Kathy Simmons

Tuesday, 25 April 2006 20:00

People power

For Lesley Delgado, founder and president of StaffPro America, the staffing industry is about people.

It may seem like an obvious statement, but before she founded her own firm, Delgado worked for a large national staffing company and a small regional operation, and she saw that workers were often treated as commodities. So she decided to put the human element back into the staffing business, and went into business herself. “When you think about it, the product we supply is human capital,” Delgado explains. “Having a love for people and a heart of service are essential keys to success.”

And it is Delgado’s passion for people, and her keen insight into finding the right people, that has led her and her 75-employee, $2-million-per-year company to success.

Smart Business spoke with Delgado about what she looks for in her work force, how she ensures they have the right skills and the role leadership plays within her organization.

How do you find the right employees?
One of the most important things we can do to secure a loyal customer base is to hire the right people. Integrity is a non-negotiable trait that we expect from our employees. It’s black and white — you either have it or you don’t.

We also need employees who buy into our vision, which is to be a unique staffing provider. They need to be excited about what we offer our clients. We find the right employees through a rigorous behavioral-based interviewing process.

How do you train your staff?
Training is a hot topic in the staffing industry right now. We used to be able to hire for generic positions — file clerks and data entry operators, for instance. Today, the market demands employees who can multitask and perform many functions. One-dimensional skill sets are like putting square pegs in round holes - they do not fit. This means we have to put more effort into providing opportunities for employees to expand their skill sets. That’s where training comes into play.

I engage staff when we make decisions on formal training. This should be a collaborative effort if you want maximum commitment from staff. Otherwise, you are wasting your training budget.

The requirement is that the training must be related to the business, however, we can get creative. Let’s say someone wants to be a polished public speaker. We will send him or her to classes to perfect this skill, because this could certainly benefit the business. An accomplished speaker would be a valuable asset to recruit candidates at schools and network at social events.

How does leadership influence an organization?
It is about respect, which trickles down from the top. The manner in which management treats customers, vendors and employees sets the tone for the organizational culture. Management’s actions tell the staff ‘this is how we act,’ and the example cannot be underestimated. Senior leaders should be constantly aware that their actions are being watched and evaluated by staff.

What advice would you pass on to a first-time entrepreneur?
StaffPro enjoyed good fortune from the day we opened our doors. In fact, it was almost too easy. This ended up being a double-edged sword, however, with the events of Sept. 11 and the subsequent recession. The staffing industry as a whole was affected very negatively. We felt the impact at StaffPro beginning in 2002.

Thankfully, we were never in the situation where we had to lay off employees but we did reduce in size significantly due to natural attrition. At our peak, we employed 135 people and we are building back up to that level now.

To use a clich, this experience taught me to save for a rainy day, live within a budget and persevere through difficult times. I read at a deeper level during this time to fortify myself. I drew on my inner resources and spent time focusing on my attitude in order to maintain a positive example to staff.

HOW TO REACH: StaffPro America, (248) 355-1900), www.staffpro-america.com

Thursday, 20 April 2006 20:00

Leading the way

For many, working in the travel industry sounds like a glamorous career, filled with sunny beaches, decadent spas and exotic adventures. For Pat Cronenberg, CEO and founder of Pier ‘n Port Travel, a full-service agency specializing in international travel, cruises and escorted tours, it is an exciting way to make a living, but it isn’t always smooth sailing.

Two years after the events of Sept. 11, nearly 25 percent of the nation’s job cuts were in the travel and tourism industry, according to a study conducted by Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. Many of these layoffs were in travel agencies.

According to Cronenberg, one of the major financial challenges travel agents faced was the airlines’ elimination of commission for booking air travel. So she took a hard look at the industry and decided to adapt Pier ‘n Port by concentrating on leisure, group travel and cruises rather than targeting corporate clients.

Smart Business spoke with Cronenberg about staying competitive in a rapidly-changing market, building customer loyalty and being a strong leader.

How do you ensure Pier ‘n Port stays competitive?
I’m a forward-thinker. I don’t believe you can stick with status quo and expect to be on the cutting edge. I routinely step out of my comfort zone and outside the box.

It’s a great quality, but it can be a double-edged sword. At times, I have stepped too far outside the box and learned that it is not always wise to be a trendsetter. So my caveat is to be patient. Let others blaze the trail at times so you can learn from their mistakes. There is a risk in being the first to try out a creative concept.

For example, I have designed trips that were too unusual and unique for my audience. The reality is that Cincinnati is a conservative city. That was a lesson learned the hard way - know your customer and cater to what is comfortable to them.

How do you build customer loyalty?
Responsiveness is the first thing that comes to mind. The quickest way to upset and lose a customer is not to respond in a timely manner. Taking care of complaints promptly and with genuine concern is essential if you want loyal return customers.

It sounds simple, but it is amazing how many businesses can’t seem to pull this off. We have so much competition that we cannot afford to anger customers by being sluggish in reacting to questions or concerns.

What do you think are the most important qualities of a leader?
Being able to lead with confidence and persuasion. Strong leaders are able to convince staff that their decisions are good ones, in the best interest of the company and the employees. It is most critical to get the support and consensus of immediate supervisors so that they can serve as advocates of the direction your organization is (going).

I also think the ability to fail gracefully and to learn from mistakes is the sign of a mature leader. I have noticed that the degree of success of leaders is closely aligned to how many times they have failed. The key is how they handled the situation.

How do you stay motivated to be a strong leader?
I’m naturally a driven person. I come from a family of entrepreneurs so I witnessed the hard work and rewards of being a business owner from a young age. What really keeps me going is knowing that we are building lifelong memories for our customers. What we do intimately affects a person’s life, and I never lose sight of that.

When a customer comes back from a trip saying, ‘Wow,’ showing me pictures and telling me what a fabulous time they had, it keeps me going. The job has many advantages but there are challenges and stresses just like any other. When we exceed someone’s expectations and can help them plan for their next dream vacation, it inspires me.

How to reach: Pier ‘n Port Travel, 1 (800) 486-5060 or www.piernport.com

Wednesday, 29 March 2006 19:00

Growing with integrity

Donald Trump explained his fascination with the real estate business like this: “It’s tangible, it’s solid, it’s beautiful. It’s artistic, from my standpoint, and I just love real estate.”

Karen Kage agrees wholeheartedly. The CEO of Realcomp II Ltd., Michigan’s largest Realtor-owned Multiple Listing Service, provides real estate and information technology solutions to 15,000 brokers, agents and appraiser members in more than 2,100 offices in Southeastern Michigan.

Kage got her start in real estate in 1979 when she worked at a local board of Realtors as a statistical typist and in 1998, became CEO of Realcomp II. The business, which employs 38 people and generates revenue of $6 million per year, has more than doubled its customer base since starting operations in 1994.

Smart Business spoke with Kage about how she maintains quality customer service and attracts and retains the best employees as her company grows.

How do you maintain strong customer service as you grow?
I empower my employees to do what it takes to serve the customer. I never want any staff member to be fearful of making a reasonable decision that will improve the customer’s experience.

Customers do not want to hear ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘I will need to ask someone else about this.’

We have weekly customer care meetings during which the entire customer service staff shares ideas. I put employees in the position of creating synergy and freely exchanging knowledge with one another. It takes more than just holding weekly staff meetings; it includes basic logistical issues such as arranging the office furniture in a way that invites communication among the employees.

In terms of our interactions with customers, you could say we go overboard, if that is possible. We supply a steady flow of information to our agents, virtually on a daily basis. We provide tips on how to search homes and ways they can use our products and services to their benefit in order to be more successful.

We want them to view us as a true business partner, and that comes by consistently adding value.

What qualities do you consider the most important in a leader?
Three essential qualities come to mind. Integrity. I always appreciate having a conversation with someone and walking away knowing what he or she meant. I have been called blunt at times, but I firmly believe that speaking honestly is an essential quality of a leader.

Passion. To lead others, you must believe in and be truly excited about what your organization offers. This is one quality that simply cannot be faked.

Attitude toward adversity. All leaders have challenges. Those who really inspire the troops welcome those challenges rather than hide from them. Managers are watched most carefully when there is a problem. This is when the employees really count on the leaders to lead.

How do you attract and retain an A-team staff?
Attracting is not something we have to do often because we are able to retain our employees long-term. We’ve had three employees leave in the last five years, one of which wanted to start a singing career. Recently, we were recognized by a local magazine as one of the coolest places to work. We keep the lines of communication open. I encourage employees to talk about their concerns. Together, we are usually able to find resolutions.

Every year, we have a full staff meeting where management cooks breakfast for the employees. We renovated our office suite to include brighter colors, a caf where employees can relax and socialize, and a more open cubicle arrangement.

We recently treated employees to an on-site smoothie bar as a way to say thank you. My goal is simple — when my employees wake up in the morning, I want them to feel happy about going to work that day.

What has been your greatest professional challenge?
Striking the proper balance between work and other aspects of life is a challenge to me, as with most success-minded business people. Although I have made great improvements in this area, I have not always hit the bulls-eye when it comes to knowing when to get away from the job.

I’ve learned that spending 20 hours a day at work is not something to brag about. Smart managers surround themselves with the right people and let them use their talents, rather than trying to do it all.

To survive long-term in a demanding position, you have to learn to switch gears when you leave the office instead of taking it home. It takes discipline, but the payoff is huge.

How to contact: Realcomp II Ltd., (866) 553-3003 or www.realcomp.com

Friday, 27 January 2006 10:09

Hard-wired for success

Musician Charles Mingus said, “Making the simple complex is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”

Susan Ernst, president of Royal Electric Construction Corp., exemplifies this with her keen ability to simplify the complex. Case in point: Ernst purchased Royal in 1997 when the owner retired, even though she had no background in the industry.

“Prior to Royal, I owned a computer training company. As a businessperson, I felt confident that I could manage any type of company,” she says, because running a business can be boiled down to this: “Get work. Do work. Get paid.”

She breaks down what the company does into simple terms, as well: “If it takes a wire, we do it.”

Ernst got her baptism by fire shortly after she took over the business, when a key project manager suffered a stroke and she had to do his job to keep things moving.

“I’m a lifelong, self-taught learner, so I jumped in feet first,” she says. “I pored over specs and drawings and asked the other project managers a ton of questions. I have no problem making mistakes — that’s the quickest way to learn. Suffice it to say, I learned quickly during this particular experience.”

Smart Business spoke with Ernst about how she grew the company from $3 million in 1997 to nearly $10 million in 2005.

How do you measure success?
These are the four cornerstones of success in my business — employee retention, quality installations, repeat customers and profitable jobs.

If you have these things, you are meeting the customers’ expectations. They all go hand-in-hand. I recently developed a quality control review process to ensure all projects are on track.

During the construction process, we perform on-site reviews designed to identify whether the installation is going per the plan and installations standards are being met. Any impediments are dealt with immediately. The customer will receive a written report with the results. I don’t know of anyone else in the business that is doing this, so I definitely see it as adding value and setting us apart from our competitors.

How do you ensure your employees are effective?
I believe in empowering employees, but it is not something that happens without focused effort. In fact, I recently employed the services of (a) life and executive coach to conduct an intense decision-making workshop with my upper management staff.

The goal was twofold — to help the leaders at Royal understand my style better so that our business decisions would be aligned and to increase their personal level of independent decision-making abilities. Our measurement for effectiveness of this training was simple: Did they come to me for approval less often? The answer was a resounding yes.

We’re careful to hire people with the right technical abilities, but just as important, we seek right attitudes. As one guru in my early career explained to me, you hire people for their technical skills and fire them for their people skills. We want to make sure we get both before we extend an offer.

How will you make sure your business will continue to thrive?
Looking long-range, we will need leaders to come up through the ranks and take on greater responsibility. There are many construction workers who realize they can’t do the job forever due to the physical demands.

The problem is that they are not preparing themselves for the transition. Many simply feel the added stress is not worth it — they want to go home and leave the job at the jobsite.

So ... how do we motivate people in their late 20s and 30s to want to grow into jobs with a larger scope?

How do you separate your job from your personal life?
It’s very difficult as an owner, since long hours go with the territory. I use the technique of separation, which simply means that I distance myself from my work and living environment to rejuvenate myself.

This means lots of weekend trips and indulging regularly in one of my favorite passions — reading. It’s easy to get in a work-and-no play-rut, and it takes discipline to remember there is more to life than work.

How to reach: Royal Electric Construction Corp., (614) 253-6600) or www.royalcorp.com

Tuesday, 27 December 2005 08:50

The wedding wizard

Imagine being single, fired twice and living in a new city, with no college degree and no job prospects.

That’s the situation Cathy LaValley found herself in 17 years ago before she started Cathy’s Concepts, a wholesale manufacturer and distributor of wedding accessories. To make matters worse, she had recently been swindled out of most of her life savings by a jewelry wholesaler.

“It was a low point in my life, for sure, but it made me determined to find success on my own terms. I was not willing to be homeless or live at home with my mother at age 32,” LaValley says.

LaValley took the jewelry business knowledge she had gleaned from working at Claire’s for 13 years and began selling wholesale jewelry products to local nail salons and boutiques. Her luck began to change when she showed her products to a local bridal shop.

“They were happy with the manufacturers they were buying from, but I kept asking questions until I identified two unmet needs: immediate shipping of white pearls, and colored jewelry in quantities for bridesmaids’ gifts. I was able to satisfy these needs and got the business.”

Today, Cathy’s Concepts supplies virtually every bridal accessory imaginable.

“We take the bride and groom from engagement to honeymoon,” she says. “The average engagement is 14 months, and as soon as the engagement is announced, the buying begins.”

Smart Business spoke with LaValley about how she plans to grow her market and target her customers.

How do you maintain the right staffing level?
I use an outsourcing service. Although we just started outsourcing, I am confident it will work out great. Like most small businesses, we do not have the specialization to handle the human resource functions such as paid time off, disciplinary action and benefits.

We can now focus on running the business instead of getting bogged down in staffing issues. I am looking forward to gaining efficiency, since previously, we were overstaffed at nonpeak times of the year.

The fourth quarter is our slowest time, but it is the busiest time for businesses such as retail and shipping and packaging companies. (The outsourcing service) can provide our employees with other work until we need them again.

How do you plan to grow the business and further target your market?
Our current revenue is $5 million, which is an improvement over the past couple of years. It has been difficult to make the transition from bridal retailers buying stock for their stores to drop-shipping to the consumer for Internet retailer sites.

I expect sales in the $6 million range next year. Nobody else offers drop-shipping of exclusive, personalized wedding and gift items with the unique offerings of personalization quite like us on the Internet.

The average age for brides these days is 27. Our studies show that over 80 percent of brides surf the Internet for information and products related to their wedding. I expect that our Web-based business will increase to 80 percent of our sales or more in the not-so-distant future.

We are expanding our personalized products to appeal to the nonbridal buyers. For example, we have a personalized bathrobe that can be a bridesmaids’ gift but is also a perfect Mothers Day, holiday, graduation or birthday gift. This diversification will allow us to increase our sales during our slow season, the fourth quarter of the year.

How do you keep your employees motivated?
I have four executives reporting directly to me. We work as a team, and I am always encouraging them to think strategically. I am currently in the process of restructuring the responsibilities of my executive staff and am totally involving them in this process.

I pulled them together, gave them paper and said, ‘Pretend you are me. Lay out the executive responsibilities that make the most sense to you.’ This was a great exercise because it led to lively and honest discussions.

Some things came out that I was not aware of. For example, one executive was responsible for an area that was always a real challenge and it became obvious that another executive would be much better suited. I was able to gain tremendous insight during these candid discussions.

It is crucial for the executives to be involved in the day-to-day process and grapple with the real business issues.

How do you network with other business owners?
I’ve been involved in TEC (The Executive Committee). This committee consists of 14 CEOs, entrepreneurs and business owners. We meet once a month, have a guest speaker and spend time discussing our individual challenges.

It’s a life-saver for me because being an entrepreneur can be a lonely situation. It’s not like working in corporate America, where you can bounce things off a number of people who understand the business.

How to reach: Cathy’s Concepts, (800) 969-7417 or www.cathysconcepts.com

Tuesday, 27 December 2005 07:07

Queen of clean

Laura Huthwaite doesn’t mind rolling up her sleeves and getting her hands dirty.

As CEO of Giant Janitorial Services, she is actively involved with a staff of 100 employees who have been keeping commercial properties sparkling clean for more than 30 years.

The business started as a part-time job when Huthwaite was working for Merrill Lynch while her husband, now Giant Janitorial’s president, was in school. They needed extra income and found a way to make it by cleaning a small insurance office. The business quickly expanded, and Huthwaite decided to devote herself full time to managing its growth.

Huthwaite credits her father, an Italian immigrant, for her strong work ethic.

“He was a Detroit bus driver who came to the U.S. when he was 14 and supported his mother and two brothers for years,” she says. “Although I have met many admirable people in my business, my father instilled the qualities in me which have contributed to Giant’s success.”

Smart Business spoke with Huthwaite about how she finds great employees and how she balances quality and price at her business.

How do you stay involved with your customers?
The personal touch we offer makes a big difference. I prefer to go see the customer myself so that I am familiar with the property.

I circulate among the jobs and am very involved with the day-to-day operations. It helps that I am truly a people person.

Working with customers gives me energy, and that shows in how I handle the business today.

What changes have you seen in the industry since Sept. 11, 2001, and how have you handled them?
I have noticed a real difference. People are looking at the lowest bid more closely. The competition is fierce.

We work on a bid process, and I am surprised at some of the quotes I see. There are costs that have to be covered such as payroll, equipment, insurance and supplies. Taking shortcuts on any of them will show up in the workmanship provided.

We want to be as price-sensitive as possible but never at the expense of offering a consistent, quality result. It’s a tough balancing act.

I think one of the keys to success is expense management. I buy supplies in bulk and carefully monitor their use.

We train our staff on the proper use of cleaning agents. More is not always better.

How do you find great employees?
A number of ways: ads, word of mouth and referrals. We have stringent requirements that must be met before we bring someone on board.

Many of our clients are police offices and government agencies, so we have to be extra careful. Background checks are conducted and references are thoroughly checked.

This is a difficult business — people think anyone can clean, but that is simply not true. The work can be rewarding.

But honestly, it gets boring, not to mention that it is strenuous, so lazy people do not last long. Turnover is typically in the 50 percent or over range in the cleaning business. Thankfully, ours is lower than that, but it takes effort on the front end during the hiring process.”

How would you describe yourself as a leader?
I’m a good listener, strive to maintain a positive attitude at all times and give employees the benefit of the doubt. Our business presents a communication challenge since we have people working at different places and different shifts all the time.

Although I have job supervisors, I want to hear from the employees myself. I’ve always felt two heads are better than one, so if there is a suggestion from an employee, I explore it.

I want to know their concerns. I am a careful listener, but I expect it to go both ways when I offer constructive criticism. For example, when I notice a floor is not being cleaned properly, I will provide the feedback to the employee.

He or she needs to accept it without a debate.

How do you see the future of your company?
I’d like to expand the business. I am pleased with Giant’s success, but I’m looking for a larger client base.

We rely on our current customers to get the word out, but I also spend time reaching out to companies by phone and mail, requesting that we be out on their bid list.

How to reach: Giant Janitorial Services, (313) 886-7797

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