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Friday, 30 September 2011 20:40

Digital direction

There’s no finish line in technology, and Brian Deagan loves it.

“Nothing’s ever done; something new is always being created and that just intrinsically creates opportunities to build companies,” says Deagan, co-founder and CEO of digital marketing services and software developer Knotice Ltd.

But along with that comes some growing pains. The company over the past five years has exceeded 500 percent growth in employees and annual revenue; however, the need to hire at a quick pace is not the only concern Deagan has.

“Keeping up with some of the basic changes and things that are going on in the market can be disruptive organizationally, but at the same time, you need to be able to stay ahead of everything, stay on top of it and stay at the pace you are at,” he says.

One of the keys is not just a business plan, but one that is derived from an operational model that is used and leveraged on a day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month basis.

“That is one of the key things to keep the business headed in the right direction and on track,” Deagan says.

The model should drive the plan, but it tends to be more operationally oriented than, for example, a 40-page business plan, which is used more as a communication tool.

“Don’t confuse something that is a communication tool versus an operational tool,” he says. “Have them related and driven by the operational plan but don’t try to have one be both.”

The business plan is important to be able to communicate the plan of the business to external and internal constituencies. The operational plan’s role is to be effective in defining growth targets, meeting those targets, and then modeling out what is needed to support that growth.

The operational model in synch with the business plan gives a one-two punch to fight threats to derail growth.

“That is one of the key things to keep the business headed in the right direction and on track,” Deagan says.

The term “on track” for Knotice means a five-year goal of going from $10 million in revenue to $100 million.

“The primary way to do that is just sort of keep your eye on the ball and build the company brick by brick,” Deagan says. “So often, when you are growing and you are building something, if you are not really focused on the here and now, you have to have an idea where you’re going.”

If you spend too much time worrying about the future and not just building the business the way it needs to be done today, you’re not going to go anywhere.

“There is a point when you are supposed to climb up to the top of the trees, get a good lay of the forest and understand where you need to create that path through the forest,” he says. “But at some point, you just need to get back down on the ground and start chopping down trees.”

Hire a complementary management team in terms of personal and skill sets, and it will serve you well over the years.

“It’s much different when you’re in a room with six people banging something out to take the company to the next level versus when you are closing in on 100 people and you need to take the company to that level,” Deagan says. “I think it’s important that as the company evolves, you are tapping the characteristics and qualities that are most important to company growth. I’m a firm believer that everybody can do that to some extent. You just need to be conscious and aware of it.”

How to reach: Knotice Ltd., (800) 801-4194 or www.knotice.com

Weighing feedback

Consumer trends rise and fall daily, and a company needs to be aware of huge shifts that may influence its long-term direction.

By evaluating customer feedback, it can help you sort out consumer behavior to see if it is a trend or just a fad.

“There may be a consumer behavior or a new technology that you need to address in the short term, and you work with your customers to understand how to help versus just reacting to a trend in a manner that might not be prudent or well-thought-out,” says Brian Deagan, CEO of Knotice.

Categorizing customers may involve some judgment decisions, but it is necessary.

“It’s critical to get feedback and engage customers that are both early adopters, as well as customers who aren’t, to make sure the things you are going to do have a broader appeal and don’t just focus on a specific niche,” he says.

Getting perspective from both is a key step.

“You may not necessarily want to do something for an early adopter ? and it could be indicative of the future, but it could also be indicative potentially of a niche segment,” he says. “Get feedback from different segments of early adopters and the majority users and balance accordingly.”

How to reach: Knotice Ltd., (800) 801-4194 or www.knotice.com

Published in Akron/Canton
Friday, 30 September 2011 20:31

Flexible growth

In the last two years, Christina Pastore-Bucher has seen some major industry and economic shifts affect her business and its 310 employees. Although Park Farms Inc. has been growing its chicken-processing business in Canton since 1946, today, the company’s future growth depends on its ability to be flexible and adapt to a changing regional business environment.

“We can all really remember a time in the Akron-Canton area when business growth was much more of a fixed proposition than it is today,” say Pastore-Bucher, who became CEO of Park Farms in 2009. “In the past, one of the errors that many businesses made was the assumption of growth without really sitting down and going through the proper strategic initiatives to purposely advance growth, to really have that strategic plan in place and then to work toward that.”

This year, Park Farms is looking at approximately 75 percent more in cost of corn for feed ingredients than it paid in 2010 because of increasing demand for corn in alternative fuel use. When you are in a business where you are dealing with the volatility of commodity markets such as livestock production, Pastore-Bucher says the key to growth is having the ability to adapt and react with flexibility.

“As we come up with plan A, many times we go to plan B and C very quickly, because the climate around us changes, be it something that is affecting our live production sites, such as corn is now or government regulation is now,” Pastore-Bucher says. “Flexibility has really been the key.

“You look at alternatives where you can. You look at the company as a whole, and you have to be adaptable, and you have to be flexible and say, ‘Just because we’ve done it that way for the past 20 years, today’s environment is different.’ We run the company much differently today than we did even five years ago because of the environment around us.”

How do you incorporate flexibility into your strategic planning? First, you need to sit down and cover all of the scenarios in the economic environment to put opportunities in the pipeline and choose ones that align with your long-term strategic goals. At Park Farms, that has meant looking at different production amounts, alternatives for growing or arrangements for growing.

“We look at every decision, whether it’s a [capital expenditure] decision or an investment that we’re going to make or a business opportunity, against a very specific set of criteria,” Pastore-Bucher says. “That criteria has to align with the needs of our customers plus keeping in mind profitability of the business and also really looking at risk versus reward.

“We know what our goals are. We obviously can understand that we want to be profitable, to keep our customers in mind, and we always make our decisions based on our customers. But really, it’s just looking at all options and making sure we’ve planned for all options if need be.”

Keeping your organization responsive to change also requires that you maintain strong alignment on goals so people don’t lose sight of the long-term vision and mission. Pastore-Bucher says that it’s in times of great change when it’s more important than ever for businesses to focus on development and engagement of current employees, making sure people are regularly updated with information about industry and market developments as well as new opportunities as changes occur.

“Many of our management staff and employees have been here 20, 30, some 40 years,” she says. “So although obviously you see an up and down, especially over that span of time, I think that you have so many economic factors hitting the stability of the group that you have to keep people engaged, to keep them on track and moving.

“This is probably the most important time from a leadership perspective, at least in my business, to keep us moving cohesively forward. And even though we may take a step back to get there and keep moving forward, [you] give them those strategic goals. Remind them of the flexibility that we all must have and keep moving forward together as a company.”

How to reach: Park Farms Inc., (330) 455-0241 or www.parkfarms.com

Medina: A medical mecca

Medina sits conveniently at the junctures of I-71, I-271 and Route 18, allowing easy access from Cuyahoga, Summit and Wayne Counties. This provides residents within Medina and the surrounding counties access to world class health care.

Through new construction and through new affiliations, Medina has become a hotbed of medical activity in recent years. Thanks to location and demographic, Cleveland Clinic, University Hospital, Southwest General and Summa Health System have all built or expanded medical facilities or developed alliances with existing local hospitals in Medina County in the past two years.

For two decades, Medina has been the fastest-growing county in northern Ohio. While families with young children continue to move into Medina County, there is a growing trend of grandparents relocating to be closer to their children and grandchildren. This elder generation needs to be in close proximity to quality health care to take them through their various stages of aging.

This summer, the Hospice of Medina County will open a 16-bed unit at Routes 18 and 71 and the Western Reserve Masonic Home is in the planning stages to open an Alzheimer's care unit.

In addition to consumer healthcare services, Medina County is home to a growing number of companies in the medical device manufacturing industry. In April, 2011, New Jersey-based Integra Spine opened a newly constructed facility on Route 18, with plans to create 160 new jobs in the next three years.

How to reach: Medina County Economic Development Corp., www.medinacounty.org

Published in Akron/Canton
Friday, 30 September 2011 20:01

How to define a direction for your business

As the recession tightened the noose around the business world in 2008 and 2009, most businesses were forced into a reactionary mode. Long-range plans were scrapped in the name of evasive maneuvers and survival tactics. But even in the darkest days of the recession, you probably knew that there would be a point when the economic skies would be brighter, and you’d need to plan for the long-term future of your business again.

As the economy slowly recovers, that time is drawing closer. You are starting to gain a feel for how your business will need to operate three years and five years from now.

Over the course of the year, Smart Business has spoken with a number of Detroit-area CEOs on how to build and execute a strategic plan. Here are what three of them had to say.

“You really need to be able to understand what your checkpoints are along the way in any process or product or initiative that you are outlining. It really needs to be a candid self-assessment of what is the reality that your customers are dealing with, the reality of how you’re delivering on expectations, then making adjustments to it.”

Stephen Polk, chairman, president and CEO, R.L. Polk & Co.

“Stick to your game. 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.”

Gregg Solomon, president and CEO, MotorCity Casino Hotel

“The one-year plan is set in stone, but as much as I say it’s set in stone, you still need the ability to move and adjust. It’s just that when you move and adjust, make sure your modifications are still within some guideline of business practice, so you don’t blow your brains out on any of your particular metrics.”

Brett Healy, president and CEO, Webasto Roof Systems Inc.


Learn to do accurate self-assessments.

Don’t run your business on your competition’s terms.

Stick to your plan, but remain flexible when necessary.

Published in Detroit

After battling a lackluster economy for years, most executives are out of ideas for increasing revenue and lowering operating costs. But the smart execs are reviewing history to predict which customers will buy more or splurge on high-end products and enticing them with strategic advertisements. And some are analyzing data to hone inventory purchases or decide how to optimally deploy resources.

The savvy executives don’t have a crystal ball, but they have invested in software and staff to conduct data mining and predictive analytics. Research from Accenture confirms that high-performance businesses are five times more likely to use analytics strategically when compared with low performers.

“Business leaders can avoid mistakes and predict future demand for products and services by utilizing data mining and predictive analytics,” says Dr. Zinovy Radovilsky, professor of management for the College of Business and Economics at California State University, East Bay. “Unfortunately, most don’t know where to start, so they continue to make decisions based on managerial opinion instead of facts.”

Smart Business spoke with Radovilsky about the opportunities to control costs and increase revenue through mining and predictive analytics.

What are analytics and data mining?

Analytics is a diverse field of statistical, qualitative methods and models used for predicting future business trends and customer behavior, and savvy executives are using the practice to make opportunistic business decisions. The process starts when professionals extract or mine data so it can be analyzed and used to identify relationships between the predicted parameters and other factors. The analysis phase is called descriptive analytics, which helps organizations discover what happened in the past, why it happened and how these events impacted the business. Predictive analytics uses the results of both data mining and descriptive analytics to make predictions and optimize business decisions.

How can mining and analysis turn data into dollars?

Analytics may highlight ways to increase customer retention or cross-sell certain additional products and services. At the same time, predictive analytics can reduce operating costs by predicting demand so companies can better forecast inventory or reduce wasted resources. The need for predictive analytics is spreading across various industries and business functions, like marketing, finance, operations, supply chain and human resources.

Predictive analytics and data mining help executives forecast future demand by analyzing customer behavior and profitability by market segments, so they can boost revenue and profit margins by selling additional high-value products and services to certain customers. For example, 1-800-FLOWERS.com attracted 20 million new customers and increased repeat business 10 percent by employing a real-time decision manager that uses predictive analytics applications, business logic and historical purchasing data to motivate customers by offering flower arrangements that appeal to their personal preferences.

How can predictive analytics and data mining reduce operating costs?

These examples illustrate how data mining and analytics can reduce operating costs.

  • Predicting future demand helps operations and supply chain managers develop accurate inventory forecasts, purchase the right amount of supplies and eliminate unnecessary waste.
  • Predictive analytics can substantially improve allocation of critical resources including equipment, labor and material. For example, after developing and implementing an optimization model to allocate small boat resources, the U.S. Coast Guard reduced its small boat fleet by some 20 percent and overall fleet operating cost by around 5 percent.
  • Response modeling allows companies to identify repeat customers from the outset of the relationship and reduce the cost of mailing or calling by targeting only those who are likely to respond. The bottom line is that companies can cut marketing costs by targeting fewer customers while getting the same response.

How does a lack of data analysis or an inability to forecast future events restrict a company’s success?

Companies have accumulated a substantial amount of quantitative business data about their products and services, customers and suppliers. But, their ability to create a competitive advantage by utilizing the data and employing appropriate quantitative models varies significantly. In fact, two-thirds of U.S. companies surveyed by Accenture acknowledged that they need to improve their analytical capabilities. Some organizations still rely on executive opinion instead of using data and analysis to predict the future and make prudent business decisions.

What should executives consider before embarking on a data-mining mission or investing in software or experienced personnel?

Implementation of data mining and predictive analytics can be very time consuming and requires changing the existing decision-making processes and culture, hiring analytical staff and making investments in computer technology. Executives should consider several important things before implementing and managing predictive analytics projects.

First, clearly formulate strategic goals of using predictive analytics and data mining, and identify where the tools will likely make a difference. Then, prioritize the goals by their business impact and ease of implementation and utilization. Finally, identify prospective return on investments before purchasing software, hiring staff and training current managers to use analytics.

Dr. Zinovy Radovilsky is a professor of management for the College of Business and Economics at California State University, East Bay. Reach him at (510) 885-3302 or zinovy.radovilsky@csueastbay.edu.

Published in Northern California

Scott Friedman and his team at Seegrid Corp., a developer of vision-guided robotic trucks, founded their company on the idea that taking the driver off of a forklift would be safer and save money. They didn’t know it at the time, but they were on to something big.

“We actually went out and we talked to about a dozen customers who are responsible for about $200 billion worth of retail spend,” Friedman, co-founder and CEO of the 60-employee company says. “It was tough to get the meetings, but we said, ‘If we were successful technologically and we made such a product that could work like this in your warehouses, would it mean anything to you or would it mean everything to you?’”

Seegrid’s innovations have impressed companies like Toyota and Kion Group, which are part of the $38 billion forklift market.

Smart Business spoke to Friedman about how he is growing his company in a niche market.

Market innovation. We had a very strong and informed vision of what we wanted to achieve. It was on the edges of realistic, so between early customers and knowledgeable technologists, we had a very strong product vision that everybody agreed could be achieved and would be of value.

We use a camera system and a bunch of advanced robotic software that we reduce the complexity of deploying a robot to something we call ‘walk through then work.” To make our products make deliveries in a big industrial space, somebody who works at the facility takes the equipment and walks it around and shows it the routes and when its doing that the cameras take a bunch of pictures and it builds a 3-D map of the facility like a video game map, and then afterward, it will repeat those routes that somebody has shown it.

Once we were able to get a product in the market, we had to listen twice as much as we talked. Listening is an active process, but you have to also watch because people can’t articulate everything they need. You have to be focused on understanding, listening, looking and documenting what works well and what doesn’t work well and what people said they need and don’t need. That is what will help your products take off.

Make tough choices. The true innovation is taking the thousand things you’ve heard and choosing to do just one. That’s the hardest thing, because it’s easy to compile wish lists but it takes a lot of conviction and courage to take all that in and say we have the resources and this is what the customers need to get to the next place, we are going to do a fantastic job on just this one. The hard part is figuring out the right one and really nailing it to the wall.

You have to look at what can propel the business. Everything has to be as simple as possible and still maintain fast growth. If you want the boat to go 50 miles per hour, you want as little dragging as possible. Simplicity is a requirement for speed. What’s the one thing on the list that you could do that will give you the speed, the pull-through and the growth?

Take it to the next level. There’s a point in businesses when you hit X millions in revenue and more than 35 or 40 people where it can’t be run out of the back pocket of a few people anymore. It has to be broken up into systems and management and all of that. In the past year, year and a half, we went through that transition. We broke the business apart and realigned it under more normal business functional units so it could scale.

That was a very big challenge. I think it was mostly around an honest look at what we were doing and where were we now and where did we want to go and how were we going to get there. You need a big dose of intellectual honesty because when you start a business and when you start growing it and it starts getting customers and you’re actually doing the thing, you don’t have a sense of its natural scale or its natural growth arch. Every business has its own course and it has very little to do with what you thought it would when you started it.

That’s very tough for people who start businesses to pull back, and it’s like looking at your own kids. You have to pull back and look at it, not just passionately but out of the context in which you built it to understand what it needs and what it really is. If the founders are going to make that move, they have to understand that the thing that sustained the early days is not the thing that’s going to make you successful going forward. You have to really understand what your business is and what potential it has and what potential it doesn’t have.

HOW TO REACH: Seegrid Corp., (877) 733-4743 or www.seegrid.com

Published in Pittsburgh

When Stacey Gillman Wimbish was named president of The Gillman Cos. in 2008, she didn’t have much time to enjoy being named to her new position. She took over right at the height of the economic recession, and in just one day in November, she had to let go of 150 of the company’s then 900 employees. The recession’s full force had fallen on the automotive industry. The Big Three, Ford, GM and Chrysler, were all in financial trouble and that meant that dealerships would suffer, too.

“That’s what faced us during the recession and our reaction was to cut expenses, and that meant employee count, and it was really, really hard rebuilding,” Gillman Wimbish says. “There was nothing we could do about it.”

Although it seemed like nothing was going right in the auto industry, Gillman Wimbish remained focused and rallied her employees to adapt to changes in order to push forward and leave the past in the past.

The $500 million 760-employee owner and operator of 14 car dealerships has had to fight through unprecedented recessionary times as well as inventory setbacks due to the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan earlier this year.

Here’s how Gillman Wimbish pushed through the recession and an uncertain industry to keep The Gillman Cos. performing as one of the top car dealerships in Texas.

Brace for change

To say the condition of the auto industry wasn’t good in 2008 and 2009 is an understatement. The industry was severely underperforming and the companies at the forefront were in the midst of federal bailouts. In an industry that is hot one minute and cold the next, you have to be ready for change.

“During the recession here in Texas, we had two direct-hit hurricanes on our business, we had $4 gas, at least 70 to 80 percent of all customers financed their cars and lenders stopped lending,” Gillman Wimbish says. “General Motors went bankrupt, and we have two General Motors stores. Pontiac dissolved. Dealers were getting letters in the mail saying we’re not going to renew your sales and service agreements. Thankfully, Gillman didn’t get one of those letters, but it was a very high-stress time.”

When chaos is happening all around you, you have to have a plan ready to move forward and be able to communicate that plan throughout your organization.

“Today, we say, ‘Let’s work; don’t worry,’” she says. “These times demand change. You have change whether it’s natural disasters or poor economic conditions or internal management restructuring; change is hard on your employees. The best way to approach it is to have a plan. You can make mistakes along the way but have a plan [and] communicate the plan: ‘This is what we’re going to do to get through this.’ Lay out expectations and be consistent with your message. Make sure you stay the course and don’t bounce around with your plan. If you can do that, then the best part is at the end when you can thank your team for making it through.”

A plan is only good if it accomplishes the goals you have set to achieve. Make sure that what you plan to do can be measured and improved upon year after year.

“It’s always best to keep it simple,” she says. “Whatever you decide to do, whatever plan you come up with, you have to make sure you measure it so you can tell if the plan is working. When you ask folks to change their routine, it is a matter of presenting your plan and training them on how you want it done, defining expectations and then constantly measuring. My weapon of choice is hard facts. We measure ourselves against everything — against other car dealers, other name plates and, of course, fierce and fun internal rankings. If you can measure it, then you can improve it. That’s how you can monitor what changes you’re trying to instill.”

Change is an ongoing process that your entire organization has to be on board with in order for your company to be able to ride the fluctuations of an uncertain industry.

“You can never stop changing,” she says. “The times are moving too fast to relax. If it’s not hurricane readiness or economic meltdowns or $4 gas coming back or a tsunami on the other side of the world, you have to react and go faster. You have to have folks that will change. If you have employees too set in their ways, then they need to go. We don’t do anything the old way. Old wisdom serves you well, but new technology will make you better and stronger and faster. You can never stop changing and looking for ways to go faster. At the same time, you have to be able to keep calm and carry on. You have to breathe when these curveballs come up. Don’t lose control and don’t give up.”

Learn from experiences

Over the past year and a half, the auto industry has made a big comeback. However, it wasn’t long until some car dealers had to withstand inventory shortages due to the natural disasters that struck Japan in early 2011.

“In this environment, it’s been very nice to have some diversity,” Gillman Wimbish says of having both domestic and import dealerships. “The recession is over so the most recent challenge has been the tsunami and the earthquake that happened on the other side of the world. The ripple effect is production of these cars and that means that our summer inventories are going to be very low. Instead of selling 1,300 new cars, we’ll probably be down to 1,000. So we’re going to be down 30 percent. Through the first four months of 2011, we’ve been on a post-recession high. It’s been an exciting 25 percent increase over last year, but now we have another setback to last year’s sales levels, and sadly, that’s going to rob us of the best-selling months of the year.”

What The Gillman Cos. endured three years ago will play a big role in how the company gets through any future tough times. Just realizing that change is a crucial part of your business can make adaptation easier.

“We’re not planning to just turn off our marketing or suffer through the lack of sales volume,” she says. “We did that during the recession, but we’re not doing that now. In fact, we’re going to do exactly the opposite. We’re going to press on, and we are going to have to change a little bit and sell both new and used cars. We’re going to provide a clear path, stay the course, and offer a lot of reassurance that the dealership is financially strong, and together, we can handle all these curveballs.”

That mentality in a leader is critical in order to be resilient. However, that mentality has to carry throughout the company in order for employees to know they can help.

“I have a great team at the top, but I can’t do it all,” she says. “If you involve more people and you involve them in your recovery plan, that will help make you more efficient. If you tell your employees and managers the challenges that you’re facing, they can be part of the solution. They will offer to step up and help and that will bring you closer together. When you all pull together, it becomes that much easier to pull through.”

Part of pulling together and getting help from the employees around you is being honest and open with them about what is happening in the company.

“One of the things that we have done really well through these hardships is we disclose,” Gillman Wimbish says. “There are a lot of companies out there that hide a lot of their financial statements. We disclose our financial statements and encourage department managers to dig in and find ways that we can be more efficient. There’s not an account within Gillman Cos. that’s a secret. If you create a culture of, ‘They don’t need to know,’ that’s not using the tools you have at your disposal. You need as many eyeballs helping you as you can or else you’re limiting your success. You’re limiting yourself if you don’t disclose your hardships, successes and challenges.

“You should also tell the truth. Employees get worried and they don’t want to hear what’s happening from the ‘Today Show,’ they’d rather hear it from you. Tell the truth, whether it’s good or bad, don’t cover anything up. It’s important, and it’s actually reassuring to them. I’m amazed at how many team members step up and help us through something because they want to feel like they are part of the solution.”

Look through the customer’s lens

Change is not and cannot be the only way a company gets past tough times. A company has to also look at what it is best at and continue to do that and improve it. For Gillman, that meant customer service.

“You have to look at things through the customer’s lens,” Gillman Wimbish says. “I want to treat every customer as if they were my neighbor. They need to get a quality product that you stand behind, sold with honesty and integrity, follow up after the sale and have sincere appreciation for their business. There is a ton of competition out there and the only thing that sets you apart is the service you provide.”

Gillman not only wants to make new customers, but prides itself on having repeat business. If your company doesn’t emphasize customer service and process improvement, you will lose out to companies that do.

“If you treat everyone as if they were your neighbor that you’re going to see everyday … and your neighbor is happy with you, then they will send you more customers,” she says. “You can’t be hiding behind the bushes trying to avoid things. You need to see your processes and customer touch points through the customer’s eyes. You can always do a much, much better job of this. Have customer touch point meetings within your management. You may think your website is clear and full of all the data that is relevant, but is that what the customer is looking for? You need to do more think tanks about the customers’ needs and wants.”

While putting yourself in the shoes of your customers is a crucial part of improving service, you have to also make sure that employees are enjoying the work that they do.

“Another thing that CEOs have to understand is that employee satisfaction equals customer satisfaction,” she says. “We have 760 employees, and if the one employee that you encounter has a bad attitude that day, then you translate that as a poor reflection on the whole face of Gillman. So you need to sincerely have solid employee satisfaction in order to provide a good reflection and a good impression on your customers. You want your employees to be proud of where they work and you want them to have clear direction in their job and confidence in management. If your employees take pride in where they work, they will perform there jobs with confidence.”

Improving the levels of satisfaction among customers and employees takes measuring and monitoring. Competition is what will let you know whether improvement is needed.

“We love competition,” she says. “We love to win, and we’re not afraid of our results, even if we’re in last place in a certain ranking. I won’t ever hide from that, and through awareness of that and getting my teams input, we’ll climb the ladder and improve. In order to monitor, you have to measure. No matter where you are, if you can measure it and keep the awareness in front of folks, you can improve. Don’t try and do too much all at once. Break it up into pieces.”

Climbing the ranking ladder comes back to the satisfaction of your customers and employees. It has to be your top priority to stay out in front of your competitors.

“It’s a fun, happy environment that you have to try and create, because happy employees will equal happy customers,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to ask the customers. Ask them where they’re having problems or where the clogs are and then try to modify based on that feedback. You may think you have the greatest processes in place. You need to have a few meetings specifically pretending to be a customer and try to gauge how they feel about that. You have to challenge yourself to think through their lens.”

HOW TO REACH: The Gillman Cos., (713) 776-7000 or www.gillmanauto.com

The Gillman Wimbish File

Stacey Gillman Wimbish


The Gillman Cos.

Born: Houston

Education: Attended the University of Texas

What is the first car you ever had?

A red 1981 Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am.

If you could choose one car on your lot to drive, what would you choose?

I’m driving a Nissan Armada because it holds kids and dogs.

Who is somebody that you admire in business?

My dad, Ramsay Gillman, and my former boss and former COO, Jay Gould. Both of them allowed me to make a lot of mistakes and learn from them.

Remembering Ramsay Gillman: It is with deep sadness and regret that I must announce the death of Ramsay Gillman, my father and our board chairman. Ramsay died at age 67 at his home on Friday, June 3. We miss his guidance, wisdom, affection and humor. He was an inspiration to me, my brothers and my co-workers.

Ramsay followed his father into the car business starting at Frank Gillman Pontiac GMC in downtown Houston. He grew our company from one dealership to 14 in five different cities across our great state. His vision and determination will be hard to match.

My dad’s strong discipline and customer service excellence has been instilled in our dealerships and will continue to guide us in the future. His principles of honesty and integrity will continue to lead us as we move forward.

One card I received read, ‘We will never be the same as we were before this loss, but we are ever so much better for having had something so great to lose.

Published in Houston

James Young identified a company that was successful but tired when he arrived as president at Spring-Green Lawn Care Corp. more than seven years ago.

“The business was actually very successful and profitable,” Young says of the family-owned tree and lawn care company. “But the first-generation energy and appetite had brought it to a point where they had achieved their success and ultimately had exhausted themselves to get the business there.”

Young needed to find a way to re-energize the business, which has 75 independent franchise owners and does business in 27 states. His goal was to do it without destroying the cultural foundation that had been nurtured so meticulously by the founding family over the years.

At the same time, these changes would need to be purposeful and bring real value to the business.

“If it’s not going to move the corporation forward, why are we doing it?” Young says. “Because it’s a better way to do it? Well, that’s probably going to be met with the most resistance.”

When considering change, you need to identify areas where that change will make a visible and positive difference in the organization. You then need to illustrate those differences and demonstrate why they are good for both the business and the employees themselves.

“It’s easy for the new guy to say, ‘We can be a $100 million organization, and we can do it in the next 10 years,’” Young says. “I have to figure out how to grow their business and put money in their pocket and any change I want is going to occur much easier.”

Young quickly identified consumer marketing as the area of greatest need. Spring-Green was still doing most of its marketing by telephone and Young decided it was time to incorporate some new technology into the mix.

“What I saw was a very dismal future for growing our organization with the current marketing methods,” Young says. “We had to really change our thinking in how we were going to acquire customers and we needed to not skip a beat. We needed to become great right out of the gate.”

Young wanted to use technology to stay in touch with consumers and more quickly advise them of new products and services to drive both satisfaction and revenue for Spring-Green.

“The difficulty in any business is staying in tune with all these up-and-coming changes and trying to be receptive to them,” Young says. “We wanted to have an integrated approach to become more effective and efficient with what we did.”

One of the keys to making sweeping changes is the inclusion of your people who are out in the field interacting with your customers. Don’t let them feel as though they aren’t vital to the success of your plan.

“Everybody needs to be included,” Young says. “You need to find relevancy and meaning for all your people, regardless of the company’s changes. You can go out and champion it, but it needs to be echoed through all the channels.”

Keep those channels open so that your people feel part of the change but also comfortable offering their input about what’s happening with the business. When you’re taking over a business that has a great deal of history and still has involvement from the founders, you need to keep them apprised of what you’re doing too.

“Make sure your core values align,” Young says. “I was fortunate to come in and say, ‘You’ve got this great core structure, but what it needs is some new energy and an updated vision of where it can go and maybe some updated thinking when it comes to marketing and technology.’”

Of course, success is ultimately the best way to earn support, whether it’s a founder you work for, your board or one of your franchisees. Spring-Green’s revenue grew from $32 million in 2009 to $34.2 million in 2010 and a projected $36.5 million in 2011.

“The statement I’ve made publicly is lead a franchise owner to profitability and their trust will follow,” Young says.

How to reach: Spring-Green Lawn Care Corp., (800) 777-8608 or www.spring-green.com

Set the ground rules

When James Young arrived as president of Spring-Green Lawn Care Corp., he wanted to know the ground rules for what he could and couldn’t do in leading the business. He didn’t have a board to report to, but he did need to work with the family that had launched the business back in 1977 and built it into a success.

“Define your authority,” Young says, identifying the first key to success in this situation. “Is there anything you don’t have authority to do? That’s pretty much for any executive leader. Is there anything I don’t have the authority to do? What are the things the founder or ownership would like to have influence on?

“What are the areas of the business they want to have some influence on? If you have that, you can develop a communication style and a working relationship under that context. Without that, it’s hit and miss and you’re learning as you go.”

Young was able to build a positive working relationship with the company founders, and it has resulted in success for the business. Revenue is up more than 70 percent since 2004.

“It took us several meetings to establish what those boundaries were going to be,” Young says. “Looking back now seven years ago, it was probably some of the best conversations we ever had.”

Published in Chicago

While having the right content prepared is vital to the success of any presentation, every bit as important is the delivery of that speech. If an audience is bored by the presenter or if people find they are turned off by the speaker’s approach, it doesn’t matter what he or she is saying. The listeners are not going to be engaged.

The following are five areas where presenters need the most improvement, but often don’t know it either because of a lack of experience, lack of honest feedback or a lack of being coached on effective skills. Practice is the best way to improve, but eliminating blind spots begins with self-awareness.

Blind Spot No. 1 — Using nonwords

Nonwords fillers are things such as “Ums,” “Ahhs,” “OK,” “Ya know” and “All right.” These are unnecessary fillers that become the rodents of presentation delivery.

Tip: Exterminate them by paying conscious attention to how you communicate and substituting silence instead of nonwords. For more on the value of the silence, see No. 2.

Blind Spot No. 2 — The pause

Most presenters feel awkward when they pause. DON’T! When presenters do pause, it feels like 20 minutes in their heads, when it’s actually two or three seconds to the audience.

Tip: Get comfortable with silence. Pausing is an extremely powerful tool as it allows your audience to absorb your last point while you prepare your next point. Pausing also shows confidence in yourself and the value of your message. Become one with the pause. Make the pause your friend.

Blind Spot No. 3 — Eye contact

Most presenters do not hold eye contact nearly long enough or include everyone in the audience while speaking. This is taking a dangerous risk for disconnection and losing audience buy-in

Tip: Do not scan and dart your eyes like a shifty-eyed, untrustworthy character. Get comfortable with the audience by looking everyone in the eyes for two or three seconds each and then repeat this process throughout your presentation. You show a warm, involved connection and respect your audience by doing so.

Blind Spot No. 4 — Passion, confidence, volume

These three components go together because it’s difficult to be effective with one unless the other two are included. Projecting volume with sincere passion and a certainty in your voice is the fastest way to command an audience’s attention, gain their confidence in you and your message.

Tip: You must show conviction in your delivery and captivate the energy and attention of multiple people who have different backgrounds and interests. Project your voice loudly and with an enthusiasm that extends beyond the dynamics of one-on-one dialogue. It’s not phony; it’s what engaging an audience is all about.

Blind Spot No. 5 — The “turn-and-look”

When presenters think of movement, they either keep their feet in cement, awkwardly positioned straight ahead or they pace nervously. Both of these practices detach a desirable connection with your audience.

Tip: Pivot your head and entire body and directly face different members of the audience as though you’re greeting them individually.

Bonus tip: Even when the subject is serious, begin your speech with a pleasant smile. It sets a positive tone that respects the audience and makes the speaker more likeable.

Double bonus tip: Be yourself and speak from the heart. Audiences are drawn to authenticity more than any other quality.

Joe Takash is the president of Victory Consulting, a Chicago-based executive and organizational development firm. He advises clients on leadership strategies and has helped executives prepare for $3 billion worth of sales presentations. He is a keynote speaker for executive retreats, sales meetings and management conferences and has appeared in numerous media outlets. Learn more at www.victoryconsulting.com.

Published in Chicago

Andy Ball is a leading advocate of new technology implementation at Webcor Builders. Under his leadership, the San Mateo-based company has become a pioneer for innovation of LEED and virtual building in the construction industry. Yet incorporating cutting-edge technology is just one way Ball embraces change to position Webcor for success in today’s business environment.

“What I’ve found is the best strategy is that most of the time you don’t completely know just what it is you are preparing for, but you’re improving the company, you’re making the company better, you’re training people, you’re bringing in good people, and you’re doing the right thing,” says Ball, the president and CEO of Webcor. “You’re preparing yourself. Opportunities will come up, but if you don’t prepare yourself, one, you won’t recognize an opportunity when you see it, and two, even if you did, you would not be able to take advantage of it.”

In recent years, Ball’s role as a change agent has been even more vital in helping Webcor adapt to challenges in its industry.

“Change is never easy, and it has an emotional toll and it has a financial toll,” he says. “Initially it has a reduction in productivity in order to have a significant gain in productivity. So all of these things sort of work against change, but if you don’t embrace it and you don’t move forward, you’re just going to move backward and fall off the back because it occurs every day.”

When the economic downturn caused a complete collapse of private sector financing, which typically funded the company’s projects, Ball was forced to change the company’s business model completely so Webcor could survive.

Smart Business spoke with Ball about how he’s kept Webcor in front of change and focused on continuous improvement to stay competitive.

Build client relationships

When growing in a new area, you have to make sure you have a thorough understanding of that market’s needs so you know how to meet them. To prepare Webcor for a transition into public sector building, Ball realized the first step was to forge strong relationships with new and potential clients to find out how their needs varied from and aligned with Webcor’s strengths.

“That really was a surprise but shouldn’t have been — that we really had to learn about our clients,” Ball says. “We had to understand what they wanted and we had to understand how to respond to their requests. It comes down to people. You have to get out and you have to meet the people who make these decisions. You have to meet the people, talk to the people, allow the people to understand who you are. You have to develop the trust relationship with them. These things are every bit as important in public or government contracts as they are in private sector contract.”

Fortunately for Webcor, the company had begun taking on some public sector work several years prior to the downturn, including the $120 million California Academy of Sciences project, partly funded by the city of San Francisco. As Ball and his team worked with city leaders, they realized a new process for selecting subcontractors better suited the client’s goals for the project. After implementing the change with positive results, Webcor was able to secure future projects with the city, including the San Francisco General Hospital.

“In succession, we started to pick up these large public- and federal-funded public sector projects that we had not done before,” Ball says. “And when the market turned down, we were very fortunate to have already started growing in that sector and taken on some very significant large projects that we could turn to.”

Ball also saw building companies grossly under do projects because they didn’t take time to create solid client relationships. In these cases, the company and the client often end up worse off. Understanding the full magnitude of your client’s needs is how you adapt and develop solutions that are innovative as well as effective.

“It takes time to build relationships,” Ball says. “You can’t do that overnight. And to say that, ‘Wow, the bottom’s falling out of our market so we need to just go and do public work.’… You’re not just going to waltz in there and figure out what is important, how do you staff it, what are the expectations.

“You really have to understand the agency that you are dealing with. You have to understand their strategy. You have to understand how to respond to their request for qualifications, what they are looking for, what makes the difference.”

Make big bets

As a leader, adapting your business for growth requires you to identify and evaluate growth opportunities constantly. It also means you have to be able to make a decision when the right one comes along and not be afraid to put in legwork to seize it. To excel in an increasingly competitive industry, Ball isn’t afraid to takes risks in areas that build on Webcor’s strengths, such as being a leader in virtual building.

“People often believe that the easiest task is to broadcast and integrate new technology into your own company, and actually that’s probably the hardest step,” Ball says. “You have to get your finance department to believe in the investment, you have to get the people in operations to change the way that they’ve been doing things for their entire career.”

Implementing technologies at Webcor, such as building information modeling and integrated project delivery, has involved significant training, resources, financial investment and buy-in. Yet Ball and his team have continued to invest further in virtual building technologies because they also represent significant long-term value — for example, allowing architects to send digital drawings in hours instead of weeks.

“By very nature, any return is a risk,” Ball says. “Without taking a risk, you will never get a return. A lot of people fail to see that … I went all in on virtual building. I went all in on implementation of technology. I completely believed and dreamed and did it before people could prove to me that there was return on it, just because we believed that it was the right thing to do.

“That is never ever easy to do and most people look at it and say, ‘Well, that was easy.’ Yeah, it is easy when you look back to know what happened and know that you were right or you were wrong. But it’s never easy when you look forward.”

Even though there are bumps along the road to change, it’s by taking risks that you learn how to adapt and improve. Though some risks may prove less successful, Ball doesn’t just see them as failures. Instead, every outcome is a source of information in how Webcor can address its weaknesses and exploit its strengths.

“The wrong decision is to not make a decision, so you have to get over that,” he says. “Then you have to also understand that some of the time when you make a decision, you will fail. If you are not failing, you’re not going forward. You’re not taking risk and you’re not changing anything and you’re not improving anything, because you will have failure.

“There is a lot of pushback any time you try and change things — change the technology, but we were successful to the point it became an industry standard. Widely embraced building information modeling followed, and now our bet is on virtual building.”

Lead by example

To have a culture that embraces change, people have to be comfortable with constantly altering the way they are used to doing things. Because Ball asks his team to engage in and embrace changes in areas such as new technology, he shows employees that he is also walking the talk.

“I think that this organization would say I am not an obstacle to change,” he says. “In fact, I am one of the leading advocates for change. We constantly have to embrace change, so I like to lead by providing an example of how we innovate, how we embrace technology, how we embrace green practices and how we change as we go forward, because I’m trying to lead the charge in every case and encourage that.

“I’m usually the guy that first uses technology. I think a lot of companies, they say the last person to embrace new technology is the CEO and typically it’s driven by the younger people. They want to use it and then they drive it to the top. In this case it’s the other way around. I’m the guy that loves technology and I want to try it out and I want to use it.”

Ball models the behaviors he wants his team to engage in from the top of the organization down. If he promotes or employs a new piece of technology at Webcor, it’s because he’s used it himself and decided it was worth pursuing. This shows his team that decisions about using new technology aren’t arbitrary but well-thought-out, so they are more likely to respect them.

“Before I sort of force that onto other people, I’m going to use it myself to see how it works and if I think it actually creates a benefit,” Ball says. “If it does, then I will go beyond just discussing it with my IT vice president. I’ll say let’s try and roll this out to a few people and see how they react to it and start to implement technology and change from the top.”

As Webcor has shifted into public sector building, Ball also supports and motivates his team by helping them focus on the positive aspects of change.

“It has been over 30 years since I was actually out in the field with my work boots on,” he says. “So I now have to take what I actually did in the field and say, ‘Well, over the years that’s changed. That’s changed for these reasons.’ I’ve got to, on a regular basis, get with my people at every different level and sector of this company and talk to them about what’s working, what isn’t working, what do you think we can do to improve and be very open to employees. I find that when I do that, people speak up and they’re not afraid to come up with great ideas because they believe that they are going to be listened to and that they are actually talking to me, somebody who understands.”

Ball’s lead-from-the-top philosophy works to cultivate a team dynamic at Webcor that supports change and enables the company’s continuous improvement. As a result, Webcor has been able to change its business dramatically in the midst of a recession. Though some outsiders doubted its ability to compete in the public sector, today the $680 million company brings in 80 percent of its work in the form of public and government sector projects.

“I think they were shocked when we got the Transbay Terminal and [San Francisco] General Hospital and the PUC building, the Cal Memorial Stadium … and the hospital in Guam, saying ‘Oh my God, Webcor has hardly ventured outside of California. How can they do something in Guam?’” Ball says. “But we’ve always been very creative. We’ve been forward thinkers. We’ve been visionary. We’ve been flexible and we’ve been quick to react. Those skills become heightened and more important in a recession. I think we surprised a lot of people when we very, very quickly adjusted, adapted, changed and brought on some really nice, new work and just kept moving forward.”

HOW TO REACH: Webcor Builders, www.webcor.com

The Ball File

Andy Ball


Webcor Builders

Born: Ojai, Calif.

Education: I attended school at Arnold House School and Highgate School in London, England between the ages of 6 and 15 years old. I was a weekly boarder at Highgate School which means I lived at Highgate during the week and went home on weekends. After Highgate School, I spent two years La Serna High School in Whittier, Calif., followed by my senior year at the Singapore American School in Singapore. I took undergraduate studies at UC Davis and the University of Utah, graduating from the University of Utah with a bachelor of arts degree in architecture.

What is one part of your daily routine that you wouldn’t change?

I like to have a hot lunch each day with Webcor employees or clients. This is a holdover from my school days in England where the midday meal was the largest meal of the day and consisted of warm dishes such as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Although I enjoy this type of midday break, I don’t like to linger over lunch too long. An hour is a more than adequate break.

What do you do to regroup on a tough day?

At the end of a tough day, I enjoy going on a good, hard, bike ride. A 30-mile ride with lots of hills to climb is a great way of relieving stress.

What is your favorite part of your job?

I enjoy working with a project team — owner, architects, engineers and subcontractors — to solve design problems and develop cost-effective solutions during the pre-construction phase of a new building. I also particularly enjoy the challenge of incorporating cutting-edge technologies into the building process, resulting in new ways to build and do business.

Published in Northern California

Hundreds of years ago, towns and cities were built on rivers for the access to resources and the transportation advantages.

The river might not serve as the sole lifeblood of those towns anymore, but Matt Mittman is among those trying to prove that building in a river town still has strategic advantages.

Conshohocken, Pa., is a borough of more than 8,000 people, located in Montgomery County, on the north bank of the Schuylkill River, about 10 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Its location on the river and proximity to interstates and rail corridors make it an ideal place to start or relocate a business.

Now Mittman — a real estate agent who serves as a member of the city’s planning commission and as the chairman of the borough’s business development commission — is trying to get the word out.

“There is a main street, which is Fayette St., and it is full of retail shops and businesses. We’re also close to a number of main routes, such as Interstate 76 and 476, the Pennsylvania Turnpike and U.S. 202,” Mittman says. “I would tell a new business owner that we have just completed a revitalization plan, and a plan for the future of Conshohocken. And it digs down to what is needed in the borough. We already know that banks want to be here; we have Wawa (that) wants to be here. So there are other successful businesses that want to get into the borough.”

According to the revitalization plan, which Mittman helped construct, 20 percent of the approximately one square mile that comprises Conshohocken is zoned for commercial or borough use. Another 20 percent is used for manufacturing, while 40 percent is used for residential. The remaining 20 percent is related to transportation, including parking lots.

Above all else, Mittman says borough leaders want to see increased retail development, to help increase the profile of Fayette St., which runs southwest-to-northeast through the center of the borough.

Mittman says there are resources available to those who are interested in starting a business or relocating a business to Conshohocken. Chief among those is the business development commission.

“That is part of the reason we created the commission,” Mittman says. “To be the center point that can connect those businesses. We like to call ourselves a resource center, and if someone is looking to start a business in the borough and has specific questions, we can point them to the right spot. We can be the road map for them. If you were looking to start or relocate here, you would reach out to the borough hall. At that point, we’d provide you some resources to look over.”

The Conshohocken Borough Hall can be contacted at (610) 828-1092.

Quick info

County: Montgomery

Incorporated: 1850

Population: 8,595 (2010)

Land area: 1.03 sq. mi.

Government system: Council-manager

Mayor: Robert Frost

Borough manager: Fran Marabella

Phone: (610) 828-1092

Web: www.conshohockenpa.org

Published in Philadelphia