Brooke Bates

Monday, 20 June 2011 10:20

Environmental innovation

David P. Tusa didn’t like seeing 3 billion medical syringes end up in landfills, groundwater streams, even playgrounds and beaches every year. He didn’t like hearing stories about the 800,000 people accidentally stuck by these needles.

As president and CEO of Sharps Compliance Inc., a Houston company that develops solutions to manage and dispose of medical waste and unused medication, Tusa knew he could change those stories.

“We need to better educate this country and recognize the issue,” Tusa says. “It’s just going to take more and more incidents where some sort of life-altering disease was contracted by someone who was sitting, say, on an airplane, reached back to grab the seatbelt and they’re stuck because (someone) placed the syringe in the seat.”

Tusa has been on a PR trail informing people about the problem as well as Sharps’ solutions. But frankly, even when people disposed syringes properly, he still wasn’t satisfied. The solution itself was inefficient, so to really solve the problem he had to innovate as well as inform.

“Home health care companies were sending trucks and drivers to people’s homes to pick up these little red containers with the syringes in them,” Tusa says. “It was not very economical to do business. We came up with a way to have the medical waste transported to our treatment facility using the mail. You don’t have to send out an additional truck and driver. You can imagine what the environmental impact is when using a mail truck that’s already out there every day.”

That makes medical waste disposal as easy as a trip to the post office — at about half the price of traditional pickup. Sharps’ innovative, sustainable solutions don’t just benefit customers; they’re actually fueled by their green initiatives in the first place.

“Virtually all of them will have their green initiatives, social responsibility, sustainability (online),” Tusa says. “When we’re calling on a large pharmaceutical manufacturer, we look to their green initiatives and say, ‘Look, you have green initiatives in place. What a great way to start, right here. You can protect your patients, you can protect the environment by making the proper disposal of syringes available to your patients.’”

In fact, because he looked to customer goals for ideas to expand his business, Tusa realized it wasn’t enough just to provide a cheaper disposal option through the mail. As customers turned greener, it forced Sharps to push sustainability even further to stay ahead as a service provider.

That led Tusa beyond disposal to think about where waste went — landfills — and how he could keep it out. The answer was Sharps’ Waste Conversion Process, where red polyethylene containers full of contaminated syringes are sealed, sterilized, shredded and pelletized. The pellets, trademarked PELLA-DRX, are used in high-energy industrial processes where the organic portion acts as fuel and the inorganic portion becomes part of the end product, such as cement.

Innovation like that is one more reason for eco-conscious customers to choose vendors on the leading edge of sustainability.

“We just try to align our goals with their goals and look how we can best change our practices to be much more green — consistent with the customer’s initiatives,” Tusa says. “You really just have to look at every step of your operating process. Look (for) ways that are more environmentally sensitive, everything from the small things of recycling cans and papers in the office to big things, like literally changing your processes as we did.”

Tusa takes a green approach to everything at Sharps, from motion detectors on lights to the cardboard compactor behind the building to PELLA-DRX itself, because he sees small things adding up. But there’s a crucial prerequisite to meet before you can take the tiniest steps toward corporate sustainability — and it has nothing to do with the environment.

“A lot of it is just mindset,” he says. “If you can change the way that you do business and be more environmentally sensitive, then you’re all the better. You’ve got to be flexible and dynamic. If you’re not — if you’re a company that’s stuck in your ways and you’re really bureaucratic and less flexible — it’s going to be really difficult to be successful in this marketplace.”

The culture at Sharps is one where, as Tusa says, “we carry each other’s briefcases” and “make decisions in the hallway,” where he rewards good internal ideas with $100 gift cards and grants customer requests even if it incurs extra costs for Sharps. So when customers and employees alike started suggesting ideas that happened to be green, those became part of the conversation like the rest.

“My motto in the company is: I don’t want to talk about why we can’t do something; I want to talk about how we’re going to do it,” Tusa says. “We just had a phenomenal idea from a customer, and one of our regulatory people was like, ‘Well, I don’t know.’

“Well, you know what, go figure it out. And we did, we figured out a way to make it work with regulations to meet the needs of the customer. That’s the way you’ve got to be in this day and age; being bureaucratic and stodgy just doesn’t work.”

As a result, customer-focused innovation drives more than environmental responsibility at Sharps — it drives business. More than 22,000 retail pharmacies nationwide, including Walgreens, Rite Aid and Kroger, use Sharps’ medication disposal program. The company has removed more than 624 million syringes from the solid waste stream and diverted more than123,000 pounds of unused medications from landfills or public water supplies.

Still, with the bar set at 3 billion improperly disposed syringes and 200 million pounds of pharmaceutical waste, Tusa sees nothing but growth potential. He plans to tap into that by simply staying ahead of customer initiatives with innovation.

“The more business we do with our customers and as we’re more creative with our customers and come up with more ideas for our customers, it’s going to allow us to further penetrate that market,” he says. “And if we can launch some innovative programs that capture those syringes thrown in the trash and make sure they’re properly disposed of, then we all win.”

How to reach: Sharps Compliance Inc., (800) 772-5657 or www.sharpsinc.com

Wednesday, 01 June 2011 16:26

Turning searchers into sales

For the past few years, Richard Rubin has done his holiday shopping online. The contents of his virtual shopping carts don’t quite match those of the industrial customers he serves as president of Maxi Container, but he sees his personal habits signaling a bigger change. If he’s buying online, what about his customers?

“I noticed that more and more of our business was moving to the Web,” Rubin says. “More and more of our customers were communicating to us via e-mail. More and more of our customers wanted us to do electronic data interchange or electronic funds transfer.”

This observation came at a crucial time, especially for a Detroit-based distributor like Maxi that traditionally relied on the automotive business. Cold calls from a four-person sales team wouldn’t cut it anymore. Rubin realized that long-term survival depended on the company’s ability to explode its customer base into other industries and geographies. And a web presence was key to doing that.

But making the website an effective sales tool to convert searchers into customers — especially when they’re industrial manufacturers — that’s another challenge. And across the business world, it had resulted in plenty of “websites that were just, for lack of a better word, horrendous,” says Linda Rigano, executive director of strategic services at Thomas Industrial Network, which connects buyers and suppliers of industrial products and services through its sourcing site, ThomasNet.com. “It was just a picture of the facility, a picture of mom and dad, how great we are but not really delivering on what the buyer wants.”

Enter Thomas’ Web Solutions group, which was created to help those companies improve the performance of their websites.

“How do I get my website to sell more for me?” Rigano asks — a question she gets from companies that recognize traditional print resources aren’t holding up. “Always be where your buyer is looking, and then make sure that you’re delivering the answers that they’re looking for.”

Replicating your sales process online

Sounds simple enough. In fact, Rubin can sum it up in three words from high school.

“My 10th grade English teacher always said to me, ‘Know your audience,’ and that’s true in everything,” Rubin says. “You need to know who you’re trying to reach in a Web strategy, and you have to tailor it to get them the information they want.”

Merely by being online, Rubin was tuning into his audience’s requests for digital services. But Maxi’s first website wasn’t tailored at all — in fact, it was basically a print ad with a Web address.

“Before, it was a very static website,” he says. “It listed our name, our address, our e-mail. It listed products we offered. But it was not interactive. You couldn’t click through to get more information. It didn’t send an e-mail. It didn’t do anything. It was just information.”

Maxi was already listed on ThomasNet’s directory, so Rubin sought Web Solutions help to turn referred traffic into sales. First, he had to understand what customers search for online and how.

“Buyers want to be able to answer the same questions that they were once getting on the telephone,” says Rigano, who helps manufacturers and distributors deliver answers by replicating sales processes online.

Her advice: Envision your website as a new sales rep, and equip your virtual salesman by arming it with the right information. ThomasNet uses a VSET strategy as a formula of that information.

First, buyers want to verify that you have what they’re looking for — fast. Thomas’ research reveals that you don’t have much time to make that first impression. Industrial buyers spend 3 to 5 seconds on a homepage verifying you have what they seek before moving on.

“If I’m replicating my sales process at my website, I’ve got to figure out: How are they getting to me? That’s the first step,” Rigano says. “What are the words that they’re typing into a search engine to find me? I’ve got to make sure that that information is in my website; otherwise, I don’t even stand a chance at being found.”

These questions marked a crucial shift in the Web strategy at Keats Manufacturing Co., which also works with ThomasNet. Its first website focused more on the company and its processes than its products.

“Understand what it is that they’re putting into Google. That’s how you’re going to come up higher in their searches,” says Matt Eggemeyer, Keats’ vice president and COO. “I don’t think they’re putting in, ‘small, family-run operation in Chicago.’ They’re looking for a tin-plated 006 automotive terminal.”

Once he understood this, Eggemeyer revamped Keats’ website with less emphasis on company history and management team backgrounds, and more on products like terminals, clips, wire forms and lead frames.

“The way to hook them is to show that you can make the part and make it exactly how they want it,” Eggemeyer says. “You need to stay industry-specific, talk about your products and talk about how you make the products.”

With attention to detail, Eggemeyer launched Keats to the top of search results in several categories on ThomasNet.

“I come up in the top 5, if not No. 1,” he says. “No. 1 translates into over 1,000, sometimes as high as 1,500 unique visitors a month.”

Those numbers dwarf the dozen or so visitors he saw at trade shows — each of which cost more than his entire website.

“Traditional search methods — Yellow Pages, trade shows, all that kind of stuff — is dead and gone,” Eggemeyer says. “This is where you need to be.”

Virtually kicking the tires

The verify step is a broad brushstroke drive traffic. If you want to keep it there and turn it into sales, consider the next two steps in ThomasNet’s VSET strategy: search and evaluate.

“Once you hook them, then they want to kick the tires to get the warm fuzzy and see that this is a company that we want to develop a relationship with,” Eggemeyer says. “All the other superfluous stuff like the history and the management team needs to be on the website but maybe a little deeper. If they really do care, they’ll dig deeper.”

On his website, Eggemeyer went beyond the types of parts that Keats makes.

“We enhanced it one step further by adding the specs that are involved in making those parts: how thick are they, what kind of plating do they get, all the different sizes and dimensions — which make my website that much more attractive, especially when it comes to the search engines,” he says.

What type of information should you provide? Customer service reps are good sources of the knowledge you’ll equip your virtual salesman with because they have vetted the questions over the phone that you’ll face online.

“Let’s anticipate the questions people are going to ask, the information that they’re going to look for, and make sure that your site is armed with this information,” Rigano says. “I would want to have information on my products, on the materials that I use, on the amounts that I could run. How is it being used? Is it a bearing that would go into a wheel, a conveyor belt or a pulley? All of these things are going to be relevant to that market.”

Consider showcasing your offerings with detailed product information in an online catalog, where you can add descriptions, specs and photos. Maxi replaced stock photos and shot its own, with a common background, to create uniformity.

“What we had before was basically just a static one-page website. It didn’t change over time; it didn’t allow you to get more information,” Rubin says. “With Thomas, we created a front end and a catalog that work together seamlessly. We put more information in with secondary and tertiary pages. You start out very generally, and then you drill down to get the specific item you want.”

For Maxi, this was an also opportunity to showcase its core beyond containers — through sustainability. Rubin illustrates this online with videos of involvement in local green fairs and blogs about donating to boost local school recycling efforts.

“Know your core competencies and let the Web strategy complement what you do,” he says. “We’ve tried to graft a new way of communicating this information to customers, both our existing and new, but we’re still keeping our core values as a company in terms of what we do with our products and how we conduct our business. … You can’t lose sight of who and what you offer.”

Tracking online action

You’re drawing visitors to your website and providing answers to their questions in hopes that you’ll convince them to take the next step — the T in VSET, take action. But it doesn’t necessarily mean making a sale.

For Keats, it means a request for a quotation. Whatever your next step, provide tools for visitors to make the next move — like functions for contacting you, uploading CAD drawings or ordering online.

Those tools can get highly technical, but Rubin thinks they beckon offline tradition — and that’s the secret to converting traffic. In his strategy, the website doesn’t replace the sales cycle, but assists it.

“That’s where the old-fashioned stuff comes in,” he says. “The website has to be interactive. It has to have the ability to send e-mails. It has to have the ability to send RFQs. It has to have the ability to click a button and contact us. We wanted the website to give information, but then also have the ability to send a request for more information.”

Keep in mind, as your online strategy mimics your traditional sales cycle, it should closely reflect your overall business goals, as well.

“If a company sets up a website without going through the process of saying, ‘What are my business objectives, and how is my website going to support me in doing this?’ they will have missed the boat,” Rigano says. “My objective is not to make a killer website; my objective is to generate 5 percent more business in Korea and India this year. My objective is to increase my product sales. Then, you have to say, ‘How can my website help me do that?’”

Develop these goals at the onset of Web development so you can chart your online course and track progress along the way.

“You always want to build in: How do I know what success looks like? We don’t build a website without putting a tracking system in place so that you know how to evaluate what’s happening,” says Rigano, who recommends evaluating your tracking at least monthly. “Take all the key actions that you want somebody to do at your website — we call those conversion actions — and build in tracking so that you can look at those. You can look at how many people came into my site, how many people went past the homepage and searched for something, how many people clicked on ‘Download a CAD drawing,’ how many people clicked on e-commerce, how many people clicked on RFQ.”

But measuring results goes beyond in-page analytics. ThomasNet’s research shows that half of the time, online buyers still pick up the phone and call for more information, so make sure you include those callers in your tracking. Maxi has different 800 numbers for different ads on and offline, so Rubin can tell which ad drove the call by which number rings.

“If you don’t have a separate 800 number for your website, call your phone company tomorrow and get one installed,” Rigano says. “Then you know how many people are coming directly from your website. That’s the beauty of being online: The end measure is so definitive. It’s not like, ‘Gee, I had 10 percent impressions.’ It’s how many came in and how many bought. You know what success looks like.”

Evolving to maximize ROI

The road to a solid Web strategy doesn’t end when a searcher becomes a customer. Now, you tweak based on the actions you’re tracking.

“With all those quotes we get, we just need to pay attention to: What’s the latest and greatest?” Eggemeyer says. “We seem to be getting an awful lot of requests for the widget so we need to make sure that on our website we talk about how we make widgets.”

Companies won’t survive without adjusting to changing customer needs; so must websites also stay current. Analytics make online success and failure obvious, so they can help you optimize your strategy.

“You want to get your return on your investment,” Rubin says. “You want to look at what your cost-per-click comes out to be, and then you jettison those programs that don’t work and you invest more in those that do.”

As you think ahead to adding new digital components like social media, e-mail newsletters and blogs — which Rubin only added, one at a time, after the website was up and running — keep the overall strategy cohesive.

“It all has to work together and provide seamless integration across different platforms,” he says. “We also have a small pay-per-click program with Google and we’re working with Google Maps, but they all lead back to our website. It all has to reinforce each other. It all has to be consistent.”

You’re probably wondering when you’ll see these pieces come together into a return on investment. Eggemeyer saw his ROI pretty quickly after Keats’ site went live in April 2009. A former customer that had lost touch with its one-time supplier reunited when discovering online that Keats still had tools to make a certain part. One quick order paid off the new website.

The home run, though, if you ask Eggemeyer, was the phone call from a military contractor in Alabama, who had seen Keats’ site. The call led to a million-dollar order to develop a metal clip for a plastic bullet.

“Would have I been able to get that customer back with the traditional sales methods?” Eggemeyer asks. “No, because they wanted to see that I could do the zinc plating and that I could hold certain tolerances. And that isn’t on a brochure I’ve ever done, and they probably wouldn’t be asking that of me at tradeshow — and I don’t know if I could have given them that attention to sit down and talk engineer to engineer. But that stuff was on my website, and that gave them the warm fuzzy that Keats can do it.”

All in all, Keats’ sales are up 30 percent since the launch, and the number of quotes more than doubled from 600 to 1,400 in one year. Maxi similarly grew sales by 37 percent while setting four consecutive months of records, bringing in customers from new industries and locations. In fact, Rubin faces a wonderful problem because of the growth.

“The next step is moving to a bigger building,” he says. “We’re actually at full capacity in terms of the throughput in our warehouse. We’ve been so successful with this strategy that it’s difficult for us to add new customers.”

Rigano hears similar stories frequently, another sign that effectively leveraging your website as a sales tool is a crucial ingredient of growth.

“We’re asking people, ‘How did you (grow)?’” Rigano says. “The majority have said, ‘The strategies for success were developing business in new geographies, developing new innovative products and services, pursuing business in new industries, increasing online marketing. That’s how they’re continuing to grow, and that’s all through web strategies.”

How to reach: Thomas Industrial Network, (866) 585-1191 or www.thomasnet.com

How to reach: Keats Manufacturing Co., (800) 532-8763 or www.keatsmfg.com

How to reach: Maxi Container, (800) 727-6294 or www.maxicontainer.com

Want to hear more stories like this? Read more on:

How Matt Eggemeyer’s web strategy keeps customers coming to Keats Manufacturing.

How Carmen DeLeo crafted an online strategy for CDM Electronics.

How Don Ascione successfully put all his “eggs in the Internet basket.”

From Brian L. Davidoff’s perspective, leaders lean toward two extremes — autocratic or democratic. Their organizations, then, are either flat or pyramidal.

He aims for the middle at Rutter Hobbs & Davidoff Inc.

“If it’s too flat, you can’t get decisions made and it takes too long,” says the law firm’s managing director. “If the pyramid is too steep, you aren’t hearing the feedback sufficiently of the other folks. Good managerial decisions are the culmination of input from the balance of the organization.”

The law firm started out purely democratic about 35 years ago. But as it grew and young lawyers brought new perspectives, Davidoff realized not everyone would reach consensus on every issue.

Here’s how he manages his firm by considering every voice.

Spread the responsibility

When we look at younger lawyers or lateral partners to bring in, we look at people who can develop a book of business. We’re really hoping that the person that we bring in, ultimately, will become our longtime partner. One of the key elements of that is either that person has, if they’re more senior, or if they’re a junior lawyer, that we think they have the capability to develop a book of business.

All of our partners generate business. Many law firms … are structured where you have two, three, maybe half a dozen people who are the apex of the pyramid, and all the work flows down through them — that is not our structure. That has given our firm a lot of stability, and that — particularly in these turbulent economic times — has been attractive to other lawyers when they see if just one person left, the firm’s not going to fail.

Manage for the future

Many smaller firms have failed because of a model where you have two or three senior folks who generate the business who have not done a good job of transitioning the operation of the business to a younger generation. A lot of my job is making sure that the younger folks get into managerial roles at the firm so that when my generation’s no longer around, there’s someone else there. What we do is manage for the future.

Part of it is bringing them into various organizational committees in the firm. For example, we have a firm retreat coming up and the default might have been (having) myself organize the whole thing or maybe one of my senior partners. But what we did was we brought in one of our younger partners. He’s not doing it blindly by himself —obviously, I’m actively involved in that — but he is the one who’s responsible for putting it all together with our input, and that’s given him insight into the firm about, ‘Oh, this is there, that’s there, these structures are in place.’

Give newcomers voices

When we bring new people in, I ask them after they’ve been here for three or four months for their best practices: What have they seen in other organizations that we could do better? You really have to be open to hearing the alternatives, not to have a paradigm that, ‘This is the way it was, so this is the way it has to be.’ If you’re open to those possibilities and alternatives, you’re going to have a more successful organization.

It doesn’t mean that you swerve one way or the other. You need to have a stable ship. But you need to chart a course that has the voices of everybody.

You need to have a decision-making process, but you need to hear what’s being said and that, to me, is the key element. Making the decision is actually not that difficult if you’re open to hearing what’s being said.

Having other people know that you have heard what they’ve said [matters]. You aren’t always going to agree with them, but if they’ve had an opportunity to state their piece, that goes a long way to building consensus even if you don’t agree with them because the next time you’ve got to reach an issue, the fact that they’ve been heard is key. The ultimate decision of management is really a conglomeration of what everyone’s voices are. You’re going to have a whole lot different input and ultimately management needs to chart a course, but it shouldn’t be a course that they’ve independently set.

How to reach: Rutter Hobbs & Davidoff Inc., (310) 286-1700 or www.rutterhobbs.com

If you asked to see Mariani Landscape’s projects, CEO Frank Mariani would showcase the best he has to offer.

One day, hopefully, he’ll offer more.

“When we have reached mecca will be when I can tell you, ‘Here’s my entire book of business. Open the pages and stick your finger on a name, and we’ll go see that job, because every job is perfect,’” Mariani says. “Some people might think that’s unrealistic; I’m driven by that.”

That drive has already helped Mariani expand in services and size. He took over the family namesake when father and founder Vito passed away in 1973, leaving nine employees. Today, the company has 420 employees.

Smart Business asked Mariani how to grow and improve your company.

How do you communicate as you grow?

We have town-hall meetings about every eight weeks where we encourage everybody to come have pizza and we give a state of the union. Especially right now, it’s important because people are afraid for their jobs.

It allows people to get inside our head and understand what we’re thinking about, and hopefully, we can get an idea what they’re thinking about. An easy (issue) to look at right now would be the state of the economy and what we need to do to stay focused so that we can keep our team intact.

We open it up for discussion. People can raise any issue. If no one is attacked for their ideas, it will encourage participation. It takes awhile to build that trust. By shaking hands and having a cup of coffee with them, people are going to open up. If you make yourself available, they’ll let you know what’s on their minds. If you hide in your office, you won’t know what’s happening in your company.

What role have employees played in Mariani’s growth?

As we’ve grown the company, we’ve been able to add more expertise and offer our clients a better product, so it really is a win-win. To grow only for our clients and (not) benefit our associates would be a mistake. To grow for the associates without benefiting the clients would be a mistake.

When somebody comes in and interviews for a position here, we tell them, ‘If you have great ideas, let us know.’ Therefore, our company — which originally was strictly a maintenance company — grew to be landscape design, landscape architecture, landscape construction, then we brought somebody in who had expertise in perennials (and) started growing. All these types of things offer opportunity, which, in turn, allows growth, which, in turn, allows financial stability and opportunity for associates.

How did you position what was a small family-owned business for the growth you’ve seen?

A lot of it has to do with ego. I’m not embarrassed to say I really don’t want to be second.

We have an open-door policy, not only amongst our associates but actually for our peers in the industry. We encourage other landscape companies, ‘Bring your staff in and see how we go about doing business.’ It makes us sharpen the way we go about doing business because they’re going to see the work we do in the field, they’re going to see what our offices are like, so you put a little bit more spit and shine and polish on everything.

I’ve attended tours of other landscape companies and you go in there and it looks like a movie set where you see the fronts of the buildings, but when you walk in the door, there’s nothing behind it. I used to say to myself, ‘This is insulting.’ I’m proud of what we have here.

If somebody becomes better because of what they saw here, that forces us to take it to the next level. The more we can take it to the next level, the next level, the next level, the entire green industry benefits — so does Mariani Landscape, as long as we’re up to meeting that challenge. There’s nothing to hide; there’s only things to celebrate.

How to reach: Mariani Landscape, (847) 234-2172 or www.marianilandscape.com

Thursday, 12 May 2011 17:19

An extra degree of service

An economic recession may not be the best time for a company to develop a growth culture. But don’t tell that to Rea & Associates Inc.

By the time the recession hit, the accounting firm was already invested in this initiative. The real question was whether they’d continue fueling it with resources when times got tough. Because CEO Lee Beall believes that success rests in the ability of employees to be innovative and deliver proactive solutions to clients, he knew the culture was a crucial foundation toward getting results. So he stuck with the initiative when many others in his industry backed off.

Beall told Smart Business how he keeps his organization on the leading edge by recognizing talent, giving back to the community and going the extra degree for clients.

Give an example of a business challenge your organization faced, as well as how you overcame it.

Our firm began an initiative a few years ago to develop, from the ground up, into a growth culture. We began this process before the economy took its dive into the recession. Our biggest challenge was to continue to stick with this initiative and continue to commit resources to it during such a difficult time in our economy, when it might have been easy to walk away from it.

We are proud to say that we stuck to our initiative. We have seen positive results from its efforts throughout the recession and expect to see an even more positive outcome as the economy improves and we can implement more of its steps.

In what ways are you an innovative leader, and how does your organization employ innovation to be on the leading edge?

Innovative leaders recognize talent. That means not only identifying talented individuals, but attracting them and retaining them in your organization. Once you have a talented team, it’s important to give them the freedom to be progressive. These are really the individuals who allow your organization to be innovative.

A few years ago, a survey suggested that clients were looking for more proactive services from our firm. As a result, we created our consulting division and our Lean services division. Lean Six Sigma is a business philosophy that improves efficiency and decreases defects in processes. It began in the manufacturing arena but is being applied to many other types of processes, including those in professional services. Our work in this area led to the development of a new division, Lean CPA, which helps other CPA firms use lean principles to become more efficient and effective, as well as our Pulse Check service, which allows us to take a holistic view of our business clients and look for ways to help them improve strategically.

Our firm has also been innovating in its investment in the marketing and human resources departments at a time when many in the industry backed off due to the economy. We have continued to develop internal education programs for our team as well as marketing initiatives during this time.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned, and how have you applied it?

When I first became CEO, I learned that people often not only hang on every word you say, but can also recall your words long after you say them. And they can sometimes take what you say very seriously but not recognize the context in which you made your comments.

As our governor has quickly found out, you must be very careful about what you say!

How does your organization make a significant impact on the community and regional economy?

Rea & Associates Inc. is among the top 100 accounting firms in the country, but unlike many of the other large regional firms, we invest directly in each of the 11 communities in which our offices are located. We own our facilities, employ local team members and invest both our time and money from our Rea Foundation.

A while back we did a study and determined that our team donates more than 4,000 hours per year to more than 100 local organizations in Northeast Ohio alone. Since our Rea Foundation was established in 2003, we have donated more than $300,000 to our local communities and organizations and provided seven annual accounting scholarships to area colleges.

How have you added “value” to the products and services you provide to clients?

Our greatest value as a firm is the talent our team members provide. We work hard to provide strategic thinking and a bigger picture view for our clients, and we’re constantly looking for ways we can bring them greater value.

Our Pulse Check service is probably the best example of a way we add value to our services. Pulse Check allows us to bring various specialists from several areas of our firm together with a client or prospect for a holistic review of the business and look for ways to help the business improve strategically – whether through changes in tax treatment, to its corporate structure, to its processes (for greater efficiency) or even its retirement plan offerings. This service has been very well received by our clients and has been especially valued during the recession when so many businesses have struggled.

What is your philosophy on going “above and beyond” for customer service?

My philosophy is it’s all about the customers. When a client works with me, they get my total attention – I’m all in with them. I’m there to serve as their primary advocate, whether that’s with their bank, the IRS or guiding them through our organization.

We’ve also adopted an “above and beyond” philosophy throughout our firm. Each employee receives the book 212, the Extra Degree. The book’s premise is that at 212 degrees, water boils and it’s strong enough to power a locomotive – and when we all go that extra degree, we can do great things. We encourage all of our team members to go that extra degree, and team members nominate their coworkers for an annual 212 and Then Some recognition award.

How to reach: Rea & Associates, (330) 339-6651 or www.reacpa.com

Friday, 29 April 2011 13:58

Commanding teamwork to ensure trust

Achieving buy-in is a tough task for any leader. But when you’re Brigadier General Roger W. Teague and the people you need to get on board include senior Department of Defense leadership, Technical Intelligence community and even U.S. Congress – achieving buy-in is a grand feat, indeed.

As Commander of the U.S. Air Force Space Based Infrared Systems Wing, Space and Missile Systems Center, Teague had to build and maintain the trust of these key stakeholders after the $10 billion program faced some initial challenges and delays.

By ensuring communication through daily progress reviews and uniting teams around common goals, Teague lead the program past obstacles toward success, delivering unprecedented infrared surveillance to the country.

Because of this, Smart Business, ThinkASG, IBM and Union Bank named the decorated commander to the class of 2011 Smart Leader honorees. He shared how he leads his team to tackle tough issues, innovate with leading technology and give back to the communities they protect.

Give an example of a business challenge you and/or your organization faced, as well as how you overcame it.

The Infrared Space Systems Directorate is a national leader in technology. Our space and ground systems feature cutting-edge technology and provide the United States with the world’s best missile warning and technical intelligence capabilities. The Space Based Infrared Systems (SBIRS) Program has been in development since the mid-1990s. As a new development, the highly technical $10 billion program experienced several unforeseen challenges during early stages of development. These challenges were mitigated through proactive leadership, teamwork and an unfaltering dedication to our No. 1 customer: the warfighter.

Recognizing successful programs must be based on solid teamwork and collaboration among each of the participating organizations, we placed great importance on establishing and maintaining trust, communication and mutual understanding of a common program vision and goals. We ensured an emphasis on teamwork, trust, respect, and team behaviorsguided by jointly defined core values implemented across all program elements, including team members of the U.S. Air Force and our valued mission partners from industry. The program defined core functions and responsibilities across all program segments and held key leaders and managers accountable for performance.

We also focused on daily progress reviews, tackling tough issues that were imacting program progress, and developed individual action plans to resolve each of them. Technical discussions were frank and focused on reaching solutions and consensus on a path forward. This helped the program to identify, address and eliminate dozens of technical and program risks associated with first-time integration of the SBIRS geosynchronous satellite, and to successfully field the system.

Firm program commitments were established and the team continued to build positive relationships critical to program success. The program soon began making major strides to successfully deliver this critical national security space program and fulfill our commitments and vision to deliver unprecedented global, persistent, infrared surveillance capabilities to our warfighters and the Nation.

In what ways are you an innovative leader, and how does your organization employ innovation to be on the leading edge?

We receive continual feedback from space operators and warfighters that the capabilities and products from our system are outstanding. There is a strong appetite for delivery of more Overhead Persistent Infrared capabilities, more data and faster transmission of data.

As a reflection of the program’s positive performance and criticality of this mission area, the SBIRS program was given additional funding by Congress, encouraging us to continue to find ways to better exploit and deliver the data being provided by on-orbit sensors. In an era of shrinking government budgets, this additional funding was a big vote of confidence for the program and reflects the outstanding performance our systems are providing to ground troops and intelligence community users.

The Infrared Space Systems Directorate continually provides relevant “lessons learned” feedback from our developmental and operational experience, gathered across our portfolio of space-based infrared programs, to the wide array of Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) programs. Many of our ideas and experiences are cited as best practices at the Center.

How do you make a significant impact on the community and regional economy?

The Infrared Space Systems Directorate, as a leading member of the Space and Missile Systems Center, is involved in many local community activities. Many members of our team participate in Career Days at local schools where students are informed about how education leads to exciting job opportunities, the experiences of being deployed to locations around the world as a member of the U.S. Air Force, and the importance of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in education.

We also organize and participate in food drives for local food banks, beach cleanups, clothing drives for the homeless and visits to Veteran’s Hospitals, as well as providing care packages to those deployed from the Space and Missile Systems Center. We are always willing to pitch in at a moment’s notice to support others.

The Space Based Infrared Systems (SBIRS) program reaches across the United States and the world, contributing to our national and international economies. The Space Based Infrared Systems Program employs more than 9,700 personnel across 23 states and works in partnership with more than 50 large and small businesses, providing a multitude of parts for the construction, integration and launch of the payloads and ground facilities.

The SBIRS payload is built right here in Southern California, and the satellite is integrated in Sunnyvale, California. SBIRS satellites are launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., and the satellites will be operated by Air Force crews located in Colorado. All across these locations are thousands of people at work daily - designing, building and integrating key systems and assemblies for the Space Based Infrared System.

Internationally, the SBIRS program employs hundreds of people specializing in payload component production and sustainment of our crucial Relay Ground Stations (RGS). Just as our domestic suppliers and their employees, our international partners continue to proudly represent critical assets to the SBIRS program.

How to reach: Los Angeles Air Force Base, (310) 653-1131 or www.losangeles.af.mil

View the Infrared Space Systems Directorate factsheet

Friday, 29 April 2011 13:39

Keeping growth in check

Surviving this economy has been a challenge for all companies, especially those in commercial real estate like Casco Contractors Inc. But it’s not the biggest challenge on President Cheryl Osborn’s mind.

Her sights are set higher – on not just surviving, but maintaining stable growth through the downturn. She achieves this by creating open lines of communication to stay in tune with her employees’ workloads and putting technology in place to manage projects and keep everyone in the field informed, as well.

These processes have helped the firm, which specializes in Commercial Tenant Improvements, keep efficiency, quality and consistency first. And now, Osborn is looking forward to projected 2011 revenues that nearly double last year’s.

Because of this, Smart Business, ThinkASG, IBM and Union Bank named Osborn to the class of 2011 Smart Leader honorees. She shared how she maintains quality during growth and applies innovative technology to better manage her team.

Give an example of a business challenge you and/or your organization faced, as well as how you overcame it.

Stable, managed growth is probably the biggest challenge that we have faced. Maintaining stringent quality standards can be challenging when a company is growing quickly, but our reputation has been built on the quality of our service, so quality control is something we take very seriously and always have in mind every step of the way. To maintain quality:

  • I provide my employees with every possible tool to help them manage their responsibilities.
  • I maintain open lines of communication to stay aware of workloads. And when someone is struggling, I work with them to determine if they are actually overloaded or if perhaps they need help managing time and resources better.
  • When I deem necessary, and once I’ve assessed that the company volume can support it, I hire additional people to fill positions at various levels of management or support.

Surviving in a struggling economy (is another challenge). I take pride in the fact that I have been able to maintain my workforce with no layoffs, even when the economy has taken a serious dip and other companies were closing their doors. We have done this by adapting – not only our services to our clients, but internally adapting the way we do business. By shifting responsibilities and rallying everyone to pitch in, even if it sometimes means handling tasks that aren’t generally in their job descriptions, we’ve managed to weather leaner times and keep our valued employees on our team.

In what ways are you an innovative leader, and how does your organization employ innovation to be on the leading edge?

We have created processes for the field and the office that specifically focus on efficiency, quality and consistency. We also use technology to improve communication and ensure that everyone involved has the latest information – something that is critical in an industry where changes are frequent and not having the correct information can cause major setbacks to both the budget and the schedule. Our superintendents all have e-mail via BlackBerrys, access to high-tech cameras, and we can send them drawings electronically – which is something that is very cutting edge.

Our in house team uses a specialty software program to manage our existing workload, our pending projects and our projects in closeout, which helps keep our coordinators organized and able to handle all the “balls in the air.”

We communicate with our clients constantly using technology, which helps give them the peace of mind that the projects are going well. Communication is key, and technology is an amazing tool for that process.

How do you make a significant impact on the community and regional economy?

By maintaining a stable workforce, I provide my employees with job security and an excellent benefit package that we continually work to improve. By providing employees with the peace of mind that comes with job security and good benefits, they are more confident about their spending capability and ability to support their local businesses. I also offer them flexibility with their hours so they can implement my “family first” ideal, which furthers their performance and the company’s success.

I also encourage and support charitable work throughout the community by funding causes employees bring to my attention, allowing employees to take time off for charitable causes in order to make a difference. I am a huge believer that giving back is a definitive fueling mechanism for the local economy.

How to reach: Casco Contractors Inc., (949) 679-6880 or www.cascocontractors.net

Thursday, 28 April 2011 17:34

Big enough and small enough

Laurie Resnick tries to position The Associated Group as both big enough and small enough to tackle any project. As one of Southern California’s largest landscape, plantscape and seasonal display contractors, the company is big enough to provide professional, expert services and build long-term relationships with clients, staff and suppliers. At the same time, Resnick enforces a culture that keeps the company small enough to focus on quality.

Under her direction as president, The Associated Group has grown significantly and developed three divisions: interior plantscape, exterior landscape and seasonal display – and been recognized for numerous design awards by the Plantscape Industry Alliance. Working as one company to offer comprehensive services, these divisions design, install and maintain projects at corporate offices, industrial parks, regional malls, hotels and casinos, and public spaces like airports, schools, churches and city buildings.

Because of her keen leadership, regardless of location, Smart Business, ThinkASG, IBM and Union Bank named Resnick to the class of 2011 Smart Leader honorees. She shared how she creates a culture of best-in-class design and extraordinary customer service.

Give an example of a business challenge you and/or your organization faced, as well as how you overcame it.

It became very clear over the past year that one of the three founding partners was a determent to the company’s culture and long-term success. Her recent departure has brought fourth a renewed energy and shared vision for the future. With the improving economic climate, the staff is aligned and preparing for great things to come.

In what ways are you an innovative leader, and how does your organization employ innovation to be on the leading edge?

We have worked very hard to create a culture of best-in-class design and extraordinary customer service.

WHY WE DO IT: We do this because we have a gift that we must share. Our gift is the ability to spin straw into gold, turning ordinary things into extraordinary beauty. We do this over and over again, and when we do, we see delight in our customers’ faces.

HOW WE DO IT: We do this by creating fabulous original design and service concepts that exceed our customers’ expectations. We sell these concepts to our customers. Then we execute exactly as promised, and on time. No matter how hard it may be, we make it look easy.

WHAT WE DO: We design, install and maintain the most beautiful landscapes, interior plantscapes, and seasonal décor for hotel and casinos, retail centers, office properties, and more.

How do you make a significant impact on the community and regional economy?

We employ 150 people with above industry standard wages and benefits.

How to reach: Associated Group, (714) 558-6100 or www.ag-ca.com

Saturday, 30 April 2011 20:01

DVA finds and keeps customers online

Because Ryan Kugler sought new outlets online, Distribution Video & Audio Inc. stayed cutting edge during the recession. He didn’t know the Internet would also boost his customer service.

DVA, which purchases CD and DVD inventory excess from studios and labels to resell, moved online by selling to other Internet resellers. By finding new ways to expand and attend to his customer base, Kugler — president and co-owner with brother Brad, CEO — has grown DVA to 35 employees, selling 20 million units per year to 350 accounts with 24,000 storefronts, which totaled $24 million in business last year.

Kugler spoke with Smart Business about finding and keeping customers online.

How has technology changed your business?

It has changed the way that we do business because when you’re dealing on the Internet, you’re dealing with people who are not multimillion-dollar companies like Target or Big Lots. You’re dealing with a whole different species of an animal — someone who might complain more, to be honest with you. You need to have a little bit more customer service when you’re dealing with Internet resellers.

No. 1 rule [of customer service is] get back to every single person that reaches out to us … within 24 hours. Even if we don’t have an answer to their question, say, ‘We are researching it. We will get you the answer, give us a minute.’

On Amazon, if you don’t get back to (customers) you get a bad rating. Technology has helped us (stay in touch) because we want to keep a good rating with Amazon; otherwise, you’re kicked off.

How do you handle your marketing?

The biggest challenge … is finding new customers. We are always marketing. We buy mailing lists. We send out letters. We send out postcards. We send out e-mails. We place ads in trade magazines.

If you cut your marketing, you’re not going to get new customers. Now, you can cut marketing as far as keep marketing to the same amount of people at a lower price. Instead of sending out a letter with an envelope — which, with a first-class stamp, might cost you 60 cents — you can go to a postcard, which will cost you 32 cents. You’re still mailing to the customer, and that’s the whole point. Never cut the outflow.

My advice is: Do not cut marketing. Find another area to cut. Cut your water usage. Cut your coffee usage. You need new customers because that’s what’s going to sustain you during a rough economic period. There’s little things you can cut (instead of) marketing.

Is the customer always right?

It doesn’t matter if it’s true. If the customer says this, we just try to work it with that. We want to close the sale. If doesn’t work financially or if it’s going to put us out of business, then we just say, ‘Sorry, can’t do it.’

We will do anything the customer wants as long as it’s legal. If a customer wants a banana taped to each DVD, I’ll say, ‘Sure, we can do it, but here’s the price.’ I’ll apply to the Food and Drug Administration to attach something perishable to a DVD. It’s just going to cost the customer money, and we always tell them that. That’s why I’m still here doing business, because we’ll do whatever the customer wants.

Is there a pitfall to that approach?

My board will complain, saying, ‘Hey, the margin was low on that deal.’ But then I’ll say, ‘What goes around comes around,’ meaning I might have sold something at a low margin, but that customer’s going to order from me again because I did what they wanted.

That’s the whole key. The more attention you put on (customers) and the more you do what they want, the more likely you’re going to get the business again.

HOW TO REACH: Distribution Video & Audio Inc., (818) 848-6111 or www.dva.com

Bill Browning is nothing if not adaptable. As the father of two teenagers, that means adapting to the new methods of communication, from texting to blogging to Facebooking.

Those Gen Y connections have come in handy at Ernst & Young LLP, where about half of the 1,100 employees in the Los Angeles operation are under the age of 30.

“You just have to really communicate with ways that are important to them,” says Browning, the Los Angeles County office managing partner. “We’ve got to keep in mind that this is a different generation than, obviously, what I grew up with. The way they communicate is different.”

Regardless of which generation he’s communicating with or how, Browning strives to make meaningful connections with employees so his message will resonate. That’s key for getting everyone on board with his “growth mandate” — which includes growing their people, growing their community, growing their alumni network of former employees and growing their clients.

Browning focuses on building relationships and staying in touch so communication is a constant part of the environment at the firm, which has grown its worldwide presence to 141,000 people and $21.3 billion in fiscal 2010 revenue.

“(Communication) happens in a number of ways,” Browning says. “But the hallmark of seeking that feedback is setting a very open tone for our people, making sure that they know their opinions are incredibly important to us and that we have an open-door policy. And then once we get the feedback, to try to do our very best to react to it and to constantly do whatever we can to make L.A. County with Ernst & Young a great place to work.”

Reach out

Browning knows the most elaborately constructed messages fall flat if they’re isolated attempts to reach employees. It takes a very involved effort to communicate constantly with employees before you can expect a message to gain footing.

“You have to be visible. You have to be accessible,” he says. “I spend a lot of time doing that by one-on-one reaching out to our people.”

One of the ways he stays in touch is through an ongoing series of breakfast meetings called Straight Talk with Bill.

“First of all, it’s purely voluntary,” he says. “Whoever wants to come can come. It’s an open invitation to our people to meet with me periodically, and it’s absolutely an open agenda. No planned topics — it’s whatever is on their mind.”

He welcomes employees by experience level. Last month, for example, he conducted separate meetings for senior managers, managers, seniors and staff.

Typically, he starts with an update on what’s happening locally in the firm. Then he’ll pull from his international travels to offer observations of market conditions in London, the Middle East or Hong Kong. At this stage, he’s not necessarily delivering a corporate message but simply sharing his thoughts and opinions — which encourages employees to share theirs.

With unique audiences at each gathering, the discussions will vary, because you’ll share different thoughts with different groups.

“I tailor my comments based on the experience level of the people,” Browning says. “I’ll go into more detail with the staff on, for example, how the firm is organized. I might go into more detail with them about our different service lines, whereas [with] the senior managers, I don’t need to do that.”

Browning usually only takes the stage for a few minutes before turning it over to employees. But to be able to get their questions, suggestions and other feedback, he must be able to relate. That’s where it helps him to think about his teenage kids and the differences in communication styles.

“What (employees) are interested in is different, and we need to keep that in mind,” he says. “I’m always asking them what is important in their life, both personally and professionally. What kind of experiences do they seek with the firm and then are getting with the firm? Are they getting the best type of support they need from the firm to succeed?”

The feedback won’t always relate directly to a business initiative, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less relevant. At the most recent breakfast, for example, someone asked about the firm’s recycling policies. That spurred some green suggestions to enhance the company’s efforts.

“That’s the kind of thing that comes up that really doesn’t relate, per se, to our business, but it is very important to our people,” Browning says.

By simply asking employees what’s on their minds — rather than commandeering the stage with your agenda — you show them you’re interested in hearing what they have to say.

Build connections

Open forums like Straight Talk are great because they put the ball in the employees’ court. But because they’re purely voluntary, you may skip over shy employees who don’t step out with their feedback. You need other avenues.

“One way that we make sure that our people are heard is through the mentoring relationships,” Browning says. “The mentor is trying to make sure they always are seeking feedback from our people and reacting on it to make sure each person’s goals are met.”

Mentoring programs also tackle another communication obstacle: the fact that the CEO can’t be the sole connector and develop personal relationships with all employees, especially in large organizations.

“It’s not just about me; it’s about all of us being visible to our people,” says Browning, who has six mentees. “I try to be accessible to all thousand of our people, but it’s really about all of our leadership team doing that and forming those key connections with our people daily.”

Browning tries to make sure no one is overlooked by approaching mentoring from several angles. First, the firm formally assigns mentors by matching up employees in similar work areas. They may be paired with members of the senior leadership team or, as of March 2010, with alumni — former E&Y partners and employees who can add value from outside business settings — as well.

But there are also pre-existing personal relationships between employees, where mentors may seek certain mentees or vice versa. These informal matchups will happen with or without a formal program.

“There are a lot of informal mentoring relationships that happen and those, quite frankly, are often the most effective,” Browning says.

Because relationships form and develop differently, it takes flexibility and follow-up to make sure they’re equally valuable.

“It’s a constant process of reaching out to both the mentors as well as the mentees, seeking feedback that those connections are being helpful, asking our employees if other connections are needed,” Browning says. “If a match isn’t working, we’ll change.”

Whether the relationships start as formal assignments or informal friendships, ideally they should all trend toward the latter as they develop.

“There is a formal program, but it really gets down to the mentor and the mentee making it happen and staying in touch with each other and tailoring that mentoring relationship so it works for each person in that relationship. If you look at a mentoring relationship, it starts out as first becoming friends and establishing a personal relationship and then really trying to discover what the mentee’s personal and professional objectives and goals are. This is where the personal and professional often intersect because they are intricately entwined.”

A good mentor knows when to probe and when to draw the line. Respect your mentee’s privacy and be sensitive to personal issues, obviously, but personal matters do play a part so don’t overlook them entirely.

“An effective mentoring relationship only comes when you really get to know someone,” Browning says. “The root element of a mentor relationship is a friendship. And when you develop that friendship with the mentee, then that really sets the stage for having an effective relationship.”

The basic questions behind a mentoring relationship center around: “What do you want to accomplish in life? What do you want to accomplish at this company? Where do you want to be in five years?”

“That then breeds a lot of different discussions in terms of job assignments, in terms of training opportunities, in terms of: Do they want to be involved in the community activities we’re doing? Do they want to be involved in marketplace activities?” Browning says. “The overall goal of a mentoring relationship is we want that mentee to be the very best they can be, both professionally and personally. Mentors are trying to make sure the mentee really thinks about what their objectives are professionally and personally, and the mentor is a real advocate to them to try to accomplish those goals.”

Mentors may meet mentees over lunch, a baseball game or during the day in the office to set action steps for meeting goals. The key is that there are constant touch points.

“It only happens through that close day-to-day contact with our people,” Browning says. “You can’t do it from afar. … You (have to) have day-to-day contact with people so you really understand what’s important to them and what they want to focus on.”

Communicate effectively

Now that you’ve reached out to employees through open forums and mentoring relationships, your messages stand a better chance at gaining traction. But you still need effective communication. You can’t expect people to just listen to you because you’re in charge.

“Effective communication doesn’t necessarily flow from your position or your title,” Browning says. “Leadership comes from the level of impact and influence you have on people. It’s not about my position as the managing partner; it’s really about the amount of influence I have on our people.”

Of course, some of that influence will come from the reputation you build through relationship-building; employees will see you care about their ideas and success when you ask for their input and help them set personal goals. But you build upon that influence by delivering compelling messages with clarity.

“I find that the younger generation prefers concise communication in a mechanism that’s readily accessible to them when they want it,” Browning says. “So therefore I try to be brief. I try to be to the point. … When I try to craft messages, whether they’re by voice mail or by text message or by e-mail, I always try to put myself in the shoes of the recipient and think: What’s in it for them? What do I want them to know? Am I asking them to take action? Am I just communicating information?

“I don’t try to give them corporate speak. If I’m seeking action, I make clear what the actions are that I’m seeking. If I’m communicating information that I think is important to them, I tell them what I think is important to them, and I stress that in very simple terms.”

Beyond that, effective communication depends on how the message is received. Browning sometimes uses Straight Talk meetings to ask how employees perceive his messages.

“Often what I’m asking is, ‘Do they understand the direction that we’re trying to go, do they understand what our growth mandate is here in L.A.,?’ and then really seeking feedback about what are we doing right, what can we improve,” he says.

The communication loop should be constant, whether you’re meeting with mentees regularly or just stopping employees in the hall to chat. Don’t wait to observe results through the actions people end up taking — make sure they’re on board before it’s too late.

“You just have to be as involved as you can with your people and as close as you can to your people to understand: What are they receiving? What are they hearing? What’s motivating them?” Browning says. “It’s just listening, facing feedback, trying to discern what people have heard.”

If you’re taking the time to assess how people understood your message, you should also have the willingness to adjust if their perceptions don’t match your intentions.

“The two main things that I try to tell myself often are: Be adaptable, be flexible,” Browning says. “If something’s not working, if I’m not achieving the desired result that I’m seeking from people or from our organization, I tell myself to focus on what I’m communicating because the problem may be in me, not the person that’s receiving or listening to my communication.”

How to reach: Ernst & Young LLP, (213) 977-3200 or www.ey.com

The Browning File

Born: Dallas. As a small child, I moved to Chicago. I grew up in Chicago, and I consider it to be my boyhood home.

Education: Bachelor’s in business administration from the University of Oklahoma

What was your first job, and what did you learn from it?

I had a variety of jobs as a high school student, but my very first job was working for a pharmacy chain in the Chicago area by the name of Walgreens. I learned, first of all, it’s very hard work. It was great encouragement to continue my education and to get a degree and to really seek a career as opposed to just a job.

What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?

About 15 years ago, I was going through some difficult situations with a client and another client told me that once your career is over, you can take two things with you and only two things. Those two things are your reputation and your integrity. When I’ve been really challenged, I always come back to the advice that he gave me.

Your workday is off to a bad start. How do you turn it around?

I’m a morning person so my day typically doesn’t get off to a bad start. But if a day isn’t going like I want it to go, I simply get up from my desk, walk around and try to talk to people. I always find just talking to our people or the clients’ personnel typically gets me out of a bad frame of mind because I start really focusing on how I can improve their day — and in doing so, I typically improve my day.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

When I look around, I’m always depressed by the amount of suffering that’s going on, the amount of poverty, the amount of homelessness, the amount of abuse. If I could wave a magic wand and have a superpower, I would immediately take away all that suffering.

If you could have dinner with anyone, from any time, who would it be and why?

I see very few people that I can think of in recent memory that had as much impact on so many people as Coach John Wooden did. The legacy he left of living honestly, hard work and striving to be the best you can be was just amazing. I would love to meet him and have dinner with him and just listen to all of his experiences and all of his advice. He was really a remarkable man.

The benefits of giving back

Whether it’s a holiday party, a community volunteering program or a local sporting event, out-of-the-office activities give Bill Browning a chance to interact with his 1,100 employees at a whole other level. Not only does he get to know his Ernst & Young staff and partners more personally, but the experiences also double — or, actually, quadruple — as teaming activities, training opportunities, community involvement and a way of branding the firm locally.

“Community activities are a great way to participate in a team environment,” says Browning, the Los Angeles County office managing partner. “We’re focused on each individual succeeding as an individual, but doing so in a very team environment.”

On Dec. 3, for example, Browning shut down Ernst & Young’s L.A. County offices so his employees – more than 500 of them – could spend the day participating in community activities through an EY Connect Day. Employees volunteered with 18 local organizations from Habitat for Humanity to the Los Angeles Zoo to Heal the Bay, a beach cleanup organization. All in all, employees donated about 2,600 volunteer hours that day.

Across Ernst & Young’s west region last fall, nearly 1,700 employees participated in EY Connect Days, totaling about 6,700 volunteer hours.

Most companies sport a similarly impressive list of philanthropic efforts, but for community service to reap the benefits it does at Ernst & Young, put some thought into what you’re doing and why.

Browning’s two-fold goals for community activities are pretty basic – that they make a difference at the organization he works with and that they make a difference with the Ernst & Young employees who are involved. As a third goal — which is really more of natural byproduct than a result to drive toward — Browning wants the overall company to benefit from community commitment.

To keep community service aligned with that end goal, Browning organizes activities according to the three E’s.

“The first E is education,” he says. “So we focus on activities where we really can educate and mentor people in the community. The second E is environment; we focus a lot on community activities and organizations that are focused on environmental sustainability. And the third is entrepreneurship, supporting organizations that that build entrepreneurship in our community, and a lot of that is done by encouraging young people to get involved in business.”

By devoting office hours to the community, Browning keeps the organization focused on one of its four core goals — community — and demonstrates that what you do at work ties into the broader community even if you’re not strictly volunteering your accounting skills.

“By being involved in those organizations, we will really build a sense of involvement and we will build skills in our people,” he says. “And then through their efforts, my hope is that Ernst &Young will achieve a brand in the marketplace that we really are giving to the community. It’s just a result, but that’s not the focus. The focus is really on the city and the community and for the people that will benefit because of our involvement. If Ernst & Young achieves some branding and some goodwill because of it, so be it, but that’s just a natural result.”

How to reach: Ernst & Young LLP, (213) 977-3200 or www.ey.com

[Watch local news coverage of E&Y employees volunteering at the zoo.]