John Nank

Saturday, 26 May 2007 20:00

Extraordinary results

Andrea Michaels doesn’t mind when people gush over her employees.

After all, as president of Sherman Oaks-based event planning and production firm Extraordinary Events, Michaels wants her staff to hear the praise and feel lucky to work where they do.

“We are very well-respected in our industry, and I want people to have a sense of pride in our company,” Michaels says. “I want them to have the same respect for each other and the company that the outsider does.”

To build that respect, Michaels emphasizes staff empowerment, seeks feedback and works to foster teamwork and collaboration, building a culture that has helped grow EE’s annual revenue to approximately $15 million.

Smart Business spoke with Michaels about why letting others make decisions can be the most important choice a leader makes.

Q: How would you describe your leadership style?

My leadership style is based on empowerment. I really believe in training people to do their jobs and letting them do it, keeping a watchful eye on everything and everybody, and stepping in only when needed.

It’s not that I don’t understand what everybody is doing, and I don’t expect anything of anybody else that I am not willing to do myself.

When I see people about to make a drastic mistake, it’s a matter of asking, ‘What would happen if?’ instead of saying, ‘This is the way we’re going to do it because this is the way I demand it be done.’ People don’t learn if they’re only told what to do.

It’s like kids — we’re all children in one way or another, and we have to be allowed to grow up. That’s a very important part of business. You have to train people to make intelligent decisions.

It’s hard because, like anybody who is in an ownership position, you have control issues. You want it done your way, but sometimes other ways are better, and we can learn from other people, too.

Q: How do you encourage input, and how does it benefit your company?

This is a company like advertising, where you have to come up with the best idea or you don’t get the business. When we need ideas, we shut the doors, we turn off the phones and we do exercises with just, ‘Here’s the scope of the project. Let’s brainstorm.’ That means the accountant. That means everybody, because that’s our audience. They’re all inspired and they are all part of it. Some of the best ideas and some of the most profitable ones we’ve had have come from the administrative staff.

It keeps people inspired and excited, and that’s more important than money, at least that’s what the publications say. It also develops friendships within the company that keep a loyalty factor going that might not happen otherwise.

With this kind of communication, people really get to know each other pretty well. When they do, friendships form. That keeps them interested in staying here.

Q: How else can a leader foster a team approach?

We have a program called ‘Walk a mile in my shoes,’ which means that people who do production who don’t understand the sales process and think that salespeople just go out and eat a lot of lunches, they go out and cold call for a day. They are required to spend one day cold calling and reporting on it and doing everything a salesperson would do.

At the same time, the salesperson then has to take on their job and work on production. Or they might have to spend a day as a receptionist, answering the phones and faxing, mailing and copying.

The point is, everybody here has to respect the position of everybody else by understanding what it is, or we can’t operate as a team.

Q: How does a leader’s responsibility change as his or her company grows?

The only way in which your responsibilities change is that your job becomes to bring up new leaders and not just hire followers. You have to take a look and say, ‘If I’m not here, how does the company function?’ and set a plan in place that takes it beyond you.

In my case, my son is very much part of the company now and has been for the last few years and is being trained really in all elements of the company. He’s a very different person than I am. Whether the company will go on one day as I’ve always known it or not, that will be his choice.

I’m trying to stand back and say, ‘It doesn’t have to be my way.’ That’s hard to do. I see that it is necessary, again, to the sense of empowerment, that if I am ultimately making every decision, it won’t benefit anyone else.

So I know when people come to me now and say, ‘What should we do?’ my response instead of an answer is, ‘What do you think we should do?

HOW TO REACH: Extraordinary Events, (818) 783-6112 or www.extraordinaryevents.net

Saturday, 26 May 2007 20:00

Leader of the pack

For those in the real estate industry, seeing the glass as half full has been easier said than done over the past couple years, but a slow market hasn’t discouraged Pam O’Connor.

“If you don’t have optimism, I don’t care how much other talent or how many other qualities you have, it’s really hard to lead people,” says O’Connor, president and CEO of Leading Real Estate Companies of the World. “You have to be somebody who always sees the silver lining, because everybody has hiccups.”

Rather than allow her team to get demoralized, O’Connor instead takes the opportunity to learn from what others might consider negative situations. LeadingRE, an organization that networks independent real estate companies from across the country, has been able to leverage its ability to quickly adapt to changing market conditions.

Smart Business spoke with O’Connor about how empowerment and recognition keep her team engaged.

Q: How would you describe your leadership style?

We’re not an organization of prima donnas. We’ve got a lot of really young, bright people here, and I consider myself as working for them, making sure they’ve got the resources and programs available to deliver a great experience to our member companies and the customers that they serve.

We’re empowering in that we hire people that are self-starters, and we have a well-fleshed-out business plan that they actually contribute to every year. That’s a process we go through that, all said, probably takes a couple months. They all provide the input for that, and we develop it, and that provides them the broad parameters within which they’re expected to execute. They’re held accountable.

That sort of strategy really makes people perform at a higher level because they do have some latitude.

Q: What are the benefits of making good hires?

If you hire the right people, everything else falls into place. We do behavioral testing on new hires, and we look hard at a couple of things that measure intelligence. I don’t mean that we’re looking for MENSA-types hung up on how smart they are but people who are quick studies and who can grasp concepts easily and can be creative and analytical.

We look for people who are curious and who ask questions. I’m always leery if I’m sitting with somebody and they never take down one note. I’m more interested in somebody who is curious and wants to absorb new things.

If you hire for those kinds of qualities, they’ll do the thinking for you. They’ll stay in tune with what’s happening in the marketplace and come up with suggestions. That’s the role of a great leader, to try to assemble the right people and not to be threatened by good people.

I know what my strengths and my weaknesses are. I look for people who will fill in where the weak areas are and complement what I can do. Hopefully, I can bring to them some things that I’m stronger at and help them develop.

Q: How do you motivate your staff?

One of the problems you get with younger people nowadays is that they’ve been on soccer teams and everything else where everybody gets an award, so everybody thinks they’re the same. To me, you really have to recognize achievement or there is no incentive for people to keep achieving.

We make our people feel important and make them feel that they’re part of the whole process and then take the ones that perform at a high level and use them as poster children for everyone else. Not in a way that makes the other people feel badly, but just, ‘Look what Jennifer did today that made us all look good.’

Whenever we get compliments on somebody, we pass that on so that everybody sees it. There’s a fun kind of competitiveness, but it’s not a back-stabbing kind of situation. Everybody just thrives on doing a good job and being appreciated for that.

Q: How important is flexibility in a growing company?

Nowadays, the world is changing so quickly that to try to say you have a five-year plan, I guess if you’re Motorola or IBM, maybe you have to have those kinds of disciplines. But if you look at our industry and all the analysts’ prognostications from this time last year, nobody would have anticipated that the market would be off to the degree that it was. One of my brokers said to me, ‘You know, about halfway through the year, I realized that hope was not a strategy.’ In other words, you can’t just think it’s going to get better and just keep doing what you were doing.

With technology changing and the huge changes in market demographics out there, an exploding multicultural population, the young people coming into the market in their 20s and 30s, any company in any part of business today is facing those changes. You’ve got to get inside the heads of the consumer, and companies that are setting their programs and policies for five years can’t do that very well. They’re left in the dust as the customer has gone on without them.

HOW TO REACH: Leading Real Estate Companies of the World, (800) 621-6510 or www.leadingre.com

Wednesday, 25 April 2007 20:00

Robert Hayman

As the leader of Discus Dental Inc., Robert Hayman’s mantra of “Do the right thing” dictates every action the company takes. Though Hayman, who serves as chairman, president and CEO for the dental supply company, acknowledges that doing the right thing doesn’t always mean doing the easiest thing, he says the long-term benefits are immeasurable. Fostering a culture that emphasizes honesty, integrity and fairness, however, doesn’t mean the company isn’t aggressive, and for that, Hayman makes no apologies. And although the company’s 2006 revenue of more than $150 million is nothing to shake a stick at, Hayman expects Discus to approach the $200 million mark this year. Hayman spoke with Smart Business about questioning experts and staying a step ahead of the competition.

Get to know the people in your company. I walk through our building, I visit every facility we have around the world a number of times throughout the year and I get to know our people as much as I can. It’s not so much to give advice or to preach or anything like that, but just to let them know I’m there. If they have questions or concerns, I’m there to answer them.

It’s funny — People say, ‘You have a lot of people working for you,’ and that’s weird, because I feel more like I have a lot of people I work for. At the end of the day, I’m only going to be effective if they’re all effective. Making them effective and making them do their jobs better is the most important thing that I can do.

At the end of the day, the most important asset a company has is really the people. The people are not machines. They’re human beings. It’s important that they realize the same of you as a leader.

You’re going to make mistakes every once in awhile, because you’re also a human being. Getting that personal element and getting that interaction and having a relationship with people is critical. Otherwise they will just see you as some sort of inanimate object that is sitting there in a corner office and making all of these cold-hearted decisions, and that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Trust your instinct. Common sense is important, and we have learned that a number of times. We have hired a lot of the ‘experts’ out there, and those experts are experts at one thing — and a lot of times, it’s being consultants and billing you. They are great at billing you.

At the end of the day, if something does not make sense, if something does not add up to you and an expert is telling you, ‘You just don’t understand’ — you have to question that. There have been times where we have just blindly followed, and most of the times that I have blindly followed something, especially when I don’t understand why I’m following it, I end up getting burned. It’s always good to question the experts and question what is going on.

Don’t stop at thinking out of the box. The old saying is ‘thinking out of the box,’ which is another way of saying being creative.

If it wasn’t for creativity, we’d be selling commodities. Selling commodities is trench warfare. We much prefer the blitzkrieg. We avoid trench warfare any way we can, and we always like an unfair advantage.

Thinking around the box means you’re not the only one thinking out of the box. A lot of times, your competitors are trying to think out of the box, as well. Thinking around the box means thinking in terms of not only what you can do but also what your competitors are doing. It’s basically a situational analysis of what you’re doing and what the next steps are. What’s around the corner? What’s around the next corner after that?

Nothing ever seems to happen the way you think it will. If you’re in a competitive business like we are, it’s like a game of chess. You’re going to make one move and, trust me, your competitors are going to make another, and they’re not going to do exactly what you think.

It sounds like it’s paralysis by analysis, but it’s not that at all. It’s just a way of thinking to make sure you don’t fall down a slippery slope where either you became the victim of your own strategy or you became the willing victim of your competitor’s strategy, and neither is good.

Don’t count on getting lucky. You need to know where you’re going in order to get there. If you don’t know where you’re going and you just head off in a direction, you might get lucky. But good business leaders don’t grow their businesses by getting lucky.

There’s a component of luck in everything, and there is some truth in the old saying, ‘I’d rather be lucky than good,’ but you really need to know where you’re going. The only way you’re going to really know where you’re going is to have a goal in mind. I’m very goal-oriented, and I love to know where the goal is and push to the finish.

You have to be driven to succeed if you hope to be successful. There are a lot of businesses you really don’t have to be creative in, and it’s really a matter of execution. There are a lot of businesses that aren’t so people-oriented, so the humanistic side of business is not all that important.

There are a lot of different types of businesses, but the one thing you find in every single successful leader is the desire to succeed in any way that’s possible. Sometimes you climb over the fence and sometimes you crawl under it, but at the end of the day, as long as you get on the other side and you haven’t breached anybody’s ethics or done anything wrong, that’s all that counts.

HOW TO REACH: Discus Dental Inc., (310) 845-8600 or www.discusdental.com

Wednesday, 25 April 2007 20:00

Denis John Healy Jr.

With six decades in business and a firmly entrenched culture, revamping Turtle Wax Inc. was no small chore for CEO Denis John Healy Jr. It may now be known as one of the best-selling and most recognizable brands in the car care products market, but the company that would become Turtle Wax was founded in a small Chicago Avenue storefront in 1944 by the man who invented the chocolate-covered banana. A year-and-a-half ago, Healy began a fundamental transformation of the company’s business model, which also required a makeover of the company’s culture. Early results are positive, with Turtle Wax posting revenue of approximately $175 million in 2006. Smart Business spoke with Healy about why leading change requires planning, monitoring and communication.

 

Embrace innovation. Change has to be part of every organization at all times. If a company is not always changing, always innovating, always improving, you’re going to be stagnant.

It’s not necessarily looking at whether a company is not changing enough, it’s really that a company must always be changing, looking for new opportunities and new ways to innovate, update culture, forward thinking. A more team-oriented, discussion-based and less top-down approach where the entire organization is actually contributing to creating and fostering change in the organization is really where an organization needs to be.

The dangers of becoming stagnant are really all over the headlines these days. If companies do not continually change, they’re not going to be able to seize opportunities. This world is changing so much that a company that does not reward risk and change and new ways of thinking are really going to be beat up by competition and fall by the wayside.

Plan and monitor changes. With all this change, we’ve been a company in flux. We’ve outsourced our manufacturing and distribution, and we have moved offices, so the culture has been really in transition over the past year and a half with all this fundamental change.

The culture that we’re focusing on now is one of continual improvement, of collaboration, one that rewards proper risks and one that inspires enthusiasm and energy.

It really starts with laying out a clear direction of what the desired goals and objectives are for the business as a whole, for each department and for each individual. Then, on a continual basis, you monitor that, looking at specific metrics to make sure we are following the right path toward that new direction or goal, whatever it may be, on an individual basis and a companywide basis.

Keep everyone up to speed. People, on a basic human level, are not always open to change. We have to make sure people in the organization and the culture itself is open to taking risks, looking at continual improvement, challenging themselves, challenging the individual, challenging the team, challenging the organization in order to continually improve.

We have several mechanisms on an ongoing basis to evaluate and develop our people through performance appraisals and other methods. Having great people is really where it all starts, and that has been my greatest challenge.

We’ve had a lot of people in the organization over the years. It’s been a family business, and sometimes in family businesses, you have long-term employees, which is great, but really making sure that every employee is up to speed on the most current business strategies and tactics, using executive education courses or reading materials, whatever it may be, to make sure that our employees are up to speed and continually developing their individual assets.

Use a multifaceted approach to communication. A leader has to be there. They have to be in the trenches, and they have to understand what’s going on in the organization — not to get bogged down in the details, but to understand and recognize the enormous change that is going to be taking place, guiding his or her troops through that change while also being able to keep one eye on the future, saying, ‘Are we there? Are we getting there?’ It’s all about being present, being available and continually monitoring the progress toward that goal, that strategy, the overall direction and then communicating that effectively on a regular basis using a multifaceted approach.

A leader can’t just have one address or state in an e-mail that, ‘We’re going to change, and this is the direction.’ The frequent and continual communication of what that new direction, goal or strategy is going to be through various methods — e-mails, newsletters, postings throughout the company, town hall meetings — and also changing the organizational structure.

In our example, that meant a more team-oriented, matrix structure really helped not only change the culture but also made sure we were always on the same page. The organization is always aware of where we’re heading and what our progress is.

Seek feedback from all employees. Successful leaders have to be present, they have to be there, they have to be open to new ideas, they have to be honest, frank and they have to communicate. That kind of all ties together in being a cheerleader, coach and teacher. You’re always there, always assessing the organization and making sure that you have the right people, the right culture in place. If the leader is not open and real and honest and frank, it can be difficult for any leader to really harbor the right kind of culture in the organization to move the organization to further success in the future.

Open and honest communication from anyone in the organization at any time, properly handled, can really foster a culture in which the whole organization is aware of where we’re going but also can contribute to any adjustments needed on that direction per any findings an individual might have at any level.

Certain individuals in an organization may be privy to certain nuances of the business that may not be readily visible to an executive or CEO. Having that communication open from multiple levels of the organization as a two-way street is very important.

HOW TO REACH: Turtle Wax Inc., www.turtlewax.com or (630) 455-3700

Monday, 26 March 2007 20:00

Lending an ear

Lief Morin, president of Key Information Systems Inc., has no aspirations of growing his company into the next Google. Instead, Morin’s goals are defined in the context of satisfaction for both clients and employees.

“I am not interested in building a $10-billion-a-year, bureaucratic, gargantuan enterprise,” Morin says. “That’s not the type of company I wish to lead. I am interested in having a healthy, growing company on an annual basis that people enjoy working at.”

Although Morin places less priority on developing massive profits than he does on developing a positive work environment, financial success has followed for the information technology (IT) solutions provider, with 2005 revenue of about $60 million.

Smart Business spoke with Morin about why communication must be constant to be successful and why it requires listening as well as talking.

Q: How would you describe your leadership style?

I’m very flexible, and I try to communicate with as many of folks that work [for Key Information Systems] as I can, as often as I can. We work very collaboratively.

I’ve used this analogy before; in many ways, it’s like a sports team. The coach doesn’t rule, but he helps and he enables. I like to look at our style of management as being enablement for the people who are out selling or doing the implementations for our clients.

I look for things that improve their abilities to do business and, at the same time, maintain our ability to understand what’s going on in this business on a day-to-day basis. If that has to do with administrative process, if it has to do with supporting a client request, if it has to do with supporting an engineer’s technical requirements, that is what I look for on a day-to-day basis from an enablement perspective.

Sometimes it means talking to the management team to give them thoughts and ideas on how to improve a situation or to support them with direction or guidance in a particular area in order to enable them to provide that support, as well.

Q: What is the danger in allowing communication to break down?

That danger is always present, it’s always possible and it’s happened here. If you don’t communicate, if you don’t try to convey the message, if you don’t try to foster communications within the company, you end up with segments of the company that are doing one thing and another segment doing another thing, and people end up off the same page.

If you’re talking about a group of people at a party, that’s going to be what it is. If you’re talking about supporting a client with their mission-critical IT systems, that’s not so good.

Q: How can a leader maintain open communication?

The vast majority of the communications we do is done through informal conversations that take place among the members of the company on a day-today basis. We do have management meetings on a monthly basis and we have companywide discussions on a quarterly basis, but to me, those are merely checkpoints.

They are points to make sure that we’re all communicating for sure at one point in one room, but really where the work gets done is on a day-to-day basis, having that interpersonal communication and strategy happening all the time. If you wait a whole month or a whole quarter to have those dialogues, you could be missing a lot in that time frame.

Q: What advice do you have for a new CEO hoping to grow a business?

For the new CEO that is looking to not just grow their business but help find ways to lead, my advice is to listen. That is a leader’s most important quality, though not one that all people share.

It means not only to listen to the people who are management but to listen to the people who are also working under them because you’ll get many different viewpoints in the different departments and the different people in the company.

You also have to listen to what the industry is doing, whatever industry it happens to be, because those folks can also provide you valuable insight into what’s going on and how you should position for the long-term growth of the company. That’s the No. 1 skill. We’re not always perfect at it, but if you work at it and do it most of the time, you’re going to be more successful than others who listen to nothing and row their own way. The road is littered with the bodies of companies of folks who didn’t listen.

You have to act on what you hear, as appropriate, but if you don’t even know then you can’t act. You have to take that first step of listening.

HOW TO REACH: Key Information Systems Inc., (818) 992-8950 or www.keyinfo.com

Monday, 26 March 2007 20:00

Bryant Keil

When Bryant Keil paid $1.7 million for Potbelly Sandwich Works in 1996, people thought he was crazy. At the time, Potbelly was a single Lincoln Park location that had evolved over decades from an antique shop into a neighborhood culinary phenomenon with a cult-like following of enthusiasts, of which Keil was one. Convinced he could take the unique sandwich joint to the next level, Keil acquired Potbelly and has since grown the concept into a 10-state chain that posted 2006 revenue of $140 million. Though the restaurant is no longer just a local favorite, Keil is dedicated to taking the character of the shop he fell in love with and preserving it at all 142 locations. Smart Business spoke to Potbelly’s biggest fan about the importance of staying true to your core values.

 

Maintain your company’s character. Potbelly is really a throwback to a time that’s gone by. We take the extra steps and extra effort in our stores to make sure we have the best products possible, and I never want us to lose that.

You can bring in efficiency experts and you become efficient but not very good. It’s something I fight to maintain. Through communication, we keep on track and keep our culture driving in the right direction.

While we change our organization over time, we still maintain the basic principles and tenets that we’re not going to vary from. We’re not going to go screaming to the world that we have cheap food or dollar sandwiches. We charge a fair price for a great sandwich.

With value-engineering, you start taking things like baseboard trim out; instead of doing cool, tin ceilings, you don’t put in a ceiling at all, and instead of doing wood, you do laminate, and instead of doing metal, you do plastic. Some think that the customer won’t notice the difference, but people do notice.

People pick that up over time and if it’s too mass-produced, it loses that homemade feeling. We’re not going to change our business. It’s the same thing with any company. If you’re known for building a high-quality product and you give up a little on the quality to do it faster, it’s a recipe for disaster.

Many businesses in our industry start out as something special, and then, over time, get really smart people who figure out cheaper, faster ways to do things and it all becomes the overprocessing of a culture.

Create benchmarks. Regular feedback mechanisms are essential for people to understand how they’re performing, so there have to be carefully articulated goals that are measurable and that can be used to help evaluate their progress. It’s essential.

We’re not a perfect organization. We’re a fast-growing company, and seven years ago we were running the business in a very different way. What we’re trying to do is be true to our history but we’re also trying to build a fluid organization that can scale over time. To establish a scalable organization, you have to have benchmarks with which to judge the performance of individuals and the team as a whole.

Tying performance to compensation is a reasonable thing to do, but it’s more than just money. People want to know where they stand, and part of the ability of an organization to maintain its culture is dependent on how quickly an organization can diagnose a problem.

If you let something linger on and don’t communicate, the risk of imprinting bad behavior can become overwhelming to an organization. Having diagnostic tools available to determine how they’re performing is critical to laying the foundation for a successful organization.

Pass your culture on to future leaders. One of the things we’re working on to make sure we maintain our culture is an immersion program where we identify future leaders of our organization. We break it into smaller groups of case studies with company veterans who have been around and we tell stories about what has happened and things that have helped imprint our culture.

We try to make sure we don’t forget our past. If you forget your past, you won’t have a future. It will help us maintain our culture and it will help us imprint on our people why we think it’s important. It’s important for our employees to understand where we’ve come from.

Having a connection that can help carry our culture — and it has to be beyond our home office and out to the field — is essential. This gives us a tool for delivering our culture to the field.

Stay true to your roots and avoid conformity. Culture is not something that’s written on a piece of paper. Culture is created over time, and it’s created over the actions of the organization.

If you have an organization that is thoughtful and caring about its people and others, you will have that type of culture going forward. At the same time, while we empower our people, we definitely have an accountable structure.

You’re empowered to take action to drive your business and do the right thing, but you’re also accountable for the results.

Over time, we have created a culture that has strong values and a belief that we can do something that hasn’t been done before, and we have a unique opportunity to preserve our organization and preserve our ability to do better things in the world. We will have this opportunity as long as we’re able to stay true to who we are.

If you try to become like everybody else, then you will be everybody else and you’ll be managing by quarter and not taking a long-term view. My thought is to take a long-term view on our organization.

There are always curves in the road; even the fastest highways have curves, but it’s how you take the whole mission that determines how you’re going to be successful. If we maintain our culture and our values, the sky is the limit.

HOW TO REACH: Potbelly Sandwich Works, www.potbelly.com or (312) 951-0600

Wednesday, 28 February 2007 19:00

Going shopping

Making acquisitions can increase your size and your capabilities.

When Med-XS Solutions was incorporated in 1997, its goal was to provide the health care industry solutions for excess medical equipment by offering removal, storage and resale services to medical facilities. Over the past 10 years, Med-XS has grown significantly both in size and capability, acquiring several companies to complement its portfolio of services and further broadening its presence in the medical equipment management industry.

For Med-XS president Kevin Tenkku, the process of assessing a prospective acquisition’s potential benefits has become second nature.

“In the medical equipment sales and service market, we have been successful by constantly researching companies that offer at least one of the products in our portfolio,” Tenkku says. “Then we review if that company operates profitably while providing a superior customer experience.

“We compare it with our own organization’s strengths and weaknesses and make the decision of whether an acquisition would benefit the company, improve our relationships with our current clients, provide access to new clients and make us more attractive to prospective customers.”

Only if all these factors align can Tenkku move forward in considering the acquisition.

Recognizing your own company’s need to acquire another company is relatively simple, Tenkku says. Considering another company’s products and assets, could you grow your own company more easily with the acquisition or without it?

With Med-XS’ first major acquisition of Neoforma GAR Inc. in 2001, Tenkku foresaw the potential benefits of buying the company.

“We made an acquisition of a medical equipment auction company that had many health care facility contracts that we found attractive,” Tenkku says. “We were not proficient at auctions at the time and we needed to increase our contracted business more than anything. Our research also showed that auctions were another logical way to increase our pipeline of medical equipment, so we bought the company.”

Following up that purchase with the acquisition of refurbished equipment provider HealthQuip Inc. and equipment refurbisher Johnson Biomedical Services in 2005 and 2006, respectively, Med-XS now offers a much broader range of services, although Tenkku says the process is never without complications.

“You need to realize that making an acquisition is not a smooth process, and it can be confrontational because you are implementing changes to an existing organization,” Tenkku says. “Our company has realized success in gaining direct access to the inner workings of successful companies and either assimilating that company or duplicating its best practices.”

Tenkku says that in his experience, the process of making an acquisition is an organic one and, as such, no two are ever the same.

“It is imperative that a company analyzes the challenges and takes quick action to avoid any conflicts that would result in negative impact on sales and operations,” Tenkku says. “Clearly communicating the established corporate culture is imperative. At the same time, you must convey your mission, vision and goals to the acquired company in order to ensure that everyone understands the corporate direction.”

Tenkku is careful to point out that, above all, the process of incorporating two companies requires a level of patience from all those involved.

“If you look for success with a long-term perspective, then you will be able to realize your goals,” Tenkku says. “However, if you think that an acquisition is a simple, quick fix, then you will be disappointed by the outcome.”

HOW TO REACH: Med-XS Solutions, (800) 670-7874 or www.medxs.com

Wednesday, 31 January 2007 19:00

Pierre André Senizergues

After nagging back injuries forced him to retire, former world champion freestyle skateboarder Pierre Andre Senizergues found himself unemployed. Neither ready nor willing to desert the skateboarding world, the native Parisian founded the company that would eventually become Sole Technology Inc. Initially a footwear company specializing in skateboarding shoes, Sole Tech now includes a team of brands serving all disciplines of action-sports enthusiasts, employs 450 worldwide and in 2006 posted revenue in excess of $200 million. Smart Business spoke with Senizergues about how staying true to your roots needs to start at the top.

Plan ahead. It’s a definite change when you go from a small-sized company to a mid-sized company to a big-sized company, and basically, Sole Tech has gone from a small-sized to a big-sized company in five years. It’s very fast growth.

When you first start, you have to do everything, you have to be everywhere, and it’s total chaos. At the same time, you need to start setting the frame, the structure and the motor that will work. When the frame is done and people start getting into place to operate the motor, the leader has to be more a mentoring figure, supporting everybody.

It’s extremely important, especially when you have a company that’s getting bigger and bigger, because if you have to turn a company around, it takes a lot more energy than if you’re a small company, so you really have to be able to plan a vision even further along.

Stick with what you love. It’s important that you love what you do, so you really have to understand what you want to do long term, and you also have to stick to your guns. Sometimes maybe the trend is going a certain direction and it’s not necessarily what you’re about. Certain people follow the trend. For me, I’m focusing on skateboarders and action sports, and even if tomorrow there is a new trend in something different, I would stick to where I came from and what I believe because that’s what I’m into and that’s what I love to do.

Stay true to your culture. Our company is an action sports company, so for me, it’s very important to have people going to the beach, to have people going to the mountains or to the skateparks so they understand the culture.

A lot of the people here come from action sports, but as the company is growing, a lot of the people are coming from the outside, so we make sure they understand the culture but also that they practice that culture, that they try surfing or snowboarding or skateboarding.

It’s very important from a cultural standpoint to stay true to your culture, and socialization is very important, too, in any company. It’s easier to get things done with a lot of people when people know each other more on a personal level.

Model the values of your company. One of the lessons that I’ve learned is that you have to have a team that works together and you have to have the same values in your team.

It doesn’t matter what experience the person has, but the most important thing is the values. If your team believes in the values concept and they all believe in the same direction, they can work together. My role is basically that I am trying to get the company following the mission, but I also encourage people to follow the values of the company: creativity, quality, integrity, teamwork, community and enjoyment.

All those values are very important to me, so as a leader, I constantly try to demonstrate those values in all different types of ways, and as a leader, I show by example. I’m always following the mission of the company and I hold those values deeply, and that really helps people understand what it means and how to do it.

Position employees for success. To motivate employees, you have to give them a sense of accomplishment, and my definition of accomplishment is to do something of pleasure and interest.

You have to position them in a situation where they enjoy what they do and they are interested in what they do, and that is related to their experience and capacity.

It’s very important to put a person in a job where they are going to be successful. When you’re leading a team, you always have to adapt to the strengths and the weaknesses of the team, so you basically have to be like a cementer to get everybody together and help them with what they are missing.

You have to be the glue between everybody. Even the best people have strengths and weaknesses. As a leader, you have to make things work, so in a lot of ways, you are the mediator, but also you are the inspiration that drives everybody to go in one direction.

Of course everybody has different opinions of things, and I really like to have an open market of ideas in the company. A lot of people have really great ideas, and at the end of the day, it’s which ones can we execute and make happen, and it makes people feel good about what they are doing.

Give back. One of our values is community. We are developing so much and so many things that we also have a responsibility to give back, and not only is it the right thing to do but it’s something that makes people feel good, too. It’s really a win-win situation for everybody. What I really try to do is have our employees go to work in a place where they actually feel they get the best life experience they can get. That’s how I’m driving pretty much everybody. They spend so many hours at work, it’s important that it’s pleasurable and interesting.

It’s like in anything, if you have pleasure or interest in something, you’re more driven to do it.

HOW TO REACH: Sole Technology Inc., www.soletechnology.com

Wednesday, 31 January 2007 19:00

Gregg Michel

Gregg Michel faced a universal challenge after being tapped in 2001 by Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha to become president of Crystal Cruises, the American arm of the Japanese shipping giant’s luxury cruise division. The Crystal brand was, by that time, well-established, and as an employee of Crystal since its inception in 1988, Michel was in as good a position as anyone to preserve the brand. The challenge was maintaining the consistency of the company’s service to its guests while avoiding stagnation. To do so, Michel has helped foster a culture built on innovation that, at the same time, upholds the standard Crystal has set for itself by promoting two-way communication. With a worldwide staff of nearly 2,000 employees, Crystal helped NYK’s cruise division, which also includes a Japan-based line, post revenue of approximately $370 million in 2006. Smart Business spoke with Michel about the importance of avoiding complacency and delivering on your promises.

Maintain consistency. When walls build and the communication breaks down, you lose the consistency in your product.

Consistency is everything. Consistency is your brand, so you don’t deliver on your promise, because that’s what your brand is at the end of the day, a promise to your market. From a human aspect, when walls start building, there are morale situations, so you lose control of your product and you’re not keeping your promise to your guests.

On your employee side, when these walls start to build you don’t have to be a psychologist to know that when people start having pent-up problems, they grow and they become larger than what they should.

Listen. Communication is also listening. Listening to your constituencies is very important. It’s better to be interested than interesting. Consistency and execution are very important in our business, and that’s a big challenge. You have to communicate, and you have to keep the communication lines open and available to your employees. It requires an open line of communication both ways, outbound and inbound.

People have to feel free and comfortable about asking questions or having input. If something’s not working on our vessels, we need to hear about it regardless of how great an idea we thought it was or how much we researched it. We have to constantly be communicating with our staff on board, and that requires not only me but our department heads getting out to the ships.

We have formal meetings where management here from corporate spends time with management on the ships — we call them voyage meetings — and that’s our idea on maintaining consistency on what is essentially a worldwide operation.

Lead by example and share positive feedback. When you’re communicating with the guests and you’re showing your employees you’re listening to the guests, it emphasizes how important the guest is. We’re in the luxury service business, and setting that kind of example really emphasizes to the entire organization how important our guests are.

You lead by example, so you have to have a passion for your product and a passion for what you do, and if you show that and you exemplify that, that goes a long way in communicating the goals to the company.

You have to set an environment of excellence and make sure that everyone is working toward the same goal. Again, it’s communication and reinforcing your goals. What happens is you let people share in the positive feedback.

Share the good things. In our case, we’ve been very fortunate to have been voted the world’s best cruise line several years in a row, and that motivates people. If you provide a great product or a great service and you get great feedback from the marketplace or from your guests, you share that with your employees.

I can’t tell you how motivated and how happy our employees are when there’s positive feedback, whether it’s in a formal survey, or whether it’s from our guests. Sharing the letters that come in from our guests in communications to our employees is very important, so it’s this communication line and letting them know how great of a job they’re doing. That goes an enormous distance.

You have to have all the basics. You have to compensate your people and you have to provide incentives for them from a monetary standpoint, but what really makes this thing work is the sharing of the positive feedback and letting them know just how great they are.

Avoid complacency. We feel we’re an innovative product, and that may seem questionable because we’re a cruise line and we have a basic platform, which is the ship. But it’s our service, it’s our choices and it’s our quality and the activities that we offer our guests on board the ships that we are constantly looking at.

Whether it’s bringing in new partners, whether it’s coming up with new ideas, it’s constant innovation and it’s communicating and having everyone on the same line.

Notwithstanding externalities beyond your control, the most likely thing to lead a company to fail is complacency or becoming over-confident. You always have to stay on the edge.

You always have to be trying to come up with new products and new services, and even if you come up with things that don’t work, maybe you come up with something that never even gets to the customer, if you become complacent, it leads to failure. It can be a slow failure, but it certainly leads to long-term failure.

You have to give people a chance to be involved in this innovation, and you have to keep the communication line open both ways. If you’re showing what you’re passions are and you’re excited and enthusiastic, and you allow people to be successful and participate in that process, you’re going to have motivated people.

HOW TO REACH: Crystal Cruises, www.crystalcruises.com

Wednesday, 31 January 2007 19:00

Planning for success

A move to a new location requires careful planning and the input of an expert. So when it became obvious to Dick Muny more than two years ago that it would be necessary to consolidate the diverse technical disciplines of Chemsultants International Inc. at one location, he set in motion plans to relocate to a corporate campus he hoped would improve efficiency and be more conducive to collaboration.

When Muny founded Chemsultants in the mid-1980s, the company was primarily a consulting laboratory specializing in the polymer and adhesives industries. Later, Muny found that a market existed for processes and devices his company had developed for its own use, and so he launched ChemInstruments and ChemDevelopment under the Chemsultants umbrella.

And while sales increased, topping $14 million in 2006 revenue, the expansion presented problems. Located in three separate buildings in Mentor and one in Cincinnati, the company struggled with communication breakdowns.

“Often, a project leader would have to place a phone call and wait to make an appointment with a guru who is in a different location,” Muny says. “Because of the inconvenience involved, we often had these bright people working on that aspect of the project themselves instead of getting the help of an expert.”

At the new location since last summer, Muny is already observing the results he hoped for: increased collaboration and efficiency, and an increase in workload for the company. He credits the success to preparation. The planning aspect of a major relocation is vital to ensuring the project’s success, and Muny says the right time to begin planning a move is two years before you actually move.

“It’s easy for someone who is in the research and development business to think ahead because that’s what we do every day,” Muny says. “For many years, I’ve been sitting around at my desk designing fantasy buildings or fantasy campuses because it’s just part of working on your next vision for where the company’s going to go.”

To assist in planning for and executing the move, Muny brought on relocation consultant Brian Winston, a former project manager for Avery Dennison Corp., a decision that he says was important to the project’s success.

“He helped design the building, he helped negotiate with the contractor, he kept track of all the details,” Muny says. “He single-handedly helped us avoid some real disasters because he was able to focus on that specific project, while I had to run the business and all these other things, as well. If I had to do my regular job and that job, too, we would not have had the same quality building.

“No matter how experienced you think you are, you’re not an expert in dealing with builders and contractors. You need somebody that speaks their language and can tell you when things aren’t right.”

In addition to having an experienced project manager, Muny says such tasks require that employees at all levels make an effort to ensure a smooth transition. He was astonished at the results of collaboration when moving day finally rolled around.

“Everybody pitched in and made it work,” Muny says. “I was amazed by the fact that the day we moved into this building, every computer worked and all the phones worked. That kind of stuff our central office people spent an awful lot of time planning. That was huge.”

HOW TO REACH: Chemsultants International Inc., (440) 974-3080 or www.chemsultants.com