It wasn’t your typical corporate relocation when Cartridge World Inc. moved its North American headquarters from California to Illinois in 2011.

For starters, most of the employees who had worked at the Emeryville, Calif., headquarters were not making the trip to the new offices in Spring Grove, Ill.

“Institutional knowledge disappeared if it wasn’t retained in the system,” says William D. Swanson, CFO of the global ink and toner printer cartridge retailer and CEO of North American operations.

“Even then, it might be in the system, but it’s not in the minds, hearts and thoughts of the people coming on board. So that was interesting. It was one of the most difficult challenges to overcome when we came here.”

It was difficult, but it was a challenge that Swanson and the leadership team at Cartridge World felt needed to be tackled. The company had slumped during the recession and found itself struggling to get back on its game.

“We ended up in a situation where as a company, we had significantly more expenses than were sustainable based upon our revenue stream,” Swanson says. “So it was really taking a company that was stuck and creating negative cash flow and then creating positive cash flow and, more importantly, value for its constituents.”

Making the situation even more interesting for Swanson was the fact that he, too, was new to Cartridge World, which is owned by Wolseley Private Equity in Australia. He joined the company in May 2011 as global CFO and didn’t become North American CEO until July 2012.

So the task was rather daunting.

Swanson needed to get himself up to speed with what the company was all about while at the same time, he worked to integrate new employees into a new culture in its new home that would enable the company to generate better financial results. He also had to engage franchisees at the company’s 650 stores across North America. The company has about 2,275 store employees in North America and 50 corporate employees.

Fortunately, Swanson brought a lot of confidence to this seemingly difficult mission.

“If you have good, compelling arguments and a good, solid vision that people can buy in to and understand, you get people to move forward in that direction,” Swanson says.

Build your team

The move to Illinois wasn’t just about rejuvenating the business. It would put Cartridge World in a more central location with which to work with its franchisees since two-thirds of its U.S. locations were east of the Mississippi River. It would also provide closer proximity to the company’s technology partner.

But those are physical details. The act of building a new culture from the ground up that would help the company start growing again wasn’t going to be as easy.

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” Swanson says. “That can be a very difficult place if you’re going down fat, drunk and stupid and you don’t know where you’re going. Any road will take you there. You better get clarity and you better help the new team understand that clarity.”

Swanson looks for three things to help determine if someone can be a strong member of his team.

“First of all, I make sure everybody has a consistent view of what success looks like,” he says. “Where are we trying to go? What does success look like both tangibly and intangibly? Paint that picture. Create specific numbers and reinforce that. Ask them to repeat it so that I can gauge their understanding.”

The next is one-on-one time with the person talking about his or her place in the company.

“I have a formal one-on-one session with my direct reports on a weekly basis, but informally, we meet and chat in the morning or sometimes we’ll be here late,” Swanson says. “It really is making sure I can gauge how they view their responsibilities, the tasks they are working on and the judgment they are exercising as they make decisions and take action.”

Finally, Swanson wants to know what kind of initiative they have to get things done and make things happen.

“Some people might see opportunities and others wait for those opportunities to be pointed out to them,” Swanson says. “Some take action and some wait for action to be assigned. When we have a company where staff has been reduced by 50 percent, I need people who can take an initiative and exercise good judgment moving in the direction that we need to move in.”

The goal is exactly the opposite of creating drones who will follow his every word. He wants people who see success the way he does and have the desire and energy to achieve it. But he has no problem if they have a different way of making it happen.

“They are more likely to achieve success when they get to choose the path that they are going to go down, as long as it’s consistent with the vision, and I know they can exercise good judgment,” Swanson says. “If they try to go down my path, they are not going to completely understand it, and they’re probably never going to do it exactly like me, so I’m not going to be thrilled by it.”

Show respect

As important as it was to get his leadership team on board with his plan, Swanson very much needed to have a good relationship with his franchisees if Cartridge World was to succeed.

The key to a good relationship with any group of people is to be respected.

“When you’re dealing with franchisees, what you have to know is a lot of them put up their life savings to be in this, and they’ve committed their financial resources to the success of the business,” Swanson says. “That has to be understood. They have to know that you respect them and what they’re doing and how they are going about it.”

You owe it to them to listen to what they have to say when they have opinions about how the business should be run.

“It doesn’t mean I’m going to agree with them,” Swanson says. “I may, I may not. If I disagree, I’ll present it in a way that maintains their esteem and doesn’t put them down but rather presents another issue. I like to think of it as though we’re all businesspeople around the table. The issue is on the table; it’s not with any of us around the table.”

When you establish that foundation of respect, you can then move more easily into addressing some of the things that may be holding your business back.

“If you see things that are happening in the business that aren’t consistent with what it is you as a business are trying to accomplish, then you have to say, ‘Why are we doing these things?’” Swanson says. “What might seem like a good idea in the short term because maybe you had some high-priced consultants or you had something that convinced you as a company that this is the direction you want to go in, maybe it just wasn’t a well-thought-out idea. Those things happen. They happen everywhere.”

When you jump right into a decision without gaining the understanding of what your people are seeing and experiencing and any other pertinent variables, you run the risk of making a big mistake.

“Stephen Covey said it in one of his seven habits,” Swanson says. “‘Seek first to understand before being understood.’ I’m not sure all leaders do that. It can be a struggle to not jump in and say, ‘No, do it this way.’ Now certainly, if you’re going off a cliff, you’re going to stop that from happening.”

Cartridge World was struggling, but it wasn’t going off any cliffs. So Swanson took the patient approach.

“It’s constantly learning and taking a look at what you did yesterday,” Swanson says. “What went well and what didn’t go well? What did we learn from it? How do we take yesterday’s or today’s experiences and use that to shape what we’re going to do tomorrow?”

One thing Swanson does not do as he is guiding the company is step on the toes of people who hold leadership positions at Cartridge World.

“I have an open door, and if anyone ever wants to talk to me, they’re always welcome to talk to me,” Swanson says. “But I’m not going to go around my leadership team if I don’t need to. I respect them and what they’re doing.”

The results of recent changes have begun to pay off. With a redefined sense of roles and responsibilities, the company is back on a growth trajectory. In 2012, it launched Cartridge World Express, a mobile business that offers more than 400 ink and toner products for every major brand of printer, copier, fax and postage machine. It also expands the company’s mission of recycling to keep printer cartridges out of landfills.

“You have to be firmly committed to the direction you’re going and why you’re going in this direction and you can’t be short on communicating the vision and direction and the reasons why decisions were made,” Swanson says. “That has served us well.” ?

How to reach: Cartridge World Inc., (815) 321-4400 or www.cartridgeworld.com

 

The Swanson File

Name: Bill Swanson,

Title: CEO, North America

Company: Cartridge World Inc.

Born: Chicago

Education: Bachelor’s degree, accounting and business administration; CPA, Augustana College, Rock Island, Ill. I’m also certified in cash management.

What was your very first job as a kid?

My first job was caddying. I went to the golf course and the caddy master said, ‘Well you’re a little too small. Why don’t you come back next year?’ I came back the next week. He said, ‘Weren’t you here before?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I was. You told me I was too short. But I think I can do it, and I’d like the opportunity to show you.’ So I did and I was able to caddy for a couple years before I turned 16 and could get a real job.

Who has been your biggest influence?

I was in public accounting and then I left and worked in private industry for three brothers for around 20 years. One of the brothers, Arnold Miller, was just fantastic. That’s where I developed the way I think about business, running a business and the values that I have that are very important to me.

Who would like to meet and why?

Warren Buffett or Sam Walton; both of them for their purity in running a business and saying, ‘What is it we’re trying to accomplish? Keep all the self-serving stuff out of the way.’ Both of them are very successful in understanding what it is they are trying to accomplish and then to be able to do it by focusing on the fundamentals that it takes to get done. Not on wishes, not chasing rainbows, but truly understanding the fundamentals of what it is you’re trying to do. Work utilizing those fundamentals. If you do that, good things will happen.

 

Takeaways:

Know what you’ve got.

Always show respect.

Never stop learning.

It would have been easy to hold off on salary raises just a little longer and wait for a clearer sign that the economy had turned a corner.

But Joe McKee and Keith Wolkoff were unwilling to wait. They believed that their employees had worked hard to help Paric Corp. through the recession, and they deserved to be recognized for it.

“The questions do get asked,” says Wolkoff, president at the 234-employee design-build firm. “Is it prudent? Or should we continue to invest in the business? We asked a lot of our people during the very difficult times. It’s just as important to reward those people when you’re starting to see a little more fluidity in the marketplace. It’s the right thing to do.”

The decision was based on the leadership team’s commitment over the past two years to a long-term view and a belief that you can’t let fear guide your decisions, says McKee, Paric’s CEO.

“When you have a crisis, you can circle the wagons or you can choose to move forward,” McKee says. “Most of the times I know when people have circled the wagons; it hasn’t really worked out well for them. Our attitude was to keep moving and be nimble and quick.”

Both leaders wanted to focus on the core things that Paric did well, believing that those skills would be desired by customers even in a tough economy. As they developed a strategy to maximize those qualities and began to see the potential become reality, it became an easy decision to reward the team.

“It was a very painful period in the industry,” Wolkoff says. “But as odd as it is to say, we’re a lot stronger for having gone through it.”

The numbers reflect that assessment. Paric’s revenue grew from $200 million in 2010 to $240 million in 2012. Here’s a look at how the company bounced back so strongly from the recession.

 

Recalibrate your position

The path to Paric’s better future began with a blunt assessment of what the recession had done to the economy.

“What many people try to do in that environment is to get up and ignore the reality of what’s happening around them, and they don’t speak frankly,” McKee says. “It’s a little bit like what happens when a dog senses your fear. You lose all credibility and bad things happen. So it starts by being brutally honest and by making tough decisions.”

McKee and Wolkoff didn’t hold back in talking about the difficulties the company was facing. They also talked about those opportunities that they believed they could take advantage of. The key is they talked and kept talking to their teams whether the news was good or bad.

“In the absence of us communicating what actions we were taking and how we were addressing the economy, people were going to come to their own conclusions,” Wolkoff says. “We just refused to allow that. We were meeting if not every six weeks, then every eight weeks to give everybody a debrief on, ‘Here’s where we’re headed, here’s what we see and here’s what we’re doing about it.’

“Maybe all the information wasn’t pleasant. But at least everybody knew what was going on. There wasn’t all that chatter that can just be counterproductive.”

The crux of the new plan was to focus on the strengths and stop doing the things that weren’t making the company any money.

“When you have limited resources, there are some things you’ve always done because that’s the way you did it,” McKee says. “You need to figure out what those things are and quit doing them. What do we need to work on to move the organization forward?”

Preconstruction services were going to be a big part of Paric’s offerings to customers. Another was going to be the core markets that the company worked in, such as historic renovation, urban development, senior living and interior construction.

“We don’t service everybody,” Wolkoff says. “We go where we can bring value to our customers. Even in bad times, that’s going to prevail.

“It took a little bit of reinforcing from leadership to say, ‘Let’s hunker down, let’s pick our spots, let’s be smart, and let’s continue to invest, and we’ll be fine when we come out the other end.’ Are you going to cover 10 opportunities with your limited resources or are you going to cover three opportunities and increase your hit rate?”

McKee says you go with the three.

“You get two out of those three versus focusing on 10 and you only get two,” McKee says.

Know who you are

In working through the plan and defining what set Paric apart from the competition, Wolkoff says the company’s leadership unearthed a problem that they felt needed to be addressed.

“We started to ask ourselves, how do we define our business as it looked at that point in time,” Wolkoff says. “While we all had great things to say about ourselves, none of us were telling the story exactly the same way. And it really caused us to question, ‘Well, if we’re having that much trouble defining who we are, what are our customers saying?’”

It was with that thought in mind that Paric’s leadership team set out to interview customers, vendors and employees. The goal was to hit on a theme that would accurately and clearly define what the company is all about.

“In everything we do, every opportunity we have to touch each other, at a meeting, even if it’s an outside social event, there needs to be a consistent theme in how we talk to each other,” Wolkoff says. “Every company meeting we have, it has to be the central talking point over and over again.”

After talking to people at all these levels, the theme they arrived at was “Experience Excellence.”

“It doesn’t mean we’re perfect, but we strive for perfection, and that’s the piece we hit on,” Wolkoff says. “At every station we touch, whether it’s a client, vendor or internal employee, we have to strive for that perfection and that excellence.”

When money is tight with customers, the key to making a sale can be the perceived extra value that the customers believe they are getting with your business.

“You could say on the one hand that a building project is a very daunting task,” Wolkoff says. “But it shouldn’t be. If you have the right partner, it should be something that is exciting. It’s changing your organization. So we have to make sure that everybody who touches it from our end makes it the most satisfying experience it can be.”

The goal was to take these words that could easily become a cliché or something that is forgotten soon after it is brought up and embed it into the company’s culture.

McKee compares it to a quote he remembers from retired Denver Broncos quarterback and NFL Hall of Famer John Elway.

“He said on a Super Bowl winning team, they hold each other accountable,” McKee says. “If the guy next to you wasn’t doing his job, the guy to the right of him would say, ‘You better get with it and do your job.’ The coaches weren’t telling him. The players were doing that. We work really hard to try to create that kind of culture with people to where it’s a real team environment.”

When you’re just trying to get a motto or slogan like that to sink in, you can just ask the question.

“With a younger person, you might say, ‘What have you done today to create experience excellence?’” McKee says. “They’ll look at you the first couple of times like you have two heads. But after a while, they’ll begin to understand what you’re getting at. It’s about that discipline to do it right every day.”

 

Keep talking

One of the things that Paric began during its battle through the recession and has continued to this day is a weekly senior leadership team meeting. It consists of five people: Wolkoff, McKee, the company’s CFO and the senior vice presidents of sales and operations.

“That’s the one meeting that doesn’t get moved off people’s calendars,” Wolkoff says. “It’s the most important meeting we have in a given week.”

The challenging of opinions and belief is not only accepted, it’s encouraged, says Wolkoff.

“There are five people sitting in that room and if one of the five is not voicing an opinion and challenging something, you need to consider, ‘Do they need to be in the room?’” he says. “We’ve been fortunate that there are five very strong leaders in the room.”

The idea isn’t to create tension but to make sure every angle is being explored so the company can make an informed decision. Once the meeting is over, the conflict, if there is any left, must stay in the room.

“Once we leave the room, we’re unified,” Wolkoff says.

McKee says the elimination of secrets and unspoken concerns is one of the keys to success in any business.

“If you’re going to lose, lose doing the things you think you need to do rather than getting to the end and thinking, ‘I wish I would have done that,’” McKee says. ?

How to reach: Paric Corp., (800) 500-4320 or www.paric.com

 

 

The McKee and Wolkoff Files

 

Joe McKee, CEO, Paric Corp.

 

Born: St. Louis

Education: Bachelor of science degree, civil and environmental engineering from Vanderbilt University; MBA, Washington University, St. Louis.

 

Did you think about becoming a CEO some day?

I always knew I wanted to build, so that much I knew. But I’ve succeeded well beyond my wildest dreams. I was the kid who designed the clubhouse and treehouse and built go-carts. That’s what I love doing, besides hunting.

 

Who has been your biggest influence?

It starts with good parents. My parents were absolutely amazing. After that, Rick Jordan helped me a great deal and the current chair of our board, Larry Young. They are both on our board and have been good mentors to me through the years.

 

Keith Wolkoff, president, Paric Corp.

 

Born: St. Charles, Mo.

 

Education: Bachelor’s degree in architecture, Washington University, St. Louis.

 

Did you think about becoming a company president some day?

No way; it was the furthest thing from my thoughts. I thought more in the now and whatever I was doing, I wanted to do it to the best of my ability. When I saw an opportunity, I had the mindset that I’d rather try and fail than not try at all. By some good luck and some hard work, I find myself where I am today.

 

Who has been your biggest influence?

Very early on I had an English teacher. Maybe my spelling wasn’t always the best, maybe my attention wasn’t always the best, but I was always a good writer, and I enjoyed it. That particular teacher focused on what I was good at and that empowered me to excel in other areas.

 

Takeaways:

Don’t sugarcoat your problems.

Know what you stand for.

Keep looking to do it better.

Steve Phillips doesn’t understand why customers in today’s world wouldn’t want help from a salesperson. But he’s not so stubborn that he refuses to believe it is true.

“My son keeps talking about stranger danger, that customers don’t want to be approached by salespeople anymore,” says Phillips, president and CEO at Phillips Furniture Co. and six Ashley Furniture HomeStores in the greater St. Louis area.

“As a leader in my position, this is where I’m going to have to rely on these young people to make decisions that will put us in a great position for younger customers.”

Phillips Furniture is a family-run business that launched in 1937. Phillips doesn’t see things the way his father did. His son, Michael, the company’s vice president of advertising and merchandising, doesn’t always agree with his father’s point of view.

But it’s their ability to respect each other’s differences and then reach a consensus on how to operate the business in today’s world that allows the company to succeed.

“I’m hearing what they want, and I’m OK with what they want,” Phillips says of the younger generations that are becoming a larger part of both his customer and employee bases. “It’s just foreign to me. But as a leader, I have to be willing to let them try things that I’m not familiar with.”

Phillips says it’s not always easy to move away from behaviors that you’ve grown up with and used to achieve success. And he doesn’t always believe it’s necessary to shift away from something that has become a proven success. But if it is necessary to change, doing so beats the alternative every time.

“It is tough,” Phillips says. “But it’s tougher if you fail. If I keep dictating policy and how we’re going to do things based on how we did it in the past, I know we will die and that’s not good. So I just really trust these young people, and I trust the organization. If we truly have the customers’ best interest at heart, we’re going to do what they want, not what we want.”

It’s that idea of constantly seeking a better way to please customers that drives Phillips and his 330 employees.

 

Set a foundation

Perhaps one of the reasons Phillips is more agreeable to accepting new ideas is that he has been reluctant to follow the crowd when it comes to furniture salesmanship.

“The furniture business has not had the greatest reputation for integrity,” Phillips says. “A lot of people give false high prices and fake savings, and I didn’t want to do business that way. We have one price on a piece of furniture.”

The problem for Phillips is that many employees who have worked in the industry for a number of years were trained to take the misleading approach.

“There was a very specific way we wanted to do things that was not normal in the furniture business,” Phillips says. “That’s why we don’t necessarily want people who have been in the furniture business because we don’t know what their training background is.”

The solution for Phillips was to create a training program that new employees must go through before they are allowed to speak to a customer.

“So everything that we do structurally and integritywise is ingrained before they talk to their first customer,” Phillips says. “As a matter of fact, we probably don’t spend enough time talking about product. It’s more about how we do things. We have leadership round tables every month also. We have our leaders come in and we just go through what’s important to our customers.”

The goal is to have a sales team that doesn’t just talk a good game when it comes to pleasing the customer, but they can actually show how they’re going to do it.

“They have to role-play to show us, not just tell us, but show us they know how to service customers the way we want them to,” Phillips says.

That’s the end result. The steps for getting to that point where employees have the ability to display those skills must be dutifully followed if training is going to work.

“You can’t train or correct anything until you can measure it,” Phillips says. “We know how many pieces per hour some of our furniture assemblers can do and what the standard is. We know how many pieces per hour one man can unload on a truck. You can’t manage and train until you know what the issue is, which is only done through measurement.”

Once you have that data to work off of, you’ve got to put what you want to do in writing and then make sure you do it.

“If it’s not in writing, it’s not real,” Phillips says. “So everything is in writing, and you just go over it step by step. They can’t be promoted until somebody observes and there is a physical check-off that this is what they can do.”

If you don’t believe you have time to conduct training with an already cramped schedule, you’ve got to find a way to make it work.

“Training has to be a priority,” Phillips says. “If you get caught in the treadmill of doing business all the time, you’ll never get off the treadmill and start training. If you train and make it part of your culture and your business religion, you don’t think about it as being a disruption of your normal process. It is your normal process.”

 

Take a visible role

Many leaders will talk about how important a training program is, but then they personally move on to other things and leave the team to figure out the best way to make it work.

Phillips says you have to do more than that as CEO.

“Every training class we have for salespeople, I’m the first presenter,” Phillips says. “I take the first hour or so and tell them about the company and what we stand for.”

The company’s COO tackles the next segment and then training responsibility shifts to Phillips’ brother, Matt, who heads up training at Phillips Furniture.

“What we want these people to see is that everybody at the top also believes in everything we do,” Phillips says. “The fact that we spend so much time with them, we certainly hope that’s what they believe.”

As a way to encourage leaders to want to take part in the training process, Phillips suggests rewards for leaders whose direct reports receive promotions.

“A lot of leaders withhold knowledge or training for fear of somebody rising above them,” Phillips says. “Our managers are rewarded for having someone promoted from beneath them. We love store managers who want their assistant managers or their team leaders to be promoted. They don’t feel threatened by it.”

 

Focus on core values

The other piece of the puzzle for Phillips is core values. While he is open to changing training methods and operational policy, he leaves no wiggle room on his commitment to the company’s core values.

“No matter what processes or changes you make in your business, you can still hold tightly to your core values,” Phillips says. “That’s the one thing I will never negotiate — how does it look with our core values. You have to keep that out there in front.”

Arriving at the three core values that define Phillips Furniture was no easy chore. Phillips and a team of more than a dozen leaders left the company’s headquarters and headed to a remote cabin in the Ozarks. Once they arrived, it took three days to finish their work.

“There were a lot of great ideas,” Phillips says. “I just didn’t want a lot of them. We could have had 10 great core values, but I wanted to be able to sink our teeth into three or four. Once you get past three or four, they start becoming a little redundant. These were three that nobody could ever argue with.”

The three core values they decided on were “integrity above all else, honesty in all we do and service to others first.”

“If you can get your entire organization to buy in to those three things, you have a much easier time finding great leaders because leaders want to buy into something greater than a dollar,” Phillips says.

Some companies consider “making a profit” a core value and Phillips says he understands, even if he doesn’t agree with it.

“We think that’s the result of doing the first three,” Phillips says. “So we wanted the core values to produce the results that we were looking for.”

Phillips says his company wants to make a buck as much as anyone. But by focusing on other things, such as the customer experience, employee readiness and job satisfaction and giving back to the community through charitable efforts, everybody comes out ahead.

“It’s imperative that a company stand for more than a dollar,” Phillips says. ?

How to reach: Phillips Furniture, (314) 966-0047 or www.phillipsfurniture.com or Ashley Furniture HomeStore, (314) 845-3084

 

 

The Phillips File

 

Steve Phillips

President and CEO

Phillips Furniture Co. and Ashley Furniture HomeStores/St. Louis

 

Born: Dayton, Ohio

 

Education: I went to the University of Missouri for three years. I got married when I was 20, and I got tired of being broke, so I quit school and took a job.

 

What was your very first job?

Raising vegetables and selling them door-to-door. I’m an avid gardener, and I still am to this day. My first full-time job was in the furniture store while I was going to school at Mizzou.

 

What got you into gardening?

My dad had an extra lot next to the store. I always wanted to be a farmer my whole life, and now I do own two farms. There is something really neat about getting your hands in the soil. He gave me this plot of ground, and I had a wagon. I would load it with vegetables I grew and picked and I would take them door to door to our neighbors. I didn’t have prices. I always said pay me what you think they are worth and I got taken advantage of quite a bit. So I learned not to do that the next year.

 

Who has been the most influential person in your life?

It would have to be my mother and my father. From a business point of view, it would have to be my father. He was the most patient and kindest man you ever met. I never saw him raise his voice ever. I don’t know that I got those traits from him, but I’ve always admired those traits. My mother had six kids and she’s a phenomenal woman.

 

Takeaways:

Don’t be afraid to change.

Make the time to do training.

Don’t choose too many core values.

As Jerry Azarkman watched new stores open in Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz., he felt proud that Curacao, the company he launched at the age of 24 with a mere $20 in his pocket, was beginning to expand beyond its Los Angeles roots.

But he was also concerned about the sales volume at these new stores. They just weren’t doing as well as the stores located closer to Curacao’s Southern California headquarters.

“The L.A. store’s volume is much higher,” says Azarkman, co-founder, co-owner and chief marketing officer for the Latino-oriented retailer that’s corporate name is Adir International.

“The number of credit applications approved at the Phoenix store is much lower than the stores closer to headquarters. Why is it smaller the further you go? All these things gave me a thought about the implementation of direction. The further you go, the communication kind of slows down, and it doesn’t get there.”

Azarkman wanted to turn that around and ensure that wherever he opened a store, whether it was next door to his office or 1,000 miles away, it would offer the same quality of product and service to Curacao customers.

“The biggest challenge is as you grow, your structure grows and there are more layers of management and communication,” Azarkman says. “That communication has to be the same from level to level all the way down to the front lines. The challenge is when the communication doesn’t get to the level you want it to get to.”

It’s a common problem for growing businesses and Azarkman wasn’t casting blame about it. He just knew that his 2,600-employee company needed to adapt and rethink its communication channels to ensure that everybody was on board with what was happening.

“I’m involved in the philosophy of the company, which is keeping employees motivated so they can do their jobs at a top level,” Azarkman says. “They really want to do that. They’re not doing it out of fear. They are doing it because they believe in it.”

That attitude would be the key to helping Curacao achieve continued growth.

Demonstrate your commitment

One of the biggest changes Azarkman made with Curacao was to change the company’s name. It may not sound that meaningful to the internal operations of a company to change the name from “La Curacao” to Curacao and redesign the company logo, but it provided Azarkman with a vehicle to demonstrate the company’s commitment to digging deep and looking for ways to provide even better service to its customers.

To get things rolling with this process, Azarkman brought in an outside consultant to make an honest assessment of what needed to change.

“We hired a company from the outside because you cannot believe in your own judgment,” Azarkman says. “You’ll create an impression that you’re much better than you actually are. It’s better for somebody from the outside to look at you than for you to look at yourself.”

The firm came in and set up focus groups in the communities where Curacao did business.

“They did focus groups with our customers, with customers that left us three years ago, with people who had never been in our stores and in communities that had never heard our name,” Azarkman says. “Out of that, we learned a lot about what the community thinks of us, what changes they are expecting us to do and what changes we have to do.”

The groups provided a great deal of feedback, including the suggestion that ultimately led to a new name and logo. It was a good foundation to begin transforming the business. But the key to providing what your customers are looking for is asking the question with the knowledge that you’ll need to keep asking it again and again.

“Expectations change with time,” Azarkman says. “You create an expectation, a standard, and then the next day, you have to go and create a much higher standard and create a ‘wow’ in the minds of customers that walk in the store. When they leave the store, you want them thinking, ‘Wow, I never thought I was going to get that value or that experience.’ To get to that point is a constant struggle.”

Earn employee support

Azarkman needed his employees to buy in to the pursuit of superior customer service without feeling as though they were being punished or forced into something that didn’t fit their skill sets.

“If they’re not buying in to it and they are going to be forced into doing something that they don’t believe in, it’s not going to happen,” Azarkman says.

There needs to be something out there, a reason to work harder and exceed customer expectation.

“What’s it in it for them?” Azarkman says. “What are they going to gain out of it? A better career path, higher income, more security, better stability for the company? You put all those things together, and you’re going to create a team that is really going to be motivated and dedicated and really cares about the company because they are part of the company. They are working there because they belong there. They are part of it.”

A comprehensive training program at Curacao, known as the University of Curacao, bolsters employee engagement. It helps promote an environment of learning and growing that Azarkman says is one of the keys to achieving growth.

“You need to know how to motivate people and get them to perform better,” Azarkman says. “You have to provide the tools that they need. Managers are tool creators. They create tools for their associates to perform. If they are creating the right tools and then people are using the tools that have been created for them, the success is going to be there.”

Azarkman refers to the sale of a television as an example of the outcome he seeks in training his managers and employees.

“Let’s take a Sony television,” Azarkman says. “You can buy it anywhere in town. You can go on the Internet and find 10,000 places to buy it. The difference is what is coming with that television. What value am I giving to that customer with that TV? What is the additional value?”

If everybody is thinking about ways to please the customer and is able to bring up those ideas without fear of reprisal, the result is a strong culture and a strong company that consistently exceeds expectation.

“It’s not that you create a ‘wow’ in the minds of customers and that stays,” Azarkman says. “Today, you’re meeting expectations. Tomorrow, it might not be enough.”

Don’t lead with fear

The effort to drive home that message to stores near and far away from Los Angeles and ensure that everyone is pushing toward those goals on a consistent basis has to begin with you.

“You have to make sure that all your executives are really buying in to it,” Azarkman says. “If anybody has a doubt or has something they don’t agree with, let’s put it on the table, fix it and make sure we all agree. Get one direction you can all agree on and go from there.”

If you want to learn what needs to be fixed in your business, you’ve got to be willing to accept criticism.

“The minute there is fear, all the communication channels are shut off and they are not going to be willing to open their mouths and discuss issues or concerns that they have,” Azarkman says. “If the leader is creating fear and the people have to work with that fear, it’s not going to last too long.”

Companies that insist on coming up with reasons why a problem doesn’t really exist are only setting themselves up for a bigger failure down the road.

“The communication will determine the success or failure of the company,” Azarkman says. “If there are real problems that need to be addressed and you don’t put them on the table, they will accumulate until there’s an explosion because people were afraid to bring it up.”

One of the solutions to the problem of lower sales volume in the Arizona stores was to enact rotating management teams between the more established stores closer to Los Angeles and the newer, less experienced stores in Arizona.

It’s a step that can help you better assess your team and weed out the people who aren’t going to be a part of your future.

“You need to check performance and evaluate each person,” Azarkman says. “You always have to create a bucket of people that are performing. Unfortunately, some do not perform no matter how much you try to educate and help them. So you have to let them go so you can keep your company healthy.”

Fortunately, Azarkman has more talented people on his team than underperformers who have to be let go. Curacao has more than 2 million credit applications on file and continues to expand. Azarkman says it all comes back to the philosophy of customer service.

“If the customer gets service above expectation, it means you’ve done something to maintain and keep that customer,” Azarkman says. “It’s small advice, but it’s big if you keep it in mind.”

How to reach: Curacao, (866) 410-1611 or

www.icuracao.net

The Azarkman File

Jerry Azarkman, Co-founder and co-owner, Curacao

Born: Tehran, Iran. I moved to Israel at the age of 6 and grew up in Israel. I came to United States at the age of 21. There was a good community of Jewish people living in Iran before the fall of the Shah. There were probably about 1.2 million Jews there. My parents felt that it was going to extreme Islam already in those days. And in 1961, they decided it was not going to be a stable country to stay in, so we moved to Israel.

Education: I did three years of computer language study at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel. It’s a university. I took some evening courses while I was in the military service.

Who has been the biggest influence on your life?

My father, Oscar. Any time I’m in a problem, I go back to things that he told me. The things I’m passing to other associates in the company, it’s come from the first lessons of motivation that my father passed to me and my brother.

What one person would you like to be able to meet and why?

Albert Einstein. First, I would like to see his philosophy about life, religion, God and how science is connected to religion. What did he really see? Maybe the guy is so extremely smart that he had to bring himself hundreds of levels down to talk our language so we could understand him. I would like to know what level he is.

Takeaways:

Don’t be afraid to seek outside input.

Work with employees on new initiatives.

Don’t lead with fear.

Shelly Sun was quite confident that BrightStar Care would emerge from the 2008 recession intact and ready to grow. The challenge was convincing employees and franchisees that the health care staffing solutions provider could achieve such a daunting goal.

“Access to financing to start franchisees had dried up and was completely unavailable,” says Sun, the company’s co-founder and CEO. “That meant our ability to grow and add new franchisees to fund improvements in our system had declined.”

As a CPA, Sun decided to put her experience in the financial realm to use and tackle the financing issues. She asked her franchisees and employees to look at what they could do to increase efficiency on their end.

“I really empowered my team to take on those initiatives and work with the franchise advisory council on key sets of goals that were going to move the profitability and top-line elements of the model forward while I focused on capital access,” Sun says.

Through it all, Sun demonstrated her confidence. But it was the steps she took and the action that followed her words that enabled everyone else in the organization to feed off of that confidence and become believers themselves.

“It’s really important to spend time helping every employee understand what makes a business tick and how their role in the greater ecosystem can make a difference every day,” Sun says.

The result of the collaborative effort is a company that has bounced back and is poised to grow from 250 to 300 locations by the end of 2013, including new locations both in the United States and overseas. BrightStar has about 60 corporate employees and 25,000 employees in its overall system.

Sun says a key to BrightStar Care’s continuing success is a culture that has prepared employees to be ready to adapt.

“We’re rarely doing the same thing three months from now that we were doing three months ago,” Sun says. “We’re just not that type of culture. We’re an ever-changing culture. We believe the way to be the leader in this industry is to continually be improving what we do and the outcomes we deliver for the franchisees and consumers we serve.”

Here are some of the ways Sun uses employee engagement to help BrightStar succeed.

Focus on solutions

You’ve got to empower employees and give them opportunities to discover the solution to problems on their own. But that doesn’t mean they have to be completely on their own. Whether it’s you or a supervisor, employees who are developing still need the support.

“I use a 1-3-1 approach with my people,” Sun says. “For every one problem that they have, they need to bring three possible solutions and one recommendation. If someone walks up to me with a problem, I’ll say, ‘OK, great. Go think about that problem a little more. Think of three possible solutions and a recommendation. Then let’s sit down and talk about it.’

“I won’t let you follow through with a poor recommendation. It’s likely one of those solutions or a combination of them is going to get us there. We continue to reinforce that thought process, engagement and ownership at the employee level. We have every manager within our organization do that with their people.”

It’s easy to talk about, but Sun says it’s often much harder to follow through when the pressure is on and it feels like a problem needs to be solved right now.

“What’s hard for most leaders, and I’m no different, is it’s often faster to solve a problem for an employee than it is to let them think it through on their own,” Sun says. “But the outcomes are so much more sustainable for me in following that 1-3-1 approach wherever possible.”

Another thing to keep in mind is that delegation can come with urgency. If something needs to be done more quickly, tell the person that they need a solution tomorrow instead of next Wednesday.

The key is to make sure on an ongoing basis that you’re making time for your people, specifically your direct reports, to help them and to support them in helping their team members.

“I block time on my calendar so that 10 percent of my time is spent with each of my five direct reports,” Sun says. “When I lose sight of that because of other things going on, the ripple effect of that will begin to show up two to four weeks later. ... Make sure you’re dedicating time to your people.”

Keep looking for talent

Sun loves to see people who are already on the team blossom and fulfill or even exceed their potential. But she’s always keeping her eyes open to bring new people in who can join the team and make the company even better.

“I won’t go recruit a specific individual because I likely know their peers or their boss and so that would be inappropriate to do that,” Sun says. “But I might post on my LinkedIn status that we’re seeking a new director of field support for the West region. And within 12 hours, I might have eight people who are in my network reach out to me and say, ‘I’ve been waiting for an opening to work for BrightStar. You guys have such a great reputation.’”

The key to generating those kinds of feelings about your business is to have a strong culture where employees are eager to welcome new people aboard.

“It’s important externally for the leader to be very articulate about the vision and strategy of the organization,” Sun says. “It’s equally important, if not more important, to be able to do that internally so employees understand where they are at is the best company they could possibly work for. That way, they are talking to friends and family about how great it is to work at BrightStar. That’s how you get great future employees.”

Sun says networking isn’t just about talking to people about job openings that you have today or will have tomorrow.

“You never know where an opportunity is going to arise or what a relationship is going to lead to,” Sun says. “We all have a lot to learn from one another, and we need to enjoy that journey along the way.”

Make your company desirable

You’ve got to think beyond what you do each day to crank out your products and services. Who benefits from the things your company makes? What difference do your employees make in the lives of others? Those are things you need to think about if you want to build a strong culture that can withstand challenges like a recession.

“You need something that people are looking to get behind,” Sun says. “If they are a really talented individual, salary usually isn’t the reason people take jobs or keep jobs. They want to respect the company that they work for. They want to be proud to talk about it with their family at the dinner table. They want to understand where and how they are going to grow with the company.”

Don’t be mysterious about your company’s growth plans. Be clear about the plans and clear about what steps employees can take to be part of those plans.

“What’s the future state of the organization?” Sun says. “Is it planning to grow, add new business lines and new brands? If exceptionally talented people come in at a lateral level, do they have the opportunity once they prove themselves to move up because the company is going to be different and growing and expanding in future years?”

While a good culture alone isn’t enough to drive a company to success, a bad culture can easily poison a workplace and make it nearly impossible to succeed.

“You’re not going to keep the best people if you’re telling them from A to Z what to do and you’re not empowering them to make their own impact and their own difference every day,” Sun says. “As the leader, I set the direction and the vision clearly enough where they can tell it’s Swiss cheese. But I’ve empowered them well enough to be able to know that they have a significant role in plugging those holes.”

And when the times turn tough, show faith in your employees that they have what it takes to pull your company through to the other side.

“Our people saw we were in it with them and we weren’t cutting people,” Sun says. “That empowered our people to want to go even further than the extra mile. We would remain loyal to them and they would remain loyal to us and give us the extra effort to help our franchisees succeed and get to the other side, no matter what that took. They knew we were making sacrifices to not cut staff to keep our profits in line with where they had been historically and let profits suffer.”

How to reach: BrightStar Care, (866) 618-7827 or www.brightstarcare.com

 

The Sun File

Shelly Sun, co-founder and CEO, BrightStar Care

Born: Knoxville, Tenn.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in accounting, University of Tennessee; master’s degree in accounting, University of Colorado

What was your first job?

I worked in a shoe store, Franklin Shoes. I spent every paycheck on shoes. I’ve had a strong work ethic from a very young age, and I’ve always had a shoe fetish, too.

Who has been your biggest influence?

My father was a very strong workaholic and entrepreneur, so I always saw the work ethic and determination. But for me, it’s about trying to balance having both the success that a great business can deliver while also having people like and respect me — respect being more important. That includes my own family.

Who would you like to meet and why?

Marshall Goldsmith. He’s one of my favorite authors and has written some of the most impactful business books for me personally — being able to take some of what he has written for everyone and be able to talk about my specific circumstances as a leader in my organization. It allows me to look at how I could more specifically apply great leadership principles that have been helpful in the abstract, but would be even more helpful in the specific.

Takeaways:

Give employees a chance to solve problems.

Articulate your strategy.

Make your company a great place to work.

The times were tough for Roeslein & Associates in 2001. Sales had grown from just more than $1 million in 1990 to some $20 million in 2000. Now the volume of work was practically nonexistent.

“When you go without work for almost a two-year period and you use up every bit of retained earnings that you had, it starts to challenge your own beliefs,” says Rudi Roeslein, founder and CEO for a company that engineers, fabricates and constructs unitized modular industrial systems. “We were faced with this real identity crisis of was it all smoke and mirrors? Was I just delusional?”

Indeed, Roeslein and his company were in pretty dire straits. He let two members of his management team go and the six who remained each took a 30 percent pay cut. Roeslein and his partner, who only owned 25 percent of the 250-employee business, did not take any pay for 18 months.

“I said, ‘I’m not going to force you to do it,’” Roeslein says. “He had a family and both of us had kids at the time. We had the same bills that everybody else has. We just had to live on whatever we took out of the business previously in earnings. We tried to keep as many people as possible.”

As hard as he was working to keep the business going, Roeslein also had to fight the perception that it wasn’t ever going to get better. He had complete confidence that he would make it work, but it wasn’t shared by everyone.

“When people see that, how do you keep them enthused?” Roeslein says. “You start letting people go, and (others) want to bail out. They want to leave.”

As it turns out, Roeslein was right and his company did survive the business drought and emerge on the other side, growing to a $100 million organization today.

But Roeslein emerged a new man and a new leader. He was willing to look at himself in the mirror and ask the question that few brash, successful entrepreneurs ever want to ask of themselves.

“The big soul-searching that I did was, ‘OK, once I get out of this, even if we get the business, what am I going to do differently so I don’t get into this predicament again?’” Roeslein says. “That’s where you have to identify what are the necks in the hourglass? Am I the neck in the hourglass? I came to the conclusion that I was because of how I managed my business.”

The transformation began in 2002 with a realization that Roeslein needed to get his people more involved in guiding the business.

Empower your people

As Roeslein looked at his role in leading his company, he began to understand the problem.

“I wanted all customers to discuss their opportunities with me,” Roeslein says.

He had a CFO who handled the day-to-day personnel issues and Roeslein managed the engineering, business development and product management. But he also did selling and implementing and wanted in on every sales discussion.

He realized that had to change.

“You have to get over your own ego and really accept that maybe you’re the problem and not the solution,” Roeslein says. “Maybe the solution is right in front of you because you have all these brilliant employees and you’re just not releasing their talent.”

So as things began to pick up, Roeslein appointed the six managers who had been department managers and made them directors.

“I assigned specific customers and accounts on a regional and global basis, regardless of whether they were technical or nontechnical,” Roeslein says. “I divided it among them.”

The key to making this work was that Roeslein didn’t just call them into his office, tell them about the change and then expect them to figure out how to do it on their own.

“I said, ‘I will mentor you for a period of a couple of years,’” Roeslein says. “‘I will go with you to these customers, but ultimately, I’m turning these customers over to you. I’m turning these projects over to you. Then you guys figure out how to complement each other. Figure out who is best at construction, engineering and business development. One of you is going to become the president of the company.’”

It was a bold move, but Roeslein quickly knew it was exactly what his business needed.

“We quickly became a $100 million company, which under my leadership and style, probably never would have happened,” Roeslein says. “We would have been stuck at $20 million to $25 million because that’s what I could manage and that’s what I could keep my thumb on and have enough daytime hours to manage.”

If you feel like your company is stuck, it could be that you’re unwilling to let the people you’ve brought in to work with you and for you stretch their legs and use their talent. You’re only one person and if you keep all the important work to yourself, your company is severely limited in how much it can grow.

“You have to take the risk,” Roeslein says. “Put those people out there. Put them on the front line, put them in difficult situations and see how they respond. From that, you can start to formulate a plan as to who your leadership is and who your next generation is. That’s what I’ve challenged my six managers to do.

“Give guys an opportunity. Challenge them and push them beyond what you believe they can do and see what they can do. If you just keep them on the bench, they’re never going to be able to demonstrate their capabilities and you’re never going to know.”

Back up your words

If Roeslein had talked to his people about having a bigger role in the business or being empowered but continued to make the same decisions he had always made and lead the way he had always led, his company would not have grown.

“There are signals and indicators that employees read,” Roeslein says. “You say certain things. But it’s eventually what you do. What we did was we engaged them in a concept that signaled that we believed there was a future.”

That engagement was made with his six directors but also with every employee who had concerns about the company’s future during those dark days.

“Why would I have them working on all these improvements, cost reductions and things that work toward the future?” Roeslein says. “What I really focused on was let’s build and work toward the future. The future is confident, as far as I’m concerned. Why would I risk every penny that I have and everything I’ve worked for if I didn’t believe in it?

“That resonated with my employees and certainly with six out of eight managers.”

It resonated even more with those six directors when Roeslein rewarded their hard work and effort in getting the company turned around.

“These guys are going to sacrifice a tremendous amount of their lives to this company,” Roeslein says. “I told them a portion of their bonus each year could be applied toward ownership of the business. You’ve already made a huge sacrifice taking a 30 percent pay cut for two years to keep our business alive. Here’s your reward.”

The directors took advantage of the offer, buying out Roeslein’s partner and eventually reducing Roeslein’s share of the business from 75 percent to 51 percent.

“I don’t want to sell this business to outsiders,” Roeslein says.

Build for the future

Just as Roeslein mentored his six directors, he expected them to do the same for another group of leaders.

“If we want to grow the business to the next level, each of you needs to mentor six people,” Roeslein says of his message to his six directors. “That is the next step in the evolution of this company. You mentor six people, and you get the same level of confidence in them that I have in you.”

You’ve got to approach your business as though it were a team and you all make contributions to that team or you’re going to run into problems.

“It’s easy to be a really good guy and smile when things are great,” Roeslein says. “But when things are really bad, that’s when you find out your own character and your own ethos.”

So when failure occurs, approach it with the perspective of how the team can improve instead of focusing on the person who screwed up.

“Every leader needs to put their employees in a situation where they can succeed,” Roeslein says. “When they fail, they need to recognize they are part of the failure. You can’t have your people be so concerned about, ‘What are we going to do if we fail?’”

Roeslein says running a business is a lot like the whitewater rafting he used to do in Colorado and Utah.

“You’re just slowly going down the river and the sun is shining and you relax and your mind wanders,” Roeslein says. “Then, all of a sudden, you hit those rapids and those giant holes, and it scares the hell out of you. You wonder if you’re even going to make it through. It’s how you perform and how you treat everyone during those periods that really forms your character.”

How to reach: Roeslein & Associates Inc.,

(314) 729-0055 or www.roeslein.com

The Roeslein File

Rudi Roeslein

founder and CEO

Roeslein & Associates Inc.

Born: Salzburg, Austria. I was born in 1948 and came to the United States in 1956. I remember seeing the Statue of Liberty. One of my most lasting impressions was the train ride to St. Louis with my face plastered against the window looking out at the countryside. I didn’t speak a word of English.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, Saint Louis University.

How did your childhood shape you? All of us had this work ethic where we believed no one was going to take care of us. We had to take care of ourselves. Kids can be cruel. Me and two of my German friends, instead of the three Amigos, we were the three little Nazis. So we went through some tough periods.

But I think the great equalizer for me was always sports. I started playing soccer at an early age and when you’re very good at something, kids accept that you’re good at that and a lot of that other stuff goes away.

Did the tough times then help you deal with them better now? I didn’t look at it as leaving long scars. Did it toughen me up and make me more able to take ups and downs in life? I think so. But I’ve never looked back and said, ‘Gee, those kids that held me down and tried to carve a swastika in my forehead were bad kids.’ It was just a sign of the times. Things were going on and you just fought your way through it and just keep on going.

Who has been the most influential person on who you are? My father. He’s the example of a completely selfless person. His whole life was focused around us.

Takeaways:

Let people put use their talents.

Mentor leaders through growing pains.

Reward employees who help you meet goals.

It was a tough decision for Lizanne Falsetto, one that had the potential to go badly whichever way she decided to turn.

On one hand, she could continue selling the popular thinkFruit bar and risk confusing other customers who latched onto thinkThin as a company that makes snack bars that are low in sugar and high in nutrition.

Or she could drop the fruit bar, which had more sugar than Falsetto wanted in her products, and make a statement about thinkThin’s commitment to its brand name. She just had to hope that customers would appreciate the commitment more than they would mourn the loss of a popular product.

“It was very hard to explain the future of the vision because everyone just saw the numbers,” says Falsetto, who founded thinkThin in 2000. “Even the board saw the numbers. But I was adamant that this was about future growth. This was where the brand needed to be for the future to communicate one simple message that thinkThin is the weight wellness brand.”

Falsetto ultimately decided to drop the thinkFruit brand and hope that her customers would understand. Three years later, the 300-employee company seems to be doing OK without it.

The company is ranked No. 4 out of 119 national competitors in its segment, according to SPINS, a market research and consulting firm for the natural products industry.

The key to maintaining success will be Falsetto’s ability to keep her finger on the pulse of her customers and remain proactive about what they want from her brand.

“It’s about leveraging industry trends and really watching what’s happening and seeing the future before it gets there so you can be ahead of the curve,” Falsetto says. “Those are probably the two biggest parts of leadership.”

Here’s a look at how Falsetto makes tough decisions and grooms her people to meet their full potential to help thinkThin keep growing.

Let people do their jobs

Falsetto was confident in her decision to drop the thinkFruit brand. But she didn’t approach the decision-making process with her leadership team exhibiting an attitude of “I’m the boss and this is what we’re going to do.”

“I let the team, the executives that run their departments, speak for their department,” Falsetto says. “If I can’t rely on them to do that, then I don’t have the right people. I can’t be everywhere all the time. If I can’t open up the trust and let them see that I believe in what they are doing, then I’m not doing a very good job.”

So if there’s going to be a presentation on marketing, it’s the VP of marketing who leads the talk — the same thing with operations or any other department in the company.

The meetings are a visible demonstration of Falsetto’s philosophy to empower her people to do what she’s hired them to do and to take advantage of the unique expertise they possess.

She recalls an analogy her father once made about a business being similar to a basketball team.

“He would say to me, ‘You know, you have the two guards, the two players underneath and the center, and you look at that team and say everybody has to touch that ball to get it in the net,’” Falsetto says. “It’s very similar to business to me. I kind of look at building a team with individual skills, and I’ve gotten much better at finding what the skills are for the moment and what the brand needs.”

She says the key thing to think about with this analogy is that not everybody has to be able to shoot from the outside, have a good inside game and play great defense. If you take advantage of the skills each person brings to your business, and you’ve done a good job trying to fill your needs, you have an effective team.

“You don’t need to have everybody understand everything,” Falsetto says. “They need to have a passion in what they understand and what they bring to the table. That’s really important.

“A marketing head might not completely understand what’s going on in the financial world and doesn’t understand the details of accounting. But accounting really doesn’t understand marketing. They just know the numbers behind it. But together, there’s a passion.”

You get people who love what they do and you let them do it to the best of their ability, and then you do what you do best. You be the leader who brings it all together.

“If I see there is something that needs to be sewn in between the departments, then I will definitely bring it to the table,” Falsetto says. “How does that operations decision reflect on the sales side? Obviously, we’re all intertwined. It’s my job to make sure we’re all seeing the connection to that big pie. It needs to be one vision, but together, they all have a different piece of that vision to get there.”

When you operate that way and you have a tough decision to make, you can feel more confident in your ability to work through it because you know that you’ve got the best information at hand to help you make the right decision.

“When you surround yourself with really wise people, you are wiser and you make smarter moves,” Falsetto says.

Enhance your talent

The search for talent begins when you look beyond the slot you need to fill in your organization and think about what skills a person could bring to your business — and you talk to them about it and make them feel like an important part of the whole operation.

“People want to work for a company that has a purpose,” Falsetto says. “Every person around the table that works with you, if they feel like they have a stake in it, if they own it like you do, it becomes easier to communicate on that basis. They are in. It’s really important to empower them around you so that you can put your ego in check yourself.”

Falsetto regularly speaks with her employees about their own futures and what they can do collectively to make that future better, both for the business and the individuals.

“I have different tiers of goals for employees, and when I keep bringing them back to those tiers of goals, it puts it in perspective,” Falsetto says. “Did we successfully do this? Can we go back and look at this again? It’s organizing the goals per employee and making sure you come back to touch on those with them. It’s when you don’t communicate with employees that they start to wonder.”

Alignment is obviously crucial when it comes to personal and business goals. If the personal goals don’t match up with the goals of the business, then you’re not going to accomplish a lot. So you take the time to get updates and make sure everybody is on the same page and you don’t worry if you have to make course corrections along the way.

“ThinkThin is going to own the weight wellness sector. That is my goal,” Falsetto says. “What falls underneath that vision could change depending on what is happening.

“It could slightly tier to the left or the right, but yet the main vision is still there. It might be communicated differently. It might look a little different when you get there because of the roadblocks you must conquer to achieve the true vision of what you’re doing. But it’s ultimately having the steps of the goals to get to the topline vision.”

Don’t be afraid to let go

As the company founder and CEO, Falsetto spends a lot of time thinking about what she can do next to keep her business growing.

“What else can I make?” Falsetto says. “What other kind of flavor bar would people want? What’s unique? So that’s always something that I think you become better and better at. I think it’s surrounding yourself with people who are in the industry, knowing your customers and keeping hold of your vision.”

Falsetto knows what her place is in the company, but she has to rely on those conversations and relationships with her people to know where they stand. And there comes a time with some people where they just can’t grow anymore with you.

“Like they say, you only have your personal assistant in that chair for three years and then you move them to a new position,” Falsetto says. “You always want to rotate certain positions to be able to have them strive to be either better within themselves or bring some new depth to that position.

“When an employee feels that they can’t grow any more within the company, it’s better that I don’t find a place for them. I let them grow on their own. When you maneuver your business around that individual, you disrupt everything.”

Certainly when someone leaves who you’ve grown attached to, it can be emotional. But it helps to view it as a positive event. You helped this person grow and now they are taking what they have learned and applying it to continue growing.

If you’re constantly focused on bringing new talent in and helping existing talent thrive, your business will benefit from your efforts.

“You just strive to be better and better at it,” Falsetto says.

How to reach: thinkThin, (866) 988-4465 or www.thinkproducts.com

The Falsetto File

Lizanne Falsetto

founder and CEO

thinkThin

Born: Seattle

Education: I’m a high school graduate. I was a basketball player, and I had a college scholarship offer. I had an option to go to a community college orSeattleUniversityand play basketball. I turned it down because I had a modeling contract on the table, and I decided I would rather travel the world.

What was the biggest takeaway from your modeling career? I didn’t do modeling to be famous because I knew I never would be famous. It was about making the money, it was about traveling and it was about the culture of where I was at. All of that really taught me the vision of looking ahead and thinking about where I want to be.

Who has been the biggest influence on you? My father has been the biggest influence on me. He is no longer with us as it’s been eight years since he passed. But he said many things that were very wise. My dad said, ‘You need to follow your dreams. When you follow your dreams, you will be successful.’ The other thing he said to me was if you ever lose those butterflies before a board meeting or before anything you’re doing, you have to stop and think about what you’re doing because you’ve lost the passion. Those things are so vivid in my head.

What one person past or present would you like the opportunity to talk to? I was thinking Margaret Thatcher. I just am in awe of her and think she’s a brilliant woman, very strong and statuesque. She really held true to what she believed in. But Lady Diana would be the other. The challenges that she was thrown into were not a choice.

Takeaways:

Don’t get too locked in on the numbers.

Let your people use their talents.

Don’t shake up your team to keep someone.

Stacy R. Janiak was not thinking about becoming managing partner of the Chicago office at Deloitte & Touche LLP when she joined the accounting firm in 1992.

The graduate of DePaul University just wanted to do her job and make a good impression on the people who had hired her. But it was an impression left on her by a mentor who she had just come to know who shaped both her future and that of the firm in the years ahead.

“Within a month of my joining the firm, a woman who I held in high regard who was a manager at the firm turned in her resignation and said she was going back to school to get an advanced degree,” Janiak says. “She confided in me and said she just felt like she wasn’t sure she could do what needed to be done to make partner.”

Janiak had arrived at Deloitte at a significant point in the firm’s history. Leadership had become aware that the employee turnover rate was significantly higher for women than it was for men, and it had them concerned.

“There was a perception that women were leaving to just go home and have babies,” Janiak says. “Finally, there was a question that then CEO Mike Cook laid out. He said, ‘Do we really know that?’”

A study was commissioned, and it was discovered that many women who left fit the description of Janiak’s mentor, who just felt there wasn’t an opportunity to grow and advance in the organization.

“They were going to work at other places they found more amenable to their personal goals and work goals,” Janiak says.

Deloitte leadership wanted to change that. The Initiative for the Retention and Advancement of Women was created to help ensure more opportunities for women, but it was more than that. It was launched with the idea of bringing more diversity and inclusion into every aspect of the way Deloitte did business.

“Each business is being impacted by the changing marketplace, by the changing consumer and by the changing demographics of the population, wherever they are selling their wares or services into,” Janiak says.

“Do you really understand how all of these factors are influencing your ultimate business? Isn’t it logical, given the changing nature of all of those factors, to have some of that change represented in the people who are working in your organization so you can better react to them and better position your products and services for the consumers of the future?”

The move to make inclusion and diversity a priority put Deloitte in a strong position to help many who were poised to lose their jobs at the former Arthur Andersen LLP in 2002.

“We distinguished ourselves on a number of fronts, but that was one of them as people looked at where they might extend their career in that particular situation,” says Janiak, who became managing partner of the Chicago office in September 2011. She is also the central region managing partner for audit and enterprise risk services.

In these turbulent times, when fortunes can change overnight, Janiak says Deloitte’s ongoing pursuit of diversity is more than just a feel-good story for the firm and its 3,800 employees. It’s a vital part of being successful company.

 

Focus on relationships

One of the biggest initial drivers that led Deloitte to get focused on being more diverse and inclusive was the money invested and talent that for years had been allowed to just walk out the door.

“We’re investing all these funds in very talented individuals who are walking out the door and, oh by the way, those individuals bring different and unique skill sets to us as a group that help us relate better and perform better with our clients,” Janiak says. “So why shouldn’t we address this?”

As Deloitte looked at its company and the way it did business, leaders realized that they were missing a crucial point of perspective in the way they operated the firm.

“Twenty years ago, I think you could have asked a group of partners at Deloitte, why should we focus on the women who are leaving?” Janiak says. “They are leaving. Let’s focus on the women who are staying.

“But now you really are missing something by not having a group of people at the table that is reflective of your buyers or the purchasers of your products and services. Force the conversation to what ways you might increase your internal diversity to have those ideas around the table.”

Each industry is different, but whatever business you’re involved in, communication and relationships are going to play a critical role in whether you succeed or fail. The easier it is to find common ground with your customers or potential customers, the better off you’re going to be.

And as you provide a more diverse front for your customers, you create more opportunities for your people at the same time and give them a reason to stay and grow in your organization, which helps you grow too. It becomes cyclical.

“If I take Deloitte as an example, one of the big pieces of data we looked at was how much we were investing in all our people to prepare them and train them and how much we could achieve from a revenue perspective if we were able to retain some of those individuals one, two, three or four years longer than we were at the time,” Janiak says.

“How did that change our overall organization by enhancing the level of experience before they chose to go pursue a different alternative career path?”

Janiak speculates that had Deloitte not changed, she probably wouldn’t be in the position she is in today. But she adds that it’s not solely about creating opportunities for women like her. It’s about adapting and positioning your company to succeed in a constantly changing environment.

“I don’t know if I would have stayed in an environment that was not inclusive and as flexible as it is,” Janiak says. “And I think given how the world has changed, you could probably say that about a lot of the men too. There are just as many men who struggle with family and just management of all these competing priorities. I think we’d look a lot different. I don’t think we’d be as successful, and I don’t think we’d have as much fun as we’re having.”

 

Set the tone

If you want to promote a culture in which everyone plays an important part in your company’s success, you’ve got to make it a personal priority to instill that culture.

“A big mistake would be making it a program versus being able to describe the business imperative,” Janiak says. “Describe why it is valuable to the organization and demonstrate that. How are you developing people on your own teams that you have responsibility for?

“It’s critical that the tone is set at the top and that leaders are held accountable for their progress. It’s important that it is on the agenda of the CEO. If you relegate it as a program and have it be several layers removed from the CEO, that could be a big mistake.”

Talk about the tangible reasons why it’s important that employees and leaders consider diversity in everything that they do.

“Our potential clients are asking, before awarding significant project work, what is your commitment to diversity and how do you demonstrate that?” Janiak says. “If we don’t have a compelling track record and story to tell, we’re not in the mix. Clients who are committed to it and see it as a core value want to be working with an organization that also shares that core value, and so it’s a competitive advantage.”

You’ve got to find a way to integrate it into your culture as a way of doing business, rather than something you’re going to try for a little while before you return to what you did before.

“It’s a strategy,” Janiak says. “Whether you’re including it as part of your talent strategy, your human resources strategy, your sales strategy, there are different ways to look at it and however your organization responds to strategic direction and execution of that strategy, that’s how you should say it. It should be similar to other core strategies that you disseminate through your organization.”

Janiak says she takes her role very seriously as a role model and figurehead for anything she tries to do at Deloitte.

“I view it as one of my roles is to make sure I’m present at the various functions of our business resource groups, which represent all kinds of different folks within our organization,” Janiak says. “It’s important that I hold myself accountable to having diversity on the teams that I’m responsible for — because people look at that and they say, ‘OK, not only does she say this is important for us to do, but she’s doing it and demonstrating support.’ People pay more attention to what you do than what you say.”

 

Takeaways:

  • Think about what customers expect to see.
  • Be out front and visible when big changes.
  • Don’t spare the legwork on strategies that may take time to mature.

 

The Janiak File

Name: Stacy R. Janiak

Title: Managing partner for Chicago office

Company: Deloitte & Touche LLP

Born: Aurora, Colo. It’s right outside of Denver at a U.S. Air Force Base. My dad was a mechanic in the Air Force.

Education: Bachelor of science degree, commerce, DePaul University, Chicago

What was your very first job and what did you learn? The very first job I got paid for was babysitting. I babysat twice a week for the people across the street and earned $1 an hour to feed them dinner, bathe them and get them to bed. That was a pretty good deal.

It was just the concept of going out and having people trust you with some authority at a young age.

Even though it was across the street and you had your parents as the backup, you were in charge. People had expectations. I was going to feed the kids and wash the dishes and they trusted me to do that and expected me to do that.

Who has been the biggest influence on who you are today? My mom. Her name was Rose. She was born in the early 1950s and contracted polio when she was 11 months old. To hear her describe it, it was almost like having AIDS back when people didn’t understand it. You were just ostracized.

She was told she would never walk without braces and she kind of made up her mind that she would not have that be. She is a very resourceful woman that was not given a great lot in life physically. She has made up for that in many ways. She’s the reason I believe there is always a solution and there is a way to get people to it.

Learn more about Deloitte LLP at:

Twitter: @Deloitte

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Deloitte/144593798904867?fref=ts 

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/deloitte

 

How to reach: Deloitte LLP, (312) 486-1000 or www.deloitte.com

Robin Sheldon had reached a critical point in the life of her business.

Through her strong will and determination, she had built Soft Surroundings from a small business that produced a single catalog for women’s clothing in 1999 to one that has seasonal catalogs, a chain of retail stores and an e-commerce website.

She didn’t do it entirely on her own, but Sheldon was definitely the driving force behind the company’s growth. However, she was beginning to realize that if she wanted the company to continue to expand, she was going to need some help.

“When you are part of a creative process as well as the traditional business side of the business, it’s very hard to let go of getting your fingers into absolutely everything,” says Sheldon, the company’s president and founder. “But there comes a point when you realize that you’re putting your business in jeopardy by doing this.”

Sheldon needed to get more people involved in the management of the 530-employee company. She also had to find a way to prioritize the really important things that needed to be done and separate those from the tasks that either could wait or didn’t need the same amount of effort to complete.

“So what that led to was the assessment of the type of people we needed to be hiring with what particular skill sets,” Sheldon says. “For myself, it was a matter of setting up my goals with parameters and guidelines that would get me to the point where I could let go.”

The challenge for Sheldon would be setting up that structure so she could get more comfortable with delegating tasks.

Know your priorities

Part of the problem Sheldon has when it comes to delegating is the high level of confidence she has in herself.

“I have an expectation of myself that is probably way too perfect and hard for anybody else to achieve,” she says. “I’m going to expect more from myself than I am from anybody.”

The result is that Sheldon believes she can do it all. And she saw no reason why it couldn’t be done to the absolute best of her abilities. But she finally started to understand that perfection isn’t always necessary.

“I realized I have to be satisfied with ‘good enough,’” Sheldon says. “I have to identify the few areas where it had to be great.”

There are certain tasks in any business that don’t have anything to do with the customer and have a negligible effect on the bottom line. These are tasks that just need to be done.

“You’re not going to drive yourself over the edge of the cliff trying to make it perfect,” Sheldon says. “You can get it ‘good enough,’ and that’s going to be good enough.”

Then there are things such as the photography that appears in her seasonal catalogs.

“We spend a great deal of money and time on our photography to give the customer an aspirational experience that is emotional so she forms a connection with the product,” Sheldon says. “She understands we are trying to do more for her than just sell her stuff. That’s a place we don’t give. You don’t want to settle on things that are integral to your brand.”

The solution for Sheldon to determine what requires maximum effort and what just needs to get done is a formula known as good, better, best.

“When people come to me and say, ‘I have 10 things that I’m supposed to have done in 48 hours,’” Sheldon says. “I’m being told that all of them are equally important. I ask them to go back and discuss it and come back and tell me if it’s a good, better or best. That helps people a great deal. Sometimes you have to talk to other people involved to see if you’re headed in the right direction.”

It was a lesson Sheldon wanted to impart on her team, but one she also needed to try to follow herself.

Have a plan for delegating

The next step for Sheldon was to accept that within those priority tasks that need to be done right every time, it would be OK to delegate.

“It’s a process,” Sheldon says. “You have to put some good planning behind it. But in order to do that, you have to have the right people. You have to have a very clear understanding of what motivates each individual person. They are not the same. You can’t treat them the same.

“You have to learn each person and figure out how you’re going to make them happy in what they are doing, productive and wanting to do more.”

One of the biggest mistakes you can make in business is assuming that with a few brief words in your office, an individual can take a task and run with it.

“You can ruin a perfectly good career if you take somebody who is a super performer for you and you elevate them into a management position and don’t give them any management training,” Sheldon says. “Before you know it, you have a perfectly good person who has such good skills, but now is floundering in the job because you didn’t give him or her any management training.”

Develop a plan for the person you want to give responsibility to and then share your plan with that person. Take the time to see how the person feels about it and go over areas that you’ll need to work on with the person.

“I have high hopes for being able to give you some new responsibility and I know you’re up to it,” Sheldon says. “I’m thinking this is the area that we will work with and here’s the goal. Let’s sit down together and come up with how we’re going to do this.”

A key barometer that helps Sheldon know if she’s done her job training or if she needs to do more, or perhaps has chosen the wrong person, is whether she hears her name invoked as tasks are being worked on.

“‘Robin says,’” Sheldon says, repeating the phrase she doesn’t want to hear. “If I’m hearing that too much, it means people aren’t taking responsibility for their own work and they aren’t becoming their own experts. They are having to rely on my name to get their jobs done.”

Sheldon’s goal is to make sure the person has all the knowledge and skills to make it happen on their own.

“They don’t need to use my name,” Sheldon says. “They will build their reputation and their confidence by saying, ‘This is what we need to do, and I believe this is the way for us to do it.’”

Help your people

If you run into a situation where you have a leader who isn’t invoking your name but is struggling with the role of leadership, you need to step in and give them some support. Sheldon recalls a manager he was training who wasn’t getting respect from the people she was trying to lead.

“She had to follow up on projects and things that needed to be taken care of regularly,” Sheldon says. “She just couldn’t get their respect. We worked on that for six months together.”

What Sheldon found was that this new leader was struggling with the language she used to engage people in tasks.

“One of the areas we dug into was, ‘How do you get your point across in a pleasant way? How do you get people to want to help you and want to do what you need them to do?’” Sheldon says. “There’s a whole psychology there, and we studied it. Now she is a power negotiator, and she’s still here.”

The act of delegating has to be about more than just you saying to your employees, ‘Hey, you need to do this now.’ It’s a process that you have to be actively engaged in if it’s going to be successful.

“For me, things get tested,” Sheldon says. “It could be our clothing design. It could be our creative print design. It could be copy. It could be many things. As soon as I can get to a comfort level where I’ve seen it go the way I’d like it to go three or four times in a row, then I back off. I only check every now and then.”

When you do check in on how your people are doing, don’t just look for problems.

“None of us probably give positive feedback as often as we should,” Sheldon says. “If your business is moving fast, chances are you might be leaving that out and that’s so important. Along with positive feedback is making time to care about these people.”

The numbers show Sheldon is making the right moves with her business as the company hit $120.8 million in 2011 revenue. Two new stores were announced in Boston in September, and Sheldon feels good about the future. She says keeping it fun will be a big key.

“If you don’t allow people to feel they are having some fun in their job, you may lose them sooner than if you give them a little relief now and then,” Sheldon says. ?

How to reach: Soft Surroundings, (800) 240-7076 or www.softsurroundings.com

 

The Sheldon File

Robin Sheldon

president and founder

Soft Surroundings

 

Born: New York

 

Education: University of Denver. I was actually working on an English lit degree, which had nothing to do with what’s happened the rest of my life. I wanted to write, but not in journalism. I was not a business person or thinking about business much at that time. It’s an unusual situation, not one that most women would find themselves in today. It’s interesting how somehow the business finds you.

 

What was your first job?

I was a research assistant to a newspaper in Long Island, N.Y. I started to fall in love with the written word. I have a book that I’m working on and I do it when I get a moment to breathe. Maybe I will get to finish it someday. It’s a mystery, certainly fiction.

 

What is the best advice anyone ever gave you?

In the world of business, it’s, ‘Know your customer.’ I guess that came from Dennis Pence, who is president and chairman of Coldwater Creek. If you can put yourself in your customer’s shoes and see what you’re doing from their perspective, it will change the way you do things and it will make you more successful. We all get lost in our own little world and think we know why we’re doing things. Sometimes we’re doing things that the people we’re trying to do them for don’t want.

 

 

Takeaways:

 

Know what tasks require maximum effort.

Help your people achieve their potential.

Make sure you praise a job well done.

Steve Davidson wanted to do a better job of listening to his franchisees at Robeks Corp. It was the biggest complaint he heard upon taking over as president and CEO of the smoothie franchise chain, which has 116 stores around the world and nearly 1,000 corporate and franchise employees.

Franchisees were frustrated that the previous leadership regime didn’t take advantage of the depth of knowledge they gain each day from interacting with customers across the country.

“You have a lot of very bright, talented and creative people in your franchisees with lots of great ideas,” Davidson says. “They like to implement those ideas, and they are businesspeople. The challenge is to channel those ideas in the right direction to make them productive and utilize them as best as we possibly can.”

Davidson wanted to give franchisees an outlet to share their bursts of inspiration. But any system he put in place needed structure so that the great ideas could be researched and implemented and the suggestions that wouldn’t work could be gently turned down.

“There are so many ideas that, in order to be cohesive, we can’t implement them all,” Davidson says. “There are disappointments for some franchisees if they have a great idea that they think will work in their particular store in a particular part of the country; it just may not be something that works universally.”

If he chose to do nothing, turning a deaf ear to the ideas that were out there, Davidson risked damaging the Robeks brand.

“The franchisees will implement these things on their own and then you find different stores all going in different directions, which is not good for a chain,” Davidson says.

Davidson wanted to make it work and wanted to make franchisees feel like the valued part of the team that he believed them to be. He felt the best way to do that was to go out and share his thoughts face to face.

 

Be a good listener

Davidson has seen companies hold conventions for its franchisees where everyone in the organization converges on one location for a few days to talk about how great their company is.

“There is a big dog and pony show in Las Vegas or Chicago or wherever,” Davidson says. “I’ve done a number of those in my life with other companies, and I find them to be much less intimate. There are opportunities for about three days for everybody to get excited and then everybody goes back into their old routines again.”

Davidson thought a better approach would be to hit the road with his executive team and make personalized, less formal visits to various Robeks locations across the country.

“They were much smaller, much more intimate meetings, and they were in much smaller rooms so we had more one-on-one contact with people,” Davidson says. “It was much less dog and pony show and much more direct communication.”

When Davidson and his team of four to five people would visit a location, he wanted to make it clear that it wasn’t a site review. He wasn’t going around with a white glove trying to nail people for petty mistakes.

“It was about the franchisees,” Davidson says. “It was about us being out there. We did some presentations to talk about what the company was doing, but we spent a lot of time just listening. Our Q-and-A sessions were quite long.”

Davidson wanted to set the tone that even though these franchisees weren’t technically his employees, they were part of the Robeks team. And just as he was making himself available to the leaders of each location, he wanted to impress upon those leaders how important it was that they do the same with the people who reported to them.

“I wasn’t the only one up there,” Davidson says. “I got members of the various departments up there as well. They learned from the very beginning that not only was I open to direct feedback and sometimes attack, particularly in the early days, but I also expected every member of the team, the department heads, to make themselves available in the same context.”

A big part of Davidson’s approach was the priority he gave to listening. During his first 90 days on the job, listening was pretty much all he did when he came into work or went on his road trips across the United States.

“I sincerely took their input, took copious notes and made it clear that I wasn’t going to make any decisions and wasn’t in a hurry to make any changes, if I was going to make any at all, until I had an opportunity to meet as many stakeholders as I could,” Davidson says.

When you step into a situation where employees are calling for change, the easy thing to do is often to respond with change. But if you implement change without a real understanding of how things work in the organization, it could easily come back to haunt you.

“I stuck to my guns and said, ‘OK, I recognize that there are urgent matters, but I want to make sure I fully understand the issues and how any decision I might make may impact the whole organization,’” Davidson says.

 

Build the respect

As Davidson seeks to build relationships with his franchisees and learn more about the organization, he also seeks to build trust. He takes the approach that his people want to accomplish the same thing he does, which is to position Robeks to be successful.

“My approach to empowerment and to get the best out of people is to trust them immediately,” he says. “If we communicate clearly in terms of what the strategy and direction is, after we’ve spent as much time as we can listening and making sure we’re moving in the right direction, we believe we’re going to be followed.”

He does offer a caveat, however, to this philosophy.

“You’re not going to give someone so much rope that they can take risks that would bet the farm,” Davidson says. “You give everyone a tremendous amount of latitude, but you check in with them. I guess it’s called delegation.”

He wanted to continue the dialogue that had been established through his road trip meetings, so Davidson began forming committees to give people a clear voice in what happened in the company. There was a tactical marketing committee, a strategic marketing committee, a supply chain committee and an IT committee, just to name a few.

The committees were populated with people who Davidson felt could serve not only their own best interests but those of their direct reports as well.

“These various committees deal with key areas in our business where the key indicators tend to lie,” he says. “We have a supply chain committee, and we schedule that meeting once a month. If we have issues that are important to talk about, we set the agenda and we meet. If there is nothing going on, we cancel the meeting because we don’t want to have meetings just for the sake of having them.”

If you cancel meetings when there is no business to be conducted, you don’t send a bad message to your team. You actually send a positive message that you’re cognizant of their time and doing what you can to maximize it.

“That assures that meeting is a meaningful meeting and will be held if we clearly have issues,” Davidson says.

The IT committee is a prime example. When Robeks was implementing a new point-of-sale system, there were a number of issues that needed to be resolved.

“Now that we have resolved most of those and things are fairly routine, we disbanded or at least suspended that committee,” Davidson says. “We could always reinvigorate it at any point in time if some issues started to crop up again.”

The message he has focused on conveying is that he is there to help his franchisees make the business better, whether it’s meeting one-on-one or forming a committee to solve a problem.

“It opens up the communication, and you find fewer people are intimidated by, ‘Oh my gosh, this guy is the CEO,’” Davidson says. “I still get that to some extent from franchisees who will call me and they’ll say, ‘Hey, I know you’re busy. I don’t want to take up too much of your time.’ I’m always very careful that I let them know right up front that their issues are my issues. Don’t ever apologize for calling me about anything.”

As Davidson looks at Robeks today, he sees a company that is much more collaborative and empowering. Contests have been held for new product ideas and have generated a lot of enthusiasm, giving customers curiosity about what they’ll find on the menu the next time they come to the store.

“Once we’ve listened and got that input, the key is getting back to the franchisees and telling them where their ideas are and what we’re doing with them,” Davidson says. “If they don’t get answers back, they stop giving us ideas. We want the ideas because they are the lifeblood of our business.” ?

 

How to reach: Robeks Corp., (310) 727-0500 or www.robeks.com

The Davidson File

Born: Sun Prairie, Wis., a town just northeast of Madison.

 

Education: Bachelor of arts in social psychology; MBA, University of Wisconsin

 

What was your very first job?

I was 14, and I went to work in Lake Mills for the summer. I worked on a feeder pig farm.

 

What did you learn from that experience?

When you’re 14 living in a mobile home when you’d rather be visiting your girlfriend, it’s a very lonely place to be. But aside from that, even at 14, they trusted me a great deal and gave me a great deal of responsibility. I was impressed by that. It had a strong impact in terms of my views on trust and where that fits in the work world.

 

Who has been the most influential person in your life?

Francis Sheehan. He was a chemistry teacher at the senior high school in Sun Prairie. He was also the coach, but he was responsible for managing the city public swimming pool. For whatever reason, he came up in my life many times. When I needed a job, he would find me a job. Whether it was the only bicycle cop Sun Prairie ever had for the kids who rode bikes in the summer, to being a manager and lifeguard at the swimming pool, to taking care of athletic facilities at the senior high school. He just kept popping up in my life at various places. It was almost like he was a guardian angel. He seemed to be there whenever I, as a kid, needed some male adult direction and supervision and guidance.

 

Takeaways:

Don’t act before you have the facts.

Give your people a chance to prove themselves.

Don’t waste anyone’s time.