Kathy Simmons

Wednesday, 28 February 2007 19:00

Cultivating creativity

Lisa Stern credits her performing arts background for her success in founding Big Communications Inc., a health care communications agency specializing in the pharmaceuticals industry.

“My exposure in languages, performing and improvisation allows me to think differently,” says Big Communications’ president. “Being quick on your feet and reacting to the market are critical for survival and growth. Small company owners must use creativity to respond to business challenges and retain great employees.”

Big Communications has 75 employees and was named by Inc. magazine as the 77th fastest growing privately held company in the United States.

Smart Business spoke with Stern about how she creatively grows her business and cultivates a winning team.

Q: What has been your greatest challenge?

As with many companies, 2001 was a challenging year for us. Prior to 2001, we concentrated on working with technology companies. The economy went flat, and we felt the effects.

We had eight employees and had built up some overhead. It was quickly apparent that a bank loan would be required to cover the downturn. I knew that I could not walk into a bank and request a loan without a solid business plan. So I sought help from financial consultants and gave myself a crash course in finance. This was a big learning year.

Negative situations often turn into positive opportunities. In retrospect, this was the best thing that could have happened.

Q: What qualities do you look for when hiring?

We’ve put a lot of thought into this.

Our management staff analyzed Big Communications’ star employees to determine what qualities made them successful and essential to our organization’s success. We came up with seven qualities that are now the backbone of our culture. We hire, fire and reward based on seven qualities.

  1. A ‘get it done,’ solution-oriented mentality. Our employees need to welcome challenges and enjoy the problem-solving aspect of their jobs.

  2. Positive attitude. It does not matter how fabulous and impressive an employee might be; if he or she is not a positive thinker, we do not consider it a good fit.

  3. Detail oriented. The details really matter in this business. Typos are not acceptable. If something needs to be overnight mailed, it better be. Sloppy work is not tolerated.

  4. Strong communication/relationship management skills. Our employees must demonstrate a strong ability and desire to build rapport among internal and external customers.

  5. Creativity. A fresh and innovative approach is imperative in this business. That’s what our customers hire us to do.

  6. Trustworthiness. The entire team needs to feel confident that if a member says he or she is going to take care of something, it will get done.

  7. A ‘kaizen’ mindset. Kaizen is Japanese for continuous improvement. We expect suggestions from our employees so we can be a dynamic and energetic company.

Q: What can bring a company down or impede growth?

That’s easy. Negative attitudes. They are poisonous to even the strongest companies. When we hire people who uphold the values of our organization, it perpetuates growth. The opposite happens when employees are not in sync.

As new companies strive to grow, there must be a comfortable atmosphere that encourages new ideas. This is difficult if all the ideas are getting shot down. That’s what tends to happen when there are negative forces within the team.

Q: How do you communicate your vision?

Our vision and values are thoroughly explained during the interview process. We continue reinforcing them with repetitious communications.

I meet with new employees on their first day with the company. They hear directly from me what is expected of them and the values we hold near and dear.

There are fun ways to reinforce your vision and goals. For example, we have the Big STICK award; STICK being an acronym for Service, Teamwork, Integrity, Creativity and Kindness. Each team nominates one person that exemplifies these qualities. The winner has their initials engraved on the stick, which is essentially a hall of fame in our company.

Once a year, every employee attends a two-day offsite retreat. We use this time to make sure communication is healthy between departments and that we are all focused on our current goals.

Q: How do you define and measure success?

It all comes down to happiness. If your employees are honestly excited about going to work when they wake up in the morning, you are on the right track.

Of course, profitability matters in this equation. Successful companies are places where people can build careers and flourish professionally. There must be a strong bottom line for that to occur.

But profitability tends to be a natural result when there is happiness. If the employees are happy, they will strive to make the customers happy. If the customers are happy, they keep coming back. When customers keep coming back, the bottom line becomes stronger. That’s what makes and keeps a company successful.

HOW TO REACH: Big Communications Inc., (248) 246-5200 or www.bigcommunications.com

Sunday, 31 December 2006 19:00

Perfect vision

Tara Abraham has a knack for spotting trends, a talent that has kept her company, Accel Inc., a few steps ahead of the competition.

Abraham was working at Bath and Body Works in 1995 when poor packaging derailed a promotion, spurring her to start her own contract packaging company. Today, Accel provides design, packaging and distribution, with a focus on the health and beauty industries.

“We now operate a 305,000-square-foot facility with 375 employees and 45 production lines, serving 24 clients including Bath & Body Works and The Limited,” Abraham says. “Our philosophy has been to hire stellar employees and to remain ahead of the curve in spotting consumer preferences.”

Smart Business spoke with Abraham about how she finds the best employees and identifies emerging trends.

Q: How do you recognize business opportunities?

When I am shopping or reading magazines, I notice when products are packaged poorly. I purchase three, rework one and send the original and our rework to the company, and save the third for our sample room. This tangibly shows how we can improve the visual presentation of the product, which, in turn, increases sales and provides Accel an opportunity.

Our business has grown every year consistently since its inception, but over the last five years [it’s grown] mainly through referrals by our clients and suppliers. Referrals are the key to growth. The need has already been established, and the qualification criteria are less extensive.

We choose our potential business partners carefully, as we want to ensure that we will have a long-term relationship with them. The chemistry between the two companies needs to be right for the relationship to succeed.

Q: What characteristics do you look for when hiring employees?

The level of the position may skew the emphasis on a specific quality, but typically we seek to match the skill set and experience to the open position and determine if the candidate will fit our corporate culture.

We will choose a candidate who fits our culture with less experience but who possesses a great attitude, a willingness to learn and a desire to work.

Jim Collins, author of ‘Good to Great,’ notes the need to put the right people on the bus in the right seats. I take that concept seriously.

When we first started Accel, (my father) advised us that to take the company to the next level, we needed to fill open positions with people with better skills than we possessed. That advice has proven invaluable.

Q: How do you make decisions?

New entrepreneurs are prone to make quick decisions without weighing the risks more carefully. As the business matures and levels of management fill in, you have the luxury of being able to analyze the opportunities, risk and rewards deeper and more carefully.

My partner, David Abraham, views situations much differently than I. Together we are able to analyze the challenge from different view points and perspectives.

Our executive team makes all the critical decisions collectively. I am a firm believer that multiple individuals with different skill sets and strengths can and will collectively make a better decision than a sole individual.

However, if I am truly passionate about an opportunity or decision, I will go to great lengths to prove why and achieve buy-in from them.

Q: What key skills does any successful business leader need to survive?

There are many skills required, but these five are worth noting.

Empower your associates. Your company is only as good as its talent.

Hold employees accountable. Recognize achievement, initiative, performance and positive attitudes. Communicate when associates are performing poorly so there are no surprises during reviews. It is OK to fail in small degrees. We would rather a person take initiative instead of being complacent.

Maintain a customercentric approach. Become an extension of your clients and focus on speed to market. The more information you can learn about your clients’ goals, vision and strategy, the more valuable you become.

Display consistent integrity and respect. In today’s climate it is imperative to be honest and ethical. Life is too short not to be a good person. People will remember you as that, first and foremost, irrespective of your success in business.

Embrace change and growth. In 2006, Accel solidified relationships and created joint ventures with factories in China to be able to service our clients better. We often hear that China is a threat, but if you embrace the opportunity, it only makes your company stronger.

Change occurs in any business or industry; it is how you respond to change that will be the fate of your destiny — good or bad.

HOW TO REACH: Accel Inc., (740) 549-0606 or www.accel-inc.com

Friday, 24 November 2006 19:00

Growth leader

When Joni Burton was in college, she never imagined herself with a career in the computer field.

“I majored in marketing at Ohio State University and actually found the required computer coursework frustrating,” says Burton, area director for CIBER Inc.

But after graduation, Burton’s first job involved selling computer systems. She quickly realized that although she had not enjoyed developing computer programs, she did like consulting with companies on how to use technology to meet their business objectives. CIBER is a systems integrator that builds, integrates and supports mission-critical business applications for private and public clients.

Founded in 1974, CIBER serves client businesses from offices in the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia and India. Burton manages the Cincinnati operation and its 85 employees, and has grown the operation 200 percent in the past two years.

Smart Business spoke with Burton about how she manages growth and keeps her staff motivated.

Q: How do you get employees to buy in to your vision and make it a reality?

There are three keys to generating support from staff: passion — you must demonstrate a clear and genuine belief in the value of the business; ongoing communication — employees cannot get behind what they do not understand; [and] willingness to solicit feedback — the team must perceive the strategy and vision as their own.

I have seen managers simply tell employees what to do. Sure, they can do that, but the end result is a less-committed staff. It takes effort to communicate and uphold an open-door communication policy. However, you will get more than 100 percent from your employees in the process.

The test of effective communication is that nothing should come as a surprise to your employees. This can involve difficult discussions, such as addressing negativity, or acknowledging employees who are not a good fit for the organization.

Q: What professional mistakes have you personally made and learned from?

Early in my career, I realized that you have to be close to your employees, but not too close. It is easy to lose your objectivity and to be affected negatively if you don’t respect boundaries that must exist in a healthy employer/employee relationship.

I also learned the hard way that it is important to speak up and trust your instincts. There have been times when I let others guide me, even though I knew in my heart it was not the best approach. I ended up going down the wrong path — when I knew better — and that was not a good feeling.

I try to instill in my employees the importance of being open and honest about their thoughts. It can be a double-edged sword because when employees challenge the status quo, it can be a management headache. However, the rewards are well worth the trouble.

Q: How do you grow your company?

I can’t do this by myself, obviously. When I first came to CIBER, I took a hard look at the team and made necessary changes. To grow a company, it is essential to have the right team assembled.

Once the team is in place, turnover must be minimized at all levels. You cannot undervalue the relationships that develop between your employees and clients. It takes time to develop trust. Once it is there, clients will take the recommendations of the consultants. Turnover forces this process of building trust to start over again, and that is costly.

Typically, 20 percent of your clients will bring in 80 percent of your revenue. You must always be on the lookout for new opportunities, because your current revenue stream could change tomorrow. Cold calling is difficult these days, since there is so much competition, and everyone has voice mail to screen their calls.

So we concentrate on attending local seminars, networking, and providing technical education and thought leadership in order to get our name out in the community.

Q: How do you set and review goals?

Goals should be attainable, but they need to be a stretch. If goals are too easy, there is not incentive to put forth effort. If goals are too difficult, employees give up before they even get started.

Goals also must be measurable. They cannot be vague or open to guesswork. Consultants need to know the billable hours you expect, recruiters need to know how many new hires they must bring in and your sales professionals need a concrete sales goal. Without these, they are not sure if they are successful or meeting expectations.

Setting the goals is just the first step. Good managers have ongoing dialogue with their staff on the goals agreed upon. If the employee is struggling, draw from your own experiences and others, and give them practical tips for getting their performance back on track.

HOW TO REACH: CIBER Inc., (513) 489-6366 or www.ciber.com

The Women in Business series is presented by Smart Business through the support of Fifth Third Bank.

Sunday, 29 October 2006 10:47

Strategic leader

Kara Trott is crystal clear about her role as president and CEO of Quantum Health LLC.

“It is my job to be a strategic leader,” Trott says. “This involves fostering the right culture, aligning capital decisions with corporate goals and recognizing shifts in what our customers need from us.”

Trott focuses on those issues rather than on micromanaging the day-to-day workings of the company.

“I see too many leaders acting more like managers,” she says. “If you hire the right people to monitor the daily activities, you can concentrate on the big picture. After all, if you don’t do it, who will?”

After years of leading large-scale consumer behavior and analysis projects, Trott co-founded Quantum Health in 1999, offering coordinated health care programs that help employees get the right medical care in the most efficient manner possible.

Quantum’s growth is a testament to Trott’s strong strategic vision. The company began with five employees and now has 55; Trott predicts it will have 75 to 80 employees by early 2007. Revenue has increased about 35 percent a year over the last three years, with 2006 estimates of $7 million.

Smart Business spoke with Trott about why it’s more important to work on your business than in it.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a strategic leader?
First, I would recommend they read ‘Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done,’ by Larry Bossidy. He reminds leaders that good ideas are a dime a dozen.

Success is not an offshoot of the idea — it all comes down to the execution. It is better to have a ‘B’ or ‘C’ idea that is perfectly executed than an ‘A’ idea with a poor execution. Entrepreneurs need to work on the business, not in the business.

There is a huge difference in the two mindsets. Too many successful leaders marginalize themselves by getting overly involved in the daily operations. The entire organization suffers as a result.

Strategic leaders see themselves as separate from the organization, which is a living, thriving entity. Your job is to make sure this entity continues to move in the right direction.

How would you describe a winning company culture?
People, technology and processes are all essential, but our business is very relationship-oriented, so people drive our success. I am a firm believer in consciously creating a culture.

If you not intentionally do so, it will not happen. Culture consists of what the employees really care about. Technology and processes are important, but only to the extent they help the people.

Creative and autonomous decision-making is also part of our culture. Our systems are designed to flag opportunities for communication and intervention. We then allow our care coordinators flexibility in determining the best course of action.

This is not a business where there can be hard and fast rules — we have to rely on the judgment and abilities of our employees.

What do you look for when hiring?
After establishing that the candidate is qualified, we determine whether he or she has the right mindset. We have a set of clearly defined values — each employee has them on a printed card — and we are serious about them. Those we hire must have the maturity to uphold our values.

For example, one of our values is, ‘Assume positive intent.’ This means that if someone raises an issue, we do not conclude the intent is to make trouble or complain.

Our assumption is that the employee or customer has pure motives. This allows us to maintain a nondefensive attitude and remain open to new ideas.

Another value is, ‘Provide solutions, not just answers.’ Our call coordinators are not timed on their calls. We do monitor the number of calls they handle each day, but if the number exceeds 50, our concern is that answers rather than solutions are being delivered. In the industry, the standard is 100 calls a day.

Taking initiative is another key value. The mindset we encourage is that if it’s hard to do, that is the first thing to tackle.

What is the biggest mistake business leaders make?
Egos and personal biases usually drive decisions that are bad for the company. Leaders tend to get caught up on what they think the company should be. In doing so, they develop blind spots.

You have to work hard to maintain an atmosphere where employees can be brutally honest. Often, working environments have unspoken rules about what can be discussed. Great leaders constantly solicit the feedback and opinions of their employees.

The bottom line is this — running a company is really hard work. It takes an incredible amount of perseverance. Those who do not have the stomach for lots of uncertainty will not survive.

HOW TO REACH: Quantum Health LLC, (614) 846-4318 or www.quantumhealthllc.com

Wednesday, 25 October 2006 20:00

Leading by example

Vicky Carlson’s motive for getting into the office furniture business was simple: She needed a job.

“I was fresh out of college and had to pay the rent,” Carlson says. “I reluctantly took a temp position at the Office Pavilion in 1986 and was pleasantly surprised. It was like a whole new world. The business and design elements make this field exciting.”

Carlson is now president and owner of Office Pavilion, an integrated office furniture dealership and facility care center and the sole full-service distributor of Herman Miller furniture.

“We have the luxury of corporate training and support, but can operate as a small business,” Carlson says. “This arrangement allows us to be quick and nimble and not get bogged down with lots of bureaucracy.”

When Carlson purchased the dealership in 1994, 25 employees generated annual revenue of $6 million. Since then, she has grown Office Pavilion to 47 employees and $22 million in revenue.

Smart Business spoke with Carlson about the true meaning of leadership and getting employees to buy in to her vision.

How would you describe your leadership style?
It was a bit of an epiphany when I discovered the true meaning of leadership. For a long time, I thought being a good manager was synonymous with being a good leader.

The reality is the two are very different. If people are not willingly following your example, you are not an effective leader.

I am not a micromanager. I lead by example. Rather than giving answers and providing solutions, I ask questions to develop creative problem-solving skills in my staff. They need to be able to make solid business decisions, and I strive to avoid being a bottleneck.

When I realized that I was more of a manager than a leader, I changed my tactics and began modeling desired behaviors. I began getting more involved in the community and getting the name of our company more in the public eye.

My job is to generate enthusiasm and excitement, and to make sure the employees know they are part of a success story.

How do you get employees to buy in to your vision?
My goal is to walk the talk and set the right example. In the early stages of owning the business, I did more talking at staff than collaborating with them. Some were on board, while some were trying to row the boat in a different direction.

Now, we have monthly meetings with a different focus. We are all talking about setting the right goals for the organization.

For example, four years ago, we took an honest look at the company. We realized our customers loved us, but those who were not customers had never heard of us.

To be known as a dynamic force in the community, things had to change. I shared my vision with the management staff and explained the steps I felt we needed to take — focusing heavily on the positive end result.

We opened the doors of our building to be used for other purposes, such as training and seminars. Companies using our facilities became intrigued with what we had to offer. This generated more business for us.

Whenever there are changes, employees will have a certain amount of skepticism. Accept that and remain consistent in selling your vision. It is gratifying when those who were previously skeptical buy in to the vision wholeheartedly.

What one thing can bring a company down or prevent growth?
Not responding to the times. So many companies did not survive the difficult economic conditions in 2001 because they had a sense of unrealistic optimism. They ignored the signs rather than making quick decisions.

I noticed our orders slowed down drastically in early 2001. We were on pace to do $25 million by the end of the year. It was obvious we would end up at about half that revenue. This meant we had to make difficult decisions, including downsizing. We had to cut a million dollars from our budget. For a small company, this is no simple feat.

The difference in our quick response was that after 9/11, we did not have to take further action. We had already responded to the economic conditions.

What key skills do successful business leaders need?
The most important skill is strong and accurate decision-making ability. You must be able to move forward and not be paralyzed by uncertainty.

Even if your decision is wrong, you will know it quickly and can proceed with greater knowledge. The worst thing is to be too overly cautious about taking action.

Also, I believe in listening to your instincts. Looking back at decisions I have regretted, I invariably would have been better off following my inner voice.

Finally, I recommend that business partners have solid buy-sell agreements. This is something that is often neglected in the beginning stages of forming the business. Everything is going well, and there is good will between the parties.

That is the time to get the buy-sell agreement nailed down. It is a lot easier to do when things are harmonious than on the back end when there may be philosophical differences.

HOW TO REACH: Office Pavilion, (858-784-5200) or www.opsd.com

Thursday, 21 September 2006 12:29

Success through service

Canadian poet Henry Drummond observed, “There is no happiness in having or in getting, but only in giving.”

It’s a philosophy that Elsie Blount, president of Uniglobe Travel Designers, has embraced in her business and her personal life.

“Success is not about money — it consists of what you have given back,” Blount says. “If you can leave this world knowing you have helped others and made a difference, you are a success. I am convinced that success is inevitable to those who concentrate on doing the right thing every day.

“So many people get it backward — the focus cannot be on money or prestige, but on serving others.”

Blount’s philosophy of giving back has worked — when she bought out the business from her former partner in 1996, it was grossing $800,000 a year. Now, annual revenue exceeds $12 million.

Smart Business spoke with Blount about the keys to being a good leader and the importance of taking care of your employees

How would you describe your leadership style?
It is inclusive. When we need to make changes, we don’t make them in a vacuum — we actively involve the employees. When travel agency business hit hard times after 9/11, a third of them did not survive.

I sat down with the agents and explained that my goal was to keep everyone employed and to stay in business, but we needed to make changes. For short periods of time, we lowered base salaries. These were not pleasant decisions, but they were bearable because everyone embraced and supported them.

It’s all about communication and honesty. Morale stayed high, and we not only stayed in business but also continued to grow.

I let the employees suggest and implement solutions to problems that affect the business financially. For example, there was a time we had a problem with absences. Based on employee feedback, we changed our policy to reward employees for not using sick time by writing them a check at the end of the year.

It was a positive way to deal with a negative situation. Absences were drastically reduced.

What qualities do you look for when hiring?
There are two qualities that are essential — compassion and maturity. Agents who are compassionate can understand (a) customer’s point of view. Maturity allows them not to take it personally when a customer calls us screaming due to travel frustrations.

In this business, there are so many things that can go wrong. It is fertile ground for stress and frustration. Excellent agents with compassion and maturity do not get defensive in these situations. They are focused on one thing — ‘How can I help?’

During the hiring process, I conduct situational interviewing. I ask the candidate what he or she would do under several scenarios in order to gauge their compassion and maturity. I can train someone to be a great travel agent, but I cannot teach these qualities. You either have them or you don’t.

What is the most common mistake leaders make?
Leaders often become consumed with success to the point they forget the humanity of the business. There are many instances of healthy mom-and-pop companies that get bigger and end up losing every aspect of what they were built upon.

If you get to the point where there is minimal or no concern for people and your priority is on making the next deal or dollar, everyone loses.

The other mistake that goes along with this unhealthy focus on the bottom line is that leaders forget employees have a right to a balanced and happy life. They begin viewing their staff as a means to an end.

I strongly believe that happy employees and a consistent practice of doing the right thing will naturally lead to success.

What sets your company apart?
I am a big believer in providing a healthy quality of life for employees. Happy employees will exceed your expectations.

For example, I allow some agents with young children to work from home. This arrangement allows them to better manage their personal and work priorities. Also, the company closes on weekends. When I made this decision, I was warned it would hurt our bottom line, but it has not.

I believe employees should be home with their families on the weekends.

Our business is built on personal service. It is essential for customers to reach a live person when they call us, so we do not hide behind voicemail. When a customer is at the airport in a time-sensitive travel situation, they need to speak to an agent right away.

HOW TO REACH: Uniglobe Travel Designers, (614) 237-4488 or www.uniglobetraveldesigners.com

Thursday, 21 September 2006 06:18

Building success

Pam Thomas did not always envision herself in the building business. In fact, the owner of P.A.K. Construction is a registered nurse by trade, although she never put this training into practice.

“I quickly realized nursing was not the career that best played to my strengths,” she says. “I love business. After school, I began working in the accounting department of a major general contractor in Cincinnati. This provided me with excellent exposure to the construction business.”

In 1995, Thomas, a stay-at-home mom for years, was ready to re-enter the work force. Her husband, a self-employed contractor, was in the process of starting another company. The timing was perfect to launch P.A.K. Construction, a commercial subcontractor.

“We now have 24 employees, but we’ve retained the core group and will continue to do so, regardless of the fluctuations in the economy and building industry,” Thomas says.

Thomas doesn’t claim to be an expert at construction.

“I don’t walk onto a job and read the blueprints or prepare estimates. What I bring to the table is general business expertise. I’ve picked up considerable construction knowledge through years of experience. However, I rely on my staff for this technical aspect of the business.”

Smart Business spoke with Thomas about the essential qualities of leadership and keeping customers happy.

What are the most essential qualities of leadership?
Integrity is — and will always be — No. 1. Customers and employees need to know you are loyal and can be taken at your word.

You also must be accessible and flexible. Don’t operate as a rigid task-master — work as a team. The best managers make each employee feel like an integral part of the operation. No one person has to strive to be above others.

It is also essential to be a strategic thinker. Things are not always neat and tidy. We have to look at the project and determine the best way to manage our resources to ensure a quality outcome. This requires creativity and flexibility.

How do you keep your customers happy?
Anyone who is self-employed knows this is arguably the most critical challenge of all. You must retain a strong customer base. You can’t be looking for new clients all the time and remain profitable.

To keep customers happy and loyal, they must know that their needs are important. No client can perceive that they are a lower priority than another, or take second place to your efforts to win over a new client.

Accessibility is imperative. I can always be reached, even on vacations. There is no hiding behind voicemail and addressing an issue two or three days later. That is a sure way to lose business.

We stress to customers that issues are bound to arise, but we are committed to resolving them expediently. This is a value we stress continually throughout the company. When there is a problem, we nip it in the bud.

What lessons have you learned the hard way?
As a result of a few eye-opening experiences, I have learned to admit I do not have all the answers. Sometimes people in leadership positions think they will look foolish if they ask questions. The reality is you end up looking more foolish by making the wrong decisions.

I believe there are three reasons why managers do not ask questions: Pride, lack of confidence and concern of what others will think. You have to let all that go and reach out to those with the knowledge you need.

The only way to overcome these barriers is to constantly ask questions.

How do you get your inspiration?
I have five children who inspire me to be my best self. I also have a friend (who) has encouraged me to get out of my comfort zone, which means getting out from behind my desk.

I previously was reluctant to put myself in front of the clients, but this year I made a commitment to do that. My goal was to diversify my customer base, and that meant I needed to be in the field more.

My husband continually inspires me. So does Kitty Taylor, owner of Commercial Construction Group. It is important to have trusted friends in the same business. They can appreciate and relate to the unique business challenges you encounter.

HOW TO REACH: P.A.K. Construction, (513) 874-4330 or www.pakconstruction.com

Wednesday, 30 August 2006 02:57

The secret to success

Judy Kucway knows the value of customer service and profitability, but she considers happy employees to be the real key to success.

“I always tell my managers the smartest thing they can do is to have employees who genuinely respect them,” says Kucway, CEO of Motor City Stamping.

“When employees admire their managers, they want to make them look good. This loyalty results in improved morale and productivity.”

There must be something to this theory, as Kucway has grown the business from working out of her garage in 1969 to a 350-employee operation producing up to a million parts per year, primarily stamping and welded assemblies.

Kucway admits that the last few years have been challenging, but she is up to the challenge.

“Challenges make you stronger,” she says. “The customer is always changing, just as the world market changes. You either demonstrate flexibility by keeping up with the changes, or you won’t stay in business.”

Smart Business spoke with Kucway about how she keeps employees happy and deals with an ever-changing industry.

How do you deal with changes in the industry?
We look at our product line constantly. Smart leaders keep their eyes open and never get too comfortable. That is the kiss of death for a potentially thriving business.

It is dangerous to become arrogant and think your way is the best. You must be consistently in tune with what your customers are planning for their futures.

Staying a step ahead of the demands takes effort, but that is what separates strong companies from weak ones.

There have been a lot of downsizing and pay cuts in our industry recently. Fortunately, we have been able to avoid taking these steps by finding ways to improve on time and motion. We’ve concentrated on becoming more efficient rather than reducing the head count. I always felt that I could not, in good conscience, either downsize or implement pay cuts when we supply products to one of the largest automotive makers in the country.

What is your best advice for business leaders?
Keep your word at all cost. I recently turned down a $5 million contract because the client wanted us to do something that was not possible. The work required a part that I knew would not be approved. It was the right decision because my credibility means everything to me.

Look at your employees as people, not numbers or paychecks. Pay them as much as you can and involve them in profit-sharing. You want everyone to be enthused and involved when the company is making money.

Everyone is under pressure these days in the workplace, so do not forget the little things that remind employees they are valued and appreciated. A pat on the back, tickets to a Lions game, a baby gift when an employee is expecting - these are the little things that reap big rewards in the way of a loyal staff.

How do you set and review goals?
Profitability and customer satisfaction are our primary concerns when establishing goals. In addition to these cornerstones, there are four criteria to be considered when setting any company goal: Will it support us in maintaining or exceeding regulatory requirements? Will it enhance our competitiveness? Does it help us produce a high-quality product? Can we deliver it on time?

We have to look at our product line constantly and change with the times. This flexibility and willingness to change has helped us survive.

How do you make the tough decisions?
I pray a lot and ask for guidance. I look closely at the market before deciding on equipment we need to purchase or product lines we need to expand.

It is imperative to do your research. I think that is where many leaders fall short. They base major decisions on too little or inaccurate information. Plunging in without getting all the facts can be devastating to the business.

My advice would be to slow down and be thoughtful and methodical when making decisions. And, of course, stay in constant touch with your customers so that you can anticipate their needs and prepare accordingly.

These steps take patience and discipline, but they can prevent costly mistakes.

What has been your greatest challenge?
Being a woman in this business has not been easy - I had to prove myself. Not having the cash flow to expand as I wanted to through the years has been frustrating also.

The automotive business is one you either love or hate. It is fiercely competitive, and those who survive must have the stomach for lots of uncertainty and pressure.

HOW TO REACH: Motor City Stamping, (586) 949-9209 or www.mcstamp.com

Tuesday, 29 August 2006 12:31

Courting success

Paula Inniss attributes her company’s success to smart marketing.

“It is of the utmost importance to have a strong, creative and carefully researched marketing plan,” says the president of Ohio Full Court Press, a full-service digital print provider. “Without this road map, it is virtually impossible to maximize your value to customers.”

Inniss had been working at Xerox for 14 years when one of her clients, a commercial printer, recruited her to start a digital print shop at his company.

“I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but I always had something different in mind — to run a shelter for abused women and children,” she says.

But after researching the digital printing business, she decided it was worth a shot.

“I realized that I could not live with myself if I didn’t give it a try,” she says. “You have to be open to new opportunities, even when they do not necessarily fit the plan you anticipate for yourself.”

Ohio Full Court Press began 12 years ago with Inniss and one part-time employee. Today, she employs 21.

Smart Business spoke with Inniss about what makes a good leader and the importance of being open and honest with employees.

What makes a great leader?
There are two different styles of leadership, and great leaders know when to use each. First is the democratic approach.

It is essential when leading a team to involve them in day-to-day decisions. It is a mistake when leaders flatter themselves into thinking they know it all and disrespect the knowledge and value their employees bring to the organization.

If you hire the right people, it is foolish not to depend and rely upon their business acumen.

The second style is the autocratic approach. There are times when leaders cannot seek universal buy-in. When crucial decisions must be made, it is time to get stern and directive.

For example, we recently were given the job of preparing conference materials for a new client. It was a rush job and extremely important that we successfully pull this job off.

Because we had so much at stake, I was heavily involved and directive to ensure a successful outcome.

How do you deal with fluctuations in your business?
The printing business fluctuates wildly so it is essential to find ways to balance work with manpower. The demand for digital printing services drops off in the summer.

We had to look at business that had peak demands for printing during the summer months, and we found it with publishing work. Finding this need was the perfect solution to even out our fluctuations.

I would encourage all business owners to use the same sort of creativity and planning. We now actually have to increase our staff in the summer.

How do you recognize business opportunities?
We have to constantly review our core products and market our services to industries to keep revenue coming in the door. Last year, I completed a thorough and serious business plan for our company.

I held off-site meetings with the management staff and hired a third-party consultant who understood the printing business. The business plan focused on marketing to different audiences and finding ways to be more consultative with our clients.

One of the first steps in identifying a business opportunity is not to turn your nose up at small jobs. When someone calls us saying they have a minor job, we peel back the layers to see if there are other potential needs we can fill.

We are also mindful of the fact that once we prove ourselves with a small job, other opportunities will very likely reveal themselves.

How do you communicate with your employees?
We have a business meeting every two months where we review the basics: our marketing plan, financials and current challenges. We have fun in these meetings, giving spot rewards of $20 for employees who can recite our vision and mission statements.

Employees are encouraged to speak up. If there is an honest concern or question, they know they can bring it up in these sessions.

I work hard to create an atmosphere of trust and openness. I do not sugarcoat bad news.

I also strongly believe in walking the talk.

If I am not a consistent example of what I expect from my employees, I have failed them as a leader. When I say we must treat each other and our customers with respect, it starts with me.

HOW TO REACH: Ohio Full Court Press, (614) 278-9914 or www.ofcponline.com

Tuesday, 29 August 2006 10:49

A bright future

Anne Chambers believes there are two essential ingredients to success — a strong focus on results and finding your niche.

The CEO of RED, a marketing and production company, has done both by using Direct Response Television — commercials that allow consumers to directly respond to the advertiser — to serve companies such as Procter & Gamble. Chambers previously worked for that company for 10 years before it sold its in-house production company and she bought it.

“I saw a great deal of potential in this company as a full-service ad agency,” she says.

RED’s annual capitalized billings are $80 million and growing.

Smart Business spoke with Chambers about leadership, finding and retaining the best employees, and maintaining a life/work balance

What makes a great leader?
I am a strong believer in the concept of servant leadership. Being a support person to a strong team is the sign of a true leader.

Some managers make the mistake of feeling threatened by the talented people working for them. That’s the wrong attitude. If you want to move forward, you must surround yourself with dynamic people.

Give them the tools and authority to do their job. Real empowerment is rare, because many leaders cannot relinquish control and have problems trusting their staff. You won’t get the best out of people with this kind of attitude.

The other essential quality of a leader is imagination. While the day-to-day work is getting done, someone needs to be looking down the road.

The best managers are forward-thinkers with wild imaginations, but are pragmatic. It’s difficult to find the right balance.

How do you hire and retain the best employees?
Since we started in 2001, we have not had a single person resign. This is an accomplishment; however, I am realistic.

We have a young staff, and there will come a time when they need to explore other options. My hope is that if they decide to go somewhere else, they will come back as more rounded and seasoned employees.

Turnover is not something we want, but it is not necessarily a negative thing.

One thing we try to do with our staff is allow them to bring their whole self to work. We acknowledge that everyone has a full life, and work is part of that life.

We are more likely to retain people if we let them grow in creative ways. For example, our creative director absolutely loves music. Knowing this is his passion was the catalyst for us to pilot a new music TV show. It’s all about finding what really excites your employees and getting outside the box.

How do you stay motivated and maintain balance in your life?
I love business — the challenge and the people I interact with. This keeps me in a positive place. Our company’s legal name is Bright Future Partners. My husband, Cliff, and I adopted our daughter from China in 1995. Her mother had named her Chang, which means ‘bright future.’ We named her Annie Chang and named our companies Bright Future in keeping with our mission.

What keeps me going is doing my part to make a brighter future for everyone the business touches — our employees, customers and vendors. I believe there is more to running a business than revenue and profit.

You need to give back. We donate 10 percent of our after-tax profits every year to charitable agencies.

How will you continue to grow your company?
In this business — probably more so than others - you must reinvent yourself continually. That is one big challenge of working in a highly creative field.

We are always seeking new ways to reach consumers and grab their attention. It is a two-step process: First you must create your brand fans, then the challenge is keeping them connected. This applies to the advertising business and all others.

It sounds simple, but the execution determines ultimate success of the organization.

I am proud of our progress thus far; however, I can’t become complacent. Every business will experience peaks and valleys. The key is to prepare for them by managing cash flow.

Many businesses fail due to lack of capital during hard times. It is essential to have a plan for managing fluctuations, along with a great relationship with your bank.

Banks are certainly familiar with peaks and valleys of business, but they also must understand your specific business, and that is the responsibility of the business owner.

HOW TO REACH: RED, (513) 772-1020 or www.redbeyond.com

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