Rock The House Entertainment was founded on the principles of concierge-class customer services. It’s that willingness to go above and beyond customer expectations that has helped build the company’s customer base through word-of-mouth referrals.

About 80 percent of Rock The House’s customer base comes from referrals, according to founder, owner and CEO Matt Radicelli. Unsolicited testimonials from customers to family, friends and colleagues have helped to increase the growing reputation of Rock The House as a customer-oriented company.

Rock The House also puts a great deal of control in the hands of its customers. Once a potential customer makes contact with the company, they are in control of the flow of information they receive and how quickly the next steps — if any — are taken. Customers may choose to have preliminary information sent to them via e-mail, elect to have an event professional come to their home or place of business for a private presentation or visit Rock The House’s facility in Oakwood, Ohio, for a personal consultation.

Rock The House takes a high-tech and high-touch approach to maintaining its superior customer service program. At every turn, the company’s staff works to keep customer interests first.

The company’s RTHLive software platform allows for a high degree of efficiency from the initial collection of a customer’s contact information, all the way to an automated post-event satisfaction survey. Every e-mail and phone call, along with other correspondence, is electronically documented to better assist all departments in serving the customer.

In addition, Rock The House has implemented a single point of contact strategy when working with customers. It minimizes stress for the customer and increases accuracy when communicating a client’s wishes, needs and preferences. Additionally, clients are provided cell phone numbers of the company’s full-time staff, allowing access to assistance outside of normal business hours.

How to reach: Rock The House Entertainment, (440) 232-7625 or www.rthgroup.com

Published in Cleveland

Customer service is the biggest factor in differentiating your company from competition. The Shamrock Cos. Inc.’s CEO, Robert Troop, has driven growth at the marketing solutions provider by giving customers an experience they can’t get anywhere else.

Shamrock’s mission is to be the premier provider of integrated marketing solutions that help customers build and protect their brands, drive revenue and create efficiency using the right mix of people, services and technology. Led by this mission and powered by the ability to offer fully integrated, progressive solutions for customers, Shamrock has been bringing value beyond the products and services it offers clients.

A big way the company has done this and continues to drive customer service to new levels is through its Raving Fan Feedback System (RFF). Shamrock’s customer service is so distinguished from the competition that the company not only maintains clients as loyal customers, but it inspires them to tell others about Shamrock and the way the company conducts business.

The goal is to make every client a “raving fan.” To make the raving fan system work, Shamrock is certain to make its day-to-day performance stellar, and processes are continuously improved and the envelope in always pushed in terms of quality, turnaround time and customer relations.

Data is collected through what Shamrock calls the Problem Solving Analytical Technique (PSAT), which identifies the problem, all possible reasons, measures occurrences against possible causes, determines real root cause, implements a corrective action and monitors results to ensure the action has been effective. All results are stored in a database for any department or plant to analyze trends, events and process weaknesses.

Since implementing the RFF and PSAT systems, Shamrock has increased manufacturing on-time performance, decreased turnaround time to under seven days, increased distribution performance, decreased delivery time, and decreased customer impacted quality events.

How to reach: The Shamrock Cos. Inc., (440) 250-2186 or www.shamrockcompanies.net

Published in Cleveland

Ron Daugherty had hit a ceiling. Daugherty Business Solutions had been on a steady growth trajectory ever since he had launched the company, but it had reached a point where there was no more room to grow the organization.

“I found I could personally by brute force and a lot of hard work keep my hand in things and drive things forward in three or four different business units,” says Daugherty, founder, president and CEO at the 500-employee company. “But as we started to expand beyond that, it was impossible to scale further.”

The IT consulting company had a presence in St. Louis, Chicago and Atlanta and was now looking to get up and running with a different kind of opportunity in Dallas. Instead of providing service, the Dallas business unit would be a product-based venture that would support distributors and wholesalers across the country on behalf of Anheuser-Busch Companies Inc.

But the transition wasn’t going well and Daugherty quickly began to sense that he had bitten off more than his company could chew with this latest expansion.

“I had to gracefully ramp down what we were doing in Dallas and back away from it,” Daugherty says. “We had never had to do that before. It had been all growth. We didn’t hurt anyone, but we couldn’t maintain the operation with the amount of leadership required for this new product company. It was clear until our leadership bandwidth and infrastructure was strengthened, we were not going to be able to scale this thing much further. That was a pretty dramatic point in time for us.”

Daugherty realized there was a leadership void in his company that stemmed from what he had traditionally looked for when making hires and developing leaders in the business.

“We didn’t have enough leadership ability at the very highest level, the level of running a business entity or building an organization,” Daugherty says. “We started this company 26 years ago as a technology-focused organization. So most of the things we looked at and hired for and valued at the time were really smart technology people. We were very good at that, and it’s still a real theme of what we do.”

But it wasn’t enough to grow the business beyond what it was. And that growth was something Daugherty very much wanted to achieve. The trick was infusing new leadership without disrupting the culture that he had worked hard to build over the years.

“This had been a successful organization,” Daugherty says. “But it wasn’t even close to achieving the vision that I have and had for the company. So we had to address that.”

Know what you’re looking for

Daugherty wanted to find leaders to help his company grow, but they couldn’t just be any leaders. They had to be a fit for his organization and its culture. So pure business acumen wasn’t the only criteria he had in mind.

“Successful companies have a strong identity,” Daugherty says. “What that means is if you hire someone from the outside, it’s not an overnight thing that they will internalize your culture, your values and your vision.”

Daugherty sees his company as an alternative to national consulting companies in that it offers more local support from people who live in the communities in which they work. That family-oriented spirit was something he wanted to maintain in the service the company provided and the culture employees worked in.

Surely, he would have to bring in some people from the outside. But he believed it would be a mistake to automatically dismiss the untapped potential talent that might have just been waiting to be discovered.

“If you don’t promote from within, not only are you going to miss an opportunity to leverage some of the talent that you have, but some of that talent has experience that they have internalized that is associated with how your company does business,” Daugherty says.

At the same time, Daugherty recognized he needed some new blood. If everything he needed were within the company’s walls, he wouldn’t have had to shut down the Dallas site in the first place. He was going to need to look both outside and inside for this leadership talent he needed.

“You have to hire talent from the outside or you’ll become limited in terms of how fast you can grow,” Daugherty says. “You do need fresh ideas. It’s absolutely critical that you do both on an ongoing basis. If you don’t have a legitimate sincere commitment to promoting from within, why would someone join you for the long term? At the same time, you’ll limit yourself tremendously if that’s the only approach you take.”

One of the first things Daugherty did was begin looking more closely for leadership potential in the people the company looked to hire from the outside.

“It’s something we kind of paid attention to from the beginning, but we started to focus more on it,” Daugherty says. “When we hire these really smart technical people, let’s place even more emphasis on what kind of interpersonal skills they have. What sort of leadership potential do they have? What sort of business acumen do they have?

“Those became even more important for us to look for. Those are qualities we try to develop in our existing employees, but also certainly in new employees we looked to bring into the company.”

An added emphasis was also placed on developing leaders from within.

“We saw some great talent in our organization, but a need to do more to help groom and develop and bring along those business skills,” Daugherty says. “So that was part of it.”

The key to recognizing whether someone, either internally or externally, has the skills that could be groomed into being an effective leader is their mindset on new opportunities.

“Look for the evidence of how they translate the concepts that I’m talking about,” Daugherty says. “How do they relate that to specific things they’ve done? What have they done that shows that this isn’t a new idea for them, that it’s very consistent with the way they operate, the way they do business and the way they’ve led other organizations? Get it past the concept and the philosophy. What are the specific examples of how you’ve done this?”

You need to get to this depth of knowledge because it’s going to take more than energy and spirit to be a good leader. If you see it in the interview, you may think you’ve got a winner. But if there’s no substance behind it, you’ll have a problem. You need the complete package.

“It’s really tough to make somebody smarter after they join your company,” Daugherty says.

Groom new leaders

As Daugherty found people who he felt could serve as leaders in his company, the next step was to get them on the path to actually becoming those leaders he needed. He felt mentoring would be the best way to go with his direct reports doing the grooming.

The key to making it work would be their ability to demonstrate patience as the new leaders were trained. Daugherty had to get the leaders he had on staff to work just as hard as he would be working to infuse and develop more leadership in the company.

“You bring someone in and they are bright, talented and hard-working and you tend to break away too soon because we’re all busy and we all have a number of things to do,” Daugherty says. “So No. 1 is: You’ve just got to stay with it. You’ve got to spend the time.

“You can’t fall into the trap of, ‘OK, at last. I’ve got a new leader here. I’m going to spend a couple of weeks or months getting him up to speed, and then I’m going to turn things over to them so I can get more done.’ You have to spend more time. You’re probably going to have to spend six months to a year of some really significant overlap time with what they are doing.”

To that end, leadership training needs structure. Being a leader can be defined in a lot of different ways, so you need to figure out what you want to accomplish through the training.

“You have to have clarity around goals and objectives and the definition of success and what we're trying to achieve here and how we reward and incent people and how we reward folks,” Daugherty says. “You have to have structure around that or you’ll just run out of steam. Make sure the structure you put in place for how you recognize success and reward, incent and define success lines up with exactly what you’re trying to accomplish.”

Daugherty wanted people who could get the Dallas office back on its feet and make his offices in Atlanta and Chicago and back home in St. Louis stronger. He wanted people who would be ready when the next wave of expansion hit. He also wanted them to fit in with the culture and so it was key that the training was done the right way.

“If you have the values and the vision and the commitment and you have the structure, that’s been the breakthrough for us,” Daugherty says. “We see a lot of companies have the structure, but they are not connecting it to their values and how they live and think every day. And we see other organizations that don’t have the structure and all the good intention in the world will not get them where they need to go. So it’s a combination of the two.”

Daugherty reflects on his father for much of his perspective on leadership development. He was heavily involved in education, first as a high school teacher and principal and later as a superintendent, mostly in smaller towns.

“It was a job that as I think back on it and became a little bit older and more experienced, I realized what a leadership role that was,” Daugherty says.

“He had principals, teachers, bus drivers and cooks all working for him. Keeping that group motivated and working together and not fussing and fighting with each other. Helping folks on the school board, who in small towns ranged from farmers to grocery store owners and didn’t know a whole lot about the school business. Helping to educate and lead them while basically reporting to them. He didn’t have positional authority, but he needed to be their leader.”

It was a philosophy that Daugherty wanted his direct reports to understand as they worked to groom these new leaders the company needed. It was clear as he heard from the people who were getting trained that they had bought into what he was selling.

“As I bring in folks who are very senior people who interview with my leaders here, one of the things that I hear consistently is they say, ‘Ron, I’ve talked to your leaders here. Everybody is on the same page. You can see everyone here has bought into the vision,’” Daugherty says.

“They are totally committed and so we have a core team that is growing every day. It’s going to be an engine for driving a tremendous amount of growth.”

Daugherty points to people like John Wirth, his regional manager for Atlanta, Minneapolis and Chicago, who has helped make it possible to reopen in Dallas.

“He’s taking some of the leadership talent that he has developed, especially in Atlanta where he is furthest along, and we’re taking some of those leaders to Dallas,” Daugherty says.

He references Carol Morgan, who joined the company as a consultant and is now a regional vice president, as well as Jeff Hatfield and retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Lee Metcalf as examples of leaders who have been groomed through this system.

“We have a plan together that we’re drilling into more detail every day that shows how we can take the company from $100 million to $700 million in revenue over the next 10 years,” Daugherty says. “We’re really on a growth track with leadership development happening every day and new talent joining us as we accelerate on our journey.”

How to reach: Daugherty Business Solutions, (314) 432-8200 or www.daugherty.com

The Daugherty File

Ron Daugherty, founder, president and CEO, Daugherty Business Solutions

Born: Paragould, Ark.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in math, Arkansas State University; master’s degree, bioengineering and advanced automation, University of Missouri

Who would you have liked to meet and why?

Albert Einstein. He had a philosophy as well as just having an exceptional level of intelligence. He related the science that he understood better than almost anybody else to the real world and to human behavior.

I’m not as smart as Albert Einstein, but I’ve been smart enough to understand a lot of things around new technology. I’ve had the ability to translate those things into how they matter for businesses and for people. While I have people working for me who are a lot smarter than me on the on the technology side, to be able to pull the two sides together, I see some of that in Einstein. Really smart but able to relate as well to what that might mean to people.

Daugherty on motivation: We do have a very specific vision, culture and set of values here. When we consider someone for a leadership role, they really have to be motivated by what it is we’re trying to build. That may sound simple, but I see that point missed by people a lot. It’s not just that you’re smart or that you’re talented. Do you really want to be part of what we’re trying to do here? We’re going to be as crystal clear as we can possibly be with you about what we’re trying to do. If you want to be part of that and it motivates you to help build that, we can probably make a lot of things work here. If you’re extremely talented but you’re not particularly motivated by it, you’re never going to be a top-tier leader.

Published in St. Louis

The customer service philosophy of SS&G, led by its managing directors, Gary Shamis and Mark Goldfarb, is to provide exceptional service to all clients regardless of their size or profitability. Whether SS&G prepares a client’s taxes, performs an audit, or provides financial consultation, the firms strives to show every client it is committed to meeting their needs.

SS&G believes in investing in its relationships with its clients. The firm practices reciprocity for its services by engaging clients for their products and services. SS&G has a policy of working with clients before engaging outside vendors, sometimes putting aside cost in favor of giving business to its clients. Among the client products and services SS&G uses are printed and promotional material, cleaning services, copiers and interior landscaping. And SS&G recommends its clients’ products and services to others whenever appropriate.

At the start of each client relationship, SS&G provides a welcome packet to help the client become acquainted with the firm and its offerings. The packet includes a personal letter and literature about SS&G’s mission, resources available exclusively to SS&G clients and the level of service they can expect to receive. And to get to know clients outside of the office, SS&G invites them to sporting events, award banquets, and networking and social events.

SS&G has lower staff turnover than the national average, which helps ensure that its clients receive consistent service year after year.

SS&G makes a charitable donation each year in its clients’ honor to organizations with a presence in each of the communities in which the firm operates. During the most recent holiday season, SS&G made a donation to Alex’s Lemonade Stand dedicated to fighting childhood cancer. Each client received a holiday card informing them of the gesture made by SS&G on their behalf.

HOW TO REACH: SS&G Inc., (440) 248-8787 or www.ssandg.com

Published in Cleveland

“What’s important to you?” That’s the question employees at Today’s Business Products know to ask every time they meet with a client for the first time. Recognizing that every customer has unique and specific needs, the national provider of office supplies and furniture approaches customer service by focusing on the things customers say are important to them. They call it a “roll up your sleeves and get the job done mentality.”

Under the leadership of President Richard Voigt, Today’s Business Products recently celebrated its 27th anniversary, continuing to drive its goal of being the first name that people depend on for their office products. Today, the organization provides more than 50,000 business items for clients and taps its network of 40 regional warehouses to deliver to 98 percent of the population nationwide. Even with such a vast reach, transcending the competition hasn’t been easy. Two words have been critical in helping the company differentiate itself with customers: unsurpassed dependability.

Whether it means coming in early or staying late, the company’s customer service team members are ready to do what it takes to get an order right, meet a client deadline or make life easier for a customer or co-worker. This mentality stems from a culture that engages employees in partnership, customers, the community and the company.

The company rewards employees who embody customer-driven attitudes with programs such as its “Gold Star” awards, which gives team members gold stars to put on the wall to signify a job well done from clients, and the Bravo Award for employees who go above and beyond their job duties for a fellow employee or client. In order to help employees see their role as a partner outside of the company’s products and services, Today’s Business Products also works with many education and nonprofit clients, donating cash and auction items to local charities and organizations.

How to reach: Today’s Business Products, (216) 267-5000 or www.todaysbusinessproducts.com

Published in Cleveland

At Visual Marking Systems Inc., customer service is their competitive advantage. The company’s employees, led by CEO Dolf Kahle, act as consultants in the industry. The company’s staff frequently acts as a friend and shoulder to lean on for clients who are struggling to decide the direction in which they want to take their product identification. VMS provides support by giving advice and solutions that solve the product identification problems faced by customers.

To help facilitate productive solutions for customers, VMS developed an innovation center, which is often the first chance the staff at VMS gets to interact with a new client. The staff meets with the client to brainstorm ideas on everything from the best way to manufacture a product for their requirements, cutting options, shipping options, packaging methods and the best material to use. As a result of those meetings, VMS can often produce pre-production prototypes to allow customers to see and approve the product before placing a full-quantity order. By relentlessly looking for ways to improve products, VMS demonstrates that they have their customers’ best interests at heart.

All of the attention VMS pays to customer service is aimed at allowing their customers to excel at their own businesses. By making the purchase process as easy as possible, VMS allows its customers to focus on serving their own customers. VMS eliminates the burden of selecting complicated adhesives, materials and print options, instead evaluating the overall needs of each customer, and finding innovative solutions that meet their needs. By doing so, VMS allows customers to excel at their own company. By providing the services that build loyal customers, VMS allows their own customer to build loyal customers, strengthening everyone’s business in the process. VMS is a trusted partner for its customers and takes pride when they do well.

How to reach: Visual Marking Systems Inc., (330) 425-7100 or www.vmsinc.com

Published in Cleveland
Thursday, 31 May 2012 20:42

Paul Witkay: The future will be better

Most of what we hear on the news is how the world is going downhill — and quickly. Economic chaos, terrorist and pandemic threats, political stagnation, budget deficits and global warming are only a few of the issues constantly bombarding us.

Fortunately for me, these doomsayers are in direct contrast to the people I work with every day. It’s my privilege to live in the Bay Area, home to Silicon Valley, and work closely with CEOs who believe that they can make a difference in the world — sometimes even create a whole new future.

I suppose that’s why I find the book “Abundance: The Future is Better than You Think” so inspiring. Written by Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X Prize Foundation and a key figure in the development of the personal spaceflight industry, it describes the forces that are transforming our world and the trends that will enable us to address the most challenging issues facing our planet.

Here are a few of Diamandis’ examples that demonstrate how we can innovatively address the massive challenges facing us:

Water

Dean Kamen, the famous inventor of the Segway, portable infusion pumps and kidney dialysis machines, got interested in water and invented the “Slingshot,” a device that can purify 250 gallons of water per day using the same energy as a hair dryer. The power source is a Stirling engine that can run on most anything (even cow dung) and is designed to operate for five years in remote villages without maintenance. Kamen believes it can reduce costs by 90 percent.

Food

Winston Churchill said it was absurd to grow a whole chicken simply to eat its breast and wings. In the 1990s, NASA developed a way to grow meat from stem cells to feed astronauts on long space flights. Although it will take another decade to perfect the process, cultured meat has the promise to provide the protein we need, eliminate farm animal cruelty and restore the 30 percent of Earth’s surface currently used to raise livestock.

Energy

Billions are being invested in developing the capability to produce and distribute clean, renewable, safe and low-cost energy. In addition to exciting developments in solar, biofuels and storage, the potential for next-generation nuclear plants is enormous.

Bill Gates and others have invested in TerraPower, a company that is developing a traveling wave reactor (TWR) described as the “world’s most simplified passive fast breeder reactor.” A TWR can’t melt down and can run safely for 50 years without human intervention.

Education

Learning will be different in the 21st century. With the ability to find information on anything at any time on the Internet, we must develop the ability to ask the right questions. Creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and problem solving skills will be most valued. Although we need to restructure our education systems, the opportunity for personalized learning programs has never been better.

Health care

Medical researchers are pushing the cost of diagnosing disease to almost nothing. mChip, developed by scientists at Columbia University, has already demonetized and dematerialized the HIV testing process. Using a microfluidic optical chip smaller than a credit card, a single drop of blood can be read in 15 minutes at a cost of under $1.

The potential to make low cost, simple and accurate diagnoses for a wide range of diseases via mobile devices has enormous ramifications for improving health.

Freedom

The Arab Spring of 2011 proved the power of today’s communications technologies. One activist reported that they “use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.”

Freedom is a powerful and irresistible force for change, and technology is making it happen.

Paul Witkay is the founder and CEO of the Alliance of Chief Executives. Based in Northern California, the Alliance of CEOs is a strategically valuable and innovative organization for CEOs. Witkay can be contacted at paulwitkay@allianceofceos.com.

Published in Northern California

Esurance’s advertising was not translating into buying customers, and Gary Tolman needed to know why.

“We could see through the actual purchase process and monitoring what goes on through our website that when we got to the end, and the people had to push the buy button, we weren’t getting the conversion rate,” says Tolman, who’s been president and CEO of Esurance Insurance Services Inc. since 1999.

When Esurance began selling its insurance products on the Internet, the company quickly developed a niche in the under-30 market, a group attracted to the low-cost and convenience of buying online. But as more insurance companies moved online, the company struggled to build the kind of brand recognition that stacked up to entrenched competitors such as Geico, Allstate, State Farm and Progressive, which spend hundreds of millions in advertising dollars each year.

“You’ve got the auto insurance industry spending $5 billion a year on ads,” Tolman says. “You turn the TV on and you’re going to see the [Geico] Gecko or [Progressive’s] Flo or Mayhem from Allstate.”

Tolman knew that rather than try to copy the model of companies with far more money and resources, Esurance needed to reposition itself to better reach the customers it could acquire and retain. That meant “aging up” its marketing to reach older, more mature and multicar drivers with higher lifetime value.

“Companies that are going to be successful over the next four to six years are going to be the companies who have the best marketing efficiency,” Tolman says.

“So you’ve got to be good at that to get to your customer at the right time during the buying process.”

Here’s how Tolman has repositioned the brand to attract this new market of customers.

Get some backup

The company designed its 2004 television advertising campaign, which is based on the concept of an animated, pink-haired secret agent named Erin Esurance, with goal of increasing its brand recognition. While it did just that, a competitive analysis showed that customers still didn’t rank Esurance as high in terms of trustworthiness and credibility, which older, established drivers looked for in an auto insurance company.

“We wanted to position Esurance differently than we had in the past,” Tolman says. “Under Erin, we were kind of looked at as the cartoon company.”

That’s where Allstate came in.

“We want to be known as a smart insurance company, one that’s providing a convenient way of providing the policy, one that’s going to provide a lot of information over time, one that’s going to provide great service,” Tolman says.

“I knew what we needed. We needed support in terms of brand.”

According to Tolman, the most important piece of building a successful brand is having the right parent company. While its parent company at the time — White Mountains Insurance Group —was a wonderful partner, it didn’t supply a strong brand name. So when Allstate inquired about purchasing the company in 2011, Tolman saw the perfect parent to give the 12-year-old Esurance more brand power. As an Allstate company, it gained the marketing advantage of a large, recognizable parent with a track record of creditability and trustworthiness.

“Our brand is recognized,” Tolman says. “We’re considered to be innovative and fun, but unfortunately in terms of trustworthiness, we don’t index that high.

“We needed someone like an Allstate, a Traveler’s or even a State Farm to really provide this halo to the Esurance brand.”

So in October 2011, Tolman sold the company to Allstate for an impressive $1 billion. When he’d sold it to White Mountains in 2000, it was for $9 million in cash.

Instead of spending a lot of money trying to build the brand on your own, Tolman suggests finding a partner with the resources and reputation to help you build it.

“You can spend a lot of money trying to build brand,” he says.

“Allstate brings brand, a brand that has a great deal of trustworthiness and credibility in the market. I think that’s going to be huge for us.”

In addition to the name, look for a parent that has products or expertise that can enhance your own offerings for customers. For example, having access to Allstate’s products and expertise now allows the company to move from a mono-lined insurance company to develop bundled insurance products. For customers who already trust Allstate with their home insurance, this is an opportunity to utilize the parent’s brand power once again to convert new customers.

“You need to have something that differentiates you in the market,” Tolman says. “If you have a bundled product, either auto/homeowner’s or auto/renter’s, that makes a big difference.”

Do something different

As an online insurance company, Esurance caters the do-it-yourself consumer, rather than someone who wants to work with an agent to buy insurance. While young people already tend to fit into this first group, Tolman knew that developing a brand message to reach a more stable, mature driver would take more than a new parent company.

“You look at the lifetime value that we would get from those particular segments, and then we realized that we need to move up age-wise and also in terms of getting more people with more cars and multi-drivers,” Tolman says.

“That requires us to shift our message. We don’t want to be known as the cartoon insurance company.”

It would take a new advertising strategy to get this group thinking about the company differently.

“We knew where we wanted to go over time,” Tolman says. “We wanted to age up with our in-force policy holder base. We wanted to acquire people that had multiple drivers, more cars and were married. So it’s positioning the advertising to get to that target market.”

After the acquisition, Tolman began shopping around for an advertising agency that could position Esurance as a professional insurance company, accounting for its new parent in Allstate. He helped whittle down the choices to three agencies before the company went with Leo Burnett from Chicago.

Early this year, the company rolled out a new national ad campaign centered on the tagline, “Insurance for the modern world,” using a series of television commercials narrated by “The Office” actor John Krasinski. In its first campaign since being acquired by Allstate last year, the company examines real-world problems and solutions for customers in a “modern” world, stressing buying factors such as trust, transparency, tools and mobility in choosing in insurance company. In one commercial the narrator asks, “What makes you trust a company? Wait — scratch that — what makes you trust a car insurance company? A talking animal? A talking celebrity? A talking celebrity animal?”

When you don’t have the resources of larger and longer standing companies in the marketplace, Tolman says your advertising needs to really convince your target customers why it makes sense for them to have your company’s products.

“We just didn’t want to go out and preach savings, savings, savings,” he says. “We wanted to say that there are different things you can do.”

Stay nimble

Today, Esurance does business in 30 states, and with its new parent, Tolman expects that to increase that number to 40 over the next few years. But even as a big company with close to $1 billion in revenue, the company continues to think small and move quickly, especially when it comes to planning its brand and marketing strategies.

“We’re constantly tweaking where we’re spending our dollars,” Tolman says.

“We can be in a position where our online marketing is extremely effective for six months and then they’ll be some activity in the market where some companies get more aggressive, so that becomes less effective.”

While he is much more careful about taking risks when it comes to pricing or product design, Tolman says businesses must take risks in areas such as marketing where there is significant pay off. Being data-oriented allows you to see quickly what’s working and what isn’t so that you can take the right risks, which is why Esurance lets metrics drive many of its marketing decisions.

One of the company’s key metrics is customer conversion, so it spends a lot of time updating and tweaking its website to lead customers to the point where they purchase a product.

“You can do some marketing that drives a lot of traffic but has lower conversion rates,” Tolman says. “You can do other marketing that’s more expensive but it’s probably going to have higher conversion rates.

“We’re always looking at how we should change the website in terms of the questions asked. How should the page be displayed and what should be on the page?”

Tolman says in order to stay ahead of customer trends, businesses need to look beyond just what competitors are doing and see what successful businesses outside of their market are doing to build their brands. Also, think two of three years out so that you are continuing to be innovative in the type of marketing you use and the channels that are most effective. This is always changing.

In the case of the Erin Esurance campaign, the advertising met the needs of the brand at the time, but eventually the campaign was right for growth.

“Certainly with Erin, that was very effective in getting brand recognition,” Tolman says. “That was very different back then. Insurance companies were not using cartoon advertising. It was quick and it was flashy and it got to the market that we were targeting, which was more the younger, single insurance.”

The fact that people are now looking for information not just from sites, but through online reviews and social media channels, is what prompted the company to start a bigger dialogue with consumers through Facebook.

“We’ve changed how we’re positioning ourselves in social media,” Tolman says. “Now we certainly are pushing people to make comments about us on Facebook.”

Because the market is not stable, business leaders need to be aware that the things that work today may not work tomorrow. Remain flexible in your marketing just as in other areas of business. To get optimum value with your marketing dollars, Tolman suggests staying attuned to where you are getting most of your leads from — whether it’s in television, radio or online — while also being prepared to readjust spending.

“As a direct-to-consumer company you need to be nimble,” he says. “You need to move quickly as the market changes.

“We take some risks in areas and we launch new features in marketing and IT, but we look very quickly at whether they’re working or not. If they’re not working, we see if we can get them to work or if we just kill them.”

How to reach: Esurance Insurance Services Inc., (800) 378-7262 or www.esurance.com

Takeaways

1. Find parent companies that lend brand power.

2. Develop marketing and advertising that appeals to your audience.

3. Listen to the market to stay ahead of industry trends  .

The Tolman File

Gary Tolman

President and CEO

Esurance Insurance Services, Inc.

Born: Keene, N.H.

Education: University of New Hampshire

What do you like most about your job?

What’s interesting about insurance, particularly auto insurance, is that people need it. It’s a product that people have to have. Certainly it’s a very competitive market, but it’s not something you buy when it’s nice, when you have some extra money around. You’re required in all states to have auto insurance. So even though it’s become more commodity-like over time, it’s something that people need. And you know they’ll be a market there. Also, generally competitors are responsible competitors.

Why Esurance chose online: We launched the company and we tried everything. We tried print ads. We tried TV ads, which I can tell you were terrible early on. We tried direct mail. We were unsuccessful. Then online is where we found our sweet spot.

On the decision to “age up” the company’s marketing:  Over time, we could see what was happening in our particular market segment. You could look at the people who were 20 to 30 and see how long they were staying with us, how many people were on their policy, how many cars they had, and then you compare that to the people 30 to 40 and 40 to 50. You need to acquire the customers and then you need to retain them. If you have a lot of younger, single-car drivers, they tend to move quite a bit.

Published in Northern California

As president and CEO of Austen BioInnovation Institute in Akron (ABIA), Dr. Frank Douglas has learned firsthand the impact that successful collaboration can have on turning around economic growth. But he says that just because organizations choose to collaborate, doesn’t mean that they know how to do it successfully.

While ABIA’s mission is simple — to deliver value-added, patient-centered innovation and commercialization — achieving its lofty goal to spin out 40 to 50 companies and create nearly 2,400 jobs in Akron in a 10-year period won’t be. Even with founding members that include prominent Akron institutions such as Akron Children’s Hospital, Akron General Health System, Northeast Ohio Medical University, Summa Health System, The University of Akron and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, enticing health-related ventures to the Akron area has required ABIA to build what Douglas calls a “collaborative ecosystem.”

“Namely we have a system that focuses on identifying patient problems, coming up with ideas to solve those problems, and testing those ideas for technical and commercial feasibility,” Douglas says.

What attracts businesses? For one, companies also want to work with organizations that can introduce them to a team of people working together.

“We talk about the strengths, but if the strengths are isolated in each of the institutions, it’s really not a benefit to a business,” Douglas says. “A business doesn’t want to have to hunt around to find expertise and capabilities.”

So the organization spent its first year putting together platforms and funding collaborative projects to bring together scientists and physicians to develop solutions for patient problems.

“A company can easily see how by coming to ABIA they could access experts, and multi-disciplinary experts, not an isolated expert deep in one discipline, but teams of experts that can address their issues,” Douglas says.

Because the problems in patient care are multi-disciplinary, it takes collaborative teams to solve them. So another key to the collaboration has been helping people in various organizations step out of their own paradigms so that they can recognize areas where working together is beneficial. “We have to accept that hospitals will still be competing with each other, but there are areas that are relatively easy to identify where they may not have critical mass, where working together would make them much more competitive or the tide would raise all boats,” Douglas says.

By leveraging the combined strengths in the Akron area to focus on biomaterial solutions for patients, from the nationally ranking polymer biomaterials at the University of Akron to the area’s leading medical institutions, hospitals and medical schools, there have been many opportunities to share resources, insights and expertise.

An example is in learning through simulation. In April, ABIA opened up a 40,000-square-foot facility, which will focus on educating the integrated health care team as well as early responders through team-based, patient-centered simulation programs. Now separate institutions can use the larger, shared simulation center for collaborative innovation.

“To have a large simulation center where they all could collaborate and that could potentially attract people from across Ohio and across the nation is a great opportunity,” Douglas says.

Recently, the prototype system that ABIA created with the University of Akron Research Foundation won the National i6 Innovation Challenge to receive a sizable grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce. Early this year, the organization also launched APTO Orthopaedics, the first medical device company created out of the Institute. So far, Douglas says the progress in Akron and on a national level has been fantastic and motivating.

“Those are just examples of the success this collaborative effort has had,” Douglas says.

“The way I look at it is are we being recognized outside of Akron and Northeast Ohio for the things we’re doing, because if we are, then we are likely to attract companies to come to Akron.”

How to reach: Austen BioInnovation Institute in Akron, (330) 572-7544 or www.abiakron.org

Sharing solutions

With Synergy Seminars, Austen BioInnovation Institute in Akron brings together problem owners and solution providers every month to collaborate on a different key problem in biomedicine and healthcare.  Designated as an Ohio Center of Excellence for Biomedicine and Healthcare, the organization’s ability to bring in experts on these topics is helpful in solving problems faster and for better outcomes, says President and CEO Dr. Frank Douglas.

At the seminars, ABIA will typically have an expert speak for 30-minutes about a particular problem a patient has, giving the background, medicine and the science behind it. Afterward there is a 45-minute session with the audience, sometimes aided with a panel to discuss potential solutions.

“A company came to us with a problem saying that they had heard about the Synergy Seminar and asked if we could hold a closed synergy seminar for them,” Douglas says.

After ABIA hosted a two-and-a-half hour seminar for them, the company was thrilled with the solutions that came out of the collaborative problem-solving.

“They said, ‘We got two solutions that we probably would have gotten but it would have taken us about six months,’” Douglas says. “‘We would have visited different experts and hopefully we would have put it together, but here you have this multi-disciplinary group of scientists, surgeons and nurses and two and half hours later, there we were.’”

Published in Akron/Canton

When Dan Myers and his partners capitalized Bridge Bank N.A. in 2001, it was the largest new bank IPO in the state of California at the time. More impressively, they did it during the most brutal economic downturn in Silicon Valley’s history. Even then, the biggest challenges were still ahead.

“We expected to grow rapidly, and based on experiences at other banks that were also somewhat recognized as high growth models, we understood and appreciated that we would transition rather quickly from a de novo, to a $250 million bank, to a $500 million bank to $1 billion bank, and the infrastructure and risk management challenges inherent in each of those milestones were significant,” says Myers, the founding president and CEO of the San Jose-based company.

In addition to its differentiated business model, which focuses exclusively on business – not on retail, the bank’s strategy involved executing a high-growth business model. From the beginning, the founders were cognizant that the company needed to be able to handle change extremely well if it were going to be successful with this vision.

“We had to be adept at change because regardless of economic environment, the company was going to go through some accelerated phases of growth in an accelerated manor that demanded we be good at change,” Myers says.

To ensure that everyone in the company was proficient at change management, Myers and his team knew they needed to weave it into the culture of the bank itself.

Stay several steps ahead

To handle the continuous change that comes with fast business growth, Myers realized that the bank couldn’t afford to not plan ahead when it came to its strategies, infrastructure and growth goals.

“You have to think ahead, not only a couple of quarters or to the end of whatever fiscal year you’re operating in,” Myers says. “You have to look down the road one to five years, which most banks do on a strategic basis. But their five years we’d be looking at in one to two years.”

Proactively building up your infrastructure prepares your company for fast growth by enabling a smoother transition from one phase of growth to the next. This allows you to focus your attention and resources on the core business, such as finding good clients that fit your target profile, soliciting new business and producing the results for its shareholders, rather than trying to constantly re-adapt a long-term strategy.

“We would never want to be in a position where we’re playing catch-up,” Myers says. “So we’d build infrastructure, we’d build capabilities before we actually needed them. When it came time to execute at that higher level, from an internal cultural management perspective, we would already be there.”

To develop a culture of forward-thinkers, it’s important to talk to employees about what kind of growth you are anticipating so they understand why it is important to create a culture that is accustomed to change.

“A lot of that success was focused on explaining that to the bankers that we had already hired, the founders and making sure that as we brought people in they understood not only were we going to execute a sound bank business plan but we were going to do it in a way that would anticipate this high growth and prepare for it,” Myers says.

Myers and his team also spend a lot of time talking to employees, customers and stakeholders about how the company’s value proposition is being received by clients and the bank’s more active referral sources in the community – that includes professional services groups such as CPAs, attorneys, venture capitalists and investment bankers, in addition to the management of all the companies who bank with Bridge Bank on a direct basis.

Having this dialogue is helpful to stay on top of trends and shifts in thinking among key groups in your industry, allowing you to adapt proactively.

“We took it a level higher and said we want to be even more differentiated in that we’re going to be the only true professional, business bank operating at the community bank level in our region,” Myers says.

“So it’s the constant, ongoing conversation are we offering the value proposition, products, services that are relevant in doing what they’re supposed to do for their clients,” Myers says.

The company recently expanded this effort to include brand analysis, which seeks input from its stakeholders and also from prospects that it didn’t manage to turn into customers.

In today’s tough environment, it isn’t easy to attract new clients and retain them for growth, so it’s critical to be part of the industry conversation if you want to be successful tomorrow.

By planning ahead, the bank has been able adapt quicker than many competitors in times of great change, including through two significant economic downturns.

“It’s making sure that we’re questioning those out in the market and getting feedback to expand our target,” Myers says.

Be clear on strategy

When looking at how to set up Bridge Bank, Myers and the other founders analyzed the structure and organization of other local de novo banks — banks that have been in operation for five years or less. What they figured out was that in California, the average de novo community bank would grow to anywhere from $300 million to $500 million in size in a 10-year period. Yet Bridge Bank planned to grow even faster than that.

“We were intending to be roughly double that in the same amount or a lesser amount of time,” Myers says. “So our time horizons were moved up a little bit with the same challenges imbedded in them.”

To execute this growth efforts, he felt it was even more important that the company set clearly defined goals for the bank and its employees for how they would achieve growth.

“You need to understand your organization, not only what it really is — and that’s a challenge, too — but where you intend it to go,” Myers says.

He says that much of his time goes toward developing a culture and communication system to make sure the growth strategy and vision remain clear for everyone.

“There can be a disconnect that develops over time,” he says. “You simply have to encourage the folks that you rely on to run various aspects of your business to keep you informed in an accurate way so that you can manage accordingly.”

It’s beneficial to have a communication system that provides top level management accurate, honest input and feedback so that your top leadership can best understand the organization as it matures. Because fast growth companies tend to be adding new employees all the time, part of that involves devoting significant time and resources to encouraging open communication within your organization.

In other words, talk to people.

“I know it’s a simple concept, but as you grow very rapidly you have people coming in from different organizations,” Myers says. “You have a constant mix and evolution of culture. You really have to proactively develop lines of communication, methods of communication and provide people with the tools to communicate effectively.”

This helps you avoid falling into what Myers calls the “big bear trap” of pursuing areas that are not consistent with your primary model, a pitfall he’s observed for many banks.

“Over the years, it’s been important to remind our folks from top to bottom in the organization that it’s not only critical to focus on what we said we’re going to do,” he says. “It’s to have the discipline to stay away from things that we know are not complementary, which again is running counter to what most other larger banking organizations have done even in the last 10 years.”

Engage people in decision-making

As the second or third startup for many of its founders, Bridge Bank has had the benefit of an experienced leadership team throughout its growth. Yet from this experience, Myers and his partners have also learned that leaders cannot be the only ones coming up with ideas if they want their company to flourish. It is collaboration at all levels that gives companies the greatest advantage when planning for the future.

“Our best solutions for managing the challenges as the company continues to grow don’t necessarily come from the top,” Myers says. “Some of the best ones come from team building and teamwork at all levels of the company, top to bottom, as they work at their own individual levels on different aspects of those challenges.”

By asking people to play a more active role, you empower them to make decisions so they can take initiative to solve problems and come up with solutions or ideas proactively. Being able to acquire clients and build the bank’s business today relies on this efficiency in decision-making. Therefore, the bank’s culture is built around continuous improvement and finding new ways to grow its value proposition, no matter what the economic climate looks like.

The No. 1 driver of this culture is recognition, both verbal and financial.

“It lets us all continuously look for ways that we can improve everything that we do in a positive, constructive context so that we can execute better, we’ll take better care of our clients and we’ll have better performance not only for our shareholders but then how that comes back to our employees in terms of the ways they benefit with their relationship to the bank, including compensation,” Myers says.

“Although we have an economic recovery under way, it’s tepid at best. Therefore, your growth aspirations are really driven by your competitive positioning and abilities to take business from competitors. The overall growth in the economy isn’t going to float all boats.”

Engaging people in your company’s growth goals is more successful when it comes in the form of enthusiasm rather than censure. When you reward people for bringing ideas to the table about how your company can improve its performance, it helps them engage in innovation as a challenge to do better rather than a disapproval of the way thing are being done.

“Unfortunately in some companies it is a form of criticism,” Myers says. “You can do this better — do it better.

“Going hand-in-hand with the collaboration and teamwork, if they identify a challenge within the company, we encourage them to recommend a solution and a way of dealing with that challenge at their level with decision-making authority. That encourages an efficient resolution of whatever the challenges but also understanding that there’s accountability that goes with that.”

Today, Myers says the bank continues to focus on developing its bankers and its change management culture to stay competitively positioned for high growth.

Through continuous effort to take better care of its clients, the bank not only survived through the worst of the financial downturn but actually had its best years for new client acquisition and issuing new credit commitments. Over the last 10 years it has grown organically to some $1.2 billion in assets in 2011, an increase of $131.3 million from just the year before.

“It’s that core competency of change management that served us well when we launched in worst economic environment in Silicon Valley, which has since been bested by the great recession,” Myers says.

“When the banking industry as a whole was really taking it on the chin from a PR and creditability perspective, we had our best years at bringing new clients in, which I think says something about the validity of our value proposition, how it resonates in the market and how our people have executed in delivering that value proposition so that it’s appreciated for what it is.”

How to reach: Bridge Bank N.A., (408) 423-8500 or www.bridgebank.com

Takeaways

  1. Stay ahead of the game.
  2. Set clearly defined goals.
  3. Use teamwork to make decisions.

The Myers File

Daniel Myers

Founding president and CEO

Bridge Bank N.A.

Born: Dayton, Ohio

Education: DePauw University, liberal arts. Pacific Coast Banking School, Seattle, Wash.

First job ever: I bailed hay part time.

First job after college: Pacific Valley Bank in San Jose, Calif., as a reconcilement clerk

Who are your heroes in the business world and why?

Entrepreneurs. They have the vision, the can-do-anything attitude, and perseverance that is the basis for new company and new job creation, even in the face of monumental challenges in today’s environment.

What do you do to regroup on a tough day?

Take our golden retriever, Belle, on a long walk. She’s a good listener.

What is your favorite part of your job?

At Bridge Bank, I get to meet and work with so many exceptional and interesting people, including the entrepreneurs, business owners and all of the top tier career professional business bankers that have joined me at Bridge Bank.

Published in Northern California