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Kim Shoemaker had a major dilemma in 2009.

Not only was her company, Acloché Staffing, trying to pull out of an economic recession, but its longtime CEO had died unexpectedly at the age of 56. Grief was high, morale was low, and employees needed to be reassured and inspired that the company was going to go forward.

Shoemaker, who previously held leadership roles in the company, had been named the new CEO and set out to overcome the heavy challenges.

“My first charge was to increase morale, to show appreciation and to really build on the staff,” Shoemaker says. “I think that’s extremely important to make your team feel appreciated, improve on that and lift their spirits up. There was a lot of uncertainty among our staff and the business community regarding the future of our company.”

As a first step, she found it effective to have one-on-one conversations with staff members to determine what they were feeling, what they needed and what they thought they were lacking professionally.

“Then, you need to deal with those individually to help them grow, to be stronger individuals and to be stronger team players,” Shoemaker says.

“We looked at our processes first and went through how we did things and redesigned them ? we streamlined them, made them more efficient,” she says. “We tried to help people with their day-to-day productivity.”

While proposing what to do to improve morale, Shoemaker hit upon the idea to redefine the company to reassure the market that Acloché was alive and well, ready to assist.

“We had been in business since 1968, and there had to be something that we could be doing to market ourselves better ? to let people know that we were here and that we were here to help the business community,” she says.

She brought in an outside consultant to work with the sales and marketing team to reinvent the company’s image, keeping the same branding but introducing the company again to its clients and embedding itself in each of the communities where its 10 offices are located.

When employees are encouraged to participate in the decision-making process when new ideas are formulated, successful results occur.

“Present the processes or procedures that you are going to consider to your sales and management team, get their thoughts, opinions and feedback; then take that information and fine tune it,” Shoemaker says.

When the final tweaks have been made, let the operations team review the proposal.

“This is very successful because staff members see that their managers are excited about this innovation or this new process and they’re getting their team members’ input before decisions are made that affect the entire team.”

As with many changes, there may be those a little hesitant to get on board. However, if they give their input regarding the change factor, it makes it a lot easier to accept and implement the change.

“They have a voice and an opinion in the entire process,” Shoemaker says. “I think people feel more at home with it. They feel more involved with it and part of the entire process.”

For Acloché , the approaches Shoemaker took to step in as the leader, improve morale and redefine the company continue to pay off. The next year saw $33 million in revenue, and the company is ranked among the 100 largest privately held companies in Central Ohio.

“Any time that you’re doing anything new, get the buy-in from your internal staff because it’s important for them,” Shoemaker says. “It’s important in order for the entire process to go well if they have buy-in on the decision-making end.”

Turning over a new leaf

Some say if you don’t make innovation a priority for your success, you’re bound to fail, and Kim Shoemaker, CEO of Acloché Staffing, can testify to that.

“Innovation is critical in any business,” she says. “In order to compete, you need to regularly redefine your strategies and reposition yourselves in order to continue to grow.

“The only way to stand out is by constantly offering new services and presenting new ideas.”

Client feedback is worth its weight in gold when it comes to innovation.

“Go in, listen to what their needs are, to what their challenges may be and what their successes may be, and redefine yourself to that specific client to help them so they can focus on their core business needs,” Shoemaker says.

Failing to keep fresh may lead to a loss of your place in the market.

“You would stagnate,” she says. “Employees would not grow to their potential to be able to service their clients.

“I think it’s an ever-evolving business community, and if you do not keep up with it and evolve and even try to stay a step ahead of it, you’re going to be losing market share,” she says. “You will not be the partner that people would need you to be.”

How to reach: Acloché Staffing, (614) 416-5600 or www.acloche.com

Published in Columbus

Robert White Sr., co-founder and chairman of The Daimler Group Inc., admits that up until he was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War, he probably could have won an award for Junior Underachiever.

“It was easy to do enough to get by, and that’s about all I did,” he says. “The Army was a big plus for me. I was a college graduate so I was placed in a leadership role and was responsible for other people’s lives. It was a wakeup call, and life became a little more serious. It certainly took me from an underachiever to more of an achiever.”

Once he returned from Vietnam, White knew he was at a crossroads. A political science major in college, he was little qualified to do anything, but he didn’t let that stop him. He made a gutsy move and began selling real estate on a commission-only basis.

“I was able to learn the business during that period, make mistakes, and they allowed me to do lots of things that I was not qualified to do, but it worked out fine,” he says.

After depositing regularly into the bank of experience, White was ready to withdraw all he needed to start his own business. He co-founded The Daimler Group in 1983 with a distinctive philosophy ? to try to respond to market needs and not the egos of sales representatives or to meet the budget for overhead.

Within the first few years, the company was involved in large projects such as One Columbus, the LeVeque Tower and the LeVeque Garage. The company has grown into one of the dominant development firms in the region.

While much of the commercial real estate industry may be driven by strong personalities and egos, White sees to it that The Daimler Group operates as a partnership.

“With the associates who work at Daimler or outside partners, we’ve always strived to do more than we said we were going to do,” White says. “Most of the time we have been able to do that, and we exist because of those partnerships and people.”

Most of Daimler’s business is with repeat customers.

“I think that’s had more to do with our success than anything,” he says.

A stable work force helps contribute to that repeat business, supporting the well-known observation that if a customer works with the same sales agent over time, he or she develops a relationship that can make a difference in a competitive field.

“We have 34 employees and a big percentage of those have been with us for 20 years or more,” White says. “Everybody is treated well. Expectations are known and achieved. If we have financial partners, it’s many times the same folks that we have relationships with.”

With a veteran staff for a relatively small company, the operation usually goes smoothly due to the depth of employee buy-in.

“It goes on seamlessly because of the amount of time, energy and longevity of the various folks who have been here and continue to be here,” White says.

While on the surface, an operation may appear seamless, underneath there are strong currents of motivation.

“It’s a combination of fear and reward,” White says. “With success, people count on that success. The fear of not having that is there, and it’s real ? it’s the reward aspect if we do things well and profitable. Then there’s the fear that that may very well slow down, and so it’s that combination that helps motivate employees.

“In a company our size, there is certainly peer pressure, too, from various departments,” he says. “If a division is dependent on someone else to make sure the flow of work is there, and it’s not happening, different divisions within the company do apply pressure.”

Another motivating factor is the need to think long-term. After the completion of a project or a sales deal, you can’t rest on your laurels.

“You constantly have to reload,” White says. “You may have had a really good year, several really neat and good projects but they end, and you have to have others that start. When we’re going very strong, it’s hard many times to motivate people to be thinking a year from now when they are quite busy doing what they have on their plate today.

“Yet we have to always do that,” he says. “That’s probably the biggest leadership requirement right now. When you’re in a down economy, that becomes even more critical as we’re all competing with each other.”

A combination of a solid work ethic and knowledge of what needs to be done is also a sure key to effective results.

“It’s probably more work ethic that anything else,” White says. “We know what we have to do; it’s whether we do it or not. When you get complacent, and you get older folks who believe their wisdom will cover other things, it’s not necessarily true. We’ve still got to have the work ethic. The wisdom is great, but if it’s not being used, it doesn’t mean much.”

How to reach: The Daimler Group Inc., www.daimlergroup.com

Published in Columbus
Thursday, 06 October 2011 20:01

All aboard

On its website, J. Rayl Transport Inc. posts an FAQ for prospective employees. One of the questions included is “Are you really a great place to work?” The answer below confirms, “Yes, we’re really a great place to work.”

As other transportation businesses have shrunken in the troubled economy, family-owned J. Rayl Transport has continued to grow by providing customers reliable transportation services so they can maintain quality reputations with their own customers. President and CEO Jeremy Rayl recognizes that this success, apparent from the company’s eight years of consecutive growth, begins with his employees. That’s why J. Rayl makes sure that even in today’s tougher economy, it makes a strong effort to reward and inspire its people from the minute they come on board.

In years past, the company has worked hard to maintain a culture where employees want to work. Founded in 1987, the company has spent decades building up its reputation for quality customer service, but also its reputation as a reliable and fair employer. In fact, J. Rayl’s corporate motto is “Count on us.”

Offering one of the most competitive pay packages in the trucking industry, J. Rayl aims to attract top talent to deliver its transportation services of a dynamic customer base in 48 states as well as Canada. In an uncertain economy, the company provides job security in the fact it has never made a layoff from lack of work in its entire history. It has also never decreased any driver’s pay, continues to honor pay raises for tenured employees and gives its drivers safety and performance bonuses and 401(k) matching contributions.

From 2009 to 2010, the company had 35 new hires. By continually adding to its team of quality people, J. Rayl is able to further grow its logistics solutions and transportation services for an ever-expanding customer base, putting the company on track to grow another 25 percent this year.

How to reach: J. Rayl Transport Inc., (800) 753-5050 or www.jrayl.com

Published in Akron/Canton

With his company feeling the effect of the economic recession, in August 2008, Bob Shearer used his state of the company meeting as an opportunity to turn the challenge back to his team of employees. He asked associates at Shearer’s Foods Inc. to come up with cost-saving ideas that would also allow him to give them pay raises. The result was an outpouring of 1,000 employee suggestions, whittled down to approximately 100 ideas that could help move the company forward. After implementing 65 of the suggestions to date, Shearer’s has already experienced a $1.4 million savings and been able to give his employees raises.

As the company’s chairman, co-founder and CEO, Shearer has always operated under this idea that a great leader develops future leaders by giving them opportunities to succeed. Over the last 37 years, he has built a culture at Shearer’s that is able to meet the challenges of today’s ever-changing business environment with creativity and enthusiasm. Under his leadership, the company has grown from a $4 million operation with a handful of employees into a $350 million business that employs more than 1,600 people today. With the company’s 2010 acquisition of the nationally successful private label snack food supplier, Snack Alliance Inc., Shearer’s also now has the capabilities needed to manufacture and distribute its snacks nationwide.

Shearer is passionate about leading by example. Within his company he has helped many employees excel in their careers by providing support and guidance. For instance, when one employee wanted to be a distributor for the business, Shearer helped him finance the operation and mentored him during his pursuit. The employee eventually became the company’s director of distributor operations. Another example is when Shearer helped one of the company’s route sales associates start his own Shearer’s distribution business by financing his truck and working with him to develop his business plan.

In addition to mentoring employees in the company, Shearer spends time counseling and sharing his experiences with the future leaders of tomorrow outside of his organization. He serves on numerous boards in Northeast Ohio to share insights that can benefit other organizations and businesses in the area. He also makes himself available to mentor college students, young people interested in business and other individuals with entrepreneurial interests. Whether it is speaking on a panel of business leaders, partnering with business schools or acting as the keynote speaker for a commencement or awards event, Shearer is always willing to lend the experience of his business background to inspire and help others in their own entrepreneurial journeys.

Today, Shearer spends his time focusing on the growth of Shearer’s snacks but also leading the continued growth and development of the company’s culture. The tenants of Shearer’s culture, such as the importance of being involved in different aspects of the business, including your people in decision-making, communicating a vision for the future and making sure that people understand the values of the company, are a reflection of the family ethics that the company was built on. To advance the family-focused culture that was first established by the founding Shearer family, Shearer instituted the Culture Club, whose mission is to create programs and activities that build unity between the company’s new hires and long-term associates.

When it comes to the culture, one of Shearer’s proudest achievements is the organization’s leadership in the communities it serves. Over the years, the company has continued to build on its reputation as a successful company made up of caring employees. Each year, Shearer’s supports numerous community organizations and events on a local, regional and national basis with monetary donations, product donations and employees donating their time to planning and fund raising efforts. The company’s in-house Caring and Sharing Committee has raised and distributed more than $100,000 for people with special needs in the company and community thanks to the support and fund raising efforts of Shearer’s associates.

Shearer’s ability to innovate and recognize growth opportunities for his company over the years has helped make Shearer’s the leading manufacturer of kettle cooked potato chips. When Shearer sees an opportunity, he seizes it. By always pushing his team to think entrepreneurially, he gives employees the tools to further the company’s growth as a quality producer of snack foods.

How to reach: Shearer’s Foods Inc., (330) 767-7160 or www.shearers.com

Published in Akron/Canton

Nick Chase has had a powerful impact on the Enterprise Rent-A-Car brand. Interestingly, he doesn’t work for Enterprise — he never has. Chase is a computer programmer and technical writer who tweeted his way into the company’s brand identity and, ultimately, brought about a win-win situation.

It could have ended differently. Horrified that in his time of need the familiar Enterprise mantra, “We’ll pick you up,” wasn’t going to happen, and that no cars were available in his area, Chase tweeted:

“The one downside of living in the country is that when your car breaks down, you pray Enterprise has a car. Naturally, they don’t. Sigh.”

A few minutes later, Nick found the following @mention from @enterprise cares:

“@Nick Chase We are listening. Is there anything we can help with? If yes, please tweet/follow us & I’ll DM [direct message] our contact information (amanda).”

Chase did what Enterprise corporate representative Amanda asked him to do, and following a few Twitter messages, he was indeed picked up and able to rent the car he needed. Because an empowered employee was paying attention, Enterprise Rent-A-Car converted Chase from a frustrated customer into a brand advocate.

Weigh the pros and cons. Now imagine how Chase would have felt and what impact his experience would have had on him and his Twitter followers if Enterprise had responded with impersonal policy regurgitation or worse, no response at all. With 5,000 Enterprise locations throughout the United States, it’s likely that situations similar to Chase’s happen regularly, and the compounded positive (or negative) impact of these social media interactions is significant.

Unfortunately, too many companies are still using social media inappropriately or not at all. There are, of course, legitimate reasons to be cautious ? companies in heavily regulated industries such as health care, energy and financial services are held to a different scrutiny. However, a 2010 Palo Alto Networks report found that companies in heavily regulated industries are just as likely to have social media presences as lesser-regulated companies and universities.

While choosing not to participate in social media is inconceivable to millions of business professionals who rely on various networks for everything from marketing and customer service to research and business development, the “everybody else is doing it” argument seldom sways rational business leaders. The crux of the argument is not the volume of people using social media, but the fact that vital brand conversations are happening in the networks whether the brand owners participate or not.

Learn from other’s missteps. There have been some embarrassing high-profile social media failures from which we have all learned a thing or two. For example, fashion designer Kenneth Cole outraged followers with a Twitter message that used the #Cairo hashtag (denoting discussion of uprising events in Egypt) to advertise a spring clothing collection. Comedian Gilbert Gottfried was fired from his voice-over gig with Aflac for tweeting jokes about the natural disasters in Japan.

These ill-advised, over-the-top tweets were viewed as insensitive and cast the companies in a bad light.

The most common social media no-nos can be avoided with employee policies covering social media behavior and expectations, such as language, topics and reaction/response guidelines. A simple Google search for “social media employee policy” can bring up numerous examples and starting points for creating policies.

Monitor and react. As demonstrated in the Enterprise Rent-A-Car situation, having an empowered and knowledgeable individual monitoring social media networks (even on the weekends and other nonpeak hours) is important for maintaining a positive reputation. There are also service providers and software-as-a-service technologies that amalgamate various social media networks into a singular, user-friendly interface.

Indianapolis-based ExactTarget’s Interactive Hub including its Co-Tweet solution is one of the largest players in social media conversation monitoring across Twitter and Facebook. Raidious, a local interactive marketing management firm, offers Social Center, which “listens” for keywords and phrases and allows users to engage with people in real time across a broad spectrum of social platforms.

Companies that fail to define themselves are defined by their competitors and customers, and not always in positive, productive ways. This is true for all media, but especially in the fast and viral social media realm. The cost to companies choosing not to participate or to empower their employees to engage with customers via social media is much greater than any monitoring costs or personnel time directed toward managing reputations by solving problems and joining conversations.

James L. Jay is president and CEO of TechPoint, Indiana’s technology industry and entrepreneurship growth initiative. He also serves as president and CEO of TechPoint Ventures, which has invested more than $16 million in early-stage capital in 12 Indiana-based technology companies through HALO Capital Group since 2009. An Indianapolis native, he has a successful track record as an entrepreneur, business leader and public servant.

Published in Indianapolis
Friday, 15 July 2011 10:40

Collection Auto Group

While their locations are in North Olmsted, Cleveland and Beachwood, Collection Auto Group and owner Bernie Moreno truly service the world.

The Collection Auto Group is a privately owned business composed of multiple automotive dealerships and an on-site performance center. Moreno started building his empire in 2005 with the purchase of the Mercedes-Benz dealership in North Olmsted. Later he added Porsche, North Olmsted Performance, Lotus, Saab, Fisker, Sprinter, Acura and Infiniti over the next five years.

Moreno and staff have made many achievements in the automotive industry since opening in 2005, including: Mercedes-Benz "Best of the Best" Award 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010; #1 Mercedes-Benz Dealership in Ohio; #1 Mercedes-Benz Dealership in the Central USA; #1 McLaren SLR dealer in the world; #1 Porsche dealer in Ohio; #1 Porsche dealer in the Central USA; First German "Autohaus" designed Mercedes-Benz dealership in North America; #1 Saab dealership in Ohio; and #1 Lotus dealer in Ohio.

Smart Business spoke with Moreno to discuss how he's been able to build success and drive growth.

What was one of the biggest obstacles you were able to overcome?

During the peak of the economic crisis in 2008 and 2009, we made the strategic decision to add staff and spend more in advertising to gain market share and further improve our customer service. We knew everyone would be doing the opposite and that our approach would put us in a great position to build momentum.

Why did you decide to add staff and spend more?

We define our business as a service delivery business and knew that every other dealership would be cutting critical customer-facing employees. We saw this as an opportunity to staff up and increase our service level with the aim of increasing market share.

What makes you an innovative leader?

We foster a spirit of fun throughout the dealership that customers recognize and appreciate when they come here. We also look to the newest technologies and adapt our processes accordingly to suit our customers' needs.

Why is a spirit of fun so important? What makes a good company culture?

I love cars. I can't imagine why someone would not find buying a new car fun. It never made sense to me. What is better than getting a new car? As a result, we try to instill that culture in our sales team. A good culture is one that everyone understands and follows ... and achieves the desired result!

What new technologies have you utilized and how have they made you more efficient?

We use iPads and touch screen TVs throughout the dealership and have invested heavily in IT to improve our customer experience.

You're a big proponent of supporting local businesses. Why is that so important?

It's the circle of life. I live in this community. My kids live in this community and will always know Cleveland as their hometown. To really be effective as a business, you have to give back to your town more than you took. That is our goal.

We have increased employment tenfold in six years. We spent almost $15,000,000 in construction, all of it with vendors or suppliers from Northeast Ohio. We spend over $3 million in local media.

What's the biggest lesson you've learned?

Set high expectations for yourself first and motivate your team to do the same for themselves.

Collection Auto Group

28450 Lorain Road

North Olmsted, OH 44070

Phone: 440,716.2700

E-mail: info@collectionautogroup.com

Web: www.collectionautogroup.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/pages/Collection-Auto-Group

Published in Akron/Canton

Todd Beckman wants his employees at The Tan Co. to think of really big things and really big goals that they want to accomplish in their lives. If for some reason they’re not sure how to proceed with these lavish wish lists, they need only step into Beckman’s office for guidance.

On his desk, they’ll find a picture of the house Beckman wants to build some day and a model of the car he’d like to eventually own.

“I just always try to keep myself moving forward,” says Beckman, founder, president and CEO at the 400-employee chain of tanning salons. “Usually, I do that not only with the business or family, but with some sort of a toy. A car, a boat, a house. I have that in front of me at all times. I just do things like that to keep my head in the game. We have to constantly be hitting on all cylinders to hit those goals.”

The growth of The Tan Co. from a small two-salon operation in 1994 to more than 70 locations across 13 states today can be tied directly to ambition, Beckman says. The trick is to get your people to share the passion and energy that you possess as leader of the company. You’re going to need it if you want your business to grow.

“I have goals that I want to achieve for the year and we work toward achieving those on a weekly basis,” Beckman says. “Everything has to work. Otherwise I don’t achieve my goals. So I have to come in and be excited and positive about where we are going and what we are trying to do so everyone wants to follow that.”

There is a board at the corporate office of The Tan Co. and Beckman has employees post their dreams and aspirations on the board for all to see.

“It can be anything,” Beckman says. “It can be anything from a purse to a car to a house. Whatever they think they want to achieve. Even to be higher up in the company.”

The goal is to get your people to adopt an attitude of continuous improvement that will hopefully come through in their work.

“That’s the whole trick of it,” Beckman says. “I have to make sure that everybody is working hard and that I am leading them as hard as I can to make sure we can achieve our goals. It’s impossible to do it on your own.”

On the business side, you need to work with your people to set goals that they can pursue and not just blindly assign them without any dialogue.

“They feel like they are part of the company and that they’ve helped to make those decisions,” Beckman says. “They come into the office on a weekly basis and we go over where their store is at and what kind of numbers they are doing. Then they talk about their numbers in front of their peers. A mix of all of that is what motivates our people to want to work here.”

You need to demonstrate that you are working hard, that you have goals that you’re pursuing and numbers you need to meet and that you’re part of the team if you want to get support. Your belief and confidence in your ability to achieve those goals can make a huge difference.

You can’t let yourself get down when challenges arise.

“You just can’t allow that to happen,” Beckman says. “Even in the worst of times and the worst of days, you just have to figure out a way to not go into the office with that attitude. That’s what I try to do. It’s not easy, but at the same time, if you’re going to be leading, you’d better be on your game.”

How to reach: The Tan Co., (866) 668-2626 or www.thetanco.com

Learn to unwind

Todd Beckman starts each day at the gym with a workout and a three-mile run. It’s a crucial step in his ability to be an effective leader at The Tan Co.

“If it wasn’t for that, it would probably be a lot harder of a struggle for me,” says Beckman, founder, president and CEO at the 400-employee chain of tanning salons.

“You just relieve a lot of stress and anxiety when you’re at the gym running. I run three miles a day and then just do a workout. That helps me.”

It also puts Beckman in a better position to deal with employees who are going through a tough time and get to the root cause of what is bothering them.

“We’ll sit down and talk to them about it,” Beckman says. “It’s just really going over the whole wheel again and starting from scratch. What is it you’re not happy about? Where is it that you want to go? What is it you are trying to achieve? Why aren’t you achieving it? It’s just going through the steps. That’s what all of our training is all about. We’re constantly helping people to be better.”

How to reach: The Tan Co., (866) 668-2626 or www.thetanco.com

Published in St. Louis

Too many leaders take internal company communications for granted and fail to capitalize on one of the most powerful components in a manager’s tool kit.

They dutifully explain decisions and provide directions to their staff, expecting that managers will pass on the relevant information to their direct reports, who in turn will do likewise, and so on down the line.

The problems with this approach are many. Parts of the message can get lost in translation, some managers simply don’t communicate well, some just get it wrong, and still others choose not to communicate at all.

I’ve learned that when communication from management breaks down, the organization at large makes its own assumptions as to what is behind the company’s actions and decisions, and often those assumptions reflect poorly on the current management team’s competence.

Over the course of my career, I’ve experienced the benefits that accrue to a company from a well-designed, comprehensive internal communications strategy that is well executed.

There is no better way to gain employee alignment with the company’s mission and objectives or to short circuit the company rumor mill that so often negatively impacts employee morale, performance and productivity. Equally important, all employees, regardless of job level, want the same things from their employer: to be respected as individuals as well as for the value they bring to the company and to be recognized for their contributions to the company’s success. These elements can and should be integrated into the company’s communication plan.

Periodic, planned messages from the top to the entire organization are also fundamental to a good plan. These messages are best delivered live to a group audience with time allocated for questions, but video or written communications can also be effective if the coordinating managers are fully able to respond to questions or concerns expressed by those receiving the message.

In addition, business unit and department heads must also hold team meetings at least quarterly to review progress against the team’s objectives, provide updated company information and respond to concerns expressed by their teams. It is important to communicate both good and bad news and to reaffirm the objectives going forward.

I’ve found that setting up common metrics and targets that foster friendly competition between groups or departments ensures that goals remain visible and encourages employees to work in teams and build on each others’ ideas. To be effective, top managers must routinely review and comment on posted charts and graphs and openly discuss progress toward goals or the lack thereof. When managers pay attention to metrics, so do employees.

Of course, individual employee goal setting and performance measurement must be part of the plan and linked to the overall company objectives. Often, this critical link is missing, and employees have little to guide them when they encounter what appear to be conflicting objectives. This can cause a program to go off track or at least slow down progress until the direction is clarified.

Take advantage of all of the possible benefits a sound communication plan can bring to your company. So far I’ve found only one drawback; no matter how often you communicate and how much information you provide, it will not be enough to satisfy your employees.

Now that’s a good problem to have!

George Perry has more than 40 years of experience in engineering, operations and executive management. He retired as president and CEO of Yazaki North America Inc. in December 2009.

Published in Detroit

When Tom Keckeis took over as chairman, president and CEO of Messer Construction Co. last year, he took on a six-month initiative to visit with some of the construction company’s customers. With more than 30 years in the company, Keckeis knew the ins and outs of the business but wanted to gauge customer’s reactions to how Messer had been doing. So he went to Nashville, Knoxville and Indianapolis and met with CEOs and owners with whom Messer had worked.

“I looked at myself and said, ‘Where’s my biggest void?’” Keckeis says. “I grew up in the organization, I understand our culture, I understand our people, and I understand our building process. Where I haven’t been is been the face of Messer out in front and I haven’t been out talking to the customers, so I tried to lead with that.”

What he learned from those conversations was that customers were impressed with the company and, specifically, the culture of Messer. The culture and the quality of its more than 800 employees has been the driving force behind the $530 million company’s success.

Here’s how Keckeis continues to build Messer by listening to customers and focusing on culture.

Find your strengths

When Keckeis set out to meet with customers, he had one main thing in mind: Listen for what he didn’t know about the company and then get to work on understanding it.

“I spent a lot of time really focusing externally listening to our customers,” Keckeis says. “I thought it was a very good experience for me. What I heard was some of what I expected. I talked about our technology and all the technical tools that we use and they all said, ‘Yeah, that’s important.’ But they always came back to, ‘Your people are really what’s different.’ The culture of our company really is a little bit unique and it came out in those six months of listening to the customer.”

Because customers were impressed by the culture, Keckeis knew he had to continue to make that a prominent part of the company. When stepping into a CEO role, it is important to reach out to customers and understand what it is they like or don’t like about your business.

“You have to make sure you spend time talking to your customers and make sure you listen to them and make sure you deliver on that,” he says. “You gain a lot of knowledge by listening to the customer. You can’t just go in and say, ‘Tell me what you think.’ You have to tell them what you think is important and what you’re investing in and then let them react to it.”

Keckeis had the advantage of knowing the business well before he was put in charge as CEO and had an area he wanted to focus on. That’s not always the case if a CEO is new to the company. There are some similarities and many differences to how a CEO would look to drive his company based on where they are coming from.

“[Where to start] would vary based on where the person is coming from and what they are stepping into,” Keckeis says. “It would be a totally different concept if you were coming in from the outside. You would need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the company and the people inside the company as well as know the outside. You kind of have a double whammy there. I had the advantage of growing from the inside. I understand the strengths of the organization. The difficulty would be if I would be blinded by that, thinking that everything we’re doing is great. You’ve got to be careful with that.

“Each person would have to attack this differently,” he says. “You would say, ‘What do I know and what don’t I know?’ You need to understand your business development and how you’re selling the work and what’s valuable to your customers. You’ve got to understand that. Then you have to look at the way you’re delivering that value and whether you really are delivering it.”

Build a unique culture

Messer’s value is in the way it does business every day, and that’s a direct result of its culture and the employees that make it all possible. Messer is an employee-owned company and customers liked how the employees embrace that aspect.

“That ownership mentality came across when I talked to the customers,” Keckeis says. “They realized that our people are out there thinking about the long term — and they are — because their futures are tied to the long-term benefit of this company. Everybody has the ability to have the same ownership as myself or anybody else. If you stay here long enough in the company, you get so many shares of stock every year, and it builds up over time.”

Having an ESOP has turned Messer into what it is today, and there are numerous reasons a company would want to go down that path.

“If you’re a company that’s getting ready to go through a succession, you want to sell the company or move out, there are some real advantages,” Keckeis says. “It really is about succession planning. If you’ve got a strong leadership team that is carrying the day and they are interested in taking on that role and responsibility of owning a company, there are some real tax advantages for the person that wants to sell the company and there are tax advantages for the people that are buying the company.”

An ESOP, if it’s 100 percent owned by the employees through an S corporation structure, allows you to be tax exempt from federal tax. Taxes would be due when retirements are paid out. An ESOP can also be a big help to forming a stronger culture and can also help boost morale and job performance for the employees who have ownership. Customers liked that about Messer.

“To have an opportunity to own a piece of the pie and be able to set your own futures based on what you do every day is huge for morale because you can take the charge with it,” he says. “It leaves your company intact and leaves your employees intact to be able to carry on the day, and there’s a lot of pride there.”

An ESOP isn’t for everyone, but once employees understand it and realize the potential it has, it can be very beneficial.

“People that start with our company, we sell the ESOP and tell them what it means, but until they get in here, it usually takes about five or six years before they build up an account and realize that everything they do helps drive the bottom line and start to feel that,” Keckeis says. “I think people that would be buying the company would realize, ‘Wow, I’m going to own a certain percentage of this company and my future is tied to what I do every day.’ Not everybody would be into that, but the people that are leading the company surely would be.”

Build empowerment

Messer’s employees are very in tune with the company and realize what their actions can make or break. Keckeis empowers his employees and makes sure what they do every day translates into the results that the customer wants.

“I think you’ve got to make sure that what [employees] do on a daily basis ties together with your metrics,” he says. “You’ve got to make sure that you measure the right things and publicly say what you’re measuring and how you’re doing on it. Make sure the things that you measure tie directly to what you want to be successful on. You have to allow employees to see those metrics on a regular basis.”

Allowing employees to see how their efforts play a direct result in driving what customers are looking for will help performance. It is crucial that you are making sure the right metrics are being measured.

“You have to ask yourself if you are measuring the right things that drive value for your customers and are they things that people can feel on a daily basis?” Keckeis says. “Finding a way to connect the things that you measure with what people pay attention to is very important and as a CEO you’ve got to pay attention to those things.”

Making sure you’re doing what customers have expressed interest in is critical, but you also want to make sure that what you’re doing is helpful to your culture and your employees.

“You also want it to be something that ties to what the employees do every day so they can see that what they are doing affects that metric,” he says. “You have to make sure what you’re measuring is going to drive performance.”

Empowering employees is a big part of increasing morale and making corporate culture stronger within your company. Keeping culture at the forefront of your business and making sure you have people who believe in the company is crucial.

“Your culture will beat everything else if you’ve got people that care and want the company to grow,” Keckeis says. “Empowerment and culture is critical if you want to be different in any industry. You have to focus a lot on your culture. You have to communicate with your people regularly about your bottom line, your finances, what you’re doing. You have to get them involved in all of that and get input back from them.”

You have to make sure that you pay attention to your employees in order to keep corporate culture strong.

“You have to listen to your employees first,” he says. “You need to focus on your people and you need to care about your people … that are doing the work on a day-to-day basis.”

Communicating with more than 800 employees can be a tough task, but it is vital to keeping the culture united. Messer has a group of 108 senior managers who act as a system of communication from the executives to the employees.

“We created a system of responsibility to make that communication,” Keckeis says. “I obviously cannot talk to 800 people. We created the senior management position that is the voice and the direction for the company directly. They share that and drive it out to the rest of the organization.

“You’ve got to have a leadership team that you trust and you’ve got to be able to communicate and then you’ve got to be able to have a way that the word gets out. If you’re a small enough company and you’re just in Cincinnati, you can pull everybody together and talk to them regularly. In our case, we can’t do that. You’ve got to create a way where the leaders of the company are identified and are helping drive that and listening to the employees.”

It can be very easy to get tied up with numerous daily tasks and other things on your agenda, but if customers find your culture helpful to how you do business, you have keep track of it and you have to care for your employees.

“Caring is a tough thing,” he says. “It isn’t looking down on them, it is actually feeling every day what they feel so that you can understand that. It’s easy for a CEO to step back and say, ‘Well, I’ve got different problems and I’ve got different issues that I’ve got to deal with. They’ve got to worry about their own problems.’ If you do that you’re going to be in trouble.

“You really do need to understand that what’s driving you isn’t you at the top, it’s the group of people that are there doing the work every day,” he says. “If you can figure out how to stay in tune with that and help nurture it and be attentive to it, I think you’ll be successful no matter what the business. You’ve got to know that they go home and they have kids and they have families and the way you’re treating them makes a big difference. You need to inform them, you need to communicate with them, and you need to make them feel like they are empowered. That’s what you have to create. We spend a lot to create the culture. It isn’t something you just go out and get.”

HOW TO REACH: Messer Construction Co., (513) 242-1541 or www.messer.com

The Keckeis File

Tom Keckeis

Chairman, president and CEO

Messer Construction Co.

Born: Cincinnati

Education: Attended the University of Cincinnati, degree in civil engineering. He went to work at Messer straight out of school.

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

My very first job was working for a flooring contractor. I was 15 when I started. I was a laborer, cleaning up and helping scrap and lay floors. The one thing I got out of it was the person I worked for was a true craftsman. That instilled in me a lot of respect for what a craftsperson brings to the job.

What has been the hardest part about being a CEO?

Being disconnected at times, yet still wanting to drive the organization in a direction and how do you make that connection. I feel one step removed from where I was.

What has been the best part about being a CEO?

Seeing the growth of the people. The people who have stepped into my role and other roles and watching them grow has been fun and inspiring.

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

Treat others the way you want to be treated. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. When you ask people to do things you want to be able to make sure you would do them yourself.

If you could do something dangerous one time without consequences, what would you do and why?

I have always wanted to be a pilot and fly a plane or maybe skydive. I always wanted to be able to feel that freedom.

Published in Cincinnati

A few years ago, when one of Rafi Holtzman’s employees called him from Europe and said she forgot her bright pink suit pants she needed for a trade show she was attending, he went to her house and, not wanting them to get crumpled in his suitcase, carried them by hand on the plane. He got odd looks, but it was just one way the CEO of Luidia Inc., a creator of interactive whiteboard technologies, showed his employee that he cared about her.

Holtzman also drinks his coffee with employees so he can talk to them, and he bought employees expensive ergonomic chairs so they would be comfortable. And when any of his nearly 100 employees have family emergencies, he says he’ll see them when it’s over instead of expecting them to work during the crisis.

“Even if you’re a cold-hearted capitalist, you still want to act like this because it buys you the thing that money can’t buy — it’s the personal responsibility, it’s the self-motivation — salaries will not do that for you,” he says. “Salaries are short-term sugar highs. If people understand you’re there for the long-run … it goes a long way.”

Smart Business spoke with Holtzman about how values affect a company.

What role do values play in an organization?

There are two kinds of motivation in human life — and it’s basically falling into two buckets. One of them is fear and the other one is love. Fear is a great motivator for a short-term burst — if you’re running away from a wild animal or doing a very fast project that you need to do right now and kill yourself to finish it. But if you really want to sustain growth, creativity, teamwork for the long run, then you have to be highly motivated to continue this for the long run, and the only way I know how to do that is personal involvement. I’m using the term love, but it’s a lot more than that. It’s a combination of respect and personal responsibility and taking things really personal.

It helps a lot if you believe in that. You can fake it and do pep talks. A lot of companies will say that people are their strongest assets. But from my experience, not a lot really do mean it on the basic level. If you can really believe in that, you’re a large part of the way there.

How does showing care to employees help the business itself?

You have to go really outside the box to get support that will last for years. Most organizations manage to keep the people they don’t want to keep — we like to keep the people we do want to keep.

Changing employees is bad for you. It’s also hideously expensive. A stabilized company is always good rather than changing employees all the time — this going up and down and the learning curve and the hiring process puts stress on everybody.

How do you hire well the first time so you have a stable company?

Don’t compromise. Wait a bit more and don’t compromise. As a matter of compensation, it’s not always the highest monetary compensation that brings you the best candidate. You really have to see if there’s a fit on the vision both in the day-to-day activity and in the long run. People who fit in with the company values and, at the end of the day, are proud of their work, get significant points over somebody who just thinks of work as work.

What questions do you ask to get a good match?

The top question I ask is, ‘Tell me about the project you are proud of.’ I remember one candidate going, ‘Look, I started this, I made the proposal to the department of defense, I developed the process, I went all the way from idea to actually selling it, and it was a great thing because the company sold a lot of them. What I got from this I got taking ownership from one end to another.’ He had pride of ownership that he did a good product — he was really high on my list.

The other question is, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ You find out a lot about people when they answer this question — there’s only one good answer and that’s I don’t want to grow up. One of them said chocolate taster — that was a good answer.

How to reach: Luidia Inc., (650) 413-7500 or www.e-beam.com

Published in Northern California