Erik Cassano

Just about every industry is evolving due to advancements in technology. For Jonathan Brassington, his business is IT services, which means that not only must he evolve LiquidHub Inc. — which he oversees as co-founder and CEO — he must also provide the services that will help his company’s clients evolve, as well.

It’s a challenge that has required Brassington to keep a constant eye on the market, and continually find new ways to serve the market. That, in turn, has required LiquidHub — which generated $54 million in 2010 revenue — to remain nimble, agile and adaptable, which has become an increasingly difficult task as the company’s work force has soared well into the hundreds.

Smart Business spoke with Brassington about how to keep a business adaptable and scalable as it grows.

Define who you are. We develop and launched what we call LiquidHub 2.0, which is our internal transformation. We really developed a framework of core processes. We have eight core processes that we identified and sub-processes under each of them. We’re using each of those as an internal transformation framework for the firm. Everything from sales and marketing to service delivery to alliance partner management, organizational design in team building, financial operating metrics. So the big view from my lens is communication of this to every unit in the firm. You need to have a clear, consistent vision and metrics, and relating the metrics to the vision, and communicating that to everyone on a consistent basis. Every two months, we do an offsite meeting with 35 or so people. We’re approaching 1,000 people now between the U.S. and India. And we’re hiring 30 to 40 people a month now.

Learn the market. Our strategy is based on a client-centric view, so we look at the vertical industries that we’re targeting — financial services and health care. We’re looking at capabilities, whether it’s things we build organically or through acquisitions. We just did our first acquisition. So we’re looking to add new capability that matches the goals that our clients are trying to achieve, or the transformations that are impacting the specific industries that we’re serving our clients in. That is a core metric for us.

We have historically been a technology integration firm, but we are now marrying that core competency and capability into addressing industry-specific problems and opportunities, relative to how those industries are changing. Then, using that as a way to develop a longer-term, stickier relationship with our key clients. You’re looking for a way to get much more intimate with the business, as opposed to waiting for them to address the business problem, and then we’re having to come in as the technology Swiss Army knife. We want to engage with them in ideating what the business solution could be, and how technology is used.

Know your separators. We’re in an $850 billion industry, that’s IT services. It’s very fragmented. The top 20 players account for less than 50 percent of the revenue. After that, it’s very fragmented. So our opportunity was to build a midsized firm that is an alternative to the big guys, but is more scale and critical mass than a 10-person boutique shop. So the challenge for us all along has been how to focus. Within IT services, there is a lot of sub-specialties, and we’re always seeing opportunities within existing clients to do something that is adjacent but not exactly what we do. What we’ve learned to do is focus on some specific areas of competency as we continue to get deeper with existing clients. But also, we need to be agile enough to innovate within those competencies.

A lot of people confuse innovation with going into a new line of business or adding something new. Our view is we stay focused on the mission and the core competencies in areas we’re attacking. We’re always applying new paradigms and approaches in how to deliver them. We’re innovating within the focus areas, versus just trying to do something new, and getting too broad, but not deep enough.

The advice that I’d pass on to other colleagues is that driving strategic focus doesn’t mean you stay stagnant, but it also means that you’re agile enough in innovating and reinventing yourself in the areas that you focus on.

How to reach: LiquidHub Inc., (484) 654-1400 or

When Jane Lloyd arrived in the U.S. from Australia two years ago, she was working with very nearly a blank slate. The managing director of U.S. investments for Sydney-based DEXUS Property Group was in charge of developing an administrative team to oversee the company’s stateside portfolio of properties. After moving to the company’s Newport Beach U.S. headquarters, she needed to recruit people who worked well together while providing an insider’s perspective on the 15 U.S. markets in which DEXUS operates.

Smart Business spoke with Lloyd about how she built and continues to maintain a cohesive and productive leadership team at DEXUS, which generated nearly $90 million in revenue in 2010.

When you moved into your current position, how did you assess what you needed to do for the business moving forward?

Initially, I dealt with moving here from Australia, spending the first six months in Chicago and then moving to Southern California. From there, I needed to establish a team in order to execute DEXUS’ business strategy in the U.S.

Because we were setting up a whole new platform, I needed to understand effectively what our property portfolio was. We have $1.3 billion of property across the United States, so I needed to understand what that property looked like and what those markets were. And then I needed to put a team together on the West Coast and get that team up to up to speed in terms of how DEXUS operates. Then I needed to leverage the deep market knowledge that the team has, being local players. So as far as assessing the situation, if you think of it in terms of people and property, it’s establishing a good team and understanding where the property in the markets are.

When it came to establishing the team, how did you do that?

We had two options. One was we could just do one by one by one, and recruit that way. The other way was to look at hiring an existing team. We looked at about 50 companies on the West Coast. We interviewed 15, did due diligence on three, and at the end of the day, we chose a really great team here in Newport Beach. One of the really important things for us was cultural fit, and we’ve found that the team has been a great cultural fit. Beyond that, we’ve built the team from an initial count of nine people to a total of 21 in our office today.

How would you tell other business leaders to build a team that can address the needs of the markets you serve?

First, you need a clear plan. We’re very focused on what our strategic plan is, and remaining nimble with regard to whatever the market opportunities are as they arrive. Then you need to continually communicate that plan. To that, we have formal and informal communication mechanisms such as team meetings, performance reviews and so forth. The other thing, which is something we’re very big on, is celebrating your successes. We try to stop occasionally and just socialize with the team. One of our favorite things we do is to have drinks on the patio on Friday afternoons. We have drinks and discuss the week, and if there is something we want to acknowledge within the team, that is normally the time to do it.

Once you have the team in place, how do you develop a strategic plan?

We think that in order stay ahead of your competition, you need good, solid research-based metrics, and that needs to be complemented by strong local market knowledge. So it’s a combination of research and market knowledge that helps you understand where you want to go and what you want to do, and then stay ahead of your competition. In terms of the way we run our strategic planning, we have a top down and bottom-up approach. Our board is involved annually in looking at a three-year strategic plan, which we develop. And we also have contributions from all of our teams in terms of input and making sure everybody understands what all of that looks like, and more importantly how we’re going to execute that plan.

How to reach: DEXUS Property Group, (949) 724-8886 or

Brigette Jackson is a Detroit native, but when she took over as the vice president and general manager in charge of T-Mobile USA Inc.’s Michigan/Indiana region last January, she didn’t allow that fact to become a justification for making assumptions about the market she was going to serve.

“I had been gone for a number of years,” she says. “I had some experience of my own, from things I had gathered on return visits, but I hadn’t been a resident.”

Jackson quickly saw the need for a market strategy that could help her and T-Mobile’s 620 regional employees connect the company’s products and services with customers in Michigan and Indiana. To make the concept a reality, she needed to build a leadership team with detailed knowledge of the region, and enable them to develop branding and marketing strategies that would increase T-Mobile’s profile in Michigan and Indiana.

Smart Business spoke with Jackson about how to construct a go-forward strategy and how to construct a team to help carry it out.

Define your goals. I think the No. 1 challenge was bringing us together as one leadership unit and really identifying our business goals, making sure we’re completely aligned in retail and partner sales, and our business sales channel. Then, it was creating marketing strategies, implementing operational tools [and] strategy systems that would allow us to work as one entity and one group. That included reporting, financial data and really bringing us together. It was important for me that everyone was knowledgeable about everyone’s business, so that when we sat down together as a team, we could make the right decisions.

That took about 30 to 45 days for everyone to pull this together. We had a strategy meeting in Chicago, and we stayed true to our strategy based on everyone’s knowledge of the market. So that has been a huge win for us overall.

Build your team. When I was hiring for my team, I looked for experience, but I also looked for someone who had a pretty diverse background in sales. It didn’t have to necessarily be in retail or just partner sales or business sales. I wanted someone with a generally strong background of sales success and the ability to drive for results through people. I also looked for someone who had a proven track record through strategies or different programs that they’ve implemented or created, where they could really show success from those programs.

I looked for folks that would complement the region overall, someone who has a working knowledge of both Michigan and Indiana, so that they could make the right decisions for the area, because we’re here to really get the word out and share what we’re doing. And because we’ve spent a tremendous amount of time on our network, we have an engineering team here as well. We brought them in and worked with them, too.

Analyze the market. We had some market analysis completed prior to my arrival, which was a great place for us to start, along with the knowledge of the team.

We sat down and we looked at some of the market analysis, and we combined it with the knowledge of the team and built a strategy off of that around who is our customer, who is our customer base, what are they looking for, what is important to our customers, and also make sure we have a strategy from a brand recognition standpoint to really get the word out to our customers as to who we are and the products and services that we offer. We have targeted areas and specific plans and strategies to attack them. We have some work to do yet, but we have been successful so far.

Company facts:

Name: T-Mobile USA Inc.

Headquarters: Bellevue, Wash.

Michigan/Indiana regional headquarters: Detroit

Products and services: Cell phone and wireless Internet service, cell phone and wireless Internet device sales.

How to reach: T-Mobile USA Inc., (800) 866-2453 or

If you’re like a lot of leaders, you can probably name several things off the top of your head that your business could be doing faster, more efficiently or just plain better. Continuous improvement is part of the adapt-or-die mindset that you have to take in an ultracompetitive business climate that has only been complicated by the recent economic recession. If you’re not improving, you’re committing a sin of omission and allowing your company to backslide through inaction. So how do you consistently push ahead and promote a culture of continuous improvement? Below are some thoughts from leaders who have recently appeared in the pages of Smart Business Philadelphia.

“You do need to be able to visualize the concept of what you can be as an organization,” he says. “You start really thinking about tomorrow and how it has to be inspiring for everyone. But it has to be understandable, we have to stretch for it, and we have to make sure that the messages are crisp and simple and something that becomes compelling in terms of what our purpose is and how we can rally support to achieve that vision.”

--Laurence Merlis, president and CEO, Abington Health

“There are a couple of books out there, like ‘Good to Great,’ but they won’t give you the details and development, how to actually put a plan together. You really need some support and structure and someone to take you through the process. Once they’ve gone through once or twice and shown you how, you and your team can take the ball and run with it.”

--John Scardapane, founder, chairman and CEO, Saladworks LLC

“I was asked years and years ago how I looked at a company that I was getting ready to operate, and I said, ‘I’ll look at a wall, and on that wall are all these different knobs I can turn. Every single knob can create a dynamic that would give us more opportunity and profitability, but I know that if I turn too many, we flood.’ So that whole idea of goal setting, it comes more to an understanding of what level of patience should be applied. You make sure that you’re accelerating the opportunity, but the people in the facilities are able to keep up and enjoy it at an appropriate rate.”

--Marc Graham, president and CEO, AAMCO Transmissions Inc.


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Mergers are difficult when you conduct them from start to finish. They can be even more challenging if you find yourself in Robert Bazemore’s position.

Bazemore became the president of Centocor Ortho Biotech in March 2010, about a year after the company was formed from the merger of prescription drug developers Centocor and Ortho Biotech. Both companies were primarily driven by one drug line each — Centocor by Remicade, which is used to treat autoimmune disorders, and Ortho by Procrit, which is used to treat anemia in patients with kidney disorders.

The newly combined company was positioning itself to launch a new series of drugs in the immunology and oncology arenas, meaning a more diverse array of products and the subsequent potential for high growth. But it also presented a new problem for Bazemore.

“Our business was changing pretty dramatically, and the organization had changed because we brought these two companies together,” Bazemore says. “We recognized that we needed to define for the future how we were going to continue to sustain the growth of a business that had been growing at double digit rates for the past 13 years.”

In June, Centocor Ortho Biotech — a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson — was renamed Janssen Biotech Inc. and added to Johnson & Johnson’s portfolio of Janssen pharmaceutical companies. The name change has served to underscore the direction in which Bazemore wanted to take the company. He wanted to take steps toward a total unification of all the company’s resources and focus the work force of 1,100 on the welfare of the whole organization.

In short, Bazemore wanted a healthy company, not an underperforming company with healthy product brands.

“I realized it would have been easy, considering we were going through these transitions and launching new brands, to allow our whole company focus to move toward the brands and how to make the brands successful,” he says. “My concern was, if you step back and do that, is anybody looking at the long-term health of the business? We could have gotten to a point where the brands were doing great, the launches are great, but no one is paying attention to the fact that we’re not growing over the long term at the rate we wanted or expanding into the areas where we really had an opportunity.”

Bazemore had to seize control of the situation, making in-flight adjustments to the company’s culture to ensure that the values and goals he and his leadership team wanted to emphasize were the values and goals at the forefront of the company’s collective consciousness.

Lead from the front

Bazemore says a company leader needs to play three roles in piloting their business through a time of transition: You need to define your company’s growth aspiration, you need to shape the company’s business strategy, and you need to define and shape the culture that supports the company’s goals.

“The growth aspiration is the answer to the question of what it is you want to be,” Bazemore says. “What are you holding the organization accountable for? If you don’t set that, you will get to wherever your product takes you, but that might not necessarily be the aspiration you have for the company or the employees. The business strategy, in our case, means therapeutic areas of strategy that we have decided to pursue in both the areas of immunology and oncology. But it doesn’t stop there, because the leader has to be willing to personally champion those ideas and initiatives that are most critical to achieving your strategies.”

The third element — culture — might be the hardest to achieve. A company’s culture needs to be rooted in a long-term philosophy that is designed with less concern for immediate results and more concern for the company’s health over the long haul.

“It is perhaps the most important role of the three,” Bazemore says. “A company’s culture will evolve either intentionally or unintentionally, and it will either strengthen your ability to achieve your goals or damage your ability to achieve your goals. The leader has to be proactive in shaping the culture in a way that supports the vision.”

It’s why, upon taking the job, Bazemore made culture an immediate priority. Bazemore and his leadership team hit the road, performing town-hall-style meetings throughout every region in the company’s footprint. He talked with employees about the company’s finances, future brand growth and some of the other areas of interest and concern for employees.

The meetings were meant to address the surface issues. But Bazemore and his team had a deeper motive. He wanted to create an ongoing dialogue that would help build trust among all levels and geographies in the company, and subsequently aid in refocusing and strengthening the culture.

“This was all about how to build a sustainable culture that would make us a healthy company for the long term,” he says. “We felt like there were parts of the culture that we really needed to build on in order to make the company a success.”

Once the round of town halls were complete, Bazemore and his leadership team gathered all of the information they had accumulated and took it to an off-site management-level meeting, where they analyzed the input and began to structure a series of pillars around which the culture and vision for the company would be constructed moving forward.

The end product was what Bazemore calls the “four big bets.”

“They define four things,” he says. “They define how we’ll select and develop our employees. They define how we’ll serve the needs of our customers. They define how we’ll produce unexpected growth from the two franchises that we work in, and they define how we’ll behave as leaders in the markets where we do work — not follow what other companies do, but actually act and play as a market leader.”

Once the four big bets were organized in rough draft form, Bazemore and his leadership team went back to the employees, holding a series of meetings Bazemore dubbed “quest meetings.” He presented the objectives for the company and the goal each objective was meant to accomplish. Bazemore then listened to round after round of feedback.

“We wanted feedback on whether we had gotten this right,” Bazemore says. “Were these the four things that would be really critical to the success of Janssen Biotech? The response back was overwhelming. I think, first of all, people were really delighted that we had created the four areas of focus. With a company as large and complex as ours, focus is very important. If you don’t find three or four things that you want to focus on, you really don’t have much of a focus at all. You have to narrow it down. But I think people also agreed that those four areas were the right four areas to focus.”

Leadership frequently checks in on the organization’s progress with regard to the four big bets. Bazemore and his team review the objectives and what has been accomplished relative to them. It is an opportunity for the Janssen Biotech leadership to take a snapshot of the company as a whole, and learn on the job.

“We’ll check in and ask ourselves what we have learned along the way, because these objectives are still relatively new for us as a company,” Bazemore says. “We’ll talk about where we’ve been successful, what those successes have yielded and what we want to accomplish for the rest of the year. They’re very open conversations that we have as a leadership team, and about how we’re doing against those objectives. We come back to the fact that the four big bets aren’t a short-term initiative for us. We recognize that in some cases, it’s going to take a longer term for us to fully realize the vision.

“The other thing that is big about this is now, since we are a part of the Janssen family, these four big bets are also tied directly into the strategic imperatives for Janssen Pharmaceuticals. So we create absolutely no confusion about what the priorities are.”

Build from within

As the leader of the company, you set the wheels in motion regarding the future direction of the organization. But you can only generate so much momentum by yourself. Which is why, on top of promoting and reviewing the cultural imperatives himself, Bazemore also emphasizes the need to hire and groom more cultural change agents throughout the managerial ranks of the Janssen Biotech system.

“One of the things I’ve learned as a leader is that one of the most important decisions you will make is regarding the people you select to help run your business,” Bazemore says. “It is one of the most important areas in which you can spend time, because your people will set the direction for their teams and they are the ones responsible for hiring the leaders that will run the individual parts of the business.”

Bazemore has hired about 60 percent of his managerial-level team members, which has given him an opportunity to construct a team of people who embody the traits that he wants emphasized in the Janssen Biotech culture.

“I look for, in terms of criteria in hiring new members of my leadership team, diverse business experience,” he says. “The U.S. health care environment is changing faster than I’ve ever seen, and some of the issues I’ve never dealt with before. That’s why I’ve seen the value in hiring people who have experience that is complementary to those who are already on my team.”

To find the candidates with which you’ll be able to build the best possible leadership team, you need to not only find the best possible resumes, but also ask the best possible questions in the interview process.

“When I’m asking questions in an interview, I’m not only looking for results, I’m looking for how they got to those results,” Bazemore says. “I’m looking for the process they followed. That tells me about their judgment, their process for thinking through things, for putting together lots and lots of information to get to a decision. Do they have a standard way of sifting through lots of complex information and quickly get to a point where they feel comfortable making a decision?”

Bazemore’s cultural principles, and his largely self-constructed leadership team, have helped Janssen Biotech remain a key cog in the Johnson & Johnson machine, rolling out an assortment of new drugs in the immunology and oncology fields. However, building a leadership team that can sustain and promote a culture isn’t a one-time task. Even a reliable leadership team of self-starters needs maintenance — and some people will inevitably depart for other positions, so you will need to find replacements.

Bazemore says you need to make your leadership team an area of focus from your first day on the job, and always continue to make it a priority.

“It has to be an area of focus for any leader,” Bazemore says. “You can’t short-change yourself on that. One of the key things I’ve learned is that no leader, no matter how well-intentioned they are, can run an organization by themselves, and expect to remain healthy and growing. You need a leadership team around you that shares your vision and your passion, and has the skills and abilities to run that business. Because if you’re not there and key decisions still need to be made, you want to know those decisions will be made in a way that will benefit the business.”

How to reach: Janssen Biotech Inc., (800) 526-7736 or

The Bazemore file

Born: Savannah, Ga.

Education: B.S. in biochemistry, University of Georgia; MBA, Tulane University

First job: I grew up on a farm, so my first job was everything that goes along with working on a family farm.

What is the best business lesson you have learned?

That a leader has to have a vision and passion for what they do, and the trust of the people around them. With all of that, you can accomplish amazing things.

What traits or skills are essential for a leader?

After having gone through selecting a number of team members, I’ve found that the ability to develop a good alliance with other team members is critical. Those alliances will help you get through the worst crises. You also have to have integrity. There is simply no substitute for your integrity, and it will follow you no matter the circumstance.

What is your definition of success?

For me, it’s the ability to have a noticeable, positive impact while doing something you enjoy.

Katsu Uno believes in changing things, even when nothing is broken.

Where most CEOs might be hesitant to adjust cogs in a well-oiled machine, Uno operates with a different philosophy at Hirotec America Inc., a $90 million automotive component supplier that he heads as chairman and CEO.

Known by the Japanese terms kaizen and kaikaku, Uno runs Hirotec with an eye toward constant and revolutionary change to the company’s organization and processes.

Smart Business spoke with Uno about the importance of facilitating change, and why evolving and adapting is a must for any business.

How do you promote an environment of continuous change and improvement?

One thing I do is constantly change the organizational structure. Sometimes I drive my operational managers crazy because I like to make changes. One day I show up in the office and show them a piece of paper, showing them how the new organization and team will look like. And I tell them it will work. It will be a good development for you. Even right now, I’m continually working on new changes within the organization to meet the current business environment. So I constantly try to see what is the best way to utilize our employees, and depending on the business environment, I shuffle people around and create new environments within the organization.

I constantly adjust the company’s organizational structure to meet the demands of our customers, and try to integrate each employee’s unique skills. Our company succeeds because we work well together.

Why does this constant-change model work for you?

The first thing I should probably explain is that we have this concept called ‘K2.’ K2 stands for kaizen and kaikaku. Kaizen is a concept of continuous change and improvement. Here in America, we describe it as, ‘If it’s not broken, let’s make it better.’ A lot of people might say, if it’s working, why bother to change? But we believe that through change, you can make it better.

Kaikaku is a Japanese word for revolutionary change. It’s the idea that you always think outside of the box. You hear those words here a lot, because that is what we think is important. It’s what differentiates our company from our competitors. Those are unchanging components for our company. We change vision and strategy, we could change all kinds of stuff, but driving change is something we never change. 

We believe this is the right company for people who enjoy change. We are looking for people who want to challenge and be challenged, and if you don’t like change, it is going to be very difficult to survive here.

Do you have an example of constant change and improvement in action?

It could be a product or how we do an engineering process, the organizational structure, and how we do all kinds of stuff. We have a core product called hemming solutions, and internally we have meetings where everybody gets together and discusses how we can change it, how we can we can improve it to meet the demands of more customers. Constantly, we’re trying to do that, drive change and make our products better.

How does change serve as a motivational tool for people?

The people we hire, the people we train, are people who like a challenge, and like changing and learning, so it’s not our system or our company driving them to change. We have people who enjoy changing and make it better. So it’s not a company where people are pushing the culture. We have people who create it; we have people who enjoy changing. I don’t’ need to motivate them. That’s what they enjoy, and they see the better product, a better financial result due to the changes they made.

What are the dangers of stagnating and not cultivating a change-oriented mindset?

You lose your competitive edge.  Our reputation is that we are in a constantly changing industry, constantly needing to introduce new products and introducing new ways to do business. If you don’t change, you lose that reputation, and people in the company are going to lose motivation, because that is what is driving the team.

So that is the danger. If you don’t continue to change, really your company is no longer the same company if you have built your reputation on changing with the needs of the marketplace.

How to reach: Hirotec America Inc., (248) 836-5100 or

Things were already complicated enough for Kieth Cockrell by the later months of 2008.

Bank of America had entered the Michigan market less than two years before, on the heels of the company’s acquisition of LaSalle Bank in 2007. Just as Bank of America started to put down roots in the region, the recession hit, plunging the state — and, in particular, the economically-fragile Detroit market – into its worst backslide since the 1930s.

It was a double dose of quicksand for Bank of America’s Michigan market president. And the footing wasn’t about to get any better.

That fall, Bank of America Corp. announced its intention to acquire Merrill Lynch & Co. The acquisition would bring together two titans of the financial services industry, adding Merrill Lynch’s wealth management expertise to Bank of America’s array of client and customer services. But it would also mean another level of complexity for Cockrell and his management staff, which oversees a work force of 3,500 in the Detroit area. Cockrell had to take a massive, national acquisition and make it work for his employees and clients on a regional and local level.

“There were some dark days there, as we were constantly in the media, hearing about the firm, and it’s not the firm you grew up in,” Cockrell says. “It was especially challenging for me because Bank of America here in Michigan was still so young. We had just completed our systems conversion (from the LaSalle acquisition) at that time, and that year of actual conversion is tough sledding in general. People have new leaders, there are new systems, new products, new staffing models, customers are trying to understand the new products, and we had just gotten through all of that.

“The systems conversion was complete in the October-November time frame in 2008, and Merrill Lynch became official in January 2009. That should have been our honeymoon period in the Michigan market, but needless to say, we had a very short honeymoon.”

But Cockrell soon realized he wasn’t alone in the effort to make the acquisition work for the Michigan market. The purchase brought Brett Bernard under the Bank of America umbrella. Bernard, the Mid-East regional managing director for Merrill Lynch, oversees 1,500 employees in a three-state region, including 800 financial advisers in the Detroit area.

Bernard and Cockrell formed a working relationship that proved to be crucial, not just in helping their region of the newly combined company over the initial hurdles of the acquisition process, but in helping it achieve its full potential as a financial services firm.

Get it all together

When you think about a merger or an acquisition, your mind might first gravitate to the logistical aspects — how to combine systems, define responsibilities and integrate technology. That is all important, but Cockrell and Bernard say you should think of the people involved first.

People on both sides of the merger need to be educated about the decisions that management is making and how it will affect them and their jobs. They need management to paint a picture of how the new company will look. Even if all you can provide initially is a rough sketch, it’s still valuable information to those who are concerned about the future of the organization.

For Cockrell and Bernard, the first step was to understand each other’s companies.

“It was as simple at the beginning as Kieth and I coming together,” Bernard says. “It was me spending time at the branches of consumer banks, meeting commercial executives and other banking executives, and vice versa — Kieth meeting the Merrill Lynch leadership and better understanding the people equation, bringing the broad organization of people together so that we could understand how common our goals and backgrounds actually were.”

By connecting with team members from each other’s organization, Bernard and Cockrell were able to start bridging communication and cultural gaps, and began to paint the picture of how a combined Bank of America-Merrill Lynch company would look in Michigan.

“First, our responsibility was to ensure that we had strong communication, so that associates knew what was going on,” Cockrell says. “At that time, there was a lot of news out there with Bank of America, so our approach was that we wanted our teammates to hear from their firm what was going on and what we were trying to do. Secondly, we needed to remain visible. As you’re leading people through a transition of this magnitude, it is very important that you are visible, walking with your people and helping them understand the capabilities that we have.

“Thirdly, you need to make sure that you are creating listening opportunities so that folks can ask questions and check the temperature on how things are really going. Any time you have this kind of integration, that kind of interaction becomes one of those core, critical elements of success.”

But as with any large-scale change, there will be skeptics. Rather than try to initiate a faceoff with skeptics and critics, Cockrell and Bernard made the decision to go with the flow, accepting that skepticism is a natural part of dealing with change. Both felt that if people on both sides got to know each other well enough and became familiar with the future director of the combined company, they would be able to win over the vast majority of skeptics.

“Skepticism is natural,” Bernard says. “I’ve been with Merrill Lynch for 26 years, I had never been through a merger, and I realized that skepticism is natural on both sides. Meeting and defeating the skepticism is a process of evolution, it takes time, because it’s a matter of constantly evolving a living and breathing organization. What I’m proud of is the fact that we’re moving in a direction where we’re constantly trying to improve our capabilities around clients. As you do that, the cynicism starts to pass, and more and more people begin to realize the potential of the organization.”

Bank of America and Merrill Lynch also initiated some formalized processes to help bridge the gap between the two sides. Even several years after the merger, some of Bernard’s wealth management advisers still attend training sessions held by commercial banking executives, aimed at helping the advisers better understand the new organization’s capabilities for serving small and large business clients.

“We had one recently, and this wasn’t an introductory training session,” Bernard says. “We’ve been together for two years, but there are more advanced solutions and platforms that we might not all be aware of. What’s more, directly next door to that session was a session in which wealth management advisers were exposing and educating our commercial client managers on the capabilities in the wealth management franchise. So it’s a constantly evolving educational process.”

Combine the cultures

Bringing the regional operations for two well-established companies — each with histories that date to early last century — required Cockrell and Bernard to walk a fine line between honoring two cultures that have worked for generations, while still acknowledging that the cultures would need to be combined into one set of core values. The values of Merrill Lynch and Bank of America were similar, but slight differences meant terminology would change, and the combined company would have to identify and embrace best practices.

The process of forming a new culture started at the top of the Bank of America hierarchy, with president and CEO Brian Moynihan, who established the vision for the combined company shortly after the acquisition: become the best financial services company in the industry.

“That was really the rallying cry, what we aspire to be,” Cockrell says. “It was very clear and very easy to understand.”

With the boundaries of the playing field set, Cockrell and Bernard had to take the mission and interpret it for their employees and clients, using elements of the cultures of both companies to come up with something new and comprehensive that would be relevant to the Michigan market.

“It starts at the top of the house with the core leadership team of the integrated company,” Cockrell says. “You have to have an appreciation for the heritage of both companies. Through dialogue, you have to be willing to demonstrate and telegraph to your entire worldwide employee base that the core values of both sides have changed.”

“I don’t want to frame this as a brand-new set of values or culture,” Bernard says. “What we want to point out is that we had two great companies. The art, to me, is not to change the culture but to honor the culture, respect it and build upon it. You bring together the best of both, to make an even better culture melded together.”

In some cases, altering the core values came down to new phrasing. The essence of the principle didn’t change, but how it was worded, and how it was to be implemented on a daily basis, was changed.

“For instance, Merrill Lynch had a longstanding principle of teamwork,” Bernard says. “Our culture now has a principle of ‘trust in your team.’ Merrill Lynch also had a longstanding principle of respecting the individual. The core value here now is to embrace the power of the people.”

“Within the company, all the senior leaders had the opportunity to personalize, in their words, the core values,” Cockrell says. “They saw executives that were formerly from the Merrill Lynch side talk about our values, as well as former Bank of America associates. So you start with strong communication, and then you can go into virtually any conference room, any cafeteria, any main corridor, and see the core values at work.”

To successfully mesh two cultures, Cockrell says you have to keep three things in mind: Communication is key, visible leadership is required and you must keep listening even after the rollout of the initial integration plan.

You also need to recognize that different people will respond to a changing environment in different ways.

“Despite all of you best efforts, each individual responds to change differently,” Cockrell says. “Some are going to be slower at adopting the change and really requires you as a leader to understand why. Because if they’ve been successful in the old environment, you have to help them cross the bridge and understand how they can be successful in the new environment. You have to connect the dots for them to show how you can honor the past success you’ve had, but at the same time recognize what the future can really hold. You try to stay focused, recognize that you might have some casualties along the way, but the effort is always focused on getting 100 percent of your folks to the other side.”

Despite the rocky rebound for the economy, and all of the upheaval of a major acquisition, Cockrell and Bernard are satisfied with the progress that has been made by both sides as the new, unified Bank of America gets set to enter its fourth year in the Michigan market.

“As a leader, your job is to provide facts in the midst of flying rumors, and help people look beyond the valley of where you are, to the vision of what can be,” Bernard says. “It’s the leader’s job to point toward the future and anchor people in something greater than themselves. To the best of our ability, Kieth and I have both worked toward that end across multiple lines of business.”

How to reach: Bank of America Corp., (313) 446-1111 or

Three questions

Kieth Cockrell, the Michigan market president for Bank of America, and Brett Bernard, the Mid-East regional managing director for Merrill Lynch, helped engineer a successful transition following the merger of their two companies in 2009. Below are some additional thoughts from them on managing a business through a time of change.

What skills does a leader need to pilot a business through a time of change?

Kieth Cockrell: There is, for me, a willingness to learn, and to recognize that despite all the hard work, you can’t do it alone. There is an old adage that you need to develop friends before you really need them, and that’s especially true if you’re running a big, complex organization. We’re living through a very difficult business climate right now, and I’ve been through this type of transition before, and I realize that I must gain a broader perspective.

Brett Bernard: Kieth mentioned complexity, and every business is going to have its own degree of complexity. That is why we need to be able to empower the people around us to lead as well. You have to engage everyone in the client-first mindset and allow them to lead.

What is the best lesson you’ve learned over the past several years?

Cockrell: Never underestimate the power of teamwork. In a very difficult time, focus on what you know and try to work through it. Also, Brett and I both became better leaders because we defined our partnership. I was thrilled to find a teammate in Brett who was willing to create that foundational relationship moving forward.

Bernard: The greatest leadership lesson to me is wrapped around two things. First, being open to the possibilities of what the organization can become. Your greatness as an organization can be greater than what you realize. Second, something I read from (‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ author) Stephen Covey — seek to understand before you seek to be understood.

What is your definition of success?

Cockrell: Success is very clear for us — to be defined as the world’s finest financial institution, for employees, clients and shareholders. You have to believe in this journey, and Brett and I believe that with the power generated by our integrated company, we all win.

Bernard: I would define success as a three-legged stool: employees, clients and shareholders. When we are a destination of choice for all parties, we know we are getting it right.

As the head of a hospital, Steven Moreau preaches the power of preventative medicine.

Just not to patients.

Moreau isn’t a clinician, so he doesn’t directly dabble in the medical responsibility of prescribing healthy lifestyle choices for those who come through the doors of St. Joseph Hospital of Orange seeking treatment.

The president and CEO of the hospital since last December, Moreau concerns himself with preventive medicine for the hospital itself — a 3,000-employee network of staff members that is a living, breathing organism in its own right. It needs constant care and maintenance to remain healthy and functional and able to conduct its mission of providing the best possible health care to its patients.

When Moreau took over the top post a year ago, he quickly identified strengths and weaknesses, and set about addressing the areas of concern at the hospital, which generated $627 million in revenue during fiscal year 2010.

“The one thing I knew coming aboard was that St. Joseph Orange is a high-performing organization with outstanding results in many areas that matter the most, such as clinical quality and patient satisfaction,” Moreau says. “We were also very strong in nursing and financial operations. But I also learned very quickly that our biggest challenges were around reducing costs, partnering with our physicians and growth. We had to find ways to grow in a business that is challenged and in an economy that is shrinking.”

To address the challenges of growth, Moreau needed to build a strategic plan with the help of his leadership team. The plan centered on improving processes, and increasing employee and physician engagement. To make it all happen, Moreau needed to increase the organizational efficiency of the hospital and plug the entire staff, at all levels of the organization, into the processes that would help shape the hospital’s future.

In a word, St. Joseph of Orange needed to get lean.

Earn your black belt

To increase efficiency in his organization, Moreau looked outside the hospital field, and even the medical industry in general, to the automotive industry. The performance improvement model that Moreau chose to implement was centered on lean methodology, made famous by Toyota.

St. Joseph of Orange had a lean-based plan in place for several years prior to Moreau’s arrival, but Moreau wanted the hospital’s staff to develop an even tighter focus on the principles of lean methodology, which include constant improvement of processes and the elimination of unnecessary redundancies.

“We use all of the tools of lean methodology in looking at our processes and how we can provide care,” Moreau says. “That is one way, on kind of a micro level, that we use lean methodology, and we have had significant success in improving operational metrics.”

The focus on lean processes has reached into all areas of the hospital’s operations, including medical care. Moreau says lean thinking has had a very tangible effect on patient care, even helping prevent the spread of disease.

“Patients that are brought into a hospital and put on a ventilator are prone to getting pneumonia,” Moreau says. “After all of our lean work, we put in a process, and (as of August had gone) 51 months without a ventilator-associated pneumonia case. Our process has won us national awards, and it includes steps such as raising the head of the bed and ensuring that someone is checking on the patient regularly. There are also numerous evidence-based steps about the way people are treated, the kinds of medications they’re given and ensuring that the steps are followed 100 percent of the time for every single patient. We write a checklist for every patient to make sure those practices are done consistently, no matter which doctor is providing the care. It’s fundamental that everybody does the process the same way.”

Moreau considers any process that solely involves St. Joseph of Orange to occur on the “micro” level. On the macro level — involving the St. Joseph Health System in general — Moreau also works with the heads of the other hospitals and facilities in the system to reduce the cost structure across the board.

“That means looking at something we call ‘value imperatives,’” Moreau says. “We’re looking at items we have identified in a number of areas where we can use best practices — from not only the health care industry but from business in general. We look at how we can centralize, consolidate or apply best practices to get fundamental costs out of our infrastructure.”

Developing a strategy built around lean methodology takes vision on the part of management and engagement on the part of the work force in general. Everyone in the organization needs a set of common goals, and the resources to reach those goals.

“You really need to have two things to implement lean methodology,” Moreau says. “One, you need a culture that embraces performance improvement. That’s fundamental, that you have to create a culture of people that want to be the best. That takes a lot of education and awareness that the status quo is not acceptable. You have to get the organization to the point where they’re saying ‘If anybody can do it, we can do it.’”

The second ingredient is the commitment from leadership to provide resources and support that will enable your people to make the necessary changes.

“That involves committing peoples’ time, as well as resources support, for them to accomplish the goal,” Moreau says. “For us, part of those resources is that we have a professional staff that supports them. We have a quality department that includes trained facilitators. In fact, the director of our lean methodology comes from Ford. So we brought in someone from an industry that had applied these concepts, someone who was able to bring many of the insights to us and help us implement the lean methodology in a hospital setting.

“Fortunately, we have a pretty strong infrastructure for lean with the facilitators, and then my role as the CEO is to actively support our teams, acknowledge the great work they’re doing and make sure they have the direction and support they need.”

Stop, look and listen

Sometimes, you don’t see the results of heightened efficiency. You hear it — or actually, you hear silence.

St. Joseph of Orange has a pneumatic-tube delivery system that carries prescription bottles from the hospital pharmacy to various points throughout the hospital. When a delivery arrived at its destination, it would slam into the end of the tube, creating a noise that would jar the eardrums of anyone within listening distance.

As part of a larger initiative aimed at reducing noise in the hospital environment, Moreau and his staff listened to the input of staff members, and installed soft bumpers in the pneumatic tubes, cushioning the impact when a package arrived at its destination and deadening the sound.

Moreau and his staff promote lean thinking throughout the hospital by getting team members to think in the first place. If you ask for input on how the work environment could improve, you’re asking for your employees to observe their surroundings and identify areas in which the status quo doesn’t align with the goals that you and your management team have stated. You’re asking them to become field scouts for your mission.

At St. Joseph of Orange, Moreau enlists the help of every constituency under the hospital’s roof, including patients. Moreau helped to assemble performance improvement teams comprised of employees from every department in the organization, and asked patients to serve as well.

“It is a combination of staff-level people who have expertise in their areas, who are supported by black-belt and green-belt facilitators who are experts in the lean process,” Moreau says. “We have doctors, nurses, pharmacists, maintenance workers, housekeepers — anybody who impacts the process we’re looking at right then. And then we invite patients to offer input, so they can participate in the solution. Patients offer additional insight as to whether the improvements we’re making are actually making a difference.”

Monthly, Moreau gets the idea juices flowing throughout his staff by hosting a breakfast forum. Many CEOs have a sit-down meal during which staff members can ask questions, but Moreau takes it a step further. The 100 or so people who attend are tasked with finding the questions that the people in their department want answered.

“That’s kind of their ticket to the breakfast,” Moreau says. “Find the issues and submit them to me via e-mail. At the breakfast, I answer all of the questions submitted and then we print the questions and answers so that everyone in the organization gets the benefit of it. You do something like this not only to address concerns, questions and rumors, but also to build a level of trust between the CEO and the staff.”

Without trust, it’s extremely difficult for anyone in a position of leadership to drive a common set of goals throughout a large organization. Without everyone on board, Moreau says he would have had a hard time implementing any type of lean methodology, because staff members wouldn’t have identified many of the efficiency problems that could have been solved by lean processes.

“The questions and answers are important, because if somebody has a question, what it’s doing is bringing it to the forefront,” he says. “If one person in the organization has a question or comment, undoubtedly others have it too. It could be as broad as ‘Where are we going as a company?’ or as narrowly-focused as ‘I don’t like the food in the cafeteria.’ But in the end, by having anyone able to ask any question they like, when you answer it, it’s giving everybody in the organization the ability to recognize the rationale for what you’re doing. That is what builds trust.”

Moreau also creates dialogue opportunities with management by sharing data on how the hospital is performing against its goals — both good and bad. Another key factor in building trust is the willingness on the part of management to give everyone in the organization a complete view of how the organization is performing and how initiatives are progressing. If you try to paint a rosy picture, and your team finds out the truth isn’t as positive, you will damage the trust factor.

“You have to be willing to shine a light on the areas where you’re not the best,” Moreau says. “If you shine a light on that, the competitive spirit of most people will win out. I think some leaders fall into the trap of sharing information that is only the good information. They only want to share what they’re doing well, and move away from highlighting what they’re not doing as well. But I think a high-performing organization focuses on the areas where they’re not doing as well, areas where they need to do better. Then, you use that as a burning platform for change.

“That is really leadership’s role, to define what success looks like and to engage the team. Then, to bring resources and focus, which will enable your team to overcome obstacles. I’ve had a lot of success in past organizations creating those burning platforms for change, and rallying people around those. It’s really that transparency and those platforms for change – and your commitment to give them support – that allow your people to step up and perform.”

How to reach: St. Joseph Hospital of Orange, (714) 633-9111 or

The Moreau file

Born: Los Angeles

Education: B.S. in microbiology, San Diego State University; M.S. in medical technology, California State University, Dominguez Hills; MBA, University of Redlands

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

You have a lot of power in your position. The CEO has an incredible opportunity to impact the organization’s success, and the success of the people you work with. So show an interest in development of the organization and the people that work with you. You can make a huge difference in their development and performance.

What traits or skills are essential for a leader?

Fundamentally, you need experience and competence in your given field. But you also need strong interpersonal and communication skills. Confidence and a willingness to continuously learn are also key traits. In the health care field in particular, you need passion and a calling for helping others.

What is your definition of success?

Being your best, and that means helping an organization or individual real their optimum potential.

In the 12 years since Hillel Sackstein founded Virtual Graffiti Inc. as an e-commerce software development company, the business has sprouted from a startup outfit in Sackstein’s home to an international IT solutions provider with nearly 30 employees and $23.8 million in 2010 revenue.

As a result, the company has outgrown the systems and processes that Sackstein originally implemented. As growth opportunities have arisen, Sackstein has needed to ensure that there is a strategy in place to meet the demand.

Sackstein spoke with Smart Business about how he has strategized for growth and how you can keep your own business ready to grow.

How did you begin to construct your growth plan?

First, we identified what the issues were, because we definitely had to document those challenges. We had an idea as to what we needed in terms of systems and processes and what we needed in place to take us to the next level. We then did a thorough investigation of all the possible options, and there were a number of them. One was to develop a lot of functionality internally here, using our existing systems. Or, we thought that we could do what we did end up doing eventually, which was a company overhaul of our systems and finding a platform as a starting point for doing that.

That really meant doing a thorough investigation of all the software products on the market, and I did that personally.

What would you tell other business heads about constructing a growth plan?

In order to grow as an organization, it is definitely about looking at your business and understanding what the strengths of your company are. No company can be good at everything, so it’s really key to have a good understanding of what is different about your company and what you can do with your company to make you a stronger competitor, able to find that competitive advantage.

In our business, we are in the technology field and things are changing very rapidly. We’re always looking for the hot new products, what the trends are, what businesses need, what sort of technology companies are buying. Then we try to make sure we’re in those markets. Also, we try to make sure we’re developing the right partnerships for us, that we’re partnering with the right service providers and so forth.

How do you ensure your company is growing in the right manner and direction?

It’s finding something or a need in the market that is going to differentiate you from your competitors. We look for opportunities where there is recurring revenue in the product we might be able to sell. There is a lot of product out there that we might be able to sell very easily, but it’s a one-off sale. It may cost us a lot of money to advertise and find the customer that will buy the product, but very often, we may never hear from that customer again, because that product serves their needs.

Where we really want to look for areas in which we can grow is a product that has a recurring component to it — products with service contracts or products that are sold on an annual subscription kind of basis. That way, there is a component in there where we’re working with customers to ensure that they’re renewing those services, and it’s also an opportunity to find out what their needs are at that time, if they have a need for other technology solutions that we might offer.

What would you tell other leaders about capitalizing on a good growth opportunity?

In business these days, it is very hard to find that niche where there is no other company. It’s hard to find a silver bullet where you’ve found a product that no one else has made. In anything you do, there is always competition, there are always companies that are going to look at what you’re doing and copy it, and the growth opportunity is really going to come by being in a business that is going to be around for a long time and doing what you do well. That is really how to grow — it comes back to concentrating on what you do well, focusing on that and not allowing your company to get sidetracked. If you excel at that, that is what brings your business long term relationships. That is really how we’ve tried to grow our company.

How to reach: Virtual Graffiti Inc., (949) 870-3500 or

Effective growth is the product of a number of factors set in motion at the same time. You need a vision for where you want to take your company, a strategy for how to get there, marketing to drum up new business and an ability to turn setbacks into something positive in the long term. While there is no one right way to grow, and while the circumstances that affect the growth of your business might not affect another business in another industry, there are some common concepts to keep in mind as you grow your business. Below, some of the leaders who recently appeared in the pages of Smart Business Orange County share some of their thoughts on how to grow a business.

“You can’t focus on 20 different things. You have to focus on a small number of things and work hard on branding that name. When we go to a dinner or to a Rotary Club meeting, we take a bunch of inexpensive hats with us, and every kid there gets a hat. A lot of people think if you give away hats, they won’t buy them in the store. We don’t care right now. We want to see every kid in Orange County, in the whole Los Angeles area, wearing an Angels hat.”

Dennis Kuhl, chairman, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

“Just remember, don’t put your eggs in one basket. As you grow, probably eight out of 10 things won’t work the first time, but the two that do work make up for the eight that don’t. If you try only one thing at a time, when that one thing doesn’t work, you’re six months behind the eight ball again. You’re in an even worse position. That’s why you need to have that multifaceted approach.”

Chad Hallock, co-founder and CEO, Budget Blinds Inc.

“When I was playing in high school, the coach told me, ‘As the quarterback, you have to try to use everybody around you to win the game. You have to use the players around you to win the game.’ My coach wasn’t going to judge me on my statistics. He was going to judge me on wins and losses. It’s the same way running a business, which is why you have to get to know the people around you and try to bring out the very best in them.”

Steve Plochocki, CEO, Quality Systems Inc.


Narrow your area of focus.

Don’t become discouraged when you encounter setbacks.

Utilize your whole team.