When working toward my private pilot’s license, I had to learn about the aviation language of time zones. Now, for those of us with our feet on the ground, Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) governs our day’s schedules. But up in the air, all pilots, airlines and air traffic controllers coordinate time around the world using UTC and the closely related Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) — the time in Greenwich, England, that is based on a 24-hour clock.

Also referred to as Zulu time, aviation time is calculated as either ahead (+) or behind (-) GMT. For example, if it is 18:30 (6:30 p.m.) in Greenwich, it is -6 GMT (12:30 p.m.) here in Chicago.

Coordinating flights and creating flight plans based on UTC or GMT ensures clear communication, safety and successful transit. Similarly, when creating “flight plans” for your growing, complex organization, leadership must have a systematic vision to ensure you reach organizational goals safely and successfully. Think of it as coordinating around the time zones of planning.

Board of Directors Time Zone: +20 years UTC

If your company is governed by a board, their focus should be on the next 20 years. Discussions and plans should include topics such as succession, compensation and broad strategic business policies. This extremely long-term vision lays the course for your company and helps ensure its viability, relevance and effectiveness for years to come.

CEO Time Zone: +7 to +10 years UTC

As CEOs, we fly in the most critical time zone. We must provide the 7- to 10-year vision for our organizations. Our visionary responsibilities in this time zone are to define reality, fight denial, see patterns, predict the future, select and prune businesses, bring the outside world developments into the organization and harvest the energy from the positive and negative events that occur during any 7- to 10-year time period. We must imagine, plan and then, just as importantly, communicate the 7- to 10-year initiatives our organizations will pursue.

Executive Time Zone: +1 to +3 years UTC

This is your corporation’s most important time zone for the creation of an optimized strategy. Your executives need to deliver detailed plans through at least three years beyond today. They are responsible for developing flight plans that ensure you’ll have the right people, finances and go-to-market execution to achieve company wins.

Management Time Zone: +0 to +2 years UTC

This essential time zone focuses on the here and now. Management’s execution of your company’s strategic plan looks at this day, this week, this month, this quarter, this year. As you know, this narrow scope is crucial to your success. You can have the grandest plans to fly your company around the world, but without people working daily in this time zone, those plans will eventually flop. You need people with the ability to zero in on the present and execute plans with excellence.

Flight check

Are your people flying in their appropriate time zones? Do you have time zones where there is no one in the cockpit to focus on that area’s responsibilities? A successful company needs skilled pilots in all time zones for a balanced flight. Get on the radio and direct them into their designated time zone where their efforts and abilities bring the greatest value to the organization.

And how about you? As you read this, did you realize you sometimes fly out of your time zone? Remember, as CEOs, we are the visionaries. We are the pilots of the entire organization — the captains. If we are flying in the wrong time zone, we are congesting company air space by micromanaging. This creates confusion, slows progress, diverts flights and can swing your entire organization off the careful course you plotted to reach your goals.

Pull your control yoke back and climb up to +7-+10 years UTC where you belong. Set your sights on the horizon and I wish you a smooth flight.

Joseph James Slawek is the founder, chairman and CEO of FONA International, a full-service flavor company serving some of the largest food, beverage, nutraceutical and pharmaceutical companies in the world. For more information about FONA, visit www.fona.com.

Published in Chicago

K’NEX Brands LP has been taking a bigger and bigger bite out of its market ever since Michael Araten took over as president and CEO in 2006. In the past six years, the manufacturer of building toys has formed partnerships linking the K’NEX brand with brands such as Nintendo, Sesame Street and NASCAR.

This year, the company will introduce a line of toys licensed by Rovio Entertainment, makers of the “Angry Birds” video game franchise.

The tie-ins that Araten and his leadership team have orchestrated are having a major impact on the company’s bottom line. In 2008, K’NEX produced about $100 million in North American sales. In 2011, the company’s North American sales had jumped to $150 million.

Given all the success that K’NEX has had, what is Araten’s first tip on managing growth?

“I would tell other leaders to be lazy,” he says.

No, Araten hasn’t discovered the secret to building a highly successful enterprise from your living room couch. But he has developed a good grasp of what a CEO should and shouldn’t be doing when piloting a company through a growth phase.

“What I mean is, the first question when I’m looking at a task is, ‘Who needs to be doing this, and is there a way I can put this in someone else’s hands?’” he says. “The key for the CEO suite is to recognize who has what talents, and make sure they do what they are great at. If you don’t have the ability to do something yourself, what you want is someone on your team who can help you accomplish the key things you need to do, so that you can execute your growth strategy.”

Araten has been able to successfully manage the growth of K’NEX through strategic planning and effective delegation — knowing where he wants his company to go, and who can take it there.

To Araten, the plan is the known quantity, and the people are the variables. The success of K’NEX — or any company — is dependent on how well the team executes the strategy.

“If you have the right people executing on the plan, it will go really, really well,” he says. “If you don’t, it doesn’t matter how good the plan is, it just won’t happen. That’s why the linchpin in all of this is assessing the talent of your people and making sure they’re doing what they are really good at.”

Draw a map


The first step in any journey with a destination is to plan a route. When plotting a journey for your company, your route is outlined in your strategic plan.

Araten gathers all his top thinkers together for periodic strategy sessions, during which the team assesses growth opportunities that have either been presented to K’NEX or that the company is considering pursuing. The strategy team members weigh avenues for growth against a number of internal and external factors.

“It’s a risk-reward calculation, really,” Araten says. “How much reward do we think we can get for a given opportunity, and how much risk is related to that reward? We look at how much risk we want to take, how much inventory we want to build, what does our distribution channel look like, and build a plan around that. Once we agree on how much upside there is related to how much downside, we go and execute on that plan.”

To develop an accurate strategic plan, you have to know what market factors stand the biggest possible chance of affecting your business. K’NEX exists in a market that is seasonal in nature, and produces a product with a very specific appeal to consumers. With that in mind, he set boundary lines for what his team could consider regarding growth opportunities.

“We’re a seasonal business, so there is a little extra risk involved with that,” Araten says. “With every opportunity that comes along, we also have to ask ourselves if it makes sense as a building toy. Not to single out ‘American Idol,’ but even though the show is very popular, it probably wouldn’t make sense as a building toy.”

When Araten and his team did research prior to signing a licensing agreement with Nintendo last year, they started by figuring out the type of reach Nintendo had with its brand and video game characters, and by extension, the type of reach K’NEX could expect with cross-branded building toy products.

“We started by asking how many users of Nintendo products there are in the U.S. and around the world,” Araten says. “For example, we know that 40 million Wii units have been sold and another 70 million Nintendo DS units. We looked at Q Scores of various characters, and those scores have always been in the top five over the past decade.

“We also did a survey of our key customers, so we knew that retailers were open to carrying a new product. So we took all of that information, looked at our budgets in several categories, where we’d find placement in North America, Europe, Australia and other places, and decided that we were comfortable making, let’s say, a $10 million investment in inventory.”

Good growth opportunities in the manufacturing sector usually center on two areas: new customers and new products. You either increase what you offer to customers, or you increase the pool of customers to which you offer your existing products. In most cases, your growth will result from a mixture of the two, and you need to account for that in any strategic growth plan.

In the toy industry, executives such as Araten are fighting a constant battle to stay current. Kids quickly grow bored of their current toys and parents are always on the hunt for the next smash-hit birthday or holiday gift, so the leaders at K’NEX have to harness their creative and collaborative power to stay a step ahead of demand.

In that battle, the wins you already achieved can act as a critical springboard for future wins.

“When you look at our history, our first big licensing deal was with ‘Sesame Street’ back in 2007 or ’08,” Araten says. “Once we had ‘Sesame Street,’ and people saw how good we were performing and how well we could capitalize on the opportunity, licensors started coming to us with ideas.

“We were the ones who approached Nintendo for that deal, but we’ve had a lot of other brands come to us. That is where you want to build a checklist into any strategic plan that it makes sense for you. That you can reach consumers with marketing and distribution, and that the idea is a good match for your company. As I said, we want to make sure it’s an idea that makes sense as a building toy.

“We’re also starting to leverage technology so that we can ship directly to consumers in pretty much every country on earth. We want to be able to ship to anywhere from our warehouses in the U.S., so we are modifying our websites to be able to launch in a variety of countries that make sense. We’re working on both of those, and that is why we’re so interested in product relationships with global appeal.”

Invest in human capital

A strong culture that embraces solid core values is a central component of any high-growth organization. But to have that type of culture, you need to first build a team that can embody and promote your values.

Many leaders reference the principle of getting employees in the right seats on the bus, as popularized in Jim Collins’ book, “Good to Great.” No matter what metaphor you use to illustrate it, the concept is true: In order to have a strong culture that can enable growth, you need the best possible people positioned throughout your organization in a way that allows them to grow as employees, and allows you to leverage their talents and skills for the best possible effect.

Araten says much of what he has learned about people stems from years of experience, which has helped him develop a reliable gut instinct regarding whether a prospective employee fits in the company, or whether a given team member fits in a specific role. But that isn’t enough. You also need to be able to ask the right questions.

“Some of what I do I’ll refer to as a ‘friendly deposition,’” Araten says. “You ask people a lot of questions about why they are doing what they’re doing, you apply common sense to what the answers are, and you see if they’ve thought about all the potential angles to a given problem or scenario.

“If they have experience dealing with that scenario in the past, that is something to consider as well, Araten says. “In some cases, you’re going to have some new employees with limited experience, so some of what you are able to do is going to depend on where you are in your life cycle as an organization.”

In assessing a person for a job, promotion or assignment, you need to get to the core of their thought process. If you can peel back the onion layers on how they process information and solve problems, you’ll get a much clearer view regarding how they might fit your team.

“You have to look at the thought process of how they came to their decisions,” Araten says. “If it makes sense, it looks like the probabilities are in your favor, and you can move forward.

“There is never a scenario where you have perfect information or a guarantee of success, so you just try to get as close as you can, make the move with the information that you have at the time, and the results are the results. More often than not, when we take that approach, things seem to pan out in our favor.”

If you hire or promote an employee into a new position, and the person falters out of the gate, making decisions that don’t bear fruit, you need to get to the heart of what is going wrong. It might be the person, or it might be the process. In either case, you need to get your hands on as much information as possible so that you can address the issue.

When K’NEX launched its line of Nintendo products, the team overseeing the launch made a miscalculation in the budget. Admittedly, Araten was not happy, but he didn’t go on the warpath, point fingers of blame at everyone involved. Instead, he used it as a learning opportunity.

“On a couple of the items, we underestimated somewhere on the order of $100,000,” he says. “We thought it was going to cost $100,000, but it ended up costing $200,000. As part of our review on all the product lines, this comes up, and you could tell the person who was telling this to me was a little nervous. But we went through why it happened, whether we missed anything, and found that our logic was sound.

‘In the end, we learned some things about what we could have done differently. We ended up improving some of our internal mechanisms.”

If you encounter a similar situation, Araten says you should do three things.

“One, figure out if the person in charge asked the right questions, and if the questions were based in logic,” he says. “Second, if you would have done anything differently, what is it and did the person you put in charge know it – or should they have known it? Three, teach them how to ask better questions. Oftentimes, as the CEO, you will have a much broader view of the organization, and will think to ask questions that the team or department leader didn’t. That’s part of the learning process. If everybody knew all the questions to ask, we’d have hundreds of CEOs in the organization.

“If you value teaching in your organization, teach people what questions to ask so they improved their logic. Then, the next time a situation arises, it goes smoother and reaches an even better outcome.”

How to reach: K’NEX Brands LP, (215) 997-7722 or www.knex.com

The Araten file

Born: Montreal

Education: Political science degree from Stanford University; juris doctor from the University of Pennsylvania Law School

First job: I worked as a part-time sales guy at a leather and fur store in suburban Philadelphia.

Araten on building a high-growth organization:

I think you have to develop a culture, along with some mechanical things. You need to be able and willing to reinvest in the mechanical infrastructure, but to me the more important thing is that you need to create a culture where it is OK to take a chance going fast, where you forgive people their mistakes as long as their logic is good. So I think it is setting that tone from the top and letting your leadership team say it to the rest of the crew.

We are going to go a hundred miles an hour to try and take advantage of these opportunities, and we are going to miss some stuff. But as long as the logic is sound, what we miss shouldn't be critical. Whatever mistakes we make, we will learn from and move on. It is easy to say, but the more critical part is the first couple of times you make those mistakes and learn from them and move on. That is what people really remember.

Araten on reinforcing a culture through communication:

I have one-to-one meetings with my leadership team every week. We are sitting together for at least an hour each week making sure that we understand what the priorities are and the logic behind the major decisions that we are making. When things go awry, it starts with me asking how we are going to learn from it so that it doesn't happen again, and then moving on. Then, encouraging them to do the same thing with their teams.

On the flip side, you want to make sure that you are giving positive feedback whenever possible, whenever they are doing things that you really like. We have a few mechanisms in place for that, such as awards that any employee can give to any other employee when someone goes above and beyond the call of duty.

Published in Philadelphia

Yogurtland has been a frozen dairy-powered rocket for Phillip Chang. The president and CEO of Yogurtland Franchising Inc. founded the chain of self-serve frozen yogurt bars in 2006, and in the six years since, has grown the company to more than 170 locations, owned by more than 100 franchisees and employing more than 2,100.

But when on a stratospheric trajectory sometimes things don't always go according to the script.

Which is why, several years ago, Chang threw out the script and began concentrating on the actors in his company.

"Before then, even though our stores performed pretty well, some people's behavior didn’t reflect the culture we wanted to have," Chang says. "We didn't see enough of the honesty side, the respect for each other, the desire to help each other."

Chang quickly realized that if he were going to build a stable culture that embodied high ethical and moral standards, he needed to find the people first. So he started to shift how he and his leadership team recruited, what they valued in prospective employees and franchisees, and what constituted a great hire.

In short, Chang began focusing on candidates' hearts first and their heads second.

"When the company started, I had hired too fast, and because of that, some people had a lot of experience as far as the technical side of things, but they didn't have high moral standards," he says. "So I started looking at this in terms of two areas. One was the culture, in terms of the level of ethics and honesty, and the other side was their technical experience.

"I looked at how each candidate performed in both areas, but I set my bar very high on the ethical side and was more generous on the technical side. You can teach technical skills, but you can't really teach ethics and morals."

Since refashioning the company's recruiting and hiring practices, Chang says it has had a profound impact on the culture of the company.

"It has been big for us," he says. "We now look at our company more as a family."

Ask the right questions

If establishing your ideal culture starts with hiring the best people, then hiring the best people starts with asking the best possible questions during the interview process.

Chang wanted to develop and nurture a culture that embraces high ethical and moral standards, but also promoted the idea that Yogurtland behaves something like a large extended family.

Though many company heads talk about the family atmosphere that exists in their companies, making the leap from professional colleague to something more familiar is difficult, and one that can't happen without close involvement from upper management.

Chang wanted a constructive bond to develop among the people in Yogurtland's Anaheim corporate office, so he started by developing bonds between himself and his team members. He developed relationships with his people in which he got to know the significant things happening in their personal lives.

If there was a way Chang could leverage Yogurtland's resources to help an employee realize a significant life goal, he wanted to help.

"In our situation, I think it’s important to look at a company as family members," Chang says. "When you have a parent, sister, brother, and you're working together, you're thinking about the ways you can help them and make their life better. You're asking 'How can I teach them to fish?' That's why, maybe you don't want to just hand them a prize, but you want to figure out a way that you can help them realize the dreams they have for their own lives."

One of the first questions Chang asks a job candidate has nothing to do with the lines on their resume. It has everything to do with trying to learn what really makes the candidate get out of bed each morning.

"For every single person I interview, I ask them what is their ultimate goal in life," he says. "That gets them to think deeply and reveal some truths about who they really are. Their goal can be relevant or irrelevant to our company, but I want to know what their goal is. If we hire them, I want to customize a path for their dreams.

"Maybe someone wants to buy a house for their mom. It really has nothing to do with us, but we look at the numbers, we put together our collective wisdom and try to see a way this person can achieve their goal. If that person can finally buy a house for their mom after so many years, that is very motivating for them.

"We see it as something we're not obligated to help with, but if you truly view your people as family members, as a brother or sister, that is my role. If they see me and those of us in the company going above and beyond to help them, they start to see and believe that we act as a family."

Finding those life catalysts is a critical component of motivating employees at their jobs. Employees do come to work each day for a paycheck. Without income, they don't pay their mortgages or utilities, don't make car payments and don't buy groceries. But the sum total of what constitutes gainful employment doesn’t begin and end solely with what ends up in each employee's bank account every two weeks.

People want to work at an organization where they can make a lasting difference. What defines "lasting difference" changes from person to person, but the greater need is always there. As the leader, it's up to you to ask the questions, both of your current and prospective future employees, and find out what truly motivates them.

"In a lot of cases, I don't think financial compensation is the real motivation for people," Chang says. "When they hear the company is trying to achieve something beyond just the numbers and financials, when they see that we come together as a company, we reach out and help each other achieve our goals so that we can achieve our overall company goals, that is a common motivation where people see we're not just out to make a profit. We don't come to the office each day just to make money. It's more than that."

Perform daily maintenance

It's easy to project enthusiasm about a new strategy or a culture shift at the outset, when everything is new and exciting. But how about a month after, or six months after, or a year after?

At some point, you will leave behind the rush of blazing new trails and exploring new frontiers, and sustaining what you worked so hard to develop and roll out will be a matter of daily maintenance.

At Yogurtland, Chang considers his company’s cultural conversion a success. The atmosphere around the company's corporate offices — and by extension, at franchise locations — is based on Chang’s vision of a company that behaves as an extended family. It is a commonplace occurrence for Yogurtland associates to build and sustain meaningful and fruitful interpersonal relationships.

But if Chang were to rest on his laurels and consider the mission accomplished, he would run the risk of allowing his culture to backslide into the bad habits he spent several years eradicating. That's why he makes sure to create regular interaction points between him and his team, so that he can continue to reinforce the principles he introduced at the outset of the company's culture shift.

The company's rapid growth adds an extra layer of complexity to the equation.

"Right now, we have a corporate office of 40 and it is already difficult to reach to all levels," Chang says. "The only way is to remain vigilant about communication. In our regularly scheduled meetings, what we're discussing isn't just about simply store operations or the numbers we are trying to achieve. We discuss more than that."

Chang tries to address technical issues quickly so that he can spend more time reinforcing the culture. Whenever possible, he wants common-sense, uncomplicated solutions to issues involving the company's infrastructure. Since maintaining a great culture is hard work, he wants the nuts and bolts of running his company to be as simple as possible.

"When we need to visit the technical side of things, we can be pretty quick in figuring out what the best solution could be, and then put that in a memo to whoever it concerns," Chang says. "That way, it's in an e-mail, everybody reads the e-mail, and if the subject needs to be addressed in one of our meetings, we are all prepared beforehand. That hopefully leaves us more time to address our culture and how we are putting ideas together for the future. The meetings are where we really dissect what is going to help the company’s future. So we want to spend a lot of time on those big-picture, conceptual ideas."

Don't compromise

Chang says the new culture at Yogurtland has affected the way he runs the business on a fundamental level. Like most CEOs, Chang used to focus on strategic planning before anything else. Everything — from hiring to culture to job descriptions — stemmed from the strategic plan laid down by management.

But as Chang advanced deeper into his new philosophy of focusing on people first, he discovered talent was his most important asset, and motivating that talent was his most critical task. Now, he values talented people who embrace the culture far more than he values strict adherence to any organizational strategy.

Yogurtland still has an overall direction and goals, but the method by which those goals are achieved is now largely up to input from his team.

It is something that requires a level of adaptability that might extend beyond the comfort level of some business heads. But Chang views it as an essential part of his leadership philosophy. He'll compromise on how something gets done, but he won't compromise on who does it.

"Typical company leaders, they will do strategic planning and everything related to that first, and then try to fill out the team by putting people in the right positions," Chang says. "We do it the other way around. As I've said, I find the right people first. That takes a level of risk, because sometimes you find a really great person and you know right away where they're going to fit in the organization.

"That's where it gets kind of strange, because what I've learned is that if I find the right person who fits the culture, someone who is honest, humble, receptive, confident and wise, that is where you really can't compromise. You can be pretty generous regarding how you hire for technical skills. If you've hired someone who is smart and receptive, they can catch up their skills fairly quickly. That is why you find the person first, then do the planning.

"If I were starting a company from scratch again, I now know that is how I would do it."

How to reach: Yogurtland Franchising Inc., (714) 939-7737 or www.yogurt-land.com

The Chang file

Born: Seoul, South Korea

Education: B.S. in mathematics, Sogang University

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

One thing that has impacted me throughout my career, and what I keep emphasizing to my people, is that you need to surround yourself with the right people. You need the right employees, the right partners and the right people around you in everything you do.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

The ability to build a great team. You need to have the ability along the technical lines of what it takes to run a business, but you can’t go anywhere without a great team. And that comes back to how you communicate with people and share your goals.

Chang on the CEO’s role in sustaining the culture: As the company has grown, I’ve tried to set myself as more of a cultural leader, rather than an operations leader. I try to focus more on the bigger goals and being a good role model, demonstrating our cultural principles by example — honesty, high morals and so forth. As the leader, you are constantly watched by everyone, and they have to see me embody those core values at every turn, because they are going to follow my example.

Published in Orange County

When the recession hit, the only direction Bob Fish could turn was inward.

Up until then, it had been the best of times for Fish, the co-founder and CEO of Biggby Coffee. The chain of franchised coffee shops – which is based in East Lansing, but maintains a substantial presence in metro Detroit – had been growing by about 50 percent per year. But when the bottom fell out of the economy in late 2008 and early 2009, all Fish could hear was the sound of screeching brakes.

“Prior to that, it was pretty easy to get financing for new franchisees,” Fish says. “When we had the collapse, it became much more difficult for even our current operators to get financing. So it slowed our growth down, and that slowing had a morale impact. We fell back to about 20 percent growth per year.”

The good news was, Biggby Coffee — which is the brand name of Global Orange Development LLC — didn’t face an immediate existential threat. But growth slowed to a crawl, and Fish realized that if he didn’t reposition his company, the situation could quickly worsen. In an industry segment dominated by corporate titans such as Starbucks and McDonald’s, Fish’s burgeoning company couldn’t afford to slide any further. He needed to rally everyone at the corporate office and throughout the franchise chain, and to do that, he needed to draw the company closer together.

That meant Fish needed to revisit and refine what it meant to communicate with and engage his people.

“With our operations, we began to essentially change the style of our leadership,” Fish says. “We moved to a style that would be one that involved a higher degree of communication and a higher degree of inclusion between our office and our operators. We felt the need to get in touch with people on more of an in-person basis.”

Get tuned in

Fish believes one of the most powerful actions a business leader can perform is to get up in front of his or her company, and relate to them on a face-to-face basis. E-mails, videoconferences and newsletters all have their place, but nothing carries the weight of your words coming directly from your mouth.

“Communication is one of the most paramount things a CEO has to do,” Fish says.” You can have great ideas and a great vision, but if you are unable to articulate that to the balance of the community you are serving, it just doesn’t matter. The component that makes the real difference is to be able to create environments where there can be a dialogue on what you are communicating, and by extension, inclusion in the process of decision-making.”

As the economy slumped, Fish soon came to the conclusion that if his company was to maintain a healthy outlook, he’d need to create opportunities for educating employees and franchisees about the Biggby’s present state, and for facilitating an open dialogue about the company’s future.

“That manifested itself in the form of increasing frequency of in-person meetings,” Fish says. “At that point in time, we instituted what we called ‘in-market meetings,’ where I would go to each (designated market area) and hold about a three-hour meeting. We would discuss the current economics of the organization, and also cover what was going on in the immediate promotional period. We run promotional period cycles, and we’d talk about the performance of the previous cycle and what we were expecting in the coming cycles. Overall, that process created about six market meetings every 60 days.”

Fish also recognized the need for better lateral communication among the franchisees. As the company grew and fought the effects of the recession, Fish wanted to have a system in place by which franchisees operators could speak with each other, share best practices and find common ground on issues that affected the entire chain.

“What we did was to help establish something called an independent franchise association,” he says. “We have encouraged our franchisees to band together as one voice, creating an association that they could use to roll up their thoughts and opinions from throughout the franchise community, and then bring to us in corporate in a cohesive manner.”

One of the biggest keys to effective communication is high engagement. You have to have the attention of your audience if your words are going to mean anything to them. To engage, you have to give them compelling reasons to get involved. And to give them compelling reasons, you have to know who they are and what motivates them.

Fish identified the two constituencies he serves as CEO — consumers and franchisees. Consumers get involved in the business by purchasing the products and referral advertising through word of mouth. In order for consumers to engage — and stay engaged throughout the recession, when disposable income was drying up in households across America — Fish realized he’d need to know what his franchisees wanted and needed, and address those areas.

Through his avenues for communication and dialogue, Fish learned his franchisees wanted a voice and a tangible way to impact the direction of Biggby moving forward. Communication was only part of the equation. The ideas submitted by franchise operators had to turn into something that had a real impact on the business.

“Typically, change comes out of strategic planning,” Fish says. “Today, we do strategic planning with all department heads at the corporate office, but we also include two board members from the (International Franchise Association), so that we can represent that community in our strategic planning. Those board members have full votes, full participation and so forth. Very early in our operation, we have folded our operators into that dialogue.”

Form your process

Fish knew that in order to keep employees engaged and active in shaping the future of Biggby, he needed to form a process that turned employee and franchisee ideas into reality. The process was critical, because employees needed to see the system in action. A handshake and a promise doesn’t get you very far if your people don’t see the organization working toward results.

With that in mind, Fish divided the process of considering and implementing employee ideas into three parts: strategic, tactical and execution.

“All ideas are brought to the table at any given time for strategic planning,” he says. “Once decisions have been made at the strategic level, we have to deconstruct the idea and prepare it for the next level of feeding, which is tactical. That’s where we hash out the particulars regarding how we are going to execute it. Then we move into the execution phase, which is more or less a checkbox that tells us whether the task was performed or not.”

The process happens every day at Biggby on a small scale, but during the company’s recent revision of its catering business, Fish saw that his team could scale the process to tackle bigger issues.

“Our catering area in the past was relatively stagnant,” Fish says. “We weren’t getting any growth out of the area, so out of our strategic planning, we decided that we needed a way to stimulate bulk beverage orders. Through our market meetings, we came to the conclusion that our presentation on catering and education of consumers was poor, and it was delivered in the exact same manner as every other concept out there.”

The leadership team’s solution was to re-launch the catering business under the name “Grabbit2Go,” make it more responsive and throw marketing muscle behind it.

“We made sure the consumer knew that catering was not something you’d have to worry about days in advance,” Fish says. “It was something that you could make a relatively spontaneous decision on and still be accommodated.”

Out of the strategic planning phase, Fish and his team moved the idea into the tactical phase and hammered out the process for how the new catering setup would be implemented at the store level. Then, the concept was rolled out to the franchisees, who offered feedback on the concept, suggesting changes and refinements that would make the new service easier to implement.

“We then took that information back to headquarters, tinkered with the program until we had a formalized version and launched it on Nov. 1 of last year,” Fish says. “The process worked, because in that month alone, the new catering program contributed an additional 16 percent to our catering and sales area. And because we had to use beverage vessels that were purchased and reused, it also contributed 14 percent to merchandise sales.”

Normally, Fish says, getting franchisees to make the investment in reusable mugs and cups would have been a hard sell. But because the franchisees were actively involved in shaping the plan, they were actually anxious to see the program rolled out.

Throughout the recession and recovery of the past two years, Fish has geared Biggby to continue growing. He believes growth is his primary responsibility as CEO, and any change that any CEO makes to the leadership philosophy of the company should be made with growth in mind. Fish’s decisions have helped Biggby stay on a growth-focused path. At the end of 2011, Biggby had 139 units owned by 82 franchisees, employing about 2,500.

“The purpose of facilitating change as a CEO is to ensure growth for the company,” he says. “At our company, there are two pathways we can follow: same-store sales or adding new stores to the system, and I have to understand how to grow the business along those lines, and engage our people in stimulating growth. As the CEO, it’s your obligation to make sure that you understand all the components of your business, that you can measure every component and decide whether it is working or not, whether it is adding value.”

Change is going to happen, whether you want it to or not. So it is always in your best interest to ready your processes and engage your people in management of the change. If you haven’t geared your people to deal with change, your whole company will stagnate, and it won’t take a historic recession to cause serious problems.

“At this point, I bring ideas to the table just like everyone else here does,” Fish says. “I use my ideas to address the concept of change for the purpose of growth. This company started off in 1995, and the company we have now is remarkably different from the company we had back then. For me, it is really about managing the idea of change for growth, and understanding that change for growth is essential to remain a growing system.”

How to reach: Biggby Coffee, (517) 482-8145 or www.biggby.com

The Fish file

History: Bob Fish co-founded the first location of what would become Biggby Coffee in East Lansing in March 1995. The second Biggby location opened in Lansing in October 1997. The company began franchising locations in 1999, and the chain had grown to 139 units operated by 82 franchisees as of the end of 2011. About 2,500 people are employed throughout the Biggby organization.

Fish on prioritizing ideas: If you have engaged people at the table, each one of those people understands what is important. This might sound a little ludicrous, but we vote on the items. There may be 25 or 30 items that are on the table to discuss, and we give everybody five votes. We approach the items from most amount of votes to least amount of votes. It is sort of magical out happens, the highest priority items do end up on the top.

Fish on travel time: Keeping everyone engaged on an in-person basis is time-consuming, but necessary. If we look at 2012 today, 85 percent of my business time is booked. All of those meetings are already booked for 2012, and I only have about 15 percent flexibility in my schedule.

More from Fish on the change management process: I think the most important part of managing change is — and it becomes almost an academic process — is you have to make the case for the change and you have to be able to articulate the vision. When we move forward with the process, there is a mini-white paper done, which makes the case for change and creates the vision. But when we get to the actual launch is where we have to make sure the skills, incentives and resources are there, and there is actually a plan in place to make it happen.

Published in Detroit
Sunday, 01 July 2012 09:06

Jerry McLaughlin: Breaking the rules

Anybody who survived the fifth grade understands the soul of branding. Branding is about being different — and just like in a fifth-grade class, there are many ways for a brand to be different.

In my fifth grade class the most popular boy was Gary. He was good looking, confident and our best athlete. He was the best kind of different — for the fifth grade. There was another boy who wasn’t any of those. In fact, though he was at least modestly good looking then, he was nearly the opposite of confident and athletic. So he was different too, but not in a way to be envied.

Our class also had its smart kid, its funny kid, its short kid and its weird kid. Which one was I? I’ll leave that to your imagination. But all of us, intentionally or not, had personal brands.

Branding starts with differentiation. This can be almost anything, as long as it sets your brand apart. Maybe your product is made from superior ingredients — juice made from organic fruit, or socks woven from cashmere. Maybe your product is made for a special demographic — a deodorant for women who wear black dresses or cigarettes for independent men. Maybe your product was designed by someone who is believed to have a superior aesthetic sense — a shirt by Ralph or shoes by Ferragamo.

There are no rules about the basis on which you differentiate your brand. Many of the best-known examples are as different as they are famous. For instance, when all the major U.S. carmakers were packing their products with power and chrome, Bill Bernbach decided to play up the Volkswagen’s personality. David Ogilvy differentiated Hawthorne shirts not by changing the product, but by telling us what kind of man wore them.

Still, not all bases of differentiation are equally valuable. Some, for example, seem to last longer than others. Food brands may top this list with century-old winners such as Coca-Cola, Wrigley, Heinz and Hershey’s. It seems that we get fairly attached to our opinions about our taste preferences. Pepsi may win the blind taste tests, but they don’t win many converts. Coke’s differentiation is too well established in our minds.

Other products are differentiated on sheer performance. These tend to last from a few years to a few decades, depending on the rate of product innovation. Readers old enough to remember taking pictures on film may remember dropping it off for development at Fotomat — once a 4,000-plus chain of parking lot kiosks where rolls of films could be dropped off one day and printed photographs picked up the next. One-hour photofinishing eventually ended the Fotomat run before digital technology killed film and film developing almost altogether. Fotomat was a well-differentiated brand, but its power was ultimately at the mercy of technological progress.

Each type of differentiation has its advantages and disadvantages. The most important thing is to have one — to be unique in a way that creates a customer preference for your product or service. If you can think of more than one way to stand out, great. But consider which will be easiest to keep to yourself and to keep for a long time. Then trumpet your point of differentiation from the rooftops, so that customers come to associate it with your brand.

There is no single right way to differentiate brands. But there is almost certainly a way that works best for you.

Jerry McLaughlin is CEO of Branders.com, the world’s largest and lowest-priced online promotional products company. Reach him at JerryMcLaughlin@branders.com

Published in Northern California
Saturday, 30 June 2012 20:00

Honoring the best of the best

For more than 25 years, Ernst & Young has celebrated the entrepreneurial spirit of men and women pursuing innovation and entrepreneurial excellence in their businesses, their teams and their communities.

The blood, sweat and passion they’ve poured into their businesses and the triumphs they’ve achieved stand as a testament to the role they play as visionaries, leaders and innovators. Ernst & Young founded the Entrepreneur Of The Year Program to recognize this passion for excellence and to build an influential and innovative community of peers.

We have gathered here and in 25 other cities in the U.S. to welcome the men and women who are regional finalists into our entrepreneurial Hall of Fame and to toast their commitment to succeed. We applaud them for launching their companies, opening new markets and fueling job growth.

So let’s celebrate their achievements, their perseverance and their tireless pursuit of business excellence.

Kim E. Letch is a partner and program director for Entrepreneur Of The Year, Orange County.

John Belli is the office managing partner for Ernst & Young, Orange County.

Finalists and Honorees


Mike Morhaime, Blizzard Entertainment (Winner)

Jonathan Ord, DealerSocket Inc. (Finalist)

Jim McCluney, Emulex (Finalist)

Life Sciences & Public Service

Joe Kiani, Masimo Corp. (Winner)

Charles Dunlop, Ambry Genetics (Finalist)

Dan Merkle, Lexipol LLC (Finalist)

Consumer Products

Andy Fathollahi, Incipio Technologies (Winner)

Jeff Walker, Super D (Finalist)

Bill Duehring, Felt Bicycles (Finalist)

Real Estate & Hospitality

Gary Jabara, Mobilitie LLC (Winner)

David Kim, Jerome Fink, The Bascom Group (Finalist)

Alessandro Pirozzi, Cucina Alessa (Finalist)

Business Services

John Raymont, Kurion Inc. (Winner)

Mike Manclark, Leading Edge Aviation Services (Finalist)

Heidi Golledge, CyberCoders (Finalist)

Published in Orange County
Saturday, 30 June 2012 20:00

Honoring the best of the best

For more than 25 years, Ernst & Young has celebrated the entrepreneurial spirit of men and women pursuing innovation and entrepreneurial excellence in their businesses, teams and communities.

The blood, sweat and passion they’ve poured into their businesses and the triumphs they’ve achieved stand as a testament to the role they play as visionaries, leaders and innovators. Ernst & Young founded the Entrepreneur Of The Year Program to recognize this passion for excellence and to build an influential and innovative community of peers.

We have gathered here and in 25 other cities in the U.S. to honor the men and women who are regional finalists and welcome the winners into our entrepreneurial Hall of Fame. We toast their commitment to succeed. We applaud them for launching start-up companies, opening new markets and fueling job growth.

So let’s celebrate their achievements, their perseverance and their tireless pursuit of business excellence.

Enjoy this special coverage from Smart Business featuring this year’s finalists and winners from Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Kevin E. Pickels is the Entrepreneur Of The Year Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia program director at Ernst & Young.

Finalists and Honorees

Supporter of Entrepreneurship

Richard Lunak, Innovation Works


H. Rochelle Stachel, HRV Conformance Verification Associates Inc. (Winner)

Melvin E. Clark Jr., G.W. Peoples Contracting Co. Inc. (Finalist)

Reed Mahany, RECO Equipment Inc. (Finalist)

Health Sciences

Dr. Frank Alderman, MedExpress Urgent Care (Winner)

Arnold Burchianti II, Celtic Healthcare (Finalist)

Patrick Daly, Cohera Medical Inc. (Finalist)

Doug Engfer, invivodata inc. (Finalist)

Industrial Manufacturing

Dennis Oates, Universal Stainless & Alloy Products Inc. (Winner)

James Lind, McKees Rocks Industrial Enterprises Inc. (Finalist)

David Sweet, Mecco Marking & Traceability (Finalist)


Bill Lambert, MSA – The Safety Company (Winner)

William Baker, Irwin Car and Equipment (Finalist)

Fred Potthoff, Kroff Inc. (Finalist)


Michael Robb, Center for Community Resources (Winner)

Grant Oliphant, The Pittsburgh Foundation (Finalist)


Charles Sanders, Urban Lending Solutions (Winner)

Scott Barnyak, Christy Maruca, Chris Simchick, SDLC LP (Finalist)

John Sell, Wayne W. Sell Corp. (Finalist)


Xuecang Geng, Ph.D., Blatek Inc. (Winner)

Robert Daley, Henry Thorne, 4moms (Finalist)

Jay Whitacre, Ph.D., Aquion Energy Inc. (Finalist)

Don Charlton, The Resumator (Finalist)

Published in Pittsburgh

Paul Fox is a man who dreams big and has aspirations for his firm to achieve great things. The president and CEO of Skylight Financial Group, a 120-employee financial planning firm, plans to expand across Ohio and be a household name in the state within 20 years.

Fox takes a step-by-step approach to achieve those goals and has been driving steady growth for the last five years.

“I don’t look at challenges from the outside, I look at challenges from the inside,” Fox says. “I knew in the first five years I wanted to double the size of the organization in terms of people and revenue and we’ve done that. Starting off these next five years, we’re going to double it again.”

Smart Business spoke to Fox about how he sets his vision and accomplishes goals one step at a time.

What are the first things you need to do when developing a vision?

You have to start with something very vague that’s way far out. It has to be far enough out where you can’t create detail. You just create a picture that says, ‘This is what we want to look like way down the road.’ Since you have no idea how to get there today, you have to break it down into five-year increments. If you accomplish what you need to accomplish in each of those five year increments, you’ll get to where you need to be in 20 years. That’s very idealistic, but it’s something you have a passion for, you believe in it and you have commitment behind it.

How do you make a five-year plan work?

From the five year plan of attack it’s easy to break it down year by year. By the end of this year where do I want to be? In one year I want to be here toward the five year goal. In two years I should be here, three years here, four years here, and by the fifth year, you’ve hit the five-year objective.

Now you’re there in five years and you have to build another five-year plan and then within it, one-year increments, so that after 10 years, you’re halfway up the stairs to get to the long-term objective of the vision. You do that very systematically so you know that you’re working on the right things to get to where you need to get to.

What are common mistakes you see others make when creating a vision?

Most people in businesses today work on their next-year plan of attack in October, November or December. I’ve found that doesn’t really work, because by the time I had my plan ready to go for the following year, it was already the following year. By the time I implemented and got started on my plan for the following year, it was halfway through the year. Now what I do is from January through June, I write down ideas when things pop into my head. In June, I start planning out specifically what we’re going to do the following year and I do that June through August. In September, I start building out next year and by mid-October or early-November I start implementing the follow year’s initiatives so that by January everything is up and running.

What are the keys to making every step of a vision successful?

The leader of the firm has to have a very clear vision and an absolute passion about getting there no matter what. They have to be fully committed to it and take responsibility to get there and believe that outside influences don’t impact that. The second part is can the leader impart that same feeling and same awareness of the vision to the upper management team and build an upper management team that believes it. That has to be passed down through management to all the people in sales and throughout the organization. If everyone has that same feeling and same drive then you know you’ll get there.

You’re always going to make mistakes, but that’s OK because mistakes are good. Most people think mistakes are bad because it’s failure, but mistakes are a good thing because that means you’ve learned something and therefore you’re going to grow. Embrace the failure. Don’t keep failing the same way, have different levels of failure and you’ll continue to grow once you fix it.

HOW TO REACH: Skylight Financial Group, (216) 621-5680 or www.skylightfinancialgroup.com

Published in Cleveland
Saturday, 30 June 2012 20:00

Honoring the best of the best

For more than 25 years, Ernst & Young has celebrated the entrepreneurial spirit of men and women who make our economy vibrant.

Ernst & Young founded the Entrepreneur Of The Year® Program to recognize those with a passion for “thinking big” and to bring together visionaries and leaders to inspire each other and our communities. We have gathered here and in 25 cities across the United States to honor all of our regional finalists and welcome a new class of entrepreneurs into our Hall of Fame, recognizing their resilience, ingenuity and innovation.

We applaud them for overcoming challenges, inspiring others, opening new markets and, ultimately, fueling economic growth in the Northeast Ohio region. Let’s celebrate their achievements, perseverance and tireless pursuit of business excellence.

Congratulations to all 2012 Northeast Entrepreneur Of The Year® finalists.

Whitt Butler is the program director and an advisory partner at Ernst & Young.

2012 Finalists and Honorees


Dr. Robert Kent, Summa Western Reserve Hospital








Published in Akron/Canton
Saturday, 30 June 2012 20:00

Honoring the best of the best

For more than 25 years, Ernst & Young has celebrated the entrepreneurial spirit of men and women pursuing innovation and entrepreneurial excellence in their businesses, their teams and their communities.

The blood, sweat and passion they’ve poured into their businesses and the triumphs they’ve achieved stand as a testament to the role they play as visionaries, leaders and innovators. Ernst & Young founded the Entrepreneur Of The Year Program to recognize this passion for excellence and to build an influential and innovative community of peers.

We have gathered here and in 25 other cities in the U.S. to welcome the men and women who are regional finalists into our entrepreneurial Hall of Fame and to toast their commitment to succeed. We applaud them for launching start-up companies, opening new markets and fueling job growth.

So let’s celebrate their achievements, their perseverance and their tireless pursuit of business excellence.

Ernie Cortes is the Entrepreneur Of The Year program director. He can be reached at (408) 947-5462.

2012 Finalists and Honorees


• Geoffrey Barker, RPX Corp. (Winner)

• John Woolard, BrightSource Energy Inc. (Finalist)

• Hubert Thieblot, Curse Inc. (Finalist)

Life Sciences

• Lawrence Blatt, Alios BioPharma (Winner)

• Guo-Liang Yu, Epitomics Inc. (Finalist)

• Robert W. Duggan, Pharmacyclics Inc. (Finalist)

Marketing Services

• Tom Bedecarre, AKQA (Winner)

• David B. Goldberg, SurveyMonkey (Finalist)

• Bill Demas, Turn Inc. (Finalist)

Media and Entertainment

• Nicholas Woodman, Woodman Labs Inc. d.b.a GoPro (Winner)

• Matt Mullenweg, Automatic (Finalist)

• Lars Buttler, Trion Worlds Inc. (Finalist)

Retail and Consumer Products

• Dale Carlesen, Sleep Train (Winner)

• John Foraker, Annie’s Inc. (Finalist)

• Neil Grimmer, Plum Organics (Finalist)


• Lisa Im, Performant Financial Corp. (Winner)

John Boncher, Cupertino Electric Inc. (Finalist)

• Mike Sechrist, Elana Whorton, ProTransport-1 (Finalist)


• Tarkan Maner, Wyse Technology (Winner)

• Lee Chen, A10 Networks (Finalist)

• Tasso Roumeliotis, Location Labs (Finalist)

Technology Services

• Matthew Monahan, Brian Monahan, Inflection (Winner)

• Larry Augustin, SugarCRM (Finalist)

• Bruton Goldfield, TriNet (Finalist)

Published in Northern California