Thinking together Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2009

Ugo Ginatta is in the gelato and coffee business. But he’s also in the idea business.

The co-founder, chairman and CEO of Paciugo Franchising LP knows that the best possible products won’t reach his customers if the best possible ideas aren’t placed on the table and considered in the company’s management meetings.

With that in mind, Ginatta has focused on becoming a kind of peer leader who oversees operations for the gelato store franchisor — which generated $10.4 million in 2008 revenue — while still giving both corporate employees and franchisees varying degrees of latitude to come up with better ways of marketing and selling their products.

“I like to be informal as a leader and like to be peer to peer when possible,” Ginatta says. “I have a completely open door because I am here for long hours. I’m normally the first one in the door and almost the last to leave in the evening.”

Smart Business spoke with Ginatta about how you can create a collaborative, idea-driven culture in your business.

Build a wide-angle view. If you want to lead your company effectively, always remind and completely demonstrate to your colleagues that what you are arguing for is not your point of view, not your pet project, but what you believe is good for the company. When we argue, we all tell each other that this is not arguing for the sake of arguing. It is because we believe in what is best for the growth of the company. Everybody has a stake when you have a small company like we do. Everybody is rooting for the company to grow and not only give us financial satisfaction but professional satisfaction, as well.

You need to continue to create that wide-angle view among your employees. In our meetings, we all sit there and talk. We know each other, and our comments are driven by keeping focused on what is good for the project or the company. We really try not to have groups or subgroups or let somebody insist on something without hearing everyone else out. Everybody needs to have the mindset that they’re going to do their best to understand our customers and our franchisees and come up with recommendations that is best for them and best for our products.

Involve people from the start. Understand that everybody wants to contribute. We keep saying to each other that we’re all ready to unplug the restroom toilet or sell the company or do anything in between. In other words, we all wear multiple hats according to our capabilities. You need to find people and train people who have a phenomenal ability to jump from task to task. If we have a potential franchisee to see how we make our gelato, anybody here can take them on the tour, whether it’s someone in accounting, shipping or wherever. The more you can build that all-around knowledge with all your people in all areas of the company, the better off you’ll be.

People we hire are sent to the first available franchisee training session. Early employees, they all came from stores. They started as store employees, then store managers and then they moved into corporate. So they develop an extremely clear idea of where the income comes from. The employees who came along later on did not go through the stores. Those are the ones who need to go through a training course to understand where our income comes from.

When you have developed a sufficient number of employees that are so well attuned to the corporate objective, they tend to pull in friends and acquaintances that have the same characteristics. If you end up mishiring someone into that kind of environment, they probably won’t last that long because they have a different philosophy. They don’t care about the product or the company, so they’re not happy and they need to look for a different job. You need to be kind of homogeneous in your hiring, like in a rowboat, everybody is rowing at the same tempo.

Know when to take a backseat. You tend to listen more closely to colleagues that have specific knowledge or experience on the given topic being discussed. I tend to keep myself very much restrained in the marketing meetings. We recently had a marketing meeting about how to relate things to customers when they walk into our stores for the first time — why is it a healthier option than ice cream, why we make it by hand and so forth. Those points need to be crafted very creatively and in as few words as possible because people don’t want to read pages and pages.

During meetings like that, I tend to keep myself more in the role of a member of the general public. I want to let the people who have the expertise run the meeting, even though I do have some background in marketing. It goes back to the idea that you want the most specialized and trained people on your team to run the show in each given situation. You don’t want to step over or around people just because you run the company.

In all situations, you have to take a look at ideas from everyone very seriously and let the people on your leadership team debate it. The proponents of the idea try to lay down the case as to why we should try something, and the idea’s opponents lay down the case as to why this might not be the best fit right now. But in the end, you want everybody in those meetings to leave with the idea that their idea was seriously considered, that no one was slighted, that both sides had a chance to give their story and the idea was thoroughly debated.

In our case, we don’t deal with a lot of weird ideas to begin with, but we do get some different types of ideas. Someone might come to management with an idea on how to enhance the grand opening of a store, drum up some publicity, and it might be something strange or a little off the wall, and we would certainly look at that because it’s a unique marketing chance for a new store that is looking to attract attention.

How to reach: Paciugo Franchising LP, (214) 654-9501 or www.paciugo.com