Blueprint for success Featured

8:00pm EDT May 23, 2005
William "Bill" McIntyre Jr. spent the first half of his childhood on a farm in Georgia. Then the family moved back up north, where he was born, and he lost all trace of his southern drawl.

But the chairman and CEO of Allegra Network LLC, one of the world's largest print and graphic communications franchises, still describes his approach to management with the down-to-earth imagery of a country boy.

"I'd rather rope in the stallion than kick the mule," he says.

McIntyre's talking about the value of creative, energetic and talented individuals, risk-takers who bring a great deal to the table. But these are the same people who are more likely to make mistakes, bend the rules or step across invisible, but accepted, lines.

"Over the years, I've learned that some of the most effective members of the organization are also the hardest to handle," he says. "My job is to figure out how to capitalize on their skills and manage their weaknesses."

One way he does that is to coach rather than reprimand.

"I don't beat up on people when I know they're trying hard," McIntyre says.

And then he tells a story to illustrate his point.

"A VP at IBM made a very expensive mistake," he says. "He walked into CEO Thomas Watson (Sr.)'s office and handed in his resignation. Watson responded by telling him, 'You can't leave. This company just spent a great deal of money to educate you, and now we're keeping you.'"

Helping employees improve is always worth the effort, McIntyre insists, because people are a company's most important asset.

"I know it sounds like a clich, but it's true," he says. "And you have to give that more than lip service."

McIntyre makes reference to Jim Collins' book "Good to Great," and the idea that getting the right people "on the bus" and "in the right seats" is the secret to outstanding performance.

"Experience," he says, "has taught me that this really is the best guarantee of success."

And success is clearly what Allegra Network has achieved under McIntyre's guiding hand. It ranks in the top 150 in sales among all franchise companies in the world, supporting seven brands with more than 650 locations throughout the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Brazil and Japan. System members provide color printing, graphic design, copying, electronic publishing and online file transfer services.

Over the past decade, McIntyre has fueled long-term growth through a series of acquisitions, including the recent purchase of Signs Now Corp., which added the capacity to create and produce professional signs, banners and other visual communications tools.

In 2003, Allegra was ranked the 20th-fastest growing franchise and the best in its industry by Entrepreneur magazine, and last year was the 20th year that the company earned a spot on the publication's Annual Franchise 500 list, ranking it as one of the top business opportunities.

Stick to the basics

The secret to McIntyre's success can be found in the five fundamental values he uses to drive the company, guide its employees and franchisees, and inform all his decisions.

1. Show respect for individuals.

2. Go the extra mile. Most don't even go the first.

3. Attack the market, and don't forget that includes customer service.

4. Be quick to respond. ASAP should be standard operating procedure.

5. Aim high. Play fair.

"We want to be the best, not necessarily the biggest, in our industry," he says. "But this is a $20 billion arena, and we see plenty of opportunity for growth. I believe in the philosophy that a company either grows or dies. The question, of course, is how to manage that wisely"

McIntyre's response is to be meticulous in planning, diligent in monitoring and flexible in executing.

"There are always surprises," he says. "Plans have to be adjusted to meet unexpected realities. It may take more resources or additional people to get things off the ground than you bargained for."

McIntyre took over as president of Allegra in 1991. Under his watch, the company was restructured, re-branded and renamed, and he shepherded it through a dramatic shift in focus. Instead of selling simple printing services to consumers via an ever-increasing number of franchise locations, the company chose to concentrate on serving professional print buyers and increasing the value of existent locations.

As a result, franchise system sales grew to $265 million in 2004, up from $163 million in 1994.

In 1993 -- and again in 2000 -- the business was purchased by investor groups that included McIntyre and other members of the Allegra management team. Domino's Pizza founder and former CEO Thomas Monaghan is currently a principle shareholder in the privately-held company headquartered in Northville, Mich.

One thing that makes McIntyre and his organization different from others in the field is his commitment to Allegra's franchisees. The company provides opportunities for center owners to get together and offer location evaluations.

Not surprisingly, Allegra is considered a leader in franchise training. Operators are taught not only about quality control and production scheduling but also how to control cash flow and run a business by the numbers. It's all part of Allegra's Profit Mastery Program, which McIntyre says is critical to developing a well-educated group of franchisees who are dedicated to success.

McIntyre has also implemented an annual benchmarking study, which he uses to measure everything from profits to turnover. As a result, franchise profitability has increased in each of the last five years.

Technology assistance is another "extra" McIntyre takes pride in.

"We have staff that do nothing but chase down the latest equipment, test it and make recommendations," he says. "We also facilitate group buying."

From providing operational and marketing support to assisting franchisees in acquiring competitors within their local markets, the corporate parent makes the power of the network available to everyone in the Allegra family.

"If our franchise members aren't profitable," says McIntyre, "then we might as well turn off the lights and go home. That's why we put the emphasis on helping them succeed."

Shoot straight

In conversation, McIntyre comes across as a regular guy with an approach to leadership -- or at least a way of speaking about it -- that is a combination of folksy wisdom and business savvy. He's funny, friendly and easy to talk to. And during his 40-plus years in business, he's discovered that these qualities are just as important as more traditional management competencies.

"Running a company requires effective people skills," he says. "Nobody tells you this in business school. At least, they didn't tell me. Being a manager is like having a garden. You have to constantly tend it if you want anything to grow."

And as such, McIntyre lays out his vision for what it takes to be a good gardener.

"The goal is to motivate people to work together," he says. "That requires the ability to inspire trust. And I belie ve that's achieved through effective communication. "

Seventy people are employed by Allegra Network's corporate office and its franchisees employ about 3,500. McIntyre likes to communicate with them one-on-one and in small groups. That means he does a great deal of traveling and expects his managers to spend much of their time out of the office and on the road, promoting the company's culture, explaining strategic goals and introducing new initiatives.

"It takes doing a lot of little things, and doing them consistently, to establish rapport, build a team and reinforce the mission," he says.

Part of that includes how McIntyre develops his strategic plans for the future, using a brainstorming technique called mind mapping.

"Using words and drawings, you organize ideas and information into pictures on paper that help you see connections and relationships," he says.

And, it's often a team effort.

For McIntyre, all of this plays into a bigger issue that's at stake every day-- the payback for Allegra from his efforts.

"We're in a fight for market share," he says. "We have more power when we operate like a well-oiled machine, with all the parts working together. At Allegra, that's our real strength."

How to reach: Allegra Network, (248) 614-3700 or www.allegranetwork.com