Surviving this economy has been a challenge for all companies, especially those in commercial real estate like Casco Contractors Inc. But it’s not the biggest challenge on President Cheryl Osborn’s mind.
Her sights are set higher – on not just surviving, but maintaining stable growth through the downturn. She achieves this by creating open lines of communication to stay in tune with her employees’ workloads and putting technology in place to manage projects and keep everyone in the field informed, as well.
These processes have helped the firm, which specializes in Commercial Tenant Improvements, keep efficiency, quality and consistency first. And now, Osborn is looking forward to projected 2011 revenues that nearly double last year’s.
Because of this, Smart Business, ThinkASG, IBM and Union Bank named Osborn to the class of 2011 Smart Leader honorees. She shared how she maintains quality during growth and applies innovative technology to better manage her team.
Give an example of a business challenge you and/or your organization faced, as well as how you overcame it.
Stable, managed growth is probably the biggest challenge that we have faced. Maintaining stringent quality standards can be challenging when a company is growing quickly, but our reputation has been built on the quality of our service, so quality control is something we take very seriously and always have in mind every step of the way. To maintain quality:
- I provide my employees with every possible tool to help them manage their responsibilities.
- I maintain open lines of communication to stay aware of workloads. And when someone is struggling, I work with them to determine if they are actually overloaded or if perhaps they need help managing time and resources better.
- When I deem necessary, and once I’ve assessed that the company volume can support it, I hire additional people to fill positions at various levels of management or support.
Surviving in a struggling economy (is another challenge). I take pride in the fact that I have been able to maintain my workforce with no layoffs, even when the economy has taken a serious dip and other companies were closing their doors. We have done this by adapting – not only our services to our clients, but internally adapting the way we do business. By shifting responsibilities and rallying everyone to pitch in, even if it sometimes means handling tasks that aren’t generally in their job descriptions, we’ve managed to weather leaner times and keep our valued employees on our team.
In what ways are you an innovative leader, and how does your organization employ innovation to be on the leading edge?
We have created processes for the field and the office that specifically focus on efficiency, quality and consistency. We also use technology to improve communication and ensure that everyone involved has the latest information – something that is critical in an industry where changes are frequent and not having the correct information can cause major setbacks to both the budget and the schedule. Our superintendents all have e-mail via BlackBerrys, access to high-tech cameras, and we can send them drawings electronically – which is something that is very cutting edge.
Our in house team uses a specialty software program to manage our existing workload, our pending projects and our projects in closeout, which helps keep our coordinators organized and able to handle all the “balls in the air.”
We communicate with our clients constantly using technology, which helps give them the peace of mind that the projects are going well. Communication is key, and technology is an amazing tool for that process.
How do you make a significant impact on the community and regional economy?
By maintaining a stable workforce, I provide my employees with job security and an excellent benefit package that we continually work to improve. By providing employees with the peace of mind that comes with job security and good benefits, they are more confident about their spending capability and ability to support their local businesses. I also offer them flexibility with their hours so they can implement my “family first” ideal, which furthers their performance and the company’s success.
I also encourage and support charitable work throughout the community by funding causes employees bring to my attention, allowing employees to take time off for charitable causes in order to make a difference. I am a huge believer that giving back is a definitive fueling mechanism for the local economy.
How to reach: Casco Contractors Inc., (949) 679-6880 or www.cascocontractors.net
David Taiclet wasn’t ready for the scene at the Fannie May store in Oak Lawn, Ill., when he showed up around 7 a.m. that day in November 2004. He was there to prepare for the chocolate maker’s first soft launch, scheduled two hours from then, that would set off a chain of reopenings and reignite the brand.
“When a retailer does a soft launch, it means we don’t do a lot of publicity about it, because we’re just trying to get organized to open the store, and then we’ll do a grand opening maybe a couple of days later,” Taiclet says. “We picked that store, because we didn’t think it would attract a lot of attention.”
He wasn’t expecting to find a line of people flooding out the door flocked by TV news crews — not much different from the scene 30 days and 45 stores later when he reopened the flagship store downtown at Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive, where 800 customers stood in a line three blocks long.
“Picture this: You’re at this store, and you have these TV cameras there,” Taiclet says. “And the TV camera starts talking to a customer who just came out of the store, ‘Hey, I have so-and-so customer right here. What do you think of the product?’ And she’s like, ‘Well, I haven’t tasted it yet.’ So she opens her product up, grabs one and puts it in her mouth and starts chewing on it.’”
Now, keep in mind, this wasn’t quite the same Fannie May that many Midwesterners had fallen in love with when the brand’s mouth-watering sweets became tradition. When the chocolate maker’s parent company, Archibald Candy Corp., sank into its second bankruptcy in 2004, it closed the plant and 250 retail stores and started looking for a buyer. It found one in Taiclet’s company, Alpine Confections Inc., which had recently purchased Harry London, another chocolate company, out of bankruptcy.
So what would the response be now, with new ownership and a few other changes in store?
“She’s like, ‘This is the best Pixie I’ve ever tasted,’” Taiclet says, continuing his story with a reference to the chocolate-covered caramel candy. “You couldn’t pay for that kind of public relations and marketing to say, ‘Hey look, Fannie May is back and our product is outstanding.’”
It was proof that during the tough times that shuttered Fannie May, customer affection didn’t falter.
During the relaunch and beyond — like when 1-800-Flowers.com Inc. acquired Fannie May in 2006 and, after a couple years, asked Taiclet to stay on board as president of the gourmet food and gift basket group — customer service has been Taiclet’s focus. He leads 1,100 full-time and 1,500 seasonal employees under brands like Fannie May, Harry London, Cheryl&Co., The Popcorn Factory and 1-800-Baskets.com with the goal of maintaining the customer experience while staying relevant.
“If you look at any brand, they’re going to have ups and downs through their life,” Taiclet says. “But what makes it an enduring brand is the experience that customers have with it. You can talk about a brand being a logo. You can talk about a brand being a recipe. But a brand is really the experience a customer has with it. As long as you stay focused on that customer experience and maintaining the integrity of that experience, the company may go through ups and downs financially, but in general, you’re going to have a long, successful run.”
Although the soft launch turnout was surprising, Taiclet already knew about the bond between customers and Fannie May. It’s crucial you understand your brand through consumers’ eyes, too.
Taiclet learned about the customer experience during due diligence, when he had a three-month window to accumulate information before the acquisition. He spent that time with customers and previous retail store managers alike, even hiring back many employees to tap into their understanding of the brand. Then he compiled the feedback.
“The most important thing is we focused on, what is the great part of the customer experience?” he says. “What is the relationship this customer has with the brand? What’s the most important thing? We realized there’s this love affair between the customer and the brand. That love affair is the product quality, one; two, the tradition that people had with this product.
“When people described our brand, it was like, ‘Hey, it’s tradition. It’s a trusted friend. It never fails. I know it’s going to be good. You can’t go wrong with this.’”
From those consumer descriptions of the brand, Taiclet knew that going forward, product quality would have to stand up to the legacy of recipes that hadn’t even changed when ingredients ran low during World War II. Of course, hiring back the same employees and using the same recipes helped ensure that the product would stay the same. But he was so concerned about quality that he sent old and new samples to a university food research group for scientific analysis.
Understanding the customer experience takes more than upfront research — it’s an ongoing endeavor. When 1-800-Flowers.com acquired Taiclet’s brands, he was able to leverage its e-commerce platform and social media presence — in other words, become more accessible to consumers and get more personal with customers.
“Feedback has become a lot easier these days, both good and bad,” he says. “You’re deepening your relationship with your customers by offering them these [interactive] opportunities. You get instant feedback. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Direct contact can even be a business in itself. The company acquired DesignPac Gifts, which created wholesale gift baskets for third-party retailers. Tapping into the capability and name recognition of 1-800-Flowers.com, DesignPac sprouted a direct-to-consumer brand called 1-800-Baskets.com, which has become the fastest-growing brand in the company.
But customer interaction can get even more personal than e-commerce or Twitter can allow. You need to get out and interact with customers, too. Taiclet regularly visits stores, plants and distribution centers, both to work alongside employees and to chat with customers. Whether he’s stocking shelves or attempting to giftwrap boxes — which, he’ll admit, is not one of his strongest skills — he’s facing customers and getting a glimpse into their experience.
“Our management team is active and involved, and I think we know what our customers are saying,” he says. “We live in a world where it’s not hard to get customer feedback, and if you just go stand in a retail store, you know. If you’re standing in your distribution center and you’re seeing the product go out the door, you know the kind of experience that your customers are probably getting.”
Keep things fresh
While it’s crucial to understand what has kept your customers coming back, you shouldn’t limit your brand to what has been successful in the past. After all, you want customers to keep coming back in the future, too.
“What’s important to be relevant to your customer is the tried and true but also that you’re out there being interesting and new, as well,” Taiclet says. “It’s a fine line. But it’s important that you’re giving people a reason to come in: ‘Oh, what’s new?’”
You need to marry the tradition of your brand with a few fresh touches. The challenge is determining whether any changes or additions will influence the overall brand perception.
“Look, not everything you do is going to work,” Taiclet says. “We’re not afraid to try some things. But I can tell you we’re not going to change the things that we know work.”
So don’t mess with the staples of your brand — like the customer experience — that you identify as important through feedback. You can take small steps to improve those things, but you shouldn’t change the game completely.
Many of the new Fannie May products, for example, partner the famous chocolates with other well-loved snacks, like ice cream and Eli’s Cheesecake — and these don’t replace traditional favorites like Pixies, Trinidads and Mint Meltaways.
But most of the changes came simply as an effort to “freshen up” the stores through signage, displays and uniforms.
“Clearly, when we came back, people were quickly pointing out differences,” Taiclet says. “But any differences, we tried to make sure they had nothing to do with customer satisfaction. I mean, the uniforms were a brighter color because we wanted to freshen the look. So the changes that we did make were with the understanding that this would be seen as a positive.”
To help lessen any shock when customers walked in and saw the differences, Taiclet communicated changes they could expect and what those meant.
“At the end, I think they came to appreciate why it was different — it just presented the product better,” he says. “[We] told the customer what it was: ‘Here’s a small little change to tell you that, hey, we’re a new Fannie May, but at the same time, we didn’t mess with the quality of the product.’”
Maintaining your brand’s legacy while keeping it relevant really translates into sustainable growth. It’s a balance that Taiclet thinks will differentiate his brands.
“Companies get themselves in trouble trying to grow at all costs and to grow anywhere and everywhere,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is grow in a smart, sustainable way.”
Along with keeping an ear to customers to confirm that his blend of tradition and freshness is keeping them satisfied, Taiclet also uses financial analysis to temper growth. Before opening a store, for example, he evaluates economics to predict returns. Even though he could have opened eight stores last year, he only opened the five where analysis signaled the best chance for success. At the end of the year, there were a total of 85 company-owned stores, and he also recently launched a franchising program.
“We could grow aggressively on the wholesale side through some of our third-party retailers,” he says. “But it is incredibly competitive in certain areas and we’re going to make darn sure that we don’t get too aggressive. We could go out in that wholesale market and sell a lot of product and grow the top line, but it might not necessarily grow the bottom line. When we talk about ‘grow smartly,’ that’s what I’m talking about is that you’re constantly finessing between top-line growth and bottom-line growth.”
Taiclet has found that balance by focusing on the customer experience.
“We’re fortunate that we have growth opportunities, [and it’s] because we have focused on those things,” Taiclet says. “We just need to be thoughtful and prudent about the different directions we could grow and make sure it’s profitable, sustainable growth and not just one-off. There’s a lot of one-off places to grow for a lot of companies.”
The long-term test for Taiclet is that any changes or growth ventures won’t lead the company astray from the customer experience that has made Fannie May the No. 1 chocolate brand in the Midwest. That focus has helped him grow the entire gourmet food and gift basket business to about a third of the revenue generated by 1-800-Flowers.com — about $250 million.
“(It’s about) the relationship of your product with the customer and the customer experience,” Taiclet says. “Across all of our food brands, what we’re trying to focus on is the positive relationship that a consumer has with you and your product. It is that experience that embodies your brand — and that is your brand, really.”
How to reach: 1-800-Flowers.com Inc., (800) 356-9377 or www.1800flowers.com
The Taiclet file
President, Gourmet Food and Gift Baskets Group
Born: Monterey, Ind., a town of 200
Education: Graduated from Notre Dame in 1985 on Army ROTC scholarship, then served four years active duty. Earned MBA from Harvard Business School in 1991.
What was your first job, and what did you learn from it?
I grew up in a family business; my father owned the local grain elevator. So I grew up working in that business, doing everything. That was probably my first experience with customers and doing anything you could to keep customers happy — and farmers are a tough group of customers.
I’m a Fannie May Pixie fan.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be and why?
I’m married with four kids, and I love my family. If I could just have the power to have those moments with my family that are very special to last a little longer, maybe go back in time and relive a couple of them, that would be pretty cool.
What’s your favorite way to relieve stress?
One, I like spending time with my family. Two, I don’t read a lot of books, but I’m a voracious newspaper/magazine reader. Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Fortune and The Economist are my four things I like to carry around. And if I have a lot of time, I love to fly fish.
What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice I ever got was probably from my father, who said, ‘Surround yourself with good people — both your friends and your businesspeople — because it will make not only you better but your organization better. Throughout my life, whether it was in college or the army or when I owned my own business or worked for others, I’ve always focused on: Am I surrounded by good people, and have I hired good people? I would say that’s been one of the elements of Fannie May’s success is that we’ve attracted, hired and retained really good people to the organization.
Favorite local spot for a business lunch?
Maybe it’s because of my roots growing up in a small town, but I love the local diners and I love the local flavor. We have a plant in Lake Forest and there’s a Liberty Restaurant in Libertyville, Ill. In Glen Ellen, Ill., there’s a small restaurant called Baroney’s there that we’ll go to. In Cleveland, there’s Gasoline Alley down in Bath, but for formal dinners in Cleveland, Ken Stewart’s Lodge is my favorite. And then in Chicago it’s typically, for a formal dinner, Gibson’s. I typically stay at a place called The Talbot Hotel downtown Chicago on Delaware street and there’s a casual dinner right across the street called The Feast Restaurant that I think has really interesting food and wine.
Scott and Steven Balogh both have musical training in their backgrounds, so it means something a little different when they talk about being tuned in to what their customers need at Mar-Bal Inc.
The brothers, with Scott as president and CEO and Steven as vice president, view their custom molding company as though it were a jazz combo and symphony orchestra. The manufacturing plants have to operate with a conductor and hierarchy that maintains and improves quality and cost control.
The sales and engineering organization operates like a jazz combo, improvising and innovating with customers and each other to create and develop new products and services.
When they observe what’s happening outside the business and integrate those ideas into the operations at Mar-Bal, it’s as though they were playing a little improvisational jazz. They could be playing a song that’s been played thousands of times by hundreds of other artists. But by adding a touch of creativity to the performance, or in this case, the quality of their product or service, the brothers make it their own, and that’s what people remember.
This approach has helped Mar-Bal adapt to the global economy and evolve its manufacturing operations to consistently give customers what they are looking for and more.
The company utilizes an easy-to-understand metrics and recognition program that helps ensure quality and excellence. Training programs take place at all levels of the company, including the senior management team. An outside advisory board reviews and critiques the performance of the company’s leaders at the top.
Every aspect of the company is scrutinized for possible ways to improve, leading to a culture made up of employees who are always looking to get better at what they do.
“Frankly, we were shocked that a small, Midwest manufacturing firm could reach communication and learning metrics similar to the best organizations in Silicon Valley,” says Valdis E. Krebs, chief scientist at Orgnet.com, a Westlake firm that has analyzed Mar-Bal’s performance.
“To our expert eye, we see a well-poised, expertly trained and highly performing organization, very similar to the best in the world,” Krebs says.
Mar-Bal’s efforts continue to pay off. In December, the company introduced Thermital, a thermoset composite that looks like steel but offers much more flexibility in terms of how it can be used.
How to reach: Mar-Bal Inc., (440) 543-7526 or www.mar-bal.com