Martin Hiller Featured

7:00pm EDT January 31, 2007

The wall in Martin Hiller’s office has three pictures on it that serve as reminders. The first picture is of a man Hiller’s company sponsored to climb Mount Everest. The climber got within 1,000 feet of the summit, then had medical problems and had to stop. The picture reminds Hiller that life is not fair or easy, but one must celebrate the challenge and the climb, which makes success that much sweeter when you achieve it. The second picture, ‘Bird of Prey,’ shows an F-16 shooting down a MiG, which illustrates to Hiller that you are either the hunter or the hunted, and that you must stay on your game all the time. The third is of a 3M double-sided, double-density, 5-by-5 floppy disk that was used in 1985, which shows change is inevitable. Those three philosophies have helped him grow his company, which provides branded general aviation fuels and specialty carbon products, to 2005 revenue of about $110 million. Smart Business spoke with Hiller, president of The Hiller Group Inc., about how to assign roles, empower employees and manage growth.

Allow employees to take a break. Every other Friday, we have what is called a Fun Friday. It rolls through our customer service department because they see the other team members as customers.

We celebrated the Chinese New Year, and one Friday we had a masseuse in. It happens on Friday afternoon and it’s only about a 30-minute get-together, but it brings everyone in the organization together in a very informal, relaxed atmosphere. Sometimes it’s a way to decompress and take away the stress of the week or the month or the day.

You can drive and drive and drive and you can run your engine at 110 percent of capacity, but if you have motivated and happy, empowered employees, then that 30 minutes we invest every other Friday is probably the best investment I have. If you have an employee who is frustrated and not feeling part of the team, the cost of that lack of productivity is substantially more than the 30 minutes you spend.

It’s half an hour focused on maintaining our interpersonal relations, and it gives us a reason to get together.

We’ll have our staff meetings every month and our weekly meetings in each department, but we’re going to have to have some time to reconnect as team members, celebrate each other’s successes and talk about each other’s challenges in a way that isn’t a review process of pure business.

Clearly define roles in the company. We follow a business planning cycle where we do our planning mid-year and carry that forward year to year with tracking. Rather than writing 50-page business plans, we develop critical success factors and strategies, and implement those against specific tactics to achieve the strategies we are looking for. That’s integrated down to every employee. There are five levels of employees we have in our organization. I operate at a level five. My responsibility is to look at the firm in a three- to five-year planning cycle.

The next is a level four, which is a one- to three-year planning cycle. That will be some department heads. That’s more of a narrow window with more tactics around current market share. The level three would be a one-year planning cycle or less than one year.

It could possibly be a department head or individual staff responsibilities on a project. Then, you go to level two, which is less than six-month planning cycles. That’s very specific, very much project-driven.

Level one is the daily tasks that have to be completed. To have someone that is a level one task and to have them sit a level three or level five meeting, you lose them in 30 minutes because they are thinking about all the loads piling up on their desk. We work hard not to put a level four or five person in a level one discussion and not to put a level one person in a level four or five discussion, because it is tremendously stressful for both sides.

Empower employees. There are two ways to manage people. You can give them the paintbrush and easel, do a paint-by-numbers and identify for them where every paint chip goes in that picture. I can guarantee you get a picture every time.

Take that analogy as a relationship with a customer and turn it another way. What we do is give our employees the paint, the brush and easel, and talk about how we’d really like that picture to turn out. Sometimes it really doesn’t turn out exactly what I was looking for. But, a lot of times, it turns out better.

You’ll never get a masterpiece painting by numbers. But you have the opportunity to get a masterpiece painting by empowerment. You carry that through to everything else.

Be careful what you wish for. Let’s say you are a $50 million company and you want to be a $100 million company.

You expand and maybe you compress your margins, your product quality slips a little bit, or you are on the ragged edge of what

people can perform against their current workload. You may grow to that $100 million company, but it’s probably not sustainable because you won’t be able to backfill quick enough against what the customers are going to want.

You have to do a tremendous amount of planning.

Make sure you understand your value proposition with your customers and understand what that value proposition is and where you want to grow to. Focus on the customer and understand what those customers need.

Understand how you can deliver what they need. Also, understand what the cost of that service and those programs are, and can you make that investment. Do you have the capital and the team currently in place to do the expansion?

Without those variables in place, you can expand, but you may not be able to manage that growth. People can get really energized and focused on sales. We don’t focus as much on the sales. We focus on the deliverables of what we’re doing. The sales will come if you do your job.

HOW TO REACH: The Hiller Group Inc., (813) 882-3313 or www.hillergroup.com