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Success through conversation Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2007

E-mail is great for a lot of things, but Bob Huffstodt says it can’t replace a personal conversation when he’s assessing new opportunities for Polymer Technology Systems Inc.

“If it’s a new customer, and I don’t care where they are in the world, you need to have a conversation with that person,” says Huffstodt, Polymer Technology’s president and CEO. “Nothing beats being able to read an individual, best of all face to face. If you can’t do that, at least have a conversation over the phone. That gives you the key element of any risk assessment.”

By getting to know his clients and his employees, Huffstodt led the cardiovascular technology company to 2006 revenue of about $15 million. With 105 employees, the company has been growing at an annual rate of about 60 percent in recent years.

Smart Business spoke with Huffstodt about the importance of focusing on relationships to succeed in business.

Q: How do you manage fast growth?

It pays to step back and look at the forest once a day or twice a day and remember the big picture. Remember where you are going, and understand whatever the issue of the day is, it will pass. It will be resolved, and it will be a dim memory very quickly, and that puts it into perspective.

I go back to what I was taught as a freshman in college. That little grid of urgent and important, important but not urgent, urgent but not important, and literally do a quick mental rundown of the things that are on my daily to-do list. I do a to-do list every day and go at the ones that rise up to the upper left first, the urgent and important, and take it from there.

I have a notepad, and I do it in long hand. I’ve tried it on the computer and don’t like it as much. It’s just more stimulating for me to write it out. I try to do it at the end of a day for the next day. It lets me sleep better. I know it’s on my list so I know I’ll get to it, so therefore, I don’t have to obsess on it at night.

Q: How do you deal with unexpected problems?

I take a mental deep breath and force myself to be level-headed and calm with whatever the issue might be. If they are urgent enough to break into your routine or meeting, there is something big about it in terms of magnitude.

Even if it’s a good thing and you’re going to end up getting very excited about it, it’s best to learn about it in a very calm fashion.

Q: How do you connect with your employees?

If I’m going from my office to the front desk to greet somebody, I might take the longer way there and field a couple questions along the way. It’s absolutely essential.

I’ve had people approach me about, ‘Gee, we have all these extra chairs. Could we donate them to the church?’ Just the way you encounter these things, you can make somebody on the staff a hero just by having 10 seconds of availability. It’s huge in its cumulative effect.

Over time, the rapport that builds, the understanding, and the respect — which goes both ways — I think it’s critical.

Q: How can you earn employee trust?

It starts with just making sure people are treated fairly. If people come in and they are not promised the moon unless you are prepared to hand the moon to them, I think that just builds trust and credibility.

Don’t tell them that you’re not going to have to work hard. They are going to have to work hard. Don’t tell them that the benefits aren’t going to cost you anything because the benefits do cost everybody something.

Just set the expectations appropriately. Follow through on what you promise, and you’ll get that credibility.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

When you are rating your employees, if you can’t, after six months, on a report card give them at least a B, you should think about replacing that individual. That sounds kind of harsh.

But what it forces you to do is look in the mirror and say, ‘Am I enabling this person? Am I empowering them correctly? Am I guiding them correctly? Am I interfacing with them the way I should?’ If you can say yes to all that, you need to really think about changing who is in that job if you can’t give them a B or better.

Oftentimes, I’ll find the fault is with me. I haven’t talked to this person all week, and they report to me. That’s just not right. So, I’ll set about trying to rectify the situation.

HOW TO REACH: Polymer Technology Systems Inc., (317) 870-5610 or www.cardiochek.com