Erik Cassano

When the recession hit, the only direction Bob Fish could turn was inward.

Up until then, it had been the best of times for Fish, the co-founder and CEO of Biggby Coffee. The chain of franchised coffee shops – which is based in East Lansing, but maintains a substantial presence in metro Detroit – had been growing by about 50 percent per year. But when the bottom fell out of the economy in late 2008 and early 2009, all Fish could hear was the sound of screeching brakes.

“Prior to that, it was pretty easy to get financing for new franchisees,” Fish says. “When we had the collapse, it became much more difficult for even our current operators to get financing. So it slowed our growth down, and that slowing had a morale impact. We fell back to about 20 percent growth per year.”

The good news was, Biggby Coffee — which is the brand name of Global Orange Development LLC — didn’t face an immediate existential threat. But growth slowed to a crawl, and Fish realized that if he didn’t reposition his company, the situation could quickly worsen. In an industry segment dominated by corporate titans such as Starbucks and McDonald’s, Fish’s burgeoning company couldn’t afford to slide any further. He needed to rally everyone at the corporate office and throughout the franchise chain, and to do that, he needed to draw the company closer together.

That meant Fish needed to revisit and refine what it meant to communicate with and engage his people.

“With our operations, we began to essentially change the style of our leadership,” Fish says. “We moved to a style that would be one that involved a higher degree of communication and a higher degree of inclusion between our office and our operators. We felt the need to get in touch with people on more of an in-person basis.”

Get tuned in

Fish believes one of the most powerful actions a business leader can perform is to get up in front of his or her company, and relate to them on a face-to-face basis. E-mails, videoconferences and newsletters all have their place, but nothing carries the weight of your words coming directly from your mouth.

“Communication is one of the most paramount things a CEO has to do,” Fish says.” You can have great ideas and a great vision, but if you are unable to articulate that to the balance of the community you are serving, it just doesn’t matter. The component that makes the real difference is to be able to create environments where there can be a dialogue on what you are communicating, and by extension, inclusion in the process of decision-making.”

As the economy slumped, Fish soon came to the conclusion that if his company was to maintain a healthy outlook, he’d need to create opportunities for educating employees and franchisees about the Biggby’s present state, and for facilitating an open dialogue about the company’s future.

“That manifested itself in the form of increasing frequency of in-person meetings,” Fish says. “At that point in time, we instituted what we called ‘in-market meetings,’ where I would go to each (designated market area) and hold about a three-hour meeting. We would discuss the current economics of the organization, and also cover what was going on in the immediate promotional period. We run promotional period cycles, and we’d talk about the performance of the previous cycle and what we were expecting in the coming cycles. Overall, that process created about six market meetings every 60 days.”

Fish also recognized the need for better lateral communication among the franchisees. As the company grew and fought the effects of the recession, Fish wanted to have a system in place by which franchisees operators could speak with each other, share best practices and find common ground on issues that affected the entire chain.

“What we did was to help establish something called an independent franchise association,” he says. “We have encouraged our franchisees to band together as one voice, creating an association that they could use to roll up their thoughts and opinions from throughout the franchise community, and then bring to us in corporate in a cohesive manner.”

One of the biggest keys to effective communication is high engagement. You have to have the attention of your audience if your words are going to mean anything to them. To engage, you have to give them compelling reasons to get involved. And to give them compelling reasons, you have to know who they are and what motivates them.

Fish identified the two constituencies he serves as CEO — consumers and franchisees. Consumers get involved in the business by purchasing the products and referral advertising through word of mouth. In order for consumers to engage — and stay engaged throughout the recession, when disposable income was drying up in households across America — Fish realized he’d need to know what his franchisees wanted and needed, and address those areas.

Through his avenues for communication and dialogue, Fish learned his franchisees wanted a voice and a tangible way to impact the direction of Biggby moving forward. Communication was only part of the equation. The ideas submitted by franchise operators had to turn into something that had a real impact on the business.

“Typically, change comes out of strategic planning,” Fish says. “Today, we do strategic planning with all department heads at the corporate office, but we also include two board members from the (International Franchise Association), so that we can represent that community in our strategic planning. Those board members have full votes, full participation and so forth. Very early in our operation, we have folded our operators into that dialogue.”

Form your process

Fish knew that in order to keep employees engaged and active in shaping the future of Biggby, he needed to form a process that turned employee and franchisee ideas into reality. The process was critical, because employees needed to see the system in action. A handshake and a promise doesn’t get you very far if your people don’t see the organization working toward results.

With that in mind, Fish divided the process of considering and implementing employee ideas into three parts: strategic, tactical and execution.

“All ideas are brought to the table at any given time for strategic planning,” he says. “Once decisions have been made at the strategic level, we have to deconstruct the idea and prepare it for the next level of feeding, which is tactical. That’s where we hash out the particulars regarding how we are going to execute it. Then we move into the execution phase, which is more or less a checkbox that tells us whether the task was performed or not.”

The process happens every day at Biggby on a small scale, but during the company’s recent revision of its catering business, Fish saw that his team could scale the process to tackle bigger issues.

“Our catering area in the past was relatively stagnant,” Fish says. “We weren’t getting any growth out of the area, so out of our strategic planning, we decided that we needed a way to stimulate bulk beverage orders. Through our market meetings, we came to the conclusion that our presentation on catering and education of consumers was poor, and it was delivered in the exact same manner as every other concept out there.”

The leadership team’s solution was to re-launch the catering business under the name “Grabbit2Go,” make it more responsive and throw marketing muscle behind it.

“We made sure the consumer knew that catering was not something you’d have to worry about days in advance,” Fish says. “It was something that you could make a relatively spontaneous decision on and still be accommodated.”

Out of the strategic planning phase, Fish and his team moved the idea into the tactical phase and hammered out the process for how the new catering setup would be implemented at the store level. Then, the concept was rolled out to the franchisees, who offered feedback on the concept, suggesting changes and refinements that would make the new service easier to implement.

“We then took that information back to headquarters, tinkered with the program until we had a formalized version and launched it on Nov. 1 of last year,” Fish says. “The process worked, because in that month alone, the new catering program contributed an additional 16 percent to our catering and sales area. And because we had to use beverage vessels that were purchased and reused, it also contributed 14 percent to merchandise sales.”

Normally, Fish says, getting franchisees to make the investment in reusable mugs and cups would have been a hard sell. But because the franchisees were actively involved in shaping the plan, they were actually anxious to see the program rolled out.

Throughout the recession and recovery of the past two years, Fish has geared Biggby to continue growing. He believes growth is his primary responsibility as CEO, and any change that any CEO makes to the leadership philosophy of the company should be made with growth in mind. Fish’s decisions have helped Biggby stay on a growth-focused path. At the end of 2011, Biggby had 139 units owned by 82 franchisees, employing about 2,500.

“The purpose of facilitating change as a CEO is to ensure growth for the company,” he says. “At our company, there are two pathways we can follow: same-store sales or adding new stores to the system, and I have to understand how to grow the business along those lines, and engage our people in stimulating growth. As the CEO, it’s your obligation to make sure that you understand all the components of your business, that you can measure every component and decide whether it is working or not, whether it is adding value.”

Change is going to happen, whether you want it to or not. So it is always in your best interest to ready your processes and engage your people in management of the change. If you haven’t geared your people to deal with change, your whole company will stagnate, and it won’t take a historic recession to cause serious problems.

“At this point, I bring ideas to the table just like everyone else here does,” Fish says. “I use my ideas to address the concept of change for the purpose of growth. This company started off in 1995, and the company we have now is remarkably different from the company we had back then. For me, it is really about managing the idea of change for growth, and understanding that change for growth is essential to remain a growing system.”

How to reach: Biggby Coffee, (517) 482-8145 or

The Fish file

History: Bob Fish co-founded the first location of what would become Biggby Coffee in East Lansing in March 1995. The second Biggby location opened in Lansing in October 1997. The company began franchising locations in 1999, and the chain had grown to 139 units operated by 82 franchisees as of the end of 2011. About 2,500 people are employed throughout the Biggby organization.

Fish on prioritizing ideas: If you have engaged people at the table, each one of those people understands what is important. This might sound a little ludicrous, but we vote on the items. There may be 25 or 30 items that are on the table to discuss, and we give everybody five votes. We approach the items from most amount of votes to least amount of votes. It is sort of magical out happens, the highest priority items do end up on the top.

Fish on travel time: Keeping everyone engaged on an in-person basis is time-consuming, but necessary. If we look at 2012 today, 85 percent of my business time is booked. All of those meetings are already booked for 2012, and I only have about 15 percent flexibility in my schedule.

More from Fish on the change management process: I think the most important part of managing change is — and it becomes almost an academic process — is you have to make the case for the change and you have to be able to articulate the vision. When we move forward with the process, there is a mini-white paper done, which makes the case for change and creates the vision. But when we get to the actual launch is where we have to make sure the skills, incentives and resources are there, and there is actually a plan in place to make it happen.

Laboratories with tanning booths?

That’s what Lewis Shender sees. The president and CEO of Sewell, N.J.-based Hollywood Tans sees his chain of tanning salon franchises as a nationwide collection of 140 labs conducting experiments in marketing and customer service.

“Each of our locations does things a little differently,” Shender says. “Ultimately, the stuff that does work, the stuff that does not work, people find out about that. It sort of reaches its own level at some point. I think insisting on rigid compliance to certain corporate standards can create an ivory tower. You develop a bureaucratic style of leadership, and it becomes more like checking-the-box leadership, as opposed to managing the business to really work at a particular location, with a particular set of customers and a particular staff.”

Shender speaks from experience. Previously, Hollywood Tans — officially known as Hollywood Tans Group LLC — was governed by a highly structured and compliance-oriented model. Like many franchise systems, the corporate leadership at Hollywood Tans was focused on driving uniform standards across its entire chain, so that a customer who walked into a location in Pennsylvania would have the exact same experience as a customer walking into a location in California, or anywhere in between.

But then the recession hit, and Shender quickly realized rigid adherence to a corporate rule book was not going to help his company weather the storm.

“The dramatic freezing up of the credit markets and the loss of employment was a real game changer,” Shender says “It super-accelerated what we needed to do to respond to the crisis. It really was an existential threat. Many companies did not make it through that patch.”

Hollywood Tans reshaped itself. The company got out of the tanning accessory manufacturing business, it revised its franchise model from a royalty-based system to a flat fee-based system, lowering the startup costs for franchisees in the process, and the company revised its culture to put more power in the hands of the store owners and managers.

“We moved from the compliance-oriented model to more of ‘Here is our way, but if you have a better way that works for you in your location, if you feel you need to do something unique to beat a competitive threat, you’re free to do that,’” Shender says. “It is much more flexible, and it is interesting to see how that is playing out in a positive way for so many people.”

Attack the market

Like just about every business, Hollywood Tans has tried to develop market separators — unique advantages that customers can’t obtain from the competition. Hollywood Tans’ market separators, including stand-up tanning booths and proprietary tanning lotions and skin care products, have played a big role in the company’s growth to $60 million in revenue during 2011.

But if the separators stopped there, the competition would have caught up and surpassed Shender’s company. With the ability to offer variations and add-ons to only a single service, Shender and his leadership team had to get creative as the economy hit the skids.

More specifically, he had to let everyone else under the Hollywood Tans umbrella get creative.

“We have salons in affluent communities in Southern California, in college towns in the Northeast, in urban areas in the central Atlantic states,” Shender says. “Those are very different types of customers, so if we try a one-size-fits-all approach, it just won’t work.”

The trick for Shender and the corporate team has been to allow local salon owners the latitude to tailor their approach to the needs of their respective markets while still maintaining a well-defined vision and set of values for the company’s brand. Shender’s team answered that challenge by providing some basic, systemwide marketing materials to all locations while still allowing salon operators to sit in the driver’s seat on marketing initiatives in the community.

“We try to give some structure in terms of coherent, timely and current marketing initiatives,” Shender says. “We have posters for salons, and there is always marketing collateral that goes along with that. Then there is online-based initiatives and other complementary creative projects that go along with that, so hopefully we are all communicating with the public in a unified way, with a single voice.”

Beyond that, it is up to the salon owner to crunch the numbers and decide how to best spend his or her marketing dollars.

“For instance, in Philadelphia, if our salon owners want to put commercials on the radio, and that works for them, that is great,” Shender says. “But it might not necessarily work for the guys in Birmingham or Nashville. So those are the types of situations where we try to get them to the right vendors who can help them make the decision about which path to take. We look at our data and give them our best judgment on it. But ultimately the decision for how they want to address the consumer is up to them.”

Shender looks at local marketing through two lenses — creative and media. In other words, what form the advertisement takes, and through which medium it is delivered. When the recession hit, everyone at Hollywood Tans had to place a newfound emphasis on creativity and discovering new ways to utilize various media outlets.

“In our old model, owners were required to contribute a certain percentage of their revenue toward an advertising fund,” Shender says. “Those funds were used to advertise in our various markets, and that worked particularly well in areas like Philadelphia, where we are highly penetrated. Philadelphia is our densest urban market in terms of coverage. But when the recession hit, the money dried up and the contributions began to sink. We were making more calls for collections, more owners were worried about paying their mortgages ahead of paying for advertising. So we had to rethink the whole strategy at that point.”

Utilize new media

Shender and his team came up with a plan that took advantage of new media. Hollywood Tans’ primary customer demographic is 18- to 32-year-olds — a majority are women, but with an increasing number of male customers. Younger customers are more apt to use social media platforms to interface with businesses.

Radio, TV and billboards weren’t completely kicked to the curb, but for franchises to survive, they needed the tools to connect with new customers in the target demographic.

“Our new customers don’t listen to the radio like I did when I was younger,” Shender says. “They don’t focus on billboards like I did, and they might not read the newspaper at all. So at a time when we were losing resources for advertising because our owners couldn’t contribute as much to our advertising fund, we found better and more focused ways to advertise online, targeted demographically and geographically.”

Needing to reach a younger customer base, Shender has helped spearhead social media initiatives, utilizing platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to allow individuals stores to connect with potential customers without any mediation from the corporate level.

“As an example, we have a graphic package every month or season, in order to promote salons and refresh what we are marketing to consumers,” Shender says. “There are icons that people can use on Facebook or Twitter, so that every month, whenever there is a change in our marketing campaign, we go online with locations that haven’t picked up on the new icon and connect with them. We don’t force them to change their icon, but we say ‘Have you seen this icon, we think it goes well with everything else we are doing, is this something you could think about?’ Most salon owners are happy to participate when it is in a constructive, partnership kind of way.”

The company’s online marketing efforts are styled in a way that attempts to relate to many different types of tanning customers. It’s something Shender says the rest of the industry can tend to ignore, in the name of selling out for celebrity endorsements.

“The ‘Jersey Shore’ TV show has really captured the attention of a lot of people in our marketplace, and many businesses in the market are using affiliations with ‘Jersey Shore’ stars to promote themselves,” he says. “We are going in another direction for a variety of reasons, one of which is recognizing that our customers tan for a variety of reasons, and might not identify with ‘Jersey Shore.’

“You need to embrace what you believe is a relatable and reliable method of reaching out to people. For us, we want to recognize that people don’t just tan to look hot for the weekend. Some people tan because it makes them feel better. Some tan because it’s a nice break in the week. People in sales might tan because they believe it gives them a competitive advantage. We love New Jersey, our home is in South Jersey, but you sometimes really need to question the mentality of the herd. We want to move beyond the stereotype of the fist-pumping ‘Jersey Shore’ guy, because we’re a lot more than that. If you try to identify too closely with one thing from a marketing standpoint, you sell yourself short.”

Shender has found that the Internet can be more forgiving than traditional media when it comes to marketing. Your business can alter or terminate media campaigns and online ads more readily than ads on TV, radio or billboards, which could involve a contract that lasts several months or longer.

“We have found that the newer forms of media are shorter term and come with less risk,” Shender says. “When it’s online, if you find something isn’t working the way you wanted it to, you can turn it off. It’s very easy to make changes on the run.”

Recognize your role

In Hollywood Tans’ new organizational setup, Shender sees himself as a promoter of his vision and a facilitator who can help everyone else in the organization realize the vision. In order to maintain every customer interface point as a laboratory, each experimenting with new ways to reach and maintain customers, you need to pay constant attention to what is happening on the front lines of your business, what is working and not working. The ideas that aren’t working might need an adjustment, or in some cases, might need to be altogether abandoned. The ideas that are working need the type of support and systemwide publicity that only upper management can provide.

“I have the bully pulpit as the CEO of the company, and I can see broadly what is occurring in the different markets, beyond what an individual salon owner could see,” Shender says. “With that kind of vantage point, you can be helpful in trying to move the entire organization toward what is working best for everybody. That is why we let go of our compliance-oriented culture to build more of a laboratory atmosphere.”

The people who interact directly with your customers have a great deal of power in your organizational structure. They might be on the bottom rungs of the organization, but they are the face of your company to outsiders. They build the relationships that drive sales. By putting more power in their hands, you deliver the message that you trust them, and over time, everyone in the company develops a more collaborative mindset.

“If people trust you, you trust them more, and it becomes a better overall environment,” Shender says. “For us, it is much less adversarial between the company and salon owners. It is much more open, and people are going in the same direction.”

How to reach: Hollywood Tans Group LLC, (856) 716-2150 or

The Shender file

Company background: We have approximately 44 salons in the Philadelphia area and approximately 140 salons nationwide. So Philadelphia is a big part of our business. It is our hometown, so it is sort of the heart of our business. Most of our employees are in South Jersey; we have a distribution center in South Jersey, our accounting and finance teams are there, our internal sales teams are there. We have a very small office on the West Coast for marketing and administration.

Shender on setting his company apart: Our salons are generally based on a stand-up (tanning) model, which is a faster way for people to tan, which sets us apart. But it is not like walking into McDonald's, which is exactly the same no matter where you go. Here, there is a lot of opportunity for store owners to customize their situation to better address their competitive challenges, and operate the way they want to operate.

More from Shender on developing a marketing strategy: You have to understand if you are the market, because everything we look at, we look at through our own lens. One of the hardest things for me to realize is that I am not the target market. Just because I happen to watch a certain TV show or listen to a certain radio station, or read a certain paper, doesn't mean my consumers do. It's not that they might just watch a different TV show or read a different newspaper, they might not watch TV or read the papers at all.

I think particularly with the rapid changes in technology, we have to be very humble about what we know and maybe not so much rely on experts, but get good input from some solid vendors on how to reach the market you want to reach, and then just test the hypothesis to see if it is working or not. We can market so much more efficiently now, it is just stunning to me.

When SugarHouse Casino opened its doors to the public in September 2010, the buzz was palpable throughout the region. Located on the Delaware River, it is Philadelphia’s first casino, and its debut came with a full royal fanfare: media headlines, applicants clamoring to apply for jobs and a leadership team assembled from a pool of experienced gaming industry experts from around the country.

At the center was Wendy Hamilton, the casino’s general manager. Like everyone else associated with SugarHouse, she basked in the glow of the casino’s debut. But she also knew the spotlight wouldn’t always be this bright.

“It was all new, novel and exciting,” says Hamilton, now in her second year running the casino. “We were all making decisions every day that were going to determine who we are and how we would do business for the rest of our lives here. It was really a high energy and exciting time for everyone. But now, it’s not so new anymore and it is not as exciting. The media isn’t as interested in everything we do. So the challenge has become about how we ensure this is still a great place to work, ensure people still enjoy coming to work every day when it isn’t so novel anymore.”

It happens to virtually any business that opens to a heaping helping of pomp and circumstance: At the outset, it’s an event. After some time passes, it becomes a job. Even if the Phillies are in first place this month, by now home games have become a matter-of-fact part of summertime life. The buzz surrounding Opening Day is a distant memory.

Replace the crack of the bat with the ringing of slot machines, and you have Hamilton’s predicament over the past year-plus.

“It is something that the leadership team here thinks about every day,” she says. “We are always looking for new ways to keep the team engaged, ways to get everybody on board with what we are doing.”

Plug yourself in

Maintaining a high level of engagement with your employees comes down to how you communicate. That is the simply stated version of the solution. What Hamilton has discovered is that you need to choose your interaction points for the best possible impact.

In an organization like SugarHouse, which employs just more than 1,000, you can build communication touch points through a variety of mediums. The tried-and-true methods include newsletters, e-mail blasts, speeches and videoconferences.

But what works best for Hamilton and her leadership team, and what she emphasizes, is relationship-building through informal interaction. Hamilton walks the casino floor, visits the employee lunchroom, chats with cashiers during a lull in business, so she can learn what they are learning. Hamilton says it is critical to develop a sense of familiarity between the casino’s executive team and the employees working the floor, because those employees talk to customers every day. They find out what customers like and don’t like about their experiences at the casino, and can help the executive team to identify issues at ground level before they become major problems.

“We are in a very consumer-oriented business, in a very high-touch industry,” Hamilton says. “For example, we do a lot of giveaways to certain customers who are worth a certain dollar level to us. They are usually invited to the casino at a specific day and time to pick up their gift. Let’s say it is a set of pots and pans, which is a gift that creates some logistical concerns. A set of pots and pans is not easily handed over to a customer and carried around the casino for the rest of their visit.

“So what might happen is an employee relays a suggestion from a customer about doing the pot and pan giveaway at the end of the visit, so they can just pull up to the valet stand, put the package in the car and drive away. On the executive level, it might make more sense to us if we give the package away at the promotions center, but the people at ground level will have a better feel for the details of the situation.”

Through their daily observations, employees can formulate common-sense suggestions that can have wide-ranging positive results over the long term. But if you don’t put in the time and effort to connect with them and develop a sense of familiarity, they won’t feel engaged, their enthusiasm for the job will wane and they won’t come to you with their ideas.

“I like knowing people’s names, knowing what part of the casino they work in, and even knowing a little bit about them personally,” Hamilton says. “If you can keep it casual and informal, it’s not a big deal to run into them somewhere and ask them to help you out with something. You can comfortably ask them about a new potential policy and how it might impact them in their area of work. It keeps the communication very quick, easy and efficient.”

You won’t be able to use every single idea that an employee brings forward. But even when you have to reject an idea, or table it for a while, you can still use that as an opportunity for connection, engagement and motivation.

“When you can’t use an idea, there ought to be a reason,” Hamilton says. “Either it is a good idea for your purposes or it isn’t. If it is a good idea, you use it. If it isn’t, you need to explain to the person why it won’t work. If it is a regulatory reason or something along that line, just tell them that. More often than not, it’s going to be a situation where you like the idea but you just can’t use it right now. It might be something you can do a couple of months from now. If that is the case, you have to tell them it is a great idea and there is a better chance of it happening in a few months. But it all comes back to how you communicate with the person in that situation.”

Though you can’t often develop the same level of familiarity with customers that you can with employees, you can take some of the same informal communication principles and apply it to how you interact with customers.

“I find that the little tidbit you get from a five-minute conversation with a customer is as valuable as the customer surveys we send out,” Hamilton says. “It’s a lot of being around the operation, being there while they are playing or while they are having dinner. You just ask them what is going good about their experience and how their experience could be better. I would say it is difficult sometimes in a business setting to really get a group of executives used to just being there and having those kinds of conversations – the type of conversations you would have around your own water cooler in the executive offices. You need to be able to talk like that to your customers and your employees because that is where you are going to get the real information.”

Build your team

If you’re going to keep your employees engaged over the long haul, your communication philosophy has to become a fundamental building block of your culture. Putting words on a piece of paper, or stating it to your work force, is only the first step, however. You need to promote your communication philosophy, and you need to have a leadership team that fully buys in to your plan and can implement your communication strategy.

At SugarHouse, Hamilton had the advantage of building her own leadership team from scratch, and doing so months before the casino opened its doors.

“We were very lucky here, because at the time we were hiring, this industry was experiencing some turbulence in other markets like Atlantic City and Las Vegas,” she says. “What it meant was, people who were some of the experts in this business, people who had been in a certain field for quite a while and might have turned us down under other circumstances, were willing to take the risk and come here. The field was kind of open to us.”

After Hamilton made the first couple of management hires, a chain reaction developed as those hires then started recruiting via their own professional connections.

“Once I had one or two people on board, those people did the same things, helping me by recruiting some of their own peers to fill out their own teams,” Hamilton says. “We also hired a number of people who applied to us cold, but it helps to have connections through somebody that you are working with, and you’re able to reach out and recruit through those connections.”

As Hamilton was recruiting to build her leadership team, and her team was recruiting to build their departmental teams, she emphasized three overarching traits that all management-level team members needed to possess.

“They needed to be smart, like any executive would, and they need to be a bit clever about solving problems,” she says. “Beyond that, they also need to be people who can interact in a social setting. If they are people who can function in their neighborhood or in their kid’s school, it’s largely the same thing. Sometimes you have to train people to have those informal conversations at work, because it’s not how they were coached previously. But anybody who is smart and fairly social can pull it off once the main idea is introduced.”

When building a team that can stimulate dialogue and engage employees, you need to consider your culture first. If you want to build a management team that can promote open communication, that concept first needs to be a part of your organization’s core values. If you can’t define your values accurately, you won’t be able to hire to fit your values.

Through her professional connections, Hamilton knew of many people in the gaming and casino industry with a high level of technical competency in their areas of specialization. But by getting to know those people over the years, she developed a sense of who would fit the culture at SugarHouse and who wouldn’t.

“I can name a couple of good finance folks, but I knew right away the one who would fit perfectly into the culture we wanted to build here,” she says. “You really have to be committed to making sure that you don’t have someone who might be very strong on the technical side but won’t add anything to the culture. But while you want everybody to identify with your culture and values, you don’t want to hire people who are all the same. So I don’t like to use the word ‘fit’ when it comes to culture. You don’t want to end up with 10 vice presidents who all have the same type of personality.”

Good team-building falls under the heading of “chemistry.” It’s a nebulous word when it comes to social interaction and what it means to have everybody working together. But somehow, the issue of chemistry must be addressed if you’re going to have a unified management team, and in turn, a unified, engaged and motivated company at large.

“At the end of the day, it’s up to you to make the call about whether a person is a good cultural fit or whether they simply bring the technical skills,” Hamilton says. “You could have the best people, but if they don’t fit with the culture and won’t get along with certain people, it weakens the team.

“You want to create a team that likes being together, a team that will look out for each other and have each other’s backs. Everybody has strengths and weaknesses, and if you build a team that is complementary, the job gets done, everybody plays a part and nothing falls apart because of a conflict or somebody’s weakness.”

How to reach: SugarHouse Casino, (877) 477-3715 or

The Hamilton file

Born: Philadelphia

Education: Degree in biology from Duke University; MBA in finance from St. Joseph’s University

First job: I sold saltwater taffy on the boardwalk in Ocean City, N.J. when I was 14 years old.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

Don’t take it personally. Let me define that a bit. On one hand, people do their jobs well because they take it personally. However, some days you just can’t get a hit. And when things aren’t going your way, that is when you have to be careful to not lose enthusiasm. Sometimes, things are going to get tough and something is not going to go right. But especially in a leadership role, you can’t let it affect your energy and enthusiasm. You still have to project a positive attitude, because people are going to look up to you.

What is your definition of success?

Obviously, you need to be producing a quality end product. But for me personally, I want to be able to assume those things are happening. It sounds ridiculously simple, but success is when you as the leader have the people around you fulfilled and your employees are happy. You want an environment where people enjoy coming to work. That, to me, is when you can say you are successful in your role.

Even before he became president and CEO at Mission Hospital, Kenn McFarland knew a change was coming. Health care reform was on the doorstep and it was going to find its way inside, one way or another.

“The new health care environment was taking shape, whether you call it Obamacare or just the country responding to health care taking up so much of our gross domestic product,” McFarland says. “You might call it the riding of two horses, moving from this one horse at a gallop to this other horse that has yet to catch up.”

McFarland had been the chief financial officer at Mission Hospital for nearly 13 years prior to taking over as the interim CEO in May 2011. By November, he had made enough of an impression on the hospital’s board and trustees to receive the position on a permanent basis. With more than a decade of experience as a high-ranking hospital official, he was well qualified to take the reins and help forge the hospital’s future path.

But just because McFarland was experienced doesn’t mean the task was any easier. As part of the national health care reform plan, hospitals around the country were under pressure to transition from fixers to preventers, to medical professionals concerned not just with curing ailments but with managing the preventative medicine and lifestyle choices of their patients.

It was a drastic change in direction for a hospital staff of more than 2,400, used to operating in a specific way. Until that point, preventative medicine largely took place outside of a clinical environment, overseen by nutritionists, physical therapists and other specialists. Now, the staff at Mission Hospital would need to tear down the silos and work hand-in-hand with those specialists.

“We had to do a 180 and embrace this new business model,” McFarland says. “We have this wonderful, successful business model that we had been enjoying, but the old model celebrated a fee-for-service reimbursement. The more you did at a hospital, the more money you made. This new model will have us managing whole populations of people, keeping them healthy and out of the hospital. That is a transformational shift. It’s very taxing, you have to build a compelling argument for that platform and get people to follow that model. That would be, I’d say, one of the most challenging things that any CEO would be facing right now, especially in our health care environment.”

Develop a transition plan

In the case of Mission Hospital — and all the hospitals that comprise St. Joseph Health System — building a compelling argument for change began with locking the door and throwing away the key.

The entire health system set up a series of cascading strategy meetings, with the first meetings pulling together the CEOs from all hospitals and medical centers in the system.

“We basically locked ourselves with our board members and physician leaders, and spent a couple days together,” McFarland says. “We told ourselves, ‘OK, we know how we got here, we know how we got to be successful to this point. We know there is uncertainty in the future.’ We had guided conversations to help construct a plan in which we wouldn’t be victims of the future, but rather we would help shape the future.

“That is exactly what we did. We locked ourselves up and started crafting dimensions of performance, and from there, we started to engage everyone else and cascade it.”

The CEOs came up with three desired outcomes, intentionally throwing the ball a little too far downfield in an effort to force everyone in the organization to reach for the goals.

“The outcomes are fairly audacious. First, we want perfect care. Second, we want all of our encounters with each other, with doctors, with patients and with families, to be sacred. Third, we want all of our communities around all of our hospitals to be in the top decile in terms of their own health — their own weight management, their own dietary consumption, their own mental, physical and spiritual health.”

With the goals set, McFarland returned to Mission Hospital and began working with his leadership team to construct processes that would enable all employees to achieve the organization goals, given a willingness to work hard and stretch their capabilities.

“We built a set of enablers that would allow the work to happen,” McFarland says. “The set of enablers would allow for the fulfillment of the strategy, would show us what would be necessary to allow the strategy to work and be successful, and help us to satisfy our mission and outcomes — the things we are striving for.

“So when you think of the process, first we had to articulate those strategies, then we had to fashion those enablers that will allow those strategies to be achieved. Then thirdly, we had to show everybody how we are going to do this together, and get everybody to pull their bow strings back, aiming their arrives for those three core outcomes that we want to achieve.”

Aim your arrows

From cruising altitude, the concept seems like something everyone should agree with: Change a health care outfit from one that focuses primarily on treatment and healing to one that focuses on preventative medicine and lifestyle management, in an effort to reduce the treatment and healing that needs to occur.

But concept and practice are two different things, and to bridge the gap from the former to the latter, you need to build a compelling argument for why the change needs to happen, then package it in a way that relates to many different employees in many different disciplines, then roll it out in a manner that provides maximum coverage.

For a work force that had been highly successful under the old model, it’s not as easy as giving a speech and changing everyone’s mind.

“I had to paint a picture that showed where the new model would take us,” McFarland says. “I had to show everyone the new order of things and how it would be all about managing whole populations, whole communities and their health, and driving less emphasis on the hospital and the acute care setting. I had to show how if we want to be relevant and viable well into the future, it was necessary for us to partner with other caregivers in the community, partner with everyone from wellness and fitness centers to ambulatory care, diagnostics, recovery and rehab, outpatient rehab, inpatient rehab, long-term care facilities and the hospital setting. We had to be nimble in how we managed whole populations through the whole care process, not just the acute care side.”

Ambitious goals can help your team members draw a line from the present state of the organization to how everything will look, feel and operate once your vision is achieved. But it’s not enough to just tie your organizations future to a broad statement such as “We want to be the best in our industry.” You have to tie the organization’s future to the numbers. You have to be able to show your staff hard data that relates directly to the progress they’re making in relation to the goals you’ve set.

At Mission Hospital, McFarland held up cost per discharge as a key metric. He showed the hospital’s employees how lower the cost per discharge would have the long-term effect of helping to re-focus the hospital on preventative care.

“I communicated to our team that we are a great hospital and we make a lot of money,” McFarland says. “We are one of the top performing hospitals in the country. But we are able to do that because we operate in a very affluent area. Under this new model, where the focus is going to be on the continuum of care and population management, we are going to have to reduce our costs. We are just not going to get the reimbursement that we used to.”

With an average cost of $8,500 per discharge, McFarland set a goal of getting the hospital’s average cost per discharge down to $7,000. He and his leadership team utilized lean management practices and elements of Six Sigma to give employees a method by which to reach the goal.

“That’s huge, and we’re not going to get there simply by cutting a bunch of people,” he says. “We are going to look at our culture, we are going to look at our leadership, and if you are not on board, you are not part of the team. If you are not willing and you do not have the courage, this is not the place to be.”

Assess your staff

As part of assessing the organization’s capabilities, McFarland and his leadership team had to assess the capabilities of the staff, and as part of that, whether the skills sets of certain employees could transition into the new future of the organization, either in the employee’s current role or in another role.

“The skills that make you successful today might not be the skills that make you successful tomorrow,” McFarland says. “So there were some tough conversations in terms of who was going to be along for the ride and who would have the agility to adapt.”

McFarland knew he had to run a more efficient organization, and the people who performed functions in departments that the leadership team deemed inefficient would have to adapt to new or modified roles or, in some cases, depart the organization.

One of the most prominent cases of streamlining involved the departments who manage the hospital’s revenue cycle.

“Throughout the whole process of managing our revenue cycle — and you are talking about starting with the time of admission, patient registration, getting all of their information, discharging them, sending out a bill, collecting on that bill, writing them off and managing the whole medical record along the process — we have approximately 1,200 to 1,400 employees across our health system performing that work,” McFarland says. “Said another way, that is one in 20 employees across the system managing the revenue cycle. That’s one in 20 employees not providing bedside care and not helping the patient experience. We looked at that and asked how we could improve performance.”

With a goal of paring down the revenue cycle management to between 700 and 900 employees, McFarland and the CEOs of all St. Joseph health facilities brought their revenue cycle leadership together for a brainstorming session centered on discovering and implementing best practices. The CEOs used the improvement of the revenue cycle management as a jumping-off point for creating a system of what McFarland calls “value imperatives.” The imperatives are aimed at increasing efficiency in the organization and aligning the skill sets of employees to promote that efficiency.

“We put our revenue cycle leaders in a room for five days and said ‘If you had a blank canvas, how would you design this work?’ McFarland says. “We called that a value imperative, and set about creating a series of value imperatives. We did one around the clinical setting of our emergency rooms, how we can better take out waste, inefficiency and leverage evidence-based medicine. We also did that for how we treat stroke patients; we’re doing it for sepsis, our laboratories and our whole material management department.

“You have to take the process small pieces at a time, leverage the people who actually do the work and allow them to redesign the work, and as leaders, you have to get out of the way to ensure that they can do what is needed to affect those changes. To use the old expression about eating an elephant, you’re just trying to do it one bite at a time.”

How to reach: Mission Hospital, (949) 364-1400 or  

The McFarland file

Education: Bachelor’s degree from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona; MBA from the University of California, Irvine.

History: Chief financial officer at Mission Hospital 1998-2011; interim CEO May-November 2011: Installed as CEO on a permanent basis in November 2011.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

When I was a young CPA in my first career, I was pretty naïve and green. One time, one of the partners at the firm I was working for pulled me aside and told me to never be afraid to make a decision. Many people in business are afraid of making decisions and struggle to pull the trigger. It’s not that you should be afraid of being the leader with a philosophy of “ready, shoot, aim,” but that you should be the leader who is always at the ready and aiming. If you are aiming and shoot, and you miss, admit it and be direct. If it wasn’t the right decision, admit it, don’t be afraid to show vulnerability, and allow yourself to drink in the collective wisdom of the people on your team. Use that wisdom to help you move forward. That advice has helped me on a number of occasions over the course of my career.

What is your definition of success?

It is so simple to talk about cash flow and operating margins. But what I believe is if at night I can put my head on the pillow and sleep well, that particular day I showed up, listened and brought energy. I brought my compassion, vision and ethics to the table. I let my yes mean yes and my no mean no. And if I reflect on my day and find things I didn’t do as well as I would have liked, I will aim to do better tomorrow. That will make each day a learning opportunity, and will help me continue to grow and develop as a leader.

The recession was going in the Dumpster.

No, not just figuratively — it was physically going to be thrown in the Dumpster.

On a windy day in the fall of 2009, Kim Yost, then the newly named CEO of Art Van Furniture Inc., carried a large sign bearing the word “recession” to a large waste disposal bin at the back of the main warehouse.

“I literally threw it in the Dumpster,” says Yost. “I then went back to the Dumpster several months later and threw the word ‘no’ into it.”

Yost did it because Art Van needed to get its momentum back. Like countless businesses across the country, the home furnishings retailer was sagging under the weight of the recession. Like countless businesses across southeast Michigan, Art Van’s problems were exacerbated by a local economy that wasn’t in great shape even before the recession. The faltering economy was compounding the crisis – acting as a refrigerator dropped on top the piano that Michigan businesses were already carrying on their backs.

When it is an arduous grind to merely slow the rate of damage, most business leaders are not just going to feel the result when looking at their balance sheets. They’re going to see it and hear it in the attitude of their employees.

Despite a decades-long reputation as one of the region’s and country’s leading home furnishings retailers, Art Van wasn’t immune to the recession’s effects, at the cash register, sales floor or the water cooler. It was up to Yost to make a series of bold moves to re-energize all 2,600 employees at Art Van, in spite of the economic environment in which the business was operating.

“We had to get the organization to go in a completely different direction,” Yost says. “The first thing we had to do was get our attitude completely to the point where we were no longer going to participate in the recession. I went out and publicly announced across the entire organization that the recession was over at Art Van, and we had to take our minds, our hearts and our business in a new direction.”

As Yost fashioned a new direction for Art Van, he kept one overarching belief in mind: small wins in the short term can generate big wins in the long term.

Seize the opportunity

Taking over as CEO in the October 2009, Yost was able to find a potential win simply by turning the page on his calendar. November means Thanksgiving, and Thanksgiving immediately precedes Black Friday and the Christmas shopping season.

“We immediately attacked the possibility of breaking an all-time company record for Black Friday sales in 2009,” Yost says.

Yost wanted to turn the Black Friday sales mark into a universal company goal. He wanted to create a companywide buzz around breaking the record. And, above all, he wanted his employees to leave the thunderclouds of the recession outside, bringing a sunny disposition inside the walls at every Art Van location.

“What we did were three things,” he says. “We started to act and perform as if the economy was terrific, as if we were back in the early 2000s. We developed our flier, our television campaign and the look of our stores to consistently resemble what we did in the early 2000s — say, the year 2001. From a marketing point of view, that was what we did when the economy was at its best.

“Second, we had a series of sales contests and sales promotions internally to encourage everybody to break the record. We were moving in a new direction, so we had to get that small win really early. The last thing we did was we created a game book. I have been playing sports since I was young, and I had a history in my professional career of creating game books that are unique. So we put together a Black Friday record-breaking game book for November 2009 and used that as our checklist.”

There were 32 steps the company needed to complete in order to break the record. Yost and his leadership team educated the work force on each step, what it would take to address each step and, in turn, break the sales record.

The methodical and comprehensive approach to staff motivation had the desired effect. Not only did Art Van’s associates focus on breaking the Black Friday sales record, they stepped up their game overall. Art Van broke the sales record, and the momentum from the campaign carried over to ensuing big-sale days.

“In November 2009, not only did we eclipse our company record, we did it again the day after Christmas, which is another very important sale date,” Yost says. “Then on New Year’s Day, which is another very big-event promotion for us, we broke another record. So by the time we had Black Friday, the day after Christmas and New Year’s Day, we were now creating momentum.”

After the rapid-fire success of the three sales events, the seeds for a long-term culture shift had been planted. It was up to Yost and his leadership team to feed and water the seeds until they started to sprout, then bloom, then bear fruit. Yost sent his team to all Art Van locations to recap the success of the campaign and illustrate a plan to sustain and increase the momentum moving forward.

“The leadership went out to all our stores and went through detailed discussions on how we were able to change the momentum,” Yost says. “We showed videos centered on inspiration and motivation, our tactics and strategies, we went over the success of the three promotions and what it took to do it. We literally spoke to every employee about what we were trying to accomplish.”

Write the book      

The information exchanged at the on-site meetings helped to produce the company’s first annual game book. The offspring of the game book used to launch the Black Friday sales campaign, Art Van’s first annual game book, “Clarity of Purpose,” took the motivational concepts used to spur the success of the sales campaign and extended it to motivate employees to accomplish the company’s goals for the whole year in 2010.

“In the three years that we have now been going in a different direction, we have produced three annual game books — one for 2010, one for 2011 and one for 2012,” Yost says. “Every single person in the organization was aligned behind the business plan. We re-enacted that same business plan for our 2011 game book, ‘The Next Level,’ and for 2012, which is called ‘Act Now.’ So we have made three separate roadmaps to success for each of the past three years.”

The game books for each year have been written by Art Van’s 16-member executive leadership team through a collaborative process. Each book outlines a series of specific initiatives that will receive the lion’s share of the company’s resources.

“We only have three resources that we can put into motion: time, money and effort,” Yost says. “Those key initiatives get all three of those resources for 12 months. We build on it, we communicate on it, we execute on it. But the focus has been that all 16 of us worked with collaboration to identify those key initiatives, and more importantly, to develop initiatives right throughout the organization, getting absolute alignment from stock room to board room, putting us all on the same path.”

Art Van has 2,600 direct employees, but once you factor in external support staff that also needs alignment on the vision and goals of the company — such as those who work for the company’s advertising agency, suppliers and key product providers — the number is closer to 3,000, according to Yost. That means the messages in Art Van’s annual game books have to reach a vast audience working at many different locations both inside and outside the company’s hierarchy.

“When you make the decision to park the recession in the Dumpster, as we did back in the fall of 2009, you make the decision to embark on a new course,” Yost says. “That means you have to get everybody marching alongside you. It takes a lot of heavy lifting, and a lot of triggering and communication, to get people to where they need to be.”

Yost and his team launched Art Van Television to help increase the profile of the company’s strategy. The in-house television network broadcasts in all Art Van locations, keeping employees updated on company events and promotions, and other information pertinent to the strategic direction of the company.

“We have over 100 50-inch flat-panel television screens all across our organization,” Yost says. “We are now able to broadcast all of our daily happenings to the organization in real time. Special events, activities, different promotions we are working on, the launch of our brand promise, which is a new program we just launched for our new brand initiative. All of that is communicated daily on AVTV. The screens are all throughout our corporate office, our distribution network and our 40 stores. All employees get exposed to it on a daily basis.”

Get interactive

Conveying your strategic plan and objectives comprises a large part of what it takes to point your company in a new direction. But it’s not the whole story. You need to give your employees a chance to have their say. If you don’t give your employees at all levels and locations a chance to voice their opinions and offer feedback, you can’t expect total engagement in the future direction of the organization.

When he began to fashion Art Van’s new direction in late 2009, Yost didn’t want to just physically prod his work force to sell more. He wanted to mentally stimulate them to think about how things could work better – how internal systems could improve, how new promotions could bring customers into the stores, how Yost and his leadership team could do their jobs more efficiently and effectively.

The answer for Yost wasn’t just about more sales and marketing muscle. It was about a better attitude and thousands of employees coming to work each day empowered to do their best work.

“If you’re going to aim your company in a new direction, you first need to capture the minds and hearts of your team,” he says. “That is why I literally needed to park the word ‘recession’ in the Dumpster. It was because we needed to change our vocabulary. We needed to get rid of words like ‘no’ and embrace change. And it’s all going to start with the leadership.”

As the leadership goes, so goes the rest of your company. You and your leadership team have to be the ones to set the example, develop the proper attitude, reach out to employees and keep the dialogue moving. If you don’t lead from the front, you can’t expect anyone else to step up and do it.

“We have a saying here that goes, ‘Speed of the leader, speed of the team, quality of the leader, quality of the team,’” Yost says. “We, here at Art Van and as leaders overall, get the team we deserve. As much as I’d like to give you the magic bullet that you can put to any business and it will miraculously start to improve, it is all about leadership. Every day, our leaders come to work inspired and motivated to take their teams to the next level.

“To have leadership that is motivated and inspired, you have to have them winning. When they are winning, it’s much easier to keep the momentum, and then you have to challenge them, every day, every week, every month. Another thing we say around here is ‘Winning isn’t everything, but wanting to is.’ There can be no complacency. You have to want to win every day.”

How to reach: Art Van Furniture Inc., (586) 939-0800 or

The Yost file

Born: Red Deer, Alberta, Canada

Other projects: Yost is the author of “Pumptitude: Pump Up Your Attitude and Gain Altitude,” available at

Yost on managing growth: Speed wins, slow loses. But you have to have controlled and profitable growth, and each organization has a different ability to adapt. What I’ve found so terrific about our team is that this is a team of very fast and quick-adapting individuals. We have 91 leadership-level individuals, including sales managers and store managers. They enjoy the speed and the tempo.

But you can get to a point where you have to judge how much your team can absorb and execute to the degree of quality, and you have to pace yourself. This is a marathon, not a sprint. You do that by giving them achievable goals within short term ranges, and give them the ability to relish the success of that goal — maybe a bit of a breather — and then you get on to the next one.

If you are in dense enough forest, you have to give your team the ability to get a little bit of a clearing. They catch up, get organized and regroup, and make another little clearing. Then you let them catch up and regroup, and they hit the forest again, and so forth. So we have been very careful to watch our tempo and manage our speed, to manage out some of the things we have done to balance out the execution.

Yost on how the recession has changed the business world: I tend to refer to this recessionary time as the ‘brave new world.’ It is not going to go away even in the distant future, and we need to embrace the fact that it is here now and it exists, and so instead of going out of business, we need to go out for business. We have gained market share over the last three years consecutively, we have nine quarters of same-store sales increase, and nine quarters of consistent market share growth.

Yoh Services was a boutique shop in a bind.

Nearly three years ago, when Lori Schultz joined Yoh Services LLC as its president, the company was enduring the hardships of the recession, like just about every business in America. But the work force solutions company — a 5,200-employee subsidiary of Day & Zimmerman — was dealing with another layer of inefficiency on top of the recession’s effects.

“Yoh had 12 different brands, operating very fragmented out into the service delivery model,” Schultz says. “We were operating very much in a boutique fashion. So, for example, IT ran separate, engineering ran separate, health care ran separate. They all ran under separate leadership, no synergies between any of the groups.”

It was a model that had worked at one time, but the market started changing in the first years of the new millennium, and the recession accelerated the pace of change to warp speed.

“The boutique model was very much a model that made sense in the ’90s, with higher margins and delivery service to the client,” Schultz says. “However, a lot of the transformation in our business really led to having more bundled services, more streamlined. Specialization still existed, but you still had a very streamlined delivery model to clients.”

Schultz had to spearhead an effort to consolidate Yoh from 12 specialized brands to one full-service brand containing a number of product and service offerings. Conceptually, it all made sense. In practice, it wasn’t nearly as clean of a transition. Schultz and her leadership team had to convince 5,200 people that the old system was outdated, the new system was the way of the future, and the time was right to make the change.

“That was the biggest challenge on my plate,” she says. “To get the buy-in at the management level, make sure we had the right teams in place, and that this was something that we had to do; then, to take that and get buy-in throughout the whole organization.”

Learn the process

Before Schultz could change anything, she needed to understand how Yoh’s system worked — or didn’t work. She needed to understand the inconsistencies and inefficiencies in the boutique operating system in order to sit down with her management team and build a system that better addressed the needs of the current marketplace.

Gaining that understanding meant getting out of the office. Schultz traveled throughout Yoh’s footprint, talking with associates and gaining a better knowledge of the company’s product and service delivery model to its clients.

“I needed to understand some of the unique challenges our people in the field faced,” Schultz says. “That was step one.”

The second step was to identify areas in which Yoh could build synergies among various operating entities. To comprehend that, she needed to develop relationships with the managers leading the various operating units.

“Part of the dynamics is making sure I have the right leadership team in place,” she says. “I can’t get this done without having the right leadership team in place. As all of this transformation is happening at the same time, I’m looking at my leadership team, making changes in some cases, and in other cases, bringing in new talent from the outside.”

Schultz needed a leadership team with excellent communication skills and complete buy-in with the new company direction, and she needed the entire leadership team in place, empowered and on board before anyone at Yoh corporate headquarters could even think about rolling out the new vision to the company at large.

Lead your leadership

Schultz didn’t change the composition of her leadership team all that much. But she did make major changes to how the people in place operated.

“The key was really spending some time with them and learning, No. 1, what their level of competency was, and then where they had been with the company, then how they fit into the new direction of the organization,” Schultz says. “We got a lot of feedback from them, too, about their history and what they wanted in terms of a future.”

As Schultz spoke to her leaders, she began to form an idea of how her leadership team could be constructed to provide the best possible leadership framework for the reconstructed Yoh organization.

“With some of our leaders, we made some dramatic changes to their existing roles,” she says. “We needed to put them in a role that I felt best suited them for the new organization. At the same time, we still left some of the team in their existing roles.”

The alterations to the leadership team cascaded down to the field leadership, where the dynamics needed to change in order to better respond to client needs in a comprehensive fashion.

“In the field, we made major changes because we were a very strong delivery model organization,” Schultz says. “We were very good at serving our clients, but we were not a sales organization. So we had to change the dynamic in terms of delivery and sales. We brought in new people to serve in some of those roles. The result, and what I have today, is a kind of hybrid leadership team. I have a mix of existing people who were here when I joined Yoh and some new talent as well. I would say it’s about a 50-50 mix now.”

With a blend of new and established leaders, Schultz faced another challenge: developing cohesion among leaders who were either used to the old way of doing things or completely unfamiliar with the internal workings of Yoh. It was a battle that Schultz had to fight simultaneously on two fronts.

“Getting the new people engaged in the new vision and strategy is easy, because they came to work for you because of that very reason,” Schultz says. “You lay out the strategy, vision and direction, and that is why they come to work for you.

“The biggest challenge was really changing the direction of my existing team, because for about a year, we really had to oversee a change management issue. When you change an organization, you really blow it up and start from scratch. You are changing everything about the direction of the organization, and if you have an existing team, you need to get buy-in regardless of what you do.”

With an existing team that has to be convinced that the new way of doing business is going to be better than the old way, getting them to a point where they completely accept the new direction and mesh with new team members is a process governed by time. It takes communication, persuasion and patience to get your existing team members on board.

“Change management takes time,” Schultz says. “You have to really recognize that some of your people need more time from you to really understand the vision and the direction. You need to listen to them, listen to how they feel about being a part of a new direction.

“Then you need to be able to continuously communicate where we’re going and what is in it for them. Even then, you end up having people who revert back to the old way, and you have to come back and try to refocus them on the future and what is in front of them, not what is in the past.”

If you encounter reluctant adopters, the level of patience you show with them will likely be in direct proportion to their importance to the organization. But if a person has been in a significant role for a long time and is well-known and respected throughout the company, the extra effort will be worth it.

“If you think this is going to be a leader who is vital to the future of your organization, then you’re going to need to spend the time because it is a trust situation,” Schultz says. “If you’re coming in as a new president or CEO, and the person has been in the organization, say, 17 years, you need to build that relationship and trust. If you’re in that person’s position, trust is a difficult thing to have when a new leader is coming in and doing all these transformational things.

“You need to remember that it’s not just about you talking to them and trying to get them over the fence. You need to understand where they are coming from, too. It will benefit everyone if you can build that trust because the information they can provide to you with regard to history is important.”

Roll it out

Once Schultz developed a satisfactory level of cohesion among the leaders at Yoh, she then had to turn her attention to rolling out the new direction to the company at large.

When dealing with thousands of employees, you can’t concern yourself with the adoption of the plan by every individual. What you want is to hit for the highest possible average.

Schultz attempted to improve her batting stats by holding companywide calls to brief all employees on the progress of the transition.

“I would use those calls to communicate the direction and the vision, and how it impacted them,” Schultz says. “Moving forward, I’ve found that also has to be carried through on a quarterly basis. If you don’t continue to carry that message to the leadership team, it starts to lose a lot of value.”

Yoh’s training modules also became important buy-in tools to use on the company at large. The leadership staff at corporate headquarters initially went through a 3.5-day training session that covered the future strategic direction of the company, along with breakout sessions on the company’s new business models. From there, management worked together to build training programs for the company at large.

Though the training process is going to depend largely on the type of organization you want to build, Schultz says there is almost always a need to implement some form of a cascading training program that successively engages each level of the organization.

“It does depend a lot on where you are financially as an organization, but if you are starting with a flat organization as we were, you have to look at the leader and the people who are doing really well to put together a committee to build some of the training programs for you. Then, you look to execute and implement the training.”

Any time you can implement training in a peer-to-peer format, it’s another way you can help the buy-in process when training for a new organizational direction.

“That is one of the reasons that I think we had the most buy-in,” Schultz says. “In a lot of cases, the training was done by peer groups, and people who are recognized throughout the organization as having excelled in the field in which they are training. It was really about training that was more reality-based versus training that was more or less fluff. We were able to leverage relationships that already existed in the organization and roll it out regionally, versus having to spend a lot of money on having a few people travel everywhere and do all the training.

“The key is, if you want to do something like this, it is all built internally and rolled out through internal processes.”

How to reach: Yoh Services LLC, (215) 656-2650 or

The Schultz file

Education: Psychology and business degrees from California State University, Northridge

Previous position: Senior vice president for Ajilon Consulting and for Adecco’s Engineering & Technical and Medical & Science divisions for the western U.S., responsible for overseeing all field sales and operations and developing and executing new growth strategies to sustain and increase revenue within both lines of business.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

The best lesson I’ve learned is that when you come into a new organization, you want to come in and make an impact quickly, and have success quickly. But you also want to do a reality check and make sure that you’re not outpacing the rest of your team as you’re trying to get things done. Because then, you might not be listening as much as you should as you’re just trying to keep up. At times, you need to maybe slow down and recalibrate your expectations a bit.

What is your definition of success?

To get genuinely excited about contributing. I think excitement drives your success. And when that happens, you can spread the excitement around and find other people who want to contribute and want to be heard. That means success for the entire company.

Forget the rabbits. Hunt the big game.

The one-time advice of a colleague has become a guiding philosophy for Andrew Littlefair in his role as president and CEO of Clean Energy Fuels Corp., a company that is trying to turn natural gas into the commercial vehicle fuel of the future. But to make a real impact in an emerging industry, Littlefair has needed to thing big — he’s needed big thinkers, big goals and big customers to raise the profile of his business.

In short, he’s needed to hunt for elephants.

“One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was “You guys need to be hunting for elephants,” Littlefair says. “Don’t chase rabbits. That is why we needed to develop a good understanding of what our value proposition is to our customers. We needed to focus on fleets, and fleets that use a lot of fuel, so we really tried to carefully design around those markets. Then, we have stayed laser focused on going after those. We focus on airports and vehicles that operate out of airports, refuse trucks, transit buses, and now heavy duty trucks.”

To continually hunt for elephants, Littlefair needs to reinforce what Clean Energy is as a company, who the company serves and where the company needs to go in the future. Then he needs to enable his people to achieve those goals. With Littlefair’s philosophy as a main driving force, Clean Energy has risen from $91 million in 2006 revenue to $211 million in 2010 revenue.

“Ultimately, we’re faced not only with running a business, but also creating an industry,” Littlefair says. “That is kind of a significant, ongoing and important challenge that we face. Moving people to a new fuel has all sorts of new stuff associated with it. It’s easier today than it has been in the past, but it has been a challenge and it will continue to be a challenge that keeps us on our toes.”

Find your customers

Most leafy plants grow toward a light source. Your business, in that sense, really isn’t that much different from the potted plants on your windowsills at home. Your light source is the revenue provided by your customers. Where the most revenue can be generated is almost certainly where you’ll grow your business.

About a decade ago, Clean Energy scored one of its biggest and longest-standing contracts with Waste Management. At the time, there was a governmental push to reduce emissions from city service vehicles throughout Southern California. Littlefair and his staff saw an opportunity to convert diesel garbage haulers to natural gas. Waste Management was among the first sanitation companies in the region to hop aboard the natural gas bandwagon.

It was an ambitious project for company that was just entering the space, but it was a critical win for Littlefair and his team, and taught the leaders at Clean Energy a great deal about retaining a major client.

“We really didn’t have the right product at the time, so we worked with a company that was doing vehicle conversions, and we went out and got the grant money to pay for the conversion of their diesel trucks to natural gas,” Littlefair says. “Then we went out and built a station on Waste Management’s property to dispense fuel, and worked out a long term fueling contract. That started out 10 years ago with seven trucks, business has changed a little bit over time, and today we now have a national operation and management agreement with Waste Management. We work very closely with them on building their stations, even providing the equipment and doing the maintenance.”

But getting from converting the first garbage trucks to natural gas to maintaining a longstanding and strong relationship with Waste Management was a process that took years. It took a great deal of listening, adjusting and Littlefair doing whatever it took to continue to build the relationship.

“Early on in the business, utilities were involved, and they built stations,” he says. “But it was sort of a ‘build it and they will come’ theory. There were no natural gas vehicles out there to speak of, so it was sort of like building a station and looking for a needle in a haystack. So what we did was really start to analyze the markets, figured out what we really wanted, and started to identify customers that had what we wanted. We wanted companies with a lot of vehicles, and vehicles that used a lot of fuel, and preferably vehicles that operated as return-to-base vehicles, where they always came back to a central area for refueling and maintenance.”

Over time, Littlefair and his team began to identify the customers that met those criteria, including Waste Management, and began to reach out to them. Reaching out, in this case, means doing research and gaining a deep understanding of what the customer needs.

In Clean Energy’s case, Littlefair even hired a former Waste Management senior manager as a member of his executive team.

“I ended up hiring a senior guy from Waste Management as a vice president because he knew the refuse business and he spoke the lingo,” Littlefair says. “You always have to be talking to the customer, listening to the customer, and doing whatever you can to understand how you can best serve the customer. That is how you develop the strategy for how you are going to serve the market. In our case, and in the case of many businesses, you put a lot of that connection in the hands of your sales team. You listen to them, you empower them and you motivate them. You still lead them, but they’re your ears and eyes in the field, so you delegate that customer interaction to them and hold them responsible, because you as the leader can’t do it all.”

Develop discipline

Listening to your customers is a great start. Defining the goals of your business, and rallying your people around those goals, is essential to long-term growth. But none of those initial steps will mean anything if the seeds you planted don’t take root.

Your vision grows roots through discipline. You need to execute each day on the systems and processes you have put into place, which are aimed at allowing your company to achieve the goals that you and your leadership team have set.

It’s a maintenance task that every business head has to perform. If you aren’t setting the tone from your position, you can’t expect others to maintain the course you have set for the company.

“I’d say ‘discipline’ is the right term,” Littlefair says. “You just have to stay disciplined. I’m a pretty good motivator and leader, and a pretty good communicator, so we’re always trying to make sure that we’re doing things to ensure that we all stay on the same page. Businesses change, we add and we adapt, but you still want to make sure everybody is with you and all on the same mission. That is all really key.”

A big part of communicating and reinforcing goals is measurement. Littlefair says the long-held business belief that an ability to measure something equals an ability to manage it is still correct. The nature of how you measure and what you measure might change over time, but the need to quantify results is always present.

“How do you develop the discipline? Part of it is you need to measure you success, take stock of where are and whether you are doing well enough or not,” Littlefair says. “You had better know what you are aiming for and you had better set some goals to get there. Sometimes, I get criticism from within the company that I set goals too high. But I feel like you need to set goals that are a reach to obtain. Anybody can hit a low goal. I want to keep the organization striving for something outside their reach.”

Ambitious goals do prevent a treadmill mindset from taking hold, in which your employees become complacent and content to do the same job at the same level of competency every day. That is a recipe for stalled growth, backsliding and getting left in the dust by your competition.

But you still need to find the sweet spot between ambitious and unattainable. If you set goals that are too far beyond the capabilities of your people, you’ll overburden them, stress levels throughout the company will rise sharply, and the overall effect will be damaging to your collective morale.

It’s a tightrope that Littlefair has repeatedly walked as he continually tries to serve the needs of bigger and more demanding customers, while still staying within the capabilities of his team.

“It’s harder for me, because I am a sales-oriented individual,” he says. “I do have to check myself on that. If you set goals that are too far out of reach, the goal no longer becomes significant because you can’t attain it. What I’ve found over the years is that the organization counterbalances. If there is somebody in the organization who is too optimistic, there is somebody else who is more realistic. Any good leader is going to have to end up balancing that. You listen and take into consideration the various points of view. Not that you’re going to run your business by committee, but you can take the information from your management team, and that ends up being pretty important as you finalize your goals.”

Finding that balance as a leader is not an exact science. A great deal of balancing aggressive optimism with pragmatic realism comes from knowing the people in your organization, the customers you serve and the conditions of the market.

“There isn’t a recipe, but that is what you need to do,” Littlefair says. “You need to have an optimistic viewpoint. Sometimes being too realistic is too pessimistic. So I think a good leader takes all these inputs and puts them into place, and work that out. And you don’t do it in a vacuum, you get a lot of that from your company and from the people who work with you.”

Ultimately, growing your business and broaching new markets takes vision and a willingness to take calculated risks. But making those changes stick is a far less glamorous and far more mundane task. You need to connect with customers, serve their needs and ensure that everyone in the company is maintaining the discipline to do the same. Much like Thomas Edison’s often-referenced description of the invention process, it’s 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.

“My job as the leader is to coalesce the vision, getting it approved by our board and developing that with our senior management,” Littlefair says. “I’m kind of the chief communication officer and the chief motivator. There are certain things I have to do that no one else has to do and vice versa. But I think what a good leader does is set the vision and the implementation, hold people accountable and make the adjustments necessary for that to happen.”

How to reach: Clean Energy Fuels Corp., (562) 493-2804 or

The Littlefair file

History: I was born in Detroit, and we moved to California in 1963. I grew up in Torrance, Calif.

Education: B.A. in political science, University of Southern California

Littlefair on constructing a clear message: Like most companies, we have an annual strategic planning process. And we’re still small and entrepreneurial, so don’t confuse our process with what might happen at some place like IBM. But our managers gather information from well down in the organization, we have a series of one or two-day meetings, we started out with a larger group and break it down to a smaller group, cover a lot of areas, and we begin to sort new business opportunities, existing opportunities, reflect on past goals. It’s kind of a living process that goes on for a couple of months.

And through those several meetings, you ask people to embellish on their thoughts and different ideas, and what they think we need to pursue. As you develop a plan, and a lot of these things will end up being in the plan, that is part of communication, just the participation in the plan begins to bring everybody along. Of course, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody is together. When you finish the plan, they’re kind of 75 percent or 80 percent along the way, you need to make sure you have a plan to disseminate the goals, and you can’t do it too late in the year. You have to do it early and often, and you have to empower your team and managers to disseminate the plan, and if your company is small enough, you’ll try to do as much of that as you can personally.

Littlefair on developing a value proposition for customers: I think it is trying to stick to your knitting, understanding what it is you do well and what the proposition is that you have, and why you are better than others. Then stay damn focused on it, but realize that it sometimes takes longer that you think. One of the things I think as an entrepreneur or a business leader is that sometimes these things take longer than you think. Occasionally, you just have to kind of stick with it and through the thick and thin sometimes. That's the key, and that's what anybody really has to do in business.

In late 2008 and early 2009, the recession was sending many companies into survival mode. The customer base was drying up, and even if you still had a substantial portfolio of customers, your ability to produce and ship products was likely crippled by skyrocketing energy costs.

But through all the turmoil, Sunil Agrawal saw an opportunity for his business, Nova Consultants Inc.

“If you remember back when crude oil hit almost $150 a barrel, we were sitting in our office thinking about how one third of the GNP in this country was going toward energy, and all this money is going to the same countries which we are trying to fight against,” says Agrawal, Nova’s founder, owner and president. “So we tried to think, what is the one thing we will always need in this country to live on? And we thought that it would be energy. So let's develop ways to save energy, to harness energy which comes from non-carbon sources.”

Agrawal decided to enter the solar energy market. It has been a challenge for the company to keep up with the ever-changing face of solar energy technology, but Agrawal and his team have been able to master the market enough to generate $10 million in 2011 revenue.

Smart Business spoke with Agrawal about how Nova was able to adapt, and the importance of flexibility in the world of business.

How did you identify solar energy as a good direction for the company?

We have on our key staff chemical engineers and electrical engineers. In 2008 and ’09, the Obama Administration was talking about alternative energy, about coming up with a program for alternative energy, so we thought we might have some opportunity in that field. Three or four engineers in our offices started attending conferences and reading journals, reading books, because there was no formal program at that time that could train someone in solar engineering. So we had the time, the guys were there, they were getting paid, they were very interested, they wanted to do something different, so we decided to give solar energy a try to see how it works.

What else in the company's infrastructure allowed you to capitalize on the opportunity?

Raw materials were not needed. It was all intellectual material that was needed. We had plenty of intellectual material to make it happen, and we used it quite a bit. All the investments that we made in 2008 and 2009 paid off in 2010 and 2011. We now have a number of multimillion-dollar contracts. We have positioned ourselves well for growth.

What would you tell other business leaders about defining a new direction for company?

What happens is that when things are going good, people don’t look for new opportunities. They don't look at the future; they are happy with the way things are going. Even though solar energy is developing a presence here in the United States, we are 10 years behind everyone else. It is because things were going good in this country as far as energy is concerned. So we developed it and gave to other countries such as Germany, Japan and Spain. For example, in Germany, 30 percent of the power comes from solar.

So I would say to other CEOs, look to the future. Don't get too caught up in the present. Look in the future and see what is coming toward you. You have to deal with the present but prepare yourself to deal with the future.

Is there still a way to keep that future-focused mentality when times are good?

If you want to grow, keep growing. You have to maintain that, you have to look to the future. If you don’t, then what will happen, everything that you are doing now is going to become routine, and you will lose your edge. Without an edge, without a core competency, you cannot survive in the future.

What is the danger of getting complacent?

The danger is pretty high, because you become an antique then. You are done, and by the time you try to catch up, the technology has already moved on. In our own field, what we are doing right now, engineering energy, these fuels are changing on a weekly basis. The solar panels that we used three months ago are obsolete now. The efficiency and power is increasing that rapidly. So in our field, either you are in or you are out. You don’t have the option to get in and sit back. You have to keep moving with the times.

How to reach: Nova Consultants Inc., (248) 347-3512 or

Ryan Maibach had a solid background when he stepped into the president’s role at construction firm Barton Malow Co. A construction engineering graduate of Purdue University, he had been working at the firm in various capacities since 1997, most recently as operations vice president for the company’s industrial group.

One of several Maibach family members on Barton Malow’s leadership team, he had worked alongside his father, chairman and CEO Ben Maibach III, preparing for a larger role within the company.

Maibach was about as prepared as any person could have been to take over as president. But when the promotion came in April 2011, he still found himself challenged to take a $1.3 billion company, with a nationwide presence of 1,500 employees all trying to navigate a still-sluggish economy, and get it ready for future growth.

“Early on, I was just trying to understand what all is in play, especially coming into the position at a pretty challenging time for our industry,” Maibach says. “The biggest challenge was trying to figure out how we best cope with a lot of economic and industry realities, and how we continue to grow and thrive despite some of those.”

Maibach quickly isolated his single biggest need as a new leader: he had to connect with the people at Barton Malow, regardless of what job they performed or where they were stationed within the company’s footprint. He had to engage them in dialogue, solicit feedback on the vision, values and policies of the leadership team and use the employee input to define future goals for the company, both over the short term and long term.

“It was a lot of asking questions, and more often than not, asking open-ended questions,” Maibach says. “When you leave things open-ended, people are going to take the conversation where they want it to go. More often than not, it’s what you need to hear, though not always what you want to hear.”

Take stock

As operations vice president for the industrial segment, Maibach had overseen one of Barton Malow’s five business units. Along with the heads of the four other business units, Maibach had served on the company’s board, interacting and developing relationships with his peers on staff. Maibach says that fact did help him in his transition to the president’s role.

“The process was a little easier because there is a good degree of interaction with your peers,” Maibach says. “It’s not as though I was coming into a situation that I was completely unfamiliar with.”

Like any new leader has to, Maibach used the advantages he had to help smooth the transition, both for himself and the rest of the company. With a degree of stability already established with the management level, Maibach leveraged it to reach out to people at all levels and locations within the company, attempting to build relationships and a sense of familiarity, and rally people around his vision for the future.

“It might sound cliché, but I think the success and failure of a company is directly related to how effective our people are,” he says. “It’s in direct proportion to how solid our people are, how effective and informed they are as employees. So, in the time I’ve been in this position, it has been about trying to reach out and engage a broader segment of our employees, the people that I hadn’t had as much of a chance to interact with one-on-one in my previous position.”

There wasn’t any magic to it. Maibach got on a plane and logged thousands of air miles, travelling to Barton Malow locations and job sites from coast to coast, as far south as Florida and as far north as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

“I wanted to reach out, talk to them and understand their view of the company, their role in it and what they see,” Maibach says. “What are their challenges and obstacles, and how best to start working down that list, and getting everyone aligned on the company’s goals and objectives.”

Maibach wanted to provide positive reinforcement for his people, but as he traveled the country during his first months on the job, his people provided him with a great deal of positive reinforcement, too. Maibach discovered that he had a work force with a desire to perform at a high level, people who believed in the company and wanted to continue driving it toward success.

“You hear a lot of the loyalty and passion that people feel for the company,” Maibach says. “You see a lot of the appreciation that people have for certain values, namely the integrity of the company and the associated trust that a lot of individuals have in the company. You also hear from a lot of people the desire to be a part of something big, to be a part of the bigger picture. That, as a leader, is what drives you to provide more opportunities for people to be engaged and be a part of something more than their particular project or their particular role in the company.

“That is really the desire as we look out into a new era. How do we provide opportunities for some really great people to play a role in charting a course and setting a direction for what they are going to experience in the future?”

Utilize feedback

All of the time Maibach spent travelling as the new president amounted to a good first step in establishing rapport with employees and focusing them on the company future goals. But if it had ended there, that’s all it would have ever been — a good first step, a nice initial gesture, and little else.

For your actions to have any meaningful impact over the long haul, they need reinforcement. You reinforce by continually encouraging the behavior you preached, and hopefully demonstrated, in the first place.

In Maibach’s case, he sowed seeds of engagement. Now, when engaged employees come forward with ideas and input on the company’s future direction, Maibach needs to take the ideas seriously and offer constructive feedback — whether the company can use the idea or not.

“I got an e-mail from a young project engineer who I helped to recruit,” Maibach says. “He thought he had this terrific lead for new business, but it was in a location that is not so much a target for us. He sent us a 12-paragraph e-mail on why this was such an awesome idea, so it was obvious that he really believed in it and believe it was a good idea for the company. In that situation, it would have been very unfortunate if the response he received was ‘No, you are wrong.’ It takes a bit more time, but I firmly believe that every individual in the company has a right to as ‘Why?’ in any circumstance. If the idea that they submitted doesn’t make sense for us, part of your response as a leader has to tell them why it doesn’t make sense.”

Responding to feedback in an open, truthful fashion is an example of actions following words. If you preach about your company’s open culture, and how employees’ opinions are valued, you have to demonstrate it. By demonstrating your words through your deeds, you build an increased level of trust with your work force.

As an incoming executive, developing trust was one of the most critical tasks Maibach had to accomplish. If employees receive any whiff of what they think is hypocrisy or an aloof attitude from the members of upper management, your culture will suffer and the flow of ideas can slow to a trickle, or stop outright, which can damage your company’s ability to innovate and adapt in a fast-changing business climate.

“Trust is imperative,” Maibach says. “I can’t imagine not having a barometer for doing the things you say you are going to do. I can’t imagine intentionally looking to mislead. I will readily admit that I’m far from perfect, and I don’t think anyone in the organization would disagree, but if there is any erosion in the trust factor around here, it is not due to lack of trying. There are so many proverbs and idioms out there about doing what you say you’re going to do, and the golden rule of doing to others as you would have them do to you. But really, it is as simple as that. And if you can’t do something, explain why.

“You can’t fake concern or compassion. You either genuinely feel it or you don’t. If you genuinely do, people pick up on that and it helps to build trust. People will then feel like you are looking out for their best interest, and they are going to be a lot more game to engage you.”

Define goals

Many over-the-counter medicines have an active ingredient. It makes the headache medicine cure your headache; it makes the cough syrup quiet your cough. When developing a culture that values employee ideas and feedback, and encourages open dialogue throughout all levels of the organization, the active ingredient is a set of well-defined and compelling goals for the company.

The goals should have their roots what you believe in as a leader, and the values you want everyone in your organization to embrace.

“The purpose, firmly, is that everyone should understand why we’re here, what we’re all about, what is it we want to look to try and accomplish,” Maibach says. “Then, you want to have that resonate throughout the company. It’s centered on your values. What is it that you truly believe in, and how have you acted and functioned over the past several years? It’s not just aspirational values, but what is it that you truly and genuinely hold dear?”

Translating values into goals means turning them into actionable items that are aimed at the achievement of a definite outcome.

“The values have to translate into specific actions,” Maibach says. “How we expect people to engage certain situations, and how to act and behave in those situations. You can talk about broad concepts, like integrity, but what does that really mean. You need to get more specific on that. It’s important to be credible and do what you say, and act in a manner that is consistent with what you preach. To do that, you have to be able to take what you believe and where you want to go as an organization, and put it down on paper.”

Everything Maibach has done in his first year on the job as president of Barton Malow has really boiled down to one word: presence. He developed a presence with his employees, maintained that presence with an ongoing dialogue, and ensured that his presence was tied to the messages he continued to communicate, focusing employees on the values and goals of the company, both now and moving forward.

“Face-to-face presence is certainly the best, but the reality is that when you are as spread out as we are, you simply can’t be physically present everywhere. So you continually communicate, even if it’s just a quick call or note, and hopefully that presence is felt. You’re trying to dive deeper into the organization and understand the things that are in play for everyone. It’s not just presence for the sake of presence. It’s trying to convey the care and concern for individuals, and for their well-being.”

How to reach: Barton Malow Co., (248) 436-5000 or 

The Maibach file

Education: B.S. in construction engineering, Purdue University

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

I had the opportunity to work for a really fantastic superintendent, and he taught me that in order to have an understanding of your role as a leader, you have to develop an empathy and understanding, to some degree, of the people who work for you. So he used to send me out to set blocks or rake concrete or lay tile. It was really a fantastic experience. It helped me to understand and have a tremendous appreciation for everything that goes on at a construction site, and what it takes to execute the work that clients are hiring us to do.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

Any leader is going to have to have the ability to set a direction, then to get people to rally around that direction, and encourage others along the way. You have to manage the resources that you have, play the hand you are dealt. And anyone in a leadership position is going to have to be able to articulate a vision.

What is your definition of success?

There are different buckets of success. Individually, it’s accomplishing goals and objectives related to the vision for what we are trying to accomplish. For the company overall, it’s to have every person understand their purpose, realize what they are trying to accomplish and what they hope to achieve. Success in an organization is really when you can take all of those things and align them on a common purpose and vision, and structure it in a manner where success for the organization and for the individual are one and the same.

Many businesses aspire to maintain a culture of continuous improvement. Whatever happened yesterday isn’t good enough for tomorrow, because tomorrow is an opportunity to do it even better. But as a leader, do you really understand how to foster a mindset of continual improvement within your business? Can you push the right buttons and challenge your managers and employees to strive for better efficiency, more creative solutions and new ideas that can impact not just your company but your entire industry?

Over the past year, Smart Business Philadelphia has spoken with numerous leaders about how they push their people to achieve great things on a daily basis. Below, three area business leaders weigh in with their thoughts.

“You walk in every day and say to your employees, ‘I want us to be better and better.’ I’ve been here a long time, and I come to work every day trying to think of ways that we can better this business today. What can we do differently? What new thing can we try? How can we enhance what we do?”

Bill Whitmore, chairman, president and CEO, AlliedBarton Security Services LLC

“The growth aspiration is the answer to the question of what it is you want to be. What are you holding the organization accountable for? If you don’t set that, you will get to wherever your product takes you, but that might not necessarily be the aspiration you have for the company or the employees.”

Robert Bazemore, president, Janssen Biotech Inc.

“It really is about starting out with those simple, boring questions — ‘Who are we?’ and ‘What do we do well?’ and ‘Why are we different from the competition?’ It could be asking questions of management, such as ‘Why are you here and not working for the competition? What makes us different?’ If you ask those simple questions, you’ll be amazed at the debates that ensue among the management team.

Richard Phillips Jr., CEO, Pilot Freight Services


Think about how to get better each day.

Figure out what you want to be as a company.

Know your company’s separators.