Sprint to the finish Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2008
Robert B. Yallen was trained as a collegiate sprinter, but even he thought his company might run out of steam in the early ’90s.

Yallen — president and chief operating officer of Inter/Media Group of Cos., the company started by his father — saw a bright future ahead for the advertising agency and media organization that blends direct response advertising and general market techniques. That is until a slew of significant clients went into bankruptcy. Losing business would have been bad enough, but Inter/Media was on the billing end of the media needs for those companies.

“So it was like the double whammy,” Yallen says. “The clients went into bankruptcy, we got held holding the bag on their debt, and we lost their revenue, so it was pretty awful.”

Want the gory details on the word awful? At the time, Inter/Media was doing less than $75 million in billings. The debt it got left with was roughly $2 million.

Oh, and losing those accounts basically cut business in half. “I had our bank talking to me and my father like we were 2-year-olds,” Yallen says. “It was rough. That type of debt would still hurt today, trust me, but we could weather that. Then, that was devastating.”

That’s not to mention that for some of those accounts Inter/Media had set up specific local offices, which were suddenly running with high overhead and no revenue stream.

If ever there was a time to circle the wagons, this was it. Yallen pulled in his top advisers, and they began creating a plan to diversify Inter/Media’s business by adding more clients and making themselves less of a commodity while focusing on accountable production. But before they could act on anything, they had to calm down nervous employees, make sure they had the right people in place to add new elements to the business and then give people the autonomy to create the services that would get Inter/Media back on track.

Take control of the huddle

When things were at their ugliest at Inter/Media, Yallen turned to the people he trusted most in his company and in the outside world for comfort. You don’t want to get your people too worked up, so save the worst for closed doors.

“It’s difficult at best, and what you need to do is surround yourself with your top people and any of your outside advisers and have them work with you and work with them on maintaining calmness,” he says.

Those outside advisers weren’t just business associates, by the way.

“My wife, I consider her my partner, and she was instrumental at the time and just sharing everything with her and relying on her and getting her input,” Yallen says.

The idea isn’t to hide bad times from your people, but Yallen wanted to keep any elements of panic away from the public eye. In order to maintain business, you have to be sure people believe in you and the company. That means that even when you share the bad news with internal and external people, you don’t have a shaky voice.

“We wanted to eliminate panic among our team members, and we also wanted to avoid building bad will with our vendors,” Yallen says.

It was an extreme case, so Yallen and his father both did that by doing something extreme: They cut both of their salaries and injected money from their own pockets into the company. That money was used not just to provide a little bit of daily capital but also to give out the annual bonuses that employees had grown used to. So while employees knew things were rough, they also saw the company was trying to fix its problems without hurting employee checkbooks.

“We made sure that our employees knew most of what was going on, and remember we were a much, much smaller company then, but even that year we gave out bonuses,” he says. “We still had to reward our people.”

Yallen is not saying to give away money from your pocket, but that moment was about instilling confidence. After saving the roughest times for those he trusted most, the outer employees were told of the hardship but also saw that leadership believed they could turn things around.

“It helped tremendously because we showed that we believed in the company in two respects,” Yallen says. “One, cutting our salaries, and two, putting money into the company, and I think probably putting money into the company showed the most. I don’t know how much it transcended down to the ranks, but we obviously felt comfortable, and that probably showed with our staff that, by doing this, we were somewhat calm.”

Hire gold medalists

Yallen pulled from his sprinting background in order to take the next step in turning Inter/Media around. While many employees were encouraged by the calm instilled, other positions were left open when offices had to be closed when accounts were lost.

So as Yallen began bringing in a few new people, he started thinking of new hires in more athletic terms. That’s not to say he began only hiring his collegiate athlete buddies. Instead, he focused on hiring competitors and winners.

“We look to and love athletic backgrounds,” he says. “I love people who have competed at a high, elite level, as well as the military, because there are certain things that are instilled within an elite athlete and someone in the military that you just can’t find anywhere else.”

The point is basic: Checking resumes for people who have been in and handled high-pressure situations will behoove you.

“In our business, we’re just like the travel, hotel and airline industry, what we sell today we can’t sell tomorrow,” Yallen says. “Imagine being Wal-Mart and everyone one of your items that’s on your shelves disappears the next day. So it’s a very difficult business in that we need to maximize every day, and that means being able to move at the speed of light. There are people that can’t work in our organization because they can’t move and think that fast.”

That doesn’t just limit him to former athletes or military personnel, by the way. He says the idea is finding someone who is passionate about life in general because you can spark that person.

“I look at extracurricular activities beyond sports (on a resume),” he says. “Looking at a rounded person, the more a person does, the better they’re going to be able to communicate with others, so I really like somebody who has a heavy emphasis on something other than just having a 4.5 GPA."

Yallen doesn’t keep stats on how much better his company has done by looking for passionate people — something he says you can find by simply asking about what sparks someone outside of work— but he knows it makes a difference.

“Do I have quantifiable data? No,” he says. “Could I do it? Yeah. I can tell you that the people in our organization, or any organization for that matter, that are well-rounded — and well-rounded to me is more than book smart, it’s experience, it’s having multiple disciplines and multiple interests — are more passionate. Look at people, what hobbies do they have? It can be wine tasting, but they have passions for things. The one thing that I won’t accept in anybody that works for me is somebody who doesn’t have a passion.”

Give them a chance to run

As Inter/Media started to dig itself out of a hole, Yallen learned the value of giving up his own athletic spikes and taking up more of a front-office job.

“I don’t want to say that my role is more of a coach, because I can quickly translate into the GM mode, but I really try not to micro-manage, which by the way comes with a lot of maturity,” he says.

While the turmoil Inter/Media faced was rough, it gave Yallen the opportunity to restructure. The lost accounts meant the closing of some offices, and the end alignment has each unit president located at headquarters today. That may not last forever, but Yallen is able to let go more because he knows his people are close by, and he can have weekly meetings with his leadership team.

“So if I’m getting constant updates and status reports, and I know where the ball is headed, so to speak, I am able to back off,” he says. “If I’m getting information and we’re not headed in the direction we need to be headed, I’m obviously going to step in a lot quicker.”

Not every company can keep its leaders in one building, but Yallen’s comfort comes from the fact that he’s made an effort to create lines of communication with each direct report to see the overall scope and timeline of their work. If you can get your people giving you regular overviews of their work, whether they’re in the same office as you or not, you can let them take over and feel free to be more creative to help the company become more distinctive.

While Yallen feels good having his people close so he can give them feedback, part of pulling Inter/Media from the depths was hearing what every employee with an idea had to say.

“Look, if you’re an athlete and you’re not listening to your coach and you’re not able to synthesize what they’re telling you, how are you going to reach your best performance?” he says. “Same thing in business, so you have to know how to listen and be listened to.

“I try to be respectful of everybody, whether it’s a maintenance person emptying trash cans or a high-level executive president of a company where I’m trying to get their business. I grew up in the civil rights era, so I believe everybody is equal. Period. Some people are just a little luckier, and some people work a little harder, but everybody is equal. Now, from a practical standpoint, am I spending as much time with an admin as I am an executive? No, but they have the right to give any input that they have.”

To show that respect, you have to be willing to put down your BlackBerry and let go of your mouse when people come to see you. You also need to encourage or better educate them.

“One of my people came to me today with the idea of going after a certain piece of business, and I don’t think there’s a snowball’s chance in hell that I’m going to get that business,” Yallen says. “But I don’t want to discourage her. So I explained why it was not the right company to target. So I sat down and said, ‘This is what you should be looking at.’ I tried to encourage her because it’s to all of our benefits that we’re all thinking like that.”

By helping his employees find that autonomy, Inter/Media was able to pull itself out of debt and start to really differentiate itself in the marketplace. Today, it provides service to clients like the U.S. Army and DISH Network Corp. and has grown to more than$450 million in billings. While Yallen thinks his company would have dug itself out of the hole, the things he learned about keeping calm and finding and empowering the right people really helped Inter/Media to the next level.

“I think we would have been OK because, at the end of the day, it’s how you perform for your clients, and we’ve always done an excellent job at what we do,” he says. “It would have been a question of how much we would have grown, and I know we wouldn’t have grown to this extent. We would have gotten through and made a good living and employed a lot of people but not had near the amount of success that we’ve had.”

HOW TO REACH: Inter/Media Group of Cos., (818) 995-1455 or www.intermedia-advertising.com