Los Angeles (1224)

Thursday, 21 September 2006 07:18

Food allergies

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Food allergies can make the routine experience of eating into an adventure. While a number of different foods are known to trigger reactions, only eight account for 90 percent of all food-allergic reactions: milk, egg, peanut, tree nut, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat.

All told, about 12 million people are affected by food allergies in the United States, says Dr. Marc Riedl, assistant professor of medicine at the UCLA Medical Center. While no preventive methods for food allergies exist yet, there are some promising possibilities in the pipeline. “There is a great deal of interest in therapeutics because our current treatment is so limited,” says Riedl.

Smart Business spoke with Riedl about food allergies, how you should proceed if you suspect you have an affliction, and what type of research is being conducted in this field.

From a medical standpoint, why do food allergies occur?
Allergic conditions result from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. We think of food allergies as a breakdown of something called oral tolerance — an immune mechanism by which our gastrointestinal tract learns to discriminate between harmless things, such as foods, and harmful things, such as bacteria or parasites. When someone has a food allergy, that mechanism is failing and we don’t know exactly why that is. A number of hypotheses have been put forward. Probably the most advanced one is that the microflora of the gut in young children may have changed with our recent hygienic lifestyle.

What are the common symptoms that accompany a food allergy reaction?
The primary gastrointestinal symptoms can be itching of the mouth, diarrhea, nausea or abdominal pain. Often, food allergy reactions are accompanied by skin symptoms such as hives, swelling of the lips or throat, or itching of the skin. Once in a while, respiratory symptoms like shortness of breath or nasal congestion can be observed. With the most severe reactions you get anaphylactic shock, which is accompanied by a drop of blood pressure and lightheadedness.

What is the best treatment?
The best treatment is to prevent the reactions through strict food avoidance measures. That requires a great deal of education and vigilance by the patients. In the event that an ingestion of a food allergen occurs, then treatment is focused on the use of epinephrine or injectable adrenaline.

How should people proceed if they suspect they have a food allergy?
The most important thing is to see an allergist or health care provider who has experience in dealing with food allergies. The history is very important, so patients need to pay attention to the timing and the symptoms that occur after they eat a food that they’re suspicious of. A food diary can be helpful if a patient is uncertain whether reactions are related to eating a certain food.

What kinds of tests are conducted when determining if a food allergy is present?
There are two major types of food allergy testing.

The first is allergy skin testing, which consists of pricking the skin with a small amount of food allergen. If an allergic antibody is present in the immune system, then you’ll get a wheel-and-flare reaction. This is probably the best screening test that we have for food allergies because it’s very quick, efficient and easy for most patients to tolerate.

The other type of food allergy testing is blood testing, which we often call RAST IgE testing. This method involves collecting blood from a patient and sending it to the laboratory where the blood is screened for allergic antibody to specific food allergens.

There are no medications that cure food allergies. What type of research is being conducted in this area?
The first is what I’ll call more traditional medical treatment, which is taking a medication to prevent food reactions from occurring. The two that are in development right now are Anti-IgE and FAHF2.

Anti-IgE is a medication that has been used to treat severe asthma. There have been some early human trials looking at the effectiveness of this drug in preventing food allergy reactions. Unfortunately, there have been some adverse reactions in those clinical trials. As you can imagine, it’s difficult to give food-allergic people the food they’re allergic to without the risk of reactions. FAHF2 is a Chinese herbal formula that has shown some promise in preventing allergic reactions to peanuts in laboratory and animal studies.

The other category of treatments is immunotherapy, which is an effort to teach the immune system how to tolerate food allergens.

MARC RIEDL, M.D., is an assistant professor of medicine at the UCLA Medical Center. Reach him at (310) 794-1745 or mriedl@mednet.ucla.edu.

Wednesday, 20 September 2006 20:00

Robert Swelgin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HOW TO REACH: American Racing Equipment Inc., www.americanracing.com

Tuesday, 29 August 2006 20:00

Electronic transactions

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The ability to prevent fraud is crucial when competing in a competitive marketplace. Check fraud, in particular, can have a major impact on a company’s bottom line. Certainly, using ACH (Automated Clearing House) transactions to transfer and process electronic funds is on the rise. According to the Electronic Payments Association, 14 billion payments were made in 2005 through the nationwide ACH network, an increase of approximately 16 percent over 2004.

Safeguarding against check fraud — both traditional and electronic — requires diligence and determination, but new technologies are making the process simpler and more cost-effective.

“Financial institutions offer tools that allow customers to protect their assets for a relatively low cost,” says Lynnell Harris, senior vice-president of Comerica Bank. “It’s very much a win-win situation.”

Smart Business spoke with Harris about methods that can be used to help prevent check fraud, the benefits of Positive Pay and what distinguishes ACH Positive Pay from other fraud-protection products in the marketplace.

What types of companies are most susceptible to check fraud?
All types of companies. In today’s environment, anyone who sends out checks or transacts business with partners or consumers is subject to fraud and should take precautions. Companies across America, regardless of their size, are at risk.

What are some methods that companies can utilize to help prevent fraud?
There are a variety of safety measures and financial tools. For example, employees can help protect sensitive information by making sure items such as checks, account numbers, bank statements and other sensitive financial information are locked up and stored away. A system of checks and balances can be employed within the company to ensure appropriate access and approval authority.

In today’s environment, electronic transfers offer more control, as systems enable companies to set up various layers of authority based on dollar amounts or transaction types. Other tools include online account review and Positive Pay.

How does Positive Pay work?
Essentially, the bank delivers information to the customer regarding checks or ACH transactions that will be posted against his or her account. The customer then has the opportunity to review the information and determine if they are valid items. The customer authorizes the posting of the transactions and notes any unauthorized transactions. When notification is returned to the bank prior to the deadline, unauthorized transactions are returned to the depositing/originating financial institution.

Tools such as Positive Pay significantly mitigate risk for the company without requiring a huge investment in technology.

How can a business utilize ACH Positive Pay to accept or reject ACH transactions before they are posted?
In a manner similar to checks, the bank will present to the customer, before posting, all ACH transactions. The customer then has the opportunity to identify any unauthorized ACH activity. The customer authorizes the posting of the transactions and notes any unauthorized items prior to the notification deadline. The bank will return those items before posting to the customer account.

What distinguishes the ACH Positive Pay service from other fraud protection products in the marketplace?
Typically, most banks are only able to protect companies that write checks. But technology introduced recently enables some banks to protect the customer against unauthorized electronic activity as well. With ACH Positive Pay, the customer looks at all paper and electronic items. It offers more comprehensive protection against fraud.

If a business detects suspect items using either Positive Pay or ACH Positive Pay, what course of action can it take?
The first step would be to contact its financial institution prior to the Positive Pay notification deadline and advise which items should be returned. Typically, the information regarding suspect items is available first thing in the morning. Customers pull information electronically, review it and authorize payment of the valid items. If there is an unauthorized item, they would notify their bank in that response. The bank would then return those unauthorized transactions before they post to the customer’s account.

LYNNELL HARRIS is senior vice president of Comerica Bank. Reach her at (714) 424-3895 or lvharris@comerica.com.

Wednesday, 30 August 2006 12:31

A multi-year activity

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Pro-actively tackling taxes is a wise decision for any business. As the end of the year approaches, taking advantage of tax breaks can reduce your 2006 tax liability, points out Carl Pon, co-managing partner of Vicenti, Lloyd & Stutzman LLP.

“I would suggest that a business confer with its tax professional in the month of September, which then gives it a full quarter to implement the changes, assuming it has a December fiscal year,” Pon says.

Smart Business spoke with him about the virtues of planning for taxes early, how to maximize deductions and rules to keep in mind when making year-end purchases of depreciable assets.

How should a business go about planning for year-end taxes?
The first step is to get hold of the information regarding the prior year’s taxes to work up a rough projection of what the current year looks like. Also, some thought should be given to what the numbers might look like in the next tax year. Part of the opportunities of tax planning are to take advantage of when you may be in relatively higher or lower tax brackets and to move income and deductions in a way that you can take advantage of those differing tax brackets.

Why is it so important to start early?
The main reason is that it usually takes time to implement whatever action items are identified. For example, if you decided that you wanted to defer income into the next tax year, the sooner you start that process the more income you can defer. If you wait until the last two weeks of December to defer income, you have fairly limited options.

What are the advantages of deferring income?
First is that even if you’re in the same tax brackets both years, by deferring the income a year, you defer the payment of the tax for a year. Basically, you get an interest-free loan from the government in the form of the reduced taxes.

The second advantage is that often we’re fairly confident of the tax bracket that we’re going to be in this year, but the future is a little bit hazy. It’s conceivable that next year might not be as good as this year, and if so, deferring income into next year at least gives you the possibility that you’ll be in a lower tax bracket.

How can a business maximize deductions?
At one level, you can maximize deductions by accelerating the rate at which you incur discretionary expenses such as advertising, marketing and consulting fees. Even though the government is paying for some of these expenses in the form of reduced income taxes, you’re still bearing the bulk of the costs. So you want to make sure that you’re spending money on things that make good business sense to spend money on. You don’t want to just spend money for sake of reducing taxable income.

What are some rules to keep in mind when making year-end purchases of depreciable assets for tax purposes?
Usually, we’re looking at this in context of the Section 179 election, which allows taxpayers to expense certain types of depreciable assets.

One of the things that should be examined is the maximum amount of capital outlay that you plan on for the current year as well as the upcoming year. Also, you should bear in mind that the depreciation for what the IRS calls listed property, which includes most automobiles, is significantly restricted. Often, purchasing an automobile at the end of the tax year is not a significant tax-saving opportunity. On the other hand, technology is constantly evolving and improving, so if there is some new computer-based or telecommunications equipment that looks very appealing, you might as well get it at the end of the year.

It is important to keep in mind that to take the depreciation deduction, the asset actually has to be put into service. If you buy something and don’t even open the box until the next tax year, technically you haven’t put it into business service.

How does the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) affect tax planning?
The AMT adds another level of complexity to tax planning. Individuals who do a really good job of knocking down their personal income tax liability can find themselves with a reduced regular income tax, but they are now paying the AMT in its place. The rules are significantly different for the AMT. For example, some of the items that are deductible for regular tax purposes are not deductible for AMT purposes. It is a good idea to consider both the regular tax and the AMT to make sure that your taxes end up where you plan for them to be.

CARL PON is co-managing partner of Vicenti, Lloyd & Stutzman LLP. Reach him at CPon@VLSLLP.com.

Tuesday, 29 August 2006 20:00

Swinging for the fence

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In February 2004, Jamie McCourt was living a dream.

She and her husband, Frank, had just purchased the Los Angeles Dodgers from NewsCorp., and within a month of starting the purchase process, Jamie McCourt, a Maryland native and lawyer by trade, was thrust into the center of one of the most well-known franchises in all of sports.

She assumed the president and vice chairman’s role, making her the highest-ranking female executive in Major League Baseball.

“I can’t even express how overwhelmed we were,” she says. “It was a tremendous opportunity.”

But the walk in the clouds was brief. Soon after the purchase, the realities of the business began to set in. McCourt says it became apparent that she and her husband had bought a team in need of help.

She says the franchise was bleeding money to the tune of $50 million a year. The Dodgers’ normally high attendance rate was dwindling, and Dodger Stadium, long regarded as one of the jewels of the sport, was beginning to show signs of age.

To prevent the Dodger organization from slipping further into disrepair, it needed new direction. Like any good business team, McCourt and her husband, chairman of the Dodgers, sat down with the organization’s management and assessed where the Dodgers were and where the club needed to go to restore itself to greatness.

 

Initial moves
Initial management meetings produced three broad goals for the organization, which Forbes estimates has revenue of $189 million with a franchise value of $482 million.

“We want to field a championship baseball team, year after year,” she says. “We want to make Dodger Stadium and the Dodgers the most fan-friendly experience in all of sports, and we want to expand our involvement in the community.”

Producing championship baseball is left to General Manager Ned Colletti and the baseball operations people. Off the field, however, McCourt took the reins of a massive stadium renovation project, cross-branding opportunities with team sponsors and community initiatives.

It was uncharted waters for the Dodgers in many respects. Some of the team’s practices were well behind the times when the McCourts took over.

“If you could believe, we didn’t even have credit cards in use at Dodger Stadium when we started,” she says. “We didn’t have Ticketmaster.”

Dodger Stadium has received a technological upgrade with the addition of credit card capabilities and Ticketmaster services. The park itself, opened in 1962, will also receive a facelift — in 2005, the McCourts announced a $40 million renovation plan that includes the replacement of every single seat in the park. The park’s offices have been renovated, and parts of the turf and warning track have been replaced.

“We also just added the loge terrace, which is another space for people to arrive early, stay late and get out of the heat of the game,” she says.

The cosmetic changes are the ones most evident to the several million fans who spin the turnstiles at Dodger Stadium every year, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Embedded in the McCourts’ turnaround plan is a strong belief that the Dodgers are selling not just the experience of watching the home team in person but also quality family time.

“I have four boys, and I can ask one of them ‘How was your day?’ over dinner, and I might get a two-word response,” she says. “I ask them at a ballgame, and we’re talking about baseball, and pretty soon they’ve said a lot more, like they don’t even realize they’re talking to me.”

The pursuit of a family atmosphere steers the Dodgers’ leadership both in how it relates to its employees and how it markets the team.

 

Family culture
McCourt says creating a family atmosphere starts at the top of an organization. If leadership values employees as people, the effect will reach down the organizational ladder and find its way to the customers.

After establishing the three basic goals for the organization as the “how,” Dodger leadership began educating employees on the “why.”

“We could not take for granted that all of our employees knew the franchise was losing $50 million a year,” she says. “So educating employees is important first and foremost so that you all understand where you want to go.”

To McCourt, the education of employees begins with a strong emphasis on communication, and communication begins with a strong management team.

“I spend an awful lot of time with our management team,” she says. “We meet several times a week to talk about everything that’s going on collectively so that we all understand how our departments need to be integrated.”

McCourt refers to herself as more of a coordinator and collaborator than a delegator. Her leadership philosophy is to keep tabs on the progress of the club’s senior managers but not to interfere in their day-to-day work. And she says it’s important to remember that different management styles work for different people.

“What works for me might not work for our government relations person or our sales and sponsorship person,” she says.

One thing she does insist on is constant face-to-face communication. Personalized communication helps employees understand where they fit into the organizational framework. Employees who understand their roles in an organization feel like they can contribute and are more apt to take pride in their roles.

“Whether it is the ticket taker in the parking lot, the ushers, the guys on the field, the coaches, front office, all of us have to be pulling in the same direction and contributing so that we do achieve these goals,” she says.

When it comes to communication, McCourt jokingly refers to herself as the “queen of casual.” She is big on lunch and coffee with employees and business partners.

“I think you communicate really well over food,” she says. “People also come and sit with me in the owner’s box during games to talk about what they’re doing in their lives, be it business or personal.”

Knowing the personal lives of employees is extremely important to McCourt, and she encourages Dodgers employees to speak to her about what is going on outside of work.

“It really makes you understand what they are going through in their lives, and it helps you understand where they are professionally,” she says.

 

Marketing matters
Promotional opportunities tend to fling themselves at you when you own the Dodgers.

“I can be out to dinner and someone will come up to me and say, ‘We really want to have a relationship with the Dodgers. How can we do that?’” she says.

But even though the Dodgers’ name creates a wealth of marketing opportunities for the organization, keeping your eyes peeled for the right opportunities is a marketing must, as it is with any business.

“You have to be open-minded that you could get an opportunity from anywhere at any time,” she says.

McCourt has tried to tie the Dodger name to other well-known companies with a series of cross-promotional campaigns. Many of the companies are long-standing partners of the Dodgers, such as Coca-Cola. But McCourt and her staff have also been approached by companies growing in popularity, such as California Pizza Kitchen.

McCourt says Dodger Stadium is currently the only sporting venue where CPK sells its products.

Pizza is among the usual sponsorship suspects when it comes to sports, along with beer, soft drinks, athletic shoes, apparel and related items. Those products cast a pretty wide net if you are trying to reach a young, male demographic.

But what about reaching the mothers, daughters and sisters of those highly sought-after young male customers? It was a question McCourt posed to others in the Dodger organization, and it helped lead the team to begin a marketing campaign that is focused on the team’s female fans.

McCourt says women and girls make up about 40 percent of the Dodgers’ fan base.

“For us not to cater to them would be silly,” she says.

Under the McCourts, the Dodgers have ramped up promotional efforts aimed at connecting the Dodgers to products their female fans use. One such cross-promotion involves cosmetic manufacturer Smashbox, which recently handed out 50,000 tubes of lip gloss at a game.

“Smashbox is now our first major nontraditional sponsor,” McCourt says. “They advertise on our (scoreboard). They are promoting our ‘kiss cam’ between innings. It’s really fascinating to see how you get these sponsors and how you create these opportunities.”

Along with product tie-ins, the Dodgers now run clinics aimed at enhancing the baseball knowledge of female fans. Infielder Jeff Kent attends all the clinics and has become a kind of spokesman for the women’s marketing campaign, which McCourt terms a “women’s initiative.”

The Dodgers have also increased marketing efforts to the vast array of ethnic groups in Los Angeles. With a history of promoting high-profile minority players such as Fernando Valenzuela and Hideo Nomo, McCourt says the strategy goes hand-in-hand with the Dodgers’ multiracial and multicultural philosophy. She says if fans see players of their own ethnicity on the team, they will be more likely to embrace the team as their own.

It’s a philosophy rooted in the franchise’s Brooklyn days, when players such as Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and Jackie Robinson drew African-American communities to call the Dodgers their own.

“We are pretty lucky,” McCourt says. “We have players who come from all these different communities. Pick a country, we probably have a presence from there. We have a huge Latino and Asian presence. We were the first team in the Dominican Republic, and we still have an academy there.

“We are positioned to be known internationally.”

 

A woman’s perspective
As the highest-ranking female executive of a Major League Baseball franchise, McCourt is treading where few women have ever gone in the world of sports. She tries to impart what she has learned in that position to her students at UCLA, where she teaches a women’s business class.

“The message I believe in imparting to other female business leaders is to rely on their skill sets,” she says. “They should leverage their skill sets and learn to have confidence in their decision-making abilities.”

McCourt says she tries to get her students, and other up-and-coming female business leaders, to follow their own path as opposed to simply following in her footsteps.

“I don’t think they need to model themselves after someone,” she says. “I just think they should understand that there’s all sorts of people and all sorts of different skills. If they are really good at understanding who they are and having confidence in what they do, then they should lead the way.”

McCourt acknowledges that women have had a difficult time breaking through and achieving success in some fields, professional sports among them. Under her leadership, the Dodgers are helping to reverse that trend — a number of high-ranking team positions are held by women, including the assistant general manager, chief financial officer and vice president of communications.

“It would be nave of me to pretend women aren’t sometimes made to feel as if they shouldn’t be in certain areas because of their gender,” she says. “There are all sorts of ways to overcome that, and that’s certainly by performance and achieving your metrics.”

McCourt says business leaders should always keep in mind that diversity helps a business thrive. Different people bring different skills to the table, increasing a business’s ability to adapt and react to different situations.

“It’s important to know that businesses benefit from diversity,” she says. “Businesses benefit from having a constituency that has a diverse skill set. At the end of the day, women bring that to the table.”

 

HOW TO REACH: Los Angeles Dodgers, www.dodgers.com

Sunday, 30 October 2005 19:00

The great communicator

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Effective strategic communication is a critical component for the success of any business. A clearly defined message serves as the backbone of a company’s identity and articulates its future vision.

Edward Clift, an assistant professor of communication at Woodbury University, believes it is a mistake to consider communication as a separate entity that exists apart from the fabric of a company.

“Strategic communication seeks to align an organization’s goals with its communication practices,” he says. “It is about creating a coherent mindset that values differences, handles conflict constructively, operates according to larger ethical principles of community, and minimizes the destructive effects of bias and stereotyping.”

Smart Business spoke to Clift about using strategic communication to motivate employees, the importance of having a clearly defined strategy and some of the dangers of poor communication.

What are some effective methods of communication that can be integrated into a company by the CEO?
Communication, even when it’s not the subject of a CEO’s self-reflection, saturates all organizations — it is what defines corporate identity. Once the CEO starts to self-reflect about communication practices, then corporate communications can become subject to modification and improvement.

I recommend that they start at the top by learning how to listen, for example, before they lead. Concentrating only on the effectiveness of communication, however, will limit the growth of the company. One should focus instead on maximizing the full potential of all interactions so that the company can find ways to direct its own change.

How can effective strategic communication help motivate employees and increase retention?
The idea behind strategic communication is to align corporate interests with the full range of messages distributed to the public, to employees, to the media and others. Employees want to understand how their labor contributes to the success of a company, and this alone will motivate them and increase retention. You can take that one step further as well.

Because of the flattening of management in the corporate world, employees are increasingly responsible for their own oversight. The employees that survive in such a world are those who grasp the strategic mission of the business and make it their own. An effective strategic communication policy will help employees identify and understand the vision of the company.

How can a CEO or business owner be sure that employees are satisfied with the company’s communication program?
People are satisfied when they feel like they’ve contributed to the environment that they work in, which includes the communication environment. You want to build an organization that is open to the input of all the employees. This can be designed into the corporate communication policy, but it has to begin with the recognition that people are sometimes scared of their own ability to influence the world.

You not only need to create the avenues, but also find ways to encourage participation in those communication practices. Concrete ways to measure how satisfied employees are would include feedback forums, participant observation, anonymous surveys and quality control indicators.

Why is it important that senior management has a clearly defined communication strategy?
No company can compete in the Information Age unless it reflects upon its own communication practices. If you develop a well-defined communication strategy, you can link your corporate goals to your way of knowing and interacting with the world as a business.

The relative success of one business over another is in large part attributable to the communication strategies they choose to implement. This is why many investment professionals choose to buy the management team of a company rather than the product; they want to know that the communication strategy internal to the corporation is aligned with their business goals.

What are the dangers of poor communication in business?
Primarily that you risk appearing crazy when your actions and your words do not coincide. The goal of a CEO is to create a coherent vision of a company that articulates a mission that matches what it is doing. Otherwise you say one thing while doing another and people don’t have trust in you.

This is one reason why many corporate reorganizations and mergers fail: you can’t just make a structural change and expect the communication practices to also change.

The dangers of poor communication do not end at the door of the company. Huge external risks face all organizations, but especially those operating on a global stage. These include natural disasters, forced changes in ownership or management, powerful stakeholders, ideological challenges and direct attack.

Strategic communication dictates that any business become conscious of these potential perturbations to its viability. It should then use its observations to strategically design a robust set of internal and external communication practices.

What is a common communication mistake that business owners make?
Business owners tend to become overly reliant on technology to solve their communication problems. They make the mistake of trying to improve communication in an impersonal manner.

Communication thrives on feedback, collaborative meanings and close personal engagement. The challenge is to balance technology with an appreciation for everybody’s unique insights — whether they’re workers inside the company or customers outside the company.

Edward Clift is an assistant professor of communication at Woodbury University. Reach him at (818) 252-5197 or through the university’s Web site, www.woodbury.edu.

Friday, 28 October 2005 12:55

A not-so-brief history of Alfred Mann

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Alfred Mann is a business builder, and his track record success shows he’s got the Midas touch. Here’s an overview of his start-up story and a vitae of his leadership experience.

  • President and founder, Spectrolab, now part of Boeing, established 1956, sold to Textron 1960, continued as CEO until 1972. Developer of electro-optical and aerospace systems

  • President and founder, Heliotek, now part of Boeing, established 1960, sold to Textron 1960, continued as CEO until 1972. Manufacturers semiconductor and electro-optical components

  • Chairman emeritus, former CEO and founder, Pacesetter Systems Inc., established 1972, acquired by Siemens AG 1985, chairman and CEO of successor company Siemens - Pacesetter, Inc., 1985-1992. Developed, manufactured, and distributed cardiac pacemakers

  • Former chairman, CEO, and founder, MiniMed Inc., established 1983, incorporated 1993, went public 1995, acquired by Medtronic Inc. 2001. Develops, manufactures and distributes microinfusion systems and continuous glucose monitoring systems for the treatment of Type 1 diabetes

  • Former chairman, CEO and founder, Medical Research Group, a privately held affiliate of MiniMed, acquired by Medtronic Inc. 2001. High-risk research group focused on development and clinical trials of various medical devices, including an artificial pancreas

  • MannKind, chairman and CEO, founded 1991 as Pharmaceutical Discovery Corp., renamed 2001. A publicly traded biopharmaceutical company focused on the development of novel therapeutic and drug delivery systems for the treatment of diabetes, cancer, autoimmune and inflammatory diseases

  • Chairman and founder, DermaPort, established in 2004, a privately held company developing percutaneous parts for dialysis and other purposes

  • Chairman, co-CEO and founder, Advanced Bionics Corp., established 1993, sold to Boston Scientific Co. Developer, manufacturer and distributor of cochlear implants for the restoration of hearing to the deaf and neurostimulation systems for the treatment of chronic pain, migraines, angina and other neural deficits

  • Chairman and founder, Second Sight LLC, established 1998. Development, manufacture and marketing of implantable visual prosthetics

  • Chairman and founder, Implantable Acoustics, established in 2002 to develop, manufacture and distribute implantable acoustic hearing systems

  • Chairman and co-founder, Neurosystec, established 2004. Development of cutting-edge treatment for diseases of the brain and nervous system that combine ultraminiature device technology with the delivery of neurologically-active therapeutic agents

  • Chairman and founder, Bioness, formed by The Alfred E. Mann Foundation for Scientific Research, Alfred Mann, and Ness Ltd. in 2004. Development and delivery of innovative devices and therapies for physical and rehabilitative medicine

  • Chairman and founder, Quallion, LLC, established in 1999. Development, engineering, and sale of highly reliable battery products and battery product management systems for medical, military and aerospace applications

  • Chairman, Stellar Microelectronics, acquired from Kimball Electronics and renamed 2003. A full turnkey electronics manufacturing services provider

Monday, 31 July 2006 09:19

World Wide Web risks

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Every company conducts business over the Internet. And whether it’s selling products, sending information via e-mail or simply hosting a Web site, there are risks involved.

Hackers can break into a company’s network and obtain confidential documents or post false information. Spammers can shut down an organizations’ Web site, while viruses can destroy critical data as well as be passed on to other entities.

To combat such activities, many businesses are turning to Internet liability insurance and are re-evaluating their previous policies. “We’re seeing broader exclusions that encompass the Internet because of potential claims that weren’t contemplated in the original coverage forms,” says Julia Murakami, vice president of Sander A. Kessler & Associates Inc.

Smart Business spoke with Murakami about how Internet liability insurance can help protect a company, what aspects should be considered when putting together such a policy and how Internet risks can be minimized.

What types of cyber risks do companies face?
Companies face a lot more cyber risks than you might think. Technology has changed so quickly over the 20 years. Our communication used to be primarily by mail or memos, and now it’s primarily by e-mail. Just the fact that we’ve changed from paper to an electronic form of communication has increased our cyber risks.

Advertising for businesses has changed. Before it was common to hand out brochures or flyers about the business, but now the common question is, ‘Do you have a Web site?’ That has completely changed how we do business. If you’re an e-commerce entity, you think about the cyber risks, but Main Street businesses have exposures that they don’t even think about.

Do traditional insurance products like fidelity bonds or property policies protect a business in the case of Internet attacks?
Some do and some don’t. In the late ‘90s, Y2K exclusions were included on policies because of the fear of what would happen with computers and how bugs could damage not just your computers, but also potentially send out something that would damage other computers. That ended up not just on the property side for your own computers, but also the liability side because of potential damage to others. This has remained on the policies, but now it’s a lot broader than just the Y2K exposure.

How can Internet liability insurance help protect a company?
It fills the gaps in your insurance policy. As a business owner, you think about your own computer equipment, but you might not think about how the virtue of having that equipment could damage someone else’s equipment: Web sites, e-mail viruses, etc. Those are all excluded under regular polices, but the Internet liability polices would fill that gap.

Should a business that does not conduct electronic transactions, but does host an informational Web site, consider purchasing Internet liability insurance?
Absolutely. That’s the hidden exposure that businesses face. The Internet is considered to be like the Wild West. It’s a new technology, and everyone else is doing it, so in order to maintain your competitive edge you need to post a Web site too. It’s the same thing with e-mail. The first thing you ask when you meet a new business associate is, ‘Can I get your e-mail address so I can e-mail you some information about our company?’

What are some issues for a business to consider when putting together an Internet liability insurance policy?
First, you should look at your existing general liability policy to see if it does or doesn’t cover your Internet exposures. One of the things that we are starting to see with greater frequency is the emergence of Internet extension endorsements. This moves the liability from your brick-and-mortar exposure into the cyber world by extending or changing the definitions of your liability policy. Such an extension makes it clear that damage doesn’t have to happen in a specific location or on your premises. Ultimately, anything that derives from a Web site injury or an injury caused by your Web site would be covered.

How can a business minimize its Internet risks?
You have to look at not just the insurance side, but also the risk management side by controlling what you do on the Internet and having an e-mail use policy.

Minimizing exposure on your Web site is very important. Because it’s a new technology and a new environment, people are freely linking to sites they think would be useful for their clients, but it could also expose you to some liabilities. Perhaps you are infringing upon the other Web site owner’s business rights and they might not welcome the association. It’s always safest to get permission before you link.

JULIA MURAKAMI is vice president of Sander A. Kessler & Associates Inc. Reach her at (310) 309-2231 or Julia@sanderkessler.com.

Monday, 31 July 2006 08:46

A pain in the back

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Back troubles can cause pain to individuals and businesses alike. In fact, approximately four out of five adults have had at least one bout of back pain sometime during their lives, and it is one of the most common reasons for health care visits and missed workdays.

Consisting of bone, muscles, nerves and other soft tissues, the back is an intricate structure with many components that can break down. “The back is an extremely complex organ,” says Dr. Michael Ferrante, director of the UCLA Pain Management Center and a professor of anesthesiology and medicine. “Arguably, the spine is the next-most complex organ outside of the central nervous system.”

Ferrante spoke with Smart Business about what causes back pain, how it can be avoided and how to select quality health care professionals when dealing with back ailments.

What are some common causes of back pain?
I would divide back pain into three large groups. No. 1 would be disorders of muscle. This can occur if you’re out of shape, if you spend a lot of time in a poor posture or if you overuse your back. No. 2 would be disorders of the spine itself and, by spine, I mean the bony structure of the spine. No. 3 is a grouping that includes nervous disorders of the spine. This is usually leg pain where either you have an irritation or compression of a nerve root and it manifests itself as leg pain.

How can back pain be treated?
Sometimes you can do nothing. A classic example of this would be a lower back sprain. You just take it easy and within a few weeks it’s going to get better. The next level up would be getting physical therapy. If something is lasting six months or longer you need to see some physician outside of a primary care doctor who is going to be able to give you a sophisticated diagnosis and sophisticated workup. Acupuncture is another option at any stage because it certainly does no harm and it could very well help. You should be careful, however, that herbal medicines don’t have a side effect with other forms of medications that you may be taking.

How can back injuries be avoided?
First, you have to stay aerobically active, particularly for the low back. People who already have disc disease or knee problems do very well with elliptical systems. Instead of the pounding on the spine and knees that occur with running, elliptical systems take the kinetics and move them forward and backward. Also, back injuries can be avoided by improving posture at work. It sounds like what your mother always told you about having good posture, but it really is a truism. Bad posture puts repetitive strain on ligaments, joints and muscles.

What steps can a business owner take to safeguard against back injuries at the workplace?
Have someone do an ergonomic evaluation. Just by changing some very simple things like how keyboards are placed and how employees sit can prevent injuries. Also, if you get health club memberships for your employees, it not only encourages them to get aerobic activity, but it might also be financially beneficial because employers may get a reduction on the premium of their health insurance.

How can someone with back pain identify a good physical therapist?
You have to tailor the physical therapy to the particular mechanism that is causing the pain. If people are not getting some type of physical therapy that is attempting to eradicate or solve their particular problem, then I would suggest that they look elsewhere for physical therapy. There’s nothing wrong with feel-good maneuvers, but they have to be coupled with things that are going to strengthen the weak muscles and cause postural realignment.

What are some characteristics that one should look for when seeking a back-pain specialist?
Find a doctor who is going to be able to ferret through the vast different diagnoses. Find someone who asks the question, ‘Can I explain this pain and on what basis?’ A lot of practitioners of spine medicine practice template medicine — everybody gets one type of treatment. I don’t advise that, because it doesn’t seek to answer the question of what’s causing the pain. Also, it is important that the doctor start off with the least invasive and least complex treatment and then work their way up.

It’s a matter of finding a doctor who is insightful, finding a doctor who doesn’t immediately jump into the most invasive and financially rewarding option for him- or herself, and finding someone who really acts as an advocate for you.

MICHAEL FERRANTE is director of the UCLA Pain Management Center and a professor of anesthesiology and medicine. Reach the Pain Management Center at (310) 794-1841.

Friday, 28 July 2006 20:00

Improving on the original

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 Marx Acosta-Rubio lives for his customers. The CEO of Onestop believes in satisfied customers so much that he guarantees not just the products he sells, but his customers’ experience with the company, as well.

“Most of the products in America work the way they are supposed to work, so we want to warrantee things that we can control rather than things that we can’t,” says Acosta-Rubio of his company, which sells products including office consumables such as toner cartridges, ink jets and ribbons. “We know what really matters to you is to have a pleasant, quality-driven experience where you can call, get a smile, talk to your rep, get what you want, get informed and get the product and then not worry about it.”

The company also helps its customers by staying on top of their inventory.

“We call you in advance and tell you what you’re going to need, get you to place that order, so you never have to think about (it),” he says.

Onestop’s commitment to its customers is paying off, as revenue increased from $6.5 million in 2004 to $8.4 million in 2005, with projected 2006 revenue of $12 million.

Smart Business spoke with Acosta-Rubio about the culture he fosters among employees and how it contributes to customer satisfaction.

How do you ensure a good experience with your company?
Cheerful employees. There was a (saying) decades ago, ‘We don’t train our people to be nice, we simply hire nice people.’ And that’s the philosophy we sort of adopted.

And then (being) trustworthy. If (people) don’t trust you, they’re not going to buy from you. You know how people trust you? Tell them the truth.

If you say, ‘Hey, Bob, I can’t have it tomorrow,’ he’s going to be pissed off, but he knows you didn’t lie to him. Integrity is doing what you say you’re going to do, so our clients trust us because we try to tell them how it really is going to be every time.

People don’t tell the truth because they have fear. They’re afraid to tell you, ‘I can’t get that there tomorrow because it’s not in the warehouse.’ So they say, ‘OK, sure, tomorrow,’ and make up some lie why it didn’t get there the next day.

They think you won’t like them if you can’t perform for them. But the truth is the opposite. They may get mad, but ... one thing is getting mad at somebody; another thing is not trusting somebody.

How do you stay ahead of your competition?
We do a constant, never-ending improvement. It’s so important nowadays to never, ever set your standards static or lower them. If you don’t change from one month to the next, you’re not going to survive.

What we did a year ago is not at all what we do today, because what we did a year ago, all our competition is now doing. Next-day delivery? Who cares? It was the big thing a few years ago. It ain’t so big now.

The market changes continually, people change continually, society changes continually, competition changes continually, so our training is always up-to-date, and we do it every week. We change based on what’s happening.

How do you keep employees adaptable to change?
You never let them stay comfortable. You let them know that change is the only constant in your organization. Leadership is about creating disorder. Management is about creating order.

So my job is to always create disorder, to always blow things up, to change things constantly. How can I make things better? How can we do this better? That’s my job. Management’s job is to always try to put order to what I’ve dictated.

After awhile, the company gets big enough and the culture gets strong enough where when change happens, people who bitch about it — because you’ve always got one or two — the rest of the guys go, ‘Dude, get over it.’

So now you have the culture (taking charge) ... so leadership and management can focus on the job that’s most important, which is creating opportunities and managing the strategy to get value to the clients.

How do you get employees to buy into your culture?
We gotta kill the ego right off the bat. The No. 1 killer of any organization is the ego. All the backstabbing, politicizing, drama — all that is because of the ego.

When you join the military, what’s the first thing they do? They destroy your identity as a unique individual to absorb you into a greater culture.

How do you do that? You put them on the phone, and you watch them get beat up. You don’t help them. They’ve never done this before. So now they’ve been humbled.

They’ve been shamed into realizing, ‘I really don’t know what the heck I’m talking about.’ Now they’re open for feedback on how to do it right.

HOW TO REACH: Onestop, www.onestopshop.bz