Orange County (1091)

When Rupesh Shah saw headlines about companies cutting costs, staff and basically whatever they could to stay afloat, he wanted to take another course as the recession that began in 2008 tightened its grip on the American economy.

“Anyone can cut costs, and that’s probably the low-hanging fruit,” says Rupesh, co-president at M S International Inc. “But we view cost-cutting as a last resort. If everything else fails, let’s look at cost-cutting. We said, ‘Let’s take a hard look at our business. If we know the industry is contracting, how can we expand our addressable industry?’”

MSI is a distributor of countertop, flooring, wall tile and hardscaping products. The company of more than 900 employees manages 50 million square feet of inventory and has international purchasing offices in India, China, Turkey and Brazil.

Rupesh and his brother, fellow co-president Rajesh Shah, have taken the company that their parents founded in 1975 and have made it even stronger.

Now they needed to find a way to battle through this tough time and give their customers a reason to continue doing business with MSI.

“What else are our customers buying that we’re not selling them?” says Rupesh. “Are those industries we can get to? What are we losing to our competition and what can we do to regain that? What can we do to get more market share?

“We didn’t engage in layoffs — probably one of the few companies that did not do that. Instead, we started expanding our product line and started getting into new product lines where we could use our same sales force to sell the same set of customers.”

It’s not always an easy strategy to follow, especially when it goes against the grain of what everyone else seems to be doing.

“The outside pressures and priorities, both internally and outside, can take over if you’re not disciplined about it,” Rajesh says. “They can take over your thinking, and you can slip on the disciplines that made you good. You can easily fall into the simple and quick versus what may be a little more difficult, but longer term, and is the right thing to do.”

 

Set your course

Before the company embarked on this growth strategy, a meeting was convened with the management team to list the company’s options.

“We can aggressively do cost-cutting and downsize our business by 20 to 25 percent,” Rupesh says. But before the company did that, Rupesh presented an observation.

He posed the growth opportunities as he and his brother saw them and attempted to calculate what it might take to make them work.

“Let’s make some reasonable market share calculations,” Rupesh says. “How long will it take? Can we stomach it financially? Should we do it? It helped get our culture and all our management team to move in that direction. We had a series of meetings on it.”

Certainly there is emotion involved when you’re in the midst of a recession and jobs and business relationships are potentially hanging in the balance. But Rajesh says he and his brother focused more than ever on taking emotion out of the equation and trying to make decisions based on facts.

“With the downturn happening and business slowing down, we said we’re going to survive and thrive, but the only way it works is if we make data-driven decisions and prioritize quickly,” Rajesh says. “We don’t have infinite manpower, resources or investment dollars. So we have to use all these approaches to decide how we unleash those resources and use them, including their own time being one of the biggest resources that we had limits on.”

Once the decision was finalized to not make cuts, but to instead pursue data-driven growth opportunities, it was critical that everyone was on board to make it work.

“Failure is not an option,” Rupesh says. “Changing course is not an option. As a distributor, you have vendors, salespeople and customers. You’re creating a view that this is not optional — it’s mandatory.

“We start judging salespeople by how many new products or product lines they are selling. You look at it very analytically. It’s not just the sales. It’s why aren’t you selling porcelain? Why aren’t you selling quartz? Why aren’t you selling wall tile? Get them to feel the pressure of it.”

 

Drive results

One of the keys to being effective with limited resources is the ability to know what doesn’t work for your business.

“We tell all our managers your what-not-to-do list has to be longer than your what-to-do list,” Rajesh says. “It’s funny, but most people don’t believe in that. They always want to show what you did do. People don’t get objective credit for not doing something. We internally believe some of the best things we ever did are the things we didn’t do.”

If your business has products that had been big sellers but aren’t anymore, and you’re still trying to push them instead of promoting a new product that has a lot of potential, you’re asking for trouble.

“It’s a discipline change, and it’s not simple,” Rajesh says. “It’s a change of thinking. You need to make it a priority and continuously communicate it. You can’t just stand up and say, ‘We’re doing this. We’re done.’ It’s an ongoing process. And you can only do it by example. You can’t make decisions on gut instinct yourself, and then expect everyone else to do it with knowledge.”

The effort to drive results has to be constant to maintain momentum and reinforce the message that this is a very important thing you’re doing for your business.

“Let’s create a culture and an environment where everyone is thinking, ‘OK, right now, most customers are buying 15 to 20 percent of their product from us. Can we get them to buy 30 percent, and what will it take to do that?’” Rupesh says. “So we made a very strong push and created a culture. Everyone from 2008 to 2011, all they thought about was market share, market share, market share. How can we get more market share?”

 

Stay hungry

MSI has positioned itself to succeed in the post-recession economy, but that doesn’t mean the evolution is over.

“You have one set of challenges to go from $40 million to $100 million in revenue,” Rupesh says, “another set to go from $100 million to $250 million and a third set to go from $250 million to $500 million. And now we’re looking at what it’s going to take to get us to $1 billion. That’s kind of the next major milestone for us.”

Just as it was in recovering from the recession, the makeup and attitude of MSI’s employees will be crucial in determining whether the company reaches that ambitious milestone.

“With our current set of employees, the majority of them have done a great job adapting,” Rupesh says. “So first, we look internally and say, ‘For the changes that need to take place, what skill sets do we have to have?’ Where there are gaps, we look to the outside.”

And while they want people who have experienced success, they also want employees who have experience setting a goal and working hard to achieve it.

“We’re very cautious and wary of hiring people who have just been in large organizations,” Rupesh says. “They probably have tremendous experience, but they worked in an organization that was already set up for what we want to get to. Ideally, we’re looking for people with transitional experience.”

The goal is to find people, either within your current ranks or externally, who can continue to identify those new opportunities and help the company take steps to better serve its customers.

“How are they going about solving problems?” Rajesh says. “Make sure when you interview or you’re promoting from within or reviewing within, that you’re grading on that question. How do you solve problems?”

The ability to solve problems and process data to make smarter decisions is a key reason why MSI has grown as quickly as it has.

“In 10 years, we’ve grown tenfold,” Rajesh says. “I don’t think we would have taken the market share we have taken because we would have been correcting a lot of wrong decisions. Of course, a decision isn’t always right or wrong. It can also be the wrong priority. This is a lower priority thing, and if we had done the higher priority thing, it would have generated faster or better results.”

If you have concerns about the systems you have in place to manage your company and its potential growth curve, the best advice is not to wait to act.

“The longer you wait, the harder it becomes,” Rupesh says. “To do a change in systems when you have several hundred employees is a lot more challenging than when you have 30 employees. As you think about any company’s transition, think first and foremost if you have the systems in place. If you don’t, how are you going to put them in place?” 

 

Takeaways

  • Agree to a plan.
  • Hold your team accountable.
  • Keep your eye on the future.

 

The Shah Files

Names: Rajesh Shah and Rupesh Shah

Titles: Co-presidents

Company: M S International Inc.

 

Born: Fort Wayne, Ind.

 

Rajesh

Education: Finance and accounting degree, Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Who has been the biggest influence on you? My parents, Manu and Rika Shah. They always taught us to not be afraid to do things in life just because it’s risky.

 

What one person, past or present, would you most like to meet?

I actually wrote my college entrance essay on this. Wile E. Coyote, the cartoon character. No matter what he goes through, he just gets up the next morning and keeps trying it again. I would just love to talk to him. ‘You fail every time. What makes you get up and want to try again?’

 

Rupesh

Education: Bachelor of science in economics with a focus on finance and strategic management, Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

 

Who has been the biggest influence on you?

It would have to be my parents. One thing my father did which has been very helpful to my brother and me is when we started, he never took the approach, ‘I’m going to show you the way to do things. This is what you’re going to do.’ He gave us a lot of autonomy to try things, and he provided a lot of support in those endeavors.

 

What one person, past or present, would you most like to meet?

I really admire Steve Jobs. He came to an industry and revolutionized it. I’ve read his book, and what I still don’t understand is how does someone like that have the vision he had and feel so passionate about it and execute on it.

 

How to reach: M S International Inc., (714) 685-7500 or www.msistone.com

Twitter: @msistone

Facebook: facebook.com/pages/M-S-International-Inc

YouTube: youtube.com/user/msistoneandporcelain 

Pinterest: pinterest.com/msistone/

Houzz: houzz.com/pro/msistone/m-s-international-inc 

Fall is a great time for sports fans. The World Series takes place in baseball, and the regular seasons for the NFL, NBA and NHL begin.

The end of the year is also one of the most important times for small businesses. A lot of entrepreneurs look back on 2013 and wonder what could be improved and what should be changed. Luckily, there are plenty of business lessons to learn from professional sports.

There is no “I” in team

Chances are good that you’ve run the entire show from day one, so as you add employees, it can feel a bit uncomfortable to put some of your former responsibilities into their hands. That’s why people micromanage — they assume that they, and only they, know how to do a task correctly.

You need to get into the habit of trusting your employees and backing away. Give them room to surprise you and rise to the occasion, and start building a team in earnest.

Avoid “Hail Mary’s”

It is awesome to see a crazy play work out beautifully. But, more often than not, we just get stuck watching the wide receiver fumble the ball and lose the game. It can be tempting to try your own Hail Mary pass at the end of the year to boost your numbers and round out 2013 on a high note, but marketing gimmicks are a real gamble.

Instead, drum up business with time-tested, reasonable marketing practices. The end of the year is not the time for a business to experiment with its customer base.

Don’t be a Monday morning quarterback

We all know Monday morning quarterbacks. They are the ones who know the plays that should’ve been made and mistakes that should’ve been avoided. Advice based on hindsight can get pretty annoying, especially in a small business.

You want your team to like working for you because if morale drops, so do sales. Constructive, end-of-the-year criticism is appreciated. If all you do is point out your employee’s mistakes without giving them room or advice to grow, however, they are going to be put off.

Keep your eye on the ball

This idiom always interested me. The point of any game is to score points and win, and a ball is a means to that end. But the idiom isn’t “Keep your eye on the goal,” or “Keep your eye on home plate.” The focus is the ball.

Like in sports, the goal in business is to win by staying in business and supporting your livelihood. But how your business operates, and how it takes advantage of your personal, entrepreneurial style is how your company achieves that end.

Take this time to reflect and remember why you got into business in the first place — a crummy boss, a side passion or a desire to better your community. Whatever the reason, focus on that and use it to guide your growth strategy. If you find your niche, your company will do just fine.

Admittedly, the sports-to-business analogy can be a bit corny, but you have to admit that using some of these fundamental practices can help you improve your business. Focus on them, and 2013 will be a real winner — if you’ll allow me one more sports-related pun before I go.

Deborah Sweeney is the CEO of MyCorporation.com. MyCorporation is a leader in online legal filing services for entrepreneurs and businesses, providing start-up bundles that include corporation and LLC formation, registered agent, DBA, and trademark & copyright filing services. 

Twitter: @DeborahSweeney

Twitter: @MyCorporation

Google+: https://plus.google.com/117209031809196393270/posts

 

Monday, 30 September 2013 20:00

Ah!thentic Ambition

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Jack Butorac thought he had retired from the food industry in 2000, but a small Toledo, Ohio-based pizzeria was calling his name.

Monday, 30 September 2013 20:00

World Entrepreneur of the Year: Overcoming Challenges

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Monte Carlo has seen a lot of risk takers in its day, but not many have been like those who attended the recent EY World Entrepreneur Of The Year conference. These risk takers may use the term “gamble” every now and then, but they more often use their willingness to take a risk as a way to overcome the challenges of running a business.

The collection of the world’s most accomplished entrepreneurs at the conference were innovators, futurists, turnaround specialists and problem solvers.

From this highly qualified group of leaders comes some quality insights into rising above the challenges that could have blocked the success they envisioned for themselves and their companies. ●

 

“We have a phrase: ‘Market leaders need to meet market innovators.’ It’s a ‘two-fer’ because the innovators often need to have partnerships with the market leaders in order to really scale their companies. That could be as simple as a distribution agreement. It could be joint R&D. It could be capital. It could be a variety of things that form a partnership.

Likewise, if you think of firms like Procter & Gamble that have had edicts from the top that half of their innovation will come from outside the ivory tower, then those are the kinds of opportunities that we hope to be able to continue to bring.

Go and find those innovators … and likewise for the innovators, make sure your reach out and look for strategic partnerships that help your business grow.”

Bryan Pearce, Americas Director, Entrepreneur Of The Year and Venture Capital Advisory Group, EY

 

“Cost pressures are always high. What we need to make sure we do is continue to innovate our audit services and all our services to make sure we make maximum use of technology. We also need to make sure we take advantage of both time zone arbitrage and cost arbitrage where talent zones are present.”

Jim Turley, retired global chairman and CEO, EY

 

“The drive to always want to get better and do more is what keeps me going. It’s hard for me to turn it off and say, ‘That’s great.’ I’m always thinking about tomorrow. You can’t take things for granted in our business.”

Corey Shapoff, president and founder, SME Entertainment Group

 

“When you have a monopoly, it slows innovation. It reduces competition and is generally not good for the market. Once you have an open Internet with no government operating on top of it, then I’m very optimistic about humanity when it comes to producing things.”

Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web

 

“As a startup you go to the specialty stores first. That’s how you start and you grow and once you reach a certain level, then you go to the big retailers.

I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to go to the big retailers and be in the regular dairy isle. That was a crazy idea and nobody thought that would go, but at least we tried. When we tried, we convinced one retailer in New York. The result from that was we were able to expand to a couple of other retailers. After the second or third customer that we had success with for our yogurt, I knew it wasn’t going to be about selling, it was about making enough.”

Hamdi Ulukaya, founder, president and CEO, Chobani Inc., Entrepreneur Of The Year 2012 United States, 2013 World Entrepreneur Of The Year

 

“In our country, our main challenges are new regulations and new financial reforms that we have to comply with. We are getting together for meetings inside the bank in different areas to study each one of the reforms.

Also at the Association of Banking Industry in Mexico, we have an association of the 44 authorized banks where we get together in different commissions to make sure that we can modify some of the new policies that are going to come out later this year.”

Lorenzo Barrera Segovia, founder and CEO, Banco BASE, Entrepreneur Of The Year 2012 Mexico

 

“One of the main challenges is how to train the talent we have in Latin America. Latin America has 600 million people and 1 million IT workers. The next step is to train more people and convince people to adopt technology as a career. If you provide the proper entrepreneurial environment to that, maybe the next Google or Facebook can come from Latin America.”

Martin Migoya, CEO, Globant, Entrepreneur Of The Year 2012 Argentina

 

“One of the biggest challenges the industry faces is trying to figure out what the impact of the natural gas/shale gas revolution is going to have on us. Suddenly there is cheap natural gas, which is going to be more challenging for renewable projects to compete with. Rather than looking at it as an either-or world, you have to look at how the two technologies can work together.”

Jim Davis, president, Chevron Energy Solutions

 

“Zonamerica is a different kind of company, a business and technology park. But in general, we have a financial sector, we have 60 banks, a wealth of private funds, we have call centers, cell services and headquarters for companies that want to develop business in the region. The problem is all these companies require very qualified personnel. Our core purpose is to attract the best human resources to produce or offer the product. So we created a database and we have, at this moment, more than 24,000 people registered. Then these companies, according to the needs they have, can see and select the personnel they want. And then we also have schools to teach skills to prepare people for these kinds of employment.”

Orlando Dovat, founder and CEO, Zonamerica, Entrepreneur Of The Year 2012 Uruguay

 

“Zonamerica is a different kind of company, a business and technology park. But in general, we have a financial sector, we have 60 banks, a wealth of private funds, we have call centers, cell services and headquarters for companies that want to develop business in the region. The problem is all these companies require very qualified personnel. Our core purpose is to attract the best human resources to produce or offer the product. So we created a database and we have, at this moment, more than 24,000 people registered. Then these companies, according to the needs they have, can see and select the personnel they want. And then we also have schools to teach skills to prepare people for these kinds of employment.”

Orlando Dovat, founder and CEO, Zonamerica, Entrepreneur Of The Year 2012 Uruguay

 

“Probably the most difficult cost control challenge is managing staff salary software. There is a specific reason for that within our company — we are going through a system conversion, so when we acquire practices, they each have their different practice management software. Some are fully computerized; some are not computerized at all. We at one point had 18 different systems within our company. We have converted all of our 107 locations onto one platform this year, so with training and obviously the unknowns that occur with changing people's worlds by changing their operational platform, that's our biggest challenge this year. Having said that, that will allow us to create a line of central efficiencies in the coming years.”

Dr. Alan Ulsifer, CEO, president and chair, FYidoctors, Entrepreneur Of The Year 2012 Canada

 

Monday, 30 September 2013 08:00

Understanding your ‘natural instincts’

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The animal kingdom has long been instrumental in teaching children about appropriate behavior.

A rabbit named Peter educated us on the importance of conflict resolution. For better or worse, Curious George was habitually inquisitive and, in separate incidents, three bears and three pigs taught us the importance of home security.

But despite a literary reputation as “big” and “bad,” according to Jack Hanna, “A wolf will feed the sick, the old and the young first.”

That’s a pretty impressive character trait for a creature so often maligned by the human race. Over the years, however, we’ve learned to expect Hanna to set the record straight on an important part of our world that most of us will never experience firsthand.

 

Following the footsteps of a legend

Inspired by wildlife pioneer Marlin Perkins, Hanna parlayed a fascination with animals and a position leading the Columbus Zoo into a television empire spanning 30 years. He’s had countless TV appearances on popular shows such as “Good Morning America” and “The Late Show with David Letterman.” In addition, he currently helms two television programs, “Jack Hanna’s Wild Countdown” and “Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild.”

Not surprisingly, Hanna’s high regard for the animal population is also reflected in his view of the public’s acceptance of the animal kingdom: “Most people who say they don’t like animals don’t like people much either.”

Phil Beuth, former president of “Good Morning America,” observes, “With Jack, what you see is what you get — he’s a genuine gentleman.”

Hanna has set a simple benchmark for appropriate professional behavior, “I operate by The Golden Rule — do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Of course, humans are animals too — complete with instincts, genetic predispositions, unique skill sets and laws to keep us from acting like predatory animals. Yet, prey we do — leveraged buyouts, hostile takeovers, foreclosures, etc.

 

Comparing workforces of nature

When asked about lessons human worker bees can glean from the animal kingdom, Hanna enthusiastically says, “Just look at ants and termites. They each have specific jobs to do.” By performing specific tasks every day, these creatures work solely to serve the greater good — ostensibly without complaining.

Animals = 1 Humans = 0

Hanna also points to an innate respect in the wild that does not always translate into the land of the bipeds: “The animal world does not waste food and animals do not abuse their own children. For example, gorillas may fight but they still work together.”

Working through issues to achieve top performance is apparently part of the natural order of things. It’s about survival. As the concept of business survival has never been more prominent, shouldn’t cooperation receive equal billing?

Animals = 2 Humans = 0

Though Hanna also marvels at the mysteries behind the instinctual and highly effective way animals communicate, many in the office marvel at some people’s overwhelming lack of communication skills.

Animals = 3 Humans = 0

Specifically, according to Hanna, “The elephant is one of the most intelligent creatures on the planet.”

So yes, it seems that without the benefit of an iPhone, Twitter or Outlook, an elephant truly never forgets.

Time to hire me an elephant. The Laws of Nature win every time. ●

 

Speaker, writer and professional storyteller Randall Kenneth Jones is the creator of RediscoverCourtesy.org and the president of MindZoo, a marketing communications firm in Naples, Fla. For more information, visit randallkennethjones.com.

Twitter: @randallkjones

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mindzoo

https://www.facebook.com/RediscoverCourtesy

LinkedIn: http://linkd.in/1cQ7A5J

YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/randallkennethjones - http://bit.ly/17G550A

Google Plus: http://bit.ly/15BWZq0

A marketing epidemic, to put it mildly, has been impacting most businesses — and it’s time to think about keeping your message simple if you haven’t already done so.

The roots of this epidemic can be traced back to two events.

First, during the economic fall of 2008, as businesses looked for ways to preserve revenue streams, companies hunkered down and focused on sales to preserve existing customers. Many cutoff or significantly reduced marketing budgets, and others shifted to digital media as a “low-cost alternative.”

The second event was the rapid spread of social media and the skyrocketing use of smartphones and tablets, which provide instant access to relationships, information and communication.

The social media craze and businesses’ desire to market on the cheap led companies to flood the marketing channels with content. Sales sheets, photos, videos, web pages — companies were suddenly all things to all people because they could push content to digital channels for “free.”

The problem — our marketing channels are now very noisy. As consumers of information, we respond to this noise with limited attention spans. The result — companies have sent confusing messages to the marketplace and people aren’t listening.

This current epidemic of marketing noise distributed across all channels leads to a common marketing need for all businesses — simplification.

 

Keeping it simple

So how do you achieve message simplification? It all ties back to the business. Here are seven steps to help get you started:

1. Identify three to four key business objectives for the next two years. Do you want regional growth or growth in a new industry? Do you want to sell more to existing customers?

2. Prioritize your objectives by placing dollars or number of opportunities next to them. This will help you focus on the most important areas.

3. Brainstorm a list of marketing tactics that can help you achieve each objective. Can you generate more leads from trade shows, your website, your existing customer list? What tactics do you need to adopt?

4. Write a succinct summary, or “elevator pitch.” This should be one to three sentences on how you benefit the people you are targeting in your objectives.

5. Compare your elevator pitch to your marketing tactics and existing materials. Review your website, brochures, email newsletter, social media accounts, videos, trade show collateral, etc. Notice how many “extra” things you say in an effort to cover all your bases.

6. Rework your message. Focus on the audiences for your key objectives. Identify the benefits for these audiences. Your marketing message should speak directly to these audiences so they can understand your value and usefulness to them.

7. Prioritize your marketing tactics. It’s tempting to be trendy and market on social media or through video, just remember to consider which tactics will best reach your audiences. You don’t need to be in every marketing channel, just the ones where your customers and prospects will hear you.

 

Finally, once you’ve simplified your message, stick to it! It is important so that people understand the benefits and value that you deliver. While it might seem repetitive to you, your audience will appreciate the clarity and with time, will remember what your business does best. ●

 

Kristy Amy is director of marketing strategy for SBN Interactive. Reach her at mailto:kamy@sbninteractive.com or (440) 250-7011.

Life has a way of presenting us with difficult circumstances. Sometimes it’s in our personal lives, and sometimes it’s in our business.

If the circumstance is severe enough, it can create a crisis, which can often cause a feeling of hopelessness. When things outside your control come at you in droves, it becomes difficult to cope with them. Entire organizations can be overwhelmed and pulled down by external circumstances, which if not dealt with promptly and correctly, can destroy the company.

The CEO’s role is to right the ship and rally everyone around a solution — and it most likely won’t be easy. People are always looking for the easy way out, but that path is rarely an option. When facing a difficult situation, you have to play the ball where it lies, which means the resources you have in people, dollars or equipment are all you may have to work with.

But challenges also present opportunities. Faced with a crisis, you and your leadership team will be forced to look at your assets in new ways. You’ll be required to take a careful look at your customer base, your market and your processes. This kind of in-depth evaluation may uncover not only a possible solution to your problem, but it may open your eyes to markets or applications you never considered before.

Take Netflix for example. The company was the king of DVD-by-mail, and had already knocked off the once mighty Blockbuster. With the increase in streaming video content, however, customers began moving away from DVDs, threatening Netflix’s main revenue channel. It reacted by creating not only streaming content, but also by creating its own unique content. Customers can stream video from many outlets, but it’s tough to beat Netflix’s reputation and ease of use.

Often, the resources you need are already at hand; they just need to be used in new ways. Netflix already had the capabilities; it just needed to apply them differently.

You may find that after assessing what you have, you have started to create a new path that leads away from the crisis.

At the beginning of a difficult time, you may not be able to see a way out, which can lead to despair. By starting with an initial step and continuing, however, you’ll soon see the light. Start by calling your bank or suppliers to ask for better terms or whatever it is you need, and then build from there.

No matter what you do, though, don’t compromise your integrity. Always do the right thing in the wrong circumstances, because depending on how severe your crisis is, your reputation might be the only thing you have to negotiate with.

If you work hard, do the right thing and stay positive, a solution will likely present itself. It may not always be in a form that you anticipated — you may need to change your products or your market — but if you keep an open mind and work with what you have, everything will work itself out. ●

Most weeks I get on a plane and attempt to have an out-of-body experience to deal with all the hassles of flying as I travel from point A to point B. When flying, I have a few simple rules. One, I almost never eat the food. Two, I attempt to talk to no one other than obligatory hellos. Three, I never argue with or say a cross word to flight attendants.

One other very important practice I follow on land, sea and especially in the air is that I constantly scan my surroundings for potential troubles and new ideas.

On a recent flight, upon boarding, I quietly and obediently proceeded to my assigned seat.

As I began to sit down, a gentleman asked if I would mind trading seats with him so that he could sit next to his wife. Like most seasoned travelers I try to accommodate reasonable requests. In this case it seemed a no-brainer to agree to move.

 

Notice the details

As I started to settle in and fasten my seat belt I noted that my new seatmate was very hot. No, it’s not what you’re thinking. I mean she seemed to be flushed and radiating heat, ostensibly from a high fever. I’m thinking, this is not good, plus it proves the age-old adage that no good deed goes unpunished.

In the next minute I had an epiphany, which happens frequently as I believe that many problems come disguised as opportunities.

I rang the call button and, when approached, asked the cabin attendant to please bring me two cloth napkins. I stated that the purpose was to construct a makeshift face mask by tying the two pieces together to prevent possibly contracting some dreaded disease.

I feared that my intentions could be misinterpreted if I were to don a mask without an explanation; this could cause a well-meaning passenger to drag me to the floor thinking I had nefarious motives.

The stewardess smiled, nodding approvingly of my plan. She then summoned all her co-attendants to my seat and proceeded to whisper what I was attempting. Otherwise, she explained, they, too, could misunderstand my appearance and cause me bodily harm.

As founder and CEO of Max-Wellness, a health and wellness retail and marketing chain, I’m always looking for that next special something to share with my team. Therefore, while burying my now masked face in a newspaper so as not to frighten or offend the sick seatmate, I began dictating a memo to my merchandise product group proudly asserting that I just had another “aha!” moment, for which I am well-known, among my colleagues. For full disclosure, however, I am sometimes known for being a bit “out there” on occasion — but no one bats a thousand.

 

Turn an idea into a product

This particular predicament gave me the idea to develop a product kit that we could sell to weary travelers in our stores and in airports. I suggested a handful of complementary products, including a mask, a disinfectant spray and, if all else fails, relief remedies. I also noted that it probably would be prudent to include a cigarette pack-type “Black Box” warning stating that the mask is not what some suspicious flyers might think, but instead it’s for prevention of disease only. I even proposed we market these kits directly to the airlines to dispense as an emergency prophylactic for passengers exposed to airborne (pun intended) pathogens.

 

Fleeting thoughts have value

A key role for business leaders is teaching a management team to use fleeting thoughts as a springboard, to pair common problems with sometimes-simple solutions.

Just because it is a simple fix, though, doesn’t mean the idea couldn’t be a lucrative breakthrough.

When something sparks an idea it needs to be taken to the next level before being pooh-poohed. Most likely the vast majority of these inspirations won’t see the light of day, but that’s OK. Just think — what if one transient idea translates into the next Post-it Notes, Kleenex or bottled water?

The next time you sit by a masked man on a plane, it most likely won’t be the Lone Ranger. Instead, you might be witnessing the incubation of the next best thing since sliced bread. ●

 

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. “The Benevolent Dictator,” a book by Feuer that chronicles his step-by-step strategy to build business and create wealth, published by John Wiley & Sons, is now available. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

Recently, President Barack Obama outlined a plan to combat rising college costs by holding colleges and universities more accountable for results. The foundation of this plan is a ratings system that would provide students and families with information to help them select a school that offers the best value. Ultimately, Congress may tie the provision of federal student aid to a college’s rankings.

What might the proposal mean for colleges and universities and the businesses that hire their graduates?

Smart Business spoke with Luis Ma. R. Calingo, Ph.D., president of Woodbury University, about the challenges of making college more affordable.

Will this proposal help colleges do a better job of turning out graduates who are prepared, for example, for a career in business?

The ultimate impact of the president’s proposal is difficult to gauge. However, the debate must begin with understanding the role of higher education.

Colleges and universities exist for one reason: to produce graduates with highly valued degrees who have the knowledge and the character to serve and lead. President Obama’s proposal enjoins colleges and universities to return to basics.

Doesn’t it make sense to focus curriculum on courses that are most essential to a student’s future career?

While that makes sense at the graduate level, there are benefits to a broader undergraduate liberal arts education, which is when students ought to be exploring their interests.

Businesspeople often say they can’t understand why any undergraduate student would pursue a history major or take a philosophy course. But the students who study history or philosophy are those who end up in law school, just as those who pursue biology may end up in medical school. These are the courses that enrich the mind so that students become better business executives by being more critical in their thinking and more socially responsible. All of those things come from a liberal arts education, which is why many professional degree programs have a strong foundation in liberal education.

On a personal note, my daughter is majoring in theology and minoring in Arabic in preparation for a career in law and foreign service. She’s a prime example of why it’s important to debunk the myth that a liberal arts education does not contribute to preparation for a business or other professional career. The dichotomy between liberal education and professional preparation is an artificial one.

What can be done to reduce the spiraling costs of a college education?  

How people respond to the cost question depends on their perspective.

If you are a parent or student who relies on federal Pell and/or state grants, any move that reduces public funding for higher education is of great concern. It also depends on where you live. A state university education in Ohio costs two or three times what it costs in California.

At Woodbury, what we do and what we spend is related to producing quality graduates. As with most universities, we spend 70 to 80 percent of our budget on personnel. We consistently apply a student-to-faculty ratio to determine new faculty hires. Any inflationary increases are generally tied to the Consumer Price Index. That’s how we establish the bulk of our budget.

In fact, Woodbury is doing a business process improvement study of our student services and business processes to improve our operational efficiency. Other colleges, large or small, should do the same.

Of course, universities like Woodbury could reduce the numbers and kinds of courses offered to focus on those required for majors. That, however, would be counter to the argument that business and other professionals benefit from a grounding in liberal education.

Luis Ma. R. Calingo, Ph.D. is president of Woodbury University. Reach him at (818) 252-5101 or luis.calingo@woodbury.edu.

For more of Calingo’s perspective on the challenges facing colleges and universities today, visit his blog, Pursuing Excellence in Higher Education, which debuts in October.

Insights Executive Education is brought to you by Woodbury University

 

Additional blogs and articles with Luis Ma. R. Calingo:

Better Than ISO? How Baldrige Benefits Manufacturers

5 Quick Questions: More Powerful Than ISO 14000 For Plant Floor Management

Building a World Class University: Beyond The Numbers

Whether your wish list includes manufacturing, medical, transportation or technology equipment, how you finance major purchases may not only impact the return on your investment but the success of your entire company.

“Financing decisions impact cash flow and a company’s ability to capitalize on opportunities or respond to adversity,” says David Beckstead, Pacific Region sales manager for the Equipment Financing Division at California Bank & Trust. “Executives need to weigh their options carefully before making a decision.”

Smart Business spoke with Beckstead about the need for prudent financing decisions when purchasing machinery and equipment.

What should executives consider as they are reviewing various financing options?

The rule of thumb is to match the financing terms to the life of the asset. In other words, it’s best to use short-term financing for short-term business needs, and longer-term financing for long-term business assets such as equipment that will generate revenue or reduce operating costs for the foreseeable future.

You can avoid finance charges and interest by paying cash, but leasing the equipment or borrowing the funds lets companies preserve capital for other purposes. You should also consider the tax implications and the ultimate cost of the equipment along with your ability to make a substantial down payment to secure a traditional bank loan.

When does leasing make sense?

Leasing makes sense when companies want to preserve cash for future growth or expansion, they need flexibility or they don’t have a lot of cash to put down. Since leasing companies usually maintain ownership of the asset, companies can upgrade or return the equipment should their needs change. For example, you can align the lease terms with a customer agreement or upgrade to a bigger, faster model as your company grows. Plus, most leasing companies don’t require a down payment and it may be possible to negotiate a longer-term payment plan, improving cash flow.

With leasing you can usually deduct the lease payments as a business expense on your tax return, and on short-term leases the rental expense may provide a better tax benefit than depreciating the asset. You may be able to transfer the risk of ownership to the leasing company depending on the type of lease.   

How can executives research the market and secure favorable leasing terms?

Prioritize your needs, and then search for the best combination of rates, terms, flexibility and customer service by contacting several firms. Bank leasing companies usually have high underwriting standards but lower rates, while finance companies can be more lenient lenders but generally charge higher rates. Vendor finance companies are a third option and are generally the most flexible about taking back or exchanging equipment. However, they usually charge higher rates.

Beware of upfront payments and fees, hefty residual payments, pay-off fees and other clauses that may boost the overall cost of the equipment. In fact, it’s a good idea to ask a knowledgeable third party to review the agreement so you don’t forsake the benefits of leasing by accepting disadvantageous terms.

What should executives look for in a leasing firm?

Always consider a firm’s reputation, check its references and read its contract before requesting a quote. Contracts differ between companies and impact everything from tax deductions and residuals due at the end of the lease to the responsibility for servicing the equipment. Finally, select someone you trust. Your financing partner should provide funding and be committed to your success.

David Beckstead is Pacific Region sales manager for CB&T Equipment Finance. Reach him at (949) 457-0458 or david.beckstead@calbt.com.

Insights Banking & Finance is brought to you by California Bank & Trust