Ravi Kathuria is president of Cohegic Corp., a management consulting and executive coaching firm that he founded in 2002. His objective is to make business leaders think about and implement ways to make their companies more coherent. That objective is what made Kathuria write his book, “The Coherent Company: The Struggle for the Next Level – A Business Parable.” The book follows a fictional senior sales executive, Trent Wertheimer, as he becomes CEO within a business intelligence company, Hintec. Trent quickly digs himself into a hole because he thinks he knows how to lead a company, but doesn’t. With the help of a mentor, Trent learns how to transform the company and himself by implementing the Cohegic method to give Hintec coherence and clarity. “The Coherent Company” is a look at leadership in practice as Trent implements the Cohegic method and tries to turn around the company in his new role as CEO.

What is the message of the book?

This book offers the road map for business transformation. Most business books focus on one aspect such as strategy, execution or work processes. Few business books tie them all together. This book connects mission, vision, philosophies, work processes, strategies, goals, roles and responsibilities, culture, execution and measurement.

What business problems are addressed in the book?

The primary reason that the book was written was because companies lack clarity and coherence. The issue that companies have is that they are not really crystallized in their business spirit. Their mission statements are not well-written and they have not crystallized very clearly their business model. When you look at a majority of mid-level companies, you’ll find that their mission statements and core philosophies are not crystal clear. Because they don’t have clarity around that, it creates a lot of confusion in the organization.

Companies get confused between mission and vision. They are confused about what vision should stand for. Companies have to connect their strategies, goals and visions together so that they drive clarity in the organization.

What makes the book different from other business books about leadership methods?

It’s the fact that the book is presented in the backdrop of a very intense and realistic story. It shows leadership in the real world, leadership in practice as opposed to leadership in theory. Leadership in theory is very easy to talk about. Nobody is challenging you. Leadership in practice is very difficult. Your ego, your self-awareness, your inhibitions, your preferences, your tendencies, your habits, all comes into play. Overcoming all of that is a huge challenge and as a leader you have to really perform at a much higher level and you have to help the organization succeed in spite of yourself.

What would a new leader or entrepreneur take away versus what an experienced leader would take away from the book?

I think a new leader and an entrepreneur must understand that the core of their business is the most important. They must seek to drive very clear thinking in their business model and define why they are creating that business and that company. They have to ask, ‘Do I have clarity about what I am doing and why I am doing it?’ If they don’t have that, success will be a little harder.

Experienced leaders need to understand that clarity cannot exist just in their mind. Clarity has to exist in everyone in the organization and they have to make sure that that clarity is consistent and coherent.

If a leader cannot connect all those strategic aspects, a company cannot perform. The questions that the book raises are not easy questions to answer. Those questions are difficult and take time to answer. If companies can go through and ask themselves these questions, it will make a powerful impact.

HOW TO REACH: Ravi Kathuria, 281-403-0250, or www.cohegic.com

Published in Houston

It’s not everyday that the founders of a company go around and make employees ice cream sundaes. However, that’s exactly what Bob and Marcie Zlotnik did for their employees at StarTex Power, an energy reseller. The co-founders got an ice cream cart and bought supplies for sundaes and served employees decadent treats at their desks.

The Zlotnik’s strive for StarTex Power to be one of the best energy service providers in the industry and to do that, they focus on a corporate culture that fosters employees who enjoy what they do and provide great customer service.

“One of our philosophies is that in order to be a superior customer service company, you have to have superior employees,” says Marcie Zlotnik, chairman and co-founder. “In order to have superior employees, you really have to have an environment that fosters a great working culture.”

By focusing on a corporate culture that gives back to employees and promises to deliver energy service without surprises, the company saw annual revenue of $407 million in 2010.

“When we started, we were focused on customer service,” says Bob Zlotnik, president, CEO and co-founder. “In our industry, there is a lot of competition. We decided to sell by doing people right.”

That business model has helped the company achieve rapid growth since being founded in 2004.

Here’s how the Zlotnik’s use a strong corporate culture to grow StarTex Power.

Define your culture

Privy to the fact that numerous energy resellers don’t tell their customers everything they need to know or everything that they are being charged for, Bob and Marcie decided that they would deliver exactly what they promised.

“Energy is a very complex product and there’s a lot of different ways you can present it and a lot of different ways you can sell it,” Bob says. “We’ve always taken the view that we weren’t going to surprise our customers. So when they entered into an agreement with us, they got what they thought they got. With some of our competitors, they didn’t necessarily get what they thought they were going to get.”

That focus on service translated into creating a corporate culture that employees found helpful to their jobs.

“The key is corporate culture,” Marcie says. “I think that’s really where it starts. If you don’t have a place where people want to come to work, where they want to do their best, your end product will not be the best. Without the best product, in the end you won’t be successful.”

Part of offering the best product is being able to deliver things to a customer that the customer actually values and things they can’t get anywhere else.

“We’ve always compared ourselves to Southwest Airlines,” Bob says. “They take a lot of pride in their corporate culture and how they treat their customers and employees. They are running a lot of ads about bags fly free, no change fees, and we started thinking, ‘We need to do some of those same things.’”

Offering products or services that the competition isn’t is a good start, but you have to make sure that your employees enjoy the work you have for them. If employees don’t think they are contributing to something worthwhile, they won’t do their best and your company will suffer.

“You want to make sure you have employees that have passion,” Marcie says. “It’s not about paying people the most amount of money. Certainly as a start-up you can’t do that. It’s about really caring about people. The more you trust people, the more they want to do well for you.”

You have to set an example and show that you value your employees at all levels.

“You need to understand that it’s not about you,” she says. “It’s really about the people and your employees. As you build your employees and you show them what success is, they want to do that. They want to follow the lead. You’ve got to do whatever it takes.”

As you develop employees and hire new ones from varying backgrounds, you have to make sure each and every employee understands the culture within the organization.

“When we see those employees coming from other companies, they’re very much trained to not go outside their department, to not talk to people that are more senior and we are really insistent about breaking down those types of barriers,” she says. “That creates inefficiency. If you want to go talk to a senior manager with a good idea, go, don’t stop, do it.”

Defining your corporate culture is critical for success. You have to show employees that your company cares about them.

“People have to feel that their ideas are welcome, that they can have a long-term track to success and that they are truly part of the company,” Marcie says.

Create culture

Creating a corporate culture that empowers employees and contributes positively to your company will only work if you put in the effort to make it work.

“It’s really the ideas and the time and effort that’s put in that people appreciate,” Bob says. “It’s really not the money. Marcie and her group in HR, a lot of what they do is the thought and effort that I think people appreciate.”

Thought and effort can go a long way toward building a strong team and developing the results you want to see in your company.

“To me it’s the little things that you do,” Marcie says. “It took a lot of hard work to not just develop a corporate culture, but to feed it and make sure it continues.”

Once you find a culture that works best for your company and your employees, you have to work continuously to keep it.

“The key is when you try to create that culture, you can’t back down from it,” Bob says. “For instance, there was some debate on whether to have a TV in the break room, but the promise was made, so we have a TV set being installed in the break room.”

Part of keeping a corporate culture alive is making sure that it stays consistent with everything your company does.

“You know when you walk in the office and the culture feels different,” Marcie says. “You can’t get away from it. It’s about being vigilant.”

Bob and Marcie give their employees much more than just a TV to watch. They implemented an employee stock-option program to give employees a bigger incentive to do well. They also make the work environment fun and rewarding by putting on different competitions, activities and programs.

“Most people say when they walk in the office that it looks so much fun and so lively,” Marcie says. “When we were smaller, we had a company scavenger hunt. When we hit a certain mark we put a $100 bill on everybody’s desk. Just outside of my office we have a wall and…when employees have been here for six months…I ask that they take a star and they decorate it to reflect their personality. It shows how we are all individuals that make up the company.”

From personalized decorations to scavenger hunts, ice cream parties, and various friendly competitions, the employees at StarTex Power work hard and play hard.

“You’ve got to be flexible,” Marcie says. “The way that Bob and I came out of work and the work environment that we were raised in is not going to work with today’s group. If you’re not flexible, you’re going to wake up one day and realize, ‘Why are we not communicating with our employees?’”

To keep in touch with their employees and to make sure that everyone in the company is staying happy, StarTex Power administers surveys and does research to gauge what employees are feeling.

“It turns out that the Gen Y group is a different group,” Marcie says. “I read any article I can find on Gen Y and from what I have researched, I found out Gen Y likes team competition and peer recognition. So what we have done is tailored our rewards. That’s how we determine the different things that we do by researching. You don’t know what you don’t know unless you seek guidance from those that do know.”

You have to make use of the resources available to you today. Read articles about other businesses and their practices and look online to see what experts are saying about corporate culture and today’s work environment.

“There was a recent Fortune magazine that talked about the best places to work,” she says. “I pulled that and read every one of them to see what new ideas there are. You have to read. Read about best-places-to-work companies and see what they are doing.

“If you don’t ask, you’re never going to find out. Don’t be afraid to ask, throw things out there. There is so much information and so many companies that are on the forefront of a strong corporate culture that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. But it certainly is about reading and you’ve got to embrace it.”

That research and application of their findings has given StarTex Power recognition and won them awards for being one of the best places to work.

“When you do that, you start getting third-party validation,” she says. “In an industry with so many competitors, people are kind of looking for that. By being a Better Business Bureau Pinnacle award winner, by being a J.D. Power award winner, it really gives the customer the feeling that, ‘Hey, I may not of heard of this company’s name, but they have a great reputation and they do right by their customers and their employees.’”

Make employees comfortable

No matter how effective your corporate culture is at providing your employees with an enjoyable work environment, a CEO must make a commitment to get to know his or her employees and make sure they are getting what they need.

“You have to listen,” Marcie says. “You have to develop a relationship where people feel comfortable telling you the good and the bad, where there’s open communication and where you’re flexible.”

It’s easy to overlook the impact that a conversation with an employee can have. You have to connect with your employees.

“It’s being a person,” she says. “It’s being able to walk around the office and saying hello to people. Know as many people’s names as you can.”

You have to be visible and available to employees in order to create a relationship and make them feel comfortable coming to you.

“It’s going and pulling up a chair next to them and sitting down and talking with them,” she says. “I don’t think people see us coming down the hall and say, ‘Oh my God, the bosses are coming.’ If they have something to say they are comfortable talking.”

If you can open up to employees and speak with them on a personal level, it can make a huge difference in the work environment.

“You’re not any better than they are and you’re not any worse than they are, you’re just like they are,” Bob says. “Don’t expect things from them that you don’t expect from yourself. I show them that I’m a nice guy and I think that they believe that I have concern for them and if people view that you’re concerned about them, I think they feel open that you’ll try to help them.”

Getting to know your employees also means getting to know their jobs and what it is they do to help the business.

“The other thing is that we know their business, we know what they are doing,” Marcie says. “If you can go by somebody’s desk and see what they’re doing and be able to say, ‘Hey, have you tried this?’ You get a lot of respect out of that. Bob and I are here to make our employees look good. It’s not about me winning. I’d rather turn around and make it feel like they won. That’s how you develop a good corporate culture.”

HOW TO REACH: StarTex Power, 713-357-2800, or www.startexpower.com

The Zlotnik File

Bob Zlotnik

Co-founder, president and CEO

Marcie Zlotnik

Co-founder and Chairman

StarTex Power

Born: Marcie – Montreal, Quebec;  Bob – El Campo, Texas

Education: Both attended the University of Texas at Austin. They both received BA’s in accounting and Bob has an MBA in finance.

What was your first job and what did it teach you?

Bob – My first job was working for my dad at a family business. I cleaned the bathrooms and mopped the floors. I learned that there was a lot of benefit to owning your own business but there is also a whole lot of hard work. And I knew that I didn’t want to spend my life cleaning the commode.

Marcie – My first job was as a day camp counselor. I took away from that that you can do an average job but you don’t get anything out of it. You don’t have to sign up to be the coordinator of the play or a swim counselor, but that’s how you get the passion is by doing those other things.

What is the best business advice you have ever received?

Marcie – You’ve got to know your business.

Bob – Even when things are going bad, you have to stick to your principles.

What is your favorite or most fun event that you have done for your employees?

Marcie – My favorite was the scavenger hunt. I didn’t tell people what we were doing. I told them to bring jackets, bathing suits and I even told them we were going to a concert one day so they wouldn’t catch on. We got limos to take them around the city to do a scavenger hunt. All the departments were mixed up and people had so much fun.

Bob – My favorite was serving the ice cream because I think it took the employees by surprise to see us making sundaes.

Published in Houston

Too many leaders take internal company communications for granted and fail to capitalize on one of the most powerful components in a manager’s tool kit.

They dutifully explain decisions and provide directions to their staff, expecting that managers will pass on the relevant information to their direct reports, who in turn will do likewise, and so on down the line.

The problems with this approach are many. Parts of the message can get lost in translation, some managers simply don’t communicate well, some just get it wrong, and still others choose not to communicate at all.

I’ve learned that when communication from management breaks down, the organization at large makes its own assumptions as to what is behind the company’s actions and decisions, and often those assumptions reflect poorly on the current management team’s competence.

Over the course of my career, I’ve experienced the benefits that accrue to a company from a well-designed, comprehensive internal communications strategy that is well executed.

There is no better way to gain employee alignment with the company’s mission and objectives or to short circuit the company rumor mill that so often negatively impacts employee morale, performance and productivity. Equally important, all employees, regardless of job level, want the same things from their employer: to be respected as individuals as well as for the value they bring to the company and to be recognized for their contributions to the company’s success. These elements can and should be integrated into the company’s communication plan.

Periodic, planned messages from the top to the entire organization are also fundamental to a good plan. These messages are best delivered live to a group audience with time allocated for questions, but video or written communications can also be effective if the coordinating managers are fully able to respond to questions or concerns expressed by those receiving the message.

In addition, business unit and department heads must also hold team meetings at least quarterly to review progress against the team’s objectives, provide updated company information and respond to concerns expressed by their teams. It is important to communicate both good and bad news and to reaffirm the objectives going forward.

I’ve found that setting up common metrics and targets that foster friendly competition between groups or departments ensures that goals remain visible and encourages employees to work in teams and build on each others’ ideas. To be effective, top managers must routinely review and comment on posted charts and graphs and openly discuss progress toward goals or the lack thereof. When managers pay attention to metrics, so do employees.

Of course, individual employee goal setting and performance measurement must be part of the plan and linked to the overall company objectives. Often, this critical link is missing, and employees have little to guide them when they encounter what appear to be conflicting objectives. This can cause a program to go off track or at least slow down progress until the direction is clarified.

Take advantage of all of the possible benefits a sound communication plan can bring to your company. So far I’ve found only one drawback; no matter how often you communicate and how much information you provide, it will not be enough to satisfy your employees.

Now that’s a good problem to have!

George Perry has more than 40 years of experience in engineering, operations and executive management. He retired as president and CEO of Yazaki North America Inc. in December 2009.

Published in Detroit

The old cliché says steering a large organization is like steering a ship. But steering an ocean liner on the open water might actually be a simpler task than what Laurence Merlis needs to accomplish.

As the president and CEO of Abington Health, Merlis is charged with steering a medical system comprised of 6,000 employees spread across two hospitals, two major outpatient campuses and 57 physician sites.

Merlis has to promote and enforce a uniform set of standards and values for everyone, regardless of where they work in the Abington system. To do it, he needs a vision, and he needs the vision to be clearly defined and communicated to managers and employees who understand their role and how it helps the system accomplish its overarching goals.

“Everybody has a part to play, leaning forward and recognizing day in and day out that we can move toward our vision if we’re clearly aligned,” Merlis says. “We need to recognize that there is a connection between the parts people play in their daily tasks and the work we do to ensure the very best outcome for patient safety and service, while at the same time ensuring that we are efficient and effective.”

Merlis wants everyone at Abington to visualize what the medical system can be when it realizes its full potential. In the highly competitive Philadelphia market, in which patients have numerous options when seeking medical care, Merlis wants Abington to be the go-to system for area residents, known for high standards regarding service, technology and safety.

Visualizing that outcome starts with Merlis, and must cascade down from there. That’s where a great deal of the work occurs. Merlis realizes that he needs to be a visionary, but even more than that, he needs to be a unifier.

“You do need to be able to visualize the concept of what you can be as an organization,” he says. “You start really thinking about tomorrow and how has to be inspiring for everyone. But it has to be understandable, we have to stretch for it, and we have to make sure that the messages are crisp and simple and something that becomes compelling in terms of what our purpose is and how we can rally support to achieve that vision.”

Start with leadership

Two of the most critical things a leader can do when formulating and promoting a vision is to listen and measure. It’s something that Merlis has made a top priority at Abington. He wants his leadership team to get input on the future direction of the organization from all involved stakeholders — the board of directors, physicians, medical staff, office staff and support staff. Then, once the vision and strategy are formed, he manages by what he can measure and communicates that data back to employees to facilitate an ongoing dialogue.

“You need to make sure that you can measure and manage work, and that you are not setting strategy or policy by anecdote, but that you are setting it by fact,” Merlis says. “You need to be sure that you are measuring yourself by what you said you would do.”

When a strategic initiative is set, Merlis and his leadership team keep tabs on metrics within that initiative, and disclose the results to the employee population. He wants to keep the entire work force engaged in the process and also empower employees to hold management accountable for their leadership decisions.

“We have metrics within each of our major strategic intents,” he says. “We share that in an effort to stay as transparent as possible. Since one of our core values here is patient safety, we’re very public with where we are day to day against what we call ‘serious safety events,’ because that is a critical metric for us. We have other patient safety initiatives around the effort to reduce infections. It might be something as simple as the number of our staff who received a flu vaccine.”

Merlis wants the staff involved in measuring progress against the vision because they are the people at ground level each day. They have a front and center seat for what is going on in the facility corridors, and can offer real-time advice on improvements that can be made.

“Our philosophy here is the staff are experts in how to get things done,” Merlis says. “We look to them for advice and recommendations on how to make things better when it comes to making ourselves a place for patients to receive care. We need to constantly look at all of our processes, work on them and continually find ways to make them work better. It all gets back to execution. You need to get the results needed to achieve your vision. You can’t confuse effort with results.”

Stay on message

Rolling out a vision is great. Receiving input from your staff on the vision is even better. But what about after the initial push is over? You need to keep the momentum going and keep your people interested in continuing to achieve the goals you originally set.

At Abington, Merlis has learned that keeping a vision fresh within a large organization takes a combination of front-and-center communication and subtle reminders in the day-to-day details.

The details can be as small as a pocket-sized card.

“We have what we call an ‘E3’ card, which stands for ‘engaging every employee,’” Merlis says. “Every employee has a card, and on that card are the three things they can do to help us move our mission and vision forward.”

The more direct reinforcement comes in the form of, among other things, patient feedback. Like many health systems, Abington uses the stories of successful patient treatment to inspire, and any negative patient feedback is analyzed for ways to improve policies and processes.

Regardless of who is receiving the message, Merlis and his leadership team don’t do a great deal of tailoring the message to a given audience. Whether the message is meant for physicians, nurses or food prep staff in the kitchen, everyone receives it in similar fashion. Though some large organizations believe in crafting the message to meet the needs of a certain audience, Merlis says it’s more important to keep everyone on the same page and eliminate any chance of a message getting muddled or completely lost in translation.

“We don’t shape the message,” he says. “We share with everybody what the issue is, what the strategy is, what the goals are moving forward. We want to make sure that we clearly articulate the behaviors we want, the behaviors we need to exhibit, so that it can resonate with every single person and show them the part they do have within the system. The size of our organization, with 6,000 people and multiple facilities, is why we need consistency. It creates different challenges in terms of making people feel connected.”

Build your team

With a well-defined vision comes the need to continually look for people who can help promote the vision at all levels of the organization. At Abington, much of the interview process for many positions focuses on whether a job candidate has the competencies needed to support the system’s mission and goals.

Merlis calls it “behavioral-based interviewing.” He says the essential skills needed for a job are going to be present on a resume, or they aren’t. The technical requirements are a mere means to getting in the door for an interview. Once in the door, it’s up to Merlis and his team, as well as the interviewee, to figure out whether there is a cultural match.

“What we’re looking for are people whose behaviors will exhibit and support our values,” Merlis says. “To get to that stage, we’re already looking for people who have the right skills and competencies. The skills are the hurdle to get into the interview. The knowledge and the background, their experience, those are all things you can pick up in their CV and references. But you really want to be interviewing for the level past that. You want to know if they can be the right fit based on those leadership competencies and behaviors, what you know you need to have in order for a person in that position to be successful.”

The way to drill down and find the best possible match is to ask specific questions in the interview process. Merlis says you want examples of ways in which the job candidate has exhibited the cultural qualities you want in an employee.

“You’re asking specific questions to elicit examples of where their behavior and prior experiences support the values that you think you need for this particular position in the organization,” he says. “It’s a given set of competencies for each position. But you’re always looking for people who can manage a vision and a purpose, people who manage ethically in terms of honesty and integrity, people who manage by engaging their staff. You want people who have great interpersonal skills and are focused on results.”

And once you’ve found the right match for the position, you need to let the person do his or her job. As long as the employee is doing it well, you should be able to trust that he or she is on the same page with regard to the vision, will live it and help promote it.

“When I got here back in 2009, we already had a team that was excellent,” Merlis says. “If you have that, you want to give people the freedom to do their jobs. You want somebody who recognizes that they’re going to be a part of a team. We define success as the success of the team. And you want people to be self-aware so they learn.”

Ultimately, you are defining the roles and the rules of engagement. Beyond that, you want to see your best and brightest show their stuff, which means letting them do their jobs and promote the vision, mission and values in a way that plays to their strengths.

“Everyone has to be committed to the goals of the team,” Merlis says. “You have to have the right mix of skills, and you really have to have a sense of holding each other responsible. We want the team to understand, based on the project or issue, who is responsible, who is accountable and who they need to contact for support.

“Another big key is continuing to create a safe environment, meaning an environment where people feel safe to raise issues and follow up. You’re going to need to have crucial conversations or confrontations at some point, but you promote the culture by doing that in a positive and respectful way. You want your people to be able to handle conflict yet move on, a team that has a sense of spirit and can support each other.”

How to reach: Abington Health, (215) 481-2000 or www.amh.org

The Merlis file

Born: Bay Shore, N.Y.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in biology and psychology, Union College, Schenectady, N.Y.; MBA, George Washington University

First job: I taught waterskiing for a summer after my freshman year in college.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

What is critical for anyone to be successful is to not act outside yourself. Be true to who you are. Be genuine and sincere.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

First and foremost, ethical behavior. You absolutely must lead with honesty and integrity. You need to be approachable. You need to be willing to lead and make difficult decisions and be self-aware of what you can do better. Just constantly look to improve.

What is your definition of success?

Success could be defined as making sure you make a positive difference in the lives of others, while achieving goals to bring the organization closer to its vision. You want people to be moving forward with you and, ultimately, leave the organization in a better position than when you first arrived.

Published in Philadelphia

Jon Yob’s company is filled with talented, capable people. Yet when building a team, he looks for more out of his employees than just, ‘Do they have the right skill set?’

“[It’s] a passion for what we do and a commitment to the company and the ability to be a strong team player, because ultimately you can have the best A player, but if they won’t work as a team, you’re not going to meet your objectives,” says Yob, founder, president and CEO of Tampa-based Creative Recycling Systems Inc.

It’s through strong teamwork that Yob and his 237 employees have grown the company in the midst of a global financial crisis.

Smart Business spoke with Yob about how he fosters a culture of teamwork.

Give people time to fit in. We have a culture where people really like each other … but it’s a process to bring them on board and it’s a very important time; they have to understand and see that this is maybe a little bit different culture than what they were used to. Physically, within six months, you’ve got a pretty good sense, and maybe sooner.

There’s a certain amount that they have to take the initiative for themselves and they have to really care and commit themselves to really doing an excellent job for the company. It’s just a process of bringing them on board and being fair to them, because the first period of time is a significant adjustment.

Be clear about people’s roles. With my employees I’m very forthright. I do not try to sugarcoat because they expect from me what I really think. I think [2008] was a time of uncertainty, and we did not know necessarily all of the issues we would deal with as a result of the financial crisis. What I did know is that we were in a very good position and that with a plan for incremental growth we would be fine.

These people are looking for someone to help them understand where it is going, and that, to me, is the critical role of the leader ? it’s for people to have a sense that ‘I don’t know everything that’s going on, but I believe in the leadership and I’m going to do what I need to do as my part of it, because I believe that we’re going to do what leadership is telling us we can do.’ That tie in is critical for every organization.

Show you care. Any leader in any organization faces challenges in regard to building their team and really making sure that you value and you care for your employees. Those are very important things ? that you are genuine, that you care. People see that. When you care about people, you’re going to get one level of return back to you. You’re going to get one level of dedication. If you cannot care, you will not get it.

I believe that my team really gets it done, and I can’t say enough about how good they are. They are a great group of people, but I think it takes a leadership, and that leadership should really excite, a passion and the sense of what we are capable of accomplishing – they truly believe in that.

Look for team players. I’ve seen people who maybe work better as loners, and that’s OK in maybe some aspects of business, but when it comes to your core team, you really need good team players. And it’s really more about the character and the ability to work as a team really than it is if you have all A-plus people. That’s my opinion. Those are the ones that stick with you, that are loyal.

To me, I know that I have total confidence in my team. Part of that is because we’ve worked together for so long … I think for me what it has really done is allowed me to be the leader and spend a lot more time on the overall plan and on innovation and interacting with people who can really help the company go to the next several levels.

HOW TO REACH: Creative Recycling Systems Inc., (813) 621-2319 or www.crserecycling.com

Published in Florida

When Tom Keckeis took over as chairman, president and CEO of Messer Construction Co. last year, he took on a six-month initiative to visit with some of the construction company’s customers. With more than 30 years in the company, Keckeis knew the ins and outs of the business but wanted to gauge customer’s reactions to how Messer had been doing. So he went to Nashville, Knoxville and Indianapolis and met with CEOs and owners with whom Messer had worked.

“I looked at myself and said, ‘Where’s my biggest void?’” Keckeis says. “I grew up in the organization, I understand our culture, I understand our people, and I understand our building process. Where I haven’t been is been the face of Messer out in front and I haven’t been out talking to the customers, so I tried to lead with that.”

What he learned from those conversations was that customers were impressed with the company and, specifically, the culture of Messer. The culture and the quality of its more than 800 employees has been the driving force behind the $530 million company’s success.

Here’s how Keckeis continues to build Messer by listening to customers and focusing on culture.

Find your strengths

When Keckeis set out to meet with customers, he had one main thing in mind: Listen for what he didn’t know about the company and then get to work on understanding it.

“I spent a lot of time really focusing externally listening to our customers,” Keckeis says. “I thought it was a very good experience for me. What I heard was some of what I expected. I talked about our technology and all the technical tools that we use and they all said, ‘Yeah, that’s important.’ But they always came back to, ‘Your people are really what’s different.’ The culture of our company really is a little bit unique and it came out in those six months of listening to the customer.”

Because customers were impressed by the culture, Keckeis knew he had to continue to make that a prominent part of the company. When stepping into a CEO role, it is important to reach out to customers and understand what it is they like or don’t like about your business.

“You have to make sure you spend time talking to your customers and make sure you listen to them and make sure you deliver on that,” he says. “You gain a lot of knowledge by listening to the customer. You can’t just go in and say, ‘Tell me what you think.’ You have to tell them what you think is important and what you’re investing in and then let them react to it.”

Keckeis had the advantage of knowing the business well before he was put in charge as CEO and had an area he wanted to focus on. That’s not always the case if a CEO is new to the company. There are some similarities and many differences to how a CEO would look to drive his company based on where they are coming from.

“[Where to start] would vary based on where the person is coming from and what they are stepping into,” Keckeis says. “It would be a totally different concept if you were coming in from the outside. You would need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the company and the people inside the company as well as know the outside. You kind of have a double whammy there. I had the advantage of growing from the inside. I understand the strengths of the organization. The difficulty would be if I would be blinded by that, thinking that everything we’re doing is great. You’ve got to be careful with that.

“Each person would have to attack this differently,” he says. “You would say, ‘What do I know and what don’t I know?’ You need to understand your business development and how you’re selling the work and what’s valuable to your customers. You’ve got to understand that. Then you have to look at the way you’re delivering that value and whether you really are delivering it.”

Build a unique culture

Messer’s value is in the way it does business every day, and that’s a direct result of its culture and the employees that make it all possible. Messer is an employee-owned company and customers liked how the employees embrace that aspect.

“That ownership mentality came across when I talked to the customers,” Keckeis says. “They realized that our people are out there thinking about the long term — and they are — because their futures are tied to the long-term benefit of this company. Everybody has the ability to have the same ownership as myself or anybody else. If you stay here long enough in the company, you get so many shares of stock every year, and it builds up over time.”

Having an ESOP has turned Messer into what it is today, and there are numerous reasons a company would want to go down that path.

“If you’re a company that’s getting ready to go through a succession, you want to sell the company or move out, there are some real advantages,” Keckeis says. “It really is about succession planning. If you’ve got a strong leadership team that is carrying the day and they are interested in taking on that role and responsibility of owning a company, there are some real tax advantages for the person that wants to sell the company and there are tax advantages for the people that are buying the company.”

An ESOP, if it’s 100 percent owned by the employees through an S corporation structure, allows you to be tax exempt from federal tax. Taxes would be due when retirements are paid out. An ESOP can also be a big help to forming a stronger culture and can also help boost morale and job performance for the employees who have ownership. Customers liked that about Messer.

“To have an opportunity to own a piece of the pie and be able to set your own futures based on what you do every day is huge for morale because you can take the charge with it,” he says. “It leaves your company intact and leaves your employees intact to be able to carry on the day, and there’s a lot of pride there.”

An ESOP isn’t for everyone, but once employees understand it and realize the potential it has, it can be very beneficial.

“People that start with our company, we sell the ESOP and tell them what it means, but until they get in here, it usually takes about five or six years before they build up an account and realize that everything they do helps drive the bottom line and start to feel that,” Keckeis says. “I think people that would be buying the company would realize, ‘Wow, I’m going to own a certain percentage of this company and my future is tied to what I do every day.’ Not everybody would be into that, but the people that are leading the company surely would be.”

Build empowerment

Messer’s employees are very in tune with the company and realize what their actions can make or break. Keckeis empowers his employees and makes sure what they do every day translates into the results that the customer wants.

“I think you’ve got to make sure that what [employees] do on a daily basis ties together with your metrics,” he says. “You’ve got to make sure that you measure the right things and publicly say what you’re measuring and how you’re doing on it. Make sure the things that you measure tie directly to what you want to be successful on. You have to allow employees to see those metrics on a regular basis.”

Allowing employees to see how their efforts play a direct result in driving what customers are looking for will help performance. It is crucial that you are making sure the right metrics are being measured.

“You have to ask yourself if you are measuring the right things that drive value for your customers and are they things that people can feel on a daily basis?” Keckeis says. “Finding a way to connect the things that you measure with what people pay attention to is very important and as a CEO you’ve got to pay attention to those things.”

Making sure you’re doing what customers have expressed interest in is critical, but you also want to make sure that what you’re doing is helpful to your culture and your employees.

“You also want it to be something that ties to what the employees do every day so they can see that what they are doing affects that metric,” he says. “You have to make sure what you’re measuring is going to drive performance.”

Empowering employees is a big part of increasing morale and making corporate culture stronger within your company. Keeping culture at the forefront of your business and making sure you have people who believe in the company is crucial.

“Your culture will beat everything else if you’ve got people that care and want the company to grow,” Keckeis says. “Empowerment and culture is critical if you want to be different in any industry. You have to focus a lot on your culture. You have to communicate with your people regularly about your bottom line, your finances, what you’re doing. You have to get them involved in all of that and get input back from them.”

You have to make sure that you pay attention to your employees in order to keep corporate culture strong.

“You have to listen to your employees first,” he says. “You need to focus on your people and you need to care about your people … that are doing the work on a day-to-day basis.”

Communicating with more than 800 employees can be a tough task, but it is vital to keeping the culture united. Messer has a group of 108 senior managers who act as a system of communication from the executives to the employees.

“We created a system of responsibility to make that communication,” Keckeis says. “I obviously cannot talk to 800 people. We created the senior management position that is the voice and the direction for the company directly. They share that and drive it out to the rest of the organization.

“You’ve got to have a leadership team that you trust and you’ve got to be able to communicate and then you’ve got to be able to have a way that the word gets out. If you’re a small enough company and you’re just in Cincinnati, you can pull everybody together and talk to them regularly. In our case, we can’t do that. You’ve got to create a way where the leaders of the company are identified and are helping drive that and listening to the employees.”

It can be very easy to get tied up with numerous daily tasks and other things on your agenda, but if customers find your culture helpful to how you do business, you have keep track of it and you have to care for your employees.

“Caring is a tough thing,” he says. “It isn’t looking down on them, it is actually feeling every day what they feel so that you can understand that. It’s easy for a CEO to step back and say, ‘Well, I’ve got different problems and I’ve got different issues that I’ve got to deal with. They’ve got to worry about their own problems.’ If you do that you’re going to be in trouble.

“You really do need to understand that what’s driving you isn’t you at the top, it’s the group of people that are there doing the work every day,” he says. “If you can figure out how to stay in tune with that and help nurture it and be attentive to it, I think you’ll be successful no matter what the business. You’ve got to know that they go home and they have kids and they have families and the way you’re treating them makes a big difference. You need to inform them, you need to communicate with them, and you need to make them feel like they are empowered. That’s what you have to create. We spend a lot to create the culture. It isn’t something you just go out and get.”

HOW TO REACH: Messer Construction Co., (513) 242-1541 or www.messer.com

The Keckeis File

Tom Keckeis

Chairman, president and CEO

Messer Construction Co.

Born: Cincinnati

Education: Attended the University of Cincinnati, degree in civil engineering. He went to work at Messer straight out of school.

What was your first job, and what did you take away from it?

My very first job was working for a flooring contractor. I was 15 when I started. I was a laborer, cleaning up and helping scrap and lay floors. The one thing I got out of it was the person I worked for was a true craftsman. That instilled in me a lot of respect for what a craftsperson brings to the job.

What has been the hardest part about being a CEO?

Being disconnected at times, yet still wanting to drive the organization in a direction and how do you make that connection. I feel one step removed from where I was.

What has been the best part about being a CEO?

Seeing the growth of the people. The people who have stepped into my role and other roles and watching them grow has been fun and inspiring.

What is the best business advice you’ve ever received?

Treat others the way you want to be treated. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. When you ask people to do things you want to be able to make sure you would do them yourself.

If you could do something dangerous one time without consequences, what would you do and why?

I have always wanted to be a pilot and fly a plane or maybe skydive. I always wanted to be able to feel that freedom.

Published in Cincinnati

It used to take a lot of work for Don Ascione and his sales team to secure new business for his $15 million distribution companies, Continental Steel & Tube Co. and its subsidiary Continental Chemical USA.

“We were calling people up and soliciting their business, trying to find out … who would be buying titanium? – OK aerospace,” says Ascione, president and founder of the Fort Lauderdale-based companies. “Then we’d have to go find all the aerospace companies and say, ‘OK, Boeing, and try to find a buyer in Boeing, and get them to talk to you. It’s daunting.”

Ascione saw he could no longer rely on print advertising to generate leads as more and more buyers of industrial products moved online.

“People get impatient and you are talking to them on the phone and they want to see a picture of something – they’ll send you an e-mail and if it’s not there in 30 seconds they’ll say, ‘Where is it?’… The world has changed to instant gratification,” he says. “There is no waiting anymore.

“We looked at it and said, ‘OK, we’re not going to do print anymore,’ and decided to put all of our eggs in the Internet basket.”

Ascione’s online strategy was to make Continental’s online presence more credible but also more accessible to potential buyers. Without print, the Internet would be his sole sales channel.

With the help of long-time sales partner ThomasNet, Ascione approved a complete website redesign for both Continental businesses, updating the sites’ capabilities to include online product catalogs, SEO-driven language, e-commerce shopping carts and user friendly search functions. Each also developed a web presence on ThomasNet’s online distribution portal.

By utilizing the web effectively to showcase its strengths, a smaller company, such as Continental, built a niche for its specialty products.

“It provides an avenue for people to find us and to know what we do and what we are capable of providing,” Ascione says. “We have always been exporting for a long time, but our Internet strategy has allowed people in other countries to find us.

“It sets us in our niche products so that we can compete with the big guys. We’ve developed a relationship with our sources [so] that when somebody wants those particular items, we can be competitive that we can get the delivery. We can satisfy the end users’ requirements. We know that our price and delivery is going to be just as good as a Ryerson, or an EMJ or Alliance or any one of these billion-dollar companies.”

It also brings the customers to you.

“With the strategy that we have now, what happens is people call us,” Ascione says. “When they call us we’re in a better position. They found us and they’re looking for us to provide something for them. So they are receptive when we call back, when we respond back to them. When they do, we actually put a markup on it and try to make a profit.”

As more customers make purchases through your site, you can use web tracking to monitor which products are most popular with which customers, making changes to your online strategy as customer demands change.

“We’re updating on a regular basis our catalog and our content on our website. … As we develop more sources and better sources, and we have more information, we evaluate what kind of information we are able to provide to the customer and what they want,” Ascione says.

“We want customers to come to our site and find useful information and help them achieve their job and to make them and their company profitable. That will help us become profitable because they’ll find value in what we do.”

How to reach: Continental Steel & Tube Co., (954) 332-2290 or www.continentalsteel.com

Published in Florida

While every business appreciates referral sales, many seem to overlook the usefulness of referral data. Referrals are easier to close and more profitable than leads from most other sources. But more important, referral sales are the most accurate test of whether or not your customers believe that your offering works.

If you think about it, prospects are created primarily by circumstance, not by marketing. When a bee stings your child at the playground, you don’t need Madison Avenue to point out the problem. You immediately want a solution. You know that there are all kinds of pain relievers out there, but this isn’t a muscle cramp or a migraine. In this situation, you need a tailored response.

When you get to the pharmacy, you see a host of products on the shelf — everything from generic ibuprofen to something called, let’s say, Auntie Beth’s Children’s Strength All Natural Bee Sting Be Gone. I’m guessing you’ll go with the product that seems to be designed with exactly this situation and your sobbing toddler in mind. Whichever product you choose, from the business’s point of view what is most important isn’t the fact that you bought its product — it’s what happens next.

Let’s assume you go with Auntie Beth’s bee sting product. You swiftly apply the treatment. Within minutes, you and your child will make a discovery about the product that will stick with you much longer. It will become part of the story you tell the ice cream man when you wander back to the park, that you share with the rest of the family when you get home, that you tell your officemates when they ask about your weekend, and that you pass on to other parents at playgroup.

Auntie Beth’s just took the marketplace equivalent of a final exam, and whether it passes depends on one thing: Does your retelling of the bee sting story create new customers?

If the product was a dud, it gets a zero. If it worked, it becomes a hero. When an offering effectively solves a problem — when it becomes a hero — customers tell others in ways that drive referral sales.

Some businesspeople might think they already know that their products work because they have tested them in the lab. The problem with this thinking is that lab tests are constructed to determine whether the product offering does what the company intends for it to do, not what the customer wants it to do. Furthermore, controlled tests are lousy at discovering whether customer enthusiasm about the offering will be high enough to generate referral business.

You might then ask, ‘What about sales data?’ For one, nonreferral, first-time sales don’t speak to the effectiveness of your offering but rather the effectiveness of your advertising, positioning, distribution, promotions and pricing. Although repeat sales send back a more useful signal — whether customers perceive your offering to be good enough, at least some of the time — only referral sales can tell you whether your offering is really taking off.

For most businesses, referral data should be treated as the most important operating metric. Referral business is the ultimate truth-teller — and sometimes the truth it tells is a harsh one. If your referrals aren’t strong, you need to go back to work on the offering, your marketing or both. But given proper attention, referral data can point the way toward a rapidly growing market share. Once you’re able to secure referrals from referrals, you’re well on your way to market dominance for your offering.

Jerry McLaughlin is CEO of Branders.com, the world’s largest and lowest-priced online promotional products company. Contact Jerry at JMcLaughlin@branders.com.

Published in Northern California

Abraham Lincoln once observed, “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.”

Implicit in Lincoln’s words is the notion that people who are well informed are well motivated, and therefore, much more likely to work together toward ultimate success.

Effective communications policies not only make for motivated employees, they also help drive results by:

  • Sparking meaningful conversations
  • Driving innovation
  • Building corporate loyalty
  • Fostering employee engagement

Yet in today’s world of increasingly staccato and frenzied communication, the challenge of shaping sentiment and sharing information with employees has never been more challenging.

At NCCI, we’ve devoted considerable time and resources toward identifying effective communication tools and two-way communication vehicles for employees and managers. Among these are traditional methods such as e-mail, meetings, conference calls with video, and individual face-to-face sessions, but we’ve also taken it a step further.

*We host regular town hall meetings, where every NCCI staff member is invited to hear from senior management about our company plans and mission. While the meetings give us an opportunity to speak directly with employees about the vision, employees can also suggest town hall topics and submit questions for discussion.

*We put on “President’s Circle” luncheons where nine employees from across the company are invited to an off-site lunch with just the CEO. These informal gatherings help employees get to know the company head on an authentic, personal level. It’s also a chance to have their questions and concerns addressed directly from the top. In 2010 alone, we hosted six of these luncheons.

*We’ve built and populated our own Intranet site (InfoZone), which holds everything from corporate compliance rules to employee profiles to breaking company news updates. If something is happening at NCCI, there’s an excellent chance that activity is documented here.

*We produce a weekly, all-employee e-mail (InfoMail), offering time-sensitive information about company projects as well as information about new employees, social activities and even the cafeteria menu.

But again, to have effective communication with your employees, it has to go both ways. Developing strategies and tools to better listen to our employees has perhaps been our most effective communications effort in the past several years.

Not only are NCCI’s senior staff and managers accessible to our employees, but we’ve also developed a series of electronic tools to encourage constant employee feedback, including weekly online surveys. We constantly ask employees for their opinions about company news, articles or events, and we’ve put in place an open-door policy for communication between employees and any leader in the organization.

Our continuing emphasis in each of these efforts is to engage managers and employees in transparent and authentic conversation.

So how is our communication effort and emphasis working here at NCCI?

In a recent all-employee communication survey, 87 percent of NCCI employees said they are kept well or fully informed, and 88 percent of employees said the amount of communications they receive about the company is just right.

Perhaps the most rigorous test of our open communication strategy to date occurred last year, when we had to share the difficult message that there would be no merit raises for employees in 2010. Because that message was honestly conveyed ? despite the undeniable hardship it must have caused some ? NCCI employees responded in truly remarkable fashion, breaking their previous record for contributions during our annual United Way drive.

In short, we think Lincoln had it about right. Company leaders may not succeed in every effort, but with informed employees motivated by open, honest, and frequent two-way communication, our failures are not only less severe, they are much less common and far easier to address.

That’s not only an effective communication strategy; that’s an effective business strategy.

Stephen J. Klingel has served as president and CEO of NCCI Holdings Inc. since 2002. Before joining NCCI, Klingel was a leader with the St. Paul Cos. for more than 25 years. You can reach him at Steve_Klingel@ncci.com.

Published in Florida

What some business leaders might consider risks, Amanda Huntington sees as opportunities. She knows that to position her company for long-term growth and success, she’ll sometimes have to make decisions that, short term, seem rather daunting.

“Probably the biggest challenge that we’ve had is really being faced with decisions that weren’t always simple decisions. They would have put us in a position or they did put us in a position where we might have had to lose market share in the short term or spend money that we didn’t really want to spend at the time to make those decisions, but it was because we knew that in the long-haul they would be the right things for us,” says Huntington, co-founder and CFO of  IntegraClick LLC. “They would give us the longevity that we were looking for, and it was the right thing to do for our publishers or for our advertisers and for the people we serve and work with every single day.”

Business decisions are rarely black and white, but the key to setting your company up for growth and market competitiveness is knowing how and when to make the tough calls or take calculated risks that will better your business. It’s by making these decisions that Huntington and her business partner, John Lemp, have built IntegraClick and its operating cost-per-action (CPA) network, Clickbooth LLC, from a start-up in 2002 into a thriving online marketing solutions business, topping multiple lists as one of Tampa’s fastest growing companies and generating 2010 revenues of $120 million.

However, before you make any big decision affecting your business, you first need evidence to back it up.

Build a case

There’s a big difference between being a risk-taker with your business and just making risky decisions. To determine where there is potential to improve your business you have to keep a constant watch on changes, trends and issues affecting your industry.

“We spend a great deal of time trying to keep our finger on the pulse of the industry and looking at ‘What have we heard? What are publishers talking about? What’s the next thing coming down the pipeline?’” Huntington says. “But also, ‘What are our competitors doing that maybe we could do better? How can they challenge us?’… It gives us a great ability to better ourselves all the time, because the competition is pretty fierce.”

For example, several years ago Huntington and Lemp noticed a certain type of incentivized marketing being used was making some advertisers unhappy. After looking into the issue further, they realized it was also losing them some clients and volume by not converting well to customers.

“We would talk regularly and it keeps coming up,” Huntington says. “Every month from an accounting side, I can see that clients didn’t like having to pay for the traffic, weren’t happy with the quality etc. … It just became sort of an obvious thing.”

Often when she’s facing a major decision affecting the company, Huntington brings in her top people from key departments to think through the issue from all sides.

“We’re trying to really integrate all of the relevant parties into the bigger decisions, because they’ve been here a long time,” she says. “They’ve escalated to these positions that they are in. They know how things work. They know the industry better than most, so I want their opinion, and at the same time, I want them to know mine so we can come together on the best thing for the network as whole.

“If it’s a marketing-related issue, I’m going to bring in the heads of the marketing team and John and say, ‘OK, tell me what you know, because I want to get this from all angles. What are the possible rewards that this could bring us?’ I may be able to say, ‘Here are some of the concerns I have, but tell me more about what you think of this long term.’”

When considering how to move your company forward, it’s important to understand the risks and rewards of making a change, but also the consequences of doing nothing. Huntington says she always weighs the long-term benefit over the short-term setback when making a tough decision. In the case of incentivized marketing, the benefit of eliminating the marketing type at IntegraClick seemed to outweigh the setback of losing a few clients.

“We did some homework and we looked at how much it was going to affect us or what we thought it would affect,” Huntington says. “We felt like we could come through it, because it would probably be a fairly short-term issue.

Adapt proactively

Being among the first companies to make a change seems scary when you’re thinking about how it can impact your revenue, customers and growth. But you can’t simply wait for change to happen; you have to drive it yourself.

“The industry is constantly evolving,” Huntington says. “So what we might have been accepting of in 2004, we’ve realized that’s not a good long-term plan now.”

Though there’s nothing wrong with conservative thinking, simply going with the status quo can be the biggest risk of all, because if you wait too long to adapt your business as needed, especially in a competitive industry, you’ll be left behind.

“We try very hard to proactively look at what our customers need,” Huntington says. “Where are the holes that need to be filled? Of those holes, can we fill all of those? And if we can’t, what is the one thing that we can do most successfully, or the two things that we are going to be the best at?

“That’s the reason we’ve been successful, there’s always been that push. In order to survive in this industry, and what’s really kept us going, is the ability to adapt. I think that’s something any new business needs to recognize and not be afraid of. It’s recognizing that there can be room for improvement, learning from mistakes, adapting and not letting yourself get buried by the fact that maybe you can’t, or you don’t want to or that it’s a scary thing.”

Once you’ve discovered an area where your business can be better, whether it’s in customer service, employee relations, best practices or processes, you’ve got to be willing to take the steps necessary to act when action is needed, even if it means doing it alone. It’s by adapting proactively that companies set the pace for their competition and become industry leaders.

After Huntington and Lemp saw that customers were increasingly unhappy with the incentivized marketing, they didn’t wait for their peers to take action, they went ahead and eliminated it from IntegraClick’s network completely.

“We were the first network to go out and say, ‘We’re going to stop this,” Huntington says. “We don’t want to be involved with this type of marketing anymore. It’s just not a long-term success plan for any of our clients. They are not happy with it. Even though it lost us a significant chunk of our revenue at the time, all the other networks followed suit within a year. As a whole, it’s just not even on the map anymore as a marketing type. It’s really cleaned up and improved the industry.

“While it did hurt for a little while, it actually gave other advertisers and our current advertisers a little more faith in using our network versus another one that still allowed it, because they knew that the quality they would get from us was going to be significantly better. So in the long term, it brought us additional volume and made up for that short-term lag.”

However, change can’t just be a reaction to something that’s wrong. Even successful business models can become stagnant and obsolete if they aren’t set up for continuous improvement.

“Within the company we always train for that: ‘If this isn’t working, what else can we do?’” Huntington says. “Be creative. Find those alternatives so that you are never having to shut a door or close out a client. If we can make it work, we will.

Stick to your guns

Sometimes a good long-term business decision carries some short-term hardship, and as your company experiences a negative effect on profits, client retention and so on, you may start to question if you made the right choice. Yet by doubling back on a tough decision, you risk losing even more, such as the trust and confidence of your employees and customers as well as credibility. If you can’t trust in your own decision-making, how will others?

That’s why it’s extremely important to research and be clear about the consequences of a decision upfront, so once you’ve looked at the evidence and weighed the risk, you can commit to the decision either way, 100 percent.

“If we make a change, we just really stick by it,” Huntington says. “We go out there with a firm stance and do a press release. We push forward as a team and as a unit. Everyone is on board and anybody who wants to come back to us or wants to work with us will have to abide by the new policy.”

For instance, when Huntington and Lemp recognized the lack of compliance standards in CPA advertising, they ultimately decided to release their own compliance guidelines for IntegraClick clients. Though the partners knew none of their competitors had compliance guidelines, they confidently enforced the new guidelines strictly with every client, no exceptions. Those clients that didn’t or couldn’t comply were no longer in the network.

“When we changed over to the next compliance standards, everyone pretty much told us we were crazy,” Huntington says.

“We did lose clients, who just may have been in the pipeline already just getting something going, and they didn’t want to have to make the changes and someone else would pick them up without those changes.”

It’s not easy to take risks when you know full well it’s going to cost you a client or a chunk of revenue, but if you’ve done your research, you’ll take comfort in knowing that the decision is the best one for your business in the end.

“That’s one of those decisions where it’s not an easy decision, but you know you have to do it because at the end of the day, you want to be around,” Huntington says. “When some of those other competitors might take the traffic, you might lose the market share to them, but they may not be around.

“We released those compliance guidelines, and anybody that came into the network had to stick with them. That’s just an example of the difference between us and some of our competitors. We make those proactive changes and it’s to be able to better our network for our advertisers. We are known throughout the industry as the network with the best quality, because we have done those things proactively to try and reduce any fraud that might happen, keeping any sort of garbage out of the network.

“I absolutely feel that we’ve found our direction and we’ve been able to rise to the top of the network market because of the way we’ve handled so many of these situations. …We’re still changing. We’re still adapting. We’re always trying to better our network.”

HOW TO REACH: IntegraClick LLC, (941) 584-6543 or www.integraclick.com

The Huntington File

Amanda Huntington

Co-founder and CFO

IntegraClick LLC and Clickbooth LLC

Born: Glens Falls, N.Y.

Education: State University of New York at Geneseo

What do you like most about your job?

I love everything. It’s kind of hard to pinpoint because I’ve been here from the beginning. It’s amazing to actually see what this has become. Going from an apartment and working out of an apartment when we first got going to be able to look at all this. … I feel a lot of pride just because I’m proud of the people who have come on board and actually helped build this, all the people that have been with us for a long time, all of our executives that have risen to their positions. For me, it’s kind of watching this grow up. That’s really the most rewarding part of this job.

What is your definition of success?

Success is being true to yourself, and being happy with that at the end of the day. I also think the most successful people are probably very tired, because my most successful moments are usually the culmination of a great deal of hard work and many hours spent, whether I'm working to implement a new process at the office or putting together a family dinner, when it's all said and done well and as I planned, I sleep the most soundly. ... It’s never defined by money or a job title, but by whether you can look at yourself in the mirror when you are alone or in a quiet moment, and feel happy with who you are and the effort you give to whatever you do every day.

Published in Florida