Vincent Delie Jr., CEO of First National Bank of Pennsylvania, managed to lead his bank through a time when business-as-usual was anything but usual. Not only did Delie and FNB survive the worst of the recession, but he found ways to grow the bank, especially in its biggest region, Pittsburgh.
“There were quite a few obstacles,” Delie says. “It seemed like every line item on our balance sheet was being challenged one way or another. There was quite a bit of concern not just with our institution but across the country in regard to how we would fund ourselves moving forward.”
Growth during a downturn is a rigorous task and one that takes time and persistence. Delie looked to the talents of the bank’s 2,300 employees to tap into opportunities in the marketplace to take the company into unchartered waters. Those initiatives helped the bank see revenue of $369.9 million in 2010.
“In this market, you can see that the companies in western Pennsylvania seemed to have fared better through the recession, because they’ve had a lot of practice over the years,” he says. “We’ve had some very difficult times here where we’ve been hit harder than the rest of the country during more mild cyclical declines.”
The good fortune he has seen was no accident; it took hard work and strategic planning by Delie and his employees to push through. Here’s how Delie took advantage of new opportunities to get FNB through the downturn.
FNB found itself in a pretty strong position during the toughest period of the economy. Superior credit quality metrics, flexibility and a conservative investment policy helped FNB refocus their attention to areas where growth could be possible.
“Because we were a true plain, vanilla commercial bank, we were able to ride through [the recession] with less disruption in our own balance sheet, and ultimately, that resulted in better earnings throughout the period,” Delie says. “We have a fairly conservative investment policy, so we didn’t get caught up in some of the toxic investments that others got tied up with. That gave us a little more flexibility.”
Delie and his management team had the insight to forecast for a declining loan demand and prepared themselves for what would need to happen to change their approach.
“We had the challenge of growing our balance sheet during a period when outright demand was diminishing,” Delie says. “There were challenges on many, many fronts and they weren’t just challenges for FNB, they were challenges for everybody in the marketplace.
“You need to challenge your employees to think about ways to continue to generate revenue even during a very difficult period. You need to be upfront and honest and communicate very well with your employee base. You need to understand what your clients’ needs are as you move through that cycle.”
Sometimes customer needs will change, so be willing to adapt. This requires a collaborative management team.
“You can’t have silos within your company,” Delie says. “Everybody has to be working together to drive shareholder value and to focus on the bottom line. You can’t have one division just focused on what they do exclusively. They have to be communicating with the other areas.”
During a time when companies see their most important lines of business diminish or even disappear completely, they have to quickly respond. Companies must look at alternative ways to stay in business.
“As commercial clients manage their finances through the cycle, I would stress that cash is king, liquidity is very important,” Delie says. “During periods of time when the economy is contracting, good companies reduce inventory levels, they build their cash position, they delay (capital expenditure) spending and they manage their balance sheet appropriately. I think that if a company is struggling, that should be their focus. Their focus should be to drive liquidity.”
When the economy changes the way you have to do business, it is crucial that you act quickly to implement new ways of gaining business. Communication during that process is also critical in making sure plans don’t fall through.
“We have meetings continuously to talk about the challenges that are going on in the environment and within our own organization,” Delie says. “We focus on those items as often as we have to. Communication within the company is critical, particularly during a period when business isn’t normal — it isn’t business as usual.
“You have to have a system where you can elevate issues or ideas and discuss challenges in the marketplace. We’ve institutionalized that within the company and how we interact with each other. I think you become a little quicker and more nimble when you have that.”
It’s always easy to identify what needs to be done, but actually doing those things takes time, work and people who understand the direction the company needs to move in.
“You need to clearly communicate,” Delie says. “You need to correlate what’s required from a production standpoint from the employees to the ultimate financial plan of the company. They have to understand even though they’re a small piece of the total equation that their contribution is needed and is necessary and we are relying on them to get us home. Making sure they understand how their little piece fits into the total picture is probably one of the most important things. You have to also provide the appropriate incentives to make sure that they achieve or exceed those objectives. Recognizing success within the organization and sharing victories pays dividends.”
Delie quickly realized that the customers they currently had were priority No. 1. Repeat business is vital no matter what state the economy is in and attention to customer satisfaction is what keeps them coming back.
“It’s one thing to build your customer base, but you have to maintain what you have,” Delie says. “Going through a very disruptive period like we just went through, keeping in touch with your customer base, making sure that you’re serving their needs, making sure that you’re listening when they’re bringing up issues or they have concerns about the industry or a particular product is critically important.”
Implementing ways to gain feedback from customers is an important way to find out what they like and don’t like about your company and your service. Retention rates will not rise if you don’t know how or where to address problems.
“You have to put in a way to measure the satisfaction of your customer base,” Delie says. “That has to be built into your incentive comp planning. It has to be built into the culture of the company. You have to have a way to measure it.
“We came up with a methodology for measuring satisfaction across a bunch of customer areas so we could benchmark ourselves against a baseline result. You have to be able to measure that and ingrain it into the culture. Making it an important factor is critical to gaining success.”
Having a system in place that can tell you exactly where improvement needs to happen will greatly increase your customer satisfaction. If customers are not satisfied, change needs to occur.
“You have to get to the root of what’s causing that dissatisfaction,” Delie says. “That requires reaching out to customers. You should also sensitize your employees and incent them to bring forward process change that creates a better environment for providing the service. Those are the things you need to do to drive change.”
Take advantage of opportunities
Once Delie addressed the issues that would help stabilize the bank, he started looking for other avenues to grow and expand their reach. During a tough economic time, it’s important to not be one-dimensional.
“We are not in a high-growth market,” Delie says. “For us to grow in a market that isn’t a high-growth market like other areas of the country, we had to focus on niches within the marketplace that we compete in where the growth is growing at a faster clip than the overall market.
“You have to study the market that you’re competing in. If you see a particular niche where you feel there’s going to be more robust activity, where there’s growth that outperforms the overall market, then you can benefit from that if you focus on it. That’s what good companies and good management teams do.”
Relying on what got you growth in the past will not help your company grow to new heights. You have to constantly reinvent yourself and be thinking of ways to refocus and re-engineer.
“I think a lot of companies during a period of economic turmoil or downturn, they tend to become paralyzed,” Delie says. “They just cut expense and cut expense and they really don’t think about how they are going to continue to manage the top line through that process. That is something that needs to be focused on.”
Delie focused on areas where he saw room for growth and revenue and reallocated resources to go after those areas. Companies must commit to their growth strategies completely in order for them to work.
“We beefed up,” Delie says. “We didn’t pull back like other institutions. We actually added people and developed certain departments. The other thing we had done was focused our people on cross selling. We didn’t want to just push products to clients. We coached them to be more holistic in their approach to providing financial solutions. If a company has a particular need or is looking to mitigate a risk, maybe the insurance company can provide a product or service that helps the company accomplish their objective, and we win by getting that business opportunity.”
Along with finding niches that can help you grow during tough times, new markets can also offer unchartered growth opportunities.
“We are always evaluating our plans,” Delie says. “You have to look at the opportunities that exist in the marketplace. We had to focus on new client acquisition going into the downturn. Our incentive compensation, our strategies were all geared toward going after market share during a period when many other banks were hunkering down or evaporating. That’s what’s led to our growth and our success during a period when outright demand diminished.
“If we are looking to open a new branch, there’s two ways to look at it. One is to try to anticipate what the opportunities are within that micro-market and the other is evaluate whether or not it will be supplemental to your overall delivery channel. You have to look at the market itself that you’re looking to move into and whether or not that move provides support to the rest of the infrastructure. You start with where the customers are and who you are trying to reach and why. Those are the questions you ask yourself.”
Once you identify niches and new market opportunities you need to plan and staff accordingly for growth in those areas to be successful.
“We focused on where the best opportunities were in a particular segment and we staffed that area appropriately to go after the opportunities,” Delie says. “We are in a people business. Even during a cyclical decline, particularly one as severe as what we just went through, where other financial institutions were falling by the wayside, there was a lot of disruption in the marketplace. We were able to capitalize on that, because we had staffed up with good commercial bankers from much larger financial institutions. We upgraded our talent during that time; we didn’t just cut bodies. We looked for ways to become more efficient in the company, but we also hired at the same time to continue to drive growth. Bringing those people in and retaining them was key to our success. Everybody needs to pull their weight to make the overall company successful.”
HOW TO REACH: First National Bank of Pennsylvania, (800) 555-5455 or www.fnb-online.com
Vincent Delie Jr, CEO, First National Bank of Pennsylvania
Born: Philadelphia, but grew up in Pittsburgh
Education: Penn State University, degree in business administration and finance
What was the very first job you ever had and what did you take away from that experience?
The first real job I ever had was stocking shelves at a drugstore on the north side of Pittsburgh. It taught me quite a bit about business. I was able to get involved in a variety of tasks.
What is something that you enjoy the most about your job?
I enjoy interacting with people — that’s the most fun. I also enjoy celebrating success and being a part of the celebration.
What is your favorite piece of U.S. currency?
I would say a $100 bill.
If you could have a conversation with one person from the past and one person from the present, who would they be and why?
I would want to talk with George Washington. I would want to know what his thoughts were about the country back then and where we are today and compare and contrast. Today, I think it would be interesting to have a conversation with Hugh McColl from Nations Bank. He had great success and I would like to talk to him about how he constructed what he constructed and what he was thinking along the way.
Oct. 27, 2009, wasn’t the happiest of days for Darron Anderson.
It was the day his company, Express Energy Services, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
But for Anderson and the employees at Express Energy, it was far from the demise of the company; it was a rebirth of sorts. In just nine weeks, the company emerged from the reorganization prepared to do better than before.
“Emerging out of Chapter 11 on Jan. 1, 2010, I would say by the end of Q1, the Chapter 11 process was pretty far in our rearview mirror,” says Anderson, CEO of the $300 million oilfield services company. “I always tell people I have the greatest job in the world. Since taking over as CEO in the end of 2008 in a very, very depressed market and leading a company into a Chapter 11 process and successfully leading a company out of that process and now watching the company grow and flourish. It has been such a wonderful environment.”
A bankruptcy doesn’t create what most people would consider a wonderful work environment, but Anderson and his 1,475 employees survived the process and have gone on to good results.
Here’s what he learned along the way.
Communicate key messages
From 2004 to 2008, the energy, oil and gas industry enjoyed a stretch of very profitable years. In that same year, Express Energy Services was in the process of being acquired by an outside capital group. When the transaction took place, any additional debt was leveraged to complete the deal. That process, combined with the condition of the industry, is what put the company in Chapter 11.
“The business couldn’t support the new balance sheet and the industry had fallen off so drastically, there wasn’t going to be any help from the marketplace,” Anderson says. “It was pretty clear early on, even with the new owners, that Chapter 11 was the process that needed to be taken for the benefit of the organization and the people of the organization.
“From an internal standpoint … I think one of the best things we did was hiring a public relations firm that helped us craft messaging not only from an external standpoint but an internal message.”
While the natural inclination when times are bad may be to withhold information from employees, Anderson didn’t do that.
“We took the exact opposite approach,” he says. “We kept our employees up to speed from day one. We did that with phone communication, conference calls and site visits to let the employees know we were going through Chapter 11. We had to let them know what that meant to them personally, what it meant for their jobs and giving them the security that it was going to be business as usual. That ultimate communication we had with our employee base was one of the things that led for a successful emergence from Chapter 11, because our internal team was involved in the process and really supported the organization. That external communication and … internal communication were the keys for the success.”
When facing a problem as challenging as a reorganization, there will be a number of things calling for your attention. You need to figure out which ones should be dealt with first to give the company the best chance to succeed. For Anderson, one of his top priorities was to develop more of a team atmosphere.
“Express was a very entrepreneurial company,” Anderson says. “With an entrepreneurial company, you have a lot of individual initiative, individual attitudes, and one of the biggest issues was that Express should be about the company, not about the individuals.
“As an organization we had responsibilities to our employees, our vendors, our shareholders and to the public,” says Anderson. “As a result, there were a significant number of changes that occurred early on in the process. Some were painful changes, but we had to say, ‘Although we’re making short-term sacrifices, we know that they will set up the organization for the long run, and we are going to have a solid team that is 100 percent supportive of our organization and materializing our five-year strategic plan.’”
It is critical that executives of companies facing these types of issues communicate each step of the process to create a smoother transition.
“You have to talk to your people,” Anderson says. “You can’t accomplish everything overnight. That is something I personally struggled with, because I’m very driven, very competitive, and there are things that you want to change, things that you want to put in place and things that you know can bring great benefit to your organization. You have to listen to your team around you and as a group decide what are the priorities and remember whatever your horizon is, it’s not all going to be done overnight.
“You cannot overwhelm the organization. You cannot create too much change too fast. What you can do is listen to your organization, listen to your team members and turnaround and act upon what they have said and make sure it’s clearly visible that you have reacted and get their feedback to your reaction. What happens is, the organization realizes that they have a voice and that management is listening to them and management took action and they see a positive behavior. What it breeds is the next initiative or the next decision is that much easier and accepted and before you know it, it becomes an environment, it’s a culture. It’s a culture of getting feedback. It’s a culture of taking that feedback and making the best decision and putting things in action and seeing the success of that.”
Create a plan
Getting the right feedback is critical during a turnaround but making the right decisions and having a plan for action is even more important.
“We sat down as an executive leadership team, and the first thing we did was went out to our operation-level managers who have the most day-to-day interaction with most of our employee base,” Anderson says. “We asked them specific questions regarding what we do well as a company. What we can improve upon as a company? What are the issues you deal with on a day-to-day basis with your employees? What are the things your employees are coming to you with? We did a very detailed survey process, and we took in information and then spent the better part of a week just combing that information and really seeing what our organization had to say about our current condition.
“Then we looked back and said, ‘If this is where we are today as perceived by our organization, where do we want to be in five years?’ That really started to develop the strategy of our five-year plan. We took where we were and asked ourselves, ‘What do we all think the ideal Express looks like in five years?’”
From that process, Anderson and his team developed several key areas of focus, including financial performance, employee retention, safety performance, customers and how customers view the company.
“We asked ourselves, ‘What must we get done in the next 12 months? What must we get done in the next two to three years, and what do we need to get done within five years?’ That is so far from where this organization was two years ago — that was very short-term focused that the only metric was a financial metric. Now we have so many other metrics and we know that if we perform well in all these key elements of the business, the financial performance is going to be there.”
Unify the team
It is critical for companies that are going through change or restructuring to not send different messages to different areas of the business.
“If you’re going to have any change, you have to be unified,” Anderson says. “We spend a lot of time discussing, analyzing and critiquing different issues. We don’t always get immediate buy-in at the first meeting or even the second meeting. After everything has been discussed, it is very important that the leaders of your organization are delivering the same message, because you don’t want your employee base to get confused. You don’t want your employee base to think that they are expected to perform a certain way here, but if they go over there, they are expected to perform a different way. In doing that and delivering a common message and getting all of your employees bought in to it, now you can take out the message to your customer base.”
A turnaround creates a lot of change within a company, and it is imperative that employees are willing to follow new plans in order for a turnaround to be successful. There is no room for resistance.
“It’s very important to give the naysayers an opportunity to get on board and give them a full chance to make sure that they understand the message and direction,” Anderson says. “When you go through things like this and people just haven’t done it before, there’s always a lot of fear, and fear is going to bring on some level of resistance. You have to be patient with individuals and make sure that they have all the knowledge and the correct knowledge. A lot of times, the information they have been told or possibly heard is incorrect. It’s important that they understand what the facts are and what the truth is.”
But once you’ve gone through the education process and they have all the facts and have had an opportunity to ask any questions and are still choosing not to get on board, at that point, you have to make a decision.
“At that point in time you have to ask yourself, ‘Is it better for this person to remain in the organization with potential negativity or with hesitation?’ I would bet most CEOs would say that’s something that they cannot have is a person not fully supportive of the organization. Whatever short-term pain that may create, it’s better for the long term and it definitely pays off.”
Anderson and his team looked for new employees who had experience with companies that were doing the things Express wanted to strive to do following their turnaround. “Entrepreneurial companies tend to have a level of drive, a level of can-do attitude,” Anderson says. “We had to balance that with individuals who came up in larger organizations, more professionally managed organizations and system processing organizations. That was an element we were missing. We rounded out a management team that has different experiences from different types of companies because we want to keep that element of an entrepreneurial attitude but marry it with a more professionally managed company and that has been refreshing and provided success for us.
“Part of the integrating process is that you cannot be afraid to communicate what you think some of the opportunities for improvement are within the organization. It is very difficult to say, ‘We just came out of a Chapter 11, and we are the best company out there, don’t worry about that.’ You have to communicate to [new employees] what you think the issues were that led up to it, what improvement steps you’ve taken and what you could expect they could provide to help the organization meet its long-term goals. You have to tell them that there is going to be change in the company, and we’re bringing you in to help with that change. “
Make sure the individual agrees with your vision and understands that flexibility is key.
“We know where we want to get to, but in getting there, there may be different paths,” Anderson says. “As we bring on people, we want them to come on with their experiences and values that they’ve had previously. You have to have that strategy as a CEO and be able to lay out to a new prospective candidate and be willing to admit that the organization is not 100 percent perfect and be willing to admit that we want and we need your help. Be willing to admit that it’s going to be challenging because it’s change.”
HOW TO REACH: Express Energy Services, (713) 625-7400 or www.eeslp.com
The Anderson File
Darron Anderson, CEO, Express Energy Services
Born: Corpus Christi, Texas
Education: Graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in petroleum engineering. He worked for Chevron right out of college and also started his own business in 1998. Through those experiences and the people he met and learned from, he says that’s how he earned his “homemade” MBA.
What was your first job and what did you learn from it?
My very first job was mowing lawns in my neighborhood at the age of 13. That really taught me the satisfaction and joy of being an entrepreneur. It also taught me to have a good work ethic.
What is the best piece of business advice that you have received?
What doesn’t get measured doesn’t get managed. I’ve taken that adage and used it tangibly to make sure we measure things that we want managed but not just making sure we measure them but making sure we communicate them.
Who do you look up to or respect most in business?
Jim Woods, the former chairman and CEO of Baker Hughes. Mr. Woods was on the board of directors of the first company that I sold, and he has been a great mentor. You look at a company of the caliber and size that he ran and to be able to have him give you advice about how he looked at things was totally invaluable. He is the person I’ve learned the most from and have the highest respect for.”
If you could do something dangerous one time with no risk at all, what would it be and why?
I am not a racecar fan, but I would want to try driving a racecar in an actual race. It requires split-second decisions, you’re moving extremely fast, there’s a side of gut feeling, an amount of technical know-how and that would be an amazing experience.
Every industry constantly searches for the next thing to alter and improve how business is done. For Houston and the energy industry, that thing is clean technology. Lisa Epifani, an expert in the energy field, explains how it is bringing change to the energy capital.
Leading the energy industry
Houston will be a great leader in the clean tech world. Texas is super lucky to have great resources for wind and solar energy, and Texas has been harnessing those newer and renewable resources.
Clean tech versus oil and gas
It’s obvious that oil and gas are going to be a major part of the portfolio for a long time. We have to acknowledge that and be realistic about the tradeoffs as we transition to cleaner and cleaner fuels. Houston is positioned well, given its knowledge of the energy industry and its geographical location. Texas is a very attractive location for a number of headquarters. Houston is an attractive place for companies to come with its lower taxes and larger labor base.
Regulation in the pipeline
EPA regulations are coming down the track requiring cleaner energy. Companies are going to have to find ways to meet their production demands using cleaner technologies.
Oil and gas companies accept the reality that our economy is turning toward more carbon constraint. The traditional oil and gas companies are going to start making investments in clean energy, particularly as we see tax incentives, different policies, or perhaps something like a national clean energy standard calling for a greater use of those. These companies have money to invest in the energy industry and are going to position themselves to play across the full spectrum of resources.
Oil and gas are still boss
There is going to be a continuing demand [for oil and gas] for a number of years. I don’t see [clean technologies] as competing, I see them as offering a layer to the cake in the foundation of our oil and gas tradition and now we are going to improve on that with these cleaner, newer technologies.
It’s not a matter of one part knocking out the other but blending in a way that makes sense from an economic point of view, security point of view and from an environment point of view. It’s an exciting time in the energy industry and things are improving and it’s a matter of phasing in newer technologies in a smart fashion.
HOW TO REACH: Van Ness Feldman, (202) 298-1800 or www.vnf.com
Van Ness Feldman
About: Lisa Epifani is a partner at Van Ness Feldman and advises a range of clients on energy and environmental matters, with a special focus on climate change strategy, oil and natural gas issues, nuclear policy, and financial regulations. Her clients include industry coalitions, financial institutions, oil and gas pipelines and think tanks. Before joining the firm in April 2009, Lisa spent 10 years serving in key governmental and business community roles, developing energy policy and strategy. She was appointed assistant secretary at the department of energy for congressional and intergovernmental affairs by then-President George W. Bush.
In December 2008, William Toler arrived at Pierre Foods Inc. as its new CEO. A food industry veteran, Toler was hired to help the company get through the immediate crisis of facing Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and then finding ways to make the company stronger moving forward.
“I was first attracted to the opportunity, because Pierre was a supplier to my last company and I knew that the products the company made were excellent and the team here was, largely, very good,” Toler says. “Obviously, there were some things that had caused them to go into bankruptcy, but they were pretty fixable.”
In a twist of fate, the four members of the new leadership team all ended up living in the same hotel when they moved to the Cincinnati area.
“The four of us were relocated here at the same time and we ended up living at the same hotel for a year,” Toler says. “So we found ourselves working out together in the mornings, working all day together then going to dinner and talking about the business from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. four or five days a week. It really helped to create core camaraderie among the senior team that still exists today. So the fact that we were all relocating here at the same time and ended up living in the same hotel really gave kind of a dawn-to-dusk platform to discuss the business and get to know each other at the same time.”
And with the company facing several challenges, the extra time was a plus.
Pierre Foods’ struggles, while difficult, were not too severe that the company would never recover, and Toler knew that when he took over as CEO.
“You have to make sure you know that you have a good company under the problem,” Toler says. “Is the company the problem, or is the problem the balance sheet? In this case the problem was the balance sheet. It was a fundamentally good business inside of the problem, and a lot of times, it’s not. Make sure you’re doing the due diligence and the assessment upfront to make sure you’re going into a business that can be fixed. Does it have the fundamentals to be fixed? Is it a business that’s cyclical with the economy? Is it one that has a real competitive advantage that can be leveraged? Or is it a business that’s just a problem? In the case of Pierre, it was a strong business that had some unfortunate things happen to it all at once. I knew that we could get in here and fix it because it was a fundamentally good business underneath.
“The kind of business that you’d want to avoid is one that has parts undifferentiated or where you are in a commodity business where one product can be replaced easily for another that customers don’t value. That would be a problem or scenario that you’d be hard-pressed to go in and fix.”
Unprecedented inflation in the food industry in 2008 left Pierre without the systems, analytics or tools to understand how that inflation affected its products.
Toler’s first priority was to fix the obvious problems.
“They didn’t really know what the profitability of their various items or the profitability of their various business segments were,” Toler says. “They were unable to properly price the business to make sure they stayed up with inflation as that hit in 2008.”
Oftentimes when a new CEO takes over a company, the amount of data needed to successfully right the ship or move in a new direction is unavailable.
“We had quite a bit of limitations on data here,” Toler says. “We didn’t understand our profitability by item. We brought in an outside firm who developed a profitability tool and model for us that we still use today that essentially allowed us to understand the profitability by item. We also didn’t have all the plants on one ERP, so we moved all the plants to one ERP and got common visibility and common information across all the items. That allowed us to understand where we made money and where we didn’t and be able to take appropriate pricing and be able to work constructively to make sure that we knew what businesses to stay in and what businesses to get out of.”
Data is usually available; it just usually isn’t pulled out of the system in an effective way that leaders can use. Companies with data issues need to mine the data and then get a plan in motion to fix the problems they find.
Besides a lack of data, productivity was also an issue.
“The other thing we identified when we first got here was the idea that their plants were very good plants, but they hadn’t been stretched to [maximize] productivity,” Toler says. “We immediately began focusing on improving the productivity of the plants in terms of how they operated and the number of people per line and the efficiencies of the plants and the waste in the plants and all the things that can cost money to businesses. Really, it was about getting visibility on pricing and also driving productivity. Those were the two things we focused on when we first got here.”
Pierre had also made two acquisitions that they were struggling to integrate. That challenge, along with the condition of the industry and the economy, served to be too much for the company to handle all at once. Faced with the challenges of lack of visibility in data, lack of integration of acquisitions, and lack of pricing, Toler had to prioritize each task in order to get Pierre back on its feet.
“It was all about knowing where you made money and where you didn’t,” Toler says. “Once you have those things in place, you are able to act pretty decisively. You prioritize in the places were there is the greatest payback. Where can you get the most return for your efforts? Is it understanding the data, is it in moving the ERP’s together, is it in pricing the business or in driving productivity? You look where you get the greatest payback and you put your efforts into that.”
Communicate your plan
Once you have determined where your problems areas are and what needs to be done to fix them, you have to communicate to all your employees why those changes are being implemented.
“The most important thing is to communicate [your plan] internally so you make sure people understand what you’re doing and why,” Toler says. “We did everything from e-mail communications to town-hall meetings to plant floor meetings to conference calls and various other forms of communications. It wasn’t easy, but it was straightforward. It was something we knew we needed to do and something we had to get at right away. The one thing that happens in challenging situations is that people often don’t communicate enough, and we tried to be very upfront with folks and let them know where we stood.”
The planning process is a calculated, communicative process that requires collaboration with everyone on your team. There is no substitute for communication during planning.
“I think the thing we tried to do was talk to the people that were closest to the business,” Toler says. “You have to talk to people working the lines, the front-line salespeople, talk to the marketing team and understand what they thought were the issues in the business. One of the things I’ve always found is that when you have a problem in a business, you go to the problem. You try and find out how we can help. You put people out in the plants, you put people out in the field and you talk to the team and ask them what things they think need to get changed and what things could get better.
“Assess what you’re good at. Assess where your competitive advantages are and assess where your weaknesses are and then leverage your strengths and try and either strengthen your weaknesses or get out of them. Stop trying to do things that you can’t do and focus on the things you can do really well.”
This strategy also paid off for integrating acquired companies, including two recent ones made last fall.
“When most companies go in and do these type of deals they just take the home-teams approach and wipeout the other guys,” Toler says. “The most important thing to do is to listen and to defer judgment when you’re getting opinion from folks that are new to you. You shouldn’t automatically assume that your approach is the best approach, but you should listen and be open to each others’ ideas. That’s been what we have all tried to do. We believe you can find a better approach by listening to each others’ best practices versus just saying, ‘Because I’m doing it a certain way, that’s the best way.’ It takes a little longer and sometimes it’s harder, but generally you end up with a better outcome if you have the patience and willingness to do it.”
Toler’s solutions led to the company’s best performance in 63 years.
“Coming out of the bankruptcy, the strength of the first year results has enabled us to more than double the size of the company,” Toler says.
Pierre’s merged last September with Advance Foods Company Inc. and Advance Brands LLC, creating Advance Pierre Foods, double the size of the pre-merger organization.
Today, the company has $1.3 billion in sales and more than 4,000 employees, making it the largest privately held company in the tri-state area.
“Fixing the bottom line by productivity and pricing, staying focused on our core products and understanding how to merge two businesses together with us that strengthen us in our product lines and also strengthen us in our core channels have made us successful,” Toler says.
HOW TO REACH: Advance Pierre Foods, (800) 969-2747 or www.advancepierrefoods.com
The Toler File
William Toler, CEO, Advance Pierre Foods
Born: Raleigh, N.C.
Education: Graduated from North Carolina State University with a double major in business management and economics
Previous work experience: Procter & Gamble, Nabisco, Campbell’s, Pinnacle Foods
What was your first job, and what did you learn from that experience?
My very first job was as a swim coach and from that I learned that leadership matters. Trying to lead to inspire others is an important approach in business and in life.
What is the toughest challenge you’ve had to face in business?
The hardest thing is letting go of bad business. Getting out of bad businesses or getting rid of customers that you don’t make money on. That’s always the hardest thing, because people love revenue and sometimes they confuse revenue with good business. Getting out of business is hard and saying no to new ideas is hard. The trick is to not do the things that can distract the business.
What is your favorite thing about working at Advance Pierre?
It’s the quality of the people I get to work with. The way we feed off of each other and the things we do to challenge each other makes it fun every day.
What is your favorite Advance Pierre product?
My favorite product is our Graham Snackers, which are two graham crackers with peanut butter and jelly in between. They’re really good.
Thomas Kirkpatrick, a 19-year veteran of the Procter & Gamble Co., had an urge to try his hand at entrepreneurship. In 1998, he bought the assets to Eco Engineering LLC, a lighting energy services company.
Kirkpatrick saw big potential for the service his company provided, but it was lacking an organizational culture. The values that Procter & Gamble used touched home with him, and he figured those same values could work for his small business.
“Those ethics fit well with my own beliefs, so I tried to establish those same values here,” says Kirkpatrick, president and CEO. “I wanted to develop the organization to create a culture that would bring the good things I experienced at P&G and leave behind some of the things that could plague a larger organization and prevent it from being a nimble, customer-focused organization.”
By following core values and his company’s vision and mission, Kirkpatrick revitalized Eco Engineering, which saw 2009 revenue of $15 million.
Smart Business spoke to Kirkpatrick about how he runs his business by sticking close to the values he knows can create success.
Establish cultural values.
As the CEO of a small business you have the sole responsibility in being the leader to establish the vision, the values and the culture to set the tone for your organization. It surprises me every day how carefully people observe what you do, whether or not you’re setting high personal standards. It is absolutely essential and critical to communicate well and make certain that you are sharing your own personal character and standards.
As a CEO, you need to make sure that you communicate clearly the mission and vision of the company. [Employees] need to have something they believe in with passion and something they can get excited about.
You’ve got to decide what kind of an organizational culture you want to have, your values. You need to establish honesty, openness and integrity and create partnerships. Once you get a clear mission and core values set up, you will be able to get an organization in place that can go to work. You have to put together a set of measures so that you have something you can look at to see if you are achieving what you set out to do. You then have to evaluate what you have established, and from there, you set out to try and be the best.
Record and update values.
One of the first things I did back in ’98 was put down on paper a vision, a mission and core values. Most small business owners might say they don’t need a vision, mission or values. But they would agree that they need to provide written guidelines on how the work needs to be done. Some have very basic guidelines and others just use an apprentice program where new people learn just by watching. They need to formalize that and instead of letting new people learn by observing, they need to force themselves to put the process down on paper, and as a result, they can have specific measures of how they’re succeeding or where they’re falling short. That will help them become a better company.
It’s important to continually be looking for the best practices from outside your own company. Participate in a CEO round table to share ideas with other CEOs or keep up on the latest business books. It’s making sure that the CEO doesn’t get so caught up in running the business day to day and that you’re taking time for your own personal development. If you’re not out there looking for the best practices and bringing those to your organization then you’re going to be stagnant.
Reinforce core values.
Every three to four weeks, I meet with all 53 employees, and every quarter, I meet with my leadership team, and we review our values and how we are doing. Have we made progress over the last quarter in working toward our vision and our mission? Are we living up to our core values? I reinforce the fact that our whole focus is customer satisfaction and that we are proud of ourselves and we want to be the best. The only way to do that is by focusing on getting better. As I review these values, it hopefully empowers every employee to live up to those.
HOW TO REACH: Eco Engineering LLC, (513) 985-8300 or www.ecoengineering.com
Since Normandy Catering Inc. opened its doors, the company has been on a continuous hunt for new areas of business it can break into. Not satisfied with simply filling its 500-person banquet facility on Friday and Saturday nights, the food service company has been growing in niche areas.
Ryan Baker, general manager, and James Carmigiano, vice president, have been expanding Normandy Catering’s niche business in both catering and in food service management.
“Normandy is a family-owned business that started in 1978,” Carmigiano says. “We started doing school food service in 1984, and from there, we started in delivery business and expanded our food service into other schools and higher education.”
It has been the food service side of the business that has really taken off.
“The focus that has caused our growth has been in the food service area versus the catering,” Baker says. “We’ll actually run your kitchen, manage the employees that are there, and we’ll manage the procurement procedures with all of the vendors and produce the food.”
Normandy has seen a lot of growth in this area with schools in Northeast Ohio.
“We can run a public school kitchen by delivering food cheaper than they can actually manage and run their own kitchen with their own people and realize substantial savings while increasing the participation rate that the children are purchasing,” Baker says. “It’s been a win-win and there’s been a lot of growth and a tremendous amount of activity in that section of our business.”
Normandy has also been expanding its service to schools that don’t have kitchens.
“What we’re doing is we’re actually catering the food,” Baker says. “We cook every morning and we deliver breakfast. We set up and have equipment there to serve it. Our people serve it, we clean up and we come back here, load up again and we head out and do lunch. We’re doing a couple thousand a day in those types of meals and there’s been a lot of growth in that area for us.”
The growth Normandy has seen has been due to the effort to find new niche areas that others can’t compete in.
“We decided that there’s only so many Friday’s and Saturday’s in a year for us to load people into our facility and so we’ve gone out and went after this section of the business,” Baker says. “We’ve been here for a long time, but we’re a young, progressive, forward-thinking and hardworking company that really sees a strong future.”
HOW TO REACH: Normandy Catering Inc., (440) 585-5850 or www.normandycatering.com
Founded by Dan Hanlon in 1976 under the principles of hard work and dedication to doing a good job, Allen Keith Construction Co. has been continuing to expand and grow its business.
Lonnie Hanlon, Dan’s son, took over as CEO in early 2010, but he has worked at the restoration company since he was a little boy only 10 years old.
“I started out sweeping the floors of the warehouse,” Hanlon says.
He’s now putting all his experience, knowledge and the company’s good name into continuing to grow the 48-employee restoration company.
Smart Business spoke with Hanlon about how he looks to keep growing Allen Keith Construction Co.
What are the keys to being successful?
Basically, it’s just about working hard. If things aren’t going right and you want to be successful, you’ve got to get in here and you’ve got to put time in. It’s about getting out and seeing people and getting involved. You have to make sure you keep an eye on everything, whether it’s a specific construction project or the overall financials of the company. It’s going out and seeing our customers and talking to them and making sure we are doing a good job. You have to also know the trends of your industry. Knowing when your busy season is and being prepared for it is important.
How do you grow your company?
There’s so many different ways to grow. It’s helpful finding niche businesses that relate to ours. Finding a niche is important because it’s tough out there. It’s a tough economy. It’s hard to find places to grow. If you’re the only one that offers something, you can control the market for that and charge whatever you want. By getting into that same business it can cut down costs and turnaround time and allow you to provide better customer service.
We are expanding into southwest Florida. We saw a market in Florida where construction is completely different than construction up here. They move a lot slower, and things are not as professional as they should be. We thought if we could bring the professionalism of Allen Keith and the quality of work down to southwest Florida, then there would be a huge opportunity for our business to grow.
You’ve got to be resourceful in this kind of economic climate. I think 80 or 90 percent of why businesses fail off the bat or when they are trying to grow in new areas is because they have too much overhead. One of the most important things my dad has taught me was to keep your overhead low. We have a 36,000-square-foot facility [in Canton] and we didn’t go down [to Florida] and just go all in and build a huge place. We are starting small and are going to work our way up.
You have to take your time when making decisions about new markets. You have to research every aspect and get to know that market. You have to talk to a lot of people. Who are your customers? If you do decide to go to that market, take it slow. Keep your overhead low until there is a need for it. Obviously, once you are growing, you’ve got to add more people to get more production and get your sales up, but don’t go in guns blazing.
How important is it for a company to keep up with technology?
Technology is obviously a very important part of growth. If you don’t keep up with technology, you’ll die. You have to know your industry. You’ve got to have foresight and you’ve got to be able to see down the road — whether it’s doing research or just talking to people.
You have to also know your competition. Look at your competition and see what they do. Are they doing something that you should be doing? Are you losing business because they have a new technology that’s making everyone’s life easier and you’re not doing it?
What can prevent a company from growing?
You have to avoid being shortsighted and not being able to see what’s ahead of you. Whether you’re talking about your industry or you’re talking about your market or the economic climate, not having that vision can prevent growth. If you’re not able to see that someone is doing something that may revolutionize your industry and you’re not on it, the people that do that stuff first can take a lot of your business away from you.
HOW TO REACH: Allen Keith Construction Co., (330) 455-5451 or www.allenkeith.com
When Michael Fetsko lands a contract to build a train system, it’s not because he is the best salesman in the industry. He gets contracts because he has dedicated himself to driving industry-leading innovation that has helped build Bombardier Transportation’s reputation as one of the best rail transit manufacturers in the world. When Bombardier was awarded the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport job, it was the innovation of Bombardier Transportation and its Systems Division’s automated people mover train system that won them the job at one of the world’s busiest airports.
Bombardier’s Systems Division faces a tough competitive market for their products. Fetsko, vice president of the Americas regions for Bombardier Transportation’s Systems Division, is constantly focused on innovative ideas and ways to stay ahead and on top of his industry.
“Ideas are encouraged, and our company encourages the divisions to do exactly that, to develop the next idea, the next game changer,” Fetsko says. “That philosophy is instilled throughout the company, and I think it is one of the foundations to our success.”
Innovation is ingrained in the roots of Bombardier. Even when Bombardier was just a small snowmobile maker, innovation and entrepreneurship is what led them to where the company is today. The Systems Division saw annual revenue greater than $1.3 billion in 2009, just a slice of Bombardier Transportation’s total annual revenue of more than $10 billion that year.
Here’s how Fetsko’s continuous drive and dedication to leading innovation at Bombardier has helped establish it as an industry leader.
Due to Bombardier’s commitment to being the best at what they do, Fetsko and his team need to always have an ear to the ground about prospective projects. A commitment to excellence and their ability to create strong business relationships help get them in the door.
“When we find out about projects, in this type of business, you really can’t walk into a particular city at the last minute and say, ‘Hey, I’m here to bid on your project,’” Fetsko says. “Our strategic plans take us out five plus years. We are already looking at the cities where we think and know transportation systems will be built. And we are going in and meeting with the decision-makers, the customers, the politicians and really trying to secure our foothold in that particular location. What it comes down to is building the relationships with the right people and making sure the community sees you as a viable player.”
Companies in big industries and companies that face tough competition have to rely on their ability to offer strong products that come with the support of the company from multiple areas. Bombardier is often selected because of its ability to provide the best price and the best value for the customers’ money. Bombardier’s drive for innovation is also a key factor.
“Over the last two years, for us in the Systems Division, (innovation) has become a core part of our workload,” Fetsko says. “We have 100-plus people working on various forms of innovating our products and making them better. For us, it really comes down to trying to stay ahead of the competition. It also impacts cost savings. We are working on product development right now called energy storage. We are trying to push the envelope to try and make our systems faster, more cost-effective, more energy-efficient, more environmentally friendly, and it takes a team of people to do that.”
Innovation is not just a one-off thing. If a company doesn’t work hard and continue to innovate, then it is not an innovative company. Fetsko and the Systems Division work continuously to encourage and drive innovation. Finding ways to innovate and ways for employees to bring new ideas forward are keys to the company’s success.
“It really starts at the group level, the transportation group level, and it gets pushed down through all the divisions,” Fetsko says. “Bombardier has an innovation website where we encourage employees to submit their new ideas. Each idea gets reviewed by a committee and a team, and, of course, not all of them can get implemented but many of them do. They could be simple ideas on how we might be able to save more labor hours to do individual tasks, or they could be ideas on how to create the next big product breakthrough. It’s highly encouraged, and there are a number of mechanisms we have in place for employees to submit their ideas and creativity on how we could better the business.”
Ideas like an innovation website and innovation meetings are smart and fun ways to encourage employees to submit their ideas. Without these mediums for employees to speak what’s on their minds, innovative ideas can go to waste and will only hurt your company. Three years ago, Fetsko even created a full-time position for someone to head up their innovation efforts.
“You’ve got to encourage innovation,” Fetsko says. “Part of that is you have to have people who are dedicated to leading the effort. You can’t just talk about it and hope it’s going to happen. I think that’s one of the reasons that we have been successful. Companies may not want to do it, because it’s an overhead kind of position, but we have found that it more than pays for itself in a lot of the ideas we’ve already implemented and things that we’re doing to better the business and better the product. You’ve got to have a person or a small team of people that are responsible for it and committed to driving it throughout the business.”
At Bombardier, they also have quarterly meetings where the top-level executives from the company’s numerous locations gather for a two-day discussion that is strictly focused on innovation, product development and product improvement.
“You have to look at where you want to go and what you’re trying to strive for your business to achieve,” Fetsko says. “If you want to achieve big things, you’ve got to dream big things, as well. You’ve got to put time into it. You have to run your product improvements like you would a particular project. They all have budgets they have to meet, and they all have schedules they have to meet, and finally, you have to make sure you drive it to completion.
“When we say innovation here, it’s not necessarily the next big breakthrough on a train system. It could be things on how we could manage our business better. It can even be discussions on a particular task and whether we can do it with less people and still accomplish the same thing. Can we get it done on time with the same quality perhaps for a lesser amount of hours? That all translates to cost savings. Innovation relates back to us being able to offer customers a lower price for a product in the future. When we say innovation, it’s more than just product innovation, and that’s why it’s encouraged by everybody. If you have ideas on how to make the business more efficient or how we could improve the business, that’s how we make better products.”
Of course, with any new product or innovative idea, testing has to be done before that idea can be declared innovative and useful to the company and to its customers.
“Some customers are reluctant to be the guinea pig for some things that are new,” Fetsko says. “One thing that we do here very well within our division is our expertise to build a transportation system from the ground up. Integration, testing and commissioning are our core areas of our expertise. When we put something new into a project and the customer says, ‘Yes, I’ll take it,’ from our standpoint, it goes through a rigorous level of internal testing and external testing. We go through rigorous design reviews with our customers, so these types of ideas if they are new and get implemented, really go through a high level of scrutiny.
“Everything has to pass through our safety group as part of our governance. They are the ones that have to give the final blessing that a system is safe to carry passengers. Anything that gets implemented that’s brand new or might get integrated into a system goes through that sequence of testing and conditioning, so both the customer and Bombardier are confident it’s going to work.”
Bombardier uses test tracks to make sure its products are up to the company’s high standards and are tested a second time once the product gets shipped to a customer.
When innovation plays a big part in your company, it is often very difficult for only one person to overlook the entire operation. Fetsko says that he encourages and expects his employees to know how to do their jobs and to be independent enough to make their own decisions.
“My philosophy is to allow for accountability for running your part of the business,” Fetsko says. “I’m not going to step in and tell people what they’re supposed to do on a daily basis and how they’re supposed to go about it. We have levels of governance and reviews that are put in place so that we can review what is going on in every part of the business. The people here are empowered and are expected to run their part of the business. My style is not to micromanage at all, but I will routinely walk around the building and interact with the employees. To them, it really shows a sense of caring and says, ‘Hey, here’s the guy that’s running the business, but he spends a lot of time with the employees.’ Not necessarily telling them what to do — I don’t do that — but rather asking them how I can help and asking them how things are going and really telling them and showing them your appreciation for what they accomplish for us every day.”
Establishing a culture where employees know that they are empowered to do their jobs is critical for a corporate environment that is innovative.
“The one thing you have to focus on is to set up a structure so that people feel empowered to do their work,” Fetsko says. “You have to make sure those parts of your business and leaders of those areas can handle the work and that they’re not too overburdened with trying to manage too much. You verbally and physically have to tell people what you expect from them.
“I’ve got monthly meetings with all the folks on my team. They are very short meetings, face to face, not through e-mail and not through the phone, to really interact on that basis is very important. If they come to me with a problem, I want them to come to me with three solutions or more, as well. I try to tell them, ‘Don’t expect me to solve all your problems.’ You’ll always have the folks that come in and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a problem, what do you want me to do?’ My response to them is, ‘What do you think we should do?’ Certainly, I could give them my opinion, but I really try to encourage our folks and help them find solutions to their own problems. It comes down to empowering people and telling them that it’s theirs to do, it’s theirs to run. It raises a level of passion and it all translates to results.”
How to reach: Bombardier Transportation, (412) 655-5700 or www.us.bombardier.com
The Fetsko file
vice president, Americas regions
Bombardier Transportation, Systems Division
Education: Bachelor of arts degree and a master of science degree both in environmental sciences, from the University of Virginia; master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering from the University of Pittsburgh
What was your first job out of college, and what did you learn from it?
My first job out of college was working for a company called Ensr, and I worked as a geologist. They were an environmental engineering consulting firm. What I learned was how important it is for projects to meet their deadlines and their goals. I also got a lot of chances to travel and meet with customers.
What is the best piece of business advice you’ve received?
The best advice is the importance of relationships and developing relationships in your business, both with internal customers and external customers, and having that face time with them. People really appreciate that level of interaction versus conversing through phone or e-mail.
If you could choose one person, past or present, to have a conversation with, whom would you speak to and why?
Going back to my athletic days of playing football for the University of Virginia, one person I would really like to have a conversation with would be Lou Holtz. I have read some of his books and I am a fan of his style of leadership and what he has been able to accomplish as a football coach and what he has been able to accomplish with people who have played for him and passing on the values he’s lived by.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be and why?
If I could have a crystal ball and I could see into the future of what’s going to happen, that would probably help, as far as being able to make the right decisions and growing the business.
Shawn McGorry survived the days of the Wild West-like dot-com boom when employees enjoyed free Mountain Dew, foosball tables in every office and nonexistent dress codes.
So when he was charged with incorporating the cultures of the dot-com boom and a more serious corporation at Expedient Communications, he knew just how to handle it.
“The role in that kind of transition, especially a traumatic transition, is to be a very competent and thick-skinned man in the middle,” says McGorry, president and COO. “I spend a lot of time assuring, comforting and explaining to the management group and the employees of Expedient that things are different and there’s a reason.”
Expedient Communications, a network of data centers and a provider of managed services, has successfully steered through acquisitions while continuing to thrive. With 150 employees and annual revenue just shy of $100 million, Expedient offers a culture that most companies can’t.
Smart Business spoke to McGorry about how he successfully united different company cultures with compromise and communication.
Be honest. I try to have a very open and honest culture in the organization and make sure that not only the managers that oversee the different departments and functional groups but also the employees themselves feel empowered, feel engaged and understand what accomplishing their objectives means to the growth and success of the overall organization.
We have a longstanding practice of having open, all-employee meetings every quarter. We’ll have a luncheon and spend half a day sharing with all of our employees our successes, our shortcomings, our challenges, down to the financial numbers and sales numbers. We open up the kimono and let everybody in the company feel like they’re privy to everything that’s going on, good and bad.
Don’t be afraid to discuss and address company business or concerns directly, factually and confront any rumor mill that might be purveying or brewing that may not exist. Honestly address any concerns or any information that might be out there, whether it’s factual or false. If it’s factual, even if it’s concerning your bad news, acknowledge it and outline what you and the management team are going to do about it and take it on as a challenge. If it’s false, acknowledge that you’re aware of it and explain the reasons why it’s not true. Present data that demonstrates why that’s not the case.
Be available. I’m more often than not disappointed when I hear employees say, ‘Well, they were afraid to come to you or they’re a little nervous about coming to you, or what do you expect, you’re the president, they’re not going to come to you.’ That makes the challenge a little stiffer because there is a cultural protocol that is built in to our society that has these walls that get more impenetrable as you move up the management title chain.
I’ve done a lot to soften those walls and knock them down where I can. You have to keep your door open. Be very visible. Get to know everyone’s names that you could possibly get to know. It’s important that you have at least a congenial, friendly, nonassuming relationship with every employee you encounter. Periodically invite yourself to lunch with some of the lunch groups that inevitably form in every organization. Take the time to spend five minutes to exchange pleasantries, whether it’s asking an employee how vacation was or how their kids are doing or just discussing sports events.
Compromise. You have to manage the cultural clash from both ends and ask both sides to make compromises. It didn’t work in all cases. Some people didn’t survive. We have had employee turnover where the employee said, ‘Forget this; it’s not worth it to me. I’d rather go work somewhere where I could do what I want.’ People feel like if they can go work for a more liberal company, they can have more freedom and that’s what they want.
You have to look at all of the things that go with the work experience and look at them in a big basket. That is really your compensation. It just doesn’t include the paycheck in that basket, it includes benefits, it includes the work experience, it includes the opportunity, it includes some of those freedoms, it includes the people you work with, the friendships you have at work and travel time to and from work. You compare what’s in that basket to what’s in the basket somewhere else. I think we have a pretty doggone good basket.
How to reach: Expedient Communications, www.expedient.com
Armed with the knowledge of a financial analyst, Charles Chanaratsopon knows what makes a successful business and how to manage that success. In 2004, he took that knowledge and applied it to an advantageous investment market and founded Charming Charlie, a women’s boutique and accessories store.
“I saw an opportunity, not only in an operating store but also in the realty business,” says Chanaratsopon, founder and CEO. “The capital or investment market was very frothy. So you could quickly develop shopping centers on leverage and build quickly.”
Deciding to break into the market for women’s accessories, Chanaratsopon saw an opportunity for big growth with little competition, and his plan has worked. Since 2008, Charming Charlie has been opening new stores at a furious pace, and today, it is one of the fastest-growing private companies in the country.
“The operating business had a lot of demand,” Chanaratsopon says. “A lot of customers were coming in and buying product from us. We had lines outside every day before the stores opened. People just loved the product. I wanted to figure out a way to grow even faster.”
For the last six years, that’s exactly what he has gone out and accomplished. He knew that with the right mix of employees, strategy and innovation, Charming Charlie could be big.
“From the very beginning, when we had three stores, I always thought we had the potential to be all over the country,” he says. “People always talked about how I had big aspirations and thought I was crazy, when at three stores, I thought we could be all over the country. Now we are all over the country, and I think we could be all over the globe.”
Listen to the consumer
Chanaratsopon saw an opening in the market for women’s accessories, due to a lack of stores that strictly focused on accessory needs instead of clothing. Only large department stores offered those products to women.
“Once we saw what the market looked like, we knew we had an opportunity to create a specialty store around it,” Chanaratsopon says. “We saw it as an opportunity that we could exploit, so we did.”
As Charming Charlie took off in the Houston area, Chanaratsopon knew he could grow the business quickly if he continued to offer what customers were looking for and wanted to see in the store.
“That thesis worked out and held very well for the first two or three years,” Chanaratsopon says. “As we opened stores, stores were very busy and business picked up. We went out and built another center and then another center and went out and did it again and again. As we focused on listening to the customer and building our team out, that was basically the steps for our success.
“The key thing is, you need to listen to your customers before you break into a market,” he says. “You can’t really go until you do a market feasibility or market study about what they need. Does it make sense for Charming Charlie to come; do they like the concept? We always explore to see what opportunities are out there before we do a big push. We test the different markets to see if the concept will work. Our concept is very portable, so we are able to now move quickly through the different markets.”
It’s all about making sure there is a net demand for what you sell, before you go out and start something.
“I think that is just moral hazard,” he says. “Whatever you plan, plan on not meeting it. Have a worst-case, base-case and an upside-case plan, because most of the time, it’s very unpredictable in the beginning. You have to mitigate the downside and make sure that you have contingency plans if things don’t go well in the beginning, because capital will be a constraint.
“In our first year or two as we solidified our playbook, we had a lot of key takeaways in ‘learnings’ and mistakes. So before we could go out and do a cookie-cutter approach, it took us a few years to make sure we had the right recipe for success.”
Everything starts and ends with the customer.
“My best advice is to go out and learn the customers, and make sure there is a need before you go out and build anything,” he says. “You survey your current customers and your noncustomers, and you ask them questions about what you can do better to improve. At the end of the day, our boss is the ultimate shopper. We just listen — that’s what we do. I don’t mean to make it sound so simple, but it is. We listen to what they need, and we do it, often. We spend a lot of money listening to their needs, and we try to give them what they want.
“We are not a tech company or a research group. We sell on experience and what we do is listen to our customer and make sure we deliver the best that we can, and that’s our mantra.”
Innovate and adapt
Growth in any industry naturally causes issues that must be overcome. The higher the rate of growth, the quicker a company has to adapt to that growth in order to succeed.
“You’re running at red line all the time,” Chanaratsopon says. “What I mean is when your car is running at 6,000 rpm, to get everybody used to running at that speed and understand what you’re doing is challenging. Not many companies grow this quickly, and that’s evidence that shows the percentage of retailers that can actually go out and do what we’re doing [is small].”
Charming Charlie has seen revenue grow from $9.2 million in 2006 to $51.9 million in 2009, a three-year growth rate of 463 percent. Chanaratsopon expects 2010 revenue to be around $140 million, and he realizes just how special his success has been.
“The odds are against you,” he says. “Five percent of businesses make it, and 5 percent of businesses only make it to $5 million. A very low percentage of businesses make it to a critical mass. So it’s very challenging to move at the current pace we are doing. It’s also very hard to change the mindset of your team when you’re managing three stores to now managing 100 stores. Your management team has to be open to change. When you don’t innovate and adapt to the business, I view it as binary. Either you innovate and you win, or you lose. There’s no common ground these days.”
In today’s economy, innovation and adaptation are very important to a company’s success. Chanaratsopon pointed to the examples of Linens ‘N Things and Circuit City, both of which went out of business within the last few years.
“That’s one of the great things about American capitalism,” he says. “You’ve got to be very sharp and very on, or there’s no room for you. You have to have the mindset to implement your information technology ahead of time and to plan for that is very challenging.
“You need an ability to split up what’s needed during your day-to-day part of the business. You also need to be cognizant of planning for the future and future roadblocks. You need to be able to set up radar or a systematic view for upcoming issues and be ahead of the curve. Have a cognizant view of how you spend your time between your short- and long-term strategy. Depending on what your long-term strategy is, set a blueprint to that plan and measure yourself constantly so you hold yourself accountable to your own business and personal plan.”
Hire smart, build smart
Since the founding of Charming Charlie in 2004, the company has grown to roughly 3,600 employees and has stores in 23 states. Continued success and the ability to keep opening stores in new markets, takes hiring more employees — and good ones at that. Chanaratsopon says the hardest part about getting the business up and running was finding the right people.
“This is a people business,” he says. “It’s hard finding the right team members to help you facilitate growth. There are a few things that are very challenging. No. 1 is finding the right people to help build a team. Whatever you do, be creative in the way you find people.
“We have gone through different people in the organization, and most businesses are team businesses, and without the right team, you can’t do it. You should overhire. If you think you have conviction in that your product or business will succeed, go out and get the best people that you can. Don’t be cheap on it.”
Start by focusing on attitude.
“You need to have people with good attitudes, specifically in a growing business. Attitude is half the battle. You also want people who have the same set of core values. A lot of people undermine that. When you have a small business that’s growing, you have to do many different things that you’re not accustomed to coming from a big retailer. People have to be able to adapt, and hiring on ability alone is not enough.
“My focus is trying to hire experts that are smarter than me in their specific function. I try to find people who are passionate about what they do and the business. I try to just give them the tools and support to help grow the business.”
A fast growth rate and an equally fast hire rate caused Chanaratsopon to adapt once more and create ways for his team to focus on common goals and visions.
“As you get more people, there’s a lot more people to build, as we call it, an ACA model with,” Chanaratsopon says. “That’s alignment, commitment and accountability. What we try to do now to achieve one goal is to find a team dynamic.”
In order to get his management team all on the same path and chasing after the same goal, Charming Charlie holds weekly one-on-one meetings and they build a company goal.
“That’s our road map to success or our blueprint to our business,” Chanaratsopon says. “That gets us all aligned and committed to the business, and we build accountability by having published goals that we need to achieve. It’s during these types of meetings that you need to follow up on your company goals. You need to make sure that people are executing to your goal. If I said, ‘Hey, I want to meet you in Florida.’ I’m sure you’ll get there. But if I said, ‘Hey, I want to meet you in Florida, and here’s a map.’ I’m sure you’ll get there faster. You need to have something mapped out. It may not be a perfect map, but you can change it along the way.”
One way that Chanaratsopon maps out his company’s future is by hiring ahead of time in order to acclimate new employees to the company and the goals it has set moving forward.
“Growth is challenging, but we weather through it by planning ahead,” Chanaratsopon says. “I invest in the future knowing that we are going to grow. I try to put our team players on early so that we can jell before we grow fast. A lot of people talk about what’s your capital budget plan. I talk about what’s my human capital budget plan. I need all these different team members to do this if we are going to open another 100 stores next year. I’m going to hire the overhead or infrastructure today, so we don’t have to do it last minute.”
Chanaratsopon emphasized that having fun and recognizing when employees do a good job are valuable aspects of creating a good rapport within your team. It also helps company culture to provide employees with ways to give feedback.
“Have a good feedback system,” Chanaratsopon says. “Your company is your customer. You want to survey about how your management team is doing. The same way you listen to customers, listen to employees.”
How to reach: Charming Charlie, (713) 579-1936 or www.charmingcharlie.com
The Chanaratsopon file
founder and CEO
Born: Houston, Texas
Education: I attended Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and received my MBA from Columbia University in New York City.
What was your first job out of college, and what did you learn from it?
I was a financial analyst at a bank, and I learned how to access money, how to put capital together, and how to understand a balance sheet and the ins and outs of financing businesses. I also learned about what makes a business work and what makes a business fail and the different metrics and how to measure against it.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be and why?
I wish I could fly. I always had dreams of flying as a kid. It felt pretty real in my dreams, so it would be pretty interesting to be able to fly around like Iron Man or Superman.
If you could invite any three people you wanted, living or not, to a dinner party, whom would you invite?
Rodger Federer, Warren Buffett and Barack Obama. I would be curious about how they think.