He founded his company, Empire Investment Holdings LLC, in 2003, after leaving a lucrative job where he had done very well.
“I was very happy at that organization, but something inside of me told me that I could do this for myself,” Alfonso says. “I had that much confidence within myself to not even question whether I had the ability to do it or not.”
His confidence was such that he never allowed himself to think of a scenario in which he would fail.
“It’s hard for me to explain, but it never crossed my mind,” Alfonso says. “I would always tell myself or my wife or the folks that were around us at that time that it wasn’t a matter of if, it was a matter of when. It’s strange, but I never thought, ‘What happens if this doesn’t work?’”
The confidence that Alfonso built Empire on is the same confidence that he attempts to convey to the struggling companies that his business now seeks to acquire and rebuild. The 800-employee firm targets companies that he believes have characteristics that can be exploited and developed to create market value.
“When we acquire business units from the Fortune 1000, they have been categorized as no longer strategic for their ongoing businesses,” Alfonso says. “As a result of that, they tend to be ignored. They are put off to the side because they either are going to be sold or shut down.
“It’s not that there is a bad business there, but the folks recognize the fact that they are not being tended to and they are not being invested in. There is no one really mentoring, coaching or talking to them. … People want to feel as though they can truly make a difference. They really want to be able to make an impact. Those are the very characteristics and qualities that our organization promotes. That’s what we want.”
The ability to convey a plan to employees that makes them feel confident and useful again is a key reason why Empire has been able to process more than 40 corporate divestitures since 2003 and hit $135 million in fiscal 2009 revenue.
Here’s a look at some of the guiding principles that Alfonso used to build Empire and still uses today to help struggling businesses get turned around.
Show your confidence
You can have the most imaginative and creative plan in the world to get your business turned around, but if you don’t have confidence in your ability to make it happen, it’s never going to get you anywhere.
“If you’ve come into a room and you’re going to pitch me, you better be damn confident about what it is you’re doing and what it is you’re saying,” says Alfonso, putting himself in the position of the beleaguered leader. “You can tell pretty quickly whether the individuals on the other side of the table believe in themselves.
“One of the keys for me is going to be, are they demonstrating the appropriate level of not only competency but confidence in themselves in order for me to engage in this relationship?”
Whether you’re an investment firm that is buying other companies or just a CEO who is trying to turn your own business around, the challenge is the same. You need to project confidence that you can lead these people to success and prosperity.
“If the leader truly believes in what he is doing and what the business is doing and really has that passion, the type of passion where when you talk about it, you can even get choked up about it, it’s contagious and it can spread,” Alfonso says.
“It’s a level of intimacy. It’s working with everyone in your organization from the top down and being very intimate with the details and every functional area. I don’t know that sitting behind a desk and pounding out memos or communications is the most effective way. It’s by interacting at an intimate level with your work force.”
Give people a sense of where they fit into the picture of taking your company to greater heights and be specific about the details.
“It’s essential,” Alfonso says. “Everyone needs to understand not only where they fall in the organization from an organizational chart perspective, but they truly need to understand what is expected of them. And more importantly, not just what they’re expected to do but what that function actually does for the organization. How does it interrelate with the other functional areas and how and why does that function bring value to the organization?”
Don’t just rely on e-mails or company newsletters to speak to your people.
“Nothing can substitute an in-person meeting,” Alfonso says. “You can send out memos and put things in a newsletter, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re touching everyone or reaching everyone or that everyone is going to read it.”
In the end, it’s both your ability to communicate a plan and your discipline about sticking to it and following through on its components that will give you the best chance to generate the confidence you need.
“It’s consistency,” Alfonso says. “You can walk into any building right now and give a presentation and someone can even write it for you and you can sound really damn good. But if you don’t live those words, if you don’t demonstrate through your personal actions that you are involved and you’re following through with things, it won’t work. If you make commitments, you better damn well make them happen. Over time, that will counteract the employees’ notion that here’s just another person giving me a presentation and we’re going to walk away and it’s just going to be the same old, same old.”
Lend a hand
Just because you’re the boss, that doesn’t mean you should be above helping out your employees who are trying to make things happen in your business.
“Right now, one of our key executives, Chris Cummings, is knee-deep in implementing an ERP application for our latest acquisition,” Alfonso says. “I know Chris is working long days and nights and weekends, and he is really putting forth an amazing effort to get this done. When I talk to him, I will periodically say, ‘Hey, do you have anything on your plate you want me to get done for you?’ And he’s given me a couple things and I’ve done it for him.
“It’s being able to recognize when your resources are really going above and beyond the call of duty to get something done or get a project done that is really tying up their time. It’s recognizing that they are in that situation and offering some help and then it’s being able to do it.”
The key is when you extend the offer to help, you can’t just do it in a subtle way that you hope won’t generate any responses.
“If they give you something, get it done,” Alfonso says. “It doesn’t matter what the task is. There should be nothing that is beneath you.”
If you want to convey an attitude that you’re part of the team, you need to act like it and not seek out special treatment. You’ll reinforce the idea that it’s not just you and your responsibilities that make the company go.
“I do a lot of things on my own,” Alfonso says. “I don’t rely on an administrative assistant to make phone calls for me. My fingers aren’t broken. I can pick up the phone and dial it. There’s a certain level of approach from that perspect
ive. … It’s not uncommon for someone to walk into my office and say, ‘Hey, I can’t get to this. Can you help me get this done?’ Absolutely, give it to me. I’ll get it done. It’s all about bringing value and if you truly embrace that, it doesn’t matter who you are or what your title is or what it is you may do for the organization. If something needs to get done, anyone should be able to do it, including myself.”
If you want to bring value to your position, you need to be in tune with what’s happening and engaged with your employees. You need to be asking questions and assessing your strategies and checking for efficiencies on a daily basis.
“You really can’t answer those questions if you’re trusting those around you to answer them for you,” Alfonso says. “You have to know for yourself. You have to be the most prepared. You have to be the most diligent, and you have to work harder than anyone around you.”
When things are going well and everyone is busy, you’ll probably be spending a lot of time with your employees. It’s important to work to build strong working relationships without letting things get too personal.
“I’ve seen it happen too many times where people get too close and then something happens in the business environment which requires one person to have to take a certain action and it becomes very difficult,” Alfonso says. “We work very long hours, and when I get home from a trip, I want to go home and see my family and my kids. I don’t want to continue the party. There’s a time and a place for everything and you need to know when to cut it off.”
This type of work-life balance is an important element when you’re trying to be a leader who is engaged with your people and a part of the team.
“I don’t allow what’s being handled from the business side and the tactical side of the organization to become personal,” Alfonso says. “This is all business and all about getting things done. For those who work with me and around me on a regular basis, there’s no fooling around. We’ve got one task in mind and that’s to make sure we get things done for the company. It’s not about me or anyone else. It’s about the organization. People know that I take that seriously.”
It’s all about setting boundaries and sticking to them.
“It’s hard when you work with people as closely as we do and we travel as much as we do to not get to know the people that are around you and to not get to know who their spouses are and who their children are and where they live and the things they like,” Alfonso says. “So it’s not black and white. But I maintain an appropriate level of separation.”
It’s not the extracurricular activities that get the business moving if you have the right plan in place. It’s a commitment to the plan and a strong effort to bring employees along for the ride.
“We’d love to be able to do those things, but we’re generally too busy to do that type of entertaining or level of personal touch,” Alfonso says. “It’s by working with them. If I go visit one of our organizations, and let’s say that particular organization has 50 or 60 employees within that building, I will go visit everybody.
“I will literally go and say hello to everyone and talk with them. I have that personal relationship with our staff at all levels. We’re interacting at meetings. We are involved. We’re engaged owners. It’s not like we take a hands-off approach, cross our fingers and hope for the best. We really are involved in what our companies are doing. That goes to our management team and their management teams and it kind of rolls downhill.”
How to reach: Empire Investment Holdings LLC, (305) 403-1111 or www.empireih.com