Carolyn LaWell

Sunday, 25 April 2010 20:00

Taking steps forward

When Shelley L. Boyce told consultants in November 2008 that she wanted to implement a new company culture by New Year’s, they laughed at her.

“They said, ‘It’s not about just putting in the structural changes; it’s about instilling that and moving that through your entire organization,’” Boyce says. “It’s a multiyear process, much of which gets done in the first year.”

Needless to say, Boyce, founder and CEO of MedRisk Inc., is still working on making the cultural changes that will help MedRisk maintain growth. The provider of workers’ compensation custom claims and medical management solutions reached revenue of more than $100 million in 2008.

Making adjustments to your culture involves a deep reflection on where you are as a company and on marketplace trends. The analysis will help you determine where changes may need to be made.

Boyce has found that a large part of the process is communicating a consistent message to her 250 employees.

Smart Business spoke with Boyce about how to take certain steps to change your culture.

Recognize the need for change. There are turning points in the organization when the CEO really needs to be attuned to what’s going on with their business, their culture, their people, their customers, the marketplace and the marketplace trends.

If you’re balancing all of those things, you should see the storm coming well before it hits and you should reposition yourself to take advantage of the next level of growth.

For us, it sort of was the perfect storm. We realized over a period of time that as we became more successful and competition came in that we really took a hard look at what was driving our growth in the company.

What we realized is what got us to the first $100 million wasn’t going to be the same as what we needed to get to the next $300 million.

We embarked on a process of really understanding and really drilling down on our business, the marketplace, where we were in the business. It took a deep dive into not just our organization and how we ran it but our product offering and our competitors and our customers. Even our customers had changed. They’re much broader and deeper than our customers in the first 14 years in life.

It really is a total inside-out reflection on who you are, what the marketplace (is), has it changed and how do you best position to grow and maintain that leadership position?

Identify how to change. You have to go through your inside-out, top-down analysis to get a sense of what needs to change. The process then becomes setting priorities and allocating resources.

It’s important to take into account that as competition becomes more prevalent in various businesses that you don’t take your approach to change to be like your competitors. You’re the leader for a reason and it’s important that you understand what they’re doing and it’s important that you evaluate what’s going on in the marketplace.

But it’s important that you make your own decisions based on what’s important to your company and based on what you think is important to your customers, not just responding to what you think your competitors are doing.

If you go through that process and you involve the right people to work with you during that process both internally and occasionally get advice from the outside, I think you’ll get the right answers.

Communicate change. Communication and preparation of communication are key.

You cannot overcommunicate. If anything, we as leaders undercommunicate because it’s so prevalent in our minds that we’re communicating with ourselves all day long, but we forget that we’ve got to be more active in our verbal and written communication with our employees.

You need to be not just consistent with your message but how often you deliver the message. You need to have regular frequent communication.

Buy-in is important. People need to understand why the change, what the change will yield and what their role is. ...

As you get larger, you certainly have more challenges than a smaller company when you have a handful of people that you’re communicating with on a regular basis.

I think we’ve (worked on) that internally with our own messaging, whether that’s through our director of employee communications or that’s me and other senior managers presenting at town-hall meetings. Third is through a regular process of establishing communication channels from the senior leaders to extended leaders to then our supervisors and employees. You do that on a regular basis.

We also have a motto at the end of our meetings, no matter what the meeting is, ‘What do we need to communicate and to whom?’ so that we’re making sure we’re clear on a message and we’re clear and consistent. We’re acknowledging who is responsible for getting that message out.

It clearly needs to come from the leader, but not just the leader. The message needs to be really consistent throughout all various levels of the leadership team.

Be patient. Patience is very important and oftentimes challenging. Obviously you do want to get to the end, but what we’ve realized is just as important as reaching the end is going through the process.

While we hurry to rush the change, it’s really the process of the change and going through that transition of change where so much opportunity for growth and improvement for innovation to occur.

In reality, you don’t want to rush through the change for fear of missing some significant opportunity.

It’s a challenge because it’s confusing. People are leaving one spot and going to another, and you don’t have all of your processes well nailed down so there is sort of a cloudy period — a period of transition where people are not fully in the new and not fully out of the old. That’s uncomfortable for a lot of folks, but I think working through that makes for a better end result.

How to reach: MedRisk Inc., (800) 225-9675 or www.medrisknet.com

Sunday, 25 April 2010 20:00

Greg LaLonde grows Triplefin LLC

Greg LaLonde is not shy about pointing out his shortcomings.

In fact, he recognizes them so well that he has no problem stepping aside to let others lead in areas where he doesn’t measure up to his own expectations. That realization — and, perhaps more important, the realization of where he can add the most value — has turned Triplefin LLC from a turnaround story into a growth fairy tale.

When Triplefin was acquired in 2003, the company had about $3 million in revenue and was hemorrhaging cash. After finding stability, LaLonde and his team knew if they wanted to build the company they hoped for, they couldn’t just rely on organic growth.

As a result, today, LaLonde dedicates a third of his time to growth through acquisitions.

“It’s not to diminish the organic growth,” LaLonde, the CEO, says. “I think that even comes first and not by accident in our statement or goal. But again, I recognize I’m not as good as my colleagues in any sense in making that stuff happen, the organic side, so I emphasize the acquisition front of that goal.”

LaLonde says his interest in the topic is based on a lack of patience. But that haste, coupled with organic growth, is what has turned Triplefin into a $115 million provider of outsourced infrastructure, such as order processing and customer relations, for the consumer products and health care industries.

Here’s how LaLonde contributes to Triplefin’s growth by mapping out the acquisition process before picking up the phone.

Create a plan

To execute on any idea, you need to have a goal and a clearly defined strategy on how you’re going to get there. An acquisition is no different.

“A lot of times, I think acquisitions are somewhat reactive — someone approached the company or the company is aware of a particular firm and they extend exploratory discussions,” LaLonde says. “Whereas we have something called our acquisition strategy and it details what we’re trying to accomplish as well as the methodology that we’ll take to approach and assess opportunities.”

The wrong acquisition can cripple your company financially or even culturally. To find a company complementary to yours means the preparation and details put in on the front end are crucial.

The first question you need to ask yourself is: What are your company’s goals and objectives? Through that analysis, you can determine how large of a role acquisitions should play in your expansion.

Even if it doesn’t take precedent or it falls far down on your list, if there’s a possibility an acquisition is in your future, you need a plan.

“From a process perspective, follow as if it’s that pre-eminent spot,” LaLonde says. “In other words, have an acquisition strategy and have acquisition criteria.”

LaLonde says the company values and goals should be set by the CEO.

You need to look at internal and external factors that will ultimately play into your strategy and its subsequent criteria. Internally, you’re looking at your objectives and goals to see if and where an acquisition fits. Triplefin’s strategy includes finding niche players that can add an element of innovation to serve its clients’ needs.

Externally you might be looking at factors such as the marketplace or the economy.

For example, in this recession, Triplefin saw benefits in low interest rates, the number of distressed companies and a decrease in seller expectations. Triplefin was able to capitalize on market conditions and close four deals.

The strategy will be rendered useless unless you take it one step further and set criteria and parameters to weigh potential opportunities.

“Otherwise it can look a little bit as a scavenger hunt of sorts,” LaLonde says.

Questions to think about for your criteria are: How much are you willing to pay for a company? Where do you want the company in question to fall in terms of revenue and profitability? What are you looking for in leadership and employees? What are your geographic boundaries?

It might be something simple, like stating you will acquire no more than five businesses in a particular industry or a limited number of locations overall. Or, it could be a maximum limit on acquisition price.

“It just needs to be relative to where the particular company is. The acquisition criteria will be something that you can then take an opportunity and weigh it against your criteria to make sure it’s within those parameters.”

Part of Triplefin’s criteria plays off its decentralized-governance model. If Triplefin is looking to take over a company but leave the leadership intact, there are certain elements and characteristics it requires of that team, such as exhibiting a strong entrepreneurial spirit and the ability to work in a decentralized organization.

Remember, like LaLonde, you should view this as your guide to walk you through a successful acquisition. The more specific your strategy and its subsequent criteria and evaluation process, the narrower your company search and the more obvious a match may be.

“Get a strategy — get a clearly stated goal with excruciatingly detailed criteria,” he says. “What are your criteria? Your limitations? Because that’s going to really help as you (say), ‘OK, now who do I call?’”

Appoint a leader

The acquisition process is detailed and time-consuming, so the responsibility can’t be left to fall on just anyone’s shoulders.

Because it’s a natural undertaking for LaLonde’s strengths, he put himself in charge of the process.

He says when it comes to any priority, it’s not as much about balancing it with other duties but about setting expectations. Whether you as the CEO or one of your employees will take charge of acquisitions, if you outline a time commitment along with your strategy, you’re likely to be more successful.

“It’s going to take a significant commitment,” LaLonde says. “Delegate it to someone who can handle that. It can be a big undertaking. A lot of cash and a lot of capital can be potentially disrupted to your organization as you work to integrate it. Be very realistic and be clear in your criteria that this is going to be a corner of my time for the next year — really lay that out.”

If you’ve decided to give the responsibility to someone within your organization, make sure you choose wisely.

“If they don’t have prior M&A experience, don’t give it to them,” LaLonde says. “There’s so much at risk that you have to really trust the person. That’s why I like one of your stars, someone you can really (trust), you have confidence in their ability to stick to the strategy you’ve outlined and bring you the right deal.”

Part of the intrigue in picking the right person is that he or she doesn’t have to come with a specific job title. But the person must have certain characteristics. You need a good communicator — someone who can regularly give you feedback and discuss prospects, opportunities and competitors. Others are fortitude and thick skin.

“Obviously you’re going to be rejected,” LaLonde says. “The whole point is to be rejected. You have to really push for it.”

LaLonde recalls being turned down the first time he went after RxHope, a Triplefin patient assistance and reimbursement services company. He sat down in the former owner’s office and the gentleman just stood up and left. Five minutes later, LaLonde was escorted out

and left feeling dejected as he took a cab back to the airport. He later found the owner was in the middle of a falling out with the intermediary who got him the appointment.

LaLonde e-mailed the owner two years later to see if they could meet again. Nine months after that appointment, RxHope was a Triplefin company.

It also may help to look at your strategy when picking the right leader.

“It could be someone who has particular subject matter expertise in a field so the targets will naturally want to talk to him or her,” LaLonde says. “Then you can augment that person with maybe a good lawyer or a good accountant.”

Keep in mind this person will be the face of your company, and reputation is everything, especially when you’re first getting started in acquisitions.

“Ultimately, though, reputations build, so the success, I think, down the road can be nicely and exponentially a benefit from getting (the right) person in this role,” he says.

Work with clients

LaLonde has no problem picking up the phone and detailing his interests in acquiring the company on the other end of the line. To leverage that conversation, most of the time he has what the person on the other end doesn’t know: client intelligence.

“If you’ve initiated the call, hopefully you have some client intel that more or less you shouldn’t even know about,” LaLonde says. “So something has to tip you — someone’s told you where to go fish. You’re not just going out on a boat and winging it. Use that intelligence to refine a short list of targets.”

Triplefin’s culture involves being obsessively customer-centric, so it’s no surprise that many of its acquisitions are a result of conversations with clients.

“I think that is just good sense on our team’s part to involve them,” LaLonde says.

When you have a chance to get in front of your customers, ask them how things are going, if there are areas where they would like to improve their business, spaces they would like to expand into. LaLonde has found that, by really building relationships, customers have shared their needs along with meaningful industry insight.

For instance, Triplefin recently ventured into reimbursement services, which there wasn’t an answer for in the industry. The initiative started when a client said it was looking for more innovative and cost-effective processes to handle that function. In working together to answer the manufacturing client’s needs, Triplefin acquired a mail-order pharmacy company for its technology. With support and insight from the client, Triplefin has been able to roll out a new solution.

As you focus on the organic growth of your business, you must remain cognizant of your clients’ needs. Ask yourself if an acquisition of some kind may be the answer. Ask clients if they have interest in possible new lines of growth and ask if they know of complementary companies to go after.

“Then it’s, ‘Well, where do we go? Can we do it on our own? Start from scratch? Build versus buy? Or is there someone out there who is similarly situated from a culture perspective?’” LaLonde says.

Your acquisition strategy should highlight the process your clients play in growing your company, LaLonde says. It’s something he’s working to enhance as he updates Triplefin’s written plan to include larger acquisitions. In 2009, one of Triplefin’s operating companies earned $5 million, which will now allow it to do more — and larger — deals.

But even if a deal falls through, you can still learn something in the course of the acquisition process.

“There’s a whole slew of data and intelligence both competitive and client-facing that can be useful to the CEO and leadership organization at large,” LaLonde says. “It has some tangential benefits other than actual deals that get consummated, and that’s the knowledge that comes with running that exercise or running that process.”

How to reach: Triplefin LLC, (513) 794-9870 or www.triplefin.com

Friday, 26 March 2010 20:00

Healthy competition

Money isn’t the answer to every problem, but for Tim Higham it’s paid off in employee motivation at Interstate Transport Inc.

Higham instated team bonuses to balance the challenge that CEOs face as their employee count climbs.

“As more employees come on board, you don’t have the same kind of close relationship,” Higham says. “So [it’s asking] how to motivate employees to understand the culture and the goals of the organization when you’re more removed from them than you would like.”

By using team bonuses, you keep everyone working toward the same goal.

An effective process starts by determining what each group of employees can affect and setting metrics and benchmarks, says Higham, the majority owner, founder, president and CEO. For example, if his teams reach the set minimum 10 percent growth for the quarter, they receive 50 percent of that growth as a bonus.

The third-party logistics provider earned 2009 revenue of $28 million and has 37 employees and 800 additional drivers.

Smart Business spoke with Higham about how to set team bonuses.

Set team metrics. You basically will take the managers within your organization or the supervisors, whatever you call them. You sit down and say, ‘OK, this is what we’re trying to effect. In this particular department, for example, we’re trying to save money. So what kind of program can we put in place where every person has an incentive to save money? … For every $1 that we save, let’s give 20 cents of it to the team that impacts that. Let’s do that in such a way that they’re incentivized not to just save $10,000 but to save $100,000.’

Because they will beat up the coffee supplier, they will beat up the paper supplier, they’ll beat up the phone company on rates in order to put more money in their own pocket.

It depends on what (employees) have the ability to have an effect on. Some people have a direct effect on expenses, saving money, so they are compensated on a bonus perspective by affecting the expenses and lowering those expenses for the items across the board.

Some teams, they have a direct effect on what’s the actual cost to the customer so they are provided a bonus based upon gross profit.

It’s kind of like department by department.

If I was to make it in real simple terms, we have essentially two different programs. One is for all the administrative staff that have an impact mainly on expenses, and one is all revenue-generating staff, anyone who affects any way the bottom line, either sales or marketing people. They (receive a bonus) based upon gross profit because that’s what they have an impact on.

Set benchmarks. That depends on the economy.

If the economy is doing very poorly like it was last year, maybe the goal would be, ‘Hey, if we can just get the same revenue in 2009 that we did in 2008, for example, or 2010 and 2009. If we can just stay level, then that’s almost like a win.’

In business today, again, there’s an adage that ‘The new level is the old up.’ What used to be 5 (percent) or 10 percent, people are jumping up and down and happy if they’re just level.

It’s different depending on the economic environment in your particular industry. And it changes every quarter.

We might have a quarter where we have 20 percent growth as the watermark that we’re going for.

If you were trying to set some sort of bonus program for the first quarter of last year, you might not have wanted to go for 10 (percent) or 15 percent because the bottom fell out of the world. You might have just gone for, ‘Listen, if we can just remain level, then you all get a bonus.’

Sometimes seek outside opinion. I have competitors around the country who I’m friendly with. We don’t truly compete because they’re so far away, but you meet at trade shows.

I will occasionally pick up the phone and ask the CEO of a competitor or a company very similar to ours how they do it. Or I’ll run something by them and say, ‘This is what we’re thinking of doing. Do you think it’s a good idea or a bad idea?’

They’ll often be much better than a consultant because they live and breathe the same problems I’ve got every day and they provide good input and advice and they do it for free.

Motivate through message and metrics. I think this word is used all the time a little too flippantly but the word is communication.

You have to communicate your message because if you build a relationship with another individual, if that individual likes you, they’ll perform for you.

If you don’t have a relationship, then they won’t want to perform because they don’t know you, they have no reason to try and please the CEO.

If they like the CEO and they’re motivated by the CEO, they want to have a good relationship with the CEO.

If you can communicate with them, communication as simple as at least monthly meetings with all the employees, e-mails once a week about how well we’re doing in certain areas and other areas where we need to improve, then they feel like they’re part of the entire team. It’s all to do with communication.

We have what we call an all-hands-on-deck meeting. We get everybody together at least once a month, and we tell them where we’ve been, where we are and where we’re going hopefully. We try to keep people apprised all the time.

I send weekly e-mails out. ... Not any particular day but they’re kind of pep e-mails saying, ‘Hey, if I’m looking at last year’s numbers for the first week in January, second week in January, we only did this much business. Now we’re doing this much business. Keep up the work.’

How to reach: Interstate Transport Inc., (727) 822-9999 or www.interstate-transport.com

Friday, 26 March 2010 20:00

All aboard

When Rick Pogue came on board at Arrowhead Building Supply Inc., there were a lot of people in the wrong positions and some employees whom the company didn’t even want.

For the son of the building supply company owner, he quickly learned that if you don’t have the right people in the right positions, it’s going to hurt your company.

To better situate the company, Pogue devised a system to analyze each position and weed out those who didn’t fit the culture.

“We create the goals for the company, then we build the people around those goals,” Pogue says. “There’s a plethora of different things that have to work. You have to have the right attitudes, the right personalities, for each individual position.”

Getting the right 100 employees was the first step of many that has allowed the company to capitalize on the market. Arrowhead recorded record growth in 2009, reaching $30 million in sales revenue.

Smart Business spoke with Pogue about how to get the right people in the right positions.

Recognize needed changes. Ask yourself four questions about your employees: Do my people really care if my company grows? Are they overjoyed, giving each other high-fives when we get a new customer? Do they stay after work to finish projects, or is there a giant gust of wind through the front door at closing time? What motivates my salespeople — money or success? Remember, success breeds money, but money breeds the desire for more money.

If achievement motivates your people, then you will all reap the monetary rewards from your accomplishments. If money is all that motivates your people, then that’s all they will focus on, and every 90 to 180 days, you’ll be talking about pay raises for no results.

Restaffing a company can be a scary concept. However, you have to be serious about change, and your people must believe in your willingness to replace them. Otherwise, in effect, your employees will be in charge of your company and you.

Assess each position. We look at every position individually and we come up with a set of goals for the position.

If it’s inside sales, what do we really want our inside salespeople to do. Do we want them just to sit there and wait for the phone to ring and then answer the phone and then take the order? Because that’s what I call an order taker, and you can pay those people about $9 an hour. We want inside salespeople to be salespeople.

What we do is we have very detailed job descriptions for them, and when we train them, we show them exactly what we want them to do. For the inside sales position, their job is to produce new sales via any avenue possible, cold calls, fax, landline, they all have cell phones.

(To assess the workload,) I put myself in the position and that helps me. I don’t ask anything from anybody that I wouldn’t do myself, so I put myself in that position and I say what I would expect out of myself if I were doing that job. That’s basically where I get the standards.

We have started in recent years, probably the last two years, we started testing. I can have a prospective employee or even an existing employee that might be in the wrong position (tested) — they can take a personality test.

That has been very beneficial to us. That has helped us assess things that I can’t pick up on my own just by talking and observing. This test helps flush some of those weaknesses and strengths out.

Put weight on attitude. No. 1, for me, is attitude. Absolutely attitude is No. 1 for me because if the person has the right attitude, they’ll be successful.

I first look at their attitude, and then their skill set would come in second to me.

I’m not one who believes you have to have a four-year college education to be the best bookkeeper for a company. I don’t hold everybody to that standard because we have people here that never went to college that I wouldn’t trade for somebody with a doctorate.

I don’t think that has enough of an effect on a person’s abilities to discount them as a quality employee.

Look for person/position mismatches. I look for efficiency in that position. Usually that will jump out at you.

When you look at everything, all aspects of the business, you can see where the weak spots are. Maybe the weak spots are in bookkeeping because credits are not being issued properly, whether they’re given too many credits or not enough credits, tickets aren’t being processed correctly.

Usually the inefficiencies jump out at me first. It’s like a red flag. Then I say, ‘OK, what’s going on here.’ Then I delve a little deeper in there.

Leave out personal convictions. You have to set feelings aside. I’m the nicest guy in the world and I want everybody to love me, especially my employees, but you have to set the feelings aside.

If you have a person that’s been working for you for 10 years but they’re the wrong person in that job for whatever reason — maybe they have a bad attitude, maybe they don’t work well with others — you have to set your emotions aside.

‘Oh, they’ve been here 10 years, just deal with it.’ I don’t believe in that. I don’t believe in telling my other employees, ‘I know they’re difficult to work with. … I know they have a bad attitude, just deal with it — they’ve been here forever.’

When I say assess every position individually that’s what I’m talking about. Do I have the best person in that chair that I could possibly have? If not, then that position is a work in progress. That’s how I view it.

How to reach: Arrowhead Building Supply Inc., (636) 970-1976 or www.arrowheadbuildingsupply.com

Friday, 26 March 2010 20:00

Inspiring innovation

People love milkshakes.

But with all of the supplies and the mess, they can be a pain to make.

Jim Farrell contemplated that problem for decades, and the solution became starting f’real foods LLC to provide products to make milkshake-lovers’ lives easier.

But the innovation hasn’t stopped. Farrell has built the company into a $38.8 million milkshake-product supplier by encouraging his employees to embrace his philosophy of “There’s got to be another way.”

“(Broaden) the question beyond just simply making your product better,” Farrell says. “It’s also, ‘Just how do you make your company run better?’ That really gets everybody into the mix of, ‘How do I make what I’m doing better than it was yesterday?’”

When people think innovation, they think creativity, but they forget optimism and tenacity, Farrell says.

“As you’re trying to lead your company to get innovation going and establish it as part of what you do, you have to create that optimistic environment,” says the CEO.

Smart Business spoke to Farrell about how to encourage employees to innovate.

Lead by example. It really does start at the top with both communicating clearly that part of what you’re trying to do as a company: ‘Part of this vision is to find a better way every day.’

Always be focused on, ‘Is there a better way to do what I’m doing? Is there a way to make our product better?’ Certainly, but is there a way to make this job that I’m doing to get this part of the product built, or whatever it is you’re working on today, is there a way to do what you’re doing today better that would be quicker or more effective because it gives somebody else better information?

In everybody’s seat, in every place within the company, the thought should be, ‘Is there a better way?’ Or said another way, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’ I always frame it even having a more positive side.

Communicating clearly that we look for innovation in everything we do is important. I definitely do that, and I always have. Now it’s not just about me saying that; it’s what everybody says.

Do not fear change. Innovation means change by its very nature.

Most people aren’t big fans of change. They kind of like to know how things are going to go. They like a certain consistency to their day that they can count on.

There is perceived to be risk in change — oftentimes there is risk in change.

How do you overcome that is one of the keys, because if you’re going to innovate, you are going to be changing, and if people don’t want to change, they’re not going to want to innovate. To overcome that, we do some things repeatedly so that people understand we really do want to innovate and be innovative.

We periodically do what we call celebrate failure. What that means is when somebody has the guts to go ahead and try and change something, and if it doesn’t go quite as planned and something doesn’t work out and it doesn’t work, we are very conscious about not giving somebody demerits or a hard time for that. We congratulate them on trying something different.

Literally, at times, celebrate failure. It’s like, ‘Hey, good job trying something new. Yeah, it didn’t work out, but you tried.’

Typically, it’s not like, ‘Let’s have a big party to celebrate.’ It’s a simple acknowledgement, oftentimes from me, so from the highest level, of someone saying, ‘Hey, this may look like a failure, but, you know, it’s not. It was a real effort to improve the situation.’

When you do that a few times, people start to realize there is safety as opposed to risk in trying something new. They become more confident that they can try something new, and they start to realize that there’s even good being expressed by the company about trying something new, so you’re really encouraged.

It’s one thing to celebrate success. But the more impactful thing is when you celebrate failure, because when other people see that person’s initiative lead to something that didn’t work out, when people see that’s OK, that makes them much more confident that it’s OK to try stuff even if they’re not quite positive it’s going to work out.

That’s really important, taking the risk part out.

Inspire employees. The other part of it is that you do need to inspire people. It goes back to vision. You need to inspire people about the good that will come from innovation.

If you’re going to go through this period of uncertainty and risk, the only reason you’re going to do that is if you think there’s going to be some good at the end of that process. Otherwise, why the heck would you do that?

Helping people see the positive side of things and what can be is really important, and helping them think about that is really important. Just getting people excited about what could be better.

One of the things we do, this is a subtlety I heard from somebody else years ago. I remember a guy speaking at a talk about managing his company and how he took over a company that was really not doing very well and he ultimately turned it into quite a successful company. He said that one of the things they did in the beginning was they banished the word ‘problem’ from their vocabulary. They substituted in for the ‘problem’ just the word ‘opportunity.’

It just made so much sense. Every problem is actually an opportunity to improve something. It’s where to look to make improvement.

If something is working fine, that’s probably not as much of an opportunity to innovate as where there’s a problem, so flipping those around and saying those aren’t problems, those are opportunities for improvements, as we call them now.

(It’s a) simple kind of mind game, but it’s really reflective. Making that shift is really huge.

How to reach: f’real foods LLC, (877) 367-7325 or www.frealfoods.com

Tuesday, 23 February 2010 19:00

Board games

Craig Kephart learned the hard way that being CEO does not mean you don’t answer to someone.

In his first position as CEO, his notion was squashed while trying to manage relationships with the board of directors and investors.

“Being an entrepreneur, my bias coming into this was simply support me, get out of the way and let’s grow,” says Kephart, co-founder, president and CEO of Centric Health Resources. “What I’ve learned to do is bring a lot more thought to the process and particularly communication.”

To strengthen board relationships and, ultimately, the company, you have to seek out how members want to converse. Communicating effectively also means being prepared and actively listening.

It took Kephart, who has 80 employees at the health management organization, 18 months to tweak the process. His board members include a pharmaceutical company CEO, a former U.S. Food and Drug Administration director and private company executives, all of which communicate differently based on their job experience.

Smart Business spoke with Kephart about how to effectively work with your board.

Strike a balance with communication. You have to find that balance between too frequent of communication, which leads to a management board. In other words, if you’re calling them constantly and sending them information constantly, you tend to invite more oversight, and scrutiny and involvement in your day-to-day business.

Most CEOs, most entrepreneurs, would really like to have their board be supportive, have their board there to help them grow, but not to get into the day-to-day management. It’s striking that balance.

For me, that has been (doing) a fairly comprehensive business report every month talking about financial results. One of the things I have found that is extremely key is keep them aware of business development opportunities, so I always try to include those types of things.

My first year or so I always felt like I was on the defensive at board meetings and rightly so. The board just simply didn’t have enough information. Finding that balance really had to do with reading my board members and understanding who they were, what their backgrounds were, what sort of world do they come from, and then trying to apply that to our schedule.

I spent some time just looking at and talking to (board members about) what were they used to getting in their organization. Spending a little bit of time and trying to understand how they receive information in their organizations then helps you to give them information in the style in which they’re accustom.

The first place it starts is always financials. ‘I’m used to seeing financials in this kind of format, or I’m used to seeing this kind of view. I’m used to looking at it this way.’

That was really where we started in how they wanted to see the financial information. Then, it kind of went back to how they were most comfortable in seeing you lay out a strategic plan.

Your strategic plan obviously reflects your thinking and your knowledge, but there are ways in which certain people want to see that start from whatever your assumption is to how you support that assumption to where your conclusion is. There’s a process that they need to go through. If you recognize it, and acknowledge that process, then it’s a lot smoother sailing.

Prepare for meetings. Being prepared for board meetings is absolutely critical. Again, I learned that the hard way.

Being totally prepared at the board meetings to answer questions, to lay out your strategies, to articulate them well, pays off.

I usually start about 45 days ahead of the board meeting with a straw-man agenda at least of things I think the board is interested in, and then solicit their input on the agenda ahead of time. That way you make sure people aren’t coming with things they want to talk about that you’re not prepared for.

I try to get an agreement on an agenda probably 45 days in advance to the board meeting. Then, start building my support materials and presentation. A lot of it is financial in nature, so work with your CFO to make sure you’re telling the story you need to tell and make sure you’re highlighting all of the risks and rewards.

Typically, a week before the board meeting, send out a pre-read packet. Getting into a board meeting and trying to dive into a great deal of detail oftentimes leads you down rabbit trails that aren’t productive or places you don’t want to go.

I have taken to trying to provide a lot of detail in the pre-read packet that then I can just reference so we don’t have to go through 900 slides. I can do a quick executive overview in about 10 or 15 slides, reference the materials that were sent out to them in the pre-read packet, and then have a much more productive discussion.

Another key point would be to make sure when you go into your board meetings to know what it is that you want from your board. I always try and go in with two or three key things I would like to get accomplished and specific questions I would like the board to help me answer.

Actively show you’re listening. No. 1, I do take keynotes during the board meetings and there’s always some suggestion of, ‘Oh, next time I’d really appreciate seeing this.’ I just take unofficial notes, and then I review those as I’m putting the agenda together and make sure I include them back in so that they can see, ‘Oh yea, he didn’t forget; he was listening.’

It would be easy to say, ‘Well, that’s not that important; these are the things I want to talk about.’ When you do that, they feel less involved and less satisfied.

A lot of us who are entrepreneurs I think are always in a sales mode because we’re always trying to convince people that our ideas are better.

What I’ve had to learn to do is to really kind of bite my tongue sometimes and sit and listen, and make sure I understand what they’re really trying to say and what they’re telling me.

And, again, that pays off.

How to reach: Centric Health Resources, (636) 519-2400 or www.centrichealthresources.com

Tuesday, 26 January 2010 19:00

Two-way communication

Don McKenzie has more than 600 employees in four offices and he spends a third of his time with customers. He’s learned the time you have in front of employees is valuable for clear and concise conversation.

“I think in today’s economic environment and today’s marketplace, having that level of very clear communication is critical,” says McKenzie, president and CEO of Direct Group, a direct marketing solutions provider.

You have to set a tone based on facts and the current marketplace. And you have to find an effective format to get your message to all employees.

McKenzie uses town-hall meetings to do just that. He tries to reach his employees quarterly, if not more, to keep a pulse on the organization and receive pertinent feedback.

The important aspects of a town-hall meeting are involving all employees in the conversation and making it just that, a conversation.

Smart Business spoke with McKenzie about how to use town-hall meetings for your benefit and the benefit of your employees.

Make yourself visible. It’s very important for CEOs today, and in the future, to be very visible, to be articulating the company’s mission, to articulate the company’s strategy, not only to their employee base but also to clients and vendors.

(You do that by) getting out of your office. I have a lot of town-hall meetings. Some of the town-hall sessions could have 10 or 15 employees, (or they) could have 20 to 25, but really no more than 20 to 25.

You want them to be more intimate. You want a good give-and-take dialogue so that way you’re articulating what’s going on in the business, both the opportunities and the challenges. You’re asking questions, and you’re asking for candid feedback, not just all good news but what are some of the challenges.

I think town-hall meetings are better to do in person than via video or telephone conference. The right way, I think, is to just be very visible, personally, and not only be a communicator but also be a very good listener and put that learning into practice.

Include everyone in the conversation. Everyone is invited. We do all employees, all shifts, all days, and we do it on their schedule. For example, we have town-hall meetings during the third shift. We make sure we’re meeting them on their shifts and not asking them to come in early or stay late.

We certainly want to have departments together. For example, there are certain questions and challenges that are relevant to customer service that might not be relevant to inventory. So we certainly want to have the town-hall meetings be tailored to the audience or the department or the division.

Then, we ask people to sign up for them. For example, if there’s 50 people in one department, then we’ll have a signup roster, and we’ll have several hours in a row of meetings so they can get to one or two or three or four depending upon their location.

Craft your message carefully. No. 1, executives should not underestimate the knowledge that employees have for their business.

No. 2, employees will see right through a sales pitch as opposed to a candid, clear, fact-based communication. In today’s world, you just need to be very candid, very clear, very concise, very fact-based.

... If you’re having cutbacks, you need to know that that’s on people’s minds every day. If you’re having salary cuts or if you’re having growth and you’re hiring, what does that mean?

It’s very important when you go into the town-hall meetings that you understand what’s on their mind, that you tailor your presentation to the audience of both what they would like to know about the business and what their concerns are, both corporately and individually. And make sure you address them, don’t dance around them.

The town-hall meetings are to do the best I can to update our team on what are the challenges we’re facing and the opportunities in both the economy and the industry.

Then ask for comments, feedback, advice, recommendations. These town-hall meetings can last an hour-plus. They’re meant to be a very two-way communication.

Outline expectations upfront. Every single meeting, I start the meeting off that this is a two-way conversation, that they can stop me at any time and ask a question. We can debate together. Someone might ask a question, have a complaint or a concern, and someone else might think the exact opposite. And so we certainly allow that conversation internally to be very open and very candid.

Set the tone at the beginning of every meeting that this is not a lecture presentation, this is a dialogue, this is a conversation we’re going to have together for the next half-hour, 45 minutes or hour depending on the schedules and subjects to be covered at that point.

Give employees time to be candid. It usually doesn’t happen the first meeting. People are usually trying to get a sense for the environment. ...

If they ask a question, and it might be a little different, how are they communicated with both during and after the meeting? It’s a process of developing trust and confidence.

I’m a firm believer that any question or any comment is fair with no reciprocity as long as it’s not a mean-spirited question — as an example, attacking a co-worker or criticizing a client. But if it’s a professional question that is asked in the right spirit, then they can ask any question, they can criticize anything about the company, and there will be no reciprocity toward them.

But that doesn’t happen in the first meeting. You’ve got to develop trust and develop a relationship. ... It happens over time that they become very effective formats for communicating two ways.

How to reach: Direct Group, (856) 241-9400 or www.directgroup.net

Tuesday, 26 January 2010 19:00

The right stuff

Forget about headhunters and staffing firms, Jim Sexton believes in one degree of separation when it comes to hiring.

Sexton, founder, president and CEO of ready-to-assemble furniture manufacturer Z-Line Designs Inc., says you need to ask employees and industry contacts for referrals in order to get the best pool of candidates in front of you.

From there, it’s asking a little bit about their past and, more importantly, how they can help you in the future.

“These are really direct questions,” Sexton says. “‘Can you do this? When? How?’ It’s just like boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. We want to know right now what can you do, what can you do fast. I think a lot of other corporations and people that I talk to it’s more of a, ‘Where have you been to school, and what have you been doing, what was your job like?’ and that type of thing.”

Smart Business spoke to Sexton, who has 250 employees, about how to hire the best person for the job.

Use your resources to network. I’ve been in the furniture business for probably 30 years or more. So when you’re in this industry you sort of meet people over the years that you’ve respected that are sharp people.

We go out there. We’re looking for people that are related to the industry that we can plug into something immediately.

There are two big problems if you’re going out looking for people, and these are two horrendous problems. No. 1 is if you go out and you just go to an agency and hire someone. If you’re in my world where designs and customers and everything that we’re doing, you have to be so protected about. So, when someone brings me someone in here, I want to know what they can do for me tomorrow and what (they can) do for me right now. Tell me about what’s going to happen here.

Then, the second part is you have to learn to have a level of trust with this person because once you open that door to your business, that door is wide open and they’re going to see how you operate this business.

You can’t just hire someone just because you go to an agency and they say, ‘Oh, well, we know these people and they’re a really smart person, and send them in here, and let someone else hire them.’ It doesn’t work that way in my opinion.

What I try to do is reach out around my world with my wife, with anybody that’s in my world, and say, ‘OK, we need someone to do this job. Does anybody have any ideas?’ What we’re trying to do, again, is pull from the people that are inside this world. We’re looking for people that we know a little bit about, we don’t want to hire people just off the shelf because we’ve tried that and, quite honestly, they’ve bombed two or three different times.

Go to everybody in your building and say, ‘Look, we’re looking for a such and such; got any ideas?’ That’s a lot stronger because the people there know a certain person, a certain idea, a certain guy or girl, whatever, and that brings you strength with it so you can say, ‘OK, here’s kind of putting your neck on the line that you know this person.’ That’s very, very important.

Ask the important questions. A guy came here because he heard about Z-Line, and he wanted to come chat with me about a job. He came to see me, and we talked for a while. We talked about who he sells, what kind of products does he have, who are they made by — he’s giving me a long list of what he can do for the company. My answer is, ‘OK, what can you do for the company starting tomorrow? Show me what you can do right now.’ We hired him in 24 hours.

Once you can convince me that tomorrow I can start going here and here and here and here, and I can make this work, and you’ve proven that to myself and a couple of different people — we bring in other people into the interview — I say, ‘You know what, I think this guy is really, really good.’

You’re always asking, ‘What can you do for me tomorrow?’ That’s the biggest question of all. It’s really about I’m sitting here, you’re sitting here, tell me what you’re going to be able to do that will make a difference to my business. That’s the big thing right there — how are you going to dial my business up?

Involve employees in finding candidates’ experiences. First of all, you want to know who are you hiring. Say, ‘What is this person being hired for? What are we looking for?’ So you’re trying to find out the experience they have — how long have they designed, or how long have (they) been in sales.

It’s basically, ‘What’s your background?’ Not collegewise because college is so-so, it doesn’t really formulate into a corporation automatically. You go to college, and you graduate, and that’s wonderful, but the fact is that when you come in here and you’re trying to get the job, you want to look at this person and see what they’ve done outside of just college. You want to see some experience they’ve got.

(We) will have two other people besides myself that will interview these people so that, again, it all goes back to the same story — hire great people. Let them interview also because I’m not going to be able to think of everything, but let these other two people do the same thing. Then we get together again and say, ‘OK, we asked this question or this question or this question,’ so it comes back to that networking inside my company again to say what do you think about this person and then we start to put the answers together.

How to reach: Z-Line Designs Inc., (925) 743-4000 or www.z-linedesigns.com

Saturday, 26 December 2009 19:00

Frederick Kohnke creates identity at Staffmark

Even without the economic downturn, Frederick L. Kohnke knew 2009 would not be a record year.

His company, Staffmark, formerly CBS Personnel, had been piling up acquisitions since 2004 and the commercial staffing firm was operating under three names. Clients and employees had questions about the brands, leading to distractions, longer processes and an inefficient use of time.

“Progressive companies have great strategies, they’ve got great people, and they’re able to tactically get things done very decisively and quickly,” says Kohnke, president and CEO. “Speed wins in our business. Multiple brands definitely at this stage in the game would have slowed us down in terms of where we’re ultimately headed.”

From a growth standpoint, Kohnke knew he had to give the $1 billion company and its 1,000 employees, who are spread across more than 300 locations, a single company identity. So Kohnke, along with an appointed team, set out to unify the three brands — CBS Personnel, Staffmark and Venturi Staffing — under a unified vision, mission, values and name. What ensued was a nine-month planning process that included employee and customer buy-in from the beginning.

“The key thing is, No. 1, engaging a cross section of all stakeholders,” Kohnke says. “I think there needs to be an explanation, which is the process we went through (with) our employees and customers, as to why we were going through this process and what the benefits would be to them, to all stakeholders, before going through the process and making the decision.”

The early buy-in paid off when Staffmark rolled out the new brand in 2009. Now, nearly a year after the announcement, Kohnke’s focus is moving the company higher on the top 10 list of staffing companies.

“I would like to think we’re well beyond the buying-in side of it,” he says. “We don’t even look at what was. We look at what is and what will be as a company.”

Do your research

With such critical decisions before you, it’s important to identify the key stakeholders in the process and get buy-in early and often. In many cases, that buy-in means asking for their advice and feedback on where the company stands and where it should be going.

“This is not something — a decision — that can be made in a vacuum,” Kohnke says. “Just to any CEO out there looking to rebrand, this research was absolutely essential. It’s really critical when going through this process because, No. 1, you get great input, you see things that you otherwise may not have thought of because you’re always looking for land mines. We’re also getting very important buy-in from all of the stakeholders.”

Since the critical questions and concerns about Staffmark’s identity were coming from employees and customers, the company sought out those two groups in researching its ultimate direction.

“It was important to take a look at who are the drivers of our business, who are our stakeholders, what comprises our constituency — it’s all about customers and employees,” Kohnke says. “Then we segmented each of those groups to get the best (feedback).”

A crucial step is making sure you’re basing decisions on thorough information. Single out large and small clients, tenured employees and newer staff, and more importantly, identify subjects that span all geographies. And if you’re combining multiple brands, look equally within each brand.

“If you ask enough people in different cross sections of the constituency, whether they’re employees or customers, there will be very few items that surface post-implementation,” Kohnke says.

Once you’ve established your research base, assemble a list of questions that will move you from point A to point B. You should think about the reasons you decided to rebrand and what you see as the overall outcome.

Staffmark started the conversation with: Which brands have you heard about? What is your perception of the brand? What does the brand mean to you? If you are serviced by one of the three brands, how is the service level?

Part of the process is asking the tough questions and gauging the effect that eliminating or changing a brand will have on employee morale and customer satisfaction. Important pieces of the puzzle are: How important is a local brand? Will the customer leave if the brand is changed?

With such a large undertaking, it’s important to develop a system that isn’t convoluted for gathering information. To make the process easy for all involved, schedule conference calls or focus groups and make sure everyone that is part of the implementation has a chance to hear and collect feedback.

Kohnke didn’t want to leave missing details up to chance and hired a consulting firm to guide Staffmark through parts of the rebranding, including collecting research.

“A lot of changes have to happen simultaneously; you can’t repaint it with broad strokes,” he says. “You have to get down to the smallest detail, and that’s where this constituency and these focus groups, which were largely done telephonically, was very, very important for us to collect the information. (Do) not make it so comprehensive that it becomes burdensome, but ask on-point questions with enough open-endedness to hear what’s on people’s minds.”

Put a plan in place

To successfully execute any project, the key is making sure there’s an owner.

“Often it’s very difficult to implement something on time and with perfect clarity when it’s sort of management by consensus,” Kohnke says. “There has to be a single driver.”

Kohnke settled on his vice president of communications, looking for someone who could communicate well with him and the rebranding team assembled from all areas of the company.

“It’s good to have some knowledge of the process, maybe even (someone who has) been through it before,” he says. “Also (it needs to be) someone you have confidence in that is detail-oriented but can also look at it from a macro basis to make sure that all things are considered.”

When you’re rebranding, there are many elements to consider, including both what goes into the plan and how it gets executed.

“My advice to any CEO going through a rebranding is take the opportunity to redefine their company in the context of mission, vision, values,” Kohnke says. “It was a great opportunity for us to take those elements of three companies and put them into one.

“It’s an opportunity not just to focus on a brand [but to] focus on the rewrite and definition of who you are as a company and what do you represent.”

When it comes to defining a brand and the future of the company, sit down with your team, and from your research, identify the aspects of the company you want to simplify, along with what are the key characteristics and drivers of the company that will take you to the next level. The ones that rise to the top of your list should be those with long-term benefit and profitability.

For example, going with the newly acquired Staffmark’s name instead of the original Cincinnati-based company’s CBS Personnel was based on using the brand that was most widely known.

“You have to take a look at the larger, long-term good of the company,” Kohnke says, acknowledging some decisions will be painful. “You weigh the longer-term good against some of the shorter-term concerns. We feel that we mitigated those short-term concer

ns very well with an excellent plan and even better execution at the local level.”

The execution of the rebranding is critical because so much happens simultaneously, especially once the announcement is made. One of your first steps in the planning process needs to be a timeline of not only what needs to be changed but when it’s going to happen.

“You take each one of the areas of change [and] you identify what has to be done, who is going to drive it, what are the timelines, what do you expect the return on investment, what resources are needed to make the change,” Kohnke says. “And then my job is to make sure it gets done and follow up. The important thing — I can’t stress this enough to any chief executive officer — is the communication.”

While you may not be driving the project, you must keep a close eye on the timeline and maintain constant contact with your team and consultants to keep the process on track.

Roll out your plan

Imagine employees’ reactions when they opened an e-mail joking they would soon be working for Fred Staffing. Throughout the planning process, Staffmark employees routinely received e-mail teasers to build excitement about the rebranding and to put circulating rumors to bed.

“The climax of excitement really occurs after a long process of these feeds,” Kohnke says. “We felt it was important to keep it in front of them so when it happened, they were ready for the big call.”

From the initial news of the rebranding to the final announcement, you have to keep your stakeholders engaged in the process by building anticipation and squashing rumors. Use e-mails and even staff or client meetings to communicate, without giving away exact details, what it is you’re doing, why it’s being done and how it will individually affect stakeholders.

For Staffmark, that meant explaining to employees rebranding doesn’t mean downsizing and explaining to customers they’d still be served by the same staff. For all constituents, it meant more resources.

Kohnke and his business unit leaders, all of whom were a part of the rebranding team, developed a plan that sent questions or concerns directly to them to be answered. From there, they determined whether the questions warranted individual answers or companywide clarifications.

You need to be prepared to deal with employee chatter throughout the process, but an important place and an easy way to cut down on noise is by making the final announcement to all employees at once.

“To tell everyone at the same time, everyone feels equally important to one another,” says Kohnke, who unveiled the new brand during a companywide conference call. “They’re appreciative of being part of that communication. There’s no bandying about of rumors or speculation.

“I would highly recommend that, and you can’t leave that to a committee, you’ve got to do that yourself.”

Everything must be in place so that once the announcement is made, employees have everything they need to immediately start the transition and can contact clients with details.

Staffmark sent rebranding kits to each location the day before and, partly to build suspense, told employees they would have to wait to open the boxes until the unveiling of the new brand. The kits were filled with T-shirts, mouse pads and other trinkets, but more importantly, they included descriptions of the company’s new name, mission, vision and values.

“The plan has to be done,” Kohnke says. “Basic communication materials have to be provided; there’s got to be some training that quickly has to occur — for example, phone-answering etiquette and providing every employee with information as to why the change was made with an idea that just continues to follow through with that great excitement of the change.”

And that’s just the start. Once the announcement has been made, you need to increase your level of communication and visibility in order to answer follow-up questions and deal with any resistance from employees and customers, notably those involved with an old brand.

“Just get out there and talk to your employees face to face. Don’t sit behind a desk,” Kohnke says. “So get out there, talk to customers and make the pitch face to face.

“I was the guy who was on the other end of the conference call, I’m now here face to face, and I’m interested in hearing what you have to say. In some cases, it takes some time for them to acknowledge (the change), but at least being honest with them, being specific with them and, again, overcommunicating is something we felt that was very, very important.”

How to reach: Staffmark, (513) 651-3600 or www.staffmark.com

Saturday, 26 December 2009 19:00

Delivering on time

Meeting customer demands is a constant thought rolling through Dan Oliver’s mind.

The president and part-owner of Global Body & Equipment Co., a metal and plastic parts manufacturer, knows if his 45 employees have a customer communication breakdown it can be detrimental for the company and even his customers.

“It may be my customer’s customer is the guy that’s really being demanding,” Oliver says. “But if my customer can’t meet his customer’s demand, then we both lose.”

Good customer service involves solid communication, honesty and allowing employees to make decisions.

Smart Business spoke with Oliver about how to maintain customer satisfaction.

Q. What are the keys to understanding and meeting customer needs?

We go there. We go to the customer’s place. We try to understand their process. We see how they’re assembling the stuff, how they build it, how is it going to be used, mostly just trying to spend time with the customer to understand the real need.

I’m an old-fashioned guy; I go to my customers and (have) one-on-one-type interaction. That’s the only way I can really understand their business. You can’t do it electronically.

Whether it’s you go to visit them or have them come here so they understand what we do and how we do it. But just try to develop a partnership.

We really view our customers as a partnership because we become the manufacturing arm for that company in many cases.

Q. How often should you communicate with customers?

That depends on the size of the customer and the needs of the customer.

A lot of our interaction is driven by the fact that lead times today are so short people aren’t carrying inventory, especially in the last 18 months. With uncertainties, people aren’t holding a lot of inventory, so when they need something, they need it in a hurry. So we try to meet those demands, and in many cases, instead of three weeks lead time, they need it in 10 days.

(It’s asking,) ‘How can we do that? Or can I get you half of them? What do you really need to get out of trouble?’ In order to help them and meet those needs, you’ve just really got to communicate a lot with them.

Q. How do you remain honest with customers about what you can and can’t provide?

I try to be as upfront as I can and tell them, ‘These are the issues. Here’s what I’m trying to deal with; this is what I can do. What does that do to you?’ In some cases, we may have to work overtime, or we may have to bring in some people on the weekend or do something really costly to meet their needs, and I have to understand, OK, is it really necessary to do that or not?

We try to work through whatever the issue is. That goes back to the partnership thing. If you develop the relationship enough that they view you as a partner, then they’re more apt to say, ‘OK here’s my real problem; this is the issue.’ Tell me what the issue is and we’ll do what we can to deal with it.

Q. How do you monitor customer satisfaction?

That’s a difficult one to do. To me, I make sure that I’m visiting or communicating with the top-level people of the other company. That’s more of the discussion I have with the other presidents: How are we doing from their perspective?

I do it more on a one-on-one. I have a few number of customers so I can do that.

A lot of times I am very specific about what the issue was, and have we solved that to your satisfaction, did we change whatever to make the issue improve.

Q. Do you have any final advice on maintaining customer satisfaction?

To me one of the things is hire good people and trust them that they’ll make good decisions. I’m a smart enough guy to know that I have to have people making decisions every day to run this business successfully. I try to instill that into our people and it goes to customer service.

If my inside sales guy senses that we’ve got a customer that has a problem, he’s going to go out to the production guys and he’s going to try to get them to change. In most cases, they work those things out without me ever getting involved. And I don’t need to get involved if I have good people.

I’ve always said there’s nine ways to skin a cat, well I say that because I tell my people, ‘This is the goal, this is what we’re trying to accomplish here, and you guys are the best at doing that.’ I try to empower those people to make decisions. You do that by trusting them.

The other thing is you have to have an environment where they feel safe enough to do that. If everybody is trying to [cover themselves] all the time, that’s a waste. I discourage that when someone is trying to cover their hind end because a mistake was made or a decision went bad, because I know the worst decision is no decision. Make the decision, and if it’s wrong we’ll fix it. I don’t cut somebody’s head off because they made a bad decision.

Over time people become comfortable at making decisions, which allows you then to react to the short lead times and the customers’ needs because they can make those decisions that need to happen very quickly, and they don’t have to wait for the boss’s boss to get involved, they can do it. That’s how we can respond to our customers quickly.

How to reach: Global Body & Equipment Co., (330) 264-6640 or www.cncmetalproducts.com