Jane Saale isn’t happy with the way communication flows at Cope Plastics Inc. It results in wasted time, missed opportunities and a shortfall in productivity — and that bothers her.
“One time it’s like this and the other time it’s like that,” says Saale, president and CEO at the plastics fabricator and distributor. “We don’t have a clear process and place to say, ‘Every time we do this particular thing, we’re going to communicate it like this.’ I would say from a communication standpoint, we have lots of room for improvement.”
Saale is hardly alone, however, in bemoaning her 380-employee company’s communication difficulties. It’s pretty safe to say if you’re reading this story or if you’ve ever been part of any kind of organized activity, you’ve experienced problems communicating. It’s all part of the human struggle to interact with each other.
“Does anybody ever get up in the morning and go, ‘How am I going to communicate today’?” Saale says. “Nobody says that. But it’s a challenge. You have so many different dynamics of people and personalities and different backgrounds and knowledge and expertise. You have different ways of how people interact with each other. It’s a big challenge.”
Despite the ongoing challenge of improving communication, Cope Plastics has weathered the storm of the 2008 economic crash and is back on track toward hitting the $100 million mark in revenue. Revenue in 2011 totaled $86 million, up from just under $70 million in 2009. Saale says the key to success is being yourself, accepting that you’re not perfect and making sure your team members understand that and are ready and willing to do their part to fill in the gaps.
“You have to earn their respect by being genuine,” Saale says. “They’ll trust you if you are genuine and if you talk on their level. Be yourself, know your audience and know where you need to be and what kind of conversation you should be having with the people you’re talking to.”
Here are some of Saale’s thoughts on becoming a better leader and striving for better lines of communication in her organization.
Focus on yourself
Saale’s efforts at becoming a better communicator begin with herself. She’s the leader, after all. If she does a poor job of sharing information, the company has no hope of becoming a more cohesive and more informed group.
“You have to have clear and concise directions and you have to make sure your folks know where you’re headed,” Saale says. “You have to be a good listener. You have to understand and know your audience. You have to set expectations, and they have to be clear.”
She says growth in her confidence as a communicator has been achieved through plenty of practice.
“It’s come from experience,” Saale says. “We have trade associations and I’m on several boards in the area. I’ve also gone through some leadership roles and done some speaking. The folks in my community and on the boards that I serve on, they have helped me grow as a communicator and as a leader.”
If you feel like you’re not as effective as you could be talking to your people and delivering information, find ways to practice. Learn what works and doesn’t work, and it will help you improve.
“I have topics that I need to speak about and those topics are written down, usually on a piece of paper,” Saale says. “But I don’t write it out. I used to write it out and I used to read from the paper, but I’ve come a long way. Now I just kind of go with the flow. “I try to talk to them on an even keel, and I don’t try to be this person who is the president and is trying to make this big statement. I’m much more personable. I engage my people. I giggle or sometimes I tear up, depending on what I’m talking about. I just try to be very personable.”
Another important component is the fact that Saale doesn’t shy away when she makes mistakes, either through action or something she said.
“You’ve got to lead by example and if somebody has a critique about something I did or didn’t do, I listen,” Saale says. “It’s a consistency thing that you always have to be aware of. “It’s about talking to them on their level and getting them to understand why some of the things that we do, why we do it that way. They need to know the whys behind things and I think that gets them to buy in.
“They may not all agree about certain things, but it is what it is. It’s all about engaging them as a team and helping them understand that we’re all in this together.”
When you get feedback in those situations and people pose questions back to you, the same rules apply as to any other situation: Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know the answer.
“I don’t have a problem saying, ‘You know what, I have no idea,’” Saale says. “If you try to come up with a half answer, that’s not good enough. I usually just say, ‘Good question. Let’s get so and so in here who is more of an expert. I’ll learn from it, too, as we go through it.’”
You can’t worry about what your people think or about cynics who believe as the CEO, you should know everything about every last detail of the company.
“If people want to think that, they are going to think it, and there is nothing I can do about it,” Saale says. “But I’m surely not going to be one to say I know something when I don’t know it. I think I’m versed in all the different divisions in my company, but there are things I don’t know how to do. I understand the process. I’m versed in as much as I need to know.
“If there is an issue that comes up, I can get the background to understand what the problem is so we can try to get to the root cause to try to fix it.”
Bring people together
One area that has been a particular concern for Saale at Cope Plastics is interdepartmental communication.
“Most of our groups are pretty cohesive,” Saale says. “The challenge is when you start talking about inventory management to salespeople or to the branch managers and that dynamic of getting them to understand what the inventory manager’s role is or the material manager’s role is or what the salesperson’s role is. Everybody has their own directives and goals and objectives. It’s trying to get them to mesh.”
As part of the effort to fix this and bring more common purpose to everyone’s work life, Saale is working to instill shadowing opportunities for people to experience what happens outside their department.
“I need to get them to understand the whole piece — salespeople shadowing people in corporate and corporate going out and shadowing salespeople just to see what their challenges are on a daily basis,” she says. “That’s the kind of stuff we’re looking at to meld these departments together and communicate better and understand both sides of the equation.
“I just think it’s a huge value to have people who understand and are better-rounded and understand not just what they are doing, but how all the other departments need to work together.”
When you have meetings with department heads, make sure people are getting an opportunity to get familiar with what others are doing. You don’t want to overload them with things they don’t need to know or that don’t concern them. But a basic level of knowledge can go a long way.
“I’ve grown a lot with my plant manager and my director of manufacturing and understanding their challenges and the whole process of manufacturing and all that goes into that,” Saale says. “I feel with the background I have, I can be very empathetic and sympathetic when I need to, but I also understand these are the things we need to do to make it better.”
When Saale addresses her employees, she doesn’t go in expecting a ton of questions at the end of her remarks.
“Usually there are one or two people that you know are going to ask a question,” Saale says. “For the most part, people don’t raise their hands in those meetings. You just have to say, ‘OK, I have an open-door policy. But do me the courtesy of making sure your supervisor knows that you are coming to me.’ I don’t like people to do end runs.”
If you want to be collaborative, you’ve got to make yourself available. But you also need to take care that you’re not cutting out leaders who you’re paying to serve in a supervisory role and deal with certain situations on their own.
“That puts their supervisors in a bad way, and I don’t like that,” Saale says. “As long as their supervisors are aware of it and for whatever reason, they can’t get the answers they are looking for or they are frustrated, that’s fine. I just try to encourage them to go through the proper channels first. It is somewhat of a reflection on them if they don’t and it makes them look bad.”
As much effort as you make to hear the concerns of your people, you’ve also got to be careful that you don’t let them rely on you or on their supervisors so much that they become unwilling or unable to make decisions on their own.
“There are times I want to go, ‘Guys, you’re the experts. I’m not in your field, so guess what? You make that decision. If you fail, that’s fine. Try something else. I’m not perfect. We go one way and that doesn’t work, we’ll admit it didn’t work and go in a different direction,’” Saale says.
Saale takes the same approach of instilling self-reliance when she asks others to deliver information to the rest of the company. She doesn’t go overboard imposing her will on their thoughts and she doesn’t ask them to recite everything they are going to say to her before they talk to the team.
“You just have to ask questions, things like, ‘OK, what are you saying? Does that make sense?’” Saale says. “You have to give communication back to them. I try to be collaborative, almost to the point where people think I’m too collaborative or too soft.
“I don’t say, ‘OK, now read that back to me. Or tell me what I just said.’ I guess it’s a matter of how you present it back to them. But my approach is to give the people the opportunity to decide and make their own decisions. It’s always about, ‘How can I make you better.’ It’s all in the approach.”
How to reach: Cope Plastics Inc., (800) 851-5510 or www.copeplastics.com
Don’t think you’ve arrived as a great communicator.
Make sure your departments are coordinating.
Don’t let people shy away from decisions that can make.
The Saale File
Born: Alton, Ill.
Education: Eastern Illinois University, Charleston, Ill. Business administration degree with a concentration in accounting. I love numbers, but I’m also an extrovert. Most of the time, your numbers people are kind of black and white. I’m not black and white. I’m definitely gray. I have a mixture of accounting and marketing in my blood.
What was your first job? I worked at Ken’s Pizza as a waitress. I learned about dealing with people and being a servant. It somewhat humbles you to serve other people and want to do the right thing and make them happy so they enjoy their experience.
Who would you like to sit down and talk to? Because I was too young and too inexperienced and naive to think about it before he passed away, it would be my grandpa. He’s the one who started this business. He passed away in 1995. I was 30 at the time and I didn’t have the experience and knowledge and know-how I have today. So I never sat down with him on a business level. He was always just Grandpa. And I would love to do that. Boy, would I like to pick his brain about things at work.
On Monday morning, the watercooler talk among VF Corp. employees looks more like a Yelp review than the typical weekend replay. Employees chime in about The North Face jackets they wore skiing, the Lucy yoga pants they tested out and the Jansport backpacks they took hiking.
Steve Rendle, vice president of VF Corp. and the group president of its Outdoor and Action Sports Americas division, says this comes with the territory of being part of the world’s largest apparel manufacturer — with $7 billion in revenue and a portfolio of global consumer products brands.
“We choose not to sit in our ivory tower and predict what the consumer wants,” Rendle says. “We’re fortunate that our employees to a great degree are our consumers.”
A 25-year veteran in the outdoor industry, Rendle was president of The North Face for seven years before heading up VF’s Outdoor and Action Sports Americas unit last year. Based in San Francisco, he manages a portfolio of eight, activity-driven brands, including three worth more than $1 billion each — The North Face, Timberland and Vans.
Rendle is tasked with leading the brand strategies that will resonate with VF’s customers over the world. When it comes to front-end operations, he says there are very specific skills sets that help the company cultivate connections between its brands and consumers. The most significant is how the company develops its brand strategies: by making them a lifestyle. The company calls this “the art and science of apparel.”
“It’s that deep immersion into that consumer and understanding the consumer’s needs and expectations of our business that helps us really fine tune how we apply our business initiatives to grow our businesses,” Rendle says.
Here’s how Rendle uses these strategies to develop VF’s fastest-growing division of brands.
The first step in developing a brand lifestyle is figuring out who the brand’s potential customers are in the marketplace.
“It’s taking an approach of first understanding who the consumers are,” Rendle says. “The ‘who’ aspect is a very important part, and we invest a tremendous amount of money corporately and from our brands to understand our consumers through global segmentation studies.”
While research from focus groups and surveys is beneficial from a targeted point of view, understanding a customer’s lifestyle takes a deeper level of interaction, beyond a phone call or email. You can look at annual research or employee feedback to get ideas about what customers are going to want, but to understand who they are requires a deeper level of knowledge only possible through one-on-one interaction.
“First and foremost, we’re an organization built of passionate consumers,” Rendle says. “But that’s not enough. We want to go into the marketplace. We want to think about our brands globally and do a lot of qualitative and quantitative research to engage with these consumers and understand how they think of our brands. What do they expect from our brands? And more importantly, how would they like us to communicate with them?”
Branded events are one way that Rendle and his team get answers to these questions. Sponsoring fun, action-oriented events that engage consumers allows the company to interact with people in environments that reflect their interests and lifestyles, giving the company a better idea of “who” they are.
“We’re able to engage and understand how they’re thinking about us, how they’re thinking about this particular event and learning about their product needs,” Rendle says.
In addition to the millions of followers that Vans and The North Face have in the digital realm, both brands also generate a tremendous following by putting on popular outdoor events. Rendle frequently travels with the product and sales teams to see how the brands are represented in retail, but also attends the key brand events to learn how they are connecting with consumers.
The North Face hosts its “Endurance Challenge,” a series of endurance races across the globe that attract 1,000 to 3,000 runners per event. These races are a great opportunity to meet runners who fit the brand’s performance market as well as hold mini “expos” for families so that they can interact with the brand, Rendle says.
Similarly, Vans uses its national Vans Warped Tour, a day-long outdoor music and action sports event to connect with some of its key consumer groups, from skateboarders, to musicians and BMXers. With a history as the original skate shoe manufacturer, Vans now focuses on the broader market of men’s and women’s footwear and apparel. So as the partial owner and operator of the summer concert series — the longest running in the U.S. — it draws more than 600,000 people each year and offers a direct line to its youth audience.
“It’s a very impressive music-driven event, but it’s also an event where we’re able to touch the consumers and listen and learn as they interact with the music culture how they’re thinking about the brand, the brand’s products and how the brand is communicating from a marketing standpoint,” Rendle says. “Events are a powerful tool to not only tell the stories of our brands but to interact with those consumers.”
Ask the experts
It’s important to understand not just who your customer is but also what he or she expects from you. Because there is whole host of running footwear and running apparel competitors for The North Face, for example, the brand can’t gain market share just by resonating today’s consumer trends today. It also must stay abreast of the running lifestyle and how it’s changing. To do that, the company uses brand ambassadors.
Each of VF’s Outdoor and Action Sports Americas brands, specifically The North Face and Vans, partners with teams of professional athletes to participate with the brands at a high level, engaging with different products and contributing ideas. The North Face has more than 70 such athletes active around the world.
These brand ambassadors help provide insight into what the brand’s customers want and will want in the future.
“The North Face is the best example, where we have the mantra of ‘athlete-tested, expedition proven’ as that primary input into our product engine,” Rendle says. “We can make sure that we’re building the most authentic and technically relevant products possible that enable our consumers to enjoy their outdoor experience to the greatest degree.”
Tapping brand ambassadors is also useful for brand innovation and product development. Your “experts” in a brand lifestyle can help you identify pain points or product ideas that you may not spot or study based on customer or employee feedback alone.
A prime example is when The North Face runner Kami Semick participated in a high altitude race in the French Alps. After nearly contracting hypothermia from the cold, wet environment, she helped the brand identify a key need for lighter-weight apparel to protect athletes from adverse moisture and weather. Semick worked with the product teams to design a new technology for the brand’s fabrics that eliminates the distraction of moisture when during athletic performance. This year, the company is releasing about 100 new products featuring the FlashDry technology.
“North Face is the brand that provides the ultimate outdoor protection,” Rendle says. “So we bring that thinking and that knowledge base into running apparel.”
Concentrate your efforts
With global brands, you need to do lot of work to identify who your potential customers are. But equally important is figuring out your brand identity. To put it into perspective, brands such as The North Face are trying to capture market share in a $320 billion global market in the outdoor and action sports business, Rendle says.
Figuring out how to position these brands in the marketplace requires Rendle and his team to spend a lot of time looking at the macro-market to size up opportunities.
“That’s building the business strategies using the consumer insights and the market intelligence to help us craft very clearly focused strategies that we execute on five-year basis,” he says. “It’s always the rolling five-year plan and looking very specifically at where those opportunities are to drive our growth.”
Looking at the larger, macro market data, VF applies filters to examine the size of different opportunities:
What is the business doing specifically from a retail standpoint? What are the best ways of communicating to the consumer within those specific segments? Who are the competitors?
In this process, it’s necessary to look at brand competitors from a very critical point of view as far as what are they good at, Rendle says.
“We’re trying to understand what makes them unique — what are their points of difference and what things are more parody,” he says. “Then we look for those white spaces where we know that our brand naturally plays or places that we should be focusing to look for incremental growth.”
The points of difference are unique to your brand, whereas your points of parity are things you need to do just to stay in business — fit of garment, for example.
“It’s not really something that we would own, versus a specific focus or an innovative platform might be a unique point of difference and gives us an emotional connection to the consumer,” Rendle says.
An example is the women’s yoga brand, Lucy. While Lucy was the first brand in the women’s training space, it lost its way before VF acquired it in 2008, giving the Canadian brand Lulu a lead in sales and brand recognition.
“When we look at the difference between those two consumers — the Lulu consumer and the Lucy consumer — we see some very distinct differences in how she thinks, how she acts, how she wants to interact with her brand and honestly how she looks at those activities,” Rendle says.
The company also uses its brands’ leveragable platforms, or things that each brand does well, to position fellow brands stronger in the marketplace. The key is to utilize each brand’s strengths, without losing sight of how each brand consumer — and consumer lifestyle — is different.
“We focus on understanding the brand’s purpose and really understanding what we stand for and what our unique value to our consumer is,” Rendle says.
“It’s making sure I help those brands remain autonomous because it is those specific brand identities and cultures that make these brands successful. At the same time, it’s helping them leverage the VF platforms to scale and access capabilities at a much more effective price.”
After applying these kinds of lenses to see what a brand does well, you can learn how to build “permission” with customers to bring new lines to market where you don’t have established expertise, Rendle says.
The ability to introduce new products to consumers is a critical step in making a brand’s products part of a “lifestyle” the can continue to grow and evolve. Currently, The North Face is trying to do this with the footwear segment — using running apparel to break into running shoes.
“For us to sell footwear it needs to be uniquely different and bring some specific value that other brands are not,” Rendle says. “Where we know we have permission to compete first is in the trail, so really playing off of that outdoor heritage and enabling consumers to run off the road and onto the trail.”
The way the company creates its brand strategies is also changing the way Rendle and his employees think about the business, Rendle says. By creating brand lifestyles that resonate with consumers, the Outdoor and Action Sports Americas division has grown from less than 10 percent of VF’s total sales in 2000 to close to 50 percent.
“It’s helped us understand that this deep connection into the consumer’s lifestyle gives us a unique point of difference, and a unique way of competing against the many number of other choices that consumers have to make in their apparel purchases,” he says.
How to reach: VF Corp., (336) 424-6000 or www.vfc.com
1. Use events to connect with customers.
2. Create brand ambassadors.
3. Find your points of difference and parity.
The Rendle File
vice president and group president, Outdoor and Action Sports Americas
Born: Spokane, Wash.
Education: Bachelor of science, the University of Washington
What do you like most about your job?
I get to get up every day and come to work and participate in businesses and touch activities that I really love. I grew up skiing. I grew up climbing. I’m a very active outdoor user. I’ve dabbled in surf. I’m not a skater but I absolutely enjoy those people as much as I do those that I’ve grown up with. I get to live and play in a marketplace that I’m just deeply passionate about. To also build that passion of building success, in this case successful businesses that add shareholder value — I may very well have one of the best jobs in our company.
On his transition from president of The North Face to division group president: First you have to immerse yourself in the businesses. I’m fortunate enough that I’ve worked with each of these brand leaders as a peer for many years. But I needed to take a step back, remember that my job is not to only think only of The North Face, but to think about eight specific brands, their contributions to our portfolio and the larger VF. It is just to take a step back and forget about what I loved so much, and begin to understand that I have eight things that I get to love.
How do you regroup after a tough day?
My best tool for sorting out a difficult day is to get outside for some sort of physical activity. My favorite choice is to jump on my road bike and roll out for a long ride. No distractions. Just time to focus on the activity and subconsciously sort out my thoughts.
When the iconic “Got milk?” campaign was translated into Spanish, Hispanics wanted to know why asking someone if they were lactating was so funny. Language and cultural misunderstandings in the business world could cost you a contract or block your entry into a new market unless you take the time and have the foresight to do your homework.
While a language barrier isn’t easy to fix overnight, even learning a culture or just knowing there are cultural differences can make an impact.
“A language is a lot of investment, not just for the employer but for the employee as well. However, people are more forgiving about a language barrier than if you’re perceived as rude,” says Victoria Berry, program manager of Business and Performance Development with Corporate College.
Smart Business spoke with Berry about some of the pitfalls business owners face when working with those from another culture.
What is the value of learning a new language or culture in the business world?
It has tremendous value in a global marketplace. Even as a U.S.-based company, you have employees who are dealing with overseas customers, clients and partners. There also are more than 3,000 foreign-owned companies in Ohio, 275 of which are in Northeast Ohio and employ more than 30,000 workers. Even within your own company, you can have people from different cultures working together on high-functioning and cross-functional teams. The U.S. is an anomaly when compared to the rest of the world in that having more than one language under your belt isn’t part of our culture.
On top of the more visible language barrier, cultural misunderstandings can be just as dangerous. For example, in the U.S., a high-quality brochure typically has high-gloss or thick-stock paper, but in China, that comes across as cheap; you should use a thinner paper with a no-gloss shine to it.
People tend to overlook the fact that other cultures have different expectations, especially regarding business etiquette or meetings. For instance, in China, it’s considered discourteous to take someone’s business card and not look at it, or at least pretend to read the title. As another example, you wouldn’t want to call a Mexican company between noon and 3 p.m. when businesses are closed, or discuss business during lunchtime. Following these kinds of protocols will impress people from another culture and show you at least did some background work.
What is crucial to know when dealing with foreign businesses?
It’s crucial to know the greeting and how to approach a business situation. In the U.S., we tend to be demanding and quick, assuming people are in a hurry, and therefore, we sidestep some of the formalities. In most other cultures, the friendly bonds that business executives build with others weigh heavily on whether or not they decide to do business you. This is true especially in China and many Latin American countries, where personality and whether or not they feel like they can trust you are essential factors.
Another consideration to remember is that in American culture, we’ll work through breakfast, lunch and dinner. We often have the expectation that you’re going to work until this project gets done. In many other cultures, they work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and then the lights go off. Family and personal time is coveted. In the U.S., we might say, ‘Family comes first,’ but how many of us miss a Little League game to be at work?
How do you know when learning new languages and cultures is worth the resources?
Any time you can foresee that you may be doing business either out of the country or in the country where you know there’s a large population of a specific culture, you probably want to get the employees you know will be in contact with these individuals acclimated.
Which employees might benefit the most from learning a new language or culture?
Depending on the situation and business, it could be your customer service, sales personnel, human resources and/or marketing professionals. Managers and executives who are making the decisions might not need to speak the language but definitely will need to know the culture.
What should employers be looking for to help employees understand other languages, cultures, customs and etiquette?
Some have a tendency to go for the free programs that you find online, but those programs are not always worth your time. A free program, for example, might leave you without the natural fluency and dialect you need. You get what you pay for; this program might cost $200 less but you’re just getting a PDF that someone copied.
Instead, focus on programs with quality instructors and a good reputation in the education/training field. The instructors should be fluent in the language and have teaching experience. Research the organization to find a program that has a history of providing good service.
Remember, even a little knowledge will keep you from inadvertently offending someone from another culture, which brings stress and tension among team members — whether it’s a long-term team or if you’re just trying to get the contract signed so you can do business together.
Victoria Berry is program manager of Business and Performance Development with Corporate College. Reach her at (216) 987-2906 or email@example.com.
Insights Executive Education is brought to you by Corporate College
This is the third part of an interview with Bernie Moreno, the owner of Collection Auto Group. For more, please see:
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Make a decision. Too many times in business we are faced with hundreds of choices and options. Given the fast pace at which business moves today, you have to trust your judgment and make a decision. Second piece of advice that goes along with this: be right at least 51 percent of the time!
When you think about putting your customers first, describe your philosophy for what that means and how you impart that to your team members?
Customer’s first is a philosophy EVERY business CLAIMS to have as part of their culture. There is no organization that would say they don't value their clients. However, saying it and LIVING it are two entirely different issues. We live that philosophy by creating a culture in which our team members put the customer at the center of everything we do. We know our clients can "fire us" at any time and we never take for granted that we must execute every day. Of course, that culture hinges on having great people, which we are very fortunate to have an abundance of.
How do you empower your staff to go above and beyond for customers?
They are defaulted to say "yes." If a team member is going to disappointment a client, that’s my job. I am the only one allowed to say "no."
What is your philosophy for continuous growth — and continuous improvement?
The business world is changing at a speed that is unprecedented in history. We look at ways of reinventing ourselves, not just changing and evolving.
When you think about your business, what keeps you up at night, and what do you do to resolve it?
Nothing keeps me up at night. Business is my career and I never personalize it by letting it stress my personal life. That would not be fair to my family.
Collection Auto Group
28450 Lorain Road
North Olmsted, OH 44070
Scott Rusch knows what it is like to be president and CEO of the family business, Anomatic Corp.; so does his brother William B. Rusch. They’ve steered it through the highs and lows of the business cycle. But the lows are not necessarily the largest challenge; rather, it is the highs, Scott Rusch says.
“The biggest leadership challenge typically comes when things are going well,” he says. “I think companies often think of the biggest challenge is when you lose a customer, the economic climate is difficult or conditions are bad. What I have found is truly just the reverse.
“When business has had serious challenges, when Anomatic’s business has had difficulty, whether it be from economic events like 9/11 or the recession of 2009, there is generally a kind of feeling within the organization that there is a challenge, that there is a burning platform that everyone has to respond to,” Rusch says. “So during those difficult times, I have found that people respond and they’re willing to change, they are willing to respond very quickly and do whatever is necessary to make sure that the business survives.”
If you allow your company to develop a feeling that you can be a little complacent and coast now, it will often do damage.
“I think the more difficult thing, frankly, is when business is doing well, and if you have had some success, it is very easy to kind of take your eye off the ball or do things in your business that may not be the right things for the long term,” Rusch says. “I think it’s easy to get a little careless sometimes, so it is really important that you don’t lose your discipline on costs, investments or accountability of your team to execute the plan. In some respects, you have to use constraint.”
It pays to understand the business cycle. The main thing is that there are going to be good times and bad times in any business.
“What you don’t want to do when things are going well is to expect that there is no way for the business to retract or go down,” Rusch says.
You want to always be aware that it doesn’t just always go straight up to the sky. So in those boom times, you may be tempted to expand, to do things that are more risky because you may be emboldened by your past success or you may feel like you really have a nothing-can-stop-you type of mentality.
“But you have to be careful because I think hubris can occur and can lead to problems down the road,” Rusch says. “Overexpansion, too much hiring, too much equipment brought on, new technologies, and new acquisitions — all those kinds of things when businesses are doing very well may not get a careful scrutiny than they would if the business were going through a bad economic cycle.
“I think it’s just that kind of discipline on whether it would be acquiring a piece of equipment or making a new hire that you want to make sure you are doing those things with the full support of your customers, that you know exactly where the business is going from one month to the next, one quarter to the next, one year to the next before you make those decisions.”
Anomatic Corp. has made a name for itself in the anodized aluminum field. Founded in 1966 by William C. Rusch, it is now one of the largest in the world in the category of anodized aluminum. It manufactures caps, covers and packaging components for the cosmetics industry. Scott Rusch has been president and CEO for the past one and half years, succeeding his brother.
Here’s how Scott Rusch assesses business problems in good times and bad times, and how he pursues solutions to them.
Stay within your competencies
Any assessment of a planned improvement in operation or expansion needs to show the multiple reasons for it to come to pass. But ultimately you should compare them to your core competencies to see if each is consistent with those proficiencies.
“I think it is important to stay within your core competencies, remembering what it was that really made you successful,” Rusch says. “They should be consistent, and complementary perhaps, but certainly something that you want to make sure that your customers really are looking for as far as additional value.
“As long as what you are adding is important to your customer, you are probably OK. But every company has core competencies, and if you get outside of them and just assume, ‘Well, I was good at this, and I’ll probably also be good at that,’ you may not be. You want to remember what was successful for you and stay true to that.”
While your company may have had many customers on a long-term basis, it is just as important to inquire regularly what kind of vendor they want as it is to ask all the others.
“Just ask them,” Rusch says. “They will tell you. They will tell you what kind of vendor they want you to be, what kind of services they want you to provide, how you can improve your service. My experience is that you ask, and then you listen. Don’t speak for a while and then let them just tell you and then respond based on what they are telling you they are really looking for.”
It often takes a lot of time and effort to make sure that you understand how their needs are changing, but it will be worth it.
“In our business, because of being in the personal care industry providing metal packaging in our market, it is very tied to what consumers want to buy in the stores,” Rusch says. “What most of our customers talk about today is speed to market and very short lead times. They want to collapse the cycle between what’s being sold in the store and what’s being manufactured in the plants.
“So when you think about that, what’s really is important is to become very good at planning, making sure that you eliminate any bottlenecks in the system so that you can shorten the cycle of replenishment.
“If you do it well, you’ve made that customer very happy because they don’t have to discount products in their stores, they are asking for production of things that are actually selling — and you won’t have extra inventory, you won’t have obsolescence. Those are things to really focus on as well as focusing on speed for current products to market and bringing new products to market much quicker.”
Use continuous assessment methods
Continuous improvement is a frequent goal that many companies seek in order to achieve a higher level of success. But under the surface of that goal is continuous identification and assessment of problems. It may be a little surprising, but past home runs can be definite problems and barriers for the company.
“I think that part of your past success can be a hurdle in terms in trying to really identify problems,” Rusch says. “Organizations often will say, ‘Well, this worked before for us, so let’s do it again,’ but the reality is that it may not work for you in the future.
“I think that you need to stay nimble and react to market changes, and you have to always try to reassess your business, understand where the problems are today and where future problems may exist,” Rusch says. “So stay very focused on where, for instance, technology is going.”
Once you identify a current or future problem, there are actions that can be taken. The first involves obtaining a commitment from your employees.
“What we try to do here as a team when we have identified a problem is that in order to get input from everyone and get people galvanized around making improvements, we first want to try to create a sense of urgency,” Rusch says.
“To do that, you have to communicate to everyone very effectively what the problem is: why it is a problem, why change is needed, and how it would best serve the business, the company itself and also the customer to make those changes.”
When you try to create a sense of urgency, you should avoid the trap of using panic methods that are ineffective.
“People don’t respond to screaming and yelling, ‘Hey everybody, get on board,’ big flowery rallies and that kind of thing,” Rusch says. “What people respond to is when you communicate why it is important to your customer, where your customer is headed, why certain activities that may be going on in the company are detrimental to servicing that customer, and if we lose a customer, what the impact would be on the company.”
If your company has a sense of urgency, it avoids the slower pace of business as usual.
“I think that as long as you communicate very clearly and connect the dots between activities or deficiencies that you have as an organization and how that is affecting the customer and the relationship that you have with the customer, it is pretty easy to create that sense of urgency,” he says.
“You have to really act in a way that makes your customers believe that you have their best interests at heart and that you are doing everything that you can to make them successful as an organization.”
Communication problems are at the heart of almost all conflicts involving people. People can build up resentment if they don’t know what is going on around them. That’s why it is important to clearly communicate why you need to make changes or improvements — the second step after creating a sense of urgency.
“I think for the most part, you can handle it is just through meetings that you have, manager meetings, where you talk very openly about the challenges of the business,” Rusch says. “That’s primarily how we do it.”
If you keep an eye on the ebb and flow of the conversation, you will be able to tell if you are building consensus.
“At the end of each meeting, you will pretty much reach a consensus or if you don’t, you can reconvene, but my feeling is that you always want at every meeting, and especially when you are talking about major items, to be able to assign some actionable items,” Rusch says.
You can set up the ground rules for your meetings so that there is a strict discipline to leave those gatherings with action items that everyone has to do — and with necessary reviews for more action. For the follow-ups, a manager or leader who is very results-oriented should get involved. This is someone who knows you can’t control everything that goes on in the business but is accountable for staying focused on the results.
“I think in that way, you tend to not get bogged down with things that lead you astray from your goal, and I think it’s very important for the leader to say, ‘I am very results-oriented,’” Rusch says.
To measure if you are getting results, you should use a variety of metrics. Develop your own to keep meaningful tabs on what you want to follow. “We have a yearly plan,” he says.
“We set goals for the company, whether for growth or profitability or any of the other metrics that we look at, and we review those every month and track and share information with all the managers.”
If an initiative toward those goals is falling apart, it needs to be identified and dealt with promptly. In most cases, there are reasons for the problem and these deserve to be explored.
“Those reasons help you to reassess where priorities have to be for the organization,” he says. “And take immediate action on them. You can’t wait. You have to address things as they come up immediately, and put together corrective actions.”
How to reach: Anomatic Corp., (740) 522-2203 or www.anomatic.com
The Rusch File
President and CEO Anomatic Corp.
Born: Chicago. I was born and raised in the Chicago area. I moved to Columbus after finishing school in 1975 so Columbus has been home since then.
Education: Texas Christian University, Ft. Worth. I earned a bachelor of science degree in business administration from the M.J. Neeley School of Business.
What was your first job? My first job was working in a grocery store, stocking shelves. I did that when I probably was in seventh grade, in Round Lake, Ill., north of Chicago. My brother and I both worked for the family business when we were teenagers and through college. We were brought up in the business.
What was the best business advice you ever received? My dad, William C. Rusch, said to have a good, strong process behind you, and go sell on that. That’s really what he did because he invented our core technology of the Anomatic system for anodizing. We are one of the largest in the world in the category of anodized aluminum packaging.
Whom do you admire in business? I always had a great amount of admiration for my dad. He has since passed, but he was an innovator and a born salesman always very confident of being successful.
What’s your definition of business success? We define success as making the business stronger, financially, and I think that financial success is key to any business. We also make sure that we talk and think a lot about sustainability in many different ways, sustainability in terms of environmentally making sure that our business is doing the right thing for the environment. Anodizing is an electrochemical process so there are things that have to be controlled in that part of the business but also sustainable in terms of reinvestment in the business.
We need to make sure that our technology is kept current, our machines are in very good working order, our employees have the ability to improve themselves through education or advancement within the business. All those things are really critical to us. That’s how we really look at our business as a success.
The recession was going in the Dumpster.
No, not just figuratively — it was physically going to be thrown in the Dumpster.
On a windy day in the fall of 2009, Kim Yost, then the newly named CEO of Art Van Furniture Inc., carried a large sign bearing the word “recession” to a large waste disposal bin at the back of the main warehouse.
“I literally threw it in the Dumpster,” says Yost. “I then went back to the Dumpster several months later and threw the word ‘no’ into it.”
Yost did it because Art Van needed to get its momentum back. Like countless businesses across the country, the home furnishings retailer was sagging under the weight of the recession. Like countless businesses across southeast Michigan, Art Van’s problems were exacerbated by a local economy that wasn’t in great shape even before the recession. The faltering economy was compounding the crisis – acting as a refrigerator dropped on top the piano that Michigan businesses were already carrying on their backs.
When it is an arduous grind to merely slow the rate of damage, most business leaders are not just going to feel the result when looking at their balance sheets. They’re going to see it and hear it in the attitude of their employees.
Despite a decades-long reputation as one of the region’s and country’s leading home furnishings retailers, Art Van wasn’t immune to the recession’s effects, at the cash register, sales floor or the water cooler. It was up to Yost to make a series of bold moves to re-energize all 2,600 employees at Art Van, in spite of the economic environment in which the business was operating.
“We had to get the organization to go in a completely different direction,” Yost says. “The first thing we had to do was get our attitude completely to the point where we were no longer going to participate in the recession. I went out and publicly announced across the entire organization that the recession was over at Art Van, and we had to take our minds, our hearts and our business in a new direction.”
As Yost fashioned a new direction for Art Van, he kept one overarching belief in mind: small wins in the short term can generate big wins in the long term.
Seize the opportunity
Taking over as CEO in the October 2009, Yost was able to find a potential win simply by turning the page on his calendar. November means Thanksgiving, and Thanksgiving immediately precedes Black Friday and the Christmas shopping season.
“We immediately attacked the possibility of breaking an all-time company record for Black Friday sales in 2009,” Yost says.
Yost wanted to turn the Black Friday sales mark into a universal company goal. He wanted to create a companywide buzz around breaking the record. And, above all, he wanted his employees to leave the thunderclouds of the recession outside, bringing a sunny disposition inside the walls at every Art Van location.
“What we did were three things,” he says. “We started to act and perform as if the economy was terrific, as if we were back in the early 2000s. We developed our flier, our television campaign and the look of our stores to consistently resemble what we did in the early 2000s — say, the year 2001. From a marketing point of view, that was what we did when the economy was at its best.
“Second, we had a series of sales contests and sales promotions internally to encourage everybody to break the record. We were moving in a new direction, so we had to get that small win really early. The last thing we did was we created a game book. I have been playing sports since I was young, and I had a history in my professional career of creating game books that are unique. So we put together a Black Friday record-breaking game book for November 2009 and used that as our checklist.”
There were 32 steps the company needed to complete in order to break the record. Yost and his leadership team educated the work force on each step, what it would take to address each step and, in turn, break the sales record.
The methodical and comprehensive approach to staff motivation had the desired effect. Not only did Art Van’s associates focus on breaking the Black Friday sales record, they stepped up their game overall. Art Van broke the sales record, and the momentum from the campaign carried over to ensuing big-sale days.
“In November 2009, not only did we eclipse our company record, we did it again the day after Christmas, which is another very important sale date,” Yost says. “Then on New Year’s Day, which is another very big-event promotion for us, we broke another record. So by the time we had Black Friday, the day after Christmas and New Year’s Day, we were now creating momentum.”
After the rapid-fire success of the three sales events, the seeds for a long-term culture shift had been planted. It was up to Yost and his leadership team to feed and water the seeds until they started to sprout, then bloom, then bear fruit. Yost sent his team to all Art Van locations to recap the success of the campaign and illustrate a plan to sustain and increase the momentum moving forward.
“The leadership went out to all our stores and went through detailed discussions on how we were able to change the momentum,” Yost says. “We showed videos centered on inspiration and motivation, our tactics and strategies, we went over the success of the three promotions and what it took to do it. We literally spoke to every employee about what we were trying to accomplish.”
Write the book
The information exchanged at the on-site meetings helped to produce the company’s first annual game book. The offspring of the game book used to launch the Black Friday sales campaign, Art Van’s first annual game book, “Clarity of Purpose,” took the motivational concepts used to spur the success of the sales campaign and extended it to motivate employees to accomplish the company’s goals for the whole year in 2010.
“In the three years that we have now been going in a different direction, we have produced three annual game books — one for 2010, one for 2011 and one for 2012,” Yost says. “Every single person in the organization was aligned behind the business plan. We re-enacted that same business plan for our 2011 game book, ‘The Next Level,’ and for 2012, which is called ‘Act Now.’ So we have made three separate roadmaps to success for each of the past three years.”
The game books for each year have been written by Art Van’s 16-member executive leadership team through a collaborative process. Each book outlines a series of specific initiatives that will receive the lion’s share of the company’s resources.
“We only have three resources that we can put into motion: time, money and effort,” Yost says. “Those key initiatives get all three of those resources for 12 months. We build on it, we communicate on it, we execute on it. But the focus has been that all 16 of us worked with collaboration to identify those key initiatives, and more importantly, to develop initiatives right throughout the organization, getting absolute alignment from stock room to board room, putting us all on the same path.”
Art Van has 2,600 direct employees, but once you factor in external support staff that also needs alignment on the vision and goals of the company — such as those who work for the company’s advertising agency, suppliers and key product providers — the number is closer to 3,000, according to Yost. That means the messages in Art Van’s annual game books have to reach a vast audience working at many different locations both inside and outside the company’s hierarchy.
“When you make the decision to park the recession in the Dumpster, as we did back in the fall of 2009, you make the decision to embark on a new course,” Yost says. “That means you have to get everybody marching alongside you. It takes a lot of heavy lifting, and a lot of triggering and communication, to get people to where they need to be.”
Yost and his team launched Art Van Television to help increase the profile of the company’s strategy. The in-house television network broadcasts in all Art Van locations, keeping employees updated on company events and promotions, and other information pertinent to the strategic direction of the company.
“We have over 100 50-inch flat-panel television screens all across our organization,” Yost says. “We are now able to broadcast all of our daily happenings to the organization in real time. Special events, activities, different promotions we are working on, the launch of our brand promise, which is a new program we just launched for our new brand initiative. All of that is communicated daily on AVTV. The screens are all throughout our corporate office, our distribution network and our 40 stores. All employees get exposed to it on a daily basis.”
Conveying your strategic plan and objectives comprises a large part of what it takes to point your company in a new direction. But it’s not the whole story. You need to give your employees a chance to have their say. If you don’t give your employees at all levels and locations a chance to voice their opinions and offer feedback, you can’t expect total engagement in the future direction of the organization.
When he began to fashion Art Van’s new direction in late 2009, Yost didn’t want to just physically prod his work force to sell more. He wanted to mentally stimulate them to think about how things could work better – how internal systems could improve, how new promotions could bring customers into the stores, how Yost and his leadership team could do their jobs more efficiently and effectively.
The answer for Yost wasn’t just about more sales and marketing muscle. It was about a better attitude and thousands of employees coming to work each day empowered to do their best work.
“If you’re going to aim your company in a new direction, you first need to capture the minds and hearts of your team,” he says. “That is why I literally needed to park the word ‘recession’ in the Dumpster. It was because we needed to change our vocabulary. We needed to get rid of words like ‘no’ and embrace change. And it’s all going to start with the leadership.”
As the leadership goes, so goes the rest of your company. You and your leadership team have to be the ones to set the example, develop the proper attitude, reach out to employees and keep the dialogue moving. If you don’t lead from the front, you can’t expect anyone else to step up and do it.
“We have a saying here that goes, ‘Speed of the leader, speed of the team, quality of the leader, quality of the team,’” Yost says. “We, here at Art Van and as leaders overall, get the team we deserve. As much as I’d like to give you the magic bullet that you can put to any business and it will miraculously start to improve, it is all about leadership. Every day, our leaders come to work inspired and motivated to take their teams to the next level.
“To have leadership that is motivated and inspired, you have to have them winning. When they are winning, it’s much easier to keep the momentum, and then you have to challenge them, every day, every week, every month. Another thing we say around here is ‘Winning isn’t everything, but wanting to is.’ There can be no complacency. You have to want to win every day.”
How to reach: Art Van Furniture Inc., (586) 939-0800 or www.artvan.com
The Yost file
Born: Red Deer, Alberta, Canada
Other projects: Yost is the author of “Pumptitude: Pump Up Your Attitude and Gain Altitude,” available at www.pumptitude.com.
Yost on managing growth: Speed wins, slow loses. But you have to have controlled and profitable growth, and each organization has a different ability to adapt. What I’ve found so terrific about our team is that this is a team of very fast and quick-adapting individuals. We have 91 leadership-level individuals, including sales managers and store managers. They enjoy the speed and the tempo.
But you can get to a point where you have to judge how much your team can absorb and execute to the degree of quality, and you have to pace yourself. This is a marathon, not a sprint. You do that by giving them achievable goals within short term ranges, and give them the ability to relish the success of that goal — maybe a bit of a breather — and then you get on to the next one.
If you are in dense enough forest, you have to give your team the ability to get a little bit of a clearing. They catch up, get organized and regroup, and make another little clearing. Then you let them catch up and regroup, and they hit the forest again, and so forth. So we have been very careful to watch our tempo and manage our speed, to manage out some of the things we have done to balance out the execution.
Yost on how the recession has changed the business world: I tend to refer to this recessionary time as the ‘brave new world.’ It is not going to go away even in the distant future, and we need to embrace the fact that it is here now and it exists, and so instead of going out of business, we need to go out for business. We have gained market share over the last three years consecutively, we have nine quarters of same-store sales increase, and nine quarters of consistent market share growth.
One thing MedSynergies Inc. has gotten good at is growing fast. The company’s revenue has been rising at an eye-popping rate, 30 percent plus for eight years running. But a byproduct of that whirlwind growth is that it’s difficult to find and retain workers who can keep up the pace. Sometimes people get left in the dust.
“The biggest issue we face is getting and keeping quality people,” says J.R. Thomas, CEO of Irving, Texas-based MedSynergies, which manages business operations for health care providers. “It’s tough to recruit and develop human talent while growing so quickly.
“Our growth comes in spurts,” Thomas says. “It’s not a linear model, and that can make it hard for people. The issue of the skill sets that are needed, the talent level that’s needed, coupled with the inadequacy of the educational system we have today, plus the complexity of people’s personal situations — this all creates serious challenges in terms of getting and retaining talented workers.”
MedSynergies’ leaders began to notice the problem eight years ago. “In 2004 we did a large transaction to put private equity in the company to grow it, and we hired a lot of people,” Thomas says. “We received plenty of impressive resumes, but we found that some of the people we hired had performance issues that weren’t evident through the interview process or the reference process. We weren’t getting the value we thought we should get. It became a real problem.”
This led to an uptick in employee turnover, which produced a slew of issues for MedSynergies. “When you start to get into a situation where you’ve created a hyper turnover rate, you start to lose the culture of the company you’ve built,” Thomas says. “You start to see tension develop between the people who’ve been around for 13, 14 years and the new people you’re bringing in. You have to find a way to reinvigorate your company’s culture and teach your fundamentals to all the new people — your mission, your tactics, your strategy. As one of our people said, ‘We have to “MedSynergize” these people in how we do business.’
“The cultural aspects of turnover are a substantial investment,” he says. “It can be an expensive process. But if you don’t deal with it, you can’t grow over the long term.”
In the eight years since its growth started accelerating, MedSynergies has experienced mixed results in recruiting and developing staff. “Overall I’d give us a B or a C,” Thomas says. “I’m not sure anyone ever gets an A in that process. And it’s an ongoing process; I don’t think it ever gets completely resolved. You just try to keep getting better at it.”
Train the troops
MedSynergies has undertaken a number programs and initiatives aimed at improving its recruitment and development of employees, with varying degrees of success. One of the first was a training program the company’s leaders dubbed MSI Boot Camp.
“We looked at this problem in 2004 and saw that it wasn’t going to go away,” Thomas says. “In fact, we began to see that the magnitude of the problem actually gets bigger as you grow. And this isn’t a matter of simply identifying a problem and then solving it. You can get better at mitigating it, but I don’t think you can solve it.”
New business was rolling in, so MedSynergies’ leadership team had to set up the new training program on the fly.
“At the time, we didn’t have a lot of time on our hands to create PowerPoints, to have great thoughts about how we were going to build our culture and onboard people,” Thomas says. “I think most small companies have that problem because everybody wears so many hats. We had to move. We had operations, we had new customers, and we were trying to hire people and grow. So the decision making was pretty quick.
“We started the boot camp and started walking our employees through things like the life of a claim and our five key metrics, which are one of our cornerstones — the foundational elements of a physician’s practice,” Thomas says. “It’s one of the things you’ve got to do right first because it’s a precedent to everything else. There’s some pretty core stuff you have to do. And very few people do it well. It has a lot of process rigor around it.”
Boot camp was an apt name for the program, as Thomas describes it.
“It was two 10-hour days, roll up your sleeves, hard core,” he says. “We covered areas like what you tell the client, what it means, how it impacts the company. And we got good results. One byproduct of that process is we found out some people at various levels of the company had skill sets that were above what they were hired in at. And we found the converse was true, too. Some people who were supposed to know it all and be an immediate impact player couldn’t dribble the ball.
“So it helped us evaluate, from a senior management perspective, our talent level in the company at that point. It also helped our ability to recruit, and it started building a culture about how we do our business.”
Go back to school
Another step MedSynergies took was aimed squarely at the problem of recruitment and the shortage of suitable talent.
“One of the big obstacles we face is that the level of talent we need at all levels of the company to meet our growth needs exceeds the ability of the city and the region of North Texas to supply it,” Thomas says. “We are really struggling to find talent at $12 to $15 an hour all the way up to $100,000 a year — and even above that level.”
MedSynergies is partly addressing this problem by partnering with a local institution that Thomas says is overlooked by many businesses in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.
“Probably the biggest unknown, unappreciated asset in Dallas-Fort Worth is the Dallas County Community College,” he says. “It’s huge. It’s one of the largest assets that, economically, we don’t know anything about. Most people don’t. I didn’t.”
A MedSynergies client who is involved with the community college convinced Thomas that his company would benefit by partnering with the school.
“We committed to do a couple things with the community college,” Thomas says. “One is we wrote a check to build a portal to help their students get jobs. So what they’re in the process of doing now is building a website where students can put their resume out and apply for jobs.”
Thomas says that part of his motivation for entering into this partnership was selfish. “I wanted access to their best and brightest to hire, at all levels of the company,” he says. “The community college is a great economic tool, and it’s a great societal tool. These are kids that are really working their way up. They either go on to four-year colleges or come out with a two-year degree, and they turn into great employees and do a phenomenal job.
“The other part is we want the community college students to look back and say, ‘They helped me get a job, so therefore I want to perpetuate the program,’” he says. “So it’s not just a charitable event. It’s really a business enterprise to pay back the school that’s done so many great things for you.
“I have high hopes for that,” Thomas says. “I think it will help our hiring process, and I think it will have some societal benefits for the community college and raise some awareness about how good a job they’re doing. They’re doing absolutely phenomenal work at the community college level. So I’m real enthused about that.”
Identify your stars
To help with employee morale and improve information sharing, MedSynergies has launched a monthly executive-employee communication program called Lunch With Leaders.
“It’s a monthly luncheon,” Thomas says. “It’s an open sign-up-to-have-lunch-with-an-executive program. Lunch is provided, and it’s a free-ranging group discussion. So you’ll hear things like, ‘I don’t understand my benefits. Are they better? Are they worse?’ Or there will be discussions about topics like working from home and other policy issues. It’s a great format to communicate with employees throughout the organization, because we find that they know a lot about what’s going on, while many of us sitting with C’s in front of our titles don’t really know that much about what’s going on.”
The Lunch With Leaders program has another important benefit. By fostering interaction between executives and employees, it makes it easier for MedSynergies’ higher-ups to identify who the company’s future leaders are likely to be.
“We’re trying to identify our superstars,” Thomas says. “There are probably 45 people in this company who are outstanding, phenomenal talent. And at the other end, there are probably another 45 people that the company will do great things without. And identifying both is very important to us.”
Asked what advice he would give other executives facing a similar predicament dealing with the dearth of available talent, Thomas says trusting your judgment is crucial.
“When you start to have a concern and you start to think there’s a problem or a potential issue, that means there is one,” he says. “Don’t second-guess yourself. You need to think about some of these issues, and you’ve got to continue to review your management team and your staff, and if you have a concern or issue, you need to trust yourself. You need to communicate it and deal with it immediately. Don’t wait.”
Another piece of advice Thomas offered CEOs is to be willing to admit you’re fallible.
“We all have egos, but sometimes you’ve got to be able to say you made a mistake, and address the mistake and move on,” he says. “We’ve done that. It’s not fun; it’s not easy. But when you tell someone ‘I made a mistake’ and you correct it, you build trust in that employee — whether it’s lateral or above you or below you. It doesn’t matter. They’re all important.”
Asked if he thinks MedSynergies has turned the corner toward resolving its problems with attracting and retaining talent while maintaining its rapid growth path, Thomas says he sees signs that the company is improving, and he feels that constant improvement should be the goal because true resolution isn’t possible in this case.
“It’s an evolutionary process, and I don’t think we’ll ever truly resolve it,” he says. “But we’re making a lot of progress. We’re seeing better employee satisfaction. We’re seeing more referrals from existing employees for jobs. We’re getting more job applicants for open positions than we used to have. On the other hand, we’re also seeing a downside: We’re starting to see our people being recruited by other companies. People say, ‘Hey, I want to hire from MedSynergies because they have some knowledge we can use.’ But that’s part of the deal.
“If you’re doing the right things as the CEO of the company, the average performance of the employees should continually improve,” Thomas says. “In other words, on the bell curve, you’re constantly trying to move your average toward the right, which is better performance. And as you move the bar to the right, you’ve still got to deal with the part that’s to the left — the people who are not performing to the level that the job needs.
“And it never ends. You’ll never get to where everybody is an A performer. It’s mathematically not going to happen.”
HOW TO REACH: MedSynergies Inc., (972) 791-1224, www.medsynergies.com
THE THOMAS FILE
Name: J.R. Thomas
Company: MedSynergies Inc.
Born: Little Rock, Ark.
Education: B.S. in zoology, University of Arkansas; MBA, University of Texas
What’s the most important thing you learned during your years in school that you use today?
It has nothing to do with the technical components, the debits and credits and pension accounting and microeconomics and macroeconomics. The most important issue about going to school is who you’re sitting next to. Because business is about people and the things they have to deal with, the issues and pressures and performance. And it’s not about psychology or sociology. It’s about how people make decisions and how you’re going to attach and relate to that customer.
What was your first job, and what did you learn from it?
When I was growing up, I worked on our family farm. Among other things, we had a commercial hay and straw baling operation. In high school, my brother and I baled 44,000 bales of straw in a month. And the concept of quit never existed. We were greasing a hay baler early in the morning in the dust and dirt, and we’d come home at 7 o’clock at night, dirty as hell, sunburned, mosquito bitten. But the value of that is we learned that when things get tough, you’ve got to put the hammer down and keep going.
Do you have any overriding business philosophy that you use to guide you?
There’s no substitute for work. Go to work every day. Have a blue-collar mentality. Bring your lunch pail to work.
What trait do you think is the most important one for a CEO to have in order to be a successful leader?
You have to have integrity and respect. There are lots of smart people out there, but to get people to charge a hill, it’s about more than organizational structure or market opportunities or empowerment. It’s about these people sitting side by side with you. Are they going to march up the hill with you? They’ve got to trust you and trust that you’re going do the right thing.
Stephen Smith is an ambitious guy. He turned that ambition into great success as an attorney at Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger LLP. But as he prepared for his new role as the law firm’s managing partner, he was concerned that the ambition everyone knew he had might come back to hurt him.
“I was a young up-and-coming whippersnapper at the firm who had had a lot of personal success and a growing book of business,” Smith says. “I was concerned that people would view my political success within the firm as being related to my own self interests.”
Smith wanted the people who now worked for him to understand that his ascendance to managing partner was not a hostile takeover. Rather, it was the next step in his journey to help the 160-employee firm, and everyone who worked there, be as successful as they could be.
“I felt like I needed to do various things and communicate various things to demonstrate to people that, ‘Listen, if I’m taking this job as managing partner, I’m doing it because I love the firm and I love the people,’” Smith says.
“I had to demonstrate to people at all levels, from our kitchen staff and runners all the way up to the senior-most partners with the biggest books of business, that I was doing this to help make the firm better and stronger. I wasn’t doing it to feather my own nest.”
The wisdom of Smith’s effort to be a selfless leader was only bolstered when he asked people what they liked most about Norm Levine, the man he was replacing as managing partner.
“No one ever thought that Norm put his own interests above the interests of the firm,” Smith says. “They all said that whether they agreed with Norm about an issue or disagreed, he was always acting in good faith to do what he thought was best for the firm. I just remember being struck by that. It’s also the thing I’ve liked about Norm. I just felt like that’s the one characteristic I need to make sure I’m emulating completely.”
Be mindful of your image
Smith needed to take as many opportunities as he could to show his eagerness to help his employees shine. One way was his approach to origination credit. In law firms, this is a term used for recognizing a person who management believes is responsible for bringing in a new client.
“You get paid for that because that’s probably the most important thing you can do as a lawyer because it allows the firm to exist,” Smith says. “We have to have clients and most people think that’s the hardest thing to do.”
The concept of giving someone credit for generating business is not unique to law firms. It happens in businesses of all types. And what became clear to Smith was that as the person at the top of his organization, he couldn’t be the one basking in the credit of generating new business.
“I started becoming incredibly liberal about sharing credit,” Smith says. “As managing partner, I’ve said to other members of the management committee, I would rather not get any origination credit on any new clients I bring into the firm because I want other lawyers to get that credit or the firm to get that credit so that people understand that my job is not to make my own book of business bigger. My job is to make the firm bigger.”
To that end, Smith didn’t stop at deflecting credit to his employees. He wanted to clearly show that he was working just as hard as they were, if not harder, to help them earn even more victories.
“You can only lead a group of people, especially in a democracy like a law partnership, by being credible at all times,” Smith says. “One of the things you have to do to demonstrate you are working as hard as anyone else is you have to be visible to them. You need to know your people. They need to know you. You need to be responsive to them. You have to think about what they care about.”
When Smith is out meeting with his people, he does it honestly and without an agenda or script.
“It’s not like I schedule a meeting and say, ‘I’m going to talk to you about your personal life for the next 15 minutes,’” Smith says. “I talk to people in all kinds of different settings.”
His goal is to demonstrate in as many ways as possible that he is on the side of his people and that he truly is working to make them look better. That only comes through building strong relationships.
“You have to really know them personally,” Smith says. “You have to know what is going on in their lives. For example, if someone has come in late to work for two or three days in a row. You don’t want to jump to the assumption that someone is being lazy. You want to know that the guy went to the University of Texas with his daughter to walk her around the campus because she was considering going there. Otherwise, you might jump to the wrong conclusion.”
Smith makes it a point to attend the firm’s traditional Friday drinks session in the attorney dining room as often as he can, along with other social gatherings that take place.
“It’s honest and it’s not something for show,” Smith says. “To be frank, I think in large part, it’s the reason I am managing partner. People have seen me behave that way and care that way ever since I was a first-year lawyer here.”
Be willing to hear criticism
Smith spends a lot of time thinking about ways to demonstrate to his people that he is there to help them achieve success. He is also the firm’s managing partner, a fact which his people need to be aware of when they think of him.
“It is my job to lead the firm,” Smith says. “I’m the person who is supposed to stand up at partner meetings and tell people, ‘This is what I think we should do and here’s why.’”
Effective leadership is all about using the time spent talking to people to gather data and information that will then help you make better decisions for your organization. Sometimes, that means you’ll be criticized.
If you’re not OK with that, you’ve got a problem.
“The thing I like most about my relationship with the associates is they have no hesitation telling me when they think I’m doing something wrong,” Smith says. “I think that is incredibly valuable. They have told me sometimes that I have done stuff wrong. A number of times, they have convinced me that they were right and I was wrong.”
Smith flashes back to an instance three years ago during the recession when the firm was going to make pay cuts with the hope of avoiding layoffs.
“The associates and partners told me that they thought I was wrong,” Smith says. “And I concluded that I was wrong and they were right and the decision was undone a few months later. I cite that all the time as an example of how glad I am that people told me I was wrong. So I have to be willing to encourage people to tell me that and then I have to be willing to do something about it. But you can’t just get up and say that to people. You have to prove that day in and day out.”
Ideally, you create a forum where criticism can be offered in a constructive setting. Otherwise, it could get personal and that’s not good for anybody.
“We have what we call an associate committee where we have representatives that meet with the management committee,” Smith says. “Their job is to be the representative of their constituency, which is the associates. I used to be on the associate committee back when I was an associate.
“We encourage the associate committee to speak very frankly. We do not retaliate against them when they do so. If they say something critical of management, we’ve never once done anything to retaliate. We have a reputation internally as being fair on that. But that comes only with a long history of proving it.”
In other words, you can’t create a committee from scratch and expect to get instant feedback about what you’re doing wrong. Especially if you’ve tried it before, but got defensive when someone was critical of you and said something like, ‘No more negative comments.’
If you can summon the strength to take a little heat, you’ll earn valuable respect and have a better company at the end of the day.
“It’s more important for the managing partner to say, ‘OK, what does that criticism mean?’” Smith says. “What are we going to do to make it better or solve that problem? That’s the difference between just being a partner or a person with an opinion, which is perfectly valid, and being the leader of the group. The leader of the group says, ‘OK, I acknowledge there is a problem. How do we solve it?’”
Lead with consistency
As you’re building stronger bonds with your people and engaging them in what you’re doing, you need to take caution that you don’t show any sense of favoritism for one group over another.
You’ve got to approach relationships with consistency in mind so that when the time comes to make difficult decision, people won’t see anything unfair about how those decisions were made.
“It goes to credibility,” Smith says. “I am fine informing people of something that is unpleasant, whether it’s a termination or cutting something in a budget or whether it’s refusing to spend money on something somebody wants me to spend money on.
“I’m comfortable doing that as long as I’ve been consistent in my messages prior to that point in time. What is unfair and what makes it incredibly difficult is if you have not been consistent. The people you are leading are usually pretty smart and they will know if you are selling them something that isn’t true immediately.”
To drive his point home, Smith refers, with a chuckle, to his “stupid little analogy about my boat.”
He compares an organization to a boat with all the people, including the leader, serving as rowers on the boat. And in order for the boat to keep moving, everyone needs to be rowing in the same direction.
“So when I have something critical to say about someone, it usually has to do with the direction they are rowing being off kilter,” Smith says. “If it’s completely backwards, then they are usually going to be terminated. By the way, that’s at any level. That includes partners because it’s about being consistent.
“If I’m going to have any credibility among my directors or if I’m going to have any credibility among the associates, I have to be consistent with the partners. And although the partners are obviously the bosses and obviously more powerful in one sense, I, as managing partner, try very hard to be consistent in the way I treat people at all the different levels.”
So as Smith continues to learn about his people and what is needed to help the law firm succeed, he’ll also continue to be conscious of his image with his employees.
“You’re being judged as the leader of the firm and the firm itself,” Smith says. “Everything you say and everything you do is going to be seen through that lens. So you have to comport yourself, whether it’s the way you dress or the way you speak to people or how hard you work, whether you are here in the morning before people or in the evening after people, you have to remember all of those things about being a role model for the people you’re leading. I want everybody to know I’m rowing the boat harder than anybody.”
How to reach: Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger LLP, (310) 553-3610 or www.greenbergglusker.com
The Smith File
Stephen Smith, managing partner, Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman & Machtinger LLP
Born: Gainesville, Fla.
Education: Bachelor’s degree, economics, Rice University; law degree, University of Texas at Austin
What was your very first job?
Bresler’s 33 Flavors Ice Cream in San Antonio. To this day, I’m not an ice cream lover because if you work in an ice cream shop long enough, the smell of ice cream starts to rub you the wrong way.
Who has been most influential on your life?
Both my parents, but if I had to pick one, my mom. I have some characteristics of my mom and some of my dad. But overall my mom wins. My mom did it through words, whereas my dad did it through behavior. My mom was much more communicative with me. She was the person I always talked to and argued with. I knew I was going to be a lawyer probably from the age of 13. That’s really because my mom and I used to always debate every issue.
Favorite book: “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The way Atticus Finch has to deal with that case is incredibly accurate. And it shows that it does not always work.
Whom would you like to sit down and talk to and why?
President Abraham Lincoln. He’s a combination of political genius, while at the same time being incredibly principled. George Washington is definitely second. I’ve read a bunch about both of them. They were the real deal. The reason I give Lincoln a little bit of the nod is simply because he was trying to lead a group of people, a country, that was totally trying to rip itself apart.
David Epstein understands that his passion for customer service can become irritating.
“It drives my wife crazy,” says Epstein, the co-founder, chairman and co-CEO of C3/CustomerContactChannels. “If I walk into a store with her and I see something wrong, I’m immediately re-engineering the entire process of the store.”
For Epstein, customer service isn’t just a job; it’s a way to make a difference in people’s lives and help them solve their problems. As a well-known venture capitalist, one of the founding members of the American Marketing Association and the head of numerous successful business enterprises in his career, he knows that this mentality is even more powerful when it’s a group one.
“There isn’t a person that works at C3 who doesn’t understand the impact that they can make every day, not only on C3, but on our clients and our client’s customers,” Epstein says.
By filling C3 with employees who see their jobs as an opportunity to make a difference, and then giving them a culture and leadership that supports them, Epstein has helped grow the business process outsourcing (BPO) company from 15 to 7,200 employees in just two years.
Raise the bar minimum
To provide its BPO services for clients and customers, it’s been necessary for C3 to hire thousands of people in a rather short period of time. But as it’s filled its contact centers across 16 worldwide locations, the company has been careful not to take hiring lightly.
While the BPO industry is known for its triple-digit turnover and employees who look at the positions as “phone jobs,” Epstein says that the root problem, as in many industries, isn’t the job. It’s that companies aren’t being discriminating enough in the hiring process to weed out candidates who they know probably won’t be successful.
“Typically, for every 10 people that are interviewed, this industry has a reputation for saying that eight of them are qualified or they are offered a job,” he says. “There’s not been a steeped process for selecting the right kind of people.”
Just because someone can do a job, doesn’t mean that care about doing it well. When you hire employees who don’t care, that translates into the customer and client experience.
That’s why C3 has a talent acquisition team that is extremely judicious in selecting people who are the right ones to grow the business.
“We go through a whole different kind of profiling to understand if somebody is really going to have the propensity to be successful in this job,” Epstein says. “It starts with their communication skills but it really ends with, ‘Will they have that passion? Will they feel that energy and share the values and be here day in and day out in this job to do a great job for our clients?’”
For every 10 people that are interviewed, the company typically narrows the pool down to three or four that it thinks demonstrate the right skills and attitudes.
“We feel like making a difference is an important element to what we do every day,” Epstein says. “So our people who are out in the field select the right kind of people that want to come to work not just because they need a paycheck, but because they want to make a difference for themselves, for their company, their clients and the people on the other end of the phone.”
When you start with the right employees, you can feel comfortable tapping those people for referrals who they know share the same values.
“It’s the friend-get-a-friend concept, but it continues to grow,” Epstein says.
Since 2010, he says that the company has seen turnover 70 percent lower than the industry standard — only two or three percent of call center employees each month.
“Because we’re selective on the way in, it reduces our turnover down to a very, very manageable number,” Epstein says.
“We believe that we’ve really put together the dream team of the BPO space.”
Help people, not clients
There’s a true story Epstein frequently tells when he’s out in the field or speaking to training classes. It was several years ago when one of the company’s health care clients was walking through a contact center and came across a C3 customer service professional who was crying. After the agent regained her composure and finished the call, the client went back to her and asked about what had happened. She replied that she was assisting an elderly man with his prescriptions and he had been extremely appreciative, saying that he didn’t have any family around to help him. Noticing that his birthday was the following day, she’d also wished him a happy birthday.
“He began to cry because it was the first time in three years that he had heard those words,” Epstein says. “We tell that story and we say, do you think she made a difference for that gentleman that day? She made a difference in his life.”
Before you can make a difference with customers, Epstein says you need your people to care about customer service on a deeper level than a job or a business transaction. That involves creating a culture that engages people on a personal level.
“It is a paramount objective for us to make a difference for our clients,” Epstein says. “But first you need to make a difference for yourself. Then you’ve got a chance to make a difference for the company you work for.”
While it’s easy to write something on paper and make it a corporate goal, it becomes a personal goal when you actually live it. This is one of the reasons the company encourages employees to extend the culture of “making a difference” to its communities.
“When things become deeply personal they become deep corporate commitments,” Epstein says.
In recent years, the company’s centers have donated more than $1 million to various causes. But aside from the money, employees know that making a difference is also about community involvement. The organization’s 900 employees in Salt Lake City, Utah have been so involved with community activities and fundraising that they now have a reporter for the local paper assigned to follow their efforts. Another example is C3’s employees in Twin Falls, Idaho, which knit more than 1,000 beanies for the premature infants ward at a local hospital.
“They were sitting there at home or on break with knitting needles, learning how to knit to make these things,” Epstein says. “You won’t find that at most places, but that was a reflection of the culture we’ve tried to create and we have created.”
Around the organization, Epstein says that you’ll find employees using the expression “I’m MAD for C3,” which stands for I Make A Difference for C3. This personal commitment to helping others translates into people’s attitudes toward customer service. When employees are on the phone, they connect to the person on the other end of the line instead of only thinking of doing a good job for the client.
“When people talk about a brand online, it’s usually because they’re frustrated with the service of the brand,” Epstein says. “In the hotel and hospitality industry it’s something like 35 or 40 percent of Facebook messages and blogging is usually about the service. You have a chance to make a difference by helping somebody get through something that they are seeking help on and they are frustrated.
“That is why I think people want to stay part of C3. They aren’t looking for ‘Let me just get that paycheck’ and that’s it.”
Don’t “make it work”
Creating a culture that supports employees and helps them succeed translates into better customer service, which translates into more success for your business.
“When you have a passion in your culture for taking care of your clients and your customers, that will help manage a lot of the velocity of growing so quickly,” Epstein says.
But once you have the right people and the right culture, your company’s leadership needs to make the right decisions for employees to succeed long-term.
Being entrepreneurs, a constant test for Epstein and his partners is being able to say no to certain opportunities. Whenever an opportunity presents itself, there’s a natural inclination to want to seize on it even if it might not be good for your people or your business.
“It could be prospective client that doesn’t fit right with us today, and so it’s hard to say no because you really want to build and grow,” Epstein says. “It could be an acquisition that presents itself where as you peel it back more and more, you find out culturally it will never really work. There’s a tendency for entrepreneurs to say, ‘Well, I can make it work because I’ve been learning to do that my whole career.’”
Epstein’s advice? Know when to say no. When he became one of the owners of the NHL Florida Panthers hockey team 11 years ago, Epstein says he learned this lesson the hard way.
“I thought without a doubt I could change how the business model works for a hockey team and a sports franchise,” he says. “My general feeling was that they weren’t run well and that if me and my partners who were smart business guys and had built big businesses, we could get in there, then we’d be smarter than these other guys and we could change it. Guess what? No.”
If you want your employees to stay focused on customer service excellence, as a leader, you can’t afford to be lured into opportunities that will negatively impact your business. Being a good steward for them requires managers to be good listeners, listening to their people as well as to the market.
“When you stop worrying about how much talking you’re doing and you start to listen, you can hear themes that go on that tell you, ‘OK, maybe things are going a little too quickly over here and I need to pull the reins in a little or I need to add some more resources to that,” Epstein says.
If you see an increasing demand in a certain business line, as was the case for C3’s performance optimization business, don’t hesitate to add resources accordingly — more employees, better technology — to make sure you’re not outgrowing your infrastructure. While looking at metrics is important, Epstein says that being a good listener really helps you develop a gut feel about your business that will more often than not alert you to the right path.
“The biggest thing is not to fool yourself into thinking something can be something, even though deep inside you can hear that little voice — the one you try to ignore — that’s telling you that this is really not the right fit,” Epstein says.
The same goes for people, he says. Many companies hang onto people too long before eventually admitting the fit isn’t right and that they aren’t supporting the goals or the culture you want for the organization.
“It goes on for far too long and everybody would be better off if that person was doing something different,” Epstein says.
“If you’re building an organization and you have people who don’t belong, do yourself a favor and do them a favor and get them to move on quickly.”
As in any business, it’s hard to keep a perfect track record. Still, you can do your best to listen to understand the marketplace as well as your own instincts, which typically can guide you to the best decisions.
“Undoubtedly, we will make a mistake somewhere along the line and something won’t fit in the way we thought,” Epstein says. “That’s going to happen. It’s how you minimize that that makes the difference.”
In the last couple of years, the velocity of C3’s growth has been extraordinary, which Epstein says speaks strongly to the quality of people that work for the company and their drive to make a difference. The organization’s success in this mission also explains why 90 percent of promotions at the company have been internal.
“People look at that and they say, ‘This more than just a phone job,’” Epstein says. “This is a career path and this is a company that cares about its employees, cares about its customers, cares about the people calling and cares about its community. All of those things tied into what we do and culturally who they are have given us an edge and helped us continue to be successful.”
How to reach: C3/CustomerContactChannels, (954) 849-0622 or www.c3connect.com
1. Be selective about hiring.
2. Make your mission more than just a job.
3. Follow your instincts to lead people in the right direction.
The Epstein File
Co-founder, chairman and co-CEO
Born: New Rochelle, New York
Education: Florida International University
What goal would you still like to achieve in business?
To continue to spawn the next generation of entrepreneurs, whether it’s people that are entrepreneurial at C3 that are coming up with great ideas to build the company or it’s people who have all of this entrepreneurial energy and it doesn’t fit for C3 — helping them do it on their own or somewhere else. I think that spawning more entrepreneurism and doing that is a more personal goal. Also, it’s the idea that we continue to put people back to work.
Three things that business leaders need to know:
- Your business: “It’s important to be clear on who you are and what you are as an organization, not try to be something that you’re not.”
- Your go-forward strategy: “It’s like a tennis player. If you’re playing the game of tennis you either play the net or you play the baseline. You don’t play in the middle. When you play in the middle you’re dead. You have to pick your path and your strategy.”
- Your fears: “Don’t let fear be your driver. It’s important to recognize that while some fears are clearly legitimate — you should be afraid of certain things and you shouldn’t ignore the consequences that come along with it — you can’t let it rule the day. You have to put fear in its right place, and frankly the key is to master wanting that fear.”
Situational awareness is a fundamental part of managing a team when you’re on the battlefield. It’s imperative that you know the terrain and the environment you are entering. You need to have the right equipment to get the job done, and you need to understand the enemy — your competitors.
For example, if you’re doing a beach landing, you need equipment that doesn’t get you stuck in sand. The last thing that you want is to jump out of a plane with your flippers on, only to land somewhere other than in the water. It sounds simple. But you would be surprised how many of these simple principles are overlooked in planning.
The Marines teach clear and concise planning, which is also valuable to you as a corporate leader. You must formulate a very clear business strategy. It doesn’t have to be the ultimate plan or remain unchanged for all time, but it has to be a plan that you and your team believe in. In an environment that requires everyone to work very hard — whether it’s because you’re getting the business off the ground, changing direction, going through difficult financial times or up against a big, competitive threat — it’s vital to have a strategy that you can communicate clearly and will be understood by those following you.
While he or she must have a strategy and a plan of action, a leader also needs to make sure that the plan is flexible, understanding when and how you will need to adapt or improvise in the future. Marines are taught the key skills of improvisation, adaptation and perseverance, particularly in times of duress. There is no room for fear, because it will only cripple you. Instead, make sure you have a plan that accounts for many possible outcomes and can adjust depending on how these outside forces affect it. You may be banking on a strategy, but you should be flexible enough to adopt a new strategy and execute on it when you need to. If you see things aren’t working with Plan A, you should always have a Plan B and be prepared to implement it. That said, if you and your team believe you have the right market and the right product, you should persevere until success is achieved and your mission is accomplished.
Lastly, it’s valuable to learn strategies on how to identify problems in advance and how to identify your leading team members. You don’t always have a chance to contact HR when you’re on the battlefield. This isn’t necessarily the case in most of corporate America, but in companies that need to be agile, it’s important to understand the issues that employees are facing in advance, before they become a problem at a critical time. When it comes to planning effectively, people are always the key to success or failure. So staying aware of your people’s thoughts and feelings, and of course, taking time to judge yourself as a leader is a critical piece. Do you look at yourself honestly to deal with your own strengths and compensate for your weaknesses?
In the business world, you must know the market you’re in — what world you’ll be landing and fighting in — so that you can know whether or not you have the right equipment to win there. It is critical that you have the right product, the right team and the right mindset for the environment you’re going into, but don’t forget, it also takes a well-thought-out strategy to ensure success.
Nariman Teymourian is chairman and CEO of Gale Technologies. He spent 20 years in the Marines, including seven years of active duty in Marine Recon and four years of combat, he and participated in more than 50 missions. A CEO and COO for more than 15 years, Nariman has held executive positions in several large companies, including TRW, MicroAge and Lockheed-Martin, and he has extensive government experience as a senior adviser, consultant and researcher with the U.S. Departments of Energy, Defense and State and related government agencies such as the RAND Corp., Council on Foreign Relations and the World Bank.