Mark G Scott
John Ireland read the notice advertising for a newspaper carrier and just had to show it to his 11-year-old daughter, Kathy. He knew exactly what her reaction would be.
“He kind of gently shoved this newspaper ad under my nose,” says Kathy, flashing back to one of the defining moments of her childhood. “The ad read, ‘Newspaper carrier wanted. Are you the boy for the job?’ Dad knew the kind of reaction that was going to get from me. I wrote to the paper and said, ‘I’m not the boy for the job. I’m the girl. I can do it just as well as any boy.’ And 30-plus years later, I’m still the girl with the paper route.”
Fans know her for her appearances in Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue in the 1980s and 1990s. But as she says, she’s “still the girl with the paper route” and that girl, with an endless supply of determination and dedication, has built a $2 billion design and marketing empire.
“The modeling industry — that was not part of my path,” says Ireland, speaking in November at the EY Strategic Growth Forum® in Palm Springs, Calif. “But it was a wonderful opportunity. I believed it could be a chance for me to pay for college or to start a business. I’m a slow learner. The entire time I worked in the modeling industry, I tried and failed at many businesses. I look at failure as an education — in that respect, I’m very well-educated.”
When she started the business now known as kathy ireland Worldwide, Ireland says she was “an aging, pregnant model at my kitchen table.”
“I was 29,” Ireland says. “I never felt comfortable earning my paycheck based on how somebody else felt that I looked. I didn’t see the sustainability there. I was always more interested in designing for the red carpet than walking it. It just took me a while to get there. Had one of those earlier ventures taken off, the modeling never would have gone on as long as it did.”
Today, Ireland is the founder, chair, CEO and chief designer for a firm that offers designs in fashion, weddings, home office and other areas. The business bears her name, but that wasn’t done out of vanity.
“It was available to register and protect and it did open some doors of curiosity,” Ireland says. “They just weren’t the correct doors for us. There are some doors even today that are opened simply because of curiosity and my ideas as CEO are not necessarily taken as seriously as they would be had I not had that long ago modeling career.”
In an interview conducted on stage at the EY event by Forbes’ Moira Forbes, Ireland spoke about the obstacles she overcame, the ones she still faces today and the importance of treating people with love and respect.
Growing the right way
Some would look at the product Ireland used to launch her business and say it wasn’t very glamorous.
“I was an aging model and someone offered me an opportunity to model a pair of socks,” Ireland says. “It was a small budget and things were getting a little rough out there, but it was a job. It was a time when not a lot of job offers were coming my way. I thought it would be an interesting place to start our brand, something basic.
“What could our team bring as far as innovation in utilizing wonderful fabrics and textures? If women embrace socks, I might be on to something.”
Ireland says many accuse her of being a control freak, using the fact that the company is named after her as an example. But she reiterates it’s never been about her own personal glory.
“I wanted to bring something to the table and have our team be involved,” Ireland says. “I wasn’t interested in putting my name on a product. I get accused of being a control freak, but I prefer to think of it as passion. I’m very passionate about what I do. I want to make sure we do it with integrity and do it the right way.”
Ireland’s father worked in labor relations and was an inspiration to his daughter in terms of the proper way to treat people.
“How people are treated is much more important than the green stuff in the bank,” Ireland says. “I love listening to people. I believe in that so much. I have problems in my life, and I like to hear other peoples’ problems and how they reach solutions. That’s what our brand is about. We began with a mission to find solutions for families, especially busy moms. We expanded it to finding solutions for people in love and for people in business.”
The socks were a hit with consumers, but Ireland remained cautious as she plotted the future and her business began to grow. That wariness of growing too fast has always been part of the thoughtful mindset that guides every aspect of Ireland’s life.
“In the early days, I grew too slowly because I was so afraid of growing at a pace where we couldn’t control the integrity of what was going on,” Ireland says. “One of the reasons we remained a private company is because it gives us the privilege to make decisions that are not based on a 90-day Wall Street Journal chart. We don’t have those responsibilities and accountabilities to show on paper what we’re doing.
“We can make more long-term plans that many would say are going to kill your business, but for me, it feels like the right thing to do.”
There were plenty of people who thought Ireland was crazy when she made the decision to end her company’s relationship with Kmart and work through an independent channel.
“People said, ‘That’s crazy, you can’t start in mass retail and go to the independent channel. That’s never been done,’” Ireland says. “It’s never been done doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. We’ve got to turn down that noise and negativity.”
When financial performance sunk, there were moments when the decision looked like a mistake.
“We were in debt and starting all over,” Ireland says. “I found myself in that situation. When you’ve got payroll and the money is not coming in, you have a choice. You get inspired and you get innovative or you give up. There was never any quit, and I’m very blessed to work with an incredible team.”
Ireland admits that balancing her work life with her three children and husband back home and the many philanthropic causes she has become involved with over the years is a huge challenge that she doesn’t always manage effectively.
“It’s something I struggle with daily,” Ireland says. “Oftentimes, I’m really out of balance. People often ask, ‘Can women have it all?’ I think we can, but not all at once. I really believe that our lives come in seasons, and in each season of life we have to prioritize our time. It’s important for individuals to figure out their own values and their own priorities. Put barriers in place to protect them because they will be challenged.”
One issue that is particularly close to Ireland’s heart is human rights and the fact that there are so many people, particularly women and children, being used as slaves around the world.
“It’s the fastest growing illegal business and human beings can be sold again and again,” Ireland says. “And that terrifies me. What I’ve learned, is that as we grow, we have more leverage. When we’re smaller, we bump into a funky situation when we call them out. ‘Hey, you broke our human rights contract.’ They say, ‘Well, don’t work with us.’ When you have some leverage, you have a much better chance.”
Something that has helped Ireland in all aspects of her life is the ability to take challenges or take criticism that comes her way and use it to get better.
“It’s the importance of asking powerful questions,” Ireland says. “When someone says no, I ask why. When someone says yes, my question is how. ‘How are you able to manufacture these socks at such a great value? What’s going on at every level? What’s going on in the factories?’ Asking those questions is powerful.”
But one of the most transformative moments of Ireland’s career was when she fell flat on her face in her driveway while fooling around on her son’s wagon.
“I was a mess,” Ireland says, referring to her broken nose, cracked teeth and other injuries she sustained in the fall. “One of my girlfriends, I didn’t ask her to do it, but she took it upon herself to put construction paper over every mirror so I wouldn’t see myself. Our son thought it was wonderful I could scare his friends.”
The transformative part of the injury was the fact that her business experienced its largest surge of growth during her recovery.
“No one could attribute it to my appearance because I was a mess,” Ireland says. “No one could attribute that growth to what I did for a living the last century. I still have a scar on my nose and makeup usually covers it. But it’s a wonderful reminder of the turn our company took.” ●
- Find your opportunity.
- Believe in yourself.
- Treat people with respect.
The Ireland File:
Name: Kathy Ireland
Title: Founder, chair, CEO and chief designer
Company: kathy ireland Worldwide
Ireland on Elizabeth Taylor: She mentored me before I met her through reading and learning about her. She caused me to look at life, philanthropy, business and jewelry with a whole new set of eyes. In the 1980s when the AIDS epidemic was just coming around, she was so frustrated that nothing was being done. She said, ‘Why isn’t anyone doing anything?’ She looked in the mirror one day and said, ‘Wait a minute. I’m somebody. I can do something.’
When she called her friends and asked for help, they hung up on her. Her business associates pleaded with her, ‘Just leave this thing alone. This is not going to be good for you.’ She was getting death threats. But what I love about Elizabeth is she did not let any of that stop her. She believed in what she was doing. You have to have that passion.
Ireland on entrepreneurialism:When I was younger and people got out of college, they had to find a job. Today, people have to invent one. Entrepreneurial skills are more important now than ever before. Whenever we face times of uncertainty or economic challenges, entrepreneurial skills are critical.
When I’m able to connect with entrepreneurs, I learn from them far more than I can teach them. Selfishly, it’s a blessing for me when I’m able to have those experiences. I look for them as often as possible. We help each other.
How to reach: kathy ireland Worldwide, (310) 557-2700 or www.kathyireland.com
Mark Silverman has fond memories of Sept. 1, 2007, the day Big Ten Network went live to TV viewers for the first time.
“We had been working nonstop to get the network ready,” Silverman says. “I started in December (2006), and most people didn’t come on board until April and May 2007. Flipping the switch, going live on air and watching Dave Revsine, our host, do his open for BTN, it was definitely the most memorable moment I have in our history.”
It was an instance of great accomplishment. But the work of turning BTN into the successful business venture it is today, with more than 300 affiliates and a presence in more than 52 million homes, was still a long way off when Silverman and crew came into work the morning after that glorious day.
“Launching a cable network is never an easy challenge,” says Silverman, the president of Big Ten Network, a joint venture between the Big Ten Conference and Fox Networks.
“We weren’t available everywhere and people were hearing frustrations from their family and friends that the games weren’t on.
“Financially, we weren’t able to bring in the revenue we had hoped to that first year. The schools were not happy to hear from their alumni and season-ticket holders that they couldn’t watch the games. There were just a lot of overall challenges from a management standpoint that we had to work through.”
Silverman felt the pressure, but he did his best to not let the criticism get to him or his employees. He was confident in his plan to build the 120-employee network and satisfy everyone’s concerns. It was just going to take a little time to make that happen.
“I needed to make sure everyone was focused on doing their job and not focused on everything else,” Silverman says. “They could not allow that to get in the way of creating a network. When people did see it, it needed to be a network they would want in their homes, one that they would talk about with their friends and say, ‘This is great; you should get it.’”
One of the first steps Silverman took to get BTN on an upward trajectory was to embrace his critics.
Meet criticism head on
Silverman didn’t have to look far to gather opinions about what BTN was doing right or wrong in those early days. In the case of Big Ten schools, university presidents and athletic directors, as well as the people who wanted to watch the network’s programming in their own homes, he felt a high level of accountability.
But Silverman was confident one of his best plays in helping the network meet its goals was to reach out to a different group.
“I wanted to meet the chief critics,” Silverman says. “We contacted the major bloggers as opposed to just reading negative stories about the network from people who really didn’t understand it. I spent a lot of time trying to discuss what was going on with these major influencers in our area.
“I had long conversations with these bloggers who tend to be very opinionated and very strong in their views. I got some of them to understand our point of view.”
Whenever you’re trying something new, you’re going to have skeptics. While you can talk and talk about why you believe it will all work out in the end, it’s often easier to earn support when you have other people willing to stand by your side and back up your claims.
“It’s a lot more credible than when you’re doing it yourself,” Silverman says. “For me to talk about the benefits of the Big Ten Network, of course I’m going to do that. I run the network. But if you can have famous alumni or media who are impartial in theory and just want to give their true opinion, that can really help.”
So Silverman went on talk shows and met with bloggers and editorial boards and did his best to answer questions and shift public opinion about what was happening at BTN.
“It just required a lot of hands-on direct communication with people who I think up until that point didn’t get much respect,” Silverman says. “I don’t think you saw many presidents of networks talking to bloggers. It was 2007 before they got to be more mainstream media like they are today.”
His goal wasn’t to ensure every story about his network in the future would be a glowing endorsement. He just wanted coverage to be fair.
“A satisfied customer is the best way to measure your company’s success,” Silverman says. “If you can attach your brand to something that is really meaningful and important to your fan base, or your customers, and then have others see the benefits, you can really utilize that to grow your company.”
Keep your goals in focus
The Big Ten schools represented another group that Silverman had to work hard to satisfy. Early on in the network’s life, a show was produced that listed the top 20 sports icons in Big Ten history. It did not get a good response from those within the conference.
“The conference was very reluctant to order certain schools over other schools,” Silverman says. “There is always this feeling in the conference that all the schools are equal. We need to do everything equally. But what we decided to do, which I felt was more appropriate for the network, was rather than be equal, we need to be fair.
“If a school is going to compete better than another school in a certain sport, they have earned the right to have more of their games on our air than the team that is not going to win as many games.”
Silverman had to find a way to manage these concerns about treating everyone the same with his professional responsibility to produce high-quality programming that recognized the excellence that the conference was producing.
“To lead an organization, you need to be willing to hear negative commentary on your business,” Silverman says. “Not everything we do is right or perfect. The first step is to be candid and to be aware that you could be doing things better. You want to take input from everyone, but not everyone’s input is right.
“We’ll hear certain ideas from the schools. As the leader of the network, I need to tell them, ‘Look, I hear you. But that’s not really in your best interest because of this.’ Or, ‘That’s a great idea, let me look at it and see what we can adapt.’ You need to be able to filter through the recommendations. Everyone has an opinion, but they may not always be right.”
This is where it becomes critical to have clear goals of what you want to be.
“You need to be very candid, but you also need to lead and sometimes people are very content to just do what’s been done the previous year,” Silverman says. “You need to be able to push through what you believe is right for the company whether or not everyone is on board.”
When the scandal at Penn State University with legendary football coach Joe Paterno leapt into the headlines, Silverman was faced with a critical decision.
“Up to that point, we had been very reluctant to say anything at all that wasn’t categorized as positive about our schools, our coaches or our conference,” Silverman says. “In light of covering that situation, the network really grew up, and we had to cover it the way our analysts truly felt.
“They were encouraged to just say what they really thought. We needed to cover it if we were going to really be a network. It was us gradually becoming more confident in what we do as a network and not being so worried about what the schools or our conference or our fans are going to think; do what we think is the right thing to do. That’s something that came about over time for us.”
Try new things
Silverman and his team are continuously looking for new ways to strengthen the BTN brand. In 2012, the network launched the BTN Big 10K race in downtown Chicago. About 4,000 runners signed up for the inaugural race, followed by 15,000 for the second race in 2013.
“We’ll take a hard look at ourselves at the end of each year and note what we did well and what we could do better and come up with a plan of what we can do next year to keep advancing,” Silverman says.
If your business hasn’t experienced any failures while trying new things, you’re probably not pushing yourself hard enough.
“You want to be better at limiting your failures, but you don’t want to limit the experimentation,” Silverman says. “Put failure within a decent constraint. You’re going to invest X amount of dollars and if it doesn’t work, it was worth it. It’s like research and development.”
The key to being successful at branching out is to know what you can handle.
“No matter how big your organization, you typically only have a limited few key people, and it’s their resource or bandwidth that you can allocate on so many projects,” Silverman says. “If something is going to happen, it typically needs a lot of company focus and priority and working together to make it work.” ●
- Don’t let people panic.
- Develop clear goals.
- Don’t fear failure.
The Silverman File:
Name: Mark Silverman
Company: Big Ten Network
Born: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Education: Attended UCLA and received a bachelor’s degree in economics; earned a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Michigan.
What led you to a career in media? There were two things I found fascinating in my local newspaper, The Journal News, when I was growing up in West Haverstraw, N.Y. One was the top 20 TV ratings. I would delve into the shows that were the highest-rated shows on the three major networks at the time. I just found that whole idea of measuring these top shows fascinating. I also checked the top 10 movies of the week and what their box office grosses were. That just really piqued my interest from a very young age.
What fascinated you about it? You have ratings and movie grosses, which is a mathematical judgment, and you’re applying that to things you really enjoy doing — watching TV and going to the movies. It was the marrying of those kinds of things that gave me the thought that you could actually have a career in something you find interesting and entertaining as well.
Who has been the biggest influence on your life? Personally, I would have to give credit to my parents. I get my work ethic from my father and most of my personality from my mom. It’s the combination of those two. And of course my wife of 20 years, Vicki.
If you could speak with anyone from the present or past, with whom would you want to speak with? Jesse Owens. We profiled Jesse Owens as a Big Ten icon. Someone who endured what he endured as an African-American at the time, going to Munich for the Olympics at the time he was there, representing Ohio State. Gaining his perspective would be very interesting.
Learn more about Big Ten Network at:
How to reach: Big Ten Network, (312) 665-0700 or www.btn.com
“They’ve totally changed what they are,” says Thomas Leaper, partner in-charge of the Franchise Services Group at RBZ, LLP. “The ones who are successful know what they don’t know.”
The franchise model allows frustrated baby boomers — not yet ready to retire — the chance for a fresh start. But as they take on this new opportunity, it’s easy to lose sight of the financial details that are the lifeblood of any solid organization.
“The franchisee may not know how to manage the financial end or may use the excuse, ‘I don’t have the time to do that report. I have to go out and sell,’” Leaper says. “It’s a disconnect that can lead to trouble.”
Smart Business spoke with Leaper about how to help new franchisees build a more sustainable business model.
Why are so many baby boomers looking at franchise opportunities?
Baby boomers have lost confidence in the real estate and securities markets. They look at them as being volatile in terms of investment and have become cynical about the motives of corporate employers. They are being driven to look at business opportunities that present a solid investment vehicle for their interests and allow them to control their own destiny.
There is also the availability of capital. It really dried up during the economic downturn and paralyzed the franchising industry, both on the franchisor and franchisee side. Franchisors were no longer selling franchises because people didn’t have the capital or risk tolerance to invest in a franchise opportunity.
And existing franchisees were hit very hard at the unit level, especially in the retail sector. But confidence is growing in this area. A good sign of this confidence is the number of financing options now available specifically for individual franchisees. The Small Business Administration has a lot of money that it’s trying to deploy. Beyond that, there are a number of private banking institutions that are increasingly interested in funding the franchise sector.
It’s the firm’s responsibility to demonstrate that accounting is as important as legal, sales, marketing and operations to the health of their business. Teaching proper accounting procedures is integral to any franchise training and on-boarding process, and illustrates the importance of working with professionals that can help newer franchisors deliver the message. ●
When California Pizza Kitchen head G.J. Hart arrived on the scene in 2011, he found a number of issues he wanted to address.
One of the first items on his list was the structured approach his team took toward serving guests in the restaurants.
CPK developed a series of steps for servers that started when they seated guests until it was time to deliver the check. It removed all the guesswork from being a server. But it also created a dining experience that lacked a personal touch.
Hart discovered that guests typically received the same experience, whether they were a couple out for a romantic evening or a family with young, screaming children. The reason is the servers were following a script.
In most cases, when someone tells you that you sound “scripted,” it’s not meant as a compliment. The general inference is that you’re not putting much thought or emotion into what you’re saying. You memorized what you needed to say, you said it and that was it.
But even in a profession where you need scripts, such as acting, your goal is not to come off as if you’re reading lines. You want your audience to think you’ve become this character, and the depth of your role goes beyond just the words coming out of your mouth.
Unleash your talent
The same rules apply in the world of customer service.
Companies that provide the best support to customers are those that empower employees to assess a situation and actively seek the best way to respond. So if you’re a server and you notice that your next guest keeps looking at his watch, you know to skip any witty banter and try to get him seated, served and out the door quickly.
Hart didn’t want his servers to be robots. He wanted them to be real people who could interact with guests and customize their service to each situation — and he quickly discovered that his employees were thrilled to shed formality and give guests the best experience the servers could provide.
Take care of business
As you look ahead this year, think about what your company can do for customers and think about skills or talents you might be underutilizing. How much do you know about these people you’ve hired? And considering these people are on the front lines dealing with customers daily, how much more guidance do they need to make your customers happy?
Every strong company has core values that it prizes. But if you’ve communicated them to your employees and you’re confident your servers understand what you expect, what other reasons do you have to keep your employees reined in?
Just take it from Amber Cox, a bartender at the CPK in Canoga Park.
“People go places because they like the service,” Cox says. “Guests love the way we can be ourselves and take care of them in the fashion they want to be taken care of.” ●
Mark Scott is senior associate editor of Smart Business Los Angeles. If you have an interesting story to share about a person or business making a difference in Los Angeles, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have you ever made a promise and failed to keep it? Of course you have, you’re human. That doesn’t make you a bad person, assuming it was not your intention to deliberately deceive the person or people to which you made the promise.
But sometimes in our zest to please others, we don’t always think through all the details before we open our mouths. We just push forward believing that we can make it happen. In the event that we can’t live up to the promise, we apologize and try to learn from our mistake.
Aligning commitment with a promise
Andrew Berlin makes a promise with every employee he hires at both Berlin Packaging and the South Bend Silver Hawks, the Class AA minor league baseball team he owns in South Bend, Ind. Berlin puts a great deal of thought and analysis into this promise to ensure it represents something he can live up to.
He promises to pay his employees top dollar for their efforts and to give them every opportunity to grow and advance in the company. He guarantees that they will have strong, supportive leadership and an organization that will be there for them when they run into personal challenges.
Regular training opportunities will also be offered and while he stops short of guaranteeing their job forever, he does promise that they won’t have to work in fear.
In return for making this promise, Berlin asks for a strong commitment from his employees. He expects profitability, productivity and innovation. Points are not awarded for working hard if there are no results to show for it. In these situations, Berlin advises employees to actively seek better ways to turn their energy into productivity. The stakes are high on both sides, but the results — a packaging company topping $800 million in revenue and a baseball team that offers its fans a great ballpark experience — offer proof that Berlin is on to something.
Think before you act
It’s OK to make promises to your employees if you’ve put thought into what they represent and concluded that you have the means to support them. These assurances can build confidence and trust and empower your people to give maximum effort in their work. You show them what their hard work can lead to, and they’ll go above and beyond to make it happen.
But a failed promise can do exactly the opposite to morale. It could be a raise or bonus that you can’t deliver on, or it could be something less tangible such as a more active role in shaping your product or service.
If you open the door to your people and encourage and empower them to put their creative thoughts and ideas on the table, and then you reject them in favor of your own plan, you’ll quickly lose their support.
Employees will probably understand if you have to break a promise due to circumstances you couldn’t foresee. But they will not be as forgiving if they believe they were deliberately deceived.
Berlin has found success by being upfront about expectations and making promises he can keep. All he asks is that his employees make the same commitment to him. When you have an organization that has such strong commitment at all levels, it’s hard not to find success. ●
Mark Scott is senior associate editor of Smart Business Chicago. If you have an interesting story to share about a person or business making a difference in Chicago, please send an email to email@example.com.
David L. Calhoun gives a lot of credit to the people who led Nielsen Co. as cable TV was becoming prevalent.
“There was a day when the broadcast guys owned everything,” Calhoun says, referring to the big three networks of ABC, CBS and NBC. “And these guys in the cable world start cropping up. The broadcast guys said, ‘Don’t you dare mention them. I don’t want to compete with them.’”
Despite the threat, Nielsen did its job because measuring what consumers watch and buy is what the company does in more than 100 countries around the world.
“You can never fall short of measuring total consumption,” says Calhoun, the former CEO and current executive chairman at Nielsen. “If I do, I’m dead. If I don’t, I’m very much alive and my advantage gets bigger.”
Calhoun was part of a panel discussion at the EY Strategic Growth Forum® in Palm Springs, Calif., in November. He talked about how Nielsen has changed, globalization and the best advice he ever received.
Q. What is something people might not know about Nielsen?
A. We’re one of the lone representatives in measurement that has to point out the under-represented populations in this country and how poorly they are served. We have to go out to the politicians, go out to the communities and make sure our services cover the African-American, the Hispanic, the Asian-American populations. We do it and we work really hard at it.
Then we go to our clients and try to teach them how to market better to this crowd. That’s a secret nobody knows, but it’s very important to our people. In China, we sit with the government, and we sit every quarter. We do everything in our power to suggest policies that will stimulate domestic demand because in China, that’s the key to their future.
They’ve been an export-dependent country and if they can’t move quickly on stimulating that demand, they get in trouble. So they work us hard. I wish this government worked us as hard.
Q. What does someone fresh out of college need to know in today’s world?
A. Take a trip overseas and immerse yourself in the emerging world, not the developed world. It’s fun to go to France and enjoy Paris. On the other hand, it’s not going to help you much. China, Africa — it opens your eyes and it gives you more confidence in where the world will ultimately get.
It’s all about the development of your own self-confidence. Every one of us, we start with a training program or something that gives us a little bit of confidence. As soon as we feel like we got it, we’re ready to do the next thing. We carry anxieties with us and you can’t postpone dealing with those anxieties.
When you’re confident, you can pretty much do anything. Not arrogant, confident. No one knows your anxieties. So you have to be out there with them and you have to deal with them right away. We all have them. Every single one of us. You have to be honest with yourself.
Q. What’s the best advice you ever received?
A. When I left GE, the advice I got from my former chair Mr. (Jack) Welch and a friend on our board, A.G. Lafley. They said, ‘In our tenure, the only thing we can really believe stuck, and the thing that created the most value, were values.’
So every six years, Jack tried to twist his values a little bit to refresh them and drive them. They just said, ‘If you can instill some values that the company can rally around, everything else will take care of itself.’ ●
How to reach: Nielsen Co., (800) 864-1224 or www.nielsen.com
Learn more about Nielsen Co. at:
Daniel K. Walker doesn’t just encourage his direct reports to question his decisions at Farmers & Merchants Bank — he demands it.
“I allow them to question me from every perspective, every decision that I make,” says Walker, the bank’s chairman and CEO. “I keep it very open so I can allow them to stop me if I’m jumping off the ship at the wrong time. I have great faith and trust in these individuals. I hired them because they came with great experience and knowledge in relationship to the achievement of the bank.”
And if it turns out that those hires aren’t able to put that constructive criticism up for discussion?
“It’s really quite simple,” Walker says. “I cannot have them on my team. I have to go find another individual. It has to be a specific trait that they have and are willing to bring to the game. If they don’t come in with that expression and concern for me, I can’t have them working for me on this specific level.”
Walker and his brother, W. Henry Walker, who serves as F&M’s president, took on their current roles in 2008. They both have a deep understanding and appreciation for the value of family, teamwork and collaboration in any successful organization. The ability is critical for people to understand their roles and to know both what they can do and what’s expected of them.
“As parents, you want to be consistent and structured in your actions,” Henry says. “Running an organization is much the same way. When your employees have trust and a sense of fairness, they move forward confidently. That also relates to how they develop relationships with your customer base.
“We’re all in business because of our customers. How that translates down is consistency and structure to the customer base as well.”
Dan and Henry are fourth-generation leaders at the bank, which was founded in 1907 by C.J. Walker. He was followed as president by his son, Gus, who was followed by his son, Kenneth, who today serves as president of the bank’s main office. That heritage plays a large role in the way the bank operates.
“I had the tremendous opportunity to work my first 20 years at the bank with my grandfather, who was president from 1937 to 1979,” Dan says. “That was a great opportunity for insight as well as for learning how to handle employees, how to communicate, how to lead and how to set your expectations in relation to your leadership team. You empower those individuals so that they can go and take their goals and the objectives of the company and the ultimate goals of the bank.”
The bank has about 650 employees in 23 branches and has experienced steady growth, despite the uncertain economy, with more than $5 billion in assets. Here’s a look at how the bank has achieved this feat and positioned itself for another 100 years of good fortune.
Work as a team
In order to position your employees to be assets and contributors to your success, you have to demonstrate that you value their presence in your organization.
“One of the areas where we’ve seen companies continue to struggle, specifically in banking, is the consistency of staffing,” Henry says. “They fail in this arena because they want their employees to have a relationship with the customer, but management does not put forth the effort to truly have a relationship with the staff.
“Because they fail in that arena, the employee, instead of feeling like a valued person in the organization ... they become a number. When they become a number, the job is a transactional job and they leave and move somewhere else.”
A commitment such as Dan’s to working with people who have the freedom to counter his decisions when they perceive a problem is a key component to building strong collaborative relationships on any team. You have to let people put to use the expertise that led you to hire them in the first place.
“Another very simple example is lending,” Dan says. “If you get passionate about lending to an individual, your passion and emotion takes over your ability to provide the proper analysis. Those individuals have to come to you and say, ‘Look, it’s true, whatever you’re seeing and thinking here. But let me tell you, if you applied those numbers in that particular situation, that customer is going to fail.’”
In this case, the lesson applies to banks, but it can be easily translated to any kind of business/client relationship.
“When you’re lending, you have two responsibilities,” Dan says. “You have the responsibility to protect the bank in relationship to the loan. But on the other side, you also have a responsibility to protect the customer from making a mistake in a relationship that impacts both the bank and the customer. We have to be on both sides of that coin.”
The whole team also needs to have a collective investment in the big picture. You can’t win with a group of people that dwells on what this action or that decision will mean for their own personal future in the company.
“We need officers who check their ego at the door and will get in and get done what needs to get done,” Henry says. “We see ego at a lot of other companies as very damaging. It’s just not something we want in our staff.”
You have to be deliberate about creating a climate where people will step up and contribute.
“It’s not that I have to go ask people what they think,” Dan says. “They are aware of my goals and objectives and they are aware of what I’m doing. They just jump up and say, ‘Stop,’ or ‘I need to discuss how we could do something just a touch different so that we achieve our goals.’ These are all things that additional individuals who you bring on your team allow you to do.”
Share the responsibility
The effort to build a team that can be a key player in helping you to achieve your goals begins with the questions you ask in the interview process.
“You throw out the leading questions and then see if there is anything else that the person would like to share about themselves,” Henry says. “See what they share and what opportunities that presents. What things are you most proud of? Where do they go with that question? How do they respond?
“Some of the general questions give you a sense of who they are. Many times on resumes people will put what activities they like. What are they passionate about?”
The key is to ask enough questions in the first interview to see if you should bring the person in for a second interview.
“In the second interview, it’s best to give them a project,” Henry says. “Give it to them to come back and see how they approach it. What is their depth of analysis? What was their commitment to getting the project done and how interested are they in working with you? A lot of times, they can respond perfectly to the questions you pose. But it’s the miscellaneous comments or how they dress or how they approach other parts of the interview that gives you a sense as to who they are as a person and how they approach life.”
You need to know as much as you can about the person you’re thinking of hiring and how he or she will fit into the slot, as well as the workplace culture.
“You are not just looking at competence,” Henry says. “Do they, will they, mix in with the organization and complement what we’ve worked so hard to achieve? Will they carry forward the value structure? How does our value structure show within their current lifestyle?”
It’s not always an easy thing to do because good hiring requires leaders who can begin to see the future and see not only how that individual will perform, but how that individual will influence the performance of others.
“They not only need to lead from our perspective and be responsible to us for how they lead, but then the individuals that are subordinate to them have to lead in the same fashion,” Dan says. “We have to cause all these individuals to accomplish the goals and be challenged by those goals. If the goals aren’t accomplished, it’s something where we all failed together. Not one individual. The responsibility of success is with everyone.”
The numbers indicate the Walkers have succeeded in creating an environment to which employees want to belong. Out of 650 employees, 25 have been with the bank for more than 30 years, 72 have been there for more than 20 years and 98 have been employed at F&M for more than 10 years.
“You don’t have consistency of staffing like that without fair, structured and consistent management,” Henry says. “Those are the values we’ve been taught in how we respond to situations. When you look at the success of a company, you have products and you have people. In banking, products are quite similar from bank to bank to bank. People truly make the difference.” ●
- Don’t waste talent.
- Demand open dialogue.
- Look beyond the individual.
The Walker Files
Name: Daniel K. Walker
Title: Chairman and CEO
Company: Farmers & Merchants Bank
Born: Long Beach, Calif.
Education: Attended Fullerton College, Fullerton, Calif.
Who has been the biggest influence on your life? My father, Ken Walker, and my grandfather, Gus Walker. With my father, it was honesty and integrity. Strong, conservative and being friendly are the values of the bank. These are all things that were required; the ability to communicate quickly and accurately. You never present a problem without a solution.
Dan on taking credit: There is one thing I was taught that I remember very well from my grandfather. He says there is no limit to what can be accomplished if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit. If you lead in that fashion, when accomplishments are made, the entire team gets the credit. Everybody is growing together and everybody is achieving together.
Name: W. Henry Walker
Company: Farmers & Merchants Bank
Born: Long Beach, Calif.
Education: Bachelor of science degree in business administration, Pepperdine University.
Who has been the biggest influence on your life? For me, it would be my father, my brother and Jesus Christ. The men had great integrity. That’s what they taught us. They would make the right decision over the easy decision. We meet with borrowers that have been with us 40 or 50 years. They will remember the time when they were having difficulty and we backed them. That makes a difference. That’s where relationship, loyalty and friendship come in.
What one person would you most like to meet? My great-grandfather C.J. Walker. I’ve heard so much about him and who he was. I’d like to have the chance to meet him.
Henry on leadership: Leadership is a servant attitude. It’s not look at me and follow me. That’s part of our value structure.
Learn more about Farmers & Merchants Bank at:
How to reach: Farmers & Merchants Bank, (562) 437-0011 or www.fmb.com
Why does a man who has been managing partner of the Midwest Region for EY for less than a year jump into Lake Michigan on a cold, winter’s day in January? Why does he climb the 2,109-steps of Willis Tower and bring his wife along for the trek to the top? If you’re Rick Fezell, you do it because you love challenging yourself with physical feats that test your limits. But you also see the opportunity these challenges present to show people that you’re not a stuffy, aloof leader who just sits behind his desk all day thinking about work.
“When they have people in scuba gear and snorkeling equipment 50 yards offshore and their job is to make sure you don’t hit your head on an ice block, you probably ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this?’” Fezell says. “But it was fun. It was a great opportunity to show people that you’re just like everybody else and there is a different side to you than work. Finding things you can do that will make that statement quickly is very important.”
Fezell was named managing partner for the professional services firm’s Midwest Region in the spring of 2012. He had spent the past 20 years in Silicon Valley, most recently as managing partner for Markets in the West. So the move to Chicago was a big change, both for him and his family.
“Building new relationships and nurturing the existing relationships is something we have to do every day,” Fezell says. “But when you’re put in a new position, you really have to accelerate those things and jump-start them. That was the biggest challenge being a leader in a new marketplace.”
As Fezell jumped into his new post and the 4,500 people who now reported to him, he wanted to get up to speed with the work and the market as quickly as possible. But just as important to him was getting his family, which includes his wife and three children, acclimated to their new surroundings.
“I made it pretty clear to all of our people in those first six months when I was running around meeting with people that I had two objectives,” Fezell says. “I had to be successful in what I was doing here at work and at the firm and with them. But maybe more importantly during those first few months, I had to be successful at home getting the family integrated and getting them comfortable.”
It wouldn’t be easy to balance both priorities, but for Fezell, it was the only way he could achieve success.
“If I didn’t get my family right, it really didn’t matter how much we were growing or what our people surveys were,” Fezell says. “I would have found myself coming home to a very unhappy family or a family that was headed west pretty quickly without me.”
Get in front of people
The key to achieving success in business is finding a way to balance and succeed on both sides of your life. Fezell’s focus on his family is as strong as it gets, but he is as devoted as anyone to EY and the work that the firm does for its clients. He quickly set out to build relationships with as many people as he could.
“I do firmly believe in the first 100 days theory,” Fezell says. “That first 100 days in any relationship is really important and people are going to form their opinions or develop their trust in you based upon that initial experience. So I hit the road pretty hard in those first three or four months to get out in front of all our people and give them a chance to know what I stood for, not just professionally, but personally.”
Fezell made plans to visit each of the region’s 10 offices and get in front of people to talk about the challenges they faced and what Fezell could do to help them.
“I got schedules of all our meetings going on in the Midwest, and I tried to get on the road,” Fezell says. “I had to be visible. Those aren’t the kinds of things you can do through voice mail or email.”
As those conversations took place, Fezell had people on hand to take notes and write down observations about what was discussed so they could be addressed.
“Collectively as a leadership team, we set up a cadence around us getting together,” Fezell says. “We do once a week for a couple hours every Monday, and we have a once-a-month all day session as a team. We’re all running around in different places and it’s important that we stay connected. We just find a way to make sure those things aren’t getting lost in translation. I wouldn’t say it’s foolproof, but I would say we do a pretty good job of keeping track of open items.”
As Fezell got to know his people, he kept an open mind to what he was hearing.
“You can become wedded to the way you’ve always done things,” Fezell says. “I thought everything I did in the West was right. Then I came to this market and realized there’s a lot of great things going on in the Midwest that I wished I would have thought of in the West. It’s all about trusting each other and knowing you can debate and challenge each other. So our firm is like that. I’m not autocratic. That’s just not my style.”
Make an impression
It was very important to Fezell that he find ways to fit in with his new home. It’s part of what drove him to dive into a frigid Lake Michigan and climb Willis Tower. But as the leader, you still need to take steps to establish yourself as the leader.
“It’s important to make changes when you come in as a leader,” Fezell says. “Let people know that you are different. Some of those changes may be people, some may be structure and some may be process. To just come in and maintain the status quo is not a good thing as the new leader. You’ve got to find a way to make your personal imprint and stamp on the practice.”
Fezell wanted his leaders to understand the importance of meeting on a regular basis and keeping in touch with each other about what was happening in the firm.
“My understanding is there weren’t these weekly meetings,” Fezell says. “There have been a couple of situations where our attendance or participation has lagged through different things and I sent out a reminder to everyone as to why this was important. Even with no agenda, sitting in a room together for an hour or two would probably be a good use of our time. We need to be meeting all the time.”
Employee survey results indicate Fezell has struck the right chord with his people.
“We went from a number of 72 percent of our employees engaged two years ago in April 2011 to 81 percent being engaged two years later,” Fezell says. “That is a big swing, a 9-point swing. What I’m most proud of is our partner level engagement went up significantly. What it proves for us is when our partners, who are our leaders, when they are engaged, it’s a much better place for everybody in the firm.”
Be part of the team
One of the factors in that high level of employee satisfaction is the way Fezell empowers people to give as much to their families as he gives to his own.
“Nobody punches a clock around here,” Fezell says. “We trust you. You’re a professional and you’ll get your work done. I used to work really hard in San Jose when I was an audit partner. But when my girls were in elementary school, I found the time a few times a year to just show up at school and pick them up in the afternoon and take them to a matinee movie.
“To some people, it may seem like, ‘What’s the big deal about that?’ But in this environment, doing that and telling people that you’re doing that creates a license for people. We’re proud as a firm of what we’ve done around flexibility. We trust our people and encourage them to take advantage of that flexibility.”
It becomes even more crucial when tax season hits and everyone, including Fezell, has to work long hours.
“You’re going to get those periods when you work hard, but we try to tell people to take advantage of the down time you have,” Fezell says.
When everyone works together as a team, Fezell believes a great deal can be accomplished.
“You’re the new guy in town and you get asked to do about 35 different things quickly in the community,” Fezell says. “How do you hone in and how do you decide on where to play?
“In that arena, I relied on the group I mentioned, but I also relied on some folks outside the firm in the community, strong community leaders in business. I really spent time with a couple of those people, and they were very helpful to me in prioritizing or making me think about where I should play.” ●
- Focus on your family.
- Look for opportunities to change.
- Be flexible.
The Fezell File
Name: Rick Fezell
Title: Managing Partner, Midwest Region
Born: New Brighton, Pa.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration, Westminster College,
New Wilmington, Pa.
What did you want to be when you grew up? I wanted to be an NFL player. I was a defensive back. It’s a fun position, but it’s better if you’re 6 inches taller and faster. I went to school and I was able to play Division III college football.
What lessons did athletics teach you? Athletics are the best training ground for this profession. To the outsiders, we seem like accountants and CPAs and tax people who work solo in our office. But we’re all about teams. Our clients are served by teams ranging from three to 53. If you can’t work together as a team, if you can’t set aside your personal goals and work together on the collective success of the team, this probably isn’t the profession for you. I played sports all my life and the lessons and the values you get from team sports can’t be replicated anywhere else.
Who has had the biggest influence on you? Probably my mother. She’s a great lady. She was divorced, so she raised us on her own for a while until she remarried. Her message to us: “Would you do this if I were standing next to you?” So I always had that fear. Not that I always did everything right, but her view was she never liked parents who always assumed their children were guilt-free and saints. Her view was we were guilty until we could prove we were innocent. So if we were expecting her to be our protector when we got into trouble, we had the wrong expectation.
Who would you like to meet? President John F. Kennedy. I’m amazed by him. He just seemed like he could lead better than anybody and great leadership is something to treasure.
Learn more about EY at:
Mobile apps: http://www.ey.com/GL/en/Home/EY-Insights
How to reach: EY Midwest Region, (312) 879-2000 or www.ey.com
George Lenyo is optimistic about the future of Detroit, even as others dwell on the financial challenges that led to the city filing for bankruptcy in July 2013.
“I’ve lived in Detroit since 2004,” says Lenyo, managing partner for EY’s Detroit office. “One thing I will tell you is whether it’s the sports teams or the companies that reside here, the level of passion and resilience in Detroit is unheralded across the country. It’s nice to see that passion that we’ll pick ourselves up and build something together. It’s great to see that come through.”
Lenyo has been with the professional services firm for 17 years and was named Detroit’s managing partner on July 1, 2013. He is responsible for the organization and deployment of more than 500 resources of assurance, tax, advisory and transaction advisory services.
He’s also proud to be part of the effort to get the private sector behind education initiatives that will help position Detroit to have a skilled and diverse workforce to fuel the city's economic recovery.
“You have to look at this as part of your responsibility, your corporate responsibility, as well as the responsibility to help grow your people and thus grow your business,” Lenyo says.
But it’s even bigger than that, says Lenyo. As business leaders, you have to see the collective benefit in finding ways to make everyone stronger, even the companies that you compete against.
“We may be competitors on the battlefield, when it comes to helping out in our community, we have a very united focus,” Lenyo says. “In this case, it’s to make Detroit a better place to live and work. We all collectively just want to make it stronger. As leaders, it’s utilizing our networks and our connections to accomplish that.”
Find your place
One of EY’s key programs in this effort is College MAP, which stands for Mentoring for Access and Persistence. EY works with high schools and the not-for-profit organization College For Every Student to identify young people who most need the program’s support. College For Every Student brings skill in curriculum development and a large network of university relationships and EY provides volunteer mentors in more than 20 cities across the United States.
“We have our three tenets that we support,” Lenyo says. “That’s education, entrepreneurship and the environment. So for us, one of the main activities is education and education reform. It hit home for us as a firm that we need to provide our philanthropic support around education and education reform in North America.
“Specifically here in Detroit, I think the program is the largest of all our College MAPs across the country. The first year, we had 10 mentors and then we had 10 mentees that all went to post-secondary education. For our second class last year we had 30-plus employees and 40-plus mentors. So you can tell it was something in which our folks got very passionate about and rallied behind. For them to be able to make a difference in Detroit and be able to carve out a part of the future is something special.”
EY is also involved with the Boys & Girls Club and hosts an event called EY Connect Day in which employees spend the day helping needy organizations across Detroit, among other initiatives to which the firm has committed.
“What we believe in is skills-based volunteering,” Lenyo says. “I think that’s a great model for other organizations, especially ones that are struggling. We take the strengths that our people already possess, and we look for ways we can partner them with a needy organization and then find a way to maximize that relationship.”
Make the effort
Lenyo says the groundswell of support for charitable and philanthropic work is only growing across all industries.
“The younger part of our organization feels that giving back is a requirement, and they feel very strongly about that,” Lenyo says. “As a leader, I have to be very aware of that and think of what’s going to help retain and grow those employees into our future leaders.”
But here again, you need to take the broader view and think beyond your own company walls to consider the impact you and your people can make.
“Our purpose is building a better working world,” Lenyo says. “That’s our global purpose as a firm. Now does it hit home in Detroit because of the bankruptcy and some of the struggles of the city? By all means. But we’re looking at ways to impact our people and thus impact the community. To me, that purpose statement is something that could be universal. It’s something we want to be known for.
“And I think more corporations, if they look at what they really want to be thought of and how they would brand themselves, assisting and helping from a corporate philanthropic perspective is one of the things I think is viewed as a requirement today.”
As busy as many companies and leaders are these days working hard to find ways to grow their business, time can be precious. And sometimes that can lead to the decision to write a check rather than get more actively involved in various efforts. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“We know that giving funds and supporting efforts are an integral part of supporting these organizations,” Lenyo says. “For EY, that’s not the only way in which we like to give but for certain organizations, that may be the only way they can. And that may be their introduction into philanthropic giving.”
When you make that start and then you begin to find ways to get your people involved in helping others grow, you’re on the way to making a big difference in your community.
“It’s an evolution,” Lenyo says. “If you rewind probably 10 or 15 years, you’ll find that most leaders did look at how do we just give a check. That’s the way in which we would give back. More and more, people are getting people on board, volunteering, providing pro bono services, using our skills, being creative to help these organizations. Providing what I’ll call larger-scale support, along with writing that check, really offers the need and the demonstrable support and impact on the organization we’re trying to help.”
How to reach: EY Detroit, (313) 628-7100 or www.ey.com
Joseph Lacko is a patient man, and that’s a trait that is often in short supply in the entrepreneurial world. His ability to sit back and monitor the competitive landscape and let it guide his decisions is one that can easily conflict with those around him.
“My goals are a little more abstract,” says Lacko, who is the creator of San Clemente-based Koomkey.
“It drives my developer a little crazy. He wants us to create these solid benchmarks, and I just feel that social media is in a constant state of evolution. If we’re going to be a serious player, we have to watch how the current social media takes to us. So the only benchmark I have right now is to as quickly as possible generate more understanding of our service.”
Koomkey is a website that allows users to send unsolicited cash to other people via social media such as Twitter and Facebook. His intention is to empower people to instantly support others on a reasonable scale, from friends to businesses to charities or anyone else they were inspired by through social media.
“I’d like to think what’s going to catch on in social media is this social giving and being able to help each other out,” Lacko says. “We have to get to where we understand that there is power in what we’re doing. Social media allows us, as a society, to be more knowledgeable than we’ve ever been.”
Keep fighting for it
Lacko graduated from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena in 1997 and studied in the school’s film program.
“I came out wanting to direct a film, and I had a film in the works and had some personal tragedies that kind of derailed that,” Lacko says.
So in the early 2000s, Lacko got into technology and new media and pursued opportunities in that realm. He also worked in commercial real estate and took over his father’s business, JL Management, when his father died in 2009.
But the hunger to build a successful business never diminished.
“I’ve always had a desire to create,” Lacko says. “To be in this business and have it be something that gets accepted on a broad scale is something that really appeals to me.”
Patience is one of the qualities you’ve got to have if you’re going to be a successful entrepreneur, Lacko says.
“It’s a complete fog, and you’re trying to trudge forward and everybody has a good angle,” Lacko says. “My lawyers will say, ‘Defend yourself.’ My developers will say, ‘We have to create this ladder.’ A marketing person will say, ‘We have to push you out into the press.’ It’s hard to know where to put your energy. So I just try to balance those things.”
As Lacko continues to pursue the path toward meeting his goals, he takes the time to celebrate the victories along the way.
“We really captured people who were online and authors on Twitter,” Lacko says. “They took to our service and were sending donations back and forth to each other.”
This led Lacko to take note of a particular writer who had just lost her father and was uncertain as to how she was going to pay for his funeral.
“Having lost my father, I understood the emotional panic, let alone not knowing where the money was going to come from to pay for it,” Lacko says. “We were able to get a lot of people to send her money and she was one of the first people to transfer money from the site into her bank account.
“I give to people close to me and anyone in need. When you blend that with a chance to create a successful business, it’s a great dream for me to have potentially coming true.”
How to reach: Koomkey, (949) 682-9566 or www.koomkey.com