Kristy J. OHara

Wednesday, 31 August 2011 20:01

All-star leadership

In June, a crowd gathered at the Firestone Country Club to hear former

Cleveland Indians baseball player André Thornton talk at the Smart Business Power Players Akron luncheon.

But the former two-time All-Star wasn’t talking about his 21 years playing professional baseball but rather the past four years of business experience as president and CEO of ASW Global LLC, a supply chain management company.

Thornton has gained a reputation of leading with faith-based values, integrity and humility.

“It’s not hard to be humble,” he says. “It depends on what you’re measuring yourself against. I can measure myself against someone I think I stand higher than and feel very good about myself, but the standard on which I measure myself, that has a lot to do with my faith, is one who is holy. It doesn’t take much to be humble when I know the thoughts that go through my mind. That keeps your feet on the ground.”

He says it’s easier to be humble when you recognize your limitations, which is something he learned from being a professional athlete.

“You recognize what you can do and what you can’t do,” he says. “I have no qualms about what I can’t do, finding someone who can help me do that and not feel diminished. I think you have to recognize that more than anything else. I’ve run across a lot of arrogant people in business and athletics, but there is nobody who can do it all. I don’t care how smart they are — they all need help. If you keep that in mind, it also helps to keep your feet grounded.”

Getting a good team is one of four keys he’s found to success in business. In fact, it took a year and a half to bring together the right team when he bought the company in 2007.

The second is to make sure they have the right strategy. The strategy has to fit the capabilities they have now and the opportunities to compete against larger players.

“It was vital to do that if we want to perform at the level we want to perform at,” he says. “We’re competing against some very capable companies around the world. … Nobody’s going to give us any business. They might like the fact that I hit some home runs, but nobody’s giving us business because I hit home runs. They may have opened the door to see who’s outside, but they haven’t given business.”

The third key is finding access to the right resources, whether that’s talent, equipment, financing or whatever.

“You have to have access to those resources, and you have to have the kind of network that if we don’t have it available to us at our fingertips today, we know how to get it shortly,” Thornton says.

The fourth key is you have to provide the kind of rewards and motivation that keep your people excited about coming back every day. He says to let people know that you can’t win without them.

“No matter what I think of my own talents, I can’t get the job done without them,” he says.

If you don’t encourage people, recognize them for their achievements and literally say, “Thank you for doing a good job,” people won’t feel appreciated.

“When you go to organizations that are struggling, people are murmuring, there’s backbiting, all those kinds of things; you’ll find the underlying thing is many of them don’t feel appreciated for what they do,” he says.

When he focuses on all four of these elements, then he knows he’s on the right track.

He says, “Those are the things that, for me, I have to make sure are happening within our organization because that gives us the chance to be successful within the playing field we operate in.”

How to reach: ASW Global LLC, (888) 363-8492 or www.aswglobal.com

Wednesday, 31 August 2011 20:01

Jim Aronoff’s tips for cultural change

Thompson Hine LLP has always been a law firm focused on client service, but Jim Aronoff says that if you go back about seven years, the firm decided to develop not just a strategy but rather a culture of client service to differentiate it from the competition.

Aronoff, now partner-in-charge of the Cleveland office, was part of a small pilot group that got together with about a half dozen of the firm’s most significant clients from around the country to talk about their views, concerns and hot-button issues. They also discussed how the firm could better partner with them, and they ultimately developed a client service pledge that the firm would serve the clients the best way it could. Fast forward a few years, and now that client service pledge is the culture of the organization and guiding the firm into the future.

“It’s one thing to roll it out and get the buy-in, but then it’s conducting it day by day,” he says. “As time goes along, no one thinks about what it was like before we had a client service pledge and before we had client service teams.”

Additionally, the firm has been recognized as one of the top two firms in the country for client service.

Smart Business spoke with Aronoff about how to create a customer-first culture in your organization.

How do you create a culture focused on customers?

From my perspective, there’s nothing proprietary about it. It is common sense. It’s how everyone and how our clients should be treated and how they should expect to be treated.

You need to find ways to communicate with and, most important, listen to your clients, your customers. There is this natural inclination to sell and to market. To truly be effective and successful in client and customer service, you have to be able to listen to and understand the particular needs of your particular client or customer and focus your efforts in that way. That’s really step one.

What’s the next step?

It is essential that each component of your business and all of the employees who are going to be involved in delivering the service in whatever way it is, there has to be effective buy-in and training. Essentially, it needs to become part of your day-to-day culture.

We spent a great deal of time getting comfortable internally that we had effectively trained and had the right orientation internally to execute on our program before we were prepared to roll it out, because we take our commitments very seriously.

How do you get the buy-in across the organization?

It was somewhat methodical. It was a firmwide initiative. You’re talking about a firm of 400 lawyers. We started with the partners, and we had a number of sessions where we did stand-alone in each office and then by videoconference amongst the offices. It ultimately culminated in conjunction with our annual partners’ meeting where all of our partners were together, and we spent the better part of a weekend retreat focused almost exclusively on client service.

As we got the partners buy-in, it was a process of rolling it out to our nonpartner lawyers through developing an implementation plan and understanding the little things and the big things — from answering your phone, or if you’re not in your office that your phone is forwarded to your assistant to cut out the number of rings before a client would get a live person. Our nonprofessional staff had to be part of that equation because each activity that goes on in our office, whether it be our senior-most partner, any of our secretarial staff or our other support services — everybody is, in some fashion, contributing to the delivery of our client service, and if we fall down at any level, then we can’t deliver the level of service that we have committed to deliver and that our clients are entitled to. That’s why it took as long as it did. It wasn’t like we got a small group of people together and they agreed, ‘Yeah, this makes sense,’ and just put it out there. It was a very organized program over a decent amount of time.

The bottom line is you have to live it every day because you can undo a lot of goodwill very quickly.

How to reach: Thompson Hine LLP, (216) 566-5500 or www.thompsonhine.com

Like every company, each day at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, all of the law firm’s employees walk out the door. They head home into the sunset to relax with their families, watch TV and pursue their outside hobbies and interests. And each night, as all of his employees leave, Ken Menges has to hope they’ll all come back the following day.

“The first thing that has to be accepted in a law firm or any other professional services firm, be it consulting or accounting, is that all of your assets are your people,” he says. “All the people leave every night and you hope they come back the next day. Having a real people-focused approach that tries to empower not only good quality work but also some creativity is one of my challenges.”

As partner in charge of the Dallas office of the $735.5 million firm, he strives to make sure his people are happy, and while a lot of leaders say that, Menges actually makes himself vulnerable to ensure that he really is doing that. So when the American Lawyer publication started polling lawyers across the country to rank the best firms to work for, many became skittish about it.

“Some law firms, reasonably so, saw that as potentially threatening — ‘What are people going to say about us? We have no control. Should we encourage people to participate or not?’” he says.

While other firms debated whether or not to allow their employees to participate, Menges sent a clear message to his team: Fill it out. But then he took it a step further and decided to create his own survey internally and ask questions about the leadership — meaning mostly him — and how different support functions were doing.

“I was greeted with some skepticism from peers that says, ‘Why in the world would you ask for an anonymous evaluation about you and others? It’s a free shot that people are going to take in terms of being critical,’” he says. “There have been a couple of free shots, but it’s been overwhelmingly constructive, and it’s another way of trying to experiment with initiatives that can expand how people see their own role and also, by the way, help us improve our delivery of services and the quality of life that we have.”

Create a system

While there was a risk in beginning to survey his employees directly, Menges was prepared to do things the right way, meaning he would have very little control over the process.

“Most of all, put it in the hands of people who have ownership of the survey, which is the associates,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to let these brilliant young people that you’ve hired … run something like a survey.”

He formed a committee composed entirely of associates whom his employees picked. He also had a few partners serve simply to be a resource for answering their questions and helping facilitate their initiatives.

He recognizes that it may be scary at first to put something like a companywide survey into the hands of your associates.

“The first time it happens, you hold your breath and cross your fingers,” he says. “You try to emphasize that we’re a professional organization, this is intended to be a constructive exercise, and then you realize that our clients are trusting these same people to handle multimillion-dollar matters in transactions and in lawsuits, and when you realize that you’re asking your clients to accept the quality and judgment of these same people, it becomes a lot easier.”

He challenged them to have questions that covered himself and the senior staff people in the Dallas office. American Lawyer typically doesn’t ask very many questions because it’s crucial they get a good response rate.

“The more questions you put out, the fewer people actually stick around to finish it,” Menges says.

But he isn’t interested in traditional logic — he wants to know as much as he can so he asks as many questions as will allow him to get the information he needs. This is typically about 45 to 50 questions centered on detailed aspects of the firm, including training, relationships with mentors and views of partnership chances.

The reason why there are so many questions is simply that they ask some of the questions in multiple ways to make sure they get a true understanding of employees’ feelings on the matter.

“You could hire a consultant to come in and talk to those same people and compile a report and pay a bunch of money or you could simply ask the people in a varied and intelligent way — not just asking the question one way but trying to get at different aspects to make sure you’ve covered the waterfront and really potentially improve the organization,” Menges says.

It’s also important to make sure you ask questions that will really help your organization improve.

“Think hard about what you already know about your organization,” he says. “What do you hear? What’s your reputation? Are you considered generous in terms of compensation or less generous compared to other firms?”

Using what you already know about your organization can help you frame the right questions to get the responses you need to make necessary changes.

Additionally, you can have all the questions in the world on your survey, but if people don’t answer them, you’ll never get the results you need, so you have to ensure you set up the survey in such a way that they’ll respond.

“Guaranteeing the anonymity of these surveys is critical,” Menges says.

None of the partners touch the surveys, and the results are sent to a separate website that only the associate committee has access to.

“They never see all the individual responses, because there’s a concern that the way a person filled it in or worded certain things, it might identify them,” he says.

Listen

After each survey is completed, Menges approaches the results with an open mind and willingness to listen.

“You always learn something when you ask for feedback,” he says. “You may not like what you learn and you may not agree with the statements that are made, but even in those cases, you’re learning about important, usually strongly held feelings that someone trying to manage your organization should be aware of.”

Within a month to six weeks after the survey closes, the associate committee will create a detailed PowerPoint presentation that shows the survey results. They present it through PowerPoint so that he and the leadership aren’t seeing actual surveys or accessing the site they shouldn’t have access to.

“We compare the results to previous years’ responses to similar questions so we can tell if, among the associates filling out the survey, the number of people who are more or less optimistic about, say, their partnership prospects, which way it’s moving,” he says.

Then he tries to correlate that to what’s actually going on in the firm and outside it. On that same topic of partnership chances, he’ll look at if the firm made fewer or more partners that year as compared to previous years to see if that affected the responses. He’ll also look if the economy got stronger or weaker and then try to figure out ways to improve their communications about that topic so employees have more clarity on the matter. He provides them with a quarterly update to talk about developments around the firm and address any issues he feels are important to focus on as a result of those survey results.

For example, if more than half the associates think they will make partner in the next five years, he may realize he needs to communicate more about what it takes to become partner, because the statistics regarding how many people are made partner would not support that many people reaching that level. As such, he may feel they need to be more realistic about their chances, because it’s such a difficult honor to achieve.

As they increase communication, make improvements and address things they learn in the survey, Menges’ committee adjusts the next one.

“From year to year, the questions are sometimes tweaked to address developments we’ve done in terms of firm policies or office practices to gauge our success at that,” he says.

Over the years, Menges has learned a lot about the organization and thinks that the survey has been extremely helpful.

“It’s been one of the best things we’ve done, because I think it’s critical in any organization, but particularly in one where you’re asking people to constantly monitor what’s concerning them and what’s motivating or demotivating them,” he says. “An annual survey is just one tool in that, but it’s a really good one.”

On top of that, having an annual survey helps ensure that his people continue to return each day.

“It’s just part of human nature that people like to have some influence over their environment, particularly when they work as hard as all of our people do,” he says. “It’s one thing for everyone to state they have an open-door policy — so whenever you have an issue, come on in my office, and I’ll always be there to listen. In practice, there needs to be some more formal, regular structure to bolster that, even if it’s a true statement that the organization’s leader has an open-door policy.”

Menges always professed to have an open-door policy, but he also recognizes that it’s usually a first- or second-year lawyer who would saunter in to give him a piece of his or her mind about something.

“The survey allows for that to happen,” he says. … “The questions aren’t preapproved or censored. If someone has something on their chest, they want to get off their chest, they can fire away. I think that’s just healthy for an organization.”

How to reach: Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, (214) 969-2800 or (817) 886-5060 or www.akingump.com

Ken Menges, partner in charge, Dallas office, Akin Gump

Born: Louisville, Ky. My parents got tired of it and moved six weeks later.  My father was an electrical engineer, and it seemed that when I was growing up that he got a new and better job in a different part of the country every five or six years. So we moved from Louisville when I was 6 weeks old to Baltimore. We moved six years later to New Hampshire, and we moved five years later to Dallas, where I attended high school here in Richardson, and then they moved off again but they stopped in Arizona.

Education: B.S.B.A., Boston University; J.D., Harvard Law School

Did you want to come back to Dallas or did your career just take you there?

I loved both college and law school in Boston, but after seven straight years of Boston winters in student housing, I was cold, so I decided to look only at Sunbelt cities. Of all the Sunbelt cities I looked at, even though my family had moved away a few years prior to that, Dallas had just a fantastic prospect that it was unavoidable me coming here.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

I’ve gotten a lot of good advice, and I know I need a lot more, but the best I’ve ever received was from my father who told me a long time ago, there’s always a better way to say it. I think that advice came to me in junior high or high school. It has stuck with me because I can think of no truer words. When I think of other people occasionally who say something out of emotion or without forethought, I’m thinking, ‘Yep, there’s always a better way to say it.’

What was your first job?

My first job ever was working as a warehouse clerk for a friend of the family who had a business selling gas grills and gas lights. As a seventh grader, I worked in an un-air-conditioned warehouse in Dallas moving the boxes and loading the trucks and unloading the trucks. It was hard work; it was good work. It gave me a lot of independence, and I graduated from warehouse clerk to warehouse manager by the time I was a senior in high school. I was still the only employee, but I called myself the manager because if I was the only one there, I could be the manager.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

The first thing I remember wanting to be was either an astronaut or astrophysicist. I had a fascination with astronomy and Einstein when I was in my later years of elementary school and junior high school. In other words, I was a complete nerd, but I took the required course in American history when I was in eighth grade, and I became absolutely smitten by the law. I was fascinated by every aspect of the law from the legislative formation of laws to the appointment of judges and from that year on I knew I wanted to be a lawyer.

Pierre Panos has created a new niche in dining. As the founder and CEO of QS America — short for Quality Service America — he oversees restaurant operations for Atlanta’s Brookwood Grill as well as more than 40 Papa John’s locations, but he also created the fine fast-dining segment in founding Fresh To Order restaurants.

While he strives to create a niche, he also aims to provide, as the name implies, the highest levels of service at all of his restaurants. His efforts combined have allowed the company to earn more than $40 million in sales last year and a 30 percent growth rate for the past 10 years, even during the recession.

Smart Business spoke with Panos about how to set your business apart from the competition.

How can leaders distinguish their businesses?

Don’t follow the pack. When everyone zigs, you zag. You’ve got to swim up river a little bit and do something different. You have to create a niche product. You have to find a niche that has not been developed yet or is just starting. If you’re not the first in the space, do it very, very well because the No. 1, 2, 3 guys can all do it well.

The No. 1 thing is find something you absolutely love doing, stay in it long enough to become the absolute best at it, and that’s when you make a lot of money. People tend to hop around too much today trying to find the next big thing.

How do you know if you’re doing the right thing or if you need to search for the next thing?

Something my dad told me a long time ago that’s an old cliché but it’s so right: The greatest mistake is to give up. With Fresh To Order, in the first year, we never made money. I knew we wouldn’t. We went through it because we had faith in the concept, faith in ourselves, and we knew the business well, and we knew at some point it would kick in and it has.

Sometimes you just beat your head against the wall and you’re not getting anywhere. Unless you’re in an industry that’s literally going away, if you’re very good at it or one of the best, the weaker players will go out of business. The market then is far bigger for far less players, and you can come back strong.

I wouldn’t try to get into something else you may not know as well because you’re not going to be as successful. If you’re an entrepreneur and you’ve tried something that’s not working and it’s a start-up, I wouldn’t tell you to keep on going, bashing your head. Look at what’s wrong. Try to figure out what the issue is. If you can’t figure out the issue, then move ahead. If not, go a little bit to the left and right in the same space and see where the next opening is. It is a hard thing, but don’t carry on forever. At some point you have to pull the plug.

How do you recognize opportunities that could move you forward?

If you know the industry that you’re in that well, you’ll see it. Read as much as you can. You have to be a voracious reader — see what everyone else is doing well and what they’re not doing well. If you have a good peer group of people to talk to in the industry, you’ll find that niche.

A lot of people don’t see it because they don’t read enough, they don’t network. If you do know your space, the niche will show itself, but you have to be aware and have your eyes open. A lot of people are [inwardly focused] — you have to work on your business, not in your business. You have to be out there. If you’re working day to day running the nuts and bolts, you’ll never see the niche. It will just never show itself. If you have people that take care of the nuts and bolts in any business and you’re out there working on your business seeing what the next river of cash will be, it’ll happen because not enough other business entrepreneurs out there are working on their business. They’re working too hard on the day-to-day and trying to find a way to save a few dollars here.

How to reach: QS America, (770) 594-8644 or www.qsamerica.com

When Millard Choate was an 8-year-old growing up on a cattle farm outside of Nashville, he and his dad built their family’s home. As he continued to grow, the family developed two cattle farms and built barns and facilities, as well. So from an early age, he knew he wanted to be a construction superintendent because of how much he enjoyed seeing things built.

In 1989, that dream was realized when he started his own company, Choate Construction Co. But the economic landscape at that time was challenging, so he had to really dig in to make the company succeed. As the child of Depression-era parents, frugality and positive outlook had been built deep down inside him at a young age as physical buildings were built up tall around him. These characteristics helped him establish his firm and ultimately grow his business despite the tough times.

So when the most recent recession hit, it may have sent shockwaves through many organizations and forced a lot of them to completely revamp their game plan, but Choate simply relied on his upbringing and experience and was able to take it in stride.

“What we have now is reminiscent of when I started the company in ’89,” the president says. “These times are kind of tempering and testing times, and it’s taken us back to our roots to focus on aggressiveness, focus on searching out all types of different projects, focusing on the core values of the company, which includes our procedures.

“Blocking and tackling is a big focus.”

Additionally, he relied on his upbringing and initial experiences founding the company to help him through.

“It’s a tough time,” Choate says. “It’s like people who went through the Great Depression. It can be tough, but it gives people an opportunity to improve, to sharpen both our individual skills and company skills. These times, due to the declining revenues and fees, force us companies to become more efficient. It promotes efficiency and frugality on a company basis as well as on an individual basis — it inspires people to improve themselves and become more and more of an indispensible component of the firm.”

Taking this approach has helped the company weather the storm when revenue dropped from a peak of $738.9 million in 2007 to $358.6 million in 2009.

“[It’s] just thinking and planning and focusing — focus on your core competencies and what you do best and also leveraging those competencies and the types of projects you’ve done,” Choate says. “I believe that’s really the key to it and just keeping the faith. An old coach one time said, ‘When you’re up against a massive team — I was a lineman — just keep your legs moving and keep your legs turning.’ That was true then and in business today. Just keep on plugging and keep on going. Don’t give up.”

That’s exactly what Choate has done. As a result, revenue climbed last year to $429.8 million. The company also has no debt and is focused on the future.

“We feel very confident,” he says. “Our backlog is higher than it’s been in two years, so we see glimmers of improvement, and we see a few more opportunities picking up, and we get a lot because of our reputation. … I feel positive. Reputation is everything, and that’s what keeps us going, so I feel positive in that regard.”

Here are the principles that Choate used to help him not give up.

Meet client needs

Scrounge. It’s often a negative word, but Choate doesn’t see it as such.

“Beat the bushes. No project too large, no project too small,” he says.

In other words, he’ll chase all sorts of projects instead of limiting himself to just a few types, and he’ll do whatever his client needs. It’s a tough market, and the competition is struggling and making things difficult for him.

“What we struggle with as a contractor is we will, at times, have to compete with firms that are really in tough shape that will price warp at a loss just to generate cash flow,” he says. “We can’t do anything about that. We just have to demonstrate that we have the right numbers.”

Not having any debt also helps assure clients that Choate is a good company to do business with.

“There are firms that are really on the ropes and some clients have concerns — will they be around?” Choate says. “Both clients and subcontractors are very nervous because typically the money flows through the general contractors to the subcontractors, and both the subcontractors and the owners are nervous that the contractor could go defunct and the money would have to be paid twice by the owner or the subcontractor doesn’t get paid. That confidence is a key in all parties.”

In addition to establishing the firm as one that can be trusted, he says he also makes sure to respond when customers — or anyone for that matter — calls.

“Anytime they should communicate or call or whatever, instant response is key,” he says. “They can rely on that. Just doing a great job and making sure that they have the confidence that we are protecting their interests at all times; I preach that over and over to our people. Clients trust us to spend millions of their dollars wisely. That’s a trust that we have to maintain.”

To better do that, you have to know what’s important for your customers.

“You have to understand what your client’s hot buttons are, what his interests are,” Choate says. “It’s not just always revenues. Each client has his own nuances so just customize your approach to that client and make sure you’re taking care of them and promote that you’re looking out for their best interest.

“You talk to them. You sit down with them at the inception of the relationship of the project.”

He has an expectations meeting to talk about what they want to see and includes all the key stakeholders — the architect, engineers and anyone else pertinent to the project — and he’s found clients are very positive and forthcoming in those meetings.

“Sit in a room and just go around the table and say, ‘What do you expect out of this job?’” he says. “Then, ‘What are your hot buttons, and what really bothers you in previous projects?’ You’d be amazed what comes out of that — just communicating and actually talking.”

He also says that not every CEO has to personally be involved with that level of intimacy with the client, because it’s just not feasible, especially the larger your organization grows.

“We have different groups here, but the division manager of that group, I expect to have a personal relationship with every client,” he says. “It boils down to that type of relationship.”

Focus on the positive

Years ago, when Choate’s computer would boot up, a short message used to pop up right before the system started — “Get pumped up!”

“Being enthused and going at it tooth and nail is good advice,” he says. “Going at things with a lot of enthusiasm and energy helps dispel gloom and doom anyway.”

He tries to keep employees motivated in the middle of all the negativity they see in the industry. One way he does that is by updating them on how projects are going. He shows photos and announces any new awards, which gets people excited and instills confidence in them. He also expects his managers to be positive, as well. For example, if the Choate Interior Construction group gets a project, the manager of that arm of the business will get on the intercom and just say one thing — “Wahoo!”

“That’s all he says,” Choate says. “Over time, people know what that means. That’s positive.”

He also tries to recognize people’s individual accomplishments, so if someone becomes LEED certified, he recognizes that person. He also recognizes people for accomplishments in their personal lives when he hears about them. For example, one employee received a national award from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, so he called that employee out for the accomplishment in front of everyone.

“It’s not only positive, but it’s two birds with one stone — it lets people know their individual efforts are recognized,” he says.

Choate understands that being positive isn’t the natural reaction for many, and he knows that you can’t control everything in business, but the one thing you can control is the way you look at what’s going on.

“Be thankful,” he says. “Realize what blessings you’ve got. Look at your blessings and appreciate the positive side.”

For example, while his volume may be down significantly, he knows that his business is still much larger than it was 10 years ago, so that gives him something to be thankful for in spite of the tough times. By taking a more positive and thankful outlook like this, it sends a positive message to employees so they can stay more upbeat and sets an example for them, as well.

“It’s good to realize that everything you have is a gift from God, and that’s who you really ought to give credit to in the first place,” he says. “That would help set the stage very quickly.”

Look at data

While Choate maintains a positive outlook in life and in business, another key to success through the recession has been not taking a Pollyanna outlook. You have to balance that positivity with being realistic or people won’t think you understand the situation.

“The other thing is being a realist,” Choate says. “I’ve recognized cycles for many years. The curve can’t always be on an upward trend. The growth rate absolutely can’t continue that unsustained climb. It has to, in some cases, decline. It’s a fact of life.”

By degree, Choate is an economist, so looking at data comes naturally to him, but often it’s something leaders tend to neglect.

“I encourage people to analyze the markets,” he says. “What are the coming trends? What are the needs going to be, not just today but six months to a year from now? Try to anticipate where to deploy your resources to produce the maximum return.”

For example, he says that most people recognize that government work and health care are bright spots right now, and condominiums are a more diminished market. Seeing that, he wouldn’t deploy resources to building condos but would focus on those other areas that will be growing and providing opportunities.

Choate saw his volumes increase every year of his business until two years ago, but because of the realistic outlook he had, it didn’t crush him when they declined. It may have been frustrating, yes, but devastating, no.

“It’s almost like the seasons of the year,” he says. “You may wish it was summer all year long, but you just accept the fact that you have fall and winter, but you have faith it will come back next year.”

How to reach: Choate Construction Co., (678) 892-1200 or www.choateco.com

Millard Choate, founder and president, Choate Construction Co.

Born: Nashville

Education: Vanderbilt — bachelor’s degree in economics and business with a minor in engineering

What was your first job?

I could go way back. I moved a pile of bricks for a neighbor when I was 5 years old. It took about two weeks, and I got 25 cents for that. My first real job was making concrete pottery and birdbaths and benches for a little company in Nashville, and I worked 40 hours a week — hard, hot work — and I made $40 a week. I was rich.

What’d you learn from that job that still applies?

Being frugal. Handing it well. Keeping a job and just doing the best you can possibly do. Be as productive as you can be. The man and woman who owned the store, those people became great references for me. Reputation is everything. That’s what I learned from it.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

Trust your intuition and your gut-feel. I haven’t always obeyed that but I wish I had. Your gut-feel generally will often tell you or validate your perception of something or some event. Trust your innate gut feel.

What’s your favorite board game and why?

My family plays a game called Pictionary, and the reason I like it is it forces you to laugh at yourself. You can laugh at yourself and each other. Honestly, it’s taught my children to be able to laugh at themselves. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

The NRP Group promoted Andrew N. Tanner to chief operating officer at the organization. He previously worked as vice president and chief financial officer.

Tanner was responsible for developing financial programs and systems that helped the organization as it grew from 48 employees in 2000 to 400 today.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Bowling Green State University and an MBA from the University of Chicago.

Roscoe Medical appointed Paul J. Guth president and CEO. In his new role, he will be responsible for providing overall strategic direction of Roscoe Medical with immediate focus on the expansion the company’s distribution footprint, overall improvement of service levels and guiding the company through its next evolution. He brings more than 20 years of senior leadership experience, most recently as the CEO of Artromick International, a leading provider of medication management and mobile computer cart solutions for the long-term care and acute-care markets. During his tenure with Artromick, he was instrumental in growing the acute care business and the international business 275 percent and 375 percent respectively.

Guth earned a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Vocon has been recognized on the Engineering News Record’s Top 500 Design Firms list. The Top 500 Design Firms list ranks the 500 largest U.S.-based designs firms, both publicly and privately held, based on design-specific revenue for the previous year.

Vocon has been recognized on the list as an architectural firm involved in three market categories — general building, power and  industrial/petroleum.

The Timken Co. named James W. Skelly director of sales for the Americas.  

He will be responsible for leading the sales team in North and South America, focusing on sales to original-equipment manufacturers in the off-highway, heavy truck, process industries, and health and positioning control markets.

During his 26 years with Timken, Skelly has held positions of increasing responsibility including product manager, operations manager, regional manager for original equipment sales and general manager of business development for the company's distribution network.

He earned a bachelor of science degree in business administration from Ohio Northern University and an MBA from Robert Morris University.

Please send your executive-level promotions to movers@sbnonline.com.

A lot of the conversation the past few years has been around how the Northeast Ohio economy is struggling, and as a result, employees across the region are seeing cuts in their workplaces.

While it’s true that the recession hasn’t been the kindest to employers in the region, what’s promising are the results of the 2010 ERC/Smart Business workplace practices survey. For the first time since 2007, survey respondents did not list “poor economy” as their biggest challenge.

As a result of the recession, many of the survey results for the past few years have indicated that salaries were holding steady or declining, benefits were getting cut, and resources for hiring and training were rapidly drying up. Those declining trends seem to be changing. While some numbers stayed about the same, you may be surprised to see others indicating that trends are starting to improve again.

Cyndi McCabe is the president of the board of directors for the Northeast Ohio Human Resource Planning Society, and she says that many workplaces are starting to change focus from surviving to thriving.

“There’s certainly an enhanced emphasis on innovation — encouraging all employees to have a renewed voice in the organization to help find new, efficient ways of doing business,” she says. “There’s also more of an emphasis on employee engagement and ensuring that everyone is in tune with the organization and is valued.”

The survey results support that, especially when it comes to financially encouraging employees. The average percent base-pay increase that was projected for salaried employees increased from 2.6 percent last year to 3 percent this year. On top of that, the percentage of both management and nonmanagement receiving cash bonuses both increased, as well.

It’s been difficult in recent years for companies to financially reward their employees, and many workplaces have become more frugal in an effort to show their staffs that they’re not just asking them to make cuts without trying to cut in other areas themselves. McCabe says that while the economy is improving, that mindset of frugality is likely to continue.

“There’s also a re-emphasis on identifying and maintaining and leveraging best practices, too,” she says. “We’re just needing to do more with less. Even though I think things are starting to come back, I think [we’ll see] a re-emphasis on being frugal or being more questioning of what we’re doing.”

One realm that’s most affected by this continued mindset is that of recruiting and training. According to the survey results, companies are opening their wallets in terms of both, with 77.8 percent of respondents using Internet job boards to find candidates this year, which is up from 71.5 percent last year. The results also indicate that more of companies’ recruiting budgets are being allocated toward online ads — 33.7 percent, up from 28.5 percent last year. In addition to simply going online to find qualified employees, companies will likely be using cheaper and free resources, as well.

“Certainly, there’s still the reliance on word-of-mouth and networking and relationships, but certainly you’re seeing more of an emphasis on some of the technology — some of the recruiting software packages that are out there — and certainly there is more emphasis on social networking tools such as the use of Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn,” McCabe says. “You’re seeing more use of those as ways of identifying and sourcing candidates and perhaps screening candidates.”

Not only does the Internet and social media provide some cost savings for your organization, but it has other benefits, as well.

“Using some of these tools opens up some doors that weren’t open before,” she says. “It’s not just the cost factor — it’s also the fact that it’s just creating a larger pool of talent.”

This is extremely helpful since survey respondents indicated that hiring and retaining employees was their biggest challenge, and this topic has been in the top-five challenges list the past 10 years.

Beyond increased efforts toward recruiting and new ways of recruiting, the survey results also indicated that companies will put more resources toward training employees.

“There’s certainly a heightened interest in on-boarding and ensuring that people come into the organization the right way and that they have a good grasp on expectations and the culture and the environment,” McCabe says. “There’s also a focus on the right training to do the job right now, so really asking the question, ‘What kind of training does a person need to be successful right now, and what does that look like?’”

The survey results indicate that 90.7 percent of respondents intend to provide financial assistance to employees to upgrade their skills, up from 81.5 percent last year. Additionally, the amount of participants utilizing Web-based training increased from 62.9 percent last year to 71 percent this year.

“Instead of long-term training, it may be segments of training — what do I need now to do the job kind of chunking of information,” McCabe says. … “If a person can do some training at their desk or in a slow period of time or do it in more segments rather than taking a whole day or a half a day to do training, there’s certainly some cost benefits there.”

With renewed efforts toward people, it also creates needs on the back end. In addition to businesses opening up their wallets for the more obvious things like training and benefits, they’re also starting to upgrade human resources systems and processes. Brenda Leisinger is the president of the board of directors for the Cleveland chapter of the International Association for Human Resource Information Management. The organization is composed of people who work on HR technology as well as vendors and consultants, and it focuses on people implementing new technologies and systems.

“There seems to be a lot of pent-up demand over the last couple of years, meaning there would be requests for projects at companies, but they’ve been put on hold because of the economy, and we’re seeing a lot more of those projects starting up this year and coming off a hold and actually being funded,” Leisinger says.

The encouraging aspect to this trend is that once these projects get started, they can last as long as three years, so they tend to be fully completed. The types of projects she’s seeing increasingly start also support the survey results for where companies are focusing.

“One of the hottest topics we see right now is the talent management side related to recruiting and succession planning,” she says. “Talent management can mean a variety of things, but it usually always means recruiting. There can be a lot of other stuff in there including performance management, compensation management, succession planning — anything related to acquiring, training and equipping their people to be successful in their current roles and then equipping them to take on more senior level roles. The name of the game is to keep the employees that are most valuable to an organization.”

With all of these new projects starting up, it’s also good for the employment outlook.

“Because things are improving and projects are coming off of hold and starting up, it’s actually making more job opportunities available,” Leisinger says. “Whether you’re a consultant or you want to be hired in as an employee, there’s a lot more in terms of technology projects to choose from right now.”

As 2011 starts to fade and companies begin planning for 2012, experts are confident that this year’s positive signs aren’t just temporary.

“Our expectation is that it will continue to grow,” Leisinger says of the increase in HR technology projects. …“Once a company has committed to moving forward, I rarely see any projects stop.”

As the economy improves and companies become more confident in their recoveries, it’s going to mean better things for all of Northeast Ohio’s workplaces.

How to reach: International Association for Human Resource Information Management- Cleveland Chapter, clevelandihrim.wordpress.com; Employers Resource Council, www.ercnet.org; Northeast Ohio Human Resource Planning Society, www.nohrps.org

More communication with employees wasn’t possible for Tom Baugh at Marketplace Events. When the downturn hit the home and garden show company, rumors swirled.

“We didn’t pull punches,” the CEO says. “We let them know when we had challenges. We encouraged them to keep things in the family. That’s hard. We knew there was a risk in that, because we were sharing more financial information than ever before, but they responded very well. Since we asked more of them, they gave more to us out of respect.”

Smart Business spoke with Baugh about how he built trust with his team during tough times.

What advice can you give to build confidence with employees?

There is a huge difference between earning, what I would say is, compliance and commitment. When leadership actions and leadership communications fall behind leadership promises, then there’s a credibility gap.

We work really hard so our communications are authentic and that they’re consistent. For example, every Monday morning for the past five years, I send a message to the business. The message is varied. When we’re in our show season, here’s where we stand with sales, here’s what’s happening with our people, etc. When we don’t have shows, I’ll talk about what we’re doing with growth opportunities, things I read or just a view point I found of concern or encouragement. The one thing that they can count on, no matter what — whether I’m traveling, busy or the power goes out in Cleveland — they know that every Monday morning there’s going to be a message about the business. When I’m on vacation, there’s other people that give guest versions.

The consistency and authenticity of our communications separate us a bit from other companies in the fact that we share a lot of information with our people, and we trust them to keep it in the family.

How do you trust people to not share that critical financial information?

I think we’d be naive if we thought some of it didn’t get out. I will say, since 2003, there have been two situations where professionally I’ve been really disappointed by breaches in that trust, but that’s only twice in that period of time. The benefits we get by treating people with this kind of professional courtesy is, frankly, enormous. Despite the worst economy in anyone’s memory, over the past three years, we’ve grown our business. I find that to be extraordinary.

There are things that bind people together, and people intrinsically want to believe that they are trustworthy, so we choose to go that direction. The opportunity for trust is greater when you know that you’re in tune with your people. At the end of the day, people can tell if the leader means what he or she says, if they’re really trying to understand employees and if they’re in touch with the business or not. People want one of two things — they either want to be the leader or part of the leadership team or they want to be led. People want to be led, but that can only happen when there’s enough trust built up.

What else has been critical to building trust?

This organization isn’t afraid to make decisions and move. It surprised all of us.

It’s always helpful if you let the person in the best position to decide actually decide. Let them make the decision. We have 12 offices and 100 people throughout North America. If we have a particular weekend in March, we could have five shows running. All of those shows on that particular day might put through 75,000 paying customers. You might have 10 different media experiences by the show’s managers, you might have to make hundreds of decisions about parking or concessions or safety or the general appearance of the show. If we try to too closely grasp the decision points with just a limited number of people, it really slows down the business.

We consciously said we’re going to work really hard to share the best practices, not so you’re hemmed in, but it’s more like bumper bowling. We say, ‘Guys, here’s best practices, we know things that work and we know things that don’t work, so let’s do things that work, so it’s like bumper bowling — you can’t throw a gutter ball.’ It’s not that you’re not going to knock some pins down — it’s how many can you pin down if you take the best practices and put your individual flare on it?

How to reach: Marketplace Events, (866) 463-3663 or www.marketplaceevents.com

$1.2 billion.

That’s a big number by nearly any standard, and that’s roughly how much University Hospitals spent over a five-year span as it accomplished its Vision 2010 strategic plan.

At a recent Smart Business Power Players luncheon, UH CEO Tom Zenty spoke about this ambitious plan and how UH is playing a key role in the economic development of the region.

[Watch the playlist of videos from the event on YouTube]

“We thought it was critically important to focus on the communities we serve in a variety of ways,” he says.

The plan included construction of new medical office buildings, the Seidman Cancer Center, the Ahuja Medical Center and new ambulatory centers. In addition, the program renovated the neo-natal intensive care unit and invested in other programs and services. On top of all of that, about $140 million was spent on creating an integrated electronic health record system.

It’s a lot of development and a lot of money spent, but what’s interesting was the commitment UH made to helping the region throughout all of these initiatives. The plan called for 5 percent of the money spent to go toward women business enterprises, 15 percent toward minority companies and 80 percent would be spent with local firms.

“We live in not one of the most rapidly growing population regions or one of the most robust business communities in the United States,” Zenty says. “We wanted to make sure we were helping all those who would have an opportunity to work on a project who might otherwise not have the opportunity to do so.”

When all was said and done, 7.5 percent of expenditures had gone to female businesses, 22 percent to minority companies and a whopping 92 percent had been with local companies.

“We didn’t have to do this, but this was something that we committed to the mayor to do, but as well, we want to make sure we’re not only good business partners but good neighbors,” he says.

In addition to local and minority commitments, the Vision 2010 plan had other elements to drive development. One element was to create a project labor agreement that called for a no-strike clause so that even if national unions decided to strike, local work would continue. Another element was calling for participation from local vocational and technical schools to help students in programs like architecture, engineering and mechanics. The agreement created a volunteer program that all contractors participated in to allow students to work on the project from an educational perspective.

“As a company that’s been around since 1866, we wanted to ensure that we would continue to grow and be a good neighbor to the business community,” Zenty says.

The Vision 2010 program also created about 5,200 jobs, of which about 1,250 will be permanent positions. And with 20,000 employees, UH is the fourth-largest private employer in the state. Zenty noted that additionally, the second-largest is a health care company in town as well, and between the two, it shows the prominent role that health care companies can have on a region.

“Hospitals are operational 24 hours a day. We have laundry services, environmental services, business services, pharmacists.”

With so many different people needed to ensure patients get the care they need, Zenty also stressed the importance of developing the next generation of workers. One way UH tackles this issue is by working with nursing programs at nine different schools to make sure there’s a steady supply of nurses entering the work force for them.

But he also pointed out this wasn’t just a key to UH’s long-term vitality but was important for the region as a whole. One of the big issues in the region is losing young people to other cities. He said that most of UH’s 8 percent turnover comes from people who have been there less than a year, and many of those are younger workers coming in out of school who leave for other opportunities.

“If our goal is to keep the youth in Ohio, we can do a much better job, quite frankly, focusing on what various industries’ needs are going to be both today and three, five, 10 and even 15 years from now,” Zenty says. “Let’s begin to true up the educational programs we offer at the community college level, the undergraduate level and the graduate level.”

For example, in health care alone, there are a tremendous amount of areas that he knows they’re going to have a need for while also recognizing there aren’t available resources today. The development and long-term success of our region depends on forecasting needs and making changes now to fill those future needs.

“We should be doing this in every industry here in Northeast Ohio — manufacturing, business, advertising, fill in the blank,” he says. “There are any number of people we know we’re going to be needing, and we can’t guarantee jobs but we can say with certainty these are the kinds of positions we’re going to be needing.”

How to reach: University Hospitals, (216) 844-8447 or www.uhhospitals.org

Gregory Hartley left the army in 2000 and initially thought he’d hate business because of a lack of rules. What he found, though, was that a lot of his military training was very applicable to the business world. He figured a lot of leaders may agree, so the Atlanta-area resident co-authored “The Most Dangerous Book You’ll Ever Read” with Maryann Karinch.

The two lay out what they call extreme interpersonal skills and take the tools of military intelligence and relate their value to the business world today.

Smart Business spoke with Hartley about a few of the key principles in the book.

What is one of the key observations you made in your book about how the military and business overlap?

When we think about team-building, there are way too many people running around doing trust falls, and that garbage doesn’t build a team. What I write about is team building like a special-ops officer. In special-ops, you don’t show up and you’re part of the team. If you do that, it means that everyone has the same value without demonstration. They do a good job of rooting out people that don’t fit, but in the process, they have a sense of belonging. When a person shows up, you want to welcome them, but you also want some on-boarding process that makes them one of your people. On the special-ops side, they create a new normal, so instead of simply going through a rite of passage and showing up, now they want you to show what you bring to the table so that when you add that to the sauce, what does it do to the team? How does the team change?

What’s another principle you address?

Try to give a new way at looking at how your people in your organization function and try to make sure you have the right mix. Instead of having all of one kind or all of another, it’s a different way of thinking to say, ‘I don’t want all my guys to be the guys to charge the hill when I tell them.’ Some of them need to be underminers and question your plan and say, ‘Are you stupid?’ otherwise everyone gets killed on the hill, and it was the wrong idea. By blending the right skill sets, you end up with a team that’s versatile and a team that can adapt to situations like our current economy.

Is there anything about spies and covert missions in the book?

I cover networking like a spy. When people think spies, they think the ‘Bourne Supremacy’ and those kinds of things. Spies don’t usually work like that. Spies are usually working their environment and putting other pieces into play, so when a spy is actually working, what they’re doing is managing people as assets. They’ll use people in different positions to help out. Instead of thinking of your network like a flat, Facebook-like network where you have 1,000 friends, and they’re all equal — think of it more like LinkedIn or a chess game — you have people at distance that matter too, so you stop thinking that the only people who matter are people who have clout, who have power, who can do something for you immediately. Spies understand that every person they meet has some value. When you walk past a receptionist and fail to make eye contact and talk to the receptionist, you’ve lost an opportunity. Most often, access to information you need is going to come through people who don’t understand the importance of it. The more access they have to information and the more knowledgeable they are of how valuable it is, the less likely they are to freely give it.