Detroit (1202)

The Small Business Administration’s (SBA) lending program is a major part of U.S. business growth, and these loans can often be substituted for traditional commercial loans with some benefits to the borrower.

“With SBA loans, a business owner can increase his or her cash flow and sometimes get approved for higher loan amounts than traditional commercial loans,” says Steven Valiquette, second vice president and commercial loan officer at First State Bank.

Smart Business spoke with Valiquette about how SBA lending works and what business owners need to know.

What are the advantages of SBA loans versus traditional commercial lending?

The SBA allows for longer amortizations than most typical bank financing, so business owners can utilize extended terms. For instance, real estate can be amortized over 25 years with SBA financing, but the bank may only offer 20 years with traditional bank financing. As another example, equipment can be amortized over seven to 10 years with SBA financing, while traditional bank financing may be limited to five years.

Another advantage to SBA loans is lower out-of-pocket expenses when compared to traditional commercial loans. The SBA also allows the borrower to roll fees into their loan balance, which isn’t normally the case.

Lower collateral requirements are another benefit. The SBA has higher loan-to-value ratios compared to traditional commercial loans.

What type of loans will the SBA finance?

The SBA can generally finance the same types of business loans that a bank can, with the major exception of non-owner occupied real estate. Term debt such as real estate or equipment purchases are typically financed with SBA 7(a) or 504 loans, and lines of credit can be financed with a SBA Express loan or SBA CapLines.

How can a borrower increase its chance of being approved for a SBA loan?

First, talk to several financial institutions. Find financial institutions in your market that make loans to businesses similar to yours and work with bankers who understand your industry. Other best practices are:

•  Develop a good business plan. Be ready to explain why customers are going to want to do business with you and how your business is going to compete in your market.

•  Take the time to understand the risks associated with your business and provide mitigating factors.

•  Provide realistic projections with best case, worst case, most likely case and break-even scenarios. Having detailed projections can help mitigate some of the risk associated with the loan request.

•  Develop alternative ways the loan can be repaid if business is slower than projected or, in worst-case scenario, fails.

•  Maintain a good personal credit history. Many bankers feel if your personal credit isn’t handled properly, there’s a good chance your commercial loan payments will not be either.

What else do business owners need to consider?

Take your time and develop a well thought out business proposal. For many small businesses, the bank is not only looking at the financial statements or the business projections, but also the person or people behind the company.

Always provide the information your banker is asking for because any information he or she is requiring is a tool used to evaluate your request.

It’s also important to put focus on management’s experience. If management can demonstrate a strong knowledge of the industry and the ability to handle adversity, this may help ease some of the risk of the loan request.

Finally, try to anticipate your future financing needs. Commercial or SBA loans take some time to close, so you need to plan for it. Remember, it’s easier and less stressful to seek financing prior to the actual need.

Steven Valiquette is second vice president, commercial loan officer, at First State Bank. Reach him at (586) 445-1058 or svaliquette@thefsb.com.

Website: For more about SBA loans, visit www.thefsb.com/sba.

“A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships were built for,” is a quote that hangs in Brig Sorber’s office at Two Men and a Truck in Lansing, Mich. Sorber uses that quote to define the new direction in which his company has been moving.

“I love that quote because this ship, Two Men and a Truck, has been in port for too long,” says Sorber, CEO. “We’ve got to get this into deep blue water. There are a lot of challenges out there and a lot more risk, but that’s where business is done. We need to start moving forward and accept the challenges.”

Sorber and his brother, Jon, started Two Men and a Truck International Inc., a moving company, in the early ’80s as a way to earn money using their ’67 Ford pickup. Today, the business has x4,500 employees, more than x1,400 trucks, more than x200 franchises in x34 states, Canada, the U.K. and Ireland, and 2012 revenue of x$361 million.

“We did it to make beer and book money for college,” Sorber says. “We really never thought that it would get to this point.”

However, in getting to this point, the company had neglected to make necessary changes in order to keep the operation aligned and running well.

“One of the challenges we have had is going from a mom-and-pop-type business to having to grow up and become more corporate,” Sorber says. “We needed to bring in newer and stronger skill sets.”

Here’s how Sorber has helped Two Men and a Truck grow up.

Growing pains

Two Men and a Truck incorporated its first business in Lansing, Mich., in 1985 and began franchising in 1989. The company at this time was run by Sorber’s mom since he and his brother were in college.

Upon graduation, Sorber worked as an insurance agent and also operated his own Two Men and a Truck franchise. He returned to the company in the mid-’90s, became its president in 2007 and CEO, the title he carries today, in 2009. In that time the company had grown significantly, but it wasn’t running as well as it could be. Starting in 2007, Sorber’s job was to help restructure the business.

“We had to take a look at ourselves internally,” Sorber says. “There came a time that I just knew things were broken here.”

Because the company was growing so fast there was no organization chart. It was very loose on who reported to whom. It wasn’t that people weren’t working hard, but things were not getting measured.

“I had an epiphany that something had to change big time,” he says. “I made up something that resembled an org chart on a big piece of paper in my office. I brought in five people that I greatly trusted and had confidence in and gave them three markers — green, which meant that person or that job was important; yellow, which meant I didn’t have an opinion either way about this person or about this job; and red, which meant that this job makes no sense.”

Sorber used that as a starting point to help him identify where the company could restructure and cut costs.

“I wanted to give big bonuses to everyone at the end of the year and share the winnings, but we had to prime the pump first,” he says. “We went from 78 employees down to 51 employees after I went through that chart.

“That wasn’t because we were losing money. It was because by the time we realigned everything, there were some people here who weren’t doing anything.”

To avoid issues such as this, you have to have metrics that you measure to make sure whether you’re doing well or not.

“My metrics are No. 1, customer satisfaction,” Sorber says. “Find out how every one of your customers feels about their service. No. 2 is trucks and driveways. We want to put more trucks in more driveways every year.

“No. 3 is franchisees. Make sure your franchisees are profitable and have the tools to grow. No. 4 is giving back to the community.”

Metrics are a crucial aspect of success, but so is a mission statement that helps employees and customers know what the business is about. It also makes your decisions as a CEO simple.

“If your mission statement is strong, it should be limitless,” he says. “For us, we had our mission statement when we had 25 franchises, and now we’re well over 200 and it still applies. You also need core values that comprise what’s important to your company. Once you have those, you have to stay within the confines of your core values.

“When I was a younger executive I thought that was stuff you say to be nice. It’s something that’s serious. You can’t go into work and keep turning the wheel and expect better things to happen. You’ve got to maintain your mission statement, core values, measure what you’re doing, and then you have to look for ways to make things better.”

Bring in key people

As Two Men and a Truck went through these necessary changes, new employees and executives had to be brought in to give the company the right skill sets to continue growing.

“Sometimes we hold onto our executives too long, and we get comfortable with them,” Sorber says. “They may not question what you’re doing. Not all of them, but many of them can be fine with the status quo and as the world is changing they’re not forcing you as a CEO to question what you’re doing.”

You can’t settle for the people who are in your key positions. You need to find people with the right skill sets and make sure they stay within your mission statement and core values.

“Bringing in new individuals is kind of like working on an old house,” he says. “You think if you put new windows on the house it’s good, but then the siding looks really bad. The same thing happens in business when you get somebody that’s great in a department. You start to think, ‘What if I had someone like that in marketing?’”

Sorber brought in executives to fill his company’s voids, and they began offering all kinds of new ideas for the business.

“When I started bringing in these key executives, they wore my carpet out because they have fresh eyes for the business,” he says. “They asked why we did this or that. Many of the things we were doing were the right things, but it’s good for you to make your point about why you do it.

“The new executives will say, ‘That makes sense’ or ‘That’s different.’ Other times they’ll say, ‘OK, but did you ever think about doing this?’”

That is how your business goes through an evolution, and it starts bringing in more modern thinking and different approaches. A business will have a life cycle of only so long, and you need to continually reinvent it because your customer is changing. If you bring in new people they may bring the great ideas you need.

“It’s really important as a president or CEO to hire people who are smarter than you in their specific fields,” Sorber says. “Our job as president or CEO is to look more strategically at where we want the business, make sure the executives play nice together, ensure there’s harmony in the business and keep an eye on those important metrics.”

During the course of the past six years, Sorber has been able to successfully do all those things within Two Men and a Truck. Randy Shacka became the company’s first non-family member to serve as president in 2012. Now, Sorber and Shacka are looking at the future outlook of the business.

“We think we will be a $1 billion company by the year 2020,” he says. “In the last few years we’ve been doing a lot of internal work on fixing where we are broken and getting the right people in here. Now we want to be more than just a moving company. We want to be a company for change.”

How to reach: Two Men and a Truck, (800) 345-1070 or www.twomenandatruck.com

Many executives do not view the content they distribute as intertwined with their organization’s unique product or service. However, the two are interchangeable. Your product or service has differentiators that cause your clients to select you instead of the competition. Those same factors apply in content marketing.

If your goal is to engage prospects and ultimately lead them to conversion, you must create content that keeps them engaged. Success comes from creating consumable pieces of content that together form a singular thought leadership message and distributing those pieces across multiple channels. You never know through what channel someone will engage with your brand (or branded content), so the message needs to be consistent.

There are a few simple rules to doing this. Your content and what you’re selling should meet four criteria. It must be:

 

 

  • Useful

 

 

  • Relevant

 

 

  • Differentiated

 

 

  • Available

 

 

Useful means the content, as well as your product or service, has a defined use for a target audience. It addresses:

 

 

  • How do I use this?

 

 

  • How does this help me?

 

 

  • What problem does this solve for me?

 

 

Here’s an example: According to a recent IDC Research report, 49 percent of the entire U.S. population currently uses a smartphone. By 2017, that number is expected to reach 68 percent. That means that within four years, more than two out of every three Americans — regardless of age — will be connected via smartphone. Therefore, a useful product a company might offer could be a solar-operated phone charger. And useful content to distribute to a target audience may include “How to make your daily life easier with these top five iPhone apps.”

To be Relevant, the product, service or content must be new and interesting, and mean something to the market or industry. Your audience will ask:

 

 

  • What does this mean to me?

 

 

  • Do I need this?

 

 

Let’s say your organization provides a website portal that connects insurance companies. New and interesting content that means something might be, “How your health care plan will be affected by reform . . . and what you can do to prepare for it.”

In a world filled with noise, you must demonstrate how what you do is Differentiated from competitors and explain:

 

 

  • How does your content, product and service compare to the competition?

 

 

  • Is it unique?

 

 

Let’s go back to the smartphone example. If you sell or service iPhones and Android-platform models, think about creating engaging content that examines the needs of today’s smartphone user, and then go beyond the basic functionality.

It’s also imperative to understand your target audience and the target audience for each product. Android-based smartphones are primarily aimed at businesspeople. iPhones, for all their bells and whistles, are not. This differentiation has led to a lot of confusion in the marketplace when consumers compare one against the other. Understanding this allows smart marketers to create engaging content such as “The top 10 needs of businesspeople: A comparison of Android phones vs. iPhones.”

Finally, your product, service and content must be Available and easily obtained in any channel.

If you run a benefits company that works with employers, for example, health care reform provides a timely opportunity to help clients make sense of the landscape. This might entail delivering a variety of consumable content that’s available to them 24 hours a day, seven days a week, through any channel.

This could include a video that explains the difference in options available to employers. It could be a social media campaign that outlines the top five differences between the health care insurance exchanges and employer-sponsored health care. Or, it may be a series of print mailers or webinars, or even a dedicated microsite that’s filled with content that details what employers need to know.

When your goal is creating engaging content, your ability to consider — and address — each of these factors may be what’s required to transform engagement into measurable conversion.

This is no fish story. Instead, this column is about one of the most important roles an owner or CEO must fulfill on an ongoing basis.

Leaders spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with the issues du jour. These range from managing people, wooing and cajoling customers, creating strategies, searching for elusive answers and just about everything in between. These are all good and necessary tasks and undertakings. Too frequently, however, these same leaders delegate this effort to others or ignore it altogether. To be “in the game,” you have to know when to fish or cut bait.

Successful fishermen know that to catch a fish they have to sometimes cast their lines dozens of times just to get a nibble or bite. The first bite might not result in reeling in that big fish. Frequently, a nibble is just a tipoff as to where the fish are swimming.

The same applies to reaching out — casting a line, if you will, to explore new, many times unorthodox, opportunities for your organization. These opportunities can be finding a competitor to buy, discovering an unlikely yet complementary business to partner with or snagging a new customer from an industry that had heretofore gone undiscovered.

All of this takes setting a portion of your time to investigate unique situations, as well as a healthy dose of creativity and the ability to think well beyond the most obvious.

Too many times even the most accomplished executives lack the motivation to look for ideas in unlikely places. Some would believe that it’s unproductive to spend a significant amount of time on untested “what ifs.” Just like sage fishermen, executives can also cultivate their own places to troll.

Of course, networking is a good starting point, particularly with people unrelated to your business, where sometimes one may fortuitously stumble onto a new idea that leads to a payoff.

Other times, a hot lead might come from simply reading trade papers, general media reports and just surfing the Internet. The creative twist is reading material that doesn’t necessarily apply to your own industry or to anything even close to what you do. New ideas come disguised in many forms and are frequently hidden in a variety of nooks and crannies. This means training yourself to read between the lines.

Once something piques your imagination, the next step is to follow through and call the other company or send an inquiry by email to state that it might be worth a short conversation to explore potential mutually beneficial arrangements. This can at times be a bit frustrating and futile. That's when you cut bait and start anew.

However, reaching out to someone today could materialize into something of substance tomorrow. The often skipped but critical next step, even after hitting a seemingly dead end, is to always close the loop with whomever you made contact. Even if there is no apparent fit or interest at the moment, it’s easy and polite to send a short note of thanks and attach your one-paragraph “elevator” pitch.

That same person just might be casting him or herself, be it in a month or even a year later, and make contact with a different organization that’s not a fit for him or her, but recall you because you followed through and created awareness about your story.

This just might lead the person with whom you first spoke to call you because you had had the courtesy to send that note. Bingo — you just got a bite all because of continuing to cast your line.

Good CEOs and honest fishermen also have one other important characteristic in common: humility. They know that when a line is cast it won’t result in a catch every time. But if nothing is ventured, it’s guaranteed there will be nothing gained. Don’t let that big one get away. Just keep casting.

As an organization grows, changes are inevitable.

New employees are added, promotions are made and job responsibilities shift.

But any time you have change, you have the potential for conflict. Few people are comfortable with change, and each person will react differently in making the adjustments necessary to move forward with the company.

The most important thing a CEO can do is to be active in confronting potential conflict. Conflict goes hand-in-hand with change. Employees begin to question management, co-workers and even themselves as they are forced outside of their comfort zones. Those questions can lead to misunderstandings that can lead to conflict, and that will ultimately slow your growth.

Don’t passively avoid potential conflict. Instead, actively engage members of your organization by providing the necessary forums both for you to communicate your strategy and vision and for them to communicate their concerns back to you. An active conversation will help drive your vision for the company through the organization and will also help foster your next generation of leaders as they take a more active role.

Only when employees are challenged to think — and to challenge you — will you maximize your organization’s potential. Do you want employees who don’t speak up when they recognize what may be a fatal flaw in your grand strategy? Or would you rather have employees who are actively thinking about the big-picture goals of the company and doing their part to contribute?

Regardless of what size company you run, it comes down to a simple choice.

It’s a choice between having employees acting like robots or acting like people. If you choose robots, you will have to have all the answers. If you choose people, you only have to have some of the answers because the employees will help you find the rest.

Engaging employees in conversations, meetings and decision-making helps them take ownership and helps you create a happier work force. If they are not allowed to speak, gossip and rumors will drag down your productivity.

Actively provide two-way communication. Let employees do the talking and hear what they have to say. The results may surprise you. Those closest to the customer often know best what needs to be done to improve sales, service or efficiency.

Too many CEOs lament the lack of good people to help take them to the next level. Maybe the problem is more CEOs need to create good people rather than driving them off with a work environment that’s better suited to a good robot.

This past November, Andrew Liveris went to the White House for a meeting with the president. That in and of itself is a pretty significant life event, but in Liveris’ case, it was as much about the journey as the destination.

Liveris is the chairman, president and CEO of The Dow Chemical Co. A native of Australia, he’s held numerous positions at Dow over the span of nearly 40 years — roles that have taken him to places such as Hong Kong and Thailand, before eventually moving to Dow’s Midland, Mich., corporate headquarters, where he became CEO in 2004 and chairman in 2006.

As the head of a $57 billion corporate giant, Liveris was among a group of influential CEOs invited to the White House to take part in a meeting on jumpstarting American business with President Barack Obama.

The Australian who came to America by way of Asia now sat in a room with the leader of the free world, among those tasked with helping to chart a course to rebuild key economic drivers as the country — and world — continues to recover from the recession.

“The conversation we had, with a dozen CEOs across various business sectors, it felt like a different meeting than any previous we have had,” says Liveris, who spoke as part of a presentation at the 2012 Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum.

“The president has had a lot of things written and said, and he takes it pretty personally when he hears that he doesn’t know business. Frankly, the evidence over the past 3½ years is that he doesn’t work with business and doesn’t know business.

“So in this meeting, he didn’t talk all that much,” Liveris says. “He let us give it to him, and we let him know what it would take to create a growing America again.”

For Liveris, it was an opportunity to step back, reflect on where his company had been over the past few years, and where it was headed —  and what steps he and other influential business leaders would need to take to ensure that their companies, and the whole of American business, would remain strong into the future.

Understand the landscape

By his own admission, Liveris was kind of naïve in his first couple of years as a CEO, particularly when it came to the business community’s relationship with government.

“I thought I would go to Washington, talk about the things that matter to my company, then I would leave and something would happen,” Liveris says. “That clearly did not work.”

After a number of trips to Washington with little progress in developing the business-government relationship to the point that it produced results, Liveris realized that no one on either side truly had a grasp of the game they were playing.

“I remember when I was watching TV and hearing about how American manufacturing had to die, how it had to move overseas because of labor costs,” he says. “That’s when I realized that absolutely no one was getting this.

“No one understood innovation, technology, or how one invents. No one understood the business models of creation, of new wonderful things that help humanity, things that are an American right.

“We have done this for over 200 years and yet we’re saying we should no longer manufacture, and we should just be a service economy,” he says. “If you want to be a service economy, go to the U.K. and see how it worked for them.”

Liveris says Silicon Valley is a hub of innovation, in large part because it is full of big companies who try to maintain a small-company mindset. If you can marry the resources of a major corporation with the flexibility and creativity of a smaller enterprise, you can hit an innovative sweet spot. It’s a position Liveris has tried to assume at Dow.

“Silicon Valley is an intersection of incredible academic institutions and entrepreneurs inventing, innovating and allowing startups,” he says. “That’s what I do. I have $1.7 billion in R&D, and I’m doing that every day. I’m innovating and trying to scale up. That is manufacturing.”

Liveris wants Dow to set a tone for innovation throughout the country. He wants companies, both large and small, to think in terms of innovation and developing ideas.

“This country needs dozens of Silicon Valleys,” he says. “It needs innovation hubs throughout the country. That was recommendation No. 1 from the meeting with the president. The president will give legs to an advanced manufacturing partnership, within which we have identified 11 technologies that America can win on a global basis.

“We have picked the technologies where America can win, not by creating winners and losers among companies, but by designing an innovation hub so the best minds in America can participate, including entrepreneurs, big companies and some government money to stimulate creativity and scale things.”

Invest in human capital

Innovation needs fertile ground. It needs companies that invest in the resources that enable innovation. It needs executives and managers that sustain a culture capable of promoting innovation. You need programs that reward and promote innovative thinking.

But those factors alone won’t drive an innovative mindset. You need to recruit the talent to innovate.

Even if you don’t budget for R&D the way Dow does, Liveris says innovation-minded talent is a must for any organization that wants to grow and evolve.

“I am a great believer that rigor mortis sets in unless you create a burning platform,” Liveris says. “People get comfortable and complacent quickly, especially the larger you get as an organization. You have to change things.”

When Liveris was named CEO of Dow, he called up a number of successful CEOs who had succeeded in driving large-scale change throughout major enterprises, asking for advice on preventing complacency and enabling innovation.

“One of them gave me this great piece of advice,” he says. “It had to do with the phases of change that cause the human pipeline, the talent pool, to respond and be its very best.

“It’s about the moon shot, the mission. If I can be inspired by the mission, be energized by that, that’s the key. I have to create that dynamic inside the top and middle ranks of the organization, and more importantly, the front line people.”

To Liveris, leaders get elected every day. Each day is an opportunity to create buy-in throughout the organization, an opportunity to inspire employees to follow the path blazed by leadership.

“You lead change,” he says. “You build a team around change. You have to do it with the long vision in mind, but with the idea that the short-term needs have to be met. We all suffer from ADD.

“We have become an ADD society where everything is breaking news, so the dynamic around a company — particularly a public company — can kill the long vision. You have to deliver in both the short-term and the long-term, and if you live those two paradigms, you need a unique type of human talent.”

Liveris calls it “living intersections” — finding and developing talent that can achieve both short-term and long-term goals.

“No longer do we do single-lane highways,” Liveris says. “We’re living intersections all the time. The intersections between the short-term and long-term require a unique type of talent — sometimes we call that change manager a change leader but that’s too high level.”

The managers you bring in to help spur change and formulate a vision for the future while delivering short-term results have another important set of opposite-end factors to master: They must understand the business from a global level, while still grasping the effect of the vision and goals of the organization on individuals working at ground level.

“You do still have to get down to the three-foot level,” Liveris says. “What does it mean to the person on the floor? What does it mean to the R&D leader? What does it mean to the salesperson?”

And no matter what position a given person fills, that person’s talent will only reach its potential if you can tie their individual and department goals to the overall goals of the organization, and then reinforce innovation-centered values that emphasize a willingness to create, experiment and learn from mistakes.

“You can’t box people into something and say, ‘Go invent,’” Liveris says. “You have to give them a chance to fail. You have to let them be a part of the entrepreneurial activity. You need to motivate them to see how their project, their work, can change humanity.”

How to reach: The Dow Chemical Co., (989) 636-1000 or www.dow.com

The Liveris File

Liveris on Dow’s history of success: We’re actually one of nine companies that are still around from the inception of the New York Stock Exchange. There are only eight others who were there since the beginning. We’re not afraid of change. I didn’t get this gray hair easily; it came hard. We have in our DNA the willingness to face reality and take the change and bet the company. To be companies of size, that’s a lot of heavy lifting. I’d like to say we’re in the seventh inning … from a portfolio point of view. We have the technologies. We have the weapons but we’re in the second or third inning from a cultural point of view.

Culture is every person in the company, and Dow has a value proposition at the personal level. As a young chemical engineer, I had a lot of offers, but I chose to leave my great country of Australia to live in this great country, not because I think you’re greater but the company called Dow has a better value proposition to a human being. I was attracted by the people.

Liveris on sustainability: One day Dow Chemical won’t be known as Dow Chemical; it will be known as Dow. Dow sticks to the brand of the diamond (logo). The brand will stand for … our commitment to sustainability, but not sustainability as a noun, sustainable as an adjective. Sustainable business, sustainable profits, sustainable planet are the same things. How you actually marry the intersection between environment, economy, society, business, government, society.

Takeaways

Understand your industry.

Value innovation.

Find and retain great talent.

Most successful businesspeople agree with Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote when it comes to strategic planning, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” A leader’s approach to strategic planning can vary greatly in length of time, measurement of progress, commitment and ultimately in the results.

I would argue that a detailed, strategic plan spanning longer than three years is too long to be relevant. Tactics identified too far in advance cannot keep up with the fast pace of changing technology, new information and changes in the economy to make the plan meaningful.

Here are my three essential elements to the strategic planning process:

Range of specifics

Leading an organization with an established three-year plan creates an environment where your internal team understands where you are going and what you must do to get there. In a franchise organization, this level of planning helps the franchisor foster confidence in franchisees that your plan is to drive revenue and profit — theirs and yours.

All three years of the strategic plan are not created equal. Here’s how plans are structured in my organization:

 

 

  • Current year: Have a one-year very detailed plan where everything is accounted for. Each objective must be specific and outline tactics, deadlines, human and financial resources involved and the method of measurement.

 

 

 

 

  • Year two: This plan has objectives with projected tactics and resources. The specifics will be incorporated during the annual planning process, where previous performance can be factored and available resources are clear.

 

 

 

 

  • Year three: Proposed objectives are the only details required for a three-year outlook. The annual objectives outlined help determine your course of action toward the previously stated five-year overall goal.

 

 

Monitor progress

Second to the importance of planning is tracking progress toward what you set out to accomplish. Quarterly, the board of directors assembles to receive updates from the divisions responsible for driving the collective success. The company’s leadership team has bi-weekly updates and each month, the entire organization gathers to understand the current status and how they can make an impact.

By building in regularly scheduled reviews, you are building the ability to be flexible into your business.

I’ve written about serendipity before as it relates to purchasing Mr. Handyman and being approached by an owner of PuroClean to join forces. Had our set plans been too rigid, we may have steered clear of these acquisitions due to imperfect timing and missed out on the chance to build our company’s holdings of in-demand professional home service franchises. There are times when it makes sense to adjust.

Embrace commitment

Teams must be completely committed to the annual strategic plan. It is the easy way out to simply change the plan when you don’t think you will make it. Finalize the plan, hold your people accountable to it and find ways to achieve what you set out to do.

Create incentives for your team to benefit when the shared goals are achieved. Years ago, we established a quarterly bonus program which has unified my team to work toward our revenue and store-count goals. Team members know what the company is trying to achieve, and they can also earn additional rewards for setting and meeting personal objectives in their area of influence.

As the assembly line inventor Henry Ford said, “If you think you can do a thing or think you can't do a thing, you're right.” Commit to your strategic plans and celebrate the successes of achieving them.

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

Thursday, 06 June 2013 11:36

EC=MC: The new law of marketing

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Every Company is a Media Company. It’s a phrase coined some eight years ago by tech journalist Tom Foremski to describe the impact of technology on marketing.

From the Internet to Wi-Fi to smartphones, a tectonic shift has taken place with technology forever changing the landscape of marketing, just as radio and television did before.

Only this time, it’s different. This time, the power has shifted from the hands of a few hundred powerful media outlets to the hands of billions of consumers.

At the same time, companies like yours have been handed powerful tools and an unparalleled opportunity to engage with customers like never before. It’s not just in the obvious new places like mobile websites, apps and the media. Technology has made it easier and cheaper to communicate through video, live events and, yes, even print publications.

Like it or not, you are a media company.

So what’s a media mogul like you to do? You need to do one thing: create content. And you need to do it well. You need to create content that generates interest among your target customer base and engages them with your organization.

It might sound easy, but it’s not. Most business leaders know that effective communication is one of the biggest challenges any company faces. When that communication is what sets you apart in the minds of your customers and prospects, the stakes are all the higher.

Here are a few important points to keep in mind as you set about embracing your new role as a media company.

Be where your audience is

Content comes in many forms. Most of us 40- or 50-something business executives are more comfortable reading printed material. Flipping through your brochure, newsletter or even your own custom magazine is comfortable for us. So hand us something.

But younger VPs and 20-somethings — many of whom do the heavy lifting of researching company buying decisions — are more comfortable gaining intel online. They scour videos on YouTube, mine infographics on visual.ly and peruse PowerPoints on SlideShare. So take the time to figure out which of these is the right channel to reach your target customer.

Share knowledge, not platitudes

Yeah, we get it. Your people are smarter, their customer service is better and their breath smells fresher longer. But that’s not why we might be interested in your business.

What we want to know is how you’re going to solve our problems and make our lives easier. We don’t want you to tell us you are smarter; we want you to show us you are smarter.

Thought leadership articles, white papers and blog posts showcase your knowledge of industries, issues and tactics. They differentiate you from your competitors and position you as a subject matter expert in your market.

Talk about customers more than yourself

The best communicators are great storytellers. Stories resonate. They connect us. They are, simply, what we remember.

Sharing client success stories is one of the best ways to tell your own story. The tried-and-true case study is one of the most effective forms of content in a marketer’s arsenal. If you show us how you can make our businesses faster, better, stronger, we will do business with you. It’s that simple.

And if you have particularly well known and respected clients, you get the added benefit of basking in their reflected glory. Welcome to the media business. Now go tell your story.

Michael Marzec is chief strategy officer of Smart Business Network and SBN Interactive. Reach him at mmarzec@sbnonline.com or (440) 250-7078.

Thursday, 06 June 2013 11:22

Dare to dream big

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When Ted Turner launched CNN, there were plenty of people who said a 24-hour news network would never fly.

But Turner saw a problem: He enjoyed watching the news, but his busy schedule typically had him missing the standard news broadcast time. That’s when he got the idea: What if the news was on all the time? He couldn’t be the only one who was unable to fit a regular broadcast into his schedule, so he knew the demand was there.

The next step was to dream big. What if the news was on all the time, not just locally, not just regionally, but nationally and even internationally? The result was the first 24-hour cable news network. It took a lot of effort to get CNN to where it is today, but Turner’s dream was realized. His big dream yielded a big result.

People need to dream big. If you never take the time to dream big, great things probably aren’t going to happen for you.

We have the power to visualize our future. A professional athlete visualizes hitting the game-winning shot so that when the time comes, he or she expects to succeed. As CEOs, we must also visualize ourselves and our organizations achieving great things. We must see where we want to be and then convince those around us to help us get there. When you can articulate the vision in a way that makes it as clear to them as it is to you, your goals will be easier to accomplish.

Here are four steps to achieving great things:

 

 

  • Have you dreamt big enough? If you aren’t visualizing your business achieving all its goals and growing the way you want it to, it might be holding you back.

 

 

  • Take time to reflect on the dream. Let it simmer as you consider the obstacles that will have to be overcome to achieve your dream.

 

 

  • When you are comfortable that you have thought it through, share the dream with people you trust. They can point out challenges you may have overlooked or offer encouragement to keep you moving.

 

 

  • Get started. Big dreams don’t happen without hard work. Lay out the steps that will get you from where you are today to where you want to be and start working toward your goal. You won’t get there overnight, so focus on taking small steps toward your vision each day. Sell others on your dream so they can help you get there.

 

 

Don’t be satisfied with small achievements. Visualize your potential and the potential of your organization. With hard work, you can turn it into a reality. Dare to dream big.

Fred Koury is president and CEO of Smart Business Network Inc. Reach him with your comments at (800)988-4726 or fkoury@sbnonline.com.

Wednesday, 05 June 2013 16:39

How not to paint yourself into a corner

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This column is not a how-to painting guide for business executives — I’ll leave that to the experts at Sherwin-Williams. Instead, I offer a few suggestions on preserving ideas for future exploration and innovation. Let me explain further.

Hindering creativity typically rears its inhibiting, ugly head when you make definitive statements, either verbally to others or in the confines of your own mind, and too quickly dismiss new ideas as being too farfetched. We’ve all been there. How many times have you said, “Not on my watch,” or, “I’m drawing a line in the sand on that matter,” and sometimes adding for emphasis, “That will happen only over my dead body”?

Eating your words, even years later, can likely cause severe indigestion and can sometimes result in choking that could bring on a premature demise of that next big thing. Littering the bottom of the corporate sea are concepts with promising potential that executives, with the flick of the wrist, pooh-poohed. Most times, that was simply because there wasn’t enough time to deal with the unknown or because of myopia and the lack of an inclination to push the envelope. It doesn’t take much talent to say no, but it takes leadership and creativity to take a germ of an idea to the next level. And it takes true vision to shepherd a new anything through the difficult trial-and-error gauntlet.

Close-minded responses to the unproven are not just limited to management. Politicians particularly have a unique knack of painting themselves into a corner with unlikely promulgations that frequently come back to haunt them in November after the opposite occurs. Backpedaling is probably the method most politicians use to get their exercise.

In a 1966 Time Magazine print edition feature story, this then-prestigious publication asserted, “Remote shopping, while feasible, will flop because women like to handle the merchandise and, with so much time on their hands, want to get out of the house.” Someone might want to email Time and ask the publisher how to spell Amazon.

There are alternatives to summarily stymieing thoughts, dreams or unproven methods. Certainly, there is a time and place for everything, and frequently, you or your team may not have adequate resources, at a particular moment, to pursue every idea that comes down the pike. Instead of saying no, a more fitting response is to say or think, “Let’s put that idea on a back burner so that we can for the moment focus on more conventional solutions, at least, for the shorter term.” This leaves the door open for continued research and refinement of an idea that could ultimately evolve into something meaningful.

Here is where the bucket from my headline comes in to preserve an incomparable yet promising notion that, at the moment, might be superfluous to the task at hand but, at the right time and place, proves to be a killer idea. I use the word bucket as a euphemism for a holding place or repository for things that I may want to explore when the time is right. Certainly, one cannot investigate every idea ever pondered, but at least by retaining all such ideas in one place, they are always there for future consideration when either more is learned about the subject matter or when comments begin surfacing in the media or elsewhere touching on that similar idea you’ve kept tucked away.

Your very own bucket can also become a temporary refuge merely to take your mind off other, more thorny problems or a simple respite from the day-to-day grind when you’re looking for a new inspiration. Alternatively, at the end of the year, remove the mothballs from your bucket and review what you’ve deposited. A fresh look just might ignite a former idea, which then takes on a new life of its own.

Anyone who has ever painted a room already knows not to wind up in a corner, lest they may never get out. Worse yet, more open-minded competitors could use that bucket to throw cold water on an idea that you had earlier but never capitalized on it while they did.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises.

"The Benevolent Dictator," a book by Feuer that chronicles his step-by-step strategy to build business and create wealth, published by John Wiley & Sons, is now available online at: www.thebenevolentdictator.biz. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.