Kristy J. OHara

Tuesday, 01 March 2011 10:56

Employee focus at Express Oil Change

Since 2000, Adam Fuller has seen his business grow about 11 percent a year — in an industry that grows about 5 percent a year. Fuller, along with his partner, operates 26 Express Oil Change & Service Center locations with 235 employees. So with that kind of growth, he’s come to realize that people are his most important asset. As such, he used to spend about 60 percent of his time focused on the employee component, but now that’s at about 95 percent.

“Given the fact that we’re in the automotive services business, I still think we’re absolutely in the people business at the end of the day,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Fuller about how he manages his greatest asset — people.

How do you manage your employees?

We look at four areas in particular on our people — their mindset, discipline, teamwork and composure.

When I say mindset, what’s their critical-thinking like? What’s their effective judgment like, and are they willing to continuously improve, and are they pushing to be better tomorrow than they are today?

As for discipline, how customer-focused are they? Will they plan and execute to that plan? Will they hold their standards as high as they possibly can and try to bring everybody up to their standards?

On the teamwork side, how are we treating other team members? How are we communicating with each other? Are we coaching the individuals that work for us?

On the composure side, do our employees know what their strengths and weaknesses are? Are we delivering trust? Do we need to be acting more technically? Are we sharing information? Are we remaining calm in adverse situations? Where are we on conflict resolution? Are we fair-minded? Are we open-minded?

How did you decide on those four things specifically?

So much today, we operate in an environment of, ‘Where are we today; where are we this week?’ The hardest thing is trying to link those short-term actions to long-term strategy, so we try to look at all the issues that we have on a long-term basis and break it down into what should we be doing in the short term to hit what our long-term strategy is.

The biggest thing is, we’re trying to optimize, not maximize, our employees. In other words, what is the best niche for them or the best role in our company for them where they can reach their highest potential, not where we’re just trying to maximize their potential in a particular role. That’s different. Everyone looks at trying to just maximize the individual instead of optimizing the individual.

How can leaders figure out what to focus on with employees?

The biggest thing is determining what your critical success factors are, and then how you can determine what things to measure that will ensure that you hit those critical success factors. Understand that things change, you change and people change, and if we don’t embrace change, it’s very difficult to perform at the highest level year in and year out.

The big thing is to not have people getting stuck in ruts and being open and willing to change and to grow and develop. The day that stops, we’re in trouble. If we’re not changing and challenging and growing our people, it’s going to hurt our business.

With that, do our current people have the ability to take us to the next level? If not, then we need to change and find new roles for the existing people. We have found that people respond better to the challenges of growth and development if we’re open and clear in our communication.

So much of it depends on developing trust and being willing to share more than you typically would otherwise. If I’m continuing to do something that bothers you and you don’t tell me, then you’re not being fair to me. If we’re not treating our people with the absolute utmost respect, it’s not fair to them. If they’re doing something they shouldn’t be doing, to be fair to them, we have to be open and honest with them. Those are very hard conversations, and sometimes they don’t go well but we have to at least try to every day.

How to reach: Express Oil Change & Service Center, (770) 752-0932 or

Tuesday, 01 March 2011 10:43

Manufacturing outlook


If there’s one word that describes the manufacturing sector moving forward, this is it.

“There’s macroeconomic uncertainty, public policy uncertainty, uncertainty in terms of the value of Chinese currency, and that is going to make the business sector — particularly in manufacturing — very cautious when it comes to capital investment,” says Edward Hill, dean of the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University.

There are signs of better days ahead, with more orders coming in and North American factories running at higher capacity than in the past few years.

“A big barometer for manufacturing is auto sales, and auto sales just took a dive the last couple of years, but it’s picking back up and demand is back up,” says Eric Burkland, president of The Ohio Manufacturers’ Association. “The good news is, the economy has clearly turned and demand is picking back up, but the cost pressures globally remain just incredible, so that dampens the hiring.”

Chuck Hadden, president and CEO of the Michigan Manufacturers’ Association, says that things are slowly turning around.

“We’re one of the sectors that are doing a little bit more hiring out there — not a lot, but we’re starting to get some hiring,” Hadden says. “There was a lot of uncertainty toward the end of the year — what was going to happen with federal taxes, elections, and that uncertainty is now gone. We know what’s going to happen with those things, and now people can start moving forward, and I’m optimistic at the direction we’re going.”

While no one can say for sure what the next 12 months will bring for manufacturing, there are two things that the experts agree on: Success in the sector will be driven by diversification and innovation, something Jim Nicholson, vice president of chemical maker PVS Chemicals Inc., will attest to.

“This year, we are really working on continuing to expand our customer base — we’re looking for new markets that we traditionally have not served and adding those markets to our customer base, and we’re making investments in new kinds of people, with different kinds of experience, specifically related to market and marketing,” Nicholson says. “We think this is going to be a pretty good year for manufacturing.”


Diversification has been critical the past few years and will continue to play an integral role this year.

“If you’ve made it through, you’ve probably figured out a way to diversify your company from one product to another product so you’re not reliant on one business sector,” Hadden says.

But he says it’s time to take it a step further in 2011.

“Let’s diversify your customer base so you’re not totally reliant on one customer in that business sector,” Hadden says. “Find ways to expand your business that way, still doing what you ... do best but find more customers. It’s a big world out there, and there’s no reason why we can’t be competing in a lot of markets out there.”

He says one of the keys to effectively doing this is to look beyond America’s shores.

“Our biggest growth opportunity for us as manufacturers that we haven’t taken advantage of is finding customers in other countries that we can help supply,” Hadden says. “I think that’s the biggest tone that we’re going to try to set this year. We all know we can’t rely on one or two customers anymore. … If you’re making a part here for an auto company, why can’t you be making it for someone in Germany or Japan or India?”

Hill agrees that diversification overseas is important because of the growing demand that will come from those markets.

“There is a lot of opportunity out there, but the opportunity is going to be based first on international markets, particularly in growing, developing economies,” Hill says. “It is really important for American manufacturers to really pay attention to international markets.”

For example, one of the biggest markets that American manufacturers need to be involved with is China, but it’s not because of cheap, offshore manufacturing.

“They should be looking seriously at China, because it’s an incredibly growing demand and middle class that’s going to drive global sales for years,” Hill says.

Diversification also means that you have to look at other ways to position your expertise and capabilities in the market.

“Companies are continuing to look for new markets and new ways to use their knowledge and their capital for new products,” Burkland says.

But when you look at the global economy and look at your industry and look at your business, you could get dizzy from seeing everything that could potentially happen. That’s when you have to choose a few things to focus on in your diversification efforts.

“Survey, and then pick a couple that are likely winners,” Nicholson says. “Trying to do everything is logistically impossible.”

The way Nicholson and his company decided was by looking at the products they know really well and then looking at applications where they felt their products weren’t well represented. Finally, they looked to see if they could move into those markets with their products.

“Again, [it’s] trying to leverage what you know into a new market. It’s very hard to get into a new market where you know nothing about the product and where you know nothing about the market,” Nicholson says. “You have to choose to either serve a market where you know something about the product or serve a market where you know something about the market and need to develop the product. There’s too much risk and investment to try to solve both those problems at once.”


One of the other keys for manufacturers to find success this year is to focus on innovation.

“That’s the trick today — cut costs but don’t cut innovation because innovation is the path toward future profitability,” Burkland says.

Giorgio Rizzoni can explain why innovation is so critical. Rizzoni is the Ford Motor Co. chair in electromechancial systems, as well as a professor of mechanical and electrical engineering and director and senior fellow for the Center for Automotive Research at The Ohio State University. He says that if you and a friend have the same laptop, in theory, you both have the same battery in that laptop, even though you could each get a different capacity out of that battery.

“You sort of adapt to whatever you have,” Rizzoni says. “It doesn’t matter, from a consumer perspective, that that one battery in your computer or cell phone has whatever performance it has, and if the variability is plus or minus 10 percent, who’s going to tell, right?”

While it may not matter in electronics like your laptop or your cell phone, it does make a big difference in larger items where batteries are needed, such as electric cars. In one of those, you have hundreds or thousands of battery cells.

“Some of them can range up to $15,000 a pack,” says Suresh Babu, associate professor for materials science and engineering and director of the NSF Center for Integrative Materials Joining Science for Energy Applications at The Ohio State University. “A pack means many batteries in it. That means you have to make sure these batteries last longer.”

And that’s where innovation is critical. If you have that 10 percent variability in those batteries, it makes a huge difference and is a serious liability to the car and its cost of maintenance.

“There’s an old adage that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” Rizzoni says. … “There’s an analogy there — if you have weaker cells, they will bring down the body of the entire battery pack so the ability to manufacture cells with a high degree of repeatability and quality is a very important thing.”

Improvements to these batteries aren’t happening on an annual basis either — they’re changing monthly. And the saying is that as the automobile industry goes, so does the rest of manufacturing go, and the auto industry is innovating at a rapid pace, so by rule, the rest of manufacturers will be, as well.

But innovation in the automobile industry will go beyond making better batteries. As it strives to reduce the mass of its vehicles, it’s looking for lighter-weight materials to help, and finding lighter materials will also help other manufacturers.

“The more you’re able to find new ways, lighter ways, more resilient ways, more flexible ways, more whatever the characteristics of the materials, that leads to opportunities in product innovation,” Burkland says.

Rizzoni says some of the new materials that are getting implemented in automobile manufacturing are plastics, aluminum, magnesium and high-strength steel. But new materials also mean more changes in the industry.

“One of the challenges that has surfaced when you start working with similar materials is that now you’re trying to join a piece of plastic to a piece of steel, for example, so joining techniques become, possibly, a real challenge,” Rizzoni says.

This is where you have to look at what you traditionally do and throw it out the window. Kevin Arnold is the business development manager for advanced energy for the EWI Energy Center, which helps manufacturers in the energy sector and other industries improve their productivity, time to market and profitability through new, innovative technologies. He says, for example, that if GM built every battery for its electric vehicles to Six Sigma standards, which for years was the gold standard of quality, none of the cars would run, because they would all have bad welds in them.

“You’ve got to get so many decimal places out of quality,” Arnold says. “This is a challenge. That’s part of the growing pains we’re seeing now is that what was considered good enough for many years is now not quite good enough, so it’s looking at the fundamentals, understanding and controlling them and ongoing monitoring to ensure that you’re within limits.”

Look at the processes in your organization and find ways to make them better — even if it’s something that’s been the same way for decades.

“What manufacturers have to be open to is don’t take processes that seem simple, like welding, for granted,” Arnold says. “Welding is a fundamental manufacturing process that’s been around for 100 years, but it’s often one of the least understood processes and one of the first that could go out of control and cause problems. Ensuring that they have the right expertise on staff to look at their processes, understand the variables and understand that what they’re doing is with increasing levels of scrutiny.”

The experts recognize that the money is likely not there in your organization for you to throw out your assembly line and start with something newer and better though, so that’s why they’re working to help manufacturers find ways to cost-effectively innovate.

“All of [the processes] have to be mature,” Babu says. “Mature means not only from the science aspect but also from the industry aspect — how can we implement them in an existing manufacturing line. That’s the biggest challenge.”

But it’s a challenge worth exploring because the way to succeed this year is to push your product and process innovation efforts to the limits.

Resources: Center for Automotive Research — The Ohio State University, (614) 688-3856 or; EWI Energy Center, (614) 688-5000 or; The Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University, (216) 687-2000 or; Michigan Manufacturers’ Association, (800) 253-9039 or; NSF Center for Integrative Materials Joining Science for Energy Applications — The Ohio State University, (614) 247-0001 or; The Ohio Manufacturers’ Association, (800) 662-4463 or; PVS Chemicals Inc., (313) 921-1200 or

Looking ahead:

Manufacturing has led the economic comeback, but will it last?

When you look at the brightening economic picture, manufacturing has played a major role in the comeback. The biggest question facing the sector is simple: Will the good times last?

Robert Dye, vice president and senior economist for PNC Bank, says the odds are in favor of manufacturers, but there are still risks.

“It is my expectation that we continue to see strong growth but not as strong in the last year or so,” Dye says.

The overall recovery in the U.S. will eventually reach across all economic sectors, including service and construction.

“When I look at price conditions for manufacturers, I’m concerned about a profit squeeze as energy and higher commodity prices drive producer prices up,” he says. “Those prices will not be able to be passed through to the consumer at this point. Even though there are currently strong profits, there is potential for profit erosion down the road.”

Companies that make consumer goods should also see better times ahead.

“I do expect the consumer sector to show ongoing improvement through 2011, as we saw consumers bounce back in 2010, with strong retail sales and a strong holiday shopping season after three disappointing seasons in a row,” Dye says. “Measures of consumer confidence are improving and job creation should improve through 2011. Manufacturing sectors that will be able to take advantage of that will be the consumer-focused sector.”

There are also potential risks in the consumer sector, as well: Foreign debt woes could increase the value of the dollar, hurting exporters, unemployment is still high, and the housing market is still weak.

“We are still in uncertain times, and manufacturers will face cross currents in the year ahead, but most of the wind will be at their backs,” Dye says. “But the lingering risks are still with us.”

How to hire in 2011

While most manufacturers are seeing things on the upward swing, hiring can still be a difficult decision as you continue lean operations. Likely, you’re down to a core group of people who you trust and can rely on to do a good job, so if you have a good core and you want to hire, you have to take an approach that most manufacturers have never taken.

“If they do have to hire, it will be slowly — one or two at a time — and they’re not looking at the skill base they have, but how do they fit in with the rest of the people,” says Chuck Hadden, president and CEO of the Michigan Manufacturers’ Association. “Can they work as a team? Is it someone everyone else will get along with? Those are all crucial things they’re thinking about beyond can the guy or the woman do the job.”

Hadden says you have to take more time in your hiring now if you want to be successful.

“Your HR person does the interviewing, but maybe you include a couple people from the floor, and they sit in on a couple [interviews] and listen to them,” Hadden says. “It used to be, when I was growing up, somebody’s grandfather or uncle would get them a job in the place and they’d take off. It doesn’t work that way anymore.”

He says to make sure you look for people who are willing to learn and want to continue to learn through technical school, additional training or whatever the company may call for.

Jim Nicholson, vice president of chemical manufacturer PVS Chemicals Inc., says you also have to trust your managers to make good hires.

“The key on the hiring process is to have confidence that your managers can hire well,” Nicholson says. “Spend time and effort training your managers on how to hire well, and make sure your managers spend enough time on the process and have choices and present choices, so that they can get input from their fellow managers and hire the best person for that role.”

Doing these things will help you as you look to add bodies in 2011 and the years to come.

The past couple of years have been stressful for most businesses, and Marko Mrkonich can relate — in some ways.

While the past two years have been crazy for him as president and managing director of the employment and labor law firm Littler Mendelson PC, it hasn’t been because the economy has been hurting his firm. It’s been a result of staying ahead of the growth that has taken the firm from $240 million in revenue in 2006 to $370.5 million in 2009.

“Growth simply to say you’ve grown is not necessarily a good thing,” he says. “When you find yourself in a position where the best reason you can come up with to undertake a new initiative is because it lets you grow, that’s not enough. That’s missing the point. Growth is an indicator of success, and it shows that there are positive things going on.”

He says that if you are an average company with average people and you add more average business and average employees to what you already have, then it’s not going to be the success you likely envision. You have to make sure you’re making your firm better with the people you add and the new projects you take on.

“When you’re on a growth curve, every once in awhile, you need to take a deep breath and assess what you’ve done and where you’re going and try to see the pattern and the trend of the line that you’re on and if you’re going where you want to go,” Mrkonich says. “You can get caught up in the excitement of the moment and start on a path without realizing exactly where it means you’re going.”

To make sure he’s stayed on the path during the past few years, he’s focused on hiring better people, creating the right environment and making sure he prioritizes what matters.

Hire better people

As Littler has grown, one of the keys to making sure the firm stays a strong organization has been hiring people into only the top half of the firm in terms of talent.

“If you’re average to start with, and you add people no better than what you were, you’re going to remain average,” Mrkonich says.

To make sure he gets people who will only move the firm forward, he goes beyond their experience. Littler has such a niche focus, experience is a given. He goes further and looks to see if they’ll fit in.

“When you’re looking at whether someone would be a good fit, focus on the person’s long-term goals and ambitions and see whether they align with your organization and if they fit with your organization,” he says. “So often, short-term goals dominate.”

He says you have to look at what their motivations are for leaving their current position. For instance, is someone interested in moving on because something unpleasant happened in his or her current company or is the person simply looking for a better opportunity? If it’s the former, that could happen anywhere, and you don’t necessarily want your people looking for a new job each time something unpleasant happens.

“You sort of start to focus on what the person’s ambitions are — what they hope to do professionally, what they hope to do personally, what they hope to do financially,” he says. “You sort of see and explore paths within that would bring that person in.”

You also want to make sure that the main reason someone leaving another position is not simply for more money. Sometimes a person may have specific needs that require looking for a position with a higher salary. But you have to distinguish between that and just chasing the next dollar, and the only way you can do that is to make sure you’re not enticing them instead of focusing on the attributes of your company.

“Generally speaking, people want to know that economically, they can, in the long run, do better,” Mrkonich says. “However, it’s our general practice that we don’t go buy people. Ultimately, if you recruit someone because you’re willing to pay them more today than someone else is, that can change tomorrow.”

Once you get past a person’s ambitions, you also have to look at his or her personality and who he or she is as a person.

“Get to know the person at a more human level,” he says. “What are their hobbies? What are their interests? What do they like to do in their nonwork time? What do they like to do within their work time? What part of the practice do they like the most?

“Once you break down a barrier or two, then you start to go beyond the interview-speak and hear what people are really thinking and feeling.”

This also helps you learn about not only why they’re interested in coming to your company but also what barriers they face in leaving their current position. For some people, they may only make one or two major career moves in their life, and if you’re a possibility, you have to understand that about them.

“If it’s someone who moves a lot and all the time, it’s not that we won’t find someone that’s a great fit, but that’s a … warning signal that you want to make sure it really is a great fit,” Mrkonich says. “If it’s someone considering the one move they might make in their career, you say, ‘Well, they’re more likely, if they find the right place for them that solves their long-term aspirations, to be a long-term team player for you.”

When you have someone like that, you need to be respectful and careful in what you say in your attempts to recruit them.

“One rule is, I never bash the place they are, because they’ve devoted a fair amount of their professional career and their personal time making that firm and that place all it can be, and that doesn’t get you very far,” he says. “To me, I like to focus on the future and the positive things that we bring as a firm.”

Have the right environment

When a lawyer in Los Angeles came forward with the idea of opening an office in Orange County, he wasn’t shot down. He explained that while working in L.A., he saw a huge market opportunity in the neighboring county and that the firm would benefit by having a ground presence there. He got the OK, and now there are about 15 lawyers in the office. A similar situation occurred with Minneapolis, which now has about 30 lawyers there.

“It’s building a business case for the idea, making sure there’s sufficient number of others that buy in, and it’s developing a budget and plan,” Mrkonich says. “If it makes sense, we do it.”

Empowering employees to bring forward new ideas has been one key to Littler’s growth, and doing so creates an environment of teamwork and collaboration.

“They believe that if they have an idea and they can articulate a reason to pursue it, they will never be told no,” he says.

If you haven’t had that kind of environment in the past, you clearly can’t just start implementing a bunch of ideas, but you can start somewhere.

“I don’t think you can take someone else’s system and graft it onto your own,” he says. “It starts with looking at your own values system, your own culture, your own business model and see where opportunities exist for new ideas and new ways of doing things, and then trying to work and focus on that aspect of the business.”

He says you have to look at what you’re completely committed to and what you’re completely not committed to in order to make decisions.

“If you’re committed through hard cost investment to a particular business model, and someone wants to come in and say that business model is wrong, that doesn’t help you much,” Mrkonich says. “You want to focus on the areas where, from a structural standpoint and a values standpoint, you’re open to new ideas, and then build systems that are compatible with your culture and understand and reward people for taking chances and identifying opportunity.”

Another element to having the right environment that promotes growth is making sure you are fostering and encouraging collaboration and teamwork.

“You have to have a rewards system that includes your ability to work together and how well you work with others,” he says.

This can be a series of metrics that are specific to a department or set of people, or it could just be one super metric. Either way, as the leader, you have to demonstrate this.

“If you or the people at the top are always claiming credit for good things and passing blame for the bad things that happen, it’s never going to work,” Mrkonich says. “There has to be a culture of accountability at the top, a culture of sharing and a culture of teamwork at the top. … If you do it at the top level, there’s some hope that it will filter out and be seen by those trying to work themselves into positions where they’re part of the leadership team as the right way to do things.”

And lastly, you have to make sure you’re communicating in an honest and fair manner with all of your employees.

“When there’s bad news, you can’t hide it,” he says. “One of my colleagues says bad news does not taste better served cold. That’s very true. It’s being realistic and being honest, making sure communication is frequent and also personal.”


Mrkonich is an avid fiction reader, and while he doesn’t read a lot of business books, Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” resonated with him when Covey spoke about prioritization.

“Obviously, if something is urgent and important, you’re going to do it,” Mrkonich says. “If something is neither urgent nor important, you’re only going to do it if you need a break — like playing solitaire on your computer — and then you have that, ‘What if it’s urgent but not important versus important but not urgent?’ How you balance those two things determines the effectiveness of your organization and you as an executive.”

And those decisions can also determine how well — if at all — your organization can grow. So when the phone is ringing, he has 10 e-mails to return and an employee is about to celebrate his or her 30th anniversary with the firm, how does he prioritize what to do?

“It’s time for you sit down and write a thank-you note to the person who just reached their 30th anniversary with the firm,” he says. “Which one is more important? This is a time when each is more important, but in the end, if you don’t get around to thanking the people who have been here for 30 years for their loyalty and commitment, you’re missing the boat.”

He says you have to develop a system for determining what’s important versus what’s urgent and weighing how tasks fall into those buckets.

“Make sure you don’t fall into the trap of doing things that are urgent but not particularly important at the expense of those things that are truly important but don’t have the immediacy that other things do,” Mrkonich says.

“You sit down, and you devote the time to planning and deciding. There’s no one answer. Sometimes things are urgent for a reason — even though they’re not important, they have to be done. Other times, you have to make sure you have time to do those things that are important but may not be urgent.

“Think of it as Saturday date night with your spouse or partner. That’s important. It may not feel urgent each Saturday night, but you recognize that if you don’t do it, you’re not investing enough into your relationship. … You start running around and saying, ‘I have to have this done, and I have to finish this and finish that, and you have to look at, ‘What if I’m a day late with that? What am I giving up?’ You have to know. It’s all about prioritization.”

How to reach: Littler Mendelson PC, (888) 548-8537 or

The Mrkonich file

Marko Mrkonich

President and managing director

Littler Mendelson PC

Born: I was born in a town called Thief River Falls, Minn. The nickname of the high school sports teams is the Prowlers — which today sounds like a felon in waiting, but it’s a nocturnal cat that was sort of the logo. I don’t know that a school would knowingly pick that these days. I grew up in Duluth for most of my childhood.

Education: Undergraduate and law degrees, Harvard

What was your first job as a child?

My first job with a paycheck was cleaning schoolrooms and desks in the summer time for the Duluth School Board. I was 16. I learned, to a certain extent, no matter what you’re doing, showing up on time and prepared is important.

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

I wanted to be a professional athlete. I wasn’t even picky. I probably wanted to be a pro football player.

What has been the best advice you’ve received?

It’s interesting, because over the years I’ve been fortunate to have had many people share many pieces of wisdom. There are two I would say — one is from my father, which was, ‘Work hard every day, and people may not agree with you, but they’ll respect you.’ And [the other is,] ‘Worry about yourself and what you’re doing — don’t get caught up in looking at what other people are doing, because that’s a recipe for disaster.’

What’s your favorite board game?

Trivial Pursuit, because I think that it’s social and I just have a fondness for trivia.

Monday, 21 February 2011 13:47

On the move

When Camille Cheney Fournier was 10 years old, she was already well established as a vital part of the family business.

“We used to have three-part commissions, and we had to tear them and get them all sorted out,” she says. “I was pretty little, because I remember I couldn’t reach far enough to put the checks in numeric order.”

But even in such a seemingly small role, she learned a valuable lesson that has stayed with her through the years and helps her as she now leads the family business, SWS Re-Distribution Co. Inc., as owner and CEO.

“It takes everybody to make the business work,” Fournier says. “It really does. Some of those tasks that I was doing, like putting checks in numerical order or sorting salesmen commission reports, all that had to be done, and somebody had to do it. It was something that even a kid could do so that the employees at the office could do something they had the skill to handle.

“It goes to show that there are so many jobs at a company, and they’re all important, and they’re all needed, and they all need to be appreciated.”

By encouraging teamwork and valuing every job at the company, which sources and redistributes food service products globally, people know how important their roles are. This has helped employees work together to increase efficiencies internally as well as for their customers, which has allowed the organization to grow from $159.3 million in revenue in 2006 to $253.5 million in 2009.

“Without everybody doing their part, it doesn’t work,” she says.

Hire and train team-oriented people

For Fournier, having the right type of people who will be willing to work collaboratively with other team members and customers has been critical to the company’s growth over the past few years. That happens by making sure she hires the right people.

“You have to have the right people that care and are proactive and ask questions that go beyond what is just expected,” she says.

It starts in the interview process by clearly laying out how SWS operates and what the company’s philosophies are regarding customer service, teamwork and collaboration.

“By talking to them, you can really feel that they would be the right person,” she says. “If they ask good questions in the interview process, they’re probably going to be a questioning kind of person to begin with.”

The questions people ask can vary depending on the job, but she says that if they ask about how people stay sharp in their positions and how they make sure they do the best work possible, no matter what the situation, that can be an indication of a good fit.

Once hired, cross-training them is critical to success.

“Staying sharp is really important,” she says. “We try to diversify through the type of job that each person has so their job is broken up a little bit more, they have a little bit different responsibilities so that when they come back to one that may be a little bit more monotonous, they can still be sharp doing that task.”

For example, a customer service person would primarily spend his or her day taking orders from customers and helping those customers build their truckloads of various products. The customer service people may take several of those orders and work with the customers back and forth to make the loads as efficient as possible, but they may also have to take a timeout and check someone else’s order to make sure that other customer service person made his or her order the correct way and in the most efficient manner possible.

“It’s kind of like a puzzle,” she says. “If you have a different set of eyes look at it, all of a sudden you go, ‘Oh, this could be done a little bit differently,’ so they make suggestions.”

Additionally, someone may pull an order for a customer, but then someone else will come through and check to make sure it’s all correctly pulled.

“We try to break up different people’s responsibilities, and then we throw someone in a totally different area of the company to do another task to show them what they’ve done is related to another area of the company, too.”

This approach to training helps not only avoid problems and errors, but it also eliminates silos from being built because employees are constantly doing tasks outside their main area and seeing every aspect of each order from different points of view.

“It’s nice for different areas of the office, whether you’re in customer service or accounts payable or accounts receivable or shipping or purchasing to understand how it all fits together,” she says. “When you understand that, you understand how important everything you do is and how important it is to do it correctly.”

While this approach helps the company, it also helps the employees, as well. As they learn different roles and aspects of the business, it makes them more versatile. One manager started in customer service and then went to shipping and then accounts receivable before landing her management position.

“She knows it from the ground up,” Fournier says. “We try to promote from within, because our business is somewhat complex, and it helps if our employees truly understand all the different aspects.”

Help employees build customer relationships

The greatest compliment that Fournier has received from a customer is that her team is always able to find solutions to any kind of situation or problem that a customer faces.

“Part of it starts within getting all of the people that work in your company to realize how important each of their areas of the company are and that we all make up a cog in the wheel to make it all work,” she says. “It’s important for me to meet with the customer and listen and understand what their needs are and be able to come to them with good proactive solutions and proactive ideas about what they might want to change in the future. It’s important that everybody in my company understand how important they are in making our customer satisfied and happy.”

This started with looking at how trucks were loaded. A typical truck will hold 26 skids of a product, but by being creative, SWS employees can get 35 or 36 skids on a truck.

“When they’re training, they go out and actually see the loads going out,” she says. “What we explain is, ‘This is a heavy product, and it can have something stacked on it. This is a light product, and it cannot, but it can go on top of something. This is really tall.’

“Just to understand what you’re selling when you’re sitting in an office is so important to being able to be a really good partner with your customer.”

One manager took the initiative to create a chart of which products were light, heavy and stackable to give to customers so that the customers could then maximize their orders as well to save money.

“It’s really being proactive,” Fournier says. “I’ve got a great group of people being very proactive that work here.”

That same manager also pulls her customers’ order history so she can see what their needs are and how fast they move through certain products and uses that information to make suggestions to them about what could be a good add-on to their order to create more efficiencies.

“You also have to know what your customers’ sales are and what their needs are and how fast they go through their products, because turns on the inventory is also a very important factor for the customer,” she says. “They have to be able to turn the merchandise fast enough that they want to get as much on the truck as possible so they’re not having to buy another truckload sooner because they’ve run out of a product.”

Beyond looking at their order histories, you also have to communicate with your customers. Fournier and her employees meet with customers over the phone and Internet daily and weekly and also meet with them in person two or three times a year.

“[It’s] communication — meeting with them and talking to them and finding out what their problems are and their concerns and working on solutions to correct any of the problems that their company is facing,” she says.

When she meets with them, she asks them what they like and dislike about different products that they’re currently using, but she also asks what they would like to see changed or made differently.

The approach of trying to save the customer money and time has built strong relationships that have helped fuel the company’s growth.

“We’re all on the same team trying to do the same thing,” Fournier says. “That’s a large, important part of our business — that everybody realized that we’re all on the same team. It’s not just my company that’s a team. The customers are part of the team. The end users are part of the team. We’re all in it together, and if the whole group of everybody isn’t happy and satisfied and saving money and working well, then we’re missing something, and we need to re-evaluate because that’s our job.”

How to reach: SWS Re-Distribution Co. Inc., (972) 466-9720 or

The Cheney Fournier file

Camille Cheney Fournier

owner and CEO

SWS Re-Distribution Co. Inc.

Born: Dallas — born and raised; I’m a fourth generation.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in textiles and clothing, University of Texas at Austin

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

I wanted to be a buyer in a clothing store. University of Texas didn’t have fashion merchandising — the closest thing they had was textiles.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

Tell the truth, even if they don’t want to hear it. That’s probably the best. Always tell the truth, always be honest. You have to be fair — that’s another one.

What’s your favorite board game and why?

Monopoly because I like the strategy of trying to buy the different properties. I like the strategy of the different combinations of properties you can buy in your little portfolio. ... I think games keep your brain sharp, and it’s entertainment, and it’s distracting. It’s kind of like going on a mini-vacation, and it takes your mind off of what is going on in your life, and then you’re fresh to come back to it. It’s just like reading. When I read, I usually read fiction, because when I read, it’s a release and I enjoy it, and then I can come back to reality and life and have a fresh perspective. It’s important to have enough down time that you’re always positive and sharp in your business or your family or whatever you’re doing in life.

What’s your favorite book that you’ve read?

Recently, ‘The Kite Runner.’ I’ve read several books that I liked lately. ‘The Help’ was good, too. They’re just different. It’s real interesting to see different people’s perspective. ‘Same Kind of Different as Me,’ that’s probably one of the better books I’ve read.

Monday, 21 February 2011 11:17

Expanding on excellence

As Craig Donnan began his new role as managing partner of Deloitte LLP’s Northeast Ohio practice last summer, he recognized that the firm is top-notch and in a great position for future success. Despite that, his goal was to not rest on what it had accomplished but to instead build on the business practices the firm already embraces that will propel it for future success.

In taking over for the retiring Pat Mullin at the nearly 500-employee financial services firm, he’s focusing on broadening their footprint with current clients, serving small- and medium-size companies — those under a billion dollars in revenue — and continuing to expand the firm’s international tax capabilities.

Smart Business spoke with Donnan about how he’s planning to lead the firm.

As you focus on those particular areas, how do you communicate those goals?

My mantra to people is to speak to someone in person rather than call, call rather than e-mail, and e-mail rather than IM because I just think that the personal touch gets lost, particularly in today’s technologically advancing environment. I’m striving to meet individually with groups of employees across all functions so they understand that there’s a leader that believes in this and lives and breathes it every day and drives home the value that we should be focused more on client-centric benefits rather than function.

How do you craft your message so people listen and understand?

What I’ve learned over the 25 years that I’ve been doing this is that you have to be passionate and you have to believe in what you do. I sold household items door to door. I believed in the product. I believed then it was a quality product and people got a benefit out of it. When you’re dealing with employees or potential customers, if you don’t believe in a product or a service offering or you don’t believe in your people or your firm, people will see through it. You have to approach it with passion, and you have to be passionate about the delivery, and you got to know the product, and you got to know your audience.

I try to make sure that I know as much as, if not more, about what their needs are and how we can help them. Then break it down into bite-size pieces depending on the complexity of the matter and also the capacity of the individuals that you’re addressing and their knowledge base. And make sure whoever you’re addressing, it’s the appropriate level and that we can articulate the benefits of short-term, midterm and long-term of what we are talking about. I tend to use examples — people can relate to examples that are tangible and they’re recognizable, otherwise sometimes it goes over their heads.

How do you get buy-in?

I was in New York with a client that had traditionally been an audit client. We recently introduced five different new functions, and their board is extremely happy with that, and it gives our people a sense of accomplishment because they’re doing things in a friendly environment because we have an existing relationship. It’s not cold-calling. To the extent you can deliver tangible, real-life examples of where it’s worked, that’s when people grab on to it and get it and get behind it and pursue it with a passion.

It’s communicating to our people that there is a career path and there is a reward system. Those tend to be key to getting people motivated because people tend to follow the money. Making sure that employees understand that there is a clear and definable career path is one of the first efforts that you make to get buy-in because it gives people something to look at and shoot for.

Donnan File:

  • Education:

    Bowling Green State University

  • Resides:


  • Board Service:

    The First Tee of Cleveland

  • Experience:

    Donnan most recently led Deloitte’s audit practice for Northeast Ohio, a group that encompasses more than 130 professionals practicing in external and internal audits, regulatory compliance, mergers and acquisitions, information security and privacy, and international financial reporting standards, among others.

    He has been in public accounting for 23 years, all with Deloitte and has served clients in manufacturing, real estate, media and entertainment, and metals and mining. He has particular insight into SEC reporting matters and the broader challenges facing businesses today, having worked with global and middle-market companies on matters related to enterprise risk and mergers and acquisitions.

  • How to reach:

    (216) 589-1300 or

Monday, 21 February 2011 11:09

USA Insulation grew through franchising

When Patrick J. Pitrone took over as president of USA Insulation Franchise Corp. seven years ago, he had to overcome the hurdle of being the founder’s son.

He made sure he did every aspect of the insulation business himself so that he never asked someone to do something that he didn’t know how to do or wasn’t willing to do himself. As a result, he earned the respect of the company’s 135 employees.

Four years ago, he started turning the organization toward growth by transforming it into a franchisor. There weren’t any insulation franchise businesses, so the field was wide open.

Smart Business spoke with Pitrone about how he led the business into this new endeavor.

How did you start franchising your business?

It did take some hard knocks and learning initially. We knew our business very well, but we didn’t know the franchise business — how to take our model and carbon copy it across the country. We learned a lot about ourselves, and we found out that we’ve learned a lot about our business, but we never took the time to put it all down and hand it over to somebody. We had to go back to the drawing board and bring some consultants on board to frame out a system to put in place and put everything out on the table and give them a launch process and how we can help them operate.

The key to that area was bringing people on board who knew the franchise business and could mold it with the existing insulation process and be able to craft a system that can make people successful in this business.

How did you select consultants to help you?

We had some referrals of people who had done this before. There’s nobody in the insulation franchising business, so that was out the window, so we had to look for people who had similar service businesses or folks we met at the International Franchise Association’s annual meeting. It was bringing people on board who knew franchise businesses and molding it with ours.

In choosing a consultant, we made a mistake. Initially, we hired someone who was a fair amount of money, and you don’t know what you don’t know starting out, and we thought we had the right company there.

What tips would you give for hiring a consultant?

Spend time with them to get a sense of the people they were. [Ask] questions to get to where you felt comfortable with them.

I wanted to find out initially how they took companies from ground zero up to 10,000 feet or so. I wanted to find out not only if they did but what they did to bring companies that have been doing one particular thing in one location for X amount of time, and how did they build that business? How did they take a company and build their manuals, build their jump systems for new locations, how did they build the marketing and legal pieces? … Initially we didn’t know what questions to ask, so we had to make a couple of mistakes in the beginning — they were costly mistakes, but they helped us choose that next consultant, the one that has really gotten us to where we are now. So knowing what questions to ask initially was a pretty big thing, and we had to learn the hard way of asking the wrong ones first and learning the second time the right ones to ask.

What are some good questions to ask?

One question that I have asked before is, ‘Give me a reason why I would hire you and a reason why I wouldn’t.’ They’re sort of behavioral-based questions. Give me examples of times and things you’ve done. The closed questions won’t get as many answers.

The best questions are to ask the folks they’ve worked with and the referrals. I’ve actually been a referral now for this consultant, and people talk to me for a half hour at a time. They wanted to do their due diligence. … Those questions can be — the expectations that were set, did they meet your expectations, was the price that you paid the right amount of money for the services you got, or what are the biggest weaknesses that they’ve had in the first six months of getting started? Presentations are presentations. You can have consultants come and go through the front door, but unless you talk to the folks they work with, it’s difficult to get a sense of what they’re all about.

What have you learned from this process?

It takes longer than you think, and it takes more work than you think and you don’t always see progress when you want to see it. But it’s funny, the longer you do it, the more people from the outside looking in give you some perspective on how far you’ve come. It’s been [more than] three years now and we have 17 locations and that’s more than I thought I’d have right now. It’s interesting to see the growth of our company. It’s fun.

How to reach: USA Insulation Franchise Corp., (866) 602-4107 or

Friday, 18 February 2011 15:42

Room for growth

Mit Shah was enjoying the fruits of his labor.

As Shah, founder, senior managing principal and CEO of Noble Investment Group, a company that invests in and manages hotels, he had successfully gotten the business past the struggles that followed the Sept. 11 attacks when travel and tourism dollars fell. Everything was back on track, and the company had been growing, earning spots on the Inc. 5,000 list through the years, and in 2008, it recorded $325 million in revenue.

But things have slowed from the pace Shah and his team are used to.

“We’ve built this model over 17 years — great people, great human characteristics — but clearly the last two and a half years have created a real pause of how we approach our business,” Shah says.

One of his challenges is having extremely talented people, which most wouldn’t think is a problem, but in tough times, it proves to be.

“How do you keep a group of highly successful, highly talented, highly motivated, passionate leaders engaged and focused on the ability to manage what we have when you’re an organization that’s truly built for continuous investment and continuous growth, and that’s how you’re structured?” Shah says.

He’s also been challenged by looking for opportunities to grow the business and figuring out how the market will shake out.

“That has been a big part of my responsibility to continue to surround myself with people who internally and externally will give me good insight as it relates to how do we see opportunities going forward,” he says.

And then it’s been just hunkering down on the business basics.

“Continue to do what the books say you’re supposed to do — stick to your core values during times of great opportunity and during times of crisis, take care of people, make sure that you continue to commit to things that are part of who you are and who you espouse to be,” Shah says.

Over the past three years, by building a solid group of peers to rely on, focusing on his people and looking for opportunities, Shah was able to successfully move Noble forward — earning $346 million in revenue in 2009 — and prepare it for future growth.

Build your peer group

One of the aspects of business that Shah says has been particularly critical the past few years has been forecasting out where the market would go and how things could change, but he can’t do this alone. He’s come to rely on a core group of people that he’s built over the years to help him better make decisions about his company.

For example, he may have dinner with the CEO of Hilton Hotels one day and the president of Wake Forest University on another, and they both play a critical role in his life.

“I always stayed very close to a group of people that I viewed could help me on a broader basis,” Shah says. “It goes back to this peer group — never being the smartest person in the room, always having the smartest room, and always finding people who I could befriend and I could build a relationship with and build a partnership with, who, in essence, I could learn from and build a base of knowledge that I wouldn’t get in just running my company.”

Having a group of people to get feedback and ideas from has also helped him bring in the best people when those openings arise. To build his group, he got out on the road and met with people continuously, and this went back as far as 18 years ago. Over the years, his group has also evolved and today includes top executives of the world’s major hotel chains, basketball coaches, people in service businesses and manufacturing as well as investment bankers.

“That’s really helped me think about things, both then and now, in a way that helps me lead more effectively,” he says. “I have the power of and the benefit of a broad range of thinking, and then I can take those thoughts, and I can incorporate them into my own and lead through that manner.”

To create a group for yourself, Shah suggests getting out more to build those relationships with people.

“Go to meetings, go to conferences, find out the best industry events,” he says. “Walk around, shake people’s hands, get to know people, and take every opportunity that you have to understand those in whatever business and industry are at the tip of being visionary, of being organizations that have had sustainable track records, that are respected among a group of people that you respect, and find opportunities to establish relationships.”

Sometimes that means you have to make the tougher decision in the here and now. You may want to go do something fun, but instead, you need to choose to do what will be most beneficial in the long term.

“There’s been times all across my entire career where it’s an opportunity to either go have a dinner or to be in the same room or to go to a meeting or a conference, and you have no idea what you’re going to get out of it,” Shah says. “But spend those times as opposed to saying, ‘Let’s go find the best place to watch the game tonight,’ and really go and find an opportunity to establish a friendship.”

When you meet people and get to know them, it’s important to remember that they’re people just like you, so use that as a base to build that friendship.

“It doesn’t matter if someone is the CEO of a big Fortune 100 company or if they’re just your golfing buddy,” he says. “At the end of the day, when you peel back everything, people are just, if you find good human beings, decent people. They’d much rather go have a barbecue sandwich than have something fancy. They’d much rather have a beer together and talk about your families than always be talking about how you’re going to win market share here and how you’re going to do that. That all comes, but break it down to just finding quality human beings and building friendships with them.”

Focus on your people

During the downturn, Shah didn’t cut his 401(k) match, community service programs or the company Christmas party. Instead, he doubled the budget for his employee engagement committee so it could plan things like bowling outings and have a really nice holiday party.

“Let’s be honest, this is a tough labor market,” he says. “People aren’t jumping jobs right now, so we get that. You can’t use that as a crutch, because as soon as the market comes back, they’ll leave for a better opportunity once available.”

Despite the challenging times, it’s crucial to make sure you continue to focus on your people and how you can support them. Look at the people that aren’t your senior managers — just your everyday, salaried employees — and reflect on what their intentions are.

“Do they have the character and confidence, and then do they care about the company’s best interest?” Shah asks. “If they do, then making that decision is very easy.”

If you have employees that would leave to go across the street for 5 percent more, then Shah understands not wanting to put the resources out to support them, but at the same time, he also questions why that is.

“What does that mean?” he says. “That means that if you haven’t brought in that person who has that character and if you haven’t done the things to promote that loyalty, whose fault is it? Is it the team member’s fault or the employer’s fault that they’re not loyal?”

When you face yourself with this kind of a situation, that’s when it becomes difficult to decide whether to put money toward your people or to keep it for the company.

“If employers are in that situation, then it’s hard for them to part with their dollars because — they’ll never admit it and they’ll never sit in front of a town hall and say, ‘All of you employees are commodities,’ — they would never say that, and if they feel that, they’ll make a decision and say, ‘We’ll just hoard the cash,’” Shah says. “But if you really believe in your team members, and if you really believe they have the organization’s best interest and they’re going to be there for the long haul, then you take care of them. You always take care of them.”

In fact, as 2009 came to an end, Shah was anticipating a surplus in the budget and predicted that they would be creating a supplementary bonus program with it in addition to putting some of that back into the company as a buffer for this year.

“You always go to the denominator of what’s the right thing to do,” he says.

Recognize opportunities

The economy has changed business the past few years, so you can’t just rest on your laurels and expect clients to come your way.

“You’ve got to look through a number of different avenues,” Shah says. “It’s far different than it ever was. Generating business in general is different than what it was before — in any industry.”

Over the past couple of years, Shah has been diligent about looking for new opportunities, and that starts with knowing your market.

“It’s really about having a very good understanding of your marketplace so you don’t have to be a big national organization or global organization,” he says. “We could be just the best hotel group in Atlanta, but we need to know Atlanta like the back of our hand.”

Knowing your market also goes back to your peer group and having people you can talk to about how the market is going so you can better predict how things may shift. On top of that, it’s important to have a niche.

“You have to find a niche in the business,” Shah says. “I think that companies of the future that are going to be very successful will have a niche. They aren’t broad-based companies that do a lot of things. They’ll find a couple things they do really well, and they focus on those things, and they outperform the competition there. It’s way too difficult to be good at many different things.”

For example, Shah knows that his company is good at hotels, but he also recognizes that it isn’t cut out to go into, say, grocery stores or office buildings.

“You can’t just, all of a sudden, wake up one day and say, ‘I think we’re going to be grocery-anchored retail,’” he says. “There’s some smart leaders in our organization, but we don’t know anything about grocery-anchored retail, and I can’t just go hire someone who knows about grocery-anchored retail and pretend we can be a great company overnight.”

Instead, you have to look at what your company already does and what expertise you already have within the organization.

“You have to say, ‘What are you built to go do that’s as good as or better than the best people that do it in your business?’” Shah says. “Based on that, how do you build that if you have not already? If you think you have it already, how do you go and execute around that area?”

If you see that the opportunities aren’t in that area and you do think you have to explore a different area, you need to do it in a smart way.

“If we don’t know how to do something, we always go get the talent first and go and build a model around it, and then start with one and continue to grow,” he says. “That’s what we’ve historically always done.”

The key is you have to be able to live with whatever consequences come as a result of the direction you head.

“Understand what your downside is,” Shah says. “Know what you can live with. It’s hard. How do you be visionary, be aggressive, be strategic and also manage risks without just being completely paralyzed by it?”

How to reach: Noble Investment Group, (404) 262-9660 or

The Shah file

Mit Shah

Founder, Senior Managing Principal and CEO

Noble Investment Group

Born: Morristown, N.J.

Education: Bachelor’s degree, economics, Wake Forest University

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

I wanted to be a basketball coach. If I can’t be a coach, I want to be an announcer.

I’m first generation American. My parents are both immigrants. I’m the eldest child of immigrants. They think about education and stability, and you’re like, ‘Hey! I’m going to be a basketball coach or announcer.’ They’re like, ‘What are you talking about? You’re going to be a doctor.’ I was like, ‘All right, I guess I’m going to be a doctor,’ — until I got to college and took bio and chem and physics and hated all three with a passion.

Did you get the chance to coach at all?

I used to coach kids basketball when I was in college. One of the first things that really helped me think about what I wanted to do with my life was when a friend of mine was going to be the head coach, and he asked me to be the assistant, and he transferred schools, so I ended up becoming the head coach before the first game, and it was the most thrilling thing to me.

I was coaching these 11- and 12-year-old kids, but these kids were just wide open. They listened, they cared, they were good enough where you could teach them things. I was like, ‘This is really great.’ They’re 12, so they’re going to listen to you, and they don’t care that you’re 18 — they’re 11, so they look at you as a leader. I was like, ‘Wow. This is the first time anyone’s listened to me.’ It got me really excited about the opportunity to lead and the opportunity to be somewhere where I could teach and help people maximize their potential.

What’s the best book you’ve read?

I’ve got a number — Jim Collins’ ‘Good to Great.’ It’s kind of a pat answer. It was the first book I ever read that gave real tangible evidence of what companies did over time to help them not only survive but thrive through multiple periods of economic volatility. It helped me think about my business in ways I never had thought about it before.

If you’re looking for something less business-oriented, ‘The Last Lecture’ by Randy Pausch was a great book because it really touched on things that, to me as a human being, we should always think about.

Monday, 21 February 2011 14:27

People connection

When Alan P. Shor co-founded The Retail Connection LP in 2004 with Steve Lieberman, they had six employees and one too-large office. But within just a few years, the company has filled that space, growing to about 70 people and three offices today.

One of the keys to building a strong organization has been making sure he gets the right people into the real estate services and investment firm.

Smart Business spoke with Shor, who serves as co-chairman and president, about how to successfully grow an open organization by bringing in the right people.

What have been the keys to your success?

There are just a handful of basic keys to good, strong, successful leadership. One is building the right culture in your organization. Before you can do that, you have to be clear in your own mind of what you want to do and how you want to do it, and then you have to communicate that in a clear way. If you have a plan and a way to achieve that plan and you communicate it right, then you start building your team, and that’s where the cultural part comes in.

First and foremost, it’s hiring the right people. Once you get the right people in the door, then it’s making sure they understand what our goals and objectives are.

How do you hire the right people?

We try to combine experience with entry-level. We look for people who are smart and entrepreneurial and want to work hard and become students of the business. You can accomplish that by hiring experienced people based on what they’ve done, and you can accomplish that by hopefully putting people through a good interview process, particularly the entry-level program.

We have an analysts program where we hire kids out of school that want to have a career in what we do. Then we put them in a six- to eight-month program where we move them around the company to different parts and they see how we interact and work with different teams and see different aspects of the business. At the end of that time, we make an assessment of whether they’re ready to become a full-time employee. Our success rate has been really strong. We have a good feeling going into the hiring. Then we have a much better read coming out of the analyst program as to who can make it and who can’t.

What tips can you provide for making better hires?

Make sure you have a pretty good understanding of what you’re looking for, have a specific job description, and you want to make sure that you articulate the type of person you’re looking to hire and then be very diligent in the hiring process.

The people we bring in will see multiple people here — it could be upwards of six or eight people from different parts of the business — and then we talk about how that interview went. Then we give them an aptitude test. It’s a 20-minute test that really will give us some guidance. It’s not the barometer, but it’s one of the factors. We look at it as to how they’ll be in our business.

Be diligent about it. Call references. Make sure enough people spend time with that person, because you’re making a decision that not only impacts your company but, more importantly, is impacting the life of somebody.

How can you get beyond the interview front to know who people really are?

If they’re in Dallas, it’s easier because we try to get our people together as much as possible. One of the things we do a lot of is we get our guys together and have a basketball game. We invite our recruits to play, and when you get them in a setting like that, where it’s very much a social and competitive atmosphere, you can learn a lot that you can’t learn in an interview.

How to reach: The Retail Connection LP, (214) 572-0777 or

Friday, 18 February 2011 15:52

Ringing in the new

When Jeffrey M. Mintz stepped into the role of managing partner at Jackson Lewis LLP in 2006, he was starting a new chapter in the firm’s history by succeeding someone who had been in that role for 25 years.

“The immediate challenge was related to the transitional process itself,” says Mintz, who stepped back into the partner role late last year. “We had a 25-year status quo.”

He had to quickly develop confidence internally with about 50 employees and externally with clients that, while there was a new leader, everything was still going to be strong moving forward.

Smart Business spoke with Mintz about how to transition your organization into new leadership.

How do you develop confidence with people?

It’s very important to presume capability. Doing so creates new opportunities for the people who work for the firm, which results in experience, and experience breeds confidence, and that creates client appreciation. If you focus on the opposite — inability — it becomes self-fulfilling and provokes negativity and it erodes morale.

What I was able to explain to our staff was our record demonstrates that when we focus on what people can do, they do it. When the individuals do it, we succeed as a team. We were starting from an expectation that they were going to succeed. That drove people immediately in the right direction.

What was one of the most important things for you moving forward?

I knew you have to listen effectively. If we listen effectively and are aware of others and their perspective, then you’re much more effective at developing the road map to get you from point A to point B, C and D. I also recognized the importance of effective two-way communications and developing people and their personal stakes in the success of the business. I think responsiveness is very important and people tend to react and contribute more effectively when they’re viewed as a meaningful player and participant.

What’s the key to effective listening?

I look before I talk. When I walk into a client’s office, I’m very aware of the surroundings. You can learn a great deal of what a person feels is important. Ultimately, you’re going to pick up on what the individual may find powerful and persuasive by looking around to see what’s on the wall or the credenza or what’s not on the wall or credenza, how the desk is set up, and what the furniture looks like and the order of things — or the lack thereof.

That provides a great deal of context and information, and it’s very meaningful messaging without a word being spoken. If you can pick up and read those nonverbal signals, it will enable you to listen and see beyond the spoken word when the client is reacting, and then you can better tailor your tone and the substance of your remarks to try to accomplish the end objective. Effective communication involves effective observation and listening much more than effective articulation.

What advice would you give other leaders taking over in a new role?

It’s important to be realistic and to recognize that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach with respect to the individuals on the team. Don’t hesitate to make the tough decisions after listening to everybody. It’s more important to be confident and to be intelligently aggressive and take chances after doing your risk-reward analysis, but failure to take chances and use intelligent risk will preclude the organization from moving forward. Sometimes conflict is unavoidable. If you avoid conflict, you’re credibility will be undermined. People want responsiveness even more than they want the answer that they want to hear, and that’s very important from a good leader. A good leader has to be consistent and somewhat predictable in terms of the format and the approach you use as opposed to the message that you deliver.

How to reach: Jackson Lewis LLP, (404) 525-8200 or

Tuesday, 01 March 2011 14:06

Talent management

As a child, Lois Melbourne watched her mother run her business with a focus on people.

That lesson stays with her as an adult at her own business, Aquire Inc., a work force planning and management solutions company. As co-founder and CEO of the 64-person company, she uses those people skills to help business owners develop succession plans and work through mergers and reorganizations.

Smart Business spoke with Melbourne about how to effectively manage your talent.

How do you create metrics for talent management?

Every organization has different drivers, but looking at the measurement, some of them are subjective, yet they still need to be ranked — like readiness for another position. It has to still be a human intervention to say, ‘Is an individual ready for a particular role?’ But that decision is also hopefully based on measurements that have been going on throughout the year or throughout someone’s career as you look at what experience have they been through, what value have they brought to the organization, do they have the necessary training or hands-on experience with components in the company? Then, sometimes it’s very easy to check off the list and say maybe they’ve been to a university or they haven’t, they’ve gotten a certain certification or they haven’t. Those kinds of things are often part of the measurements, as well.

How do you prevent bias from creeping in with subjective measurements?

An important part of avoiding bias is there isn’t one individual making a decision about another person’s career. … Organizations will put in 360-degree reviews. That kind of quantification is there, and it gets a lot easier in a business to avoid bias if the organization is driven by results, and the goals are set for any given individual or position or department, so you can measure if someone has actually met the goal.

Let’s say a goal is 80 percent of the employees will have been through a global training experience in two years, because we want them to either do a global job or to have been through certain types of classes about global awareness. If that’s a departmental or corporate goal, then you start driving the goals down to the individual, so then it’s less subjective — that HR person who was in charge of getting people properly trained, did they do a good job? Well, did they reach the goal? Was the goal properly established? Those types of things help take out the bias.

How do you set goals that are challenging but achievable?

Part of it is looking at historical data. What has been done in the past? We’ll use the previous example — let’s say the goal is, ‘We want 80 percent of the people to go through training in two years,’ but we never could reach more than 50 percent. So why would we, this year, crank it up 15 percent? Look at some of the historical factors and see what’s been achievable in the past. Come up with a logical number for the future, as well.

How do you know when you need to lower a goal versus it’s a performance issue?

It requires a discussion with sometimes a lot of people — the stakeholders, the individuals involved — to figure out why have we not been reaching this goal? Is it because of the performance of individuals, or is it because of budget constraints? Why did we set the goal at 80 percent to begin with? Was that wishful thinking? Did we have to have that many for some reason, like compliance issues?

It’s finding out why the goal was set and finding out is there a consensus on why the goal hasn’t been reached. Are there conflicts as to why the goal hasn’t been reached? Is there finger-pointing? … It might have been something out of their control, and that might need to be notated.

If we have a goal of watching what kind of turnover we have in our employee base and we lose a whole lot of people, why does that happen? Did we lose people because we stopped a benefits program, and people had to leave because they needed to find health insurance? That insurance impact then affects other goals. Get down to why did we miss the target.

How to reach: Aquire Inc., (888) 674-2427 or