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A healthy and growing organization proactively plans for succession and transition. It’s simply the nature of business. As my company recently celebrated 25 years, we turned our focus to purposeful succession. I wanted to share with you the key steps involved, the importance of planning and a few things I’ve learned along the way.

1) Get the next generation involved.

As your company grows and develops, it will become increasingly important to begin transitioning leadership to the next wave of leaders. This process will look different for each individual company. For me, it means moving away from our entrepreneurial leaders (generation one) to our professional, internationally focused leaders (generation two).

Be sure to constructively build on the strengths of each generation and tap into the energy, passion and vision of your current leaders to fuel the transition and create an even better future for your business.

2) Shift your board’s focus to policy.

When your board members focus on operations, they are participating in the day-to-day management of the organization. As you prepare for purposeful succession, the focus should shift to policy where they enact and enforce policies, which broadly govern the business. This move helps your organizational governance become more formal through the creation of an entity that protects your company’s health and well-being.

3) Select the next president and

his or her successor.

Your policy board has one critical succession responsibility: to choose the next president and his or her successor. It’s important to remember that the board’s succession responsibilities end with choosing the president. It is the new president, not the board, who has succession responsibility for the executive team.

4) If it’s a family business,

address the family estate plan.

This plan is critical to any successful generational transition but admittedly can be uncomfortable and awkward to deal with. Questions that need answers are akin to personal estate planning when the attorneys ask, “Who gets custody of your kids?” In family businesses, the first difficult question is, “Do we have a competent family member successor, and, if not, who gets custody of the business?”

Purposeful succession plans set the groundwork for the unplanned successions, which is important because once you have carefully laid out your plans, you may think, “What could go wrong?” But, the reality is whether due to illness, disability, death or any number of other scenarios, unplanned succession is a part of life.

When these challenging events happen, they create an extremely high level of emotion, distraction and added workload, in addition to leadership style changes. They also tend to cause anxiety in the organization’s employees, vendors and partners. As a result, in this “unplanned” scenario, these anxieties must be addressed directly and immediately by an already overburdened executive team.

With that in mind, let me leave you with this: The only difference between planned succession and unplanned succession is the amount of time you have to deal with the situation.

In the case of an emergency succession, communication with employees, vendors and partners begins immediately and must be completed within a couple of weeks. In a planned succession, the communication time is only slightly extended to a couple of months. The exact same emotions and distractions are present in both scenarios — the only difference is the level of intensity.

Joseph James Slawek is the founder, chairman and CEO of FONA International, a full-service flavor company serving some of the largest food, beverage, nutraceutical and pharmaceutical companies in the world. For more information, visit www.fona.com.

 

Published in Chicago

As a 20-year veteran of the insurance industry, Charlie Rosson has seen his fair share of financial uncertainty, economic downturns and business struggles. So when he was promoted to CEO of Woodruff-Sawyer & Co. on Jan. 1, 2008, Rosson recognized rather quickly that his tenure was going to coincide with all three.

“Right from the start, like everybody, we were thrown a pretty difficult set of circumstances to deal with,” says Rosson, CEO of the San Francisco-based insurance services firm. “So many businesses were impacted in terms of their sales and access to capital and their business overall. The recession impacted our clients directly, and we were challenged to respond to that by coming up with more aggressive programs for them to quickly save them money and to help a lot of them through survival mode.”

Although clients were losing revenue and facing serious financial struggles of their own, the firm still needed to find ways to keep business profitable. But many clients could also no longer afford the firm’s services and products at the same rates or prices as in the past.

Like most professional service firms, Woodruff-Sawyer needed to find ways to keep clients’ businesses afloat but also avoid losing their business.

“Obviously, we had to become more efficient in the way that we do business, and we had to recognize in a lot of cases our clients weren’t willing or didn’t have the wherewithal to pay the same type of fees or commissions that they might have before the difficult time,” Rosson says.

“The way we would structure an insurance program before the financial crisis or before things got really difficult obviously wasn’t implacable anymore. So we had to kind of come to terms and help them with declining values and property, shrinking payrolls and overall downturn.”

Identify must-haves

Finding creative ways to deliver the same types of programs for clients more affordably wouldn’t be simple, especially because each client’s business was so different.

Rosson knew that the firm needed to work much more closely with clients to figure out win-win solutions.

“We had to negotiate greatly reduced premiums for them and come up with coverages that met their needs but were at a price point that they could afford,” he says.

So as Rosson and his team began talking with clients about their changing risks and opportunities, they also asked each client for a list of must-haves.

“We really had to dig in and find out what are the things our clients truly value and what things are sort of “nice to haves” that they didn’t value as much, and frankly, weren’t willing to pay for,” Rosson says.

“We’re fortunate that the clients we serve we have a great relationship with and normally have a pretty deep dialogue with them and attempt to fully understand their business,” he says. “So we can go in and talk about the services we deliver, how they’re delivered and how the team is structured, then drill into what things are important to them. Then we ask them honest questions about what things they can live without.”

Knowing your customer’s “deal breakers” can help you pinpoint the exact value that you add for them, allowing you to identify and recommend business solutions that are cost-effective but that still meet that customer’s needs.

“What clients are looking for is value, and in our case, it’s quality of advice,” Rosson says. “It’s how do we help our clients become more successful? And oftentimes when we partner up with them and really understand their business, we can help them execute a strategy that maybe they wouldn’t be able to execute without us.”

You may see opportunities to meet the future needs of your customers as trends emerge of where their businesses are moving and as new technologies come along. For example, the recession spurred the firm’s investment in technology to help address client issues.

“The current generation of buyers has already adopted technology as a core part of the way they do business, and that curve is only going to get steeper as newer generations come into the workforce and become leaders of companies,” Rosson says. “They’re going to expect that they can interact with service providers and professionals through some sort of technology medium. They’re not going to expect the traditional back and forth model that’s defined our industry for quite a while.”

Trim the excess

Once you identify your clients’ pain points and priorities, you can begin looking for ways to serve their needs more efficiently.

Rosson realized that although Woodruff-Sawyer continued to deliver valuable services and advice for clients, the firm could save time and cost by streamlining its approach — as could its clients.

“We had to get much more efficient in terms of the way we structured our teams, and we had to use technology in ways that we hadn’t before, in terms of delivering things through the Web that may have been done before either face-to-face or through some other lower-tech way to deliver service and advice,” he says. “So we are using technology in different ways, and we’re just more careful in terms of how we assign resources to client teams.”

Rosson restructured the company’s practice teams to put the focus on having the right people in the right roles, instead of just more bodies, to cut down on unnecessary costs.

“Don’t get swept away by how much revenue you think somebody can generate or how dazzling somebody is,” Rosson says. “Really do your homework and find out what that person is all about. Are they really a fit for the organization? Do they really have the client’s best interests at heart? Can they collaborate well with others? Those are really important things.”

Another way Rosson saw to improve efficiency was integrating technologies that could make communication more user-friendly for clients. Most of the technologies Woodruff-Sawyer has deployed are collaborative, meaning they enable communication between clients and associates outside of the traditional email and face-to-face meetings. In addition to saving its clients cost and time, many changes have streamlined the firm’s processes overall.

For example, the firm now issues all of its certificates online and deployed a portal called Passport, which permits document sharing and collaboration with clients over the Web to expedite projects.

Since seeing the positive impacts, Rosson has continued to pursue a direction that involves technological innovation. Recently, the firm launched an online portal for small businesses called, BizInsure, hired a chief information officer and has made investments in online business to ramp up its overall technology component.

“I’m absolutely convinced that emerging technology is going to have a disruptive impact on our business,” he says. “And I believe it’s going to be in a positive way, and we’ll be right there to capitalize on it. The way that we’re going to interact with our clients in the future is going to be different that our traditional model.”

Enable a responsive culture

Of course, it’s difficult to devise efficient and cost-effective solutions for clients if you don’t empower employees to be creative and test their ideas. Businesses that run their organizations with a heavy-handed, top-down leadership structure can easily stifle the kind of creative, engaged culture it takes to provide the most value to clients, Rosson says.

“To be a top-tier professional services firm, by definition, you want to have professionals — and you need to treat them that way,” he says. “The way to treat them that way is to respect what they do and be there if they need advice and guidance. You have to have a certain amount of structure, but listening and not being overly prescriptive or top-down in our approach has really paid dividends.”

Rosson avoids a command and control culture at Woodruff-Sawyer by furthering the firm’s corporate vision to remain an independent brokerage firm. Being a 100 percent ESOP firm gives the company a flexible infrastructure where top people feel empowered to make decisions and operate with more freedom, he says. With no shareholders, employees are able to focus on the client and do things for clients that might be difficult under a different leadership structure.

“We’re able to do things for clients in terms of being flexible and the people who are working with clients have a lot more authority to get things done for them, deploy resources and make decisions that our competitors who might have a different ownership system can’t,” Rosson says.

“Our independence is a key part of our competitive advantage and a big part of our culture.”

The independent structure has also helped the firm attract talented employees who value autonomy and the ability to be responsible to a client’s needs. And for companies that can’t do an ESOP, leadership comes into play even more. As a CEO it’s important to set the tone for your direct reports and other employees by showing that you trust their decision-making abilities.

“I truly believe that we have the best people in the industry,” Rosson says. “These are people who have arrived at a place professionally. They don’t need me to look over their shoulder or a leader to second-guess what they are doing.”

Rosson says in the future, the firm will continue to be prudent and watching the bottom line while making investments in technology and internal perpetuation to keep the firm independent. By successfully delivering insurance services in an efficient and user-friendly way for clients, the firm has not only retained clients, it’s also been extremely successful in adding new business.

“The vast majority of our growth is organic growth through just going out and telling our story,” Rosson says. “With a lot of our competitors, and the large ones, it can be very difficult or very expensive to access very sophisticated resources. What we do is deliver those same resources or the same level of advice — or even better — but do it in a way that’s less expensive and much more user-friendly.”

As a result, Woodruff-Sawyer has grown its revenue approximately 40 percent since 2007, generating approximately $70 million in revenue in 2011.

“Like so many businesses, the downturn forced us to work smarter and more efficiently and embrace technology,” Rosson says. “As the economy has slowly improved and our clients’ businesses has improved, we’ve found that we’ve been able to leverage our technology and we haven’t had to increase our costs at the same rate that maybe we would have. So we’re actually seeing that our business is healthier now, after the downturn, than it was before.”

How to reach: Woodruff-Sawyer & Co., (415) 391-2141 or www.wsandco.com

Takeaways

  • Ask customers where your business provides the most value.
  • Utilize technology to cut down on time and cost in customer interactions.
  • Empower employees to help clients by avoiding a top-down culture.

The Rosson File

Charlie Rosson

CEO

Woodruff-Sawyer & Co.

Born: San Jose, Calif.

Education: B.A. in history from UCLA

On growth: If you’ve got a very strong core business — I’m so bullish on the insurance business — you don’t need to take on too much debt or be overly grandiose in your expansion plans. Expansion and acquisitions all should be driven around acquiring people who fit into the organization, really bring something to the table and add to your organization rather than just executing a geographic growth strategy or putting pins in the map. All of your expansion should be for the right reasons, with the right people with client in mind, rather than trying to fill out (geographically) with different offices all over the place.

What is your favorite part of the business?

The best part of the business is getting out and meeting with clients and prospects. That’s why most of us got into this business and what really drives the passion for it. A lot of our relationships with clients go back 10, 15 and 30 years even. That’s the most fun part of it. I think it’s also really gratifying to successfully run the business and see the impact that you can have on employees’ lives.

What would you be doing if not for your current job?

Teaching English in Argentina

What one part of your daily routine would you never change?

Interacting with our clients and prospective clients

How do you regroup on a tough day?

I try to exercise every day.

What do you for fun?

Cooking, traveling, reading, coaching kids’ sports

 

Published in Northern California

It looked to be another great year for Republic Steel.

Coming off its 2005 acquisition by Industrias CH, S.A de C.V. (ICH) — a fast-growing steel producer and processor based in Mexico City — the company had cleared up all its previous debt, the steel industry was flush with opportunity, and as the new

was laser-focused on building a strong team and investing in best-in-class facilities to position the 125-year-old steelmaker for growth.

And that, of course, is when everything went south.

“After October 2008, the whole world changed for the industry,” says Vigil, who joined the Canton, Ohio-based steel company in 2005. “The recession threw us a curveball that we were not planning. I don’t think we were looking ahead. We had really relied on intelligence based just on market view.”

As the largest maker and supplier of special bar quality (SBQ) steel in North America, Republic produces steel for applications such as automotive and energy. It has been developing its steelmaking practices for more than a century. But even a company with annual sales of more than $1 billion wasn’t immune to the shock of the 2008 financial downturn.

Declining demand and struggling customers, who were urgently looking for ways to cut costs and scale back, hit the company hard. Almost overnight, Republic Steel saw its volume of business nosedive.

Streamline your structure

Not yet knowing the full scope of the downturn, Vigil knew that Republic Steel — like its customers — needed to cut costs to minimize the financial fallout. So the first step was to look for ways the company could streamline plant operations.

“At that point, the volume with the plants that we had had a lot of fixed costs,” Vigil says. “We were forced to shrink our footprint to be able to manage our costs and have a profitable business.”

Increasing efficiency without sacrificing quality can be tricky. You need to examine the profitability of every segment of operations thoroughly. First, identify the areas that have the most efficient costs, and second, identify where costs overlap. This process allows you to consolidate the most efficient operations and shut down equipment and functions that no longer make sense.

By making these changes, Republic Steel was able to shrink its footprint to that of a much smaller company in a short time period.

“That was a very different situation for us from 2005, but it was also a very good experience for us to try to model our business for the future,” Vigil says. “It allowed us to look at things in more detail and understand our business and our cost and the opportunities that we had to be more efficient.”

Taking cost out of operations not only allowed the company to produce SBQ steel more efficiently, but it also freed up resources, which Vigil reallocated to enhance the company’s quality, delivery and range of products in its SBQ steel business to provide more value to customers.

“We have to be right there with them making a product that suits their needs,” Vigil says. “Our No. 1 qualification or differentiation in the market is our ability to work with technicians of our customers to develop the products that fit their needs and then produce them consistently with a low cost and high quality and delivering them on time.”

When you’re not making a commodity, you need to be more focused on quality and continuously improving your products to stay competitive, Vigil says. The key to staying relevant was investing in the company’s strengths, such as its years of experience in the steel industry. The fact that the company’s Canton plant was the first-ever producer of SBQ steel provides it with a strong competitive advantage.

“Our brand has good recognition, and we continue to build on that by making our customers really comfortable in the long run that they have a true partner with Republic Steel, a company that knows what it wants and that can adapt to the changing market as needed,” Vigil says.

“With more than 125 years of know-how, you get a very good result. You can continuously provide the same quality that your customers are used to with more efficiency. It allows you first to be more competitive in the marketplace and maintain and improve your quality in the product.”

Since 2005, Republic Steel has reinvested close to $130 million in new equipment and new processes into its core Northeast Ohio facilities, which include plants in Canton, Lorain and Massillon, Ohio. In 2012, the company also announced that it would invest more than $87 million in a new electric arc furnace and equipment at the company’s Lorain, Ohio, steelmaking facility — a move that is adding approximately 450 employees.

The company chose the Lorain plant for the investment because of its close proximity to the existing customer base and to other Republic Steel facilities. Having a smaller physical footprint allows you to allocate resources to growing areas more easily to develop strong teams, while delivering a consistent experience for customers.

“We see a strengthening automotive industry as well as a lot of growth in the energy sector side through the gas horizontal drilling process,” Vigil says. “We see ourselves in a very good position to serve those markets in the long term.

“It gives us an opportunity to serve our customers with more product and a very solid footprint in the long run. Our customers have a supplier that has no debt and that is investing in its business. So we feel that our customers see us as a long-term partner, and they can stick with us for years to come.”

Look to your core

When your company is facing market volatility, past plans and strategies may get tossed out the window rather quickly. To ensure that Republic Steel didn’t lose sight of its identity in the chaos, Vigil used the company’s core values to guide the strategy — specifically two values passed down from its parent company, ICH.

The first was carrying a debt-free balance sheet.

“When we acquired the company in 2005, we inherited some debt from the previous administration,” Vigil says. “We worked very hard to pay it off with our own resources and some support from the parent company.”

Even when the company was losing volume during the recession, Vigil wasn’t willing to take on debt in favor of gaining more financial flexibility. In fact, he says borrowing money often results in the opposite outcome for companies by stifling their spending. Carrying zero debt allows you to make decisions without dealing with banks or lenders.

“Some companies have different opinions about debt, and in certain cases, it allows companies to be flexible and grow faster when an opportunity comes, but we still have that flexibility because having no debt makes us attractive to banks,” Vigil says.

“The recession has been the best proof of the strategy. We tested it through this downturn, and we were able to manage through the recession a lot better than some other companies who have big debt or a lot of interest to pay.”

As a result, the company has been debt-free since March 2006, operating as a true cash-flow company.

“It makes us a stronger company, and it allows us to keep reinvesting even in the downturn because the money that we generate is really for us and not to cover any debt obligations that we have,” Vigil says.

The second core value that helped guide the company through the recession was having a diversified mix of sales. Carrying a wide range of products makes the company a one-stop shop for many customers. So even in the downturn, Vigil continued to make investments to expand Republic Steel’s capabilities in emerging markets, such as natural gas and energy.

“The volatility in our customers’ industries continues to be something that we’re monitoring very closely,” Vigil says. “The economic situation worldwide, starting with Europe being so volatile, continues to have a big effect on our customers’ ability to project their levels of operations.

“Having a more diversified mix of sales allows us to not have all of our eggs in one basket and participate in different industries, and we’re able to better ride the cycles. We, as a company, believe that if we stick with those two values — remaining debt-free and continuing to have a diverse mix of sales — we can deal with the volatility in different markets.

“We’ve prepared our company to be better geared to react now than we were in 2008. Through these changing circumstances, we’ve created a more flexible company with the investments that we’re making, allowing us to grow our strength faster.” ?

How to reach: Republic Steel, (800) 232-7157 or www.republicsteel.com

Takeaways

1. Find ways to cut cost by shrinking your footprint.

2. Allocate resources to growth areas.

3. Guide your strategies with core values.

The Vigil file

Jaime Vigil

President and CEO

Republic Steel

Born: Mexico City

Education: Universidad Anahuac in Mexico City

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

I like running every morning before going to work; it really makes a difference helping me start every day with great energy and a clear head ready for business.

Best piece of business advice:

I’ve benefited a lot from the experience that my team brings to my decision-making process. That saying that more heads are better than one — that does apply in practice. It’s particularly important in soft science to surround yourself with good members willing to openly give their take on problems so that together you come up with the best solutions.

What do you do for fun?

There is no better way for me to spend my time when I’m not at work than with my wife and kids. From training for a marathon with my wife, to being attacked with toy swords by my three and four year old boys … it’s the best time of my day!

 

Published in Akron/Canton

It was a tough decision for Lizanne Falsetto, one that had the potential to go badly whichever way she decided to turn.

On one hand, she could continue selling the popular thinkFruit bar and risk confusing other customers who latched onto thinkThin as a company that makes snack bars that are low in sugar and high in nutrition.

Or she could drop the fruit bar, which had more sugar than Falsetto wanted in her products, and make a statement about thinkThin’s commitment to its brand name. She just had to hope that customers would appreciate the commitment more than they would mourn the loss of a popular product.

“It was very hard to explain the future of the vision because everyone just saw the numbers,” says Falsetto, who founded thinkThin in 2000. “Even the board saw the numbers. But I was adamant that this was about future growth. This was where the brand needed to be for the future to communicate one simple message that thinkThin is the weight wellness brand.”

Falsetto ultimately decided to drop the thinkFruit brand and hope that her customers would understand. Three years later, the 300-employee company seems to be doing OK without it.

The company is ranked No. 4 out of 119 national competitors in its segment, according to SPINS, a market research and consulting firm for the natural products industry.

The key to maintaining success will be Falsetto’s ability to keep her finger on the pulse of her customers and remain proactive about what they want from her brand.

“It’s about leveraging industry trends and really watching what’s happening and seeing the future before it gets there so you can be ahead of the curve,” Falsetto says. “Those are probably the two biggest parts of leadership.”

Here’s a look at how Falsetto makes tough decisions and grooms her people to meet their full potential to help thinkThin keep growing.

Let people do their jobs

Falsetto was confident in her decision to drop the thinkFruit brand. But she didn’t approach the decision-making process with her leadership team exhibiting an attitude of “I’m the boss and this is what we’re going to do.”

“I let the team, the executives that run their departments, speak for their department,” Falsetto says. “If I can’t rely on them to do that, then I don’t have the right people. I can’t be everywhere all the time. If I can’t open up the trust and let them see that I believe in what they are doing, then I’m not doing a very good job.”

So if there’s going to be a presentation on marketing, it’s the VP of marketing who leads the talk — the same thing with operations or any other department in the company.

The meetings are a visible demonstration of Falsetto’s philosophy to empower her people to do what she’s hired them to do and to take advantage of the unique expertise they possess.

She recalls an analogy her father once made about a business being similar to a basketball team.

“He would say to me, ‘You know, you have the two guards, the two players underneath and the center, and you look at that team and say everybody has to touch that ball to get it in the net,’” Falsetto says. “It’s very similar to business to me. I kind of look at building a team with individual skills, and I’ve gotten much better at finding what the skills are for the moment and what the brand needs.”

She says the key thing to think about with this analogy is that not everybody has to be able to shoot from the outside, have a good inside game and play great defense. If you take advantage of the skills each person brings to your business, and you’ve done a good job trying to fill your needs, you have an effective team.

“You don’t need to have everybody understand everything,” Falsetto says. “They need to have a passion in what they understand and what they bring to the table. That’s really important.

“A marketing head might not completely understand what’s going on in the financial world and doesn’t understand the details of accounting. But accounting really doesn’t understand marketing. They just know the numbers behind it. But together, there’s a passion.”

You get people who love what they do and you let them do it to the best of their ability, and then you do what you do best. You be the leader who brings it all together.

“If I see there is something that needs to be sewn in between the departments, then I will definitely bring it to the table,” Falsetto says. “How does that operations decision reflect on the sales side? Obviously, we’re all intertwined. It’s my job to make sure we’re all seeing the connection to that big pie. It needs to be one vision, but together, they all have a different piece of that vision to get there.”

When you operate that way and you have a tough decision to make, you can feel more confident in your ability to work through it because you know that you’ve got the best information at hand to help you make the right decision.

“When you surround yourself with really wise people, you are wiser and you make smarter moves,” Falsetto says.

Enhance your talent

The search for talent begins when you look beyond the slot you need to fill in your organization and think about what skills a person could bring to your business — and you talk to them about it and make them feel like an important part of the whole operation.

“People want to work for a company that has a purpose,” Falsetto says. “Every person around the table that works with you, if they feel like they have a stake in it, if they own it like you do, it becomes easier to communicate on that basis. They are in. It’s really important to empower them around you so that you can put your ego in check yourself.”

Falsetto regularly speaks with her employees about their own futures and what they can do collectively to make that future better, both for the business and the individuals.

“I have different tiers of goals for employees, and when I keep bringing them back to those tiers of goals, it puts it in perspective,” Falsetto says. “Did we successfully do this? Can we go back and look at this again? It’s organizing the goals per employee and making sure you come back to touch on those with them. It’s when you don’t communicate with employees that they start to wonder.”

Alignment is obviously crucial when it comes to personal and business goals. If the personal goals don’t match up with the goals of the business, then you’re not going to accomplish a lot. So you take the time to get updates and make sure everybody is on the same page and you don’t worry if you have to make course corrections along the way.

“ThinkThin is going to own the weight wellness sector. That is my goal,” Falsetto says. “What falls underneath that vision could change depending on what is happening.

“It could slightly tier to the left or the right, but yet the main vision is still there. It might be communicated differently. It might look a little different when you get there because of the roadblocks you must conquer to achieve the true vision of what you’re doing. But it’s ultimately having the steps of the goals to get to the topline vision.”

Don’t be afraid to let go

As the company founder and CEO, Falsetto spends a lot of time thinking about what she can do next to keep her business growing.

“What else can I make?” Falsetto says. “What other kind of flavor bar would people want? What’s unique? So that’s always something that I think you become better and better at. I think it’s surrounding yourself with people who are in the industry, knowing your customers and keeping hold of your vision.”

Falsetto knows what her place is in the company, but she has to rely on those conversations and relationships with her people to know where they stand. And there comes a time with some people where they just can’t grow anymore with you.

“Like they say, you only have your personal assistant in that chair for three years and then you move them to a new position,” Falsetto says. “You always want to rotate certain positions to be able to have them strive to be either better within themselves or bring some new depth to that position.

“When an employee feels that they can’t grow any more within the company, it’s better that I don’t find a place for them. I let them grow on their own. When you maneuver your business around that individual, you disrupt everything.”

Certainly when someone leaves who you’ve grown attached to, it can be emotional. But it helps to view it as a positive event. You helped this person grow and now they are taking what they have learned and applying it to continue growing.

If you’re constantly focused on bringing new talent in and helping existing talent thrive, your business will benefit from your efforts.

“You just strive to be better and better at it,” Falsetto says.

How to reach: thinkThin, (866) 988-4465 or www.thinkproducts.com

The Falsetto File

Lizanne Falsetto

founder and CEO

thinkThin

Born: Seattle

Education: I’m a high school graduate. I was a basketball player, and I had a college scholarship offer. I had an option to go to a community college orSeattleUniversityand play basketball. I turned it down because I had a modeling contract on the table, and I decided I would rather travel the world.

What was the biggest takeaway from your modeling career? I didn’t do modeling to be famous because I knew I never would be famous. It was about making the money, it was about traveling and it was about the culture of where I was at. All of that really taught me the vision of looking ahead and thinking about where I want to be.

Who has been the biggest influence on you? My father has been the biggest influence on me. He is no longer with us as it’s been eight years since he passed. But he said many things that were very wise. My dad said, ‘You need to follow your dreams. When you follow your dreams, you will be successful.’ The other thing he said to me was if you ever lose those butterflies before a board meeting or before anything you’re doing, you have to stop and think about what you’re doing because you’ve lost the passion. Those things are so vivid in my head.

What one person past or present would you like the opportunity to talk to? I was thinking Margaret Thatcher. I just am in awe of her and think she’s a brilliant woman, very strong and statuesque. She really held true to what she believed in. But Lady Diana would be the other. The challenges that she was thrown into were not a choice.

Takeaways:

Don’t get too locked in on the numbers.

Let your people use their talents.

Don’t shake up your team to keep someone.

Published in Los Angeles
Thursday, 31 January 2013 19:00

Mike Berlin; Planning for the unexpected

In 2000, I founded Briteskies LLC, a Northeast Ohio technology company. While we’ve had our share of challenges, we had experienced steady growth and success for more than a decade, and I felt significant pride in my leadership role in the organization.

However, on Easter Sunday 2011, with little warning, I experienced a sudden, serious side effect of my Crohn’s disease. I woke up with a 106-degree fever that we ultimately found out was caused by e-coli in my bloodstream. Diagnosis and a subsequent nine-plus hour surgery to replumb my “insides” left me hospitalized for the next 30 days. All told, with the addition of another surgery, my recovery took over five months.

So for five months and without any time to plan, I was unable to return to work. The company I had founded, built and helped run day-to-day needed to go on without me. There was no certainty regarding when — and in what condition — I’d return.

Having suffered from Crohn’s disease since my 20s, I should have seen it coming. I had been told about the warning signs. Of course, as humans, and especially as entrepreneurs, we believe that it won’t happen to us. Additionally, as successful leaders, we feel that we are bulletproof. Otherwise we wouldn’t take the kinds of risks necessary to build a successful business or demonstrate the dogged persistence it takes to overcome obstacles in pursuit of a vision.

Those factors combine to make us a group of people who are less likely than most to consider, and plan for, the fact that one day the buck really may stop here.

Plan for ‘getting hit by the bus’

Now that it happened to me, I would like to let you know that there are several ways you can plan.

First, talk about the what-if scenarios with your team. By sheer chance, my co-founder and I had that very discussion four days before I got sick. We verbally agreed to a pay structure should anything happen to either of us.

Although verbal agreements are nice and worked out for me, I would still recommend that everything is put in writing. Meet with advisers or attorneys to determine what you need in place should you become incapacitated.

Next, ask yourself, ‘Can my company run without me? If I didn’t show up tomorrow, does someone know how to pay the bills? Sign paychecks? Are client projects being documented in a way that they can be easily handed off? Does my management team know where long-term projects stand?’

It is hard to carve out time to ask these questions, but if we as leaders build them into every aspect of our business, time will ensure the answers to these questions become part of how we operate.

What I wish I had known

I learned a lot of life lessons from this experience, but one tactical lesson sticks with me now more than a year later: While it’s important to plan the exit, it’s even more important to carefully plan your return.

Five months is a long time to be away. I didn’t take calls or respond to emails, and to be honest, I didn’t care. My goal was getting back on my feet and spending time with my family. In turn, the team at Briteskies rallied to make sure that our clients got the same level of stellar service they had come to expect.

I finally arrived back at the office with a mentality of, “I’m here, I’m back, let’s get to it.” But the company’s success in my absence meant that things had changed. There were different ways of doing things, conversations I had missed and judgment calls that had to be made and, consequently, were made.

It’s important for both sides to be patient and to communicate openly about the challenges of re-integrating back into the business. While it’s not possible to rewind and plug in exactly where you left off, it is possible to ensure a smoother transition.

Please don’t wait until you get hit by the bus. At times, we may forget how many people depend on us. Go above and beyond as a business leader and consider that it may happen to you and plan for what it will mean for your business, your clients, your employees and even their families. ?

About: Michael Berlin is the founder of Briteskies LLC. He can be reached at Berlin@Briteskies.com or (216) 369-3600.

Published in Cleveland
Thursday, 31 January 2013 19:46

Great partnerships = great success

Peanut butter and jelly. Nuts and bolts. Lennon and McCartney. Love and marriage. What do all these things have in common?  They represent great partnerships — things that go together, like, well, a hamburger and fries (when I’m not on a diet, of course).

Great partnerships epitomize the concept of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Vanilla ice cream is great, right? And who doesn’t love an ice cold glass of root beer? But put the two together and you’ve created an American classic: the root beer float.

Business can be like this, as well. Your company may be doing fine, but perhaps it can do even better with the help of a well-chosen partner.

After many years of being an independent businessman, I’ve followed my own advice and taken on a partner for the first time ever.

I’ve always felt that to be successful, I had to genuinely believe in my products, so it’s safe to say that my high hits-to-misses ratio was precisely because I considered them all to be labors of love. The Gazelle, Body-by-Bison, Cheeks footwear — they’re like my children in many respects. Still, there are limitations to what one individual can do.

Look to expand

I’ve wanted to expand the reach of my products for quite some time, and the financial resources that a new partner brings are certainly a critical component to achieving this goal. However, the scope of the endeavor also means the partner that I choose must be able to provide more than just cash; they must understand the business I’m in, backward and forward.

Look at what a partner can bring to the table to supplement your strengths. If I approach things intelligently, I can work with my partner to get the right buyers with negotiation skills so we can source products at the best possible prices in order to make a decent profit.

Of course, having a partner who is also willing to put the money up to buy the products is also key because of the importance of having an equity stake in what you sell beyond just collecting royalties.

What makes someone a good partner may vary depending on the business that you’re in, but it’s critical to understand that a true partner contributes more than just money to the venture.

Decide if a partner is a good fit

At the end of the day, the decision to take on a partner will hinge largely on what you determine to be your ultimate goal for your business.

For me, at this stage of my life, it’s about expanding the availability of my products internationally and to broaden my retail distribution channels.  Some of it is driven by my desire to be the best I can be — but it’s also fair to say that I’m looking at monetizing the value of my trademarks, copyrights and patents so that there’s a tangible value to the company that can be sold someday.

The thought of giving up 100 percent ownership and control of your business to have a lesser share might be difficult at first. I admit it, I like calling the shots. But I also know that I can’t do everything at that level. The key is to focus on the big picture and try not to let your emotions get in the way of success.

Don’t let anyone tell you differently — nobody wants to run a company forever. And if you can build your company up to the point where it’s functioning well and is highly desirable, there’s a great deal of satisfaction in that, not to mention a nice pay day, when you can relax and enjoy the fruits of your labor — especially if they’ve been labors of love.

Tony Little is the president, CEO and founder of Health International Corp., and executive chairman of Positive Lifestyle International. Known as “America’s Personal Trainer,” he has been a television icon for more than 20 years. After overcoming a car accident that nearly took his life, Little learned how to turn adversity into victory. Known for his wild enthusiasm, Little is responsible for revolutionizing direct-response marketing and television home shopping. He has sold more than $3 billion in products bearing his name. Reach him at guestbook@tonylittle.com.

Published in Columnist

On paper, Oleg Firer literally embodies the American dream. Moving to Brooklyn, N.Y., from the Soviet Union at the age of 12, he entered into business without a college degree and rose quickly to become the VP of a publicly traded company by his late 20s.

In 2002, Firer taught himself the payment-processing business — which would become his career — from the ground up and eventually partnered with private equity group Star Capital to start his own payments business in 2007.

With the help of his partners, Firer executed a roll-up strategy that included eight acquisitions between 2008 and 2010, combining the entities into a one payment-processing company — Unified Payments LLC. Today, Unified Payments has grown to approximately 50 employees and $59.5 million in revenue. And with a three-year growth rate of 23,646.3 percent, it soon shot to No. 1 on the 2012 Inc. 500 list of the fastest-growing companies.

“M&A is my background,” says Firer, co-founder and executive chairman, Unified Payments, which now processes about $10 billion worth of transactions for 100,000 merchants a year. “I like to find the diamonds in the rough and make them into diamonds. And that’s what we’ve done.”

Firer’s leadership has been critical in helping the company overcome challenges of integrating eight companies while managing fast growth and staying innovative in a competitive industry.

Smart Business spoke with the Firer to find out the keys to his M&A success and keeping Unified Payments on top.

SB: How did you choose which companies to target as part of the acquisition and roll-up strategy?

OF: The companies that we acquired had something unique about them. Being established is one thing — but they all had some sort of issues. We did a lot of distressed equity buys where they were either overleveraged or they were growing too fast and they couldn’t keep up with it or they had shareholder feuds or so on. Obviously, we looked at dozens of companies and we identified the eight companies that we liked the most, and we executed.

We also invested in human capital. Each one of these eight companies — besides having potential to grow and having a sales engine — had human capital behind them that we believed in. We don’t have eight different divisional presidents. We consolidated, and there were three people that I believed were the strong sales leaders to take this business to the next level. We bet on them. So it was not just acquiring for the core assets and growth opportunity; it was also acquiring them for human capital that knows this industry.

SB: What was your timeline for the acquisition strategy?

OF: The first acquisition that we did was the most expensive and the biggest. We executed the first acquisition in 2008 as a platform buy to do the add-ons that we did at later points. When we did the platform buy, it had a lot of human capital already behind it. Most of it needed to be restructured.

We bet on the sales leadership, but operationally, we had to break down a lot of departments in order to make this a success. That took awhile. And obviously, from the add-ons that we did, we moved some people around, and we hired some new people.

SB: When did you start integrating the businesses?

OF: We didn’t wait for the eight to complete. From the first platform buy, we started right away working on operations, restructuring the operations and making the operations stable. No matter what size of payment-processing provider that you are, you still need a core engine. For us, it was building an engine that’s scalable and having the outsourced pieces that we need in place to have 24/7 support and so on. It took a year to really build proper structure, and then when we started executing on acquisitions, it was about integrating them in the structure.

SB: When you are completing multiple acquisitions, how do you integrate them into your company in a way that doesn’t overwhelm your business infrastructure?

OF: It was easier with the add-ons because when you have an add-on, you strip away (general and administrative expenses) G&A and you integrate the asset into the engine if you see any new human capital that is an asset to the company. Then the rest we would strip down.

So the core support functions like customer support and technical support we would keep in the core engine. If tomorrow I’m presented with an opportunity to buy a payment-processing provider, I would let all the customer support and technical support resources go because I already have them in my core.

It’s like a puzzle. You see the missing pieces and you want to fill those pieces. Identifying the missing pieces and bringing those pieces in became easier after the first acquisition because we see that we’re lacking in a niche vertical. So now we know that the next acquisition that we do is going to be a new vertical. It has to have something special.

SB: How has the recession impacted the growth of your business?

OF: After we acquired the eight different companies, we consolidated, created this engine and decided to keep them in an organic growth strategy. We have been growing for the past two years organically from redoing these engines that we acquired.

This industry is very competitive. And with the recession the biggest thing that keeps me awake at night is that there are more businesses that go out of business. So it’s losing merchants and keeping up with attrition and the churn and providing outstanding service to the merchants that process with you — and providing them with innovative products so that they don’t go to the competition.

SB: How can you manage risk when you have customers who are struggling?

OF: It’s pretty much keeping your ear to the ground and working with partnerships. ... When MasterCard launched a PayPass program, which is a ‘contactless’ card, we were the first organization to launch it for them in New York because we understand what it takes to roll out technologies. By working with the industry’s innovative associations, such as Visa, MasterCard and Discover, and working with technological partners that we have, it makes us stand up to the competition.

SB: How do you make sure that you’re not growing too quickly?

OF: You want to have gradual growth. Pulling in the reins on a monthly basis and slowing down the growth is really the most challenging. Once you let marketing loose, it’s hard to pull in some marketing areas. Growing too fast can permanently damage the company. So it’s about growing methodically, managing within the budget.

With us, there is an acquisition cost to every merchant that we bring in. So if I want to pull in the reins, I just shrink the budget for that month. It’s growing at the pace where the business can afford to fund marketing and then fund G&A.

SB: Any lessons learned the hard way?

OF: If you’re a business leader and you’re an operator, choose the right capital partner that believes in you and that will give you an ability to take this to the next level. I had to go to a few capital partners, and it was challenging to find a capital partner midtransaction. Adding another capital partner during a transaction was even more challenging. So the challenge I had was going through several capital partners; when you’re already committed, you can’t go back.

Get a firm commitment and make sure that the partner that you choose believes in the overall picture and not just a piece of it. Believing in just a piece of it could cause you to run into to problems later in the game.

SB: What are the main lessons have you learned from your M&A experience?

OF: Everything takes longer and it costs more. So you need to be very conservative in your estimates and be very conservative in your projections. Be very cognizant of time. Underpromise and overdeliver — that’s my model.

SB: What advice would you have for another business executing an acquisition?

OF: I had to go through a lot of companies to really believe in the eight that we did. And I mostly believed in them because of the people. It all starts at the top. If you have the right people at the top, if you have the right business leaders, it becomes very easy to do a transaction. If you don’t have the right leadership and business leaders that you rely on, everything else can crumble.

And then, obviously, it’s always challenging to find good people for any business. But if you find somebody that you believe in and that has the track record, don’t let the person go. ?

How to reach: Unified Payments LLC, (877) 621-9110 or www.unifiedpayments.com

The Firer File

Oleg Firer

Co-founder and executive chairman

Unified Payments LLC

Born: Soviet Union

Education: New York Technical College

Management style: There are two styles to me. First of all, I have an open door policy. I speak to every employee in the company and everybody has direct access to me. I meet with my employees all the time. And I don’t consider them employees; I consider them partners because we have a common goal, and we need to work toward it. And I think outside the box. There’s no strategy that I would not look at. There’s no opportunity that I would not look at.

What you do for fun?

Jet skiing, boating

Who have you never met but would you like to have dinner with?

Warren Buffet, to get an insight on what it takes to be the most successful investor of the 20th century and understand what it takes to spot the hidden jewel in the companies he invests in.

What would you be doing if not your current job?

I would be a politician.

How do you regroup on a tough day?

I spend time with my kids.

What destination would you still like to visit?

Israel

What’s next for Unified Payments?

Every month and every day we raise the bar because of the fact we have to grow, and I’m not satisfied with the growth that we have. So we still want to grow a bit more. We still have some internal restructuring that I’m working on, and as I execute a little bit more organic growth and do a little bit more acquisition, one day who knows? I might exit. So it’s making the business big enough to be palatable to somebody smarter than I am.

 

Published in Florida

For Dan Roitman, much of business is science.

Since founding specialty Internet retailer Stroll LLC in his University of Maryland dorm room 13 years ago, Roitman’s career has consisted of an ongoing series of hypotheses, experiments, data analysis, adjusting of hypotheses and formulation of theories.

Roitman’s scientific approach to business-building has developed a highly entrepreneurial culture at Stroll, in which team members are encouraged to share ideas, innovate and test their assumptions. It’s a mentality that has helped the company sustain a period of rapid growth — 80 percent in 2008 and 50 percent in 2009, followed by a year-over-year 100 percent growth margin from 2010 to 2011. In 2012, the company surpassed $80 million in annual revenue for the first time.

But maintaining a forward-thinking mindset throughout the entire organization isn’t something that just happens. It requires CEO Roitman to hire, train and empower his people to achieve the desired results. It’s something that was driven home to Roitman during the recession, when he had to suspend the growth of the company for a year due to a lack of additional financing from Stroll’s bank.

“That was my biggest concern, because we had always been a growth company,” Roitman says. “Then, due to circumstances beyond our control, we had to put a specific order volume cap on the business.

“It really became more about communicating that this is the challenge, everybody knew what was going on in that environment, you had a lot of economic hardship, you heard a lot about layoffs that were going on elsewhere. I have to imagine everyone was happy that we were doing well, but frustrated that we couldn’t do better.”

Through it all, Roitman has had to focus on motivating his employees, maintaining a sense of transparency, while still encouraging open thought, experimentation and the scientific mentality that had made Stroll a success in the first place.

Embrace best practices

It’s easy to say you embrace best practices as an organization. Actually discovering, selecting and implementing best practices from another entity are another ballgame. Even if you are able to discover and select an outside idea that you think will help your business, there is a good chance you wouldn’t implement it — at least, not in the form in which you discovered it.

“I once heard a speaker talk about the idea of cloning best practices and how most people don’t have a so-called cloning gene,” Roitman says. “If I told you, right now, the secret to making a million dollars in 90 days and if you followed my instructions exactly, you’d make a million dollars; most people wouldn’t be able to follow it exactly. They’d start to think about how to improve upon what you’re telling them.

“Sam Walton would go into any competitor’s store, and even if it was a really shoddy store, he’d find something they were doing better than he was doing. Through that process, through a million little optimizations, he became a formidable competitor and then an industry leader.

“So if someone is doing something better than you are, you should at least recognize that they are and be willing to try it in your business as well.”

But it is a double-edged sword when it comes to adding new policies and processes to your organization. You don’t want to corrupt the external idea, because it was successful elsewhere for a reason, and that is why you want to on-board it at your company. But you also want to give your people an opportunity to think of ways they can improve upon the idea or alter it so it better fits your company’s specific situation.

For Roitman, that is where the need for a culture that utilizes a testing-based, scientific approach becomes critical. His team members at Stroll can propose new ideas and changes to existing ideas, but they have to back the proposals up with supporting data.

“If you have a constant, iterative testing philosophy, the barrier to testing is very low,” Roitman says. “So if somebody is doing something on, say, the marketing side, you ask yourself about the probability of something similar working in your business. What is the probability of this one idea being more successful than another?

“Ultimately, you have finite resources for your various departments, so you do have to have a mechanism for prioritizing — some kind of filter for what you believe the contribution or change will be.”

Roitman ran into a best-practices testing scenario when he and his leadership team noticed marketers in his company’s space were having success with video marketing initiatives. Through testing and quantification of the results that Roitman’s team believed Stroll could expect, the company was able to implement its own video marketing initiatives.

“Since then, we have won two major awards for our video marketing,” Roitman says. “That is an example of us taking a best practice from outside and utilizing it in a way that betters an area of our company.

“In another area, we’ve also brought in an industry expert to advise us on our shipping costs. It led to us having a 30 percent reduction in our shipping costs (in 2011), and we should have another 30 percent reduction (in 2012).

“We didn’t directly adopt a best practice from somewhere else in that case, but the insight from the industry expert that we brought in allowed us to take things to the next level in that area, and it’s information we wouldn’t have gotten any other way.”

Learn from mistakes

Another aspect of having a culture that is focused on experimentation and learning by doing is a willingness to accept mistakes and failure as part of the process. That is, as long as the failure is part of the process and not a part of employee underperformance.

With entrepreneurship as a key building block of Roitman’s culture at Stroll, often he is willing to take new products to market, and let the market determine whether the idea was good or not.

“Obviously, it depends on what level you’re talking about making mistakes,” Roitman says. “But if you inherently have a testing culture, you know you’re going to have failures, and it’s simply going to be a part of the experimentation process.

“But there are failures of concepts or improvements, and there is failure of performance, which is an entirely different category. The performance category isn’t just a matter of experimentation. It’s a matter of setting up support structures so that people don’t set themselves up for failure. You have to work with them to define goals up front that are realistic and all the general management concepts around that.

“Once you’ve defined the goals, you need to check in with your people to make sure they are on track and setting up workable project plans.”

If you’re working with your people to set achievable goals and realistic project plans, it becomes much easier for you and your leadership team to separate a bad idea from a bad performance.

“It’s all in the mechanics around your execution, which you need to have in your processes,” Roitman says. “If someone just isn’t performing, there is an issue there. But if it’s an idea itself that is failing, but everyone thought it was worthwhile to pursue and a reasonable move to make at the outset, there is no problem in that case. And you have to cultivate that mentality within all layers of management.”

To help guard against large-scale mistakes that could have wide-ranging implications for your company, Roitman says you should put platforms in place that allow you to test new ideas on a smaller level, then scale the successful ideas to larger projects involving more people.

It is a tactic that allows you to commit fewer resources to a project initially, while still getting a sense for whether the idea will work — which is a critical factor as many companies are still struggling with resource management in the wake of the recession.

“That can definitely be something you’re doing; we’ve done that ourselves,” Roitman says. “For instance, in our call center, we’ve rolled out a small-scale test in one area, see how that does, then roll it out on a larger scale.

“In some other areas, we’ve broken down into teams across different areas of the company and tried different things in each area. That allows us to gain some insight into how we can work with different needs and different management methodologies.”

As you go through these processes, you have to keep in mind that your role as the leader is to serve as the traffic cop who ensures that the right type and right amount of resources find their way to the right areas of the organization, into the hands that can best use the resources to produce the ideas and product that turn the highest profit.

“Everything is interrelated,” Roitman says. “Departmental activities roll up to the company at large. So my job is to make sure the plan we have communicated is clearly on track, everybody knows the most important things we have to focus on, and there are no other distractions. We have a lot of ideas flying around, which is a good thing, but we still have to maintain focus. As far as the direction you are going, you have to define what is in and what is out — you have to define both.”

How to reach: Stroll LLC, (215) 701-3300 or www.stroll.com

 

The Roitman file

Dan Roitman

founder and CEO

Stroll LLC

Born: Germany

Education: International business and German degrees, University of Maryland

First job: Unofficially, I mowed lawns and shoveled snow. Officially, I had an internship with the Department of Defense after my first year of college.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

The earlier you can establish the elements of a strong culture, the higher the probability of success of the organization. It starts out with just getting revenue and having a business in the first place, but after that, you need to have a vision and clear goals around that vision, and the right people on board with the proper motivation. Having the right operating conditions helps that immensely.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

One thing that we really focus on in our organization is transparency. After that, you need to be able to develop a really strong vision that influences the organization years into the future. People have to know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.

What is your definition of success?

Success comes at a couple of different levels. On a micro level, it’s accomplishing something meaningful within the organization. On a macro level, one of the greatest forms is giving back to the community and creating jobs. As we all know, our economy needs sustainable, productive jobs today.

Published in Philadelphia

Don Lowe used to run a simple business.

“We had a small offset machine, we printed black ink on white paper, and sometimes we would bind it for our customers,” he says. “It was that way for many years.”

Franchise Services Inc., which operates printing and marketing services franchises such as Sir Speedy, Signal Graphics and PIP, did one thing and did it well. For decades, it was enough to grow and remain profitable.

But as the 1990s advanced and gave way to the new century, technology started to evolve at an increasingly rapid pace, and Franchise Services quickly found itself at a crossroads: adapt or risk the long-term welfare of the business.

“The digital world changed our world completely,” says Lowe, the CEO of Franchise Services. “Our role is now to look at new technology and ask ourselves if it’s a threat or an opportunity. If it’s a threat, we decide what to do with it. If it’s an opportunity, we exploit it. It keeps us very busy, but it’s also very good for us.”

Lowe has needed to add new technology and new services to fill the expanding needs of his franchisees’ customer base — which comprises primarily companies with fewer than 50 employees. Facing their own battles for survival in an economic climate where nothing is a sure thing, the businesses in Lowe’s customer base need services beyond printing. They also need full-service marketing support with a heavy emphasis on creating and maintaining a strong Internet presence.

“That is why, over the recent years, we have moved from a print-centric model to one that focuses on both print and marketing services,” Lowe says. “We’ve needed to expand the products and services we offer to our customers. If you think about small business owners, they’re always pressed for time; they often can’t even spend time on building the business because they’re already wrapped up in managing what already exists. So they need help on multiple fronts, and our job is to provide that help.”

Providing that help has required Lowe and his team to listen to franchisees and their customers, and gain an accurate read on the best ways to serve customers in a challenging and ever-changing climate.

Know the game

The biggest game-changer for Franchise Services came in the proliferation of Internet-based communication throughout the ’90s. In the span of about a decade, the primary conveyance for the written word migrated from paper stock to computer screens. Items that were normally sent through the mail over the span of days could now arrive in your email inbox in a matter of seconds. Internally, filing cabinets gave way to servers as a means of storing data.

“A number of the products we were producing for customers moved to the Web,” Lowe says. “Customers could use the Internet to distribute price lists on a daily basis, and even some training manuals migrated to the Internet.

“If you think about it, even business cards, letterhead and envelopes, all that business declined from where it was in the ’80s and into the ’90s, because we don’t send letters anymore, we send emails. That was the first indicator that we needed to start finding some products and services to backfill some of the products and services that were losing traction.”

But to find new areas of growth, Lowe and his corporate leadership team had to get plugged in to what their customers needed in a print and marketing services company. For Lowe, that meant studying trends, and frequent conversations with franchise owners across Franchise Services’ spectrum of brands.

“You have to understand specifically what the customers’ needs and wants are,” Lowe says. “Everything starts with the customer. If you don’t understand the customer requirements, you won’t be able to fulfill them. So you need to listen twice as intently as you speak, so you can determine what those needs and wants are.”

You can look to macro-level observations in industry publications to get a read on the next big technology that could affect your industry. But to understand how your business is changing on a granular level, you have to make trips to the front lines. Sometimes, the change that satisfies the most customers in the shortest amount of time is decidedly low-tech and relatively inexpensive to implement.

When Lowe and his team speak with franchisees, they aim to find ways to better connect their services to customers, with an overall goal of improving the customer experience.

“For example, today we provide mailing services at most of our locations, and that is a direct result of understanding that 65 or 70 percent of what we print ultimately ends up in the mail,” Lowe says.

“So why don’t we go that last mile, provide mailing services to our customers, and even take the printed pieces in the envelopes and take them to the post office? That is an example of why you spend a lot of time figuring out what is happening in the market.”

In addition to frequent dialogue with franchisees, Lowe and his team also gather information from customer focus groups designed to provide feedback regarding whether Franchise Services is meeting their needs, and in turn, the needs of the market in general.

“The thing we always try to remember is we don’t produce anything at the corporate level,” Lowe says. “All of our services are delivered at the franchise-network level. So we have to maintain consistent contact with everyone involved in those relationships, both the franchisees and the customers. There cannot be an ivory tower anymore. If you’re not staying in touch with the customer, you’re not staying in touch with the business.”

Become a change agent

To change with the evolving needs of the market, you need to first construct an organization that is capable of visualizing change and realizing the need for change. At Franchise Services, Lowe developed a change-focused organization by hiring people who aren’t afraid of venturing into unknown territory while at the same time being creative enough to devise new solutions to meet ever-changing customer needs.

“It’s a big reason why you hire first for cultural fit, then worry about the skill set needed to complete the job,” Lowe says. “If the person you hired can’t fit the organization, or if the chemistry just isn’t right, it’s not going to work.

“You might be able to make it work for a short period of time, but you can’t build a company with that type of hiring policy. A lot of people know that Jim Collins wrote the book ‘Good to Great,’ where he talks about the need to have the right people in the right seats on the bus, and it’s true. It’s not necessarily just about having good people. It’s also about having the right mix of people, otherwise the organization is going to fail in the long run.”

If you can find employees who are open to and willing to facilitate change, it then falls on you as the leader of the company to provide an environment where they feel the freedom and flexibility to try new ideas and implement new innovations.

Lowe facilitates an environment that embraces change by developing a strong sense of trust throughout the corporate ranks and extending to the company’s more than 500 franchised locations. He develops and reinforces the trust factor by ensuring that communication remains transparent throughout the organization.

You and your people need high ethical and moral standards, which set the basis for the amount of trust that you can develop between management and employees,” Lowe says. “It’s also important that everyone understands what the goals are. We don’t have a large staff, so it is important that everyone is aligned with the goals, both on a corporate and franchise level.

“So we talk to our franchisees about their goals and aspirations for their business, and their results, and through that, we develop a team spirit. That helps to drive enthusiasm and gets people ready to show up for work and get busy doing what you get paid to do.”

Lowe’s willingness to change and adapt, and find people willing to do the same, has helped maintain Franchise Services as a strong presence in its industry. The company’s franchised locations generated $448 million in sales during 2011.

“There are certain skills that are required in this business, but beyond that, it quite frankly comes down to attitude,” he says. “The people that work well in our environment take instruction, but they certainly also understand the importance of dealing with and satisfying the customers. A lot of what we do comes down to how you adapt to customers and serve their needs, as is the case in just about every industry. A smiling face and a soft voice goes a long way in our business, every bit as much as the professional skills they need to have in order to get their job done at a high level.”

How to reach: Franchise Services Inc., (800) 854-3321 or www.franserv.com

 

The Lowe file

Don Lowe

CEO

Franchise Services Inc.

Born: Shelbyville, Tenn. I grew up in Hopkinsville, Ky.

History: I’ve been in business since I was 12 years old, when I was a paperboy. I’m 71 now, so I’ve been in business for almost 60 years. I’ve been a shareholder of this company for the last 40 years.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

Hire good people, keep them informed and trust them. Beyond that, set the bar high for achievement, and make sure they understand your culture and promote it.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

Vision would certainly be high on the list. You also need integrity, because people need to follow your lead, and it is very difficult to follow someone you don’t respect. And if your organization doesn’t agree with your vision, you won’t have a fair chance to be successful. Also, working hard is still a great trait in this country. If you work hard, it will put you in good places.

What is your definition of success?

It’s the opportunity to do what I want to do, when I want to do it and with the people who are important to me, and to get our franchise people to do important, meaningful things to help them sustain their businesses.

Published in Orange County

Throughout its history, vanpooling has been very good to Ann Fandozzi’s company.

For more than 35 years, VPSI Inc. — which is now branded as vRide — has grown and profited from running vanpools for commuters who want an alternative way to negotiate rush-hour traffic. After becoming the company’s CEO this past June, Fandozzi likely could have continued focusing solely on vRide’s vanpooling expertise with no ill effects to the company’s bottom line.

But Fandozzi saw more. She saw vRide’s potential to grow outward from its staple business, with a goal of becoming a comprehensive commuter solutions company. So Fandozzi challenged her company to expand and employ its expertise in new ways.

“My vision, and something that is palatable for us, is really broadening what we do,” Fandozzi says. “There really isn’t any type of commuter solutions company that does what we do, so that made it kind of exciting.

“When you think about it, we are really at an all-time peak of forces coming together, be it congestion in cities, be it gas prices, be it people’s time worth more of a premium than ever before. All of those forces coming together is something that allows us to come in and really offer a unique solution for commuters.”

To make her vision a reality, Fandozzi has needed to develop and implement a methodical approach that helps vRide — which generated $75 million in 2011 revenue  —  identify its target customers and create new ways to serve them by employing internal resources in the most effective way possible.

“If you have a commute of, say, 45 minutes or longer, you might come to us because of our vanpooling reputation,” she says. “But as we grow, we’ll be able to offer you a multitude of different solutions. We can certainly still put you in a vanpool, but we might also be able to put you in a carpool if you have a smaller group. No matter the service offering, the goal is commuter focus.”

Form a vision

To expand your company into new areas, you need a reachable vision, guidelines for achieving that vision, building blocks that will help you turn the vision into a reality and metrics that will help you measure your performance in relation to the guidelines and building blocks.

“Your vision has to be both broad and targeted,” Fandozzi says. “It has to be broad enough to capture the various value streams that the business model can deliver but focused enough that you’re not trying to be all things to all people.

“When we thought about broadening our company from a vanpool company to a commuter solutions company, our vision was significantly broader, but it was also very targeted from the sense that we are going to go after commuters and focus on solving their needs.”

To formulate an achievable vision for vRide, Fandozzi and her leadership team had to connect with the needs and pain points of current and potential customers. It required vRide’s representatives to gather customer data and conduct market research with an eye toward finding the holes in the marketplace that vRide could capably fill.

“A lot of it really has to do with delving deep into the customer’s world,” Fandozzi says. “In order to know where you want to go, you really have to take a step back and see what needs there are from a customer standpoint, areas that being underserved, and those are where the juiciest opportunities will usually present themselves. You go where the needs exist and where potential customers are being underserved.

“In our case, we’ve been looking at traffic congestion, people who are becoming frustrated with commute times, the state of the economy and gas prices, and people wanting more money in their pockets,” Fandozzi says. “We know those are the pain points, and from there, we dig a little deeper and get a read on whether we can expect those factors to increase or decrease over time.”

With traffic congestion and high gas prices remaining as fixtures of day-to-day life, Fandozzi’s team felt comfortable building a vision around how to address those needs. Then, she moved her company into the implementation phase.

“You don’t need to know every step of the 100 steps you’re going to take to get from here to there, but in general, you need to have a pretty good plan for how that vision can be achieved,” she says. “For us, a big fundamental building block has been the Web and mobile technology.”

Under Fandozzi’s leadership, vRide has taken steps to create a mobile-device app that can give would-be commuters instant access to potential solutions provided by the company.

“It’s the nature of addressing consumers who are on the go,” Fandozzi says. “You need an on-the-go solution. You need to automate instantaneous answers for consumers. For 35 years as a vanpooling company, that is a competency we didn’t have. So then the question becomes, ‘How do you scale to add those competencies?’”

It was a question of whether vRide needed to add new resources and competencies, or find new ways to utilize what was already in-house. Through rounds of organization analysis, Fandozzi’s team realized the company had a great deal of physical infrastructure already constructed, meaning scalability would be a mixture of the old and new.

It was a matter of creating new technology platforms and plugging them into what already existed in terms of vans, people and facilities.

“Currently, we have more than 5,000 vans, and there is a set of solutions that works really well there,” Fandozzi says. “So the question to the leadership team is, how do those get scaled? Anything from the way the vehicles get serviced and delivered, and anything or everything in between. That is why it really becomes a function of having those building blocks and being very honest with your assessment of whether you have them in-house, versus the items you need to bring in.”

Develop a marketing plan

With a vision and implementation plan in place, you need to get potential customers interested in your organization’s new direction. That is where a comprehensive marketing campaign comes in.

Fandozzi divides vRide’s marketing campaign into various phases focused on educating consumers and driving traffic. Once those phases are fully implemented, marketing can become an effective tool to spur further growth.

“You need to develop a phased marketing strategy that is appropriate for where you are in your development cycle,” Fandozzi says. “For us, we are kind of in a heavy learning mode right now, because we are still in the process of putting our fundamental building blocks in place.

“The next phase is once those building blocks are in place, you want to take what you’ve learned and use it to educate consumers. Then, once everything is place, you can expand your marketing efforts as you grow.

“For instance, we could then say that every man and woman in America who commutes more than 45 minutes to work is our target consumer,” Fandozzi says. “But that is a different kind of marketing effort from where we are now.

“The trick is in knowing what phase you are in at that moment but planning for the next one as you are in the current one.”

Developing a successful marketing effort around your vision often requires a combination of developing internal expertise and utilizing outside resources. Your internal marketing experts have an intimate knowledge of your business and your customer base. Third-party marketing firms will bring an outside perspective, along with data gathering and research capabilities that your company may not possess.

However, Fandozzi says external consultants should not drive your marketing philosophy. Though third-party firms bring useful skills and resources to the table, you and your team know your business the best.

“You want the latest and greatest, but you want it centrally managed with internal resources,” Fandozzi says.

“That is why you assign and train a leader who is centrally responsible for your marketing vision, because that is the person who is going to really understand where you’re going as a company, what building blocks are in place and what phase of marketing you’re going to need to be in for each phase of growth — are you in a heavy learning mode, or a heavy execution mode, and so forth.

“Those are the people who will be in charge of bringing in experts along the way to help them execute on each of those facets.”

If you make a misstep in your marketing, learn from it quickly and correct it — and have those systems in place from the outset.

“You’re testing along the way, fully preparing to fail,” Fandozzi says. “One of the things we do here is we like to learn fast-forward. You want to do something quickly and you want to learn from it quickly. Failure is OK if you learn from it, but you want to do it and correct it quickly. You are trying to fast-forward the entire process so that you develop definite answers on what you can move forward with.”

How to reach: vRide, (248) 597-3500 or www.vride.com

 

The Fandozzi file

Ann Fandozzi

CEO

vRide

More from Fandozzi on self-assessing as a business: There are several modes of self-assessment. One is having some conversations about just looking in the mirror with the leadership team and saying, ‘Hey, this is where we need to go and this is where we are.’ Another is bringing in experts, because sometimes you need a fresh set of eyes since you are just so close to the business, and it’s tough to see. One of the hallmarks of good leadership is knowing when to ask for help, and looking at experts instead of thinking that you have all the answers.

The third method is looking around at adjacent industries and seeing how they’ve been able to solve similar problems, to also free up your thinking. So, you may be stuck, but they’re going to bring in an expert and give you an expert solution along the lines of how you’re already thinking.

Fandozzi on hiring and retaining top talent: That is always the silver bullet to a business, having the right people. It comes from a multitude of sources. First and foremost, it comes from having the right screening techniques in place to make sure that as we’re bringing in people, they’re the right people. There is a lot of ownership on the part of the leader to make sure the vision is exceptionally clear, that people aren’t hunting in the dark and hoping they find the right answer.

There is a lot of personal ownership, for example, in order to develop and work with my people, I overinvest. People tend to underestimate how much investment this takes, but overinvesting on tools, resources — making sure we’ve put the right metrics in place. Then, it’s taking a step back and seeing if they can do it. It’s guaranteed you are going to make mistakes along the way, but you want those mistakes to be smaller-sized, and you want the wins to be bigger, and you want to course-correct as you go.

Published in Detroit