Network reliability is vital for any business. With so many systems and departments being dependent on your company’s network, it’s vital that your systems are up 100 percent of the time.

As most of us already know, network outages can potentially cost a company thousands and, in some cases, millions of dollars. One way to prevent outages is by doing a proper network assessment and finding out where your network’s weaknesses are.

A company’s network architecture includes hardware, software, connectivity, communication protocols and the mode of transmission, such as wired or wireless. You need to assess your network architecture routinely to ensure that everything is current and in line with your ever-changing business model, says Mark Giles, wireless design engineer at PowerNet Global. If not, you’ll want to begin integrating changes to ensure your network is running efficiently. Conducting an assessment also allows you to see if your company’s security has been compromised, allowing you to fix any problems and prevent these breaches from happening in the future, he says.

“When you go through an assessment, you end up with good documentation and can find where your weak spots are,” says Giles. “A lot of companies have single points of failure, meaning there’s no redundancy if a portion of their network fails. A network assessment can help identify those single points of failure so that a plan can be put into place to fix these issues.”

Smart Business spoke with Giles about what you need to understand about a network architecture assessment and how to implement any changes.

What is involved in a network architecture assessment?

It starts with a site survey done by a network engineer or network consultant who will look at existing drawings and documentation of how the network is set up. Nine times out of 10, companies don’t have documentation or their documentation is outdated. This means the first step in the assessment will be to map out how the network is currently run.

Next, your network engineer or consultant will look at the current hardware and bandwidth utilization to see if your circuits are overloaded or your hardware is maxed out. Then they’ll review your routing to see if that’s being optimized and how your configuration is set up. This will help determine whether you need to upgrade or just optimize how traffic is flowing and configure your equipment accordingly.

Very often, it’s less likely that you need new hardware or circuits, and more likely that your current equipment needs to be configured more efficiently. This is where many companies fail to do a proper network assessment. They will pay top dollar for hardware but go cheap on the person configuring and maintaining the hardware. You could have the best hardware possible, but if the person configuring it has little to no experience, it will end up costing you more money in the long run.

What are some key items business leaders need to understand about their network architecture and implementing a plan?

A lot of it comes down to what your benefits will be and the costs associated with them to determine if it’s going to be worthwhile. If you’re going to be upgrading a piece of equipment, you need to understand why you are upgrading it and if the cost outweighs the benefit.

You’re also looking for service-impacting changes during the implementation portion while ensuring everything is designed well and that your implementation plan is solid. You should ask whether the network changes are going to be service or customer impacting. That’s the big one people want to know — who will be affected? Is there going to be an outage when you’re implementing or upgrading? How long is that outage going to be?

Who should be involved in the network architecture assessment and what are the costs?

Your network engineer or consultant should be the one doing the assessment and it should be conducted any time you’re coming into a new business environment or making changes. Then every six months to a year, depending on how rapidly your network is changing, you’ll want to go through it again. Check everything within your network and make sure the drawings and documentation are current. You’d be surprised how quickly things can change and become outdated.

The cost of an assessment depends on the size of your network and the accuracy of your documentation. It also depends on what you are looking to do. If you need new equipment, it might be more expensive than updating drawings. If you hire a consultant to run the assessment, the cost will typically range anywhere from $125 to $200 an hour.

How often should you implement changes to your network architecture and how should this be accomplished?

You should never stop making changes to your network; you should always try to improve it. According to CISCO’s model, you need to prepare your network, develop a plan to assess your company’s readiness to support any changes and create a detailed design to address any technical and business requirements. Then, implement any new technology, operate and maintain the most up-to-date network systems on a day-to-day basis, and optimize your network by making ongoing improvements to ensure that you have the most efficient network running.

Once you find you’re at the optimization stage, go back to step one. You need to go through this process continuously to make sure your network is up to date and running efficiently.

Mark Giles is the wireless design engineer with PowerNet Global. Reach him at (866) 764-7329.

Insights Technology is brought to you by PowerNet Global

Published in Cincinnati

The use of fiber-optic technology in businesses has spread quickly as businesses look to fiber’s scalable bandwidth to keep up with exponential increases in the amount of data they need to transmit — something legacy copper networks cannot do. According to Doak Field, senior director of enterprise sales for Comcast Business Services, many companies who could benefit from fiber’s bandwidth often don’t realize that fiber is currently available in their area or why they should consider upgrading their network.

“In today’s competitive business environment, speed and scalability are essential to staying ahead of the game,” Field says. “Network connectivity speeds have increased substantially over the past five to 10 years and will continue to increase as more businesses rely on it to successfully run their businesses.”

Smart Business spoke with Field about what you need to know about fiber and how it can take your business to the next level in terms of connectivity.

What are the advantages of using fiber-optic for telecommunications?

There are a number of benefits for choosing fiber for business telecommunications, including:

  • For a cost-effective solution, fiber provides plenty of bandwidth.
  • The high capacity of fiber provides users with access to bandwidth levels that were only a dream a few years ago.
  • Fiber carries a digital signal (rather than analog signal) which is advantageous for almost all applications.
  • Its relatively small size makes fiber convenient to use because it takes up less space.
  • It allows for much longer distances between amplifiers because there’s no need for continual splicing, which allows for less signal degradation.
  • Fiber can be installed next to utility lines, power lines and other areas where interference or crosstalk might normally occur and there is minimal impact.
  • Because it is made from glass fiber is not corrosive or susceptible to any chemical breakdowns.
  • It delivers Internet, phone, TV, security monitoring and carrying of data traffic all over the same medium efficiently and securely.

How can mid-market companies determine whether a fiber network makes sense for them?

We live in a world where speed to market, speed to respond and quick scalability is the norm. Fiber provides businesses with the speed and the security that a few years ago were reserved only for the Fortune 500. Most businesses are in business to grow and prosper and fiber offers them the ability to grow exponentially without having to make drastic changes to their infrastructure.

Fast, scalable and reliable are three areas that cannot be compromised in the competitive business landscape. Fiber networks are inherently scalable, which allows for any size company to be nimble yet able to proactively upgrade its network as changes in respective markets demand quick action. Fiber is a fast, reliable and secure form of data delivery.

No matter how small a business is, it requires a fast, reliable and secure access to the Internet. As businesses continue to grow, they need subsequent offices and/or locations to have the same access as their headquarters. Fiber provides a cost-effective and virtually seamless way for businesses to connect to as many sites as needed.

What are the important questions for a mid-market company to ask when considering this upgrade?

  • Am I still locked into traditional TDM Private Lines, Frame Relay or ATM services?
  • How quickly does my network need to transmit, upload and download data?
  • Do my bandwidth needs change often or are they fairly static?
  • How secure does my data network need to be?
  • Do I want my provider to manage my network and support it accordingly?
  • Do I need symmetrical dedicated Internet connectivity?
  • Do I need redundant paths into or out of my location?
  • Do I need and expect 24/7/365 network monitoring and support?
  • Is the company I am considering a certified member of the Metro Ethernet Forum (MEF)?
  • Can my data provider provide me with local support?
  • Can my data provider provide me with Online Reporting Tools?
  • Do I need to implement Border Gateway Protocol Routing (BGP)?
  • Can I get access to Class of Service (CoS) Options?
  • Is there a limit to the number of locations my provider can provide access to?

How difficult is it to integrate fiber into a company’s existing infrastructure?

Designing a fiber network and integrating it into the existing copper infrastructure of a business is essentially seamless as there is no ‘forklifting’ of equipment involved. It’s as simple as connecting into a customer’s location with a single pair of fiber cables, one for transmitting and one for receiving, and providing the equipment necessary to convert the fiber to standard Ethernet. Look for a provider that makes the transition from copper-based transmission facilities to fiber optic facilities as simple as plugging into an Ethernet jack on their Local Area Network (LAN).

Doak Field is senior director of enterprise sales for Comcast Business Services. Reach him at Doak_Field@cable.comcast.com or (770) 559-2156.

Published in Atlanta

Every day, it seems the social media world is growing, making the physical world around us appear that much smaller. With those changes, the line that previously separated our personal and professional lives has blurred as websites and applications like Facebook, LinkedIn, Flickr and YouTube provide the ability to connect with family, friends and business colleagues and to share information, news, videos and photos.

So what exactly defines social media, and where is this new frontier headed? More important, how can we best take advantage of what’s out there?

Who better to answer those questions than Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, the Web’s largest and most powerful network of professionals.

 

Q. Social media means different things to different people as well as companies. What would be a good definition of social media?

Broadly defined, it is the creation of content, information and knowledge, distribution of it, consumption of it, and leveraging social interactions. Whether that’s a status update, sharing an image, a video or a blog post, even retweeting a headline or sharing a headline — those are all examples of social media.

I think the social interaction component, the virality, really takes what historically has been behavior we all have done offline, and when you bring it online and digitize it, it starts to scale and moves at a speed with which we haven’t seen previously. It really has the opportunity to change everything it touches.

 

Q. So what do you see as the true cultural sea change that is being caused by social media?

This goes way beyond brand building and customer outreach, which is how many organizations are using social media. ... Leveraging social platforms is going to fundamentally change the way we work and how business gets done. It’s going to really revolutionize and disrupt all of it. So whether it’s the way you hire people, find your dream job, transition from cold calling to warm prospecting by leveraging the power of first-, second- and third-degree relationships or whether it’s exchanging and sharing information, knowledge, insight and data that you need to derive insights to make better and more informed decisions, I don’t think people can really afford not to participate within these platforms.

 

Q. Since it’s going to be everywhere, where would you start?

It starts with recognition. There are three behavioral changes we focus on the most at LinkedIn. First is the way in which we represent our professional identity. Think about that for a moment. The way in which individuals now build their professional brand starts with their profiles. And those profiles, when they’re kept fresh and relevant, are search engine optimized so that when people search for your name or the names of people like you with your experience, your skills, your aspirations, you’re the first thing they see when they do that search on Google.

This ability to carve out a piece of digital real estate that you, yourself, can control to put your best foot forward is an incredibly powerful and valuable dynamic. It’s not just the individual; it’s also your company. There are over a million active company profiles on LinkedIn. And these company profiles not only represent who you are and your company’s identity, but they enable you to build your talent brands, establish the way in which you’re going to recruit and how you recruit, and build word-of-mouth around your products and services. So identity is an absolute cornerstone.

The second is building your network. I think historically, when people hear the expression ‘professional networking,’ they think of the guy at the conference who is handing out as many business cards to people as possible, just building the Rolodex. That’s not what we mean anymore. We mean the way business gets done.

If we believe the world is getting flatter, more global, more digital, more networked, this is the way business gets done — it’s the way people are tapping knowledge, exchanging information — and if you’re not taking advantage of that and building out your network, your competition is.

And then lastly is the whole notion of sharing information and knowledge — collaborating, sharing business intelligence and competitive intelligence. To be able to really derive this kind of insight from whatever networks or social environments you’re operating in becomes an enormous advantage versus those folks who aren’t able to do the same.

 

Q. You mentioned identity. How accurate do you think people or company’s identities are on the Internet? Who and what should we trust?

When you’re talking about a professional context, I think things change versus a social context. One of the first things people do when they meet in a professional setting is exchange business cards. The more your professional identity is out there, the more opportunities potentially accrue to you. It’s kind of a tried-and-true practice. So when you’re putting your profile out there for everyone to see publicly and transparently, the people who work with you and know exactly what you did, well, they’re going to call you out if you’re not telling the truth.

It’s very much self-policing in a professional context. The comments you see and the quality of interaction from people’s professional identities are very different than what’s shared outside of the professional context. It’s that important. If you’re sharing what you’ve done in a professional context or what your company is about, it’s perfectly transparent.

 

Q. And if you look at work/flex integration, where do those boundaries start and stop?

For a platform like LinkedIn, one of the reasons that we create the value that we do is that no matter where in the world we go, what cities we go to and the members we meet up with, we hear that people want to keep their personal lives and professional lives separate.

That context matters to people, for very obvious reasons. We all went to school, and we all had fun at school. And when I was back at school, not everyone was carrying a camera around in their pockets via a phone and uploading essentially everything that everyone did every minute of the day, having those images tagged and then having those images viewed by everyone they met.

I think people appreciate keeping their personal lives and professional lives separate, if that’s what they want. But there are also environments where those are unified.

 

Q. Should you have different conduct online than you do offline?

Generally speaking, for the most part, you need to conduct yourself online the same way you conduct yourself offline. This whole notion of creating a separate social media policy, save for regulatory environments where you have compliance issues, and there are very hard and fast rules, you really want to conduct yourself the same way. You want to be true to yourself. You want to be true to the values of the company you operate for. I think the sensitivity comes from the dynamic described earlier — when it goes online, it moves at the speed at light. So you’re talking about a far different scale at a far different speed with greater sensitivity.

 

Q. Are there some good ways to create a company’s social media strategy, and how do you measure a return on investment from that strategy?

Pursuing a social media strategy for the sake of having a social media strategy is not the right thing to do. It will end up being a big waste of time. And it wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of folks are doing it because they’re told this is something you have to be doing right now. But try to figure out how you take your organization’s top priorities and leverage social connectivity to create greater value. That, I think, is a very, very smart thing to do. So trying to align your priorities and objectives makes a lot of sense.

If you’re trying to go out and do recruiting using social tools, how is that going to benefit your organization? Explicitly, there are ways of measuring that.

Historically, people are filtering through hundreds or thousands of active candidate resumes. Now technologies exist that you can find the perfect person, which creates huge efficiencies for your recruiters. They can target the ideal candidate instead of constantly spending 90-plus percent of their time saying no.

For your salespeople, how are they tapping first-, second- and third-degree relationships to eliminate cold calls? Think about the effectiveness of tapping warm prospects and how much more business you’re going to be able to do as an organization. That kind of stuff can be measured.

And then there’s the implicit stuff, such as how your company, in and of itself, can leverage social connectivity ... or the ability for your organization to share news or insights that one person in the company has identified as being valuable to everyone else in your organization is going to be a little more challenging to measure the explicit ROI of that. But implicitly, as people start to share that kind of information, best practices and knowledge, your organization is going to work more productively.

And so it comes back to what are your objectives and how are you going to leverage these technologies to achieve greater productivity.

 

Q. What’s the most fundamental change coming up?

It’s going to be transparency. These technologies are going to eliminate, if not dramatically reduce, the ability for organizations to conceal the things they don’t want people to know about — both internally and externally.

And the best part of this transparency is the efficiencies it creates in the marketplace. For example, when you take the friction out of the ability for people to move from one company to another, guess where they’re going to end up? They’re going to end up at those companies that are the best places to work because they know those opportunities because recruiters from those companies are able to identify them in ways that were impossible before because they can align their skills, objectives and their aspirations with those companies.

There are myriad examples of companies that are going through situations where they’ve introduced a bad product or service and are getting customer complaints over here. Historically, they’ve tried to hide that. That’s no longer possible because everyone’s an influencer. So if you’re not constantly having dialogue with your customers via some of these tools, you’re going to be punished for it.

Steve Jobs said an amazing thing at a conference I attended when asked whether he liked doing business in an enterprise setting or with consumers. He said he loves doing business with consumers because, at the end of the day, they vote with a thumbs up or a thumbs down. They’re either buying your products or they’re not. That’s the kind of efficiency that’s created when you have this kind of transparency. 

HOW TO REACH: LinkedIn, www.linkedin.com

Published in Northern California

The global economy is undergoing a sea change. While American markets languish and deficits snowball, the global market has continued to grow in size and importance. Whether it is for technology or consumer products, the global market is now the best place to grow sales and profits. To fully realize the potential of these opportunities, executives must undergo a paradigm shift, strategically analyze data and build alliances before the first dollar changes hands.

“The $500 billion current account deficit and the trillion-dollar-plus U.S. budget gap are not sustainable and can’t be financed much longer,” says Dr. Glen Taylor, director of MBA Programs for Global Innovation at California State University, East Bay. “If we keep printing money to cover our debts, it will lead to inflation, devaluation of the dollar and diminished purchasing power, so our future depends on global expansion.”

“To sustain growth and allow the next generation of Americans to have a better life, we have to rethink globalization, identify opportunities and be contributors to the global economy, rather than consumers,” says Dr. Yi Jiang, associate director of MBA Programs for Global Innovation at California State University, East Bay.

Smart Business spoke with Jiang and Taylor about the process of identifying and making the most of ripe opportunities in the global marketplace.

What prevents U.S. executives from capitalizing on the best global opportunities?

Taylor: U.S. executives need a changed mindset and a different approach to analyze and select global opportunities, because our country is no longer the dominant market in the world. Our loss of supremacy means that we need to learn how to do business in other countries that don’t always comply with our culture and business practices. We must put ourselves in their shoes and see things from their perspective in order to identify and capitalize on the best opportunities.

Jiang: We’ve had a tendency to view globalization in simplified terms and think of other countries as a resource for outsourced services and cheap labor. But when executives apply a different perspective to the analysis process and develop innovative products and solutions, they stand the best chance of succeeding outside the U.S. For example, PepsiCo recognized an unmet need in India, and capitalized by identifying itself as a provider of well-being services, rather than a supplier of food and beverages. The CEO’s paradigm shift and innovative marketing approach has led to greater success than simply transferring the U.S. strategy to another culture.

What’s the first step in the identification process?

Taylor: The first step is demographic analysis, but unless executives take a deep dive into the data, they may overlook emerging trends and actually target the wrong customers. For example, a superficial analysis of Chinese demographics reveals no net population growth, but an in-depth study shows that social change is underway and people are urbanizing at the fastest rate in the world, adding tens of millions of new global consumers each year. This creates unprecedented demand growth for all kinds of products and services. The country’s rising affluence has made the Chinese auto market the largest in the world, the largest market for mobile communications technology, and the largest market for consumer products and services of all kinds.

Jiang: Don’t take a cookie-cutter approach to the analysis process, because each country has regional and generational differences that create unique opportunities. While cultural and generational differences often drive demand on the consumer side, U.S. executives must consider dynamic industry cycles and a county’s openness and resources before attempting to position each country in the holistic picture of global strategy.

What’s the next step?

Jiang: After analyzing the data, travel to the country to experience the culture, validate your hypothesis and establish strategic business partnerships and networks. You’ll need seamless collaboration to understand the cultural nuances and build a supply chain. Infusing yourself in the culture will help you identify additional opportunities, since the best ideas often come from prospective partners, suppliers and customers.

Taylor: Meeting people is an important part of the evaluation process, and business relationships are like a marriage, so prospective partners must get to know each other before making a commitment. And your travels may yield additional opportunities, especially if you view things with an eye for the innovations being developed in other markets. Even though the U.S. may not be able to compete in labor-intensive manufacturing, we have endless opportunities to develop and export intellectual property, and there’s an unmet need for clean tech infrastructure in many parts of the world.

What else must executives do to succeed in the global marketplace?

Jiang: Remember that global opportunities and situations are fluid, so what seems like a great idea today may not work tomorrow. Conduct extensive scenario analyses so you are prepared to perform under a variety of circumstances, and keep your finger on the pulse of prospective customers by garnering feedback through open source social networking.

Taylor: There’s every reason to be extremely optimistic about our future, if we make changes in the way we conduct business and get our deficits under control. The key is to search out opportunities in global markets to develop innovative products and services that build on our strengths while embracing new ideas from other countries

Dr. Glen Taylor is the director of MBA Programs for Global Innovation at California State University, East Bay. Reach him at glen.taylor@csueastbay.edu.

Dr. Yi Jiang is the associate director of MBA Programs for Global Innovation at California State University, East Bay. Reach her at yi.jiang@csueastbay.edu.

Published in Northern California
Monday, 21 February 2011 16:16

Robert Scharar makes connections at FCA Corp

Don’t be surprised to find Robert W. Scharar sewing buttons on his jacket. A boy scout since 1958 and now a board member of the Sam Houston Council, he has skills to show for his merit badges.

Scharar also credits the scouts with business networking. As founder, president and CEO of FCA Corp., a wealth management, financial planning and investment advisory firm with more than $500 million in assets, he researches potential investments. His involvement in community organizations forms connections to inform decisions.

“It’s important for businesses to participate in volunteer activities,” says Scharar, who also created four international mutual funds with assets of more than $50 million. “That’s a good way to expand your business knowledge and do something good at the same time.”

Start conversations. Just a smile and a hello and an interest will often spark a discussion. Ask about what they’re doing or ask about their country. We all like to talk about ourselves, so give a person a chance to talk about their country or their family or their job or their interests, and the conversation will unfold. It’s not always just one conversation, but it’s the continued friendliness that evolves from that.

In my BlackBerry, I write down the names of the people I meet at the counter at the airport. I can’t remember all those names, but you have no idea how helpful [it is].

Stay open to info. We’re always looking for ideas to invest in: trends of growth, trends of success, positive things that would make an investment worthwhile. Sometimes, it’s just coming up with the idea of the industry to be looking at. It may not be that particular company’s even available for sale; it just may mean that you get an idea that you had not pursued before.

Oftentimes, it’s not so much because I’m looking at their company, but I’m looking for somebody that has some technical knowledge that can explain some product I’m not familiar with.

When you open yourself to deal with people beyond your normal circles, you get great information. You can often learn a lot about the community by being willing to talk to people. Cab drivers often form that nucleus for a lot of people because they’re the only contact they have, but there’s a lot of contacts you can make if you’re willing to just reach out and look for areas of common interest.

Don’t make assumptions of people’s worth. Oftentimes, we get too hung up on titles and because of that, we don’t necessarily give people a chance to show what they can do. If you’re able to step back and recognize that people have value, you’d be shocked at what you can find out.

Keep lines open. Seeking information about what’s going on in the world that might apply to your business is generally not invasive. You can do that without people thinking you’re selling them something — because you’re really not.

Now, out of that can come opportunities because people say, ‘What do you do?’ I don’t necessarily even at that stage give them (my) card. But if it might be helpful, I’ll sometimes say, ‘I do work in that area. If sometime in the future you want to talk about it, feel free to give me a call.’

Don’t put them under any pressure, but you don’t want to be in a situation where you can solve their need and you’re not giving them the ability to work with you. You just have to be careful how you do it. We all are taken aback when somebody comes in and you feel like, if they don’t have a sale closed at the end of (30 minutes), they’re going to go on to the next activity.

Volunteerism … can lead to opportunities. If you try to go volunteer specifically to get X, that’s not going to work. But put yourself in an environment where the volunteer activities involve other people — particularly different people, not everybody who thinks the same way you do — and you just never know.

Just put yourself out there. I don’t go around handing my business cards to everybody I meet, but just let people know you’re open to questions. You’re rewarded in many ways for doing that — not always immediately, never from a particular activity — but by being engaged, you’d just be amazed at the kinds of things that evolve.

How to reach: FCA Corp., (713) 781-2856 or www.fcacorp.com

Published in Houston
Friday, 18 February 2011 15:42

Room for growth

Mit Shah was enjoying the fruits of his labor.

As Shah, founder, senior managing principal and CEO of Noble Investment Group, a company that invests in and manages hotels, he had successfully gotten the business past the struggles that followed the Sept. 11 attacks when travel and tourism dollars fell. Everything was back on track, and the company had been growing, earning spots on the Inc. 5,000 list through the years, and in 2008, it recorded $325 million in revenue.

But things have slowed from the pace Shah and his team are used to.

“We’ve built this model over 17 years — great people, great human characteristics — but clearly the last two and a half years have created a real pause of how we approach our business,” Shah says.

One of his challenges is having extremely talented people, which most wouldn’t think is a problem, but in tough times, it proves to be.

“How do you keep a group of highly successful, highly talented, highly motivated, passionate leaders engaged and focused on the ability to manage what we have when you’re an organization that’s truly built for continuous investment and continuous growth, and that’s how you’re structured?” Shah says.

He’s also been challenged by looking for opportunities to grow the business and figuring out how the market will shake out.

“That has been a big part of my responsibility to continue to surround myself with people who internally and externally will give me good insight as it relates to how do we see opportunities going forward,” he says.

And then it’s been just hunkering down on the business basics.

“Continue to do what the books say you’re supposed to do — stick to your core values during times of great opportunity and during times of crisis, take care of people, make sure that you continue to commit to things that are part of who you are and who you espouse to be,” Shah says.

Over the past three years, by building a solid group of peers to rely on, focusing on his people and looking for opportunities, Shah was able to successfully move Noble forward — earning $346 million in revenue in 2009 — and prepare it for future growth.

Build your peer group

One of the aspects of business that Shah says has been particularly critical the past few years has been forecasting out where the market would go and how things could change, but he can’t do this alone. He’s come to rely on a core group of people that he’s built over the years to help him better make decisions about his company.

For example, he may have dinner with the CEO of Hilton Hotels one day and the president of Wake Forest University on another, and they both play a critical role in his life.

“I always stayed very close to a group of people that I viewed could help me on a broader basis,” Shah says. “It goes back to this peer group — never being the smartest person in the room, always having the smartest room, and always finding people who I could befriend and I could build a relationship with and build a partnership with, who, in essence, I could learn from and build a base of knowledge that I wouldn’t get in just running my company.”

Having a group of people to get feedback and ideas from has also helped him bring in the best people when those openings arise. To build his group, he got out on the road and met with people continuously, and this went back as far as 18 years ago. Over the years, his group has also evolved and today includes top executives of the world’s major hotel chains, basketball coaches, people in service businesses and manufacturing as well as investment bankers.

“That’s really helped me think about things, both then and now, in a way that helps me lead more effectively,” he says. “I have the power of and the benefit of a broad range of thinking, and then I can take those thoughts, and I can incorporate them into my own and lead through that manner.”

To create a group for yourself, Shah suggests getting out more to build those relationships with people.

“Go to meetings, go to conferences, find out the best industry events,” he says. “Walk around, shake people’s hands, get to know people, and take every opportunity that you have to understand those in whatever business and industry are at the tip of being visionary, of being organizations that have had sustainable track records, that are respected among a group of people that you respect, and find opportunities to establish relationships.”

Sometimes that means you have to make the tougher decision in the here and now. You may want to go do something fun, but instead, you need to choose to do what will be most beneficial in the long term.

“There’s been times all across my entire career where it’s an opportunity to either go have a dinner or to be in the same room or to go to a meeting or a conference, and you have no idea what you’re going to get out of it,” Shah says. “But spend those times as opposed to saying, ‘Let’s go find the best place to watch the game tonight,’ and really go and find an opportunity to establish a friendship.”

When you meet people and get to know them, it’s important to remember that they’re people just like you, so use that as a base to build that friendship.

“It doesn’t matter if someone is the CEO of a big Fortune 100 company or if they’re just your golfing buddy,” he says. “At the end of the day, when you peel back everything, people are just, if you find good human beings, decent people. They’d much rather go have a barbecue sandwich than have something fancy. They’d much rather have a beer together and talk about your families than always be talking about how you’re going to win market share here and how you’re going to do that. That all comes, but break it down to just finding quality human beings and building friendships with them.”

Focus on your people

During the downturn, Shah didn’t cut his 401(k) match, community service programs or the company Christmas party. Instead, he doubled the budget for his employee engagement committee so it could plan things like bowling outings and have a really nice holiday party.

“Let’s be honest, this is a tough labor market,” he says. “People aren’t jumping jobs right now, so we get that. You can’t use that as a crutch, because as soon as the market comes back, they’ll leave for a better opportunity once available.”

Despite the challenging times, it’s crucial to make sure you continue to focus on your people and how you can support them. Look at the people that aren’t your senior managers — just your everyday, salaried employees — and reflect on what their intentions are.

“Do they have the character and confidence, and then do they care about the company’s best interest?” Shah asks. “If they do, then making that decision is very easy.”

If you have employees that would leave to go across the street for 5 percent more, then Shah understands not wanting to put the resources out to support them, but at the same time, he also questions why that is.

“What does that mean?” he says. “That means that if you haven’t brought in that person who has that character and if you haven’t done the things to promote that loyalty, whose fault is it? Is it the team member’s fault or the employer’s fault that they’re not loyal?”

When you face yourself with this kind of a situation, that’s when it becomes difficult to decide whether to put money toward your people or to keep it for the company.

“If employers are in that situation, then it’s hard for them to part with their dollars because — they’ll never admit it and they’ll never sit in front of a town hall and say, ‘All of you employees are commodities,’ — they would never say that, and if they feel that, they’ll make a decision and say, ‘We’ll just hoard the cash,’” Shah says. “But if you really believe in your team members, and if you really believe they have the organization’s best interest and they’re going to be there for the long haul, then you take care of them. You always take care of them.”

In fact, as 2009 came to an end, Shah was anticipating a surplus in the budget and predicted that they would be creating a supplementary bonus program with it in addition to putting some of that back into the company as a buffer for this year.

“You always go to the denominator of what’s the right thing to do,” he says.

Recognize opportunities

The economy has changed business the past few years, so you can’t just rest on your laurels and expect clients to come your way.

“You’ve got to look through a number of different avenues,” Shah says. “It’s far different than it ever was. Generating business in general is different than what it was before — in any industry.”

Over the past couple of years, Shah has been diligent about looking for new opportunities, and that starts with knowing your market.

“It’s really about having a very good understanding of your marketplace so you don’t have to be a big national organization or global organization,” he says. “We could be just the best hotel group in Atlanta, but we need to know Atlanta like the back of our hand.”

Knowing your market also goes back to your peer group and having people you can talk to about how the market is going so you can better predict how things may shift. On top of that, it’s important to have a niche.

“You have to find a niche in the business,” Shah says. “I think that companies of the future that are going to be very successful will have a niche. They aren’t broad-based companies that do a lot of things. They’ll find a couple things they do really well, and they focus on those things, and they outperform the competition there. It’s way too difficult to be good at many different things.”

For example, Shah knows that his company is good at hotels, but he also recognizes that it isn’t cut out to go into, say, grocery stores or office buildings.

“You can’t just, all of a sudden, wake up one day and say, ‘I think we’re going to be grocery-anchored retail,’” he says. “There’s some smart leaders in our organization, but we don’t know anything about grocery-anchored retail, and I can’t just go hire someone who knows about grocery-anchored retail and pretend we can be a great company overnight.”

Instead, you have to look at what your company already does and what expertise you already have within the organization.

“You have to say, ‘What are you built to go do that’s as good as or better than the best people that do it in your business?’” Shah says. “Based on that, how do you build that if you have not already? If you think you have it already, how do you go and execute around that area?”

If you see that the opportunities aren’t in that area and you do think you have to explore a different area, you need to do it in a smart way.

“If we don’t know how to do something, we always go get the talent first and go and build a model around it, and then start with one and continue to grow,” he says. “That’s what we’ve historically always done.”

The key is you have to be able to live with whatever consequences come as a result of the direction you head.

“Understand what your downside is,” Shah says. “Know what you can live with. It’s hard. How do you be visionary, be aggressive, be strategic and also manage risks without just being completely paralyzed by it?”

How to reach: Noble Investment Group, (404) 262-9660 or www.nobleinvestment.com

The Shah file

Mit Shah

Founder, Senior Managing Principal and CEO

Noble Investment Group

Born: Morristown, N.J.

Education: Bachelor’s degree, economics, Wake Forest University

As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a basketball coach. If I can’t be a coach, I want to be an announcer.

I’m first generation American. My parents are both immigrants. I’m the eldest child of immigrants. They think about education and stability, and you’re like, ‘Hey! I’m going to be a basketball coach or announcer.’ They’re like, ‘What are you talking about? You’re going to be a doctor.’ I was like, ‘All right, I guess I’m going to be a doctor,’ — until I got to college and took bio and chem and physics and hated all three with a passion.

Did you get the chance to coach at all?

I used to coach kids basketball when I was in college. One of the first things that really helped me think about what I wanted to do with my life was when a friend of mine was going to be the head coach, and he asked me to be the assistant, and he transferred schools, so I ended up becoming the head coach before the first game, and it was the most thrilling thing to me.

I was coaching these 11- and 12-year-old kids, but these kids were just wide open. They listened, they cared, they were good enough where you could teach them things. I was like, ‘This is really great.’ They’re 12, so they’re going to listen to you, and they don’t care that you’re 18 — they’re 11, so they look at you as a leader. I was like, ‘Wow. This is the first time anyone’s listened to me.’ It got me really excited about the opportunity to lead and the opportunity to be somewhere where I could teach and help people maximize their potential.

What’s the best book you’ve read?

I’ve got a number — Jim Collins’ ‘Good to Great.’ It’s kind of a pat answer. It was the first book I ever read that gave real tangible evidence of what companies did over time to help them not only survive but thrive through multiple periods of economic volatility. It helped me think about my business in ways I never had thought about it before.

If you’re looking for something less business-oriented, ‘The Last Lecture’ by Randy Pausch was a great book because it really touched on things that, to me as a human being, we should always think about.

Published in Atlanta