Unlimited potential Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2008

Mercedes Walton and Hannibal have a lot in common.

Although Walton is a modern-day executive and Hannibal is a historic military leader, Walton is inspired by Hannibal’s famous quote: “We will either find a way or make one.”

As a child, Walton adopted it as her lifelong motto, and it continues to serve her well as chairman and CEO of Cryo-Cell International Inc., a 55-employee family cord blood bank that posted fiscal 2007 revenue of $17.5 million.

“Everything I’ve done in my life is reflective of a spirit that will not be defeated by the odds,” Walton says.

Smart Business spoke with Walton about how she provides the strategic vision for her innovative organization.

Q. How can CEOs establish a corporate vision?

The key is having the vision of the organization in the context of its industry. You have to know what position and differentiations you’re attempting to achieve in a particular industry. Where do you want to take the business in terms of industry leadership?

You really have to be at the helm of the ship and have a comprehensive understanding of the environment. That includes understanding the direction of the industry, the strengths and weaknesses of your company, what the company is setting out to achieve for its shareholders, and how the company intends to achieve that.

A vision is the foundation. Underlying that would be the strategic underpinning, and then underneath that would be the tactical plan.

Q. What is the first step?

Take an honest and candid assessment of where your business is. Once you have a complete understanding of that and you’re able to envision where you can take the business from the current place, you have to have imagination. You have to have the ability to think innovatively, imagine how the world is moving and how the markets are evolving.

Then, you have to set benchmarks as to where you want to be, how you’re going to get there and when.

In 2003, we had $7.5 million of revenues and losses of about $7.5 million, so we were literally bleeding, and we were also faced with two major and formidable competitors. We stepped back and took a critical examination of ourselves and of the industry.

We determined that for us to stabilize, to become profitable and to ultimately grow the business, we would have to make numerous changes and reposition ourselves.

Q. What process did you follow to reposition your company?

The first step was to enhance the features of the service in a highly differentiated and strategic way. We began to offer features to our service that our competitors did not have, and as a result, we were able to increase the price of the product significantly.

Part two was to recognize that, longer term, we would need to diversify [our] product portfolio. We looked more broadly at the whole stem cell arena and began to consider other sources of stem cells and strategies for commercializing new services that would broaden our portfolio beyond umbilical cord blood stem cells. That turned out to be a pivotal decision for the company. It was a comprehensive recipe of incorporating the present situation with the vision of the future.

The next step is to understand the voice and the needs of the customer. That’s tantamount to providing the solution space of where you can go. You are designing something that you know, based on the customers’ needs, will fulfill their requirements.

Q. How do you determine your customers’ needs?

Invest the time to listen to your customers. We spend an extraordinary amount of resource taking the pulse of the customer. On an annual basis, we conduct comprehensive customer satisfaction surveys to understand what we’ve done well, what we can improve upon and how it stacks up to what our competitors offer.

The first step is to get a critical understanding of how you’re viewed by the market you’re serving. Then you have to innovate to the future needs of the customer. By understanding the customers’ needs and overlaying that with where the industry is going, you can unlock some of the hidden messages of where the industry is moving in the future.

Recognizing your core competence is the linchpin to your future. It provides the elements of differentiation. By combining the understanding of our core competencies with innovation, we’ve created what is, in effect, an industry of one.

Q. How do you stay true to your vision?

First, remove the notion of failure from your mindset. Every single time I’ve had what seemed to be, at the moment, a setback or a crisis or a struggle, it actually turned out to be a stepping-stone to much greater things.

And second, take thoughtful risk based on data, history and intuition of the future. Patterns are repeated over time. Look at trends and at what has happened in the past. That’s a good indicator as to how things might emerge with a different twist of the present.

HOW TO REACH: Cryo-Cell International Inc., (800) 786-7235 or www.cryo-cell.com