Getting the word out Featured

7:00pm EDT January 26, 2009

As Closets by Design Inc. grew into a company that posted $75 million in 2007 revenue, president Jerry Egner’s job became more complicated.

Closets by Design’s financial and geographic growth have gone hand in hand. Since Egner took over in 1997, the maker of custom-built closets, pantries and other in-home storage units has expanded to 30 franchisees, all of which need to stay focused on the over-arching mission of the company while serving the needs of their markets.

And it’s been a tough balancing act for Egner.

“If I don’t like the way things are going, I can’t just call a meeting and have everybody gather in the conference room,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Egner about how to communicate to ensure that everyone is on the same page.

Q. How did you develop a communication strategy?

It was challenging at the beginning. I’m used to managing a group of people who report directly to me, and our franchisees are very successful, business-minded entrepreneurs.

The first thing I had to do was establish a culture of respect with the franchisees. That was through listening. I had to make sure they understood that I was willing to listen to what they had to say.

Second of all, I needed to have empathy. It was extremely important that they believed I understood a day in the life of a franchisee. From that point on, it became much easier to communicate my messages to them and not come across as if I’m on the outside looking in.

Q. How do you get others in the company to communicate with you?

It’s extremely important for me to maintain that strong awareness that I am accessible, that I am open to ideas and I listen to everyone, that I welcome and encourage ideas. That’s reflected in the fact that they’re focused on best interests of the organization. They’re not just doing their job.

Good ideas come from people who are out in the trenches. That is another of the messages that are sent to the system, that we work together to grow this system. We have formulas for growth we communicate that are very focused and disciplined.

But when it comes to creativity and ways to improve who we are as a system and a brand, it’s important that the franchisees are heard. We don’t implement all of these ideas, but it’s all valuable.

Q. How do you stay accessible while keeping employees focused?

An open-door policy is healthy, but sometimes I’d like to close it. Sometimes I do feel I’m a little too accessible, and I do have to balance that.

My staff has learned to stay focused when they come to me with issues. If they come to me and feel that they just want to communicate, I’ll keep them on track.

I don’t want employees to live the drama. I want them to stick to the facts. What that provides them is an environment of confidence that they can come in, get to the point, get to the resolution of an issue or know that we’re going to expand on it in a proper forum.

To keep them on track, I vocalize it, it’s clear, and I’ve shared that with them. There is nothing wrong with me being direct about this.

They understand that I’m busy and they’re busy. If they get off track, I remind them they’re getting off track.

Q. How has technology helped you communicate?

One of the things we have in place is a software program that gathers all of the data entered on a daily basis that reflects all of the moving parts in their businesses. What I have is a program that is basically a ticker, and it gives me all of the key performance indicators by franchisee. Our business model relies on the management of these key performance indicators.

What I do is I monitor these performance indicators, and I take every opportunity I can to reach out to a franchisee to discuss the successes and challenges related to those key performance indicators. When I contact them, I’m not speaking in generalities. I’m speaking specifically to their data, to their numbers and performance, and they clearly can see that I understand where they’re at.

So I can speak to the core fundamentals of our business model as it relates to their specific business. Going back to respect and credibility, that has created a different level of respect for the franchisees. They have a different respect for us, they know that we know what is going on in their world, and that we support them accordingly.

That opens up communication and tears down barriers.

HOW TO REACH: Closets by Design Inc., (888) 500-9215 or www.closetsbydesign.com