Michael Feuer

Monday, 26 October 2009 20:00

Putting lightning back in the bottle

Pick up the paper, turn on the TV or scan the Internet and, on any given day, it is a pretty good bet that you will learn about some superstar who is making a comeback — sometimes for the second or third time. Those that comprise this unique breed of cats could be rock or movie stars, athletes or politicians and, yes, even corporate entrepreneurs or executive whiz kids who have all but faded into the sunset.

The bigger question is: They may have done it once, but can these mere mortals do it again? There are numerous theories about why former stars who have made their mark on the world would want to risk reputation, money and self-esteem to grab for that elusive brass ring one more time.

Second chances at fame and fortune can require defying Mother Nature and the aging process, which is dicey. Periodically, sports overachievers seize the headlines with their resurrections. In business, which does not necessarily require as many physical attributes, the odds of a successful curtain call and standing ovation at the end of the day are somewhat improved over those for a super jock. That is because mental dexterity is required in commerce, rather than sheer physical skills and endurance.

Company founders and CEOs, or a combination thereof, can more easily pull off a second hit by following a disciplined straightforward process. It is not unheard of for an executive to do it right once and then repeat the success somewhere else. Within a year or two of a comeback attempt, the world knows if the business maestro did it or was a flop. Talk about putting a spotlight on one’s achievements or failure, and it does not get any better or worse than this.

Some businesspeople do it for the money. Nevertheless, I would bet that most do it because they strongly believe they can and are classic, calculating, risk-taking, type-A overachievers who want to show the world they aren’t one-act wonders.

My experience is that the best executives always have something to prove to themselves or somebody close to them. This provides the encore performer a strong incentive to jump back into the fray.

While building anything, one always makes mistakes. However, the biggest mistake is to repeat the previous error of omission or commission in an existing or new undertaking. There are numerous serial entrepreneurs who keep creating a growing string of successes. You can find them on Wall Street, in technology, retailing, manufacturing and the nonprofit world. Best known perhaps is Steve Jobs of Apple fame, who was also incredibly successful with Pixar, the animation geniuses, and NeXt, the higher education workstation developers. Entrepreneurs not nearly as famous as Steve Jobs have brought us multitechnology corporations and companies such as the original MCI followed by AirFone.

Each seem to have a common gene in their DNA that provides the ultimate high when they create/build a better mousetrap that fuels jobs, opportunities and financial security for themselves as well as their employees, supporters, investors and suppliers. The other common ingredients of serial achievers are that they need the bright lights, a stage and a fair amount of control. Very few are gun-slinger, hip-shooter types who come up with an idea and just follow their gut feelings.

Instead, the successful second-act players have honed their instinct and skills and created a series of methodical steps that they follow, each of which keeps them off the rocks. They understand the basics of how to get from A to Z while minimizing pain and wasted motions and maximizing available capital. Past experience teaches them where to put the time and effort and to ensure that they obtain the expected return.

This reincarnation is not limited to just CEOs and entrepreneurs. It is also prevalent among super salespeople and specialists of all sizes, shapes and types.

There is a rhythm to success and a maze to navigate. However, if they have done it before, there is a better than even chance that they can put the lightning back in the bottle once more. The much-celebrated crooner, Frank Sinatra, summarized it well when he sang “the best is yet to come.”

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988. Starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. Feuer is CEO of Max-Ventures, a retail venture capital/consulting firm, and co-founder and co-CEO of Max-Wellness, a new health care product retail chain concept that is launching in 2009. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009 20:00

Something has to give

There is a great oldie but goodie song, “Something’s Gotta Give,” that hit the top of the charts many years ago but still provides a valuable lesson for today. The basic thesis of this catchy ditty, applicable to any business, is that when an overwhelming force meets an immovable object to progress, there has to be movement.

Any time two groups with differing views get together, either they have to compromise or one side has to cave in order to move forward. The latter is not likely; therefore, the trick is to get off the dime as quickly as possible by removing that figurative blockade to get to the next step.

There are always two sides to every story and then the truth. Usually, in negotiations, both sides are convinced they’re righteous, fighting the fight for truth, justice and capitalism. This may result in an immovable object, with one side of the negotiations butting heads with an irrepressible force, as in the other side. After the early rounds of mental gymnastics and histrionics, typically inertia sets in and a wall emerges between the parties built on a foundation of emotions.

There is nothing wrong at the beginning of a discussion in seeing how much you can get in your favor. A hundred percent is great, but typically unattainable. We see it every day in offices, in the boardroom and, yes, the nursery school where two toddlers fight over the same toys. We all get the toy tug-of-war thing, but grown-ups behaving like nursery-school students becomes an exercise in futility, fueled by frustration. After the obligatory pushback, which is part of the deal-making process, it is time to stop, think and determine how to accomplish the goal of getting past the wall.

Essentially, it gets down to physics. If it is impossible to move the wall, those involved have to figure out how to go over, under or around whatever obstacle is blocking the path. One does not need to be a rocket scientist to do this. Just put yourself in the other side’s shoes and play out in your mind how you would react if you were the opponent being asked to do what has been proposed.

For example, if the problem is economics, think of what besides money you can use to sweeten the deal and get to a yes. It could be something as simple as agreeing to throw in a nonmonetary concession that makes the other side feel like they “won,” such as moving an office, changing a meeting venue or the like so that the guys whom you now view as wearing the black hats feel that they won something. It could be improved payment terms, free this or that, you fill in the blanks. Most business executives don’t know when to say when and will continue to fight for something that, at the end of the day, does not make enough of a difference or even matter in the bigger scheme of things. Fine-tuning your skills to discern when it is time to take a new tact is where real talent is required. It’s exhausting to the opposition and yourself when both sides start fighting for the sake of fighting and forget what the goal was when it all began. This happens frequently and aggravates everyone, wastes time and money and runs the risk of ruining a relationship or deal that would have been productive.

Watch for telltale signals in the negotiations and you will know when it is time to try a different strategy. Sure signs are when the other side starts muttering under their breath or rolling their eyes when you speak. Another good bet that all is not well is the sound of slamming doors and those across the table talking to one another in front of you but referring to you in the third-person as if you were not even in the room.

You can be the savior and the big winner by throwing out a “gimme” that provides creative alternatives so that the opponent feels better about the arrangements.

As the lyrics in the song reveal, “Fight, fight, fight it with all of (your) might. Chances are on some heavenly star-spangled night, you will find out, as sure as (you) live, something’s really got to give.” Most times, it is just a matter of reading the tea leaves to find a way to go over, under or around that immovable object by putting yourself in the other person’s place.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988. Starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. Feuer is CEO of Max-Ventures, a retail venture capital/consulting firm, and co-founder and co-CEO of Max-Wellness, a new health care product retail chain concept that is launching in 2009. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.

How many times have you heard about CEOs who espouse the theory that, in the larger scheme of things, seemingly smaller issues are not worthy of a Big Kahuna’s attention? Put another way, these top dogs keep telling themselves they don’t want to lose sight of the forest for the trees.

This concept of managing from 50,000 feet seems logical when times are good and sales cover a multitude of sins. However, history has proven that this type of detachment from the deceivingly mundane does not always work in practice when companies are travailing through difficult economic patches.

The streets are littered with the figurative carcasses of leaders who subscribed to this hands-off style, only to be dragged down by something that started as a whisper and built to a deafening shout. A small faux pas or error of omission or commission can grow exponentially. Unfortunately, in many organizations, it is just not CEO-ish to sweat the small stuff.

Here are a few infamous stumbles that probably started small but ultimately led to painful “flat-on-the-face” falls.

A bank executive in 2007 somewhere in a palatial office is talking to his or her loan officers stating, “There is nothing wrong with granting equity home loans to the creditworthy-challenged. So what if these poor schleps don’t have jobs or may never pay back a single debt? Give them the loans because it will help our bottom line, and if the borrowers default, who cares? By that time, we’ll have sold the loser loans to someone else or the property value will have gone up and we’ll be better off anyway.”

Famous last words.

How about the now infamous auto executives who flew to Washington on their majestic corporate jets in search of government handouts? No doubt they thought, “No one will notice the planes, and if they do, who cares anyway because we need to secure billions to survive, so what’s a few hundred large to fly a measly 395 miles each way.” The Big Three CEOs would have been smarter taking the Grey Dog (Greyhound Bus) to D.C.

Pretend you are a bug on the wall in the Oval Office around August 24, 2005, when the red phone rings and it’s Al Roker, America’s favorite weatherman, alerting the president to the pending precipitation that is expected to hit New Orleans in the form of Hurricane Katrina. The leader of the free world responds, “What’s a little rain? It can’t make a difference; no need to jump through hoops to prepare. Plus, isn’t a little water good for the grass?” Ask the people still living in FEMA trailers if they agree.

Who knows if there may have been a client of Bernie Madoff, the grand shyster of all shysters, who looked at his or her monthly statement and thought, “Gee, it’s strange that this statement is printed on paper more indigenous to a lavatory than a top-tier money management firm.” So what if the money market fund Madoff used and listed on the report didn’t inspire confidence because alongside the name was the fund’s slogan: “Find someone we paid and will pay you.” It’s a good bet the client dismissed these little details, fondly pondering the extraordinary month after month returns that America’s now most despicable con man claimed to achieve.

Each of these issues started small but ended big, hairy and very ugly. In business, every day, executives see things and too many neglect to anticipate the larger ramifications. Common thinking is, “Let my person call the other guy’s person and have them work it out.”

Successes are built on a series of small, seemingly inconsequential steps. However, not minding the details, thinking someone else a few levels below will catch it or relying on the good fairy to solve the issue just doesn’t cut it anymore. Apathy and turning a blind eye provide the makings for a perfect storm.

In today’s precarious and volatile business environment, leadership must set the tone and the standards. This includes paying attention, watching for warning signs, constantly looking for chinks in the armor and always asking the tough questions when something does not pass the smell test.

Many executives want to distance themselves from the nitty-gritty and deal from on high. The best CEOs, however, when necessary, act like hands-on managers to prevent a broken branch from becoming a falling tree that hits them in the head.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988. Starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. Feuer is CEO of Max-Ventures, a retail venture capital/consulting firm, and co-founder and co-CEO of Max-Wellness, a new health care product retail chain concept that is launching in 2009. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.

What would your first reaction be to this statement: “Keep your blankety-blank off the grass!” 

Wait, don’t answer yet. What would you think about this one? “We want everyone to enjoy our beautiful lawn, so let’s work together to keep it that way.” Unless you are a bully or just itching for a fight, the latter is clearly more preferable.

As our grandmothers taught us, you can catch more bees with honey. If we agree with this premise, then why does management so often begin with the negatives and go downhill from there?

Think about the communications in your organization and how many assertions start with a negative followed by a litany of unpleasant consequences. Many leaders think it’s more forceful and expedient to say it like it is and simply cut to the chase. They fall into the bad habit of starting with, for example: “If we don’t increase sales in the next month, we might have to lay off many of you,” or, “We either save money on expenses, or we go down the tubes.” Sure, these get the point across, but they also set a pugnacious tone that (1) confirms that management is a bunch of knuckleheads who think they are above everyone else, (2) triggers an action-reaction almost taunting the recipient to do exactly the opposite, or (3) results in the entire message being tuned out.

The key to effective management is accomplishing objectives through others. To do so, however, managers must effectively communicate what must be accomplished. A good initial step is to treat people as participants/partners in the process as a part of the solution, not the cause of the problem.

If your people aren’t responding to your messages look in the mirror. Instead of blaming your employees, determine if your directives are providing clarity and the appropriate motivation.

Ask yourself how you would want to be told something important. You surely won’t want to be told to do something or face dire consequences without an explanation. Frequently, management does not give employees enough credit for having the ability to grasp the obvious. Fact is, you can jump-start acceptance by explaining the issue and the anticipated fix using a logical, positive tone, focusing on the good, rather than the bad.

However, and there are always howevers, if the first communiqué does not elicit the expected action then put the honey in the cupboard and move to plan B. If the first sweet-laced mandate was ignored by some, then home in on those who might need a trip to the woodshed to understand what you really meant. Target your second message to the noncompliant laggards with the old-school, stronger-style message, as in, “What part of no didn’t you understand?” Unless these tardy adopters are dumber than a stump, the light bulb between their ears, with a little nudge, will flash, and they’ll likely fall in line.

It’s also very important to understand in most cases that the medium is the message. This means that the vehicle or venue you select to deliver your directive is just as important as the message itself. Delivering a serious concern about sales would be inappropriate as a part of your presentation at, say, a company awards event. Good news should be presented in an upbeat setting, while subjects that are more serious should be delivered in an environment that conveys the message as strictly business.

For instance, send an important message in an e-mail with a grabber subject line that reads “Immediate Attention Required, Confidential Information About Our Company’s Future.” Alternatively, a statement of consequence could be presented verbally by senior management to a small or even larger group after which attendees would be handed an envelope bearing their name with a reprint of the points delivered verbally. This adds credibility and significance to the message. However, remember a serious message can still be delivered in a positive tone.

Finally, if all else fails, you can always revert to the no-holds-barred technique of starting out with, “Keep your blankety-blank of the grass or there won’t be any grass for you to walk on.” Most times, the honey will work and your employees will respect you for being positive, yet forthright. If it comes to the stick and the woodshed, at least you will get credit for trying, and the good people will appreciate your follow-through and know that you are not merely a paper tiger.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988. Starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. Feuer is CEO of Max-Ventures, a retail venture capital/consulting firm, and co-founder and co-CEO of Max-Wellness, a new health care product retail chain concept that is launching in 2009. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009 20:00

Enough is enough

Since last fall, businesses, both big and small, at times, have been flying blind, trying to avoid the unprecedented proliferation of economic hazards. Solutions that worked in the past to counter disruptions proved to be ineffective. The first reaction was to hunker down and prepare for the next wave of troubles, not knowing whether it was going to get uglier and uglier before it got better.

Executives in most cases did what it took to prepare, preserve market share, serve customers and save money like never before. Furloughs and outright permanent reductions in force were the actions du jour in this new era of dealing with the unknown.

A natural part of this survival mode was for management to remind employees how bad it was, how it could get even worse, and why everybody must pull together and do whatever it takes to fight another day. These battle cries included dire prognostications, some subtle and some not so subtle, that there could be more bad news on the horizon.

At this point, every employee on the planet, unless he or she has been working alone in a cave, gets it. They understand all too well that they should be thankful to have a job. People now know that the true definition of a recession is when their neighbor is out of work; a depression is when they are out of work. Today, everybody is worried about his or her job, future and economic well-being.

Enough is enough! It is time to take a break and count your organization’s blessings. It is time to tell your employees about what is good and what is working in the company. It’s time to recount the remembrances/milestones that contributed to your past successes — people that made a difference, events that changed your destiny.

Pick a day in the coming weeks and announce that your company is celebrating “good news day.” The objective is to commemorate the positives and recognize the successes. Remember, in the worst of the worst situations, there’s always something encouraging, even if it is only the fact that the company has still kept the lights on. Most organizations, however, have much to be optimistic about — be it a roster of clients (so what if they pay a little slowly), a proprietary process or technology, or a brand that people know and occasionally even buy.

Make your own list — and speed counts. Your team needs to hear the sunnier side from top management now. For your good news day, plan a lunch, an afternoon session with refreshments, or if your business is on the critical list economically, simply gather everybody together in a room and start talking, sans the goodies. Put up some posters listing the top 10 things that are good or could turn positive in the future. This is the time for showmanship, some theatrics — and a bit of humor can’t hurt either.

Speak from the heart and the gut. Tell your people what they do better than anyone else does. If you need help in your presentation, all you need do is turn on cable TV in the middle of the night and watch the evangelists do their thing. (You probably cannot sleep anyway with all your problems, so put your time to good use.) These silver-tongued proselytizers make the best salesperson look like a clerk in a flea market.

It’s not practical to promise your people that there will be no more pain, be no more layoffs and that the good times are ready to roll. However, you can promise them that you will communicate with them often, always reporting the good, along with the bad and the ugly.

Most employees can deal with anything, as long as they get the facts and the company treats them like adults, rather than feeding them a lot of corporate mumbo jumbo that raises more questions than answers.

Your employees need to know that there is always hope and good stuff to come even in the darkest times. What they want to hear from you is, “this too shall pass,” be it next year or in the years ahead.

A brief hiatus from the doom and gloom will go a long way in breaking the seemingly never-ending chain of despair. More than ever before, your employees and associates need something to celebrate that accentuates the positive and temporarily eliminates the negative.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988. Starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. Feuer is CEO of Max-Ventures, a retail venture capital/consulting firm, and co-founder and co-CEO of Max-Wellness, a new health care product retail chain concept that is launching in 2009. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.

Friday, 26 October 2007 20:00

First impressions

Companies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to make the right first impression of communicating who they are and what they stand for. Before a box of cereal reaches the grocery store, scores of “experts” already decided what that particular shade of pink on the box might mean to the buyer. Does it stand for warm and fuzzy or wimpy and weak? One of the key answers depends on if the customer is a man, woman or child.

With all of this money being invested in the packaging of the product, it is startling to realize how little thought, time and effort are spent on packaging the “packager” — the person presenting the products, goods or services.

Over the years, business has evolved in terms of expectations of how associates dress in the workplace. I prefer to call it “packaging the person.” From the mid-1960s through the 1980s, business attire for men meant a suit, tie and any color shirt as long as it was white. For women, it was heels, pantyhose, and mid-calf- or knee-length dresses.

The mid-1990s ushered in the new Silicon Valley dress code that was defined as “whatever floated your boat.” To exude coolness and confidence, the extreme power players dressed in the new ultracasual business look, which meant wrinkly khakis and T-shirts with provocative messages or two-word expletives emblazoned on the shirt. Shoes were optional. Anyone wearing socks was immediately labeled a nerd. This look spread from Northern California’s valley of high technology to Wall Street’s Lower Manhattan faster than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s worst expectations of what might happen one day with the bird flu. Then one day some executives must have mused, “Hey, business is soft, earnings are in the dumper and production is down. It must be the way our people dress.”

These geniuses probably never thought the cause could be bad financing, poor quality and dumb management decisions. On the heels of this epiphany came the “dot-com crash,” and the Wall Street types were issued mandates that wrinkled khakis and T-shirts were now only appropriate for cleaning the garage and not for schmoozing customers. As they say, “What comes around goes around.”

So, what is the right look for your organization? The decision must be made on what you’re selling and how you want to package yourself and your team to make that right first impression. Before you utter your obligatory greeting, the customer has already formed an impression, not only of you and/or your representatives but also of the organization. The first key to the haberdashery puzzle is whether one is the buyer or seller. The buyer usually has the edge and can dress as he chooses — often extremely informally. The savvy buyer understands, however, that conveying an image of power and authority might eventually help tip the scale when the negotiating process commences.

If you want to create an image of decisiveness, intellect and expertise, it’s hard to beat the traditional business look. This is particularly apropos when selling abstracts and intangible services when, in fact, brainpower is the product. If you’re selling the very chic iPhone, then a black turtleneck and jeans work just fine — Thank you very much, Steve Jobs.

When we started my company, not only did we not have much money, but we also worked out of an office where the rent was $1 per square foot, and we were probably overpaying. No doubt, the impression from this corporate headquarters was “nouveau poor.” Attempting to overcome this deficiency on the first day, I wore my best business suit. The other six people who joined me in this start-up appeared in jeans, golf shirts and flip-flops. As I welcomed the team for our first meeting, I ignored superficial appearances and cut to the chase about what we had to do and by when — before the money ran out. A funny thing happened on the second day; a couple of the folks showed up dressed-to-win, and then a few days thereafter, the balance chose to adopt our “corporate look.” What they realized, as I did, was that if nothing else, at least we had to look the part. We had to show others that we were the real deal, knew our stuff and had it together.

The trick is to set standards and know when it is appropriate for traditional business garb versus a casual look. Instead of “business attire” or “business casual,” your dress code should be known as “business ready,” so that the total package reflects the contents and you maximize your four-second opportunity to make the best first impression.

MICHAEL FEUER co-founded OfficeMax in 1988 with a friend and partner. Starting with one store during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide, with annual sales approximating $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. Feuer immediately launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a retail/consumer products venture capital operating and consulting firm headquartered in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.

Sunday, 30 September 2007 20:00

One bite at a time

What do eating an elephant and building a business have in common? You eat an elephant and build a business the same way — one bite at a time.

Executives and leaders with common sense and the awareness of their own vulnerability have all had that sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach when the size and scope of a pending project or major undertaking suddenly become overwhelming. Be it starting with a blank piece of paper to create a plan for a new business or revitalizing a tired product line, the reality can run chills down the back of the most seasoned and stoic chieftains.

To get started with one of the bigger meals of your career, first, you need to have the idea and conjure up a big picture of what has to be done. As in photography, when you pull back to get the entire subject in the frame, it always looks bigger and more daunting than it really is.

However, once you get the picture in focus and zoom in on the subject, you start to crystallize the individual pieces and parts but not the entire, if you will, elephant. A close-up of each cross section or smaller piece launches the building process.

You always begin by including all the bells and whistles. From there, you rationalize the project not only economically, but also in terms of the time and resources needed to get the job done. However, before you put pencil to paper, this question must be answered: When the new initiative is up and running, will it produce as promised, satisfying the return on investment criterion, and will it serve the end-users by offering something special that they will want and need?

Simple enough, but what do you do once you have the big picture, know the returns and have satisfied yourself that it is worth the pain and strain to complete the effort?

The next step is where our “one bite at a time” proverb really comes into play. If you pull back and look only at the big picture, you are likely to be so riddled with second thoughts, and possibly overcome with fear of failure, that you will put this well-conceived effort on the back burner or, worse yet, scuttle it altogether.

The trick is what piece to start on first. Initially, logic would suggest starting at the bottom with the foundation and then building up, step by step. It makes sense, but sometimes taking the traditional route is not the most efficient, nor the most effective.

Creating is not always a linear process. Many times, you can start eating that elephant simultaneously from the top, bottom and middle with different teams focusing on various tasks. Many movies are shot out of sequence, meaning that it is not unusual to film the end or middle of a movie before the opening scenes. That same strategy can apply to building a business.

It just may be more economical to begin with the middle or end parts for a variety of good reasons, such as the immediate availability of specialized resources or materials.

Here’s an example. In opening stores, there are teams assigned specific aspects of the project, such as designing the building, laying out the interior, buying the merchandise, creating the grand opening ad campaign, etc. — with each team doing its own thing concurrently.

In the final stages, it takes only a few days or weeks for the fixtures, merchandising and marketing dots to be connected. When they are, the doors are unlocked and management prays that since it was built, customers will come.

It’s mandatory that you decide upfront who is responsible for what. Make sure everyone involved has seen the picture of the entire elephant and understands what it is supposed to look like at the end.

Include all of the objectives, the financials and other parameters. To be sure no one goes off the reservation, set up checks and balances by having constant communication with predetermined checkpoints and formally scheduled all-hands meetings.

Don’t have any illusions. While eating your elephant, I guarantee you’ll have some indigestion. No worries, though — that’s why Rolaids were invented.

And always keep in mind that if you’re in charge, you are also the one who is responsible for walking behind the elephant with the broom and shovel. It’s just biological that with animals and projects, there are always things that need to be cleaned up and kept tidy.

Life is sometimes one big puzzle, and so is creating a business or managing a process. At that moment when all of the pieces fit together, you’ll have that “Aha!” sensation of knowing that your dream has become a reality. If you follow these steps, dessert will be sweet success.

MICHAEL FEUER co-founded OfficeMax in 1988 with a friend and partner. Starting with one store during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide, with annual sales approximating $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. Feuer immediately launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a retail/consumer products venture capital operating and consulting firm headquartered in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.

Sunday, 26 August 2007 20:00

Building team unity

We often overuse the French phrase “esprit de corps,” which literally means “the common spirit existing in the members of a group.”

Today, it is most commonly used to express a sense of enthusiasm, solidarity and loyalty for a shared purpose or goal. It sounds good, but when companies try to develop this team-unity-type atmosphere, most fall woefully short simply because just saying the words won’t make it so.

Virtually every entity that has two or more people claims that its very foundation is built on team-work. The reality, however, is that teamwork must be nurtured day in and day out in the way a group undertakes every meaningful task. This applies whether the undertaking is building a huge bridge over a river or running a corner grocery store.

The streets are littered with companies whose wheels fell off the wagon because everyone in the company had his or her own agenda, instead of working together and focusing on the common cause for the greater good. Many leaders of these failed companies may have had their own play-book for self-enrichment and gratification. Others have simply failed to communicate with their team on how to get from Point A to Point B.

What are the best methods for well-intentioned leaders who want to build esprit de corps for their company of thousands or for their work group of just two or three? The number of participants may vary, but the techniques in building teamwork are the same.

First, the leader must set the direction of what is to be accomplished. Sounds pretty simple, but it’s amazing how many top executives and even mid-level managers play their cards so close to the vest that the people who have to do the work don’t have a clue as to why.

One method of establishing direction and goals is to make it a multifaceted process broken down into simple time frames. An effective and easy way to communicate and measure is to use six months for initial start-up objectives, a year to 18 months for intermediate goals, and everything after that becomes longer term.

Of course, the time frame you use depends on what has to be accomplished. Firefighters measure objectives in minutes, while the successful completion of a major highway construction project spans years. Team members can be motivated when they can see the finish line, rather than being told that there is one out there somewhere around the curve.

Next, get your team members to buy in to why it is they are doing what you want done. Make sure that everyone knows how you keep score of wins and losses, and I strongly suggest that some of the initial goals be more easily attainable than those that are longer term.

Once your players know they can win, it will spur them on and give them the strength to get to the next step. There is nothing wrong if, as the wins start piling up more quickly than originally expected, you raise the bar as your team becomes fueled by the thrill of victory.

As the coach, you need to have daily, weekly or monthly pep rallies. It is also critical that you identify and then empower team captains who will help propel the mission and perpetuate the message.

We all know, however, that there are many pitfalls in building an organization and instilling a sense of pride and purpose. The biggest destroyer of creating esprit de corps is the indiscriminate use of the first-person pronouns. It is nearly impossible to motivate a team to work together if you, as the leader, continually overuse the words “I,” “me” and “mine,” instead of “we,” “us” and “ours.”

We have all heard statements from otherwise very bright people, who almost smugly assert, “I did this,” or, “my company did that,” instead of employing the royal “we” or “our.” When a leader boasts about a recent accomplishment by stating, “I am pleased to announce ...” he is sure to deflate the most zealous team player who will think to himself, “What am I on this team — chopped liver?”

It has been said many times that it’s amazing how much people can get done if they don’t worry about who gets the credit. We have all heard the statement that there is no “I” in team, which rings true as most successful leaders get the most satisfaction in knowing they pulled everyone together to go in the same direction at the same time to accomplish a shared goal.

There is a big payoff for the leader who knows how and when to use the correct pronouns, starting with less use of “me” and more emphasis on “we.”

MICHAEL FEUER co-founded OfficeMax in 1988 with a friend and partner. Starting with one store during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide, with annual sales approximating $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. Feuer immediately launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a retail/consumer products venture capital operating and consulting firm headquartered in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007 20:00

When the flame flickers

The headline on this column is not an indication that the subject of my column is moving from business matters to affairs of the heart. I have enough trouble with the free-enterprise system and navigating its various tributaries; I’ll leave romance to philosophers, poets, pseudo-psychologists and Dear Abby.

What I am exploring is knowing what to watch for when a subordinate, associate, or yes, even you — the C-level professional/entrepreneurial owner with ice running through your veins — starts to get a notion that something inside has changed. It might start in the back of your mind as a little whisper and eventually build to a shout.

Without warning, it seems as if cold water has inexplicably doused that incessant burning in the belly that awakens overachievers in the morning and gnaws at them until they reluctantly let go and drift off to sleep. Fueling that constant internal flame is the search for a better way, a scheme on how to one-up the competition or to take one for the team under the sometimes sophomoric assumption that to die figuratively for the company is to live forever.

Almost out of the blue, you realize something has changed. At first, you probably think it’s that virus that’s going around. You’re lethargic. Your thinking isn’t as sharp as it has been. Your mind, for no apparent reason, wanders from ROIs, gross margins and the bottom line to abstract, granular thoughts as in white sandy beaches.

If this bug strikes you and you’re an owner/entrepreneur or top C-level executive, at first you think you’re just tired. You rationalize that after a few days away or a couple of good nights’ sleep, you’ll bounce back like the bull in the shop, kicking behinds and taking names. However, after several extra-long weekends off, you come back more lethargic. In meetings, instead of using your steel-trap mind to capture every word, concept and nuance, your thoughts drift to unrelated matters. You leave the meeting knowing that if someone put a .45 to your head and said, “Give me a one-minute synopsis of what was discussed or you’re toast,” you’d reply, “Get the butter and jelly.”

What gives? The answer is that the flame is flickering and, in the heat of battle, instead of your temperature rising, that high thermostat reading just makes you sweat. Welcome to Burnout City. It can happen to the best of us — your employees, your friends and even to you.

The good news is that there are steps you can take to refocus. You can try to reignite, and if that doesn’t work, you can extinguish the flame, but do it your way. The truth is that you can have it both ways, depending on where you are in your career, what you’re doing and, most important, what remains undone.

In business, the worst affliction is the “mediocrity malady.” It happens when you subtly switch to autopilot and go on cruise control. I call it “quit and stay.” This is not fair to your company, your associates and, especially, you.

When you spot the early warning signs in a subordinate who had been a superstar, give him or her a challenging assignment that might get the juices flowing again. I have never found that lightening the workload helps people re-engage and bounce back. Instead, it just delays the inevitable. You will know if it’s working when the A player begins arriving at work a little earlier and staying a lot later.

Bags under the eyes are another good sign, since it probably means that the born-again superstar has contracted the 3 a.m. syndrome. Instead of sleeping through the night, he or she is back to thinking in terms such as EBITDA, P&Ls and the like.

If you are the one afflicted, the same concept of taking on a new and energizing challenge is an effective treatment and antidote. Immediately begin delegating more, including the lofty aspects of your job that you once coveted, and start planning a new concept, an acquisition or a merger. Make sure that it is challenging — the bigger the better — and that you have established tight deadlines.

If, after this, you still find that the flame is almost out, it’s time to take that alternative fork in the road and map an exit strategy that leaves the place a little better than when you got there. In business, as in love, it all comes down to dealing with alternatives and making choices.

The end can sometimes be an exciting new beginning. Remember, your work is what you do, not who you are. Many a smoldering fire has reignited into a burning blaze; you just need to fan the flame a bit.

MICHAEL FEUER is co-founder of OfficeMax, which he started in 1988 with one store and $20,000 of his own money, along with a then-partner and group of private investors. During 16 years as CEO, he grew the company to almost 1,000 stores with sales approximating $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. In 2004, Feuer launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a venture capital operating firm that focuses on buying control and/or making substantial investments in retail-oriented businesses and businesses that serve retail. Reach Feuer with comments at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.

Monday, 26 March 2007 20:00

Managing rumors

Rumors have been around since the beginning of time. While some are based on fact, many are predicated on fantasy and are cobbled together with a smattering of relevant information, combined with doses of the unsubstantiated.

Politicians are frequently masters of using rumors to float trial balloons to test reactions, running ideas up the flagpole to see if voters salute. Corporate executives run a close second to elected servants with this type of “opinion research.”

Many times, people launch a rumor knowing they have a safety net to prevent a boomerang effect by maintaining plausible deniability. As in “Mission Impossible,” the tape concludes with, “If you are discovered, the secretary of this secret team will disavow knowledge of your actions.”

The voice then asserts the tape will self-destruct, followed by a boom.

Rumors can be nefarious, a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) used against the naive or unprepared. Stock touts have used rumors since trading began to entice others into buying or selling a stock with the hope that its price will move to benefit the perpetrator.

Others are mere gossipmongers who take information out of context.

Every company has to deal with rumors, ranging from the benign to the cataclysmic, threatening the very foundation and credibility of the company.

It’s usually difficult to determine the origin of rumors. For example, participants at a trade show might hear a rumor about a competitor, then they repeat it to suppliers. The next competitor embellishes the story for his or her own benefit at the expense of the rumor’s target.

If you are the subject of negative rumors, it’s more important to launch damage control than to unearth the source. These harmful tales can take on a life of their own as they gain momentum and mutate, spawning other subplots.

Rumors can strike out of the blue. For example, you’re looking at results for the past week, which, for once, might hit the target. You’re breathing easier, and your perennial chest palpitations are gone. You’re thinking that life is good, and your worst fears that the ship would sink on your watch are fading.

But your bubble bursts when the phone rings and it’s your biggest customer asking if there is anything to the word on the street that the bank is calling your loan and you won’t be able to meet customers’ production requirements.

Instantly, the palpitations are back, as perspiration drips down the back of your neck.

Your first response is, “Where did you hear this idiotic story?” But the customer just wants to know if it’s true and, if it’s not, how you can give him the assurance he needs to continue to do business with your company.

You ask Mr. Big Customer to hold while you get your banker on the line. You then conference together Mr. Banker and your “can’t afford to lose, or you’re out of business” customer. You restate the rumor, ask the banker to confirm that the bank has no issues with your company, and the customer thanks you for providing reassurance.

Next, you summon your senior team and explain what happened so that everyone is on the same page. Simultaneously, you dictate a note to your salespeople outlining this issue and how to handle inquiries, providing a list of possible customer questions, along with answers.

If you think there is a reasonable chance your other large customers might hear this story, get them on the phone, tell them what happened and offer to have your banker call them directly. Your customers will appreciate your decisiveness, candor and the respect you gave them by bringing them into the loop. You also showed them leadership and that you are in control.

The only real rule for handling rumors is this: Don’t put your head in the sand and hope the problem goes away. Instead, deal with the issue head-on and get your pertinent players involved from the get-go.

Always place yourself in the other guy’s shoes by trying to understand what he needs to know to assuage his concerns. When you do it right, with a ferocious sense of urgency, you’ll have managed the rumor and possibly turned it into an advantage by solidifying your credibility with your customers.

WMDs can do huge damage, whether they’re real or only imagined. Rumors can have the same effect unless you know how to react and manage the process.

MICHAEL FEUER is co-founder of OfficeMax, which he started in 1988 with one store and $20,000 of his own money, along with a then-partner and group of private investors. During 16 years as CEO, he grew the company to almost 1,000 stores with sales approximating $5 billion before selling it for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. In 2004, Feuer launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a venture capital operating firm that focuses on buying control and/or making substantial investments in retail-oriented businesses and businesses that serve retail. Reach Feuer with comments at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.