With 230 employees and more than 400 older adults under her care at Friendship Village of South Hills, Bobbi Jo Haden has a lot of responsibilities to juggle.
“You have to be a very patient person to work in this environment,” she says of the life-care retirement community.
To practice patience, Haden slows down her busy schedule to devote personal attention to employees and residents alike. From handwritten notes to working alongside her staff, the personable Haden demonstrates how much she cares for individuals at the nonprofit, which reported 2008 revenue of nearly $19 million.
Smart Business spoke with Haden about how to make the time to get to know your employees and become a patient leader.
Q. What’s the first step to becoming a patient leader?
Leaders are being asked to do more with less. And they put themselves under time constraints: ‘This meeting can only last 20 minutes, and then I have X, Y and Z to do.’
Well, being patient doesn’t put yourself on a time frame. Granted, that meeting may take longer than you anticipated, but in the long run, it’s going to save you a whole lot of time.
So you can’t shortcut through your messages, and you can’t put yourself on such a tight time constraint that you actually are limiting your potential as well as the message that you’re delivering.
Q. How do you make time for your employees?
We’ve gotten so caught up in the technology age — e-mail, phones, cell phones, pagers — that we don’t communicate like we used to. How hard is it to drop a note? I would venture to say that most leaders don’t take the time to write a thank-you note to a staff member that performed very well. They may send an e-mail, or they may say thank you. But drop a card.
(The residents), they write notes all the time, and they send notes to me saying, ‘I just want you to know that this person … ’ and so on. (I tell the employee), ‘I received this note from such-and-such resident. You went above and beyond. We want to thank you.’ I post it on the bulletin board so all the residents see it, all of the employees see it.
It’s important to do that, and that’s something that we got away from. I find myself sending an e-mail to someone who’s right next door to my office, or we’re calling or sending a text. We have all these methods of communication but what do most businesses still complain about? Communication.
There’s more ways to communicate today than ever before, but it’s still a problem in any organization. So taking the time to be personable, it goes a long way.
I send birthday cards annually to each employee and write a personal note. The card not only wishes them a happy birthday but also expresses appreciation for their work, dedication and services they provide.
Q. How do you get to know your employees on a more personal level?
It’s not something that you wake up and automatically can do. It’s something that people have to dedicate their time to do.
Don’t get so caught up in the day-to-day operations of what you need to do. Take that time to know your client, to know your employee. Know the people who are going to work for you every single day to do what you need to have done.
And don’t be afraid to say thank you. It’s time-consuming, I know, but it’s time well spent.
Schedule time to be with your employees. Schedule it and adhere to it. If you don’t get something accomplished that was on the to-do list, then spend more time. Too often, this is the first thing removed from a to-do list.
Q. What’s your advice for being a personable leader?
The way I conduct myself in my personal life ultimately will impact my professional life because I live near here. I see residents shopping. I see employees shopping.
As a CEO, you’ve made the assumption that you’re always working. You’re always in that role. It doesn’t matter whether you’re at home on your time. The way that you conduct yourself and your character is who you are. You can’t change that.
Make sure that you’re not hiding behind that title and that you’re not afraid to get out there and work. Some leaders don’t take the time to be personable and only walk the CEO walk. I jump in and help staff members whenever I can. I have assisted in every area of the building. I am not afraid to roll up my sleeves.
Some CEOs would walk past something on the floor and ask a staff member to pick it up. Respect is key. I’ve waited tables if we have a snowstorm. I’ve been here for a 48-hour stretch if we have an emergency.
Just make sure that the employees know that you’re there.
How to reach: Friendship Village of South Hills, (724) 941-3100 or www.friendshipvillagepa.com
Nick George did more than simply shift gears in 2008 — he relinquished the driver’s seat entirely.
After serving as chairman, president and CEO of Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs LLP for more than eight years, George decided to hand over his titles and focus solely on practicing law at the firm. But instead of stepping down immediately, he stayed on board to guide successor Pat Keating into the position. And he says the leadership transition will go more smoothly if the division of power is established before the shift begins.
“He wanted to go 100 miles an hour, and I wanted to keep decreasing my speed, so it was perfect,” George says. “Both people have to know what their position and their role is.”
When George first decided to step down, the firm created a nominating committee to interview candidates and make a recommendation to the shareholders, who would vote on the successor. It also determined upfront that the new leader would work with George before taking over.
“The most important thing is your transition period needs to be flexible,” says George, who originally planned to stay on until the end of 2008.
But by June, he realized that Keating was ready to lead, and it was time for him to step down.
By working closely with your successor, you’ll ensure a smooth transition that causes minimum disruption to your company. The first step is to spend time with the new leader to better understand him or her and that person’s leadership style. To help gain that understanding, George and Keating met at least once a week, often with the chief operating officer present.
Their relationship was helped by the fact that they weren’t starting from scratch. George was already acquainted with Keating, who had been involved in the firm’s management as a practice group leader, board member and managing partner of the Akron office — experience that made him attractive as a candidate in the first place.
“Obviously, the more experienced the successor is, then it really cuts down the transition time,” George says.
Take the CEO-in-training with you to your meetings and engagements, both inside the office and out.
The future leader should be more than a shadow to you, though. Instead, give that person a role to play in those meetings. For example, the outgoing leader can discuss the firm’s current state, followed by the newcomer’s presentation of where he plans to take it. George and Keating used that shared-stage approach to keep the firm’s 120 attorneys and nearly 300 other employees informed when they visited other offices together.
The interaction between the two of you may also boost the company’s confidence in the change.
“He was working with me; he was making decisions with me,” George says. “He wasn’t like, ‘Can I talk now?’ He was second in command.”
In addition, allowing your successor to engage with the employees you’ve worked with regularly will foster relationships with them. Although he or she may already be acquainted with board members and employees, that person won’t know their personalities as well as you do.
During the transition period, you’ll still be ultimately responsible for decisions and other duties. This will give the new leader a chance to observe your behind-the-scenes involvement.
“I showed Pat some of the things that I do,” George says, such as how he makes himself available by constantly checking e-mail and voice mail from home. “But everybody has their own way of doing it. As long as you get the same end, I don’t care.”
As new issues came up during the transition, George gradually began sending them straight to his successor, completing the transition process.
“The first one or two [decisions] that did come out, I kind of wrenched for my keyboard,” George says. “Then I thought, ‘I’m not running the place anymore. I’m going back to practice law.’”
From the other side
Pat Keating has a culture of communication to thank for his smooth move to the top of Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs LLP. After a six-month transition period with Nick George, the law firm’s previous leader, Keating become chairman, president and CEO in June 2008.
“As the new leader coming in, the key was communication and the fact that the outgoing leader was always available,” Keating says.
The exiting leader should be easy to reach and quick to respond, extending the open-door policy beyond working hours. This is easier if your culture inherently values communication; for example, Buckingham, Doolittle had already turned to laptops and BlackBerrys so clients could reach lawyers and lawyers could reach each other.
By observing George’s example of returning calls and responding to e-mails, Keating established a tradition of his own.
“You get into certain habits,” he says. “I’m at home; I check my e-mail. You check your voice mail. You have to be responsive.”
But communication between the old and new leaders should-n’t be limited to brief e-mails. Meet in person so the exiting CEO can share background on the decisions he or she made in office.
“There may have been reasons why prior decisions were made that I wasn’t privy to,” Keating says. “It’s important to get that so I wasn’t stepping in without that knowledge behind the scenes of why certain decisions had been made.”
HOW TO REACH: Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs LLP, (330) 376-5300 or www.bdblaw.com
Andrew Greenlee doesn’t have room at US Farathane Corp. for slackers. Instead, he wants workers who are motivated by more than just a paycheck.
“We set up jobs where, if you want to perform, you’ll be rewarded,” says the president and CEO of the company that develops and manufactures highly engineered plastic parts and materials. “If you want to
figure out ways not to work hard, then you’re not going to be successful.”
Greenlee empowers his 900 employees to meet the challenge by giving them a say in setting their own goals. His managers then keep tabs on their performance with reviews, but Greenlee takes the business’s temperature more frequently by getting out of his office and interacting with employees on the floor.
With that open communication and team involvement, US Farathane Corp. reported 2007 revenue of $133 million.
Smart Business spoke with Greenlee about how to push your employees to perform without overworking them.
Reward employees who excel. In larger companies, I’d see all this structure, [such as] ‘This is your
specific job, and this is your job description. You don’t go outside of this. If you see something wrong in this department, you don’t worry about it.’
I tell people, ‘If you see something wrong or we can do it better, I want it brought up. I don’t care what the reporting structure is. You need to be able to go to somebody to get this addressed.’
We do not overload with structure. If you don’t perform, you stand out like a sore thumb. A ton of structure allows for lack of performance. Performers are rewarded, whether it’s President’s Awards or discretionary bonuses or announcements at picnics. There are a lot of different ways that we let the top performers know they’re appreciated and give them recognition.
Don’t push too hard. We work closely with people so we know what hours [they work]. You watch the parking lot, who’s here late and who’s early. You watch on weekends, who’s in on weekends.
That’s a barometer for me. If they’re here late or on weekends a lot, we try to address that and figure out if they’re doing more than just their job. We have to make sure we’re not pushing them too hard. We
watch very closely.
If somebody’s working too many hours, we want to know why. We either improve the resources or restructure things.
Involve employees in setting goals. Initially, we have employees write up on last year. There were training goals and work performance goals. They write out how they did against those goals prior to the review. [After] the review, they write up what they think this year’s goals should be and how they can improve themselves and improve efficiency for the company.
Once those are submitted, then they sit down with their manager and review them. The manager usually tweaks them, and then those goals are turned in to me. I briefly meet with the manager and approve them.
I read every salary review. I know the goals that are set. I’m very aware and involved in setting goals. And that’s not just an annual process. Those things are reviewed and tweaked, and they obviously can change.
We have a follow-up process six months into the year. It’s a sit-down with your manager. You review all the goals that were established; it gives you an indication of where you’re at. And then at the end of the year, they have the full review.
Follow up on employees’ progress. If they’re far behind, it’s a regular meeting, weekly or monthly, with their manager. Most of the time, it’s lining up what the employee needs to do and giving them the opportunity to do it. If there are flags raised in that six-month area, there’s a regular meeting set up.
People are generally given two to three opportunities where things are laid out very clearly. If for some reason they can’t do it, then eventually a change has to be made. If they don’t perform, (the meeting) is done discreetly. That’s not a public thing, although there are questions asked [publicly] on programs.
If things aren’t in line, that’s a little bit of pressure on them. The intent on those would not be to embarrass somebody; it’s more to know where we’re at. Every once in awhile, people feel the pressure, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
Establish open communication. If I know something’s falling off target, I’ll go to them. It can be hallway discussion, it can be formal discussion, it can be in departmental meetings. In our culture, we want issues brought to the surface very quickly. You build it with communication.
In larger companies, I saw CEOs that were out of touch with the production floor. I don’t go in for just a brief visit. I go in and talk and try to build trust with our employees. I schedule, as much as I can, visitations to plants and one-on-one conversations.
It takes time to build the trust. As you walk the floor, if people raise issues to you and you do nothing about it, you lose all credibility very quickly. If there’s an issue that warrants being addressed, get it addressed immediately.
There is follow-up in writing on closure of some issues. A lot of things have become e-mail and texts. We rely on that to some point, but our most successful stuff is done with direct communication, face to face. We try to drive the majority of our things through that, on issue resolution in particular.
HOW TO REACH: US Farathane Corp., (586) 978-2800 or www.usfarathane.com
Dave Angelicchio isn’t going to do your job for you — but he could if he wanted to.
The general manager of Pittsburgh Independent Auto Auction challenges himself to be able to perform the tasks of his managers. But it’s not about trying to micromanage his 150 employees; he just wants to
know what everyone is doing so he can confidently make decisions for the company.
So, for example, when his family-owned business formerly known as D-A Auto Auction chose the more identifiable name of Pittsburgh Independent Auto Auction last March, Angelicchio knew what his
managers thought of the change before it happened.
“We all believed that it was going to be beneficial for the business,” he says. “If it’s beneficial to the business, it’s beneficial to them, as well.”
Smart Business spoke with Angelicchio about how he builds confidence in his employees to empower them to make decisions.
Be willing to do anything. I don’t ask employees to do anything I won’t do myself. You have to be willing and able to do anything before you ask anyone else to do it. That’s the best way to lead. People follow people who do, not people who talk. If you’re a person of action, people will follow you and do what you need done.
I’ve always made myself learn how to do anything that needs done. I’m not a person that says to an employee, ‘Go figure this out and do it.’ I’m always feet first into a project so that I understand the nuts
and bolts of how it’s done.
I always feel like I can step into an employee’s position if I had to. The more people you have, the harder that gets. It’s just about knowing what [your managers] do and being able to do it yourself. [It takes] many, many years of learning. People don’t start off as chief executives. People start off in the work force.
As you work and learn and grow, you learn to do a lot of different things. By the time you get to the level where you’re in that type of management position, you have done a lot of the other jobs or at least similar jobs that would give you the background to step in and do that.
Let employees do their thing. I didn’t mean having a hand in it; I said having the ability to do it. I’m not a micromanager; I let my people do their jobs.
The confidence that suggests I know the business is transcended to the employee. They know that you know. That’s what leading is about. It’s not knowing everything, but it’s being able to do things and having confidence in people to let them do that. My philosophy is to let them do their job. That’s the way that you do things. If they see that you have confidence in their ability, it goes back and forth both ways.
Give employees power. Confidence stems from being able to make decisions on a regular basis. You have to get input from people. You have to see what all the sides of the equation are. You have to analyze that, and then you’ve got to be confident enough that the decision that you make is going to be the right one.
You’re not going to always be right, but you certainly need to be right most of the time. You have to be willing to take risks because you’re never going to know for sure whether you’re making the right decision.
If you let your employees, in particular the managers, make decisions, and you stand behind their decisions, it gives them the confidence going forward to make more and more of the decisions. That confidence builds in them because they know you respect what they do and you respect the decision that
It’s hard to make decisions when you think someone’s looking over your shoulder all the time second-guessing you.
You let them make decisions. If they’re not quite the right decisions, you work with them and you explain why you would have done it differently. The next time, it’s probably going to be a better decision. And the next time, it’s going to be better than that. Before you know it, most of the time they’re going to be making the right decisions.
Instill a big-picture mentality. It’s difficult for a lot of people to see the big picture. It’s much easier to define a job or a department and say, ‘This is my little fiefdom. This is what I do, and this is how it works.’
Sometimes that doesn’t translate into what’s good for the company. You need to have regular meetings with managers so that they can interact with the other departments. You need to talk about things that are good for the company and those that aren’t.
Reward input and effort. Your employees have to know that you appreciate the contribution that they make. You can do things like employee of the month, preferred parking places. Any kind of outward
acknowledgement, people like to get.
The main thing is that if you have a rapport with your employees, you can communicate that [appreciation] to them. Just talk to them. Money’s not the only thing that motivates people. It’s the communication and the knowledge that you appreciate what they do for you and for your business.
How to reach: Pittsburgh Independent Auto Auction, (800) 632-9299 or pitt.auctionpipeline.com
Rod Robinson isn’t panicking.
Sure, the transportation industry has been hit by soaring fuel costs, and Waltco Truck Equipment Co. is no exception. But Robinson, Waltco’s president and CEO, maintains hope for his company, which manufactures hydraulic liftgates and custom hydraulic cylinders for the transportation industry.
“You have to recognize that you will get through this, and along the way, there are going to be opportunities,” says Robinson, who expects the business cycle to hit a valley every few years.
Although this stretch seems to be dragging on longer than usual, Robinson is loath to use the economy as an excuse for a struggling company. Instead, he has learned to view crunch time as a chance to evaluate his company’s efficiency and prime his people for the upswing.
With an unfaltering positive attitude and creative motivation techniques, he has refined his 300 employees to reflect that optimism.
Smart Business spoke with Robinson about evaluating, motivating and rewarding valuable employees during tough economic times.
Re-evaluate attitudes. A downturn every three or four years gives you a great opportunity to look at the people that you have and say, ‘Do I have the right people with the right skill sets in the right places?’
A downturn makes it easier to go to people and ask them to take on new responsibilities where you think they might fit better within the organization. They know they need to contribute because there’s a consequence if they don’t.
It gives management an opportunity to say, ‘We have a person who has become a marginal employee. Do we want to take the time to invest in this person, try to get them where they should be, or are
we going to target this person as a layoff candidate?’
The biggest factor when you decide whether someone gets an investment or whether they go into that target list for potential layoffs is their attitude. Are they a self-starter? Are they the kind of person that’s willing to do whatever it takes to get a job done, to make a contribution?
Some people do, and some people just see it as a job. I try to surround myself with people that see it as a career and want to feel like they’re part of moving the company forward and aren’t satisfied with just moving paper out of their inbox to their outbox and waiting for the economy to turn up.
Reward your key players. You have to present them with stark reality, the harsh truth: We’re in an economic downturn. We need to make sure that all our people are properly optimized.
We need to make sure, on a department-by-department basis, that we didn’t make a bad hire or we didn’t become complacent and add a person when we were booming. When you’re booming, the easy thing to do is to throw money at a problem instead of taking the time to analyze and streamline it. Typically, what you do to throw money at a problem is you add people.
Identify your key people that you just can’t afford to lose. You can’t necessarily give them a big raise because you’re struggling with an economic downturn, so you look for ways to recognize them. I’ve gone to them and said, ‘I’d like you to take your wife out to dinner. Here’s a coupon so you can.’ Or, ‘I know you’ve got a big game coming up. You’d like to be at your son’s football game or soccer game. Why don’t you take the afternoon off so you can be there?’
Treat people fairly, but don’t treat them all the same. Everybody should be given the same opportunities, but you need to do things uniquely to them because of the extra efforts they make for your company.
I welcome employees to come to me and say, ‘How come so-and-so got to do this?’ And I say, ‘Well, I’m glad you asked. It’s because of this and this and this, and I’ll be glad to do that for you also if you want to do this and this.’
Motivate with stability. One of the ways you provide a sense of security is make sure that (your values) don’t change just because it’s a downturn, because there’s this huge opportunity that would only happen if you attempt to compromise them.
There are a lot of positive things you can do to get people focused on positioning for the upturn. People watch your demeanor, your attitude. If they continue to see you walking through the company with a smile on your face and asking questions and being involved, there’s a comfort level.
If they see you changing your behavior and all of a sudden you’re sullen-looking, they tend to read the worst into your physical appearance. Maintaining that constant attitude is very important.
Do something. The easy mistake to make during a downturn is to take no action, is to assume that it’s just going to get better, and you don’t take the time to do an analysis. You don’t identify where you can reduce expenses.
We’re going through some consolidations as a way of being more efficient presently and, at the same time, making sure that we have processes in place to deal with the volume levels we anticipate when the
We’ve got to think for now, but we’ve also got to make sure we have a system and the mechanisms in place to deal with business that could go to this level. That’s all part of the analysis. You don’t wait until it happens, then figure it out.
HOW TO REACH: Waltco Truck Equipment Co., (330) 633-9191 or www.waltco.com
When Bob and Dan Wolfberg founded PLS Financial Services Inc. in 1997, they put aside their egos to share a title, responsibilities and power. But sibling rivalry isn’t easily outgrown.
“Brotherhood rivalry definitely shows its face every once in awhile,” says younger brother
Dan Wolfberg. “When we’re both working separately, that’s when we start going in different directions. So we talk about it. We’re able to refocus and get on the same page.”
By spending Monday lunches and many nonworking hours together, the co-presidents have aligned their vision for the company. They’ve expanded their brotherly bond to make room for 3,000 employees, bringing everyone together under the common priority of putting the company first. And 10 years after the founding of the company — which provides retail financial services, such as check cashing, loans and tax preparation — PLS posted 2007 revenue of $151.8 million.
Smart Business spoke with Wolfberg about how to stay humble and how to let others have a say in decisions.
Don’t be a know-it-all. My brother and I started this company together. As a smaller company in the beginning, we would trip over each other working on the same things. As the company’s grown, we’ve been able to separate responsibilities and work on our own strengths. We really put our egos aside.
Now we get along. We both want to make PLS something that’s not about Bob Wolfberg;
it’s not about Dan Wolfberg; it’s about PLS. We definitely don’t know everything, or hardly anything for that matter. But we surround ourselves with people that do.
I’ve been shocked over the years at what I’ve learned from other people. You realize that you don’t know everything. I’ve seen companies in our industry that have that issue,
where the top leaders make all the decisions and think they know everything, and they go
nowhere. If you make all the decisions and you think you know everything and you don’t, you may not be around tomorrow.
Put decisions up for discussion. You can’t be too full of yourself. I don’t know more than everybody else, and I don’t act like I know more than everybody else. You need to listen, discuss, debate and then make a decision.
Once the decision is made, it’s expected that everybody buys in to it and agrees. But before
that point, everybody discusses it. I don’t sit in my office and make decisions based on what I think is right. I want to talk to other people about it first. The worst decisions that I’ve ever made are the ones that I make without talking to anyone else.
As the company grows and I get further away from the customer, the more that we need to rely on people in stores at the lowest levels to provide information to make the right decisions.
Put the big picture first. In most situations, I can’t believe shared leadership being a formula for success. If you try to make it work, you have to make sure that the two leaders
are on same page [and that] they’re more interested in the company than in themselves. It’s not that their decision has to be the one that stands to prove that they’re smarter than the other guy. It’s what’s best for the company.
What I look for in a vice president is that same passion. I want someone who’s going to do what’s best for company. If what’s best for the company is their decision, great. If it came from me originally, fine, they accept that. If it came from a customer service rep, an hourly employee, which a lot of our policies and procedures do, everybody’s got to accept what’s best for the company.
We repeat it at every meeting that we have, every store visit. That’s something that we bring up: ‘This store is not my store; this is your store.’ You’re just one spoke in the PLS wheel. We’ve branded ourselves in the last four or five years. We’re referred to as PLS and not Bob and Dan Wolfberg, even in our industry.
The brand gives the company a personality, gives it a life of its own. You’ve got to focus on the company, not yourself. Every time you have a meeting, refer to the company as PLS. Don’t say, ‘me’ or ‘my’ or ‘I’; it’s ‘us’ and ‘our’ and ‘we.’
Expand your family — but not too much. In the corporate office, we have about 120 employees. As we’ve grown, I don’t know everybody, but I walk around the office and I’ll say hello to people in hall. If the first conversation is very nonintimidating, then that leaves the door open.
If a team member has a baby, we give a onesie to the family. We’ll send flowers if somebody has a child in the hospital. Call them up: ‘How are things doing? If there’s anything you need, let us know.’ We make it personal. Every time we see somebody, we engage them. I’ve got a pretty good idea of how many kids most people in the office have and a lot of the store managers.
You’ve got to treat people like people. No matter what level they are, they’re still people. And people need to feel like they’re important, valuable. Whether they work for you or they’re on the street or they’re your neighbors, they’re still people, and they need to be
treated that way.
You can’t let people get too close. It’s part of my family, but we’re not having barbecues
together with your family and my family. Keep the relationship professional because it is
HOW TO REACH: PLS Financial Services Inc., (312) 491-7300 or www.plsfinancial.com
In 1984, it was making sure your clunky desktop computer was functioning and the blocky neon-green text lined up on the black screen.
While retro ’80s computers have gotten sleeker, re-emerging as slim-line notebook laptops, Network Technologies Inc. has bulked up instead.
Since the company’s inception, the developers at NTI have kept up with the times and the expanding demand for computer equipment, such as keyboard-video-mouse (KVM) and audio/video switches, splitters and extenders.
The Aurora-based manufacturer first physically expanded in 1991, when it moved to its current headquarters. The facility kept sprouting new additions in 1995, 2003 and, most recently, 2006, when 10,200 square feet of production space was added.
Each stage of growth also ushered in more equipment and personnel. Since the 2003 expansion, for example, NTI has nearly doubled its number of employees to about 92 last year. On the company’s Web site, pictures of several smiling office assistants and customer service representatives accompany brief biographies next to their contact information. These dedicated team members have facilitated another facet of NTI’s growth by doubling the company’s revenue in the past five years.
Under President Carl Jagatich, NTI developers have continued to add new products to the company’s catalog. Four years ago, for example, came the advent of monitoring systems that manage server room conditions like high temperature, smoke and intrusion.
Though the company is firmly rooted in Portage County, where the products are manufactured, NTI’s reach is global. In addition to national online resellers, distributors are spread around the globe from Russia to Iceland and Singapore to Australia.
NTI products are used in nearly every industry, including transportation, retail, education and manufacturing even government agencies and branches of the military. Some clients include NASA, the Boeing Company, General Electric, the Central Intelligence Agency and UCLA, but even home offices depend on NTI for their KVM needs.
NTI strives to offer solutions that improve efficiency, reduce equipment and energy costs, and make the most of space whether you sport a decades-old IBM green-screen monitor or a much newer model with multiple attachments.
Etactics Inc. is quickly sprouting beyond its roots.
The health care invoice delivery service outgrew its original Hudson headquarters and moved to Stow last May. From eight employees five years ago, Etactics has blossomed four times over. The new facility will allow several more positions to be added in the next year, drawing even more employees from outside the county lines.
But Etactics has seen an even more impressive sales growth under President Michael P. Teutsch, who started the company in 1999. In the past five years, he has watched revenue rocket 82 percent, growing by more than $6 million.
Etactics began as a billing service for the health care market, transmitting medical claims and insurance payments. The company’s clearinghouse services have since expanded to cover delivery of other time-sensitive documents, both electronic and print.
Through the growth, the goal has stayed the same: to save clients money and worry by assuring them that their statements and invoices are being accurately and effectively tracked.
Etactics currently serves a client base of more than 2,000 mainly hospitals, physicians and billing services. In yet another limb of its growth, Etactics expects to process more than 20 million transactions this year.
The multifaceted growth comes because the company is not only adding new clients but also new services. After four years of development and design, for example, Etactics released new practice management software in 2008. More than 80 medical practices are already using the new equipment, which the company plans to market to an additional 100 new practices per year.
With its sights on future growth and expansion, Etactics has already established itself as an award-winning business. It previously received Cascade Capital Business Growth Awards in 2004 and 2005.
At the head of that growth, Teutsch is also being honored. In May, he received a Distinguished Marketing and Sales Award from the Sales and Marketing Executives of Cleveland. The DMSA recognizes leadership, sales and marketing achievements and strong community and professional development.
Etactics, a growing presence both in Summit County and beyond, thanks to its electronic presence, certainly qualifies, as Teutsch continues to develop and expand it.
HOW TO REACH: Etactics Inc., (330) 342-0568 or www.etacticsinc.com
On Valentine’s Day several years ago, Amanda Horan Kennedy was pulling a pair of chopped-up pantyhose over her head.
After a modeling and acting career that included co-starring in the ’70s comedy series “BJ and the Bear,” Kennedy stepped outside of the celebrity realm to earn a master’s degree in clinical psychology and become a therapist. Now, stretching old nylons over her torso, had she gone crazy?
No, she was just exercising entrepreneurship. The pantyhose experiment was an early prototype of slimming control-wear to fight “bra bulge,” a product she perfected when she founded Sassybax LLC. Within the first year of business in 2004, she sold $1 million in wholesale from her garage.
“You just keep pushing that rock up the hill, one step at a time,” says Kennedy, president, who has kept growing Sassybax and added 10 employees. “It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s fun and exciting to see your business growing and your product getting more and more acceptance into the marketplace.”
Smart Business spoke with Kennedy about five entrepreneurial traits it takes to turn an idea into a success.
Be persistent. ‘No’ means absolutely nothing. You’ll probably get more no’s than yeses. You will eventually find somebody that sees it your way, and you will find somebody to help you make it happen. You just have to be so driven and believe in your idea so unwaveringly that ‘no’ doesn’t really mean no to your idea; it means that person doesn’t get it.
You just have to talk your head off about it. You feel like you’re pushing the rock up the hill constantly and you just literally have to exhaust yourself.
Market the idea. If you don’t have the capital to market it, then you just have to constantly push it forward by talking about it to everyone you know. Talk about it in every magazine you can possibly get yourself into; if you can get yourself on a show, even better. You just have to keep preaching it until it goes viral.
Be concise. You have to have a clear, simple message in marketing. You don’t want to complicate it. My message was: This bra cures bra bulge. I did it visually with before and after pictures.
It’s called an elevator pitch. You have to be able to tell the story of your product in, basically, 15 seconds or less. A complicated message will just fall on deaf ears. People like sound bites, which is not very in-depth coverage, but it’s really all people sometimes have time for.
Get creative. Bigger companies would advertise, but I can’t afford advertising because (it’s) anywhere from $5,000 to $200,000 a page. It’s like Monopoly money numbers; it’s just totally outside the realm of possibility for a small entrepreneur. You (market) in a grassroots way where you use every possible tool available to you.
The Internet is your friend. Maximize the possibility of viewers coming to your site through SEO and online social media, getting bloggers to review the product, … [posting] videos on YouTube.
PR is good because PR gets you an interview (that) will go out to people that I couldn’t reach through my channels. It’s a lot more work; wouldn’t it just be so much easier for me to place an ad in the magazine? I’d just get a graphic designer, make up a beautiful ad, throw it in a magazine, pay $50,000, and there’s my message getting out to all of their subscribers. Well, that would be wonderful, but that takes a huge budget. So PR is wonderful.
Speaking to groups is very helpful. If you know how to talk to a group, go and talk about something that’s inspiring. I’ve done that for groups of women, networking groups, colleges. Talk to them about what it takes to build a business. Do you promote your own product when you’re out there speaking and being inspirational? Yes, you just don’t do it in the same glaringly obvious way. But just by virtue of being there, you are promoting your product — and at the same time, you’re giving back because you’re inspiring others.
Be ready to delegate. You can’t micromanage and be a successful person, because if you’re micromanaging, you aren’t doing what you need to be doing. You need to have, as a CEO, the big vision of the company — Where is the product going? Where is the distribution going? We have to look at the big picture. And if you’re micromanaging people on how they type their e-mails, you will never be able to succeed.
People that try [to micromanage] are either crazy or they’re just setting themselves up for failure. I never met an entrepreneur with a successful business that said that they could successfully micromanage — or even wanted to.
It’s also degrading to the employee to micromanage them because then you’re saying, ‘I have no confidence in you.’ If you don’t have confidence in an employee, then the employee shouldn’t be there.
Strive for success. You have to have stealthy resolve that you are not going to fail. I made up my mind that failure is not an option, because when I started the business, I needed the job. You’re even more motivated when it’s a must and not just an option. If it had been an option, there would have been about a thousand times in the very beginning that I would have quit.
But when you have bills to pay and other people’s lives at stake, their income at stake, you think long and hard every day about making it all work, because you’re responsible for yourself, but you’re also responsible for them in a big way.
It’s like your baby. It’s just not an option for it not to grow up strong and healthy and live a nice life. That’s what it feels like. There are a lot of big corporations that have lost any sense of humanity and they don’t care whether their people are working or not working. But when you’re a small business owner, there’s a much greater sense of responsibility to the people that work for you.
How to reach: Sassybax LLC, (310) 559-8001 or www.sassybax.com
When a client tasked Mark Schwartz with developing a new folder, he went back to school. He handed students disposable cameras to document how they used similar products.
From that, Product Development Technologies Inc. ideated a folder that opened from the top, not the side, so students could retrieve papers out of their backpacks without emptying the contents.
“Having products that are not me-too but really exciting things people want to buy means those customers come back year after year,” says Schwartz, the company’s CEO. “If you don’t constantly come up with new and unique products, eventually you’ll die.”
Smart Business spoke with Schwartz about the innovation process.
Q. What’s the first step of innovation?
The first part is research and strategy, and that’s really at the core of innovation. [It’s] all about: Who’s your target market? What’s your price point? What are the trends? What do users want?
The real key to innovation is getting informed first with all the stakeholders and what the competitors are doing. For example, our employees go to lots of different shows. We really don’t (make) a lot of appliances, but we still go to the appliance show, because it helps us get acclimated with what the latest trends are, what the latest forms are, the latest colors, the latest features. Those innovations can get cross-pollinated into something like a medical device.
By far, the biggest thing is customer research, understanding the needs of the customer.
There’s two ways you do that: There’s the articulated needs and then there’s what we call the unarticulated needs. Articulated is doing research and going out in the field and talking to users about what they like or don’t like about products, bringing in prototypes, getting their reaction. The second part of that is using ethnography tools to spy on them, essentially, and watch people using things. They drive innovation without even knowing it. Someone may fiddle around with a tool, for example, and you’ll realize, ‘Wow, if that had a light on it, that would be really helpful for them.’
In the old days, people did a lot of market research, quantitative stuff, and I really think the trend is going away from that to more direct voice of the customer and ethnography.
Q. How do you determine whether ideas are viable as products?
Everything has to be grounded in reality. We talked about innovations, trends, the needs and desires of users. But the one thing we didn’t touch on is the reality of price points, time to market, budgets. You have to take all that stuff and you have to do a feasibility study to say, ‘We’d really like a 10-inch color display with one week of battery life, but it’s a $50 price point. That means we’ve got to make it for $30.’ Pretty soon, reality sets in and some of the stuff gets tempered a little bit.
But that’s innovation again because now you’ve got to get clever. You’ve got to find ways to make a product that has a good business case behind it financially.
We’ve got about (100) people and there’s a lot of broad expertise. We also do a lot of technology scouting. Last quarter, we had 42 suppliers share with us their road maps, what’s going on with displays, what’s going on with batteries, what’s going on with buttons, what wireless technologies are happening. You’ve really got to tap into all that in order to create the business case.
That’s all part of the strategy. It’s developing the product description before you embark into the development process. Some companies really don’t do that adequately and they find out [changes] well into the engineering process, and then it’s really expensive to change it.
Q. What should be included in an initial product plan?
A typical product description is going to talk about the marketing elements of the product: What’s the price point? Who are the competitors? What might the features be? What’s the go-to-market strategy?
There’s another element of the product description that’s technical — the specs. Does it need to be waterproof? Do you need to drop it from 4 feet or 8 feet or out of an airplane? How does it need to perform? How long does the battery need to last?
Then you need the budget stuff. What’s the time to market? How much tooling can we afford? ...
All those things need to be wrapped into a plan or a product description. All the disciplines get covered for that. Engineering has to do their feasibility. Marketing has to do their feasibility. Research needs to do their research. The CFO has to get involved with budgets.
You’ve got to have a facilitator; that’s usually what we call a product manager. That person helps corral all the disciplines and document what needs to get done.
Q. What advice would you give leaders on innovation?
Take the blinders off. Sometimes companies tend to get a little bit of tunnel vision and they really get zoned in on their vertical without really looking around at neighboring things — neighboring competitors, neighboring technologies, analogous devices — and looking to see if there is an innovation there. We draw inspiration from the auto show every year, because there’s always something innovative that might end up in some other product.
I’m biased, of course, but I also think that companies should, on occasion, outsource. We deal with consumer electronics, public safety, medical, and that cross-pollination of technologies and trends is all really healthy once in awhile to get your blinders off and get you out of tunnel vision.
How to reach: Product Development Technologies Inc., (847) 821-3000 or www.pdt.com