Laura Taxel

Monday, 26 September 2005 20:00

Top dog

Bob Antin is a nice guy, the kind who returns his own phone calls and then apologizes, sincerely, for being hard to reach — not typical behavior for a busy CEO of a publicly held company. That first impression is confirmed with further contact — he always asks how you’re doing, and he waits to hear the answer.

Instantly likable and approachable, and with a ready sense of humor, he disproves the old adage that nice guys finish last. Because as chairman, president and CEO of VCA Antech, the nation’s largest provider of pet health care services, he’s definitely a winner.

The company he co-founded in 1986 with his brother, Arthur, who serves as COO and senior vice president, has doubled in size in the last five years to $674 million in annual revenue. That growth has continued this year, with sales up 25 percent in the first half to a record $393 million and profits up nearly 19 percent to $81.8 million.

Since going public in 2001, VCA Antech’s stock has more than quintupled in value and the company now boasts a market value of nearly $2 billion.

But for Antin, being top dog isn’t just a numbers game.

“Success is about more than the bottom line,” says the 55-year-old entrepreneur. “I also measure how well I’m doing in terms of my relationships. Would the people I work with want to have lunch with me? Do they speak well of me, feel kindly toward me? What’s the feedback from our employees? How do they feel about how I’m doing?”

That’s how nice guys think. But it also reflects something good leaders know.

“Companies run on their people,” Antin says, “not titles and job descriptions. Invest in them.”

That’s been the policy of VCA Antech — originally called Veterinary Centers of America — since its inception.

Building on people
VCA Antech, which acquires and manages veterinary practices, operates in 37 states, with more than 360 freestanding animal care facilities that treat domestic pets on an inpatient and outpatient basis. It also runs 28 clinical laboratories that provide testing and diagnostic services to approximately 15,000 independent animal hospitals.

A third arm of the business is the sale of diagnostic equipment. This network synergy, plus centralized administration and group buying power, enhances the caliber, efficiency and profitability of each site. But the company’s most valuable asset, in Antin’s eyes, is the creative energy of the men and women it employs.

“We’ve tried hard to create an environment that is the opposite of a ‘Yes sir, no ma’am’ corporate culture,” says Antin. “Our management style is open, horizontal and based on mutual respect. Anyone can call my brother or I to talk about what’s on their mind, and they do. Most importantly, we want managers to feel comfortable making decisions. It’s not out of the ordinary to try something new.”

In many cases, standardizing operating systems makes sense, he says, but an inflexible structure that “puts people in a box” and does not allow for individual differences is always counterproductive.

“There’s a lot of talent within this organization,” Antin says. “I welcome other visions of how things should be. I hope the people I work with will challenge me and fight for what they think is right. No one will ever get fired for speaking up.”

This is especially important for a company that’s in the business of buying established entities. An added factor for VCA Antech is that the entities it’s buying — animal hospitals — are usually owned and operated by vets.

“Once they sell to us,” Antin says, “they decide whether they want to stay on, and in most cases, they do. It can be hard at first. Overnight, they lose their identity and their position. But we don’t come in and start rearranging the furniture. We adapt to them rather than the other way around.”

There are 1,400 doctors on the company’s payroll, and while many are happy to turn over the administrative responsibilities — and headaches — to the parent company, there is some fear among practitioners that they’ll lose their autonomy when VCA Antech takes over.

“Initially, vets worry that we’ll interfere with how they practice medicine,” Antin says. “This was especially true in the early years. We had to earn their trust, convince them we were on their side and demonstrate that we had something to give them.”

The company provides equipment, expertise and training; runs the hospitals; handles employee benefit programs; pays the bills; and implements systemwide policies and procedures for quality assurance. What it does not do, says Antin, is tell vets how to do their jobs.

“We understood from the start that veterinary medicine is a hands-on art and not something to be managed,” he says. “Individuals in this field are passionate about what they do. Our policy is to leave doctors free to work in their own way, as they see fit. I think that’s why we’ve been so successful.”

Seizing an opportunity
Some of that success is also attributable to seeing — and seizing — an opportunity. Bob and Arthur Antin had pioneered the development of outpatient surgery centers for human health care, and when the company they founded, AlternaCare Corp., merged with another firm in the mid-’80s, the brothers began looking for a new focus and found it in pets.

“People love their pets,” says Antin, whose household includes his dog, Buster, his wife and three kids. “When they get sick, owners want them to have the best care possible and are willing to pay out of their own pockets for it. Arthur and I thought we could use our experience in human heath care and apply it to the practice of veterinary medicine.

“We put together a plan with input from two vets who owned the largest animal hospital on the West Coast. Our goal was to upgrade every aspect of the profession and the quality of care available to consumers.”

They bought their first hospital with a group of private investors and took the company public in 1991 before it was bought out by equity firm Leonard Green & Partners LP in 2000 and returned to private ownership. In 2001, VCA Antech went public again, and two years ago, Leonard Green sold its stake in Antech. Throughout all these transitions, Bob Antin has remained in the driver’s seat.

“Suddenly I found myself in a position analogous to our doctors’. One day I was the boss, the next day I was working for somebody else,” Antin says. “But the new owners were management geniuses, and I learned a great deal from them. The more freedom you give people, the better they work.”

With that freedom, the company has grown and its mission has expanded to include continuing education and advanced specialty training.

“Historically, that didn’t exist in this field,” Antin says. “Today’s vets want postgraduate training. We established our own internship program and have driven changes within the industry by increasing what vets are paid and providing access to new treatments, new tools and new diagnostic techniques. This has prompted a shift from general medicine to the development of various veterinary specialties that parallel those in human health care.

“One of our doctors just did an endoscopic procedure on a lion. We’ve also created more of a career path within the profession for nonvets.”

Today the company has 9,800 full- and part-time employees, including 1,400 doctors in its hospital division and 80 interns. Another 180 people work at corporate headquarters in Los Angeles. And regarding those employees, Antin defines his role as one of guide, mentor, communicator, listener and resident encourager.

“In graduate school, they taught me how read a financial report,” Antin says. “That’s helpful. But of all the skills needed to run a business, none is more essential than the ability to get along with people.”

Baseball Hall of Famer Leo Durocher coined that expression about nice guys finishing last. But pitcher Sand Koufax disagreed.

“Nice guys can win,” Koufax said, “if they’re nice guys with a lot of talent.”

And it’s Antin’s talent for playing well with others — learned, he says, at home and growing up on the streets of New York City — that’s helped him make VCA Antech a leader of the pack. How to reach: VCA Antech, (310) 571-6500 or http://www.vcaantech.com

Monday, 23 May 2005 20:00

Blueprint for success

William "Bill" McIntyre Jr. spent the first half of his childhood on a farm in Georgia. Then the family moved back up north, where he was born, and he lost all trace of his southern drawl.

But the chairman and CEO of Allegra Network LLC, one of the world's largest print and graphic communications franchises, still describes his approach to management with the down-to-earth imagery of a country boy.

"I'd rather rope in the stallion than kick the mule," he says.

McIntyre's talking about the value of creative, energetic and talented individuals, risk-takers who bring a great deal to the table. But these are the same people who are more likely to make mistakes, bend the rules or step across invisible, but accepted, lines.

"Over the years, I've learned that some of the most effective members of the organization are also the hardest to handle," he says. "My job is to figure out how to capitalize on their skills and manage their weaknesses."

One way he does that is to coach rather than reprimand.

"I don't beat up on people when I know they're trying hard," McIntyre says.

And then he tells a story to illustrate his point.

"A VP at IBM made a very expensive mistake," he says. "He walked into CEO Thomas Watson (Sr.)'s office and handed in his resignation. Watson responded by telling him, 'You can't leave. This company just spent a great deal of money to educate you, and now we're keeping you.'"

Helping employees improve is always worth the effort, McIntyre insists, because people are a company's most important asset.

"I know it sounds like a clich, but it's true," he says. "And you have to give that more than lip service."

McIntyre makes reference to Jim Collins' book "Good to Great," and the idea that getting the right people "on the bus" and "in the right seats" is the secret to outstanding performance.

"Experience," he says, "has taught me that this really is the best guarantee of success."

And success is clearly what Allegra Network has achieved under McIntyre's guiding hand. It ranks in the top 150 in sales among all franchise companies in the world, supporting seven brands with more than 650 locations throughout the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Brazil and Japan. System members provide color printing, graphic design, copying, electronic publishing and online file transfer services.

Over the past decade, McIntyre has fueled long-term growth through a series of acquisitions, including the recent purchase of Signs Now Corp., which added the capacity to create and produce professional signs, banners and other visual communications tools.

In 2003, Allegra was ranked the 20th-fastest growing franchise and the best in its industry by Entrepreneur magazine, and last year was the 20th year that the company earned a spot on the publication's Annual Franchise 500 list, ranking it as one of the top business opportunities.

Stick to the basics

The secret to McIntyre's success can be found in the five fundamental values he uses to drive the company, guide its employees and franchisees, and inform all his decisions.

1. Show respect for individuals.

2. Go the extra mile. Most don't even go the first.

3. Attack the market, and don't forget that includes customer service.

4. Be quick to respond. ASAP should be standard operating procedure.

5. Aim high. Play fair.

"We want to be the best, not necessarily the biggest, in our industry," he says. "But this is a $20 billion arena, and we see plenty of opportunity for growth. I believe in the philosophy that a company either grows or dies. The question, of course, is how to manage that wisely"

McIntyre's response is to be meticulous in planning, diligent in monitoring and flexible in executing.

"There are always surprises," he says. "Plans have to be adjusted to meet unexpected realities. It may take more resources or additional people to get things off the ground than you bargained for."

McIntyre took over as president of Allegra in 1991. Under his watch, the company was restructured, re-branded and renamed, and he shepherded it through a dramatic shift in focus. Instead of selling simple printing services to consumers via an ever-increasing number of franchise locations, the company chose to concentrate on serving professional print buyers and increasing the value of existent locations.

As a result, franchise system sales grew to $265 million in 2004, up from $163 million in 1994.

In 1993 -- and again in 2000 -- the business was purchased by investor groups that included McIntyre and other members of the Allegra management team. Domino's Pizza founder and former CEO Thomas Monaghan is currently a principle shareholder in the privately-held company headquartered in Northville, Mich.

One thing that makes McIntyre and his organization different from others in the field is his commitment to Allegra's franchisees. The company provides opportunities for center owners to get together and offer location evaluations.

Not surprisingly, Allegra is considered a leader in franchise training. Operators are taught not only about quality control and production scheduling but also how to control cash flow and run a business by the numbers. It's all part of Allegra's Profit Mastery Program, which McIntyre says is critical to developing a well-educated group of franchisees who are dedicated to success.

McIntyre has also implemented an annual benchmarking study, which he uses to measure everything from profits to turnover. As a result, franchise profitability has increased in each of the last five years.

Technology assistance is another "extra" McIntyre takes pride in.

"We have staff that do nothing but chase down the latest equipment, test it and make recommendations," he says. "We also facilitate group buying."

From providing operational and marketing support to assisting franchisees in acquiring competitors within their local markets, the corporate parent makes the power of the network available to everyone in the Allegra family.

"If our franchise members aren't profitable," says McIntyre, "then we might as well turn off the lights and go home. That's why we put the emphasis on helping them succeed."

Shoot straight

In conversation, McIntyre comes across as a regular guy with an approach to leadership -- or at least a way of speaking about it -- that is a combination of folksy wisdom and business savvy. He's funny, friendly and easy to talk to. And during his 40-plus years in business, he's discovered that these qualities are just as important as more traditional management competencies.

"Running a company requires effective people skills," he says. "Nobody tells you this in business school. At least, they didn't tell me. Being a manager is like having a garden. You have to constantly tend it if you want anything to grow."

And as such, McIntyre lays out his vision for what it takes to be a good gardener.

"The goal is to motivate people to work together," he says. "That requires the ability to inspire trust. And I belie ve that's achieved through effective communication. "

Seventy people are employed by Allegra Network's corporate office and its franchisees employ about 3,500. McIntyre likes to communicate with them one-on-one and in small groups. That means he does a great deal of traveling and expects his managers to spend much of their time out of the office and on the road, promoting the company's culture, explaining strategic goals and introducing new initiatives.

"It takes doing a lot of little things, and doing them consistently, to establish rapport, build a team and reinforce the mission," he says.

Part of that includes how McIntyre develops his strategic plans for the future, using a brainstorming technique called mind mapping.

"Using words and drawings, you organize ideas and information into pictures on paper that help you see connections and relationships," he says.

And, it's often a team effort.

For McIntyre, all of this plays into a bigger issue that's at stake every day-- the payback for Allegra from his efforts.

"We're in a fight for market share," he says. "We have more power when we operate like a well-oiled machine, with all the parts working together. At Allegra, that's our real strength."

How to reach: Allegra Network, (248) 614-3700 or www.allegranetwork.com

Friday, 28 April 2006 11:48

The Newman file

Born: 1934, Yonkers, N.Y.

Education: Bachelor of science degree, civil engineering, Bucknell University; master’s degree, civil engineering, Columbia University; graduate, Executive Management Program, University of California, Los Angeles

First job: Library page in high school

What is the greatest business lesson you’ve learned?

Financial discipline is very important. Somebody once told me it’s OK to make mistakes as long as they’re not fatal ones.

But a successful company does not put profits above all else. Whether you’re in a service business or making widgets, public or private, the object must be to create value for clients and employees.

What is the most difficult challenge you’ve faced?
AECOM started out owing a great deal of money to various creditors. I knew we had to get it right, right from the beginning.

What’s the best advice you ever got?
If you have a problem, spend as much time thinking about how you got into it as on how to fix it, and develop a process so you only fix it once.

Whom do you admire most in business and why?
My father was a self-made man, a banker, who taught me about integrity. I got my discipline and work ethic from him.

My father-in-law was in the import-export business and a real entrepreneur. I learned management skills from him.

Al Dorman, CEO of DMJM when I joined them and later our first chairman of AECOM, insisted on finding the process for precluding future problems as well as solving current ones.

I’ve been inspired by the way CEO Steve Baum at Semper Energy leads, taking time to build vision, consensus and excitement, and by Jonathan Lovelace Jr., chairman emeritus of the Capital Group of asset management companies. He has a philosophy that every employee is an associate and that it’s better to be a small part of a winning team than a superstar on a losing one. All these people have been my role models and mentors.

Wednesday, 29 March 2006 11:17

The Magerko File

Born: Pittsburgh, 1965

First jobs: I sold vacuum cleaners, worked briefly in a Gucci store, and then came into the family business as a manager trainee.

Other venture: Magerko is also president of Nemacolin Woodlands Resort & Spa. The luxury 2,800-acre retreat in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania, another Joe Hardy creation, includes hotels, townhomes, restaurants, golf courses and a world-class spa.

What is the greatest business lesson you’ve learned?

Hire good people, cultivate their talents, encourage them and give them lots of reasons to stay with you. My dad always said, ‘Never be afraid to hire people smarter than you.’ But you can’t be scared to let people go, either. When they don’t fit, it’s like a broken cog in a machine. If you don’t replace it, nothing works right.

What is the most difficult challenge you’ve faced?

Some years ago, there was just too much ego, personality and testosterone among the top-tier executives. They were very competitive, and it was getting in the way of working together. What I needed was a team.

Now I’ve got one. I’ve had the same core group of seven people with me for the past six years. We’re able to grow the way we have because we have a solid leadership team in place.

What’s the best advice you ever got?

Be serious about what you do, but don’t take yourself too seriously.

Whom do you admire most in business and why?

My father. He started with only $5,000 and built this business with nothing but his incredible work ethic, his passion and his determination. He’s a living example of the American Dream.

We’ve been best buddies since I was 5 years old and started driving around with him looking at potential sites for new stores. I watched him my whole life, and he was teaching me things even when he wasn’t trying to. He has always been my mentor.

Tuesday, 29 November 2005 10:01

Total view

“Call me Scott.”

When the CEO of a company with global revenue of more than $570 million kicks off an interview like that, it’s a good indication that he is an unpretentious person who doesn’t stand on ceremony. As president and CEO of Information Resources Inc., a provider of market data, consumer intelligence and management solutions for the consumer packaged goods, retail and health care industries, Scott Klein is a man of some influence and responsibility.

His company has 2,800 employees, 700 at corporate headquarters in Chicago and the rest in offices around the world. Those employees manage a vast web of integrated information for companies including PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, Anheuser-Busch, Target and Johnson & Johnson that reflects point-of-sale data from more than 32,000 retail outlets in the United States and the buying decisions of 110 million households.

But with those three words — “Call me Scott” — Klein instantly does away with any sort of formal hierarchy. The invitation to use his first name comes across as the verbal equivalent of a welcoming handshake and a friendly slap on the back rolled into one. Within minutes, we’re talking like we’ve known each other for years.

Forging that personal connection is about more than being sociable. It also reflects the high value this leader places on relationships. And he’s been working hard to forge and foster good ones with both customers and employees since he came on board at IRI in January 2004.

Those efforts are paying off. Last year, IRI earnings hit a 12-year high, and sales are growing at double digit rates.

“2005 will be the most profitable year in the company’s history,” says the 48-year-old Klein. “Every contract except one that came up for renewal has been renewed. In the same period, we’ve landed three dozen major new clients in the United States and Europe. And in the 20 months I’ve been here, turnover, which was a huge problem, has decreased by half.”

But he doesn’t suggest that he deserves credit for these achievements. That credit, Klein insists, should go to IRI’s customers and staff.

“I start from the point of view that clients determine our success,” says Klein. “Without them, the rest of us have nothing to do. So the goal in business is to get people to choose us over the competition. To do that, we have to listen, find out what they need, constantly look for ways to serve them better and show that we can deliver more value than anyone else.”

Achieving this, he says, requires a highly motivated, creative and well-trained staff. And to recruit and retain the best, Klein has committed to making IRI what he calls “a destination place of employment.”

“I’ve always believed that companies take on the personality of their leader,” says Klein. “If the guy at the top focuses on results but also wants his people to have a good time in the process, things go better.”

Being a leader
Klein became CEO and president of IRI at a time of great change — the company had recently been acquired by Silicon Valley entrepreneur and billionaire Romesh Wadhwani’s Symphony Technology Group. A major restructuring was initiated and the company invested $300 million in a new grid computing platform called MarketKnowledge that facilitates advanced store-level and consumer insights and analytics.

All this was prompted by the need to turn the company around. The pioneering shopping data provider had, in Klein’s words, lost its edge.

“Innovation is in the company’s DNA,” says Klein. “But at some point, leadership may have gotten too comfortable. We’ve recommitted to being the catalyst that helps the industries we serve reinvent themselves.”

Technology is enabling that transformation. The objective is to provide 100 percent accurate data to all clients all the time, allowing them to act quickly and make better-informed decisions to optimize sales and profits. Utilizing the next generation of measurement tools is essential but Klein knows that in the long run, people make the difference and power the company’s performance.

“Leadership is the ability to teach individuals and organizations to surpass themselves,” says Klein. “My job is to get employees to see where we’re going and how we’re going to get there.”

The best leaders, he says, are able to paint that picture in vivid colors and inspire everyone to pull together.

“Everybody who works here, from the administrative assistants to division managers, knows the mission,” he says. “They realize that if they’re spending time and effort on anything that doesn’t contribute to what we’re trying to do, it’s a distraction. And they understand how their job relates to everyone else’s.”

Communication is critical to that understanding. That’s why Klein has members of the senior management staff talking together for an hour via conference call every month, and once a quarter, there’s a dial-in global town hall meeting. Because Klein values input from everyone in the organization, he pursues it aggressively.

At a global leadership meeting last year, he asked the 100 people in attendance to go home, think about what the company needed to do to be more successful and give him three suggestions. “About 42 responded,” Klein says. “So I personally called the other 58. They’d say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you really meant me.’ This year, I made the same request to the same group, and I heard back from 98 people.”

He’s also meticulous about follow-up.

“If someone promises me something by a specific date or time and doesn’t deliver, that person will get a call or an e-mail from me,” he says. “If I say, ‘You’ll hear from me in two weeks,’ on Day 15, you do.”

And he’s convinced that modeling this keep-your-word behavior prompts others throughout the organization to do the same.

Building employee relationships
To proceed on its growth trajectory and provide top-tier service, Klein knows IRI must work smarter, faster, bolder and more responsively. To do that, he’s promoting an entrepreneurial culture in which all employees are encouraged to maximize their potential and are empowered to be innovators.

To make sure he had the right people in place to achieve those goals, his tenure began with the difficult task of letting people go.

“I got rid of the demotivators,” Klein says. “There weren’t many, but eliminating them made those who stayed much happier. We had to bring in a few people, but one of the things I’m most proud of is that the company’s turnaround has largely been effected by those already here.”

The next step was disseminating the message that when companies and individuals make mistakes, as they inevitably do, the best way to handle the problem is to own up to it, take care of it quickly, learn from it, and then, move on.

“When you try new things, it doesn’t always work out,” says Klein. “What’s important is to get better every day.”

How managers react to mistakes is also crucial. Klein has zero tolerance for those who show a lack of respect toward coworkers.

“When I joined the company, I announced that there would be no screaming or yelling,” he says. “It’s OK to express disagreement or disappointment, but no one is allowed to treat employees like misbehaving 4-year-olds.”

In addition to respect, there’s a big emphasis on training and assessment at IRI. Classroom and online seminars support professional development, and monitored programs track performance so staff members can see where they are relative to specific goals at all times. Everyone gets formalized written and verbal feedback twice a year, because once people master their own domain, says Klein, they’re better able to mesh their knowledge and skills with other areas and departments.

Good news is shared news and victories get a companywide shout-out. And in keeping with his have-fun philosophy, Klein likes to do it with humor.

“When we won the Campbell’s account, everyone got a note from me attached to a can of chicken noodle soup,” he says. “For Welch’s, it was a jar of jelly on the desks. We just landed 3M, so I distributed pads of Post-its imprinted with the phrase, ‘Make a note of it.’”

He’s also a big believer in giving credit and honoring contributions. A number of recognition programs are in place, and Klein personally signs every award and milestone certificate himself.

Most new hires participate in an intensive three-week orientation and training class, and Klein speaks to every group. One of his presentations concentrates on the art and science of getting and keeping customers. He calls it, “Seven keys to success, or how do I get clients to like me better than anyone else?”

He talks about expertise, integrity and reliability. He emphasizes going the distance and beyond. He mentions the need for enthusiasm and pride. It all adds up to forming long-term partnerships, in large part by being a great listener.

For Scott Klein, it’s a fundamental part of doing business. But that’s just what you’d expect from a man who’s built a career by building relationships.

How to reach: IRI Inc., www.infores.com

Monday, 29 August 2005 05:52

Sweet success

Katrina Markoff is young, unorthodox, and fabulously successful, with a unique approach to making both candy and money.

The 32-year-old founder and president of Vosges Haut-Chocolat has built a burgeoning chocolate empire one luscious and exotically flavored truffle at a time. In seven years, her company has grown from a single owner-operated retail shop into a $4.5 million business with 50 employees, five stores and thriving online and catalog sales.

The firm earned spots on Inc. magazine’s list of the 500 fastest growing companies in the United States in 2004 and Markoff herself has garnered attention and accolades from both the culinary and business media. Bon Appetit magazine crowned her Food Artisan of the Year last year, and she was a finalist in Ernst &Young’s Entrepreneur Of The Year competition in 2004.

She’s achieved all this by mapping out her own route and doing things her own way.

“I’ve always done things that may not seem logical or sensible in order to maintain my creative spirit,” says Markoff. “And I apply the same approach to running this business.”

Markoff studied psychology and chemistry at Vanderbilt University, and headed to culinary school in Paris three days after graduating. She worked in restaurant kitchens from Spain to Thailand but ultimately decided to reinvent chocolate. Everything she does has a surprising twist, from using Indian curry, ancho chile powder and sinus-clearing wasabi in her chocolate creations to providing staff at corporate headquarters in Chicago with a meditation room and weekly yoga classes.

She dilutes her brand by marketing her signature products side by side with whatever else grabs her fancy — currently leather jackets, lingerie and scented candles. And she puts personal satisfaction — her own and that of the people who work for her — before bottom line goals.

While not exactly thumbing her nose at conventional wisdom, Markoff has disregarded, defied and disproved many tried and true fundamentals of the candy kitchen and the corner office.

Traditionalists and MBAs might find many of her ideas a touch too New Age for their taste, but she combines her highly personalized style with sales savvy and a brilliant knack for self-promotion.

Her star is clearly on the rise. Her high-end products featuring a global grocery cart of ingredients are an Oprah favorite, and the company reported a whopping 392 percent growth last year.

Smart Business got this on-the-go gourmet to slow down long enough to share her ideas about her vision for Vosges and how she gets her staff to invest in it.

How do you run your business?

I’m definitely not your typical executive. I suppose you could say I’ve established an alternative corporate culture. And doing the unexpected is fun.

Establish a supportive, welcoming workplace where people feel they can be themselves. This creates an environment that encourages new ideas and one where everyone is motivated to work very hard and put their heart into everything they do.

The key is to be flexible and responsive to employees’ needs and interests. For example, my bookkeeper prefers working from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. rather than 9 to 5. That’s fine with me. Another one of my staff cares for her elderly mother. When she has to take her to the doctor, I allow her to have paid time off and don’t count it as a sick day. She never abuses the privilege and truly appreciates the consideration.

We have no dress code - that’s another small way to nurture individuality.

We also have a very malleable and adaptable structure. I had a young woman in operations who had a real interest in marketing but no experience. When a position opened up in that area, I gave her the opportunity to move into it, and she’s doing a great job. In another case, I decided to make our corporate headquarters in Chicago green, and I handed off the responsibility to an employee with a personal passion for environmental consciousness.

And when I learned that an employee was very involved in V-Day [dedicated to ending violence against women and girls], it become one of our charities of choice, and I tapped her to manage our giving program.

I’m a big believer in exploring and exploiting the talent we have in-house and building on it.

Is it working?

We’ve had almost no turnover. We continue adding employees but rarely replace any, and have had no trouble recruiting talented, energetic people. They’re attracted to us precisely because of who we are and how we’re different from other companies. This is a place where people want to be. Good things come from nurturing your team.

Is that why you have a yoga studio at the office?

It started because it was part of my life and I wanted to fold it into the mix of my business day. But employees are very enthusiastic. Attendance at the class is optional, of course, but most choose to come. And I have no doubt that the relaxation and yoga’s effect on the mind, body and spirit is beneficial to them and to the company.

What’s your biggest business challenge?

I fight against becoming institutionalized because I think if we do, we’ll lose the innovative edge that’s brought us so far. I’m also determined to stay true to the integrity of the product, which gets harder as we continue to grow. Sometimes that means not accepting the standard answers or the most practical solutions.

What’s next for you and the company?

We have three stores in Chicago, one in Las Vegas and another in Soho in New York City. Now I’m looking at opening at least one in Los Angeles and expanding retail operations into Japan. There’s a lot of interest in our products there.

The business keeps moving in new directions. I think that’s because I don’t put borders around my thinking. I just let things evolve naturally. I have so many ideas that if I wasn’t busy with the details of running this company, I’d probably be starting 10 more businesses all at the same time.

Dealing with the bank keeps me grounded. But I would like to get back into the creative end of things, do a little more right-brain thinking and a little less left-brain stuff.

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

Talking about world peace through chocolate. My chocolate creations cross international boundaries. I like to think of them as a way to introduce people to different cultures and bring them together in a nonpolitical arena.

My mother always told me there are no limits. I think that’s a good rule for life and business.

How to reach: Vosges Haut-Chocolat, http://www.VosgesChocolate.com

Thursday, 28 July 2005 13:19

The DeJoria file

Born: 1944, Los Angeles

First job: Selling greeting cards door-to-door

Residence: Austin, with homes in Manhattan, Hawaii, Colorado and Malibu

Career moves: Went from being a sales rep to a division manager in the beauty industry to a management trainer and consultant for a variety of companies until starting his own firm in partnership with hair dresser Paul Mitchell in 1980; currently involved in 17 other business ventures, including House of Blues nightclubs, Patron tequila, a Harley Davidson dealership, NRG Natural Gas, Lone Star Energy and Solar Utility Inc.

Service: Board of directors of the Solar Electric Light Fund; Council of Advisors of Global Green USA; advisor on issues of management, motivation and global thinking to U.S. Navy Seals and the CIA; special emissary to the United Nations Environmental program; board of advisors, Waterkeepers Alliance

Benefactor: The Special Operations Fund, providing financial assistance to families of American service personnel killed in the line of duty; Mineseeker Foundation, an initiative to detect and disarm land mines worldwide; Children’s Hospital Los Angeles; Starbright Foundation for seriously ill children; Stanford Solar Car project

What’s the most important business lesson you’ve learned?

Healthy, sustainable business growth happens gradually, not by leaps and bounds. Don’t run when you should be walking. Always remember, it’s a cinch by the inch, but hard by the yard.

What was the greatest business challenge you’ve faced?

Unscrupulous individuals are marketing counterfeit, stolen and diverted Paul Mitchell Systems products. We sell only to professional salons. If consumers buy our products on the Internet or anywhere else, no matter how reputable the store, we can’t guarantee their quality or safety.

They may be old or even dangerous if counterfeit. Alerting the public to the problem is a top priority for us.

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