Dennis Seeds

For 27 years, Ernst & Young has championed the entrepreneurial spirit of men and women pursuing excellence in their businesses, teams and communities.

Ernst & Young founded the Entrepreneur Of The Year Program to recognize the passion of entrepreneurs and to build an influential and innovative community of peers. We received more than 1,680 national entries for this year’s program, from the country's most deserving entrepreneurs. Their triumphs stand as a testament to the role they play as visionaries and leaders.

Entrepreneurs change the world and make it a better place to work and live. We honor them for their fortitude and resilience, and we celebrate their ability to forge new markets, navigate uncharted territory and fuel economic growth.

We gather here in Northeast Ohio and in 24 other cities across the U.S. to honor all of the finalists and welcome the new class of entrepreneurs into our Hall of Fame.

Congratulations to all of the 2013 Northeast Ohio Entrepreneur Of The Year finalists and winners. We applaud them all for their unyielding pursuit of business excellence and we are honored to share their inspiring stories with you.

 

Whitt Butler, advisory partner, Ernst & Young;  program director, Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year Northeast Ohio.

 

Here are the 2013 Northeast Ohio Entrepreneur of the Year winners and finalists:

Distribution and Manufacturing

Winner – Gary M. Schuster, president and CEO, OMCO

Finalist – Scott T. Becker, president and CEO, Chromaflo Technologies Corp.

Finalist – Jeffery L. Rand, owner and president, HB Chemical Corporation

Finalist – James R. Keene, president and owner, Keene Building Products

Finalist – Michael K. Baach, CEO, The Philpott Rubber Company

 

Education and Non-profit

Winner – Carol L. Klimas, president, Lake Ridge Academy

Finalist – William Scott Duennes, executive director, Cornucopia, Inc.

 

Financial Services

Winner – Jeremy E. Sopko, CEO, Nations Lending Corporation

Finalist – Brendan Anderson and Jeffery Kadlic, co-founders and co-managing partners, Evolution Capital Partners, LLC

Finalist – Jeffery Concepcion, founder and CEO, Stratos Wealth Partners, Ltd.

Finalist – Ralph M. Della Ratta, managing director, Western Reserve Partners, LLC

 

Health Care and Pharmaceutical Services

Winner – Drew C. Forhan, founder and CEO, ForTec Medical

Finalist – Dale M. Wollschleger, president, ExactCare Pharmacy

 

Professional Services

Winner – Joel Adelman, founder and CEO, The Advance Group of Companies

Finalist – Scot Lowry, president and CEO, Fathom

Finalist – Alan Jaffa, CEO, Safeguard Properties Management, LLC

 

Public Company

Winner – Michael F. Hilton, president and CEO, Nordson Corporation

Finalist – Walter M. Rosebrough – president and CEO, STERIS Corporation

 

Retail and Consumer Products

Winner – Jimmy Zeilinger, founder and president, Brand Castle, LLC

Finalist – James D. Braeunig, president and CEO, Ball, Bounce & Sport, Inc.

Finalist – Kimberly Martin and Sarah Forrer, co-owners, Main Street Cupcakes

 

Technology

Winner – Kris Snyder, CEO, Vox Mobile, Inc.

Finalist – Yuval Brisker, co-founder, president and CEO, TOA Technologies

Finalist – David Levine, president, Wireless Environment, LLC

 

Family Business Award

Winner – Marc Brenner, president and CEO, Ohio Technical College

Finalist – Marty Kanan, president and CEO, King Nut Companies

Finalist – Scott J. Balogh, president and CEO, and Steven Balogh, vice president, Mar-Bal, Inc.

 

When Gary Shamis, Bob Littman and Mark Goldfarb created the accounting and business consulting firm SS&G Inc. in 1987, the trio had a vision that defied the traditional accounting world.

Their radical idea:  Focus on people.

“It was a real sweatshop kind of mentality for the profession,” Goldfarb says. “You worked 3,000 hours a year [eight hours a day, every day of the year]. We opened it up and created opportunities for people who worked part-time.”

That was the genesis of the partners’ philosophy that today continues to define how SS&G differentiates itself from the competition:  growth, client service, and an employee-centric culture.

“All three work together harmoniously,” says Shamis, senior managing director. “If you have them all going, and you focus on it, the results can be very positive.”

You’ll notice that absent among the three is the notion of operating with a generous supply of black ink.

“We always felt that partner profitability and things like that were going to be a byproduct of doing all the other things right, so we didn't focus our business on enhancing the bottom line of the owners,” Shamis says. “We focused our business on cultural aspects that we thought would be good for our people, good for our clients, and in the end, what we thought would be good for us.

“We publish stories about client service going above and beyond in terms of, say, driving through a snowstorm to deliver a tax return,” says Goldfarb, senior managing director. “We really try to make that part of the culture, so that when somebody calls, everyone knows here, you had better call that client back; if not immediately, certainly within the next business day.”

This mentality has helped the partners and their teams spark significant growth over the past few decades. From a small firm with about 10 employees, SS&G has grown to more than 500 employees at 12 offices in eight cities in four states, including new offices in Chicago. With annual revenue of $70 million, SS&G ranks among the top 100 independent accounting firms in the U.S., including being named the 41st largest U.S. accounting firm by Accounting Today.

Here’s how Shamis, Goldfarb and Littman grew the firm by emphasizing its differentiation and is taking steps to ensure SS&G continues long into the future.

Get the talent

Accounting had been a traditionally male-dominated industry until the 1980s, when it reached parity. In recent years, however, women have been rapidly joining the ranks.

So with an eye on whom and where the talent was coming from, SS&G years ago established a plan that fit lifestyle concerns and issues into the firm’s culture.

“Most of our offices are suburban,” Shamis says. “Many other large accounting firms are downtown. Suburban locations make it a lot easier for somebody who is female and raising a family to be more accessible to what she needs access to — and it really became a focus on being able to try to hire these professionals who were women in their family-raising years.

“We have been able to get this incredible, top-notch talent, but we had to create an environment that was slightly different,” he says.

And, Goldfarb says, this has contributed to such a positive work environment at SS&G that it has become genetic.

“We are told all the time from people we hire that this is such a great, warm environment here compared to where they worked in a previous life,” he says. “It's something that is really part of our DNA.”

With a powerful corporate DNA in place, you can then develop a culture that attracts talent by which you can grow a company.

“It’s important that everybody here understands the culture; it's important that we follow it, we preach it,” says Littman, SS&G’s managing director. “Our organization is obviously about people. And to attract key people, you have to grow. If you don't grow, you can't find the talent and you can't keep the talent. Growth has been important, and that is why we have been a Weatherhead 100 company more than 10 times.”

Be creative in your growth

Creativity comes in many forms. SS&G looked at the kind of organic growth it had achieved over the years and took an entrepreneurial path.

First, the partners began to develop specialized divisions.

“We formed a wealth management business almost 20 years ago,” Goldfarb says. “Health care consulting, probably 15 years ago; payroll, 30 years ago; SS&G Parkland, which is our consulting division, was created last year.”

In an effort to strengthen this differentiation, SS&G opted to mold itself as a one-stop shop for clients and their financial service needs.

“These businesses share the same culture of being employee-centric,” Goldfarb says. “All share the same client service culture and growth for the purpose of creating opportunities for employees.”

In addition to creating new divisions, SS&G also played a large part in creating an association of accounting firms. Shamis led the formation of the Leading Edge Alliance, of which SS&G has been a member for 10 years.

Leading Edge firms share best practices. Goldfarb says it has been an invaluable asset — not just to SS&G but to all the organizations and their respective clients.

Develop a succession plan

While your company may have established a name for itself through differentiation, all the years of building that reputation can be lost in a flash if, for example, a new leadership team comes in with different ideas. Thus the need for a succession plan.

SS&G recently completed a reorganization of the firm’s leadership, and then spent more than a year preparing the company for the transition.

The plan signaled to SS&G employees that Littman, Shamis and Goldfarb were focused on the long-term future of the firm and intended to protect it from the confusion and disorder that often happens whenever there is a shakeup of any size.

Doing so also allowed the trio to help boost morale, motivation and satisfaction among employees since more than likely there will be other changes, such as promotions and movement across positions. Also, it helps clients reduce any fears that the team they’re used to working with will still be there for them.

Under SS&G’s succession plan, Littman assumes the managing director role. Shamis and Goldfarb take on lesser roles, but remain very involved with the firm.

“I have been the managing partner for close to 30 years, and I’ve had a great run,” Shamis says. “It is a lot to give up, but I am starting to realize that there is a lot to look forward to in terms of Bob running this organization.”

And that optimism extends to how SS&G will continue to differentiate itself from the competition.

“I am really excited to see what this place is going to look like down the road,” Shamis says. “I think it is even going to exceed where it is today.”

How to reach: SS&G Inc., (440) 248-8787 or www.ssandg.com

 

Takeaways

Getting the talent is a priority.

Be creative in finding growth options.

Draw up a succession plan and live by it.

 

The File

 

Mark Goldfarb, senior managing director

Bob Littman, managing director

Gary Shamis, senior managing director

SS&G Inc.

 

Born: All in Greater Cleveland/Akron

What was your very first job and what did you learn from it?

Gary: My first job was in a place called Mr. Junior's on Cedar Road in University Heights. I sold boys clothes. I think I learned if you work hard, and make the commitment, then good things will happen.

Mark: A caddy at Fairlawn Country Club. Certainly you learned etiquette and you learned service.

Bob: I was a tennis instructor. What I really learned from that was dealing with people, trying to help people.

What is the best business advice you ever received?

Gary: Try to work on your business instead of in your business. That was a big change for me and for our firm years ago. The firm allowed me to begin working on the business. And in that time frame, I think our firm has grown probably 600 or 700 percent.

Mark: People do business with people they like. Relationships are very important in the business world. That was from my father, Bernard Goldfarb.

Bob: I don't want to copy off Mark, but relationships are really important to me as is taking time to get to know people and build meaningful relationships.

What is your definition of business success?

Mark: If you do a great job for your clients, and you treat your employees well, success will follow.

Bob: I certainly think similar to what Mark has said and that's building relationships, creating an opportunity for other people in this organization so they can do the same and also being able to go to work, personally anyways, and have fun and enjoy it. It's not a job; it's a career.

Gary: I have a really narrow view of this and people know that. For more than 32 years, I have always felt that if you can be a little bit better next year than you were last year then that is going to drive success. I think constant improvement, the ability to continually try to get better, to not be satisfied with the status quo, has really been a huge driver for me.

Mark on the succession plan:

It's just been a tremendous ride for all of us the last 26 years. I will continue to be responsible for managing the firm’s Akron office, serve on the firm’s executive committee, chair the firm’s finance committee, act as the liaison to SS&G Healthcare and SS&G Parkland, develop larger business opportunities and continue as a client service partner

Bob on the succession plan:

Mark and Gary are not retiring. This is part of the succession plan and they still have very, very important roles here with the firm to help execute certain growth strategies and still be involved in the management of the organization. We have viewed the succession as an evolution and not an event from the beginning. Gary will be actively involved in leading the firm’s growth strategy, including geographic and existing office.  He will also focus on a restaurant initiative and other large opportunities.

Gary on the succession plan:

I really think Bob has the abilities to drive this firm to even more successful and higher levels than we've operated at in the past. I just think that this firm happens to be incredibly lucky, blessed, or whatever you want to call it, to have Bob Littman take over the practice.

Marc_GlazerDespite an economy that has been in a modest recovery for more than three years, many businesses continue to struggle. One of the major challenges is that bank loans remain hard to come by, particularly for business owners with few hard assets, less than perfect credit scores, in industries regarded as risky or who just need funds quickly. 

Hope springs eternal for a return to the good old days when banks actually competed to loan money to businesses. But this is not likely to happen anytime soon. The banking industry overall is far less interested in small-to-medium business lending than it used to be. This is a long-term trend that the financial crisis, subsequent industry consolidation, and heightened regulatory requirements only exacerbated.

Finding alternatives

So what are the alternatives for SMEs that cannot qualify for a traditional bank loan? Factoring may be an option for some business-to-business companies. A factor buys a company’s receivables and gives the company a large percentage of the value upfront with an additional amount returned after the invoices are paid off.

Small Business Administration loans and Community Development Financial Institution loans are other options, but only for a small subset of prospective borrowers.

Much of the SME lending gap over the past five or so years has been filled by merchant cash advance lending and a relatively new, related type of lending known as “revenue-based” financing. Mostly backed by private equity or venture capital, these non- traditional lenders have devised new business models that provide financing based primarily on bank statements, credit card volume and cash flow rather than a drawn-out underwriting process.

The result is that a much wider range of small businesses are receiving funds for a wider range of needs. The costs may be higher than traditional bank loans, but the application and approval process is much faster and less arduous, and loan amounts and payment terms are more flexible.

For example, a firm can provide a business owner with as little as $4,000 up to a much as $2 million in as few as five business days.

Two options to repay

Companies can choose from two types of financing. Business cash advances are repaid based on a mutually agreed upon fixed percentage automatically deducted from the merchant’s daily debit/credit card sales. When sales are slower, the business pays less. Small business loan options are also available. They are repaid with automatic daily withdrawals of a fixed amount from the borrower’s bank account.

These non-traditional funding sources aren’t for everyone. Lenders are looking for companies they can help grow. A small business struggling to hang on is not a good candidate. But what about a pizza shop that has a major equipment breakdown? The owner has good cash flow, but doesn’t have the money to pay for new equipment, and he cannot wait for a bank loan — assuming he can get one. A small business loan or merchant cash advance can fund in five to 10 business days and help this pizzeria keep the doors open.

Or how about a dental practice that needs new equipment? Or a spa in a seasonal resort location that needs to finish a remodeling ahead of the coming season? If the small business sector of the economy is to recover and prosper, I believe it will be through these new sources of capital.

Marc Glazer is president and CEO of Business Financial Services Inc., a provider of specialty small business loans and merchant cash advances serving businesses in all 50 states as well as Canada, and the United Kingdom, based Coral Springs, Fla. Visit www.businessfinancialservices.com.

 

If there is one thing that doesn’t change much in good times or bad times, it’s alcohol consumption. Phil Terry knows that fact pretty well.

“Demographically over the years you can see that it’s pretty consistent,” says Terry, CEO of Monarch Beverage Co. Inc. “The economy affects it some, but it’s not like new car sales or home sales where a slight turn in the economy can have a devastating effect on demand. Our demand is pretty consistent; good times don’t spike and bad times don’t depress it that much.”

So why would Monarch, a beverage seller who does $275 million in business a year, step out of the box where its bread and butter lives and develop a non-alcoholic energy drink? Why bother to spend precious time and resources on something so peripheral?

The answers to those questions lie partially in a venture the company started a few years prior to the energy drink experience. A sales manager who was a real fan of exotic beers and the new trend of microbreweries suggested that the company start to focus on those products.

“He said we ought to pay some attention to these people because it is not like our mainstream brands,” Terry says. “There is not a huge demand for it. Maybe this was a way for us to distinguish ourselves from our competitors.”

That was the reason Monarch committed some resources to this, and launched its World Class Beer division.

“It has grown and worked out very well,” Terry says. “We were a little bit ahead of the wave on that. We created a network of other wholesalers that creates sales divisions focused on microbreweries and new and exciting beers.”

Meanwhile, back to the energy drink story.

“One of us had an idea that maybe we should get into the energy drink business,” Terry says. “We developed a product and spent some time and money formulating and getting it produced and putting graphics on it — and we still have a lot of that in the warehouse! It’s not doing too well.

“And the one of us who came up with that idea was me,” Terry says. “I’ve been reminded a few times that that wasn’t our finest move!”

Here is what could have gone better with the energy drink and how Terry keeps listening for whispers of innovation in an industry in which product demand is about as steady as a rock.

Try your best idea — and learn

There just isn’t a crystal ball that gives a clear picture of what’s ahead for a business. So you use your data, your gut feeling, and you try something new. As one investor is fond of saying, if you start with nothing and you fail, you haven’t lost anything. Even looking at the past doesn’t help a whole lot to explain why some things succeed and others flop.

“When I look back over the years at things that worked right or didn’t work right, many times the successes are due to serendipity rather than smart planning,” Terry says. “You try to plan, you try to have a vision for what is going to be the next thing, but the future is so unknown. It’s just a big challenge figuring out what is next and what you have to do to keep the business viable and committed and customers happy. It’s not easy.”

Focus groups and market tests are often prerequisites when a new product is launched because a great product alone isn’t enough. It has to cause excitement. Terry can attest to that about Etomic, his energy drink.

“It’s good stuff; all the blind taste tests that we did show that everybody loves it,” he says about Etomic. It was another aspect of the launch effort that caused serious problems.

“It was just the marketing,” Terry says. “Marketing means so much on how consumer products do. We just weren’t experienced with that, and we are still learning.”

Once Etomic was launched, it didn’t sell well. Nevertheless, Terry didn’t give up on the energy drink.

“We thought it would shoot off the shelf; it’s a good product,” he says. “But energy drinks are just marketed a whole lot different than alcohol is. “That’s an area, which we weren’t accustomed with. Alcohol has so many rules and regulations around it; the law prescribes what you can and can’t do.

“But with energy drinks, going in and buying shelf space is a common practice. We didn’t budget anything to buy shelf space. There are some barriers to launching a new product that we just weren’t aware of. Bigger companies pay for ideal locations.

“We haven’t given up on that drink; there may be something there, but in terms of innovation, that is one that didn’t work. We are learning, and we may get that right.”

You needn’t break the bank

Capitalizing on an innovative idea needn’t be expensive. The research and testing on the Etomic energy drink, let alone the costs of developing it, weren’t free, but when it comes to using social media, the cost is next to nothing and the benefits immeasurable.

When Monarch Beverage launched its World Class Beer division, it was a natural next step to use Twitter to help it gain a following.

“We have a free World Class Beer Craft Beer Locator iPhone app and Twitter accounts that tweet things like, ‘This account has a keg of a microbrewery’s Gumballhead and they’re going to tap it at 7 o’clock tonight,’ Terry says. “So we spread the word through social media, and people show up!”

Another low-cost idea that is bringing results at Monarch Beverage involves beverages — that’s right, alcoholic beverages.

Terry and his team saw a trend with his 650 employees having some increases in driving under the influence charges. Of course, it was off-the-job incidents, but Terry was committed to do something.

“Our creative department came up with an idea for a campaign that we run every major holiday called Have a Plan,” he says. “The campaign is to remind people that you need to plan your celebrations, you need to do it responsibly and in moderation, and as a result of that, we went from six to nine cases a year to two once we instituted this.

“We have a lot of innovations that we are proud of but that is one in which I think we can see a real impact on our fellow employees.”

Get the best rate of return

While you are looking for other innovative ways to control costs, and you plan on spending some money — to make more money — you naturally evaluate the ideas as to which would provide the highest rate of return.

Terry and his team launched a clinic that he estimates for every dollar spent returns $2.

“Our costs to insure the health of our employees were going double-digit every year,” Terry says. “We tried all the things people do to try to contain that: self-insure, use third-party providers, negotiate fees.”

He wasn’t getting the results he wanted.

“So a senior vice president came up with this idea for a health clinic,” he says. “The idea was to get more involved in the health of our employees. I thought it was the craziest thing that I had ever heard. We’re in the beer business, not the hospital business.”

The clinic started small, being staffed by a part-time physician’s assistant a few days a week. It has grown to the point now where there is a full-time doctor, full-time physician’s assistant, part-time physical therapist and a medical technician. It offers annual physicals for all employees, and an annual health plan for each that is designed by medical professionals.

“The health plan each year focuses on three behaviors: smoking, diet and exercise,” Terry says. “It focuses on those because we know that those are the three behaviors that we can affect. We can improve health and lower claims. And it’s been working.”

Employees rank the clinic as the most important benefit they have working for Monarch Beverage.

“We survey our employees every year,” he says. “We ask of them of their benefits, rank them 1 through 50, and the clinic always comes up No. 1. So it is not just that it is doing good things for our bottom line; it’s doing great things for relationships among all of us who work here.”

Even workers’ compensation claims can decrease, thanks to the efforts such as the clinic.

“Those claims have come down significantly over the years because we manage that in-house,” Terry says. “People are healthier, we are having fewer claims than with traditional health insurance and our workers’ comp costs have gone down.

“We are almost to the point of being an evangelist for the stuff. I do wring my hands about what affordable health care is going to do for us long-term, but whether this model is still going to work, but we are committed to it. The government would have to change the economics of all this pretty drastically for us to move out of this.”

How to reach: Monarch Beverage Co. Inc., www.monarch-beverage.com or (800) 382-9851.

 

Takeaways

Try your best idea — and learn.

You don’t have to spend aggressively.

Get the best rate of return you can.

 

The Terry File

Phil Terry

CEO

Monarch Beverage Co. Inc.

Born: Indianapolis.

Education: I went to undergraduate at Indiana University. I am a recovering lawyer. … I went to the law school at the IU law school. So I am a Hoosier from start to finish.

What was your first job, and what did you learn from it?

I worked at a gasoline station pumping gas in high school, a discount gasoline station called Payless. I learned the value of an education. It wasn’t physically demanding work, but I could tell it was not something I wanted to do my whole life. And that if I wanted more, I needed to be educated.

Who do you admire most in business?

I would say Steve Jobs, in terms of being an innovator and being able to help people become the most productive, to create an organization that everyone can be proud of.

What was the best business advice you ever received?

I read this in a Jim Collins book, and it was essentially, ‘Don’t bet the farm.’ The way he put it was, ‘Fire bullets before you shoot cannons.’ Don’t bet so much on an innovation or a project that you jeopardize the company. Don’t put yourself in a position where the innovation has to succeed or you create difficulties for you generally. That’s what we’ve been following. We try to be measured on what we do and not get overexuberant about trying to figure out how to find the next big thing.

What is your definition of business success?

Whatever your mission is, serve that mission, and that mission does not include making money. We don’t judge success here by how much money we are making. We believe that if we have correctly identified a valuable social function, and we’ve served that social function well, we will succeed and we will make money. Our definition of success is accomplishing the mission. Monarch Beverage’s reason for being is to sufficiently provide an ever-escalating standard of service to its customers and to responsibly enhance demand for its products. In other words, serve the customer, create demand for your product. That’s why we’re here. And if we do those things well, we will make money. If we don’t do then, well, we won’t.

 

June Ressler was looking over the financials of her company a few years ago that had grown past $20 million in revenue, and she was more than a little shocked. The workforce solution company that she founded in 1996, Cenergy International, didn’t have enough money to meet its payroll.

The recession hadn’t hit yet, there was no apparent theft under way, and no one had hacked into her accounts. And frankly, it wasn’t the first time the problem had occurred.

“We would absolutely run out of money,” says Ressler, president and CEO. “Our bread and butter is making our payroll and making sure that we make it every week. If any of our consultants ever thought that their paycheck wasn't going to be good, they absolutely would go join our competitor.”

It all came down to her bank’s position on her company’s line of credit. The situation was so tight that Ressler had to personally pay for the wages at times.

“There were some days, I would have to take money out of my personal savings account to be able to make payroll,” she says. “I finally was able to figure out that I needed the ability to have a relationship with a banker who you can call on Friday afternoon and say, ‘Hey, I am going to bump up against my line of credit. I’ll come in Monday, and we’ll negotiate a higher limit. And they’ll say, ‘That's fine, I am going to make sure that we take the cap off and you go for it,’ you know?

“That’s instead of a banker saying, ‘Oh, I'm not going to allow that, and you have to stop growing.’”

Ressler decided that it wasn’t the circumstances that were causing the wrinkles in her bank books but the size of the bank. She was thinking anyway of expanding overseas and that would involve money exchange and other matters. She knew she needed a larger bank — and now.

“I was originally with a regional bank,” she says. “So I found a larger bank. I just happened to find a great team that is really there for me and very supportive.”

Call it a cash flow problem, liquidity drought, temporary problem or whatever, but it has to be reckoned with because it’s just one of many growing pains companies in the energy growth center of Houston may have been experiencing.

“We just continue to grow like crazy and I guess for me, understanding what the next level is when you start to have a little bit of growing pains,” Ressler says.

Incidentally, she paid herself back.

Here’s how Ressler, a self-taught entrepreneur who has law and bachelor of fine arts degrees, handles company growing pains and drives her company beyond $250 million in annual revenue.

Give credit to the credit line

Rapid growth will almost always trigger growing pains. It may well depend on how you look at the bigger picture that influences how much those pains hurt.

Ressler started her staffing company in her own home office in New Orleans with one consultant. Some dramatic growth occurred after a series of circumstances including Hurricane Katrina when she doubled her employees from 50 to 100.

Once Ressler moved to Houston and drilled down into the foundation of standard operating procedures at her company, she understood what was going on.

“The way our business is, we get invoices from our consultants, and we pay them within five days,” she says. “We then invoice our client, and we don't get paid, in the best terms, for 30 days.”

The longer the time frame stretches the more problems it can cause.

“If there are issues with the invoice, or whatever, sometimes it becomes 45 days, sometimes 60 days — so you can see we need our line of credit,” she says.

“Even in 2009 we grew by 5 percent when everybody else was hurting. Things were hot, so we were growing all the time and when we've got these explosive years where we are growing by 30 and 40 percent, we really need that line of credit because we are paying people like crazy.”

Ressler says it is never a cash flow problem as long as your line of credit stays out in front of you. With a satisfactory line of credit from your bank, you can meet your payroll and keep your employees from deserting you.

Cenergy now has grown to 1,400 consultants, and operations are managed by an office staff of 65.

See the forest

Once a new bank starts to plug the hole in the payroll dike, the spotlight will then turn to your staff levels. Do you need more employees? More managers? Where? How many?

“I have to sit back and say, ‘OK, I think I need to hire a manager for this area,’” Ressler says. “It is just kind of sitting back and thinking about what do we need for the next couple of years, you know?”

The scent of midnight oil burning starts you thinking about workforce levels.

“I worry because when I am in my Houston office, and I see some of my staff staying until seven and eight at night, that is not alright with me either. So then I’ll say to myself, ‘OK. We have a lot of people staying late now; I think I need to hire another manager.”

Ressler anticipated a lot of growth for a couple of years and assembled her managers to discuss solutions.

“I said, ‘I need you guys to make sure all of your staff and your teams are all well-oiled machines because, hey, hold on to your hats! I think we are going to have a couple of good years of growth here, and we can't have holes — we can't have balls being dropped,’” she says.

Ressler and her team devised an equation that they use to calculate staff levels.

“We do have kind of a rule of thumb, depending on the different areas — if we have grown by so many consultants, then we know we need to add X amount of new invoice people and additional recruiters — it all depends upon the opportunities that we are getting.”

Hovering overhead, however, is the matter of profit margins. You have to take that into account because it differs from industry to industry. Those industries that operate on volume have other concerns than those that don’t when it comes to adding personnel.

“Because we are a provider of personnel to the oil folks, and there are lots of competitors out there, when we are negotiating our global contracts, our profit margin is based on volume,” Ressler says. “It is not a typical profit margin as it would be in other industries. It is a very small profit margin. So as a result, we have to run lean, very lean.”

That means no padding the payroll. Every staff addition has to be justified, even more so in a lean operation.

“What we kind of do here is, ‘Pile on the work until there is enough to hire three more people and then hire one,’” she says.

Be honest and transparent

Every company has its own take on how to hire the best people. Ressler learned early that she couldn’t be involved in the hiring process because it may be tough to deal with and understand people — and that set the pace for the process.

“I learned early on that I am not a great person to hire people because I am the type of person that ... I just love everybody I meet,” she says. “I find something great about everyone, and then I'll hire the first person.”

Ressler delegated the hiring of her office to a lot of others, specifically the HR team and managers.

“We've got now a great thing where we have different levels of interviewing to make sure that the person who is being interviewed is touched by different managers on our team,” she says. “We get feedback from all sorts of levels before we actually hire. Because you think that a person is good doesn't mean they are good.”

Transparency is of immeasurable value if you think your company differs from the average one. Ressler says candidates are told that they should be ready for something of a maverick.

“It's a very tough thing to get the right people on your team to fit our type of culture,” she says. “Our company culture is very different from a lot of companies because we've got to run lean, and we are more like a renegade company where you might be hired to do a certain job, but you're not going to get a lot of training because nobody really has time to train you.

“You are expected to come in and run with the ball. Also, you might end up having to do things that you didn't early anticipate because somebody else might have left and that portion of their work might be swinging over to be under you. That's just how we are.”

Ressler says, nevertheless, working for a maverick company in growth mode is kind of exciting.

“Our office… I love all people who work here,” she says. “We have a close-knit kind of family atmosphere. Sometimes it is hard to make a decision to let somebody go because it is not that we don't like them as a person but everybody here is so wonderful — but it has got to be business. If they are not performing the job we need them to perform; you can't keep them just because they are really nice. It is a hard lesson for me and my managers to continue to learn. But the short learning curve can give you a quick look if the person is going to work out or not.”

How to reach: Cenergy International, (713) 965-6200 or www.cenergyintl.com

Takeaways

Find a solution to banking woes.

See the forest, not just the trees.

Be honest and transparent when hiring.

The Ressler File

June Ressler

Founder, CEO and president

Cenergy International

Born: Pittsburgh.

Education: I went to the Hartford Art School at the University of Hartford so I have a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. Then I went to Pitt law school so I have a JD from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

What was your first job and what might you have learned from it?

I came out of art school and was lucky enough at the time to get a job as an art teacher in Pittsburgh. I really learned a lot then. I really didn't know myself at the time. I had no idea that I was a serial entrepreneur. So I started my job as an art teacher and immediately hated it. I would find myself crying on Sunday nights because I was so bad. Then it occurred to me that it was because I was in a box. As a teacher, I knew exactly in five years how much money I was going to make, when I was going to have a lunch, what my schedule is going to be, and that was way too confining for me. But I stuck with it for four years, and learned that I need to be able to do something that allows me to have my freedom and kind of run with it. So after that, I bought a gourmet food store and ran that for a while. That was the beginning of my entrepreneurship, and I realized then that I could never work for somebody again.

What was the best business advice you ever received?

Every bit of business advice that I received has been good. I evaluate it all. I use what I can. It's pretty crazy. I really never had a mentor. It's funny because I really haven't worked for anybody. I never worked in the corporate environment. My father was a dentist. My mother ran his office, and maybe I grew up seeing how they were a well-oiled machine and it worked great for them. Maybe I inherited some of that from my mother but maybe it is being a woman; I am kind of under the radar.

Who do you admire in business?

There are a lot of very good business people out there that I admire but the thing that I get disgusted with is the competitiveness and the cutthroat nature of business. What I really admire are the business people that I run into who are more concerned about their environment and their staff and taking care of their people because I know whenever you take care of your people, the money follows anyway. I enjoy sharing stories about people that are environmentally safe, that encourage staff to be extremely safe and giving perks to staff and treating them the way they want to be treated is essential.

Ressler on what’s ahead for Houston employment:

I think a lot of our clients are getting smart and realizing that there is a lack of expertise. Clients are creating a lot of training grounds now where they are bringing people in that are just graduating and getting them out and training them so that they can learn quicker and become the types of people that they need a job, which is a great thing to see. I know a lot of our clients are just hovering over the engineering schools, waiting for these young engineers to come out and just get them started. To be graduating with an engineering degree right now is an amazing thing to be. You’re in high demand.

 

 

When Bobby Harris launched an effort to bring management closer to the employees at his company BlueGrace Logistics LLC, he really wanted it to be effective. He felt the executives were getting a bit out of touch with the rank and file. So he started a “cubicle swap.” For a couple of weeks, executives moved their offices to cubicles and the dispossessed workers took over the executives’ offices. 

It worked like a charm. It provided the executive team and employees to learn about each other on a personal level, what they liked and didn’t like, and how efficiently the operations were running.

And in at least in the case of one high-profile executive (Harris) case, it got to be humorous.

“I had the IT maintenance guy take my office,” Harris says. “He loved it! It's kind of funny because he started playing the role, and he started wearing a shirt that said, ‘I am the CEO. Shut up!’ He got into character.”

While there were some funny moments, Harris was serious about the lesson he wanted to teach.

“I had been in a meeting, and I was listening to a lot of our executives talk about the things going on below them. I just thought it was interesting — the executives really didn’t know what was going on below their level. We were making policy about people who are the life of our company. We needed to make sure that someone, like their direct supervisor, knows what they were doing.”

As the cubicle swap was underway, the employees got to interact more with the executives and hear what was going on. Another thing that occurred was that the productivity level went up.

“It's kind of like if you've ever heard of the Hawthorne Effect: the more visible management is, the better the production from employees,” Harris says. “So that was a real positive. There was a lot of serendipity to whole project, and that is why we continue to do it.”

But most of all, it demonstrates how Harris is a big believer in his employees. Here’s how that concern constantly brings dividends to the $100+ million freight and logistics company with 135 employees. BlueGrace has grown by 7,378 percent in revenue from 2009-2011. And to top it off, it’s recognized as the 20th fastest growing company in the United States by Inc. magazine.

Invest at every level of employees

If you want to bat a thousand in terms of hiring and grooming the best talent, invest in your people at every level, Harris says. And there is no better time to start than at the beginning.

“When we hire people, one of the qualities we look for is if they are very sensitive and empathetic because our motto is we don't care how much you know until we know how much you care,” Harris says. “If you take care of your people, they will take care of your customers and they will also take care of people in general.”

To help support those ends, Harris and his team has set up a mentoring program for employees during their first six months with the company.

“It's for every employee, and we believe that if you are going to flatter us enough to choose your career to be here, we are going to invest in you,” he says.

The mentors are hand-picked by Harris and are people who he knows are very social, who understand the policies, are very professional, and are influential people in the company who will act as their proponent.

“It does two things,” he says. “There is serendipity to it for the people coming in. But where I've seen a lot of value is with the mentors. They love it; people like helping people. They are very flattered, they take you very seriously.

“Now I have a lot of people signing up saying, ‘Hey, I want to be a mentor.’”

While the role does not include a bonus, there is a benefit for the mentor.

“The mentors are people who want upward mobility so they see this as a way to the next level,” Harris says. “And their aspirations are well taken care of.”

Social media use reaps rewards

The more you can get inside an employee’s head, the more you can understand what motivates them. While Harris’ cubicle swap may have been a little more beneficial for executives than employees, he also uses another method that benefits both, but in a different vein, and it’s a big tool as a foundation for collaboration.

“The single best thing for us has been social media, specifically Twitter,” he says. “We have an open social media policy. For me, it is really important because again, I keep going back to making sure I offer the most for employees. It's very hard to get a job here. You have to take a lot of tests, you have to be the cream of the crop, but when you get here, I don't ever want to lose you.”

Harris feels that to keep workers motivated — and give that discretionary effort — social media such as Twitter brings big dividends.

“Once you get past 20 employees, you have the ability to know a little bit about your people in a real quick space of time,” he says. “So I can just open my phone, and in three minutes I can find out that Mary's son hit a home run last night in baseball.

“And conversely, they can see me: ‘Old Bob is not in; he's in Chicago.’ I can tell them about that restaurant I went to.”

With the knowledge about some aspects of a fellow worker’s personal life, it builds bridges on likes and dislikes, and improves the playing field for collaboration on business projects. But nevertheless, some people may think that it's unproductive.

“I would challenge them tooth and nail that the culture that we breathe makes us extremely hard-working,” Harris says. “The employees love the freedom aspect of the autonomy and the trust, and further, as far as a recruiting tool for people who have degrees or real good pedigrees, this is what they want. They love that kind of ability to do that. It has created a lot of bonds here.”

Problems with the use of social media can be avoided to a large extent if you first explain to employees how you hope they use it, Harris says.

“What I can do is let them know that we see what you are doing, and I think that for that reason alone, it really mitigates that kind of exposure to begin with. There's just so much positive going on and a lot of times, it has nothing to do with business.

“We don't dictate what they are supposed to tweet, but we do train them; we tell them how it works and how to be effective. Then we endorse and support it.”

Till the fertile ground

Once you support collaboration through a process such as social media, it behooves you to keep the ball rolling — a spinoff could grow in the fertile ground.

That’s what happened at BlueGrace. Its support of social media for employees led to an executive forum, in which employees meet with executives to have an old-fashioned “bull session.” Groups of four employees who have at least six-months’ service meet with executives once a week or every two weeks for 30-45 minutes.

“I have a group of my own and it’s composed of randomly picked employees,” Harris says. “We try to get people who aren't directly involved with the same department so it’s a mix.

“We just talk about anything,” Harris says. “It could be something really important that's going on in their life; it could be something like they had a great idea in the business place, it could be positive or negative, anything they want to talk about.

“They connect because it comes across like a little family. They feel very connected in the place. They also get a voice then. That helps us to get a lot of the best ideas that they have.”

It is a time commitment, however, but not one that can’t be worked into your schedule, Harris says.

“It is one thing for people to say it, yeah, you've got to listen to the employees, but everybody is busy,” he says. “Everybody is so busy; it is not just in my industry. You have to find an effective process and grind it out, find a way to make sure that you are touching those people.

“No matter how fast they're going, no matter how fast people are coming on, there are several ways of doing it. Those practices we found very effective, and it makes for a lot of happy people.”

How to reach: BlueGrace Logistics, (800) 697-4477 or www.bluegracelogistics.com

Takeaways

Invest in employees at every level.

Social media utilization reaps rewards.

Till the fertile ground.

The Harris File

Bobby Harris

Founder and CEO

BlueGrace Logistics

Born: I came to Florida in 1982 when I was eight years old, so I am more of a native of Florida. I was a military brat. I was born in England at a military base northwest of London. My father was in the Air Force.

Education: I have a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Florida, which I just got two years ago. I went back to school. It was a lot of fun. Industrial psychology was one of those things that kind of intrigued me enough.

What was your first job and what did you learn from it?

My first real job was at Chuck E. Cheese’s. Oh yes. I did various things. I worked the cookline I was like a little waiter, I would do maintenance, whatever they needed me to do. If I learned anything, I guess at any level, professionalism reigns supreme. I don't care if you're an attorney, and I guess it's a little bit of my father raising me, I always made sure that my uniform looked a little bit nicer than everybody's else's, and I think that is one of the reasons why I was able to ... It was Chuck E. Cheese’s, and I was treated well and got more hours than others. That still holds true today, and it just amazes me what a professional image does. And the other thing I would say was I learned to trust people. I've always said that from beginning the quicker you trust people, the easier your job will be and the quicker you will excel at it.

Who do you admire in business?

I admire Richard Branson. His genuineness shows through. His philanthropy matches. I think he's done everything. He has been extremely successful and innovative. He has given back so much and yet he's had so much fun doing it. This guy has a ball. He's very easy to gravitate to.

What is the best business advice you ever received?

My mentor was Keith Huggins. He told me a little knowledge is dangerous. As a CEO, you're not going to understand everything that people do — to make assumptions off a little bit of knowledge is a very, very dangerous thing. If I understand something from soup to nuts and it's like in my expertise, I will have high level of conviction. But knowing something a little bit is far worse than not knowing it at all sometimes. You have to be really careful if you know little bit. I must use that quote every three days. For myself, my personal life, you never have the whole story if you don’t understand it from inside and out.

What is your definition of business success?

My definition would be wanting to come from work every day in a bad way while making sure that all your success is shared with your team, your vendors and your customers. My biggest thing is I don't want to be this really successful person alone on top of a mountain. As I get more successful, the people with me should get more successful too. We have such strong friendships. Those are the people who will go to war with you. I've never lost anybody in my leadership team, and it's a pretty big leadership team, 14 or 15 people, so it's like the Rolling Stones — we never want to break up. We always want to have this crew because it's effective. And it's a heck of a lot of fun. Business success starts with happiness. It really does.

 

Amy Schultz Clubbs pays her employees hourly wages to volunteer at least 16 hours per year as a way of giving back — and doesn't have to look far to see proof that the volunteering pays big dividends. Actually, positive signs can happen at any time, nearly anywhere.

“We had a couple of individuals who through their volunteering with the Meals on Wheels program recently were able to help save a woman’s life when they went to the home,” she says. “The individual had fallen and couldn’t answer the door; they were able to get help and likely saved her life.”

The victim was afraid help never would arrive as she was lying on the floor after the fall. She later told them she was told she had suffered a mini-stroke. She couldn’t get up, and was frustrated, crying and scared.

Two provider relations representatives with Molina Healthcare who deliver meals in the Zanesville area knew something was wrong when the resident didn’t answer the door and her dog kept barking and tugging at the front window curtains. They called 911.

A firefighter was able to gain entry through a window. The resident was hospitalized but has since recovered. She has expressed her gratitude to the two volunteers and has even invited them into her home regularly, so they all could get to know each other better.

“It’s rewarding because you give back to the community,” one of the Molina employees said.

Clubbs agrees wholeheartedly. In fact, it’s one method that she believes is particularly successful with motivating Molina employees through its rapid growth since it was founded in 2006.

When she signed on with Molina Healthcare in 2007 as its chief financial officer when the corporation was opening an Ohio division, she moved quickly through the ranks to COO and to her current role because of the rapid growth of the provider of managed care services to Ohioans on Medicare and/or Medicaid. Molina Healthcare has become Ohio’s second largest care coordination plan with 240,000 members, and now has 460 employees and more than $1 billion in revenue a year — and expects to hire 225 more next year.

Here’s Clubbs’ prescription to deal with rapid growth and keep employees engaged to the fullest.

Track the life cycle

Many companies were founded by an individual who was passionate about a particular product or service and who wanted reach as many people as possible to tell them about it and make them a customer. Just as it was with founder Dr. C. David Molina and offering affordable, quality medical care for the needy. Once that was established, it was logical step to also offer a health care plan exclusively for government-sponsored health care programs for low-income families and individuals.

So the mission was clear from the beginning for Dr. Molina and it was just as clear to Clubbs when she became CEO a few years ago. Clubbs and her team took an empirical look at the entire process, to see if Molina Healthcare of Ohio was operating true to the corporate mission.

“We kind of started looking at what is the life cycle of the member,” she says. “Where does it start? We followed that through the entire organization — what does the life cycle through our organization look like?”

By following the life cycle, they were able to make sure that the right process and infrastructure was in place every step of the way to navigate the member through the organization.

At every point in the process, it is necessary to keep the focus on the relationship that is being developed.

“Molina doesn’t spend a large amount of money on commercials and billboard advertising because we really rely on the relationships that we develop with our community partners and with their provider partners as well really to educate potential members about what their health care options are,” Clubbs says.

The examination of the life cycle showed the depth of engagement employees will need to demonstrate — and the importance of how critical it is to maintain that engagement.

“The people who work for us are really passionate about what they are doing and the individuals we are providing services to, and so you need to really look to keep that passion in employees throughout the year,” she says.

“It was just getting the right people in the right seats of the organization, and really developing people from what started out as building infrastructure to moving toward more of an operations life cycle of the company, and really keeping people engaged in the organization as you do that,” Clubbs says.

As the Ohio division of a larger corporation, the entity had a template of sorts to follow when it was first started, but there was also a provision to adapt as needed.

“A lot of it we developed from scratch, and a lot of it we were able to leverage,” Clubbs says. “With building relationships, we were definitely able to leverage best practices from our other states — and the Molina story as well. The company has been around for more than 30 years.”

“We still run clinics today in many of our states, and are able to really leverage that history as we are building that relationship here locally as well,” Clubbs says.

Find the differentiator

Examining the role that employee engagement plays is critical in finding out what separates the winners from the also-rans.

“I believe it is our differentiator, and I really think it is how we have been successful in keeping our employees so engaged and keeping morale up while we have been growing so quickly over these last several years,” Clubbs says. “I definitely think it is a key. We really try to model that engagement at all levels of the organization here.”

Among the methods beyond the minimum that are frequently used by businesses to keep employee engagement high is the support of volunteerism. Molina Healthcare has put it in writing.

“Our volunteer time-off policy says we will pay people for a set number of hours every year when they volunteer in the community,” she says. “And once they do that, even though you are only paying for a set amount of time, people get more engaged and are more likely to go out and do it on their own as well.”

The company also has an employee activity committee that helps coordinate the volunteer opportunities for the associates. At least quarterly, the committee will have an employee appreciation event as well where the members show how much the company appreciates employees.

“We encourage people to not only volunteer their time but to give back through personal donations either monetary or things like having a personal care items drive for the food bank,” Clubbs says.

She also encourages her leadership team to contribute by being board members on community organizations as she herself serves on several boards.

“It’s another way that we kind of demonstrate our commitment to the community, that they are serving as well.”

Find a need and focus on it

If your company examines your flow life cycle, and you find a particular need that can be met that with some attention and focus, it can be a win-win for you and customers.

Clubbs and her team capitalized on what was common knowledge about the population it served: It was more vulnerable than others that may be served by a commercial plan. Members may have significant health problems as well as financial concerns.

Accordingly, if Molina could focus on care coordination, it would be a plus. Communicating with some of its members through outreach builds the relationship to a new level.

“We have community health workers who actually go out into the community,” she says. “They will go visit members in their homes to do health care assessments and things of that nature and to bring services to members in their home or other places of service, where they might not be able to get out and get those services as readily on their own.”

The company activity team and management receive sensitivity training that gives some background about common situations they may find, and it can help to solidify relationships. One of the big things they experience is the Beyond the Freeway Tour.

“They will take a group on the bus and take you around the local community, through a homeless shelter, through a food bank, through other places where the individuals that we are serving or are also receiving services, so that you can have that sensitivity to what a day in the life of one of our members is really like out there.”

Such as experience may heighten an associate to listen more closely and visualize what the member is going through as the member talks about concerns.

“I think a lot of times words are not exactly what the problem is or what the issue is, so really being able to listen and decipher between what someone is saying and what the issue really is and to make sure that you are addressing it and resolving it is really key to any success,” Clubbs says.

How to reach: Molina Healthcare of Ohio, (800) 642-4168 or www.molinahealthcare.com

Takeaways

Track the life cycle of the product or service

Find the differentiator from your competition

Look for a need and focus on it

The Clubbs File

Amy Schultz Clubbs

plant president

Molina Healthcare of Ohio

Born: Lawrence, Kansas.

Education: I went to Ohio University and received a bachelor of arts in business administration, majoring in finance.

What was your first job, and what did you learn from it?

My first job was serving soft ice cream at a Dairy Shed. I think what I learned from it was a lot of patience and customer focus. It was in Circleville, Ohio.

What was the best business advice you ever received?

The best advice I ever received was to ask for forgiveness, not permission. That honestly has helped me over the years of my career. It basically means, ‘Just do it.’ If you think it is the right thing to do, go ahead and do it. Don’t wait and ask somebody if it is OK to do. If it ends up being wrong afterward, then you can ask for forgiveness. But it is better to just go ahead and do it if you think it’s the right thing to do. That came from my regional vice president who preceded me as plant president, Kathie Mancini.

Who do you admire in business?

I mostly admire people who are really following their passion, their heart and what they do in the business world. There are a lot of women who I work with and for right now. Five of my directors are women, and if you look up verticals for whom I report to, the next three layers above me are all women. Every one of them is so passionate about what we’re doing here at Molina. They are smart and strategic thinkers. They are doers and they make things happen. So I love that. And I think that people who do follow their passion are able to have a bigger impact on an organization and still be able to make things happen. That’s what I admire. I’m just surrounded by them here.

What is your definition of business success?

I think in general, business success is really being able to grow a business profitably while achieving some sense of the greater good of the community. With Molina, our ability to improve health outcomes for the individuals to whom we are providing services to is for the greater good of the community. At Molina it is providing high-quality care to improve health outcomes in a manner that is cost-effective.

When Gary Shamis, Bob Littman and Mark Goldfarb created the accounting and business consulting firm SS&G Inc. in 1987, the trio had a vision that defied the traditional accounting world.

Their radical idea: Focus on people.

“It was a real sweatshop kind of mentality for the profession,” Goldfarb says. “You worked 3,000 hours a year [eight hours a day, every day of the year]. We opened it up and created opportunities for people who worked part-time.”

That was the genesis of the partners’ philosophy that today continues to define how SS&G differentiates itself from the competition: Growth, client service and an employee-centric culture.

“All three work together harmoniously,” says Shamis, senior managing director. “If you have them all going and you focus on it, the results can be very positive.”

You’ll notice that absent among the three is the notion of operating with a generous supply of black ink.

“We always felt that partner profitability and things like that were going to be a byproduct of doing all the other things right, so we didn’t focus our business on enhancing the bottom line of the owners,” Shamis says. “We focused our business on cultural aspects that we thought would be good for our people, good for our clients and, in the end, what we thought would be good for us. It has really worked out that way.”

Today, SS&G provides various client service initiatives. Each of them is intended to make an impression.

“We publish stories about client service going above and beyond in terms of, say, driving through a snowstorm to deliver a tax return,” says Goldfarb, senior managing director. “We really try to make that part of the culture, so that when somebody calls, everyone knows here, you had better call that client back; if not immediately, certainly within the next business day.”

This mentality has helped the partners and their teams spark significant growth over the past few decades. From a small firm with about 10 employees, SS&G has grown to more than 500 employees at 12 offices in eight cities in four states, including new offices in Chicago. With annual revenue of $70 million, SS&G ranks among the top 100 independent accounting firms in the U.S., including being named the 41st largest U.S. accounting firm by Accounting Today.

Here’s how Shamis, Goldfarb and Littman grew the firm by emphasizing its differentiation and is taking steps to ensure SS&G continues long into the future.

Get the talent

Some professions attract more men than women; in others, it is the opposite case. Accounting had been a traditionally male-dominated industry until the 1980s, when it reached parity. In recent years, however, women have been rapidly joining the ranks. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2012 reports that 61 percent of all accountants and auditors were females.

So with an eye on whom and where the talent was coming from, SS&G years ago established a plan that fit lifestyle concerns and issues into the firm’s culture.

“Most of our offices are suburban,” Shamis says. “Many other large accounting firms are downtown. Suburban locations make it a lot easier for somebody who is female and raising a family to be more accessible to what she needs access to — school for conferences; and if she has a sick child she can get home sooner rather than if

[her office were] downtown — and it really became a focus on being able to try to hire these professionals who were women in their family-raising years.

“We have been able to get this incredible, top-notch talent, but we had to create an environment that was slightly different,” he says.

And this has opened the door to groom a lot of great female professionals

“We probably have one of the largest percentages of female partners in the accounting profession because of that,” Goldfarb says.

And, Goldfarb says, this has contributed to such a positive work environment at SS&G that it has become genetic.

“We are told all the time from people we hire that this is such a great, warm environment here compared to where they worked in a previous life,” he says. “It’s something that is really part of our DNA.”

With a powerful corporate DNA in place, you can then develop a culture that attracts talent by which you can grow a company.

“It’s important that everybody here understands the culture; it’s important that we follow it, we preach it,” says Littman, SS&G’s CEO. “Our organization is obviously about people. And to attract key people, you have to grow. If you don’t grow, you can’t find the talent and you can’t keep the talent. Growth has been important, and that is why we have been a Weatherhead 100 company more than 10 times.”

Be creative in your growth

Creativity comes in many forms. In business, you can as creative as you want to be when it comes to determining how to differentiate your company from the competition. SS&G looked at the kind of organic growth it had achieved over the years and took the entrepreneurial path.

First, the partners began to develop specialized divisions.

“We formed a wealth management business almost 20 years ago,” Goldfarb says. “Health care consulting, probably 15 years ago, payroll, 30 years ago [and] SS&G Parkland, which is our consulting division, was created last year.”

In an effort to strengthen this differentiation, SS&G opted to mold itself as a one-stop shop for clients and their financial service needs.

“Rather than referring to different service providers, where we had no ability to control the outcome, we created these businesses, which have been very successful and have grown dramatically over the years,” Goldfarb says. “But these businesses share the same culture of being employee-centric. All share the same client service culture and growth for the purpose of creating opportunities for employees.”

“Being entrepreneurial was really part of the vision of our firm for years,” Littman says. “We had an outlook that we could provide these other services that would fit for many of our clients. And it has been very, very successful.”

In addition to creating new divisions, SS&G also played a large part in creating an association of accounting firms. Shamis led the formation of the Leading Edge Alliance, of which SS&G has been a member for 10 years.

Leading Edge firms share best practices. Goldfarb says it has been an invaluable asset – not just to SS&G but to all the organizations and their respective clients.

“We like to think that that gives us a lot of credibility when we sit down across the table from a prospective client,” he says. “We can certainly be a better adviser, given all the things that we have done on our own.”

Develop a succession plan

While your company may have established a name for itself through differentiation, all the years of building that reputation can be lost in a flash if, for example, a new leadership team comes in with different ideas.

Enter the succession plan.

SS&G recently completed a reorganization of the firm’s leadership, and then spent more than a year preparing the company for the transition.

“It was announced some 16 months ago,” Littman says. “We have been planning for this over that time frame, and we will continue to plan and transition even after the target date.”

The plan signaled to SS&G employees that Littman, Shamis and Goldfarb were focused on the long-term future of the firm and intended to protect it from the confusion and disorder that often happens whenever there is a shakeup of any size.

Doing so also allowed the trio to help boost morale, motivation and satisfaction among employees since more than likely there will be other changes, such as promotions and movement across positions.

“This can be a real pivotal place (in time),” Shamis says. “(People wonder), How is this going to work? Is it going to be the same place?”

Also, by establishing a clear succession plan, it helps clients reduce any fears that the team they’re used to working with will still be there for them. Shamis says it preserves their trust and confidence that you will continue to provide the solutions you have promised — without interruption — and that you have your ear to the ground.

“The three of us, although we have executive roles, all have client relationships and all touch clients in one way or another,” Littman says. “So it’s not like we are that disconnected to the practice. We know what is going on.”

Under SS&G’s succession plan, Littman assumes the managing director role. Shamis and Goldfarb take on lesser roles, but remain very involved with the firm.

“I have been the managing partner for close to 30 years, and I’ve had a great run,” Shamis says. “It is a lot to give up, but I am starting to realize that there is a lot to look forward to in terms of Bob running this organization.”

And that optimism extends to how SS&G will continue to differentiate itself from the competition.

“I am really excited to see what this place is going to look like down the road,” Shamis says. “I think it is even going to exceed where it is today.”

How to reach: SS&G Inc., (440) 248-8787 or www.ssandg.com

Takeaways

Getting the talent is a priority.

Be creative in finding growth options.

Draw up a succession plan and live by it.

The file

Mark Goldfarb, senior managing director

Bob Littman, managing director

Gary Shamis, senior managing director

SS&G Inc.

Born: All in Greater Cleveland/Akron

What was your very first job and what did you learn from it?

Gary: My first job was in a place called Mr. Junior’s on Cedar Road in University Heights. I sold boys clothes. I think I learned if you work hard, and make the commitment, then good things will happen.

Mark: A caddy at Fairlawn Country Club. Certainly you learned etiquette and you learned service.

Bob: I was a tennis instructor. What I really learned from that was dealing with people, trying to help people.

What is the best business advice you ever received?

Gary: Try to work on your business instead of in your business. That was a big change for me and for our firm years ago. The firm allowed me to begin working on the business. And in that time frame, I think our firm has grown probably 600 or 700 percent.

Mark: People do business with people they like. Relationships are very important in the business world. That was from my father, Bernard Goldfarb.

Bob: I don’t want to copy off Mark, but relationships are really important to me as is taking time to get to know people and build meaningful relationships.

What is your definition of business success?

Mark: If you do a great job for your clients, and you treat your employees well, success will follow.

Bob: I certainly think similar to what Mark has said and that’s building relationships, creating an opportunity for other people in this organization so they can do the same and also being able to go to work, personally anyways, and have fun and enjoy it. It’s not a job; it’s a career.

Gary: I have a really narrow view of this and people know that. For more than 32 years, I have always felt that if you can be a little bit better next year than you were last year then that is going to drive success. I think constant improvement, the ability to continually try to get better, to not be satisfied with the status quo, has really been a huge driver for me.

Mark on the succession plan: It’s just been a tremendous ride for all of us the last 26 years. I will continue to be responsible for managing the firm’s Akron office, serve on the firm’s executive committee, chair the firm’s finance committee, act as the liaison to SS&G Healthcare and SS&G Parkland, develop larger business opportunities and continue as a client service partner

Bob on the succession plan: Mark and Gary are not retiring. This is part of the succession plan and they still have very, very important roles here with the firm to help execute certain growth strategies and still be involved in the management of the organization. We have viewed the succession as an evolution and not an event from the beginning. Gary will be actively involved in leading the firm’s growth strategy, including geographic and existing office. He will also focus on a restaurant initiative and other large opportunities.

Gary on the succession plan: I really think Bob has the abilities to drive this firm to even more successful and higher levels than we’ve operated at in the past. I just think that this firm happens to be incredibly lucky, blessed, or whatever you want to call it, to have Bob Littman take over the practice.

EXCELLENCE IN BUSINESS AWARD

At Segmint, it’s as easy as KLIs — Key Lifestyle Indicators™ that reflect trends and patterns in data — that set the fast-growing marketing technology company apart from its competition.

It works rather simply. A financial institution or other business implements the Segmint software which allows them to make their customer data instantly actionable. Everything is done anonymously, and no personally identifiable information is ever shared.

For instance, by analyzing Customer XYZ by their history of transactions —activities, spending patterns, product mix and life events — it can be determined that they are married and expecting a child. The FI or other business can then create individualized messages that are highly-relevant and delivered at a time Customer XYZ is ready to act.

With groundbreaking technology such as use of KLIs, it wasn’t long before Segmint was seeing explosive growth.

Under President and CEO Russel (Rob) Heiser, Segmint expects to continue its rapid growth with the addition of new clients. In addition, the company is committed to its roots in Northeast Ohio and its support of innovative new business growth.

One of the critical elements of the company is its interns. Working with institutions such as the University of Akron and Kent State University, Segmint offers interns entrepreneurial experience to expand the interns’ foundation of knowledge and skills they have acquired. Of 11 students who have completed internships, 45 percent have returned as permanent employees.

In regard to community involvement, Segmint has fostered relationships with business leaders, civic organizations and education institutions in Northeast Ohio, including the Greater Akron Chamber of Commerce and the University of Akron Innovation Center. In addition, the company receives advice from a team of experienced and progressive business leaders and board members.

How to reach: Segmint, (888) 734-6468 or www.segmint.com.

 

 

Ron Fauquher has told it to his team a number of times, and the obvious sarcasm with a touch of humor always makes its point.

“I don’t think anybody gets up in the morning and says, ‘Whoopee! I get to go do crappy work today!’ he says.

“I think they want to do good work. They want to serve their customers, and they want to provide the innovation necessary to succeed,” says Fauquher, co-founder and CEO of Ontario Systems LLC, a developer of debt collection business software.

While Ontario is in the software business, the reality of the situation is that the company is also in the people business.

“Being in the software business, your creativity, your innovation, your customer service, your intellectual property — they all wear shoes,” Fauquher says. “Every day, they go home, and they can choose whether or not they come back.

“They can also choose the style of how to engage, and they can choose their own particular motivation about how they engage,” he says. “So it starts, in my mind, very much with people.”

To keep his talent from going home and not coming back, Fauquher says the key can be explained in one word — alignment. To achieve that, you need collaboration. To get collaboration, you need to understand that relationships — everyone working together — are the foundation of collaboration. And with employees, you build relationships by investing in the people: training, continuing education and the like.

Fauquher says with every that degree of alignment, you can figure out what kind of innovation has to be in your product, move it through the product management cycles in a way that gets it to the customer as quickly as possible and often before the customer actually needs it.

Here’s the scoop on how Fauquher keeps the very heart of the company from walking out the door and how he energizes the nearly 300 employees to generate more than $50 million in annual revenue.

Get in the game

Alignment in the simplest terms for a business boils down to what your customers want, what you offer and how close those two things compare. That’s it. The closer they match up, the closer your alignment is and, ultimately, the more successful your business is.

Fauquher and his team realized that Ontario’s accounts receivable software clients, which range from a small collection agency to a utility company to a hospital of significant size, have to stay on their toes to keep informed of the many new regulations, such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the Affordable Care Act.

The company has seen enormous increases in compliance issues across the board in the last four years for his customers. To deal with the additional issues, Ontario System has had to come out with newer and newer versions of its software.

Fauquher found one effective approach was to engage with the regulators themselves, such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in Washington, D.C.

“We wanted to create relationships there to kind of get ahead of what’s going on — what they’re thinking,” he says. “We don’t think of them as an adversary. We think that is just another business challenge.”

Fauquher says his approach is a little different from what some companies do.

“We have a listening ear and openly embrace what they’re doing partially because I don’t think they can change it but partially because that gives us an opportunity to have dialogue with them about what they are trying to do and how they are trying to do it,” he says.

But the real trump card that Fauquher suggests CEOs should have in their hands is a person in the industry. Ontario Systems has on its staff Rozanne Andersen, considered the industry expert on compliance issues.

“She is an attorney and had been general counsel for the largest association in our industry, the American Collectors Association, and eventually had a huge impact on the laws that were being written — she wrote some of them herself — but also became the singular kind of focus person on compliance in our industry,” he says.

“Rozanne spends an amount of her time teaching, dialoguing with the regulators in the state and the federal government, dialoguing with our customers on their interpretation and especially their legal people and their compliance experts. Then she helps our product managers make the appropriate adjustments in the software to deal with whatever needs to be handled.”

Invest, invest, invest

While having a virtual trump card carries with it certain benefits, it alone won’t allow you to coast in other areas. One other major card to play involves investing in your workforce.

But on the other hand, by not making the necessary investment, you are creating a roadblock for your employees, Fauquher says.

“Often, companies put barriers in their way,” he says. “Those barriers are not driven by action but often by inaction — what I mean is not actively investing; training is the first thing that gets dumped out of the budget when times are tough.”

Educational opportunities, seminars, discretionary time necessary to track business leads and speak with customers about what their needs are — these often get thrown overboard when companies are running pretty lean.

“I just don’t think that’s a good business approach,” Fauquher says. “Overall, investing in employees pays incredible dividends.”

To keep the support in your people through professional investments, you need to find other places to make cuts, he says, for example, by trimming travel costs.

“You can always, in our business, trim the travel costs; instead of sending four people to the client site, you might send two,” he says. “Engage your team in finding the necessary cost savings, not for the sake of the cost savings but so that the investment can continue on the people’s side of the fence.

You can place yourself in the position where you get to review the ideas, in effect, to do more with less.

“You have to figure out how to embrace those ideas and how to let the best ones bubble to the top,” Fauquher says. “Some of them are about cost savings, some of them are about new revenue, but all those play together to make sure that you’re not cutting back on the really important stuff, which is your investment in your team.”

Align the employees — and the leaders

Once you are investing in your employees on a regular basis, that’s not the end of the alignment process. You have to keep the leadership team aligned as well.

Fauquher found it effective to divide the leadership into groups, such as an executive leadership team and a broader leadership team. The first team takes in the supervisors who manage the different functional areas in the organization. The broader team consists of all the individuals who supervise people or those who have an influential role in the customer base or in the partnership network such that they are impact players.

The broader leadership team meets one hour a week in the Operations Council. The group discusses information needed to run the business.

“They get a lot of information on costs, revenue, they get a lot of information on customer issues, they get a lot of information on the various product lines so they can appropriately infuse that information down throughout the team and lead their team,” he says.

Then every weekday morning at 9, the executive team meets for 30 minutes in an information-heavy session. First, the business intelligence people give an update of relevant things that happened in the industry the previous day, new regulations, items they pick up, in about a 12-minute summary.

“If you do that every day, you all start to get a different sense about the trends in the industry,” Fauquher says. “You start to hear about things that are going on, and you start to make connections in different ways.”

Next is a 10-minute update from the VP of sales on how business closed the previous day, deals that are in process, where he needs help from members of the team to close deals to get that business, and new business trends that are coming down the pike.

“Then we have two five-minute updates from our operations folks about what is going on in the business, where the issues have been escalated, and generally those are problems that need attention or at least awareness from the executive leadership team, so we can quickly respond to those customers,” Fauquher says.

“The last part is a round-robin of every member — basically where do you need help today, where are you stuck, and do you need help? And any other relevant information members of the team need to know.”

The same team meets for an hour every Thursday for a tactical meeting to deal with issues that need a little more discussion. Finally, that team spends one day a month working on strategic issues.

“What happens is the team is always in alignment. They rarely are not in alignment, and if they are not, it is a quick adjustment at the next meeting.” ?

How to reach: Ontario Systems LLC, (765) 751-7000 or www.ontariosystems.com

The Fauquher File

Ron Fauquher

Co-founder and CEO

Ontario Systems LLC

Born: I am an Indiana boy! I was actually born in Evansville, but I grew up in Muncie. My dad was a Ball Corp. executive.

Education: I went to Purdue University, and got an undergraduate degree in industrial management and computer science. Then I went to work at General Motors and got a master’s degree in finance and economics from Ball State University. So I am about as Hoosier as you can get.

What was your first job and did you learn from it?

My very first job was an evening paper route. Then I figured out, ‘I know all these customers, I’ll get a morning paper route.’ And then I said, ‘I know all these people so I will get TV Guide route.’ And then you remember the newspaper Grit? So I got a Grit route. The thing that I learned most was that was back in the day of cash collections. Most people paid you freely, but often I had a collection problem. So you have to figure out what to do. But my first business was an accounts receivable and distribution business! I think I was making 10 bucks a week, and I was the richest 14-year-old kid in the neighborhood.

Who do you admire in business?

One is my business partner Will Davis. He is the architect of the company culture and very much the father of Ontario Systems because it was his idea. Two other people that I admire a great deal include Kelly Stanley who was CEO of Ontario Corp. and Van Smith, who was the chairman of Ontario Corp. — extraordinary business people, extraordinary innovators, and extraordinarily caring about people. They knew how to build businesses; they knew how to encourage young entrepreneurs like me.

What is the best business advice you ever received?

As I was a young entrepreneur going to build a business, trying to make sure that we did things right, that we did things ethically really came from Van Smith in particular. I can hear him saying it now that the way you make business decisions, in order to get them right, you must make a decision this way: people, customers, facilities and technology and money, in that order. If you think about the impact on the people and doing the right thing for them, they will take care of the customer, the customer will take care of you, which allows you to invest appropriately in facilities and technology and at the end of the day, you will make money.

What is your definition of business success?

I suppose that probably has changed since I was 20. I think it is far more than financial success. Business success is when you can have a respected organization that is respected by your customers, that is appreciated for who you are and what you do and how you help them — that is an organization in which the associates that work there are proud to say that they work there. This comes down to not just business success because if you have business success in terms of financial success, that allows you to sustain the business.

But it’s much, much more than that. It is about being a good community citizen. It is about supporting the needs and desires and educations and motivations of your team. It is about caring for the team member who might be in distress. So it’s very much about not just being a good place to work but and accountable member and an admired member of the community. If you do all that well, that’s a pretty nice place to be.