Ryan Blair’s life is an open book, literally. His story of graduating from the life of a gang member to that of a millionaire is portrayed in The New York Times best-seller titled, “Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain: How I went from Gang Member to Millionaire Entrepreneur.”
Blair is the co-founder and CEO of ViSalus Sciences, a marketer and distributor of health and wellness products. He founded his ?rst company at the age of 21 and started and sold two others before he helped found ViSalus. The company employs thousands of people and has more than 60,000 distributors worldwide.
ViSalus grew quickly, and in 2008, it was sold to Blyth Inc. A few months later, the economic recession hit and ViSalus was left one month away from having to declare bankruptcy. Blair and his co-founders invested all of their savings to give ViSalus one more month of operating capital to test an idea they believed would save the company — the Body by Vi 90-Day Challenge. In July 2009, the Body by Vi 90-Day Challenge was launched with little response. The move was a total corporate transformation and a huge risk, which looked as though it would result in failure. However, Blair’s industry disruptive business model of acquiring customers by leveraging mobile and social technology started to gain traction. That year, the company’s revenue tripled, and in 2011, ViSalus saw sales increase sevenfold, and they haven’t slowed since.
The new business platform leveraged the primary strengths of network sales: momentum and social marketing. ViSalus continues to gain customers through a customer-?rst approach and a focus on customer acquisition and retention. In February 2012, the company added 113,000 new members and currently boasts an 8-to-1 customer-to-promoter ratio.
HOW TO REACH: ViSalus Sciences, www.visalus.com
As president and CEO of Plex Systems Inc., Mark Symonds has high standards for his company and his employees, but he also works hard to create a culture of fun and creativity. Symonds knows a major leadership challenge is putting the right people in place at a company to allow for growth while also keeping the culture protected. At Plex Systems, a developer of the Plex Online cloud and SaaS ERP solution for the manufacturing enterprise, he has put in place a culture that helps employees feel like they are part of important decisions at the company.
In addition to hiring the best people with solid work ethics, Symonds makes it a point to cultivate trust with employees. It’s why he decided not to cut any employees during the recession.
The fact that one of Plex Systems’ core values is meritocracy, eliminating seniority, also opens the culture up for idea sharing. Symonds doesn’t just expect managers to come up with new ideas for innovation and growth; he wants ideas from every employee. Building break and game rooms throughout company facilities is one way he fosters an environment of collaboration and openness among employees in all areas of the organization.
By building employee trust and collaboration, Symonds has led the company to increase its revenues while competitors’ decreased. He makes it a priority to keep rolling out new ideas and improvements for software that provide value to the company’s customers in real time. The company’s Plex Online system for manufacturers has been recognized with numerous awards for its innovation and technology, which is a testament to the company’s culture that allows employees to feel valued and makes them always want to produce at a higher level.
HOW TO REACH: Plex Systems Inc., www.plex.com
Lynn Mustazza has been an entrepreneur since the age of 5, when she convinced her parents to purchase a Frosty the Snow Man snow-cone machine. With the machine in a wagon and the wagon in hand, Mustazza hit the streets, soon turning a 3-cent pro?t. Unfortunately, her venture was cut short when the neighborhood bully took her money and broke her machine.
Her success as the founder and current president and CEO of Jawood Business Process Solutions LLC has been much greater and far more enduring. The Bingham Farms, Mich.-based provider of IT and business process solutions has provided consulting services to the health care payer industry for more than 20 years.
Jawood began in the mid-1980s, amid what could be considered a crisis, when Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Michigan downsized its workforce through an early retirement program. Mustazza connected with ?ve other employees who had left BCBSM to turn this crisis into an opportunity.
Jawood, started primarily as an employee leasing company, hiring many former BCBSM personnel and contracting them back to BCBSM. It has since evolved and become an industry leader in IT consulting and process solutions to Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies, as well as other health care payers across the Midwest.
Mustazza has led the company’s evolution into an industry leader in IT consulting and process solutions, which has led to explosive growth. The company has more than doubled its revenue in the past six years, and grown to almost 350 employees. The personalized and ?exible environment Mustazza maintains has resulted in an impressive 95 percent retention rate.
HOW TO REACH: Jawood Business Process Solutions LLC, www.jawood.com
Sabah Ammouri immigrated to America with his family at the age of 5. Originally from Iraq, Ammouri spent his childhood overcoming language, cultural barriers and ?nancial instability.
The challenges of his early life helped instill in him a strong work ethic. He used his determination and willingness to work hard as the building blocks for a successful business career, establishing ATM of America Inc. in 2001 and growing it into Michigan’s largest independent sales organization.
At ATM of America, President and CEO Ammouri has established a culture in which everyone feels empowered to go above and beyond to serve customers. The culture is advanced by the team Ammouri has assembled. His handpicked team of six to eight individuals possesses the same passion for rede?ning success, expressing their entrepreneurial spirit and excelling in the ?nancial services industry. Ammouri believes the relationships he has built, both inside and outside the company, are the key to the great achievements and lofty reputation of his company.
Throughout his journey, as he established ATM of America as a successful company, Ammouri still continued to meet and overcome challenges. In the early stages of his business, ATMs were less popular than they are now. Ammouri had to convince his merchant customers of the future success ATM services had to offer.
His persuasion paid off as electronic ?nancial services became a major player in today’s society. Ammouri’s initial risk paid off greatly for his customers and himself. Using the momentum from those initial wins, Ammouri has branched out to Platinum Processing, a new company he founded that caters to credit card processing, going hand in hand with the services offered by ATM of America.
HOW TO REACH: ATM of America Inc., www.atmofamerica.com
When you walk into the environment Rich Sheridan has created at Menlo Innovations LLC, it looks less like the software company that it is and more like a classroom or advertising agency.
Noticeably missing from Menlo is the presence of cubicles or of?ces. Employees gather around tables to work and communicate openly and frequently with each other. Even Sheridan, co-founder and CEO, sits among his staff, not isolated in an of?ce. The atmosphere is light and collaborative, with a casual dress code and open arena setting.
Menlo employees work in pairs each week, sharing one computer and switching partners each week. Employees work 40 hours a week, never on weekends and are always encouraged to take vacation time. This originality and innovation is what has set Menlo apart from its competitors. Sheridan applies the concepts to everything within his company, from a simple paper and board design to indicate what each team is working on each week to hiring people as “high-tech anthropologists” to study each customer and client. These employees and teams examine company work processes, culture, employee breakdown and user/ system interaction.
Menlo has been named one of Inc. magazine’s fastestgrowing companies in America since 2007 and shows no signs of slowing down. It is moving to a new of?ce location in downtown Ann Arbor that will triple its current square footage. In addition, the company plans to continue its entrepreneurial incubation efforts. Sheridan invests time, personal resources and support to help employees create new businesses and follow their own entrepreneurial goals. Sheridan sits on many nonpro?t boards, and Menlo regularly sponsors many nonpro?ts and events, including United Way, Ann Arbor Summer Festival, St. Luke Lutheran Church, Michigan Israel Business Bridge and more.
HOW TO REACH: Menlo Innovations, www.menloinnovations.com
When Frederick Minturn became MSX International’s CEO in 2009, he inherited a company with declining revenues, poor ?nancial performance and customer satisfaction and 3,000 employees spread all over the globe. To make matters more complicated, the outsourcing business was looking at some of the worst economic times since the depression.
Although many would ?nd it hard to see a bright spot for the company on the verge of bankruptcy, Minturn knew MSX could restore its ?nancial and operational health by growing its business in the right strategic areas. So he focused the company’s resources on enhancing two key segments: building out its retail consulting business, Retail Network Systems, as well as providing recruitment process outsourcing and technical staf?ng, using Human Capital Systems.
Leading MSX’s talented people and technology resources to better meet customer demands, these steps allowed Minturn to reinvigorate the company’s vision, right-size its cost structure and drive top-line growth in just his short time as CEO.
As the company’s ninth CEO in the span of just 16 years, Minturn brings clarity to the company’s vision and mission. He believes that it’s easy to keep everyone at a company focused on the key objectives if you empower your team. So at MSX, each business unit stands on its own. By having compensation tied directly to key ?nancial and operation performance indicators aligned with the company’s objectives, Minturn encourages team leaders to think as entrepreneurs, strengthening their commitment to executing the company’s goals.
Thanks to the best practices and systems implemented under Minturn’s leadership, MSX is now the top global provider of outsourced business solutions, with operations in 48 countries and 4,500 employees.
HOW TO REACH: MSX International, www.msxi.com
When Donald Hicks pitched a new software product to the CEO of the small consulting company he worked for in 1995, he was told it wouldn’t work. However, he decided to trust his instincts and spent the next six months creating the product, called SimRunner, which became the ?rst off-the-shelf simulation-optimization package.
Then in 1998, Hicks developed his company, LLamasoft, and its ?agship software, Supply Chain Guru, which is now a leading supply chain design and predictive analytics application.
Fast-forward to 2008, and LLamasoft found itself in the midst of the recession. President and CEO Hicks called his employees together with an innovative idea. He said, “Ask our customers what they want, and if you think you can deliver it, say yes. Then do it.”
As a result of this ?exibility and can-do attitude, LLamasoft grew during the recession. The company did not need any layoffs and actually added new jobs. The strategy has paid off immensely in terms of market share, innovation and employee dedication.
As an industry leader, Hicks is constantly thinking of ways to push the company to new heights and solve bigger problems for customers. LLamasoft has a coaching and training offering to teach users everything they need to know about its software applications. The company has also begun developing enterprise solutions that focus on knowledge capture, sharing and collaboration.
Hicks and LLamasoft are also leaders in the community. The United States Agency for International Development selected LLamasoft as its supply chain software provider to ensure drugs and medications get to sub-Saharan African people with diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. The company does not provide the services free of charge, although it often charges a reduced rate.
HOW TO REACH: LLamasoft, www.llamasoft.com
A lifelong entrepreneur, Bradley Oleshansky came to BIG Communications LLC with a vision of growth and possibilities. When he joined BIG, the company didn’t have a human resources team, and there were no employee bene?ts and only a few employees on the payroll.
Oleshansky quickly saw that BIG needed to grow organically, from the inside out, and began to emphasize that strategy moving forward.
Oleshansky built an internal sales group that focuses on drafting product offerings and an external sales team that focuses on making cold calls to prospective clients to sell these products. This approach frees up time by breaking up the workload, making it possible to sell more work and create better proposals.
In addition, Oleshansky has developed a medical team, which consists of a chief medical of?cer and other clinicians. These are subject matter experts who help with the delivering of the services. The involvement of these people has resulted in BIG gaining instant credibility with its customers.
Oleshansky has pushed to keep BIG focused in the pharmaceutical industry, operating as a health care relationship management company. He was able to take the unique training products created by the company and combine the creative ability with consumer marketing. BIG’s staff has started producing media-based training presentations and combined modern entertainment with these presentations to give them an exciting feel. The company has also created advertisements and knowledge-based resources for their pharmaceutical clients, to educate customers while convincing them to purchase BIG’s products.
The next step was to bring all of the operations in house, which Oleshansky did by creating a state-of-theart audio and Web design facilities to give his team the latest technology at their ?ngertips.
HOW TO REACH: Big Communications LLC, www.bighrm.com
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 email@example.com.
A projected 175,000 service members will be exiting the military in the next year. When they return to civilian life, these young veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will face an unemployment rate of 23 percent, contributing greatly to the Department of Defense’s annual unemployment compensation payments of more than $900 million. However, at the same time, there are 1.7 million high-wage, high-demand jobs open in the U.S. today that match the skills of service members, representing more than $136 billion in gross wages.
“Many service members do not fully grasp the value of their training and experience in the work force and end up underemployed or unemployed as they struggle to find work,” says Laurie Bradley, president of ASG Renaissance.
Smart Business spoke with Bradley about how hiring veterans can benefit your business.
Why are veterans seemingly being overlooked in the marketplace?
Part of the reason is because it’s very difficult to translate military experience into a civilian resume. For example, an infantryman with 20 years of experience in the Army might state on his resume that he ‘operated weapons and tanks and dug ditches.’ He needs to convey these skills in terminology recognized in the civilian world of work, such as ‘supervised, trained and evaluated 35 personnel, and supported more than 2,500 troops in four countries. Core competencies include personnel management, logistics and operations.’ This will help the reviewer match these skills to possible employment opportunities that may include logistics or personnel management.
Once you overcome the language barrier, you can recognize some of the softer skills people have learned in the military, for example, being entrepreneurial, which is crucial today. Service members understand how to be part of a team and have respect for a team, which can translate to any job. They also have cross-cultural work experience and have worked in very diverse environments, traits that many employers seek. The stereotype of service members just following orders and not thinking is outdated. It’s a new military today that operates in ever-changing environments.
What are some industries that would benefit from veterans and their skills?
The skills of service members translate well into any industry. You want people who are not only able to learn a product or a service but also who have good communication skills and are adept at skills transfer. Our military really demands that people think on their feet and react very quickly, making the right choices in a very short timeframe. In the fast-paced business environment we all compete in today, that is a great attribute to have.
What are the benefits of hiring veterans from a marketing perspective?
The message of being a veteran-friendly environment is significant. Having a veteran-friendly message in your hiring materials helps improve a company’s image, because you don’t have to look far to find someone who is or who knows a soldier. It really supports a message of inclusion and speaks to the fact that a company has been thoughtful in its hiring process as it looks to source talent across a broad spectrum of potential candidates.
From a tax perspective, new rules provide for an expanded tax credit for employers that hire eligible unemployed veterans. The credit can be as high as $9,600 per veteran for for-profit employers or up to $6,240 per veteran for tax-exempt organizations.
To qualify, the employer must file a request with the local state agency for the Work Opportunity Tax Credit. This applies for veterans hired on or after May 22, 2012, and before Jan. 1, 2013.
How can companies better integrate veterans into their businesses?
Start with a great outreach program. Be clear in your hiring message and have the ability to translate military resumes to determine if you have a fit. Companies should consider installing a customized onboarding program that includes a partner or coach to help the new hire navigate the civilian employment world.
The program should be sensitive to the varying needs of veterans, including those who have only been out of the service for a few months, or ones who have been back in the market for a year or more. In general, it’s important to make sure your onboarding process includes cultural acclimatization to the civilian work force. Civilian corporate culture is not as black and white as the military and language and communication styles differ. Former military personnel can be formal and direct, whereas civilian communication styles can be much more nuanced. The U.S. military has a top-down system for making decisions, while many civilian companies have a more bureaucratic process.
Where can companies find veterans?
There are job boards and employment services that cater to military personnel in transition, such as Hire A Hero, careeronestop.org, or contact your State’s Director for Veterans’ Employment and Training (DVET).
Are there reasons a company might not hire a veteran?
Concerns range from post-traumatic stress syndrome to skills transfer and the gap between military and civilian work styles. Some employers are uncertain how to provide work site accommodations for those with physical injuries, but there are a host of resources to navigate these concerns.
Just as with civilians, you have to evaluate each person on a case-by-case basis. Employers need to spend the time in the hiring process to determine if there is a fit.
If you know that there is a pool of talent that has the skills to do the job, why wouldn’t you consider putting that to work? Those who served our country are ready to transition those skills and dedication to service into the civilian world of work. Ultimately this translates into a win for both the employer and the veteran.
Laurie Bradley is president of ASG Renaissance. Reach her at (248) 477-5321 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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