Friday, 18 February 2011 15:09

The power of perseverance

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger” opined the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The recent recession killed off many companies, and inevitably, the next one will kill more, an economic cycle as harsh and as inescapable as droughts on the Serengeti plains.

So, for both survivors and casualties, what did we learn that will make us stronger and more conditioned to survive the next one? We learned (if we needed to) that spending $1.22 million to redecorate your personal office doesn’t actually improve your company’s performance.

We discovered that however expensive your public relations firm, billing your company’s shareholders for your private jet in order to go panhandling to the taxpayer is never going to get you good press. We found out that many of our formerly friendly bankers, who we trusted to help our businesses, turned out to have been incapable of helping their own.

We learned who our friends were. Not just our suppliers and customers but, most importantly, those within the businesses we manage. We discovered who were the strong and who were the weak; we leaned on the rocks and flushed out the whiners, heard those who complained that they hadn’t had a pay raise or a bonus and listened to those who knuckled down and realized the only way to be paid more was to help the company generate more business.

But the most important lesson I learned was that however important a culture of good leadership at all levels is in the good times, it is absolutely critical in the bad.

Leadership is the single most important factor in any organization. It is the deciding factor between mediocrity and excellence, between success or failure. Those managers who had led their departments well before the recession, who had built strong teams, whose people exuded strong morale, whose staff were loyal to them and the company, who understood the aim and what was necessary to achieve it, who were prepared to make the tough decisions, were the ones that fared best when times got rough.

Those who had just gotten by in the happy years, their performance unnoticed or their attitude not addressed, were the ones overwhelmed by the difficult decisions and the changed circumstances.

Creating such a climate requires an ongoing commitment from the very top. The right people need to be hired, they need to be trained and they need to be allowed to flourish. They need to be mentored and their innate abilities developed. Being ultimately responsible for the company’s performance, it is my job to ensure that this happens. When things are going well, when it seems as if we can do nothing wrong, it is easy to compromise in the interest of priorities — “Let’s not worry about training; people can learn on the job.” Bringing in a weak manager whom you have doubts about simply to fill a role or failing to ensure that a manager has all of the tools he or she needs to do the job backfires when in a recession because that manager is incapable of inspiring his or her team to excel.

All of this needs to be put in place now, both to take advantage of the better times and in preparation for the next recession. The grass on the plains may be getting greener, the water holes filling up and the rivers flowing again, but the hyenas are still out there. Only by preparing can one stand the best chance of being strong and fit enough to survive when the drought returns, as it inevitably will.

Julian K. Hutton is president of Merlin Hospitality Management, where he oversees the company’s Hotel Management and Distressed Asset Management operations, drawing on 20 years experience in the worldwide travel and hospitality industry.

Published in Philadelphia
Thursday, 17 February 2011 13:45

What is more important, the icing or the cake?

Everybody wants to have his or her cake and eat it, too.

When a presentation is made to a board of directors or a group of company outsiders, it needs to be right. The presenters always want to appear to have their act together and project an aura of all-knowing. It’s part of being human. However, what about important, yet more run-of-the-mill, presentations to smaller groups on nonearthshaking matters? Is the cost of preparation worth the return?

For the last few months, each time I attended a meeting, either within my own company or for other companies and organizations with which I’m involved, I’ve asked those responsible for the preparation how many hours they invested in producing the final show and tell. Almost without exception, I’ve been taken aback by the amount of energy expended. This begs the question: What other, more important activities, providing a better return, didn’t get done because of this diversion?

Perhaps more startling was the number of hours spent on “dress rehearsal” run-throughs, particularly for internal meetings.

I have no problem with the amount of work it takes for big meetings, particularly with outsiders, who can cause you untold grief if one looks amateurish, indecisive or, worse, a fool. If someone who works for me committed this near-fatal sin of lack of preparation, he or she would receive a quick trip to the proverbial woodshed. On the other hand, I’m a big believer of certain types of less formal presentations that include brainstorming components that are more impromptu, with fewer constraints on form and sharper focus on substance. I’m always pleasantly surprised with the golden nuggets, representing new thinking and ideas, that surface when participants focus on making creative contributions rather than obsessing on what others may think.

So, how do you, as a leader, foster creating acceptable presentation guidelines that will make your people more productive and also communicate to them that not all assemblies are equal? Let’s take the work involved for major outsider confabs for investors, bankers, important vendors and customers off the table, while recognizing you’re not going to risk taking only half measure just to spare a little work and a few extra dollars. Internal presentations or meetings with external consultants, however, are a different matter. For these types of sessions, the top-of-the-mind methods used by improvisational comedians extraordinaire, such as Robin Williams and Jerry Seinfeld, can be more productive, more fun and produce much better results.

To get your team pointed in the right direction, start asking after each meeting how much time was put into preparation. This simple exercise will reveal if you’re getting the appropriate return on the investment. Next, working with your team, create a template that is acceptable for each type of presentation. One size doesn’t fit all. A high-powered gathering of movers and shakers requires whistles and bells versus a much more simplified presentation for an intimate get-together of your inner circle. Provide flexible guidelines, including the type of handouts to be utilized and the form of graphics used from very elaborate presentations that would put a Las Vegas chorus line to shame to basic easy-to-prepare flip charts and PowerPoints that more than suffice and make the right impression.

Before any presentation is launched, always ask, ‘Who is the audience, and what are the intended results?’ By doing this, you will quickly determine if the costs are commensurate with the expected results. There is a difference between an all-hands-on-deck undertaking and a few scribblings on a legal pad for a smaller session’s talking points. When you follow this protocol, your people will gain respect for you because it shows that you understand that their time is money and you have an appreciation for what it takes to get the job done.

A long-ago favorite Burger King television commercial portrayed kitchen workers belting out the lyrics, “Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us,” with the payoff tagline, “Have it your way.” Special orders in the form of elaborate presentations that don’t fit the audience should definitely upset you because of their costs. Instead, have it your way by substituting the “burger” with a “cake” topped with a not too rich but still sweet and easily digestible icing.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. “The Benevolent Dictator,” a book by Feuer that chronicles his step-by-step strategy to build business and create wealth, will be published by John Wiley & Sons in late spring 2011. Reach him with comments at

Published in National