Alpha mail Featured

8:00pm EDT March 31, 2007
Bill Disbrow was facing a difficult situation. 

He was building a new, larger facility in Florida to handle his company’s double-digit growth. However, that success meant a facility in North Carolina would be closed as operations were consolidated, and those employees would be out of a job.

That didn’t sit well with Disbrow, president and CEO of Cox Target Media Inc., whose familiar blue Valpak coupon envelopes aremailed out to more than 45 million homes each month.

After announcing the closing of the North Carolina facility, he vowed to do his best to find someone to take over the plant andemploy the workers. But his efforts went beyond a public relations statement — Disbrow hired a marketing firm to find a buyer.Ultimately, a buyer was found. And while going to such efforts may not seem to benefit Cox Target Media in any way, Disbrowsays the actions showed that when he says he cares about employees, he means it. “It’s things like that where you get past telling people what you’re going to do and showing them,” he says. “If you don’tultimately lead by example nobody is going to follow you.”

Disbrow says that showing that you genuinely care about employees can be a key factor in retaining them.

“The money and all that is something you have to have there,” he says. “You don’t have to be the highest guy on the street,but you can’t be the lowest guy on the street. Somebody has to be able to look you in the eye and think that you care aboutthem and that you care about what their future will be like. You have to show people you care about them a lot more thanjust putting it in the brochure.”

Disbrow has led Cox Target Media from a $50 million company in 1991 to a $250 million organization today. He boils hiskeys to leadership down to not only caring for his employees but also having solid communication skills and the ability toadmit when something is going wrong.

Listen to drive change
When Disbrow took over in 1991, he saw great potential in Valpak if the frequency of the coupons mailing was increasedfrom five times a year to monthly.

Valpak relies on a network of franchisees to sell coupon opportunities to local businesses. Changing the frequency of themailings would have a direct effect on how much work the franchisees had to do.

Though the company culture was positive when Disbrow took over, the franchisor-franchisee relationship was not great.Before any major changes could be implemented, the relationship had to be strengthened.

Disbrow says it’s important to keep an open mind at all times.

“Too often, you get guys who have had some level of success, and they think when they speak, everyone else should listen,” says Disbrow. “You have to go back and think about where you came from.

“The first job was to make sure everyone got on the same page and went in the same direction.”

Disbrow says from the first day he came into the company, the owners of the franchises wanted to sit down and have atalk with the new management. “We sat down and listened,” he says. “The things they wanted to do made a lot of sense. We really listened to our franchisees at that point and time and asked, ‘How do we support your growth?’ We tried to take the ‘us’ and ‘them’ out of it andstart pulling the same way. What drove a lot of the growth for the first 10 years was increasing frequency. “If I was a franchisee, I would mail this month and then relax for a month and then mail next month — mailing, at most,every other month,” he says. “We really turned it into a job where this is something you are doing day in and day out, andthis is something monthly that advertisers can rely on.”

Disbrow says management explained to the franchisees how more volume would mean more money for everyone.

“They are in it to make money,” he says. “So we tried to point out to them that if we did this better and smarter and more[often], we could make more money short-term,” he says.

“A lot of them looked at the business, as, ‘What can I make this year?’ We really started talking to them about building theasset value of what they had to the extent that we could change the business model of a promotional mailing that goes outevery couple of months into a real advertising medium, and convince them that ... their franchise would increase in value.It wasn’t just, ‘How much money can I make this year?’ but, ‘What am I doing to grow my asset?’”

Disbrow says many CEOs talk about the importance of listening to the customer, but listening to employees is just asimportant. “I don’t think you can listen to one and not the other,” he says. “If you do a poor job of listening to the folks you work with,I don’t think you are going to do a good job of listening to your customers. It’s about serving someone. The more you cankeep that in your mind, the easier it is to make these things work.”

Disbrow says listening also helped him understand himself and be an effective leader.

“You listen more than anything else, and you understand how you act and affect people,” he says. “It comes with timeand trying to be honest with yourself. As you talk to people and say things, listen to how you affect them and how theytake that and see if you are getting the results you want.”

Repeat your message
Aside from awards and recognition, Disbrow says employees appreciate knowing the direction the company is headed. To reach the point where everyone knows the company goals, Disbrow says he needs to drive the message homeconstantly. “It took me a long time to learn how often you have to say things before it starts sinking in,” he says. “Once you aregetting tired of saying it, people are just starting to get it. The more people feel like they understand where you’re going,why and what your part is in it, the better they like it. “Everyone wants to feel like they are adding something. Rewards and recognition do that, but ultimately, it’s abouthoping they understand why they are doing what they are doing.

Disbrow says as a company gets bigger, the influence that you, individually, have as a CEO diminishes because people don’t see you as much. “It’s making sure the folks that report to you are all saying the same thing and have the same vision and direction,” hesays. “There is nothing that will sink a company quicker than three vice presidents saying five different things andgiving 10 different directions. Then, employees think the managers don’t know what they are doing.”

Disbrow says the tighter you can get a message, the more relevant it will be, but he warns not to get it so tight thatthere’s no room for movement. “You want to be able to be flexible enough that if someone comes up with a good idea or the market changes, thenyou are able to change,” he says.

Cutting your losses
While listening plays an important role in leadership, so does admitting when you’ve made a mistake. Disbrow foundhimself in that in 2001 after having to pull the plug on an acquired company that wasn’t pulling its weight.

In 1996, Cox had just taken over Carol Wright, another direct-mail firm. After years of watching the company, its priceplummeted low enough to entice Disbrow into purchasing it in hopes of turning it around.

The only problem was, this acquisition was different from previous ones and was outside of the criteria the companynormally used. “We had always bought companies that were growing,” Disbrow says. “In this case, we bought one that was goingdown that we thought we could turn around. We never came close to turning it around.”

The decision to close Carol Wright wasn’t an easy one.

“You are affecting a lot of lives, it was a lot of money, and you never like to say you didn’t win,” says Disbrow. “But,at some point and time, you have to look at things realistically. You have to look at the bigger picture. For every hourwe were spending in Carol Wright, it was an hour we weren’t spending on Valpak.”

Disbrow says that looking back, he would have never done the deal, and the smartest move he made was shuttingdown Carol Wright in 2001 and focusing on Valpak. “It’s like getting married,” he says. “You at least have to marry somebody in the beginning that you think you have apretty good shot with. We went away from our core beliefs as to what we should acquire. It’s a lot different turningsomething around that’s heading for the ground than it is accelerating growth on a company already going up.”

Even in the less-than-ideal situation, Disbrow says some positives were squeezed out. He says Valpak may not havehad the same level of growth if Carol Wright was never acquired. “We learned a lot about the direct mail and marketing space,” he says. “We picked up three or four executives fromthat business even after we closed it. The executives have added a heck of a lot of value. When we closed that, it greatly enhanced our national sales in Valpak because we took some of those customers in Carol Wright and moved them toValpak. “So, when the smoke cleared, was it the financial success we wanted it to be? No. Was it a disaster? It could have beenbetter, but we got a lot out of the parts we had left.”

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