Abby Cymerman

Tuesday, 28 March 2006 19:00

Know your customer’s customer

For Allen Crowley, best practices means encouraging his employees to visualize beyond the normal scope of a building project.

“We think outside the box all the time,” says Crowley, a partner at Lawler & Crowley Constructors LLC. “We don’t let anybody stay in a box.”

His full-service commercial construction firm offers design/build, general contracting and construction management services. Crowley says Lawler & Crowley’s sales revenue grew by nearly 358 percent from 2001 to 2004, and he is projecting 2006 revenue of $20 million.

Smart Business spoke with Crowley about how he promotes a problem-solving mindset among his employees.

When did you implement the ‘knowing your customer’s customer’ philosophy and why?
We’ve had this philosophy since May 1999, when the company was formed. It tells the customer that we are trying to make sure we’re doing our best so that his customer is being treated the best. We’re like an extra set of eyes to most of our projects.

It means when I’m building a project, I need to understand what the store’s shoppers are going to be running into when we’re doing a renovation. When we do a church addition or a sanctuary, the pastor is saying, ‘I want to do this and this.’ Part of what we do, which has helped our growth, is during the design process with the architects and the owners, we think about, what are the congregants going to think? How can we help give input to the design process?

We offer a tremendous amount of information, and because most of our clients engage our services either before the architect or concurrently with the architect, we’re able to help the client save money because we’re giving him budget feedback every time the architect makes a line on the page.

How does technology play a role?
Our project management software is Web-based, so when an architect makes a change, we get that by e-mail and then we can load that into our system. We can see the differences in the last document that the architect sent us so that we can more effectively communicate to our field people.

All of our projects have laptop computers, and our field people are in the loop pretty quick, so we can manage changes that happen in the construction process. One thing that will never change in our business is change.

How does innovative thinking help your client’s budget?
We do a thing called value engineering. Value engineering is when you look at a project (to determine) how you can get substantially similar performance with either a different material or a different functionality. If a project has a slate roof but the project can’t afford a slate roof and it’s over budget, you look at different roofing options.

We’re doing a project right now that requires a fire door. One of our newest employees, a former co-op who just graduated from the University of Akron, was looking at it with us. He said, ‘What if we do this and this?’ Just an extra set of eyes suggested to the client, the architect and the project manager to change the type of door. We achieved the functionality that the tenant needed, complied with the fire code that the architect needed, and we saved the client about $1,100.

How do you recognize and reward that kind of innovation?
We empower our staff with authority and responsibility. The people who work for us respect us and will jump for us when we ask them crazy things because one, we pay them on time, and two, we treat them fairly.

Here’s a great example: We work for a developer, whose tenant is out of Chicago. The tenant’s accounting department is extremely detailed in what they require in order for payments to be processed. Through no fault of ours, our customer’s customer held up the payment for two months on a project.

Our accounting person redid some paperwork and called every subcontractor — we're talking about 50 transactions. She got it done in three days, something that normally takes several weeks. She knew it had to be done, and she said, ‘I'm going to get it done.’

We broadcast it in an e-mail to the entire company, ... and said, ‘She did above-and-beyond the call of duty, and she gets a set of zoo tickets.’ We have Cleveland Indians tickets, zoo tickets or tickets to the Palace Theatre, and we dole those out when somebody gets an atta-boy. We show (our appreciation) because we walk by and pat them on the back and say, ‘Thank you very much,’ and we give them a little something.

HOW TO REACH: Lawler & Crowley Constructors LLC, (216) 231-1100 or www.lcconstructors.com

Sunday, 26 February 2006 19:00

Anatomy of a revolution

When Rocky Crossland joined Cleveland Unlimited Inc. in July 2004, the wireless services company had just 112 employees.

A year-and-a-half later, Crossland has created the company’s successful Revol brand, offering unlimited anytime minutes for one flat price, employs 400 and expects 2005 revenue to exceed $100 million.

“We’re very excited about the brand that we’ve developed,” says Crossland, CEO and president. “The marketplace has responded.”

Launched in June 2005, the Independence-based firm has eight company-owned retail stores, 17 independently owned premiere dealer locations and 73 authorized retailers.

It may be Revol’s street team in tricked-out Jeeps at community events may initially attract the young adult market, but Crossland says it’s the company’s low-cost, flat-rate wireless service that meets the needs of this demanding demographic.

“It’s young people in high school, college, just out of college, who have started their first job,” he says. “They haven’t had time to build up a real credit history.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just that the wireless industry has been designed not to cater to that type of customer. That’s where the growth opportunity and the real potential lie.”

Smart Business spoke with Crossland about how he formed the Revol brand and how its helped his company grow.

How did you create the Revol brand?
We figured out who we wanted to market to, where the growth was coming from in the industry and why, and then we developed the brand. We hired a company and did a branding workshop where we figured out exactly what were the core attributes we wanted our brand to epitomize at the base level.

When people think of our brand, what do we want them to think of?

As we developed the brand, we developed a side list of everything about the wireless industry that people despise. We positioned it so that we would not become the things that people don’t like — complex hidden charges, surprise charges, renewing people’s contracts at every turn without telling them.

What we wanted to do was develop our brand, our service product and our product offering so that we’re very different from the rest of the wireless industry in how we approach this. We want it to be simple, hassle-free, no surprise charges, no contracts, and we wanted to provide maximum value for your dollar.

Yeah, you can put in hidden charges, surprise this and surprise that, and it helps your revenue — and that’s why most of these companies do it — but at the end of the day, it doesn’t build brand loyalty and it doesn’t build customer loyalty because it really diminishes the experience that your customer has with your service.

How do you attract your initial customers?
We just looked at everything that people didn’t like about the wireless industry and said, ‘Let’s just do it the opposite way.’

We conducted extensive focus groups here in Cleveland — not only with the young adult market but with all age brackets, all categories of the marketplace — to get feedback. We looked at industry reports and industry studies.

From there, we developed our brand, and our brand led directly to our service offering. The two really have to go hand-in-hand.

About halfway through the work session, someone said, ‘We need to develop something that deals with (the concept of) freedom.’ It was just like the hair stood up on the back of my neck. It’s about freedom from the status quo within the wireless industry.

From there, we developed 350 names (for the product). We narrowed that list very quickly down to just a handful, and Revol, which was short for revolution, kept coming through. We developed the backward R with the graffiti look to it. The two really fit together, and we said, ‘That’s it. Don’t change a thing, it’s perfect.’

As we gave (Revol-branded) apparel to our employees, they would take them home, and those who had children in high school or college would come back and say, ‘I need another hat because my kid just took mine.’ This was without any service offering, without any product information. This was just the logo and the name. We really felt like we’d hit the mark.

How has the Revol brand benefited your company?
We launched this in June, and the third quarter of 2005 was the largest sales quarter in company history. It was three times what our normal sales rates have been. We knew that immediately people got the brand. They understood that we were a different kind of wireless company and that we were differentiated in the marketplace.

When you walk in our retail stores or our dealers, there’s one price point. There’s not a myriad of 15 or 20 different plans to try and choose from.

It’s really just a matter of choosing the phone that’s right for you because the plan is so simple.

How do you plan to evolve the brand?
You can look at developing a brand but if you’re not careful, an awful lot of that will be fluff. You can look at how you market it, how you brand it and how you want to evolve that.

But we think the better way to do it is to put more steak on the plate and less sizzle. We’re going to develop our product and service offering, and thereby, develop our brand.

So, how do you evolve the brand? You add more product and more services, and we’ve expanded our footprint to further meet the need of a broader segment of the marketplace.

We think that’s the best way to do it. We’re not scared to highlight all the things people hate about the wireless industry, show how we’re doing it differently and then let the customer make the decision.

HOW TO REACH: Revol, (800) REVOL-HQ or www.revol.us

Friday, 27 January 2006 10:40

Turning the page

Many U.S. schoolchildren don’t enjoy reading, but Jane Hileman is working to turn the page on that.

As a literacy activist, former teacher and CEO, founder and president of King of Prussia-based American Reading Co., Hileman created The 100 Book Challenge reading program, a unified system for independent reading that is delivered to schools and includes all books, materials, software tools and professional development materials. It’s used in more than 800 schools and has been recognized for boosting the test scores of students in eight states.

With more than 100 employees, American Reading Co. has grown to $14.2 million in 2005 revenue.

Smart Business spoke with Hileman about how she’s grown her company through innovation and how she’s initiated a new sales plan.

How do you introduce a new product into schools?
We’re not selling into an established market. We’re creating a new market, which is a student-centered curriculum. It’s not the way schools currently function.

It’s a complicated sale and it’s long-term, so the partnership extends well into the life of the customer. It’s an expensive proposition for us because our sales folks spend a lot of time working with the customer.

We don’t just sell the product and go away; we become part of the team, and they don’t pay for the team. So there’s a nonprofit side to our thinking. We really want this to work.

How do you nurture that mindset?
The company is centered on employee empowerment and the responsibility that comes with that. (Employees) have to take responsibility for our continuous improvement model. Each of them has a business plan with a critical number they’re working to meet.

It’s not a command-and-control environment. It’s a shared responsibility for creating a high-performing team. We’re applying a business model to our school curriculum and an educational model to our business.

How have you expanded your programs across the country?
For the first five years, we averaged 85 percent revenue growth, and that was driven primarily through references from happy customers. That is still the major contributor to our growth.

However, we have initiated a sales plan, brought on a sales team, so this year, for the first time, we’ll be spending 22 percent of our budget on sales.

We are currently only servicing 200,000 kids, and we want to get to 1 million kids. I have the best vice president of sales in the country, Holly De Leon. We’re bringing in a staff of 20 people. We’ve got teams all laid out and ready to go.

How were you able to initiate this sales plan?
There’s no such thing as creating something out of nothing. It’s evolved over time. It’s still built on our relationship sales.

Many of the people we’re hiring know us. It’s not streaming it up out of nowhere. We’ve been in business eight years, so the last three years, we’ve been evolving this sales plan. We sell directly to district language arts coordinators.

The reading program that we’ve developed works. This 100 Book Challenge is transforming the schools in which it is (being implemented.) It’s transforming the culture. Test scores are going through the roof, and it’s all the buzz.

We work to expand within the districts where this is happening to make sure that everybody is doing this program, pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. We also have it in Spanish and as an after-school program.

We also work with the surrounding school districts to bring them in to see it, and then we work with them on how we can best fit with their existing programs and the problems that they’re facing to help them. Really, we’re using a school partnership model, where we come in and provide a model that works with what they’re currently using, only we put this kid energy into the equation so that the kids start to read an hour a day, and all the instructional programs that they have in place begin to pay off big-time.

It’s easy for us because our program works, so you just get in and you bring other people around to see it.

How do you train your salespeople to work with the schools?
Mostly we hire our salespeople out of the schools [that have implemented the program] because we need people who get this. It’s not a sales function, it’s an educational function, so we have to hire experienced reading people. That’s the trick.

We are experimenting with bringing in three new people right now who are in educational sales but whose expertise is more sales than education. We’ll see how it goes. Once (a school district is) a customer, (its) salesperson has to be an educator.

HOW TO REACH: American Reading Co., (866) 810-2665 or www.americanreading.com

Friday, 27 January 2006 06:34

On a roll

Sally Hughes believes in her employees, and that belief has created a loyalty that has helped Caster Connection grow.

The employees of the Chardon-based company build and sell replacement casters, wheels, hand trucks and medical supplies but Hughes, president and CEO, also trusts them to serve as problem-solvers for their customers. It was a lesson that didn’t come easy.

“People were saying to me, ‘Sally, let me do my thing. I can do this but you just have to trust me to do it,’” Hughes said.

When she stepped back, employees responded, and the company began to grow. Last year, Caster Connection posted sales of more than $5 million last year, up 20 percent over the previous year.

Smart Business spoke with Hughes about how she grew her company by revamping her management strategy and putting her trust in her employees

How did you increase 2005 sales?
We got serious about growing our business in early 2005. We added a director of sales, and we gave him the responsibility for managing the sales force. It freed me up to play the role that I needed to play as the CEO.

We also formed an executive team and started meeting on a monthly basis. I started working with a growth consultant to develop a plan, and we’re measuring performance on a quarterly basis against the plan.

We shared our mission values, our vision and our goals with the employees and got them on board with our growth plan. It’s important to get everybody rolling in the right direction when you’re trying to grow a company.

How did that differ from your previous strategy?
We always had a plan (but it was) never as focused as we are now. I needed to be able to step back and focus on the company as a whole.

I was always finding myself being pulled in way too many different directions. By doing these things that I just mentioned, it has let me step back and focus on other things, for example, the vision of where we’re going from here and how we’re planning on getting there.

I began to focus on the things that only I can do as a CEO, like developing the team, leading the planning process and creating a culture for success, strengthening our infrastructure with the computers, the different processes and the employee handbook.

I’ve got a much clearer picture of what we’re doing and who’s doing what. I was too caught up in the everyday to focus on the tomorrows and the future. You really can’t run a business that way for too long, and I don’t know how we managed to do it as well as we did over these many years but it was time to grow up.

What gave you that wake-up call?
It was probably the fact that I was being pulled in so many different directions that it was getting very uncomfortable for me. There’s only 24 hours in a day, and I was working so many hours and trying to put out too many fires. It’s just not a professional way to run a company.

Looking at it now, I was trying to — and I hate this word — micromanage everything. It wasn’t fair to all the people who were working with me.

When I did start to step back, I found that not only did my life and my company start becoming more successful quickly but that I had a lot more confidence in my employees, and in turn, they started to respond in a much more positive way toward me and the focus of growing the company.

How did the changes benefit your company?
It let me focus on running the whole company, building a culture. Everybody started to recognize their individual role in growing this company.

It’s kind of like a football team. We needed a game plan so everybody could understand what their expected roles were. I needed to be sure I had the right people and that they had a passion for winning.

The neat thing about all of this is that I did have the right people — I still have the right people — and through that whole process, I was thrilled to find out that the people have the attitude and the desire to keep building a strong company.

I’ve been given an opportunity to run a nice company and I want (the employees) to be proud to be a part of it and I want them to benefit. Most of my people have been with me for at least 10 years. I want them to want to be here for their whole career, if they’ll have me, and if it makes sense to all of them, and if it makes good sense for the company.

HOW TO REACH: Caster Connection, (800) 544-8978 or www.casterconnection.com

Thursday, 26 January 2006 10:45

What’s up, Doc?

When Dr. Dominic Bagnoli Jr. began providing the services of emergency department physicians in 1992, he serviced one hospital.

Three years later, he established Emergency Medicine Physicians Ltd., and today, the Canton-based company provides staffing services to 57 hospitals in 10 states.

EMP supplies emergency physicians to staff and manage emergency departments and manages and provides billing services. With almost 1,000 employees — 250 in the Canton area — and 2005 revenue in excess of $100 million, Bagnoli still keeps his focus on patient care.

“(I try to make my employees) understand that everything we do here in Canton is really supporting the ability of physicians to take care of patients in emergency departments,” he says. “No one goes to the emergency department instead of going out for dinner and a movie. They go to the emergency department because they have an emergency, and 99 percent of the people come there because they don’t know where else to go, or they don’t have anywhere else to go.”

Smart Business spoke with Bagnoli about how he increases his employee numbers through equity incentives and leadership opportunities.

How do you attract the best physician candidates to your company?
We’re the only physician group in the country that we know of that allows physicians to have equal partnership in the hospital contract. The physicians become equity partners — they’re not employees or independent contractors — and that aligns their incentives because they have a true incentive to grow the business and provide high quality care and patient satisfaction, as opposed to being an employee.

It’s the alignment of equity with the physician that allows us to attract the best.

Hospitals will employ the physicians directly, they will contract with a group that will employ the physicians or, in our case, they contract with us and we employ the physicians, but they become partners and receive equity in the practice so they own part of the practice.

We have lower turnover and better alignment of incentives. Young physicians want to be part of a growing organization. Since we’re growing, we always have more and more opportunities, so that allows us to attract the best and the brightest physicians.

They know they can join the group, have a leadership opportunity, and within three to five years, they can be running an emergency department. If they joined a group that wasn’t growing, the opportunity to lead would mean the current leader would have to leave.

How do you retain those doctors?
Physicians practice based on working with a group of other physicians that they like and that they trust. The value of not leaving the group or not moving to other opportunities is that they’re very comfortable.

Everyone had residency training in emergency medicine, and everyone’s a partner. They have an equity position, so they form real bonds with their partners and with the organization because they own part of it; they can’t find that anywhere else.

How do you train them on how your group works?
When we were smaller, it was easy to recruit and hire physicians because they saw the potential and the growth, and they saw that we were different than everyone else. Now that we’ve become so large — and we’re the fifth largest in the country at doing this — we get kind of grouped in with some of the larger groups that don’t give physicians equity and don’t treat physicians equally. The hardest part for us now is to distinguish ourselves from those that don’t run the business the way we do.

We do that by training the physicians and having internal training classes — orientation and a management academy where they learn about how the business of medicine works.

There are a lot of obstacles for an individual practitioner, even a small medical group, to succeed. The most pressing right now is the malpractice crisis. An individual physician or a group of five physicians has nowhere near the capabilities that a group of 500 physicians does because we have the ability to own our own insurance company, to negotiate costs and drive down expenses. As a single physician or a group of five physicians, they’re really the victim of the market.

A big part of that is educating them on why it is better to control and manage your risk, and why it’s important to implement risk management policies and protocols so medical errors are reduced and the quality of care is better.

An employee — whether he is a physician or a nonphysician — works to pay his bills. When you’re an owner or a partner, it’s more than that. It’s easier to do the right things and make the right decisions when it’s part of who you are because you’re just not willing to take shortcuts.

That’s not just in medicine; that’s in any organization or company.

How do you motivate the physicians?
The physicians are owners and partners. If there are profits, they receive a portion of those profits. The employees that we have in Canton, who run the billing and management company, also are on a gain share program where, if the company runs profitably and we reduce expenses, then they share in the profits.

So our turnover is very low because they have the ability to share in the profits of the company with the owners.

Over half of our employees have been here longer than five years; it’s a culture that they understand.

One of the real advantages of practicing emergency medicine is we take care of everybody, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. Our office never closes. We’re there to take care of patients, and 30 (percent) to 40 percent of those patients don’t have health insurance or are on public assistance.

Our physicians take great pride that the practice of emergency medicine is the safety net of the American health care system. If I can get our employees to understand that they’re helping us provide that care, it really gives them a strong sense of satisfaction that they’re not really processing bills, doing customer service, HR functions or payroll.

What they’re really doing is providing service so that physicians can take care of patients every day. That motivates our employees to feel it’s not a job; it’s really about helping our physicians provide health care.

HOW TO REACH: Emergency Medicine Physicians Ltd., (800) 828-0898 or www.emp.com

Tuesday, 27 December 2005 06:17

Improving information exchange

When Dennis Swartzlander and Fred Richards co-founded HealthCare Transaction Processors Inc. (HTP) in 1996, their goal was to develop software to help health care customers improve efficiency, profitability and service quality.

Today, HTP has grown into a company with 37 employees, $4 million in revenue and a staff of software engineers that loves the opportunity to change an industry.

“People working for a large corporation get very small pieces of the problem to solve. Here, people are able to see a big problem, and from start to finish, build a solution,” Swartzlander says.

Smart Business spoke with Swartzlander about how he manages information technology trends on behalf of his customers.

How has information exchange in the health care industry changed since you founded HTP?
The need is being more recognized every year. There are cost-saving and quality-of-life-saving opportunities by using health information exchange as other industries use information technology. Health care has been significantly behind in adoption of automation of health care information exchange.

To what do you attribute that?
The industry is very fragmented. There are all kinds of medical providers and entities on the funding side — the commercial insurers, the government programs and the multiple state programs. So it’s been very difficult to focus on information technology.

How does that affect medical providers?
A very small percentage of revenue goes toward information technology. People recognize now that there will be financial savings by reducing the number of repeated lab tests. Radiology images are often repeated because they’re lost.

The main thing is that people’s records will be available to physicians [in a] more timely [manner] so they can prescribe the right care and fewer labs will be lost.

How does HTP adapt to changes in technology?
We have engineers who are very aware of the latest software tools and information technology engineering approaches, and if it makes sense for our customers, we can very quickly add that to our solution. It’s easier in many ways for a small company to adapt to the changes.

A larger company would take up a much bigger project and have more time to make decisions to change. The more customers you have, the harder it is to move everybody to a new generation of software. We’re in that position right now where we can move very quickly and keep our customers up-to-date with the best information technology approaches.

How do you do that?
Microsoft has a database technology, and the latest version runs on 64-bit servers. We’re the first company in the Great Lakes region that Microsoft saw move to the new hardware/software platform, so we were pioneers.

We were able to do that because we had a very large customer with well over 1 million covered members.

How did that benefit your company?
Having this new database technology enabled us to process much more rapidly. Claims are a key part of it — inbound claims and outbound payments.

We can process currently about 15 million transactions per month. We can do it very cost-effectively with modern servers and the efficient software that we use.

How do you make customers aware of changes in national health care transaction standards?
The software we provide for our customers is shared software in a run as application-service provider. We have regularly scheduled new versions of software. We’re committed to our customers to support any change that is introduced because of standards changes. That’s why we’re in the business.

It’s very difficult for an organization to do it themselves. We have 40 health insurance payer customers, and by us doing it for 40 of them, it’s much more efficient than each one of them trying to make the changes themselves.

How do you update your technology based upon your customers’ needs?
There’s a feedback cycle. In any information technology business, the sales executives pick up needs from customers that nobody else is meeting, and then they bring it back to our company. We’re finding a very good acceptance of breaking new ground in using health care transactions to get medical claims paid.

The more hospitals use us, they (are happier with the results) but they say, ‘Oh, by the way, could you also give us this feature?’ And engineers here design it and program it. In the next release two or four months later, we have that new feature.

It’s a cyclical process of customers learning how to use our software and then making suggestions on how to make it even better. We want to revolutionize the way information technology is used by our customers.

We are trying to bring very cost-effective solutions that don’t cost too much but give a lot of capabilities. We can add those capabilities by hearing what the customer market tells us. We’re very market-responsive.

HOW TO REACH: HealthCare Transaction Processors Inc., (888) 487-8010 or www.htp-inc.com

Friday, 23 December 2005 08:58

When opportunity knocks

Ray Hexamer knows how to take advantage of a savvy business opportunity when he sees one, as evidenced by his recent acquisitions.

The CEO of Akron-based First Communications LLC managed last summer’s acquisition of Uniontown’s Acction Communications, closely followed by last fall’s purchase of the Midwest assets of ATX/CoreComm, including its customer base in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana.

With 155 employees in its Akron, Columbus and Cleveland offices, Hexamer expects the telecommunications service provider to produce annual revenue of between $80 million and $100 million this year.

Now that ATX/CoreComm’s transition into First Communications is nearly complete, Hexamer says each department — from the care department to the truck roll employees who visit customers — is initiating its new employees into First Communications’ way of dealing with customer issues.

“To be a member of the First Communications fraternity, this is how you have to treat the customer,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Hexamer about how he managed the Midwest ATX/CoreComm acquisition and how he grew his company by super-servicing his customers.

How do acquisitions affect your strategic growth plan?
We’re continuing to look at a number of acquisitions. In the telecom industry, there’s a lot of change going on, and with change comes opportunity.

There’s a lot of consolidation going on. There have been some regulatory changes. Some of the big phone companies are merging to make mega-companies.

When that’s happening, you usually have two groups of folks. You have the folks who are in the business who look up and say, ‘The sky is falling.’ And there are other ones, like First Communications, who look and say, ‘There are some opportunities here.’

Providing great service, exceeding the customer’s expectations — there’s always going to be a need for that, no matter what happens in the business environment in which you’re competing.

How does customer service help you compete?
There’s a place for the huge guy, but there’s always a place for a company like ours on the service end — taking care of the customers, (offering) an alternative. We’ve gone into businesses that need huge amounts of bandwidth or need some type of service to guarantee that they don’t lose (telecommunications) service.

Cantor Fitzgerald (a New York financial services company) had one of the largest numbers of casualties in 9/11. [The firm lost two-thirds of its work force during the attacks on the World Trade Center.] The reason we [continue to] have their business is when that happened, we rerouted some of their calls here.

We tried to help them get back up and be able to operate their business as they were going through a personal tragedy. Since then, they’ve given us more business just because of how we performed.

They had other vendors who charged them higher rates because they had to super-service them. We didn’t, and they have remembered that.

We look at it as a partnership. If you’re a customer of ours, we’re in a partnership together. We’re with you in good times, and we’re with you in times where you may need some additional help from us.

How did attention to the care of your customers play a role in your Midwest ATX/CoreComm acquisition?
Their customer base matched well with where our customer base was. They were in bankruptcy, and we have a really great customer care and billing engine in place, so we are bringing them into First Communications and our system has gone very well. It’s been a great acquisition for us, along with Acction Communications, which we added in July 2005. This year, we’ve doubled our size.

I’ve been in business for going on 30 years, and we just have smart people who care about the customer and work hard every day. That technique would get you through anything in business, and that’s the technique we used to transition their customers and their employees to the way we do business.

Our mantra here is, ‘Be heard.’ We’ve found a real niche. Customers still like to have someone answer the phone, and all of our calls are answered by real people. There’s no automated ‘Touch 6, touch 7,’ and our goal is that all calls are answered within 90 seconds.

Since we’re a service business, there’s still a real need for that. As companies get so gigantic, they can’t manage their customer base. We feel there’s a great opportunity to super-serve customers and try to take care of them.

They call us, and somebody will pick up the phone and talk to them and solve their problem. That has never changed.

How did you prepare for your company’s expansion?
We didn’t sleep . We have a real good base of very smart people, so we put a transition team in place with our people and some folks from CoreComm.

We spent a lot of time planning on how to make this seamless to the customer. We ... have everybody moved over like they’ve been First Communications customers for years.

Right now, we have 130,000 customers. We have to work hard to super-service 130,000 customers every day, but it’s fun.

How did you train your employees to handle these new customers?
Since we don’t have an automated phone system, if the phone rings, somebody’s got to answer it. It wasn’t hard, other than adding new people and training them culturally on how we do business at First Communications.

Just as much as the customer wants service, if you hire the right kind of people, they like to give service. We had a gentleman who was a CoreComm customer who [sent a letter because he] had a problem with his business and phone listings. I called him, gave him my cell phone number and told him to call me.

When he called, he said, ‘I’m just a small business. I can’t believe I got the CEO’s cell phone number,’ and I said, ‘Well, you’re a customer. You help pay the bills, and we want to take care of you.’

He said, ‘Even though I’ve had problems in the past, I’m going to stick with you because now I know there’s somebody there who cares about me.’ That’s how our employees culturally feel about each and every customer. If we make mistakes, we try to fix them.

HOW TO REACH: First Communications LLC, (800) 860-1261 or www.firstcomm.com

Tuesday, 29 November 2005 06:20

New Year’s (dispute) resolution

Most execs probably don’t have “Resolve a business dispute” on their to-do list for next year, but a lawsuit could easily be on the horizon.

George Moscarino, a partner at Cleveland-based Moscarino & Treu LLP, says when the economy is down, there tend to be more disputes with respect to contractual claims, and people want to resort to pre-litigation consultation before an actual lawsuit evolves.

Moscarino says he often receives calls from company owners who have waited too long to get a lawyer involved in their case. That is a mistake, because in-house legal departments or outside counsel can guide CEOs on how to handle a legal dispute before it gets to the point of litigation.

What happens if a CEO doesn’t get an attorney on his or her side from the very beginning of a dispute? Moscarino says the company could find itself involved in a case that it never should have gotten into in the first place.

“The ultimate sin is that they settle a case for a price that they could have settled on in prelitigation, after having spent tens of thousands of dollars on legal fees,” he says. “If you’re in management for a small or middle-market company, you don’t want to do that because that’s just money out the window, and that’s profits in that calendar year that you just wasted.”

Moscarino says if the CEO and his or her legal team can resolve the case before it heads to court, there’s a cost-certain resolution.

“Businesses, for the most part, want certainty. They want to know on a certain timetable how they’re going to be able to have closure to the business dispute,” he says.

And if the case goes to court, the business is giving up an element of control.

“If it’s not concluded by the whole resolution process prior to a lawsuit, they’ve then lost the ability to completely control (the timetable). You have the other lawyer on the other side, and you always have the judge and/or jury, depending on whether it’s a jury case.”

There are, however, cases that simply must be litigated, such as those in which an employee leaves with a patent or trade secret that is the linchpin of the entire business. In these instances, the CEO needs to decide whether that principle is worth the cost, the time and the effort of litigation.

“If you win, you get a judgment, but the problem is in our system. As we tell our clients, just because you won in the trial court, you then have the appellate process which has its ensuing time, fees, costs, additional heartache and time away from the business,” he says.

Moscarino says not many business owners who have been embroiled in a long litigation process have come to the conclusion that it was a great experience.

“(Litigation is) time-draining. It’s emotionally upsetting, and it takes (the business owners’) time away from what they really need to do the most, which is to run their business, project to the next year and do their business plan,” he says.

HOW TO REACH:
Moscarino & Treu LLP, (216) 621-1000 or www.mosctreu.com

Tuesday, 22 November 2005 06:36

Fools rush in

Just four years after its founding, Emerald Financial Group LLC has grown to $3.5 million in revenue. But President Gary Weinhauer says he’s in no hurry to grow further — he plans to take his time and do it right.

“A lot of people go out and get licensed in every single state they can,” he says. “However, each state has different compliance laws, so there’s a huge time investment, and compliance is something we take very seriously.”

Headquartered in Independence, the full-service residential and commercial mortgage broker is licensed in five states and is looking to grow in markets that offer the highest potential return.

“You can make more on a $300,000 mortgage than you can on a $30,000 mortgage, so that determines where we go,” Weinhauer says. “We are looking at adding three more states by the end of 2006.”

Smart Business spoke with Weinhauer about how technology has impacted his business and how he sets his company apart from the competition.

How does technology affect the way you grow your business?
We can type the customer’s loan application on our loan origination software, upload it to the bank ... and it will actually underwrite the file in a matter of seconds.

If somebody had an appraisal on their home and had title work done already, they could give me a loan application and I could close their loan in a half hour. [In the past], the customer went into the corner bank, and the bank’s board of directors sat and decided on a loan decision. That doesn’t happen anymore.

Three years ago, there was a handful of lenders that had systems such as this, where you could upload and get underwriting decisions, and now it’s become more the norm than the exception.

How do you stay on top of this technology to make the process more efficient for your customers?
It’s a constant learning process. I don’t really know if there’s a way to stay on top of it more than just being in touch with each bank’s account executive or lender rep. They come in and they train us on their system, and from there, it’s just learning each bank’s system of programs.

There are definitely lender systems that are easier than others, and that affects to whom we send loans.

How has your ‘no application fee’ system impacted your business?
When we started the company, our goal was to treat our employees like gold; we don’t want an unhappy customer. It’s definitely a competitive advantage where a customer can call me and it doesn’t cost them anything to find out what I can do for them.

Once we approve a customer and lock in their interest rate, we have the customer pay for the appraisal.

[At banks that charges an application fee], if the customer decides not to take the loan or if underwriting turns the customer down, the bank keeps that application fee as profit. I find (having a no application fee rule) more ethical, better business and better customer service.

It definitely makes people more willing to apply. If people who aren’t so sure of their credit have to pay a $300 or $400 application fee, they’re going to be a heck of a lot less likely to give it a go and see if we can help them. If it doesn’t cost them anything, it allows us to get a lot more applications in the door.

In some cases, we do a lot of work for nothing, too. But the good outweighs the bad.

How do you set your firm apart from your competition?
Where we try to stand apart is treating our employees fantastically. We have an extensive Christmas party. At the end of the year, employees who hit their sales quota, we take them on a vacation with their spouse or a guest. We do a cash contest or little trips to Windsor. We want to attract the cream of the crop as far as employees.

The second part is not having unhappy customers. A huge source of our business is referrals. That’s very important to me as an owner. I don’t want one bad word said about Emerald Financial Group out there, and we do everything we can to satisfy each customer.

How do you do that?
If a customer is upset over anything that happens, I’ll get on the phone with him or her and say, ‘What do you want? What would you like me to do?’ As long as it’s feasible, I’ll do pretty much anything to make a customer happy.

We train our people very well, and everyone is conscientious of my stance in making sure each customer is happy. I rarely have to [make that phone call] because my employees treat our customers fantastically.

HOW TO REACH: Emerald Financial Group LLC, (216) 674-4400 or www.efgmortgages.com

Wednesday, 02 November 2005 05:10

The perfect triangle

Pro-Motion Technology Group may not be a household name, but if you've heard music pouring out of an American Eagle Outfitters store at the mall or been enticed by the large-screen televisions at a TGI Friday's restaurant, you've noticed of some of Pro-Motion's best work.

"You've seen us out there, you just didn't know it was us," says Lynn Matson, Pro-Motion's founder, president and CEO. "That's the sort of environment we play in all over North America."

Pro-Motion provides audio, visual and interactive solutions to retailers and restaurants. Founded in Wixom in 2003, it now has 40 employees and estimates $30 million in annual sales revenue for 2005.

"We are on fire," Matson says.

Smart Business spoke with Matson about how she attracts well-known clients and suppliers and how she's grown the company.

How do you grow your company's sales?

We touch several market spaces. (For example,) Foot Locker will utilize our equipment to inform their client, entertain their client, educate their staff members, protect the environment in the loss prevention arena and sell products.

(Our market) is the wave of the future as far as communication in the world, not just North America. In fact ... the North American market space is behind Europe and Asia as to how we communicate this messaging. It all boils down to one word, communication. Our market is so wide and our customer base is so big that we're naturally growing.

I have an incredibly committed group of people that understand the market, our company, our vision and our customers' needs.

How do you get them to understand the vision?

We train the trainer. Very often, as new people are brought on, they'll start in levels where they can learn the internal workings and begin to get comfortable with the needs of the customer base.

Then we promote. It's really the only way in our world to develop personnel.

If I take care of them, then they'll take care of our customer and our customer will take care of us. That's the triangle we have set within the company. There's no rocket science in what we do. We just choose to do it better.

How do you attract big-name customers?

Our brand is a strong brand, even in the short amount of time (since the company began). We cherish customers like Foot Locker, TGI Friday's and Bose Corp., which is a customer but also a supplier. We take very good care of them.

We're looking out to what their needs will be. If they're in one technology now, what will tomorrow look like for them? We forward that (information) to them so they're making keen and smart business decisions. This is not brain surgery; this is about doing business the right way.

One reason we're experiencing growth (is because) the entire package is under one roof -- the design and spec, product and purchasing power, distribution and logistics. We're a stocking distributor so we can pick-and-pull that day.

We have design and engineering, full project management, full customer support and call centers, and we have nationwide installation as well as nationwide service. The whole package makes it easy for them to do business. They don't have to have three different vendors.

How do you create partnerships with audiovisual technology experts?

We are now in a position where they want us; that's very nice. How did we initially? We called them.

Everything we believe with our customers we also believe with our suppliers. It has to be a win-win-win scenario. If suppliers can't supply to us, we don't have a business to provide to our clients, so they're key to the overall connectivity of our business. We treat them very well.

We pay them on time. Our credit rating is outstanding. We reinvest our monies back into our company so we can grow with very little debt. That's attractive to those vendors.

We're not the biggest game out there but we are fairly large for the market space we play in. By having an A-1 credit rating, it helps that much more in dealing with the Panasonics and Toshibas of the world.

What has been your biggest growth challenge, and how did you manage it?

Most Japanese- and Chinese-based manufacturers have gone to just-in-time inventory, and that requires 90, 120, 180 days' projection. Our customers aren't willing to work 120 days out; they need products very quickly.

So the biggest challenge is finding manufacturers that understand our market space and what we bring to the party, and getting the product we need when we need it.

How do you get manufacturers to understand your needs?

This month, we're shipping 10,000 televisions, coming direct from China. We got an order, and within 30 days we had to have them in the United States.

The only way you do that is, No. 1, having tenacity and not saying, ™No, we can't get the job done.' No. 2, having the credit and financial stability to afford such a thing, and No. 3, having a relationship with the manufacturer so they understand the level of importance and what this does for all of our businesses -- the client's, ours and theirs. Again, it's a perfect triangle.

HOW TO REACH: Pro-Motion Technology Group, (800) 765-5020 or www.pro-motion.us