Robert Swelgin Featured

8:00pm EDT September 20, 2006
 Robert Swelgin probably never has to worry about a flat tire. As CEO of American Racing Equipment Inc., he has his pick of the lightweight, high-performance aftermarket wheels the company produces. For 50 years, American Racing has nurtured America’s love affair with the car, and its products have been featured in numerous movies and television shows. Today, the company, which is owned by Platinum Equity, is nearing the $200 million revenue mark. Smart Business spoke with Swelgin about the value of leadership, the need for accountability and the importance of focusing on the details.

Define your priorities.
As in any business, you have to look at the basic blocking and tackling, the fundamentals of the business.

You go to each area and try to put in measurements that allow you to raise the visibility. You try to put in measurements to improve the accountability. You measure people objectively.

Trust, but verify.
People inherently know what they’re supposed to do. If you ask them what they’re supposed to do for a living — how do you measure yourself — most people know.

We hold people accountable. If you hit your plan, you get a bonus. If you don’t hit your plan, you don’t.

Empowerment isn’t something that you can train. People either want to be empowered or not. My job is to encourage people to make a decision — quit coming to me with problems and start coming to me with solutions — and make sure people come up with results.

A lot of times, companies get tied up with measuring people’s success by their ability to identify a problem instead of measuring people’s success by their ability to have a solution.

Bring people into the process.
Our management team had never done their own budget. It was always done for them by the parent company.

You can’t be held accountable unless you help create the thing you are being held accountable for. I can’t go into a vacuum, create a budget, hand it to them and expect them to be accountable to it. They’ve got to create their own.

It was a difficult task for some. We had to go through some discussions on it, make sure that everybody was singing from the same sheet of music. It was an on-the-job training kind of thing.

We didn’t have time to do a formal training program. We had only a few weeks to come up with our budget that nobody had ever done before. It became a series of meetings and discussions on how to improve where we were.

Make constant improvements.
You’re never happy unless you have the whole market, but I’m satisfied on some level we’re making progress.

Running a business is like the proverbial battleship. First you’ve got to slow it down, then you’ve got to turn it and make sure everybody knows which direction you’re going in. Then you can start speeding up.

We’re (past) the point of just getting it slowed down. People are now understanding the direction we’re trying to get into, and we’re starting to accelerate.

Find good leaders; train later.
Any job, particularly at the executive level, if you look at a pie chart, at least 75 percent of that pie chart is nothing more than that manager’s ability to provide the tools, direction, motivation for an individual.

The balance is all the technical skills. I’d much rather take somebody that has the strong leadership, the strong integrity and the strong follow-through and then train them in the hard skills.

You can be a good CEO without being a good engineer. You can hire that talent. You can be a good CEO without being a good finance guy, because you can hire that talent.

You can be a good CEO without being a good marketing guy, because you can hire that talent. But you cannot be a good CEO if you can’t lead your team.

Good is in the details.
You see a guy looking for a job as a vice president who uses bad English, misspells the name of his university, misses dates or misspells a critical component. If those guys aren’t paying attention to the details then they’re going to be bad leaders.

A guy can be a good guy in the short term. He’ll never be there for the long haul because he fails to watch the details. No detail is too small.

Listen for other solutions.
It’s like sharpening your saw all the time. You look for ways to improve, and you listen very well.

I always convince myself I never have the right answer, regardless of what I’m looking at. Listen to other people’s opinions, and that allows you to grow every day.

Focus on the customer.
We put together a corporate vision as to what we’re focused on. Unlike most visions, which are a lot of puff and soft items, our vision is a series of hardcore objectives.

We’re focused beyond just keeping the customer happy. Focus on the customer is the No. 1 thing the company has to do to be successful.

HOW TO REACH: American Racing Equipment Inc.,