Jessica Hanna

Sustainability is a key focus for Turner Construction Co. and Merchandise Mart Properties Inc. as construction of the Cleveland Medical Mart & Convention Center continues ahead of schedule and on budget.

Green initiatives began at the design stage – ranging from low-flow water fixtures to a green roof over the Convention Center – and have continued into the actual construction of the complex. More than 98 percent of the demolition and waste products from the old site were recycled, and 30 percent of the material going into the new building will be recycled material.

“Living green is all part of what we need to do for our future – and not our future, but our children’s future and their children’s future,” says Brian Milner, Cleveland MMCC director of operations. “And if we don’t start here from day one on this project, we’re going to be a step behind.”

Executives from Turner gave Smart Business an exclusive video interview to discuss the project's green initiatives:

Watch: "Cleveland MMCC: Green initiatives key to building construction, design"

This 36-month, $465 million construction venture is set to be completed by July 1, 2013 - two months ahead of schedule.

To see the project’s progress for yourself, check out the Cleveland MMCC live webcam.

How to reach: The Cleveland Medical Mart & Convention Center: www.ClevelandMedicalMart.com

Turner Construction Co. – Cleveland: www.TurnerConstruction.com/Cleveland

The Cleveland Medical Mart & Convention Center continues to take shape, and it is already enhancing the region’s economy.

The 36-month, $465 million construction venture currently employs nearly 600 tradespeople on site, 20 percent of whom are Cleveland residents and 51 percent Cuyahoga County residents.

“We’re working for Cuyahoga County,” says Dave Johnson, director of PR for Cleveland MMCC. “This is a public project. Not only is it one of the largest construction projects in North America right now, but it’s certainly one of the largest public construction projects taking place in North America.”

The project has also engaged area small businesses in contract work, with a project high of 35 percent being completed by Cuyahoga County small business enterprises.

“In relation to our goal of 25 percent, we’ve been able to exceed that county goal throughout the project,” says Project Executive Marty Burgwinkle of Turner Construction Co.

In addition to using local tradespeople and businesses to boost the region, Turner strives to streamline operations to avoid wasted labor. The company utilizes Building Information Management (BIM), which generates and manages a digital model of the project for use in construction planning and management.

Executives from Turner gave Smart Business an exclusive video interview to discuss how BIM has been used throughout all stages of the construction of the Cleveland Medical Mart & Convention Center:

Watch: “Cleveland Medical Mart & Convention Center: Building Information Management streamlines operations”

The entire construction project is 66 percent complete, and is on time and on budget to be completed by the original contractual date of Aug. 31, 2013, says Burgwinkle.

Permanent power was installed in the Convention Center in late May, with the entire facility on track to have permanent power by the end of the summer. July saw the topping out of the last structural steel beam for the Convention Center, as well as the last piece of precast for the Medical Mart.

To see the project’s progress for yourself, check out the Cleveland MMCC live webcam.

How to reach: The Cleveland Medical Mart & Convention Center, www.ClevelandMedicalMart.com

Turner Construction Co. – Cleveland, www.TurnerConstruction.com/Cleveland

The health care industry is slow to embrace change, William Day says.

“We're stuck in a rut,” says Day, president and CEO of St. Barnabas Health System. “Here (at the 2011 Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum), I've met with several health care people and it's exciting to hear what is going on, but if you look at the number of people here in health care, there aren't that many. What’s that say? The business community doesn't think we are entrepreneurial enough — and maybe we’re not.”

But Day has worked against that trend during his 44-year tenure at St. Barnabas, a nondenominational, not-for-profit health care system with several campuses located near Pittsburgh. He has significantly grown the 670-employee organization in physical size, the variety of services offered and the amount of free care given to those in need.

Smart Business sat down with Day at the 2011 Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum to discuss how he’s managed to innovate in his industry and engage patients and employees in the process.

Q: Where do you get ideas for innovation in health care?

What services are (customers) getting that we are not providing and that maybe we could provide better than somebody else? What services are not health care that we know they need?

I had dinner last night with a lady and her husband and this lady's father, who lives in our retirement building. (The son-in-law) said, ‘I’ve got one complaint. … Believe it or not, my father-in-law is really into computers. … Can you get a better computer connection?’ And I said, ‘I'll be on the BlackBerry tonight and you will be hearing from somebody tomorrow.’

If you have an individual customer who needs some help, don't blow it off when there's only one person. … We listen, and then do something about it.

Also, I like to read, and I like to read about success. What have other people done that's been successful, and is there some application?

Q: Where can you look for ideas in other industries?

There are lessons to be learned in the hospital business that are in the hospitality business, in this hotel. All we have to do is look around. You and I are in a very comfortable place. It's warm; it's friendly. How many people would say that about a typical hospital? How many would say that about a hospital room?

Is there a better customer service example than the Ritz-Carlton? … They are obviously smart, doing things that we didn't expect them to do.

Q: How do you find talented employees who can embrace change?

We like to grow our own. … We mentor them and we nurture them. And those are OK, a lot of people say that, but it actually has to happen. Reward success and not unfairly punish errors. … We try to motivate and that works most of the time, and that in turn gets back to our customers, to the patient.

There are things I don't know, so I have to trust people who do and then get out of the way. Let them do a good job and come up with innovative ideas to take care of the patient.

We are getting closer and closer with the Pittsburgh Technical Institute. ... I’m on the board there. I've been very impressed with what they are doing with virtual emergency room, virtual intensive care. The way that our future employees are being taught at PTI just excites me because it's going to be better for our customers and our patients.

Q: How do you engage employees in the innovation process?

Almost everybody can be creative. We have to have an atmosphere where they are comfortable doing that and that they can make mistakes. But … we can't make mistakes in health care. That's all there is to it. We can't do it; it's zero tolerance. But to be successful and grow, that's what has to be. There is no substitute for it. So we sit and talk.

Some of the best meetings we've ever had were over a glass of wine or a glass of tea. That's what I think brings people out. … It's off the record. They are free to say to me, ‘Well, we’re not so sure about that.’ I say, ‘OK. Let's sit and talk about it again. What would Ritz-Carlton do?’

How to reach: St. Barnabas Health System, (724) 443-0700 or www.stbarnabashealthsystem.com

With the real estate industry showing signs of improvement, now is the time to take advantage of the soft market and recast your lease.

“This very well may be the bottom for the commercial real estate market as it relates to lease rates,” says Rick Pifer, vice president of Plante Moran CRESA, a real estate consulting firm in Southfield, Mich. “You are in a leveraged position to use your tenancy to lower lease rates.”

Nearly $50 billion in loans on commercial buildings are coming due within a year, written during the height of the real estate bubble, and your continued long-term tenancy offers strong leverage for the building owner during the refinancing of these loans. Vacancy rates, which climbed rapidly in 2007, have remained level for three years and appear to show signs of decline. The window of opportunity to lock in the most aggressive rates and take advantage of a tenant’s market may be closing in the very near future.

Smart Business spoke with Pifer about how companies can take advantage of the current real estate climate to lock into a better lease, before it is too late.

Why is now the best time to consider a recast?

Commercial building loans are typically in duration for five-, seven-, or 10-year terms. As loans are coming due, building owners are in a position where they are forced to refinance, so the length of term remaining on your lease is more valuable than the lease rate itself.

A landlord ideally wants 95 to 100 percent occupancy at all times. Vacancies cost a lot of money in operating expenses and lost rent, and securing new tenants adds to that bill.

The high rate of vacancies we have seen in the down market has really hurt property owners, and they need to retain tenants. This makes them more willing to negotiate on your lease obligation in exchange for a longer commitment from you.

But rates actually appear to be going up as vacancy decreases. There has been relatively no new construction of speculative office buildings over the last four to five years, and for the first time in that time period, the trend appears to be toward decreased vacancy rates.

As a result, we are seeing positive absorption, which means more space was leased in the market than has become available. Lessees need to take advantage of the market before it rebounds.

How many years should a lessee have left on a lease to consider a recast?

As long as you are more than halfway through the term or have less than four years remaining on the lease, you should consider a recast. It may not always make sense to do it, but it is something that should at least be evaluated as a potential cash flow relief.

What other determining factors should a lessee look at when considering a recast?

One of the main components is the building and location. Do they make sense from a long-term, strategic position? If the answer is yes, then locking in today’s market makes a lot of sense strategically and financially.

You are looking at making a commitment of time to a building. If the building works for your organization and you do not have any reservations about making a long-term commitment to the building, then recasting the lease makes sense.

Should a lessee approach the landlord directly to renegotiate?

No. One of the key components in renegotiating is utilizing a tenant-only representative, someone who has no independence issues as it relates to representing the landlord. The representative advocates solely on behalf of the tenant’s interests and has a fiduciary responsibility only to the tenant.

Tenants sometimes feel that they are in a position to approach the landlord directly, but what they overlook is the fact that the landlord is a real estate professional. Handling real estate transactions is what they do day in and day out, which has helped them be successful as a landlord. A lot of leverage can be obtained with market knowledge, which may not be readily accessible to those who are not working in the real estate profession on a daily basis.

Also, if a tenant approaches a landlord directly, the seriousness of the intent is a hard message to deliver. It is similar to telling someone you are going to sue them. It is more effective if an attorney sends a letter than you saying you are going to do it. If someone hires the services of a tenant-only representative, the landlord understands the seriousness of the intent of the tenant.

Additionally, there is always the opportunity to re-evaluate space utilization in making sure that the space is working and is optimized for the business. Look for a tenant-only representative who can take a strategic approach in looking at all facets of the real estate instead of just looking at the lease rate. It is important to evaluate all of the components of the lease and align the space to the strategic business plan from a real estate perspective.

That will allow you to get a strategic real estate decision that allows you to optimize your tenancy to leverage the best deal the market will offer. In addition to a lower lease rate, you may be able to negotiate for a rent abatement provision, more flexible cancellation provisions, lowered operating expenses and updates to the space’s interior.

Rick Pifer is vice president of Plante Moran CRESA, a real estate consulting firm based in Southfield, Mich. Reach him at (248) 223-3698 or www.pmcresa.com or rick.pifer@plantemoran.com.

Insights Real Estate is brought to you by Plante Moran CRESA

As an executive, you’ve spent a tremendous amount of time building your company. Choosing to enter into a sale transaction is a major decision that will determine the future of the company you’ve worked so hard to grow, as well as your own.

“Because of that, you want to do all you can to protect the deal if you conclude it’s the best thing for the company, and also to protect yourself from liability,” says Marc Schneider, General Counsel for Stradling Yocca Carlson & Rauth and a Shareholder in the securities and business litigation department.

Taking measures to protect the deal and yourself isn’t just a precaution — it’s a necessity. Schneider warns that these types of transactions are magnets for shareholder challenges, often resulting in lawsuits.

“But if you take the right steps, you’ll be in a very good position to either effectively defend the suit or prevent the suit from ever happening in the first place,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Schneider about how businesses should approach M&A deals to prioritize shareholders and protect both the transaction and themselves.

Why are M&A deals at such risk from stockholder attack?

Shareholders’ positions change fundamentally — these deals generally mean an exit for them. This simply is not an ordinary transaction, so it receives a lot of attention from shareholders.

And just as importantly, these transactions have received more attention from the plaintiff’s bar over the last few years.  As with any other business, the plaintiff’s bar tends to reallocate its resources to more productive uses.

We’ve seen fewer stock price drop cases because recent legislation has made those cases more expensive and difficult to bring.  So the plaintiff’s bar has been increasingly focused on M&A activity, which is not as impacted by this legislation.

What should management and the board focus on when considering a deal?

The No. 1 goal is finding the best deal for shareholders, because their responsibility is to those shareholders — not to a deal or their own interests.  And the best deal may be no deal; they should evaluate whether there are alternatives to selling that may create more shareholder value. When deciding between deals, the board may also consider factors other than price, such as closing risks and whether the deal includes an effective fiduciary out or a go-shop provision.

What are management and the board’s roles in the M&A process?

Management plays an important role, but that role is shaped both by the nature of the deal and the board’s approach to the deal. The board may decide to have management more involved or less involved.

The board must consider if there are any significant conflicts, such as whether or not members of management will be continuing with the company after the merger and whether their current compensation packages will be impacted. The board should be very active and well informed throughout the process, asking questions of management and the bankers.

How can businesses proactively protect the deal and themselves?

The first step is to do a thorough check of the market for an acquisition, as well as consider strategic alternatives to an acquisition. Think about creating a special committee of independent directors, as well as retaining an investment banker, to help with that market check and to take the lead on negotiations with potential bidders. When the potential bidders seek due diligence, consider an electronic data room to give equal access to all potential, serious bidders so there can’t be any allegations of favoritism.

For the same reason, when management is involved in due diligence or answering questions for potential bidders, consider a chaperone for management, which could be one of the independent directors from the committee or the banker. And you shouldn’t release management to negotiate their own deals for their post-acquisition roles until after the material deal terms are set.

In addition, make sure to do a transparent, accurate, and thorough job telling your story in the preliminary proxy — a critical document. Explain that you have conducted a thorough market check and had a solid process in place. This can help protect your deal and even discourage lawsuits.

Get a lawyer involved early on in the process to help the board and management understand their fiduciary duties and how best to meet them, and to help you put together a good, defensible process.

If named in a merger litigation, what action should a business take?

These types of litigations move really quickly, so it’s critical that you immediately retain experienced counsel that’s used to handling these types of litigations.

It’s also critical that you contact your directors and officers liability insurance carrier right away. Usually, a company has D&O insurance to cover these matters, and you want to act quickly to get the carrier involved in the potential litigation.

Marc Schneider is General Counsel for Stradling Yocca Carlson & Rauth and a Shareholder in the securities and business litigation department. Reach him at MSchneider@SYCR.com.

Insights Legal Affairs is brought to you by Stradling Yocca Carlson & Rauth

Monday, 30 April 2012 20:01

Inclusion drives economic growth

Inclusion of minority and women-owned companies isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s the smart thing to do to economically benefit the region.

That’s the message from the Northeast Ohio Economic Inclusion Forum Series. The series aims to engage the public, private and nonprofit sectors in creating a targeted, comprehensive economic inclusion action plan for Northeast Ohio.

“A lot of growth in the economy comes from small businesses, and minority small businesses are an important part of that fabric,” says Sandra Pianalto, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. “It is very important to our economic growth, both from a region and a country, to have every individual, every part of the workforce, fully engaged.”

The March panel for the third phase of the series, “Perspectives from the Private Sector,” discussed the role larger companies can and should play in fostering economic inclusion, and how this benefits their business.

Create a diverse staff to foster innovation

Inclusion begins internally with the hiring of a diverse workforce, says Chris Connor, chairman and CEO of Sherwin Williams. This ensures you can provide relatable service to your customer base.

“We look to hire, recruit, train and develop the leadership of our company from this broad spectrum of different folks so that we can, in fact, emulate and look like our customers,” Connor says.

A diverse staff also fosters innovation and creativity by bringing together diverse perspectives.

Diversity of ideas is critical to better decision-making,” Pianalto says. “We made it a part of our strategic direction almost 10 years ago to make sure that we had a very diverse and inclusive organization and culture.”

To ensure an inclusive culture, inclusion must be embraced, communicated and incentivized from the top down.

“This is a topic that gets discussed in the boardroom; it’s a goal that I’m measured on by my board,” Connor says. “There are compensation and incentive goals on this topic of inclusion, so it’s on everybody’s hearts and minds. We just made this a business prerogative as opposed to a check-the-box, to-do project.”

How you can help

Although Pianalto says bank lending is on the rise, the current economic state makes it difficult for small companies to gain access to capital. That’s where larger companies can step in to help their client companies.

Paint manufacturing companies commonly support professional painting contractors by selling them the equipment and materials they need on credit. This enables the contractors to begin work, hire others and generate cash flow.

“You’re seeing more businesses step in in a very focused, strategic segment of supporting customers in providing some of that financial quota to get these things going,” Connor says. “We’ve done a lot of that for minorities, and we’ve been richly rewarded by that.”

Larger companies can also ensure smaller companies are able to do business by “unbundling” large projects, breaking it down into smaller pieces so that people have the chance to bid on types of business that they’re capable of handling.

This method was adopted in the building of Cleveland’s Horseshoe Casino, with a point scale used to evaluate potential contractors’ levels of inclusion.

“It takes a little bit more coordination on the front end, but at the back end, the rewards, the mentality, the excitement it creates within the job of people that would have never been afforded this opportunity before is immeasurable,” says Jeff Cohen, CEO and founder of Rock Cos. and vice chairman of the Cleveland Cavaliers and co-visionary of the Ohio Casino Initiative.

While this unbundling can help small companies on a local level, Warren Anderson, president and general manager of Anderson DuBose — the 17th largest African American-owned industrial services company in the U.S. — says this unbundling can hurt growing minority and women-owned companies by making a job too small.

“If you’re a small-to-medium company like mine, a small contract is too small,” he says. “But a national contract with a bundled approach across the country is too large.”

With that in mind, companies can also take another approach to inclusion by giving big contracts to prime contractors that are capable of handling the magnitude and encouraging them to partner with smaller subcontractors for local materials and labor. Cohen says such partnerships added value to potential contractors on the casino project’s inclusion evaluation scale.

Service matters

Women- and minority-owned firms have an obligation to earn business through top-notch service, says Anderson.

“I compete for contracts based on superior price, service and personnel,” he says. “So to me, in terms of running my business, it’s about being as good as anybody and being attractive … for companies to award contracts to, so I’m included in the bids.”

Successful women and minority-owned firms also have an obligation to help other women- and minority-owned businesses with their growth.

“We encourage those who have been successful to turn around, reach back and lend a helping hand to those who have not been as fortunate,” Cohen says. “You need to provide those opportunities, because in many instances, that’s all it’s about — being given the opportunity to perform.”

For more information:

Watch “Rachel Talton of Synergy says economic inclusion action plan will benefit northeast Ohio”

Watch “Jodi Berg of Vitamix Corp. says inclusion promotes innovation and inspiration”

How to reach: The Northeast Ohio Economic Inclusion Forum Series, http://theciviccommons.com/issues/neo-economic-inclusion

When Nokia implemented a mobile marketing campaign to customers in Australia, they did not take into account their users’ privacy from a legal or brand standpoint. The company’s tips for getting the most out of a phone qualified as spam-texting, and instead of boosting business, Nokia was fined $58,000 fine earlier this year and has suffered reduced sales in the region.

“There are laws going into place now more and more around what you can do in mobile marketing,” says J. Robert Kamal, president, CEO and founder of Kohorts IT, a mobile marketing services company headquartered in Brighton, Mich. “ And the biggest common pitfall we’ve seen is companies trying to do this on their own without any experience at all.”

Businesses are increasingly looking to mobile marketing campaigns as mobile usage continues to rise. In fact, mobile Internet access will surpass traditional PC access by 2013, according to Gartner Research.

But in order to take advantage of this new era of marketing, it is increasingly important for businesses to focus on compliance with privacy standards – those set by governments and by customer expectations.

Account for privacy laws

One of the most common mistakes companies make is to create national or even global mobile marketing campaigns based on the assumptions of their local laws, Kamal says. Identify the privacy laws for all regions your campaign will penetrate.

Privacy laws, including the proposed US Mobile Privacy Act, commonly focus on: what data you will be collecting via mobile devices, who will have access to it and what it will be used for.

“Additionally, the user must agree to the privacy policy before data’s gathered, with the opportunity to opt out,” Kamal says. “And you must clearly identify yourself as the marketer. If those things aren’t in place, than you could be putting yourself exposed to legal risk on future litigation.”

Do not share information with a party not listed in your privacy policy – a common pitfall in business.

“If you collect data on a marketing campaign that you did legitimately for one purpose with a customer, and then you took the data from that customer and sold it to another company, that’s a problem,” Kamal says.

In addition to maintaining users’ privacy, you need to respect it in your marketing techniques.

“Engaging in spamming on mobile devices, thinking that because they’re your current customer, it’s not really spamming, is not necessarily the case,” Kamal says. “Those laws differ from country to country.”

Know your brand

In addition to legal issues, spamming can damage your brand image. Think about how you want to portray your business to customers.

“Is your brand a high-quality, sort of expensive brand? If it is, a spam marketing campaign or a campaign that does not respect privacy might actually damage that brand image that you spent so much time building.” Kamal says. “Look at spammers as a sign of a lowbrow marketing campaign.”

Take time to “purpose build” your campaign, as opposed to developing and implementing a mobile marketing program as quickly as possible. Consider a mobile services company to help you do so if you’re new to the process.

“Put a little thought into who your target audience is, what would be effective to actually run the campaign and (what your) intended results are,” Kamal says. “That reduces the risks and a lot of heartache with the client.”

Target your approach

Considering those factors allows you to target your approach in order to market to people with a high redemption rate. Using demand-draw or opt-in methods attract a relevant audience, as opposed to forcing marketing on random prospects.

“You can probably find a list somewhere that might have some relevance to what you’re marketing, but in the end, you’re going to have a high failure rate with just sort of a spam marketing program,” Kamal says.

Users who find the information irrelevant can easily block future messages from your company, as well as all automated messages.

“It’s hard for users to disseminate the difference between a fraud message and a legitimate marketing message unless you are taking into account the user’s privacy,” Kamal says. “Marketing that shows up on someone’s mobile device that they weren’t expecting doesn’t have a high return.”

Utilize social media

Mobile marketing and social media are inherently tied, as mobile devices are now driving most social media, Kamal says. By combining social media and mobile techniques in your marketing campaign, you can more successfully foster demand-draw.

“Set up a contest on social media that maybe draws demand and gets your message across,” Kamal says. “Then people actually ask for your offering. … Those campaigns tend to have a much, much higher redemption rate than campaigns where you just spam users.”

Social media also gives you access to a wealth of information on people’s wants and needs, which you can use to identify prospects.

“You can send back a response to their (post about selling a car) on social media saying, ‘Hey, we have this offer. We’ll buy your car at Blue Book price … as part of a promotion,’” Kamal says. “Then you can embed in the message back – let’s say it’s Twitter – ‘Just text this message to get your coupon code and show up at the dealer and you’ll get your reward.’

“Customers look at … those kind of marketing campaigns as actually useful. Because at the end of the day, if you were gong to buy a car anyway or trade in a car anyway, if you could get $500 off just for going to one dealer versus the next, you wouldn’t see that as an inconvenience. Nor is it an invasion of your privacy.”

How to reach: KoHorts IT, 810-355-1400 or http://kohorts-it.com

Monday, 02 April 2012 16:57

Downtown on the rise

One phrase continues to describe construction of the Cleveland Medical Mart & Convention Center since its January 2011 groundbreaking — “on time.”

Scheduled to open in summer 2013, punctual completion of the project is key because Merchandise Mart Properties Inc. (MMPI) has already begun booking conventions and tradeshows, and tenants have already committed to moving into the Medical Mart, says Dave Johnson, project director of public relations.

Project Executive Marty Burgwinkle of Turner Construction Co. is confident the 36-month, $465 million construction venture will continue to hit all milestones as planned.

“Their goal is our goal: let’s just get this done,” Burgwinkle says. “Let’s get it done on time, let’s stay within the budget and let’s have a quality facility. All those goals are what we work on every day to make happen.”

Now 45 percent complete, Turner has achieved several construction milestones since the last Smart Business update:

1) The Feb. 1 “topping out” of the Medical Mart building, marking the placement of the final steel beam.

2) Completion of all trade purchases, meaning the job is now 100 percent bought out.

3) The start of the structural steel erection south of Lakeside Drive.

4) Completion of the site work alongside Public Auditorium on East Mall Drive, which needed to be completed by April 1 for the coming Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum induction ceremonies.

“Our intent is that we’re going to hit all these milestones every time up until the completion in summer of 2013, stay within budget for the county, and the taxpayers are going to get what they asked for,” Burgwinkle says.

For more information: Executives from Turner and MMPI gave Smart Business an exclusive video interview to discuss the work that’s propelling the Cleveland Medical Mart & Convention Center project to new heights:

Watch: “Ready to rock for Rock Hall Induction ceremonies: Public Auditorium update, Cleveland MMCC”

Watch: “What do you do with 11,800 tons of steel? Steel update, Cleveland MMCC”

Also, be sure to check out the Cleveland MMCC live webcam.

How to reach: The Cleveland Medical Mart & Convention Center, www.ClevelandMedicalMart.com

Turner Construction Co., Cleveland: www.TurnerConstruction.com/Cleveland

NIVEA Global was looking to partner with a celebrity who could genuinely represent its skincare products in a worldwide marketing initiative celebrating its 100th year. Enlisting the services of Brand Synergy Group, a marketing firm with strong ties in the entertainment industry, NIVEA discovered a perfect match in singer Rihanna, who had been introduced to the brand by her grandmother.

BSG Partner and Vice President Laura Striese joined former Island Def Jam Music Group co-worker and current BSG CEO Jeff Straughn when he founded the firm two years ago, combining their experience in strategic marketing for the entertainment industry to build a marketing agency that pairs celebrities with corporations for advertising and promotional campaigns.

The five-person firm’s portfolio has grown to include partnerships across various industries between well-known names such as Cee Lo Green and Duracell.

“(We) create strategies, really take time with our clients to sit down and decide what it is they’re looking to accomplish and how we can partner them with artists to help them do so,” Striese says.

Identifying constituents’ needs and goals is the first step to facilitating a successful partnership. Begin by reviewing clients’ past methods and strategies, identifying failures as well as successes.

“You never want to spin your wheels and work on something that’s already been vetted, tried and executed, and failed,” Striese says.

This interaction should be direct and personal.

“It’s really important to maintain that level of face-to-face interpersonal communication,” Stirese says. “You have to spend plenty of time sitting down with the client and really getting an understanding of what they’re looking to achieve. And it’s not just a matter of sitting in one meeting; it’s a matter of spending a lot of time with them to understand their long-term goals. Work alongside their existing agencies. … All the information is out there – the goals of all their different silos, be it digital or sales, whatever.”

In addition to giving deeper insight, this personalized association fosters trust – a necessary element for collaboration.

“It’s a bit intimidating,” Striese says. “Where do you begin? How are we going to be able to work together? How do we even begin to have that conversation?”

“A lot of this comes down to word of mouth and the element of trust. … They feel comfortable sharing the information with us and letting us know where projects are going, because they too see the value in this partnership marketing.”

Maintain this personal level of interaction even when not face-to-face to strengthen the relationship, as well as bolster creative exchange.

“Pick up the phone and call people when you need to speak to them, and really work through ideas that way,” Striese says. “E-mails (you) can rely on to follow up and do the next-step-type stuff, but the conceptualizing and getting those ideas fleshed out, we need to really speak to one another.”

Direct communication also ensures clarity.

“When you can deal directly with the brands and with the artists, you understand what both agendas are – you don’t have other people weighing in about their cut of that.”

Once the needs and goals of your constituents have been identified, you can more accurately plan potential partnerships. Brand Synergy Group uses a methodology called Brand Alignment Matrix to evaluate artists’ and brands’ compatibility.

“On one axis we list all of the artists we’re considering for a campaign, and on the other we list all of the brand’s attributes,” Striese says. “We determine which artists are really going to fit for the brand and make sure they will resonate with the brand consumers.”

After taking the time to identify and align constituents’ needs, you then need to facilitate communication between the involved parties.

“Often times they probably feel as though they’re speaking different languages, but at the same time, ultimately, you can help decipher what they’re saying because at the end of the day, they’re both looking to achieve the same thing,” Striese says.

How to reach: Brand Synergy Group, (212) 584-8045 or www.brandsynergygroup.com

Direct approach

Personal communication is a key focus internally for Brand Synergy Group.

“Work really hard as a team to make sure that the team members have all the information that they need, that they’re well-informed, that they have the insight they need to be confident in their ability to create and execute a strategy,” says Laura Striese, co-founder and vice president.

Face-to-face interaction is integral to ensuring employees are well informed.

“Even though we’re in this digital age where e-mails are supposed to help keep businesses moving and flowing, I think a lot of times … that can slow you down,” Striese says. “Get up, get out of your chair and go talk to them.”

This will also push employees to be more independent.

“If you can always reach somebody by e-mail, you can always ask somebody else what you think you should do,” Striese says. “It’s really about delegating and making sure there are great people on the team that are all responsible for different aspects of the business.

While we all work together to strategize and execute, ultimately one or two people are going to be closest to the project and be responsible to make those decisions. So they feel confident they don’t always have to check with everybody else - sometimes there are just moments where you have to make those decisions on the fly, and because they’re closest to it, it’s a well-educated decision.”

Inclusion of minority and women-owned companies isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s the smart thing to do to economically benefit the region.

That’s the message from the Northeast Ohio Economic Inclusion Forum Series. The series aims to engage the public, private and nonprofit sectors in creating a targeted, comprehensive economic inclusion action plan for Northeast Ohio.

“A lot of growth in the economy comes from small businesses, and minority small businesses are an important part of that fabric,” says Sandra Pianalto, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. “It is very important to our economic growth, both from a region and a country, to have every individual, every part of the workforce, fully engaged.”

The March panel for the third phase of the series, “Perspectives from the Private Sector,” discussed the role larger companies can and should play in fostering economic inclusion, and how this benefits their business.

Create a diverse staff to foster innovation

Inclusion begins internally with the hiring of a diverse workforce, says Chris Connor, chairman and CEO of Sherwin Williams. This ensures you can provide relatable service to your customer base.

“We look to hire, recruit, train and develop the leadership of our company from this broad spectrum of different folks so that we can, in fact, emulate and look like our customers,” Connor says.

A diverse staff also fosters innovation and creativity by bringing together diverse perspectives.

Diversity of ideas is critical to better decision-making,” Pianalto says. “We made it a part of our strategic direction almost 10 years ago to make sure that we had a very diverse and inclusive organization and culture.”

To ensure an inclusive culture, inclusion must be embraced, communicated and incentivized from the top down.

“This is a topic that gets discussed in the boardroom; it’s a goal that I’m measured on by my board,” Connor says. “There are compensation and incentive goals on this topic of inclusion, so it’s on everybody’s hearts and minds. We just made this a business prerogative as opposed to a check-the-box, to-do project.”

How you can help

Although Pianalto says bank lending is on the rise, the current economic state makes it difficult for small companies to gain access to capital. That’s where larger companies can step in to help their client companies.

Paint manufacturing companies commonly support professional painting contractors by selling them the equipment and materials they need on credit. This enables the contractors to begin work, hire others and generate cash flow.

“You’re seeing more businesses step in in a very focused, strategic segment of supporting customers in providing some of that financial quota to get these things going,” Connor says. “We’ve done a lot of that for minorities, and we’ve been richly rewarded by that.”

Larger companies can also ensure smaller companies are able to do business by “unbundling” large projects, breaking it down into smaller pieces so that people have the chance to bid on types of business that they’re capable of handling.

This method was adopted in the building of Cleveland’s Horseshoe Casino, with a point scale used to evaluate potential contractors’ levels of inclusion.

“It takes a little bit more coordination on the front end, but at the back end, the rewards, the mentality, the excitement it creates within the job of people that would have never been afforded this opportunity before is immeasurable,” says Jeff Cohen, CEO and founder of Rock Cos. and vice chairman of the Cleveland Cavaliers and co-visionary of the Ohio Casino Initiative.

While this unbundling can help small companies on a local level, Warren Anderson, president and general manager of Anderson DuBose — the 17th largest African American-owned industrial services company in the U.S. — says this unbundling can hurt growing minority and women-owned companies by making a job too small.

“If you’re a small-to-medium company like mine, a small contract is too small,” he says. “But a national contract with a bundled approach across the country is too large.”

With that in mind, companies can also take another approach to inclusion by giving big contracts to prime contractors that are capable of handling the magnitude and encouraging them to partner with smaller subcontractors for local materials and labor. Cohen says such partnerships added value to potential contractors on the casino project’s inclusion evaluation scale.

Service matters

Women- and minority-owned firms have an obligation to earn business through top-notch service, says Anderson.

“I compete for contracts based on superior price, service and personnel,” he says. “So to me, in terms of running my business, it’s about being as good as anybody and being attractive … for companies to award contracts to, so I’m included in the bids.”

Successful women and minority-owned firms also have an obligation to help other women- and minority-owned businesses with their growth.

“We encourage those who have been successful to turn around, reach back and lend a helping hand to those who have not been as fortunate,” Cohen says. “You need to provide those opportunities, because in many instances, that’s all it’s about — being given the opportunity to perform.”

For more information:

Watch “Rachel Talton of Synergy says economic inclusion action plan will benefit northeast Ohio”

Watch “Jodi Berg of Vitamix Corp. says inclusion promotes innovation and inspiration”

How to reach: The Northeast Ohio Economic Inclusion Forum Series, http://theciviccommons.com/issues/neo-economic-inclusion

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