Brian Horn

Thursday, 26 March 2009 20:00

Time for a change

Richard J. Shaieb could plainly see that his company was stuck. No matter what he tried, Whitlam Label Co. Inc. couldn’t get past the $20 million range in revenue. However, Shaieb says he may have found the solution.

“What I’ve realized is that the people that are in charge, some are in the wrong position, some are just taking on too much, which is holding us back, and the culture needed to be changed,” says the president and CEO of the label provider, which posted 2007 revenue of more than $20 million.

Smart Business spoke with Shaieb about how to improve your company’s culture by getting the right people in the right places.

Q. How do you change a company’s culture?

Identify who should be there and who shouldn’t be. We’ve had a lot of people that, whether they are friends or longtime employees, they were very good at what they did in one position. We put them in other positions where they have failed.

(It’s) relearning what we needed to do as managers or the owners with certain disciplines that we tend to relax with, and that’s what creates a culture — the lack of discipline or accountability, allowing the excuses because it was a very family-orientated operation. We went from six employees to 120, and it went so quickly that we didn’t put the right disciplines in place, which we are now. That was what I recognized — too many chiefs, nobody was running the show and everybody was doing their own thing. There wasn’t really one directive, and that needed to be changed.

Q. What advice would you have for a leader who wants to change a culture?

Most people understand what needs to be done. They have a hard time moving forward because some of the realities they don’t want to really face as a CEO or president and you’re surrounded by maybe co-workers that have been with you a long time.

You just have to take a few steps back. Just be honest and ask yourself, ‘What is holding me back? Why can’t I move forward?’ Once you start identifying certain areas, you will see that, sometimes, it’s the people that you have in place that seem to be holding you back.

Then again, it could be just that you are not doing the things that you should be doing like delegating and not trying to do everything yourself or being too involved and not allowing people to do their jobs. Everything is your way. That’s not my way, but there are people here that are like that. You just can’t get them to let go, and then that’s why nobody comes to the top and performs because of some of those leaders in some different areas. That just keeps those people from growing.

You have to identify those who have the ability to be taught to let go and those who have no clue on how to do it in the first place.

Q. How do you identify who can be trusted and who has talent?

What I’m really focused on is who has the fire in the belly. They have to have that in the first place. They have to be excited about what they do. That’s really key in the beginning.

We have these vice president meetings every Tuesday, and you can see who is energized and who really, deeply wants things to happen. Those are the people that tend to do better and can be taught.

It’s the ones that … aren’t very aggressive, just don’t possess any energy — those are the ones that are going to take a little more to push. They may be able to do it, but you are going to find yourself constantly driving them. You need people that are more self-driven. That’s a key factor.

They can have all the knowledge they want, but if they can’t seem to drive people or drive and get things done, it doesn’t matter.

Q. How do you drive someone to be better?

It’s a little touchy because you’ve got to try to understand why aren’t they driven. Why are they not excited? Is it something that they’ve experienced in the past?

You really need to take the time with the employee and try to understand what they are about and what they are feeling and what they are understanding. Maybe it’s not a good fit for them, and maybe that’s a conversation that you have with them — an honest conversation. There may be another area that they’d be better suited for or maybe they don’t belong here in the first place.

You are doing an injustice if you just keep trying to get something out of somebody who doesn’t want to be there in the first place.

How to reach: Whitlam Label Co. Inc., (800) 755-2235 or

Monday, 23 February 2009 19:00

Wired in

The employees of Navman Wireless North America are spread out all over the country, which can make communicating with them a challenge. So, Renaat ver Eecke, general manager of the North American division, which employs about 50 people, has to do a lot of traveling to stay in touch, but he says it’s worth it because that type of communication is so important.

“I lead a lot by being there, going out, understanding what the challenges are from the distributors and really making sure that I consistently say the same message from a communications standpoint, not only internally but externally,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with ver Eecke about how to communicate effectively in a growing company.

Q. How can a leader consistently communicate when employees are widespread?

One of the things I did — and it gets a little bit more challenging as you grow because the ability to do it as frequently as you want becomes more challenging — but if you’re in a smaller company and you’re just starting to lead, I think giving monthly updates.

When I first started taking over the U.S. business, I did monthly updates for the entire team.

It was an all-hands meeting. I talked a lot about, ‘Here’s how we are from a revenue perspective. Here’s what we’re doing. Here’s why we are trying to grow these things.’ Any major changes that were coming up, I would communicate why we are doing it. Because, in my opinion, the things that confuse organizations are not that changes are being made or that ‘this’ is coming, it’s ‘why’ that people don’t address very well.

There was a lot of remote stuff. So, we used the latest technology to empower everyone to be on the same page.

Every single person that reported in to the organization had to be on this call, and they knew it — even the salespeople.

I said, ‘Look, when is the best time where you are normally at home? It’s not going to disrupt sales.’

They knew it every month. They had to block off (that time).

They wouldn’t make appointments there. I found it very effective on keeping everyone on the same page. As the business has grown here, I do that, but I now do that on a quarterly basis. I don’t do it monthly. I do a communications out via e-mail monthly, then I do an all-hands quarterly meeting.

Q. How did you deal with the challenge of transitioning from monthly meetings to quarterly meetings?

Again, I think this is where you’ve got to get out. For me, I find if you get out of your office and go talk to people — all the time I do that, even within my office, in the different parts of the business within my office, twice a day.

I heard from them. They were asking, ‘I really liked the monthly updates. Getting it through an e-mail doesn’t necessarily give us a chance to do Q and A. So, I took the opportunity for the next quarterly meeting to talk about why we made that transition. Again, and this goes back to my thoughts on, it’s not necessarily that you’re doing it; it’s much more important to talk about why you are doing things.

I just communicated that, ‘We are getting really big. The ability to coordinate and take out the time every month is impacting particularly our sales organization.’

Q. What is a pitfall to avoid when trying to be a good communicator?

Disengaged leadership is something everyone talks about, but it’s really easy to fall in to the pitfalls of just staying in your office.

It seems so obvious, but you can get bogged down in reports and, ‘Hey, I need to send this to our board,’ or, ‘I need to fill out this,’ or, ‘I need to do this analysis.’ There are only so many hours in a given day where your people are there and the business is really humming to get to understand what are the problems of the business. The biggest pitfall is people staying in their office.

They don’t engage in their different departments and walk around and really hear what the problems are and talk to people who are perhaps two or three levels below and engage them. That is something that I’ve heard from everyone that works in my organization as something that they really like about my style.

I think it brings a real understanding of problems. So, when the problems come to you, you don’t just throw them out as, ‘Hey, that’s not that big of a problem.’

You will have heard it and already identified it. So, it might be something that you, again, discuss in the quarterly actions. So, these things all fit in to a nice plan and process that can evolve over time.

HOW TO REACH: Navman Wireless North America, (847) 832-2367 or

Monday, 26 January 2009 19:00

Loud and clear

Pam Tope learned about the importanceof feedback firsthand when she got somesurprising news from her employees andcolleagues: She was intimidating some ofthem.

It was never her intent to intimidateemployees as president of the Floridaregion of Verizon Wireless, but standing at 6feet 2 inches, that’s the way Tope madesome people feel.

“I’m definitely direct, I’m definitely forthright, and I’m definitely passionate,” shesays. “I have very specific ideas and goalson where we’re going to go as a team, andso I needed to hear that. I needed to hear Iwas intimidating, even though there is noway in the world that was my intention.

Before actually fixing the problem, Topehad to come to terms with the fact thatsome people misperceived her — something leaders at all levels face every day. Butwhen you get that kind of feedback, youneed to take it seriously, even if you don’tthink it’s true.

“You may not agree with (it), you may notbelieve that it’s fair, you may not believethat it’s correct, but if it’s being thought orbeing said, none of that matters,” she says.

To fix the problem, Tope took simplesteps to make herself more approachableas a regional leader of the $43.9 billionwireless telecommunications company.

“I would get side to side with the personand look at something together,” she says.“I would maybe have a report that wewould sit down and look at together, andchange, and modify and be very cognizantof being together on this — literally on thesame side of the table on this. I’m not confronting someone; I’m not trying to intimidate them. So, that’s a real-life example thatI have had that certainly was not true in mymind but absolutely real to that person.”

Here’s how Tope works to keep the linesof communication open with employeesand customers so she can lead her 2,300employees toward common goals — andeliminate misperceptions along the way.

Communicate early and often

Listening to Tope, it’s apparent the customer is of the utmost importance to herand to the company. But, if she wants tohave a successful company, Tope has tostress that customer-first message to heremployees in order to align the companyaround her objectives.

“You can’t minimize the need for repetition and clarification,” she says. “Somepeople are very visual; some people wantto be able to read it. Some people want it tobe very metric-oriented. I think you have toalways assume that the message hasn’tbeen clear and make it as clear as possibleas often as possible.”

For example, Verizon advertises itself as“America’s most reliable network,” andTope knows the company can’t just saythat and not back it up. She has to stress toemployees it is much more than pricebecause price can easily be matched, butthe quality and value equation the companypresents cannot.

“Be proactive, forthright, direct and communicate that connection,” she says. “Earlyon in the process, get to each and every individual — what’s the value equation here,what makes it competitive? Don’t assumethat everybody gets the connection between,for instance, ‘America’s most reliable network’ and the product that we are placing.”

Another way to help with that communication is putting the products and servicesdirectly into the hands of your employeesor involving them early in a process tofamiliarize them with a new message.

Whether it’s a new marketing campaignor a new product, you want to use town-hall meetings, training sessions, e-mailblasts or any other way you communicateyour message to give everyone a heads upthat there are new actions taking place.

Of course, when it comes to giving outnew products, Tope can’t give every newproduct to every employee, but cyclingthem through different departmentsspreads the word.

“Then it becomes very personal, so youhave the ability to transfer that, if you will,to a customer,” she says. “‘Hey, I’ve usedthis myself; this is how I used it. It made areal difference for me.’

“We are encouraging our employees touse the product and be able to have thosekinds of real-life stories that you may nothave thought of and ways to use the service that you may not have thought of.”

Using the product also allows theemployee to show customers how theproduct will enhance their lives.

“Line up the competitive advantages ofthat device compared to others in the marketplace and also the value equation thatthat presents,” she says. “Be proactive, notreactive in terms of the communication,and do that in multiple mediums.”

Once the message is communicated, youneed to monitor to make sure your point isgetting across, which you can do by communicating with the front-line employees.

“You’re not going to know that sittingbehind a desk,” she says. “Be out andinvolved, and I think it’s pretty clear. Youdon’t even have to ask the question ... related to that message, but in your conversations and direct work with the front line, itwill be pretty clear.”

Get feedback from employees

After you’ve been upfront and communicated with employees, you need to listen to their feedback. Much like Topehad to listen to people saying she wasintimidating, you have to listen to whatpeople are saying about your product oryour message. To get honest and constructive feedback, Tope has an open-door policy at the company.

“Feedback and discussion ideas can comefrom anywhere in the organization,” shesays. “... It’s based on the merit of the ideaversus the level of the person,” she says.

Tope says you have to have a very openconstructive dialogue, but you also haveto have a plan in mind.

“It’s not left to just sort of happen,”Tope says. “We have a very direct plan.”

Yet, you have to remind people throughactions that you have an open-door policy in order to get positive and constructive feedback.

“We value that,” she says. “You can sayyou have an open-door policy, and itdoesn’t work. You really have to livethat, and sometimes, you’ve got to be theone to make that happen.”

You have to ask questions and skip levels of management, asking questions insmall group meetings to get honest feedfeedback.”

Tope puts customer problems at the top of her priority list,and says it is the biggest part of her responsibilities. She maynot be jumping in to fix the problem, but she is helping to driveand support the areas where feedback shows there is opportunity for improvement.

“Virtually, if a customer issue is occurring and I’m in the middle of either waiting for a call or generating a call to a customer— it can be my boss, it can be my chairman, I would excusemyself and take care of that customer,” she says. “That’s a pretty extreme example because it shouldn’t get to the point whereit has to be me that’s addressing them, but that sort of framesup the picture that the customer is really driving my prioritization.

“The way I look at it is that I’m not managing an ‘or,’ I’m managing ‘and,’” she says. “So, it’s not a customer or profitability, it’s nota customer or something else, it’s and. I have to have that balanceand be able to keep it all going so that we are generating, delivering on the results that we’re supposed to and taking care of ourcustomers and our employees.”

HOW TO REACH: Verizon Wireless Florida Region, (813) 615-4800 or

Tony Vanjohnson wants to

lead by example and be a

mentor at his company,

but sometimes that is easier

said than done. As the leader,

the buck stops with you, and

that can hinder a leadership

style that includes delegating.

“You’re trying to lead by example, but sometimes you just

have to say, ‘Hey, no, you’re

going to do it this way,’” says

Vanjohnson, founder and CEO

of Margaritas Mexican

Restaurant LLC, which has six

locations and employs more

than 100 people.

Smart Business spoke with

Vanjohnson about how to effectively lead by example while

delegating and how to become

a mentor to your employees.

Q. How do you show employees

you lead by example?

In my business, it is showing

that, in the time of need, not

only myself but any of my managers, if needed, will put on an

apron and become a server, get

behind the bar and become a

bartender. Just doing whatever

it takes to work cohesively as a

team and show that to the people that you work with and

work around.

Q. How can a leader delegate

more effectively?

Know your own strengths

and weaknesses, and delegate

those weaknesses to someone

that is stronger in that area

where you may be weak.

Every morning, I get up and

go through the day prior and I

break it down morning, afternoon, early evening, and I say,

‘OK, these are the decisions I

made; these are the things I did. OK, I could have done

this better. Maybe I should

have had this person handle

this.’ So, I’m constantly reevaluating myself pretty much

every day.

Whatever I can change, I’ll

change the next day. That’s

something a leader has to do.

Admit that you’re wrong, or pat

yourself on the back when you

are clicking on all cylinders.

A good leader will always set

out their goals. I’ll have five or

six goals for the year. ‘I want to

be able to accomplish

these things.’ So, I’ve kind

of incorporated those

goals and paralleled them

with my self-evaluation.

Q. What steps do you

take to become a mentor?

What I try to do is

identify an individual

that is, one, strong in

common sense — not

necessarily book

knowledge but common sense. Then, I

kind of watch that person for a little while. I

don’t talk to them

about it or say, ‘You

have an opportunity


Then, I just take them underneath my wing, and I start

teaching them my processes.

I’ll buy them a book and say,

‘Hey, read this; this is a good

read. This will help you develop yourself,’ and so on and so


As they continue to grow, I

mirror their strengths with my

weaknesses, again, in helping

formulate the overall picture

of Margaritas.

Q. How do you identify people with common sense to


I think there is a certain art

form to it. You don’t really

get to know anyone. The key

is patience — and taking that


It’s just like the school

teacher for that elementary

kid. You don’t know what

you’re getting until halfway

through the school year, and

that school teacher, hopefully, they have the patience to

work with that child and

continue to develop that


Q. What advice would you

give someone else to become

a better mentor?

I would say, one, if you are going to go into a management position, whatever

industry you’re going to be

in, the first and foremost is

be an individual working as a

team. Then, if you’re starting

your own business, again,

you’re going to need to be an

individual, but work as a


Q. How does delegation tie

into mentoring?

If there is a task to be performed and it is not completed to expectation, then I take

that person back through the

task and explain, ‘This is

why I told you to do it this

way specifically, A, B, C.

The expectation was not

met because you decided to

do C first, then B, then A.

Now, let me show you this is

the repercussion of doing it

this way, and this is the

result if you had done it A,

B, C.’

I give them the latitude to

make the mistakes. I think

when someone makes a mistake, if they’re genuine in it,

they learn much quicker

from it.

Q. How do you handle it

when someone doesn’t do

things the right way?

You pretty much have to

handle failure the same way

you handle success. We’re

going to fall. That’s just the

nature of any business. So,

you take that failure, just

like someone I’m mentoring.

You take those mistakes

and you just learn from

them. Which again, then

makes you stronger and

your company stronger.

HOW TO REACH: Margaritas Mexican Restaurant LLC, (513) 721-3147 or

Friday, 26 December 2008 19:00

Game on

If you want to become an approachable leader, don’t shoot down someone’s idea, even if you’ve heard it before, says Steve Kopitz.

Kopitz, founder, owner, president and CEO of Summit Sports Inc., says that it’s easy to cut ideas short when you’ve been in business awhile and think you’ve heard it all, but you need to keep an open mind.

“We may have tried it 10 years ago,” says the leader of the sporting goods company, which posted 2007 revenue of about $20 million. “It may have not worked back then, but it may work now.”

Smart Business spoke with Kopitz about how to be more approachable to your employees.

Q. What is the biggest challenge to being approachable?

The biggest challenge is getting people over the hump of really believing that it’s true. They’ve usually worked for people that are not approachable or who say they are. We have a saying in my company, and that is, ‘No one can be fired for anything that they say.’ Meaning, you need to feel comfortable and you should feel comfortable in voicing your opinion, even it’s completely against what we’re doing. Maybe it’s you think everything we’re doing is ridiculous, but we want to hear that opinion. Even if we maybe don’t agree with it, when we’re done hearing it, we still want to hear it, and I don’t think that corporate culture exists in most companies.

So, you can’t just have a person come in and you tell them, ‘Well, nobody ever gets fired in our company for what they say (and) that all of a sudden they’re just going to be an open book and tell you everything that they feel. It takes time, often months or years, before people truly believe and understand that philosophy.

Q. How can a leader create an open corporate culture?

The best thing that you can do is simply go around and ask people how they really feel. That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily going to tell you the first time, but, over time, they’re going to get comfortable when you seem to really be interested in their opinion, and especially when their opinion actually ends up being something that you implement.

Because we sell sporting goods and it’s something that everybody who works in the company really likes, we have these things called ‘Sports Bucks,’ and that’s basically gift certificates that we give employees for a variety of reasons.

One of the things we give them to (employees) for is for good ideas. So, when an employee comes up with a good idea, we’ll give them $25 or $50 or $100 of ‘Sports Bucks’ that they can use toward free sports equipment of their choice.

So, not only do we compliment them that it’s a great idea, but we really reinforce it by rewarding them with some cool sports equipment.

Q. How do you become more approachable?

The first thing is you have to be very open-minded. You think you know the way, and I have very strong opinions in my business, but I never make any decision without consulting at least multiple people. Because, even though I think things are really clear, after I consult multiple people, I find that sometimes, my ideas are not as well thought out as I thought.

I try to emphasize to all of my staff, ‘Don’t make any decisions in a vacuum. Run your ideas by other people.’

Sometimes, you’ll change your idea completely, or some times, you’ll get an enhancement on it. But, even at the top, it’s very dangerous to make decisions without getting as much input as you possibly can.

Q. What other advice would you have for a leader on how to become more approachable?

One is just a real open-door policy. I’ve got about 150 employees, and they all can — and often do — call me or e-mail me or sometimes even stop in to say something or even invite me to lunch if they have something really on their mind.

Q. What does an open-door policy mean to you?

It means that every employee has to feel comfortable. I mean, your door can be open, but that doesn’t really mean anything. They’ve got to feel comfortable that they can really speak their mind and get a bit of your time and that you really will give them the feeling and the sense that you really care about their opinion.

Even if you don’t agree with it, they don’t always have the information that you have. But, sometimes there’s a morsel, that if you shut yourself off just because maybe you’ve done it before or it’s something that you are totally against — the best ideas come out of the craziest ideas.

So, you’ve got to let a person completely explain what their thought process is and not shut them down in the very beginning because once you shut them down the first time, they’re not going to come back and talk to you again.

HOW TO REACH: Summit Sports Inc., (888) 271-7500 or

Friday, 26 December 2008 19:00

Power to the people

Deb Leon wants her employees to be empowered, and that means they can make decisions that she doesn’t agree with.

For example, the president and founder of Health Contact Partners Inc. recalls a time when she and an employee disagreed. So instead of continuing the argument, they decided talk again the next day — and Leon came to a realization.

“I realized that the decision we were making — the ability for that person to make this decision was more important than the decision itself,” she says. “That’s what actually turned the corner for me.”

Smart Business spoke with Leon — whose health call center employs 100 people — about how empowering employees can help you better fulfill your customers’ needs.

Q. How do you determine what customer needs your company can fulfill?

It’s twofold. No. 1 is establishing need. There’s a need for all sorts of things. Our clients probably have a laundry list of things that they could use from us.

Secondly, is it something we can deliver very, very well? Is it in our short grasp? If it’s not in our short grasp and we want to take a look at something, we then have to weigh the advantage and the cost of putting our resources over on something that’s too far out of our grasp. We go through that exercise of saying, ‘All right,here’s the resources that it’s going to take’ — planning it out down the road for product development, program development, marketing.

You start bringing [in] the IT [department], all those pieces that have to support that, and start looking at this from a research standpoint. Are we willing to invest in the resources that it’s going to take while not pulling off from our current business?

And that’s that balance. There is this fine line between balancing your current book of business and the products and services you offer and making sure you are delivering at a high-quality level that keeps you ahead of your competition.

What we found to be most effective is there’s always another circle beyond where we are at that is within our grasp, and it’s a bit of a stretch, but it’s not a mega stretch. Every time that we’ve mega-stretched, even if it’s successful, there has been collateral damage to the rest of the business.

So, we’ve learned a lesson for us about that, about saying, ‘All right, this is going to have to be in either our primary circle or the next ring out.’

Q. How do you establish that balance between taking chances and not hurting other areas of the company?

Leaders tend to be more visionary, and what leaders can do in a company is their vision is absolutely valuable and needed. However ... the vision isn’t really the hard part. The vision is actually the easier part.

All the folks who have to then create this and make this product something or make a service something or take it to market, the leader has to be able to allow them the ability to veto the idea, the vision.

They have to know they have veto power ... and our business skyrocketed once we did this here.

We give the management team full veto power. (It’s) a little bit risky. Not all companies can do that. But, once somebody has full veto power, they are more responsible then about their decision.

Let’s say someone from human resources says, ‘Well, I just really don’t like this, and I don’t think this is going to work, and I don’t want us to do it.’ And you can say to them, ‘Well, you have the power to say no to this. Do you want that power right now? Do you want that authority? Are you saying that you want this to not happen?’

What happens then is it empowers them to think strongly about their decisions and their viewpoints, and they’ve got to make a really good case then. So, it’s now no longer an opinion; they have some real weight.

Q. How do you deal with it when you disagree with an employee’s decision?

What I learned most was the ability to separate the need to be right, the need to be the leader, the need to have the final decision. Take all that stuff out of the mix and say, ‘All right, really, really, really listen to what is being said. What is really the impact?’ And weigh it as someone from the outside would do without attachment. What are the pros and cons of this?

HOW TO REACH: Health Contact Partners Inc., (847) 465-5000 or

For Annette Tarver, getting

her point across isn’t the

most important part of communication.

“It’s all about listening and

really seeking to understand

what the issues and challenges

are,” says Tarver, president of

Blackwell Consulting Services

of Ohio LLC, an information

technology and management


To open up the lines of communication, Tarver develops

one-on-one relationships with

her employees at the company,

which posted 2007 revenue of

about $6.5 million and employs

more than 50 people.

Smart Business spoke with

Tarver about how to develop

one-on-one relationships with

your employees and how to be

a better communicator.

Q. How do you develop

one-on-one relationships

with employees?

We start through our hiring

process and have an on-boarding process that we think is

pretty comprehensive. It

includes a lot of things that

would be considered touch

points for the individuals, the

things that matter to them.

We try to stay connected on

those touch points throughout

their employment, things like

what their passions are, and we

try to match those to volunteer

opportunities that they can participate in. Some people are

engaged with sports through

their kids, and we try to do

things that support their activities inside and outside the office.

Community involvement and

volunteerism is one of our core

values. So, we try to match

them up along those lines, as well, to some things that they’re

passionate about that they can

add value to in a community

service setting.

Q. What advice would you

give to someone who wants

to be a better communicator?

I think communication is

learned. I don’t think it is something that comes naturally for


There’s some people who can

communicate very easily. They’re

gregarious — it’s a personality

thing where they are comfortable doing it. People who

are uncomfortable doing

it — I know a lot of leaders that this is not a skill

they have developed.

One of the easiest ways

to do it is to do something that is very benign

and nonpersonal and

nonconfrontational. One

of the things that we do,

as we find articles of

interest ... we send them

out to people saying, ‘I

read this in such and

such a publication, and I

thought it might be of

interest to you.’

It’s the idea of sharing

some information, doing

a little knowledge transfer and just say, ‘I’d be

interested in hearing your comments about it, or know what

you think about this,’ and open

up that dialogue.

Then it allows the other person — they may not be comfortable, either ... it allows them

to have an opportunity to read

over the materials and then say,

‘Thanks for sending it to me; it

was great. I thought the points

that they made might be applicable to something we are

doing at such and such a client,’

or ‘I’m going to use these techniques in something I’m doing

external to the office.’

I find that to be very helpful.

People appreciate getting information from you and the fact

that you are thinking about

some of the things they might

be doing and ways you can

apply best practices to that.

Q. What is the biggest

challenge with communication?

Just keeping up with it.

Making sure I’m in touch in one

form or another with just about

everybody at least monthly.

We’ve got a newsletter that

we’re developing that we’ll be

sending out. We use part of the

space in that to talk about our

business but another part of it

to just talk about what employees in the company are doing

externally. ... We try to highlight

the things employees are doing,

generally, so we can have a

holistic kind of approach to

who we are.

Q. How has good communication benefited the company?

People feel very cohesive as a

team. I think they are engaged

with one another at a level

beyond just, ‘Oh, this is my colleague at work.’

Typically, people feel more

passionate about things that

they’ll do in their personal lives

if they can make some connection to their professional life. I

think they just do a better job

because they feel more valued

as a person.

Q. Is there any other advice

you want to add?

In my experience, the value of

a positive attitude and just the

concept of, ‘Yes we can,’ has

been very helpful. Like most

business, we have our ups and

downs, our challenges.

I think when everyone else

wants to give up for whatever

reason, as a leader, it’s your

responsibility to push forward

and to be the No. 1 cheerleader,

and encouraging, saying, ‘We

can get this done just as well as

anyone else can.’ Really do the

rallying cry. Having that kind of

enthusiasm as a leader and having the perseverance and the

courage to say, ‘We can do this,’

is very important.

HOW TO REACH: Blackwell Consulting Services of Ohio LLC, (866) 997-2276 or

Thursday, 25 September 2008 20:00

Taste test

In his first nine years with Family SportsConcepts Inc., Nick Vojnovic watched the company’s Beef ‘O’ Brady’s restaurant chain grow at a tremendous rate.

What started out in 1998 as 30 locations, primarily in the Tampa Bay area, and $16 million of revenue, had increased to 250 sites nationwide with revenue of approximately $200 million by 2007.

But then the company hit a snag.

Beef’s, as Vojnovic refers to it, started experiencing tremendous commodity increases because of rising ethanol and fuel prices. Aside from the business having to spend more money to pay for supplies, those rising fuel prices are also driving people to enjoy some home cooking instead of eating out — and Vojnovic, who became president of the organization in 2005, was hearing all about it from his franchisees.

“We are seeing pressure at the store level where they go, ‘Nick, I’m working just as hard, and I’m not making as much money,’”he says. “We, as a franchisor, have to lead that way and make sure they are making money and make adjustments.”

Because a lot of the company’s success is dependent on the franchisees making money and being happy, Vojnovic and the management team knew it was time to make some changes.

They decided to re-evaluate parts of their company’s brand and concepts to continue the kind of growth they’ve experienced and that meant trying new things.

One of those changes involved serving some liquor at the restaurants. There was some worry that expanding from beer and wine to include serving mixed drinks would turn the family-friendly Beef ‘O’Brady’s into a scene out of “NationalLampoon’s Animal House.”

“Our core customer is mom and dad with the 8-year-old or 10-year-old coming in after a soccer game,” he says. “We certainly do not want a bunch of 24-year-olds at the bar trying to pick up chicks, getting hammered and cussing.”

Though Vojnovic did not want to alienate the customers that made the company a success, he was willing to try to change while still keeping core customers satisfied.

“You’ve got to keep changing,” he says.“You cannot keep doing what you have always done. At the same time, you cannot lose that core, or you cannot ever alienate your core customer, or you could possibly go out of business.”

Research the change

Initially, management was dead against serving full liquor in the establishments. The leaders were so against it, they tried shutting down the franchisees who were already serving it without permission.

However, management was also hearing from some franchisees that they needed to serve some form of liquor in order to compete in their markets.

To drive any change and continue to succeed, you need to listen to other’s opinions.

“The one thing I have learned is that it is very important to get different perspectives and different viewpoints,” he says.

They decided to do some formal, controlled research to find out if serving liquor would offend their core customer base. They want to be able to cater to the family coming in after a soccer game, but they also don’t want to lose the mom or the golf foursome that wants a Bloody Mary.

Beef’s hired a consultant company who had previous experience in the restauranti ndustry to help them survey 1,300 customers in about 10 stores across the country.

“We only hire (consultants) if we are trying to find something out,” he says. “Wewon’t do just a general, ‘Tell us about Beef’s.’ Generally, it’s very focused, and we do it when we feel we have a particular issue we want to address.”

The management team would work with the consultant team on what they wouldwant to find out because the consultants were very good at forming the question ina way that would solicit the best answer.

“You know that they can word questions certain ways to get certain answers,” he says. “You want kind of a clean question that doesn’t really lean one way or the other.”

Customers were asked to fill out a survey and were given an incentive, like a free dessert, for completing it.

Surveys are kept to about 10 to 12 questions because any more than that may lose someone.

“On the phone, and even in person, thereis only so much people are going to put up with before they go, ‘Unless you’re paying me, I’m done,’” he says.

Normally, Vojnovic finds when gathering information for a change, you want to ask specifically about the change and keep the research focused.

However, in this instance, they were actually surveying about something else, and added the liquor question at the end.

“We threw the alcohol question in there because we had partners kind of pushing us for it, and we wanted to show them with the research that you shouldn’t do it,” he says. “But the research actually was the opposite.”

The results showed 91 percent of those surveyed said they would come to Beef’smore often or the same amount they had been coming.

“The research kind of gave us the light bulb moment that maybe it’s not as a bad as we thought; maybe it’s not that big of a deal for folks,” he says.

Aside from surveys, Vojnovic did a little investigating of his own the old-fashioned way to really make sure the change was worth a test run. He would visit restaurants himself and ask the customers directly about the possible change. Through that research, he found the same opinions expressed in the surveys.

“I’m all about (being) in the stores,” he says. “I’m all about talking to customers, talking to owners, and I’ll just start asking hundreds of people, ‘What do you think?’ It’s anecdotal, but sometimes you start getting a sense. And I came back — we havean executive meeting once a month and we have very robust conversations. I said, ‘This is anecdotal, but I’m not getting a lot of push back on this deal. I’ve only had one person out of probably 100 people I’ve talked to who even had a little bit of an issue with it.’”

Test the change

After all the data was compiled and it validated that serving liquor might be worth a trial run, it was time to put the data to the test.

“You never just do things without testing them first,” he says. “It’s weird, but sometimes the littlest things can throw you out of whack.”

The North Richland Hills location was chosen to be a one-store test market last October because it struggled in that market and management felt liquor might have been a factor. It was also isolated from other Beef’s and the company leaders wouldn’t have to worry about other customers going to a nearby Beef’s and asking why they couldn’t get the same drink.

In addition, a big part of choosing the location was they could trust the person running it. They trusted her and felt that she would rollout the program properly, wouldn’t start serving shots, and would give all of her sales data and check averages.

When the results showed sales were up and there weren’t any unruly drinkers driving their core customer out of the place, they decided that testing a second store a few months later would be a good idea

But before testing the second store, Vojnovic wanted some morefeedback and wanted to hear some different perspectives, so he briefed the organization’s advisory board, which is made u p of a diverse cross section of franchisees from across the country. He has several boards for different things within the organization, butno matter what the subject, he wants people who won’t always agree with him and tell him what he wants to hear. To get that, he has a mix of older franchisees and some who haven’t been involved with the company as long.

“I think boards are a tremendous asset,” he says. “If you can pick a diverse board that’s going to give you good critical feedback —that you actually listen to them is a huge asset to any leader.”

The board also keeps the leaders in check when making a decision.

“So we aren’t making decisions that don’t sync up with what the franchisees (want) or at least have an opportunity for the franchisees to say, ‘No, that’s not going to work,’ or, ‘Why are you making me spend money on this thing we really don’t need?’ So, that is the mechanism we use to help police our decisions.”

It was agreed to try serving liquor at another location but to keep it quiet and see how it worked out before announcing it company-wide.

“A lot of times, we’re doing a lot of different stuff — tests, smallscale, but we won’t tell anybody until it looks like it might go,” he says. “Because there’s no sense in saying, ‘OK, we are testing liquor; it didn’t work, so we aren’t testing liquor.’

“Normally, you run the test, and then if it looks like it might have some traction, that’s when you start running it by different groups to see how they feel.”

Beef’s eventually tested about 10 stores in different states. “We’ve really tried to make it pretty broad-based,” he says. “One thing I’m also finding out is that this is a big country and people are very different.”

While the test locations were important for the company, so was the amount of time to conduct the study. The company chose to test for a year to get a good sense of how the change will affect it.

“You want to lap sales,” he says. “In our industry, you’re always checking what’s called comp store sales. You’re comparing store sales from one year to the next. It’s hard to say, ‘Well, Nick we were up $200 compared to last week.’ Well, last week, something was going on.

“But, if I compare consistently over a year ago, then I could see for instance North Richland Hills is up 18 percent over a year ago.That’s good data,” he says. “You want to compare apples toapples.”

Although, the company wants to test about 25 locations before making a final decision, results of the change look promising so far. Along with the North Richland Hills store showing an 18 percent increase in sales, the other stores that have been tested are up 3 to4 percent in revenue as of July.

More importantly, Beef ‘O’ Brady locations aren’t turning into the home of raucous college parties, and that helps get buy-in across the organization.

The owner of the North Richland Hills location is now a strong proponent of serving liquor because she has seen it helps sales but doesn’t hurt the brand. She can now tell other franchisees, who may have been hesitant about the change, that it is a good idea. That wouldn’t have been possible without testing the change out in a formal manner.

“When they hear it from us, they might not believe it,” he says. “But, when they hear it from a partner, they go, ‘Wow, this is the real deal.’”

HOW TO REACH: Family Sports Concepts Inc./Beef ‘O’ Brady’s, (813) 226-2333 or

Jim Campbell wants his

employees to be empowered. To make sure that they are, the president and

CEO of Bridge Logistics Inc.

says he and his partners —

vice presidents Jeff Campbell

and Paul Lanham — make

themselves accessible, which

is key to creating an environment of empowerment.

“It creates a comfort zone

and a sense of confidence within the employee base,” the

leader of the multifaceted third-party logistics provider says.

“We encourage creativity, and

we give them the latitude to

bring new ideas to the table.”

That environment has led to

fast growth at the company,

which more than quadrupled its

2006 revenue of about $2 million to about $9 million in 2007.

Smart Business spoke with

Campbell about how to create

an environment of empowerment and how to be more

accessible as a leader.

Q. How would you describe

your leadership style?

Pretty casual here. We make

ourselves very, very available to

our employees. There are days

kind of like this morning — we

were all three involved with

operational issues this morning.

We have open-door policies.

We do have some family working here. It’s very casual.

We are very accessible. I

think the three of us have

employees in our office bouncing ideas, ‘What do you think

about this?’ on a daily basis.

We encourage creative

thought here. We want our

employees thinking outside

the box in order to differentiate ourselves within our customer base and prospective

customer base.

Q. How can leaders make

themselves more accessible?

We’re not Procter & Gamble

here. We don’t have layers

and layers of management.

For these small to midsized,

even up to larger companies,

we think that the attitude

from the prospective

employee coming to work

here is so much different

than it was 20 years ago, and

we really try to cater to that.

We’re not big on titles here.

We’re not big on management

layers. You have to want to be

accessible to your employees.

We’re pretty relaxed

with these guys. We like

teaching here; we spend

a lot of time educating.

Every problem that

develops or logistics

challenge that develops

is an opportunity to educate our employee base

and empower them to

make decisions the next

time. No decision is the

wrong decision.

Q. How do you find

the right people to fit

into that culture of


It starts with the right

person. The interviewing

process — you’ve got to

pay particular attention

to the traits that the individual possesses — entrepreneurial spirit, team-oriented

type individual.

Our interview process here

typically goes in a few different interviews. It’s very rare

that somebody here gets hired

off the first interview. Do we

have a big, in-depth, structured interview process? No, but

what we do is each employee

typically interviews with the

three of us. We compare a lot

of notes. We often ask the

same questions very differently. We know what we are

looking for in that individual.

It’s a relaxed interview. It’s

not really an interrogation.

We want to get to know that

individual, the potential candidate. We want to really know

them, their likes, their dislikes, what they can bring to

the table, the way they perceive a problem and what

they would do to solve it.

Q. What is a pitfall to avoid

in leadership?

A lot of leaders today, they

tend to come in with the mind-set that, ‘It’s my bat, my ball,

my rules. You’re going to do

it this way. It’s my way or the

highway.’ I, as well as Paul

and Jeff, advise against that

because people are going to

make you successful or they

are going to break you —

one or the other.

You don’t want to (fit a)

square peg into a round hole.

Take advantage of the individual’s creativity. Take advantage

of their thoughts.

We just hired a young guy a

year ago that was a graduate

from The Ohio State University

with a degree in supply chain

and logistics management.

What am I going to do? Try to

jam him, all that education that

he acquired, try to jam a round

peg into a square hole with

him? No, we want him to bring

his thought process, new

thinking and forward thinking

to the operation.

Q. What are the keys to

leading change?

You have to have a direction.

In our case, the first step in

leading change is the management team has to buy in

to what direction you are

going into. You have to give

your staff the tools they need

in order for that change to

take place.

Once the management

team buys in to the direction

you want to change to,

you’ve got to get everybody

else on board and you’ve got

to make sure everybody is

stroking on the same oar. We

do that here again by getting

these folks to take ownership in the plan.

HOW TO REACH: Bridge Logistics Inc., (513) 874-7444 or

Tuesday, 26 August 2008 20:00

The fantastic four

It may have happened about 15 years ago, but Martin Hillertells it like it happened yesterday.

He was on a plane with a man who was, at the time, a CEO ofa major grocery chain.

Hiller wanted to know why the CEO’s grocery store was better than other stores in which Hiller had shopped.

The CEO didn’t just give Hiller some stock answer; he illustrated it: “At that other store, that brand X you’re talking about,they tell their employees that they’re going to paint by numbers. You’re going to put paint A in this box, B in this box, C inthis box.’”

The CEO explained that while that method would guaranteeyou get a picture every time, it didn’t leave any room for greatness.

The CEO told Hiller: “You’re never going to get a masterpiece. Atour company, we believe in giving the team members the paint, thebrush, the easel and the platform to create masterpieces. We get alot of really bad pictures. But, it’s worth it for the couple of masterpieces.”

After hearing that, Hiller, now president of The Hiller Group Inc.,a provider of branded general aviation fuels and specialty carbonproducts, decided that’s how he wanted to lead his company. Hewanted to empower employees to make decision and create anenvironment where employees are free to come forward withideas.

“It was like, yeah, that’s the kind of company I want to have,”Hiller says. “I don’t want to have one that people feel like they’rerobots doing monotonous jobs where no one cares.”

As a result, he built a company with an open culture that wasmission- and vision-driven to maximize growth, and it worked wellthrough the years, including recently. Revenue increased from$135.3 million in 2006 to $157.4 million in 2007.

But earlier this year, Hiller decided to make a change. Being mission- and vision-driven was working fine, but it was time to takethe company to the next level. So he changed The Hiller Group tobe driven by four guiding principles.

“I don’t think we were broke before,” he says. “I thought it wasworking well. It was just wanting to raise the bar of expectations.By having four easily understood and deployable concepts, if youwill, or guiding principles, it became one where everyone wouldrally around it. There wasn’t tension, and concern and stress about,‘Jeez, next time I’m down and Marty’s in my office, do I have torepeat my mission statement?’”

Start with an open culture

Before even thinking about developing guiding principles to takeyour company to the next level, you need to have the right kind ofculture in place to succeed.

“If I had to change my title around from owner or CEO, I wouldpick manager of culture,” he says. “I think that’s the most importantfactor in business because it lays a foundation for everything elsethat you do.”

While each company can have a different culture, Hillerdescribes his company’s as a collaborative culture where peoplecan express their opinions. One way he established that type ofenvironment was by having, once or twice a month, Fun Fridays,which has each department rotating responsibilities for the day.They’ve done things like celebrated Chinese New Year as well ashired a masseuse.

“It’s just a little bit of time to sit down and meet each other,” hesays. “We have a real great lunchroom where a lot of the discussions go on and there’s a lot of sharing there.”

Hiller found that by having each department responsible for aFun Friday activity, it makes each department want to take pridein its idea and creates some competition between departments.

“They want to make theirs be the most fun for that time, and it’sworked out really well,” he says.

On top of being a reward for working hard, Hiller says the FunFridays also increase the company’s productivity.

“It’s kind of like, if you did a time motion study, how hard do youwork just before you go on vacation? You’re just cranking, tryingto get those e-mails out because you don’t want anything on yourdesk you can’t handle because you just want to go on vacation andjust enjoy yourself,” he says. “That’s the kind of momentum building toward a Fun Friday. You can’t operate at 130 percent of capacity all the time, but maybe you can operate that way ahead of thatFun Friday, and it’s really a pressure release valve on stress.”

When it comes to employees possibly taking advantage of a culture like Hiller’s, he says it’s always a possibility, but he wants togive employees the benefit of the doubt.

“I would rather live in the moment, than try to manage for theexception,” he says.

Overall, you need to look at your company’s culture with an unbiased eye before forging ahead with guiding principles.

“I think the first thing I would recommend anyone doing is makea serious assessment of their own culture, and I don’t know thatyou can go from a challenged culture to what I believe is a collaboration culture in one step,” he says. “It was easy for us becausewe were pretty close. So, my recommendation would be to reallydo a self-assessment of, ‘What culture do we have at the company.Is it optimistic? Is it pessimistic? Is it nurturing? Is it autocratic?’From there, that drives the other processes if you are trying to getto that kind of assistance.”

Involve employees in discussions

With the culture well established, Hiller didn’t just meet withhis management team and throw out four ideas they felt thecompany should follow. All employees were involved in theprocess through departmental meetings as well as full company meetings.

Through this process, Hiller found that every department wasin a silo and didn’t see other departments’ perspectives.

Involving all employees in this processallowed each department to see how different ideas for guiding principles affected each department.

“By pulling everybody back in, we startedto merge all that together,” he says. “Wewent in and said to each one of thosegroups, ‘Give us what are the critical success factors for guiding principles. Whatshould we do?’”

The answers came back differently fromeach department. Accounting would comeback with number-driven metrics; marketing would come back with all the greatideas the company should do, while otherdepartments came back with differentdynamics.

“So, when we took all those and put themall up on the board, the look on everybody’s face was like, ‘Wow, that’s not aguiding principle in marketing at all,’”Hiller says.

“Someone in accounting would look andgo, ‘I don’t see that as being a driver or away that we should conduct ourselves inaccounting.’ So, by molding them togetherand facilitating a lot of discussion, wecame up with some pretty cool ones.”

What they ultimately settled on weresafety, respect, reputation and efficiency.

Discussions also centered on driving thecompany’s current success and how togrow in the future. The answers could rangefrom products to sales training, but withoutguiding principles, none of that is possible.

“That future success breaks once you arenot safe, the minute you don’t haverespect,” he says. “You can have a greatstrategy that may make a financial return,but if it’s going to harm our reputation,cause that customer to not be respectful ofus, is that really a future success?”

Hiller says the company started a lot further away from what ended up being thefour principles.

“You’ve got your personal perspective,then you’ve got a department perspective and then you have a managementperspective, and all those were a littledifferent,” he says. “So when we gotdown to the final ones, what we foundwas everyone goes, ‘Oh yeah, that makessense.’”

The company also flirted with havingmore than four or having subcategoriesunderneath the four principles.

“One of the principles thrown out wascompounded growth — we should alwaysgrow should be a principle,” he says.

“Well, look against those other fourand tell me where to put that in. Am Igoing to grow against respect? No. If Ihad compounded growth, but it affectedany of those four, would I do it? It gotdown to, anything else that you add tothis, at least in our minds, affects thosefour, and we think those four are themost important. Clearly, we’ve had abunch of growth. Everybody was looking at that and saying that’s success, andthat is true, but it’s not successful if it’snot sustainable against what we wouldbelieve to be our guiding principles.”

Implement the principles

After developing the guiding principles,Hiller needed to implement them throughout the organization and get buy-in.

He drafted a guiding principles document to be distributed to all employees.Because he is expecting his employeesto buy-in to the culture and principles,he stressed in the document he will bedoing his part, as well.

“I am going to always make my team-mates feel special,” he says. “I’m going totreat them as individuals, not as objects.We’re all part of the same team. We justhave different roles.”

Hiller also put in the document thathe’s never going to lose sight that thestrength of the chain is founded by thebond of the individuals.

“Meaning that I’m willing to work to fixthe process,” he says. “I don’t know anybody that comes to work that says, ‘I amjust going to not perform today. Today isthe day I’m going to do everything bad.’

“So, to our mind, which is clearly an optimistic viewpoint, we believe that whatwe’re going to do is we’re going to alwaysbelieve it’s a process problem until weidentify that it isn’t. We’re going to workto fix the process. If it becomes a behavior problem, then we are going to try andsit down and talk and identify what arethe drivers behind that. If the behaviorproblem works against our guiding principles, then it’s nonnegotiable. If it’ssomething else, then we try to workthrough it.”

To get buy-in for the guiding principles,you need to involve employees early inthe development process.

“The first thing would be to be able tohave the senior management or ownership team lay out a vision of where thecompany wants to go,” he says. “Then,lay out a success plan that says, ‘If wecan adopt some principles that help usget there, would you agree to help me dothat?’ Then you start to look at that andbuild that out.”

Leadership also has to be behind theprocess 100 percent.

“For me, the leadership has to committo excellence,” he says. “You’ve got to becommitted, you’ve got to be responsible,you’ve got to be inspired. For the teammembers, they’ve got to agree to be collaborative and have a culture of caring— supportive. Then you start workingwith your products and building that outand going with that. So, you say, ‘This iswhere we want to go; this is how wewant to be. What products can we represent or manufacture or sell that will helpus get to our vision against this set ofdynamics or guiding principles.’”

HOW TO REACH: The Hiller Group Inc., (800) 544-3835