Craig Clark is one of several general managers who have held the position at The Rivers Casino within its first three years of operation. But that inconsistency at the leadership role has made it hard to create programs that benefit the casino’s customers as well as its employees.

The Rivers Casino, which opened in 2009, has more than 1,800 employees and saw 2011 revenue of $434 million. Clark, who became GM in June 2011, has been focused on enhancing both the customer and employee experience to make the casino a better business overall.

“The key is really consistency of leadership so you can put together programs with the community and programs within the facility to allow team members to grow and advance,” Clark says. “I think that’s the key to my leadership. In the gaming industry some people move around, but for myself I like to be located at one facility for quite a period of time.”

Before coming to Rivers, Clark spent nearly 15 years at Turning Stone in upstate New York where he was able to develop the facility.

“That’s where I spent most of my career, and we had a complex there that we kept adding to for years and years,” Clark says. “(In Pittsburgh) we have a great complete facility that we keep creating different entertainment experiences within and reasons for our customers to come and visit.”

Currently, Rivers Casino has 80 table games, 30 poker table games and 2,970 slot machines. It also includes five different food and beverage outlets, a banquet space and three bar locations on the casino floor. All combined, there is plenty of opportunity to impress guests with customer service and create programs that motivate the employees.

Here is how Clark is driving customer- and employee-related initiatives.

Develop key programs

In an industry where excellent customer service and employee training are staples of operating a business, it isn’t enough to simply talk about having good service. To ensure customers are treated well and employees get opportunities to advance, you have to implement programs that keep service and training as a top priority.

“We have a variety of different programs here at the property,” Clark says. “We’ve introduced a 12-Star program, which is a program for our young business leaders to learn more about all operations of the facility.

“We have leadership training components within that training program. We have accounting practices. We have how to do a review and give good feedback to team members when you give them their annual review. It’s a 12 different part program.”

While one program may be aimed at learning all aspects of the casino business, other programs offer employees a chance to learn what it takes to perform specific jobs.

“We have a dealer school here where people from outside can interview and be trained as dealers and team members who are currently dealers can learn other games that they might not have perfected to date,” he says.

The casino also has programs aimed at recognizing employees who are going above and beyond the expectations of their jobs.

“We’ve put in a program for team member of the month and we have team member of the year, where both an hourly and a salaried team member are recognized for their great contributions to the facility,” he says.

“We are also putting together right now a supervisory leadership training program focusing on how to ensure our supervisors are consistent and thorough in their coaching and their mentoring of team members so we get the right consistency throughout the organization.”

While setting up a program is one thing, continuing to improve it and make necessary changes is another. The key is to view it as an on-going process.

“It doesn’t start one day and end another day,” Clark says. “It’s actually a process that you have to live and breathe and it has to be part of your business soul. You need to focus on it each day because as a leader, the team members are looking at you as the example.”

When you can listen to employees and listen to their ideas and make a positive change, that’s how these programs are developed. You have to ensure your team continues to focus on service levels because it’s not lost on clients, customers or guests.

“Our guests have such a high expectation of coming here and they all want to be treated as if they’re that special person; our goal each and every day is to ensure that we do that and they walk away with a memory and an experience of coming here to the Rivers,” Clark says.

Be well-rounded

One of the biggest reasons Rivers Casino has the amount of opportunities available to its employees is to offer them a chance to grow and learn about the whole business. This creates employees who thoroughly enjoy what they do and strive to be well-rounded.

“Sometimes people are narrowly focused and I think the more that you can explain to them or educate them on more parts of the business, the more valuable they become to your organization,” Clark says. “If a dealer understands how the marketing promotions are being created and what our goals are with those programs, they’re our salespeople that are out there each and every day and it just makes them more informed and better team members and better guest service professionals.”

To help encourage employees to become well-rounded, it is crucial that you provide outlets for them to be recognized.

“Those types of programs start from one-on-one contact with team members and ensuring that you recognize them as you walk around the facility and thank them for their hard work,” he says. “That’s something that business leaders need to continue to focus on because that pat on the back is one of the best rewards that a person can have each and every day if somebody can have that personalized recognition.”

Another way to develop your employees is to establish expected criteria and highlight the individuals who provide strong examples of the attitude, behavior and work ethic you expect.

“When you look at human resource programs, we try to create the criteria that establish what the right business behavior for a team member or team leader is,” Clark says. “We want to take those people who are examples of that behavior every day and put them on a pedestal so people look at them and say, ‘Matt is a great guest service deliverer every day. He walks the walk and coaches team members.’

“He is an example that they can look at for that consistency. Consistency is the hard part in the hospitality business because things happen in your personal life and when you come to work you have to shed anything that’s not positive and ensure you put that smile on your face and be positive and proactive in what you do at the workplace.”

Strong employee development ultimately comes down to how much employees want to help themselves become better. If you can get your employees to want to achieve greater things and you allow them outlets to suggest improvements, you create a culture that fosters continuous improvement.

“Quite often some of the best ideas come from listening to your team members,” Clark says. “Keep an open mind. I’ll walk the casino floor and some of the best ideas I get are from team members who come up to me with suggestions or ideas that were passed on from a customer. You have to take those ideas, and as a leader our job is to align the resources, when practical, to implement those great ideas.”

On a quarterly basis Clark does something he calls “communication corner” where he sets up a table in the team member cafeteria for all three shifts to get their input.

“I ask them for their ideas, suggestions and concerns because a third of the ideas come from the leadership team and their experience, a third comes from our team members who are in the workplace each day and a third comes from customers,” he says. “So I can get two-thirds of the knowledge I need by just listening to our team members.”

An outlet such as Clark’s communication corner is a great way to gain access to employee’s ideas. However, the key to continuing that practice is to show them you are acting on those ideas.

“A lot of it is listening to those ideas and then having the team members see the change,” he says. “That openness to listening as well as showing action, positive actions reinforce that behavior. It’s like anything else in life, if you’re an athlete or if you’re a business leader, you have to exercise those behaviors. As business leaders we have to exercise the behavior of listening and we have to exercise the behavior of implementing the things that are practical to our businesses and cost-effective.”

Drive customer service

The concept of customer service seems simple on the surface, but to achieve it and be a leader at it your company takes the right employees first.

“One of the keys is starting with the selection process of the team member,” Clark says. “The next most important thing is we have a two-day orientation here at the property. Part of it is going through policies and part of it is really talking about hospitality and talking about our guests and the expectations of our guests.

“Also, it’s how we ensure that we are focused on those good behaviors to make it a great experience for the guests when they come here and how all the systems work.”

An orientation program is a key way to set the tone for someone arriving in the company. It gives employees a good overview of the type of businesses that they’re entering in to and ensuring they’re the right person. The casino doesn’t stop there.

“From that, we have a 90-day checklist program which really follows the job description and what their core functions are as a team member,” Clark says. “We make sure we go through that checklist to ensure that we have good training programs set up to ensure that they focus on the job function, the quality and the service.

“Those types of things tend to work out well where team members really understand the expectation and deliver the best results.”

To measure whether employees understand their job and are delivering desired results, it is important to have some form of review in place.

“We do a 90-day review of a person who joins the organization and then an annual review,” he says. “An annual review should never really be a surprise. It should be a summary of the year’s performance of the team member. The key is to have ongoing communication and ongoing coaching and praise.

“When you have a balanced program and all those cogs of the wheel are working together, that’s where you have the best result. If there is something team members need to advance their skill on, the key is helping them out with that as soon as it’s identified. If they’re doing great things it’s recognizing them immediately because that’s where you’re going to create the best team loyalty and the best team culture.”

To keep customer service levels at their peak it is important that you use what resources you have available to you. Rivers recently implemented a secret shopper program to help test customer service.

“We have an independent party that will evaluate service levels looking at it from a guest perspective,” Clark says. “A shopper service will come in and they’ll go through experiences as if they were a guest and then give us their feedback on individual team members and the property overall.”

There are a lot of great resources, some of them free and some of them you can acquire. “You have to stay current on different practices and different education processes,” he says. “The world is changing rapidly when it comes to online training. We’ve put several tutorial programs in place this year. The key is really seeing what the most effective way is to use this technology to train team members and ensure that they are current on all their practices.”

How to reach: The Rivers Casino, (412) 231-7777 or www.theriverscasino.com

Takeaways

-          Design programs around initiatives.

-          Provide opportunity and outlets for employees.

-          Enhance the customer experience.

The Clark File

Craig Clark

General manager

Rivers Casino

Born: Endicott, NY

Education: Received an associate degree from Broome Community College in business administration. He also has a bachelor’s of science degree from SUNY Binghamton.

What was your first job, and what did you learn from that experience?

I worked with my father as a residential carpenter during high school up until I graduated with my bachelor’s degree. What I took away from that was hard work, an understanding of what you can create with your hands, and a strong work ethic.

What is some advice that has held true through your career?

One of the things I think is most important is education. Somebody should always focus on educating themselves and continue that education throughout their life.

Who is someone you look up to in the industry?

I spent most of my career at Turning Stone and I worked with Frank Riolo. He was somebody who always believed in me and continued to challenge me and give me opportunities to grow.

Do you ever gamble and what is your favorite game?

In the state of Pennsylvania, I rarely gamble. If I make a trip to Vegas, I gamble a little bit, but not very much. I like to play craps. I enjoy the entertainment experience.

What are you looking forward to at Rivers Casino?

I’m looking forward to the continued development of Rivers. I love to grow a business and I really believe in the business plan. That’s why I enjoy this job because I can see the growth of the team members and the growth of the property and the success that’s driven by both of those.

Published in Pittsburgh
Friday, 31 August 2012 20:00

Stephan Liozu: Value and your Business

“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

— Oscar Wilde, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1891)

Value is probably one of the most frequently used words in business. Yet it is extremely difficult to define, to measure its drivers and fully capture it with customers. Given that most companies create their own social construction of value, we propose to explore what it might mean and introduce some practical steps to increase your understanding of it.

We focus on the definition of value proposed in 1998 by James Anderson and James Narus. Value is the “monetary terms of the technical, economic, service, and social benefits a customer firm receives in exchange for the price it pays for a market offering, taking into consideration competing suppliers’ offering and prices.”

Why is it that few suppliers in business markets are able to define and measure value?

In a 2008 survey of business executives, 79 percent attributed this difficulty to a lack of capabilities and skills needed to assess value, apply the appropriate methods, and extract the exact value differential between two products.

Second to the value-assessment issue, communicating value to the market was associated by 65 percent of the executives with difficulty in elevating the value message above the advertising noise in the market.

Bottom line: there is a need for more research related not only to theory on value but also to marketing tools for understanding, measuring and delivering value in business markets.

Scholars agree that there are six characteristics of business value that make value difficult to measure: value is 1) a subjective concept, 2) a trade-off between benefits and sacrifices, 3) multidimensional, 4) defined relative to competitors, 5) segment-specific, and 6) future-oriented.

At Ardex America, we have embraced the difficulty and complexity of measuring value and have put long-lasting value at the center of everything we do. We adopted Andreas Hinterhuber’s approach that value in business markets is composed of six tangible and intangible benefit categories: product quality, delivery capabilities, services, ease of doing business, vendor characteristics, and self-enhancement (social status, prestige, aspirational benefits).

Our mission is to be able to measure the level of value we provide customers in each of these categories. To quantify economic value correctly, we have implemented a six-step approach called Economic Value Analysis:

Identify the cost of the competitive product and the process that customers view as the best alternative. Understand who you’re competing against for your customer’s share of wallet and who might be able to substitute for your products or services in your customer’s mind.

Segment the market: Understand why customers buy from you and what needs you satisfy; identify the true nature of these needs and the level of differentiation you enjoy in each segment.

Identify all factors that differentiate the product from the competitive product and process. Identify value drivers or unique selling propositions that really differentiate you. The rule of thumb is that you cannot have more than half a dozen. These product or service drivers are your real USPs.

Determine the value to the customer of these differentiating factors: Quantify value drivers using assessment techniques such as engineering assessment, value-in-use analysis or focus groups.

This is where it gets complex! We have done well for product-related drivers and are now moving to less-tangible elements of our value proposition. Determining the value of services remains a challenge, however, and it is ongoing work.

Add the reference value and the differential economic value to determine total economic value: Define a price point by adding the reference value (price of next-best alternative) to the differential economic value you generated for your customers. At this stage you might decide to share some of the value surplus with customers to entice them to keep doing business with you while paying a premium.

Use the value pool to estimate future sales at specific price points. Assess price elasticity by market segment based on various price points and relevant volume levels. For each segment you can then establish your value positioning and your pricing strategy.

The process is not easy. It requires skills, capabilities and sweat equity. But you deserve to capture some or most of the value you create for your customers. Before you can capture it, however, you must understand it and measure it well.

Join us for more discussions on value and pricing management during a regional pricing workshop on Oct. 11, 2012 in downtown Pittsburgh.

Stephan Liozu is president and CEO of Ardex America Inc. (www.ardex.com), an innovative and high-performance building-materials company located in Pittsburgh. He is also a Ph.D. candidate in management at Case Western Reserve University and can be reached at sliozu@case.edu or www.stephanliozu.com.

Published in Pittsburgh
Friday, 31 August 2012 20:09

Victoria Tifft: Growing pains

Most companies start with outstanding customer value propositions. But as time passes, and customers change, the once-upon-a-time on-target value propositions become out of date. Soon customers become dissatisfied because vendors don’t seem to understand their current needs. They begin to believe they’ve outgrown their vendors and start to look for new answers to their problems.

This isn’t true of every company. Some companies make staying close to their customers and understanding their changing needs a top priority. These companies use a process to check themselves and ensure that they’re constantly staying on top of changing customer priorities. The process starts by asking several questions:

1. Who is your customer? What do they do? What are their challenges?

2. Have your clients aged? Have their needs changed?

3. What is your customers’ cost structure in this economy?  Do your bells and whistles deliver the value they did in boom times?

4. Is your customer using technology to do some of your core offerings?

5. How well do you truly know your customers? How often do you visit your customers?

If you don’t know the answers to these questions, then it’s time to get back to basics. Here are a few steps to get you going.

Step 1: Get to know your customer again.

Recently, our company found that many of the people with closest ties to our clients were starting to retire. We put together a customer visit “blitz” to visit all our existing customers and prospects within our existing accounts. We made sure they knew who we were and what we did, but most of all, we listened. We inquired about new challenges and took time to learn how we could understand the root of their problems.

The point is, if you want to understand your customer’s changing needs, don’t just visit the people you are familiar with — get out on the front lines with the people doing the core work and buying new products or services. Find out what your customer’s requirements are for timing, cost and quality. Really listen to your customers so that you can understand their goals and the obstacles that prevent them from reaching those goals.

Step 2: Re-center yourself in your customer’s new world.

After listening to your customer, develop a new value proposition. We realized that our customer’s budget constraints were far more severe than we originally thought. Our customer had no choice — they had to do more for less. We had to figure out a way to whittle down what wasn’t essential and find ways to add real value through technology, resourcing, and efficiencies.

Step 3: Change.

Ouch, yes — change. Your staff will be entrenched in the way they do things, or the products you offer, but change will be imperative. Without it, you risk losing your business over time.

Put your staff in a room and present your “new” client’s needs to them. Ask them, “If we had to start over today, how would we support this type of a client?” You may need to develop high-level processes, add resources or create a realistic profit-loss statement. Then, ask your management team to look at how that differs from where you are today. Create strategies that will allow you to execute and deliver your new value proposition.

Present your customer’s “new” need. Create a new value proposition. Go back to answering your customer’s requirements of time, cost, quality, and peace of mind. The result will be a path to change that’s been developed by your people in a non-threatening, problem-solving way. And best of all, it will be in sync with your client’s needs.

Victoria Tifft is founder and CEO of Clinical Research Management, a full-service contract research organization that offers early to late-stage clinical research services to the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. She can be reached at vtifft@clinicalrm.com. Clinical Research Management Director of Business Development, Lori Gipp, assisted in the writing of this article.

Published in Akron/Canton

Does your company have alignment between its mission, its vision and its strategy? If you don’t, you may want to ask yourself if everyone on your team is on the same page as to what those terms mean to your business.

Maybe you’re like a former client of ours who knew that having a clearly stated and motivating mission was important, but wasn’t sure what a “mission” was or how to lead his team to either create one or uncover the one they were already living.

It may be that “mission” is not something that motivates you as a leader. It’s perfectly natural that some aspects of an organizational identity are not equally motivating to us as leaders.

At the same time, as leaders, we need to recognize that we work with and lead others who do find “mission” to be important. They will evaluate us as leaders and our organization based on whether or not we have a clear mission and whether or not we can deliver on that mission.

One of the most common definitions for mission is to answer the question, “Why do we exist?” For example, Nestlé Purina PetCare has a mission to “enrich the lives of pets and the people who love them.” Notice they didn’t declare a mission to sell the best (or most) pet food or pet care products. While we can safely assume that they want to do both, they’ve chosen to declare a reason for being that connects to those they serve: pets and consumers.

Answering the question of why you exist is helpful to many, but it can sometimes be too abstract for certain organizations and people who prefer the concrete. It can sound like you’re about to launch into a discussion of Socrates’ view of virtue rather than address concrete business issues. There are alternatives that get at the same concept in more concrete ways.

The first is to ask a broad cross section of employees the question, “What problems do we solve for our clients/customers?” Of course, one can also ask your clients/customers directly, “What problems do we solve for you?” This phrasing often helps employees and clients describe the value that you bring in a more concrete form. From that data, one can begin to see patterns that demonstrate the value that you bring to your external stakeholders.

You could also ask employees and customers, “How do we help you?” or “What difference do we make in your life/business?” Follow it up with, “Tell me about why that is important to you?” and you can get to answers that resonate more on an emotional level.

Imagine someone asking a consumer, Mrs. Johnson, who buys Nestlé Purina’s Dog Chow the following series of questions:

Interviewer: Tell me about why you buy Purina Dog Chow.

Mrs. Johnson: Our dog, Butch, likes it.

Interviewer: What other reasons are there?

Mrs. Johnson: He’s been very healthy eating Dog Chow, so that’s important to us.

Interviewer: So tell me why that is important to you and your family. The answer may seem obvious, but go ahead and tell me anyway.

Mrs. Johnson: Well, I know that when I buy Dog Chow, Butch is going to be happy, healthy and ready to play with our family. He has brought immense joy to our family, and we want that to last for as long as possible.

You have a choice when you describe your mission. You can make a laundry list of things you do, or you can describe the difference that you make in the lives of those we serve.

Andy Kanefield is the founder of Dialect, Inc. and co-author of “Uncommon Sense: One CEO’s Tale of Getting in Sync.” Dialect helps organizations improve alignment and translation of organizational identity. To explore how to better align your business to an inspiring mission, you may reach Kanefield at (314) 863-4400 or andy@dialect.com.

Published in St. Louis
Wednesday, 01 August 2012 20:00

Michele Fabrizi keeps MARC USA client focused

Michele Fabrizi has always had a philosophical difference with the way most advertising firms approach business and client relationships. Having worked on both the client and business side of the industry, she has become tired of continually seeing firms focus strictly on creating a strong ad with no regard for what the customer really wants and ignoring ideas because they came from a non-senior person, male or a female.

Fabrizi, who is president and CEO of MARC USA, a 280-employee, $300 million full-service advertising firm, was attracted to Marketing Advertising Research Consultants because the company did business the way she thought all firms should operate — with the client at the center of the business model.

In her first two years at the helm of MARC she oversaw 200 percent growth, much of it the result of her ability to get the firm to focus on the client’s needs.

“I am very much about building a business model that is centered on the clients and getting results for our clients,” Fabrizi says. “That DNA and some of the other philosophies such as it doesn’t matter who has a big idea whether they’re junior or senior, male or female, that idea is wrapped up, and we work to get it up and going. Those were very different from the experiences I had at larger shops and on the client side.”

With this philosophy driving the business and Fabrizi reinforcing it, MARC USA has been able to break barriers and foster innovation within the company, creating growth and client relationships that help transform brands.

“It’s been really exciting to build a company that is based on what’s right for the clients,” Fabrizi says. “It’s about breaking things and being innovative. We can do so much more for our clients and be more innovative and invest in the business which you couldn’t do in a public company.”

Here’s how Fabrizi keeps MARC USA client-focused while building relationships that foster growth and innovation.

Build a client relationship

Good business runs on developing and cultivating strong relationships. Simply having a good product or service no long assures repeat business or a place at the top of your industry. Look to make a lasting impression by playing to client needs.

“It sounds simple, but first of all you have to really have to want to hear and listen and get to know people,” Fabrizi says. “If you ultimately think either that’s not important, you’re not interested and it’s a waste of time, or you know more, then you can’t do it. If you think you know more about their business and you want to spend all the time talking, you can’t do it. It’s really about truly wanting to get to know someone on all levels, business and personal.”

Part of developing a deeper relationship lies in how you conduct your meetings, getting off site, and not just across the conference room table.

“Through those kinds of conversations, you can really get more insight, not just into the person but what’s really critical in their business that they feel is important that might not come up in the conference room,” she says.

“There’s a whole basic relationship management that really is critical in your client’s business at all levels. It’s really doing a relationship plan at all levels for all the key people you have to come in contact with. Making sure everybody has their ownership and accountability on that is the only way you’re going to be able to get the information and insight beyond what you can garner on your own to figure out how to help the client be ready for this big idea or the challenge that they’re facing.”

The best relationship people are the ones who really are very thoughtful and plan and study the business. Particularly in this day and age, everything is so fast. Everything is so 24/7 that it becomes very important for the high-touch part.

“Frankly, in our business, that’s very important to touch the consumer across all channels, online, in-store, word-of-mouth,” she says. “Having that kind of ability is important to us in our business in order to be effective communicators and it has to be integrated.”

To integrate better communication and high-touch capability, MARC focused on a team environment and training.

“Team is about behavioral modification, trust, and how to get people to talk,” Fabrizi says. “As part of our culture and our people and talent, we continue with team dynamic high-performance training at all levels, with my senior leaders all the way down. There’s nobody in the company that doesn’t get that training.

“If you’re training people how to work effectively among themselves, that transfers to their clients and relationships.”

To aid the culture of teamwork and a client relationship focus, MARC decided to move to one P&L statement. Instead of having each client listed under separate P&L statements, they combined them to make the overall environment more collaborative and team- oriented. The company wanted the best solutions for its clients and didn’t want people fighting over P&L.

“With the one P&L what we did was created a mindset shift in our employees, because you just can’t say, ‘Work together,’” Fabrizi says. “It won’t work. With that being freed up and the other training and tools that we give them, literally an integrated team gets together and will talk about the issues of a client and come up with ideas. It’s about breaking convention and being innovative.”

Get results through innovation

MARC USA has a heritage of doing things differently and bringing innovation to the industry. The company even created an off-the-wall word to describe its unique capabilities.

“We’re using breakthrough research techniques and new technologies to drive innovation every day,” Fabrizi says. “That’s what I’m about, what’s next? At MARC we say what we do is a word we made up because there is no word for what we do. It’s called ‘wezog’ and it’s how we think. It’s what we expect from our people. It’s a critical component of our long-term client relationships. It means doing things the way they haven’t been done before — thinking outside the box.”

The firm builds successful brands and drives sales through its creativity, insights and technology and the results are changing the game for clients.

“It’s a key reason why we have such strong, long-lasting client relationships,” she says. “It’s really about not doing things the way they’ve been done before, being highly collaborative with clients and finding ideas to break assumptions and challenge conventions. This is the kind of thinking that really helps brands strive in good times and in bad times.”

There are three words that clients use to describe MARC: passion, vision and collaboration. If you’re going to deliver on those three, you have to have the people power that’s going to do that.

“That’s how I’ve taken the company into the future, and it’s such a right thing for the business now,” she says. “It’s not about what’s nice and what the competitors are doing. People come in with ideas that are not founded.

“We do a lot of innovative techniques and strategic alliances on deep-seated emotions. Good enough is not good enough, particularly when you look at the business challenges that everyone’s facing.”

These days, consumers are more in charge than ever. They have more choices, they have more information and they have more ways to shop. It is up to firms to deliver something that is not a one-size-fits-all solution for clients.

“Sometimes our ideas are rethinking how they do business,” Fabrizi says. “Our initial ideas may not even be advertising ideas, but ideas that would protect their ROI and more along the lines of business solutions, but eventually could become advertising and marketing solutions.

“We have a very deep practice in behavioral science and behavioral economics so that we can really understand at a very deep, deep level. What we do is almost like brand therapy where we get the consumer to qualitatively express their conscious and subconscious thoughts so that we can really empower them to explore their thinking beyond the literal.”

To get those results you need to evolve and create tools and systems that help to provide new ways to connect with the consumer. In order to do this, you have to be up close and personal in your clients’ business.

“In any business today, whoever your clients are, if you’re not intimately involved, I don’t know how you’re going to survive,” she says. “You have to have trust so they’ll share data and the pain points, or you just can’t get the kind of revolutionary ideas that are going to get the kind of sea change results that are needed.”

Look for opportunities

In a business that constantly strives for new and innovative ideas, you have to reinforce what it is you’re trying to do within your company — and it’s the CEOs job to lead the charge.

“The secret is you have to get the senior leaders to buy in to it to make radical change,” Fabrizi says. “If you can’t do that, you will not be successful. If you want that type of environment then you need to keep saying it in every which way and reinforcing it and so do the leaders or it won’t happen.

“To me this is about transformation and how do you adjust your company in this day and age when you’ve got so many pressures. It’s really looking at your business and saying, ‘Why are we doing it this way? How do we do it differently?’”

In the world of advertising it’s all about being unique and having the ability to take advantage of opportunities when they arise. You have to plan for this in order to bring opportunity to fruition.

“Again, it’s thinking out of the box,” she says. “It’s not doing things normally. It takes time to do that, and it’s not a quick fix. What are the fundamental core things about the business that if nullified or changed or innovated, within a period of a year or two, could dramatically catapult the company forward so it’s not just parity?

“That’s what you’re seeing out there is a lot of parity, and you see a lot of tactics. You see very little really strong core business strategies. It’s very tactical and that’s short-term, so that means you’ll always be running, running to catch up because those things are very easy for competitors to emulate.”

Those strategies and plans are the responsibilities of the senior leadership. Those tactics have to be driven forward as the day-to-day business continues to function.

“That falls squarely with the CEO and the senior leadership and even the management level,” she says. “If they don’t think it’s important, they’re not adding those insights, they’re not worried about it, they’re not planning it and they’re not getting together to collaborate on it, you’re going to lose your way.”

The other key part is collaboration among your leadership in these processes.

“You have to have people who can help you make that idea happen,” she says. “If somebody within the organization has an amazing idea and I get hold of it, it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh — we’ve got to do it.’ I don’t care where it comes from. In this day and age we all have egos, but at the top you have to have less ego and more ability to know when you have to follow and listen, as opposed to constantly being the brilliant, fearless leader.”

How to reach: MARC USA, (412) 562-2000 or www.marcusa.com  

Takeaways

- Get to know your clients on a business and personal level.

- Use client relationships to deliver results.

- Find opportunities to grow.

The Fabrizi File

Michele Fabrizi

President and CEO

MARC USA

Born: Pittsburgh, Pa.

Education:  Received a bachelor of arts degree from Carlow University

What was your very first job and what did you take away from that experience?

My first job was helping out in my father’s music store. I saw how he took the time to listen to people and treat each student or customer as an individual. It was a very powerful lesson in many ways — how to develop people, how to deliver excellence in service, and how much you can learn about a customer’s needs if you pay attention to what they say and also what’s not said. He understood that emotions drive choices long before neuroscientists proved this.

Who is someone you admire in business?

Tena Clark — writer, musician, entrepreneur and head of DMI Music. She was one of the first people to understand that brands have a sound DNA and built a very successful company to deliver this vision. We’re very like-minded and that’s why MARC USA partners with DMI to use music to help brands forge strong emotional connections with their customers.

What are you most excited about for the future of your industry? Why?

Developments in brain science and technology are taking us in amazing new directions. While some people claim technology separates people, we’re using it to make stronger connections than ever and to deliver highly customized, personalized one-to-one experiences with brands.

If you could have a conversation with any one person from the past or present, to whom would you speak with and why?

Leonardo DaVinci — truly a visionary who also got things done. He combined left-brain and right-brain thinking to envision and then create things not even imagined by anyone else around at his time or for many years after.

Published in Pittsburgh

When Michael Hilton looks at a soda bottle, he isn’t thinking about whether it tastes good or if it will quench his thirst. He is thinking about all the ways his company can incorporate better applications to make the bottle.

Historically, bottle labels were applied by rolling the bottle in a pot of glue, which would result in the adhesive dripping and covering areas of the bottle that didn’t need to be. The application Nordson Corp. developed was a pattern spray on the bottle. The leading edge of the label is placed on the bottle, it is wrapped around and receives a coating on the trailing edge, which saves 20 to 30 percent in adhesives.

“It’s a big seller for our customers,” Hilton says. “That’s one way to drive growth — create applications with technology.”

Driving growth is what his objective has been since being named president and CEO at the beginning of 2010. Nordson Corp., a more than 4,000-employee manufacturer of products and systems used for dispensing adhesives, coatings, sealants and biomaterials for several end markets, has been a strong company, even during the recession years. When Hilton arrived, he saw the company as an $800 million organization that could become a $2 billion or $3 billion business.

“If you step back, [Nordson] was surrounding the customer [with a] globally well-positioned [team], a talented team, and a team that executed,” he says. “That’s a very good foundation to build on.”

Globally, Nordson has a presence in more than 30 countries and has been well-established in locations such as China, India, Brazil, Europe and Japan for a long time.

“For a company our size, that’s a great global footprint to have to take advantage of opportunities for growth,” Hilton says.

To benefit from those opportunities he had to evaluate the business and understand the key areas that needed attention and resources.

Here is how Hilton is improving the operations and processes of a good company to make it a great one.

Cover all the bases

Coming into a company as its new president and CEO usually carries a lot of weight. Hilton didn’t want to just come in and make random changes. He had developed a relationship with his predecessor Ed Campbell, and he used that relationship to listen to any advice Campbell provided to understand the business.

“Initially, I spent the first couple of weeks largely with Ed getting a download on everything you would expect from the business to the customers to the investors to the organization, and he was pretty helpful in terms of his long history at Nordson,” Hilton says.

Hilton’s time with Campbell was short-lived, but impactful. The keys to the company soon belonged to Hilton and he had to now get out of the headquarters facility and visit the business around the world.

“As soon as I could I really looked to take the opportunity to travel and meet some customers, see our facilities globally and get a better handle on what we do day-to-day,” he says. “There is only so much research you can do from afar and only so many reports you can read, and until you have an opportunity to touch it and feel it, you don’t really have the same perspective.”

It was obvious to Hilton that Nordson was a very good company and performed very well in a difficult time. The company was fairly solid and there were strengths in its business model.

“If I step back and look at what were the key strengths that I found, one was how we surround and support the customer,” he says. “If you think about the underlying technology, the direct sales approach and really a service organization that is incredibly responsive to its customers, that’s as good as I have seen.”

Hilton has previously operated in a number of different businesses all with one major company, but six different business models.

“I think I have a pretty good operating field of different approaches in everything from commodity businesses to specialty businesses and high-performance businesses, and this is very high-performance, so it was a great foundation to inherit,” he says.

The biggest key for a new incoming CEO to understand what a business is about and how it operates is to listen.

“I didn’t rush to form any particular opinions,” Hilton says. “It’s a complicated business so you need some time to get to a level of understanding before you can sort through and think about what has to happen next and take the company forward.

“As somebody who’s been in the industry 30-plus years before I came here, you can have a tendency to feel like you know what needs to be done. You have to wait a little bit and make sure you have enough input. It’s a bit of drinking from the fire hose, but it does give you a good perspective of the day-to-day.”

While listening is crucial to a CEO’s understanding of the business, visiting different locations in person is also important.

“You have to get out to facilities so that you better understand what you do and how you win in the marketplace and there’s no substitute for that,” he says. “Also, you have to take time in the nonbusiness environment with folks, whether that’s on the weekends or at dinners just getting to know people in the organization.”

Those same things go for getting to know your leadership team. Demonstrating that you’re a regular guy is a crucial step to cementing relationships.

“It is really trying to put the leadership team at ease when you come in,” he says. “Particularly in the time when I was coming in we were just starting to come out of the recession and the best thing for the business was to figure out how we could win in the recovery phase and to win more than our fair share of the business.

“You need the team motivated to do that. I’m here to learn and I think I have some experience and value to offer, but I don’t want to come in with a preset agenda that said we have to do A, B and C, because I didn’t know enough.”

Take the next steps

Once Hilton had become comfortable and did his due diligence within the organization, it was time to take the things the company was good at and find ways to make them even better.

“If you look at what we’re really good at — the surround the customer piece, the global position and the execution — what else do we really need?” Hilton says. “I came down to focusing on three areas. No. 1 was, ‘What can we do from a strategic standpoint to take us to the next level?’ No. 2 was, ‘How can we create more leverage across the enterprise?’ No. 3 was talent development.”

The first thing that Hilton and Nordson performed was a rigorous review of the business.

“We have these businesses, what can they deliver over the next five years from a growth and performance standpoint?” he says. “Historically, the company grew organically at about 6 percent and historically added about 1 percentage point from M&A. We concluded that we ought to be able to take that 6 percent and make it 8 percent.

“If we continued to improve our bottom line performance, we’d have more cash to reinvest, so we should at least set a goal to add from an M&A perspective, not 1 percent, but at least 2 percent and maybe more. So how do we go from something that looks like 7 percent growth to 10 percent growth on a sustained basis?”

First, Nordson looked at ways to exploit emerging markets by improving technology and applications.

“If you think back from a strategy standpoint of how do we get more organic growth, emerging markets is a big play, using technology to create new applications, and using new technology to help our customers recapitalize are all very important,” he says. “So when I looked at what we’re spending on technology, I said, ‘Even though we’re the leader and absolutely have the best technology out there, we’re not spending enough on technology. We’re spending too much on supporting our existing products.’

“So we’re increasing the absolute amount we spend on technology and we are shifting more of our technology spend from supporting existing products to developing new.”

Another step Hilton took to drive growth was changing the strategy of how the company went about mergers and acquisitions.

“We had to add a couple of points organically,” he says. “How do we move from an opportunistic and episodic acquirer … to being a more consistent acquirer? We identified four areas of interest to us — medical devices, flexible packaging, cold materials and extending our test and inspection business. You have to use strategy to drive organic growth with technology. Use strategy to drive M&A activity in areas that make sense. We’ve made three acquisitions this year which added 4.5 to 5 percent to revenue.”

The next thing the organization focused on was what it could do across the company that would benefit each business.

“One of the assessments that I made when I traveled all around is we had done a really nice job of adopting lean technology, but it plateaued in terms of our performance results,” he says.

“Much of the company’s margin improvements from 2002 to 2007 came from the Lean initiative. We went from 12 to 13 percent operating margin to 17 percent. Last year we did 26 percent, so we’ve moved the bar quite a bit and we have more to go. We have kind of stalled out on the Lean activity.”

To drive the next wave of continuous improvement Hilton appointed a senior experienced operations employee to build a small team and give him direct reports on improvement.

“As part of that we’ve identified two things; one we’re in the middle of executing now is optimizing our global supply chain,” Hilton says. “That’s really to allow us to distribute things where the demand is and do that in the most efficient way. The second big area is around segmentation, which is understanding from a product and customer standpoint what we provide, what are our offerings, where are we making money and do we have too many products?”

The third piece of the puzzle for Hilton regarded the company’s talent. He was pleased when he traveled around the globe to see the quality of the talent Nordson had in the organization, particularly at the leader roles.

“The challenge for us, like many companies, is if you really want to grow substantially, you need to add resources and you need to do that across the globe,” he says. “To do that, we need to build up our management capability in all areas. We have good people, but just not enough to support our growth ambition.

“One of the key areas of focus is how do we enhance our overall talent development and management approach.”

When Hilton did the first review of succession planning in the organization, his direct reports went a couple of levels down and he noticed there were a lot of gaps. The company focused initially on how address that.

“We made a number of rotational moves to broaden people’s skill sets and capabilities,” he says. “Then we took a step back and said, ‘OK, for the folks that run the businesses and the functions that report to me, what kind of skill sets do we want those folks to have, both from a content or expertise standpoint and a leadership standpoint?

“Given those skill sets, what kind of positions below them would be good feeder positions that would help them develop those skill sets and capabilities and where is the key talent in the organization who could move into higher levels of leadership and management?’ We got more thoughtful in development moves and giving folks different experiences.”

Add to your strategy

Now that Hilton had spent the time understanding the business and identifying the areas where the company had the best opportunities to improve, he had to make those changes part of the company strategy.

“If you step back, these are the things that I think we need to do to help us move from that $800 million to a $2 or $3 billion company to give us 10-plus percent revenue growth and some additional leverage that gets us into teens earning growth and be a top-quartile performer,” he says.

“We had a Lean organization and one that hadn’t gone through a rigorous strategic planning approach in the past so some of the concepts were new. I brought some help in from the outside to help put some structure and discipline in and to add some resources that we didn’t really have.”

Those changes resulted in 2011 revenue of $1.2 billion. One of the keys to more organic growth was Hilton’s strong belief in leading the merger and acquisition activity in the market.

“If you can be the one out there driving the activity, you’re going to end up with a better set of deals to add to the portfolio,” he says. “If you’re driving it, you’re probably out there establishing relationships early on. It might be two, three, or four years until somebody decides they want to sell, but if you have a relationship it enhances your own knowledge of their business and therefore reduces the risk.

“It also gives you a first shot at business. The more knowledge you have, the more you understand what you’re going to do with it once you acquire it.”

For Nordson, the company looked at logical extensions of what it does today and what would fit its business model.

“We put a set of criteria together,” Hilton says. “For example, 40 to 45 percent of our business is recurring revenue through parts, services or consumables. We like that because it gives us a steady nature to our business. So when we look at things to buy, whether it has a recurring revenue component is an important area to check the box on.

“We look at whether the company is a technology leader. Is it a performance sale so that I can take advantage of my technical sales force? Is it regional, but I could take it global and use my infrastructure? We look at all those things and use a set of criteria that says this is a good deal for us.”

In June Nordson acquired two more companies, Entrusion Dies Industries and Xaloy, bringing the the total to five acquisitions in 2012. Hilton made certain these two companies fit the Nordson strategy.

Another thing Nordson is changing strategically about its M&A activity is how it manages the companies it acquires.

“Historically, we tried to buy good companies and leave them alone so we didn’t screw them up,” he says. “We like to still buy good companies but now we’re looking at what we can do to make them better, how we integrate them into the business that we have, and if it’s a new area, what else can we add to it down the road. You need to do that to deliver the performance, but also sustain the business.”

A key ingredient to sustaining the business is having top-level talent capable of keeping pace with the growth you want to see. That talent has to be intertwined with the strategy for everything to operate smoothly.

“There is no substitute for going out and spending time with your organization and making your own observations,” he says. “Talk, listen and see your folks in action. See them with a customer and then you’ll get an initial reaction, but then you have to test that with folks.”

By doing this analysis you are able to get a sense of the gaps in the organization and moving forward, it is easier to see where talent development and your strategy line up.

“If you’re doing the initial round of visits, you get a sense of what you have in the organization,” he says. “You get a sense of the skill sets and capability at a high level of one or two levels down from the folks that work directly for you so you get a sense of depth in the organization and breadth in capability. Then you weigh that up against what you’d like to do.”

The other thing Hilton did was seek out a few trusted advisors to help him while going through the talent process.

“Find one or two people that you feel pretty confident with who could be trusted advisors without any particular point of view and be objective to bounce ideas off of,” he says. “If you have that kind of open relationship, it ties into some of the other things in terms of how you gauge your own leadership.”

Most importantly, as you go through an evaluation process of your business, you have to be willing to put resources behind the things that need improvement if you truly want to create measurable results.

“Get help from outside your organization and put resources on it,” Hilton says. “It doesn’t happen without some resources on it to develop, and it doesn’t happen overnight.

“This is a really, really good company that I inherited. We’re making some positive changes. I think we can make it considerably larger and just as good in terms of the performance, if not better. I’m pretty pleased about where we’re at and about our prospects. The folks have risen to the occasion, but I don’t want to exhaust them because we have a long way to go.”

How to reach: Nordson Corp., (440) 892-1580 or www.nordson.com

Published in Cleveland

Your good reputation is your company’s most significant piece of equity. Are you monitoring and protecting its value?

Most brand detractors won’t go to your corporate website, Facebook page or Twitter account to complain. Instead, if aggravated enough, they’re going to tell anyone willing to listen why they should stop doing business with you. Word of your brand’s perceived inadequacies can travel at the speed of light and can destroy your good reputation within nanoseconds.

One in every five people is likely to speak their mind and bash brands through online channels. Research shows that people do not practice as much self-control in their online behavior as they would in person, or through other channels.

One negative social media comment can cost your company 30 customers. Conversely, a positive social media review could lead to 30 new customers.

A study by Convergys cited bad reviews or comments on a social network sites reach an average of 45 people. Of these, two out of every three never rebroadcast or play into the discussion. Instead, they silently commit to avoiding the brand being slammed. It is estimated that companies are losing about 12 percent of their customers that way. This can spell the difference between a company’s success and failure.

Cherry Tree also did research that found that while 22 percent receive a poor experience, only 2 percent actually complain, 98 percent of dissatisfied customers never complain with 55 percent of those customers at risk and 45 percent actually defecting.

The Convergys research focused on the impact between pre-purchase informational browsing by prospective customers, and its correlation to lost business. The study reinforced that the consumer experience now begins when the consumer logs on.

Don’t kid yourself into thinking that poor service, defective products or manufacturing glitches aren’t dissected in the social space. Tens of thousands of social sites with review mechanisms exist and more launch each day. Check them to see what’s being said about your company.

Think about it: One bad tweet can equal 30 customers lost. That means, with social media, great customer service is essential to the preservation of a company’s reputation.

Each second a dissatisfied customer is bashing a brand online, are they bashing yours?

If someone posts bad news or misinformation about your brand, how many of the people reading the post will then share it with their contacts? How many people reading the re-posting will then rebroadcast it themselves? The reposting or retweeting possibilities are both frightening and endless.

Think about the impact all that broadcast reposting and retweeting has on your company’s bottom line.

How much is your average sale? Multiply that number by 30 to determine revenues lost by each negative review you receive. How many times have you Googled a company, brand or individual prior to your doing business with them? How many times has your search influenced your purchasing decision?

Before doing business with you, potential business partners and customers are going to want to learn as much as possible about you. In the eyes of the potential customer, what appears in the search results on Google, Yahoo and Bing define your company. False, erroneous or misleading postings found in search engine results cost corporations hundreds of thousands of dollars each day.

It doesn’t matter whether the negative comments are from a competitor, a news site, a message board, a blogger or disgruntled employee – their impact can lead to devastating financial challenges. What will they find when they search?

Perhaps it’s time for you to begin formulating a plan to protect your good reputation.

Adrienne Lenhoff is president and CEO of Buzzphoria Social Media Marketing and Online Reputation Management, Shazaaam PR and Marketing Communications, and Promo Marketing Team, which conducts product sampling, mobile tours and events. She can be reached at alenhoff@shazaaam.com.

Published in Detroit

On Monday morning, the watercooler talk among VF Corp. employees looks more like a Yelp review than the typical weekend replay. Employees chime in about The North Face jackets they wore skiing, the Lucy yoga pants they tested out and the Jansport backpacks they took hiking.

Steve Rendle, vice president of VF Corp. and the group president of its Outdoor and Action Sports Americas division, says this comes with the territory of being part of the world’s largest apparel manufacturer — with $7 billion in revenue and a portfolio of global consumer products brands.

“We choose not to sit in our ivory tower and predict what the consumer wants,” Rendle says. “We’re fortunate that our employees to a great degree are our consumers.”

A 25-year veteran in the outdoor industry, Rendle was president of The North Face for seven years before heading up VF’s Outdoor and Action Sports Americas unit last year. Based in San Francisco, he manages a portfolio of eight, activity-driven brands, including three worth more than $1 billion each — The North Face, Timberland and Vans.

Rendle is tasked with leading the brand strategies that will resonate with VF’s customers over the world. When it comes to front-end operations, he says there are very specific skills sets that help the company cultivate connections between its brands and consumers. The most significant is how the company develops its brand strategies: by making them a lifestyle. The company calls this “the art and science of apparel.”

“It’s that deep immersion into that consumer and understanding the consumer’s needs and expectations of our business that helps us really fine tune how we apply our business initiatives to grow our businesses,” Rendle says.

Here’s how Rendle uses these strategies to develop VF’s fastest-growing division of brands.

Dive deeper

The first step in developing a brand lifestyle is figuring out who the brand’s potential customers are in the marketplace.

“It’s taking an approach of first understanding who the consumers are,” Rendle says. “The ‘who’ aspect is a very important part, and we invest a tremendous amount of money corporately and from our brands to understand our consumers through global segmentation studies.”

While research from focus groups and surveys is beneficial from a targeted point of view, understanding a customer’s lifestyle takes a deeper level of interaction, beyond a phone call or email. You can look at annual research or employee feedback to get ideas about what customers are going to want, but to understand who they are requires a deeper level of knowledge only possible through one-on-one interaction.

“First and foremost, we’re an organization built of passionate consumers,” Rendle says. “But that’s not enough. We want to go into the marketplace. We want to think about our brands globally and do a lot of qualitative and quantitative research to engage with these consumers and understand how they think of our brands. What do they expect from our brands? And more importantly, how would they like us to communicate with them?”

Branded events are one way that Rendle and his team get answers to these questions. Sponsoring fun, action-oriented events that engage consumers allows the company to interact with people in environments that reflect their interests and lifestyles, giving the company a better idea of “who” they are.

“We’re able to engage and understand how they’re thinking about us, how they’re thinking about this particular event and learning about their product needs,” Rendle says.

In addition to the millions of followers that Vans and The North Face have in the digital realm, both brands also generate a tremendous following by putting on popular outdoor events. Rendle frequently travels with the product and sales teams to see how the brands are represented in retail, but also attends the key brand events to learn how they are connecting with consumers.

The North Face hosts its “Endurance Challenge,” a series of endurance races across the globe that attract 1,000 to 3,000 runners per event. These races are a great opportunity to meet runners who fit the brand’s performance market as well as hold mini “expos” for families so that they can interact with the brand, Rendle says.

Similarly, Vans uses its national Vans Warped Tour, a day-long outdoor music and action sports event to connect with some of its key consumer groups, from skateboarders, to musicians and BMXers. With a history as the original skate shoe manufacturer, Vans now focuses on the broader market of men’s and women’s footwear and apparel. So as the partial owner and operator of the summer concert series — the longest running in the U.S. — it draws more than 600,000 people each year and offers a direct line to its youth audience.

“It’s a very impressive music-driven event, but it’s also an event where we’re able to touch the consumers and listen and learn as they interact with the music culture how they’re thinking about the brand, the brand’s products and how the brand is communicating from a marketing standpoint,” Rendle says. “Events are a powerful tool to not only tell the stories of our brands but to interact with those consumers.”

Ask the experts

It’s important to understand not just who your customer is but also what he or she expects from you. Because there is whole host of running footwear and running apparel competitors for The North Face, for example, the brand can’t gain market share just by resonating today’s consumer trends today. It also must stay abreast of the running lifestyle and how it’s changing. To do that, the company uses brand ambassadors.

Each of VF’s Outdoor and Action Sports Americas brands, specifically The North Face and Vans, partners with teams of professional athletes to participate with the brands at a high level, engaging with different products and contributing ideas. The North Face has more than 70 such athletes active around the world.

These brand ambassadors help provide insight into what the brand’s customers want and will want in the future.

“The North Face is the best example, where we have the mantra of ‘athlete-tested, expedition proven’ as that primary input into our product engine,” Rendle says. “We can make sure that we’re building the most authentic and technically relevant products possible that enable our consumers to enjoy their outdoor experience to the greatest degree.”

Tapping brand ambassadors is also useful for brand innovation and product development. Your “experts” in a brand lifestyle can help you identify pain points or product ideas that you may not spot or study based on customer or employee feedback alone.

A prime example is when The North Face runner Kami Semick participated in a high altitude race in the French Alps. After nearly contracting hypothermia from the cold, wet environment, she helped the brand identify a key need for lighter-weight apparel to protect athletes from adverse moisture and weather. Semick worked with the product teams to design a new technology for the brand’s fabrics that eliminates the distraction of moisture when during athletic performance. This year, the company is releasing about 100 new products featuring the FlashDry technology.

“North Face is the brand that provides the ultimate outdoor protection,” Rendle says. “So we bring that thinking and that knowledge base into running apparel.”

Concentrate your efforts

With global brands, you need to do lot of work to identify who your potential customers are. But equally important is figuring out your brand identity. To put it into perspective, brands such as The North Face are trying to capture market share in a $320 billion global market in the outdoor and action sports business, Rendle says.

Figuring out how to position these brands in the marketplace requires Rendle and his team to spend a lot of time looking at the macro-market to size up opportunities.

“That’s building the business strategies using the consumer insights and the market intelligence to help us craft very clearly focused strategies that we execute on five-year basis,” he says. “It’s always the rolling five-year plan and looking very specifically at where those opportunities are to drive our growth.”

Looking at the larger, macro market data, VF applies filters to examine the size of different opportunities:

What is the business doing specifically from a retail standpoint? What are the best ways of communicating to the consumer within those specific segments? Who are the competitors?

In this process, it’s necessary to look at brand competitors from a very critical point of view as far as what are they good at, Rendle says.

“We’re trying to understand what makes them unique — what are their points of difference and what things are more parody,” he says. “Then we look for those white spaces where we know that our brand naturally plays or places that we should be focusing to look for incremental growth.”

The points of difference are unique to your brand, whereas your points of parity are things you need to do just to stay in business — fit of garment, for example.

“It’s not really something that we would own, versus a specific focus or an innovative platform might be a unique point of difference and gives us an emotional connection to the consumer,” Rendle says.

An example is the women’s yoga brand, Lucy. While Lucy was the first brand in the women’s training space, it lost its way before VF acquired it in 2008, giving the Canadian brand Lulu a lead in sales and brand recognition.

“When we look at the difference between those two consumers — the Lulu consumer and the Lucy consumer — we see some very distinct differences in how she thinks, how she acts, how she wants to interact with her brand and honestly how she looks at those activities,” Rendle says.

The company also uses its brands’ leveragable platforms, or things that each brand does well, to position fellow brands stronger in the marketplace. The key is to utilize each brand’s strengths, without losing sight of how each brand consumer — and consumer lifestyle — is different.

“We focus on understanding the brand’s purpose and really understanding what we stand for and what our unique value to our consumer is,” Rendle says.

“It’s making sure I help those brands remain autonomous because it is those specific brand identities and cultures that make these brands successful. At the same time, it’s helping them leverage the VF platforms to scale and access capabilities at a much more effective price.”

After applying these kinds of lenses to see what a brand does well, you can learn how to build “permission” with customers to bring new lines to market where you don’t have established expertise, Rendle says.

The ability to introduce new products to consumers is a critical step in making a brand’s products part of a “lifestyle” the can continue to grow and evolve. Currently, The North Face is trying to do this with the footwear segment — using running apparel to break into running shoes.

“For us to sell footwear it needs to be uniquely different and bring some specific value that other brands are not,” Rendle says. “Where we know we have permission to compete first is in the trail, so really playing off of that outdoor heritage and enabling consumers to run off the road and onto the trail.”

The way the company creates its brand strategies is also changing the way Rendle and his employees think about the business, Rendle says. By creating brand lifestyles that resonate with consumers, the Outdoor and Action Sports Americas division has grown from less than 10 percent of VF’s total sales in 2000 to close to 50 percent.

“It’s helped us understand that this deep connection into the consumer’s lifestyle gives us a unique point of difference, and a unique way of competing against the many number of other choices that consumers have to make in their apparel purchases,” he says.

How to reach: VF Corp., (336) 424-6000 or www.vfc.com

Takeaways:

1. Use events to connect with customers.

2. Create brand ambassadors.

3. Find your points of difference and parity.

The Rendle File

Steve Rendle

vice president and group president, Outdoor and Action Sports Americas

VF Corp.

Born: Spokane, Wash.

Education: Bachelor of science, the University of Washington

What do you like most about your job?

I get to get up every day and come to work and participate in businesses and touch activities that I really love. I grew up skiing. I grew up climbing. I’m a very active outdoor user. I’ve dabbled in surf. I’m not a skater but I absolutely enjoy those people as much as I do those that I’ve grown up with. I get to live and play in a marketplace that I’m just deeply passionate about. To also build that passion of building success, in this case successful businesses that add shareholder value — I may very well have one of the best jobs in our company.

On his transition from president of The North Face to division group president: First you have to immerse yourself in the businesses. I’m fortunate enough that I’ve worked with each of these brand leaders as a peer for many years. But I needed to take a step back, remember that my job is not to only think only of The North Face, but to think about eight specific brands, their contributions to our portfolio and the larger VF. It is just to take a step back and forget about what I loved so much, and begin to understand that I have eight things that I get to love.

How do you regroup after a tough day?

My best tool for sorting out a difficult day is to get outside for some sort of physical activity. My favorite choice is to jump on my road bike and roll out for a long ride. No distractions. Just time to focus on the activity and subconsciously sort out my thoughts.

Published in Northern California
Wednesday, 01 August 2012 10:39

Matt Kornau: Empowering Global Change

A new brand of soap lands at Whole Foods Market, ready to fill the shelves. Its arrival may not seem revolutionary, but the very existence of fair-trade Paruva Kaalam soap represents the culmination of a unique journey, one that illustrates how broad-minded corporations can bridge the gap between big industry’s ability to leverage resources and the need for socially responsible change.

And it’s a journey that can result in shared value for both communities and clients.

At Kaleidoscope, one of our core values is partnership. We partnered with Design Impact, a nonprofit organization that works with resource-poor communities to drive innovation where it’s needed most.

Through an ongoing fellowship, Design Impact selects seasoned designers for 10-month, embedded engagements in India. By living and working with their community partners, the fellows gain deep familiarity with the area’s most pressing problems and the resources available to create solutions.

Supported by Kaleidoscope’s researchers, designers, engineers and other specialists, the first Design Impact fellows developed clean-burning charcoal briquettes that replace pollution-emitting cooking fires. In addition, they created the Paruva Kaalam soap business that uses the glycerin byproduct of local biodiesel production.

The benefits of these two products are easy to see: cleaner air, maximized natural resources, new understanding of scalable business models and a revenue stream for an impoverished community.

The benefits to Kaleidoscope are clear, too. We have enabled design fellows to learn through doing and can scale that experience, apply it elsewhere, and repeat. Kaleidoscope’s in-depth knowledge of these emerging societies and the changes occurring in those regions can be shared with our clients. This expertise gives us a competitive edge.  

Is your company ready to empower global change and benefit from shared value? Consider taking these steps: 

Evaluate your company’s mission. Our first step was to make sure our mission aligned with the goals of the potential non-profit partner. This alignment ensured that the partnership would be compliant with both our staff and clients.

Create a realistic plan. Design Impact worked with our legal and accounting firms to develop a business plan that we could support with both financial and in-kind resource support. With these benchmarks in place, we agreed to fund the pilot project for two years. This allowed Design Impact the time and experience to develop its model before reaching out to other corporate funders.

Choose a cause that inspires your staff. Our relationship with Design Impact has grown from a small idea to a close collaboration that has energized our team and increased our capabilities. Our employees realized they could make an impact by participating. Because they understand our company’s business plan and how our organization works, they are able to manage their time in terms of company business goals and their involvement with the non-profit.

Leverage the benefits for all. The ideal outcome is to create positive social change, help clients better understand opportunity spaces, and provide an engaging outlet for employees to develop new skills. Through this partnership, we’ve created shared value between Design Impact, our clients and the Kaleidoscope team.

Big Business’ belief that emerging economies represent a ready market for Western packaged goods may prove to be a false hope. However, with global economies in flux, we may be able to catalyze opportunities for once-disconnected areas to one day fully participate in open, worldwide markets.

Until then, corporations can move socially responsible change forward using their resources of personnel, expertise and funding. Helping to teach someone how to fish is the way to go. I hope you’ll join me in finding innovative ways for your company to do the same.

Matt Kornau is CEO and co-owner of Kaleidoscope, a 23-year-old product development and design consultancy. By leveraging expertise in design, research, engineering, and brand engagement at its locations in North America and China, the company provides a spectrum of services from product inception through to manufacturing. You can reach Kornau at (513) 766-1056 or mkornau@kascope.com. For information, visit www.kascope.com or www.d-impact.org.

Published in Cincinnati

As former firefighters, brothers Robin and Chris Sorensen know that quality and quantity are both important when it comes to a sandwich. So when they co-founded Firehouse Subs in 1994, their vision involved providing better service and a better restaurant experience for their customers. It also involved more meat.

“We made a list of things we thought we had to do to be different and be competitive, and it came down to the concept, and it came down to the experience at the floor level and service levels,” Robin says. “And then it came down to the food.”

Over the years, Firehouse built a reputation for its appetite worthy portions of premium meats and cheeses. With the advantage of being one of the least expensive brands in the fast-casual segment — competitors include Five Guys and Panera Bread rather than Subway — the company steadily grew its regional foothold from Jacksonville, Fla., to 300 locations in 17 states.

But at the beginning of 2007, all of that changed. The restaurants started losing traffic.

“Up until that point, we never had a down quarter,” Robin says. “We’d been building on a continuous basis, and we didn’t even realize how good we had it.”

While the brothers didn’t know it yet, the company’s problem went deeper than the economic recession. The problem was “crappy” marketing.

“What we learned is that people who weren’t eating there — they didn’t really understand what we were,” Robin says. “The Subway customer assumed when they saw our sign that we were just like Subway.”

Root out the problem

Facing some of the darkest days in Firehouse’s history, founders Chris and Robin knew that the company’s franchisees were looking to them for reassurance. Feeling that they owed it to them to look at every opportunity to revive business, they took input from owners and employees, realizing that many of the ideas weren’t viable options.

“For the first time, we could feel the weight of the system on our shoulders, almost literally looking at us and asking, ‘What are we going to do?’” Robin says.

“Some of them were saying we should cut our portions down — which my blood pressure is going up thinking about it. But we had to look at different opportunities. That whole process — all it did was lead us to say, ‘We’ve got to do something.’”

Both felt strongly that they couldn’t jeopardize the quality or quantity that defined the Firehouse Subs brand in exchange for short-term profits. But they agreed they couldn’t stand still either. So as they debated how to handle the declining numbers, the Sorensens also started taking a hard look at their advertising agency.

The company had talked about changing advertising agencies in the past. And seeing the poor results of recent efforts, its leadership offered the agency one last opportunity to present its ideas on how to resuscitate customer traffic. Needless to say, they weren’t impressed.

“Basically, we were out of options,” Robin says. “We weren’t in great shape. So we did something drastic.”

Feeling more and more that the reason for poor performance stemmed from ineffective brand marketing, the leaders proposed a radical change.

In the summer 2008, they decided to rescind the 2 percent in royalties that franchisees paid the company for its corporate marketing efforts. Instead, they told franchisees that they could keep the money — if they agreed to do their own marketing.

“We came up with a comprehensive plan on what they need to do with that money at their discretion, the old fashioned stuff — hiring sign wavers, developing catering, knocking on doors, ‘touching’ people, speaking at the chamber — all of the things that helped us build the company,” Robin says.

Then they hopped on a bus, traveling around the country to present the new marketing plan to store owners with a national founder’s tour. A key part of the presentation was showing franchisees how to execute the new, guerrilla-style marketing initiatives.

“We’d have 10 people from our office get off the bus and we’d all hit three, four or five stores depending on the city,” Robin says. “We would go out and market those stores on the ground ourselves with them to show them how to get it done. We always built sales wherever we were at. So it was radical, but we tried it.”

After six months, about 20 percent of the system was really on board and executing on the suggestions. So the brothers decided to extend the efforts for another six months.

In the end, the local marketing ramp-up wasn’t enough to stop the decline. Continuing to lose traction, the company closed out the 2008 year down 6 percent in comparable store sales. By 2009, the company was falling nearly 7 percent. The Firehouse Subs brand still wasn’t registering with the customers; and Chris and Robin went shopping for a new advertising agency.

Focus on the right customers

As they began their search, the brothers looked for a smaller agency where they would know the owners personally. So they were skeptical when their consultant proposed a meeting with Zimmerman Advertising, an agency worth $2 billion whose clients include high-profile brands such as Papa John’s Pizza.

“I said, ‘Let’s not even go down there to Ft. Lauderdale because they are too big,’” Robin says. “‘We’re going to be lost in the shuffle.’ And the consultant said, ‘They are different people down there. They are a unique agency, and I’ve seen a lot of them. … I think you guys are going to hit it off.’”

Compared to the last 20 presentations they’d gone through, Zimmerman was the only agency so far that had no marketing ideas to pitch. As they sat down to meet with the company’s leadership, its staff admitted that they didn’t know much about who Firehouse was. Instead, they pitched themselves.

The agency’s founder, Jordan Zimmerman, pointed out that both of the company’s previous agencies had pitched their ideas for the business before they even had time to research who and its customers were. But Zimmerman did things differently.

“His point was how do they know if that’s right when they haven’t had enough time or money to go out and really do thorough research?” Robin says. “And he was right.”

So when the meeting was over, they hired Zimmerman as their new agency. They also gave them the money to go out and do the necessary market research to develop their brand strategy. The agency used techniques such as intercepting customers — going into other stores and offering them a free lunch at Firehouse Subs in exchange for feedback — Zimmerman soon figured out why the company was losing customers. The brand needed to reach more people.

At the time, the company had lost about 10 percent of its traffic. But while the owners were so focused on getting those people back in the door, they’d also overlooked an essential question: are these the right people?

“The point is — they’re gone,” Robin says. “We weren’t really focusing on the 90 percent that are OK with our proposition. So we started trying to better understand who those customers are and who other customers are.”

The agency also told the brothers that it would take a 4 percent investment from each of the franchisees to execute a new brand marketing strategy.

“I said to them, ‘So you’re asking me to go our franchisees and say not only do you have to give me the 2 percent back that we let you keep temporarily, but you’re required to, and you need to give us two more that you’re not required to?’” Robin says. “It was radical.”

But while knocking on doors worked occasionally, the customer data made it clear that Firehouse Subs had to reach more consumers with its message if it was going to stay profitable.

“The simplicity of it was just 'find more people,'” Chris says. “Tell them who we are and why we’re better. With the economy down, there were a certain number of people who couldn’t afford to eat with us, and we weren’t going to get them back until the economic situation was corrected. But there were thousands upon thousands of people that we could reach, which is what we did.”

Try a new tactic

With the help of Zimmerman, Robin and Chris began making the changes to the company’s marketing and advertising. First, the company increased its emphasis on the items that make it different from competitors — its big portions of quality meats. At the heart of the strategy was the radio.

The agency suggested that, as founders, Robin and Chris should represent the brand in radio commercials. Instead of discounting the price, they’d focus on Firehouse Subs’ bigger portions and fresh-sliced, steamed meat and cheese. The commercials would also include a new slogan: “Our way beats their way. If you don’t agree, it’s free.” By mentioning the price in the commercials, customers would know exactly what to expect coming into the restaurants — a medium hook and ladder for $5.39, not a $5 footlong.

“We’re giving a guarantee,” Robin says. “So if you take one bite and you don’t like it, we’ll give you your money back. While everybody is talking about smaller sandwiches — $2 torpedoes, $5 footlongs — we’re going to be the only one talking about premium.”

At first, Chris and Robin were hesitant about going on the radio, even as they helped write and develop the spots. So they began a 10-week test run, doing radio spots in Jacksonville, Fla., Knoxville, Tenn., and Augusta, Ga.

“We were concerned about not doing it well, and we don’t want the system thinking that we think it’s all about us,” Robin says. “What if we fail at it? So Zimmerman was like, ‘If you suck, we’ll be the first to tell you.’”

Within days of starting the radio campaigns, the stores saw 10 to 15 percent lifts.

“Without discounting, without changing who we were, without coming up with the next cheap sandwich, we stuck to what’s made us who we are and just started blasting the airwaves and finding new customers,” Chris says. “And it worked.”

Bring the fight home

The company now had real data in its back pocket showing that the radio worked. But now, Chris and Robin had to go back to owners with the new marketing strategy and convince them to invest in it. In summer 2009, the company held its first ever corporate-wide conference to introduce the new agency and new marketing investment.

The brothers explained the tests and the results of radio campaigns. They explained the big picture and the vision. Because the plan to give owners the reins over marketing hadn’t worked, they felt that they had even more authority to ask franchisees to support the changes.

“If we hadn’t given them money to try it on their own, they may have demanded some other options,” Robin says.

“We said, ‘You’ve had this for a year. We tried an agency. We couldn’t get results. We gave them an opportunity to present their ideas. They weren’t good. We tried it. Check. Then we gave you the money for a year. It didn’t work enough to turn us around. Check. Now we have a new agency.”

They asked the 80 percent attendance of franchisees in attendance to double down on their investment into the corporate marketing. In the following five months, they held meetings with the other 20 percent to get their support. In the end, everybody who was eligible to be on the radio voted to do it.

“As much money as we spent, it came down to buying the right media to talk to the right group of people, and hitting it heavy with the right message,” Robin says.

“The bottom line is that it was a major risk, a double down in a bad economy, and it absolutely was the most phenomenal thing we’ve ever done.”

Since the second quarter of 2009, the company has continued to increase sales 4 to 6 percent every year, fueling its expansion to approximately 500 locations today. Revenue for 2010 was an impressive $256 million. The brothers have already invested close to $5 million of their own money in the radio campaigns. Yet there is still one thing they would have done differently a second time around.

“Fired our agency earlier,” Chris says.

How to reach: Firehouse Subs, (800) 388-3473 or www.firehousesubs.com

Takeaways

1.         Figure out where you need to improve.

2.         Rethink your market of customers.

3.         Step outside your communication comfort zone.

The Sorensen File

Chris and Robin Sorensen

Co-founders

Firehouse Subs

Born: Jacksonville, Fla.

Favorite Firehouse sub:

Robin: Smokehouse Beef & Cheddar Brisket

Chris: Smoked Turkey Breast

About the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation

Founded: 2005

Mission: To buy life-saving equipment for fire, police and other public safety institutions

Robin: We’ve saved lives with the equipment that we’ve donated, and it’s really taken on a life of its own. People understand Ronald McDonald House, and that’s big part of who they are. We want the same thing with Firehouse, because not many companies have really made a great connection like that, like we have. We started it from the heart because we enjoyed it and thought it would be great. One of our agencies put it as one of our brand pillars in who we are. It’s one of the pillars of building a great business in the community.

About 50 percent of the donations come from the store and our customers. The other 50 come from our vendors, franchisees, Chris and I and our partner Steven. We’ve put in almost $600,000 of it ourselves.

What are the best business lessons that you’ve each learned in your careers?

Robin: One of the biggest failures — there’s two parts to it. One is people just aren’t willing to do what it takes to grow their business. You hear it in the way they talk about it, ‘I’m willing to do this, but I’m not willing to do that. I’m not willing to put the hours in.’ They set parameters on themselves: ‘I’ll work five days a week, but I’m not working on Saturday during the college football season.’ When we opened up, it wasn’t that we said we’ll do anything; that was our philosophy and mindset. The other part of is, are you in it for you or are you in it for the company — the frugality piece.

Chris: I was told this advice from an old mentor of mine. He told us if you want to be a smart business owner, you don’t buy expensive cars or a yacht. He told us if you can’t write a check for it, don’t buy it. My brother and I still practice this to this day.

Published in Florida