Tracking the maintenance of 2,000 pieces of HVAC equipment spanning 2 million square feet at three separate locations is a tall order.
Couple the size of such an undertaking with an antiquated paper recordkeeping system and youve got trouble.
That was exactly the situation Cuyahoga County Community College faced a few years ago when it turned to The Brewer-Garrett Co. of Middleburg Heights to solve its paperwork nightmare. Thats when the mechanical engineering firm implemented technology most people associate with their local grocery store to streamline the colleges unwieldy equipment maintenance procedures.
They had 2,000 pieces of equipment with six guys responsible for maintaining it, says Greg McDonald, Brewer-Garretts sales manger. Thats quite a big task. So we developed a program where they could have the assurance the work was being done.
The solution was to attach bar codes to each piece of equipment and provide technicians with hand-held computerized readers to digitally document every maintenance job completed. Brewer-Garrett CEO Louis Joseph boasts that the system gives customers unparalleled maintenance specifics and more service for their dollar.
The real key is its now not too much, not too little, but exactly the right amount of maintenance, he says. Everything we do is driven toward the customer. We want to give them the biggest bang for their buck. We want to build long-term relationships for our company, and this is a great way to do that.
Eliminate the paper trap
Development of Brewer Garretts bar code reader system was spurred by customers who suggested the company devise a computerized alternative to paper equipment maintenance records.
Our customers were asking us for it over the past couple of years, recalls Joseph, who explains his company solicits customers for product ideas. We ask our customers, What do you want, what is your wish list? They were telling us that this bar code system was the next thing we needed to do.
Joseph assembled a team to investigate how best to meet that challenge by researching available technology and looking at what other companies had done. Ultimately, bar code readers were chosen as the best option.
Technicians simply swipe the bar code, inspect the equipment, then punch the results into the hand-held scanner creating a digital record of the work. That data is then downloaded into a central computer that stores records for all 2,000 pieces of equipment.
The technician is doing the same work he was doing two years ago, says McDonald. But this tool allows him to manage what hes working with and provide the customers with another value added benefit. The information was always available, it just was in a form they couldnt use.
History at the push of a button
The linchpin of the bar code systems success, however, is not imbedded in the bar code readers handed out to service technicians. It is the computer program accompanying the hand-held devices that is the true heart of the process.
The raw data collected by technicians on the hand-held bar code readers is entered into fields like any standard database, making it easy to find information and generate a variety of reports concerning a piece of equipments maintenance history.
The chief engineer can pull it up at any time and see, OK, this is what work has been done during the month of August, explains McDonald. Specifically, he can see the boiler has had a couple of problems. He can then punch in the bar code into the computer and out comes everything that has happened to that piece of equipment since we started the program.
It took the better part of a year to work all the bugs out of the software and have it ready for customer use, but the final product has turned what was once a hit-and-miss process into a finely crafted procedure.
With 2,000 pieces of equipment, its virtually impossible to sort through all that information by hand and find a way to provide it in a succinct, clear manner that means something to the customer, says McDonald. This system has been able to do that.
Converting experience into kilobytes
One of the most interesting facets of the system is the ability of technicians to catch equipment failures before they ever happen. This is possible because the bar code readers are programmed with standard equipment readings to compare against the new figures entered during each inspection.
If a motor is operating at a lower than expected level, the hand-held readers warn the technician that a problem is likely just around the corner. The ability to program this intelligence into the new system came from years of industry experience.
Based on our 40 years in the business, knowing what systems need to be maintained and what parameters they should run under, we programmed that knowledge into our bar code readers, says McDonald. So when a guy enters the readings and sees theres a problem, its because we know when something gets to this level, its about to fail.
After a red flag is raised, the decision is made whether to repair or replace the piece of equipment based on its condition and history. This pre-emptive feature, McDonald says, eliminates many of the emergencies that would occur in the days of paper records.
Id rather replace that motor on a scheduled basis than go in on a Friday afternoon when there are kids in class, they are uncomfortable and now you have an emergency, says McDonald. So the whole goal of the program is to try to be proactive and predict those things before they happen.
The success of the system at Cuyahoga County Community College in the past two years has drawn interest from other Brewer-Garrett clients, according to Joseph. Many of our customers are asking about the prospect of doing this, he says. Let there be no doubt that in a click of a finger, there could be a lot of other facilities on board.
How to reach: Brewer-Garrett Co., (440) 243-3535
Jim Vickers (email@example.com) is an associate editor at SBN.
Douglas Speth wanted to launch a business and Matt Tucker had an idea.
The concept was simple. So simple, in fact, that many people told the pair of entrepreneurs that if such a product could be developed, someone would have already done so.
Speth and Tucker wanted to create a new fire detection system that also exhausted smoke from burning homes through the existing furnace ducts, giving occupants an easier escape. The problem was, neither man possessed the electrical background to assemble a prototype.
We knew what we wanted to do, recalls Speth, CEO of Brecksville-based VisionAire. But, the question was, could we tie all this together or were we just talking off the top of our heads?
Ultimately, Speth found Gary Christopher, VisionAires product design manager, who coincidentally was also looking for a way to improve fire safety after his 15-year-old son suffered severe smoke inhalation in a house fire just a few months before.
Without a proven track record, Speth and his crew found investors on the strength of their idea. Then came the task of designing their AireVac system. Along the way, they learned a bit about bringing a new product to market.
Dont reinvent the wheel
Early discussions about the products design took some strange detours before Christopher brought his electrical expertise to the mix. Looking back, Speth says they were simply trying too hard.
We were talking about having photoelectric beams and everything else, he says. But then Gary came on board and told us we could actually do it another way, which was a lot easier.
It turns out the system could be assembled almost entirely by combining products already on the market, such as photoelectric smoke detectors and exhaust fans. The only thing VisionAire had to invent was a way to wire the system together.
Get a second opinion
After Speth built a test lab and the product was designed, there was still a lingering question of how the system would play with fire officials. A poor reaction could leave the product dead in the water.
So Speth invited a raft of fire chiefs and building inspectors to the lab to gauge their reaction.
We just wanted to know what they thought, he says. That was a key, bringing in as many people as we could to show it to. We just wanted to make sure we were on the right track ... we also talked to insurance companies about whether a system like this would give people a decrease on their homeowners insurance.
Keep it simple
One of the biggest decisions was whether to include a carbon monoxide detector as part of the system. Fire officials touted the importance of CO detectors, but readily admitted there was a high rate of false alarms with some brands. Even the best were not 100 percent reliable.
Speth wrestled with the issue before finally deciding not to include a CO detector as part of the basic system.
I just didnt want anybody to have false hope, Speth says, explaining he did not want to chance jeopardizing the reputation of what is an otherwise solid product. Especially when putting a new product out there. Either its got to be the best or I dont want it.
How to reach: VisionAire, (440) 526-3840 or www.visionaireinc.com
Jim Vickers (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate editor at SBN.
When Cleveland’s monster drug store chains rolled out their cannons to do battle, executives at Medic Drug stayed clear of the melee.
As CVS Pharmacy and Rite-Aid fought for control of corner parcels of commercial property across Northeast Ohio, Cleveland’s last family-owned pharmacy chain sat back patiently and waited for the dust to settle.
“Competing for that real estate was a very big thing between the major chains in Cleveland,” says Mitchell Zlotnick, Medic Drug marketing director. “There were bidding wars for those parcels that we couldn’t even think of participating in because of the ridiculous price being asked.”
Instead of trying to cash in on the new industry preference of freestanding, high-traffic locations, executives at Medic Drug drafted their own plan. Then, when Rite-Aid moved out of its Van Aken Boulevard location in favor of one of the company’s newly acquired lots of land, Medic Drug swooped in and acquired the empty storefront.
It is this kind of smart expansion, as well as sidestepping costly industry fads and a commitment to customer service, that has ensured Medic Drug’s success and survival. However, doing battle with Cleveland’s pharmacy giants is no small task.
For one, sweeping changes in the way insurance companies pay for prescription drugs have cut into pharmacy profit margins, squeezing smaller companies like Medic Drug a little tighter than the rest. That leaves Zlotnick with the challenge of making Medic Drug stand out in a market in which every competitor has deeper pockets.
For him, it all comes down to offering niche products and services to separate Medic from the pack.
Capitalize on your strengths
Medic Drug’s driving philosophy has always been to offer exceptional customer service, particularly when it comes to handing out advice about medication and other health issues.
“Finding our special place in the market was generally based upon service and taking care of people as we would someone from our own family,” says Zlotnick.
Today, the company uses its service record as a weapon against competitors which offer lower prices on front-end products such as over-the-counter medication. Instead of trying to provide the best price for a bottle of aspirin, Zlotnick focuses on the tradition of a friendly and knowledgeable staff to build traffic to the store. After customers get through the door, front-end sales take care of themselves.
“Having the lowest price is not a good leg to stand on,” he says. “There is always going to be somebody who is cheaper. Price is a very weak niche to stand on. It’s an important component, but it’s not the only component.
“You can have a great price, but if you don’t have the service behind it, you’re never going to see that customer again.”
Another distinct advantage is the ability to do complete Medicare billing, which allows people with diabetes, for example, to receive their health supplies without any out-of-pocket expense. That perk led Medic Drug executives to delve into a full line of health supplies and resulted in the creation of a separate home health care supply business.
“We’re a medical equipment provider, but of course, we’re also a drug store,” says Zlotnick. “We started to create a symbiotic relationship between growing the home health care business and growing the pharmacy, and that’s really how we got into it. Now a very large part of our business is home health supplies and the smaller players have gone by the wayside because they can’t obtain large contracts.”
Know your customers
When Zlotnick helps scout for new locations, he tries to determine what kind of store a particular neighborhood needs. For example, if there isn’t a hardware store nearby, maybe the new pharmacy will stock fuses and tools as part of its front-end merchandise. If there isn’t a supermarket nearby, groceries may make the most sense.
The Coventry Road location is a prime example of this concept. Since the neighborhood lacked a nearby grocery store, Zlotnick focused on an expanded grocery section and stocked the cooler cases for the large portion of business from students.
“As more and more different types of competition come into the marketplace, you look to fill niches an area seems to be lacking,” explains Zlotnick. “Sometimes you’re a gift and card store just because an area doesn’t have that, so you become that specialty for the market.
“Of course our primary business is pharmacy, but for the front end, we want to make sure we have the right mix. And we want to cater that to the individual neighborhoods.”
Keep your ear to the ground
When it comes to finding new products to bolster profits, Zlotnick is constantly on the lookout for new ideas. Often, he will get an idea while watching television or reading a magazine. Finding a new product is not always easy, Zlotnick warns, but a little research can go a long way.
“It’s hard to go out and say, ‘OK, I’m going to find a new niche,’ but I went out and handpicked magnet therapy before anybody knew what it was,” he says. “I actually had trouble finding vendors because there were only a certain amount of players. It was six months to a year later that I had companies calling me left and right.”
But by the time those calls flooded his office, it was time to start looking for another niche product. The problem is that once magnet therapy hit the mainstream, competing chains also sold the products.
“We were ahead of the curve on that one,” says Zlotnick. “That was a niche we started, then it became a me-too niche, so it’s no longer a niche. You just look for that next thing. You keep your ears open and you’ve got to listen.
“If you hear somebody asking for something special, sometimes that can trigger a niche.”
The search for new products, though, holds a certain risk: What if customers don’t respond? That’s why Zlotnick always does a little research first. Most of the time, that involves placing pamphlets or posting signs inside the store to gauge customer interest.
“There are different ways of putting your foot in the water,” he says. “Without putting your wallet in the water.”
Focus your marketing dollars
When it comes to the realm of advertising, Medic Drug is simply outgunned. Originally, the chain avoided head-to-head advertising with its competitors. If CVS went to a print campaign, it turned either to television or the radio. If Rite-Aid mounted a serious television campaign, Medic Drug might focus on newspaper advertising.
“The biggest threat they bring in is number of stores and dollars for advertising. We have a tough time matching that,” he says of the competition. “We have to come up with new and creative ideas about how we’re going to get our message out there and bring people into the store, which may not be through what they would consider traditional channels like magazines, televisions and radio.”
But the chance for a completely different kind of marketing popped up a few years ago when Budweiser bowed out of its sponsorship deal for the Cleveland Grand Prix. Medic’s collective ears perked up, and instead of investing in traditional means of advertising, Medic executives pooled that money for a one-shot sponsorship of the Cleveland Grand Prix once every year.
The deal bodes well for Medic, and the company works in special tie-ins with the mid-summer event. Zlotnick says it has done a lot to raise the company’s profile.
“I would strongly suggest that a local business that wants to be recognized as being part of Cleveland should find a way to get involved in some sort of Cleveland-oriented event,” he says. “This is the thing that really let people know we were from Cleveland. It really as done a great deal for us. It’s really put us on the map.”
And that, says Zlotnick, is the key strategy to competing against the big boys making sure consumers know your name.
How to reach: Medic Drug, (440) 449-7722
Jim Vickers (email@example.com) is associate editor at SBN.
By the end of the day, Cleveland-based DeCarlo Paternite & Associates Inc. had raised $18,000 to split between Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital and the Ireland Cancer Center.
“It was an exciting thing for the company, because the people who got involved here really had never been involved in anything to that degree as far as being able to generate that many dollars,” says Nelson, DPAI marketing director. “It was really exciting to see the enthusiasm internally, as well as the people throughout the community, our partners and our clients who came on board with us.”
Twenty-five corporate sponsors and 75 participants took part in DPAI’s Aug. 9 charity golf outing at Mayfield Country Club, which Nelson says was a great way for the company to raise money for two causes close to the hearts of its staff members.
“One of our owners lost his wife to cancer, so the Ireland Cancer Center was definitely something that was of personal benefit to him,” explains Nelson. “And as far as the Rainbow Babies and Children aspect, a lot of us have children. We took a consensus throughout the organization and that one hit home.”
The organizations that DPAI supports are very often the ones that have made a difference in the lives of the company’s own workers. Many times, individual employees also make personal commitments to the organizations in conjunction with DPAI’s corporate donations.
The August charity golf outing was only the latest event, however, in DPAI’s community giving efforts. Last June, DPAI sponsored ‘Ribaffaire ’99,” an event that raised $5,000 for multiple sclerosis research. Within the past year, employees also participated in a campaign initiated by Microsoft to collect more than 1,400 teddy bears for the Children’s Medical Center of Akron.
When DPAI was approached by the Make-A-Wish Foundation last May to help a young cancer patient receive his “wish,” the company donated a laptop, computer software and accessories to the boy. Instead of sending holiday gifts to valued clients, DPAI makes contributions in honor of them to local food banks.
Throughout the year, DPAI also contributes to organizations that serve the local community, such as the Alzheimer’s Foundation, the American Heart Association and the Ohio Crime Prevention Association.
Nelson believes DPAI places such a premium on community giving simply because of the value it places on the individual when it comes to business.
“We are a people company ourselves,” she says. “That’s what our product is. We sell the services of our people and the people aspect of the business is really, really important to us. I feel it is really important from a community standpoint to contribute this way.
“There’s a lot of personal benefit to it. A lot of satisfaction.”
How to reach: DeCarlo, Paternite & Associates, Inc, (216) 524-2121
Jim Vickers (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate editor at SBN.
When Damon Hacker launched his Help in a Flash card, he knew his Westlake-based IT firm had a great product on its hands.
The only problem was finding a way to let small business owners know it existed. The card promised affordable, pre-paid technical support, but Hacker discovered that marketing it through traditional channels was a logistical nightmare.
In order to get the small- and mid-sized companies, we werent going to be able to pick up the phone and make a whole bunch of cold calls, says Hacker, president and CEO of F1. Theres just too many of them. So what we really focused on was developing a marketing and distribution channel.
Changes in the accounting profession, in which CPAs are reinventing themselves as one-stop business advisers, seemed fertile ground for a marketing push. Instead of peddling the cards directly to small business owners, F1 pitched the product to the CPAs very often anointed a small companys computer guru when problems arise.
In most small businesses, the first place owners turn to find an IT person is their accountant, explains Hacker. What ends up happening is a lot of CPAs take that burden on even though its not necessarily what they do. But because they are advising (their clients), they feel a necessity to do it.
Hacker says his goal was for accountants to either refer their clients to F1s product or simply buy it themselves and serve as an all-knowing computer consultant the next time one hit a computer glitch and picked up the phone in search of advice.
If there was ever any doubt about how accountants would react to the card, all worries were extinguished earlier this year when Hacker exhibited the product at the Ohio Society of Certified Public Accountants conference. He ran a promotion in which attendees were asked to throw a dollar in a goldfish bowl for a Help In a Flash card that provided one technical support call to F1. By the end of the two-day event, the fish bowl was brimming with singles and Hacker had a long list of sales leads.
Now Hacker is working with the OHCPA on a deal to provide members with a price break on the product in exchange for the opportunity to reach an even wider audience.
Never in the two days we were there did one person say they didnt have a buck or didnt want to take part, says Hacker. I had people more worried that they didnt have a business card to give me.
How to reach: F1, www.f1-4help.com
Jim Vickers (email@example.com) is associate editor at SBN.
The letter landed on John Di Julius’ desk less than three weeks before Christmas. It was from the parents of one of the many children John Robert’s Hair Studio and Spa had delivered gifts to during the holidays at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital just one year earlier.
“Last Christmas, our 11-year-old son was a patient there on the Oncology floor,” the parents wrote. “Unfortunately, our son passed away on Jan. 15 after being diagnosed with leukemia on December 23. It is very difficult to face this Christmas without him. However, we decided it would be nice to give a donation to help some other child have a nice Christmas ... We don’t have much to give, but we know this donation will be put to good use.”
Enclosed was a check they asked Di Julius to use to purchase gifts for other children spending the holidays in the hospital. It was a powerful token of appreciation and a sterling example of why John Di Julius puts such a premium on giving back to the community. While charity work is many times relegated to the holiday season, Di Julius’ Mayfield Heights salon makes it a year-round endeavor.
“When we brought down a few hundred gifts to the kids the first year, the nurse said, ‘This is great, but unfortunately nobody thinks of these kids the other 11 months of the year,’” says Di Julius. “We asked what we could do. Could we come down once a month and provide some services? We started brainstorming.”
Today, two employees travel to the hospital each month to perform free hair, nail and makeup services for children who are patients there, a program that Di Julius believes is by far the most rewarding community service work his company does. However, John Robert’s Hair Studio and Spa sponsors many other programs which benefit children, ranging from free haircuts for students who get straight A’s to collecting school supplies from customers that will be donated to needy children.
Di Julius’ customers play an intricate role in the company’s community service efforts. For example, customers sponsor children from a “sharing wreath” on display at the salon to help assemble the 500 gifts delivered to Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital each year.
“I can’t take credit for most of the ideas,” says Di Julius. “The ideas are always brought up by our staff. Like going to Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital. That was the idea of one of our staff members.”
To come up with new ideas, Di Julius assembled a committee that evaluates the community service work the salon is involved with and develops new ideas. For Di Julius’ more than 100 employees, community giving is an integral part of the corporate culture and is ingrained from the first interview.
During that initial meeting, Di Julius explains his expectations for community giving. Those prospects who don’t respond well to the questions never see a second interview.
“We tell you what our expectations are and as long as your head is shaking and you have a smile on your face afterwards, we’ll take it a step further,” he says. “You have to understand that to work here, it will be part of your job. It’s extra hours, typically, and you don’t get paid for it.
“It’s giving back to the community, it’s promoting goodwill, it’s promoting John Roberts and it’s helping less fortunate people.”
How to reach: John Roberts Hair Studio and Spa, (440) 446-1316
Jim Vickers (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate editor at SBN.
Advertising is a great way to get your companys name recognized, while belly-to-belly sales is a key factor in driving revenue.
But Charles Stuart who lectures nationally on building business relationships says research is too often brushed aside when business owners draft marketing strategies.
Customer inquires dont have to be limited to hit-and-miss comment cards or time-consuming telephone calls, which provide a grainy picture at best of how customers view your company. Stuart says the most effective way to gauge customer satisfaction and collect valuable feedback is to enlist the help of your sales staff.
If members of your sales team visit their clients once a week, Stuart suggests arming them with questions to ask at the end of each sales call. A question like, What are the two or three things you wish we did better? can generate surprising and valuable responses.
Its something we should all do much more of, says Stuart. At the end of the year, you could have 52 questions answered in-depth.
Here is his simple four-step approach to successfully mining customers for feedback.
Ask useful questions
If youre going to poll your customers, determine what you want to know about the perception of your company. It sounds simple, but Stuart warns even the best intentions are often derailed by half-baked questions that really provide no useful information.
You have to ask and you have to ask well, he says. That means coming up with questions in advance and crafting them perfectly.
Wait for a response
Dont hurry an answer. Once you ask the question, give the person enough time to collect an intelligent and thorough response. Silence, says Stuart, is the best weapon in your arsenal when trying to learn what people really think.
Silence is powerful, he says. In all of your conversations with other human beings, especially when youre trying to create a relationship, the most powerful thing you can say is nothing.
Take detailed notes
Jot down the response on the same note card on which the question was written for easy reference later. Taking notes also shows the person you really care about their answer, not to mention it keeps you from interrupting the flow of valuable feedback.
The moment they start speaking, ask the person to pause so you can write it down, says Stuart. It engages you to do something else besides talking.
No matter what kind of criticism is leveled at your company, do not try to argue or fashion some sort of defense. The fastest way to kill the effectiveness of customer research, Stuart says, is insinuating that your customers opinions are wrong.
If you argue with people, theyll quit talking to you, says Stuart. When you argue with somebodys response to your question, theyre going to stop responding.
How to reach: Charles Stuart, www.charlesstuart.com
Jim Vickers (email@example.com) is associate editor at SBN.
Peter Vrettas was in the heart of the Nevada desert when some high-profile clients came looking for him.
The small group of Wal-Mart executives waded through throngs of visitors inside the Las Vegas Convention Center at the annual COMDEX show widely considered the center of the computer industry for three days each fall for one simple reason: They needed help and they needed it fast.
“I remember they said, ‘We’ve never heard of you, but we’ve told several people what we’re trying to do and all of them recommended you,’” recalls Vrettas, CEO of Beachwood-based EDR Corp. “Within days, we were discussing the terms of the project.”
Wal-Mart planned to install cutting edge interactive kiosks in each of its 2,000 stores that would allow customers to listen to music and watch movie trailers before buying videotapes and compact discs. They also wanted to use the stores’ display televisions to run advertising and broadcast live programming beamed in via satellite.
The problem was that Wal-Mart had purchased only the concept, leaving development of the crucial system software to an outside firm, which was behind schedule and seemingly in over its head.
Even before a final agreement was hammered out, Vrettas put his programmers to work, ironing out the kinks in the software. He moved a crew of employees to a vacant warehouse in Austin, Texas, where they unpacked the Dell computers that would serve as the backbone of the electronic kiosks, loaded them with software and shipped them directly to each Wal-Mart store.
“I think we finished the agreement just as we were delivering,” recalls Vrettas. “It was one of those deals where there had to be a certain amount of faith. We just basically said, ‘We’ll make this work.’”
By the time country music star Garth Brooks used Wal-Mart’s satellite feed for a live in-store concert to promote his new album 12 months later, in November 1998, the project was a historical footnote. EDR completed its part of the job in 90 days.
And Vrettas sheepishly admits that not even sheer curiosity could prompt him to stop by a local Wal-Mart store to check out the event.
“I knew it was going to be a madhouse, and I can’t say he is a performer I really wanted to see,” he concedes with a smile. “It was highly successful, though.”
That’s one way to put it. Another way is to say the event helped Brooks sell 500,000 compact discs within 24 hours of the concert broadcast. Vrettas, however, downplays any sort of namedropping, whether it is his work with Jay Leno, who has hosted national company meetings staged by EDR, or the fact that Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan have dropped by EDR’s Beachwood headquarters while in Cleveland to borrow the company’s spacious music studio.
These are the types of details that Vrettas rattles off with little fanfare.
Instead, he prefers to talk about the decisions that helped EDR claw its way to the top of the corporate media industry in less than 10 years. Vrettas entered the 1990s with a small audio/visual production house and a goal to become a national company. As he leaves the last decade of the century, he owns a company that has reached that summit and is poised to be an industry innovator well into the next decade.
Vrettas credits EDR’s rise to prominence and mere survival during the recession-era early 1990s to the capital intensive and somewhat risky decision to divide the company into four divisions with separate but connected areas of expertise. Thinking big, though, did not come without risk. There was always the very real possibility that the decision would put EDR out of business if the company failed to grow fast enough to cover the cost of expansion.
But one only needs to look at Vrettas’ list of high-profile clients, and the company’s 1998 revenue of $20 million, to see that his gamble was a good one.
It is early afternoon in mid-October and Vrettas is visibly tired. He apologizes, explaining he just returned from Las Vegas the home of his EDR Technologies division on a redeye flight and hasn’t quite adjusted to the time change.
Clad in a golf shirt, khaki pants and running shoes, Vrettas leads the way to his office on the third floor of EDR’s spacious Beachwood headquarters and drops into a very large, very comfortable looking green chair. A lithograph of the Beatles “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band” hangs on the wall next to him, perhaps as a tribute to others who dared to stretch the boundaries of their own industry.
“I hate talking about history, because it’s history,” Vrettas offers as a disclaimer before launching into his Cliff’s Notes version of EDR’s past. “But I understand that people always want to know where you came from, and I think it helps them understand.”
Vrettas’ reluctance to dwell on the past may stem from the fact that EDR, as it exists today, bears little resemblance to the company founded in 1968 by a group of writers. Today, EDR comprises four distinct divisions that can easily provide a visitor with the somewhat surreal experience of passing a composer, an electrical engineer and the host of a popular cable television show during a routine walk down the hall.
Vrettas concedes that this diverse mixture of talents may paint a picture of utter chaos to the uninitiated, but explains that this array of expertise is, in fact, the very thing that has made EDR an industry leader.
“The reality is, when you look at all four groups, and you look at all the different kinds of things we do, there’s a tendency to think, ‘Oh my God, you guys are all over the place,’” he says. “There is a singular focus, though. We specialize in developing content and the delivery system for high-end electronic images. ... There is sense to the madness. The reality is the IT business is complex and the media business is complex.”
The other reality is that EDR is quite accomplished at developing and delivering high-quality digital media, ranging from large-scale national company meetings to cable television shows to interactive retail kiosks, while offering the equipment and technical support to make it work. Vrettas wants EDR to be known as the go-to place in the industry that is flexible enough to deal with any bumps in the road that may arise.
“I know one project we were designing that halfway through, the company said, ‘We don’t want to do a single meeting, we want to switch to locations across the country,’” he says. “We said fine, and the next day, we were doing that. Most other companies would have to negotiate an exit and pay a fortune for that project. For us, we skipped a heartbeat and went off in the other direction.”
Business wasn’t always this complex. Thirty-two years ago, Shaker Heights-based Education Dimensions Inc. the earliest incarnation of present-day EDR was founded with an exclusive focus on producing school textbooks and filmstrips. Vrettas arrived in 1973, toting a strong background in corporate training programs, a yet-untapped market for the young company to consider.
He was invited to spearhead the corporate training arm of the company, ultimately landing prime clients including Ernst & Young, Sherwin-Williams and Coca-Cola U.S.A.
Three years later, Vrettas was named company president and a minority shareholder, while chairman and majority shareholder Peter Kontos moved to Atlanta. Kontos’ untimely death less than 12 months later prompted fundamental changes in the company.
Vrettas branched off, buying out the corporate media side of the business, and founded a new entity named Educational Development Resources. Then, in 1980, Vrettas became a minority stockholder in a Beachwood music studio called “The Recording Connection.” When it folded six years later, he acquired it and brought it on as part of EDR.
By the late 1980s, EDR faced a bit of an identity crisis. It had become an adept production house, but was not large enough to make any sort of impact outside of the Greater Cleveland area. Moreover, Vrettas didn’t want his company to be a garden-variety A/V house that grew its business by simply taking on more and more work.
Under that model, EDR could only grow so large before hitting a wall, and Vrettas knew it. He wanted to add more production capabilities and attract better talent, a move that would drastically alter the small business environment EDR had known since its inception.
“We were in a little toolbox building down on Lee Road in Shaker Heights, and there was really no room to grow the company,” recalls EDR Vice President of Communications Dave Cockley, who has worked with Vrettas since 1982. “The building had never been designed to be a video production facility. We’d sort of bent and twisted it and turned it into one. By that time, the company was also in the equipment business.
“Pete recognized in order to grow, you needed people who could focus and specialize in these systems. It wasn’t just a little adjunct you could dabble in.”
This crossroads spurred a series of weekend management meetings during 1986 and 1987, at which some crucial business decisions were made.
“There was a point where we made a very conscious decision that we didn’t want to be a mom and pop company,” recalls Vrettas. “We wanted to be a bigger corporation, and, as a result of that, we knew it would mean making changes.”
The last internal hurdle to this metamorphosis was breaking the news to the employees. Many were completely satisfied with the cozy production house atmosphere they had known for years. Despite the usual initial protests, it was going to change, whether they liked it or not.
“I remember I told the staff at the time, ‘Some of you aren’t going to buy into this and some of you aren’t going to be working here,’” explains Vrettas. “But we were so focused that this was what we had to do. Those people who liked the small shop kind of place needed to move on to something else.”
More than 100 people work within the walls of EDR’s 32,000-square-foot headquarters and the 5,000-square-foot EDR Systems facility next door. Add the 16 employees at EDR Technologies’ Las Vegas office, and Vrettas’ work force has increased by about 600 percent since the late 1980s.
The spacious headquarters, nestled among a string of office complexes along Beachwood’s Commerce Park Road, is the first physical step Vrettas took toward his “think big” philosophy. A walk through the facility reveals a startling difference in the quality of work the company handles. The days of EDR’s image as a production house that simply handled corporate training videos are long gone.
On any given afternoon, a visitor might find engineers at Beachwood Studios recording narration from Patrick Stewart that is sent from Los Angeles over crystal-clear fiber optic lines. Meanwhile, employees of EDR Media in another part of the building may be planning the next Applebee’s International annual convention or scheduling Burger King’s next three-city business meeting tour.
The bottom line is that EDR is a busy place. In fact, this afternoon is so hectic that Vrettas can’t find an open conference room to meet with a visitor. After a
couple of phone calls, he finds a small room that it seems will go unused for the next couple of hours.
“You can imagine what this place looked like when 20 people worked here,” he later says with a look that conveys he can still remember it vividly. “We had all kinds of space.”
When Vrettas sat down to design EDR’s Beachwood headquarters in the late 1980s, he had only 15 people on his staff, but designed a building for more than 100.
“It really called for us to think big,” he explains. “Every time we started talking about it, we would ask ourselves, ‘Where is it we want to go and how fast do we think we can get there?’”
Cockley says Vrettas instilled this vision in his work force by calmly and constantly reminding them that better salaries, better benefits and more interesting, rewarding work would only come if EDR successfully grew into a large corporation that could command national attention.
“He didn’t beat people up and he didn’t give half-time speeches,” says Cockley. “He just kept reminding people of the vision and the fact that if you want to work on the most sophisticated, the most exciting projects, we had to grow.”
Designing an incredibly vast building and convincing banks, investors and employees that the expansion plans were viable was only part of the challenge for Vrettas. He also needed to split his homogenous company into divisions, an initially expensive move, but one that he wagered would allow EDR to grow faster and focus on a number of projects at the same time.
He decided EDR Media would handle the staging of business meetings and events, while Beachwood Studios would offer state-of-the-art audio and video production services. EDR Systems would handle hardware sales, integration and technical service.
After riding high for a short time, however, the Gulf War and recession of the early 1990s spurred a “serious self doubt phase,” in which Vrettas admits he and other key managers sat down and debated the fate of the company. What aided EDR’s survival was the fact that Vrettas had created three distinct profit centers, which marketed to and served different corporate clients. When one division hit a sluggish phase, chances were very good another one was profitable enough to make up the difference.
A lackluster economy wasn’t the only challenge. Attracting national clients was proving more difficult than initially expected. But Vrettas insisted EDR continue to seek out big-name work. Then one day, a Burger King executive contacted Vrettas, explaining that the fast-food giant needed to stage a series of company meetings and install a full-scale production studio at its corporate office in Miami two jobs that EDR could easily handle.
“Instead of retreating and trying to make it work in Cleveland, we did just the opposite,” explains Vrettas, who admittedly looks back on the Burger King deal as a milestone for EDR. “We started reaching out more and landing work in other cities that demonstrated to us we were capable of being a national company and we shouldn’t have to rely on work that is just around the corner.”
Today, 10 years after Vrettas announced his think big philosophy, his client list is filled with corporations that are household names.
It’s safe to say he’s reached his goal, but even with impressive big-name national accounts, Vrettas is still doing a great deal of cutting edge work in Cleveland. EDR installed the interactive kiosks at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and the walls of television screens at the Great Lakes Science Center and Gund Arena.
EDR Systems recently finished installation of a state-of-the-art distance learning facility at The Cleveland Clinic’s Cole Eye Institute, which will relay live images from the operating room to locations around the world.
By the mid-’90s, EDR’s client list was growing rapidly and one could easily see today’s impressive resume taking shape. But it was Vrettas’ relationship with a small Las Vegas-based software programming firm, RussTech, that was about to turn everything up a notch and lead his company into the fertile grounds of interactive retail applications.
Vrettas’ EDR Systems division had been working with the firm to develop American Greetings’ in-store kiosks, which allow customers to design their own personalized cards. During that project, RussTech executives asked Vrettas whether he would be interested in acquiring their firm and the deal materialized in 1996.
Vrettas renamed the firm EDR Technologies and positioned it as a fourth division within EDR. Meanwhile, the Create-A-Card kiosk was a hit with consumers, pushing Vrettas and EDR into the industry spotlight.
“It turned out we gained a lot of notoriety from the project,” says Vrettas, who seems almost embarrassed about the benefit of such a timely acquisition. “We are recognized throughout the industry for it.”
It is not a difficult leap of faith to say the success of the Create-A-Card kiosk was one of the factors that led to Vrettas’ meeting with Wal-Mart executives on the floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center a little more than a year later. The popularity of the Internet had heightened the buying public’s hunger for information and convenience, and the rise of digital media was making it easier to satisfy that demand.
The stage was set for an explosion in interactive retail applications, and Vrettas was in a prime spot to lead the charge.
After the Wal-Mart project, EDR teamed with Moviefone to develop a kiosk where moviegoers can pick up tickets they order by phone earlier in the day, or buy tickets on the spot by simply swiping a credit card.
“Our job was to first create the unit itself and get URL approvals and come up with a working unit, as well as write the software to tie into the back office,” explains Vrettas. “We first tested the concept at United Artists’ theater in New York City, and have since unveiled it to 50 other locations across the United States that are currently being installed.”
Although undoubtedly an exciting high-profile project, it is easy to forget that the Moviefone contract is just a fraction of the work in which EDR’s divisions are involved. For example, the EDR staff developed a two-hour interactive DVD presentation for IMG that will be used to sell corporate sponsorships for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Meanwhile, employees at Beachwood Studios are busy with their complete production of “Room By Room,” a wildly popular series on the Home and Garden Television network, a channel included in standard cable packages across the nation.
After 10 years of successful growth, Vrettas is readying his company for another period of strategically planned expansion. In late December, he acquired Michigan-based DataServ Inc. Vrettas is still working out how the company will fit into EDR’s corporate structure, but plans to use this acquisition to focus on a new product he promises will revolutionize teaching in schools, universities and corporations through a mix of broadband digital media and the Internet.
Ironically, it seems EDR will enter its next phase of expansion by turning its attention back to where the whole company started education.
Vrettas has set goals, too. He expects to reach revenue of $30 million by 2001 and ultimately take the company public, a move that Vrettas readily admits is very rare for a company like EDR. However, he is confident that technology, as it has in the past, will lift him and his company to the next level of success.
“We’ve strengthened this company to be part of what I would call the next wave of Internet companies,” says Vrettas, as an air of excitement enters his voice. “Full-frame, full-motion broadcast standard quality video is coming, and we’re talking months away, not years.
“And with that comes opportunity.”
How to reach: EDR Corp., (216) 292-7300
Jim Vickers (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate editor at SBN.
Some would say Mark Albion was sitting on top of the world, but nothing could be further from the truth.
The Harvard Business School professor was losing his passion for his work, although he found it hard to argue with the financial success he had achieved. Then, on the same day he bought his first Jaguar, he received a phone call that brought crushing news.
His mother had been diagnosed with cancer.
Albion calls that day “the wake-up call from hell,” and in the months that followed, he began to seriously ponder whether he indeed was living what he really considered a successful life. In 1988, he left Harvard to focus on his long-time love of writing. His goal was to help others who felt trapped by the traditional definition of success find work that fed not just their bank accounts, but their souls.
Today, Albion is the author of the New York Times bestseller, “Making a Life, Making a Living.” In it, he tells his own story, along with those of other high-level CEOs who have successfully walked away from the corporate game and lived to succeed another day.
He recently sat down with SBN to share his thoughts about the changing definition of the word success.
Obviously, you had a big wake-up call to make you realize you had not achieved your definition of success. Were there earlier signs that something was wrong?
Absolutely. I had a great job at an institution I’d been involved with for years. I was on the right side. I was in the inner circle. I was a doted on younger person there who could do no wrong.
I had great colleagues, driven students and could call almost anyone in the country and get a response, including the president (of the United States). But I wasn’t excited about going to school every day. I was looking for other things to do.
There are signs for all of us, whether we’re not jumping out of bed in the morning or we don’t really enjoy talking about our work. We only begin to change when the pain of not changing is greater than the fear of changing.
For me, I think the pain really began to increase when everything happened with my mom and forced me to look at what I already knew was there and make a change.
Do you think this trend is an issue tied to the boomer generation or more a product of the time in which we’re living?
Most of us were very influenced by our parents. From my dad to this day, you measure a man’s success by how much money he makes. So a lot of us started off on exactly the same track.
What happened as boomers is we came out and pretty much followed that same path. Even though we rebelled against our parents during Vietnam, we pretty much held the party line. We all sort of came back to this traditional success mold and then at some point we looked around and said, “What am I doing here?”
One executive at Coca-Cola, a good friend of mine, said to me one day, “I used to march with Martin Luther King Jr. I haven’t done anything involved with civil rights in 10 years here at Coke. I haven’t seen my children except at corporate events. What has happened to me?”
So we begin to go through this process of trying to shed the “shoulds” of our life and figure out how authentic we are being to ourselves and who we really wanted to be as a kid, or how we pictured our lives.
What is the first piece of advice you would give someone thinking about making such a bold step in their own life?
Talk to the people around you, because you’re going to be surprised by how much support is out there. Most of us who go through this feel like there’s something wrong, like we’re crazy. When I talked to my friends at Harvard Business School, I couldn’t believe how many senior people said they totally understand.
I was the guy who was supposed to do this job. I was supposed to be at Harvard my whole life. A lot of people were counting on me to take that position and I thought they were going to be pissed as hell. Instead, they were incredibly supportive.
Many people don’t actually leave a company. They go talk to their boss about what’s making them unhappy. If you’re a valuable employee, many employers say they will help you work it out. We rarely tell people to quit right away. Very few people can even afford it.
What I did was build a bridge, and it took me two years. You create something else, so when you walk away, you’re not walking into the abyss.
What are the difficulties of staying on this new path you’ve chosen?
The old money and fame thing can really catch up to you. For example, my friends are people like Roger Ferguson, who is going to probably take over for Alan Greenspan. Another friend of mine, Larry Summers, is now Secretary of the Treasury.
I’ll see my friends in the news and I’ll say, “What the hell am I doing here?” Here I am trying to be a writer or something. I think there is still the keeping up with the Joneses phenomenon, that the traditional measures of success are hard to throw off.
It is really tough not to look for external validation. It takes a Dahli Lama-type person to really internally be strong enough to really go on your path and not be buffeted by the fact that maybe your income isn’t the same or many people don’t pick up the phone and call you back as quickly as they used to.
When you have a clear identity, I think it’s easier, and when you make these changes, there’s usually this period of time where your identification is very unclear.
I was Professor Mark Albion at Harvard Business School and now I’m Mark Albion.
How to reach: www.makingalife.com
Jim Vickers (email@example.com) is an associate editor at SBN.
Few issues are more daunting to a business owner than when his or her company outgrows its brick and mortar accommodations and its time to search for larger quarters. You cant just page your Webmaster or contact the company that hosts your server and buy a few more megabytes to satisfy your growing needs.
When its time to expand your building or move to a new location, there are dozens of issues that arise. So what are your options? In this special section, SBN provides an A to Z look at what youll face when its time to consider how to physically expand your business.
There was no question that Susan and Bruce Pyle needed to find their business a new home. Packings and Gaskets Inc., a Chagrin Falls-based mechanical sealant manufacturer, had grown steadily since the couple bought it in 1993.
Five years later, they were feeling the pinch of that success.
You just know when you have to move or expand, explains Bruce Pyle. Youve just exercised all of your options as far as available space at your current location. It really leaves no alternative.
After leasing for several years, the couple decided to build a new facility from the ground up. Looking back nearly 18 months after the move from their 18,000-square-foot headquarters into a new building nearly twice that size, Bruce admits the experience was a challenge.
There are several questions to answer before taking the serious step of relocating a successful company. Here are five that the Pyles asked before signing on the dotted line.
Should I lease, buy or build?
Bruce Pyle knew he and Susan no longer wanted to lease space, but were unsure whether they would construct a new facility tailored to their needs or buy an existing one. When their search turned up few prospects, they decided to build.
If youre a small company that is struggling, leasing is a good way to go, he says. Were glad we made the decision (to build) and we were fortunate enough to find property that was conveniently located and fit our pocketbook. Leasing is good, but owning is better.
How much land do I need?
The Pyles refused to sell themselves short. After moving from a building where there was no room for expansion, they needed a property that would fit their 33,000-square-foot facility, as well as provide some extra space.
They needed three acres, but were having a hard time finding a nearby property of that size. When they threatened to walk away from a deal, they finally got what they wanted.
I told the guy thanks a lot, but we just cant do business, Bruce recalls. He came back three or four days later and said we can make it three acres ... You will find industrial land developers are pretty eager to sell their property, but theyre also very willing to work with the potential buyer to meet their needs.
How much building space do I need?
Packing and Gaskets manufacturing facility is nearly double the size it was 18 months ago. The Pyles arent using all that space yet, but believe wholeheartedly that their company will eventually grow into its new home.
If you think you need 10,000 square feet, plan for 15,000, Bruce says. We did and were happy we did. You have to project possibly filling that extra square footage, even if you dont need it at the time. Even if you dont utilize the space, it is still there when you decide to sell or lease the building.
Who should I hire to do the work?
When it came to the crucial step of hiring a contractor, the Pyles did some serious research. They contacted business associates who had recently completed expansion or renovation projects to learn which firms they had used and whether the experiences were good ones.
They also took to the road, visiting nearby construction sites.
We drove around to different industrial parks and talked to the subcontractors working on brand new buildings to find out their attitudes and who they worked for and why, says Bruce. After going through the interview process, we narrowed it down to two possible contenders and then interviewed them again twice before we made our decision.
When do I want to move?
The Pyles werent joking when they explained to contractors during the interview process that they were on a strict deadline. In fact, the moving trucks were already reserved. They explained that they had to move by a specific date and required contractors interested in the job to make that happen.
We were very, very demanding about how long it was going to take to build this building, Pyle recalls. The contractor said hed like to have 120 days, although they could probably do it in 90 days. They did it all in 124 days start to finish. Thats pretty much on time for me.
Jim Vickers (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate editor at SBN.