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President Lisa Faller sees client loyalty as a direct reflection of her company’s commitment to going above and beyond for clients. Today, FKQ Advertising + Marketing’s client list includes numerous relationships that span decades.

“That speaks volumes about our focus on generating the client’s desired result,” says Faller, whose family founded the Clearwater-based firm in 1961. “You can do a really good job and you can deliver and please a lot of people, but at the end of the day, if you are not year over year making that happen, then your tenure is probably short lived.”

FKQ’s self-defining philosophy of “whatever it takes” is splashed all over the company’s website, and there’s a reason. On the client side, Faller says the company’s associates are relentless in pursuing and achieving every client’s success goals, which she adds are often fairly aggressive. The continuing challenge is not just recruiting candidates that have this drive, but maintaining a company culture where its 82 employees can pursue ambitious ideas and new ways of thinking.

“For our people, it’s about empowering everyone at FKQ to really control their own destinies by creating an environment where the best ideas always flourish,” she says.

One way is by using both large and small group environments to draw out people’s insights and opinions.

“When you are in a large group setting, some people may not feel as comfortable offering up what are no question great ideas to put into play and have everyone benefit from,” Faller says.

Offering a mix of communication channels for people to discuss ideas gives them the opportunity to share in either setting, encouraging more contributions and collaborations. This, on top of daily positive reinforcement of good work is what gives employees the confidence to deliver their top performance.

“That leads to facilitating the best thinking, because then people are confident and positive in terms of what they are able to do,” Faller says. “That helps them in being able to facilitate greater, bigger thinking on a consistent basis.”

Another way to further a results-oriented culture is by getting people to focus on positive outcomes. So as a mentor and motivator, Faller is always acting as the cheerleader for optimism and enthusiasm.

“You have to keep people feeling very good about not only what they are delivering to the client, but just being happy in general,” she says.

“It’s really a lot about a consistent focus on thinking positive, seeing the glass half full and never dwelling on uncontrollable negative influences.”

While clients provide the inspiration in keeping employees motivated about new opportunities and challenges to think through, Faller says a leader needs to provide the context in the vision to motivate the culture as whole.

“You’re identifying what the overall goals are, and then you have to make sure that you articulate that to all of your respective team members so that you have that unified commitment, and that focus and everybody collectively achieving those desired goals,” she says.

Faller also uses employee motivation efforts such as having FKQ-sponsored events or serving up special food offerings. The more mass appeal it has, the more effective it is.

“You need to be open to be making sure that whatever continues to please the masses is something that we focus on,” Faller says. “That keeps people in a charged up fashion to deliver for our brands.”

By solidifying this strong team spirit and unity, she supports a culture where people believe they can make anything happen. An example is when FKQ completed a billboard for McDonald’s McCafe espresso products in downtown Tampa, which had three-dimensional coffee cups and real steam coming off the board. The groundbreaking advertisement not only drove customers to McDonald’s, but was hailed in the industry as a best practice because of its environmentally friendly construction.

“We’re always about how can we resolve this or make this better,” Faller says.

“You have to have that universal spirit. If everybody understands that and every action is guided by that, it’s incredible what that total unity can make happen on behalf of the clients that we serve.”

How to reach: FKQ Advertising + Marketing, (727) 539-8800 or www.fkq.com

Finding rock stars

For companies with a long track record of exceeding clients’ expectations, the biggest challenge is often just finding more rock star talent to feed the growing machine. Lisa Faller, president of FKQ Advertising + Marketing, continues to use a twofold approach to recruit people who fit with the company’s brand character.

“Growing up in the business, I just saw how we had done it successfully for so long,” Faller says. “We just continued to evolve and grow upon what has worked well for this company and been able to infuse even new, younger viewpoints.”

First, the company uses its longtime referral program as a targeted means of recruiting.

“Who better to advocate our brand than those people who actually embody and live it each and every day?” she says.

“That often leads to greater retention because when birds of a feather flock together, not only do you get better candidates in the door, those are the people who typically have the long-term tenure, which is a trademark of FKQ.”

Secondly, the company works with the best HR professionals that it has come in contact with over the decades. These people specialize in the disciplines FKQ offers for employees, which creates a pipeline of new talent.

“We’re bringing in the best talent that keeps our FKQ fire burning, the juices flowing and that spark that fuels the energy that keeps this agency bursting at the seams throughout our 50-year tenure,” Faller says.

Published in Florida

Jeff Heintz isn’t bragging when he says the legal firm where he is managing partner, Brouse McDowell LPA, made it through the recent recession without missing a beat ? it’s a matter of fact that the firm only had a few scratches.

“We did OK because we stuck to what we did best; I think our reputation served us well,” he says.

Once Heintz realized that the 92-year-old company’s brand was the best weapon in his arsenal to fight the recession, he instilled a way of thinking to bolster that premise for the 120 employees.

“We adopted the philosophy that we are going to control the kinds of things we can control,” he says.

The first premise pertains to the quality of work, an obvious aspect that can be controlled.

“If you work hard, and you have high character, and you behave in a manner that is befitting of things like ‘A Lawyer’s Creed’ and ‘A Lawyer’s Aspirational Ideals,’ good things are going to happen to you,” Heintz says.

“If you develop skills that enable you to help your client as a technician and develop the feelings that enable you to discern how best to direct your client, whether or not a particular strategy has short-term or long-term benefit, then you can become a trusted adviser,” he says.

“There’s no better feeling in the world than being a trusted adviser, somebody who works hard, develops a business and builds it into something grand, and it is the centerpiece of that person’s life and perhaps that person’s family,” he says.

Place a high premium on community involvement, and feel an obligation to give back to the extent you can by participating and furthering the efforts of nonprofits and volunteering because it is the right thing to do.

“It also gives your people an outlet other than just coming in and putting on their miner’s helmet and cracking away at work. It keeps them fresh, focused and gives them some perspective.”

Dedication to clients can also be controlled.

“We’ve had relationships with clients that go back decades,” he says. “We’ve been through tough times with clients and we’ve been there for them. This time it was tough times for everybody.”

With a relationship that has developed trust and understanding over the years, there are often mutual benefits.

“You and your clients benefit from the strength and depth of your relationships because businesses across the board were facing issues that they never faced before, having to consider choices that they never considered before, and I think it is a considerable comfort to them to know that when they would pick up the phone to call their advisers, it’s a number that they have been calling for 30 or 40 years.”

One of the tools that may serve you in being open with clients is what Heintz calls the “sneaky direct approach.”

“You just sit down with them, and you tell them the truth,” he says. “You let them know even if you can’t lay out for them chapter and verse what will happen, you lay down for them as best you can your belief about what will happen and what steps you are taking to control what can happen. I think people tend to react well to that.”

Another factor to control is the seriousness with which responsibilities are taken.

“Take that commitment of trust very, very seriously,” Heintz says. “One of your first thoughts should be how is this going to benefit your client ? not how much money can you make, not how quickly can you get this job done, not how much personal goodwill can you get from this.”

As a final matter, protect yourself as best as you can against the things you can’t control.

“Ignore a lot of the chatter for things that happen at the federal level ? the preoccupation with the recent Washington gridlock, for example ? as difficult as it is,” Heintz says.

How to reach: Brouse McDowell LPA, (330) 535-5711 or www.brouse.com

Availability is king

It’s been said that no matter recession or economic growth, your ability to succeed in business is only limited by your availability to your customers.

Jeff Heintz, managing partner of Brouse McDowell LPA, believes in that. In fact, he has his home phone number on his business card.

“If you make your clients know that you are available to them pretty much 24/7, they appreciate the commitment and are very conscientious how they use it,” he says.

Likewise, cascade that premise of availability throughout your staff, from top to bottom.

“If you are accessible, that’s a talisman of your commitment to your clients,” Heintz says.

“Don’t tell them, ‘You need to get a hold of me between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Monday through Friday because I’m not going to look at my mail over the weekend, and I’m not going to answer my phone.’

“Not everything’s an emergency, and there are people out there that live their lives at general quarters ? and everything’s an emergency ?but there are emergencies out there, particularly as we increasingly get to a global economy where it may be 7 p.m. on Friday night in Akron, Ohio, but 9 a.m. elsewhere on the globe where people are at work when you are at play. But most people use their best judgment, and they have the ability to discern between what’s an emergency and what’s not.”

How to reach: Brouse McDowell LPA, (330) 535-5711 or www.brouse.com

Published in Akron/Canton

President Doug Kovatch knew the timing was right to lead the multimillion-dollar plant expansion for Kovatch Castings Inc. After the company secured a $1 million grant in 2010 from the State of Ohio’s American Recover and Reinvestment Act, he now had the capital to combine the company’s own $2 million to expand its Green, Ohio facilities by 16,000 square feet, add 45 new employees and invest in new equipment.

“It was a $3 million risk to do this expansion and reinvestment into the business, but at the same time, I was very confident that it was the right thing to do at the right time,” Kovatch says.

Financing aside, there were a lot of other aspects of growth to think about. Facing the logistical challenges with moving equipment, altering processes, and making sure production continued to move efficiently, he also had to keep customers satisfied and employees engaged throughout the transition. What made it all possible was the company’s culture of teamwork and enthusiasm, which has been a key part of its success so far.

“We really felt that we were able to overcome that just with really excellent communication and leadership and the support that I have for my people,” Kovatch says.

While the new facility will enable the company to go from its current $16 million in sales to more than $25 million next year, there is still much unforeseen with the current economy. By keeping a focus on collaboration, Kovatch prepares his team to meet any setbacks or challenges ahead with positivity and creativity.

“That helps them feel that they are part of what we are doing and engaged,” Kovatch says.

Including people in the decision-making process during a growth period also encourages employees to accept the new level of flexibility it takes to adapt in an ever changing business environment. It means operational and structural changes, but also handling the ups and downs that come with an ebb and flow of new business.

“Some business will be lost and that’s just sort of how that goes,” he says. “We all have to come to accept that. But it challenges us to grow in automation, to constantly be focused on cost reduction, servicing customers, shortening lead times, doing these things that maybe the low cost providers don’t do as well.”

One way the company encourages teamwork is fostering a work environment that is committed to serving others, not just its own bottom line.

“We try to be a light and set a good example to other businesses around us,” Kovatch says.

“I think that really inspires people to do their best.”

Kovatch says it’s important to remember that just because you are growing successfully as a business, you shouldn’t start thinking you don’t need the input, help or advice of others, or stop giving yours.

“We don’t want to ever get too large that we don’t forget the people who are most important,” he says.

“We understand the importance of giving back, of understanding that we as a group are much bigger and have a bigger impact on the world around us than any one person alone.”

The company gives a percentage of its quarterly profits to both local Akron organizations and others all around the world, such as Samaritan’s Purse, which runs a project that takes shoeboxes and fills them with gifts for the kids during Christmas time. This year, the company’s 195 employees aim to send out 1,000 shoeboxes with clothing, toys and school supplies.

“With our employees, we had to remain adaptable to a changing environment, which means lots of problem solving along the way and keeping people positive and focused on the goal,” Kovatch says.

“There’s real power in group dynamics and in working together as an organization to impact the world around us.”

How to reach: Kovatch Castings Inc., (330) 896-9944 or www.kovatchcastings.com

United front

As Kovatch Castings Inc. celebrates its 35th year doing business in Akron, President Doug Kovatch continues to be an advocate for the region’s manufacturing industry.

“Akron is a great location for manufacturing,” he says. “We have a terrific labor market here. We have materials. We have a supplier base. We have a reasonable cost structure. It’s been a very good place for us to do business.”

For Kovatch, Akron is also an attractive location because its low labor costs allow the company to do finishing operations such as machining and plating much more cost effectively than somewhere on the east or west coast, where labor rates are much higher. While the company has secured a significant amount of new business this year, it’s not just from promoting its own offerings.

“What we do is utilize trade shows and marketing promotions to promote this area,” Kovatch says. “We’re growing because we are actively pursuing new business all the time.”

He also participates in the local Akron Chamber group that brings together leadership from different industries to support a dialogue on regional growth. This organization is extremely valuable he says, because of the resulting wisdom that comes from many joining together to help on another.

“Those kinds of dialogues where CEOs can come together and help and support and feed off of each other’s ideas are very positive and very beneficial,” he says. “I’ve grown and I think improved as a result of hearing others perspectives.”

Published in Akron/Canton

When Jeff Miller became president and CFO of Dawson Resources five years ago, he found a phenomenal service organization, but it wasn't as outbound as it needed to be to grow.

To be more outbound, he wanted to see more “push” marketing, rather than “pull.” There needed to be more marketing such as commercials, print advertisements, cold calling, tradeshows and e-mail blasts. In short, the staff needed to think more like a salesperson.

“Ask for the business,” Miller says. “Talk about the company. Spread the word.”

At nearly the same time, he could see that the economy was heading toward recession, and it necessitated reducing nine offices down to two, with the money saved being reinvested on the sales and service side of the business.

The reorganization allowed him to focus on developing a management strategy that would motivate the employees to excel toward being more outbound. The approach was to educate employees, to treat them — and get them thinking — like business owners. Initially, it involved finding out what was on employees’ minds.

“The first thing you have to do is ask and listen,” he says. “It seems simple but they often never do get asked. I was in on every meeting, asking and listening, caring about what they thought.”

Putting employees in hypothetical situations allowed them to wear bosses’ hats. Miller posed questions that would exercise their analytical and decision-making processes.

“What would you do to improve your own division?” he says. “Where would you spend money? If I had $5,000 to improve your division, where would you spend it? Put together a plan for me.”

Along with making those types of executive decisions, employees have to learn that business owners largely can set their own hours but have to decide what is the most effective use of their time.

“There used to be a distinction between home and work,” Miller says. “Today, it is blended. Sometimes it is hard to see the difference. You have to kind of embrace that now.”

While many companies may frown on employees taking time off for doctors’ appointments, Miller’s plan gives it merit because it requires the employee to decide how a business owner would make a decision.

“If it makes sense for you to go there and sacrifice two hours of work, then do it because that’s what you need to do,” he says.

In addition, many of the younger workers have grown up being connected 24 hours a day and have no problem working at home, especially if it means getting paid for results rather than by the number of hours put in.

“If it’s eight o’clock at night and something pops up, you check your e-mails or voice mails ? and address them,” Miller says. “You know that time is now and if somebody took the time to send you something at eight o’clock at night it seems they want to hear from you.

“It’s like we kind of expect you to have the same mentality when it crosses into your personal life,” he says.

You don’t have to send an elaborate reply but at least send an acknowledgement.

Getting paid for results involves a salary-plus-incentives arrangement. While not exclusive to business owners, it still offers the opportunity for self-direction.

“Show the employees what the return on investment is, how much money they are making the company and what percentage they’re getting,” Miller says. “Keep your fixed costs down by keeping salaries and other areas set.”

Then if employees want to earn more, it’s based on sales results, and they control that.

“So you give them that good culture but also tie it to their W-2s,” he says. “Make them produce.”

The result of Miller’s approach is an engaged work force that tries to create a partnership with clients.

“We’re trying to make their business better,” he says. “That’s something we all strive to do.”

How to reach: Dawson Resources, (614) 255-1400 or www.dawsoncareers.com

‘I got this’

As Jeff Miller was wondering whether his strategy was working to increase employee engagement through a method of treating them as if they were business owners, he came upon a valuable method to determine the buy-in.

He didn’t take a survey or wait for employees to e-mail him about their appreciation for the opportunity for personal growth.

Miller could tell from the one-on-one conversations with employees about a client if his message was hitting home.

“They will come in if they complain about a client or what not, and say, ‘I will get this thing handled because this is my account,’” says Miller, president and CFO of Dawson Resources, a 55-employee company with annual revenue of $26 million.

“You see the ownership of it,” he says. “‘I’m just letting you know so you are aware of this, but I got this.’ There is a lot of ‘I got this.’ I always use the term ‘punt.’ I don’t like it when people just punt ? ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do; I’ll just punt. I’ll just send it somewhere else.’

“We don’t have a lot of punters here, which is a good thing,” he says. “On fourth and long, you go for it.”

How to reach: Dawson Resources, (614) 255-1400 or www.dawsoncareers.com

Published in Columbus

Jeff Heintz isn’t bragging when he says the legal firm where he is managing partner, Brouse McDowell LPA, made it through the recent recession without missing a beat ? it’s a matter of fact that the firm only had a few scratches.

“We did OK because we stuck to what we did best; I think our reputation served us well,” he says.

Once Heintz realized that the 92-year-old company’s brand was the best weapon in his arsenal to fight the recession, he instilled a way of thinking to bolster that premise for the 120 employees.

“We adopted the philosophy that we are going to control the kinds of things we can control,” he says.

The first premise pertains to the quality of work, an obvious aspect that can be controlled.

“If you work hard, and you have high character, and you behave in a manner that is befitting of things like ‘A Lawyer’s Creed’ and ‘A Lawyer’s Aspirational Ideals,’ good things are going to happen to you,” Heintz says.

“If you develop skills that enable you to help your client as a technician and develop the feelings that enable you to discern how best to direct your client, whether or not a particular strategy has short-term or long-term benefit, then you can become a trusted adviser,” he says.

“There’s no better feeling in the world than being a trusted adviser, somebody who works hard, develops a business and builds it into something grand, and it is the centerpiece of that person’s life and perhaps that person’s family,” he says.

Place a high premium on community involvement, and feel an obligation to give back to the extent you can by participating and furthering the efforts of nonprofits and volunteering because it is the right thing to do.

“It also gives your people an outlet other than just coming in and putting on their miner’s helmet and cracking away at work. It keeps them fresh, focused and gives them some perspective.”

Dedication to clients can also be controlled.

“We’ve had relationships with clients that go back decades,” he says. “We’ve been through tough times with clients and we’ve been there for them. This time it was tough times for everybody.”

With a relationship that has developed trust and understanding over the years, there are often mutual benefits.

“You and your clients benefit from the strength and depth of your relationships because businesses across the board were facing issues that they never faced before, having to consider choices that they never considered before, and I think it is a considerable comfort to them to know that when they would pick up the phone to call their advisers, it’s a number that they have been calling for 30 or 40 years.”

One of the tools that may serve you in being open with clients is what Heintz calls the “sneaky direct approach.”

“You just sit down with them, and you tell them the truth,” he says. “You let them know even if you can’t lay out for them chapter and verse what will happen, you lay down for them as best you can your belief about what will happen and what steps you are taking to control what can happen. I think people tend to react well to that.”

Another factor to control is the seriousness with which responsibilities are taken.

“Take that commitment of trust very, very seriously,” Heintz says. “One of your first thoughts should be how is this going to benefit your client ? not how much money can you make, not how quickly can you get this job done, not how much personal goodwill can you get from this.”

As a final matter, protect yourself as best as you can against the things you can’t control.

“Ignore a lot of the chatter for things that happen at the federal level ? the preoccupation with the recent Washington gridlock, for example ? as difficult as it is,” Heintz says.

How to reach: Brouse McDowell LPA, (330) 535-5711 or www.brouse.com

Availability is king

It’s been said that no matter recession or economic growth, your ability to succeed in business is only limited by your availability to your customers.

Jeff Heintz, managing partner of Brouse McDowell LPA, believes in that. In fact, he has his home phone number on his business card.

“If you make your clients know that you are available to them pretty much 24/7, they appreciate the commitment and are very conscientious how they use it,” he says.

Likewise, cascade that premise of availability throughout your staff, from top to bottom.

“If you are accessible, that’s a talisman of your commitment to your clients,” Heintz says.

“Don’t tell them, ‘You need to get a hold of me between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Monday through Friday because I’m not going to look at my mail over the weekend, and I’m not going to answer my phone.’

“Not everything’s an emergency, and there are people out there that live their lives at general quarters ? and everything’s an emergency ?but there are emergencies out there, particularly as we increasingly get to a global economy where it may be 7 p.m. on Friday night in Akron, Ohio, but 9 a.m. elsewhere on the globe where people are at work when you are at play. But most people use their best judgment, and they have the ability to discern between what’s an emergency and what’s not.”

How to reach: Brouse McDowell LPA, (330) 535-5711 or www.brouse.com

Published in Akron/Canton

Thom Stork was walking through The Florida Aquarium one day when he passed by the shark exhibits. As he watched the divers swimming in the tanks, his curiosity led him to begin posing questions to a nearby employee: ‘How many people go in the tank? How often? Has anyone ever been bitten?’ And before long, he asked the kicker: ‘Can we put our guest in there?’

“He looked at me like I was crazy, ran away and came back a few days later,” says Stork, who became president and CEO of The Florida Aquarium Inc. in 2002.  “Then he said, ‘OK. Listen, we can do this.’”

Before heading up Tampa’s not-for profit aquarium, Stork worked as a marketing executive for Busch Entertainment Corp. for nearly three decades. When he retired, he was approached by the aquarium’s chairman with a proposal to bring his marketing expertise to running the organization.

“I said, ‘I’m not a scientist. I’m not a biologist. I’m not an oceanographer. I’m a marketing, business guy,’” Stork says. “And he said, ‘That’s what we need.’”

Since the aquarium implemented its “Dive with the sharks” program, the exhibit has been extremely profitable and remains sold out. It’s these kinds of unique and memorable experiences that connect people to the organization Stork aims to create every day. To accomplish that, he encourages his people to run with their ideas, even when they seem a bit nuts.

“They come to my office,” Stork says. “They grab me in the hallway or they grab me over in the restaurant and say, ‘Have you ever thought about doing this?’ Every time you hear that you go ‘Yeah! Let’s think about that.’”

In addition to offering encouragement, when you ask people to be proactive in trying new things you’ve also got to be able to demonstrate follow through and constructive feedback once they do. Otherwise, people may get discouraged.

“They have got to understand that it failed,” Stork says. “It failed. This did not work, and here is the reason why. Or ask them, ‘Why did it fail?’ Just have that dialogue.

“They know they are not going to be criticized for wacky-ass ideas.”

When a dive master presented his idea for a “Biologist for the day” program to the senior management team, Stork gave him kudos but also asked him to think bigger picture than the proposed $300 annual profit. The employee was able to rework the program, which today brings the organization thousands in revenue.

“I went, ‘Michael, you did an incredible piece of work here, but here is my challenge for you,’” he says. “‘I want you to go back and I want you to figure out how we can make $30,000.’ He was thinking in a not-for-profit mindset.”

Whether it’s creating new education programs or adding unique events and exhibits — the aquarium recently developed a one-of-a-kind penguin attraction — Stork challenges his 159 employees to explore the boundless possibilities for growth while staying committed to the mission of the organization.

“I believe strongly in the adage that there is not an original idea,” he says. “So I constantly look at what other facilities of our type are doing. I read extensively about new products that are out there for zoos and aquariums and theme parks, trying to determine what works in terms of bringing people through the front door. But then I also do put on my mission hat and say is it good for our business, does it further our mission, does it further our culture?

“So today I say, when I do retire, my legacy will be that I was able to take a bunch of scientists, biologists, teachers and environmentalists and turn them into entrepreneurs, to think about how to make the business work.”

How to reach: The Florida Aquarium Inc., (813) 273-4000 or www.flaquarium.org

Capital ideas

Thom Stork, president and CEO of The Florida Aquarium Inc., is always asking guests what they want to see at the aquarium, whether it’s dolphins, sea lions or what he and his team affectionately call “big-ass sharks.” Yet now that the organization is in a position to look comfortably into its financial future, prioritizing what people want versus what the business needs has become more important.

“In the analysis of everything, you have to look at the things you need to do to further round out this facility and this business,” Stork says. “So we’ve spent a lot of time over the last 18 months looking at what we need to do.”

This year, Stork spearheaded a $15 million capital campaign to address the needs of the organization’s 700,000 annual visitors and 100,000 school kids who visit for its education programs. The project, which broke ground in September, will incorporate lobby renovations, expand classrooms — there are currently two — and add much-needed event and exhibit space, including a ballroom to seat 500 people.

“The priority is ‘What do we need?’” Stork says. “All of those things have a return on investment. They will produce revenues for the aquarium which will further grow the aquarium.”

Published in Florida

Amar Panchal didn’t plan to start “waffle day.” It came about after he and a group of employees arranged an impromptu breakfast one Friday at the office. But it didn’t take long before waffle day became a company tradition.

“People really enjoyed it, so then they volunteered to make this a monthly event,” says Panchal, the co-founder and CEO of the Akraya Inc., an IT consulting and staffing business in Sunnyvale, Calif. “Every second Friday of every month, there’s a team of employees who volunteer to arrange for breakfast. It’s amazing how excited people are about it, because every month we’ve had a completely different menu for breakfast. That’s how much people enjoy it. And since they are working in a team, there’s a sense of achieving something together as a team. Everybody is enthusiastically part of participating.”

Providing breakfast for employees is just one of the ways Panchal leads his company to celebrate and reward employees for their contributions.

“All of us have achievements on a regular basis and it’s important to recognize and celebrate the achievements and milestones that we have,” he says.

At the company level, key achievers are recognized on a monthly basis at an all-hands meeting. Also, to celebrate success on a daily basis, employees come together to ring a bell in the center of the office whenever a person or group has a significant achievement.

“Everybody actually gathers around and high fives, and that’s a constant recognition of people hitting milestones during their everyday tasks,” Panchal says.

One of the company’s most obvious forms of employee appreciation is its unique perks for personnel. Panchal says each of these is the result of listening to people and identifying ways to reward them for their hard work. A good example is the company’s biweekly cleaning service for employees, which came about several years ago when the company was much smaller but gained it attention on Inc.’s Top 10 Perks We Love list in 2010.

“One day a few of the employees were discussing in the break room that they had to spend a long time over the weekend cleaning up their homes because they had visitors coming in,” Panchal says. “So I said, ‘OK. What can we do to help in this situation?’ We identified a cleaning service that every two weeks goes and cleans people’s homes.

“We listen to employees needs. Small things make a big difference to people.”

Yet although the ideas for a cleaning service and a monthly breakfast took off, there have been other ideas that did not work out financially or culturally long term. Implementing perks for employees comes down to trial and error.

“Some of them will work; some of them will not,” Panchal says. “We recognize that and continue to evolve.

“We’re constantly experimenting with ways to recognize or celebrate within the company, which is why people enjoy working here.”

In recent years, another challenge of having employee perks has been managing expectations when people begin to take certain cultural benefits for granted. Over time, a perk can become something that employees feel entitled to, and you may need to remind them of its value.

“Part of the solution is refreshing, especially the older employees, that these were things that although you have had for several years and think that everybody has it, that is not the case,” Panchal says. “It is still a fairly unique benefit or culture that we have in place.”

Although the costs of certain recognition programs and perks have increased as the company has grown — it grew to $32.5 million in revenue in 2010 — Panchal says he sees culture as an ongoing investment.

“Each of these has a significant cost in terms of not just hard dollars but time that it takes,” he says. “It’s something that is part of the prohibitive cost of doing business.

“When we were smaller, the costs were lower but as we’ve continued to grow, the costs have added up. But the value of that small perk is immense, because it benefits not just the employee. It benefits the entire family, and they appreciate it.”

How to reach: Akraya Inc., (408) 907-6400 www.akraya.com

Everybody counts

Cultural success at Akraya Inc. is the result of not just building a great culture for employees but working hard at maintaining it, says the company’s co-founder and CEO Amar Panchal.

“We consciously work on not just creating the culture, but we work on maintaining it and continuing to evolve it,” Panchal says. “It takes effort. All of us are busy with meeting our customers’ needs. It’s a competitive industry and people have a lot of tasks on their plates, but I venture that we take time out and do things that we value as a company, whether it is celebrating or it is giving back to the community.”

Though the company has been recognized for its culture in the past, Panchal continues to look for ways to improve its recognition program. That is why he invited an outside consultant to meet with employees one on one to gain more employee feedback about how they view the company’s culture.

“We’re actually going through that process right now, where we have compiled information and we are actually working on more of a companywide recognition program,” he says.

This has helped the company create a recognition program that takes into account the various contributions of different roles within the company.

“In most companies, it’s very easy to recognize the achievement of sales people because that is very measurable, but there are operations teams, there are customer support teams, there are marketing teams, there are finance teams. How do you have a recognition program that recognizes their achievements too?”

Published in Northern California

Jim Camp has seen his share of mergers and acquisitions. The general manager and partner of Cutler Real Estate, Camp has guided 12 mergers or acquisitions involving smaller companies over the last 15 years. However, it’s not the number alone that he sees as a success indicator but the way company cultures have been merged successfully.

“Our mergers fortunately have gone pretty well because we have experience and know how to do it and try to minimize concerns and issues,” Camp says about the firm, which has 300 Realtors and a support staff of 60.

The biggest issues with M&As often tend to be in terms of processes. Employees from the acquired company are anxious to find out the procedures of the new company and want answers to questions such as “Who will be my boss?” and “How will I be evaluated?” Their concerns have to be answered. If they are not, there is a chance that key employees could decide to bail out and take a job with a competitor.

“When combining two offices, probably the biggest thing is the issue of ‘We never used to do it that way’ or ‘You’re favoring your people instead of our people,’” Camp says.

If you reassure the incoming employees throughout the transition by listening and communicating with them, it will show your willingness to resolve company culture issues.

“You have to be very careful, pay attention and listen,” Camp says. “You may learn that there is a new way to do something that isn’t necessarily your way but may be a better way to do it.”

Keeping an open mind is one of the fundamentals when going into a merger. Take the attitude of nothing should be cast in stone, and everything is on the table for discussion.

“Look at it from an open view of not being close-minded to think, ‘This is the way we’ve always done it so we are always going to do it that way,’” he says.

You may be gaining some valuable employees that can benefit your company who may bring some good ideas with them.

“One of the biggest benefits from some of our mergers and acquisitions has been some of the folks who have come along and the talent they brought to the company,” Camp says.

On the other hand, realize that you can’t accept all the ideas presented by the company acquired.

“But also don’t reject them out of hand,” he says. “Work very hard at saying, ‘Yes, we will consider that,” and actually consider it. Don’t just blow them off.”

In the end, it is a high level of communication that can best lead to a successful merger or acquisition.

“Don’t jump to conclusions about what people want,” Camp says. “Encourage your managers to sit down with new staff and ask, ‘What are your goals; what are you looking to do?’”

More can be accomplished when you try to listen as you talk to new employees than when you try to guess or assume what they are looking for. Get to know the people and listen to them.

“It’s important that they know you care about them,” he says. “They aren’t just a number and that kind of thing.”

A final piece of advice is that there are always some surprises in mergers and acquisitions. By doing your homework, you may be able to find trouble spots before they become problems.

“Try to do your due diligence but you have to continue that due diligence after the merger happens because there are some things that you may not know until you actually are working more closely with folks,” Camp says.

How to reach: Cutler Real Estate, (800) 423-2004 or www.cutlerhomes.com

Jump on the ‘brandwagon’

When Cutler Real Estate left the franchise world in 2005 and became an independent company, General Manager Jim Camp saw it as an opportunity to jump on the “brandwagon.” Instead of having to use the franchise’s marketing guidelines, a whole new world opened up.

“We had the opportunity to decide who we wanted to be,” Camp says. “We chose the very strong colors of orange and blue and maintained them all the way through the company signage and collateral.”

Making those types of decisions should involve professionals, even though you may be tempted to have your own marketing department run the show. Working with a professional can be an eye-opening experience.

“The difference in terms of working with a professional is significant,” he says. “The first decision to make is to interview companies to find somebody to work with, and go in with an open mind.”

Cutler Real Estate chose Innis Maggiore Group Inc. for its rebranding.

Once you have hired an agency, you will need to abandon any preconceived notions of what you want your brand to look like ? what you want it to be. Invite the agency to generate a variety of options.

“Just ask the marketing folks to do their vision,” Camp says. “You obviously have some thoughts but you should also be open to ideas.”

You will need to have some patience as well. The time frame may run from 12 to 18 months from concept to rollout, but it can be definitely worth the time and expense.

“I wouldn’t do it any other way, knowing now what we were going to face in the next four or five years,” he says. “We might have cut our budget in some areas, but frankly, we had a very successful rollout ? our competitors were hoping that we would stumble in terms of the conversion of our brand.”

How to reach: Cutler Real Estate, (800) 423-2004 or www.cutlerhomes.com

Published in Akron/Canton

Andy Wexler is a man in search of the right mix. As founder and executive camp director at Pali Camp, he has often struggled to find the right balance for how quickly to grow the 221-employee camp operator.

“Sometimes I tried to grow very quickly before the business was ready and I put in a large management team and the business couldn’t support that, so I had to cut back,” Wexler says. “Other times, I grew too big without bringing in a management team, and we had growing pains.”

Wexler has found the most success when he has taken the time to work with his people and share his knowledge to help them become better leaders in the company. It puts them in a better position to handle whatever new responsibilities arise.

“Over the last five years, I’ve gone through showing them how to run each one of their businesses like their own business unit and have them basically take responsibility,” Wexler says. “So they’d not only be responsible for their revenue but their expenses, as well. It’s been a fantastic learning experience because every one of them now has ownership of their division. We have a cabinet meeting every week where everyone says if they are on goal and what their plan is for the week and then I let them do their thing.”

Reaching this stage of empowerment requires that you find strong people when you make hires.

“The first thing that I do is when we post a job, I’ll ask very specific questions,” Wexler says. “I want to make sure the person was meticulous enough to read the job description. It’s shocking. I’ll get 300 resumes and only maybe 15 to 20 percent actually read the job description. So at that point, out of 300 respondents, I’m down to 30 or 40.”

The candidates that make it through to this point are then judged on their cover letters.

“Did the person write a cover letter that was actually interesting to read?” Wexler says. “Did it look like they actually spent a little bit of time looking at whatever the position is? They could have asked pointed questions or they could have pretended that they were interested or maybe they really are interested. Once you get down to that, it’s probably about seven to eight people. Once I get there, I would see what their background is and see how long they have been at past positions.”

After whittling it down to a final four or five people, Wexler conducts in-depth interviews with each candidate to attempt to really get a good read on who is the best fit.

“The biggest thing at that point where people shoot themselves in the foot is if they complain about their last job,” Wexler says. “If someone just says, ‘I grew too big for the job’ and I call their employer and they say this was the best person they ever had, that’s the person I’m going to hire. If it’s a person who rips on their last job, they are just going to do the same thing for me.”

When you take this process seriously, what you end up with are people who believe in your vision and can walk with you to help your business grow. Then it’s all about you following through on your promise to let them grow as leaders.

“It’s all about motivation,” Wexler says. “If the manager is willing to put in more hours, then the employees will put in more hours. Education takes as long as it takes. If you really need to do something, as the manager, you can do it yourself and do the serious learning later on. If you really want people to learn and fish by themselves, however, that takes longer.”

How to reach: Pali Camp, (909) 867-5743 or www.paliadventures.com

Pick a direction

You need to figure out what kind of leader you’re going to be and stick to it. If you like to take on different leadership personas, you’re asking for trouble.

“You can’t micromanage some days and not on others,” says Andy Wexler, founder and executive camp director for Pali Camp. “Just like with parenting, kids are very comfortable with routine. It doesn’t matter how tough the rules are, if they’re consistent and they know what the rules are, they can live within the rules. An employee would be the same thing.”

So if you’ve tended to be a micromanager and suddenly, you look to ease up a bit, you’ll have to work hard to be convincing that you really want to change your ways.

“If you say, ‘I’m going to let you do this,’ they’re going to be shocked first of all,” Wexler says. “They’ll either freak out or they will really appreciate it. They probably won’t believe it. But your actions have to follow your words.”

If you find people have gotten too used to being micromanaged, it may be a case of that person not having the skill set to make decisions on their own. Give them a test of responsibility and see how they handle it.

“Let them go with it,” Wexler says. “It’s probably not the most vital business area, but it gives them a taste.”

Published in Los Angeles

Jeff Sharfstein was about as frightened as he has ever been in his life. As he considered the grim future facing the company his father and grandfather had worked so hard to build, he feared he was watching the business crumble before his eyes.

“Here my father had built this incredible business over all these years and in a period of a  year and a half, I was successful in completely turning the direction of the business in a terrible direction,” says Sharfstein, CEO at The Strive Group.

The 550-employee corrugated box manufacturer was launched in 1968 and fared pretty well for almost 30 years. By 1997, Sharfstein’s father had had enough and Jeff and his brother Doug assumed control. But shortly thereafter, the trouble began.

First, Strive Group’s largest customer filed for bankruptcy, resulting in a large and unplanned expense. At the same time, Internet auctions for commodity businesses, such as corrugated boxes, began to gain in popularity and sales began to drop.

“What we needed to do was figure out a way to bring additional revenue into the business,” Sharfstein says. “We had all these hard assets on the floor, meaning equipment. We asked ourselves what else this equipment was capable of doing other than producing corrugated packaging.”

It turned out that this equipment could produce temporary point-of-purchase displays that consumer-oriented businesses love to use to promote their products.

“Little did I know at the time how much of a different skill set was needed to make that transition and that transformation successful,” Sharfstein says. “It was a long, hard struggle on top of which, it was going in a direction that I did not have a tremendous amount of familiarity with.”

Sharfstein couldn’t shake the fear of ruining all that his father had built, but he couldn’t let that show with his people. He had to prove to them that as their leader, he would pull the business through.

“I elected to go to one of the largest consumer products companies that

purchased this type of product and that was Procter and Gamble,” Sharfstein says. “I figured if I could sell Procter and Gamble on this value proposition, that would be fantastic validation and would really set our organization on a new path.”

When you’re trying to drive business for your company, or trying to save it from disaster, you need to keep your people posted about what you’re doing and don’t keep them in the dark. Engage them in your effort to find solutions and then make those solutions work.

“We call them courageous conversations,” Sharfstein says. “You have to be willing to have courageous conversations with folks. Having very direct conversations saying, ‘Hey, I just need to let you know what I see. This is where I need your help. If you can do this, it will work out great. If not, it’s probably not the best place for you at this company.’”

Hopefully you’ll find you have a wealth of support to join you in your quest, but you may find otherwise.

“There were a number of long-term employees I needed to have conversations with and let go because they did not sit well with the new vision and direction of the business,” Sharfstein says. “If you have people constantly saying it’s not going to work or if they are constantly looking for the negative instead of what’s in the best interest of the business, you have to cut that cancer out.”

Fortunately for Sharfstein, Procter and Gamble worked like a charm and built desperately needed momentum for Strive.

“That really helped change the course of our business,” Sharfstein says. “Today, our largest customers are all these huge consumer products companies.”

Looking back, Sharfstein says he wishes he had been even more transparent than he was.

“You may not have all the answers,” Sharfstein says. “Be very open-minded and willing to bring in people from the outside who have had experiences before and have successfully navigated through them.”

How to reach: The Strive Group, (312) 880-4620 or www.strivegroup.com

Don’t hold back

When you’re business is in trouble, you often turn to lenders for help. After all, they have money and you probably need cash pretty bad. Jeff Sharfstein says you need to go to them with your books wide open.

“They were my lifeline,” says Sharfstein, CEO at The Strive Group, a 550-employee corrugated box and sign company. “Communicating to them anything and everything that I thought was possible and was happening was critical. I needed to give them the confidence that they could count on me giving them every piece of information I possibly had for the long-term viability of the business.”

You need to give people who can help you, whether it’s lenders, customers or your own employees, you need to give them a reason to believe that helping you will be worth it in the end.

“I had a vision and whether it was going to succeed or not, I didn’t know,” Sharfstein says. “But I had a very clear path in my mind as to what that looked like. And as I communicated along the way, it was critical that people came along.”

Published in Chicago