“Does one ever really manage growth, or does it manage them?” he asks. “Well, you’d like to say that you could, but I think most of the times it tends to manage you.”
While that’s what Skiles says, his track record proves otherwise. As CEO of Shared PET Imaging, a Canton-based company providing PET scanners to hospitals and health care centers, Skiles has managed his company’s recent growth quite successfully. Over the past five years, sales have increased more than 2,500 percent, and operations have expanded into several states.
Smart Business spoke with Skiles about his secrets to managing communications and employees in a fast-growing company.
How have new technologies helped your company grow?
For anyone trying to build a company today, everything’s faster. It’s not like 50 years ago when communications were slower, timelines were slower, technological advances were slower. Now, things are the speed of light. You can do deals faster, you can hire people faster, everything’s much faster, including your competition. You communicate faster, you can communicate much more effectively. You can definitely grow quicker.
What are the drawbacks to fast growth?
One is you sometimes become separated from your customer. If you fall into the habit, as some people do, of e-mailing back and forth, one could say, ‘Well, I’m staying connected more often,’ but in truth, you’re not in front of them.
All businesses today ... welcome the opportunity to communicate more effectively, but they sort of lose that personal touch. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily, it just is.
How do you avoid that separation from the customer?
We have regional account specialists that are in the field every day, contacting and developing and continuing to improve our account relationships. Their job is to go out and just visit with our customer base, which are primarily hospitals, and communicate with them on a variety of levels. Are we doing everything that you want us to do? What are we doing in the way of educating your physicians and patient base? We can communicate not only what we’re doing but what they expect of us.
In addition, the regional account specialists can go to the community, they can educate the physicians, the office staff, the patients, they give talks in the community. And in that process, they also solve problems.
How do you convey stability and security to your clients during times of fast growth?
I think it’s staying connected. Good communications. One of the things that I live by is I’d rather solve a problem that’s only a week old, not a year old.
If a regional account specialists goes back in and is talking to the account and says, ‘We’ve upgraded our equipment and want to talk to you about the contract,’ you’re not dealing with a problem that’s been hanging out there a long time. Anyone in growth needs to just handle the problems; listen to the customer and handle the problems effectively.
If we’re sending out a regional account specialist and they’re not effective, they’re not finding out the problems, then we can’t deal with it. So the first thing they’re taught is how to find out the problems.
Don’t go in there and just hear all the good news. Find out are you happy with the images we’re producing? Are you happy with the technologists? Are we giving you all the right information? What more can we be doing?
How do you solve problems once they’re discovered?
As [problems] come back out, they’re disseminated through the organization and everyone solves those problems. We focus on them, and we get back in there until the customer is absolutely happy. As fast as you can grow based upon all the technology, [customers] can tear your business apart because they can communicate their dissatisfaction fast. So if they’re not happy with you, then they’re going to be able to tell a lot of people.
It’s all about managing. And if you really boil it down to it, it’s people. If you can get in there and do the right things for them and provide the best technology, it’s left up to the people. Am I solving your problems?
You may like me as a person, and we may communicate on some level, kids, fishing, whatever it may be, but at the end of the day, am I solving your problems? If I can do that, then you can go on to the next item on your list.
How do you keep the employees motivated?
People work for their families ... but more importantly, they need personal satisfaction in what they do. We deal in medicine, and we deal with a very sick part of the population. Primarily what we image is cancer, or to find out if someone has cancer.
When we’re dealing in those environments, [employees] really need to feel they’re contributing, that it’s not just a paycheck. Once they feel as though their contribution had an effect on this company, it’s a lot easier for people to feel challenged.
We try to communicate with everyone that, if you were to walk into our office and look at everything that’s been created, it’s been created by the people that work here.
Someone created every form, every instrument, every tool, every policy. We try to make sure that people feel connected to the company in many ways.
How to reach: Shared Pet Imaging, (800) 685-2104 or http://www.sharedpet.com
First job: First job out of college, I went back to a family business, I was third generation.
What has been your greatest challenge in business?
I think one of the things, when we started, was that I ran from failure. I sort of got into business and realized how much I didn’t know and how little money I had, and I really did run from failure.
And that is a challenge it’s not a good strategic plan. But now I run to success, and that is a far more exciting thing. It’s a more positive thing to do.
What has been your greatest business lesson?
I worked for a family business, and you sort of grow up in a family business and you don’t know anything different. And you learn very quickly that you treated everyone in that company with respect.
There wasn’t a question that’s what you did. I didn’t realize that that was a philosophy. So I guess it was how my father treated people I believe you need to treat everyone with respect.
Who was your mentor?
My cousin. He was eight years my senior. When I went back to the family business, he was there, and he really told me what was important and taught me, basically, how I could be significant. And worthwhile maybe that’s a better thing, how I could be worthwhile.
I always thought about agriculture, initially because it was such a humane thing to do. To be able to produce food that was impressive to me. You’re taught all kinds of things [in college], like what does Vitamin E do, and you have tables telling you how much you need in any specific diet and all these kind of things, but I didn’t know how really to apply that and get it out on that farm. And that is what he taught me.
And really taught me that a small company could compete against giants. And that was a change in my way of thinking.
Instead of implementing new sales techniques or fancy new programs, Carmichael followed a different approach he focused on the basics, improving relationships with independent insurance agents and providing better customer service by completely rebuilding the company’s technology platform.
At the time, Ohio Casualty was experimenting with a new sales program, moving from partnerships with independent agents toward an Ohio Casualty team of agents, and it wasn’t working. Within two weeks of Carmichael’s arrival, he killed the program and recommitted to using independent agents as the only source of sales.
“[The situation] was, at best, guarded,” Carmichael says. “The company had had an initiative to sell direct, and that cost us some level of trust with our independent agents. They felt we were competing against them.
“The plus [of independent agents] is they’re independent, representing more than one company. And the challenge is they’re an independent, representing more than one company. We have to compete within that agency. We have to compete against, in some cases, other very formidable competitors. So we have to distinguish our services.”
To do that, Carmichael and his team developed an ease-of-use strategy that hinged on one key component technology.
According to Carmichael, there are two ways to approach new technology.
“You can go at it at the Web or the front end which is the way most companies have done it and put fancy Web pages and cool technology on an Internet platform,” he says. “Or you can do it the way we did it, and that’s go back to the mainframe and rebuild all the systems out so that they are Internet-friendly and they use Internet languages like HTML and can be integrated very easily with any other system, such as an agents system or a vendors system.
“It’s a harder, longer process but it fits the long term. It allows you to do what we’re doing now, and that’s roll out new systems. In 30 to 60 days, we can have a brand-new application up for our agents or for our own internal use, because you don’t have to do the hard-wiring.”
Revamping the mainframe gave Ohio Casualty a huge competitive advantage, making it faster and easier for agents to get the information they need.
“The main point that we’re trying to make for the agents is that we want them to stay in their system when they communicate with us,” Carmichael says. “They all have their own management information systems over 80 percent of them do and we would prefer that they not have to leave their system to get to us.
“A lot of our competitors put up a Web site that makes agents exit their own system, go into that Web site, do their processing and then bring that data back into their system. We want all of that data to be ... in their system.”
Agents simply highlight the policy or the claim, upload it to Ohio Casualty, and get an answer. “We believe that if we do that, then agents will prefer to use us versus our competition, who makes them jump through several hoops, from passwords to Web sites that they have to learn how to navigate.”
It sounds simple, but it’s taken Ohio Casualty time, sweat and plenty of cajoling to convince long-time agents that a brand-new technology platform will work better than the system they already know.
“The biggest challenge was change itself,” Carmichael says. “Agents and employees are not interested in making changes they’re comfortable with the way things work today. And when an agent is hiring new staff, he doesn’t want to have to train people on the new systems he prefers the old way because it works and it’s dependable. So the biggest challenge is to prove to people that the new systems are not only easier to use for all people, agents and employees, but they provide a more robust solution.”
To convince employees and agents, Carmichael implemented new training programs.
“We’ve done a lot of different kinds of training,” he says. “We have a very proactive call center, calling agents, walking them through the process in some cases they have to download new software hand-holding them through that.
“We’ve introduced Web-based, online training so agents can come online and do the training, learn the new system or the new application. We’ve sent marketing reps out and specialists out, face-to-face with our agents, to literally walk them and their staff through it. We’ve had good success through our help desk that’s much more reactive, so when somebody’s got a problem, they can call in and then we walk them through it.”
With the initial training done, Ohio Casualty continues to make an effort to keep technology in the front of people’s minds.
“We reinforce it through meetings,” Carmichael says. “We have meetings with our agents on a regular basis, and we’ll always have one part of that meeting where we highlight or talk about technology.”
Keys to success
Beyond cajoling and training, three key actions helped Ohio Casualty’s technology improvement program succeed.
The first, says Carmichael, was agent and customer contact.
“No. 1 is, talk to your customers first,” he says. “Find out, what do they need or want in the way of systems or access to systems with the company. We have a customer group that we bring together every six months to give us advice on where should we go for new technology solutions.”
The second key was to “make sure that the IT staff has strong project management skills. Every one of our senior people in IT have professional project management skills, and that has allowed us to introduce new technologies quicker, complete projects faster.”
The third thing Ohio Casualty did was to “make sure the product people the underwriters, the claims people, the actuaries make sure that they’re part of that [project management] team.”
Even with all three keys in place, Carmichael says, one more element is needed to tie it all together communication. Keeping the lines of communication open between departments such as IT and customer service, and between the company and its clients, is critical.
“The more clearly you communicate with people, the easier it is for them to do business with you,” Carmichael says.
Ohio Casualty’s technology initiative has paid off, making agents and the company more productive.
“The applications that we’ve put online for our employees and our agents are so much easier to use than the old way that even the die-hard old-timers who know how to navigate the old system will admit that it’s easier, quicker, faster, cheaper to use the new way,” Carmichael says.
“Not only do we enable claims to be handled more efficiently with technology, but in the agent’s office, we provide a lot of access to data through their system or through their laptop or through their PDA. They can get access to data about their customer, about the billing system, about claims, so that they have a better understanding of what’s going on, and they can provide better service to their customers.
“In turn, we provide better access to our policy administration system, which allows agents to receive all of the data in all of the policies that they have on the books with us, but more important, they can upload applications, they can upload requests for quotes and do inquiries, and they can actually issue them online in their office.”
As the company’s ability to respond quickly to customers online has increased, the amount of paperwork and number of customer service phone calls have decreased.
“We are now finding that more of our inquiries into billing, for example, are being handled online,” says Carmichael. “They don’t require human intervention. ... They can go direct to the online application and get the answer. Service has improved, and speed of getting the data or getting the answer has improved.”
Carmichael says it’s all the result of strong communication and finding the right technology that provided agents what the agents really needed “Better technology for their processing needs, for the support of their customers, and [on our end], providing ... better personnel and services that give the agents and their customers a high quality of service.”
How to reach: Ohio Casualty Group, http://www.ocas.com
Education: Undergraduate, Boston College, 1979; MBA, Carnegie Mellon University, 1981
First job: Procter & Gamble, brand management
What has been your greatest business challenge?
Finding great people.
What has been your toughest business challenge?
Personnel decisions. [I try to handle them] fairly and with as many facts as possible. Sometimes you’ve just got to make tough decisions, and I really want to be fair, but I don’t shy away from them.
I believe in making them sooner verses later. Things that become tough don’t usually get better over time; they get worse over time if you just let them sit.
What has been your greatest business lesson?
It’s have a great product first. A great marketer on a lousy product isn’t going to go anywhere. Even a moderately successful sales driver on a great product will do really well.
I’m quite lucky that we have great people and a great product. We change people’s lives.
Whom do you admire most in business, and why?
Jack Welch. I admire him for his focus on winning, not just on playing the game.
When Gary Taylor founded InfoCision Management Corp., an Akron-based telecommunications company, he never wanted it to be the world's biggest; just the world's best. And through an inventive quality control strategy, he's on the way to making that happen.
Under Taylor's leadership, InfoCision developed the Q3 quality assurance system, designed to gauge the performance of communicators -- employees making telemarketing calls -- and to assure clients that calls are up to standards. Communicators are monitored at least once every 20 minutes, across three levels.
Supervisors are the first level of evaluation. These team leaders provide monthly evaluations for each team member based on a standard quality skills assessment form, grading communicators on everything from tone of voice to keystroke volume.
In-house analysts also evaluate communicators. As former communicators themselves, these on-site employees have a keen understanding of the job and what it takes to be successful. Analysts evaluate each communicator twice each month, taping the calls. Then they meet with the communicator, replay the tape and give a detailed assessment.
Finally, independent quality assurance analysts provide monthly evaluations for each communicator. These analysts are trained to understand the preferences of a specific client, and evaluate based on those preferences.
To ensure fairness and a standard level of assessment, all analysts are evaluated as well. Once a month, each analyst is given the same taped call to evaluate, and their comments are compared for consistency and accuracy.
Through this advanced and innovative Q3 system, InfoCision's employees receive continuous feedback, and, when necessary, personalized training and coaching to ensure clients have the highest quality service. And it has paid off.
Today, Taylor's company is the third-largest privately held teleservices company, and the dominant telemarketing company for religious fund-raising projects, nonprofit fund-raising projects and political and nonprofit volunteer recruitment projects.
For many entrepreneurs, the decision to leave corporate America and begin a small business is reached after months or years of financial analysis, research, internal debate and soul-searching. For Lori DeVore, however, the decision was made in the span of a phone call.
In 1991, DeVore was working for Kelly Services as an office automation specialist, training people in Microsoft Word and WordPerfect, and placing them in computer-based jobs. At night, she taught courses in computers and technology at Solon Schools Adult Education program.
So it was a shock when, one afternoon, DeVore found herself discussing computer training with Ken Green, president of the Cleveland office of Grubb & Ellis, a commercial real estate advisory firm. Green had been in one of DeVore's adult education classes and was so impressed with her knowledge and teaching skills that he asked her if she could train his employees. She agreed.
He asked for her company name and her training rate, which DeVore decided on the spot. And with that, DeVore Technologies was born.
That unconventional beginning shaped DeVore Technologies' approach to business. DeVore did not grow her company by plan; she grew it by listening to the wants and needs of her customers, and by following them where they wanted to go.
Today, DeVore Technologies has trained more than half a million people in computer technologies, and has branched out into other areas, creating new software applications, hosting Web sites, building and maintaining networks, and contracting specialized personnel. For DeVore, it's understanding and delivering what customers want that keeps DeVore Technologies on the path to success.
How to reach: (440) 232-3846 or www.devore.com
But for The Garland Co. Inc., innovating was no small task. In fact, everything about The Healy, Garland's innovative production line, has been huge, from the new building it demanded to the results Garland has seen.
In December 2000, The Garland Co. opened a brand-new production facility to house The Healy, a retrofitted, state-of-the-art production line named after plant manager Dan Healy. This line produced Garland's mainstay product, modified bitumen membranes, using an industry first -- three mixing blades moving at varying speeds and shears.
This process broke down the high-polymer rubber more thoroughly and consistently, providing a higher-quality membrane.
Since the introduction of The Healy, The Garland Co. has increased production of its rolled membranes, watching output double between August 2001 and August 2002. In 2004, The Healy produced an estimated 428,000 rolls, still under the line's maximum capacity of 650,000 rolls.
With improvements, Garland expects The Healy to be able to produce 725,000 rolls by 2007, more than 150 percent of current production.
The line also reduced waste, cutting energy use by 20 percent and scrap production by a full percentage point, saving nearly 4,000 membrane rolls. And the new line improved worker safety. On older lines, the mineral surfacing applied to some of Garland's membranes was moved mechanically onto the line, allowing dust to fly. On The Healy, the surfacing is applied using an airtight air flow process that prevents dust from escaping into the air.
One of The Healy's best features is that it combined two formerly separate lines into a single one, giving the line more versatility. The Garland Co. expects to be able to develop more diverse rolled good products in the future using The Healy, making the company, and the impact of its newest line, even larger.
How to reach: The Garland Co., (216) 641-7500 or www.garlandco.com