Anne-Margaret Sobota

Tuesday, 24 October 2006 20:00

Steve Price

 When Steve Price was appointed president and CEO of JAMS, he was determined to restructure the company around core values instead of profits. With the alternative dispute resolution company on the brink of bankruptcy, Price organized a buy-out by a group of its arbitrators and mediators, putting the company in a position to focus on the best interests of its customers. Since Price joined the company in 1997, revenue has nearly doubled and will be about $100 million this year, making it the largest mediating company in the world with more than 10,000 cases per year. Smart Business spoke with Price about how a strong company culture contributes to success.

Take control of your culture.
The greatest challenge has been where the core values that I believe in so much were not there. There were institutional blockages to them.

Those institutional blockages could be in a large company or in an organization that was more focused on short-term results than long-term results, more focused on the stock and the stock price than where the company was going and what was happening inside.

It was part of the reason that I left Citibank and decided that the only job I would ever have in the future would be president and CEO. That’s because I realized I needed the space to create the kind of place that I could be proud of, and where there would be results all around.

Develop culture from the top down.
It includes mutual respect, teamwork. Most important for us is trust and neutrality. If we don’t have that, we don’t have a business. And you can’t get it from your clients unless you have it inside the company, as well.

You foster it by having it come from the CEO on down. The CEO has to be the role model for this. You make it clear that the company will not tolerate any breach of trust among (employees), or certainly not with our clients. We meet regularly and we talk about how important the values are. The key theme of all those meetings is culture and how we work together to get things done.

Lead by example.
Be authentic, be a role model, be collaborative, and roll up your sleeves and be outside your office. I hope I’m an authentic person. I hope what you see is what you get, and that’s the way I would like all of our people to be.

I hope I’m a role model of those cultural ideas and values. I don’t make any major decision myself or even with our board of directors without talking to a lot of individuals and a lot of panelists. That’s absolutely essential.

Be hands-on.
Nothing’s too small for anyone to do if it needs to get done. I will roll up my sleeves and do anything I need to do when I’m in one of our offices or when I’m here. We have everybody who’s willing to do that.

If a computer is broken and you know how to fix it, fix it. It doesn’t matter what level you’re at or where you’re at. If a client needs help with something, help the client. If a piece of information is needed, get it.

Measure satisfaction.
The most important metric in a service business is satisfaction. We do satisfaction studies every 18 to 24 months among three groups: our clients, our panelists and our associates.

If those rise and if those are good, the profits are going to be just fine. If they’re not, then we’re going to run into trouble. They are an advance indicator of problems or of success. I really believe they are way more important than the financial data that many CEOs pore over every day.

Remember the ‘Golden Rule.’
The fundamental way to build loyalty first and primary is to give it. I don’t believe we can ask our clients or our associates for loyalty to us if we don’t have loyalty to them.

It’s got to be a partnership, and it’s got to be a two-way street.

We need to treat all three of those constituencies with respect. We need to recognize the contributions they make to JAMS’ short- and long-term [success]. We need to treat them really as part of a family — part of a group that is interdependent on each other — if we’re going to be successful.

Give back.
We really believe in giving back and in serving our community.

The JAMS Foundation is a nonprofit foundation that is funded by virtually all of our owners — and now we have over 70 owners — at 1 percent of their income. Over the last three years, we’ve given out over $1 million in grants.

We don’t think of it as philanthropy or charity. We have a fundamental obligation to help the society that we are in, the communities that we work in, get better ... and help a broader constituency than just those who come to us. We think that’s a part of our persona. It’s a part of who we are.

HOW TO REACH: JAMS, www.jamsadr.com or (800) 352-5267

Wednesday, 20 September 2006 20:00

Personal touch

 Linda Stone’s business centers around her people — how she attracts them, how she motivates them and how she communicates with them.

“We are a people company,” says the CEO and president of APR Consulting Inc. “We don’t have inventory. Our ability to find the right people to do the job is really the key to our success.

“I will not be able to be a successful company without them. The only way you could make them happy is to provide them the support they need when they need it.”

Her efforts have helped the Diamond Bar-based company — which provides contractors, consultants and professionals for business sectors including IT, management and human resources — to attract quality talent and grow revenue from $19.6 million in 2004 to $23.9 million in 2005.

Smart Business spoke with Stone about her approach to leadership and how she builds relationships with both employees and customers.

How do you motivate employees?
We let them look at the company as their own ... instead of just (as) employees working for a company. And if it’s their own company, what are they going to do to make it grow?

You need to give employees the tools they need to perform their jobs. You have to listen to what they have to say. You need to communicate the goals and objectives of the company with them. You have to provide them training.

When employees know the direction the company is going, they will be able to support you. You provide them the tools and training they need, they will be able to perform their jobs well. They also feel you are interested in their well-being, so you build loyalty, teamwork and a happy work place.

We also look at our accomplishments, because we have to pat ourselves on the back when we do well. We compare our target with our actuals every month and review what we are doing great and what we are not doing so well, and decide what we’re going to do to fix the problem.

How do you make yourself accessible to employees?
I walk the floors every day and make them feel that (I am accessible). Although we’re growing very fast, we still have a culture of (them belonging) to the organization, that we communicate to everybody — including the lowest-level person — because they are important to our business. Everybody’s important to the business; it’s not just the president or the key personnel.

Basically we look at our organization from the bottom up and manage it from the top down. We try to make sure everybody gets the attention they need in order to be successful. When you feel that you’re recognized, no matter what you do, and you are an integral part of the organization and you’re contributing to the success of the company, you feel good about the company.

And we have an open-door policy. If they’re not happy with their manager’s decision, they come to me. I make sure the problem gets resolved.

How else can leaders build loyalty with their employees?
You don’t ask what you cannot do yourself. They want to imitate what you do. I would not ask somebody to do something I will not do myself. I think they can see that.

If I tell them they have to be at the office on time, I make sure I’m there before they come in. When they jump, I am there to help them. I give them the support they need.

How do you build strong client relationships?
We don’t go for easy and fast bucks. We’re here to stay, so we want to make sure we keep the high business integrity by being ethical.

We do what we say we’re going to do, and we do it when we say we’re going to do it. We need to gain the trust of our client, and if they find out that we don’t mean what we say, somebody else will do it.

If there is something wrong, you fix it immediately. If you wait for six months, sometimes the problem can linger, and you could lose your client if you don’t address it immediately.

We don’t have a secret to success. We just want to make sure our clients are happy with the service we provide. When they ask us to jump, we ask how high. When they ask us to run, we ask how fast — and we deliver.

HOW TO REACH: APR Consulting Inc., www.aprconsulting.com

Tuesday, 29 August 2006 20:00

Paul Arling

 Paul Arling boasts that his employees at Universal Electronics Inc. are all bilingual. But they don’t speak French or Spanish; instead, they speak the language of your home. UEI is a designer and developer of wireless control technologies that help people manage their entertainment devices, as well as their digital media and home systems. As Arling puts it, UEI’s employees can create products that speak to and control any device that people bring into their homes. In a company so driven by technology, innovation is a must, and approximately 70 of UEI’s employees — including Arling, who serves as chairman and CEO — have their name on at least one patent that the company owns. The company’s passion for creativity and innovation has enabled it to grow to $181 million in revenue in 2005, up from $158 million in 2004. Smart Business spoke with Arling about the importance of passion and why it’s important to build long-term relationships.

Seek out passionate people.
We hire people that are passionate about what the company does. We’ve found over time that when people have that passion, they perform extremely well and love their job.

A lot of our most successful people are that way. The people that really put in the extra effort are usually those that are passionate about our technologies or our products. They usually work harder and love what they do, so they end up contributing more and then they end up getting promoted.

All employees see that, so typically it builds a culture around that love of the product, creativity (and) innovation.

Support your employees.
Give them the power to make good decisions and give them the resources they need. Be there to help them when they have a tough time with something.

We have weekly meetings to talk about the various projects ... and they have an opportunity to say, ‘I need help with this,’ ‘Can we meet with the customer?’ ‘I need an extra bit of money’ or ‘I need an extra person to achieve this objective.’

We have a pretty open communication style here where people come forward and say, ‘Here’s what I need to get things done,’ and I’ll get them done.

Discover what you’re truly good at.
If you don’t know what you’re good at, if you haven’t defined what you’re good at or that which you can be world-best at, if you haven’t determined what that is, then you’ll probably end up not being very good at anything.

Particularly for a smaller company, you have to determine what you’re going to be world-best at, what you’re going to build a culture around ... and then get after it. If you don’t do that, then you’ll end up floundering. That’s the only way you’re going to build passion with the people in your company.

Build trust in good times and bad.
The important thing to understand about relationships is that when things go well, it’s easy to manage a relationship.

While we strive for zero errors, we also have to be realistic in knowing that sometimes errors do occur. What really separates a great company is what you do when that happens.

If you have a long-term relationship with someone - this is probably true in both personal and business life - you’re going to run into a couple of bumps in the road. And the truly great companies are the ones that separate themselves by handling those bumps well.

If things go wrong, you build trust by living up to objectives, so if you tell them something is going to happen by a date and it will cost the following amount, then it has to meet those objectives. That’s how you build trust on one level.

The next level is, when something does go awry, you level with them. Tell them the truth. ‘Here’s what happened, and here’s how we’re going to fix the problem.’

Create systems to meet your goals.
Just saying, ‘I’m going to grow sales 18 to 20 percent a year’ is not good enough. You have to figure out how.

It’s also difficult for employees to ... get to the top of that hill if they can’t understand how it is they’re going to get there. If they know what our strengths are, they build on those strengths, and then they can reach for that vision of the future.

And the ‘how’ here is fostering innovation, because that’s what leads to great products that customers then look at and say, ‘I want to buy more of those.’

We have programs here where employees submit ideas, and then they’re screened by a group of people here — not necessarily just senior management — but a group of folks who focus on this innovation, and then they’re rewarded for those ideas.

We don’t keep it just at the executive level ... or only in the product development group. We encourage and reward employees across the company regardless of their function or area of expertise.

Lead by example.
A lot of times in life you’ll see people give presentations, but you wonder if they actually perform what they’re saying. It’s important to reinforce your message to employees by actually living that way.

In other words, managers here need to roll up their sleeves, and if they encourage people to act in a certain way or do certain things, then they need to do them themselves. We talk the talk and we walk the walk.

Always be aware of the competition.
Staying on top of the trends in the marketplace is a responsibility of everyone here in the company. We stay ahead of the curve through personal experience.

We actually encourage people on our team to purchase and play with the cutting-edge products in the market - and in those markets that are adjacent to ours — so that they can see what (is) state-of-the-art. It spawns more innovative or creative ideas on how we can make our technology better.

That’s how you come up with innovation. You experience your own frustration with a product, and you come up with a new idea to help make it better.

HOW TO REACH: Universal Electronics Inc., www.uei.com

Saturday, 29 July 2006 18:04

Extreme makeover

Throughout history, there has been resistance to change. And transforming the economic outlook of Lorain County has been no exception.

But after years of worry and speculation, with little effective action, Lorain County leaders are determined to change the county’s reputation, erasing the image of a blue-collar community and replacing it with one that shouts innovation and opportunity.

Lorain County officials have known for years that drastic measures are needed to transition the area from the manufacturing base that sustained it for decades to a better-educated, more service-oriented region. And they now have a plan to make that happen, with several initiatives in the public and private sectors, as well as in higher education.

Cause and effect
The root of the problem in Lorain County can’t be traced to one particular event. Rather, a gradual decline has led to the need for immediate and sweeping changes.

The percentage of Lorain County’s work force directly involved in manufacturing has decreased from 40 percent in the 1980 U.S. Census to 22 percent in the 2000 Census — and that is still dropping, says Roy A. Church, president of Lorain County Community College.

“So in 25 years, we’ve had a major transformation of the manufacturing sector, which has caused a dramatic dislocation or disruption in the economy as we had known it since the Second World War,” Church says. “And there are all kinds of ramifications, obviously, that fall out of that.”

And while residents accept that heavy manufacturing is not going to make a comeback, they still expect the same kind of wages associated with those kinds of well-paying jobs, which only compounds the issue.

“The problem we’re having is not completely in job creation, but it’s the expectation of high-paying manufacturing jobs that have been lost and will probably not be replaced,” says Lorain County Administrator James Cordes. “So when we create jobs, they are usually either lower-skilled or lower-waged jobs, and there’s a bit of a dissatisfaction because this community is used to very high-paying manufacturing jobs.”

County leaders realize the jobs of the future are going to require a higher skill level with more advanced degrees, and LCCC has made it part of its mission to try to make that happen.

“One of the things that we know is the innovation economy is, in many ways, driven by the educational attainment levels of the population in local communities,” Church says. “So we wanted to try to help raise (those) levels.

“What we discovered was, in the 1990 Census, our county had the highest percentage of adults with associate degrees of any of the counties in Northeast Ohio. But at the bachelor’s level, we were dead last — and dead last by a lot. At the graduate level, we were dead last by more. And so we started a community-based initiative to see how we could use the community college as a host to bring programs into Lorain County that would enable all those people that had associate degrees to move to the next level.”

LCCC developed a University Partnership program that partners with nine Ohio colleges and universities to offer degrees at the LCCC campus. In 10 years, the program has expanded to bring 23 bachelor’s degree and 13 master’s degree programs to approximately 3,000 students a year. The project has helped Lorain County move out of last place, to just ahead of Ashtabula County, Church says.

The college has also created its own Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute to develop curriculum around entrepreneurship education, which will be housed in a new 45,000-square-foot facility being built on campus in the Great Lakes Technology Park.

The center is meant to be the front door to business resources offered by LCCC, including facility space, customized training, work force development, market research, innovation funding and more.

“All of these efforts are an attempt to help the rest of the world to see Lorain County as a hub for innovation and development,” Church says. “We know we’ve got the talent and the people to enable this county to again be extremely successful in the next generation of industry in Northeast Ohio.

“We want to help pioneer what that’s going to be, and to build on that and to give people those kinds of opportunities right here in our community.”

Multiplying effect
Leaders recognize that the key to making a significant difference is also based in collaboration and synergy.

“There is lot of territorialism going on within Lorain County — it has gone on for decades,” Cordes says. “Unless we work together, none of these communities are going to be able to do it on their own.”

The county has made a huge effort to combat that territorialism by forming the Lorain County Growth Partnership, a joint venture of several organizations involved in community and economic development to be housed on the fifth floor of the County Administration Building.

The Department of Community Development, the Lorain County Chamber of Commerce, the Small Business Development Center, the Port Authority and several other entities will have offices there once renovations are finished.

“The Lorain County Growth Partnership is a metaphor for cooperation,” Cordes says. “Each entity will be contributing to the betterment of the community with the strengths they have. The key to it is locating those entities in close proximity so there’s a natural tendency to gravitate toward consensus building and working collaboratively. ... Location has a lot to do with working together — not that people don’t work together when they’re miles apart, but they somehow work better when they’re co-located.

“Bringing these things all together allows us to have a multiplying effect on the limited resources that everybody has. Together, when they sing in unison, we get a very loud voice, but individually, it’s not powerful enough to be heard, and we need to amplify those voices to be able to deliver maximum services to the community.”

The county has even gone so far as to split the Chamber of Commerce into two sectors to better focus on community development.

“The kind of programs that we were running here in Lorain County, particularly at the Chamber of Commerce, really needed to be revised and refocused so that we could be better equipped to meet the needs or the opportunities that arose,” says chamber President Frank DeTillio. “Out of this came the idea to segregate the retention and expansion efforts and also the marketing and attraction efforts, and so we built an organization called Team Lorain County.”

The chamber will continue to focus on small business development support, while Team Lorain County will facilitate the attraction of new business to the region.

DeTillio also strongly supports the idea of collaboration between the various government entities, as well as with private businesses and the college.

Economic development “is not like tennis; it’s not a single-person sport,” he says. “It’s more like football, where there’s a lot of players who can be engaged in a process of trying to successfully create an environment for good, strong, local economy.

“Right now, we’re building the team. After we put this team in place, then we’ve got to make sure that we build the kind of tools that the teams can use so that we can be successful.”

On the rise
While business and job creation are crucial to revitalizing the region, there’s one more aspect that’s equally important — a good quality of life.

“We don’t want to become a bedroom community to some other town,” says Ron Twining, Lorain County’s director of community development. “We want to create our own jobs and have those residents that live here, work here, and enjoy the quality of life that we can afford and will have.”

Quality of life is a significant part of that multi-prong attack to attract people and business to Lorain County.

“If you don’t want to be a bedroom community, you have to provide ... not just jobs, you also have to provide quality-of-life issues — parks, restaurants, shopping experiences,” Cordes says. “The people now are looking for a higher-quality life, and that’s also libraries, schools and bike paths.

“If you have jobs and you don’t have any of those other things, people still don’t stay in your community. At the end of the day, it’s a total package for a community.”

Clearly many of the county’s cities have grasped this idea and expanded on it successfully. Last year, three of Northeast Ohio’s five fastest-growing cities — North Ridgeville, Avon and Amherst — are located in Lorain County.

The county has experienced a new housing boom in the last five years, and although the boom may have peaked, Twining predicts the increased demand will continue for years to come. Between 2000 and 2020, he expects 31,000 new homes to be constructed in the county.

“I think that we’ll fare better than most of the other Northeast Ohio communities,” Twining says. “We can’t lose sight of the fact we’re an important economic development center in the state of Ohio, compared to a whole lot of other counties.”

HOW TO REACH: Lorain County Community College, www.lorainccc.edu; Lorain County Chamber of Commerce, http://www.lorainccc.edu; Lorain County government, www.loraincounty.us/website

Thursday, 29 June 2006 20:00

Changing course

It was 2002, and it was time for Kent Barkouras to take destiny into his own hands. There was no room for average-performing companies in the printing industry, and the president and CEO of MyPrint Corp. knew he needed to reinvent his company to succeed.

“Being in a highly competitive industry, we had nothing to offer if we were a traditional printing company,” says Barkouras, whose father started the business in 1983. “We developed an Internet-based application for customers to order materials online and to be able to customize those orders.”

The online interface allows users to purchase, modify and track orders with a few mouse clicks, greatly reducing costs and increasing efficiency for both MyPrint and its customers. The change has expanded MyPrint from a traditional print company to include technology and fulfillment aspects, as well.

As a result, revenue increased from about $14 million in 2004 to more than $20 million in 2005, and Barkouras expects it to reach nearly $30 million this year.

Smart Business spoke with Barkouras about how his company’s innovation has benefited both his business and those of his customers.

How does your new business model provide a better value to customers?
It eliminated inventory. It allowed (our customers) to reduce turnaround times. We have almost 2,000 [printing] locations that we work with.

The system can figure out what it is ordering and will look to place and send that order to the closest approved production facility. Whether it’s owned by us or not, it doesn’t matter.

It cuts down on the company’s production time. It cuts down on freight costs because it’s being produced locally. And you end up with the ability to review that activity to make sure that the people are using the materials in the way in which they were intended.

Big companies spend a lot of money on advertising agencies and creative, and if it’s not used the way in which they designed its use, then they’re wasting their money.

How does the process give your clients more control?
We’re able to take a lot of their requirements, organize them in an online catalogue for their users, and whether we produce them or not, we can at least offer them the ability to order those materials from us.

Companies and their marketing managers can now control what can be ordered, they can control the method by which it can by ordered and they also can control looking at the activity and control the customer service portion of that order.

We go out and hit the Fed Ex server and the UPS server and bring pricing information back directly to the user. This way the user can see the direct related cost of the actual pieces they’re shipping.

A tracking report ... lists the orders, and it shows the status of all these orders. So if they want to know where their shipment is because they haven’t received it, they can log on here.

They’re able to control the branded look and feel because our software provides users to customize it to their needs yet maintain the integrity of the branded piece because they can’t alter the graphics of the piece.

Customers are getting a tremendous amount of what we call business intelligence from looking at activity levels and behaviors of their field sales reps and marketing agents. And you can also perhaps change management’s and marketing’s creative by realizing that certain pieces aren’t and will never be used by the field because they’re not desirable, and so therefore, there’s no longer a need to produce those materials.

How do you ensure you are partnering with quality vendors?
That’s where are purchasing and quality assurance department comes into place. We approve every vendor that we work with. The vendors that we are working with are nationally recognized companies that have a strong quality assurance program themselves.

We have a vendor questionnaire that we send out. There’s a vendor audit done every six months. (It) reviews every process that they do within their facility. That would include receiving the raw materials, that would include types of inks and materials that they’re using, that would include whether or not they calibrate their equipment, they measure and test their equipment, that would include inspections during production as well as sampling plans after production. That also includes inspecting their vendors as well.

HOW TO REACH: MyPrint Corp., www.myprint.com

Tuesday, 16 May 2006 20:00

Smooth operator

Robeks Fruit Smoothies & Healthy Eats has succeeded by capitalizing on the nutrition and wellness culture that has grown over the past 10 years.

But finding a niche isn’t the only thing that has allowed the chain to expand. Tony Gioia, Robeks’ president, CEO and vice chairman, has focused on growing the company by creating a culture that centers on satisfied customers and enables employees to be successful.

“We’re a culture that loves to serve our guests and exceed our guests’ expectations (by creating) a powerful, exciting and memorable retail experience through our products,” says Gioia. “Part of my job as the company’s leader is to articulate passionately and convincingly about who we are and what we stand for and our passion about serving great smoothies and juice-based products to our customers.”

The company is on target to hit 100 locations by next month and expects to reach 500 stores in the next five years. Total system sales have increased from $17 million in 2004 to $21 million in 2005, and are expected to reach $30 million this year.

Smart Business spoke with Gioia about his model for success and how he inspires passion among his employees.

How have you grown the company in such a crowded marketplace?
We think the whole retail premium juice category is poised for significant and long-term growth. So the awareness and the need is there. And I liken it very similar to the premium coffee category from 15, 20 years ago when Starbucks began to create the awareness.

We don’t have to pull away market share. Our strategy is to ride the wave of the growth phenomenon.

Our products and our retail format are very compelling. We have a pretty loyal customer base, so once a customer tries our products, they will tend to go to our stores three or four times a week because it becomes part of a lifestyle.

We develop our stores by selling franchises, so we use third-party capital and we’re able to attract very good operators who have the capital and the capacity and capability to grow with Robeks.

So that’s a pretty efficient model, when you have an industry that’s growing, and you have a product and retail offering that’s compelling, and you have a franchising model using third-party capital to enable growth. Those are the three critical areas to have high growth and fast growth.

How do you find employees committed to your culture?
We’ve been very fortunate in terms of our mission and our culture to attract that kind of (person) that likes that healthy lifestyle and likes to serve guests. And if you have those two combinations with an employee or an associate, it’s pretty powerful.

It first starts with finding the right operator in the store. When we find a franchisee, we do a lot of screening and testing to make sure that, to the best of our ability, that there’s a match between our concept, our values and our passion for guest relations. And then we give that person the training and the tools to hire the same kind of people and profile inside their store.

What I’ve learned in retail is it’s difficult to train one to have a passion for exceeding guests’ expectations. It’s very important to hire that kind of profile, that personality, that passion for smiling, for pleasing the guest. That has to be coming from the heart. And then our training and our system enable that personality trait.

Once we attract and retain that kind of personality and profile, then it’s our job to enable that to become robust in how they serve their guests every day in the stores.

How do you do that?
A very important part of our organizational leadership is to provide the environment and the culture and training systems that ... enable people to be the best they can be. When you do that right, employees really thrive because they feel empowered, they feel they’re making a difference and they feel that their leaders are supporting their needs to be successful in their job.

It’s an everyday process, and you always look for feedback from your associates. How are we helping you? What do you need from us to be successful? How can we enable you to be successful?

When you reach out in that way and you want to partner with your employees to enable success, it’s a very powerful thing. We are always aware and conscious of enabling their success.

What is your greatest growth challenge, and how are you managing it?
When you get to 100 [stores], and then 200 and 300 and ... you get to 5,000, 10,000 associates out there ... the biggest challenge is to have the same kind of culture that embraces great service and great products and embraces our brand. And you want to have the systems in place and the leadership in place to ensure that, as we get larger in size and scope, that we don’t lose that strong intimacy with our guests.

We do have a really good, talented training function and leadership body with Robeks to enable that. It’s an ongoing process, and leadership is part of being ahead of the curve to make sure they do all the right things today to be successful for tomorrow.

HOW TO REACH: Robeks Fruit Smoothies & Healthy Eats, www.robeks.com

Monday, 01 May 2006 09:16

Thomas Raimondi Jr.

MTI Technology Corp. was a growing company, but Thomas Raimondi Jr. decided it needed to change course. After surveying the market and listening to his customers, the chairman, president and CEO saw the need to shift MTI’s focus from being an OEM manufacturer that sells and services its own products to a focus on consulting services. That risky decision paid off, and the company’s revenue rose from $83 million in 2004 to $132 million in 2005. MTI now provides complete IT and infrastructure solution sets to the Fortune 1000 marketplace. Smart Business spoke with Raimondi about how he engages his employees, his customers and his board members to continue to grow MTI Technology.

Have a plan.

Businesses do not grow accidentally. They grow because the management team has a very defined plan. It’s a plan they can execute against and that they’re able to come back and modify.

Sometimes you start to grow, you stumble a little bit, you step back and you have to ask yourself, ‘Is it the people? Is it the market? Is it the offering? Is it how we’re positioned?’ It’s kind of like baking a cake. It’s a variety of different elements within the recipe that you have to constantly manage and fine-tune.

Enlist your employees.

Great people attract great people. And high-performance people typically surround themselves with high-performance people. Our best people are our best recruiters.

You have to really surround yourself with people that are up to the challenge for growth. It’s people willing to push themselves to extend the business, and it takes a lot of hard personal effort and a lot of hard work to grow a business. It’s having a management team that’s really willing to lead its people, push its people and show them a path.

Repeat your message wherever possible.

You really have to communicate the vision and the message daily in most anything you do. And no matter how often you communicate the message, someone will always say, ‘What’s our message? Where are we going?’

That just reinforces to me that we have to be constantly reminding the team. Just because I know the message and the strategy and half a dozen people that work directly for me know the message and the strategy doesn’t necessarily mean that somebody that works for someone, who works for someone, who works for someone, that they get it.

I find communicating the message is a constant process that we have to do at all levels. You do it formally — company newsletters, company events, company meetings, company presentations, analyst calls. Then, it’s at lunch, it’s at breakfast, it’s at dinner, it’s at local office meetings, it’s when you’re out with an employee making a sales call or a service call.

Act as a team.

You cannot dictate a strategy and a vision. You have to have them be part of the development of it.

When you’re going to make a shift, when you’re going to do something slightly different, you have to bring the team in. You have to discuss it. You have a lot of collaborative meetings. You have to do workshops.

People want to be involved in winning. They also want to know that they are part of the bigger picture, that they’re a contributor, that their brain power, their ideas, their passion has been incorporated into it. Once they get it, then they start to participate, then they start to communicate, then they start to add their twist to it. Then it gets very exciting because that’s when the passion really builds.

Listen to your customers.

You have to be a good listener to really understand the marketplace. Your customers will quickly tell you whether or not they think you’re a credible supplier of product or services within the niche that you’re going after and what challenges you need to overcome. A market can be growing, but you may or may not be considered an appropriate vendor or partner within the segment that you think you want to go after.

Utilize your board’s resources.

The board is a partner for the company. Board members want to get involved, like to get involved. And what I find with board members, the more you ask them to participate, the more they will. The less you engage them, the tougher it is for them.

Use your board members to help you recruit. I’m one of these CEOs who likes to engage his board, likes to make them part of the vision, the strategy. I meet with my board as much as I can on a formal and informal basis. They help me fill the gaps.

Care less about profits.

Business is very personal. If you’re just there to do the transaction, you’re one of many. You won’t get the next deal.

When someone sells you something, you want to have a fair transaction, good quality, great follow-through, and know that the person or the company that sold it to you actually cares about your satisfaction. You have to have an attitude that says, ‘We’re here to be of service to you,’ and really mean it.

Anybody can sell something to somebody once. It’s how we service the customer and partner with the customer on a daily basis after they gave us their money, after they paid their bill, that decides whether they buy from us again.

Exceed expectations.

We want to actually go out and solve the customer’s issue. That’s how you create a bonding relationship of success.

The way we exceed expectations is by making the extra effort, doing the extra little things that need to be done, not trying to nickel and dime the customer.

People don’t buy services, product, solutions sets just because they need to. They buy them because there’s a specific business issue and challenge that they need to overcome. And when you can overcome that problem for them and help them realize the gain that they were looking for, that’s when you meet and exceed their expectations.

Take the fall.

If the customer’s not satisfied, then it’s my fault. I don’t care whose fault it is, it’s our fault. We screwed up. If you can take that attitude that the customer truly is king, then you can satisfy an unhappy customer.

HOW TO REACH: MTI Technology Corp., www.mti.com or (800) 999-9MTI

Wednesday, 26 April 2006 10:31

Watch and learn

Most employers wouldn’t allow — let alone encourage — employees to watch TV while they work. But Equity Consultants LLC, a Richfield-based private mortgage company, is doing just that.

However, there’s no ESPN, CNN or soap operas on these TVs. Instead, each displays what president and CEO Goran Marich considers to be a powerful motivational and teaching tool.

Last December, the company implemented ECTV — a closed-circuit television technology program that highlights company performance statistics, training information and overall corporate communication for the company’s 130 loan officers. Some 15 television monitors are hung throughout the building, continuously streaming important announcements, loan closing rates, videos, updates and compliance messages, among other things.

The program was designed to solve the problem of an office overwrought with memos and dry erase boards full of unreadable charts and graphs.

“It needed to go away,” says Marich of the way the company was keeping track of statistics and communicating. “We needed a companywide scoreboard that paints the picture and shows all the statistics that are most important to our managers, to our loan consultants.”

In the meantime, the company has found many more applications for the technology, turning the loan closing performance statistics into an interoffice competition among loan officers.

“They love it. They love to see their successes,” says Marich. “It’s showing to everybody else how they stack up, and it’s becoming that primary motivator that we’d hoped it would be.”

The company has tied in incentives and rewards, and since implementing the technology has seen three successive months of record-breaking sales increases. Using a green screen, special effects and digital images can also be inserted and projected on the televisions during announcements.

ECTV is also a great way to reinforce what employees learned in training, especially during slow afternoons.

“I feel we have enough meetings, we have enough training, we do a great job of recruiting and bringing in the right person, but once they’re here, how do we keep reinforcing that message?” says Marich. “And that’s where ECTV really becomes powerful.

“People forget 85 percent of what they hear within 30 days if it’s not reinforced or repeated. We’ll show a half-hour training segment or a half-hour compliance update that, while they’re working, they can subliminally see the text, they hear the audio, so they’re hearing the right messages throughout the day.”

The company has also progressed to recording its monthly president’s council meetings, where Marich meets with the top few loan officers in the company to talk about their successes in the previous month. These meetings, as well as other best practices tips from fellow employees, are broadcast periodically on ECTV.

Marich says the $200,000 price tag for the televisions, technology, green screen and audio system was hefty, but it’s an investment he’s glad he made.

“I think the price of a poor working environment is the ultimate price that I can’t afford to pay,” says Marich. “So for me, the price of the investment was nothing compared to the benefit that it brings.”

In fact, Marich considers ECTV such a success that he’s planning on implementing it in the company’s Detroit and Indianapolis offices.

“It’s just a much more compelling, dynamic way to say the same thing instead of in an e-mail or a constant tone of voice in meetings,” says Marich. “We have some great people and some brilliant ideas, and they’re just not communicated enough. That’s where this is really leveraged, by flattening the learning curve from new hire to advanced loan officer by hearing all this great stuff within the first 30 days.”

HOW TO REACH: Equity Consultants LLC, www.equityconsultants.com

Wednesday, 29 March 2006 09:52

Teaming up

ICS Garland Inc. was looking to reconnect with its customers in 2003 when it started a newsletter for past customers. But much to the dismay of Ken Hughes, president of the flooring manufacturer and installation company, a large stack of them came back in the mail marked “Return to Sender.”

“All of a sudden it became very apparent that we were just losing touch with our end users,” says Hughes. “Our database had basically diminished because we weren’t selling to (home and business owners) anymore. We were selling through our contractors. ... And so there was kind of a big wakeup call as to, ‘Well, how the heck are we going to market to our customers if we don’t know who they are?’”

For years, instead of focusing on the end-user consumer, the company had focused on forming allegiances with contractors around the country who might use Garland flooring in their jobs. Now the company needed a way to leverage those relationships with contractors to get better access to and more familiar with the consumer. But Hughes hit another hurdle.

“They were their customers, as they saw it, even though they may have been putting our floors in,” says Hughes. “It became very apparent to us that we had to do something to ... allow them to share (their customer) lists with us, and to do so, there had to be a reason why you’d do it. This is when we came up with what we called our cooperative marketing program.”

With the help of Felber & Felber Marketing, the company developed a program called “Garland By” that would enable Garland to co-brand with contractors and installers across the country. Everything would be branded with “Garland By,” followed by the contractor’s name.

“Because they run an independent business and we run an independent business, when it comes to really branding our company and theirs, we’re really in competition,” says Hughes. “Locally, they want to get their name out there, and as well, we want our name out there nationally. So we felt that if we co-branded, did everything with a Garland By — Garland By the contractor’s name — we would ... no longer be in competition, but it would be cooperative.”

And Hughes had a winning plan to get contractors on board. For participating, Garland would provide each company with myriad marketing materials, including printed materials such as brochures and direct-mail pieces with both companies’ names on them; public relations, trade show and inside sales support; promotional items such as polo shirts, hats and golf balls; and a personalized, co-branded Web site. The kicker was that these companies would only have to pay a fraction of the marketing cost in exchange for sharing their customer lists.

“What we wanted to do was take our expertise on the marketing side and help our contractors, who really don’t spend a whole heck of a lot of money in marketing,” says Hughes. “What we tried to explain to them is that Garland spends about 6 percent to 7 percent of their total sales dollar toward marketing. A service business would never put as much into it as that, but even if we just could get them to use 1 percent of their total sales volume, that would be a good thing.”

The program has allowed Garland to build on the local reputation of each contractor or installer to gain national recognition and reconnect with consumers. Meanwhile, local contracting businesses are seeing booming business from the increased marketing, which assures their loyalty to Garland and keeps their discretionary business coming Garland’s way.

HOW TO REACH: ICS Garland Inc., www.garlandfloor.com

Monday, 27 March 2006 12:00

Dennis Tase

Dennis Tase has taken an unconventional approach to growing Galardi Group Inc.

Instead of trying to compete with national fast food chains and appealing to a mass market, the president and COO has capitalized on niche markets to promote its three brands — Wienerschnitzel, The Original Hamburger Stand and the recently acquired Tastee-Freez.

That approach has worked. Galardi Group posted revenue of almost $300 million last year and has 375 stores, 100 Tastee-Freez locations and 7,000 employees systemwide.

Smart Business spoke with Tase about how he finds the right locations for his stores and the right people to franchise and staff them.

On finding locations: We’re no different than anybody else in the franchise world. We look at demographics, households, traffic patterns and what have you. But when we’re growing new stores, we try to have some synergy. And in order to get that, you need to build in a market where you have current presence, or at least brand awareness.

We’re building in areas where we have existing stores and expanding out from there. We pick a market where we have stores existing, and we try to grow that market out for the benefit of the advertising. As we’re growing it out ... we try to keep within two to five miles of existing stores.

On choosing franchisees: It needs to be someone that’s been in business for themselves before. We really put our prospective employees through quite a thorough process of where they’re coming from, what does their business plan look like, what kind of energy level do they have and what are their future plans?

You have one foot in the door if you’ve been in the food business, but sometimes it’s a lot better when you have someone that’s never been in the food business so they don’t have some predetermined ways of doing business. You never know until you’ve made that hire, until they’ve walked in this door and worked there for a year or so or longer, that you’ve made the right hire.

We don’t dictate that we want you in the store so many hours a day. I think you should dictate that yourself if you’re motivated to improve your business. We have operators that probably show up every three or four months, but they have management that is superior.

I’m not concerned about who’s running the business; I’m more concerned about how it’s run. We have standards. As long as those standards are being met, then we’re OK with it. If they don’t increase their sales and make money, we don’t succeed.

And so everything we do is all about what we can do to improve the franchisees’ bottom line. From that standpoint, we’re very, very hands-on.

On co-branding: I’ve never been a major proponent of co-branding. I believe that the strength in my brand is within my brand, so I never went out and sought out a lot of co-branding partners. But when I did find one that I thought was compatible (Tastee-Freez), I felt it was in our best interest to purchase that concept versus being a partner with a co-brander. Then, we can set the guidelines, we can set the sense of urgency for that particular brand instead of relying on someone else to do the marketing and do the operational piece and set the priorities.

On increasing sales: The idea is to improve the frequency with our existing customers. How do I plan to do that? With new flavors, new tastes, new sandwiches. Our customers are basically the heavy, heavy users of fast food. And they don’t necessarily just frequent us, they frequent multiple franchises each week, but they come to us quite often.

On product development: We do quite a bit of R&D. I do a lot of traveling and I find products everywhere. And if they look like they make sense for us, then we test them. We get a lot of input from franchisees. Marketing comes up with ideas — even our suppliers. We bring our suppliers in several times a year to give us ideas of what they think is the new trend, the new taste, the new flavor. We will test it corporately in a couple of corporate stores and then we’ll move it out into some franchise stores and eventually move it out into a market where we can advertise it. Then we’ll bring it to the franchisees.

On attracting talent: Initially, I think people come in because they want to make X amount of dollars. And we keep our turnover rate down because we treat people the way we’d like to be treated, because it is a people business. If you look at all the research, people leave a job not necessarily because of pay but primarily because of the way they’ve been treated. We have a great training department that stays focused on how we treat people. It starts from the top. And if I believe it, then everybody else starts to believe it.

On training: It’s gotten to a point now where the younger people, they’re not real familiar with sitting in classrooms. They’d rather see it on TV or through DVDs, online. We’ve already incorporated other methods of teaching. Our new computers in the stores are very friendly. The registers are very easy to use because they’re computer-friendly. We make everything fit the current environment — not the current environment of the store but the environment in which we all live.

On change: Nobody likes change. But once they understand the reason for change, they adapt to the change. Any time you make a change, I think you have to advise people of why you’re making that change, why it’s beneficial for the company and why, perhaps, it might be beneficial to them. HOW TO REACH: Galardi Group Inc., (800) 764-9339