the region's logistics and infrastructure related to logistics, research facilities and an excellent quality of life, he says. "All the things that attract people to the area need to be enhanced."

Smart Business spoke with Marsh about his goals for the chamber and the challenges the organization faces.

What do you think are Columbus' biggest business challenges?

We have suffered economically from the downturn in our region's economy the past three years. Our biggest challenge is to acknowledge that and position ourselves to be ready when the economy improves to take advantage of it.

One example is the chamber's focus on economic development and growth. We continue to make economic development visits to targeted countries and companies to encourage them to open offices or relocate here. Those have been positive experiences that will pay off once the economy rebounds and improves -- we will be in a position to take advantage of increased activity.

What are the area's strengths and what areas need to be improved?

Our strengths are fairly obvious. We are a major distribution district because of our location. A number of companies have located and expanded here because of our strength in logistics and the infrastructure related to that.

We also have The Ohio State University and Battelle Memorial Institute, two excellent research institutions working together -- and there is an initiative underway to utilize that collaboration for the advantage of the region. We also have an excellent quality of life that includes an excellent school system.

We have all the things needed to attract and retain employees. These are also the things we need to enhance. A few years ago, the chamber led a community leaders group that wanted to investigate and determine best practices in other cities.

First we went to Austin, Texas. Fifty people from Columbus went, and one of the primary lessons we learned was that Austin had a clear idea of where they were going. We came back and identified three areas that are key to the region's economic success: logistics, to enhance this area to become the premier region for logistics; life sciences; and the downtown initiative.

The life sciences area is being pursued through the Columbus Technology Council, Battelle and OSU, and their collaborative goal is to stand out in the life sciences field and develop strategies that will ensure our long-term success in that area. The chamber is complementing the Downtown Development Corp.'s efforts to get creative class businesses to locate downtown.

Will the downtown be a focus for you?

It already is, and the region itself is a focus as well. But the downtown is the largest source of tax revenue; therefore, the chamber wants to lead and support its economic growth.

The emphasis there is to attract creative class businesses -- architects, graphic design firms, public relations companies. They tend to operate in urban environments, so we are looking to help those companies to locate and grow downtown. And we're working to make the downtown a great space to live, work and play.

What are your top three goals for Columbus and the chamber's role in the region?

I see the chamber's role in three categories. The first is economic development, helping companies grow and to locate here, and within that is helping small and mid-sized businesses to grow. That is where our membership services like health insurance and networking opportunities come in.

We work to make certain that we serve a positive role for our member companies and that they derive value for their membership dollars. We also provide advocacy and community leadership on issues on a broader scale in collaboration with other groups in the region. Population growth studies project that there will be 500,000 more people living in this region by 2030.

We are working with many groups to ensure that the jobs and industries to support that growth and provide an excellent quality of life are in place. The third category is a broader one -- to make sure that the region is growing in the right way, which comes back to helping companies grow and create jobs.

What job experience will serve you best as president and CEO of the chamber?

I can't single out any one experience. I have worked for leaders or as part of leadership throughout my career, and all of those experiences have led up to this position.

What do you think your biggest adjustment will be?

Not getting phone calls in the middle of the night from the police and fire department will be one adjustment. But there will be a lot of adjustments.

I am going back to the private sector, learning new board members, member companies, employees. When it comes to the work, I know that my previous experience will help me adjust very quickly.

What is your biggest challenge in your new role?

There will be so much opportunity in helping the chamber fulfill its mission. I think that's the challenge of the organization.

For me personally, it's the opportunity to work with the board and our members collaboratively to make sure we have economic success. The challenge is to find a successful way for Columbus to do business. This region has been very successful facing economic challenges that we haven't seen in a long time.

We've got a game plan in place to focus on our assets, an excellent economic development program to help find and relocate companies, and to help existing companies grow. How to reach: Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce, (614) 221-1321 or

Thursday, 20 November 2003 11:46

Love what you do

During the past two years, I've interviewed many executives and business owners.

Some of their businesses are up and coming, while others are established icons. But they all have one thing in common -- these entrepreneurs love what they do and are passionate about their companies and their work.

I don't think that's a coincidence. Successful people aren't successful just because they have talent. They also have a passion. They wake up each day looking forward to the work at hand and the role they play in shaping the business.

Years ago, I was stuck in a job I hated. Because the financial rewards and benefits were so good, I felt I owed it to my family to continue that income and benefit support, even though I hated the work.

I dreaded the end of the weekend, knowing another week of torture was beginning. I even developed a reward system. Each month I stuck it out, I rewarded myself by buying some small item, a bottle of perfume, a shirt or jewelry.

Durable Slate's Michael Chan -- one of Smart Business's Who to Know subjects this month -- reminded me of those days when I interviewed him recently. Chan left an extremely well-paying job as a stock broker to work as a laborer for Durable Slate. That gutsy move has paid off not just financially, but personally and professionally as well.

He's a great example that money isn't enough.

It is rare that someone who hates his or her job excels in it. I was laid off from that job I hated, and I'm sure that was prompted not only by the company's need to save money but because I wasn't one of its top performers.

So unless you wake up excited and eager to start the day, maybe you should rethink your career choice. No matter how much money you're making, eventually you'll pay the price for hating what you do.

Tuesday, 04 November 2003 06:56

Tech training

Nothing is done by hand these days, says Tom McGovern.

"We have software for the processes we used to do by hand," says McGovern, director of human resources at Danis Building Construction Co., headquartered in Dayton and with offices in Columbus and Cincinnati. "There's project management software, estimating software and project administration software. Plus we have our own in-house system that employees need to learn."

That was just one reason the company instituted Danis University, a formal training system which focuses on project engineers. Employees are trained on all the technology they need to know during the course of their careers, as well as in nine additional areas: Danis processes, estimating, industry basics, surveying and layout, business development, accounting, management development, systems and materials and safety.

"We hire good people with technical or engineering degrees," says company President John Danis. "A lot of them are not exposed in their coursework to business classes like accounting."

Danis University is designed to provide employees with a more rounded skill set. And Danis feels the program has other benefits, as well.

"It was taking several years to move project engineers through the training and experience they needed to become project managers," he says. "Now we can move them through at a faster rate, and we'll have the best employee we can at every level in the company."

That, he says, equates to better service and more value to the customer.

"Because the employee is better-rounded, he or she can better figure out where he or she can add value sooner," Danis says.

Since the program is new, Danis says measurements on return on investment have not been compiled, but he is confident the return will be high.

"We're getting a lot of comments from employees that they are learning things they didn't know," he says. "It's already raising the knowledge level."

McGovern says that eventually, all of the company's 350 employees will go through the university. And the program will give the company an edge when it comes to hiring and retaining quality employees, says Danis.

"In today's age, employees are looking to see how working for a particular company will help their careers," he says. "It's incumbent on the employer, if he wants to grow and prosper, to provide the training and experience the employee needs to succeed. If you don't, the employee will go somewhere that does." How to reach: Danis Building Construction Co., (614) 761-8385 or (937) 228-1225

Monday, 22 September 2003 11:54

Avoid the buzz

Every few years, a new phrase expressing an innovative business concept hits American companies, and within months, you hear it in almost every conversation, training session, memo or project plan.

After awhile, these phrases become tired, trite and meaningless. Many grate on the nerves, at least on my nerves. We've even developed a cute catch phrase to define these phrases: buzz words. Here are a few to avoid.

Pushing the envelope. It's not used much anymore, but it was hugely popular in the '90s. It always bothered me. It was meant to express the idea that employees need to be creative in their thinking, but I could never figure out why.

Instead, each time I heard the phrase, I pictured people sitting at a conference table, pushing an envelope around and saying, "I don't want it, you take it." Not the intended image, I'm sure.

Thinking outside the box. This one is still going strong, and at least it makes sense. It has the same meaning as pushing the envelope, but at least the image it conjures matches that meaning. But again, it's been used so often that people yawn and think, "Yeah, yeah, outside the box, we've heard that one." And your audience will not take you seriously.

Synergies. OK, it's not a phrase, but it is hugely popular. Many executives like to talk about the synergies between partners, companies, etc.

When it was new, it was a creative way to get across the idea that there were common interests, energies and focus between two entities. Synergy implies that, together, the entities will come alive. But again, because it is used so often, it has lost its luster.

These are just a few examples of overused business jargon that can worm its way into our brains and infect our communication like a stealthy computer virus. Before your next meeting or presentation, read through your notes and strike these and other phrases you constantly hear in other communications.

Your audience will listen more attentively if you speak without them.