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Rob Meck likes to push people to see how they respond. When he arrived at Premiere Credit of North America LLC, that’s exactly what he set out to do.

“I came on board in July 2009 and was cast with the challenge of transitioning a mature, but small entrepreneurial accounts receivable management firm into a leading national accounts receivable management firm with the ability to grow both immediately and rapidly,” Meck says.

He began meeting with company leaders to gauge who could work well under the pressure of pursuing growth.

“Too many managers, especially during the turmoil we were going through, and it’s such a huge transition, automatically retreated and didn’t want to take a lot of risk,” says Meck, the 400-employee company’s president and CEO.

He wanted people who could step out of their comfort zone and grow with the business. So he engaged them in strategic projects that contained a certain element of risk and working side by side and made an assessment of their abilities.

“I try to be a mentor with all of them and one of the things I do with them is try to roll up my sleeves with them and work on projects,” Meck says. “I really had to pick who the keepers were, and we had a lot of people we wanted to maintain. We put those people in specific areas that we really wanted to build on, strong people that had loyalty to the company and adherence to our values. We also recognized there were a lot of people who weren’t going to stay.”

Testing people doesn’t have to be throwing them in the deep end to see if they can swim. Work with them closely to discover their talents and abilities. Make it clear that mistakes are OK, as long they are made in the pursuit of progress.

“Reaffirm with them that the failure of you trying something and taking that risk isn’t career ending,” Meck says. “You can learn from that mistake. You’re not going to get punished for trying something that was an educated risk. … In a competitive world, if you don’t take some risk, you’re never going to be the top-ranked performer in your industry.”

The fear of taking risks is what holds back many entrepreneurial businesses.

“A lot of them struggle with the fact that building the infrastructure is a fairly significant expense of non-revenue generating, nonprofit making individuals,” Meck says. “If you’re going to invest into it and do it right, it costs money and it could affect earnings.”

Meck was willing to take some of those risks and he found other leaders who also thrived under pressure. But there were some who didn’t fit his mold and that led to his move to bring more than 30 new managers from 20 competing companies to Premiere Credit.

“Bad turnover is when you lose one of your top performing, most compliant, loyal and dedicated employees,” Meck says. “Good turnover is when you lose some of your lower performing people who don’t buy into your values. We knew that if we did not adhere tightly to our core values and have everyone buy into them, the company would not be as strong as it could be.”

The ability to make those tough decisions and take a few chances along the way is often the difference between a company that grows and one that plateaus.

“A lot of entrepreneurs really have loyalty to the people who made them successful,” Meck says. “It’s hard to keep them on the payroll and hire someone else who has that higher skill set and still maintain your financial business model.”

Meck is confident the steps taken thus far have Premiere on a path to growth.

“Our performance on every one of our clients has improved dramatically in the last year with people buying in to our new cultural values,” Meck says.

Catch your breath

Rob Meck moved quickly to make changes at Premiere Credit of North America LLC. So quickly, in fact, that he had to institute daily wrap-up meetings to keep track of it all.

“I was afraid we were losing track of all that we were doing,” says Meck, president and CEO at the 400-employee accounts receivable management firm. “So I set up executive debriefs at 5:30 every night for the top four executives for what was hopefully 15 or 30 minutes max. It was just a brain dump of everything that happened today.”

Maybe you don’t need a meeting every day. But Meck says it’s crucial that you make sure everybody is running forward at the same pace.

“As fast as we were moving, within a day, we could have had two executives taking different projects that were in opposition to each other,” Meck says. “It also served as a team-building exercise. It was a great way to end the day so that we all knew we were on each other’s team.”

Even though the pace has slowed a bit, the meetings continue.

“It helps communication,” Meck says. “It’s such an important part of the communication every day with our senior management team.”

HOW TO REACH: Premiere Credit of North America LLC, (888) 403-1637 or www.premierecredit.com

Published in Indianapolis

When Michael LaRosa took over as CEO of his family’s 64-restaurant pizzeria chain in 2008, he couldn’t just rely on the quality of the pizza, hoagies or calzones to get him through.

The economy was bad, and people weren’t eating out as much as they used to, and that included stops at LaRosa’s Pizzerias, which his father founded in 1954.

“It has been an extremely difficult economic period to lead a business and organization in any industry,” LaRosa says. “What I look at in my role as CEO is that I have to do my very best to keep the morale and the culture of the organization from my leadership as positive as possible and try to encourage everyone to keep doing the right things.”

Due to the economic climate of the last few years, LaRosa has had to stress more than ever the importance of making customer service his highest priority. From driving service into the corporate culture and training new employees to modeling expected behavior and learning from mistakes, LaRosa’s has survived the economic downturn with great customer service from more than 2,800 employees who helped the pizza chain earn revenue of $124.5 million in 2010. Here’s how LaRosa kept customer service his No. 1 priority.

Keep positive

The economy the past few years put a dent in how and where people spent their money. When economic climates change, you have to be able to adjust to those changes and make sure you continue to do what you can to provide the best for your customers.

“People are doing a little bit less of some of the things that are life’s luxuries,” LaRosa says. “You wouldn’t think that buying a pizza falls into the luxury category, but people decide to eat at home a little more often and try to save some money, and at the end of the day, everybody feels it. Even though we are all doing our best to manage costs and waste and making sure that we have efficiencies everywhere, at the same time, we can’t let the economic feeling be prevalent inside our business, because we are in the customer service business.”

When times are tough, you can’t let that trickle into your business. It is crucial that you be as positive as possible and continue to focus on providing the best products and services to your customers.

“You must keep your eye on providing your guests great quality products and great service and you can’t allow a dip in attitude throughout the leadership of the company or your store management teams or your front-line people,” LaRosa says. “You just can’t allow for that because there are already fewer people calling and coming in and the ones who are coming deserve the most fantastic experience ever each time they come in. I think anybody who has been in a leadership position certainly has sensed the importance of doing a much better job just keeping your people positive, keeping your eye on the ball and inspiring them each day to do the best they possibly can with the guests that they’re serving.”

It is also important that your people understand the company goals during trying times. Setting goals and making strides toward achieving them can provide a boost in morale when times are tough.

“If you have important goals clearly stated and understood by everyone and you proactively review those metrics on a frequent basis, you celebrate the things that are worth celebrating and you address the other issues, I think that activity can help lift everyone’s spirits and morale,” LaRosa says. “You have to have the right goals established and be communicating them to everyone and then have frequent reviews so that you can respond positive or negative as you need to.”

Make training a priority

Regardless of what the focus of your company is, it is critical that all of your employees understand it and that they know it from the moment they begin work.

“What you try to accomplish within the first 30 or 45 minutes is to create an expectation that is simple to understand, yet extremely important,” LaRosa says. “For us, we focus on our promise. Our promise each day is that we want to bring a smile to every one of our guests every time we serve them. Our promise is clearly stated and easy to understand, but in that first 30 minutes, you want every new addition to your team to understand that.”

When showing new employees what you expect of them, it is important that you are able to view the situation from their perspective and make them feel comfortable.

“You need to understand the team member’s perspective,” LaRosa says. “I’m hiring people and sometimes it’s their first job. They’re very nervous, and they’re fearful of what they are going to encounter. We work hard to understand the nature of our new hires, and we try to create an environment that’s comfortable for them.”

Making sure that new hires are comfortable will help ensure that they will be able to grasp what you expect them to do in their roles. What you tell them in the beginning of their training is crucial.

“You have to be very understanding of the individual you’re training so you can design a program that not only meets their needs but helps them be successful beginning with the first 30 minutes of their training,” LaRosa says. “I think sometimes people make the mistake of using a little too much corporate language and acronyms and they blow right past the new hire and the new hire isn’t comfortable enough to ask what that means. You have to understand your target and create an environment that makes them comfortable especially when asking questions or asking for clarification. If you’re able to do that, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll provide pretty good training.”

Excel at customer service

In just about every industry, customer service is one of the top priorities within a company. If customer service is something you pride yourself on, it is important that you are constantly providing it in every circumstance.

“Regardless of how pleasing the meal may or may not have been, service can mean more to the guest,” LaRosa says. “They will continue to go back to a place where maybe the food is a little bit inconsistent, but service will bring them back because they feel appreciated. Customer service has to be prevalent everywhere. You can never overuse it. It has to become an integral part of your culture.”

To make something an integral part of a company culture, the behavior has to be displayed by the CEO and everyone else will follow.

“The CEO is expected to lead by example, and then that just trickles throughout the organization and everybody else is expected to behave the same way,” LaRosa says. “If you do that 110 percent of the time, chances are your people are going to be doing it pretty well, too. You also have to make it prevalent. Refer to it and point to it constantly.”

Feedback is another great way to improve upon your services. It provides a firsthand opinion of what you can do better to make your customers and your employees happier.

“You have to make it easy for your customers to give you feedback and you have to respond to it,” LaRosa says. “The same thing goes for your team members. All levels of management need to constantly ask their team members for feedback. Is there anything that we need to do or provide you to help you do your job? Are there any obstacles that I can help remove so you can do a better job providing quality products and quality service? You have to always be out there asking for feedback that can help drive your improvement.”

Getting feedback from customers and employees can often lead to new practices, products or services that can provide a boost to your company.

“It’s always fun to use specific suggestions or recommendations that are made by front-line team members and build that into the company,” LaRosa says. “Those things are huge wins. Those kinds of things have to be free flowing. You have to have a culture that allows everyone to come up with ideas that will help make things better, save time or steps, make something more efficient or help make a customer more satisfied, those contributions are invaluable.”

Contributions from employees or customers will only improve your business if you are open to those suggestions. It is imperative that you hear all feedback and respond one way or the other.

“You have to be open to all comments and suggestions,” LaRosa says. “However, you have to have some sense or some sort of an evaluation process where you can put something into a test mode and determine if this is really going to be something that improves this, that or the other. It’s like a funnel, you want to be open to all ideas and all suggestions, but what actually comes through the funnel are things that maybe a subcommittee or a quality team has reviewed.”

Motivate performance

Motivation to perform well and recognition of a job well done is an important part of creating an atmosphere where employees will want to excel.

“Somebody taught me a long time ago that when you catch someone doing a great job you need to make a big deal out of that and let them know that you appreciate that,” LaRosa says. “As much as possible I’ll visit a store and congratulate and thank a team member. That recognition of a job well done is very important and we try to share those stories.”

A job well done must be celebrated from the top down. Otherwise people won’t know that your company cares about good performance.

“Our team members see that as our attitude and that helps draw out the best in people,” LaRosa says. “If it was the opposite of that and no one cares and that’s the attitude, then that will trickle down, as well. As CEO, it’s really important to make sure that your managers are doing the right things and they care and are responsive to their employees.”

Managers must make sure they are providing encouragement in the right manner, because employees will respond positively or negatively based on how they are treated by their supervisors.

“What’s most important is having a culture where the managers care about their team members and their satisfaction so that your team members care about the guests and their satisfaction,” LaRosa says. “It’s a two-way street. Your team members are only going to perform at a level of how they are interacted with by their superiors. You’ve got to have an environment where everybody understands that a happy internal customer is going to provide for that external customer. So the culture and the environment have to be one that you care about your people at all levels.”

To build a culture that cares about people and motivates them at all levels, you must be able to learn from mistakes. If your company can do that, everyone will be better off having learned from those experiences.

“You have to have continuous learning and process improvement that’s driven from that learning,” LaRosa says. “That’s a very important way to motivate people across the organization. Leadership is charged with the responsibility to create that urgency around improvement. Complacency is the enemy. There are always little details that can get better and be improved upon. As a CEO, you have to create that type of environment.”

HOW TO REACH: LaRosa’s Pizzerias, (513) 347-5660 or www.larosas.com

The LaRosa File

Name: Michael LaRosa

Title: CEO

Company: LARosa's Pizzerias

Born: Cincinnati

Food service experience: Has been in the food service business for more than 35 years working in and around the family business. His father started LaRosa’s in 1954.

Do you hope that your children will continue the family business?

My oldest son is involved in the company, and he is very passionate about the family business. But it’s really up to them. I don’t think it’s something you want to force upon them. It has to be a decision that they want to make for the right reasons.

What would you eat if you went into a LaRosa’s for a meal?

I would have a bowl of minestrone soup, a traditional crust pizza with pepperoni and sausage and a Diet Coke.

What are some traits of a good leader?

I think you have to be a person of integrity. You need to have vision. You need to be a servant leader and go out of your way for others and be as concerned about others and their development as you are yourself. You also have to be passionate about what you do.

If you could have a conversation with a person from the past or present, who would you like to speak with?

I would probably speak to Jesus Christ. I think you could have a pretty interesting conversation with him. I have a strong faith, and he is one of the people I most admire.

Published in Cincinnati

Rob Myers thought the grass looked at least as green on the other side, so he took a leap.

He was on a stable regional banking career path at Wells Fargo & Co. after rising through the ranks to president of the South Orange County market’s retail channel.

“At that point, I realized I needed to try something a little bit different to expand my horizons and learn a different line of business,” Myers says.

With the help of Wells Fargo’s Executive Development Program, Myers went over to business banking, becoming the division manager in Southern California after a year of training.

Some may call it a meandering career path, especially since last August when Myers came back to the retail side as the regional president of Orange County Community Banking. But Myers sees veering off the traditional path — even within the same company — as a growth opportunity. Whether you’re switching business lines, taking a new position or pursuing other development opportunities, career mobility is important for enhancing skills at any level.

“If you’ve only lived that line of business (and) if either the economy dictates a change in that business or if the company dictates a change, then you become very limited in your options,” he says. “But if you expand your horizons … you become more valuable to the company.”

Myers’ development serves as an example to the 1,750 employees he manages in the region, which had $15.7 billion in deposits as of June. He encourages them to individualize their growth goals, even if that means straying from the traditional career path.

“If we are fostering an environment where we’re communicating and celebrating those successes, [like] switching business lines, then I think people realize they have the permission to explore things that will allow them to grow,” Myers says. “They’re not going to be pigeonholed. They’re not going to be stuck. It’s great for the company; it’s great for the team member.”

Plan for development

Myers’ move began with a plan, as all courses of career development should. Working with Wells Fargo since 1994, he realized his passion for small business banking. He actively researched other areas of the company that would allow him to explore that —seeking a position that would align with his passion and enhance his skills instead of just following a predetermined hierarchy.

“You have to be really careful and calculated in when and how you move,” Myers says. “To move for the sake of moving isn’t a benefit. You really have to identify what you’re passionate about and what you have skills for and what you’re doing today that’s transferrable to the job and the line of business you’re looking to go toward.”

Any kind of career development should be part of a long-term strategy around where you want to be and what you want to achieve.

“To go somewhere that isn’t congruent with what you’re doing today or where you want to go doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he says.

To instill a growth culture and help employees view development as an ongoing strategy, Wells Fargo provides tools for plotting career paths. Managers help guide direct reports through the planning process.

“Whatever your course is, if you want to be successful in the job you’re in and stay there, we have different programs and classes and trainings,” Myers says. “If you want to progress, we have made it very clear what the options are. We know that the opportunity to learn and grow and develop is something that keeps people here and keeps them engaged and developed and makes them successful at what they do, and we make it very public what the routes are.”

For example, an aspiring business banker who comes in as a personal banker would need to progress through the ranks to become a business specialist. But because each employee has different aspirations, career paths are more about helping employees get to their destination, wherever that may be.

“Not everyone takes the same route,” Myers says. “It really is about what you’re skilled at, what you enjoy doing and where you want to go. … It really is about helping them achieve whatever they want to achieve. If it’s promotion or just getting really great at the job they’re doing, both are important, and there needs to be development plans in place for both those types of people.”

That’s why it’s important to provide options. Wells Fargo employees periodically re-evaluate their career paths with a flowchart-type diagram that maps out some possibilities, whether a teller wants to pursue branch management or wealth management — or take care of horses for the stagecoach.

By helping employees understand the skill sets necessary in various positions, you can equip them for any direction they take. To determine the skills necessary in each position, Wells Fargo analyzed previous employees, comparing and contrasting key characteristics of both the successful and the unsuccessful to qualify the definition of a natural fit.

“Something that will make you successful in one job may not make you successful in another,” Myers says. “The key is identifying what a successful team member looks like where you’re going, what they do every day, what the characteristics are.”

Align passion and skill

Myers underwent a year of hands-on training for his new position to ensure a fit. Now, as a coach, his challenge is making sure employees align with opportunities.

“The first thing as a manager is to understand what opportunities are available,” Myers says. “The ability to work with partners [to] identify the traits of the successful folks that they have is important for a manager. I want to make sure, as I work with my team member, that if I identify those same characteristics, I know that may be an opportunity.”

This requires a balance of understanding the employees you’re coaching and being aware of opportunities.

Don’t limit mentoring sessions to a couple of times a year. Coaching should be an ongoing effort of continuous conversation. In addition to one-on-one meetings, for example, Myers may observe his direct reports coaching their direct reports to see how they function. That candid observation will help you get to know your mentees better, which will make it easier to match them to open opportunities.

“It’s really hard for a coach to watch the scoreboard without watching the plays,” he says. “If we’re truly in the game watching, we’ll have a better idea of what their strengths are and what they do really well and what the areas of opportunity are. And if we understand what our partners’ groups do, then we’ll be able to say, ‘You have these great skills. I think they’ll be transferable here.’”

Matching employees with opportunities is a matter of closing gaps between their current strengths and the required skills. Sometimes, it’s just not realistic, like when employees don’t possess the skills for the management position that they desire. That’s where you need frank conversation, because pushing a square peg into a round hole won’t benefit you or the employee.

“Sometimes, they want to jump into a position that they’ve always aspired to do,” Myers says. “Well, in observing them, their skills aren’t aligned with that. It takes the courage of a manager to say, ‘Look, this isn’t consistent with what you’re (ready for). You may have a passion to do it, but my goal as a leader is to make sure you have passion and skills. When those two are aligned, only then will you be successful.’”

Good coaching means the door of opportunity doesn’t close there, though. Sometimes, it’s as easy as steering them toward another opportunity that does satisfy both passions and skills. But the perfect position isn’t always available, so a good coach helps employees prepare for the next step of growth — even if that just means suggesting a course or assigning a project to develop untapped skills.

“Show them that you may not be ready for what you’re looking for today, but let me find something within the job you’re doing today that could help you get better prepared for that,” Myers says. “How can I fit someone within the framework of what they do every day today that still has a learning opportunity for them, at the same time helps the company?”

Stay employee-centric

What if, through this extensive career planning and soul-searching, an employee decides that his or her calling is in another field? Is it counterproductive to develop employees right out of your company? At a big company like Wells Fargo with 80 lines of business and 9,000 stores, Myers can usually find something with the organization to suit anyone. But that’s not always the case.

“If you have someone that you know isn’t engaged and they’re looking to do something else, you keep the team member at the center of what you do — and if it means losing them to a different industry, then so be it,” Myers says. “I think that’s the best thing for the team member. If you don’t do that, you have a team member that’s not engaged, that’s not working for your customer, that’s not doing what they need to be successful and is not happy.”

Stay employee-centric by continually communicating and celebrating development —even for untraditional paths.

“I’ve seen far too many examples of companies that, when someone promotes outside the line of business, it’s frowned upon,” Myers says. “There’s nothing that gives me greater satisfaction than seeing one of my team members grow to a different job — and if it’s outside of the group that I’m in, that’s fantastic. If we’re doing the right things from a succession-planning perspective, we’ll have someone that can jump into that role.”

Being focused on employees isn’t just about creating a warm, fuzzy feeling internally. It really translates into overall business success.

“This is about our team members growing and learning and succeeding,” Myers says. “If we keep the team member at the center of what we do, we’re going to have successful, well-rounded team members in all of our groups. We’re going to have advocates for the company. We’re going to have lower attrition rates.

“If we have really well-engaged, focused team members who are developing, it’s going to result in satisfied and engaged customers and then our stock price goes up, our shareholders are happy, everything works. But it starts with that engaged and developed team member and if you don’t have that, then whatever success you have is going to be short-lived.”

How to reach: Wells Fargo & Co., (800) 858-4062 or www.wellsfargo.com

Making the Move: Tips for scaling the corporate ladder

Whether you’re switching lines of business or exploring a promotion across the country, executive moves are challenging. Rob Myers, who successfully navigated from retail to business banking and back again at Wells Fargo & Co., shares a couple tips.

Do your research. Myers sought key business banking players at community events and meetings to inquire about the job he was jumping in to.

“I approached them not with, ‘I want your job,’ but, ‘I really want to learn more about what you do and how you do it and what you’re looking for in people,’” he says. “I would find out what they liked, what they didn’t like, what their challenges were, what their opportunities were. I identified who the managers were. I found out about career opportunities — not just the job I wanted but: Are people moving? Are they developing? What’s their retention rate?”

On broader scope, also look at the potential job’s viability in the overall marketplace. Myers evaluated economic drivers in Orange County like employers and jobs. He affirmed that many employees work at small businesses, and that Wells Fargo was investing capital in business banking to better serve the owners.

“I’d like to look five years from now and say, ‘OK, is my line of business going to be operating and growing, or is it a line we could and would contract?’” he says. “You have to do a great deal of research into how the business line fits into the community, where you think the economy’s moving, are there any regulations coming down the pike that could impact the business?”

Learn to learn again. The challenge of moving around once you’re in an executive position is that you go from senior council to being a freshman again.

“I knew my business really well and so my learning curve (shifted),” Myers says. “In jumping into a different business, you really have to learn how to learn again — and you’re learning from people that you may be managing, but they know far more than you do. You have to be humble and modest and appreciate what they can contribute and how they can help you and the fact that you’re dependent on them.”

Wells Fargo’s Executive Development Program exposed Myers to most business banking positions so he learned firsthand what was important to employees and how each function drove success.

“I don’t think everybody knows everything about an organization or a job,” he says. “It would be really arrogant of me to think that I do. In any job, I want to make sure I’m serving the team members that are working for me. I realize that they have a lot to offer me. Everybody has the power to learn different things and they can make an impact on our organization.”

The Myers File

Education: B.A. in social psychology from the University of California at Irvine; MBA from Pepperdine University

What was the first job you ever had, and what did you learn from it?

My first job in the world was delivering pizza when I was in high school. I realized then that whatever I did, I wanted to do really well. I wanted to be the best pizza delivery guy we had, and that was my goal — not to beat everybody, but I wanted to go home at night and say, ‘I did the job well,’ because every job out there is important and we need to approach it with that passion of being successful.

If you could have any superpower, what would you choose and why?

I would love to time travel. I’d love to see what the future holds. I’d love to see things that have happened in the past, meet people in the past. I’d love to go back and see Henry Wells and William Fargo and find out what their mindset was in starting the business and tell them what their business has become 150-plus years later. I’d love to meet some of our past leaders, people that are really influential in history. I would love to meet some sports stars; I’d love to witness some previous sporting events.

What was the last book you read?

I started reading a David Baldacci book. I like the mystery, spy and murder books. He’s probably my favorite. Every six months, he comes out with another book; then I know what my vacation reading is.

Published in Orange County

Sometimes, an old stove can really help you weather an economic recession.

Not the stove itself, actually. It’s the money you save by not buying a new stove right away.

At MotorCity Casino Hotel, president and CEO Gregg Solomon has used a heavy dose of common-sense, cost-saving frugality to help his 2,800-employee facility to weather the toughest economic climate in 70 years.

“There is always a natural attention you pay to controlling your discretionary spending,” Solomon says. “Rather than schedule the replacement of a piece of kitchen equipment, we’re going to see if it makes it through the year. If not, we’ll have to replace it. Those sorts of things, when you’re planning capital expenditures, you can reasonably estimate that you’ll be replacing a certain amount of equipment. In this case, we decided that if it breaks, we’ll deal with it, otherwise we’re going to try to get another year out of it.”

But it’s not all about capping capital expenses. For Solomon to make it through the recession with his business positioned for future success, he has also needed to throw some strategy, opportunism and leadership into the mix. He’s needed to find opportunities to grow that are financially advantageous and build an organization of enabled, motivated people who can capitalize on those opportunities.

Like a lot of business leaders, Solomon has done some learning on the job as his business has progressed through the recession. What he has learned has driven home to him the importance of not just financial and strategic positioning, but the need of employees to have the support, direction and encouragement of management in uncertain times.

“Basically, a lot of it was not allowing us to fall into the negative mindset that a lot of companies get trapped in,” he says. “Without question, a major challenge has been keeping everyone’s attitude on track when things are not good.”

Watch your costs

When you need to keep a close eye on your cost structure, it’s about how you spend your money as much as the amount you spend. Often, you can’t simply take an organizational hedge trimmer and cut a nice, smooth line across all departments and areas. Some departments are going to need more investment than others.

At a large casino with many departments and areas all vying for budgetary support, Solomon needed to come up with a guiding principle that would help determine which areas got financing first.

The deciding fact for Solomon and his team was whether an expense or cost-cutting maneuver would adversely affect the customer experience. If a move could generate a negative impact for the customer, it was deemed a bad move. If it could help improve the customer experience, Solomon’s staff pursued the idea.

“We took a hard look at our labor component and tried to find more creative ways to do business,” he says. “One of the things we looked at was working with unions to implement four-day, 10-hour-shift workweeks. That allowed us to better appropriate labor than five-day, eight-hour-shift workweeks, which is the concept that is predominant in our industry.”

Solomon and his team looked at every discretionary expenditure, including electricity usage, facility maintenance and even magazine subscriptions, to see if there was a better way to arrive at a positive end result.

“It goes back to whether you need to replace that piece of kitchen equipment right now,” Solomon says. “The key is, you don’t budget to the maximum extent that you’re able to spend. We always have some discretion regarding additional expenses that weren’t in our original forecast. You try to project the reality of the situation beforehand. A department head sees that a piece of equipment is becoming more costly to maintain and we see that it really doesn’t have another year in it. Or maybe we lose a maintenance agreement on a piece of equipment and can’t be sure that we’ll get the replacement parts. You take it as it comes.”

Another strategic maneuver that Solomon helped facilitate was the use of MotorCity as a proving ground for new technology. The casino’s leaders formed alliances with gaming manufacturers, arranging partnerships that paved the way for new features, such as server-based gaming. The arrangement helped provide a large number of new attractions for the gaming floor at MotorCity on favorable financial terms.

“They would provide a huge amount of equipment to us on a trial basis, and we would either be able to defer payment or arrange other favorable terms,” Solomon says. “It allowed us to get a huge number of new games on the floor without an immediate financial impact.”

As a business leader, you need to take a proactive approach to leadership. You can’t wait for the market to boom or bust before you devise and carry out a plan of attack. When the economic outlook is anywhere between murky and gloomy, it can be difficult to be that bold. However, Solomon says the key is to remember what makes your business great and remember that you are still the one running your business, not the circumstances of the marketplace and not your competition.

“Stick to your game,” he says. “Don’t let other competitors run your business. Don’t get caught in a fact-and-react loop, where they tripled their offer so you’re going to quadruple it. You have to realize that the economy might be different, but it doesn’t change the fundamentals. It just makes sense to stick to what you know is right. Be mindful of your competition, but don’t let them run your business.”

Build on brainpower

You can keep your expense structure lean and construct a strategy for the future, but your best laid plans won’t ever become reality without the involvement of your people. Your managers and employees need to get on board with your plans if your business is ever going to fully recover from the recession.

Early on, Solomon acknowledged the importance of strong binding ties, both vertically between layers of management and horizontally between departments. He needed his people not just talking with each other but thinking with each other. Solomon knew innovation would become a key component to fighting the recession, and he wanted an environment where creative ideas could develop.

First, he needed a method for getting his people together and interacting.

“One of the most important things is to inspire an atmosphere where people talk in plain English and are not hesitant to speak up,” Solomon says. “You don’t want people getting defensive if somebody gives advice or comments about something they have observed in a department. Don’t be defensive if someone handles a situation on the floor that might not be in their department but needed to be handled right then. More than anything, it’s constantly keeping your folks together in a free-form environment where everyone can speak and there is no downside to being honest.”

In a large, layered organization like MotorCity, Solomon wants all of his decision-makers in the same room periodically. With scores of managers and scores of different jobs in different areas of the casino complex, management-level interaction can’t be left to chance meetings on the casino floor.

“We need to have a quarterly meeting with our entire management team,” Solomon says. “We refer to it as our ‘Sound Board Session,’ — Sound Board being the name of our theater. We present to our management team a whole list of results, issues, opportunities, and we have three meetings to cover all of our shifts. That type of forum has been a great way to communicate the overall vision and strategy, the things that have happened in the past quarter and where we are going in the next quarter. Marketing, strategies, all of those things are presented in those meetings.”

Laterally, Solomon helps tear down would-be silos by taking away financial incentives for departments and managers to hoard ideas. No person or department at the casino is going to get ahead or make more money by trampling on their colleagues.

“A lot of companies inadvertently create scenarios by way of compensation or otherwise, and it actually encourages negative behavior for the property as a whole, thinking they will inspire more aggressive management techniques at the department level,” Solomon says. “But generally, it ends up becoming ‘Well, who cares about the other guy?’ We don’t do that. People know they’ll be rewarded for being a team player.

“It all goes back to communicating with the entire staff. When they are better informed about how they relate to the overall picture, it becomes an issue of you knowing the complete scenario, and if you choose to go against what is in the best interest of the overall operation, that would not be a good statement about your management style. If you give your people enough information about how they relate to the whole, they should be able to make the right decisions voluntarily. If they don’t make the right decisions, then you have a question to answer about whether they’re the right kind of manager.”

Keeping your staff engaged and informed is the first step. From there, you need to continue reinforcing the need for new ideas and creative thinking. If you want your people trying new things, you need to live with the trial-and-error process that accompanies innovation. You have to be willing to acknowledge that failure is a possible outcome of trying something new, and if your team isn’t failing at times, the mental gears of your business probably aren’t spinning fast enough.

“The most significant thing you can do is not punish people for failure,” Solomon says. “We are very dedicated to the proposition that if you’re not trying things and making some mistakes, you’re not trying enough new things. You have to foster an environment where it is OK to fail, and we want you to recognize failure quickly and remediate it or move on. But if you’re not failing on some things, you’re not trying enough new innovative ways of doing things.”

In Solomon’s experience, taking chances and embracing new ideas offers far more of a competitive advantage than holding back and taking a more conservative approach. You can’t simply bet the farm on one idea, but a willingness to stick your neck out on a new idea could aid your company’s recovery from the recession.

“When you look at the home runs we’ve had versus the impact of some project’s failure, there is overwhelming evidence that the green-light thinking, things nobody else is doing, we’ve gotten a lot more in terms of competitive advantage than if we had simply stuck with all the safe things you can do as a business,” Solomon says. “If you are allowing your people to try new things, you simply have to stick with the fact that they’re going to fail on occasion. Then recognize it quickly, move on and don’t dwell on what didn’t work. Just be mindful of not repeating them.”

How to reach: MotorCity Casino Hotel, (866) 752-9622 or www.motorcitycasino.com

The Solomon file

Born: Covina, Calif.

First job: I started in the industry as a slot mechanic when I was 20 years old.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

You have to put in the time. Early in my career, I worked for the company that became Mandalay Resort Group. My first boss asked me how much I wanted to work, and I told him I wanted to work enough to get paid as much as I could per week. So they put me on salary, and that turned out to be a great strategic decision. I put in all the time I could, they never sent me home due to incurring overtime, and I learned a lot about various aspects of the industry. It turned out to be a very critical thing in my career.

One of my peers once said, ‘A smart guy learns in one hour what it takes me eight. But I put in nine hours, so that makes me smarter than him.’ That really stuck with me.

What is your definition of success?

Success is still measured by the bottom line in any business. But what I would say is that success is producing the highest return on investment in a way that is still mindful of the human beings involved in the process.

Published in Detroit
Wednesday, 20 April 2011 14:59

Pattern of growth

Growth is nothing new to Manu Shah. His company’s been experiencing it for 36 years straight – ever since M S International Inc. opened in 1975.

Shah, president and CEO, is in the stone business; his company is a global distributor of natural stone, and the largest supplier of natural stone products in the U.S. His team knows a thing or two about staying rock solid, and not even the economic downturn could keep them from growing.

Competitors cut back or closed down, but Shah set out to follow core values, seek new opportunities and invest for the long-term by innovating everywhere, from sales and marketing to the supply chain. So while his industry shrank 40 percent during the last two years, Shah grew 45 percent.

Because of this, Smart Business, ThinkASG, IBM and Union Bank named Shah one of the 2011 Smart Leader honorees. He shared how he innovates to expand while investing in employees and the company.

Give an example of a business challenge you and/or your organization faced, as well as how you overcame it.

Since opening in 1975, MSI has grown for all its 35 years of history. In the last quarter of 2008, the political and economic uncertainty, the volatility of consumer sentiment and the continuation of the global debt crisis caused a large business challenge in the form of how to compete with fear. Most of our major competitors – and the building industry in general – dealt with the fear by laying off workers, reducing pay, curtailing investments, closing locations and stopping new product innovations. Many companies in our industry decided to just shut down, or fell into bankruptcy.

After one year of survival tactics, we put aside our worries and charged forward taking risks and making calculated investments for the long term.

Instead of copying our competitors during those turbulent times, we asked all our leaders to keep our core values intact, continue to invest for the long term, and take advantage of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities in the industry. We asked our leaders to plan for knock-out punches and demand the necessary resources for execution. Some examples include:

1)    Continued hiring at an aggressive pace and encouraging hard work and over time where required

2)    Continued expansion of new branches and necessary infrastructure spending.

3)    Continued investment in innovation and marketing and product development

4)    Extended helping hands to key vendors, needy employees and few longtime customers.

5)    Most importantly, did not lay off a single employee due to lack of work.

6)    Most importantly, did not lay off a single employee or reduce benefits due to a lack of work!

The strategy worked wonders: Between 2008 and 2010, MSI grew by 45 percent while the industry shrank by 40 percent.

Most companies measure their success by top-line or bottom-line growth; we at MSI look at the market share growth. Market share is calculated geographically, customer segments and different product lines. The best time to get market share is during a downturn in the economy when opponents are weak.

We hired and trained over 150 employees nationwide in 2010. Opened three new branches. Made huge investments in IT software and hardware to improve productivity. Revitalized HR, including a focus on wellness and a digitized review process.

In what ways are you an innovative leader, and how does your organization employ innovation to be on the leading edge?

Innovation is the engine of growth.

Innovation in sales and marketing – developing state-of the art display systems physically and in the virtual world.

Innovation in product packaging – attractive packaging to the consumer and more green, environmentally friendly packages.

Innovation in hiring and retaining talent.

Innovation in supply chain management, including clarity and transparency with all major vendors.

Innovation in never using “OPM” – Other People’s Money. About 95 percent of our A/P is paid as soon as shipments are confirmed shipped from 35 countries – 30 to 90 days before our competition pays.

Innovation in information systems to get all info as soon as it happens to all with the need to know.

Introduce many databases with ARC (Analysis, Recommendations, Conclusion) by using over 40 servers with real-time data.

How do you make a significant impact on the community and regional economy?

We expanded wellness program to every employee, introduced matching charitable contributions to all 500-plus employees, trained 15-plus college students during summer (which we do each year), added 40-plus employees locally in Orange County, received “Best Place to Work” recognization in Orange County as well as an award for large family-owned business and an award for the Business of the Year by the City of Orange.

We work with numerous community organizations on their needs, as well.

How to reach: M S International Inc., (714) 685-7500 or www.msistone.com

Published in Orange County

When local airports canceled flights to Portland during a horrible snowstorm, many travelers were left stranded in Seattle hotels on Christmas Eve. One of the hotel’s guests hadn’t celebrated Christmas Day with family in three years and thought he would be missing the holiday once again.

Instead, the hotel’s bellman, an employee of Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group LLC, offered to brave the eight-hour trip through the snow to drive the guest home to Portland in time to spend Christmas with his family.

Niki Leondakis, Kimpton’s president and COO, says that what differentiates her company from competitors is the fact that employees are always striving to create meaningful customer experiences, or “Kimpton moments,” by going the extra mile to take care of guests and show them random acts of kindness. In the Market Metrix Hospitality Index, Kimpton consistently achieves the highest scores in customer satisfaction and emotional attachment of any U.S. hotel company. This commitment to customers played a key role in the company’s strategy for dealing with the impact of the worldwide economic recession.

When your business is facing financial or economical challenges, you have to reinvest in the areas that set you apart from competitors and that make your business successful. For Kimpton, this meant reinvesting in the people who make Kimpton moments possible every day — the front-line employees at its hotels and restaurants.

Prepare for change

Easing employee fears at the start of the recession was a primary concern for Leondakis. Stressed out employees typically don’t deliver top service. Many people were fearful about the future of the company, seeing friends and family lose jobs and hearing about mass layoffs at high-profile companies. They were under a great deal of personal and professional stress that was directly related to the economy. Leondakis realized employees needed help managing this added stress if they were to overcome the new challenges placed on them.

The first step was to provide them with tools and information to better manage this stress, such as situational leadership training, stress management and self-care classes for employees to address their pain points. Easing their worries also meant keeping their spirits up, which can be as simple as cheering an employee up with a funny joke to take off some of the pressure.

“We went out of our way to create a spirit of fun and laughter and not take ourselves too seriously,” Leondakis says. “While we spent an appropriate amount of time dealing with brass tacks and business needs at hand, we also balanced that with some fun and making them laugh and just being silly. I think that combination helped keep people inspired, because at the end of the day, it’s got to be fun to come to work every day or you aren’t very engaged or motivated. We worked extra hard in the last two years to make sure we were providing our people with stress release.”

Keeping the emphasis on the vision and goals of your company is another way to motivate employees to stay committed to its long-term success. In the wake of any kind of major change, uncertainty and fear can distract people from their goals. Therefore, you want to reinforce the goals that are most important in carrying out your vision.

“I think one of the mistakes companies make is changing the focus for their employees too often,” Leondakis says. “Another mistake is having too many goals for employees to focus on. That’s why we’ve narrowed our focus to one wildly important goal, so that 6,500 employees in the organization know which way is north, what’s most important and, at any given moment, what is their highest priority.”

In Kimpton’s case, simply increasing the focus on its No. 1 goal, customer satisfaction, was much more beneficial than increasing the number of goals for employees.

“We increased the focus,” Leondakis says. “We talked about it a lot more. We got very granular with metrics around our customer satisfaction scores and set very specific targets for continuous improvement, specifically in the areas that don’t require financial investment.

“Being friendlier or more helpful doesn’t cost any more money. Focusing our people on what they can control — them and their employees and their attitudes and the way they take care of our guests — made people feel empowered in a situation like this great recession, where there’s a tendency to feel out of control. People felt like they did have control over certain things, and that was our customer experience.”

Giving employees more focused goals eases their stresses by creating more certainty about their role in the company and how to handle the changes that affect your business. In having this control and accountability, they then have more opportunities to be proactive and to act on change rather than react.

Be visible

In times of crisis, the reaction of some business leaders is to stay out of the spotlight and avoid confrontation by hiding from tough questions. However, when the head of a company is not visible and unwilling to address organizational challenges, it can leave employees fearful of the worst, which, in turn, can hurt your service level.

Leondakis says that though you can manage your company from the corporate headquarters, you cannot lead from one, especially when your business is facing potentially difficult times.

“People don’t know what’s going to happen,” she says. “They read the headlines. They read that thousands of people lost their jobs during this recession. They read about businesses closing. They want to know what’s happening with our business. Being able to answer that firsthand is incredibly valuable.”

If you want to keep employees motivated and united in your vision, you have to open up communication and show them that you are not abandoning them to ambiguity. When Kimpton started feeling the impact of the financial crisis in 2008, Leondakis knew that her presence at the company’s businesses was even more essential. In the past few years, she has spent more time traveling to Kimpton’s hotels and restaurants than ever before.

“Part of my strategy for dealing with the recession was to be more visible, to be more hands on,” Leondakis says. “I’ve always been pretty visible and out there, but I just felt that now, more than ever, people need to know we’re in this together, and we will get through it together. If you have problems or barriers, I want to be there to help you.”

Increasing your face-to-face communication and personal interactions with employees also increases organizational transparency, which is an important part of building trust between employees on the front lines and the corporate side of the business.

“It’s modeling the behavior, and if I do that, then my direct reports do the same thing, and then it trickles through the entire organization,” Leondakis says.

Whether it’s holding formal presentations or conducting fireside chats with employees in a relaxed setting, Leondakis has increased opportunities for direct communication with employees. By doing so, she’s given them more opportunities to share their ideas, goals and barriers, and ultimately, ways to add value to Kimpton businesses.

“When I travel, I do fireside chats with employees and ask them, ‘If you owned this hotel or this restaurant, what you would do differently to better serve our guests and to make it a better place to work for all of the employees?’” Leondakis says.

“When people see you being honest and genuine and authentic, they begin to trust you, and they will talk to you and tell you what’s happening.”

Being responsive to employee insights and feedback is incredibly valuable because it can give you ideas to improve your business that you may never have considered.

“We take that feedback very seriously and we share it with our senior leaders; we share it at our operations meetings, and we actually put action plans to that feedback to implement,” Leondakis says. “As a result, some of the best ideas, some of the most iconic ideas at Kimpton have come from our employees.”

One example is Kimpton’s well-known goldfish program, where its hotels deliver live goldfish to the hotel rooms to keep guests company while they are traveling. The idea started with one employee at one hotel but was developed into a brand program.

Reinforce your values

Because what separates the Kimpton brand from its competitors is its customer experience and the emotional connection the company’s guests have with its employees, reinforcing operational excellence has always been a key part of the company’s business strategy.

“We could, like a lot of other hotel companies, compete on geographic distribution, but that would require significantly more hotels and much more markets than we have today. It would take a long time, just to compete on, ‘We have a hotel in every primary, secondary and tertiary market in America,’” Leondakis says. “Rather than compete on, ‘We have a hotel where you go,’ we’re competing on operational excellence as a point of differentiation. And that operational excellence is really defined as the way every Kimpton employee interacts with every Kimpton guest, creating an emotional connection. We create a loyal following that way.”

In lean times or times of growth, achieving operational excellence always begins with the hiring process and always bringing on people whose values and personality align with your company’s core values. These are the employees who will strive hardest to carry out your vision, because they truly care about its success.

“To see how a potential employee might treat another potential employee is a very good indicator of how they would treat a guest; it’s just how they react and respond to other human beings,” Leondakis says.

“I’ve never believed in the idea that, ‘OK, we’re on stage, everybody get on stage.’ You hire genuinely kind people and you inspire them to be themselves and be their best selves. I’ve never supported the idea of, ‘OK it’s 5 o’clock. The shift’s starting. Doors are open. Everybody put your smiles on.’ It’s a more authentic and genuine approach hiring people who are genuinely caring people, not people who are great actors.”

She says you can always train employees to execute job processes and set targets for continuous improvement, but you can’t train them to have self-initiative, like the bellman that drove the Kimpton guests through the snowstorm or the Kimpton employee who stayed up until 1 a.m. to help a guest deep condition her hair after she burned it with a blow-dryer.

By hiring employees who are committed to Kimpton’s core values, then providing them with stress release, a clear vision, priorities and increased communication, the company has helped employees continue to achieve success and create Kimpton moments for guests every day.

“It’s an opportunity to pay it forward,” Leondakis says. “We believe in treating our employees as though they are guests. The idea is, if we treat our employees as individuals and we take care of them in a personal way, in an individual way, and see them as our customer, they will go the extra mile to take care of our paying guests.”

HOW TO REACH: Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group LLC, (800) 546-7866 or www.kimptonhotels.com

The Leondakis File

Niki Leondakis

President and COO

Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group LLC

Born: Springfield, Mass.

Education: University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Mass.

What was your first job?

Working the fry station at a Hardee’s when I was 15

What do you think are the keys to building a successful culture for employees?

It has to be unanimous. Every individual at every level has to be committed to this culture and has to be in agreement about what the tenets of the culture are and how they are brought alive. Every individual has to see themselves as an ambassador of that culture. It cannot be viewed as human resources job.

Published in Northern California
Saturday, 30 April 2011 20:01

Building toward better leadership tactics

Julian K. Hutton, president, Merlin Hospitality Management
Julian K. Hutton, president, Merlin Hospitality Management
During the recession, staff retention programs inevitably took a backseat as every nonessential piece of weight was thrown out of the balloon to keep it flying. With few tempting alternatives out there, keeping the best staff wasn’t much of a worry; even if they weren’t exactly happy, they were grateful to remain employed. But as the business climate has improved, companies that are successful at attracting and retaining key staff have a major competitive advantage.

Surveys consistently demonstrate that less than half of Americans are happy at their job, and that the No. 1 reason that employees leave a company is not for lack of money, poor benefits or unhappiness with what they are doing. The No. 1 reason they leave is because of their immediate supervisor.

The term “immediate supervisor” applies to the chain of management all the way up to board level. The sad fact is that most people in a supervisory position, from housekeeping supervisors in a small hotel to CEOs of major companies, are poor leaders, with little understanding of how to motivate and get the best out of the people they are responsible for. Why?

Lack of proper leadership training. Nobody would ever consider putting someone without any mechanical training into a job repairing cars or someone who was a qualified car mechanic into heading the legal case in a capital trial. Yet people are regularly promoted into leadership positions without knowing much about the science and practice of leadership. They may be the best car mechanic or the best lawyer in the world, and although this can be an important part of being successful in a leadership role, it is only a part and does not in any way guarantee success leading a team of car mechanics or a firm of lawyers.

Like most job skills, leadership is something that can be taught. Certainly, a basic aptitude is important. You’re never going to be a successful lawyer if you can’t pass law school. But the right people can be trained to lead at all levels and improve the working atmosphere and financial performance of their companies. So why do so many companies set themselves up for unhappy employees and the consequent expensive staff turnover when they have the ability to do something about it?

Arrogance and ignorance. All too many senior executives seem to believe that by having an MBA and by holding senior positions in companies, they are “natural leaders” when in actual fact, as their subordinates will attest, they couldn’t lead a horse to water. They themselves do not have a comprehensive understanding of what motivates people, so don’t see why those skills need to be developed throughout their organization. This lack of self-awareness inevitably pervades the whole company. By not taking the issue of leadership training seriously, they are condemning their management chain to frustration and their employees to misery.

So should we forgive all those petty tyrants and little Napoleons making life miserable for their subordinates and conclude they are not intrinsically unpleasant but just out of their depth in a position for which they have had no training and perhaps little aptitude? Are they as much victims as victimizers? That this is the fault of more senior management in not giving them the tools to do their job? Only up to a point. They have a duty to their company, to their staff and to themselves to do their job better, and there is no shortage of literature on the subject of leadership. As Field Marshal William Slim — a decorated British military commander and perhaps among the greatest leaders of men — remarked: “There is nobody who cannot vastly improve their powers of leadership by a little thought and practice.”

Julian K. Hutton is president of Merlin Hospitality Management, where he oversees the company’s hotel management and distressed asset management operations, drawing on 20 years experience in the worldwide travel and hospitality industry. He can be reached at jhutton@merlinhospitality.com.

Published in Philadelphia
Saturday, 30 April 2011 20:16

Driving change at Adache Real Estate

Adam Adache needed to make a big change at Adache Real Estate LLC. If it was going to work, he couldn’t give in to the panic that was consuming much of the real estate industry.

“You have no option but to make it work,” says Adache, founder, president and CEO at the 20-employee real estate company. “You have to have that mentality. You run a business and a business is always susceptible to a bad economy and things that might happen along the way. You might have to change your business model. But in your mind, you have to be confident that you’re going to make it work.

“If you have that mentality, you’re not going to sit there and think about the worst-case scenario. You’re going to spend time analyzing and really diving into the heart of the problem and finding out what your true obstacles are. That’s when you’re going to make your decision and make your changes.”

The change Adache had to make was a merger of his firm’s project sales and marketing division with its bulk real estate division. The economic crash was leaving a growing number of distressed properties unsold and Adache needed a way to get them off the market.

By merging these two divisions, he thought the firm would be better able to use its resources to cobble together deals that would get the properties sold that were bringing down the rest of the market.

“We convert an offer that is rejected into a new opportunity and that new opportunity is still a revenue-driving opportunity,” Adache says.

The challenge for Adache was he couldn’t just gather everyone together and tell them, “Everything you’ve been doing is bad and it doesn’t work anymore.”

“When you’re coming in to sit down with your staff and tell them that your current model isn’t working, it has a negative connotation to it,” Adache says. “So you have to quickly know how to spin it into a positive. I talked about the successes we had in the current approach. I talked about how we need to make it more successful, which I think is what every company strives for.”

Be open about the obstacles your business is facing and why what you’ve been doing isn’t working anymore. But make sure you follow that up with a discussion about what needs to be done to get things turned around.

“You have to explain, ‘I’m right there with you,’” Adache says. “They have to buy in to the long-term opportunities of remaining positive. The only way they are going to do that is if you paint the picture why we’re months away or even days away from turning the company around for the positive. You have to paint the picture and then get them involved in painting the picture even better.”

As you move forward in the discussion and gather input, keep in mind that you need to be the one who puts together the plan that hopefully gets you out of your funk.

“Give some ideas and a general direction of where you’re going to sail the ship,” Adache says. “Along the way, you can make some detours based on the input of everyone you have. Be open and simultaneously searching for other options while you’re moving ahead, even if it appears you’re moving in the right direction and things are going good. You need a backup plan and a backup plan for your backup plan.”

Most important, keep an open mind and an open ear.

“If you’re too hard-headed and not open-minded enough and you don’t listen to your people, you could crash and burn on whatever you’re doing,” Adache says.

How to reach: Adache Real Estate LLC, (954) 566-7400 or www.adachere.com

Lay it all out there

Adam Adache is all about projecting a winning attitude and being an optimist when things look bad. But that doesn’t mean he steers away from bad news that his employees at Adache Real Estate LLC need to hear.

“Our company, just like any company, hasn’t been averse to layoffs and the changing market,” says Adache, the firm’s founder, president and CEO. “Fortunately, we’re growing again and we are back on a hiring phase. But we had to make changes. When you have to lay off employees and cut pay, it’s not a positive discussion. In order to get them to buy in to everything, you can’t say, ‘OK, this person is laid off and your salary is cut. We’ll talk to you tomorrow.’ You have to spell out the short-term goals and long-term goals in a plan and explain how you’re going to overcome it.”

You need to find a way to stoke the passion of your people to help overcome this latest challenge.

“They can’t just say, ‘I’m going to do it because it’s part of my job,’” Adache says. “When you’re in business selling a product or service, it’s our belief you have to do it with passion. You can’t do it with passion unless you buy in.”

Published in Florida

Before coming to the United States to oversee Grupo Eulen’s international division in Miami, Luis Rodriguez had worked for the Spanish outsourcing company for 10 years in various divisions at its Spain, Dominican Republic and Chile offices. During that time, a question he repeatedly asked employees that worked for him was, “Do you think you will retire still working with Eulen?”

In Chile, where Rodriguez spent four years prior to becoming CEO of Eulen America, he estimates that 95 percent of his employees answered yes to that question.

“We always look for that, that people are remaining with us for a long period of time, because that’s being part of the growth of a company and being part of a company,” Rodriguez says.

After moving to the United States two years ago to head up Eulen America, Grupo Eulen’s newly acquired aviation services subsidiary, Rodriguez noticed that people in the United States changed jobs much more often than in other countries, moving from one company to another every four or five years instead of every 10 or 20.

As a part of a $2.4 billion company, Eulen America has the capital resources to expand and grow, but to grow successfully, it takes personnel resources, as well — employees who are willing to commit to the Eulen vision and communicate it to customers. To grow his company in new markets, Rodriguez had to show his people the value of being a long-term employee at Eulen (pronounced A-lin).

Address employee needs

Employees won’t follow leadership that they don’t feel can lead them effectively and, therefore, they can’t trust. As a CEO who oversees nearly 1,600 employees in Miami-Dade County alone, Rodriguez is unable to meet with every employee and build this trust through personal and daily interactions. However, there are other ways to reinforce trust through the way you manage your business and the way to handle the areas that affect employees most directly.

One is payroll. To earn employee trust, Rodriguez says you have to pay on time and you have to pay correctly — no exceptions. When it comes to payroll, just one bad experience can tarnish employees’ trust in its leadership. Therefore, you also have to have accountability in payroll to make sure the systems are always working and employee concerns about payment are addressed immediately and effectively.

“Whenever somebody has their doubts on their monthly check or weekly check, whenever they have to sit down with a supervisor in order to review overtime, that it has been correctly paid or the number of hours they have worked or the health care benefits that they have and so on, … you have to have people that are capable of explaining those things to the employees,” Rodriguez says. “That has definitely been the reinforcement that we have done.”

In addition to monitoring efficiency in payroll, Rodriguez works continuously to find ways to improve employee benefits. If you want to keep your top talent from moving to competitors, giving them lower costs on insurance compared to other companies in the industry is often more valuable than giving them pay raises.

“It’s a matter of motivation through incentives, and not so much in salary but in benefits,” Rodriguez says. “That is what is going to improve fidelity of them remaining with us.”

Offering competitive benefits and paying employees on time shows them that your company invests in their success and hard work. Responding quickly to employee concerns in areas such as payroll is an important part of keeping a business efficient. Additionally, it’s how you show employees that they can trust leadership to fulfill their needs.

Rodriguez makes sure that that he and his direct reports have effective ways to respond quickly to any employee issue, whether it concerns a client relationship, a missing uniform or an error in payroll. In a company with 35,000 employees, mistakes will happen and problems will arise, but implementing the fastest response possible shows employees you support them and recognize their individual problems as the company’s problems.

“Trying to have a quick response to them is the key to have them happy with us and working with us and feeling the spark of a team,” Rodriguez says. “At the end of the day, the ones that are representing you as a company are your employees because they are in the houses of our clients. Obviously, if they are going to have problems, they are going to transmit those to our clients. The best recipe is to be aware of all the things going on with your employees. That is the main way of fixing the problems.”

Whether you are managing 35 people or 35,000, you can’t handle the situations and issues being faced by all your employees at any given moment. It’s not realistic. However, when there is an opportunity to help an employee deal with a problem, as CEO, being the first to step up and take control of the situation shows people who work for you that you are still personally driven to make your company successful.

“Whenever someone has trouble doing a spreadsheet or typing a letter or going to the airport and having to manage the baggage and the belt loader, I’m going to do it as the first one in the company,” Rodriguez says.

“Your team has to believe, has to have the impression, that you are the one who is the first one to pull up your pants and get into the mud and to help anyone with a contract. That’s what I have always been doing and I’m going to continue to do that.”

As a leader, demonstrating to employees that you are willing to put in the hard work to help them be successful also shows them that you don’t just see them as people you manage but  as colleagues in your business.

“As long as you have the people really joining you and feeling themselves as part of a team, they are going to communicate that to other people and potential clients,” Rodriquez says.

Think locally

Before growing an office in a new market, Rodriguez always begins by looking at the local community and seeing how to adapt Eulen’s culture in a way that drives business and keeps employees loyal.

“One of things we usually do is to learn first about the culture of a country,” Rodriguez says. “Sometimes multinational companies don’t have a set strategy to do that because they are so big. You have to embrace the diversity that comes with being a global company.”

By listening to the local people that make up your business’s employees and customers, you can understand the keys and the barriers to succeeding in an area long term.

“We are not magicians, but the best way to improve a service is to listen to the employees who are the ones who really know what the day-to-day problems are,” Rodriguez says. “Sometimes the multinational companies do not have the ability to do that. They are so big that they lose the focus of getting to the little problems and the day-to-day business, and at the end of the day, those are the ones who see death in the growth of a company.

“Being involved with the communities offers you an opportunity of how to solve those problems, where you can search for labor or how to deal with local issues that appear of how to solve problems that maybe somebody from the community knows better than you, that coming from outside they are going to tell you how to solve them.”

Every city and its people are different, and business leaders need to study those differences in order to find the best ways to motivate and lead employees in diverse areas. By learning the cultural features that distinguish a community, you have a better understanding of what matters to the people you hire and can then adapt employee recognition programs, operations, training and incentives accordingly to fit that.

“Incentives programs with employees work 100 percent, but the programs have to take into account the people who you are working with,” Rodriguez says. “When I was in the Dominican Republic, the incentive program was completely different from what we are doing now over here or what we used to do over in Chile or Colombia or Peru.”

Keep jobs secure

Having effective employee programs is just one part of keeping employees happy at a company long term. If you are a large company with offices all over the world, your employees need to have assurance that their jobs are secure and won’t be outsourced to nonlocal employees to save the company money later. That is why Eulen almost exclusively hires people who are local to the areas where it operates.

“We are trying to hire people and to transmit to them that, within this company, what they can be sure of is that there is going to be stability and permanence in the company — that they have a future project with us as long as we are over here to grow,” Rodriguez says.

“At the end of the day, this is a company (that) is going to be built with local people as we have been doing.”

While Eulen America started out only providing services for the aviation industry, under Rodriguez’s leadership, it has added janitorial, security, landscaping, maintenance and auxiliary divisions, as well. In the last two years, Eulen’s opportunities to get new contracts has continued to increase, opening up even more avenues for new business.

Taking into account the worldwide lack of stability in employment, it’s very important to communicate with employees about new opportunities and growth at your company. For one, seeing the growth potential of their company builds their confidence in the organization’s success, but you also want to show employees where there are opportunities to succeed as individuals and stay with the company throughout their careers.

“Whenever we hire people, we talk and we speak with them about our company and that we have a presence in over 11 countries together with Spain,” Rodriguez. “We can always have a plan for people to not only remain on the place where they are hired at the beginning, but they can relocate from one place to another whenever they improve their skills within our company, and then move to another place where we need them.”

By showing people your vision for their personal growth within a company, you give them more reason to stick around. As the company grows, Rodriguez makes sure to keeps all management and employees in the know about the company’s strategies for and plans in adding new services, clients, jobs or offices. In doing so, he continues to build loyalty among employees who want to be part of that vision.

“In all the places that we work, you can go and you can feel that the people are proud of wearing a uniform from Eulen,” Rodriguez says.

“You just try to get people who are really going to feel like part of the team so that they have faith on the projects and are willing to remain in the company a long time.”

How to reach: Eulen America, (305) 269-2714 or www.eulenamerica.us

The Rodriguez File

Luis Rodriguez


Eulen America

Born: Madrid, Spain

Education: I went to an English school in Madrid 1974-1987: Kensington School.

I went to University in Madrid — Universidad Politecnica de Madrid and studied engineering.

What was your first job?

My first formal employment was as technical engineering for solar systems designing. Prior to that, I worked as tutor for math, physics, and even during summer times, I worked in Madrid unloading trucks.

What are the keys to successful leadership?

Transparency. Honesty with your employees and on a day-to-day basis to communicate as much as you can.

Published in Florida

One of the biggest lessons that Jenniffer Deckard has learned throughout her career is that she had to develop the patience and recognition that she really needed to listen to other people’s ideas, opinions and evaluations of her ideas.

“There’s a power of collective experiences in such that one person, whether that’s me or anyone else, can never have as many ideas as two people or even three or even four,” she says.

As president of Fairmount Minerals, one of the largest producers of industrial sand in the country, this lesson she’s learned is put into daily practice. Throughout her career, Fairmount has had an environment that fosters collaboration, and that has, in turn, helped her develop this skill in herself and in others.

“I hope to lead by example more and more, but [it’s] letting other people speak first — truly listening as opposed to waiting for your opportunity to jump in,” she says. “If you were to ask me what have I been able to do that has allowed me to succeed, I still have work in that area, and I’m developing in that area, but what has allowed the most success for me is … engaging collaboration.”

Sometimes it’s easy to talk about fostering collaboration and much harder to actually do it. Deckard says that coming up on the finance side — she previously served as chief financial officer — has allowed her to touch every facet of the business, so it’s helped her connect with people, so they, in turn, see her as a team player.

“Then, as others view me as a teammate, as [person] A views me as a teammate and [person] B views me as a teammate, it’s helped to foster A and B’s collaboration, as well,” she says.

But you can’t force people to view you as a teammate; that comes through years of patience and practice.

“[It’s] always working toward the same objectives — putting aside divisional objectives, functional objectives and putting the greater objectives for the whole first,” Deckard says.”

The outlook she takes and portrays to employees is one of transparency in a commitment to the success of the organization over all else.

“If we create a stronger, better business, that’s better for everyone, and that’s better for our communities, and that’s better for our employees, and that’s better for everyone in our stakeholder group,” she says.

Deckard says that employees and other constituents see that as her ultimate goal, and it helps create that collaboration, as well.

“Even if you’re digging into something that may be proprietary or sensitive to a group or a person, it’s always done with, ‘What can we do best for the organization, and how can we work together?’ because a successful organization is what can elevate the success of all individuals,” she says.

As she looks to move the business forward, she’s keenly aware of the many opportunities. As those opportunities present themselves, she also looks to other people for their input in assessing them.

“Don’t look at opportunities in a vacuum,” she says. “I get feedback from people on opportunities, usually because opportunities are collaborative. It’s not, ‘This opportunity comes up for Jenniffer.’ It’s, ‘There’s an opportunity, and usually there’s more than one self involved.’”

It also depends on what the opportunity is. Sometimes, she says you just have to decide and move forward, which is how she tends to make decisions if it affects just her.

“If you think too much about it, you can talk yourself out of anything,” she says.

She’s more inclined to jump, especially when it’s her resources, but when it comes to other people’s resources, that’s when she comes back to collaboration.

“That’s when I’ll take a much more analytical approach to an opportunity,” she says.

It’s important to make sure you’re looking at other people when you make decisions and not just looking at how it impacts you. If you can’t take this approach, you’ll be hard-pressed to find success as a leader in business.

“Often, when you try to squeeze out the very last shred of benefit for yourself, you risk losing much bigger future opportunities,” Deckard says. “But when you take an approach that everyone shares in the success, the overall success for you and for everyone else is infinitely greater.”

How to reach: Fairmount Minerals Ltd., (800) 237-4986 or www.fairmountminerals.com

Published in Cleveland