Things could have turned out much different for Ali Brown had she not taken control of her life.
“Ten years ago, I was working as an employee in a tiny company in New York,” says Brown, founder and CEO of Ali International, a multimedia company that provides online marketing tools and strategies, coaching, seminars and instructional literature for more than 50,000 women entrepreneurs worldwide. “I was continually frustrated in all the jobs I had, which made me realize I was unemployable.”
Brown saw only two viable options: “I could be unemployed or self-employed, so I started a little freelance writing business, marketing myself online with an e-mail newsletter.”
That newsletter began to grow and Brown started to gain a following online.
“People started asking all kinds of questions about marketing and how I was growing my little business and asking for all this small business advice,” Brown explains. “So I started writing e-books and selling them to the people who were asking the questions.”
Today, that little business has become a multimillion-dollar operation and an Inc. 500 company. Brown publishes a high-end magazine, is regularly featured on TV and radio talk shows, and last year, she was named one of Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneurial Winning Women.
Smart Business sat down with Brown to discuss her passion for helping other women entrepreneurs reach their own goals.
Q: Ali, what drives you?
A: The best part is my job is helping other women succeed through starting their own businesses. I offer products, resources, coaching programs and a community that’s dedicated to helping women entrepreneurs. These range from online marketing basics to one called Business Building Blocks.
When people go to start a business, they don’t often know what they should be thinking about in the legal department, marketing department or financial department. So this is Business 101 in a box. You start thinking differently when you’re an entrepreneur, and if you want to be wealthy, you have to learn how to take risks and do it in a smart way.
Q: What makes Ali International’s value proposition unique?
A: My clients and customers say they love following me because they get business advice in a fun, real way. I talk with women who may be running a business from their kitchen table. They’ve got kids running around and they’re juggling their lives. Unfortunately, there are very few role models out there, so I’m able to fill a need in the marketplace.
Q: Speaking of role models, what’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: It came from one of my mentors: Aim for the top because there’s more room. There’s actually less competition at the top, so I’ve not looked at the people around me in my industry but at the people who are at the top of the industry. Then, I ask how I can get there and position myself to stay there.
Q: As you’ve worked with women entrepreneurs, what are some of the different challenges you’ve found that they face?
A: There are two that stand out. One is the often-talked about family and work balance. For women who may traditionally be in the home, they feel pulled in different directions. But on a more personal and human level the other challenge is learning how to take risks and believe in themselves. Women are often programmed for safety. It’s in our DNA. We want to be safe and secure, and it’s really scary for women to put themselves out there. They’re often thinking, ‘What will people think of me? Can I really do this?’
So for many women, I see the personal journey even more rewarding than the financial journey because the person they become in the process is priceless. They become this incredible role model for their family and for the women around them. It’s a ripple effect, and it’s really going to change the world.
Q: What’s the first step toward learning how to take risks?
A: Surround yourself with risk takers. You’ll begin to realize that in order to become successful, you have to become comfortable at being uncomfortable. You are often the average of the people who you are around the most, so seek out a network, come to a conference or join a coaching group where people come together and exchange ideas. Figure out the level that you want to be at, and seek out people who are already there.
Q: Where do you find opportunities for your own growth?
One key to growing any business is listening to your customers and clients, but you also need to keep a long-term vision of what you want. I have my path, which is helping women entrepreneurs. But at the same time, I keep an ear to the ground and listen to the topics that they’re interested in and the needs they have. That’s where the coaching came from. I was publishing courses and books, and women still said, ‘I want to talk to you. Can you coach me one on one?’
My events started because they wanted to get together in person. Now, I have a conference every year called SHINE, which has become the premier conference for women entrepreneurs. This past year, it was in Las Vegas. In 2011, it will be in Dallas. It’s a three-day event, and we bring together hundreds of women entrepreneurs.
Even my magazine is about business, life and style for women entrepreneurs. I heard the things they were talking about and created something around it. That’s something you need to keep in mind when you’re looking for ways to grow a company: When you hear ideas respond to them, but you also have to figure out a way that those ideas will make money.
It’s a constant journey of evolving your business model. Match the path you want and the passion you want to get out to the world with what they will be willing to take out their wallets and pay for. You also must figure out how to provide value.
Q: What advice would you offer a woman who is unhappy with her current situation and looking for a change?
A: The first step for any woman who has an idea for a business or any woman who just wants to start a business is to start paying attention. Start paying attention to ideas that you have and write them down. Listen to ideas that people are talking about, then get out immediately to start networking to make it happen because that’s going to change your life.
Q: So what does the future hold for Ali Brown and Ali International?
A: In the next few years, you’ll see me doing a lot more media and television, expanding internationally and having more events, reaching women in developing countries and helping them develop how entrepreneurship can help them.
How to reach: Ali International, www.alibrown.com.
When G. Michael Bass walked into his role as president and CEO of what is now Piedmont Newnan Hospital a little more than five years ago, it was caught in a downward spiral.
Revenue was in the red. Patients were migrating out to competing hospitals. The management team was dysfunctional. While it did go on to become part of the Piedmont Health system in 2007, at the time, there was much speculation and debate about whether it would join a larger entity and whether to build a replacement hospital for the outdated facility — which caused many negative headlines in the local news and made employees embarrassed to work there.
“That’s what I walked into,” Bass says. “I must be slightly masochistic, because I’ve walked into three situations like this in my career where it’s just terrible. I thrive in that kind of environment. I don’t know what I’d do if I walked into a hospital and all I had to do was come into work. You look around and say, ‘How do we get this aircraft carrier turned around?’”
Replace disengaged managers
In his first 30 days on the job, Bass didn’t do anything except observe. In the first department directors meeting, he sat in the back and listened as the chief financial officer ran the meeting. He couldn’t believe what he saw — apathy. Even when it was announced that the hospital had lost $500,000, he said it seemed like yawns through most of the room. At the end, he asked the CFO if he could speak for a few minutes, to which he agreed.
“I went to the front of the room. I said, ‘I’ve been here 30 days observing, and let me tell you my perception of the management team here in front of me.’ I started using adjectives that they had never heard before. I said, ‘Basically, you’re disengaged, you’re not committed, you’re not accountable,’ and I went on and on and on.”
It was an interesting atmosphere after that as he looked around the room to gauge reactions.
“Half of the room would have stabbed me if they had a knife,” he says. “The other half, I could see them nodding in agreement, and you could see it in their eyes, ‘He’s right.’”
One of the first things he did was let two vice presidents go. A few months later, he worked with the vice president of human resources and the vice president of patient care services to create a leadership training institute.
“You give everybody every opportunity to develop the skills and be successful, and it’s up to them to seize the opportunity or not,” Bass says.
The purpose of the institute was to teach his managers the skills they needed to be successful. There were about 12 different learning modules that were offered covering the basics that he wanted to see in his managers.
“We basically walked through what we thought were some of the key tools that any manager needed to be successful, whether it be counseling or hiring, coaching skills, anger management, conflict management, professional presence,” he says.
The institute required mandatory attendance by all department directors and above, and that’s when the positive changes started to occur.
“Some embraced it and everything about it, and some thought it was a waste of their time,” he says. “Those are the ones that are most likely no longer with us.”
The next step in determining who to replace was to hold people accountable. Each fiscal year, goals are set by department, and those include everything from financial to patient and employee satisfaction to personal development. At the end of the year, if scores aren’t where they need to be, then that’s an indicator that the manager needs to be replaced.
Bass looked for A-plus people to bring onto his team as replacements.
“The A part is technical competence,” he says. “The plus is that intangible that truly differentiates an incredible leader and an excellent manager.”
Bass stays away from asking about technical qualifications and instead digs into what cranks them up on a Monday morning and how do they feel successful. His goal is to sort the canned answers from the real ones.
For example, when he was looking for a replacement for that disengaged CFO, he interviewed many candidates who had all the right credentials and were highly competent, but none of them seemed to have the plus.
But then one woman came in. She talked about not only what she could bring to the table but also what she believed her role in an organization was, what her role on an executive team was and what her role as a CFO was and how she would depend on other team members for her to be successful.
She was easy to speak with and had a comfortable confidence — not cockiness — about her. When she left, they looked around at each other and said, “That’s the plus.”
“The individual who is comfortable is relaxed,” Bass says. “They pause, they think about their response. They’re inquisitive but yet they are knowledgeable.”
He says that person will seek to understand the culture of the organization he or she is coming into instead of just learning what the organization can do for them.
“The cocky person is usually the person who you can’t get a word in edgewise,” he says. “They just want to go on and on and on.”
Another key that Bass says was crucial was the willingness to be patient. With that CFO, she was honest and said that if she were offered the position, she would need to give 90 days’ notice to her current employer. The hospital was losing money like crazy, so this was a tough decision. Bass and his team looked at each other and asked if they could afford to go another three months — for a total of nine months — without a chief financial officer.
“The answer was yes,” Bass says. “We could pick an A player, because there were plenty of them and hope for the best, or we could pick this A-plus player and wait the time out and have her come on board and know that she was the person, and that’s what happened. Sometimes you have to wait until you find that plus. Sometimes it takes a little longer.”
Another thing Bass did early on to lead the turnaround was start trying to build trust with employees.
One aspect of this was setting expectations and following through on them. For example, he created a program built around having respect for each other, what each person brings to the team and how that translates into patient care. It was a mandatory, six-week training period; however, about 30 employees chose not to complete the program. At an executive team meeting, someone raised the question of what happens to the 30 who didn’t go through the program. Bass asked what they had been told would happen, and the executive responded that they were told their employment would be terminated.
“I said, ‘OK, then terminate their employment,’” Bass says.
Outcry ensued. Employees yelled that they didn’t know that mandatory really meant mandatory and that it wasn’t fair to them.
“It was setting expectations,” he says. “When you walk into any organization, not just hospitals, that isn’t functioning well and is in crisis and so forth, it’s true that a lot of the turning it around is setting clear expectations and staying the course.”
Following the terminations, the employees who remained felt hopeful and liked that there were actually consequences for those that hadn’t spent the time to take the classes.
“How do you build trust? There are several ways. No. 1, you say what you’re going to do, and then you do it so that employees know that if I say that this is what we’re going to do or this is what’s going to happen, then I’ve got to make sure that that’s exactly what we do and we don’t deviate from that. Trust is being open and telling it like it is.”
One of the other challenges Bass faced in building trust was whether or not to spend money. By early 2007, it had become part of the Piedmont Health system, so there was a lot of excitement about that, and as part of it, they would build a new hospital. But with a new hospital on the horizon, questions started to arise.
“Even though we knew we would eventually have a new hospital, there was a feeling that because of that, we shouldn’t be doing anything here to fix it up, catch up or anything because, after all, why waste money if we’ll have a new facility,” Bass says. “My approach was, ‘No, that’s not right.’ We’re going to be here for X number of years; therefore, we have to look like a hospital we want to be.”
He started spending money — and not just $10,000 here or $10,000 there. He revamped the cafeteria and dining area so they had a nice place to take a 30-minute break. He completely overhauled the women’s and children’s services areas. He renovated the emergency department and every nursing floor, and he made the locker rooms nicer as well.
“We pumped money — hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars — into it, knowing we’re going to walk away from it, but if employees don’t feel proud of where they work, then, quite frankly, that’s reflected in behaviors and attitudes, and it affects patient satisfaction,” he says. “It’s like a spider web. You can touch one part of the spider web, and the whole thing will vibrate, and that’s how those things work.”
And employees took note. They were gaining trust in this leader who actually cared about them and their work environment. As their attitudes shifted, the hospital was becoming one where they were happy to say they worked.
“It’s the little things,” he says. “It’s taking 50 little things that by themselves don’t do anything, but you put them all together, and that’s how you make changes occur. It’s constantly focusing and reacting. If you hear something that’s a major morale issue, focus on it and then communicate it — ‘This is what we hear, this is what we did, this is where we are now as result of that; thank you for your input.’”
As improvements were made, Bass gained more trust and employee satisfaction scores continued to rise. And as employees saw changes occurring, they came forward with more suggestions and concerns.
“If you ask someone their opinion and you never follow it or you never use it, then why in the world would they ever want to give it again?” Bass says. “But if you ask people their opinion and say, ‘To every extent possible, we’d like to take your ideas and make things better, and they see that we actually take ideas and implement it and use it to create a better work environment, it’s synergistic and it just grows.”
His decision to spend money turned out to be more necessary than he could have realized. Little did he know that just two months after they broke ground on the new hospital, construction came to a halt for 14 months because of the economy. It created anxiety in the employees of whether the new hospital would actually come to fruition, but in the meantime, they at least had a better place to work because of the improvements he had made, so all hope was not lost.
And today, things are quite different at Piedmont Newnan. Construction has restarted on the new hospital, so excitement is again brewing. Bass says morale is very high among his 1,000 employees — with the most recent survey yielding the highest participation of any of the Piedmont hospitals.
“Our employee satisfaction score has gone up by leaps and bounds,” he says. “It’s exciting around here. … There’s a bounce in everyone’s step right now.”
On top of that, in the last fiscal year, the hospital had a positive operating margin for the first time in a long time. Because of that, employees received success-sharing bonuses for the first time in their history, which was another reiteration of Bass doing what he said and gaining their trust.
“What was interesting was that we told them that these are the marks we have to hit, and if it happens, this is what will happen,” Bass says. “By God, it happened, and employees said, ‘We heard you, and we were hoping, but it really did happen — we really did get the bonus.”
How to reach: Piedmont Newnan Hospital, (770) 253-1912 or www.piedmontnewnan.org
The Bass file
Born: San Diego
What’s the best place you have ever lived?
The best place I’ve ever lived is where I currently live. I was a Navy brat, so we moved. I remember as a youngster we’d be complaining, and my dad would say, ‘The next place you live will be the best place you’ve ever lived. The next friends you make will be the best friends you’ve ever had.’ Isn’t it interesting that that’s the way it always turned out?
Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration; North Carolina Wesleyan; master’s in business, Campbell University
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A chemical engineer. The sad part of my life’s story is I graduated from high school in Virginia and was accepted at NC State University as a chemical engineer, but in five semesters as a chemical engineer, I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to be. I dropped out of college and got a job working for the state of North Carolina at a lab and shortly thereafter was drafted by Uncle Sam for the United States Army in 1969.
I had six years in the U.S. Army, which introduced me to health care. Back then, at age 20, when I got drafted, I was 6 feet 2 inches and weighed 128 pounds. I must have had an overactive thyroid because I ate nonstop anytime I was awake. After three days in Fort Bragg, N.C., I decided I wanted to have more say about, No. 1, more food that I would eat and, No. 2, how dangerous my job would be, knowing that Vietnam was going on full blast at that time.
So I went to a recruiter and I said, ‘I understand if I enlist for a third year — so I become an enlistee versus a draftee — I can choose what I want to be.’ He said, ‘Yes, sir, that’s how it works.’ I said, ‘I’ve been told I need to find something that’s in a hospital because they’ll have the best and the most food and should be one of the safest places.’ They pushed the list across the desk of MOS’s — mode of service, which is your job description — and I ran my finger down the list to the first one that had medical in it — medical equipment repairmen. He said, ‘We’ll send you to school in Denver, and we’ll teach you how to repair medical equipment.’ I said, ‘I’ll be working in the hospital?’ He said, ‘Yep,’ and I said, ‘I’ll take it.’ Thus launched my health care career.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I don’t know if there’s a specific one, but I’m the eternal optimist, always have been, so somewhere along the lines, someone must have told me to maximize the positives and minimize the negatives.
No one who lives in southeast Michigan needs a reminder that the region has been one of the epicenters of a massive economic recession. But it might help to remember that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel, and you can reach that tunnel in better shape if you are prudent in how you lead your business. You can take steps to become more opportunistic, managing your spending and focusing your employees on the vision and mission of your company.
Over the past couple of years, Smart Business Detroit has spoken with a number of Detroit-area business leaders about the steps they’re taking to help their companies weather the economic storm. Below is a sampling of what three of them had to say.
“Employees are smart, and many of our employees have been here a long time. They can see when we are going after the real problems, not just the appearance of problems. That’s one way we convinced them of our intentions through actions instead of words.”
Marty Kahn, CEO, ProQuest LLC
“Take all of the other distractions away. Get rid of ancillary businesses, ancillary and unimportant initiatives, things that are taking away from the core, uniform strategy that you’re trying to deploy. It’s an ongoing effort. It’s an evolution, and you keep working through it. You keep building momentum over time, and eventually it does pick up."
MaryAnn Rivers, president and CEO, Entertainment Publications LLC
“As you think about the future of your organization, you have to do scenario planning. You need to come up with best-case, most-probable-case and worst-case scenarios. You need to be able to anticipate and stay ahead of the curve. Leaders need to do that all the time.”
Patricia Maryland, president and CEO, St. John Health System
Employees know when you're addressing the real problems
Get rid of factors that take away from your core businesses
Plan for many possible situations
When it comes to being successful, it’s all about momentum. One small win needs to be parlayed into two wins, which in turn need to fuel the big win needed to make budget. You not only have to get people moving in the same direction, you have to keep them moving at a faster and faster pace. Otherwise, everything just stops. There are many aspects to momentum, and it starts with vital business ideals like the mission and vision statement, runs through relationship building and ends somewhere on the far side of culture. Only when everything is working together are you able to turn multiple small victories into momentum that can change an entire organization.
Below is a sampling of what three CEOs previously featured on the cover of Smart Business Pittsburgh had to say about keeping your momentum going to drive change.
“You’ll have a lot of people who won’t really share your vision and will tell you all of the reasons why it won’t work. But if you really believe in it, you move forward anyway and find ways to make it work.”
Ed Stack, CEO, Dick’s Sporting Goods
“The key is to really show them what’s going on today and explain very clearly why the organization needs to change; then get them to help develop that future collectively with you.”
Dr. Christopher Olivia, president and CEO, West Penn Allegheny
“Whether it’s your clients or your employees, you’re less successful unless you have a relationship with these people. Everything we try to drive is relationship-driven, and it makes us more successful on the service side, it makes us more successful on the sales side, and it makes us more successful on the employee-retention side.”
Patrick Hampson, founder, chairman and CEO, MED3000
Believe in your plan and don’t be detracted by naysayers.
Explain to employees why things need to change and get them to help you do it.
Everything in business is driven by relationships.
Joe Burgess saw a company in Insituform Technologies Inc. that was waiting for nation’s maze of aging underground water and sewer pipelines to fail so it could cash in on the recovery. But there’s a big difference between potentially making money and actually growing as a company.
“There has always been a disconnect at Insituform between the long-term potential of its business and the reality of its near-term growth potential,” says Burgess, the 3,000-employee pipeline service company’s president and CEO. “If I looked at how Insituform positioned itself in the past, it focused a lot on that long-term need and that, eventually, it was going to materialize and drift down to the local level and then this business would grow at a much faster pace.”
The problem, at least from Insituform’s point of view, is that pipelines don’t just break down all at once. And if they’re not broken today, most public officials at the local and state level are content to cross their fingers and hope they’ll hold out another year.
“So I could speculate that caused [the company] to take the approach that it would get better over the long term,” Burgess says. “We’ll just stay in this market and maintain our leadership position, and when the dam bursts, it will be a great story.”
When Burgess arrived in April 2008, he decided it was time to stop waiting.
“We’re a U.S. public company,” Burgess says. “We need to operate our business in the here and now. We need to look at the economic conditions and the now of our market and figure out how do we optimize financial performance for our investors now.”
Burgess does not deny that there is value both in planning for the future and trying to fill a niche.
“But if we had kept the company 100 percent wastewater and 100 percent in municipal markets, our company really is just floating along waiting for that dam to burst,” Burgess says. “There are some investors who have that kind of patience. But it’s my view most do not.”
Burgess needed to show people that there was revenue to be generated in areas besides just municipal sewer or wastewater pipeline rehabilitation.
“We needed to make some decisions and develop some workable plans to broaden the strategic direction of the company,” Burgess says. “That’s a challenge when you’re running a business that’s essentially been doing one thing for 40 years.”
Make your case
As the new guy, Burgess expressed respect for all that Insituform had achieved since the company launched in 1971.
“Insituform invented this business and was the leader in 1971 and is the clear leader now,” Burgess says. “If anything, it’s probably strengthened its position in these markets. That’s a great testimony to the technology roots of the business and the people that have poured their life work into what is a crucially important business.”
This proud history, however, was threatening to blind Insituform from other opportunities where its talents and its technology could be of great use.
“You can become so focused and enamored about what you do and your capabilities within it and then the markets change,” Burgess says. “You have this strong position, but it’s just not as valuable as it was 20 years ago. If you stay in that tunnel, you can switch from being a premium return company to a modest return company to a low return company. … You say, ‘Look, this isn’t about the past. It’s about this is where we are and if we want to continue in markets that are very competitive.’”
Burgess called the leaders of his business units together and initiated a review of the past and an assessment of the future.
“We tried to do some forward forecasting based on the improvements we felt we could generate in each of our businesses and modeled that out to see where it got us over time,” Burgess says. “We drew the conclusion that our core business would not get us to the premium return profile that we sought. At that point, you know you’re not going to fix it just inside with what you have.
“And so then we went to, ‘OK, let’s break down what we know how to do. Let’s look at opportunities that fit those skill sets and make sense for us to be able to tackle those confidently and to add value.’ We wanted to diversify into an industrial client base that would give us better balance as the company went through various business cycles.”
As you draw up plans and conduct round tables to figure out what your company could do, it’s critical that you keep your feet on the ground in making such plans.
“Many companies are in a low-return environment, but then they put together models that suggest or forecast that the situation will improve either through cost reduction or a turnaround in the market or a change in economic conditions or other things that they do,” Burgess says.
“Then they embark on that plan and two or three years later, it’s not there because the assumptions they made were overly generous. You have to be very rigorous about that. That was probably easier for me to do because I came from outside of Insituform. I’m not burdened with all the history. History can be a good thing, but it can also be a burden. So you have to be very rigorous about that. Because if you get that wrong, you might not see the situation as it truly is. That’s always a formula for making a bad decision.”
You need to base your decision on the facts as you see them at that moment.
“If there is a gap there, we have to do something different,” Burgess says. “Not blame it on the market or blame it on the capital structure of the company. We have to figure out how we can take the skills and the capabilities of this company and get to different markets.”
Execute the plan
Burgess and his team were ready to move on their plan. The highlight was the purchase of two companies, Corrpro and The Bayou Cos. Inc. The acquisitions would put Insituform in a better position to expand its presence in the industrial sector of pipeline remediation.
When the acquisitions were made, Burgess did not spend a lot of time worrying about aligning the two companies under the Insituform brand.
“You obviously do think there will be synergies and ways that you can cross-sell and the business is starting to do that now,” Burgess says. “But out of the chute, we tried very much to focus on acquiring businesses that could essentially operate on a standalone basis and just drive increased performance at that business-unit level.
“We spent a lot of time with our core business increasing the performance requirements and eliminating cost. But by taking this approach, what we allowed the business-unit leadership to do was focus on their business and drive that to maximize their return without having to worry about this integration and cross-selling. I think that’s a key when you’re trying to dramatically expand a business. … If we tried to say, ‘OK, we’re going to buy these things and then put them all together in a complicated, integrated organization,’ I don’t think it would have done nearly as well. It’s always been key to me to maintain business-unit focus with as little corporate interference as possible.”
That doesn’t mean you just sit in your office and play solitaire and watch the world go by as all this is going on. You actually have a lot to do to make sure everything is staying on track.
You need to work with your board of directors to keep the plan moving. You’re communicating your strategy to investors so that they stay excited about your business. Maybe they even look to strengthen their investment in your company.
“You have an even longer list of potential investors that you have to expose to the business plan and strategy so you can attract additional business,” Burgess says. “You become the face of the community in your local communities and other communities globally. You also have a time commitment with your customer base. You can do all of those things and very quickly run out of hours to stay connected to what’s going on in the business and be active running the business. It’s easy to drift off into CEO land and out of the operating framework of your business.”
Burgess made time to meet with the leaders of his business units to keep in touch with what was happening. He kept an eye on goals that were set to make sure progress was being made toward achieving them.
But he also took time to make sure his employees had reason to be confident in his leadership.
“People want to know that their management team has a competent plan and is focused and hardworking and will do what they can to execute against that plan and improve the company,” Burgess says. “People are smart. If you roll out a plan, most people would figure out pretty quickly if you lack true belief in what it is you propose to do.”
You can’t assume that enthusiasm will wash away any flaws that may exist in your plan.
“Enthusiasm has its place,” Burgess says. “It ranges from the rah-rah you get in a sales meeting to the very focused and rigorous approach of figuring out operating performance and whether it can improve. I tend toward the latter. People can figure out if managers are focused, intense and rigorous on improving the business and making sure it achieves its goals. If they believe that, I think they would be enthusiastic about the company.”
The best formula to demonstrate confidence in your plan is to be direct and factual with your people. Don’t be sneaky. Tell people what you’re trying to do, how they can help and what the outcome should ultimately be.
“Whether you’re giving a message about the current performance, good or bad, the needed performance, the direction, a strategic direction, the need to change or the need to be better, it doesn’t really matter,” Burgess says. “What people really want to know is, what is the situation? … When they lose sight of that, they get disconnected from the purpose of their work. But maybe even more importantly, they lose sight of how their work contributes to the overall goals of the business.”
The numbers say Burgess has Insituform on the right track. Revenue has grown from $495.6 million in 2007 to $726.9 million in 2009. The company is also on its way to meeting its goal of a 15 percent return on invested capital.
In early 2011, the estimated return had grown from around 3 percent when Burgess arrived to 9 percent.
“A 15 percent return on invested capital is the level I believe we need to be at to sustain a strong investment premise for the company,” Burgess says. “We wanted to create a company based on the solid skill sets that were here at Insituform that could sustain performance in a much broader range of economic and market conditions. I think we’ve done that, or at least started to do that.”
How to reach: Insituform Technologies Inc., (800) 234-2992 or www.insituform.com
The Burgess File
Joe Burgess, president and CEO, Insituform Technologies Inc.
Education: accounting and financing degree, University of Florida
What was your very first job, and what did you learn?
I was a stock boy at a local pharmacy close to my house. It was my first exposure to business, whether I even recognized it or not, in terms of taking inventory. The guy that ran the store was the pharmacist.
He was very focused on trying to eliminate waste and maintain the right mix of goods people expected him to carry while not trying to saddle his business with carrying everything. I remember listening to him talk about business issues in terms of what we were going to carry. It just struck me, the wide range of issues that a person trained in pharmacy had to have to run a business.
Who has been the biggest influence on you?
My father, John Burgess. He was a teacher and a football coach by profession. He was an interesting guy and very well-read in matters of religion, history and current events. He got his master’s later in life.
He was a very smart man and always very well-prepared, whether that meant constructing a test, reading essays from students or studying film to determine whether a guy was going to come on a corner blitz. That’s something that has stuck with me for my life. In most business situations, being unprepared is not a good plan. It’s almost never goes the way you think it will if you’re not prepared.
Are you reluctant to call out an employee who is not meeting your expectations? Do you worry about the conflict you might create by raising these concerns? If you answered yes to these questions, you’re not doing your job as the leader of your business.
“You read a lot about making sure you’re not hurting people’s feelings and not being over the top and too aggressive when you talk to people,” says Greg Harris, founder, president and CEO of Backhaul Direct LLC. “You need a level of aggression. You’re paying someone to do a job. They need to know where you stand. If you’re not happy with the productivity of an employee, you have to let them know.”
Before you get the wrong idea about the corporate culture at Backhaul Direct, you should know that Harris loves to have fun both at work and away from the office. The 75-employee freight management and logistics firm sponsors a collegiate bowling tournament each February and has a group of employees who bowl regularly.
“You have to be able to come here and enjoy what you’re doing,” Harris says. “That’s the last thing I want is for someone to come here and hate everything about their job.”
Harris considers it part of his job to foster a strong and healthy workplace culture. But it’s also his job to expect and demand the best from his employees and give them a kick in the butt when they need it.
“It’s the job of a manager, just like a personal trainer, to always be pushing you a little bit,” Harris says. “I tell my guys all the time, ‘You’re always going to feel some resistance from me. I’m always going to be pushing and challenging you.’”
Harris takes the physical fitness and training analogy a step further.
“I’m not going to tell you to fire off 10 reps at 15 pounds when I know that you can fire off 20 reps at 30 pounds,” Harris says. “At the same time, you don’t want to establish goals that are so far out of their range of capability that they will be disheartened and disgruntled with their job.”
The key in establishing goals is to make them a priority. Put them down on paper so that there is a record of what you and your employees have determined to be goals worthy of pursuing.
“You absolutely have to put them in writing,” Harris says. “You also have to create a plan on how you’re going to hit those goals.”
Backhaul Direct has made the pursuit of sales goals more fun by creating groups that employees can aspire to join. Newcomers are “Lottery Picks,” a nod to the elite rookies picked in the NBA Draft.
Next is the “Contenders,” a group of employees who have risen above the first stage but aren’t at the top of the heap yet. And at the top is the “Top Dogs,” the sales reps who handle the company’s most important accounts.
“They have the big clients, the flexible schedule and the company work card for unlimited lunches,” Harris says.
The idea is to create a sense of competition that energizes employees and drives growth. It’s a fun way to keep the motivation level high at a company that has plans to add more than 300 jobs by 2015.
“We try to maintain a competitive atmosphere where everyone is privy to the company sales goals, their numbers and the other sales reps’ numbers in our office,” Harris says. “We look at that as a motivating factor. You don’t want to be the low man on the totem pole.”
How to reach: Backhaul Direct LLC, (800) 518-1664 or www.backhauldirect.com
Ask the questions
So what happens if goals aren’t being met and revenue isn’t growing in your business? Greg Harris says you can start by appraising your own performance.
“Are they responding to your message?” says Harris, founder, president and CEO at Backhaul Direct LLC. “Are you giving employees the proper tools to meet those goals? Are they targeting the right clients? Have they not been taught appropriately from day one?”
If you determine that you’ve done your job, start looking at what’s going on with the employee.
“Do they not like the product they are selling?” Harris says. “Do they not like they are selling? Are they just not interested in what they are doing anymore? Is there something else I can challenge the person with? Maybe they have outgrown what they are doing. Ask the question: ‘You seem burned out. You seem complacent. Is there a reason for that? Can I do something different? Is there something within our scope that you can do in the company?’”
In addition to these questions, you also need to make it clear that there is a problem if an employee is not performing to expectation.
“Show concern and try to set something else for them to do,” Harris says. “But let them know, ‘Right now what you’re doing, it’s just not working for us. Is there something we can do to help?’”
How to reach: Backhaul Direct LLC, (800) 518-1664 or www.backhauldirect.com
Ken Kocher is a very proud, very loyal fan of the Chicago Cubs. It doesn’t matter that the ball club hasn’t won the World Series in more than 100 years and hasn’t even been to the World Series since 1945. Kocher still loves the Cubs.
His office at Hat World Inc. is full of team memorabilia with a heavy emphasis, not surprisingly, on hats. But Kocher doesn’t impose his own fan loyalty on his employees. Instead, he encourages them to show their own colors and wear hats and shirts to work for whatever teams they root for.
While providing a chance to show some love for their favorite teams, it also serves to get employees more connected to the product he wants them to be out there selling to customers.
“You need to be cognizant that the people in your company believe in what you’re selling,” says Kocher, who took over as president of the 7,300-employee hat retailer, otherwise known as Lids, in 2005. “If you’re passionate about your product, which in our case is hats and sports because we sell sports as much as hats, you have a more passionate employee that understands what the customer wants.”
Kocher feels fortunate to lead a company so entrenched in the entertaining business of sports, but it’s not all fun and games at the $466 million company. Kocher’s organization doesn’t succeed because employees get to wear hats to work or because they aren’t allowed to wear ties. It thrives because they are excited about the product and energized to sell it to customers. And it works because employees take part in the process to set goals and then share in the reward when those goals are achieved.
“If you’re results-oriented, you can make any job fun,” Kocher says. “The key is to create competition. That will make your job fun no matter what you’re doing. Even if it’s competition with yourself to get more done today than yesterday or to sell more today than yesterday. Competition is a driving force with everybody. I don’t care who it is. You have to be competitive if you want to succeed.”
This approach helped Hat World navigate through the recession that began in late 2008 and devastated many in the retail business. While many retailers were closing stores, Hat World added 36 stores in 2010 and plans to add 26 more this year.
Here’s how Kocher takes employee passion and turns it into business success.
Engage your employees
You need to get your employees excited about the product or service that you’re selling. Give them opportunities to offer input about your product and how it’s being sold and how it might be presented in a better way to catch the eye of your potential customers.
“If you have management from the top down all the time, employees just don’t think you care,” Kocher says. “Let people be creative and come up with new ways to do things.”
Most of the hats sold through the Lids stores are already designed and licensed and come with vendors that deal with other companies. But Kocher works with his people to make decisions on what products to sell and how to market them.
“We have a very dialed-in sports culture and a fashion element to that, too,” Kocher says. “Our buyers know what the customer wants, because they are the customer.”
If you’re perfect and know everything there is to know about what you sell, it’s OK for you to make all the decisions. But since you’re probably not perfect, try letting others step up once in awhile.
“You have to be willing to let your leaders underneath you and your managers be leaders,” Kocher says. “Give them the direction they need to go, but stay out of their way. Everybody gets to a point in a different way. I may have an organized desk and think that’s the most successful way to do it. My counterpart may have a disorganized desk, and yet he’s still somehow organized. That’s the same way with leaders leading this company or leading people. Every individual is different in how they think. Let them figure out which way they want to go and how they want to do it.”
The only way your people are going to grow is if you give them opportunities to apply their talents and prove themselves. It shouldn’t be your job to make every decision in your business. Let your people experience the pride of making a decision that helps the company grow.
That way, you can stay focused on the big picture.
“My role is on the growth side,” Kocher says. “It’s to provide avenues of growth for our company, for our employees and for our shareholders that maximize profit. I’m kind of steering the ship in the direction I feel like we should go as a team to best make use of our skill set at as a company.”
In most cases, your employees are probably a lot closer to your customers than you are. When you enable them and empower them to think about how your product can be better, you give them a chance to grow.
“That’s what drives them and gets them going every day,” Kocher says. “If you can create that competition throughout the whole company, even if you’re a customer care rep and they can have some competition within themselves, they will be more successful.”
If you’ve delegated in the past and ended up with employees doing something that does not fit your company’s vision, the fault may rest with you. Did you take the time to explain your vision to employees? Did you make sure they clearly understood what you were looking for?
“You can’t just assume the job is going to get done exactly the way you want it done,” Kocher says. “If you’re not involved in the process as they are going through the project and teaching them what they should be looking for, you’re going to get a train wreck at the end.”
There may have been a time when you weren’t the CEO and you were excited when your boss came to you and wanted your opinion. You can’t lose sight of that youthful exuberance that exists inside your employees who want to help your company succeed.
“Don’t forget where you came from,” Kocher says. “That will always make you a better person and a better leader. I’m always about the future, but there are people who have helped me become very successful that I’ll never lose focus on. Everybody has those people. You just have to make sure you recognize and understand the importance of the past to your success.”
Kocher is not looking for a show of hands when he seeks out leaders to help keep his company moving forward and growing.
“If anybody tells me they have leadership potential, I don’t want them working for me,” Kocher says. “You have to see it. Leaders go to the top. You can see a leader. If you walk into a cafeteria at a sixth-grade school, if you pay attention, you’re going to figure out who the leaders are of that classroom pretty quickly.”
The challenge for you is to create situations where your people can demonstrate their leadership skills. Create situations where you can be out there observing employees in action and seeing who rises to the occasion.
“We’re moving one of our businesses called Lids Team Sports from Madison, Wis., to Indianapolis,” Kocher says. “It’s something that needed to be done to get the synergies out of both businesses. We went to our directors and employees and said, ‘Can you guys take on this project and make it happen?’ It’s basically a project that they took on above and beyond what they were already doing. During this process, we have about a half-dozen employees that have been living in Madison away from their families for about four to six months until this move officially happens to help with the process of moving. So it’s a pretty large move.”
It’s an important move for the company and an important opportunity to see what kind of leadership skills the employees who are seeing it through have.
“We have a long history of taking a store manager and working them through our system to where they play a major management role in our company,” Kocher says. “That’s a lot more inexpensive than going out and finding that person initially. You pass over a lot of people and you lose a lot of culture along the way. We try to teach our people.”
That teaching and gaining of experience is where it’s at when it comes to finding leaders. The Type A personality with the voice everyone can hear is not necessarily your best leader.
“I don’t think the leader is the person who always gets up in front of people to speak and is a good speaker,” Kocher says. “Good speakers don’t make good leaders. A lot of people get confused. They think, ‘Boy, that person can really handle themselves with a mic.’ That doesn’t mean they can be a good leader.”
You’re a leader. You know that it’s the person who gets things done, not necessarily the one with the million-dollar smile, that you want leading the charge in your business.
“It goes back to a leader in our culture is someone who is willing to get down and dirty with the group,” Kocher says. “You let people go out and be leaders and stay out of their way.”
You still ask questions and you still check in and make yourself available to that person for questions and feedback. But you let them do their job and see how they handle it.
“Be involved enough in the process that you can see that they’re going in the right direction,” Kocher says.
When the economy began to plummet in the fall of 2008, Kocher had concerns about what the effect might be on Hat World.
“People were cutting inventory, and everybody was really nervous about what was going to happen to the economy,” Kocher says. “No one knew how bad it was going to get.”
Fortunately for Kocher, sales rose from $378.9 million in fiscal 2008 to $405.5 million in fiscal 2009 and then even higher in 2010.
“I told everybody that we just need to focus on the little things,” Kocher says. “Small victories; that was kind of our thing. Let’s shoot for small victories and not try to hit home runs. Let’s just look at what we’re doing and make sure we don’t make any dumb moves and we’ll be fine.”
Kocher could have panicked. He could have called a town-hall meeting and sounded the alarm about the downfall of the retail industry. But that wouldn’t have been his style, and it wouldn’t have been consistent with a culture that is always looking for opportunities.
“We don’t knee-jerk,” Kocher says. “We don’t start saying, ‘Hey, everybody needs to work five hours more because we have to do this or we have to do that.’ We don’t have to do that. We treat people the same regardless.”
How to reach: Hat World Inc, (888) 564-4287 or www.lids.com.
Ken Kocher, president, Hat World Inc.
Born: Crosby, N.D.
Education: Bachelor’s of business degree in accounting, University of North Dakota
What was your first job?
I was a paperboy for the Devils Lake Journal. I did that for a couple years. That teaches you the importance of money at a young age. At that time, we had to collect money from all the customers.
I was a multisport athlete growing up, so I had to do it around practice and games. It taught me time management. I played football, baseball, basketball and track. In football, I was a linebacker and tight end. It was a small school and you had to play them all. Otherwise they wouldn’t have enough kids.
Favorite sports to play and to watch: My favorite sport to play growing up was football. My favorite sport now to play is golf. Baseball is my favorite sport to watch now.
Favorite hat: Any hat that has a Cubs emblem on it.
Dress code at Hat World: We don’t allow ties in this building. If our buyers are meeting with a vendor, they’ll wear khakis and a colored shirt that day. But no ties allowed. People pretty much know, if someone walks in with a tie, we’ll go, ‘Who is that?’
Is everyone at Hat World a Colts fan?
We have a fair amount of Colts fans, but it’s all over the board. It’s fun to do that because you’ll see [who employees root for] in their offices, and it’s really a conversation piece. Why do you have Oakland A’s or New York Mets? How did you become a Vikings fan? That’s our culture. I’d say there are probably more other teams in here than the Colts.
Neil Mortine needed to show people that he had a plan. It was something he needed to do three times in 2010 as Fahlgren Inc. made three acquisitions to its business.
“You have to be able to convince people that you’re taking them somewhere good, somewhere that is a better place,” says Mortine, president and CEO at Fahlgren Inc. “You have to have clear goals and plans of where you want to go and what you want to achieve. Then it’s not that hard.”
Mortine’s 160-employee public relations firm has added Edward Howard & Co., Grip Technology and, most recently, Sabatino Day Inc. to its organization in 2010. One of the biggest challenges that comes about in acquiring a business is integrating the two cultures.
Fortunately for Fahlgren and the companies that were joining it, cultural integration was part of Mortine’s plan in each case.
“Culture is king,” Mortine says. “It is the primary driver for what we’re doing. … If the culture is not solid, I don’t know how it all hangs together.”
Mortine initiated the creation of cultural integration teams that would be made up of employees from both Fahlgren and the company it was acquiring.
“We wanted to have people involved that really understood our culture,” Mortine says. “We didn’t want it necessarily to be the senior executives. We wanted it to be people that had spent some time here, maybe some of the ones who had come to us just out of school but were still young in their careers, up-and-comers and overachievers. We purposely put those people on the team on our end. We asked the executives at the other company to do the same.
“The executives are always talking before, during and after. But we wanted the rank and file to be talking to each other just as fast as possible. We put the teams together and introduced them.”
When you put together teams for anything, be it cultural integration or some other special project, you need to empower that team to do its job. It can’t just be for show.
“Give people the ability to fail and the opportunity to be heard and to go out there with ideas and not be afraid of failing,” Mortine says. “Empower folks and act with a sense of urgency and give guys a freedom and authority to take action and influence change. We support that. We give them tools and resources they need and the confidence to stand up there. Part of what I need to do is build leaders that can move this thing forward after I’m done with it.”
You’re looking to convince people, especially the ones at the company that you are acquiring, that you’re not simply imposing your will on them.
“We told them it wasn’t going to be our way or the highway,” Mortine says. “We were looking for recommendations to make us even better and stronger. We didn’t want to force anything down anybody’s throats.”
Make sure the team members meet on a regular basis and feel free to check in on their progress. But for the most part, let them do their job.
“We gave them parameters of what to look for,” Mortine says. “But the ones we selected, we knew their credentials and we knew why we wanted them on the team. They would dig for information, they were collaborative and they were our overachievers.”
If your team comes back with ideas that you’re not sure about, don’t just reject them without consideration. That power and freedom to fail is something you need and your people need in order to achieve success.
“That’s what life is all about,” Mortine says.
Neil Mortine has been on both sides of the table when it comes to business acquisitions.
“Fahlgren acquired my company eight years ago, so I know what it’s like to be acquired,” says Mortine, president and CEO at Fahlgren Inc. “I know what it’s like personally to be part of a new team.”
With that experience, Mortine also knows what it’s like to be the CEO one day and an employee at someone else’s business the next.
“It can be pretty emotional,” says the leader of the 160-employee public relations firm. “Try to work through the title and roles and responsibilities very early on to see if they are interested. ‘Here are some new areas you can work in that can be exciting now that you don’t have so many administrative responsibilities. Can we take advantage of all that you’ve learned and your relationships?’”
If the person seems open to working with you, do yourself a favor and listen to what he or she has to say in terms of ideas for the business.
“I tend to come off a lot smarter to people if I’m quieter and just listen as opposed to just putting my opinion out there on day one when people meet me,” Mortine says. “People want to work with me a lot better and a lot more closely if I give them the lead and let them talk a little bit and give their point of view and ask questions.”
How to reach: Fahlgren Inc., (800) 731-8927 or www.fahlgren.com.
After graduating from Amherst College, Brad Stroh went to work for a venture capital firm. Then he went to work for another one, and then another. Through his experiences as an investor, Stroh saw firsthand the struggles of financial startups and entrepreneurial companies. By the time Stroh and fellow Stanford MBA Andrew Housser co-founded Bills.com in 2005, he well understood the challenges and risks associated with building a new business from the ground up.
In 2002, Stroh and Housser had successfully co-founded Freedom Financial Network as a platform for direct-to-consumer financial services. In growing Freedom Financial, the partners realized that what was really missing in the finance industry was consumer financial education. The idea evolved into a business plan for Bills.com LLC, an online portal of free resources and tools to help consumers with money management.
With Stroh as the company’s CEO, and Housser as the company’s only other employee, the two combined their entrepreneurial experiences to launch Bills.com using a scrappy, customer-focused business model.
“Challenge No. 1 was bootstrapping a business and figuring out a way to create value every single day for your clients,” Stroh says. “The reality is, we ended up picking a really successful industry, and we executed really well on our plan; our business became extremely successful. That led to a second major challenge.”
In five years, Stroh and Housser have grown their two-person company into a full-blown $106 million enterprise with more than 600 employees. Though they overcame the initial challenges of being under-resourced, undercapitalized and bootstrapped, adjusting a business model to account for fast-paced success and subsequent growth presents obstacles of its own.
“The things that made us great, which were that commitment to executing, being scrappy, really valuing your clients, having a very unique culture and appreciation of all of your employees — how do you maintain entrepreneurial vision when you are hundreds and hundreds of employees and you’re not 10?” Stroh says.
You do it by making sure every employee contributes to a company culture of entrepreneurism, innovation and competitiveness. Stroh now says his most important job is hiring and building a culture of entrepreneurism.
Find the right people
At first, Bills.com had to operate with a very restricted budget, resources and staff. When growing a company from scratch, you hire entrepreneurial people to get it off the ground and drive growth. But after your business is established, your people have to maintain that momentum.
As the former captain of his college lacrosse team, Stroh builds his team at Bills.com by hiring people with the same athletic spirit of teamwork and competitiveness to drive continuous improvement.
“They want to compete,” he says. “They don’t want to work at IBM. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but they want to be a part of something that’s growing and challenges them.”
That means Stroh looks for people who don’t just care about making money but who really care about helping people solve problems. He’s found that employee referrals are the best way to find people who can thrive in the Bills.com culture.
“The vast majority of our new hires are referred by existing employees,” Stroh says. “That’s always the best place for us to get new, great hires, because it’s someone who embraces our culture, values it, and they’ve worked with other people where they say, ‘This individual would be a great fit here.’”
Get the buy in
Continuing to hire entrepreneurial-minded employees ensures Bills.com has the right team in place to grow successfully. But hiring is just one part of building an entrepreneurial culture. When building any team, you have to let your team members know what they are signing up for.
“Hiring is No. 1,” Stroh says. “No. 2 is training, getting people to embrace your culture from week one. The people that are joining you — they haven’t been along for the several-year ride that we have.
“You get people to self-select in or self-select out of your culture, and you want that to be a very conscious decision. You don’t want hiring to be mindless on either side, the new employee side or the company side.”
Today, Stroh visits the last session of every training class to share stories and history about the company and to talk to new employees about his vision for the future of Bills.com and their role in contributing to its success.
“The last message that I’ll leave with them is, ‘You guys in this room are hires 599 and 600 and 601. I’m standing in front of you as employee No. 1. … You guys, if you’re number 600 and 601, if you’re not smarter than us, better than us, care more than us, and don’t maintain and perpetuate that culture of entrepreneurism, which is looking for things to improve, we’re not getting better every day,’” Stroh says.
To get employees to buy in to a vision from the get-go, you have to help them really understand their role in its execution. You have to reinforce the importance of employees being entrepreneurial in their own right, whether it’s looking for things to make better or places where they can break things and fix them.
“The worst thing in a business is to have a bunch of employees with uncertainty about their role, the future of the company or about what they are supposed to be doing,” Stroh says. “It’s OK for the CEO to have ambiguity, but you have to be communicating certainty about where you are going.”
Align your goals
As your company’s work force grows, some of the intimacy that comes with having a tight-knit team of employees can get lost. In order to keep employees engaged in your vision, you have to find new ways to show them that you really care about them as individuals.
In the first months of Bills.com, Stroh was having pizza on the floor weekly with his handful of employees, using the time to talk about process changes, company updates, growth challenges or even just to chat about life and family. He was also closely connected to every one of the company’s clients and potential customers.
“As a bootstrap business, you don’t have layers and layers of management between you and the client,” Stroh says. “You, as the founder of the organization, are literally on the phone with your clients, on the phone with consumers, figuring out what do they value and how you can create a profitable business around that.”
Now, Bills.com has three corporate offices and 600 employees, and Stroh has had to find new ways to maintain effective communication and stay in touch with employee needs. Stroh still calls all his employees on their birthdays to thank them personally for their contributions and chat about their personal lives and individual challenges. He also continues to be very involved in talking to customers, finding out about their pain points, and seeking out opportunities to stay engaged in all levels of the business.
“Being a relatively young CEO, I’m really hands-on,” Stroh says. “I love to this day talking to clients. I love being in an interview and interviewing new employees. I love standing up in front of our employees and sharing with them our vision and values.”
Instead of pizza parties on the floor, Stroh now visits all three corporate offices monthly to have brown-bag lunches with anywhere from 25 to 250 employees, During these lunches, he talks about the company’s goals and challenges, answers employee questions and talks to his people about what matters to them.
The company also holds regular focus groups with employees, giving them opportunities to share insights and experiences. Stroh frequently sits in on the focus groups to moderate or prepares discussion topics to get feedback on specific issues, such as industry trends or customer needs.
“It goes back to the roots of our business,” he says. “That’s what connects me with the soul of our business, talking to the front-end clients, talking to our employees who are most directly on the front line.”
Even with brown-bag lunches and focus groups, it can be tough to keep employees motivated to execute your vision when the big picture keeps getting bigger. As Bills.com has expanded across offices, Stroh has made adjustments to better align his employees companywide on strategy and goals.
In 2007, he introduced “The Founder’s Corner,” an employee intranet similar to an internal Twitter feed. Stroh posts updates on The Founder’s Corner constantly, communicating information about the company’s ongoing challenges, news, and short- and long-term successes.
“I’m a pretty vocal person, and the person right outside my door knows everything that I’m working on, and I know everything that they are working on, but what about the person who is in our Phoenix office and I see once a month?” Stroh says. “Maybe they don’t have the opportunity to come to a brown-bag lunch. The intranet was just a way to pump out all of key strategic initiatives that we’re working on, every single week.”
To make sure his managers also continually re-evaluate their individual goals and growth strategies, Stroh asks his vice presidents and their directors to e-mail their top three strategic objectives at the beginning of every week, and e-mail progress on those goals at the week’s end.
By having management constantly review the challenges facing the company, Stroh ensures that urgent day-to-day issues don’t interfere with achieving Bills.com’s long-term vision. It also keeps them thinking about new ways to add value continuously as individual entrepreneurs.
“When you are growing as quickly as we are, there’s one universal truth, which is everything is constantly changing,” Stroh says. “You are constantly reinventing your CRM systems, your phone systems, your AP process and your accounting systems. It’s a constant thing. You have to get comfortable dealing with change and have a culture that embraces change.”
Today, Bills.com ranks as one of the fastest-growing privately held companies in Northern California. It has appeared on Entrepreneur magazine's 2008 Hot 100 and has ranked on Inc. 500’s list of fastest-growing companies for the last three years. Promoting a culture of entrepreneurism long-term means you are always seeking out new opportunities to better serve customers. Stroh never stops looking for new ways to add value for customers. He asks his employees to do the same.
“We are constantly evaluating new ideas,” Stroh says. “It’s part of our core values, to constantly innovate. That’s both in new products, new offerings and new opportunities in what we do.
“In a perfect world for us, we’re taking hundreds or even thousands of small risks every day, but we try to limit the number of ‘bet-the-farm’ risks to a very small set.”
With lots of calculated risk taking, the company encourages employees to be competitive and innovative, without committing too many resources to an idea that may fall flat.
“Part of the reason we like to test small and let Darwinism work its forces is that with limited resources committed, you don’t have to keep sprinting if you are running in the wrong direction. You can change course quickly.”
With new product committees and new business opportunity meetings, Stroh gives employees many outlets to be creative, take risks and test new ideas. However, the chief way he gets employees to drive Bills.com’s entrepreneurial vision is still by showing them the value of that vision for the company and its clients.
“When people say I found something that I think we can do better, you don’t blow it off,” Stroh says. “You fix it immediately, and you send a message to the whole company of whose idea was it and what value that created for the business. Then you perpetuate that culture of entrepreneurism.
“We celebrate the success of our consumer clients with testimonials we post all over the office. Consumer successes —when we change their lives we make that very visible in our company so it never turns into a business that people aren’t tangibly connected with the consumers that we are helping.”
HOW TO REACH: Bills.com LLC, www.bills.com
Photo by Anthony Garcia
The Stroh File
Co-founder and CEO
Education: Bachelor’s degree from Amherst College; MBA from Stanford University
What was your first job?
I was a caddy. Until you turned 16 in my town, you couldn’t get a paycheck. So I caddied. Then, I had my own lawn mower business. I also scooped ice cream at the age of 16.
What sports did you play growing up?
I played everything, but the sport I excelled at was lacrosse. I went to Amherst College in Massachusetts and I was the captain of my lacrosse team. I would say I learned as much about leading a company as captain of lacrosse team as I did in two years of business school at Stanford. I also played basketball, football and soccer. In high school, I played three sports.
What do you do to regroup on a tough day?
I like to write creatively. I actually wrote a novel called ‘The Dharma King’… about the search for the Panchen Lama, a Tibetan Lama. For me, that’s a great creative outlet, which is very different than my day job. I like to work out. When you push yourself athletically, a lot of times you have these cathartic moments when your stress just sort of breaks, and you get clarity in a decision. And I really love going for walks with my kids. We kind of live out in the woods. I try to do it nightly.
Not too long ago, companies could show up at a career fair at a local college once or twice a year and the effort would produce a line of great talent predisposed to start work upon graduation. Today, great talent is still graduating all the time, but this talent is proving to have very different motivations and perspectives on how they want to position themselves in the workforce.
Companies that understand the nuances of the younger generations of talent can position themselves better to create opportunities to attract this talent and maximize their productivity. As the baby boomers continue to retire, companies must identify strategies that connect them with local colleges, their faculty and their programs to ensure an effective transition of talent to their business. This more strategic investment of time creates opportunities to attract talent and to mold that talent to better fit positions with their business long before graduation.
Recently, I had the chance to interview Deborah (Deb) Mills-Scofield, who is a strategy and innovation consultant, a partner with Glengary LLC and a Growth Partner with Baldwin-Wallace’s Center for Innovation & Growth (CIG). Deb shared experiences, insight and advice on ways her clients engage with local colleges and create programs to benefit from younger talent entering their businesses.
Q: Why do you continue to work with college students, and what benefits have you received from these efforts?
A: As I reflect on my career, I was mentored every step of the way – through college, Bell Labs and AT&T. I wouldn’t be where I am without it. So I feel that mentoring is important. I do that several ways: through the Brown University Women’s Launchpad for senior women, informal mentoring of startups from Brown, and through BW’s Center for Innovation & Growth (CIG). Frequently I’ll have the student fellows at the CIG get involved with my clients and at the VC firm, Glengary LLC, in which I’m a partner. At the VC firm, the students help us with due diligence. Their work has been very impressive and thorough, providing insights that we wouldn’t have thought of because of their age and different experiences. I will also have students help my clients as we do planning and innovation – doing some primary and secondary market research and analysis.
Q: What are the tangible benefits to having students involved in your work?
A: By involving students with my clients and Glengary on real projects, these companies get access to some of the best students in Northeast Ohio. These firms are able to assess how well the students fit into their environment and get an inside track to hire them after graduation. The students get exposure to how things are done in businesses, learn about corporate cultures and networking, and they receive practical, useable experience. This helps them get a better feel for what they may or may not want to do – including their own startup – and better evaluate their opportunities. And, let’s face it, this looks great on the resume.
Q: What are some of differences you see in Gen Y versus baby boomer and Gen X talent?
A: The 21st century has really shaken up the world – and the business world in particular. One of the major shocks to companies is Gen Y’s attitude to work, often misunderstood as selfishness or lack of commitment. The boomers and Gen Xers have worked hard, did as they were told, didn’t challenge the status quo, and punched the industrial clock. Gen Yers don’t buy in to this, for some very good reasons. They have grown up with absentee parents caught up in the corporate ladder-climbing rat race and experienced the lack of loyalty companies had to their parents in downturns. Gen Y’s loyalty must be earned over and over again (as should any employee’s). They are willing to work very hard, just not in vain, and they’re not eager to accept the same traditional rewards and recognitions their parents have (e.g., 2 weeks of vacation, 9-5, etc.)
Q: How do you think Gen Y talent will change business?
A: Well, I keep trying to get my clients to realize that Gen Y will have a very large impact on 21st century capitalism. The 20th century’s view of profits as the ‘ends’ versus the ‘means’ is not sustainable, as our financial crisis blatantly illustrates. Gen Y wants to be part of an organization that makes meaning, not just money. If they are going to give their time, energy and talent, it better be for more than just corporate profits. Gen Y gets it right – profits are an output; making a difference in customers’ lives is an outcome. Profits are a means to the end of making a difference, not the end in itself. As these ‘kids’ enter into business, creating their own ventures and working in existing ones, they will transform business into something much more meaningful and impactful. And that is a very, very good thing. Companies that allow Gen Y to make a difference will have a powerful advantage over those that don’t.
If you would like to learn more about Deb Scofield or the Baldwin-Wallace CIG Program, you can visit her company website at www.mills-scofield.com for more information.
This article was brought to you by Chris Carmon, president of The Carmon Group. You can find out more about The Carmon Group at www.carmongroup.com