Former Dallas Cowboys right guard Crawford Ker played under some top coaches in his day — including Tom Landry and Jimmy Johnson — and he’s quick to comment he’s learned that for the best coaches, a team owes its wins to the process.
“It’s all about the process; the best coaches don’t get too far ahead of themselves,” he says. “You have to celebrate your wins, but you have to say, ‘OK, that was last week. Let’s move on to this week.’ You just have to be really centered.”
While that formula holds its weight on the gridiron as long as you follow it, Ker found that once he became an entrepreneur after his NFL career, he likewise would be keeping his team members centered — in the business world, that is.
“It’s like, too many highs, too many lows,” he says. “It’s either ‘I’m the best there ever was,’ or, ‘I am the worst there ever was.’ So I try to balance it out and say, ‘Just keep improving. Keep working on the little things and try to do a little bit better.’”
Ker spent six seasons in the NFL, was voted to the team of the decade by Dallas Cowboy Weekly and then dabbled a little in business ventures before establishing Ker’s WingHouse Bar and Grill in Largo, Fla., in 1994. The main attractions were the signature chicken wings, a family-friendly atmosphere at a total of 22 locations and growing and the WingHouse Girls — a version of “The Girl Next Door.”
Ker says like some football games, businesses are a hard thing to win.
“You never really win in business,” he says. “You might win for a little while, but you always have to keep improving and always get a very good team around you.
“John F. Kennedy once said, ‘Surround yourself with great people,’ but it is not as easy as it sounds. Here, we will find people, and if they’re good, we will develop them. It’s just a process. If you get the right team, it will be a lot easier for you.”
Here’s how Ker, president, CEO and founder, tries to get the best players on his team and stay focused on the process as WingHouse’s 1,400 employees help generate more than $60 million a year in revenue.
Mixing it up can be a plus
Whether your leaders arise from your rank and file or come in from the outside is one of the top questions involving a business operation. In some cases, a mixture offers a good solution. Ker believes in drawing from both sources.
“I always tell my managers, you have 40-50 employees in the restaurant, and they are doing their work in front of you the whole time, so you train them and give them additional skills,” he says.
“You develop inside and you evaluate what you have inside, and if you don’t have what you need, you go outside to try to get the talent.”
You have to keep your culture intact, however. When you hire from the outside, those employees may be accustomed to their own ways, which could be at odds with your culture.
“I played for the Dallas Cowboys, and then I went to the Denver Broncos,” Ker says. “I might have said, ‘In Dallas, we used to do it like this and like that.’ Well, Denver really didn’t want to hear that. It’s the same in business. You’ve got to respect someone else’s culture. You can’t go into someone’s house and rearrange their furniture and say, ‘I really like it like this.’ People will take offense at that.”
During the on-boarding process with any employee, stress that the culture you have built will remain, and you are not about to re-invent it.
“The business doesn’t run itself, and you have to have great people,” Ker says. “If you look at any great organization, you have great people in those organizations. If you are not first in the market, you’ve got to keep improving and be better than your competition.”
Get your team aligned
Alignment is a familiar term in football and in business, but the repercussions for poor alignment in the corporate world far outweigh the 5-yard penalty of a neutral zone infraction.
“It really comes down to people,” Ker says. “The biggest thing is getting them aligned. I think a lot of good, high-energy people really want to make a big impact. They want to prove their worth. And that’s a good thing. Passion is a great thing to people, but also you have to be somewhat slow in business to know your way around the block, so to speak.”
Employees really can’t be expected to lead themselves, and they can’t always just assume they are doing their jobs well.
“It takes a lot of coaching and leadership,” he says. “You have to spend an enormous amount of time with people. And some won’t get it. In your business or any other business, some people will pick up the work really fast and do real well; some people you could tell them how a thousand times and they’ll never get it done.”
While you can’t always give an employee the friendly football slap on the back for a job well done, you can offer encouragement in other ways.
“Give continual feedback to people and continual training,” Ker says. “Continue to say, ‘OK, this is good. This isn’t so good.’ Give them advice. ‘OK, why don’t we do this … how about that?’
“You reward the good, and you kind of frown upon poor performance, and you’ve got to have good metrics to decide,” he says, noting the importance of performance plans that are aligned with and support the goals of the organization.
Be better, not just different
Conventional wisdom may say you have to be different from your competition to succeed, but in today’s marketplace, just being different may not be enough.
“I don’t know if I agree with the philosophy of just being different,” Ker says. “I think you have to be better. You don’t really have to be different — just be better.
“So whatever anyone does, if you look at Kmart, if you look at Wal-Mart, the names Kmart and Wal-Mart are pretty similar. OK, what was different? Sam Walton did it better than Kmart. But his model was a Kmart.”
Ker has a couple of trick plays, so to speak, to stay a step ahead of the competition.
“We believe in a philosophy of ‘Brilliant on the Basics,’” he says. “In the restaurant business, we all know it is great service, a great product and a very clean atmosphere. If you look at the top one in the restaurant segment over the years, it’s been McDonald’s. McDonald’s is very good in marketing; very clean. You look at that and you say, ‘OK, they did it.’ You could do it too if you work hard enough at it.”
Enter the confidence factor: There’s not a sports coach around who doesn’t impart the value to his players of believing you can win.
“People believe in mentors,” Ker says. “My dad was probably my biggest mentor. He taught me that you can do whatever you want to do. But it is not easy.
“I remember going to my first football tryout in junior college. He said, ‘It’s going to be tough.’ And he was right; it was tough. He was just always there, and he instilled that confidence in me that you can do what you want to do.”
But mentors don’t have to be a parent or a boss. Sometimes they can be co-workers.
“I have been around some great athletes in my day, and I saw what they did and how they did it,” Ker says. “It kind of rubbed off on me, and I said, ‘OK, either I’m doing it right, or I’m doing it wrong. I need to straighten up and do it the way I would want the results to be.’”
Ker’s “Brilliant on the Basics” mission statement provides the foundation for the WingHouse culture.
“In our business, it is food, it is service, it is our staff, and if we are brilliant on the basics, we will be successful,” he says. “When you get away from the basics, you start to stumble a little bit. And that’s where the problems start.
“Your goal is exceptional product, exceptional customer service, a clean atmosphere and that your policies and procedures are followed — kind of like quality assurance standards.”
One other means to ensure that quality levels are maintained is to grow carefully.
“I used to think that more is better; now I think better is better,” Ker says. “It’s a private company. We don’t have to hit projections of ‘X’ amount per year. What we try to do is do the best deal we can. Maybe we turn down a lot of deals but the ones we get we feel comfortable with.” ●
- Mixing it up can be a plus.
- Get your team aligned.
- Be better, not just different.
The Ker File
Name: Crawford Ker
Title: President, CEO and founder
Company: Ker’s WingHouse Bar and Grill
Born: Philadelphia. My mom and dad emigrated from Scotland. They settled in Philadelphia. I grew up there and moved to Florida when I was about 12 or 13.
Education: I went to a two-year school, Arizona Western College in Yuma, Ariz., and then I went to the University of Florida.
What was your first job and what did that experience teach you? My first job was working with my father. He had a lawn care business. I was in fifth or sixth grade, and much of my job was just hand-trimming work. We didn’t have string trimmers back then, so my dad gave me a little pair of hand trimmers, and I would go to it. The funny thing about it is, years later, I made my living grabbing people with my hands. So my hands were very strong, maybe because I started using those little hand trimmers when I was in fifth or sixth grade, and it paid dividends later when I was trying to wrestle big defensive lineman.
Who do you admire in business? It’s kind of a different business than I am in, but I admire Vince McMahon from the WWE for his business savvy. He works very hard at what he does. He is on top of his business. I don’t watch the product a lot but I know that he is very involved in it. So he could be in the wings, he could be beside it; he is very dedicated to his business. That is what I respect — any owner who really gets his hands dirty and works his business.
What is the best business advice you ever received? It would probably be keep going. Don’t be deterred. Keep going forward. Everybody has setbacks, nothing is as good as it seems, nothing is as bad as it seems. Just keep going and don’t count your wins too much and don’t count your losses too much. Just keep moving forward and do your best.
What is your definition of business success? Business success to me is having a lot of people contributing to a common goal or common cause of the business. The ultimate success is if a lot of people have benefited from your results. Success is a team sport. So if everybody is successful, you are successful. I think the biggest thing about it is if the company is successful, a lot of people are making a living off your company. For me that is successful. You are employing a lot of people, and a lot of people are counting on your decisions.
How to reach: Ker’s WingHouse Bar and Grill, (727) 535-2939 or www.winghouse.com
Most employers would be happy if they had only one employee leave in a five-year period. For Sean Adkins, however, it brought about some ambivalent feelings.
Adkins was feeling a modest amount of pride for the showing West Monroe Partners LLC in Columbus had between 2007 and 2011. The business and technology consulting firm was growing, it was recognized as one of the best places to work in Columbus and had only one voluntary resignation during that period — all of which were almost unheard of during that recession-laden time.
After all, the employees were committed to the company mission — “to do the work we love with the people we trust” — and the development of a culture to fit that calling was coming true.
“But one of the things I have had to learn about my leadership style is you can’t also value culture without regard for business performance — because suddenly, this could turn into a country club,” says Adkins, managing director and office leader. “This has been my biggest leadership challenge.”
The heart of the matter for Adkins was the one employee who left during that five-year period.
“I actually started asking myself questions about this,” he says. “Was that good or bad? Am I not striking the right balance here? Maybe near-zero attrition is not a good thing because you are not pushing the team hard enough for results and not finding the right balance.
“I almost felt we ended up with the opposite situation. Where the culture was so valued that maybe we were missing some of the opportunities we could have had from a business perspective,” Adkins says.
“Essentially, I decided that the one turnover was probably not what I was aiming for,” he says. “Some attrition is probably healthy because that tells you that people are being pushed to where they are either going to excel or decide ‘this isn’t the pace I need to go, this isn’t right for me, and I’m going to move onto something else.’”
This year, there was a slight uptick in turnover: three employees voluntarily left. But that didn’t sound an alarm for Adkins.
“I’ve already had one come back three months later,” he says. “That’s another good sign of our culture. People don’t know what is on the other side of the fence.”
Here’s how Adkins tries to dodge the sand traps and water hazards so West Monroe Partners doesn’t become a country club, but a company where employees do the work they love with the people they trust, helping to generate $67 million in annual revenue corporate wide.
Set your core values and live them
Like many other companies do when they first launch, the founders of West Monroe Partners’ initial step was to write down their core values. Once established and followed, core values are designed to keep your company on track.
“You don’t try to fabricate a strategy you think will attract people or what may resonate in the market well,” Adkins says. “This is about describing a set of values that we individually believe in because that is the only way we are actually going to be able to live those values on a day-in and day-out basis.
“I think as we continue to grow as rapidly as we are, maintaining that culture is incredibly important,” Adkins says. “You can look at yourself five years from now and say, ‘Geez, we are a completely different company. Things have changed quite a bit.’ And that is exactly where we don’t want to find ourselves. It is something that we always have to work on.”
So to avoid an about-face in your company culture a few years down the road, there’s never a better time to start but at the beginning.
“The way we avoid being a country club is, No. 1, getting the right people on the team that are motivated to excel and achieve great things,” Adkins says. “Then the second step is having a vision that we aim for.
“We are not just trying to go through the motions each day and live to fight another day. What we are aiming for is something larger, and I can go talk to the team about what we are trying to achieve and why their contribution — and what I need from them — is so important.
“If I am clear on my expectations and my vision for where we are taking the organization, that gives me the capital to go to the team members and ask for more from them because it’s for a purpose. It is not just, ‘Please do more because we need more revenue,’ or, ‘Please do more because we have to get more clients.’ It has a bigger purpose.”
Put in a bit of intrigue
The earliest point at which you can determine if an employee is going to be a good fit for your culture is when he or she asks about the company culture during the job interview.
Adkins is prepared to give an interesting, and telling, reply.
“The answer without fail that I provide for them is, ‘If I am able to answer that question for you right now, I feel like it is doing it a disservice,’” he says. “I shouldn’t be able to describe my culture in words because it just feels like something our marketing team put together or someone has said and repeated.”
Once Adkins has crossed that threshold, he says the best explanation is how the company has a set of core values that hasn’t changed over time — and employees live them every day.
“Our culture is embodied in that ‘to do the work we love with the people we trust’ concept,” he says. “That says everything we want to say about our culture and what we expect from our people, and quite frankly, the environment that we want to provide for our people.”
Adkins observes the candidate’s reaction, which usually contains a degree of intrigue. Many express that they want to find out more, that there is something they may be missing.
“At the same time, we realize that people need facts, they need information to make a decision, and the best thing that we can point to is, ‘Hey, look, we have won several workplace awards across many of our offices as being a best place to work for four years running, and so I am not asking you to just believe me, we certainly have some proven results, but I’m not going to give you the rubric of exactly what that means because you have to experience it.’”
Watch for cracks in the foundation
Complacency is the enemy of success, it has been said. But there are warnings if too much comfort is starting to infect your business. You just have to develop your observation skills to spot them.
Adkins thought he might be seeing cracks in the company culture as 2012 unfolded.
“Some of these folks on the team didn’t appear to be going above and beyond, and I knew they weren’t, both in terms of their commitment to the organization from a time perspective, but also in how much activity they initiated on their part,” he says. “If you are waiting for someone to tell you, if you are waiting for someone to ask you for help, that is an indication that maybe it has become a little too comfortable, and you are not as motivated as you had been.”
Those were a couple of telltale signs he was seeing in the organization that he felt needed to be corrected while ensuring that the core values in the culture weren’t being disrupted.
“We needed our people to be around ... If the clock says five o’clock, and people say, ‘I’m not really interested in seeing you until the next day,’ this doesn’t lead to good results in our view. We really want it to feel like family, and feel like these are people I enjoy being around on the day-in and day-out basis.”
On the trust aspect, you need people who are motivated by the same things that you are and want to achieve the same things in their career and in their marketplace that you do.
“You know that when you look to your left, and you look to your right, there are people who are marching next to you versus you having to pull them along at the pace you want to go,” Adkins says. “I think that is inspiring for our people to know that they have people in the fight with them.”
Consider a culture well developed when it can maintain itself.
“We have a concept of stewardship for the basic fundamental principle: ‘Leave this place better than what you found it.’ So everyone has to have a personal responsibility in that. It takes everyone’s participation for that to be a reality.” ●
- Set your core values and live them.
- Put a spin of intrigue in your culture.
- Watch for cracks in the foundation.
The Adkins File
Name: Sean Adkins
Title: managing director and office leader
Company: West Monroe Partners
Born: Cleveland. I grew up in Lakewood, went to Horace Mann Middle School and then to St. Edward High School.
Education: Miami University. I have a bachelor’s degree in marketing and management information systems.
What was your first job, and what did you learn from it? I was a caddy at Westwood Country Club in Rocky River after eighth grade. The thing I learned in that job and probably the subsequent jobs I had in high school was just the notion of serving — what customer service means. You learn what it means to provide a service to someone else and how to operate in that environment, which helped me learn quite a bit of what I use today. To be a caddy, you need to be there and ready to go quite early in the morning, and for someone who’s a freshman in high school, that might not be the easiest thing in the world. But the tips were pretty good.
What is the best business advice you ever received? “The customer is always right” is one I believe in firmly. While there may be some finer distinctions in that, the attitude that I have to bring daily is that I am here to serve my customers. It doesn’t mean I always have to be accepting and obedient, but if I keep my overarching principle as I’m here to serve my customers, that sets the tone for me having a productive relationship with them. I firmly believe that.
What is your definition of business success? It’s having a team and people motivated by a vision that is personally important to them. I firmly believe that is the way you achieve success. You don’t achieve success by turning the screws harder. You don’t achieve success by setting revenue goals and meeting them. It has to be about the people on your team motivated to do more, and personally motivated by what they are doing.
If you could have dinner with anybody in history, who would it be? President John F. Kennedy. I find his life and existence to be extremely interesting and inspiring and have always looked upon his untimely death with quite a bit of interest. He has just been quite a bit of motivation for a lot of folks, and I always thought that it would be interesting to talk to him.
How to reach: West Monroe Partners LLC, (614) 372-7300 or www.westmonroepartners.com
It really bothers Jennifer Rosenberg, president of Acorn Distributors Inc., when she doesn’t make it around to each department every day to say hello and acknowledge all 110 employees.
“It’s something I try very hard to do because I want to see the distribution center employees, and that’s just as important as walking back to the purchasing department or the accounting department,” she says.
She admits that it anguishes her when she’s running late or is swamped with meetings and can’t make her daily rounds.
“At the end of the day when I am walking out, it’s always the first thing on my mind: Did I see everyone?” Rosenberg says. “And it really bothers me if I didn’t get a chance to acknowledge everybody in the building that day.”
Rosenberg doesn’t try to greet everyone because she is a people pleaser or a micromanager checking up on employees, or even because she’s the boss’s daughter.
It was her father, Al Wachter, now vice president of Acorn, who introduced her as a teenager working at the janitorial and food service equipment and supplies house to the practice of greeting every employee every day.
The difference now is that Rosenberg, who purchased 52 percent of the business in 2005, knows why she is so keen on giving salutations.
When she was a teen, it was all about starting off on the right foot. Now it is affirmation that she has the support from her team members who no longer see her as just the boss’s daughter but as the high-energy leader who inspires them to exceptional service.
Here’s how she met the challenge of being a leader in her own right who had to gain the respect of her employees.
Take the wheel with a firm plan
When you enter the field of company ownership, planning your exit strategy is probably the farthest thing from your mind. But Wachter, who was the sole owner of the company from 1999 to 2005, started thinking about a succession plan as soon as he took the wheel.
He needed to make sure there was somebody coming in behind him to operate the company as a family business. At the time, Rosenberg was working somewhere else, and her brother, who was working for the company, would decide after a few years to leave.
“You have to have a passion for the industry; he didn’t have that passion,” Rosenberg says. “There’s no animosity between us, but if you don’t have a passion, you’re not going to be successful. We all work so hard and put in a lot of hours, and if you don’t love what you are doing, you’re not going to go home a happy camper at the end of the day.”
So Wachter was successful in drawing Rosenberg, who was then a food broker, back into the company, but not necessarily to be the leader.
“When I started, I was just a salesperson, given a territory and told, ‘Go out. Sink or swim,’” she says. “But I needed to prove myself to the employees to earn their respect. I shouldn’t have expected that because of what my last name was. That was meaningless to me, and I didn’t want to be treated any differently than any other employee.”
A new leader joining a company wants the support of the employees. It boils down to whether they think they can follow because of respect or just because you are the leader. And in a family business, starting at the bottom may just be the best place to begin to gain support, to show employees you have paid your dues.
“You want their support,” Rosenberg says. “If employees don’t believe in you, why are they going to help you? I came in as a salesperson in our purchasing department. Those people knew a lot more than I knew, and I needed to learn from them.
“And if they didn’t have the trust and confidence in me that I was looking out for their best interests, why are they going to support me? Why are they going to help me learn what I need to make sure that I know every facet of the business to run it someday?”
Hitting the pavement pays off
In a number of family businesses, family members are automatically brought into the business whether or not there’s a need for them or whether they have the qualifications for the position or not. They may even enjoy tenure regardless of how well or how poorly they do their job.
But Rosenberg was intent on getting across a different message, one that would level the playing field: “I am not any better than any employee, and no employee is any better than I am.”
Starting at the street level (sales) was her preferred place to begin, especially in the distribution business, she says.
“You need to start with sales and learn the business, because if you don’t learn what goes on in the street and what your customers expect — you don’t have a business without your customers,” Rosenberg says. “Then you want your employees to have your back. I did that, and I proved myself, just as any other employee would do — not because I was part of the family.”
It worked, because Rosenberg put the effort into it.
“They saw how hard I worked,” she says. “They saw that I was out there hitting the pavement, knocking on doors, opening new accounts, educating customers that we train our sales people not to be order takers but sales consultants.”
It wasn’t long before Rosenberg found out that the different jobs she was learning around the company would help her wear different hats.
“On the sales side, employees see what I do for customers,” she says. “They see that I’m out there bringing in new business and growing existing business. They also see the relationships that I have built with customers.
“On the inside, it’s taking interest in what they are doing and working with them on projects, showing them that you’ve invested a lot in your employees; they are your biggest asset. Without them, you wouldn’t have the ability to go out and get customers.”
Don’t worry about whether or not you’ve arrived
If you’ve paid your dues to learn how to lead a company, there should be a point where you are respected and trusted — and seen as a leader in your own right. And if you can pinpoint when it happened, it might not have really happened yet.
For Rosenberg, there was no lightbulb moment. She once was asked if she knew when she had obtained buy-in and support from the employees.
“I couldn’t give an answer,” she says. “I don’t know when it was. I thought to myself, ‘Maybe I should ask one of the managers who has seen me literally evolve into my role,’ but I don’t remember when the lightbulb went off — when it was like, ‘OK, I feel that I have a good relationship with everyone here.’
“I think it takes time, but it’s one of those things; you’ve got to start off on the right foot. And I was lucky that I started off on the right foot.
“I think as long as you are working to your best ability, and you are truly learning the business, people know who is working hard and who is not working hard — and who is playing the system and who is not playing the system.
“You can’t fool people, especially employees who work with you day in and day out. It’s obvious you are in it for the right reasons. I think you just need to be yourself.”
There is one certain way to learn whether you have arrived: take time off.
“When I was on maternity leave, I remember getting emails with comments like, ‘We miss your energy around the building!’” Rosenberg says. ●
- Take the wheel with a firm plan.
- Hitting the pavement pays off.
- Don’t worry about whether of not
The Rosenberg File
Name: Jennifer Rosenberg
Company: Acorn Distributors Inc.
Education: University of Cincinnati. I graduated with a degree in history. I didn’t complete a minor in business, but I took a lot of business classes. For some reason, I really loved art history. I took an art history class my freshman year and I said, ‘Wait. I really like this.’ And everybody said, ‘What are you going to do with it, teach?’ I said ‘No, I’ll probably go into sales.’
What was your first job, and what did you learn from it?
I used to come in on Saturdays when I was a little girl and empty the garbage cans and my dad would give me a dollar. When I was 16 or 17, I worked at a clothing store called Chico’s at a local mall. It was a small boutique clothing store but I was very hands-on as far as with the customers trying things on and accessorizing them. I would blow other people’s sales away there. I learned the art of sales and taking care of a customer.
Who do you admire in business?
There are a couple of women that are in my industry, in our buying group, who are probably 20 to 25 years older than me, and their stories are very similar to mine as far as coming into their fathers’ businesses. And they are looking at me and saying, ‘I was you 20 years ago.’ I see where they have gone, and I see that’s maybe where I’m going to be in 20 years. And my dad has really been my role model as a businessperson. I’ve learned an incredible amount from him, and I am still learning every day.
What is the best business advice you ever received?
When I first got into the business and people were asking me, ‘Are you going to take over,’ I couldn’t answer that question. I was just learning in the beginning. And I remember asking then, how will I know if this is for me or not? They would say, ‘It’s when you don’t like what you are doing 51 percent of the time.’ That is something that has always stuck with me. As I mentioned earlier, if you don’t have passion, you are not going to be successful. I think you learn that pretty quickly — if you’ve got that passion or not.
What is your definition of business success?
A strong team, because without great employees, and a strong team behind you, you can’t be successful on your own. It takes an army. And I’ve got an awesome army behind me. We don’t have employees who have just been here six months, two months. We don’t have a revolving door. We have long-standing employees. From the hourly employees up to salary … and it’s not just in one department. It’s pretty clear throughout the building that we have a lot of loyal employees.
How to reach: Acorn Distributors Inc., (317) 243-9234 or www.acorndistributors.com
Deborah Byers loves the word engagement — as in employee engagement — and the new managing partner of the EY Houston office will be focusing on it now more than ever as she takes the wheel at one of the corporation’s largest offices.
“What may happen in a big organization is that you have very strong connections within small pods — and that is great as long as those pods are all connected through somebody in a leadership role,” she says. “You have to bring all those smaller connections together so they have a common vision.
“You could end up with a lot of connectivity in smaller groups that are isolated and not talking to each other — and you are not going to be as effective. So to start in the right direction, the buy-in effort begins with having empathy to understand what the people in the office are concerned about,” Byers says.
“It’s about what makes them feel good about their jobs, or happy to come to work because a happy employee is going to be much more productive.”
While Byers has been with EY for 27 years, most recently as M&A managing partner for the Transaction Advisory Services Group for the Southwest Region, one of her initial steps has been to meet — or get reacquainted — with the movers and shakers of EY Houston.
One of the conclusions she has reached is that as a leader, it is your job to constantly refresh and remind everybody: “This is the vision; this is what we are all marching toward.”
“Then you relate it back to, if we achieve this vision, why it is good for you?” she says. “That is what people want to know: ‘How does this impact me personally at this level?’ One of the primary critiques of leadership is, ‘Oh, they are in their ivory tower. They don’t understand what is happening in the trenches,’ so you need to be able to connect the vision with how it will improve their day-to-day working lives in the trenches.
“Then you want to connect it back to what does it mean to build a better working world: ‘How does that impact me down here when I’ve got a deadline that I’ve got to meet in 24 hours, and there are not enough hours in the day to get it done?’” she says.
In an organization as large as EY Houston, with about 1,200 employees, parts are going to be moving fast but others may be falling back.
“Your job as a leader is to be connected enough to know when you need to go in and help them tweak things a little bit,” Byers says. “You’re not dictating, ‘Hey, go do this. You should be doing this.’ It’s, ‘Hey, you may be a little off track, so let’s do this, and let’s tweak this.’ And then it is not a matter of coming in and saying, ‘What are they doing wrong?’ It’s what are the barriers and finding ways to help them find a solution.
“And that is why it is so important to be connected,” she says. “While it is important to have these goals and visions and be connected with the broader leadership, you know EY is a huge organization in itself, but you have to connect that back and know what each team is doing, down to the engagement level.”
How to reach: EY Houston, (713) 750-1500 or www.ey.com
When Dana Sellers started Encore Health Resources with Ivo Nelson in 2009, they did it without office space. Four years later, they have an office, but no one actually works there on a daily basis. There’s no receptionist or office manager. There isn’t a single office for any of Encore’s employees, not even Sellers, the CEO. Rare activity can sometimes be seen on a Friday in the form of meetings, classes, orientation or interviews.
Despite its lack of office space, the health care consulting company of 400 employees had $90 million in revenue last year. Sounds a little far-fetched, doesn’t it?
Success like that, according to Sellers, is more likely to occur when you have a razor-sharp focus on strategy — called “smart skinny data” at Encore — and you have to embrace the concept of a virtual office in order for it to become the optimal way to operate.
For Sellers, once she determined the focus, the solution was right behind.
“The biggest problem that our clients need to solve is how to get value out of their data and our answer is a solution that lets them do that in a smart skinny way,” Sellers says. “Really, there is no reason these days, with technology, that you have to have an office. I don’t have any phone number besides my cell phone number. Why should we be held back by big, bulky offices that tie us down to one place?”
Not every business is a good fit for a virtual office, Sellers admits. Companies that deal with a niche, requiring talent from all over the nation, indeed, the globe, have a good shot.
“For our business, it was the only way we could do it,” Sellers says. “It just doesn’t make sense to move everyone into Houston and then have them fly somewhere every week anyway.
“We tell them, ‘Look, you can stay where you want, as long as you are willing to get up and get to an airport and be at your client’s site at a reasonable hour on Monday morning, and as long as you understand you’re not going to get home until really, really late Thursday night. You still work on Fridays — just by conference call.’
“In my business, to be virtual, you have to make a conscious effort to understand how you are going to engage people.
“And I’m really proud that we have been named to Modern Healthcare’s list of best places to work in health care every year that we have been eligible — and we are a virtual company!”
Here’s how Sellers drives Encore Health Resources to develop integral data management systems — virtually — to move the industry forward.
Focus, and then proceed
Sellers and Nelson had a vision when they started Encore and knew that if it were to include helping clients get value out of their data, they had to have replicable tools and assets, as well as ways of being able to help them with that problem. But they didn’t know what it was going to be, and they couldn’t invent it in a conference room — they didn’t have one.
Just as records are to be broken, challenges are to be surmounted. And Sellers was familiar with the health care IT business, having previously worked with Nelson in launching Healthlink, a health care IT consulting company.
Data was being collected and crunched but the outcomes and efficiencies were less than optimal. A breakthrough eventually came and an ingenious solution was reached involving only the most relevant information — smart skinny data.
With the focus now in hand, Encore proceeded to figure out the details.
Sellers had been given advice from Rod Canion, co-founder of Compaq Computer Corp., to hire great people for Encore. With that in mind, Sellers recruited passionate, self-directed people — 60 percent who were clinicians and 75 percent having worked in the health care industry in the past.
These were the types who could flourish in a virtual office setting.
Decide if virtual is for you
Once Sellers had the breakthrough, she could move on with her virtual company plans. She had seen how well Healthlink had worked with its two major locations, Charlotte and Houston. And another plus — the savings in overhead was returned to clients.
“We had merged two companies; we agreed that we weren’t going to relocate people so we had some over there, and some people in Houston,” Sellers says. “We figured out, ‘Hey, that works out pretty well. We didn’t have to have everybody in one office.’ So we began the process then, and over time, we became more and more virtual.
“When we started Encore, we went all the way. We said, ‘Why do we need an office? For training, for recruiting, to do interviews and we need an office to meet.’ But other than that, we only needed an office originally for our bank of servers. Well, at Encore, we don’t own a server. We run Outlook on the cloud; we have an email service. All our IT services are done in the cloud, and we have a virtual P.O. box.”
But there has to be a structure capable of keeping the invisible seams of the organization together. One such method Sellers uses is a company “lockdown.”
Encore consultants keep an eye out for procedures and discoveries that clients are seeing that would be good to share companywide.
“Lockdowns are very intensive; we bring them to Houston, and they will work on a specific topic for a week,” Sellers says. “For example, the concept of smart skinny data — how do we leverage that concept for an Epic software implementation [software for health care, including offerings such as MyChart].”
The lockdown group, which meets in a room for a week, includes people who understand the tools Encore has, who understand smart skinny data and who understand Epic implementation methodology.
“They will work morning to night; they will have a great time; they will laugh; they will work really hard; they will have fun,” Sellers says. “And when they get done, we will have an electronic document that is amazing, that tells a client, ‘Without slowing down an Epic implementation, here’s how you make sure you get the right data captured so that when you get done, you’re going to have all the quality data in the right format so that you can do all the reporting that you need, to make sure that you are capturing the right insurance reimbursement.’”
Be conscious that you are virtual
Without a doubt, within a sizeable company, virtual or not, there will be times when discussions have to be held with a large number of employees. Encore developed a learning portal on its website to offer several options to help deal with the situation.
“You don’t have to send out an email to all 400 people, but you can participate in a community and their wikis [websites that allow collaborative editing of content by their users],” Sellers says. “There are various ways of enhanced sharing of information that we have worked very hard to do well in a virtual environment.”
When Sellers realized there needed to be a process to keep employees up to date on new tools and methods, monthly “lunch and learns” were instituted. These are videoconferences with educational topics, which are recorded so they may be accessed on the Encore portal. For instance, a consultant on the road can stay up-to-date with training topics while relaxing in his or her hotel room.
It’s also important to involve the entire company in training exercises. Every 18 months or so, Sellers holds a retreat that includes team building and training exercises.
“That retreat is really important in a virtual world because it is where you come together and actually get to spend time with people,” she says.
The personal connection is also important to retain when there are grievances or problems. Sellers developed a virtual “open door” policy that may rival those of her non-virtual peers.
“We are very, very conscious that we are virtual, so we make sure we do a lot of things to keep people engaged,” she says.
“The policy is this: We will make certain that you are face-to-face, personally, with that person, whoever you reach out to, within two business days somewhere in the United States. We don’t guarantee where. You may have to fly to them, or maybe they will fly to you. We will figure it out. There won’t be any retribution; we don’t guarantee you’ll get the answer you want, but we will take your issue seriously and we will look into it, and we will follow up.” ●
- Focus on your goal and figure out how to proceed.
- Decide if a virtual office is for you.
- Be aware that you are virtual, and it takes effort.
The Sellers File
Name: Dana Sellers
Company: Encore Health Resources
Born: Austin, Texas
Education: University of Texas at Austin. I studied chemical engineering. I wandered into health care accidentally and I’ve been here ever since.
What was your first job?
I did an internship at IBM manufacturing typewriters.
Who do you admire in business?
There are a lot of people I admire. I probably would say I admire Ivo Nelson, whom I have worked for much of my career. I am blessed to have worked with so many great people, but if I had to pick one I would probably say Ivo.
What is the best advice you ever received?
When we were starting up the company that later became Healthlink, Rod Canion, co-founder of Compaq Computer Corp., said ‘First of all, you need to always, always deliver great quality to your clients. Secondly, you need to hire great people. And third, you need to create a company where they can raise their hands and ask for help.’ So, I have always tried to live by those three pieces of advice.
The first piece Rod said about always delivering quality, we phrase that as 100 percent reference ability. We have a set of core values, and one of those core values we call 100 percent reference ability. Our goal is we know we will stub our toe, we know we will make mistakes, but our goal is that every client is reference-able at the end of the day. We will do whatever it takes to make them happy. We know it is a lot easier to make them happy if they stay happy from the beginning, or if consultants can raise their hand and said, ‘Hey, I think I need help,’ than if we wait until the end and find out that the client is not happy. So we want to create an environment where any consultant at any time can just raise his or her hand and ask for help and is not punished for that. We have a whole quality program that is built to support that kind of attitude.
What is your definition of business success?
There are lots of elements there. Obviously you have to meet the expectations of your shareholders. You’ve got to create a great place for the people who work for you and you have to meet the needs of your clients. I think that when I retire someday, I would like to look back and know that Encore made a difference in health care. To me, that would have been a real success. I think health care has huge challenges ahead of it right now. No one company is going to solve all those challenges, but to me, I would like to feel that Encore has been a huge success if when I retire, I can look back and say Encore played a role in helping make a difference.
How to reach: Encore Health Resources, (877) 787-1010 or www.encorehealthresources.com
Google pay-per-click advertising is a great tool for building brand awareness and generating leads online.
It can be a bit complicated for some, but there are four things you should be doing for your PPC to reach its fullest potential.
1. Organize keywords to target niche prospect groups
The difference between an ignored ad and an effective ad is its relevance. An ad for jewelry gets ignored when it appears in the search results of someone seeking remodeling services. The way you can make your ad the most relevant to prospects is by separating them according to the keywords they target and organizing them into groups.
The more thoroughly your keywords are organized, the more they will appear as if made specifically for the prospect.
Organizing your keywords does two things for your PPC: it makes your ads more relevant to prospects, and it increases your click-through rate.
These are the exact factors that also give you a high quality score for your ads. A high quality score gets you better ad locations on websites and better ranking for search ads. It also gives you a lower cost per click for your ads. Google is rating your ad on how helpful it is to your prospect, based on its relevance and click-through rate.
2. Create consistency throughout your PPC process
The PPC process is composed of three steps: grab prospects’ attention with a relevant ad; direct them to a landing page that elaborates on what the ad offers; and present a special offer as an incentive for prospects to fill out a contact form.
From your ad to your offer, your PPC marketing message and design should feel continuous and cohesive. It shouldn’t feel like three steps. If your landing page looks different than the image ad that attracted the prospect, the user will experience disconnect.
At each step, build trust throughout the process, ultimately leading to the prospect filling out your contact form. That’s how you turn them into a lead.
3. Optimize ads for phone responses
For most businesses, phone responses are a more valuable lead than those from contact forms, so it’s a great idea to optimize your ads to generate these calls. There are two ways to do this:
1. Make sure your number is displayed in all images and text ads.
2. Adjust your display times to only show ads when you’re in the office. This gives you the opportunity to get those calls and make the most of them when you’re open for business. Your phone responses don’t cost you anything.
4. Use ad extensions
PPC ads have a small character limit, but luckily Google offers Ad Extensions. These give you the ability to present important marketing information without adding to your character limit.
Location Extension: Helps prospects find your office.
Product Extension: Shows pictures and prices of your products.
SiteLink Extension: Presents multiple pages from your website simultaneously.
Phone Number Extension: Adds a click-to-call number beneath your ad.
Social Media Extension: Shows how many +1s your Google+ page has.
Seller Rating Extension: Shows the rating your customers have given your company. (Google only shows it if it’s four or five stars.)
Make sure you are taking advantage of every opportunity to improve your PPC efficacy. You’ll see the difference in your sales numbers. ●
Joy Gendusa is the founder and CEO of direct mail marketing firm, PostcardMania. She originally started the company in 1998. It now employs more than 200 people and has more than 53,000 customers in more than 350 industries. For more information, visit www.postcardmania.com.
Michael Yormark doesn’t have to look too far among his many steadfast employees to find the perfect example of how his company empowers people who work hard — who are dedicated, passionate and willing to do whatever it takes to succeed.
He stops on Matt Rickoff, vice president of sponsorships.
“I am very proud of the way he has grown his career and made an impact on this organization,” Yormark says.
The organization? Sunrise Sports & Entertainment, a holding company whose heart is one of the fastest-paced sports characterized by its passionate fans — hockey. Yormark, president of Sunrise Sports & Entertainment, is responsible for overseeing all the organization’s operating entities including the Florida Panthers NHL hockey club, the BB&T Center arena venue, the Saveology.com Iceplex recreational skating and training facility, SSE Gaming and the new Club RED, an exclusive club at the BB&T Center.
What impressed Yormark was Rickoff’s enthusiasm and desire, which he tries to nurture in all his 150 employees.
It all began some years ago when Yormark started receiving early morning phone calls. Yormark, who usually works out at around 4 a.m. and who is in the office no later than 6 a.m., was getting phone calls every morning around 6.
“I said to myself, ‘Who the heck is calling me this early?’” he says. “One day I actually answered the phone and the guy on the other line said, ‘Mr. Yormark, this is Matt Rickoff. I read that you are an early riser so I thought this would be the best time to reach you and tell you that I really want to work for you, and I promise that if you give me a chance, I won’t let you down.’”
Eventually, after a lot of persistence on his part, Rickoff had Yormark’s attention.
“I told him to come in and work on a trial period, and if he proved himself, we would hire him full time but on one condition — that he would stop calling me,” Yormark says.
“Well, Matt came in as a sort of intern and proved himself so much that he just recently earned his VP stripes, and is now one of the leaders in our organization.”
It was that passion that Yormark was looking for.
Here’s how Yormark keeps the passion alive at Sunrise Sports & Entertainment —celebrating its 20 anniversary this year — so the organization can grow the right way and consistently deliver the results the company and its supporters expect.
Work hard to deliver the promise
One of the fundamentals of business is that your customers are your lifeblood and deserve a first-class experience with every purchase — or every time they set foot inside an arena.
“But here it’s different because there is a certain lack of control you have over wins and losses and overall success,” says Yormark. “You can put a team together that you think will perform, and you can service your guests properly.”
But there is still a measure of unpredictably as to the outcome of a game or a season, so there is no secret to success in Yormark’s line of business.
“It takes a lot of hard work, diligence, preparation, perseverance and the like,” he says. “One of the mantras I have always lived by is ‘Dream big and dare to fail.’ I think that’s something our entire executive team and our staff have embraced.”
With the Florida Panthers in a competitive sports market in South Florida and the BB&T Center in a competitive market for entertainment, Yormark knows the pressure is on to offer something different, something that adds value.
“This is a challenging business, but we are not afraid to get up early, stay late, outwork everyone, and dream big that we can achieve the goals, the objectives and the successes that we set out to do,” he says.
The approach is to take the entire contribution of the workforce to make an experience that draws in repeat customers and makes believers out of first-time visitors. And it takes some work behind the scenes.
“From a business perspective I think what most fans do not see is just how hard people work to put on an exciting hockey game, an incredible concert, or even on a day-to-day basis just to keep this organization headed in the right direction,” Yormark says. “There is an incredible amount of work, dedication, sweat, creativity and passion that goes in to this franchise on a regular basis.
“If our fans saw that first-hand, it’s something they would be proud of — it’s something that I am proud of. I can honestly sit here and say that no one in the industry works harder than our staff.”
Stay in front of your audience
Delivering what a customer wants is often the gold standard used to evaluate your businesses’ sales. But how do you gauge what first-time or loyal fans really want? The same way industries such as manufacturing or service do — you study your feedback.
“Not only do we do an incredible amount of research, but we try to stay in front of our fans as much as possible,” Yormark says. “We have a campaign called ‘Talk 2 Us’ where we encourage fans to give their feedback on everything related to their Panthers or BB&T Center experience.”
Fan forums are held before every game where fans can give feedback face-to-face with Panthers representatives.
“Our executives lead advisory boards in each of the three local counties where they get opinions and feedback from 20-plus of our most dedicated and in-tune constituents,” he says. “We host regular town hall meetings with myself, General Manager Dale Tallon and others to keep them up-to-date on the state of our franchise, all the initiatives we are working on, and also to take questions and hear their thoughts.
“We take their feedback very seriously, and when we aggregate all that feedback and analyze it, it often leads to major changes or new programs.”
Accessibility makes a great impression. It demonstrates that in the glamor of professional sports, keeping in touch with fans can show compassion and a desire to want to stay connected with grassroots followers, so to speak.
“We are one of the most accessible organizations in the industry,” Yormark says, noting how he and his staff run an open-door operation. “We answer every email. We return every phone call. We engage on social media. I even give out my personal cell phone number to fans so they can reach me 24/7.
“In my opinion, that’s the only way to truly service your supporters and provide them with the best experience — you have to be accessible 24 hours a day.”
Add value and sustain success
As there are always going to be outside influences that can hurt a business — the recession, or in Yormark’s case, the NHL hockey lockout of 2012-13 — having the ability and flexibility to add value is crucial to repeating success.
“The important thing is that we grow this organization the right way and ensure that any success we have is sustainable success,” he says. “I believe we are doing that by constantly analyzing the way we do things both on and off the ice and making strategic decisions in every area of our business.”
Stars are made and broken each day just as products are sold and returned with the same regularity. The skill is to try to respond appropriately.
“You have to be willing to make the tough decisions to be successful in this industry,” Yormark says. “And certainly, I think as an organization we will continue to be willing to make those tough decisions and stay focused on the goals and objectives that we have set for ourselves.”
If you think of a product that you can buy from many sources at similar prices, it’s often the added value that makes you decide where you will make that purchase. Yormark’s passion for a fan’s total experience makes him sound like, well — like he’s a hockey coach giving a pep talk to his team.
“We do need to provide fans with great value for their investment,” he says. “We need to provide first-class customer service, their experience needs to be second to none, and regardless of the outcome of the game, or what they thought of the show, they need to walk out of our arena saying they had a great night and they would love to come back.
“From the minute they approach our parking lot, park their car, walk through the activities on our JetBlue tarmac outdoor plaza, show their ticket at the main entrance, grab a hot dog or a soda at one of our food courts, and sit down in one of our great seat locations, we need to make every part of their experience magical. Then hopefully the action on the ice, or on stage, will take care of the rest.” ●
- Work hard to deliver the promise.
- Stay in front of your audience to get feedback.
- Add value and sustain a successful operation.
The Yormark File
Name: Michael Yormark
Company: Sunrise Sports & Entertainment
Birthplace: Morristown, N.J. I have a twin brother, Brett, who is CEO of the Brooklyn Nets.
Education: University of Maryland as an undergraduate and Ohio University, with a graduate degree in sports management.
What was your first job, and what did you learn from it?
My first job out of college — after I sent out hundreds of resumes for pro sports jobs and received rejections from all of them — was selling clothes at a men’s store during the day and being a janitor in the evening. It humbled me a bit, and it taught me that you’re not going to achieve anything unless you work hard for it. Eventually, through a family friend, I got an interview with the New York Yankees and was lucky enough to get my first job in sports. But I’ll never forget that feeling of failure when I first graduated and couldn’t get a job. It motivates me to this day.
What was the best business advice you ever received?
“Dream big and dare to fail” or “Anything is possible.”
Who do you admire in business?
I was fortunate enough to work for Wayne Huizenga early in my sports career, and to this day I still consider him to be one of business’ greatest entrepreneurs. He is the reason we have an NHL franchise in South Florida, and for a period of time, he was by far the most dominant sports figure in the region. For people who knew him and worked with him, he was an incredibly intelligent and creative businessman, a tough negotiator, and someone who could look at any endeavor — be it a sports team, a land development project or a business — and know exactly how to make it successful. I consider him to be an incredible mentor, and a person I greatly admire to this day.
What is your definition of business success?
In my current role, I define success as building and maintaining a first class organization with the right culture, the right employee DNA and one that the community and all our fans and supporters can be proud of.
How to reach: Sunrise Sports & Entertainment, (954) 835-7000 or www.floridapanthers.com
Robert H. “Bobby” Schottenstein, chairman, president and CEO of M/I Homes Inc., has two mentors to thank for his entrance into the business world — and not surprisingly, he’s had two different careers.
His father, Irving Schottenstein, was his biggest influence in the real estate development business. Irving Schottenstein’s first cousin Mel Schottenstein was a Columbus lawyer.
“Irving and Mel were business partners,” Schottenstein says. Both have since passed away.
“They were the best of friends. They were just absolutely incredible men; each was a very impressive leader in his own right.”
The exposure to individuals who can be mentors is essential to develop an entrepreneurial spirit, Schottenstein says. In particular, he says his father’s character, integrity and commitment to doing things right was absolute, and he learned those values as such. Secondly, the two men were very successful in business.
“The combination of those two things helped set me on course, and gave me balance,” he says.
“A lot of the work of Junior Achievement is taking the time to expose young people to just those kinds of things to help broaden their horizons, to give them perspective, to give them hope, to help shape their dreams. I just can't say enough about how important that is.”
Schottenstein says there are a lot of unknowns in business to a newcomer, and one person can make such an enormous difference in an individual's life in terms of inspiring them or directing them.
“There is a lot of mystery in business,” he says. “What does it take to start a business, to be successful in business? And what is the X factor?”
He says Mel Schottenstein was his strongest influence when it came to the legal field.
“From the earliest age, I always wanted to be a lawyer,” Schottenstein says. “Following graduation from Indiana University, I went to Capital University Law School, and I loved it.”
After nearly 14 years in private practice as a business lawyer, and a lot of internal debate, Schottenstein decided to be in business in a more direct sense.
He left the practice and joined M/I Homes, which has grown rapidly and is one of the largest homebuilders in the country.
“Though I had a fair amount of business knowledge and certainly a lot of real estate and legal knowledge from my years as a lawyer, suffice it to say I didn't know a whole hell of a lot about home-building,” Schottenstein says.
He started at the lowest level, which he calls the foundation of the company — construction of new homes.
“You can't fully understand and appreciate business unless you really begin to understand what it takes to create the foundation of the business,” he says. “That was a very intrinsic value that my dad held, and he was right. I spent my first two to three years with M/I being just immersed in what I call the foundation of our business. Then I went into sales and other parts of the business.”
Schottenstein says he believes would-be entrepreneurs should first follow their hearts.
“Follow your passion,” he says. “It is hard to do anything really well, but it is extremely hard to do something well that you don't love. Try to find something that really excites you and that you enjoy doing so it's not work.”
A second piece of advice is to work with people whom you respect.
“Work for good people,” he says. “If you work for good people, good things will happen to you. If you are lucky to find something you like and even luckier to deal with people who you like, you are really riding downhill with the wind at your back.”
How to reach: M/I Homes Inc., (888) 644-4111 or www.mihomes.com
John P. McConnell has three straightforward pieces of advice for those thinking about going into business for themselves:
Never give up on your dream.
Have confidence in yourself.
Seek the help and advice of others.
“Remember, you can't do all of it yourself,” he says. “You need support of friends and others. Look to people you have admired in your life to go to when things get tough. Always be open and engaging with them. Don't make it difficult for them to be helpful.”
The chairman and CEO of Worthington Industries Inc., McConnell strongly believes in those three principles — having used them as he began working in the company his father John H. McConnell founded. The company has become a leading diversified metal processing company with annual sales of $2.5 billion.
John P. McConnell started as a second shift general laborer in 1975 at the company’s Louisville, Ky., steel plant. This was after some previous summer jobs there.
“I cut grass and did various odd jobs and tarred roofs, that kind of stuff at the cylinder plant for the summer,” he says. “So I kind of grew up in the business.”
While not everyone has the opportunity to join a family business, stepping into that arena sometimes takes a little pondering.
“It is something you want to be thoughtful about,” McConnell says. “There is a point where it is like, ‘Maybe I shouldn't go into the business.’ So I gave it some thought. It ended up — I started with our cylinder company right after school. Then I worked a little bit of sales there. Next, I became personnel director and did that for seven or eight years. Then I eventually started managing our Columbus steel plant.”
Active in numerous community organizations, McConnell currently serves on the board of directors for OhioHealth as well as on the boards of the Greater Columbus
Chamber of Commerce, the YMCA, Children's Hospital and the Columbus Zoological Association.
He is majority owner of the Columbus Blue Jackets National Hockey League franchise and chairman of the Columbus Blue Jackets Foundation.
As you can expect, McConnell is one of Columbus’ biggest boosters.
“I think the Columbus area is a fabulous area on many, many fronts,” he says. “It's obviously a great place for families. That's one of the things people say right away, but I think it is just a fabulous community, all the way around. And certainly from a workforce standpoint, there are a lot of very talented people to pull from here in the area.
“The Arena District made a huge change in the downtown. Everybody just keeps continuing to improve on the city. I just love Columbus the way it is; we should keep building on our strengths. It has a very diverse economy so it generally holds up pretty well relative to other areas of the country.”
McConnell is also concerned about the skilled labor shortage.
“I think across the country we still need an emphasis placed on skilled labor, because as machinists and tool and die makers — those people with those skills — age, there aren't that many coming in behind them. That is going to be a challenge for the country. It will be addressed. Shortages and voids always get filled, it seems.”
And entrepreneurs will continue to rise and flourish.
“I think there's always going to be an important role that entrepreneurs play,” McConnell says. “There will always be entrepreneurs. There are people who just see something and believe they can create something that others would want or that satisfies their needs. That kind of person is always going to be around and is always needed.”
How to reach: Worthington Industries Inc., (614) 438-3210, or www.worthingtonindustries.com
Rich Johnson was preparing to wrap things up for the week at his company, ViaQuest Inc., at about 4 p.m. on a Friday. It was 2008, and while he knew the credit crunch was starting to affect the economy, the last thing he expected was to have bank representatives walk into his office and inform him they were not going to renew ViaQuest’s line of credit.
“That basically sucked the cash out of our account, and I needed to come up with a large sum of money to meet payroll on Monday morning,” says Johnson, president and CEO.
Johnson was in a state of shock. Lenders were waist-deep in the red ink flood, and many businesses were hurting.
“I was sitting at my desk on a Friday night, trying not to panic,” he says. “My strong faith had a lot to do with helping me not to panic, but the first thing I did was to calm down, and just try to clear my head. I started making phone calls to people who had the same experience; I had never had this experience. I knew that I’m a fighter — and I was preparing myself for a fight.”
While he understood the reasons behind the credit crisis, he was surprised that it knocked on his door.
“We had never missed a covenant payment,” Johnson says. “We weren’t overleveraged. It really had nothing to do with us as a company. It was what was happening with the banking industry. It just took us by surprise.”
ViaQuest at the time was a $15 million company. Its longest standing division serves people with developmental disabilities in the home and community-based settings, and it is one of the largest providers of those services in Ohio.
“We had 1,100 employees who were dependent on us, and we needed to act quickly,” Johnson says. “We are passionate about serving a very special population of people with disabilities, older adults. Our staff is the most remarkable employee base that you can imagine. The first reaction was not, ‘How is this going to affect me?’ It was, ‘How is it going to affect the people that we serve? Let’s fight to make this work.’”
As you can imagine, ViaQuest had a difficult time for the next 12 to 18 months.
“We were late paying vendors. We were late making a lot of payments,” he says. “We had to decide what we could pay and what we couldn’t pay. It was just a very dark time in our history and we came very, very close to not surviving.”
But not only did ViaQuest survive, the company grew. It now has 1,400 employees and is on track for revenues of $60 million this year.
Here is how Johnson put together multiple approaches to keep ViaQuest’s head above water — including an astonishing bailout for the immediate problem at hand.
Leave no stone unturned
Many business leaders may admit that one of the biggest fears is having your lender pull the rug out from under you. What Johnson found to help his situation, however, was akin to an angel investor stepping up to the plate and hitting a home run.
“When the bank came in and shut down my line of credit, they said they would not extend any credit to me without collateral to back that credit,” he says. “They already had my house that I lived in as collateral, and all my assets were in the company. I had to act quickly.”
The first person he called for help was his ex-wife, Jill, with whom he was still good friends.
“This was Saturday and I asked her if she would be willing to put up the house [she had received it as part of the divorce settlement] as collateral to fund my next payroll. She started crying and said, ‘You know, this is the house that our kids live in, and I know that you would never let anything happen to me or the kids. You have always taken care of us, and I know how passionate you are, and I know that this, too, will pass.’
“That’s how we survived,” Johnson says. “She put up her house as collateral; it got us to the next payroll.”
While such a bailout may often provide a little breathing space, it also is a cry for a major review of company operations.
Once Johnson started to review his options, he and his team worked on collections and vendors.
“Some vendors didn’t get paid for months, but they didn’t stop service,” Johnson says. “They hung with us. We are just very fortunate that we had a long history with them.
“It is at times like that when you find out what relationships are all about.”
Involve the rank and file
Before you spend all your time with financial matters, you need to let your people know during a crisis what is going on.
“Over the weekend I drafted a correspondence to all our employees and told them exactly what was happening,” Johnson says. “We are a very transparent organization. I am the sole owner. And good, bad or ugly, I always let people know where we are at all times with everything — I let them know what was happening.”
Johnson told his employees that they were fighting for the future and asked them to stand with him.
“I said I understood if they wouldn’t, or if they felt that their family was in jeopardy and they needed to take care of their family. I understood that, but I asked them to bond together and fight with me. And every person did.”
One of the greatest things you can learn during a time of crisis is about the perseverance of the company and its culture.
“A lot of people were very afraid, but we did not lose any employees during that time,” Johnson says. “Most employees elsewhere would have been running for the door. I’m fortunate to have the greatest employees in the world who said we are going to stand and fight with you, and we are going to see this through.
“Today we are fortunate enough to have another bank in place,” he says. “We actually are doing very, very well. The experience taught us to manage the business a lot more efficiently, and it really made us tougher.”
Find a silver lining
Going through a crisis offers a unique opportunity to focus on the company culture that you have been building.
“The No. 1 lesson that I learned is that we really work on our culture more than any other function in the company. We spend a lot of time building our culture and showing our employees how much we value them.”
Johnson points to quarterly Culture Crusader meetings, where employees talk about living out core values, and annual conferences where managers receive inspirational training.
“It has built a culture that even if we didn’t know if we were going to be around in the future, the culture that we built together really bonded us, and we made it through,” he says.
Making it through a crisis shows how strong your culture has become and offers a particular insight.
“I guess we have matured a little bit,” Johnson says. “I never would have imagined that would have happened because we didn’t do anything (out of order). It is not like we were doing something and the bank gave us a warning that said you had better stop. So now, we make sure that we have the proper systems in place. We make sure that we have the cash and not depend so much on credit.”
In ViaQuest’s case, executive team members realized that they needed a greater focus on the processes of collecting and billing.
“We were 100 percent government-funded, so if you don’t have your ‘i’s’ dotted and your ‘t’s’ crossed, if you don’t have the systems and processes in place, your collections can get backed up, and you can make any bank nervous,” he says. “So we make sure that we have all of our core processes down to mitigate any billing or collecting issues. Then we develop different relationships and have alternative measures in place if this is ever to happen again so that we would not be taken by surprise.
“I think we have a great, great billing department now,” Johnson says. “Our finance department is outstanding. If there are any accounts that are just a little bit overdue, they start working it.”
It’s also a good idea to consider the role of the line of credit. If you rely on it, it becomes your safety net.
“We do not look at it that way,” Johnson says. “We view us as not having any safety net, and we still operate like we need to meet payroll every month. We still operate today like we did during that six-month period of time when we needed to fund every payroll. It’s kind of like we are Depression-era babies hiding money under the mattress and all those things.
“We’ve been scarred a little bit so we don’t take that for granted, and it taught us a great lesson. We run better as a company because of it.” •
- Leave no stone unturned when seeking help.
- Involve all your employees in the recovery.
- Find a silver lining.
NAME: Rich Johnson
TITLE: president and CEO
COMPANY: ViaQuest Inc.
Education: I was one of those kids that the judge said, ‘It’s either jail or the service.’ I went into the U.S. Air Force right out of high school. It provided me with the G.I. Bill, and I finished at Capital University with a bachelor’s degree in accounting.
What was your very first job? I was 16 and I worked at a Rax Restaurant. I was the second employee hired by them in Marysville and got my baptism by fire in the restaurant industry. I did everything. They were famous for roast beef sandwiches.
Who do you admire in business? Herb Kelleher and Southwest Airlines and the way they built culture. I have to admit I am not a huge fan of how you fly with Southwest, but you always know that you can get there on time, and you know it’s going to be a fun trip. I wanted to build a culture like that. I really studied Southwest Airlines. In 2001, we signed up Southwest Airlines to speak at our annual conference. Our conference was two weeks after 9/11. I said, ‘Look, we all know what is going on right now in the world. We respect that, and if you want out of the speaking engagement, I completely understand.’
The speaker said, ‘We made a commitment to you. We understand what is going on in the world but our commitment that we made to you — we are going to honor it.’ And she showed up at our conference, was our keynote speaker and did not accept payment. It was absolutely moving. It was incredible.
What is the best business advice you have ever received? A gentleman gave me the advice, ‘If you don’t have time to do it right the first time, you’re not going to have time to go back and fix it. So take the time to do it right the first time.’ That really stuck with me. But my personal mantra that I started early in business is if you do the right things, the dollars will follow. You always do the right thing first and not let financial pressures get in the way of that. I have stood by that and there are times when we were going through all the ups and downs that we had that it would have been easy to cut corners and do something differently. But I always believed if you do the right things, the dollars will follow and everything will be in place. That’s how we have operated this company.
What is your definition of business success? Positively impacting as many lives as you can so you can make as many people in your organization successful. It is not monetary. It is changing people’s lives. It is changing the way things are done. It is changing the world. Innovators to me are a business success. When you say you have changed someone’s life or have helped them improve their life, that is business success.