Brooke Bates

Monday, 23 February 2009 19:00

Gearing for change

When the idea came up almost 30 years ago at Exhibit Work Inc.’s inaugural Christmas party, Dominic Silvio was resistant.

“Here’s a small group of seven or eight of us sitting around a table and somebody said EWI instead of Exhibit Works,” says Silvio, the company’s chairman, founder and CEO. “And I admonished this person and said, ‘Hey, please don’t start that. I don’t want to be known as EWI.’”

But nearly 30 years later, Silvio and his 250 employees have made the initials official at the company, which posted $179 million in revenue in fiscal 2008. The name change to EWI Worldwide in August 2007 reflects the company’s global shift and is inclusive of all of the company’s live communication and event marketing services, not just exhibit design. But despite the changes, EWI’s communication-driven culture has stayed the same.

Smart Business spoke with Silvio about how to use your employees’ input for change while keeping them on track with everyday tasks.

Establish open communication. Rebranding situations are different. For some companies, it might be the culture that needs to change. For us, it was about evolving our business, diversifying, growing globally and ultimately serving our clients the full spectrum of live communications. So we were faced with the challenge of making organizational changes without losing sight of our core culture.

The culture we’ve managed to preserve has a lot to do with people, communication and trust. Give (people) a voice in the company. I have always had an open-door policy.

I encourage employees to stop me in the hall and ask questions, visit my office and share their ideas. It’s also important that they communicate with each other.

Keep your door open. Be available. Listen. Not everyone is comfortable sharing input with the CEO, so give options. Get your human resources department involved or have an employee responsible for internal communications. Create an open atmosphere and then some of it is up to the people.

Remind employees to stay on task during change. When we first started out and people weren’t remembering what they should be doing as far as being a salesman or generally doing their work, I would tell them — it sounds a little hokey — but, ‘Put a rock in your shoe so you’ll remember, a little pain in your foot so you’re going to remember what you should be doing.’

[We] came up with the Power of One and the rock [painted with the word ‘one’]. At first I thought it was hokey, but people understood Power of One, bringing everyone together under one name, and it seemed

to be very, very powerful.

So it was a fun, memorable and engaging way to deliver an important message to the company when we first announced this change from Exhibit Works to EWI Worldwide. And now, for those who have it placed on their desks, it’s a reminder of this message.

Use input from inside and outside of your company to rebrand. We formed a committee and there were designers, graphics people, marketing people, sales. We had a big group — 12, 13 people.

I heard everyone’s thoughts and ideas, and they just went off the charts. What always bothered me about logo changes is people go off on tangents, and they want to come up with some brand-new idea, and they lose the culture that they had.

Even though we had this large group, they were going off on a tangent, and it didn’t have the simplicity and the sophistication that I thought our company needed.

We chose a design [from our partner agency’s designer]. It’s like an interior designer can design for someone else, but they get to their own house and they have such a difficult time because they know people are going to be so critical because this is what they do in their lives.

But our designers were very much a part of the process. We had several creative brainstorm sessions and meetings to get to the final logo.

You don’t know if you did the right thing. What happens is you bump into people and they say, ‘Wow, that name change is terrific. I really like what you guys did.’ You just hear it over and over, and then you get a sense that you did the right thing.

Make your own decisions. We have a company where we respect everyone’s opinion. What we’ll do normally as a group is we’ll come up with a direction we want to go.

But this one was too personal to do that. I just felt people were not keeping with who we are. If there was going to be a mistake I wanted to make it, because it was too personal.

I wanted them to really go through this and beat it up and come up with ideas. They all got caught up in it probably further than I would have wanted them to, but I think it was important. [If] I was to tell another CEO, I’d tell him to let it go as far as it will go with ideas but then bring it back.

There were too many ideas, and somebody had to narrow it down. I was hoping I didn’t have to do that. I was hoping that we would come up with an answer that we all felt very good about, but there’s so many

conflicting thoughts that I had to bring it back to what seemed to be the right thing.

HOW TO REACH: EWI Worldwide, (800) 875-5250 or www.ewiworldwide.com

Monday, 23 February 2009 19:00

Meridian Mark Management gets brand buy-in

A lot of people have seen Dan

Rolfes in his underwear.

After all, “The Red Tag Man”

is best known for wearing his

red long underwear on TV commercials for Holiday Homes, the

manufactured housing company

he formed in 1969.

But when Rolfes became a

stakeholder in some not-soundergarment-friendly financial

companies, he realized that his

image couldn’t easily cross

industries.

“You can’t change the brand,”

Rolfes says. “What you can do is make it a part of a bigger

thing that stands for something

else.”

So he founded Meridian Mark

Management as a holding company and a collective “green”

brand over about 30 companies

he owns or owns stake in,

ranging from commercial development to insurance brokerage

to floor cleaning. In 2007, revenue of those companies

totaled $92 million.

The branding transition is

never complete for the CEO,

who is still driving the vision

through 120 employees and

even more customers.

Smart Business spoke with

Rolfes about how to get everyone to buy in to your brand.

Brand and repeat.

The key to

branding is repetition. You

can’t be bouncing from idea to

idea. You’ve got to stay and

run the course. When we started with energy efficiency, for

instance, the public didn’t really care.

If you believe you’re on the

right course and you have

been able to sell your employees on it ... you’ve got to stay

with it. You’re making a statement: ‘I believe this. This is

where we’re going. It’s OK if

you don’t believe it, Mr.

Customer, right now. You’re

getting it anyway because it’s

the only way we’re going to do

business.’

If you just keep doing your

part, sooner or later, people

will understand that that’s the

answer.

Test the perception of your brand.

We believe strongly in

research and going back out

into the market (to) find out

what the customer thinks of

us. We have changed a couple of companies a couple of

times because it didn’t play

out the way we put it on

paper. We had one plan, but

the customer picked it up

another way.

When we went into the site-build market, I wanted to take

the name Holiday Homes. My

marketing people kept saying,

‘No. At least let’s do focus

groups.’ Then you’re on the

other side of the mirror

watching them.

We showed them the houses,

the drawings, the price points.

Then we start saying, ‘Now,

who do you think might have

built these?’ We named all the

biggest builders in Cincinnati.

As soon as we said the name

Holiday Homes, they said, ‘Oh

my God, I know what that is.

That’s a trailer, and I don’t

want it.’ So then we understood branding.

The hard part is listening to

what it says, whether you like

it or not. I always think I can

change somebody’s mind. Only

you can’t go to everybody in

the city individually and

change their mind. It really is

sitting back and listening to

what the information coming

back to you is and being willing to accept it, and if it is not

working, being able to say,

‘Well, that didn’t work,’ and try

another method.

Live the brand.

When you do it,

you have to live it. It has to

occupy that space in your

employees’ minds, too. It cannot be a sham.

If you’re going to sell it to

somebody, it better be real.

And if it’s real, then you better

be willing to live it. So we try

and instill it in all of our

employees.

Bring it back up every meeting you have, with newsletters,

with personal statements, that

they see [what] I’m doing. If I

can’t convince my employees

that it’s the right thing, then

I’m probably going to have a

hard time convincing the public. If you can get your people

to believe it, then they’ll get

the public to believe it.

Involve your employees.

I’ve got

to [have] 80 percent or more

of the employees behind it. It’s

not even a 50-50 deal. You

can’t have 49 percent of the

company. It’s a consensus.

We operate on the philosophy that you believe in what

you’re doing. And when you

don’t believe that, then my

door’s always open. You come

up and tell me why you don’t

believe it.

Sometimes I have to listen,

and sometimes they listen.

‘Well, I understand it costs us

money, but this is where we’re

going because it’s the right

thing to do and because I feel

better when I come to work

and I do this.’ That’s branding

to the core, is people come to

work and they do it because

they think it’s the right thing to

do and they feel good about

doing it.

It’s important to allow it to

be their idea. I brought out a

suggestion that we should start going green and what did

they think and what did they

see that we could do. The

ideas started flying, so we’re

changing light bulbs and doing

all this stuff that was mostly

other people’s ideas.

I think the other part of that

is to communicate back again

and say, ‘Here were six great

ideas, three of which we found

we could implement now, and

these three — while they’re all

good ideas — we can’t do

them now because ... .’

It’s to gauge the overall

response but also to get buyin. We have a suggestion box,

but you don’t have to do that.

You just e-mail it or whatever.

Oftentimes, some of the best

ideas come from (employees)

who don’t necessarily get them

out in an open forum.

HOW TO REACH: Meridian Mark Management, www.meridianmarkmanagement.com or (513) 575-0100

Monday, 26 January 2009 19:00

Client communication

It’s not unusual to find Ed Donnelly crouched on a classroom floor, engrossed in a game of Chutes and Ladders; he’s just gathering feedback from his customers.

Donnelly serves as CEO of DynaVox Systems LLC, which manufactures speech-generating devices for nonverbal children and adults and creates special education software and games.

After just one year in the position, he’s found that the best way to drive a customer-centric culture through the 326-employee company is to immerse himself in the customers’ needs. So he visits them frequently, observing how they use his products and learning how to improve them.

“If you ask them for the truth, they’ll tell you, as long as you don’t get defensive about it and you do more listening than speaking,” says the leader of DynaVox, which posted 2007 revenue of $80 million.

Smart Business spoke with Donnelly about how to make yourself an approachable listener who customers can unload upon.

Start with a theory. When I’m out there visiting customers, I go in with an intuitive direction of where I’m taking the company. I’m using the customer to validate or disprove that hypothesis. I have to start with a hypothesis, and then I spend a lot of time with a lot of different customers to test the hypothesis.

It’s especially valuable in the area of product development. You’re thinking of product enhancement, product improvement; you’re hearing the customers saying how they use your products, if they had a

magic wand, what would they do differently with the products.

Observe with authority. I’m watching to see how they’re using our products, how they’re struggling

with our products. I don’t look just for the good. I really tend to look more for the difficulties they’re having with our products, how they can be enhanced, improved. And then I’m not afraid to ask.

You’re not just idly observing. Usually you’re introduced, and people know who you are. That’s a blessing and a curse when you convince them that you’re truly interested and you’re there to learn and you want to know what they think. You have the power to make it better. They will unload on you.

Learn to listen. Force yourself to listen intently for as long as the customer wants to talk and get full grasp of it. Let the customer say everything that’s on their mind and possibly go back and address two or three things and clarify. Have the discipline to listen and not try to fix it.

The biggest challenge is the CEO has to be a listener. And while it sounds so simple, there’s a natural tendency to want to fix things, to explain things, to be the CEO/super-salesperson. In reality, if you’re

encouraging them to bring up the dissatisfaction, if you are listening intently, if you’re not cutting them off and allowing them to just talk and talk and talk, you will gather multiples of the information you would have gotten.

You’re not there to fix it. You’re there to learn. Those are the challenges of the CEO: knowing when to fix things and when to be the listener. Be respectful. You’re not the CEO in that customer’s office.

Enter their world as an equal. Make yourself approachable, very human, very interested in their world. That’s the key, that you are genuinely interested. You’re the student.

You are the least knowledgeable person there. You made the trip to learn. Have the discipline to just shut up.

Dress to the environment. You don’t have to be in a suit-tie and cufflinks if you’re going into a classroom. You want to come across as warm. You want to come across as equals — dress and appearance and just a big smile. Be welcoming when they give you input and respond favorably to it. If you respond defensively to it or challenge them on their critique, it will probably be the only critique you will get.

Even if the customer is 100 percent wrong, don’t correct them. Let them go on. Maybe there will be a time for correcting misperceptions later on in the discussion.

Respond to their input. If you’re listening for 80 percent of the meeting and appearing genuinely interested, you might say at the end, ‘Let me comment on a few of the things that you said today. You brought up this, which was 100 percent correct. You also mentioned this. Are you aware that we have the following solutions?’

You have the opportunity, then and there, to correct some things immediately before your departure.

There’s a time for customers to talk, then there’s a time for you properly to help them understand the truth and the fiction. It may be going back and following up with a note or an e-mail, saying something

like, ‘It was great to spend time with you. I’ve been thinking about what you communicated to me. I have the following thoughts.’ But it should never be confrontational.

Set an example for employees. You’d be naive to think that there aren’t breakdowns in communication or employees that have just had a bad day. If the employees understand that there are disciplinary consequences to not treating customers the way that they deserve to be treated, that will filter through.

We don’t monitor calls in any wide scale. We do monitor customer complaints. We do communicate customer complaints to department heads. We address them and discuss them.

I’ve never found policing to be very effective. It really has to filter down.

HOW TO REACH: DynaVox Systems LLC, (866) 396-2869 or www.dynavoxtech.com

Monday, 26 January 2009 19:00

Taking action

When it comes to customer service, Anthony J. Filippis takes his father’s advice.

“He always said treat that customer like your mother,” says the president and CEO of Wright & Filippis Inc. “If you do that, you won’t have any problems.”

His father, Tony Filippis, who founded the company in 1944, passed away in January 2007. But his legacy for customer care lives on in the company’s 931 employees.

First, response cards go out to everyone who uses the company’s prosthetics, orthotics and home medical equipment. Filippis uses negative feedback to patch gaps in the company’s procedures and positive feedback to reward employees for stellar service.

But whatever action is spurred by the feedback, Filippis communicates the next move to everyone — customers and employees alike.

“It’s a matter of listening to your customers and your employees and letting them know what’s going on,” says Filippis, who guided the company to 2007 revenue of $136 million.

Smart Business spoke with Filippis about how to gather and use feedback to build strong customer service.

Gauge customer responses. We’ve tried to take that patient care philosophy throughout all the products and services we provide. So every one of our patients gets a survey card, no matter what they’re buying or what service they’re receiving.

First of all, things need to be easy to understand and easy to respond to. You want it to be quick and easy. You don’t want a 20-question survey. We keep ours to five or six questions, focusing on were they attended to properly, was the speed of their service good.

Whatever line of business you’re in, focus on what your key elements are and then get questions that can help to make sure that whoever you’re servicing gets those services in the most economical and efficient way.

Reply to feedback. Listen to what they’re saying and make sure that you’re dealing with those concerns. Make sure that when you have a problem that you solve it, and you solve it quickly.

There’s a group within our organization called Organizational Improvement. When a phone call comes [or] someone has a problem, they’re the first line. They’re the ones that field the calls and then research. They do analysis, finding out, ‘Is this a one-time problem, or have we had ongoing problems?’ If we find an issue that’s consistent ... we’ll do training.

If it’s a specific problem, it’s addressed and obviously moved on. If it’s a general concern, even if it’s not something that affects them necessarily, we always get back to them and let them know what we are doing.

Cover your bases. Any time you have a problem, it’s first of all [locating] the breakdown: Is it a procedural breakdown, is it a staff breakdown, is it something that’s within our control or outside of our control?

If it was an issue [out of our control], did we communicate that to the patient to begin with? It’s that upfront communication with the patient so they know what the rules are — not necessarily your rules but the rules that govern you.

In any business, you have certain guidelines that you have to follow. Making sure that the customer knows what those guidelines are will prevent problems down the road. I would encourage most of that to be in writing. When we service patients, they sign documents that show what I said I gave them, I gave them.

It’s making sure that if you do something, you have a way to go back to it. Not to say to the patient, ‘Ah-ha, I proved you’re wrong.’ You say, ‘If you didn’t read this, I apologize. Next time maybe I need to walk you through it.’

Reward employees for service. We also recognize our employees for their interaction with customers. We formed a Big Tony Award, which recognizes one of our employees every year. And

some of those [awards], patients can actually go on our Web site and nominate somebody. We also encourage our employees to recognize other employees.

Feedback can come in a number of different ways. You just need to make sure that when it does come, that it’s recognized and that you also let the employee know. That’s the biggest key, because if you let them know, it’s more likely to happen again.

Communicate action steps to everyone. Communicating that to the employee is key, too. You

want them to hear it from the people making decisions. And then you want feedback from them. We have open communication to deal with what concerns that they’re seeing.

It’s one thing to listen, and it’s another to then respond and make sure that they know you heard the issues and that you’ve done something to make changes so that those same issues don’t continue to be

problems.

Do what you say, and say what you do. So you say what you’re going to do, and then you make sure you do it and that you communicate that you did it. If all these suggestions are out there and nothing gets

implemented, then next time around they’re not going to respond. It’s key that you get back to people and let them know what you did [and] how you did it.

That can be done in a number of ways. We communicate a lot through our payroll stuffers. In each of our departments or facilities, every other Friday, there’s a packet of information that goes out, and that’s how our employees get a lot of their information.

If it’s critical information, they have to sign off that they read it. Make sure that there’s verification that they know.

HOW TO REACH: Wright & Filippis Inc., (248) 829-8200 or www.firsttoserve.com

As its name would suggest, TP Mechanical Contractors Inc. started with a Teepe.

But CEO Scott Teepe Sr., son of founder Bill Teepe, says he doesn’t want it to end with one.

“My goal is to have an everlasting company,” he says of the plumbing and mechanical contracting company. “I don’t want it to end with a Teepe, [like] if a Teepe doesn’t run the company, the company doesn’t exist.”

So he’s equipping his managers to think like leaders by prodding them for input and urging them to set their own visions. He narrows the focus by aligning their goals and finding the common ground that can benefit the business, which posted 2007 revenue of $63 million. And Teepe’s leadership is evidenced in his ability to set a single vision from the compiled input of 400 employees.

Smart Business spoke with Teepe about how to use input from your employees to guide your company’s vision.

Push employees for their input. Gather ideas from your executive group or the people that report to you. You want to get their thoughts and get them involved in the decision-making process.

Challenge them beyond their means. I always want to make them think a little bit more outside the box than they’re used to doing.

Their motions will take charge a little bit, and you’ll see their frustration if you push too hard. It’s things they do, it’s how they sit up or if they slump down or they lean back. I have one that I run my fingers through my hair. Everybody knows; they make fun of that. When I do that, that typically means I’m frustrated or not getting my point across. Others will cross their arms. Others will look down; they

won’t look up. You look for those signs of disengagement.

Zoom in to get more input from more people. One of the things I try hard to do in meetings is get

everybody’s input. Instead of getting an idea out there, I would ask them to write their individual ideas down first.

I try to eliminate, ‘Oh, I agree with Bill,’ or, ‘I agree with [President] Dave [Reder].’ I want everybody to read what they’ve written down, so I allow for three minutes of silence to jot their own ideas and let them read it.

I’m a big believer in team building, in building small off-site [exercises] so that everyone has their ideas that are brought to the table. If you give the small groups a specific task that needs to be taken care of in the short term, which is in 30 days or less, they will find ways that are far better than what I would have thought of.

One thing that really motivates employees is that [if] they’re involved in a change, they’re going to be more involved in getting things accomplished.

Share your vision. Let people know what your vision is and what you’re really trying to accomplish. I kind of had it in my mind, but I never put it in writing. So I put it in writing, and it’s behind every one of my e-mails.

If you wanted to see my vision, you could check my e-mail out and it speaks to what I’m trying to accomplish here. Trying to get people to understand that direction and move toward that direction is really the key.

If you don’t set what you want your company in five years to look like and you don’t talk about it or you don’t think about it enough, it probably isn’t going to happen. That just comes down to communicating your vision again.

What makes teamwork difficult is the personality types that we have in our company, finding a common ground that everyone is mutually excited about. You want those different personalities because you get so

much more experience and ideas out there than you would if you had all the same personality types.

As much as I’d like everyone to be just like me, we’d probably run 250 miles an hour and crash into a wall. But it is difficult to try to find that common ground. That process has worked very well just by being open and honest with people. Everybody has to know where you’re going.

The things that I’ve asked questions about and jotted notes down [about] is what motivates each manager that I have working for me, what are some of their dreams. I’ve been asking them to prepare their own vision. They’re not publicized; not every manager has their vision underneath their [signature].

I’m asking those questions. It takes time, but I think I have a pretty good handle of what motivates my managers and gets them excited about coming to work every day.

Locate the common denominator. Find out what their thoughts are and address them. You have to act on them one way or the other.

When you get more people involved, then you see a common theme being developed. I certainly have gone against the common theme before; sometimes it’s worked, sometimes it hasn’t. But if the common

theme is moving in that direction, then maybe [I have] to modify my thought process to accomplish less of what I really want to accomplish but move it in the right direction.

If I say, ‘Well, I’ll just have to determine it later,’ then everything’s on hold. Nobody knows what direction you’re going, and we’re all just in mass hysteria. In this case, you may have to modify your thoughts.

How to reach: TP Mechanical Contractors Inc., (513) 851-8881 or www.tpmechanical.com

Tuesday, 25 November 2008 19:00

A map for success

Philip Pelusi sounds like a style-savvy Bill Gates as he recounts how he dropped out of high school to attend beauty school and opened his first hair salon in 1965.

It was a risk that paid off, and those who succeed in business require “a maverick component,” he says.

“They will be risk-takers,” he says. “They won’t always follow rules.”

To balance his risk-taking, Pelusi sometimes hires employees who are more qualified than he is. And his success-seeking attitude surfaces in his 350 employees as he helps them down their personal career paths.

When everyone meets their goals, the company grows, he says, and Philip Pelusi Salons has expanded into a chain of 13 locations, sprouted haircare and skin care product lines and posted 2007 revenue of more than $15 million.

Smart Business spoke with Pelusi about how to grow your company by helping your employees meet their goals.

Q. Why is it important to hire employees who are more qualified than you?

One has to be astute enough to know what you don’t know. You have to surround yourself with people that are very qualified and, in some cases, more qualified than you. You can get the door open, but now to go from point A to point B, I have to be willing to hire educated people.

I always felt that the company will only grow as far as I can as an individual. The more I can grow, then the more there’s room for people under me to grow. But if I’m myopic or if I’m little, if I don’t go anywhere, then obviously they can’t, so they’re going to have to leave. That’s why you have to have a vision, a path for opportunity, a career path.

At one point, I was the top colorist. But it got to the point I had to replace myself. That was a tremendous learning curve for me. When you’re growing a business, you have to be able to replace yourself. Everyone you hire, their function should be to grow and also to replace themselves.

By doing so, then they can move up; they’re not threatened then by somebody coming up. You start to create a culture that’s more of a coaching/mentor culture and a little less threatening.

Q. How do you help employees decide on their career path?

Everybody has to know their role, so you have a road map for success. It’s very important that it’s tied into what their goals are. If someone is in a limited-function job but they want to be there, they don’t want to go anywhere else, we’re not going to sit down and try to sell them on a Ph.D. at Pelusi.

They’re going to be part of the team. They’re going to be updated and still know that there’s opportunity in our system.

Say you have some prior experience; you come to work for us. We do a skills assessment. We would hire you, give you credit for your previous experience, knowing you would have to learn and transition into how we do things. They would have a personalized road map.

If you’re right out of school and you come to work for us, we’re going to do a skills assessment. Then we’re going to map out a road map for you on what you need to do to increase your skills and to move up a level.

Everybody has a vision. They know where they’re at; they know where they need to go. It’s not just what I think you should be doing.

Q. What does that road map look like?

First of all, the goals have to be realistic. That’s very important.

You would have goals such as, ‘I want to become a better hair colorist,’ [or] ‘I want to move up so I need to increase my frequent client base.’ So how do we do that? Sometimes it’s a combination of your communication skills and your technical skills. For some people, it’s strictly communication skills. They’ve got the technical skills, but they’re lousy communicators.

Q. What do you do when goals are not being met?

Don’t wait until the goals have not been met. Don’t wait until it’s time for the review and then say, ‘Oh, your goal was to be at 20; you’re only at five. Boy, that sucks.’

This is about leadership. You want to monitor how their numbers are trending. If they’re into the second month and you’re going to have a review in six and you see they’re not getting there, then you need to talk about it.

You need to review and see what’s going on. Why are they trending low? What can we do to help? Is it a class? Sometimes. Is there something going on?

Challenging people is important. And understand when someone’s going through a hard time. If their performance is not hurting you, but they’re not achieving their goal and they are going through a tough time, you have to have a little bit of a leeway.

You want to be proactive in working with them. Discuss; have some ideas. See what’s an opportunity to improve. And if necessary, readjust the goals.

You may have to lower them. Or you’ll say, ‘Let’s do this: Instead of waiting six months, I’ll check with you in two.’ Adjustments should definitely be considered. You can’t wait till the end. You have to monitor.

HOW TO REACH: Philip Pelusi Salons, (888) 263-4720 or www.philippelusi.com

Tuesday, 25 November 2008 19:00

Ed Neyer communicates at Equipment Depot

You don’t have to look very far to figure out how important people are at Equipment Depot.

Type in its Web address, and it’s right in front of you. The address — www.portmanpeople.com — is a nod to the firm’s previous name, Portman Equipment Co., and it emphasizes the pivotal role that employees play at the company, which provides service and sales for material handling, mostly dealing with forklifts.

“You can’t do everything yourself,” President and CEO Ed Neyer says.

And that’s where his 400 employees come in.

As Equipment Depot continues to grow from the business Bill Portman and a handful of others started in 1960 — reaching 2007 revenue of about $90 million — Neyer strives to keep the “family” connected

through open communication.

“Keeping that family atmosphere and that closeness is a struggle,” he says, but adds that keeping his employees informed is worth the work and the risks.

Smart Business spoke with Neyer about how to create a positive work environment by overcommunicating.

Take open communication to the extreme. We communicate with our people a lot. More than half

of our people are out in the field versus in the office. We have a quarterly newsletter about what’s going on in the company and what we expect. We have monthly meetings talking about how the performance was for the month. It’s really key to keep people in tune with what’s going on in the company.

We use the bulletin boards a lot. Our field people, if they don’t come into the office, get that information electronically through e-mail. We definitely overcommunicate. The key is to let people know what’s happening within the company.

The only thing that we have off limits is personnel-type issues — pay, those types of things. Obviously, that has to be one on one and very personal and confidential.

We are very open with what we share with our people, sometimes too open. When we have important issues that come up, sometimes our competitors find out as soon as our people do because of the

friendships between people and competitors. It’s frustrating. We think it’s more important to let our people know what’s going on, even with that risk. You have to weigh what’s more important: having your people know about that or the information leaking out.

Keep employees connected. It’s very important to keep everyone within our company in the loop, like they’re part of it. Two things happen [if you don’t]: One is people don’t feel as connected, and rumors go rampant. I’d much rather have our people know what’s going on.

The key is to have numerous ways to communicate with people and to let everyone within the organization know as much as they can about what’s going on. People want to be part of a team. They want to be part of a successful organization.

If they feel like they’re being left out, that doesn’t accomplish that. Our philosophy has always been to overcommunicate even at the risk of having some of that information leaked out to competitors. It’s very important to make sure people understand what your company’s about, what you’re in business for, what your expectations are.

The more connected they feel to the company, the more they want to stay as part of the company. If we don’t have a team working together to take care of the customer, we’re not going to be successful.

In a recent employee survey, we found that the top three reasons why our people thought that we were a good place to work was, [No.] 1, great people; [No.] 2, job security; and [No.] 3, family atmosphere. Pay and benefits were No. 4. They talked about being part of an atmosphere, being part of a team with great people.

If something comes up where they need somebody to back them up, if it’s a technician that needs a part, people are going to get him the part he needs. The chain is only as strong as its weakest link. If our people can’t count on the rest of the organization, they’re probably not going to be here for a very long period.

Involve employees in your plan. You need to have good people that really are part of the organization and can really implement your vision, your plan.Then the key is to make sure that they’re trained properly, that they’re empowered to carry out and make their own decisions, that they have the backing of the organization. They know that their decisions will be upheld.

Involving your entire team in planning for the future helps to guarantee the plan’s success. A

lot of the goals of our company are not just my goals but team goals. They have buy-in that way. It’s part of their plan and not just somebody else’s plan they’re trying to work through.

Keep customers with consistency. We also have very long-term relationships with our customers. When it comes to the relationships with our customers, it’s typically a handful of people that customers think of when they think of [us]. It’s the manager they deal with on the inside. It’s the field technician, the salesperson. If you don’t have that consistency, if every time a customer has a breakdown, we send a different technician in, and over a year, he might see six or seven different people, that doesn’t build the relationship.

There’s a feeling of trust there. If we had continual turnover in our people, I think we’d also lose customers.

How to reach: Equipment Depot, (513) 891-0700 or www.portmanpeople.com

Tuesday, 25 November 2008 19:00

Currents of change

On a nuclear submarine, decisions come quickly, and it was in the intense environment of a U.S. Navy submarine that nuclear reactor operator Guy Morgan learned to make decisions under pressure.

Now, as founder and CEO of BlueStar Energy Services Inc., Morgan’s decisions have helped propel the retail electricity supplier to huge growth, from 2003 revenue of $1.5 million to 2007 revenue of $171 million. And he’s not done yet. With the help of his 76 employees, he’s anticipating 2008 revenue of about $200 million.

“For me now, it’s tweaking,” he says. “It’s not trying to make big changes to the model that we’ve built. It’s been successful thus far, so we try to stay the course we’re on.”

Smart Business spoke with Morgan about how to face the changing tides and sail through growth.

Keep your financial footing. The challenges we face as we grow tend to be financial in nature. The biggest challenge is getting started. Talk to as many financial institutions of varying types as you can until you find the one that fits your needs.

The key is persistence, not letting the first 20 ‘no’s’ make you think you’re not going to be able to do it. A lot of people told us all the things that we couldn’t do. When I said I wanted to start an electric company in the extra bedroom of my apartment on the North Side of Chicago, those people said, ‘You’re crazy.’ Whether it’s family or banks or potential investors or partners, there are always going to be those people that say you just can’t do it.

Getting ahead of yourself is easy to do. When you grow fast and there’s a lot of money coming in all of a sudden, it’s easy to spend that money. We had the opportunity to go to different states to buy more power, to do things that in retrospect would have been very irresponsible. But we didn’t. We maintained a financial discipline and controlled the expense side of the equation, even with the rapid growth.

I don’t have [financial discipline]. I hire people around me that have it, and I rely on them to check me. Recognize your strengths and your weaknesses. Where you’re weak, if you’re honest about it, you can find people to balance that.

Build a chameleon company. If you initiate change, it’s pretty easy to manage because you plan for how you’re going to manage that change. The other type of change is change that happens outside of the company, whether it’s a regulatory change or market change. How do you manage that? You have to react to it. You try to build the organization to be as flexible as possible. The way you do that is primarily with people who are good with dealing with change.

You look for people who are self-directed. If they don’t need a manager to hold their hand through a process, then your organization is better suited to deal with change. Whatever their job is, you give them decision-making authority for things that you feel comfortable, on an individual basis, giving them authority to do. You empower people to their capabilities and their comfort levels. The more people that are empowered to deal with those changes, the better off you are.

One-up the competition. You look at the competitive landscape and see who’s already there. The way we succeed is emulating companies that have been successful in that insurgent role: the Southwest Airlines, the Apple computer. Try to upset the apple cart by doing things a little bit differently.

When I looked at the energy business, I didn’t say, ‘I’m going to get to be the same size as Exelon Energy in a few years. I’m going to emulate their style of management.’ That would be unrealistic. Characteristics of leadership that drive that company are different.

I looked at the energy business the same way somebody like Steve Jobs looked at Microsoft. These guys looked at the environment, and they said, ‘Who’s there, and how do we do it differently and better?’

It starts with your approach to customer service. You pick up any utility rate book, you’ll very rarely, if ever, see the word ‘customer’ in those books. It’s always ‘rate-payer.’ There’s this long-standing sense of entitlement. It’s not a very high bar to meet, frankly. You just have to treat the customer like a customer.

You do it one or two customers at a time. First, you answer the phone when they call. From there, it’s being respectful, answering questions that are asked, addressing concerns or problems quickly.

Look outside the box for opportunities. About a year ago, we started a different business that deals with energy efficiency. We not only sell electricity to these companies, but we help them reduce their usage.

It’s kind of counterintuitive for an energy company that’s selling electricity to help their customers reduce it. It allowed us to better understand their facility and how they were using electricity.

It doesn’t only have to be good for the customer. It’s got to be good for business. If it’s not going to generate revenue and earnings, then it’s quickly discarded as an opportunity. The other component that goes into that decision-making is how far it strays from the core of the business. We wouldn’t identify, for instance, telephones as a viable opportunity, even if it makes sense from the financial standpoint.

HOW TO REACH: BlueStar Energy Services Inc., (866) 258-3782 or www.bluestarenergy.com

Sunday, 26 December 2010 19:00

Uncover opportunities

Mark Woodward is trading in-your-face sales pitches for a few extra finger exercises. That’s why, when you visit the website of E2open Inc., you’ll go three clicks in before you even see a product name.

Right away, though, you’ll learn about the broader problems that E2open aims to solve with its cloud-based supply chain management solutions that enable visibility, collaboration and control across large trading partner networks.

“Where many companies fall down is … [they] get really hung up with the details of their products and get enamored with the widget they’ve created,” says Woodward, president and CEO. “They go out and they try to sell the widget, as opposed to the business benefits of what that widget does for you. Where companies go from being marginally successful to really successful is when they change the focus from the product they’re selling to the problems that they’re solving.”

By getting his 300 employees into that mindset, Woodward led E2open to record revenue in fiscal 2010, up 20 percent from fiscal 2009.

Smart Business spoke with Woodward about understanding your market.

Keys to growing a company. One is just focus. You need to understand what it is you’re going to do and also be pretty focused on what you’re not going to do.

Something that we’ve done at E2open really well is understanding what the value proposition is for the customer, making sure that they understand the benefit. Before we go launching a lot of time and effort and resources behind pursuing an opportunity, we really put a lot of time and effort into qualifying that opportunity and making sure there is a business case. Make sure that you’re focusing your limited resources on the opportunities that are the highest probability to close.

A lot of people get really hung up on putting a little too much emphasis behind having a really fancy growth strategy. But if you’re really focused on growth, it’s really understanding the market you’re in, who you’re selling to, what your value proposition is and then just putting all your resources behind making that happen.

Gain an understanding of the marketplace. It’s through analysts, basic research and then talking to your customers.

Sometimes companies get caught up in thinking they know better and they know the problems that need to be solved without really doing very good market research or without talking to their customers enough. It’s really important to understand not what you think your customers want but really knowing that by having those conversations with your customers.

We’ll just start off with very open-ended questions like, ‘What are your problems?’ Not even asking about our particular area but just very high-level, top-of-mind: ‘What are you thinking about? What keeps you up at night? What are your greatest challenges?’

And then, based on that, start to bore in and even ask, ‘What vendors do you look to for solving those kinds of problems?’ As you get answers, get a little more specific. Customers are usually very open to telling you about other vendors they’re working with or problems that no one has solved for them yet. That can actually help in your product strategy, as well. I’ve learned about a number of really interesting new areas, things that we didn’t even get from analysts, just purely off of customers telling us about shortcomings they had with other vendors. So the customers give you a more real-world perspective, not just the marketing spin that the analysts are hearing.

Position yourself to meet those needs. You have to be careful so it’s not looked at as the sales guy looking for a sale. It’s multiple meetings with different people. That highest level meeting might be with myself or a chief technology officer or possibly head of marketing; basically, you’re just in there information gathering.

Then if you think there’s specific opportunity for the company, you’ll follow up — maybe myself but probably with the head of worldwide sales — where we start to bring in people that are more on the solution side of the business.

Customers don’t mind you selling to them if you have a solution. But there does need to be a separation between the process of information gathering for purposes that are not specifically related to a sales process, and then the sales process itself.

Decide which needs you’re capable of meeting. I would bring it back to [the executive staff] and say, ‘Here’s what we have found,’ and just open discussion up to the whole group, which will typically then lead to some assignments of tasks. We’re going to say, ‘OK, we need to now go prove out these two things. So you, vice president of marketing, go talk to XYZ analysts and ask their opinion on this. And you, head of my deployment services, go talk to three other customers and tell them what our point of view is on this and get their feedback on that.’

Then, based on that, we may make the determination, ‘OK, we now need to make a change in our product strategy,’ or, ‘In the upcoming releases of our products, we need to start moving in this kind of a direction,’ or, ‘We should go look at an acquisition in this particular area because it would take us way too long to develop ourselves into that space.’

How to reach: E2open Inc., (650) 645-6500 or www.e2open.com

In the early days of G&A Partners, John W. Allen worked really, really hard. But he wasn’t always necessarily working smart.

“I would advise people to look at how they spend their time,” says Allen, the president and chief operating officer who co-founded the firm with Chairman and CEO Tony Grijalva. “Don’t just spend a lot of time, but instead spend time very, very wisely on the things that mean and matter the most.”

With the professional employer organization in its 15th year, Allen has learned how to align passion and purpose so the firm can focus on its sweet spots to achieve its goals. G&A Partners hones the services that contribute to its mission instead of getting distracted by demands outside its realm.

Based on his observation that his passions sprouted successes, Allen realized that it’s more fruitful to pursue the things your company stands for than to reach beyond your core.

“Of our five operating companies, the biggest is the one that I have the most passion for,” he says. “So there’s a correlation between passion and then the amount of time and energy and creativity you put into a particular business, and I think it ends up manifesting itself in your financial results. If I try to do something that I just don’t feel strongly about, then I’m just faking it and it becomes apparent pretty quickly.”

By keeping G&A Partners focused on the services that will fulfill its purpose, Allen rallies the organization around its passion. The company grew through the recession, reporting 2009 revenue of $362.4 million. With 145 employees of his own and another 10,000 co-employees through outsourcing, it’s all the more important that Allen keeps everyone focused on the path to success.

Here’s how he does it.

Express your mission

Before Allen and Grijalva founded G&A Partners, they had an accounting and consulting firm with the tagline, “Making a difference.” Then they came across a business model that would help small business owners be successful with their support. So they joined forces to outsource human resources and administrative issues, freeing leaders to focus on growing their companies.

By building a focus around his passion and setting a goal to strive toward, Allen helps his own company grow, as well.

“In terms of how we’ve gotten to where we are today, I think it starts with having a vision of what you want your company to be and what purpose that company has to fulfill,” he says. “If you don’t have a purpose, it’s hard to have passion for what you do.”

When defining your focus, look at your goals from a couple of perspectives. That will give you both a purpose statement and a mission statement.

“One has to do with what we’re trying to accomplish as a firm, and the other one has to do with what we’re trying to do for the people that we serve,” Allen says. “So our purpose statement, for example, is to help small business owners find time to grow their businesses, take better care of their employees and enjoy a higher quality of life.”

Your purpose statement defines what you do for customers, but you still have to narrow that down. Allen did that by asking what his company could do to achieve its purpose for clients. By working backward from your goal to address what steps will achieve it, you set your strategy.

“What kinds of things can we do to free up a business owner’s time to focus on the most important things that ensure the success of his business?” Allen asked. “What can we do to help a business owner take better care of his or her employees? What can we do to not only provide them more time to grow their business but also more time to enjoy the wealth that hopefully they accumulate? So it’s the purpose that then drives the strategy.”

When you’re setting the strategy to achieve your purpose, you’re also on track to accomplish your mission.

“Our mission statement is what we as an organization are trying to accomplish — and that’s to be the pre-eminent privately held professional employer organization,” Allen says.

These two ways of expressing different goals for different parties are actually closely intertwined.

“If we believe in our purpose statement and we develop sound strategy and we implement that strategy effectively, then we ought to become one of the pre-eminent PEOs in the country,” Allen says. “If we don’t have a deep purpose statement and a strategic plan that dovetails with that and the ability to effectively implement the plan, then the mission statement never gets accomplished.

“One drives the other. The mission statement then becomes how we measure the success of implementing our purpose statement.”

Get customer feedback

Implementing your purpose statement can be the hardest part. Even if you know where you’re trying to go, the biggest challenge is knowing how to get there.

You can get strategic hints by reading the latest trade publications to see what your competitors are doing. But your customers know best when it comes to what they need, so they’re your best source for determining what you should deliver.

Allen and his team meet regularly with clients through focus groups, conferences and advisory boards.

Customers will come if it’s convenient and there’s something in it for them. G&A’s annual client conference, for example, offers a weekend mix of educational classes and feedback sessions. G&A covers the cost of hotel rooms, registration fees and meals at destination resorts in Texas. All their clients have to do is arrive.

While setups differ, the feedback you want from customers is the same.

“We’ve assembled a group of clients and prospects together and we talk about what’s important to them, which of our services do they value, which of our services don’t they value, what else they’d like to see us do for them, what other needs they have,” Allen says. “That’s probably been the most valuable way of really getting a feel for what we ought to be doing to address the needs of our small business clients.”

To get clients to open up, all G&A employees are excused from the room before the questioning begins. An outside facilitator, like the company’s external public relations representative, takes over.

Creating an open environment is also about setting clear explanations of what input you’re seeking and why.

“People are willing to open up if you give them permission to be brutally honest and if they think that their candor will make a difference,” Allen says. “We let our clients know that we are always trying to improve and that we need their help in that effort.”

G&A invites all clients to certain events, but inclusiveness has implications. When you involve more people, you lose the intimate environment that makes them open up. That’s why some companies focus on feedback from their largest customers. But G&A compensates with semiannual online surveys where clients can be frank.

“We try to limit the number of questions so it’s fairly straightforward and simple for them to respond, not too time-consuming,” Allen says.

You shouldn’t just get customer feedback one or two times a year, though. Make those interactions routine. Share the responsibility by letting the employees who contact customers also collect their input. Because the manager of the customer care center has already built trusting relationships with a lot of clients, for example, Allen often calls on her to solicit feedback. Because salespeople initially set expectations with clients, he counts on them to revisit each account and gauge satisfaction.

It seems simple, but feedback from clients can help situate you to meet their needs. Those interactions can keep you on track to achieve your purpose — which is why you serve customers in the first place.

“As they share things with us that fall in line with the purpose statement, then we can develop strategies to provide products and services that address those needs,” Allen says.

Analyze ideas

So now you have a goal and a bunch of ideas about how to get there. Your job is to align the two so you can set a strategy that will fulfill your purpose and your mission.

After a client conference or focus group, Allen’s biweekly operations meeting turns from its normal tactical agenda to a strategic one.

“We talk about, ‘Here’s what our clients are telling us. What does it mean, and what should we do about it?’” he says.

Usually, clients first respond to their personal experience with your company, so you have to first address the specific instances that stick in their mind.

When you look at examples that closely, you can determine where you’re not meeting their needs — and whether people, processes or products are causing the gap.

“If the client has been critical of our performance, we identify the players involved to see if there is a pattern that needs to be addressed,” Allen says. “We quickly provide training that, hopefully, will correct the problem going forward. We report back to the client to let them know that we have addressed the problem.

“If the client has made a suggestion or complained about something with broader implications, we get the operations team together to focus on the issues rather than the people. We lay out the problem, give everyone a chance to weigh in [and] try to narrow the discussion down to specific action items.”

Addressing issues individually is pretty basic customer service. It becomes strategy, though, when you weigh all of those individual encounters together to make bigger moves that affect more customers.

Look at how many clients are saying the same things and how one person’s suggestion may benefit someone else. But remember, high demand alone doesn’t dictate what you should do.

“Some of the feedback we get is isolated,” Allen says. “It’s really particular to a certain client. We may address it at that client level but don’t necessarily adopt it for everything we do for all of our clients. … We look at the soundness and practicality of an idea and client profitability when determining what to roll out widely or on a case-by-case basis.”

First, ideas should pass through the filter of your purpose. Because it sets the framework of what your company does best and what you consider success, your purpose also defines which ideas you should pursue.

“If we’re asked by a client or even lots of clients to do something and it makes sense, it’s a legitimate business need, but we determine that we’re not good at it, then we won’t do it,” Allen says. “Or if there’s things that we may be good at, but there’s other things that we like to emphasize because they’re really more core to our product offering, then we’ll put those things on the back burner and focus initially on doing what we currently do better. We don’t want to start providing additional services that stretch our resources and our talent until we’re doing a phenomenal job with what we’re already tasked to do.”

For example, G&A is striving for a consistent customer service score of 9 or 10 to prove it has mastered its core area before tackling more. The company is at an 8.9 — and still focusing on its core services.

But client ideas also have to pass the test of your mission statement.

“People have made suggestions that perhaps we ought to help businesses borrow money so that they can grow their business,” Allen says. “That fits into the purpose statement, because one of the things we’re trying to do is help small businesses grow their business, and of course, it takes capital to do that.

“But helping people borrow money is a little different than our core HR focus. While it’s consistent with our purpose, it’s not consistent with our core product offering. Anything that we do to fulfill our purpose also has to fit within our mission statement, and our mission statement says that we’re going to be a professional employer organization, not a lending institution.”

Running ideas through that wringer helps Allen match his clients’ needs with his company’s capacity, making both sides successful.

“We know what we’re good at. We know what we’re not good at,” he says. “If there’s a suggestion made that doesn’t fit within that three-pronged purpose statement, we just won’t embrace it.”

How to reach: G&A Partners, (713) 784-1181 or www.gnapartners.com