Abby Cymerman

Saturday, 26 May 2007 20:00

Building relationships

Willoughby-based Marous Brothers Construction Inc. prefers to use the word “client” rather than “customer,” because it says “client” conveys a long-lasting service delivery experience.

President Chip Marous, COO Scott Marous and VP Ken Marous say they attract clients for life, not just for the life of a construction project. They service clients beyond contract and warranty requirements, and as a union contractor, they say their price may not be as low as their nonunion counterparts, but they say the quality and guidance received by clients is superior to any of their competitors.

Chip says more than 90 percent of his company’s work is gained through referral or repeat business, making the company’s relationship-based sales model vital in establishing long-term relationships with each client.

In 1999, the company implemented its Total Quality Management (TQM) Program, which encourages office and field personnel to cooperate in identifying and solving problems that could help the company manage growth, promote teamwork between staff and clients, and improve upon the company’s high standards.

New employees are taught the importance of the TQM Program at their orientation. Through this program, they learn how each employee represents a piece of the puzzle, and without their understanding and commitment, the puzzle would be incomplete.

Marous Brothers also sends out a TQM Client Evaluation Survey one-third of the way into a project’s construction schedule and again as the project is completed, giving clients an opportunity to offer feedback on the company’s performance. Sf any service defects are exposed, the information is used to improve service in the future.

HOW TO REACH: Marous Brothers Construction Inc., (440) 951-3904 or www.marousbrothers.com

Saturday, 26 May 2007 20:00

Quality care

Frankin & Seidelmann Subspecialty Radiology product is its service, so it focuses on providing the best possible service.

Scott Seidelmann, president and COO of the Beachwood company, says his business provides clinically specific subspecialty teleradiology reports and must provide quality on a consistent basis. If it doesn’t measure up, it affects not only its clients, which are imaging centers, physician groups and hospitals, but the clients of those entities — the referring physicians — and ultimately, their clients — the patients.

Due to the nature of the industry, F&S can’t give gifts or comp products when a service defect arises. Instead, it empowers its employees to make it right for the client by offering the next best solution at no extra charge.

Because every department deals directly with clients, the entire organization has to be customer-service-driven. The management team says world-class customer service comes naturally when a company is built around the idea of service, using it as the backbone of the infrastructure and not as side product that gets developed as an afterthought once the money starts coming in.

F&S uses multiple software systems to provide exceptional customer service. Its teleradiology platform and operational infrastructure automates the complex process of distributing and routing information, large image files and reports between clients and radiologists all over the country. Its VoIP phone system allows clients quick access to client support representatives.

Its Customer Relationship Management system allows the company to set up home pages for clients; each page contains all the relevant information about the client and every contact at the company. As a result, F&S employees have become more effective, more efficient and more knowledgeable about the clients they serve.

HOW TO REACH: Franklin & Seidelmann Subspecialty Radiology, (216) 255-5700 or www.fs-rad.com

Saturday, 26 May 2007 20:00

Team effort

A trip to the orthodontist can be a positive experience; just ask the adult and child patients of Dr. Gen Orthodontics.

With offices in Lyndhurst and Twinsburg, exceptional customer service and personal care are an integral part of the corporate culture. Dr. Felix Gen says these foundations establish value that goes beyond price competition.

The best way to provide good service is to establish a good relationship with customers. Dr.

Gen’s patients are asked about their hobbies, families, likes and dislikes, and the information is noted on their chart and reviewed by staff before each visit.

Employees conduct a huddle each morning to discuss the patients who have appointments that day and the unique needs of each patient. At the end of the day, staff members choose two patients who were successful in their part of the orthodontic treatment or those who need a little extra encouragement; those patients receive a “care-card” signed by all team members.

Gen offers a “Shining Star” incentive program for child patients to maintain excellent oral hygiene. Whenever a child has a cleaning by his or her general or pediatric dentist and has no cavities, the dentist signs a special card provided by Gen’s office.

When the patient brings the signed card back, he or she is entered into a drawing to win personal televisions, DVD players and iPods.

Customer care doesn’t happen on its own, and Gen’s employees receive a book of customer service scripting because he says knowing how to handle every situation — and what to say — is an invaluable tool for a service-oriented business. When the rare service defect happens, every employee is prepared to make up for a negative experience with several positive ones.

HOW TO REACH: Dr. Gen Orthodontics, (216) 291-3525 or www.brace4success.com

Saturday, 26 May 2007 20:00

Animal instincts

Employees at the Akron Zoological Park know that customer service is not a one-time deal but an opportunity for continuous improvement.

Patricia Simmons, the zoo’s president and CEO, recalls an older couple’s visit to the zoo on a hot summer day. The man couldn’t walk the grounds anymore, so a guest service staff member brought him a wheelchair, but his wife wasn’t strong enough to push it.

Thinking quickly, the zoo employee pushed the man in the wheelchair, gave the couple a private tour and allowed them to finish their visit at the zoo.

Taking a valuable tip from this incident, the zoo now provides motorized wheelchairs to customers for these situations.

In addition to observing the needs of guests, the zoo has hosted focus groups that provide a wealth of information. Zoo guests always want more animal experiences and greater education and entertainment value but also have said they will return time and time again because of their treatment by staff members — as guests, rather than just customers or visitors.

To communicate this message to employees, the zoo requires all staff members to attend its customer service training program. New hires learn what the organization expects of them, from customer service techniques to tips on how to please a difficult guest.

An annual refresher course on customer service teaches employees how to deal with day-to-day issues, provides ideas for increasing guest satisfaction and empowers staff to make guest-focused decisions. As a result, all employees are prepared to turn a negative experience into a positive one for guests.

This training also reminds employees that their co-workers are also zoo guests and to treat them with the same kindness, enthusiasm and sincerity, a concept that has led to enhanced teamwork and more effective work relationships.

HOW TO REACH: Akron Zoological Park, (330) 375-2550 or www.akronzoo.org

Wednesday, 25 April 2007 20:00

To the max

Several years ago, Cindy Lowry returned from a trade show with $500,000 in orders for her company and no credit line to fulfill them. The president and CEO of Blossom Bucket Inc., a designer and wholesale distributor of home d├ęcor, took the orders to the bank and asked for money, only to be shot down. But Lowry was not discouraged.

“I’m completely passionate about what I do, so it doesn’t really seem like work,” she says. “A lot of people give up too soon. Live through that difficult time and be creative on how to overcome your obstacles.”

Today, Lowry’s North Lawrence-based business employs 30 and has grown sales to more than $5 million in 2006, a nearly 35 percent increase from 2004.

Smart Business spoke with Lowry about how she used passion and plastic to grow her business.

Q: What does it take to grow a successful company?

One of our major challenges has always been financing. We just started thinking, ‘How can we get enough money to order what we need?’ I went with the most common but unethical approach — I financed the entire thing on credit cards.

Think of how you’re going to handle your needs. Sometimes you just have to be really creative on how you’re going to go about doing it.

Q: How did credit card debt affect your company?

I had so many credit cards, it hurt my personal credit for a couple years, but it really wasn’t a big deal. It worked for us, and I didn’t have a problem with it. Within a couple years, we did have the capital. Then we went to the bank, and they were all happy to give us the money.

All of the textbooks say, ‘Don’t ever do that. There are better ways of financing.’ In my case, I couldn’t come up with a better one, short of financing my house, and I just wasn’t going to do that.

If you can’t overcome your debt, that’s what’s going to put you under. (Business owners need) to have the capitalization to buy and do what they need to exist. We’ve overcome it now. Our bank works with us very well. Once you’ve proven yourself to the bank, they’re pretty happy to work with you.

Q: How did you prove yourself?

We did that credit card deal, and at the end of the year, we turned a really good profit. I was doing all the bookkeeping for a while — and I don’t have an accounting degree — so I hired a controller, who was able to turn our books into a much more attractive set of books for the bank to look at. That really was a big turnaround for us.

The financial person is definitely the person you want to hire first. That will help you move forward because then you look like a package, a company that has credibility.

Q: What is the hardest part about leading a growing company?

The most difficult part is being the forerunner to keep everybody on track. You can’t do everything, but you can lead your people for the common goal.

If you treat your people well, and they feel like you really do have their best interests in mind, the company is going to grow. We’ve experienced a lot of growing pains, but if I can be there to try to give my employees the insight that we just have to make it over the next hump — I call it climbing mountains — we’ll stabilize for a while, and then we’ll look at the next goal to reach.

Q: How do you communicate that goal to your employees?

Our top management meets every Tuesday, and we go over the goal. We work on a goal for six months. When you get going in too many directions, things start falling apart because you’re not able to focus all of your energy toward one common goal.

We’ve had the chaos, where there’s just too many things going on and we’ve taken on too much. Then, you’re not doing justice to yourself or your customers, and you just start floundering. We feel it’s better to focus on one thing at a time.

Q: How can business owners recognize impending chaos?

When your stress level is unbelievable and when you’ve gotten to the point where you just don’t know which way to turn, when your team feels like things are not going to work, that’s the clue that you’ve got too much going on. You need to sit back and regroup. Sometimes, we just call a halt (to a business proposal) and say, ‘I’m sorry, we just can’t do that this year,’ and honestly, the customer ends up appreciating that because they know, in the end, they’re going to get what they need if we’re better organized and able to handle it.

HOW TO REACH: Blossom Bucket Inc., (330) 834-2551 or www.blossombucket.com

Monday, 26 March 2007 20:00

Careers, not jobs

Rea & Associates Inc.’s recruiting brochure states, “We’re hiring our future partners,” reflecting the up-front attitude that President Tim Michel takes when bringing on new employees.

Rea’s hiring process at the New Philadelphia-based accounting services firm includes rigorous testing to ensure a cultural match, and the company’s 245 employees in 11 Ohio offices are encouraged to participate in Rea’s continuing education classes and leadership training.

“Bringing people in, not training them and not getting them excited breeds turnover,” Michel says. “Turnover is so much more expensive than the dollars you spend in training, showing people they have opportunities and giving them responsibility so they can grow and shine.”

The firm posted 2006 revenue of $23 million, up from $18 million in 2004.

Smart Business spoke with Michel about how he hires future partners.

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

We have always been a growth-oriented firm. It’s deep-rooted in our tradition. Either you grow or you die. We then translate that into the way we manage our business and the decisions we make.

If we want to grow, we need to have good people. In addition to hiring the best and brightest, we want to treat them well, and that goes not just in salary and benefits. The money we spend in technology is significant. We also spend a lot of money and time training them in the soft skills, things like listening, effective writing, the art of delegation, supervisory and management-type skills.

We also have a two-year leadership program, the Rea NextGen program. We put our managers through a very structured program of teaching them a lot of the things that you just don’t learn on the job.

We are looking to create opportunities for our younger people so they don’t hit a ceiling. At some point, they can actually become a partner, and they can run an office or a service area.

We also want to keep our eye on profitable growth. It’s just one of our goals.

Q: What is the difference between growth and profitable growth?

It’s not hard to grow if you’re willing to take on any type of business service. You can become what is known as a bottom-feeder, and go out there and underbid your competition just to get work in the door. Pretty soon, you’re just hiring a lot of people to do a lot of work, but the profits aren’t there.

Profit is important because that allows us to invest in our people and new services. If you just go out and grow as quickly as you can, without the eye on profit, things will fall apart because you won’t have the leaders in the organization to manage it well.

You’ll find that you’re running into situations where you’re not servicing clients well because you don’t have the dollars to train your people.

I would rather have 15 percent growth profitably than 20 or 25

percent growth and not bring profit into the company.

Q: How can companies afford employee training?

It’s an investment. You have to have a long-term view. If you want a company that is going to be successful and grow, you have to invest that time and money into those people and it will come back many-fold. You’re going to have people who are very effective and efficient at what they do and they’re going to be able to manage other people, go out into the marketplace, bring in new business and manage it well.

You get what you pay for. It’s a very exciting and refreshing philosophy because most people want to be part of something successful. When you take the time to invest in your people, it keeps the level of excitement high and your people react positively to it.

Q: How can business leaders make good growth decisions?

You have to sit down, analyze the opportunities and be honest with yourself. A lot of businesspeople will evaluate an opportunity, see potential hazards, and just place them aside and wish them away. When they actually get into it and they start getting faced by all these things that they passed off, (the hazards) become overwhelming.

You have to do your due diligence, and you have to be willing to walk away from something if it doesn’t fit in your overall game plan and doesn’t make sense for you.

Q: How do you create a successful growth strategy?

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about where we want to be. Something you do today will have an effect on where you’re going to be five years from now. If you define where you want to be five years from now, then you can better act today to make sure you get there.

HOW TO REACH: Rea & Associates Inc., (330) 339-6651 or www.reacpa.com

Wednesday, 31 January 2007 19:00

Building partnerships

Business leaders run across new opportunities daily, but the most successful decision-makers know how to recognize one when they see it.

In the late 1990s, the management team at Norton-based Fomo Products Inc., a manufacturer of spray foams, sealants and adhesives, realized that its one-component foams (OCF) had reached the end of its product lifecycle and had become overly commoditized.

Two-component foams, or spray foams — especially those in disposable packaging — were still relatively new to the U.S. residential and commercial markets. Fomo’s Handi-Foam Spray Foam presented opportunities for both new market growth as well as margin increases.

By 2003, European OCF manufacturers had become more prevalent in the U.S. marketplace, offering lesser-quality and lower-priced products, so Fomo took on the challenge to protect its customer base without sacrificing price or quality.

The Fomo team and its president, Stefan Gantenbein, developed the Partners Program, which offers services and resources to its top customers. The program allowed customers to build a strong partnership with Fomo, including marketing assistance and training tools, which ultimately led to increased sales and margins for Fomo and its partners.

Another benefit of the Partners Program was a specific contact matrix that allowed customers companywide access to get their questions answered efficiently and effectively. Marketing support was offered on three levels: educational, customized pieces and merchandising. Smart executives also realize that when an obstacle blocks their way, they have to overcome it to survive. The Fomo team learned that customizing marketing support was expensive, so they redirected funds from previous marketing ventures. The outcome was larger margins and more sales without increased investment within this group of customers.

The Partners Program has helped Fomo increase customer accounts with significant growth in product mix and margins. In addition to enhancing customer loyalty, brand awareness and end-user education, the program taught Fomo’s management team that enhanced education and support of distributors were more effective than directly targeting contractors.

HOW TO REACH: Fomo Products Inc., (330) 753-4585 or www.fomo.com

Wednesday, 31 January 2007 19:00

Stitch in time

Abe Miller’s grandmother used to use the expression “Your eyes are bigger than your plate” to describe someone who takes on more than they can handle.

This folk wisdom resonates in Miller, who co-owns Graffiti Inc. with his wife, Barb. Miller says it’s important for company owners to take risks, but, “You don’t want to stick your neck out.” “For instance, I rent,” he says. “I could buy a building ... but I ask myself, ‘Is that really going to get me more sales?’ Instead of paying a mortgage, I’ve got money for change. There’s a new machine on the market, I buy it. I want to change my Web site, let’s change it.”

This liquidity has allowed the Millers to grow Graffiti, which manufactures embroidered baseball caps and sportswear.

“When you’ve been in business 20 years, you have to keep changing and updating because if you don’t change, you don’t grow,” Barb Miller says. “You can’t be afraid of change. You have to go with it until it works.”

The Millers realized several years ago that by implementing a modular manufacturing system, they could be more efficient.

“The more that we’ve automated, the more people we end up hiring because our quality goes up, delivery is better, sales go up and the company grows,” Abe Miller says. “It takes you places you never dreamed of.”

When Graffiti began to grow, Abe Miller was overwhelmed but embraced change out of necessity.

“When you cut through all your arrogance and you realize you’re only as good as your last order, then you become really flexible really fast,” Abe Miller says.

So what inspires the Millers?

“If you love what you do, it isn’t hard to do,” Barb Miller says. “We worked hard and we have great people with us, and that’s what makes the difference.”

HOW TO REACH: Graffiti Inc., (216) 881-5550 or www.graffiticaps.com

Sunday, 31 December 2006 19:00

Getting to know you

Customer feedback is vital to growth, but Dave Moffatt has a unique challenge at Prentke Romich Co., which develops and manufactures communication devices and other assistive technology for people with severe disabilities. “Because our customers are people with communication-related disabilities, that’s challenging work to understand what their needs and capabilities are,” says the company’s president and CEO.

With 2006 revenue of between $20 million and $30 million, and a two-year growth rate of 28 percent, Moffatt’s 100 employees don’t focus on competition or margins but on customer needs.

Smart Business spoke with Moffatt about how he uses feedback to better meet the needs of his clients.

Q: How can CEOs better understand their customers’ needs?

It’s a challenge in any business. We have lots of direct interaction with both the people who use our products and also the people that support our clients.

We use what we call evidence-based practice; we go out, monitor their performance with our products and bring that information back to improve the product effectiveness.

Two of our technical service folks are people who use our products. That kind of interaction is incredibly valuable to us, not only in terms of our service but in terms of understanding the real needs and challenges of people with communication-related disabilities. Not every company can do that, but it’s been very helpful and instructive for us.

I’ve always liked this notion of being intimate with your market. We work hard to do that. The people who represent our products in the field are clinically trained. They educate and influence, but they also learn a lot of things and bring that back.

Good people are a precious thing, and we have had the fortune here to retain our staff. We’ve got people with 15, 20, 30 years of experience. Those folks have a perspective of understanding our marketplace that you can’t replace overnight. One of our secrets of success is finding and retaining those people.

Q: How do you do that?

Over time, we’ve been able to find people who identify with the mission of the company and are committed to that mission. That’s been more important to us than compensation or benefits. We look for that in the hiring, and frankly, we don’t lose people.

We believe in being flexible; we have lots of folks who work part-time and flexible schedules. If you’re a valuable employee, we need to accommodate those kinds of needs.

Today we are 15 percent employee-owned. We regard it as a reward for the people who have been here and continue to be here working hard, and it’s an attractive benefit for recruiting good people. We think it’s a way to keep people focused on the outcomes of their work every day.

Q: How can executives make decisions regarding growth?

Find those populations where you can provide a benefit to folks that they’re not currently getting and be aggressive about delivering that benefit. Then, find really good people who will take ownership of that work.

It’s a simple formula, but it’s not easy to execute, and we make as many mistakes as anybody, but the approach is really that straightforward.

Q: What can prevent a company from growing?

What can be a problem for lots of companies, and especially mid-market companies, is this is a very competitive landscape. Focusing your company in the right way is where you could add value and compete.

Those decisions are not easy — deciding where your company adds value, what are your competitive advantages in the marketplace and being focused on pursuing those advantages. That’s hard work.

Q: How do you stay focused on your company?

That’s an ongoing challenge for me because, left to my own devices, I think I’d have us going in 20 different directions. We have a very strong senior management team and a very strong group of employees.

I rely a great deal on their judgment, insights and experience in the marketplace.

We look at the results of the products and services that we put into the market, and we study the performance of the folks who use our systems. At the end of the day, if people who could not communicate before are effective communicators because of our technology, then we’re in the right place.

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

People, people and more people. There are lots of things that have to happen for a company to grow successfully, but underlying all of those things are people who are talented, experienced and committed to what the company wants to achieve.

If you have that, there isn’t anything you can’t do, and if you don’t have those people, no plan, no amount of capital or anything else is going to help.

HOW TO REACH: Prentke Romich Co., (800) 262-1984 or www.prentrom.com

Friday, 24 November 2006 19:00

John Ness

Several years ago, John Ness received a copy of Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great” from a colleague and set it aside. Six months later, the president of Columbus-based ODW Logistics Inc. picked it up again and read it, setting in motion dramatic directional and cultural changes in his company. Ness says it took about two years for the benefits of the change to emerge, and by the second quarter of 2005, his business began to blossom. Today, the third-party logistics provider has 600 employees and projected 2006 revenue of $45 million. Smart Business spoke with Ness about the importance of bonding with your team and why it’s sometimes OK to be autocratic.

Be a people-oriented manager. Business and life are very dynamic. There are times when you’ve got to be very autocratic, take the lead and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ There are times when you have to be a referee in a healthy debate among your team leaders.

There are times when we have to cast the vision and say, ‘This is where we want to go,’ encourage, be persuasive and set expectations and goals. There are times when we’ve got to be supportive; we’ve got to let people work through issues and be a sounding board and a listening ear.

You’ve probably got to incorporate all facets of the styles that are out there. It’s difficult at times to know what you need to bring to a particular situation, but experience tells you that.

Know your team. This year, we saved each other’s lives, quite literally. I took two of my three senior team members with me on a mountain-climbing trip to the Grand Tetons of Jackson Hole, Wyo.

We spent a week in training for a mountain-climbing experience and three days on a mountain, where we were belaying each other using ropes and climbing techniques up the face of a 12,000-foot mountain. That drew us closer together than sitting around a conference room table.

There’s a very blurry line between what goes on outside (the office) and what goes on at work. I’m not one that tries to forget what goes on outside; I really try to understand where people are coming from and what they’re bringing into work each day.

I try to be a listening ear to get some perspective on where people’s minds are because if their heart’s someplace else, then you’re not going to get their mind. Sometimes you’ve got to demonstrate a caring and compassion toward those issues.

Be a predictable boss. If I’m unpredictable and don’t feel like I’ve got a healthy balance in my life and my job and a sense of understanding what my duties and responsibilities are, that all rolls downhill. It creates real challenges.

I try to keep an even keel, to hear where people are coming from and to be a consistent, predictable leader for our team.

If you’ve got a real clear sense of where you want to go and what you want to do, then you can present that vision in a way that hopefully people understand and buy in to it. Then your actions and the progress that you make each day toward that vision are consistent; you’re coming in, working hard, giving it your all and getting the wins you need to make progress.

Keep your promises. Service is a promise that people buy. People deliver on promises, or don’t deliver on promises, as the case may be.

So we talk frequently with our team here about delivering on those promises, and we ask our people to promise their best and deliver their promise. Our customers are going to measure us at the end of the day based on the promises and the commitments that we make to them when we enter into a relationship or when we commit to them that we’re going to get their product where it needs to be on time.

Create an operating philosophy. We have a SCOPE format. This is the message that we carry to our team, and it’s how we run our business. It stands for safety — it’s an operating standard that we all live by that is not negotiable; customers — we want to respond and delight; operations — it’s focused on the people, productivity and their commitment to come in and do a great job every day; people — we’re looking for folks that have the components of the team: spirit, hard work, competitiveness and results; and execution — we want to execute and execute profitably.

Any circumstance that comes up in dayto-day activity is going to come back to those foundational issues. You still have to have the expertise to figure out the technical process, apply the principles and consistency, but if you continue to remind yourself that that’s your base, then those decisions become a little easier.

Present an attractive offer. You’ve got to provide a rewards system that is consistent with the individual’s objectives and responsibilities. That’s critical.

You’ve got to provide a complete package. If there’s something that’s not good, you’ve got to correct it.

Give employees responsibility. One of the key elements that has attracted people to our company is that they have had an opportunity to influence the outcome of their area of responsibility. It’s powerful to people to make their idea reality and to take responsibility for a complete process.

They walk down the end of the hall into my office, and we talk about it. If it makes sense to me, we make the decision pretty quickly. I don’t pull out 16 policy folders; we say let’s do it.

The burden goes back onto that person to execute, and then my role is to follow up, encourage, check in, provide support and resources, and confirm that the results are consistent with what we discussed.

HOW TO REACH: ODW Logistics Inc., (614) 497-1660 or www.odwlogistics.com