Abby Cymerman

Friday, 26 October 2007 20:00

Living by the Golden Rule

As the chairman of The New Albany Co. and the owner of the John W. Kessler Co., John “Jack” W. Kessler believes in developing real estate projects that have a fresh perspective as well as nurturing strong partnerships in the business world and in the community.

“It’s common sense. Don’t let your ego get in the way,” he says. “You never know who can help you or hurt you. Just treat people the way you want to be treated.”

A respected local business leader, Kessler has played a key role in the development of several successful real estate projects, such as New Albany, Muirfield and Seabrook Island, S.C. These innovative projects have reshaped development patterns and inspired other higher-quality developments.

In addition to his impressive business credentials, Kessler recently completed his last term as a member of the board of directors of JPMorgan Chase & Co.

Jamie Dimon, the chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase and Bank One before the merger, shared some thoughts on Kessler and his leadership abilities.

“Throughout his 12 years as a director, Jack has consistently represented the interest of all shareholders by participating in the open discussions essential for an effective board of directors,” Dimon says. “At both Bank One and JPMorgan Chase, Jack has strongly supported our tough decisions, generating dramatic improvements for our company and our financial performance.”

Business leaders often find it rewarding to give back to the neighborhoods that support their companies. As part of his focus on community involvement, Kessler continues to serve on the board of Abercrombie & Fitch, the Columbus Municipal Airport Authority and The John Glenn Institute.

He is a past chairman of The Ohio Public Works Commission, United Way of Central Ohio, The Ohio State University Board of Trustees, Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce, Columbus Museum of Art and The Ohio Arts & Sports Facilities Commission. He also served on the boards of The Limited Inc. and the Cleveland Federal Reserve and was the past president of the Columbus School for Girls.

He has received many awards for his outstanding work with community organizations. Among them are the Builder of Columbus Award, the Builders Exchange Columbus Award, Columbus Chamber of Commerce Outstanding Citizen, the Gerlach Award and the Columbus Public Schools Hall of Fame Award.

In the course of a day, executives come into contact with numerous people at meetings, sales calls, trade shows or other work-places. Kessler believes every handshake represents the potential for growth.

“Some of the best things, businesswise, that have happened to me have been from chance encounters I’ve had in the past with people that I’ve had good relationships with,” Kessler says. “The relationships have come back and paid dividends to me. And when I did it, I never expected that.”

Kessler says successful business leaders should be good role models for their employees and be accessible to their team members. If the company owner puts his heart and soul into his job, employees will see that effort and emulate it in their own day-to-day activities.

“Give them good goals to accomplish, monitor them along the line and help them if they’re getting off the path,” he says. “Just be a good mentor to them, and be a hard worker.”

Kessler encourages his employees to ask him questions about a project or bounce ideas off of him. He believes that his accessibility helps his employees make proper decisions when faced with difficult business dilemmas and helps them gain valuable business experience. In the end, he wins by having a more valuable employee on his team.

Kessler says knowing a good deal when he sees it is a gut reaction.

“We do it based on economics,” he says. “I have a pretty good eye for what makes economic sense, but success is determined not just by economics. A lot of it is based on good business relationships and the associations you have: Where is the opportunity, who brought it, and who are the other partners in it? There are a whole host of things that would lead you to decide whether you want to pursue it or not.”

HOW TO REACH: The New Albany Co. and John W. Kessler Co., (614) 939-8100

Tuesday, 25 September 2007 20:00

The eyes have it

When CEO Peter Clarkson founded AC Lens in 1996, he ran it from the back of an optometrist’s office.

The Columbus-based online contact lens supply company had no overhead, no backing from venture capitalists and no expectations.

While other late ’90s Internet companies worked hard to raise capital, Clarkson chose to grow AC Lens organically through its own cash flow.

“We’ve been profitable in every year of our existence,” he says. “We started with one employee, and we’ll probably be over 30 employees by the end of the year.”

AC Lens has grown revenue about 116 percent since 2004, and Clarkson expects 2007 revenue to hit $20 million.

Smart Business spoke with Clarkson about how he retains customers through service and employees through incentives.

Q: How can other CEOs grow their companies the way you’ve grown yours?

We learned early on that the Internet is a business like any other. We wanted to grow, and we were willing to invest part of our profits in marketing and infrastructure to support our growth.

We started with a view that the company should be incremental income to the optometrist’s practice, and then it outgrew the practice, so we had to move out. Now, we have about 19,000 square feet of integrated call center/warehouse that supports that.

I’ve always been able to sleep at night because I’ve never been worried that we wouldn’t have the cash to pay our employees at the end of the week.

Q: How important is customer service to succeeding in business?

We actually spend a little bit more acquiring each customer than we make from their first order, but we know from experience and from focusing on customer service that we have a very high retention rate.

It’s particularly important in the Internet because customers could not be more mobile. It’s something of a cliché, but your competition is literally a click away.

We recognized that our product is somewhat specialized, and we needed experts who are trained in-house and experienced in dealing with that particular product to give good service to the customers. Our average call center and contact center agent has been with us more than two years, and that’s much higher than industry averages. That kind of experience has been invaluable.

Q: How do you retain employees?

We’ve worked hard to incentivize our staff based on things that matter to the company overall, not so much on sales. For example, every customer who orders from us receives an e-mail survey about two weeks after they order. We ask them questions about how happy they are with the purchase.

The key question is, ‘Will you purchase from us again?’ A response of ‘No. 1’ means definitely not, and ‘No. 5’ means absolutely yes. We average all of the responses, and all of our customer service people get a bonus based on that average. The higher the number, the happier the customer is and the more bonuses the customer service people get.

We call it a team incentive. Everybody gets it, or everybody doesn’t. We started it in 2001. Prior to that, we had very few employees, and it was very hands-on. As we’ve gotten bigger, we’ve had to try to become more objective in our measures.

You have to incentivize your employees throughout the building based on how the company does, and it has to be relevant to their job. Every person has to have a stake, from the CEO to everyone else on down.

Q: How do you manage customer complaints?

For every 20 people who are unhappy, you only hear from one of them. You should take every customer complaint as a blessing because the customer’s actually telling you about it. At some level, we’re almost happy when we hear about some problem because at least it’s something we can work on and fix.

Bottom line is, everybody makes mistakes. Obviously, if the mistake is repeated, that’s bad. Sometimes when someone’s made a mistake, we realize that the process in our technology was wrong.

Of course, sometimes it was just bad luck. If the post office or FedEx loses a package, there’s nothing much we can do about it, but if they lose enough of them, we would start looking at another shipping company.

Q: What one thing can prevent a company from growing?

If you don’t take care of your customers, they’ll walk. There’s plenty of competition; it’s one of the great things about our system. If you don’t take care of your customers, it doesn’t matter how much money and energy you spend on marketing to get new ones, you won’t succeed.

The No. 1 piece of advice for anybody is, love what you’re doing, get real pleasure out of it, and then it won’t be like work. You’ll be providing jobs for people and building something worthwhile for the community.

HOW TO REACH: AC Lens, www.aclens.com or (614) 921-9892

Tuesday, 25 September 2007 20:00

To the point

Vertex Computer Systems was founded in 1989 as a product development company, but by the turn of the millennium, Ganesh Iyer realized his company had to transform to survive the dot-com bust.

“When we got into the information technology services industry in late 2001, it was a mature industry, and we were not the first ones on the block,” says Iyer, co-founder and CEO of Vertex. “We could not differentiate ourselves by size, so we would differentiate by service: What’s the type of customer focus we bring to the table?”

Today, the firm provides software development and support services to Fortune 2000 customers. The Twinsburg-based company also has development centers in Cincinnati and Hyderabad, India, and Iyer now manages 70 employees. From 2004 to 2006, the company’s revenue grew nearly 67 percent.

Smart Business spoke with Iyer about how he’s grown his company by making sure it doesn’t go beyond the tipping point.

Q: How can other CEOs grow their companies like you’ve grown yours?

A couple of things had to be in place for us to grow. We call it our four pillars, and we emphasized those aspects of the company: the customer-centricity of our service, the quality, the time factor and the cost aspect. These were the four things that we were going to bring to the table and differentiate ourselves from our competition.

It is shown not only in the company’s growth but in how we achieved the growth. We have had close to 98 percent customer retention in the last two years. It shows that the customers who have been buying from us are continuing to buy from us, and they like what we bring to them.

The other key metric is, we either sustain or increase revenue year after year. That means customers are happy with what we do, and they continue to retain us as a service provider.

You have to define internal metrics to track and follow. Revenue and profitability are good metrics but those will come automatically if the other key metrics are on the right track.

Q: How do you determine your key metrics and begin tracking them?

If you don’t know your metrics, then you really don’t know your industry. There are industry groups that are available to help; join one of those groups and see what makes other people successful.

Then, take a look at your differentiators. Those are metrics that are unique to you as a company. You need to develop metrics so you can track them, even if it is not an everyday, formal thing.

I started reading a book, ‘The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference,’ by Malcolm Gladwell. Follow your metrics, and make sure they don’t go beyond the tipping point where it pushes you down the hill. There is a point beyond which it can be destructive, so you have to watch those things.

Being proactive is what I preach to the company; it’s looking ahead. Are you going to fall into the pothole and then try to get out, or are you going to find the hole ahead and work around it?

Q: How important is your tagline: Service without boundaries?

We are in a service industry. We don’t own a product, so 100 percent of our revenue are things we do for our customers. What we bring to the table is the expertise that surrounds the services we provide.

We have a customer-centric person — an account manager — who is responsible for delivery to the customer. That person can call the shots with regards to whatever is needed to make sure the customer is satisfied.

This particular person is the face of the company so the customer doesn’t have the frustration of dealing with so many people internally in the organization. There can be way too many channels of communication so you have to streamline all that stuff.

We have dedicated account managers who are geographically close to the customers. The face time provides the comfort factor. You are building the relationship, and ultimately, people buy from people. Account managers provide a comfort factor that there is a real person behind this project who is looking after the customer’s need.

Q: What advice would you give other CEOs trying to grow their companies?

Think about what differentiates you from the competition. What is the special thing about you that will make the customer buy from you or use your services?

There are two things you need to do. First, you need to make sure your customers and vendors understand what your differentiation is. And second, your employees need to understand how you are differentiating yourself, so whatever they do in their day-to-day activities, they internalize it.

Also, a tagline is central, and it cannot use flowery words. You have to truly believe it, and it has to reflect what you’re executing every day. If you can do that, it can become part of your core, and you have a chance at being successful.

HOW TO REACH: Vertex Computer Systems, (330) 963-0044 or www.vertexcs.com

Thursday, 04 October 2007 20:00

The power of transformation

Survival in today’s competitive market can be tough, and business leaders often find it necessary to change their company’s vision and mission to achieve success. Bill Fink, the CEO of Akron-based Area Wide Protective Inc., can relay that business experience firsthand.

Following a successful career in the insurance industry, Fink bought a small contract security guard company in 1992, which provided service to Akron-area institutions and businesses. Early on in this new venture, he realized that he had made a mistake. He learned that competition in the security industry was fierce, margins were razor thin, reliable employees were hard to find and liability issues were monumental.

On the verge of filing bankruptcy in 1995, Fink made an executive decision and changed the focus of the entire company. He dedicated his staff and his finances to establish a temporary traffic control service for the public utility industry.

Since undergoing that dramatic transformation, AWP and its staff has become known within its industry for its superior safety procedures and on-time performance on a “24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year” basis. The company also provides a complete inventory of traffic equipment.

Now operating its utility-work-area protection and flagging services in 12 states, AWP’s customer list has expanded to include all of the major utility companies in its territory — First Energy, American Electric Power, Verizon, Duke Energy, Dominion Resources, Columbia Gas and Allegheny Power.

To support its growing list of customers, AWP has increased its payroll 331 percent, from 139 employees in 2002 to 600 in 2006. As part of the company’s ongoing commitment to quality, every employee at AWP goes through a pre-employment drug screening, motor vehicle and criminal background check. New hires receive intensive training, both on the job and in the classroom.

Hand in hand with that impressive employee growth, Fink says that his company’s reputation for excellence has helped drive up revenue at AWP. The company’s dedicated team members have grown sales from $7.4 million in 2002 to $23.3 million in 2006, and revenue is expected to increase to $27 million this year.

Using some of this money to reinvest in the Northeast Ohio economy, Fink has purchased over 400 company-owned vehicles from local car dealerships.

HOW TO REACH: Area Wide Protective Inc., (330) 644-0655

Sunday, 26 August 2007 20:00

Tré Giller

When Tré Giller was about 10 or 11 years old and having trouble in school, his mother gave him some advice: When problems arise, you have to learn to overcome them by yourself or it will be very difficult for you to succeed in life. Those words of wisdom continue to resonate with Giller, who serves as CEO of Westerville-based Village Communities LLC. His company develops, builds and sells condominiums, and based on last year’s sales of $59.5 million, Giller has found success in the often-unstable world of real estate. Smart Business spoke with Giller about how he takes a hands-on approach to managing difficult situations.

Dive into problems. My first reaction to a problem is to work shoulder-to-shoulder with the individual who’s having trouble. You can’t be a good manager unless you understand the trials and tribulations of your team. Offering your experience to them helps them see the possibilities of a different method or different path.

I learned at an early age that you have to jump in and work hard to succeed. There’s really no easy path or easy answer. I learned by watching my parents and how they worked hard to be successful. Hard work, determination and dedication are going to win out 99 percent of the time.

Maintain a lean team. We’re not upper-management heavy, and we run a pretty lean ship. It comes down to the hands-on approach. We don’t have a lot of layers of management in between the person who makes the decision at the top and the work that’s being done in the field.

It allows us to have a more nimble company. When an issue arises, direction can be given quickly rather than having to filter its way through a couple of different layers.

Lead from the front. It’s a lot easier to pull a wet rope than it is to push a wet rope. That’s what I believe. You want to pull people along to follow you versus push them.

People are more willing to follow if you’re leading from the front. That means you’re the one who’s out at the sites. Your employees see you working with them and working through the problems rather than leading from behind a closed door.

People who just dictate don’t have a feel for what’s going on with their staff. They aren’t in tune with what the employees are trying to accomplish and what their problems are on a daily basis.

Make good hiring decisions. You’re only as strong as your weakest person. It’s the truth in business. You can be the strongest leader, but if you’re not smart enough to hire good, talented people underneath you, you can dictate policies and procedures till the cows come home, but you have no one capable of fulfilling those orders down the line.

Interview and be interviewed. I personally meet with the key people who are coming to join our organization. That allows me to get a sense of who they are and, more importantly, allows them to get a sense of who I am. Then, we can determine whether we want to work together.

During the hard times, you have to band together as a tight unit to work through those issues. That’s more difficult if you’re not seeing eye to eye with that person when you bring them in, or the person’s philosophies are completely different, or the direction they want to take the company is different from the direction you want to take the company.

Establish a good reputation. If you give your word to someone that you’re going to do something, you fulfill that responsibility. Sometimes, it’s not the easiest thing to do but it’s important.

Otherwise, your reputation will be sullied because people won’t trust you. If people don’t trust you, then it’s very difficult to get them to respect you in the industry.

Whether it’s a real issue or a perceived issue, you still have to take care of it and treat the person with the respect that they deserve. That’s how you develop respect in the industry and trust among people you work with.

Part of our mission statement is to offer an outstanding customer experience, resulting in the recommendation of us to the customer’s friends, family and colleagues. If you achieve that goal, then you’ve developed that level of trust.

Create satisfied customers. Set the proper expectations upfront, and then, throughout the process, fulfill those expectations with your acts and deeds. That’s going to make a satisfied customer.

If customers are dissatisfied, you didn’t set the proper expectations when you began the process, and all along the way, they believed they were getting something different than what you were providing for them.

The worst thing is to ignore dissatisfied customers and think they’re going to go away. Deal with the issue upfront when there’s a problem. Meet with the customer, try to understand his or her problem, and then do what you can within the structure of your business to take care of that problem.

Hopefully, you’ll come out with a mutually agreeable outcome for both parties.

Find time to read. Reading is a great way to get a different point of view on how to operate identical businesses or different businesses from yours. Take the knowledge that someone is willing to give you in a book and adapt some of that information into what you’re trying to accomplish to make you better in business and life.

Most people are so busy working, they don’t take a moment to step back and say, ‘How do other people do it?’ You can learn from other people’s successes and failures. I read a great book the other day, ‘Your Management Sucks’ by Mark Stevens. Based on the title, you would think that it’s a negative book, but it’s not the case. It helps you make sure you’re managing your business the way you want it to be run.

Reading is a good thing to work into your daily regimen, whether it’s late at night or early in the morning. Put in an hour a day — if that’s all you can get — and find that time to grow yourself.

HOW TO REACH: Village Communities LLC, (614) 540-2410 or www.villagecommunities.com

Thursday, 26 July 2007 20:00

Splitting hairs

John Vitullo is a biomedical researcher, founder of a forensic lab, author and co-author of several scientific publications, and an educational speaker.

So when he co-founded and became CEO of a new company in 1999, he named it Omega Laboratories Inc. because, he says, “It’s the last letter of the Greek alphabet, and it was the last thing I was ever going to do.”

Headquartered in Mogadore, Omega’s state-of-the-art facility provides hair analysis and testing for illicit drug use to clients worldwide. From 2004 to 2006, Omega’s revenue increased 135 percent, and Vitullo expects 2007 revenue to reach $6 million.

Smart Business spoke with Vitullo about how a customer-focused attitude sets his company apart.

Q: How can other CEOs grow their company the way you’ve grown yours?

We looked at the potential market and found that it was unlimited. With a pre-employment drug-screening company, every company is a potential client anywhere in the world.

It was being at the right place at the right moment. There were just so many advantages over the existing technology, and we saw that and said, ‘Let’s take a chance.’

Q: What is the downfall of taking a risk?

What we didn’t realize was that there was so much education that needed to be done. There were a lot of fallacies out there about what we do, and a lot of people shied away from it.

We saw the future of it. We knew that the federal government was talking about approving hair testing, and that opens up 25 million potential tests a year. You put everything together, and we figured we’d go try this. It was a very good risk, and we felt good about where we were going.

Q: How important is customer service?

Our business is an information business. We have separated ourselves from the other three, four or five laboratories out there by an intense focus on customer service.

Ninety percent of the samples that come in here this morning will go out this afternoon; no one matches that in the industry. If someone calls in and has a question, they’re going to talk to a live person. If they need to talk to a scientist, they’re going to talk to a scientist. If they need backup support in a legal proceeding, they’re going to get it. That has really enabled us to grow. If you call the other laboratories, you’ll go through answering-machine hell.

Q: When did you decide to make customer service your differentiating factor?

As with all new businesses, we struggled mightily during the first three or four years. When we started, in addition to hair testing, we did urine testing and some oral fluids testing. We were losing money, and in business, that’s what makes the big decisions for you.

We realized we couldn’t do all of them as well as we wanted to. We said, ‘Look, let’s forget about everything else except the hair. This is what we do best. Let’s focus on it, and let’s do it as well as anyone ever did it before.’

Q: How did you communicate the customer service focus to your employees?

We had meetings and said, ‘Everyone here is in customer service.’ We only had 10 or 11 employees at the time, and if the phone was ringing, whoever could get to it first would pick it up. We told the employees that if a client has an issue or a problem, they should take care of it right then and there.

There are a set of rules, which we have communicated to the employees, and an employee handbook lays all that out. We’ve never had a problem with someone overstepping their boundaries because we’re pretty clear on what they are allowed to do.

Q: What advice would you give other CEOs of fast-growth companies?

We weren’t funded, so all of our growth has been organic. If we had put money into marketing and advertising, we may have grown too fast and not been able to handle it or keep up with our level of customer service.

I don’t know why it happened the way it did, but we were very happy with the slow, controlled growth that enabled us to build the laboratory gradually. We’re still in that growth phase. We have very good people here, but we’ll need a lot more.

Q: How do you make sure that you’re hiring the right people?

Pardon the pun, but we look at chemistry — personalitywise — to make sure they fit in to our group. It’s a very close-knit group, and one person can certainly upset that apple cart.

We’re lucky to be in the Northeast Ohio area because we hire a lot of people from the local universities. When we’re ready to grow and add people, we don’t have to look far.

HOW TO REACH: Omega Laboratories Inc., (800) 665-5569 or www.omegalabs.net

Monday, 25 June 2007 20:00

The daily grind

Competition is fierce in the household goods arena, and John McCann, president of Saeco USA Inc., knows that his company must set itself apart to win business.

A Northeast Ohio native, McCann relocated Saeco USA from Annapolis, Md., to Glenwillow, Ohio, in 2004 to facilitate its growth and establish a centralized distribution point to benefit Saeco’s customers.

Saeco USA, a division of the Saeco International Group, designs, produces and markets high-end coffee machines for household, professional and automatic vending machine use.

When McCann moved the company, he implemented new business strategies. First, he built his management team using local resources and brought key members of his Annapolis team with him. The relocation offered Saeco USA lower overhead and provided it with the opportunity to work with neighboring businesses to share resources, such as logistics and shipping capabilities.

McCann also relies on product innovations to focus on and anticipate customer needs regarding function and style. One new Saeco coffeemaker serves its owner by making different types of coffee drinks at specific times throughout the day. Saeco USA also is working with other segments of the beverage industry to introduce new products.

A challenge in selling high-end household goods is educating customers about the products’ value. Through strong customer service and unique demonstration methods, Saeco USA gets its products in front of potential customers. McCann also developed a “Houseware Showcase” where Northeast Ohio houseware companies take to the streets of downtown Cleveland to display their products. In addition to consumer education, the showcase also spotlights the thriving businesses of Northeast Ohio.

McCann and Saeco USA also take an active role in supporting community organizations, such as the Center for Parents and Children, Big Brothers Big Sisters and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Saeco USA boosted its sales from less than $4 million in 2004 to $27.1 million in 2006.

HOW TO REACH: Saeco USA Inc., (440) 528-2000 or www.saeco-usa.com

Monday, 25 June 2007 20:00

Doing the right thing

When David Coury and his siblings were forced out of a family business due to the lack of a succession plan, he had to depend upon his knowledge, experience and history of success to serve as founder and president of Pharmacy Management Group LLC.

Taking a calculated risk, Coury and the company’s shareholders put their homes and incomes on the line to launch the company in 2001. PMG offers pharmacy service for the unique needs of nursing home and assisted living businesses.

When other companies were neglecting patients and avoiding the needs of customers, Coury recognized this as a business opportunity and a social responsibility. To this day, he challenges his staff to provide high-level customer service, and the company has never lost a client.

As one of the first companies in its industry to go paperless, PMG has grown almost seamlessly using technology because all of its orders are indexed and easily accessible. This allows the company to stay ahead of high-volume workloads and successfully manage larger run rates.

Coury is committed to the needs of others and encourages his employees to care for their customers in the same way. Rather than simply sending a bill, PMG spends five minutes with every family because, Coury says, “It’s the right thing to do.”

Giving back to the community is also a priority for Coury. He serves on the board of North Coast Health Ministry, a volunteer organization that offers health care to those in need of medical resources. PMG also provides medication for these individuals.

Coury understands that his staff members are his most valuable resource. To attract and retain quality employees, PMG offers high wages, yearly bonuses and other perks.

Today, PMG serves over 75 facilities from offices in Westlake and Westerville, Ohio, and Sharon, Pa., and Coury expects 2007 revenue to reach $30 million.

HOW TO REACH: Pharmacy Management Group LLC, (440) 617-7646 or www.pmgservices.com

Monday, 25 June 2007 20:00

Planning ahead

Growth requires a delicate balance, and Moore Stephens Apple’s David Gaino understands that process, both as chairman of a CPA firm that advises clients on growth and as the leader of a growing company.

Through internal growth and mergers, the 95-employee Akron firm has increased revenue from $8 million in 2004 to $10 million in 2006. It merged with a Westlake firm in 1998 and a Mayfield Village firm in 2004, giving the company immediate opportunities on both the west and east sides of the Cleveland market.

Smart Business spoke with Gaino about how he invests in his firm’s growth.

Q: How do you grow a company?

Plan for growth and make sure that plan aligns with the company’s overall strategic plan. That will lead to a clear identification of the differentiators.

It often takes some real soul-searching because you tend to think, ‘We have good people and good products,’ but so does the competition. Searching for that differentiator will lead you to narrow your focus and make probably the most important decision — what you’re not going to do.

Q: How do you make that decision?

For most entrepreneurs, there’s excitement under every rock. The hardest decision for any business leader is to say, ‘We’re not going to do all these different things. Even though it will mean a slightly slower growth track, we’re going to stay focused on these fewer number products and services.’

The best way to instill that discipline is to establish a board of advisers that the business owner can check in with several times a year. You might staff that panel with an industry peer in a non-competing business — a CPA, an attorney, perhaps a retired executive who’s been there and done that. Then, you’ve got people looking over your shoulder to say, ‘Are you sure you have the resources to go into that next venture? Why don’t we just slow down a bit and perfect these things that we’re doing?’

It’s difficult sometimes for the internal management team to say, ‘Slow down’ to the owner because it can look like they’re being lazy, when that’s not the intention. The outside advisers can ask the tough questions.

Q: How do you make sure your growth plan aligns with the strategic plan?

A critical area is systems. Businesses often will say, ‘We need X number of people and these kinds of products,’ but they may not have attended to the systems it takes for those people to function. As you go through different growth stages, you outgrow your systems, and you’ve got to get that next size. That takes an investment.

If you’ve targeted a growth rate, you’ve got to check in with the strategic plan to be sure that the systems, people and processes are growing along to support it. Otherwise, that growth will be detrimental to the company.

You might gain new business and lose current customers because the systems are not allowing you to be as organized and efficient at servicing the now-expanded business.

Q: Is it difficult to make that investment?

Some systems-oriented people do it naturally. For others, especially those with an entrepreneurial mind, it might be considered hard because working on your business takes time away from selling and being with customers — and that’s not a natural inclination for an entrepreneur.

If an entrepreneur with that kind of personality doesn’t have a strong operations person and they reach for that next level, the weakness will be exposed. The best thing they can do is hire a person with the operations mentality. That person can build the organization while the entrepreneur is doing the vision and leadership part.

To reach the next level, you need to invest in people, and that’s just an outright expense. It may be difficult to postpone some true sales growth and reallocate those capital dollars, but you need to build a strong foundation so you’re ready to move on to the sales growth and support it comfortably.

Q: How important is culture during a merger?

There’s nothing more important. The first challenge is to know yourself, and that takes a fair amount of work. We have gone through a process of documenting our shared values. It was 100 percent employee-driven and rolled out about three years ago.

Because we’ve documented those shared values, it makes it much easier when we’re sitting down with a prospective merger candidate to say, ‘Here’s who we are.’ We give them the opportunity to assess whether or not that fits with their shared values. It also gives us a checklist of things to look for because, ultimately, we have to be sure that if a merger were to go forward, the values are going to match.

We’ve pursued two merger candidates in the last two years, and in both cases, declined to go further solely because of a perceived mismatch of the values. There is no other criterion as important as values.

HOW TO REACH: Moore Stephens Apple, (330) 867-7350 or www.msapple.com

Saturday, 26 May 2007 20:00

Client care

The mission statement of S&A Consulting Group LLP states that the firm is committed to make an upfront investment of its time and resources for its clients’ future growth and prosperity.

With a statement like that, principals Nip and Rita Singh and their team are prepared to provide solutions to their clients’ challenges at the Cleveland-based management consulting firm.

S&A’s clients range from single entrepreneurs to Fortune 500 companies worldwide, but its consultants are taught to value each client irrespective of the material transactions. They also understand that satisfied customers will not only return to the firm but refer friends and associates, as well.

The firm only takes on the work it can handle, and the consultants keep their client base to a manageable size so the delivery of service and quality of projects does not suffer.

The firm’s customer service philosophy starts with building a true friendship with its clients. Once the trust is established, the client knows its consultants will do anything for it above and beyond the boundaries of business.

As a way to maintain client relationships, S&A’s consultants routinely call clients to see if the firm can assist with anything that will ease the clients’ day-today work load. The more the firm stays in touch, the better its clients feel because the consultants are able to catch problems before they arise and work with the to avoid costly mistakes.

The Singhs say all businesspeople are in the hospitality business. They are order-takers who need to understand and listen to what clients want and deliver the right results, along with gestures of kindness. These warm feelings start at the top, and owners must set an example so employees will follow and practice the emphasis on customer care.

HOW TO REACH: S&A Consulting Group LLP, (216) 593-0050 or www.sa-consultinggroup.com