Patrick Mayock

Wednesday, 26 December 2007 19:00

Power 100

Last year, we made the bold assertion that 2006 would be “the year of the shake up.” Then 2007 came along and we were left shaking our heads wondering how we could have been so naive. Over the past 12 months, several big-name Columbus area leaders made headlines.

In January, Robert Werth retired from Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP. The following month, Mark Barbash left the comfy confines of the Columbus Department of Development for a more high-pressured economic development position with the state of Ohio. Then, just a few months later, Karen Holbrook retired from The Ohio State University and moved to Florida.

The seismic shifts continued in August as Leonard Schlesinger, Limited Brands’ No. 2 man, suddenly quit his job. And they culminated in October when Larry Hilsheimer traded his Deloitte & Touche-embroidered polo shirt for a Nationwide one.

All in all, dozens of regional leaders moved up and down the list. Some experienced gradual increases or minor declines; others made great leaps or took less graceful falls. And 10 people who appeared on the 2007 Power 100 list were replaced with 10 newcomers, led by E. Gordon Gee, who returned to the OSU president’s office after stops at Vanderbilt and Brown universities.

Here then, is the 2008 Power 100 list of the most influential business, civic and political leaders in Central Ohio as ranked by our editors.

— Additional research by Kaitlin Laubscher

Power 100: 1-25

Power 100: 26-50

Power 100: 51-75

Power 100: 76-100 

Thursday, 27 December 2007 19:00

Mikel Williams

He may have avoided rush-hour traffic, but Mikel Williams still had one hell of a commute. For his first six months as president and CEO of DDi Corp., the reluctant jet-setter made the round-trip flight from Washington, D.C., to Orange County every week so his children could finish the remainder of the school year back east. The arrangement was admittedly hard on his family, but it proved beneficial to DDi, the once-struggling circuit board manufacturer. Isolated in an unfamiliar locale, Williams completely immersed himself in the business, uniting 1,300 employees spread across six locations and ushering in a successful corporate turnaround capped by 2006 revenue of $198 million. Smart Business spoke with Williams about communication, the definition of insanity and how to dig up buried resisters.

Create a flat communication structure. Everybody should be open and communicative and transparent.

We have everybody across the plants engaged in a constructive manner with one another.

For example, on Wednesdays at 1 o’clock, all the factory GMs get together for that hour call. Another time, once a week, it’s all the engineering managers across the company. Another time, once a week, it’s the HR people.

We need to be working together and talking and sharing best practices. If (employees) have a good experience on the manufacturing floor with a new process, they’re expected to share it with their fellow plant managers so the other guy doesn’t reinvent the wheel.

Information should flow freely. There’s a lot of people who believe in the mushroom theory, where you keep (employees) in the dark and the strong survive.

I think just the opposite. If employees are left in the dark and not communicated to regularly, and they don’t feel like they know what’s going on with their company, then they fear the worst.

That’s particularly true if you’re in a business that’s underperforming. People fear that what they don’t know is bad news.

One of the benefits of a flat and transparent organization is you eliminate unnecessary fear and anxiety, and that allows (employees) to focus on the things they should be thinking about and worrying about

Challenge conventional thinking. The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

I encourage these guys to get out of their shell and do something, think of something new and different that’s going to enable us to take our business to the next level.

We filed for two patents this year. One patent came from our R&D group. ... The other patent came from a guy in our factory who was struggling with a problem, challenged conventional thinking and has come up with something that we believe may be fairly revolutionary in our industry.

He’s encouraged and actually responsible for thinking of these kinds of things. In the past, he was never encouraged to do that but rather just told to do the same thing over and over again.

It’s great to see something pop out of the woodwork like that from somebody who I didn’t expect it. Stuff like that starts to happen when you empower the employees. Get them understanding what you’re trying to do at a higher level and then give them authority for the decisions they can make.

Dig up the buried resisters. The first thing you have to do is communicate what you are trying to get done so (employees) have an understanding of what the expectations are.

The second thing is, you have to have some performance metrics out there. We have literally a page of metrics that we review every week as a group with all of our factories.

By looking at those metrics and breaking it down, you go after the root causes of the problems and fix it.

Through diligently pursuing that, you find if it’s a process problem or a people problem. If it’s a people problem, you’ve got to talk to them about it. If you can’t get performance up and you work like hell to coach them and to help the people get better, at the end of the day, you’ve got to ask them to move on. It’s the only thing that’s healthy for the company and healthy for the individual.

It’s my obligation to the rest of the employees to find out what I call the ‘buried resisters,’ the guys who just sit there and shake their head, ‘yes, yes, yes,’ and then don’t go and embrace the concepts that we’re talking about.

It tells everybody else that’s around there that you’re serious and that you’re willing to make the tough decisions to make the changes necessary to achieve the results that you’re trying to accomplish.

A lot of times people will say, ‘Ah, that’s just a bunch of words.’ Fundamentally, they won’t really move until they see that, ‘Hey, the guy’s putting new people out there, and either I need to get on board and participate, or I’m at risk for being asked to move on.’

Mind the language barrier. In some factories, we have a lot of employees where English may not be their primary language. As we communicate, that always makes it more difficult.

You need to talk deliberately and slowly and simply in terms of the tactics, and not try to overcommunicate or make it too complex.

There’s a lot of terminology that we routinely take for granted at the corporate level that the factory guys wouldn’t have a clue what we’re talking about. Make sure that the terminology is consistent with their understanding.

You always need to think of the basic rule of communication: Think of what you’re saying in the context of how it’s being received by the audience.

Assume that they’ve almost never heard it before. You don’t learn something necessarily because somebody told it to you once. When you’re just out there talking about esoteric things like strategy and vision and where we’re taking the company and why we want to go into this vertical market with greater measure than others, you have to be repetitive.

You have to take every opportunity to just kind of reinforce it because, otherwise, you forget that these people don’t hear it that often and, as a result, they go focus on things they deal with every day.

HOW TO REACH: DDi Corp., (714) 688-7200 or

Sunday, 25 November 2007 19:00

Jim Riesenbach

Jim Riesenbach doesn’t mind a little conflict. In fact, he even encourages it now and again. When managed in a controlled manner, conflict gives rise to the competing points of view and dialogue that can fuel performance, Riesenbach says. Before he came on as president and CEO of Autobytel Inc. in March 2006, the company was running on empty in this regard. The vehicle purchasing and ownership Web service was spread too thin, offering too many services without doing any one thing particularly well. The company posted 2006 revenue of $111.1 million, and although that was down from the previous two years, Riesenbach is turning that around by opening the lines of communications and channeling a uniformed focus among his 329 employees. Smart Business spoke with Riesenbach about how he makes decisions, the Socratic approach and how to share your vision over brown-bag lunches.

Create opportunities to communicate. You want to encourage an environment where people feel free and open to express their points of view.

I have twice-a-week, 8 a.m. operating meetings with my (leadership team), and we talk about all of the critical issues going on. We put the key decisions that need to be made, put time frames around those to be sure that we’re staying on course and not slipping.

Every six weeks, myself and the leadership team spend one day off-site and take a look more broadly at the one-year-and-beyond horizon. Knowing the end in mind in where we want to be, are we making the right decisions and executing to get us there?

Two times a quarter, we have company-wide meetings — an opportunity to communicate with everybody and have very open question-and-answer opportunities.

It’s also important for me to get out and talk to people. We have a little over 300 employees here, and what I’ve done is start something I call brown-bag lunches.

I get about 15 people around the room and have a very open and frank dialogue about what’s on their minds. What’s working? What’s not working? When they listen to my vision and the strategy for the company, where are they seeing that we are doing well, and where are they seeing disconnects?

Even for the people that are not participating in those kinds of meetings, the word gets out that we have that kind of open environment and that I’m actually seeking that kind of feedback.

Take a Socratic approach. Have an environment where people respect the various points of view.

I’ve never been the type of manager that tries to avoid conflict. I actually think that managed conflict is a positive thing. The nature of running a company means that you’re going to have people that have varying points of view.

What you need to do is make sure you’re encouraging that conflict in a very managed way, where people can present competing points of view and have that open dialogue.

You need to do it based on the facts. It’s important that the Socratic approach is accompanied by the data and the facts that help you to make that intelligent decision.

When someone has an opinion, show me the facts that support that opinion. That’s always part of any dialogue that we have. Show me the history, show me where we are today, and show me how we believe that plays into the decisions we’re making for the future.

There are some individuals that come into places with a very authoritative style. Almost inevitably, they get caught in some bad decisions that they probably wouldn’t have made if they had taken the time to look at the overall marketplace and get that broader feedback.

It’s absolutely impossible for any individual to be aware of and in touch with everything that’s going on, no matter how astute they are and how much they try. There’s just too much information.

At the end of the day, somebody needs to make a decision. As they say, the buck stops here. But at the same time, I want everyone to feel that their point of view was heard before I finally make that decision.

Don’t delay decisions. You need to maintain a sense of urgency and quick ability to make decisions.

I’ve had to get comfortable over my career with having imperfect or incomplete data.

It’s basically more driven by the time frame that decisions need to be made. The way I’ve approached it is to say, ‘I’ll make that decision in the time frame I need to with the best information that’s available to me.’

Decisions need to be made in a very, very quick time frame. There’s no room for delaying a month a decision that could be made today.

Show how the pieces fit in the puzzle. Every employee, from top to the bottom of the organization, has to have an understanding of how what they do fits in to the total vision.

Have a set of clear and cascading goals that start from the corporate goals. Then be able to demonstrate how those goals cascade to my next line of leaders’ goals and straight on through the entire organization.

[It] allows each individual to be in the position to say, ‘OK, here are the things that I do that will impact my supervisor’s or manager’s goals, which impacts my division’s goals, which impacts the company’s goals.’

Repeat the vision. It’s also important to continue to stress the vision and where we are. Look at it in the broader context.

Every employee meeting, I open up with a reiteration of our vision and a reiteration of our broad, longer-term trajectory. We’ve laid this out in terms of a three-year trajectory to get the company on a path to long-term profitability and sustained growth.

So I basically make sure that people understand the context of where we are, so that if we hit a bump along the way, which every company inevitably will do at some point, people don’t lose the forest for the trees.

HOW TO REACH: Autobytel Inc., or (949) 225-4500

Sunday, 25 November 2007 19:00

A career of service

“No man is an island, entire of itself.”

Since John Donne dropped that philosophical bombshell in 1623, everyone from Thomas Merton to Earnest Hemingway has shared an interpretation. The thread tying each is simple: We are all intrinsically connected, insomuch as the fate of another is tied to your own. It is how we live with that understanding where those interpretations deviate. Today, Sam Miller applies his own interpretation of Donne’s musing as the co-chairman of the board and treasurer at Forest City Enterprises Inc.

“No company is ever an island unto itself,” he says, adding that the success of a business is intrinsically tied to the well-being of those who surround it.

The surrounding parties of which he speaks are not Forest City’s shareholders, vendors or employees. While those groups are as important to the success of the business as any, he is instead speaking of the greater community at large.

Since joining the real estate firm in 1947, Miller’s involvement with that populace has been extensive. He serves on the board of trustees of countless organizations, including TV station WVIZ, Urban League, Baldwin-Wallace College, Crime Stoppers, Police Memorial, Medical Mutual of Ohio, Cleveland State University, the Jewish National Fund and the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland.

If those last two entries seem slightly incongruous, further confusion might arise when considering the following: Miller is both a nationally recognized leader in the Jewish community and also one of the largest non-Catholic supporters of Catholic education in the country.

Such involvement is not intended to test the boundaries of religious affiliation. Miller says that service should extend to all people. No man or company is an island surrounded by a sea of constraining beliefs. If we are all truly connected, as Donne suggested, then service should extend past personal ideology.

Miller also promotes involvement in as many different areas as one can positively contribute to.

“Different elements of the population require different things,” he says.

Focusing solely on a pet cause denies service to a number of equally needy areas.

To emphasize this point, he uses the following example: If a corporation came into a community with a fledgling economy, tax base and school system, it would be ill-advised for that company to devote its services to the local museums or orchestra house. Without first contributing to those base necessities, there would be no one to attend such attractions in the first place.

Miller says when choosing where to get involved, you must first examine the overall climate of the community. Examine what areas need the most help and make your contributions accordingly.

At the same time, you must also take into consideration whether or not to publicize your company’s participation in that service. Community involvement is a surefire way to garner favor from the public. Every executive knows as much. Still, public perception should not be the driving force of service.

“Just to be on a path to self-glorification is wrong,” Miller says. When asked how to decide whether or not to publicize involvement, he suggests to only do so “when it gives credence to the institution that you’re helping.”

In other words, practice selflessness. Community service is intended to do just that — provide service to the community. If it was meant to serve the company, the practice would undoubtedly have a different moniker.

That’s not to say that it doesn’t, or shouldn’t, provide some benefit to the company. Miller is very clear in this regard: “It makes you feel good,” he says.

In addition, community service is a great way to boost morale and contribute to the overall culture of your workplace environment. Again, nearly every executive knows as much. What many might not know is where to draw the line on company involvement.

Miller says that you should never require service from your employees. Forcing them to become active in the community defeats the purpose of voluntary involvement. If a team member chooses to partake, then his or her positive experiences will most certainly lead to greater participation from his or her peers.

That’s the case at Forest City, anyway. Given this positive snowball effect among his employees, Miller rarely initiates such projects on his own anymore. After doing so for 60 years, “Employees get me involved,” he says with a chuckle.

HOW TO REACH: Forest City Enterprises, (216) 621-6060 or

Friday, 26 October 2007 20:00

Dennis Lee

Accountability. Success. When approached individually, these principles can elude even the savviest of executives. But try to achieve both simultaneously and that’s when things can get really difficult, Dennis Lee says. As president and CEO of Methodist Hospital of Southern California, his most difficult challenge isn’t overseeing the day-to-day operations of the facility, which had net operating revenue of $207.4 million in 2006, but it’s demanding honest accountability from his 2,050 employees in a way that doesn’t discourage them from aspiring to succeed. Smart Business spoke with Lee about how to earn power, gain trust and ask the direct questions that alleviate stress.

Manage with accountability. You have to know what your goals are, and you have to have some way of tracking your progress on achieving those goals. One of the ways you can do that is by having regular meetings.

Our executive team meets quarterly and reviews the goals of the organization. Each goal has a member of the executive team assigned to accomplish that. If you haven’t made progress on your goal, you’re going to be a little embarrassed in front of the rest of the members on the executive team that you haven’t made progress.

I have my one-on-one meetings with my executive team. Their goals are a standing part of the agenda for every meeting. Just asking the question, ‘How are you doing on each of these goals?’ — that’s the way you hold people accountable.

Once somebody agrees to accept a particular goal, give them the freedom to achieve that goal however they want to do it. The only time you intervene is when they’re doing something that you know is going to be problematic to the organization or them in some fashion.

There are lots of different ways you can accomplish a single goal, and my way isn’t always the only way or the best way. If you let people decide for themselves, then A, they’ll be successful, and B, they’ll feel empowered that they can do it the way they want to do it.

Help others be successful. With respect to your direct reports, you always establish goals at some point and make those goals a regular part of your one-on-one meetings. Ask direct questions about how they’re doing in accomplishing their goals. It’s really just asking the question, ‘What can I do to help you?’

A lot of employees, just because of your title, are going to be reluctant to share bad news with you. If you make yourself accessible to employees, eventually some of that fear will be overcome, and then employees will be open with you.

It takes an ongoing commitment to be approachable and accessible to employees. That’s the only way you’re going to make them feel comfortable that they can share problems with you.

When an employee does bring a problem to your attention, you have to follow through. You have to eventually get back to that employee and say, ‘When I talked to you a couple weeks ago, you brought up this problem. Here’s what I’ve done about it.’ That’s absolutely key.

‘What can I do to help?’ — that direct question is the only way you’re going to know what you can do to help other people be successful. It rubs off on people. It helps them be friendly to patients and their families, visitors and the community at large. They don’t come to work with a lot of fear, and they’re better able to approach their job with a happy spirit.

Lead with integrity. Tell the truth, and tell it completely. When you can’t tell the whole truth, tell people, ‘There are certain parts of this issue that I can’t share with you,’ and tell them why.

It’s telling the truth 100 percent of the time and over time. You can’t fail on that. It’s the only way to build trust.

It’s important to everyone within the organization. It’s important that they trust, that they’ll know what’s going on all the time, and they’ll know the truth whether it’s good or bad. People will respect you more, even when it’s bad news, if you tell the truth.

Make communication a priority. We hold regular open forums where employees are invited to come and meet with members of the executive team to hear what’s going on in the organization and to ask questions.

We have regular management and department director meetings where we communicate to them so that they, in turn, can communicate to their employees at their departmental meetings.

There’s an open invitation to everyone in management if they would like me to come to their department meetings to address a particular issue or just communicate what’s going on.

You have to be on the lookout for signs of stress, and then have the courage to ask direct questions to get an understanding of what’s causing that stress. For example, when I go to the nursing unit, I’ll look up at the assignment board. If it’s full, I will ask, ‘How’s your staffing today? Are you having any problems?’

You have to just be sensitive to signs of stress, and then ask direct questions to understand what the sign of stress is. Then have the courage to say, ‘Is there anything I can do to help you?’

It’s the fact that you asked the question and you offered to help that is the greatest benefit.

Use your power appropriately. (Executives) should never use their title or position in the organization to browbeat employees into doing something.

You have to be approachable. Just because you have the title of vice president or department director doesn’t mean that you should isolate yourself in your office. You should be out, and you should be visible.

It’s only through how you perform in the organization — that’s how power is really given to you. It’s not through your title or where you sit on the organizational chart.

Basically, do you follow those leadership principles? It’s only if you do that well do people give you the power that you need to carry out your responsibilities in the organization.

HOW TO REACH: Methodist Hospital of Southern California, (626) 898-8973 or

Thursday, 04 October 2007 20:00

Supplying the demand

Pick up any book on the fundamentals of business, and the

notion of supply and demand will invariably be in one of the first

few chapters.

Yet, how often do suppliers actually meet the increasing

demands of clients?

At PartsSource LLC, A. Ray Dalton aims for always. The president and CEO of the hospital replacement part supplier strives to

create a client-supplier relationship where, as the company motto

states, “The answer is yes!”

To make good on that claim, Dalton and his team have created

an alliance of suppliers to ensure parts support all 2,500 separate

makes, models and modalities of hospital equipment. Aptly

dubbed the National PartsSource Alliance, this vendor-partner network allows the company to meet customer demands even when

parts are unavailable in-house.

In such scenarios, PartsSource contacts one of 6,500 vendors on

the open market to secure the best pricing options for customers.

The company then contacts the customer within two hours to

relay product and pricing information.

To help clients order and manage their parts purchases more efficiently, Dalton also oversaw the introduction of the Web-based


In the past, customers had to call suppliers, place an order and

wait for a call back regarding availability and pricing. Now, they

need only visit the online site to gather all the necessary information almost instantaneously. In addition, the site allows clients to

place and manage orders from suppliers other than PartsSource.

While the system provides obvious benefits to customers, it has

certainly paid off for PartsSource, as well. The company has significantly increased its revenue stream with four major hospital

groups since its introduction — a 236 percent increase from 2005 to

2006 — and projects a 214 percent increase in 2007.

This revenue increase pales in comparison to the company’s overall performance. During the past five years, PartsSource experienced

a 1,036 percent increase in total revenue, just over $37 million. In that

same period, it has added 96 jobs to the local economy in Summit

County, a 685 percent increase since 2002.

With plans to double its existing work force over the next 18

months, PartsSource shows no signs of slowing down. As long as

Dalton consistently offers the supply, the demand, invariably,

should follow.

HOW TO REACH: PartsSource, LLC, (330) 562-9900 or

Sunday, 26 October 2008 20:00

Going all the way

Julia Huang was getting frustrated.

The CEO of interTrend Communications Inc. was eager to introduce her company to a new client, but she had to do so over and over again because her contact person changed several times over the course of a year. That’s when she realized she needed to establish multiple contacts within the company, so that when one changed, she could still move forward.

Today, this multilevel communication strategy has become the bedrock of the way Huang does business, pushing interTrend — which helps companies target Asian-American audiences — to 2007 revenue of more than $12 million.

Smart Business spoke with Huang about staying in touch with clients consistently, without becoming a pest.

Q. How do you effectively maintain communication with clients?

Phone calls and e-mails are essential, but nothing beats face to face. People just tend to bond when you have face to face.

Clients don’t want to be burdened with the responsibility of having you fly to New York from Seattle, so that very casual call — saying, ‘We are in New York for another business; would you have time for coffee?’ — helps a lot. Most clients will have that 10 or 15 minutes to allow for face to face.

On phones and e-mails, you don’t talk about things that might be offline. When you’re on e-mail, when you’re on the telephone, if you talk about those things ... it just sounds so nebulous. But when you’re face to face, and when you just kind of mention it, you see their face lighten up and you know you’ve made that connection.

Next time you communicate with them on e-mails and telephones, the dynamics really change.

Q. Once you’ve made a connection, how do maintain it?

You have to continue that frequent, systematic communication with a potential client. But there’s that fine line between establishing frequent communication and being a pest.

I appreciate people that conscientiously continue to be in touch with me, even though there is no business immediately. I think we’re lacking a lot of that. You can’t think that the person will make a business decision right there and then.

It’s such an instant gratification process, new business development, that you think, ‘Oh, there is no money to be made in the next five minutes; this is cold,’ but it’s not.

Q. How do you balance maintaining frequent communication and not becoming a pest?

With the clients that we already have a relationship with, I have very regular meeting time with the CMOs and CEOs, but I only ask for 10-minute appointments. Then, make a point within those 10 minutes, if not five minutes. You have to understand that when you hang up the phone or walk out of that office, you are not their priority.

So you have to take advantage of that window of opportunity.

Q. How do you take the best advantage of those 10 minutes?

We are extremely lucky in that when we are called in for potential business, they are already interested in our industry. So we don’t have to go in and talk too much about the industry in general but basically brag about ourselves.

We go in and talk about ourselves first. Really home in on who you are as a company rather than the industry that you’re in. Clients want to be entertained with interesting things — not the demographics, not the nitty-gritty.

Nitty-gritty can come later, when they become interested in who you are. When all things are equal, clients tend to hire people that they like, and people like interesting people.

Q. How important is it to maintain multiple contacts within a client company?

Multilevel communication has proven to be the most effective way of communicating with the client in general. Different levels of managers and different levels of executives have different agendas that they have to push in their capacity.

When there’s a breakdown of communication at a certain level, you have the opportunity to call a different level and try to understand the situation and keep it on track.

We have seen day-to-day contacts that have a turnover every six months sometimes — they move on to other positions within the company or move on to another company. Not having the multilevel relationship really disadvantages us in that situation.

A lot of decisions are made in different levels. ... [Businesses] approaching our company always insist on only talking to me, because they think that if they make an impression upon me, that the business is closed, but it’s rarely the case.

I usually say, ‘Let’s involve other people.’ But they’ll say, ‘No, I only want to talk to you,’ which I think is a big mistake.

— Megan Tackett contributed to this story.

HOW TO REACH: interTrend Communications Inc., (562) 733-1888 or

Sunday, 26 October 2008 20:00

Taking care of business

When it comes time for Shelly Sun to hire a new employee at BrightStar Healthcare LLC, she’s done plenty of research to help her reach a decision with her team.

That’s because the founder and CEO spends months — sometimes even a year — networking to find the perfect match for her $12 million health care franchising company. And almost everyone she knows hears about her hunt for the smartest people in the field.

“It’s about talking to as many people as possible,” she says.

Smart Business spoke with Sun about hiring employees and creating a culture that keeps the business running smoothly, even when she’s on vacation.

Q. How do you create a culture that keeps the company running smoothly?

I wouldn’t have been ready to put this culture into my company three years ago. I’ve evolved there by putting together an advisory board of people that are smarter than me and having to listen to them to be the most successful.

Really look at the core functional areas of the company and who your department head is for that and have them put together their own strategic plans for their division and present it to all their fellow team members. And as hard as it is, don’t say anything. If I start interjecting my opinion, it’s going to be Shelly’s strategic plan for their department, not their strategic plan for their department.

I intentionally don’t attend some interim meetings because everybody’s looking to take a cue from the CEO. If I’m squashing it or asking questions as though I don’t support it, everybody else will follow suit.

I want to have my say at the ninth step of 10 in the process, but having my say in steps one through three means nothing happens in four through eight other than what I already came up with.

Q. How do you find those self-starters for your team?

The old saying, ‘Hire slow; fire fast,’ is probably one of the smartest sayings ever created. I don’t know who said it first, but it’s probably one of the best guiding principles in any organization at any level.

I think that when you rush it, you hire the wrong people. You hire out of desperation versus true fit.

Assess your own culture. For any CEO, depending on what their culture is — if it’s a more formal culture, then they want to look to network people that are more formal, and not everybody will be, so that’s why I start early. Any hiring manager should start early.

It’s always a stronger hire to network (with others) to a hire than find them cold because you can find out true information about them. Because I’ve gotten them as a reference from someone, and that someone knew them typically in some kind of work setting, I can find out what makes them tick.

That’s important information you can’t get by calling the human resources department.

Q. Once you have the right people, how do you turn them into a unified team?

Not only do we have the culture and have everybody know each other already in our organization, but everybody has buy-in to who we hire. I don’t want them just looking at only a 12-month horizon; they need to be thinking about the people they’re going to hire with the skill set that’s going to grow with them, as well.

I think peer interviewing is very overlooked in most organizations. It’s probably the most important. We’ll get [candidates] in for a full-day, in-person interview. All of those people that are presenting their strategic plans? They’re interviewing with all seven of those plus me.

What I typically see from my peers is that the person comes in and interviews with human resources and then they interview with the CEO or whoever is going to hire them, and they don’t hire with all the other departments. From our organizational standpoint, I think that would be a mistake in our organization to not have all the departments involved in those key hires.

Q. What are the key aspects to creating a sustainable business?

That is only accomplished by hiring the best and creating a culture where they feel comfortable being able to run a company as though they owned it. What I’ve tried to do is establish that kind of entrepreneurial culture. If they don’t all win together, nobody wins.

I don’t feel like I have to be the one to step in and make sure they’re staying on the right track. I would if I needed to, but I try to bite my tongue and not, because the group will self-correct without me having to.

For the first time, I feel like I [can] go away for 10 days’ vacation with my family, and I don’t have to check in with the office at all. That’s truly the benefit of being an entrepreneur. It’s taken me seven years to have the right culture and the right team to feel like I can do that.

Megan Tackett also contributed to this story.

HOW TO REACH: BrightStar Healthcare LLC, (866) 618-7827 or

Sunday, 26 October 2008 20:00

Getting to the point

Dennis Allen doesn’t like to talk things to death.

It’s not that the CEO of Hattie Larlham is opposed to open and honest debate; he just thinks that words are meaningless if they’re not followed up by a decisive resolution.

“You can’t just let the conversation go on and on,” Allen says. “You have to say to people, ‘Give me the resolution to this issue,’ and they’re expected to do that.”

This philosophy has proved invaluable at the 858-employee nonprofit. Comprising seven agencies that provide services to hundreds of children and adults with development disabilities, Allen says the organization would collapse under the weight of idle talk. Instead, he presses for forward-thinking solutions when managing an annual budget of $31 million.

Smart Business spoke with Allen about how to steer any debate toward consensus and how to strengthen employees through mentoring.

Steer toward the solution. I have no problem in encouraging debate. The issue is when the debate ends, there has to be a solution.

I don’t like it when we talk and we talk and we talk, and at the end of the day, we have no resolution to that issue. Shame on us for not being able to recognize it and address how we can take what we have, our skills, our talents, our resources, whatever is necessary to be able to then address that and bring that to a favorable and positive conclusion or resolution.

You allow a good, honest, open discussion, but there are going to be times you need to say, ‘Answer this question. Address this scenario. Tell me how you would address this, or how you would correct this.’ By throwing those things into the discussion in a reasonable way, you’re redirecting people’s focus, and you’re redirecting the discussion. At the end of the day, you have to call for the resolution.

Proclaim the mission. I think there are times when we really, as leaders, we have to be out in front of our staff. We have to be out proclaiming or explaining why we’re doing what we’re doing and so on. If you don’t stay in touch with all members of your staff and keep them informed, they soon start questioning what you’re doing and why.

If you’re communicating the mission and communicating the direction that you’re taking, staff members are better able to understand that and better able to work with you on it and buy in to what the change is that you’re looking to make.

I can cast all the vision I want, but if people don’t understand it and they can’t buy in to it, that vision will die. It’s no different whether it’s a for-profit business or a nonprofit agency.

If the leadership isn’t out there in front of the people explaining what’s going on and where, you’ll have a lot of people who just maybe don’t want to buy in or can’t understand or don’t want to accept it.

Make yourself visible. I try wherever I can to pop in from place to place when I’m out traveling between appointments. I try to spend a little bit of time and have a casual conversation with the staff.

That gives me an opportunity to look at things and ask what’s going on and pose some strategic questions. It gives them opportunities to ask me questions.

When I go into some place, I primarily look to see how things are operating. I can ask individual employees directly, ‘How’s your work today? How are you doing?’

They feel good about the fact that you have the CEO or one of the leaders of the organization out there spending time and asking their opinions and asking them to give you input. It helps me immensely to know how services are going along.

That goes a long way for the employee to feel that their opinions are valued and they are valued as a person and as an employee. It gives me an opportunity to thank them for their good work.

Guide employees through mentors. We use some of our training and development staff as mentors. It could be a veteran nurse mentoring a new nurse. It could be a habilitation assistant mentoring another habilitation assistant who is new, and so on.

What we’re really looking for are the people who have the most experience on the job in that job we’re trying to train. You can bring anybody in and say, ‘Today, you’re a mentor.’ That doesn’t always work.

That mentor should be right there side by side with the person making sure their training is good and that they are applying it directly. They have to be in touch with the person: ‘How are things going? Any problems I can help you with? Anything I can line up for you?’

Once that process occurs, the new employee feels much more confident and feels their skills are much stronger and sharper because that person took time to really focus on them as a person and care about what they’re doing.

Whenever they are in contact with the employee, they have to then report back as to the results of that particular encounter. If there are problems, we want to know about that. By establishing that kind of relationship, you want to be able to encourage the employee that they’re a valued employee and that we want them to stay.

HOW TO REACH: Hattie Larlham, (800) 233-8611or

Thursday, 25 September 2008 20:00

Meeting of the minds

When Greg Faherty looked at his company last April, he saw too much manufacturing capacity and too many people serving a rapidly stagnating new housing market.

But before taking the drastic action of consolidating two of the window and patio door manufacturer’s plants, Faherty, president and CEO of Atrium Cos. Inc., sought the input of his leadership team, customers and vendors.

“We had to take a look at what we could do in terms of shutting down some of that capacity and reducing our cost,” he says. “We have a couple of facilities in Southern California. We decided that we could serve our Arizona and Nevada markets from California fine.”

The move — which consolidated the company’s Tolleson, Ariz., and Anaheim, Calif., manufacturing facilities into a single California location — shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Though the company experienced revenue growth during the first few years of the nationwide housing slump — moving from $720 million in 2004 to $840 million in 2006 — 75 percent of its sales originate in the new home construction market. But even with such conspicuous market indicators, Faherty couldn’t pull the trigger without first consulting with his people to get their input.

“You get input from your people, you get input from your customers, you get input from your suppliers,” he says.

What’s more, he can’t imagine any leader that wouldn’t.

“I can’t imagine a leader that on his own says, ‘This is what we’re going to do now,’ and his team disagrees, and he wants them to go out and implement it perfectly,” he says. “He’s going to have trouble.”

To avoid trouble during times of duress, maintaining a two-way flow of communication with your key constituents can make all the difference. Your employees, customers and vendors supply you with the information you need to make the best decisions, and being able to explain the rationale behind your decisions can facilitate understating while quelling anxiety or anger.

“You have to respond with the people who have provided input, and if you decide to go in a different direction, you need to explain why you’re doing what you’re doing,” Faherty says.

That’s exactly what Atrium’s president did in the events leading up to the company’s consolidation. By seeking input from his key constituents and then articulating the decision that resulted, Faherty successfully navigated through a tumultuous situation while keeping the 5,000-employee company charted toward a brighter horizon.

Seek input from key executives

Making a decision without the appropriate information is like shooting at a target without lining up the gun’s sight.

“You need to make sure that you’ve got all of the information to help you make the decision so that you’re not doing some kind of a hip-shot situation where you’re pulling the trigger without all of the information that you need,” Faherty says.

As the housing slump worsened and Atrium’s unused capacity was beginning to stifle incoming revenue, Faherty didn’t shoot wildly. Instead, he gathered up as much information from as many different sources as possible to home in on his target — the right decision.

Much of that information came from national reports and databases that report on past trends and predictions within the housing market. While that certainly was helpful, Faherty says no information dredge is complete without tapping into your constituents. But soliciting feedback from your leadership team can’t be a one-time request.

“That has to be a part of your style, a part of your culture, a part of the company’s culture,” Faherty says. “You can’t turn it on and turn it off like a switch.”

To establish that collaborative dialogue, Faherty says to hold regularly scheduled meetings with your key executives every month.

“You seek to bring them in,” he says. “You ask their opinion. You don’t give them a yes or no question. You give them a question that requires their responding with more than a yes or no type of answer.”

Asking open-ended questions is a great way to elicit feedback from your more introverted executives. It’s also a great way to pull multiple opinions on the table to get the conversation going. As each idea is being presented, just make sure to give them proper consideration.

“Don’t bite people’s heads off if they come up with a stupid idea,” Faherty says. “That’s the last time they’ll come up with any kind of an idea.”

When members from your leadership team contribute to the conversation, Faherty says they’ll begin to develop a sense of ownership about the ultimate decision. They may not like your chosen course of action, but at least you’ll foster a certain amount of buy-in.

“Nobody liked doing it, but if we had to do something, that was the right decision to make,” Faherty says of the consolidation. “If you get buy-in with all of the people involved, then the execution of it becomes a whole lot easier. Everybody wants to execute the strategy because they’ve played a part in that decision.”

Solicit customers and vendors

When Faherty first became Atrium’s president and CEO in January 2006, the housing market had just started to crater, and the company was beginning to feel the effects. One market that was hit particularly hard was Florida.

“We were having some difficulty servicing our customers in Florida,” he says. “We had a facility that really needed to be overhauled and get its service and quality right. I visited several builders in the Florida market, and every one of them told me the same thing: ‘You guys suck. You’ve got to really improve.’ That was good feedback. I wish it would have been different, but it was the honest feedback, and it told us where we stood and what we needed to fix.”

Your customers will often be your most honest barometer of performance in a given market.

“You’d be surprised by what they’re willing to tell you,” Faherty says. “They don’t sugarcoat it.”

But unlike your leadership team who will come to you with their feedback, you most often go out and seek customers yourself.

“You get out in the marketplace, and you meet with your customers,” he says. “You learn so much more because you really get what the true world is. Sometimes, things get filtered from up the organization from salesmen to sales managers to general managers. By the time it gets to me, it’s been so filtered that I’m not sure I’m getting the true story. So getting out and talking to the customers one on one really gives you an insight into how you’re doing and what you need to do better.”

That can be hard for a busy executive. You can’t expect to interact with the consumer on a daily basis. Instead, Faherty suggests organizing efficient visits with your sales force when time permits. If your team is making a West Coast swing over the course of two weeks, for example, that would be a much better use of your time than flying 500 miles to tag along on intermittent sales calls over the course of three months.

However you organize it, the important thing is to get out and interact with your customers face to face.

“You travel with your salespeople,” Faherty says. “You go visit, whether they’re a national account or whether they’re a local distributor or a builder. You just walk in and shake hands, sit down, and say, ‘How are we doing? What can we do better?’”

You should also direct those same questions at your vendors. At Atrium Cos., Faherty invites key suppliers to come in once a year to audit each facility.

“You’re buying their equipment to manufacture their products, and they know exactly how that equipment should be used to maximize the productivity and efficiency of the equipment, and how the men on the line ought to be using the equipment and what they ought to be doing,” he says. “From what is optimal to what we wind up doing, there’s often quite a big spread.”

Eliciting feedback from your suppliers also provides a great window into the practices of your competitors.

“They can go look in our plant and look at our operation and compare it to our competitors operation,” Faherty says. “They’ve got an opinion about what you can do better, so you elicit that, and you listen to them.”

Articulate the tough decisions

Whenever you make a hard decision, Faherty says you or your key executives need to explain the rationale behind it to enhance understanding and get buy-in. While this practice certainly comes in handy in the boardroom, it’s even more important when articulating a major decision that affects many of your employees.

Take the consolidation. When he and his team decided to close the Tolleson facility and consolidate it with one in Anaheim, Faherty knew the move had to be conveyed with care.

“You have to understand that consolidations are difficult, and they’re hard on the people,” he says. “There are going to be some people who lose their jobs.”

When articulating the rationale behind a hard decision, Faherty says the first thing you must consider is the messenger.

“An executive needs to be there,” he says. In this case, Faherty sent the company’s western regional president who oversaw the affected manufacturing facilities to deliver the news. Delivery from a key executive or manager always gives the rationale a stronger sense of credibility.

Once you’ve identified the messenger, Faherty says your next consideration is time. The worst thing you can do is sit on a decision and not inform your people.

“You need to let people know,” he says. “You can’t wait until the last minute and pull the trigger.”

After you’ve designated the messenger and time frame, the only thing left to do is to explain the decision and share the rationale.

“Let them know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, more importantly, how’s it going to affect them,” Faherty says.

Part of that process involves allowing your employees to make their own voices heard. Faherty says you can’t simply announce a major decision and then cut and run.

“You give them an opportunity to ask questions,” he says. “You give them an opportunity to vent because a lot of them are going to be unhappy.”

That’s precisely what Faherty’s regional president did at the company’s Tolleson location. After explaining the rationale behind the consolidation, he allowed the facility’s employees to air their grievances and ask questions. Though the decisions itself didn’t make many people happy, devoting extra time to that process proved therapeutic when it was all said and done.

“At the end of the day, they still aren’t happy, but if you explain the rationale correctly, and you’ve taken the time to do it in person, and you’ve taken the time to let them ask you questions or vent, they’re never pleased, but at least they understand,” Faherty says. “They say, ‘Thanks for taking the time to come to talk to us in person to let us know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it. We don’t like it, but we understand it.’”

HOW TO REACH: Atrium Cos. Inc., (214) 630-5757 or