Maximum resolution Featured

7:00pm EDT November 24, 2006

The problem with rubbing elbows with the rich and famous is that sometimes an elbow is as close as you get.

Marty Schaffel sat at the same table as some of poker’s best players at the World Series of Poker but didn’t get much exposure out of it. “I just got mad at the cameraman because if I was in the hand with them, and they would be videotaping it, they would only videotape the other guy and not me,” he says. “The closest I could do is maybe look for my elbow on the screen.”

While he may have missed the opportunity for television face time, Schaffel hasn’t missed many chances in the business world. The owner and managing chairman of Audio Visual Innovations Inc., a provider of presentation technology, started the company in 1979 in Lakeland, Fla., and watched it grow to a $200 million, 800-employee company by 2005, with projected 2006 revenue of $225 million.

Schaffel sums up the key to growth in one statement: “Seeing opportunity and jumping on it with 220 pounds with both feet,” he says.

Here’s how Schaffel keeps AVI on top.

Don’t get complacent
In 1988, a man walked in the door with a piece of glass inside a picture frame and an 8-bit Apple computer. “He put it on a standard overhead projector and plugged everything in, and I looked up on the screen and there was black text on an illuminated, projected image on the screen,” he says. Schaffel knew at that moment that he was looking at the future and shifted his company’s focus toward display technology, something that’s helped make Audio Visual Innovations a dominant player in its industry. “That was a huge rocketship for us,” he says.

Though the shift toward display technology resulted in great success, Schaffel had to be careful not to take anything for granted. He is quick to realize there are smaller companies climbing up the ranks, hoping to give him a taste of his own medicine. “When I started the company, I was the littlest guy out there and went out trying to take swings at big giants,” he says. “Now that we are the biggest in the industry, the problem we have is the people who are more nimble than us can do what I did when we were a guerrilla street fighter. The challenge for this company is to still be a guerrilla street fighter and still be a large company at the same time.”

When the company was smaller, Schaffel could do that fighting himself by reaching out and touching many customers, giving the customer the feeling that he is looking after them. “Well, that was fine when we had 500 customers, but now we have tens of thousands of customers, and I can’t quite extend that same personal trust,” he says.

Schaffel recalls a time when he was still working out of his apartment, and wanted to do business with a huge engineering company. Every time he would call the target company, he was told his services were not needed because the business was already working with a much larger company.

Schaffel eventually received a frantic phone call from the target — Schaffel’s competitor wasn’t responding, and the company needed service.

Never one to miss an opportunity, Schaffel hopped in his car and made the hour-and-a-half trip from Lakeland to Orlando to put a 10-cent part in a machine. “As a result, she sent a memo to every office in their company emphasizing how they needed to do business with me and my company because we were willing to go the extra mile, and this other company had become complacent,” he says.

Schaffel says the key to winning the fight is making sure good customers feel that they have a personal, attentive relationship with his company.

Recently, Schaffel got wind that a very large customer of AVI indicated it was going to stop doing business with the company because a smaller competitor was being much more attentive. “I said to our folks, ‘Stop what you’re doing and go see this person,’” he says. “Understand what is going through her mind and what she is hearing from this other company. Let’s make sure that we do what it takes to understand the situation and to help retain her as a customer. The meeting took place, and we did. But it could have been where we stayed on our path and lost a very visible customer.”

Adjust your management style
Schaffel says he continuously faces the challenges of having to let go of responsibilities.

As the company grew, Schaffel would ask himself, “If I stay back here and fix things, as opposed to go sell, I’m going to sacrifice the potential revenue because I am helping in the repair area, or the accounting area, or I’m helping in some other area. It became obvious to me the things I was doing, I could pay someone to do and (I could) go out and generate revenue.”

Schaffel previously carried the titles of CEO and president but is now managing chairman. The process of letting go was so tough on him that he remembers the exact date — Dec. 7, 2005 — when he decreased the number of direct reports he received from about 15 to two. “From the day I knew I needed to do it, it took me a year to mentally position myself to do it,” he says. “I drive people crazy on occasion when I stick my nose back in. There are certain areas I feel I’m offering input, and they feel, ‘You don’t think I’m competent.’”

Schaffel says that on good days, he catches himself and keeps his opinion to himself, but on the bad days he takes his lumps. “Most people that I interact with know they can be pretty blunt with me,” he says. “I have a personal philosophy that if somebody tells me what they think I want to hear, I have absolutely no use for them. I need people telling me what’s on their mind and what is reality.”

Schaffel was also heavily involved in purchasing, something else he needed to give up. “I was eventually able to work with somebody and train them to be able to approach it the same way I did it,” he says. “I worked with them for about six months before I had the confidence to turn them loose and not worry about whether we are efficiently doing business with our suppliers.”

Schaffel says letting go was very difficult, but it was necessary for the company to move forward. “It’s a two-step process,” he says. “You have to be able to define for yourself what you really want to do, what you’re good at and what you enjoy doing. And you have to be able to identify the people you can trust and have the confidence in them to do what it is you are going to relinquish.”

Schaffel views his role now as more of a psychologist for the organization. “Organizational behavior is somewhat of a psychological endeavor because the business has its own personality and personality disorders,” he says. “There is the constant challenge of 800 employees and the interaction that different managers or department heads have when their vested interests are at stake. I encourage everyone with a plan, program or project problem to come to me — not asking for the answers, but laying out what they think and feel are possible options and the right ideas. “Hopefully, I can guide them to the selection they are most enthusiastic about and will take the greatest amount of ownership in.”

Keep turnover down
“Retention is everything because employees have memory,” Schaffel says. “You turn people over, you lose their memory and experience. That memory and experience have everything to do with success, in my opinion. You lose efficiency, you lose memory and you los e understanding of what’s important.”

At least initially, Schaffel wants employees who are a blank canvas but who are waiting to be painted. “Every day I would prefer to hire somebody with a great heart, great passion and great enthusiasm, but knows absolutely nothing about what I want them to do,” he says. Why? Because you can’t teach or train enthusiasm, passion or a great heart. But you can teach or train the skills and knowledge that you want somebody to have to do something. They can do that far past your greatest expectation if they have the passion and enthusiasm. “If I go into our industry and hire somebody who has great knowledge but doesn’t have great enthusiasm or passion, then their knowledge is totally useless to me.”

When those potential employees become available from other organizations, Schaffel makes his move. AVI had some very large competitors that went through consolidation or acquisitions, which led to disintegration from internal management issues, according to Schaffel. “In both cases, some wonderful employees and customers came to us, and that had a huge impact on our growth,” he says.

Yet, Schaffel realizes if all 800 of his employees won the lottery, chances are most would not show up for work the next morning. “Therefore, they want to feel like they are being paid fairly,” he says. “Now, do you lose people if someone offers them 25 cents more an hour or a thousand dollars more a year? Do they immediately jump ship? If they can’t find any other values in the organization, then the answer is probably.”

That’s where AVI’s incentive and reward program comes into play.

Schaffel has different recognition programs set up for employees. Along with monthly and yearly awards complete with bonuses and weekend trips to recognize exemplary employees, the company also has “Note to Take Note.” The program is an item on the company’s intranet that recognizes fellow workers with commendations of how they are helping AVI to achieve its strategic goals.

Anyone can submit a note, which is published on the company’s homepage. The company also has “People Praise,” allowing employees to send electronic cards through the intranet to other employees. “Everybody has a recognition quotient,” Schaffel says. “Some have a huge one where they constantly have to feel like they are recognized for what they do. Some have a lesser one where they appreciate it if they are recognized, but if a day or a week goes by and they aren’t, they still get up every day and there is an internal drive that causes them to want to be good at what they do. But, it all has to be fed. When people feel like they are being recognized for what they do, it can counterbalance any other frustration that can surface on a given day.”

HOW TO REACH: Audio Visual Innovations Inc., (800) 282-6733 or www.aviinc.com