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The big challenge for so many executives is that they have been reared in “boss mode” rather than in the culture of leadership.

Bosses too often believe that they have to come up with all the innovative answers. Consequently, their people will sit and wait for the boss’s next epiphany. It’s old-school thinking!

Most entrepreneurial ventures are born because someone on a lower level within a company had a good idea, but the boss didn’t listen. When companies instead have leaders of the ilk defined by Thomas L. Friedman in his June 2011 The New York Times column, they continue to flourish and evolve toward the next level as opposed to becoming stifled and destined to “expire.”

Friedman says, “The role of leaders today is to inspire, empower, enable and then edit and meld all that innovation coming from the bottom up.”

Why? Because even bosses eventually run out of creative ideas. With that in mind, you have to ask yourself if you are an extreme or a reluctant boss.

With some bosses, in extreme cases, there’s not much that can be done. They build a cadre of yes-men around them and everyone waits for their command or their next crazy idea to execute. But at least the yes-men have jobs — although sometimes at pay beyond their true value because of blind obedience and loyalty.

In these challenging economic times, there are also many enterprises stagnating because their people wait for their boss to paint the picture of what the company will look like going forward. These reluctant bosses don’t know any better. They have just grown up in different organizational cultures.

On the other hand, good leaders build up the confidence and talents of people around them and nurture their creative ideas. That’s call new-school thinking.

Here are three behaviors that will transform reluctant bosses to effective leaders:

  • Education and learning: Good leaders have a great appetite for learning, especially in regard to cultivating more effective ways of motivating people and building positive and innovative environments. Good leaders focus on thought leadership and create a learning environment for all. Bosses, on the other hand, participate in little of the education and learning aspects because they believe they know it all already. Sound familiar to anyone?

When executives stop learning, their leadership prowess begins to wane.

  • Focus on your people, not yourself: Traditional bosses are generally described as people with big egos. In other words, they’re more focused on themselves and their own prowess and generally have scant regard for the capabilities of their people.

On the other hand, smart leaders focus on building and encouraging their people. They invariably have associates around them that they respect and appreciate. Humility trumps ego every time.

  • Let people take risks and make mistakes: Once you take a leadership posture toward people, you will be open to letting them learn from their mistakes. Remember, creating an atmosphere of risk-taking is very healthy. By doing so, they will discover and innovate. Who knows — one out of every five interesting ideas may bear real potential.

As their leader, your job is to assemble resources and talents, as well as create a vision for the company, focused on innovation. Whenever setbacks occur, and they will, you must encourage the innovator to hang in there — your support and patience will be required.

Again, remember that innovation comes from all those talented people operating within your organization. Your people probably have many unrecognized talents, which, when harnessed properly, could put your enterprise on an exciting new track.

So give up on being an atypical boss and try leadership instead — the results will speak for themselves.

G.A. Taylor Fernley is president and CEO of Fernley & Fernley, an association management company founded in 1886. Reach him at tfernley@fernley.com, or for more information, visit www.fernley.com.

Published in Philadelphia

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

Eli Tene, principal and managing director, Peak Corporate Network

Gil Priel and Eli Tene were about to take on not one, but two significant challenges that would literally reshape the way that their business would be run. The fellow principals and managing directors went into the effort with their eyes wide open to the inevitability of bumps along the way.

“It’s not going to be seamless and it’s not going to be smooth,” says Priel, who shares the title of principal and managing director with his partner, Tene. “But we didn’t do it overnight.”

The partners wanted to take a number of different companies that they owned and combine them into one organization under one brand name: Peak Corporate Network. Once that was done, they wanted to implement a customer relationship management system to bring clarity and order to the process of helping clients of the 230-employee company buy, sell and manage their real estate.

“As time went by, we really felt our clients wanted to have our service,” Priel says. “The fact that we had the different companies was just confusing. It was tough to sell.”

The key to a successful transition in both the brand change and the CRM implementation was the attitude with which the partners brought it to their employees.

“It’s important to embrace them, empower them, educate them and make them part of the process,” Tene says. “When we’re changing this atmosphere, people need to understand it’s a partnership between the leadership of the company and the people that work there. That makes the process much easier to go over and makes it much easier to get everybody to work through this in the best interest of the company. That was a challenge we’re still going through.”

With the move to one brand, Priel says the tough part was getting people to look beyond their specialty and push other areas that were now part of their company too.

“They resist the adjustment because they are used to doing things in a certain way and they are afraid that change can reveal weakness,” Priel says. “They have to start thinking and talking about everything that we do together as a big company. They can’t just talk about their specific service.”

When you engage your people in regular dialogue and portray change as being something that you’re going through too, you make it more palatable.

“It’s something that leadership must be part of,” Tene says. “You can’t just implement it without support. It needs to be reinforced from senior leadership.”

As for the implementation of the CRM system, Priel says similar principles apply. Implementing change comes down to helping people feel comfortable with it and helping them see the benefit of it.

“You need to start with baby steps,” Priel says. “Like anything else, what do you need from me? You need to come to those people who need to work with the CRM and you need to show them what it means for them. Why it’s good for you to use. As long as you can explain that and show it and make sure the training process is painless and something they can understand, it should work.

“The initial reaction is, ‘Oh my God, I’m being monitored, where before I wasn’t.’ That’s your hurdle. You say, ‘Yeah, you’re being monitored. But you’re going to know yourself when the last time was you called on this guy. Why has his business gone down this year compared to last year? Maybe you need to go visit him more often.’ It’s being able to prioritize channels and clients and it makes everybody’s work so much easier.”

There may be some people who can’t make the transition to what you’re doing and you need to be ready to accept that. But if you take the mindset that you’re all on the same team working toward the same goal, you’ll stand a better chance at achieving success.

“We see the results,” Tene says. “The sales are jumping.”

How to reach: Peak Corporate Network, (818) 591-3300 or www.peakcorp.com

Don’t give up

When you’re taking on major changes in your business, you’ll undoubtedly face a situation where someone isn’t ready to do what you need them to do. You’d be a pretty cold and heartless person if you just cast them aside without checking first to see if they could help you in other areas.

“Some of the stuff we’ve implemented has shown us that someone might not be right for the position they are in,” Priel says. “So we think and we strategize about how that person has a lot of qualities. Where can we utilize those qualities? We’ve had several people where we’ve moved them from one company to the other or one division to the other and they have succeeded. We’re trying to set people up for success, not for failure. Before we ever fire someone or lay someone off, we think about where he could be useful. What strengths does that person have?”

Published in Los Angeles

Many business leaders say all the right things about how much they value their employees. But they often fall short in their actual investment in human capital.

Even though human capital investments are one of a company’s largest expenses, these leaders would rather devote more regular attention to the balance sheet, capital investments and risk analysis.

That is a mistake.

There are substantial benefits from a strategic focus on human capital. Higher profitability is at the top of the list.

Numerous studies consistently show higher year-over-year returns for companies that are strategically focused on human capital. These organizations also have higher levels of employee satisfaction and engagement that parallel higher levels of customer satisfaction and loyalty. Given the staggering cost of finding, hiring and keeping employees, there are substantial payoffs if you perform as an industry leader in the human resources area.

Why is it so difficult to focus on human resources? It takes time and commitment. As with all major initiatives, it starts with a clear corporate strategy with board oversight. Senior executives need to assume accountability for outcomes and put clear dashboards in place to measure progress.

For example, leaders of many best-practice companies schedule two days of executive-level meetings quarterly to diligently review their best current and high-potential leaders and individual contributors.

Here are some other things that effective companies do.

  • Work to ensure high engagement by involving current and potential leaders in critical work for the organization through regular feedback and through ongoing information flows from senior executives, among other important factors.
  • Ensure effective processes in recruitment and selection, on-boarding, and alignment to culture, strategy and role.
  • Build an effective performance management system in place with ongoing feedback loops to encourage best performance and optimal results.
  • Create continual development opportunities for current employees and ensure future roles are readily available.
  • Devote 2 to 3 percent of payroll to learning and development.

The most successful companies also strongly emphasize diversity and inclusion — not just in the traditional areas of focus but also diversity of skills and abilities. In addition, they offer training to ensure that employees at all levels effectively demonstrate inclusion by effectively listening, seeking feedback, giving feedback and managing conflict and differences of opinion.

Why don’t more leaders take full ownership and accountability? Why is human capital reporting not a standard part of executive committee agendas?  Why is there a stigma associated with human resources-related functions?

Here is one indication that suggests there is, unfortunately, still a stigma attached to working with HR: In 2008, M.D. Breitfelder and D.W. Dowling — both MBA graduates — explained their career choice by writing a Harvard Business Review story called “Why Did We Ever Go Into HR?”

Human resources and human capital professionals contribute to the lack of understanding of the importance of HR by not speaking in terms of clear business outcomes. In addition, talent management professionals often don’t have a seat at the senior management table. Leaders would do well to involve HR executives at the highest levels and coach appropriately to ensure that HR and talent professionals speak in ways that resonate with the C-suite.

The stakes for human capital are likely to become even higher in the future. Leaders would do well to develop human capital skills and champion talent management overall.

Jay Colker is core faculty for the master’s in counseling and organizational psychology program at the Adler School of Professional Psychology. He also maintains a human capital consulting practice and may be reached at jcolker@adler.edu or at (312) 213-3421.

Published in Chicago
Saturday, 30 June 2012 20:01

David McKinnon: Against the current

A shared pain among business leaders during economic downturns is motivating your internal teams to remain loyal to your company when annual salary increases are not realistic. In addition to managing expenses and generating revenue, weathering financial fluctuations also requires finding creative solutions to attract, retain and motivate top talent.

Whether recovering from a seasonal downturn in sales or a full recession, returning to aggressive growth plans as soon as possible is the No. 1 priority. The upswing can also bring new challenges if preventive steps haven’t been taken — specifically, employee turnover. Once companies in your area begin to ramp up for growth, hiring freezes are lifted and recruitment efforts typically accelerate.

To reduce workforce attrition, continue focusing on employee engagement as a key strategy to strengthening your bottom line.

Rewards, appreciation and recognition programs play a critical role in demonstrating your commitment to your team. Here are seven ways you can inspire, challenge and communicate with employees to strengthen their connection with your company in good times, or bad:

1. During 2010, we launched the Innovision Project at Service Brands International. Hosted on our existing intranet site, it is a program that allows team members to submit solutions to improve morale, reduce expenses or build sales. With this kind of program, your employees’ ideas are visible for all team members to comment on, and if an idea is instituted, the team member receives companywide recognition and a financial reward.

2. The window between Memorial Day and Labor Day is highly motivating to most Michiganders as we finally forget those winter commutes that begin and end in the dark. Offering summer hours to the office team is a great way to let your employees take advantage of the warm weather.

3. Part of our financial success is bringing on new business partners and selling franchises. To tap into our employee and existing franchise owner networks, we reworked our referral bonus program. If a referral results in a new business opening, home office team members will earn $15,000 and franchise owners can earn up to $30,000 by mentoring their referral over a three-year period.

4. In 2009, an internal, recognition program called “You Make a Difference” was introduced. Each month, nominations were submitted and one employee would be recognized. Earlier this year, the program was enhanced to empower department managers to acknowledge and reward their team members for a job well done. This new approach gives managers the autonomy they desire and continues to show appreciation for excellence.

5. Quarterly profit-sharing bonus checks can be disappointing if companies do not achieve budget goals. I recommend that you evaluate your program and introduce an upward payout. Having a motivated team without a ceiling is a good thing for your people and your business.

6. Keep the lines of communication open. Continue holding company-wide meetings and share business trends and actions being taken to improve performance. A transparent approach builds trust among your employees. If your managers are not already conducting one-on-one meetings with their direct reports, start immediately.

7. Show that you care. When a team member was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, our company rallied to support the family. When the battle was lost, we wanted to continue to help and offered employee deduction options so team members could help the family. With a company match, we were proud to make a significant contribution to his daughter’s college fund.

After leading companies for nearly 30 years, you can lessen your losses from an economic downturn by focusing on employees. When consumer confidence returns, having an experienced, loyal team makes all the difference.

David McKinnon is the co-founder, chairman and CEO of Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Service Brands International, an umbrella organization that oversees home services brands, including Molly Maid, Mr. Handyman, 1-800-DryClean and ProTect Painters. To contact David, send him an e-mail at davidm@servicebrands.com.

Published in Detroit

When SugarHouse Casino opened its doors to the public in September 2010, the buzz was palpable throughout the region. Located on the Delaware River, it is Philadelphia’s first casino, and its debut came with a full royal fanfare: media headlines, applicants clamoring to apply for jobs and a leadership team assembled from a pool of experienced gaming industry experts from around the country.

At the center was Wendy Hamilton, the casino’s general manager. Like everyone else associated with SugarHouse, she basked in the glow of the casino’s debut. But she also knew the spotlight wouldn’t always be this bright.

“It was all new, novel and exciting,” says Hamilton, now in her second year running the casino. “We were all making decisions every day that were going to determine who we are and how we would do business for the rest of our lives here. It was really a high energy and exciting time for everyone. But now, it’s not so new anymore and it is not as exciting. The media isn’t as interested in everything we do. So the challenge has become about how we ensure this is still a great place to work, ensure people still enjoy coming to work every day when it isn’t so novel anymore.”

It happens to virtually any business that opens to a heaping helping of pomp and circumstance: At the outset, it’s an event. After some time passes, it becomes a job. Even if the Phillies are in first place this month, by now home games have become a matter-of-fact part of summertime life. The buzz surrounding Opening Day is a distant memory.

Replace the crack of the bat with the ringing of slot machines, and you have Hamilton’s predicament over the past year-plus.

“It is something that the leadership team here thinks about every day,” she says. “We are always looking for new ways to keep the team engaged, ways to get everybody on board with what we are doing.”

Plug yourself in

Maintaining a high level of engagement with your employees comes down to how you communicate. That is the simply stated version of the solution. What Hamilton has discovered is that you need to choose your interaction points for the best possible impact.

In an organization like SugarHouse, which employs just more than 1,000, you can build communication touch points through a variety of mediums. The tried-and-true methods include newsletters, e-mail blasts, speeches and videoconferences.

But what works best for Hamilton and her leadership team, and what she emphasizes, is relationship-building through informal interaction. Hamilton walks the casino floor, visits the employee lunchroom, chats with cashiers during a lull in business, so she can learn what they are learning. Hamilton says it is critical to develop a sense of familiarity between the casino’s executive team and the employees working the floor, because those employees talk to customers every day. They find out what customers like and don’t like about their experiences at the casino, and can help the executive team to identify issues at ground level before they become major problems.

“We are in a very consumer-oriented business, in a very high-touch industry,” Hamilton says. “For example, we do a lot of giveaways to certain customers who are worth a certain dollar level to us. They are usually invited to the casino at a specific day and time to pick up their gift. Let’s say it is a set of pots and pans, which is a gift that creates some logistical concerns. A set of pots and pans is not easily handed over to a customer and carried around the casino for the rest of their visit.

“So what might happen is an employee relays a suggestion from a customer about doing the pot and pan giveaway at the end of the visit, so they can just pull up to the valet stand, put the package in the car and drive away. On the executive level, it might make more sense to us if we give the package away at the promotions center, but the people at ground level will have a better feel for the details of the situation.”

Through their daily observations, employees can formulate common-sense suggestions that can have wide-ranging positive results over the long term. But if you don’t put in the time and effort to connect with them and develop a sense of familiarity, they won’t feel engaged, their enthusiasm for the job will wane and they won’t come to you with their ideas.

“I like knowing people’s names, knowing what part of the casino they work in, and even knowing a little bit about them personally,” Hamilton says. “If you can keep it casual and informal, it’s not a big deal to run into them somewhere and ask them to help you out with something. You can comfortably ask them about a new potential policy and how it might impact them in their area of work. It keeps the communication very quick, easy and efficient.”

You won’t be able to use every single idea that an employee brings forward. But even when you have to reject an idea, or table it for a while, you can still use that as an opportunity for connection, engagement and motivation.

“When you can’t use an idea, there ought to be a reason,” Hamilton says. “Either it is a good idea for your purposes or it isn’t. If it is a good idea, you use it. If it isn’t, you need to explain to the person why it won’t work. If it is a regulatory reason or something along that line, just tell them that. More often than not, it’s going to be a situation where you like the idea but you just can’t use it right now. It might be something you can do a couple of months from now. If that is the case, you have to tell them it is a great idea and there is a better chance of it happening in a few months. But it all comes back to how you communicate with the person in that situation.”

Though you can’t often develop the same level of familiarity with customers that you can with employees, you can take some of the same informal communication principles and apply it to how you interact with customers.

“I find that the little tidbit you get from a five-minute conversation with a customer is as valuable as the customer surveys we send out,” Hamilton says. “It’s a lot of being around the operation, being there while they are playing or while they are having dinner. You just ask them what is going good about their experience and how their experience could be better. I would say it is difficult sometimes in a business setting to really get a group of executives used to just being there and having those kinds of conversations – the type of conversations you would have around your own water cooler in the executive offices. You need to be able to talk like that to your customers and your employees because that is where you are going to get the real information.”

Build your team

If you’re going to keep your employees engaged over the long haul, your communication philosophy has to become a fundamental building block of your culture. Putting words on a piece of paper, or stating it to your work force, is only the first step, however. You need to promote your communication philosophy, and you need to have a leadership team that fully buys in to your plan and can implement your communication strategy.

At SugarHouse, Hamilton had the advantage of building her own leadership team from scratch, and doing so months before the casino opened its doors.

“We were very lucky here, because at the time we were hiring, this industry was experiencing some turbulence in other markets like Atlantic City and Las Vegas,” she says. “What it meant was, people who were some of the experts in this business, people who had been in a certain field for quite a while and might have turned us down under other circumstances, were willing to take the risk and come here. The field was kind of open to us.”

After Hamilton made the first couple of management hires, a chain reaction developed as those hires then started recruiting via their own professional connections.

“Once I had one or two people on board, those people did the same things, helping me by recruiting some of their own peers to fill out their own teams,” Hamilton says. “We also hired a number of people who applied to us cold, but it helps to have connections through somebody that you are working with, and you’re able to reach out and recruit through those connections.”

As Hamilton was recruiting to build her leadership team, and her team was recruiting to build their departmental teams, she emphasized three overarching traits that all management-level team members needed to possess.

“They needed to be smart, like any executive would, and they need to be a bit clever about solving problems,” she says. “Beyond that, they also need to be people who can interact in a social setting. If they are people who can function in their neighborhood or in their kid’s school, it’s largely the same thing. Sometimes you have to train people to have those informal conversations at work, because it’s not how they were coached previously. But anybody who is smart and fairly social can pull it off once the main idea is introduced.”

When building a team that can stimulate dialogue and engage employees, you need to consider your culture first. If you want to build a management team that can promote open communication, that concept first needs to be a part of your organization’s core values. If you can’t define your values accurately, you won’t be able to hire to fit your values.

Through her professional connections, Hamilton knew of many people in the gaming and casino industry with a high level of technical competency in their areas of specialization. But by getting to know those people over the years, she developed a sense of who would fit the culture at SugarHouse and who wouldn’t.

“I can name a couple of good finance folks, but I knew right away the one who would fit perfectly into the culture we wanted to build here,” she says. “You really have to be committed to making sure that you don’t have someone who might be very strong on the technical side but won’t add anything to the culture. But while you want everybody to identify with your culture and values, you don’t want to hire people who are all the same. So I don’t like to use the word ‘fit’ when it comes to culture. You don’t want to end up with 10 vice presidents who all have the same type of personality.”

Good team-building falls under the heading of “chemistry.” It’s a nebulous word when it comes to social interaction and what it means to have everybody working together. But somehow, the issue of chemistry must be addressed if you’re going to have a unified management team, and in turn, a unified, engaged and motivated company at large.

“At the end of the day, it’s up to you to make the call about whether a person is a good cultural fit or whether they simply bring the technical skills,” Hamilton says. “You could have the best people, but if they don’t fit with the culture and won’t get along with certain people, it weakens the team.

“You want to create a team that likes being together, a team that will look out for each other and have each other’s backs. Everybody has strengths and weaknesses, and if you build a team that is complementary, the job gets done, everybody plays a part and nothing falls apart because of a conflict or somebody’s weakness.”

How to reach: SugarHouse Casino, (877) 477-3715 or www.sugarhousecasino.com

The Hamilton file

Born: Philadelphia

Education: Degree in biology from Duke University; MBA in finance from St. Joseph’s University

First job: I sold saltwater taffy on the boardwalk in Ocean City, N.J. when I was 14 years old.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

Don’t take it personally. Let me define that a bit. On one hand, people do their jobs well because they take it personally. However, some days you just can’t get a hit. And when things aren’t going your way, that is when you have to be careful to not lose enthusiasm. Sometimes, things are going to get tough and something is not going to go right. But especially in a leadership role, you can’t let it affect your energy and enthusiasm. You still have to project a positive attitude, because people are going to look up to you.

What is your definition of success?

Obviously, you need to be producing a quality end product. But for me personally, I want to be able to assume those things are happening. It sounds ridiculously simple, but success is when you as the leader have the people around you fulfilled and your employees are happy. You want an environment where people enjoy coming to work. That, to me, is when you can say you are successful in your role.

Published in Philadelphia

Kurt Artinger turned an idea he had 10 years ago into a 40-employee business that made $8.1 million in 2010. Replacement Services LLC, which helps people find replacements for their lost or stolen jewelry, grew at an average annual rate of 30 percent over its first decade.

Few would have questioned Artinger if he slid into cruise control and just tried to keep a good thing going as long as he could, especially at a time when so many companies are struggling.

But Artinger had no plans to take his foot off the gas pedal. He wanted to grow even faster.

“If you’re thinking about continuous improvement, then I don’t care what I developed two years ago,” says Artinger, the company’s founder and CEO. “What I’m going to develop a year from now is going to be a heck of a lot better than what I did two years ago.”

In order to make that thought a reality, Artinger accepted that substantial changes might be necessary. The difference this time as compared to when he founded the company was that he now had a group of people around him to assist with devising a winning plan.

“So we sat down with basically a blank sheet of paper on a wall that was about 8 feet long and we put our value stream process down,” Artinger says. “What processes can we eliminate? What has value to our clients? Is that value worth that touch? We started identifying how to streamline what it is that we do.”

Artinger wanted to get down on paper every step that his company took to deliver a service to its customers. The goal was to figure out which processes worked really well and which ones required some tweaking to improve performance.

“That’s the reality of growing a company,” Artinger says. “The little problems that you have aren’t that huge, they are little problems. But if you double it or triple it, those problems become huge. So that’s what you have to identify.”

It becomes a simple process if you can set aside your ego and listen to what your people are telling you.

“Egos get in the way of so many good leaders,” Artinger says. “They have the ability to lead and change, but your ego comes into play and it’s like, ‘Is it about me personally or is it about the company?’”

Artinger just wanted the business to keep growing. Ideas that rose to the surface included achieving better inventory control and finding a simpler way to track items through the system.

If these problems were solved and the company grew even faster, Artinger would get all the glory he wanted. More importantly, his people who made great contributions to the effort by identifying key issues that needed to be addressed would get recognition and take a big step toward becoming leaders themselves.

Artinger just needed to take the time to work with them and see what thoughts they had in mind to integrate their ideas into the company’s work flow processes.

“It would be real easy for me to sit there and say, ‘You know what? That’s a great idea. Here’s what we’ve got to do,’” Artinger says. “If I do that, have I put them in position to be a potential leader later on? I haven’t. I’ve just solved the problem. It’s not my intention to beat them up, but to help them have a well-thought out plan.”

When your people have suggestions, ask questions to see how much thought they have put into it and don’t put them in a position to wait to be told what to do next.

“I don’t want to dictate how to resolve issues or problems,” Artinger says. “I want them to tell me what they think the solution is because I’m always learning how my people think.”

Through this effort which began in January 2011, Replacement Services has made progress, especially with its shipping department.

“We took a process that was about three days and our average turnaround time now is three hours,” Artinger says. “We exceed customer expectations and that’s one of the big things we look at.”

How to reach: Replacement Services LLC, (888) 205-2522 or www.replacementservices.com

Show your passion

Kurt Artinger looks forward to getting hit with a challenge when he arrives at work every morning. It’s what makes leading Replacement Services LLC fun.

“If you’re managing a group of people and/or you’re the CEO of a company, you have to be passionate about what it is that you do,” says Artinger, founder and CEO at the 40-employee insured jewelry replacement company. “In this environment, I don’t hit near as many walls as I used to. It’s always growing, always learning and always continuous improvement.”

Your people are going to look to you for clues about whether or not they should be excited about a new initiative or a new way of doing things. And one of the best ways to build excitement is through inclusion in the work that needs to be done.

“I’ve got people who say the only way I’m leaving the company is if you pry my dead butt from the seat,” Artinger says. “And that’s because they have value. That’s what people want, to be valued as employees and valued as people. If you do that, you’re going to have a very successful company.”

Published in St. Louis

Do you understand the challenges your employees face? If you don’t, you need to. Any work force that has lived through these times of dislocation, reduced disposable income, rising prices for food, gasoline and other necessities and unrelenting worries about the future is, quite understandably, a much-changed group.

The confidence these employees have in their company’s leadership and the engagement they bring to their jobs has diminished considerably. As a result, many employees — including those whose contributions are vital to their companies’ ability to rebound quickly and nimbly — are poised to make a career move with the first signs of stepped-up hiring in their industry.

The companies that will fare the best as the recovery spreads and new opportunities are created for these disaffected workers are those whose leadership has been open, empathic and accessible during these rough times. How did you communicate about the difficult actions you took and why they were necessary?

To drive your organization through hard times, did you grab hold of the reins and issue demands that employees “fix sales” or “cut costs”? Or, did you solicit your employees’ take on the challenges and engage their help in finding a solution – so they felt indispensable, appreciated and at least somewhat in control of their fate?

Regardless of what you did or didn’t do in the past, today is the first day of the rest of your company’s future. The steps you take today to establish the face of leadership in your organization — as well as in the weeks to come as the recovery picks up strength and breadth — will position your company for the post-recovery environment. Here’s what you can do to chart a positive course.

Get behind the numbers

Break out of the routine that includes meetings, presentations, e-mails and metrics to really think about the drivers of success and the limitations that have resulted in your company’s numbers. Experience a day in the life of your organization. Go into departments and travel with sales, technical and service people on routine calls.

Don’t be fooled by success and be cautious of filtered information. Have a dialogue with people about their work instead of just listening to presentations that have been structured, massaged and beautified. Be honest with yourself and your team about the “elephant in the room,” the conditions and state of your markets and your business.

Focus on execution

Get a firm handle on how your organization plans and executes. What motivates your people? Do they have a passion for doing their job? Do they strongly believe in what the company stands for?

Relook at how work gets done and what’s really necessary versus what’s merely become routine. Ask people where and how they spend their time, and how they measure their personal and professional success.

Be visible internally and externally

People should feel they know you and have access.

Have a dialogue with your employees, customers, vendors and other third parties. As you engage with them, dig for truths so you can understand what they do, where they’re feeling stymied and how you can make improvements to enable them to be more successful.

Open communication channels

In one-on-one lunches, town halls and other venues, probe for the reality that your employees face, understand and see every day. Be grateful for the tough questions, and if they’re not asked, raise them yourself. Talk about your people and the commitment they’ve shown through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Praise the successes of your people. Be open, honest and sincere; and speak with energy and passion, but be yourself. Share your feelings and what you stand for so your employees can understand you and connect with you in ways they’ve never done before. 

It’s a tall order, but it’s doable. A willingness to take a fresh, honest look at your company and to expose your fears and vulnerabilities to internal and external groups is the key. Get started today.

Tony Arnold is founder and principal of Upfront Management, a St. Louis-based management and executive consulting firm. He can be reached at (314) 825-9525 or tony@upfrontmgmt.com.

Published in St. Louis

If you ask Travis Mlakar what the problem is with being in the paper industry today, he would joke that it’s people asking him if he is Dunder Mifflin from the TV show, “The Office.” While Mlakar hopes his company wasn’t the model for the show, he does want to strive to do something the show has accomplished, which is to make paper more appealing.

Mlakar will be the first to admit that he is in charge of a product that is both boring and bland. However, that boring product is a necessary one and although it lacks the rock star product status, paper has been the lifeblood of Mlakar’s family business, The Millcraft Paper Co., for 92 years.

“It’s white paper,” says Mlakar, president. “It’s about as boring and bland as you could possibly get, so we’ve had to find other ways of differentiating the product.”

That product differentiation, among other initiatives, would come in handy when the recession hit home for Millcraft Paper, a $150 million independent distributor and converter of commercial printing paper. The company went from experiencing record performances one month to a 15 percent drop in revenue the next. The business of paper was no longer boring or bland.

“In October 2008, we had the single largest month in company history, and in November 2008, we literally lost about 15 percent of our business overnight,” Mlakar says. “The world just came to a screeching halt. We’ve had to redefine who we are and the value that we bring and how we run our businesses after 2008 and 2009. Coming out of that, we realized internally we had to find a way as a business to take corporate responsibility and corporate sustainability to the next level.”

Millcraft’s footprint of operation is the Midwest in cities like Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis. The company realized it had to find way to become more efficient and stronger while also finding ways of giving back to the communities it works in to help those economies grow.

“It’s not the booming metropolises of the world,” Mlakar says. “We have spent a lot of time over the last few years really focusing on the communities in which we work. What we are trying to do is make better decisions ourselves as well as educate our customers about the impact their buying decisions have beyond price, because there is a lot more to it.”

Evaluate the business

When your business experiences a change from month to month as Millcraft did, it wakes you up. Mlakar and his team had to begin to identify ways to deal with the new economic and business environments.

“We obviously have had to drive efficiencies through our organizations,” Mlakar says. “Unfortunately, we went through massive headcount reductions, which are never fun. We also looked at how our organizations can do a better job of supporting each other. While we have 13 locations, the real question was what were we doing that was redundant in those 13 locations and how could we do a better job of all collaborating with each other to better support each other and do more with less?”

While the recession caused businesses a great deal of pain, it did provide a window of opportunity to those willing to put in the effort to truly improve their companies.

“The benefit of 2008 and 2009 was it blew everything up and you finally had a backdrop to question everything and you could get people to understand why you were attacking some of the sacred cows in your industry or in your business,” he says. “Necessity is the mother of all invention and I think that the necessity of changing your business and finding a way to be more efficient after the Great Recession really afforded people the opportunity to look at things differently.”

For Millcraft, one of the areas of business that had always been done one way was inventory management. There were old paradigms and it was time the company took a second look at those operations.

“When the downturn happened, we brought a new group of people together who were able to bring a fresh perspective to how we managed inventory and we were able to take our turns on our inventory from six times a year to 10 to 12 times a year,” Mlakar says. “They’ve done a fantastic job of just breaking the old paradigms that were there and really asking questions, ‘Why do we do this? Why do we do it this way? Why can’t we do it this way?”

Millcraft asked those same kinds of questions in customer service across its 13 locations. That effort has had a monumental impact and has allowed those locations to act as one rather than 13.

“We have competitors who have chosen to drive efficiencies by centralizing things and literally going to a centralized customer service department that they may have moved out of the area to another location,” Mlakar says. “What we’ve done is we’ve used technology to bring our organization closer together so that we are coordinating everything versus centralizing it. Right now our customers can pick up the phone in Cincinnati and if all of our customer service reps are on the phone, instead of going on hold, somebody in Columbus will answer the call or somebody in Cleveland or somebody in Detroit, to make sure that we’re not dropping the ball. That’s what we have focused on and we really looked at every aspect of our business to say, ‘How can we do a better job of utilizing what we have more effectively and efficiently?’”

Taking a step back and evaluating your entire business, seeing things differently and also questioning old processes and procedures is a great way to find better ways of doing things. However, the solutions don’t have to be up to you alone.

“You don’t have to have all the answers,” he says. “We have a wonderful group of people and what we’ve found to be most effective is to sit people down and ask them to describe their day and walk through all the different roles and responsibilities that they have. What do they feel is efficient or inefficient? If you can do it in a venue where you’re listening to what they’re saying, you’re bringing people together so that they can hear what they’re doing versus somebody else versus somebody else and then they start to draw parallels and say, ‘Wait a minute, I can do that and this person can do that, or what happens if we were all able to work together this way or that way?’ I find that some of the best business ideas that we’ve had certainly weren’t mine, they came from the people within our organization. I think if you can listen and facilitate you can get a lot further along than if you try and craft the answer.”

Communicate the changes

When you are asking employees for their feedback and input to identify areas of the business that can be improved, you have to make sure you communicate your decisions and actions based on that input.

“You have to be honest with people and say, ‘Here’s what you said, here’s what I heard, here’s what we took away from it or here are the decisions that we’ve made as a result,’” Mlakar says. “Sometimes you have to be honest with people and say, ‘Listen, I heard you say this, but I don’t agree and here are my reasons why.’ I think the key is you’ve got to educate people about the decisions that you’re making and more importantly, why are you making them. People may not like the decision, they may not agree with it, but the key is do they understand why we’re making it.”

During times of uncertainty and change, communication is the No. 1 tool for a business leader. When the recession first hit in 2008, it was unclear why business was declining and Mlakar had to communicate to understand why changes were happening.

“In November when we first saw the fall off in business, we didn’t understand why,” he says. “November was bad, December was bad and it wasn’t until January that other people in our industry began talking about the fall-off that had happened. So for 60 to 90 days, we were feeling a little lonely and it wasn’t until everyone started coming out saying, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve seen the same decline. We’ve seen this and we’ve seen that.’ Misery loves company and that certainly helped to understand that it wasn’t something that we were doing independently of the industry, and it wasn’t necessarily the decisions that we were making, but that it was a broader systemic issue.”

Once it was understood that it was a systemic issue it was quickly realized that everything that the company had been doing before had to be thrown out the window. You had to play by all different rules because no one had ever seen anything like this before.

“It just comes down to the fact that you’ve got to be honest,” he says. “You’ve got to be able to look people in the whites of the eyes and say, ‘Listen, it might be my job to be president, but that doesn’t mean I have all the answers. The reality is here’s what’s happening, here’s what we’re going to do or try to do to solve it.’ With respect to the people in our business and the people in this industry and a lot of industries, 2008 and 2009 was unprecedented. Nobody had any experience. Anytime there is a radical change in a business, often times it is uncharted waters and I don’t think there is anything wrong with telling people, ‘We’re in uncharted waters and we’re going to do our best, but we don’t have all the answers.’ You’ve just got to be honest and humble. If you come across like you have all the answers sooner or later people are going to see right through that.”

Find solutions

When the environment changes as drastically as it did, you can’t look for answers by staying within your company or even your industry. You have to get ideas and help from other industries where things can translate over.

“Everybody during that time was talking with friends on the side and asking, ‘What’s going on with your business and your industry?’” Mlakar says. “Whether it was casual conversations or talking with friends or just being open to ideas and things that were happening somewhere else, the benefit of a catastrophe like we went through is that you become much more open to ideas and potential solutions. I found myself listening to friends that are in the medical industry about what are they doing and trying to find a way of how could I apply that to our business.”

Whether you’re in tough times or not, it’s very important to develop a network of people that you regularly talk to that are outside of your industry.

“Too often people in business and in leadership positions inhale their own exhaust and they either sit in a room full of people that tell them what they want to hear, or they sit in a room full of people in their industry, in which case the only ideas you have are the ones that are going to perpetuate what’s currently happening,” he says. “You have to go outside and find things that are totally new and different to your particular industry. Find somebody that is in a totally different industry and look for those creative ideas.”

Millcraft focused on two parts of the business: assets/working capital employed in the business, and expenses.

“With both assets and working capital it really comes down to efficiency and analytics and how do you run your business more efficiently and where is there waste you can do without,” he says. “We’ve continued to do that and as our business is now growing again and we are in much better times, we’re finding that the work that we did two or three years ago is beginning to help us exponentially now. It’s the same thing on the expense side. That’s resulted in lower expenses, but more importantly, it’s also opened up the ability for us to grow more cost effectively.”

Once Millcraft had hit its low and was starting to grow again, the company found ways to continue that growth through a focus on its local communities.

“Lots of companies looked outside of their current territory or geographic area to open up new opportunities,” he says. “While we have diversified the products that we sell and the things that we can offer to our customers, we really focused more and more on the cities and the markets that we were already in. When other people said Cleveland doesn’t have the growth potential and we’re going to look elsewhere for revenues, we really said, ‘This is home. We’ve got to make this work and we’ve got to find a way to improve what we’re doing here in Cleveland and Buffalo and Pittsburgh and everywhere else.’”

Mlakar and Millcraft turned toward buying locally and supporting other companies in those same locations.

“We align ourselves with organizations that call home the same place that we call home,” he says. “We all have to realize that the decisions that we make every day go far beyond what we pay for a product. The only way that we’re going to support our communities is to make sure that the dollars that we have to invest on a daily basis as businesses stay in our local communities. Go the extra mile to find a local supplier. Go the extra mile to find out how you can do something that’s going to support somebody that’s going to keep the money here. The reality is that there is a huge downstream effect from your business decisions. When our customers, who tend to be local businesses, do business with Millcraft, those dollars, in turn, are going back into the community once again.”

Along with remaining loyal to local companies, Millcraft asked its customers and clients how it could add value to its products and services.

“We listened and we went to our customers and said, ‘Here’s the situation, we’d like to grow, and we’re not going to grow in other areas of the country, we need to grow with you. What is it that you buy? What is it that we can offer you as products or services? How else could we be of value?’” he says. “We listened to our customers and they said, ‘Well, we currently are buying this and we’re buying that and we’re doing this and it would really help us if you were doing that.’ So we really reengineered our business from our customers backwards. Once again, we didn’t try or attempt to think that we had the answers. Don’t focus on the products, focus on the customers. What you’ve got to do is redefine your organization’s strategy away from ‘Here’s what I have to sell,’ to more of ‘What is it that you need?’”

In conjunction with the company’s philosophy of remaining local and supporting the community, Millcraft started the “Buy and Give” program.

We have developed programs that are designed to give back to the community,” Mlakar says. “The thought behind it is pretty simple. We’re paper, it’s a commodity item, it’s something that nobody thinks about and it’s a supply item that every business has to buy. What we’ve done is we’ve taken that and we have teamed up with two organizations; the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital being one and the United Way of Greater Cleveland being the other. We’ve developed a program to say for every carton of paper that we sell, we are donating back a dollar to the Cleveland Clinic or the United Way of Greater Cleveland to help support those organizations. What we want to do is find a way where we can turn a business decision into a much more efficient business decision by helping organizations and helping our communities and that’s what it is about.”

HOW TO REACH: The Millcraft Paper Co., (216) 441-5500 or www.millcraft.com  


-          Make the effort to evaluate where you can improve your business.

-          Be honest and communicate every chance you get with employees.

-          Look outside your industry for solutions to problems within your business.

Published in Cleveland

We know the importance of creating a safe work environment filled with opportunities to learn and grow. Employees want to feel both appreciated for their contributions and have the sense that they are a true and valued part of the team.

Many components go into creating this kind of culture in an organization, but there is one method that is both easy and carries with it the potential for longlasting benefits. That would be the act of gathering your team around a meal.

Sharing food together is a foundation of communities both small and large. From families at the dinner table to block parties and neighborhood cookouts, people love to eat in social environments. Bringing people together around food provides a relaxed, familiar environment for communication.

We tend to eat with people we like or will come to like. So, why not bring that environment to the workplace and give everyone the opportunity to share food and build the bonds that lead to liking one another?

Bond over bagels and boost your bottom line

As CEO, you invest a relatively small amount of money in pizza (or ice cream or eggs and bacon), but you are actually investing deeply in your people. While eating together, employees build connections and develop relationships. They share stories about their days, their families and, yes, their work. These interactions can help them feel connected to each other and engaged with the organization that made it possible — the organization that is recognizing and appreciating them.

Engaged employees have a high level of emotional connection to their work and feel a great deal of fulfillment in what they do. They trust leadership, feel recognized for their efforts and are satisfied with the direction of their career. Pizza is, of course, only part of the puzzle, but it is an excellent place to begin the building.

Play an active role

As CEO, you are responsible for driving these efforts and, as much as possible, participating. When we leaders are present, it helps send a positive message to our wonderful people that the event is important, and that they are valued members of the organization. Now, when you attend, don’t sit with your fellow executives. Simply being present isn’t enough. Sit with people you don’t see or interact with very often, if at all. Ask questions and most importantly, listen.

I often sit with our production workers who I don’t see in my daily office routine. It gives me the chance to ask personally how things are going in the plant, ask if they need anything and listen to their stories about the latest company-sponsored soccer team victory. These interactions bring me great happiness and build trust between us. We see each other as individuals and that is key to building a strong culture.   

Here are some tips to bringing your team to the table:

  • Events should be routine — A colleague once spoke about his siblings’ ritual of gathering the first Sunday afternoon of every month “whether they liked it or not.” Of course, you hope your employees like it, but gatherings need to be scheduled and routine to reinforce their importance.


  • Include recognition — Serve breakfast before monthly employee meetings and recognize birthdays, employment anniversaries and business successes.


  • Celebrate little things — There is always a reason to celebrate, even if it is just a beautiful summer day. How about setting up a sundae bar or caramel apples for an afternoon treat?


  • Feature families and special interests — Company picnics for families are nice events, as are lunches that highlight employees’ diverse cultural backgrounds, such as our Cinco de Mayo and Indian celebrations where employees help prepare ethnic dishes to share.


  • Be involved — As I said earlier, being a part of these meals is important for us as leaders of our organizations. We help set the tone. I have seen shared meals generate tremendous goodwill and help build the culture and community needed to be a successful, growing organization. Be part of the experience.


Joseph Slawek is the founder, chairman and CEO of FONA International, a full-service flavor company serving some of the largest food, beverage, nutraceutical and pharmaceutical companies in the world.

Published in Chicago