Todd Shryock

Tuesday, 26 August 2003 10:44

Outdoor design

A house can only look so good, no matter how well designed it is. But when it's tied into a beautiful landscape, it can become a work of art.

It can also add up to 20 percent to the value of your home.

Many people build their dream home, then forget about the rest of the lot. So how do you find someone to help you turn your plain property into a botanical garden?

"Landscaping is an art form -- tastes and styles vary," says Sandy Munley, executive director of the Ohio Landscapers Association.

It is important to find a designer or landscape contractor that has a style you like. Ask to see their portfolio, photos and/or slides of projects they have completed. Ask for addresses of properties with landscapes they have designed and installed. If you admire the landscape of a neighbor or friend, ask about the company they hired to do their landscape."

There are various credentials and certifications that signify a professional company, ranging from the Certified Landscape Technician certification from the Associated Landscape Contractors of America to the Landscape Architect certification that comes after a four-year college program and a thorough exam by a licensing board.

Once you choose a designer, he or she should provide a plan or drawing of the work that will be done, including specifying size and names of plant materials to be used.

"All details should be carefully laid out in a contract," says Munley. "The contract should identify payment terms, guarantees if applicable, and detail the scope of the work and materials to be included. The contract is a legal and binding document. Any changes requested during the job should be noted in writing and signed by both parties, including any additional cost involved."

Payment details vary from contractor to contractor. Munley says many require 50 percent at the signing of the contract, with the balance due at completion. Others require one-third down at signing, one-third when the job is started and the balance on completion.

"Be sure to discuss this with your contractor in advance and be sure that it is included in the contract so there is no misunderstanding later.

"Ask questions. Be sure you have a full understanding of what is and what is not included in your landscape plan and contract." How to reach: Ohio Landscapers Association, (440) 717-0002

Monday, 04 August 2003 11:21

Liberty for all

The first time he walked into Liberty Bank in Twinsburg, Phil Studer knew changes had to be made.

With 17 years experience in community banking at the Twinsburg Banking Co. and its eventual buyer, FirstMerit Bank, the new president and CEO of Liberty Bank knew the $46 million, two-branch institution needed to compete by connecting with customers in ways its giant competitors couldn't. It was the only way Studer saw the bank being able to grow at the rate he knew it was capable of growing.

"When I came to Liberty Bank, I tried to step back and just observe things," says Studer, a Twinsburg native who started in the banking business as a part-time teller while attending The University of Akron. "I tried to identify the issues I needed to deal with."

Studer identified three key areas that needed improvement:

* Personnel issues

* Lack of growth

* Lack of recognition and awareness of the bank in the community

Changing attitudes
"What struck me the most was the morale and attitude of the employees," says Studer of his initial observations after taking charge in July 2001. "There wasn't a strong culture. There was poor communication and definition of strategy. The employees didn't understand where we were heading or what we were trying to do. That translates into attitude issues.

"I was used to working in a professional environment. The appearance and behavior of the employees was different than what I was used to. Management has to set the tone and expectations and lead by example. It filters down through the company."

Studer held corporate strategy sessions to discuss what the bank is trying to be, where it is going and how it is going to get there. Employees were told of the ultimate goals and objectives of the company and how they were expected to contribute daily.

The transition of cultures didn't come easy for some employees, including one senior manager. Those who didn't buy into the new concept left.

"I think they were definitely changes for the better, but the only challenge is, it's tough on customers," says Studer. "They don't like to see faces changing too frequently. It has allowed us to attract some good professional talent -- people we feel comfortable with as individuals and business partners."

The buy-in on the part of the employees was crucial to Studer's plan to make Liberty unique by out-servicing the 12 other banks in the Twinsburg area. It meant a return to the feel of a true community bank, where employees are on a first-name basis with customers.

"I truly believe it is the only thing that sets us apart," says Studer. "It is all based on the people in the facility and how they treat their clients. Most banks have the same commodities, but what the bigger banks don't offer is myself and my staff. We have to be competitive, but we'll never be the highest interest-paying bank or be the lowest service-fees bank.

"It's tough to compete with multibillion-dollar companies. We have to strive for services and relationships with our customers."

Studer pushes his employees to do the same thing he does -- be on a first name basis with customers and talk to them and make them feel at home.

"I want to look at our customers as friends that we have that we just happen to be taking care of a transaction for them," says Studer.

Growing business
Changing the attitudes of the employees is great, but it's only one part of the overhaul.

"It's good for customers to walk into the bank and feel welcome, but we will not survive if we are not looking out for new business," says Studer.

The first focus is on existing customers, who are split about 60 percent commercial and 40 percent retail. As with any business, it's much easier to get additional sales from customers who are already familiar with you.

The second focus is on obtaining new business by being active in the community to introduce Liberty Bank to those unfamiliar with it.

"We are always going out promoting Liberty Bank at networking and community events," says Studer. "We let people know that we are here and looking for business, and we take care of you. It's challenging but we are starting to see results.

"Fortunately, we have seen the larger institutions have more turnover not only in the branches, but in the ranks of the commercial bankers or lenders as well. I think we have been demonstrating that we are consistent and stable. We have the approach that we are here to make customers happy, we live in the community and our kids go to school here. We have a vested interest in the reputation of the bank."

Liberty has also tried to capitalize on businesses that don't meet the sales requirements of larger banks and those that have been cast off as banks refocus efforts elsewhere.

"Our typical customer is a business with $7.5 million in sales and under," says Studer. "That doesn't mean our credit standards are any less than other banks, but we do have more flexibility on how deals are structured. We want to understand the numbers and take them into consideration."

Making a name
Open the Cleveland Plain Dealer on any given day and you aren't likely to find an ad from Liberty Bank.

"For a smaller bank, advertising promotion is very expensive," says Studer. "Larger banks are in the papers and trade publications on a regular basis."

So the challenge is to find a way to be different, to get the name out and do it on a limited budget.

"It's a real hand-wringing item," says Studer. "How can we spend our limited dollars most effectively on promotion?"

Studer has used a strategy of focusing on events and direct mail pieces, with an occasional insert into a community newspaper in Twinsburg and Solon, where the company has a branch.

"We have had several direct mail pieces that went to households within certain parameters (household size, location and income), we've have money market promotions, home equity lines of credit promotions and created a savings club for children to get them active in saving," says Studer. "We feel the direct mail piece gets us more attention from the home or business owner, and we can control the distribution a bit better."

The bank also emphasizes its community ties with event sponsorships and by working with community groups.

"We provide community groups checking accounts that don't charge service fees and provide interest on the accounts," says Studer. "We want to let people know we are part of the community and value those relationships. From the sales side, it's a way of getting new faces into the bank."

Show me the money
Studer's three-pronged strategy has garnered impressive results. The bank's loan portfolio grew 21 percent in 2002 over 2001. Asset size was up 11 percent in that same time period. Net income in the first quarter of 2003 is up 33 percent compared to the first quarter of 2002.

And the existing customer base is showing double-digit growth.

"It's really encouraging," says Studer. "We're really psyched up to know that as a team what we are trying to do is having some effect, and we're getting psyched up to continue the process to do better. We have a long way to go, but the point-to-point comparison is encouraging and has been rewarding." How to reach: www.libertybankna.com or (330) 425-3033

Web site

Monday, 28 July 2003 06:43

Holding on

The economy may be down, but that doesn't mean you should ignore employee retention. Top talent can be difficult and expensive to replace.

Here are five tips from Lee Hecht Harrison, a human resources consulting firm.

* Tailor retention efforts to individual employee needs.

"There isn't a one-size-fits-all solution," says Rita Brauneck, senior vice president and general manager for the Cleveland office of Lee Hecht Harrison. "I think it's a matter of an employer being appreciative of what my interests as an employee are and finding ways to work with that."

Solutions need to be diverse, just like the work force.

"What motivates and drives one individual can be different than the person next to them," says Beth Sweeney, vice president of business development for the company.

* Focus on your top people, and be willing to pull out all the stops.

"People want to be rewarded for great performance and want the organization to recognize great performers," says Brauneck. "You have to give the top performers challenging assignments, mentors or executive coaching."

Dealing with poor performers often has a direct effect on top performers. Brauneck says that if poor performers aren't dealt with by management, it takes away management's credibility.

"Celebrate those that are on top and deal with those that are not," says Brauneck.

* Create a positive environment which gives employees flexibility.

"Employees yearn for a sense of connectiveness and being a part of something bigger," says Brauneck. "They want to be in a place where they feel appreciated and valued."

Communicating how the company is doing goes a long way toward helping employees understand why their roles matter.

"Employees want an environment where they feel they can make suggestions and have an impact on their work and tasks," says Sweeney. "They want to have a manager that listens."

* Integrate career development efforts with business goals.

"It's really about identifying where the business is going and what the goals are, and with that in mind, understanding what I'm about as an employee and finding ways that we can match up so it's a win-win for both the employee and the business," says Brauneck.

Helping employees further their careers doesn't mean they will leave for a better job.

"Employers feel that if they enhance the careers of their employees, they will leave," says Sweeney. "People become more tied to the business in most cases, is what we see. It's that feeling of being tied with the people you work for and the objectives that is actually one of the main reasons they stay."

* Bring employees into the decision-making process

"It's not necessarily a case of turning over all decision-making to the employees," says Brauneck. "I'm not sure every employee wants that responsibility. The employee wants information and knowledge about how the business is doing.

"When they get the information, the employees feel more connected to the business. Their positions are more relevant. They can potentially see more ways to make a difference."

Soliciting employees for ideas and recommendations can help a business.

"In many organizations, they are really out there gathering very diverse points of view from within the company," says Brauneck. "The information is really going the other way. Companies are reaching out to solicit the employees to get new business ideas and strategies. They are going in ways they've never been before.

"Just being out there and connected to the employees with open channels of communication can really help an organization." How to reach: Lee Hecht Harrison, (216) 591-1511


Unchanging priorities

There are many ongoing changes in the workplace, but there are constants as well. Employees are motivated -- and retained -- by a lot more than just salary.

"One thing that is not news are some of the basic reasons why people stay with an organization," says Rita Brauneck, senior vice president of Lee Hecht Harrison.

Among the most common reasons listed by employees:

* Respect for a leader, or holding the leadership in general in high regard

* Belief in where the organization is going or in its mission

* The opportunity to be challenged with the company

* Opportunities for career development

"They'll stay as long as they see these things happening," says Brauneck. "Somewhere down the list is being competitively paid. These things haven't really changed."

If there's no money in the budget to give out top compensation, at least try to make sure that employees are being rewarded in some of these other nonfinancial ways.

Monday, 28 July 2003 05:42

Contrarian strategy

Big banks have a lobby. Western Reserve has a parlor.

Big banks have a mission statement. Western Reserve doesn't.

And those aren't the only differences.

At Western Reserve, customers can sit in a nice chair and chat with a teller. They can get a free drink out of the refrigerator or have a fresh cup of coffee brewed for them.

Ed McKeon, president and CEO of the Medina-based bank, has taken a contrarian strategy to bring service back to the banking industry.

"There's a mission statement here, it just isn't written down," says McKeon. "If you take awesome care of the customer, you can let the chips fall where they may, period. We all do business with people we like. If customers like you, then you don't have to do anything else."

The bank's living room-like appearance is meant to put customers at ease and take away the intimidation factor.

"You can sit down with our tellers, which is very inefficient," McKeon says with pride. "The whole industry is driven by the efficiency ratio. Banks are cutting costs -- their people -- and increasing their fees to get more efficient per dollar of earnings. I want to have the least efficient bank in town."

Western Reserve's efficiency rating may not compare to that of its publicly traded rivals, but customers seem to like it. The bank has grown from $62 million in assets in 2001 to $92 million now -- and is projected to be more than $100 million by the end of the year.

A big part of that is the emphasis on service and finding good employees. McKeon found out what the area's average teller pay and added 15 percent to 20 percent to it.

"Tellers are the lowest-paid positions in the bank, yet they touch more people in a day than an executive could touch in a month," says McKeon. "I don't want turnover. I want the same people year after year."

Larger banks promote multiple checking accounts, insurance and investments, and are always pushing other products. Western Reserve essentially has one type of checking and savings account.

"Nobody cross-sells anything here," says McKeon. "I came from an environment where we were trying to sell the customer something else before they could get through the door. Customers cross-sell themselves when they are happy. They send all our business to us."

The bank doesn't sell insurance or investments, either.

"The normal commercial bank has over 100 products," says McKeon. "If you go to a branch and ask about a couple of their less normal products, they can't explain them. How in the world are you going to sell me the latest greatest mutual fund and be good at it if you don't even know your own products? We keep it simple."

McKeon wants every customer to feel like they are the most important customer the bank has, regardless of account size. He does this by hand-writing a note to each new customer that has all of his contact information on it, including his cell phone number.

"Sometimes someone with a $100 savings account may do something that makes a big difference," says McKeon. "We eat the big banks alive, but they don't care. They don't even know we're here.

"There are 12 big banks in our market, and we've gone from nothing to the second largest in the market." How to reach: Western Reserve Bank, (330) 764-3131 or www.westernreservebank.com


Little things matter

Ed McKeon, president and CEO of Medina-based Western Reserve Bank, knows that little things can add up.

Take, for instance, the fellow he would see in the parking lot having a smoke while he sat in his pickup truck. McKeon waved every time he saw him and eventually struck up a conversation with the man and got to know him.

Turns out the man's wife is a controller for a company that kept seven figures of money in other banks, and the company was unhappy with the complete lack of service.

"She told the owner of the company that they needed to talk to us," says McKeon. "They moved to us just because we took care of a guy in a pickup truck outside our bank."

Another time a customer called at 7 p.m. on a Friday because she was over her credit card limit and couldn't get her car back from the repair shop. McKeon debited the woman's savings account the $200 and drove it down to her so she could get her car.

"Our strategy is pure and simple: Take care of the customer. It's not exotic stuff, but banks don't do it. It's the small stuff that matters."

Monday, 28 July 2003 05:34

Positively right

Fraud costs U.S. businesses more than $400 billion annually, but banks are helping their business clients fight back with technology.

For example, business clients using Fifth Third Direct, the online banking arm of Fifth Third Bank, can sign up for Positive Pay.

"Positive Pay allows us to provide a list of items that are suspect in each account every day," says Ann Byington, vice president, treasury management, for Fifth Third. "The user signs into the system and sees the accounts that have items that are suspect. They then choose whether to stop payment on the item or approve it for payment."

A common fraud practice is changing the name or the dollar amount on a check. With the Positive Pay system, the bank compares a business's list of checks to what was submitted. Discrepancies are flagged for approval.

"If they are looking at an item and aren't quite sure, they can see an image of the check," says Byington. "It gives them clear vision on whether it is a fraudulent item or not."

To help prevent internal fraud, the bank keeps a log on all pay/no-pay decisions.

"You can monitor who's taking actions, and any issues that come up can be tracked back to make sure the appropriate decision was made," says Byington.

The system can also be set up so multiple people have to approve payment of questionable items.

KeyBank instituted a similar system utilizing AcuPrint Technology, called SecurePay. Like Fifth Third's Positive Pay, when checks appear suspect, the business is contacted for approval. The goal of all these systems is to help businesses prevent fraud with a minimum of burden.

The systems are a must for companies that issue more than 500 checks a month, but Byington says Fifth Third is seeing more businesses that fall into the 100-check range signing up for the service.

"If you look at the cost vs. exposure, one check for $10,000 that you lose because it's fraudulent is far more than the small monthly fee," says Byington. How to reach: Fifth Third, www.53.com; Key Bank, www.Key.com

Friday, 11 July 2003 08:45

Safety check

Debbie Billings, president of Streetsboro-based Delta Systems, a manufacturer of electronic controls and switches, knew she needed to call in outside help to determine how secure the company's information systems were.

"My business is to know our lines, our customers and our vendors," says Billings. "It is not my business to be a software or security expert. I can't bring in new staff full time just to deal with those issues."

So Billings started searching for a company to assess Delta's vulnerability.

"We had just gone through and upgraded our computer systems," says Billings. "From a technical standpoint, I was pretty pleased with the information we were getting, but one of the areas I read and learned more about was the importance of knowing our information was safe from viruses or someone getting into our system and destroying information.

"Learning how vulnerable we were was my concern. I needed to know if it was possible to hurt Delta through our information systems."

Billings chose VigilantMinds, a firm that specializes in network security.

"We did an interview with them and they explained the process," says Billings. "After meeting with me, they met with my staff from the I.S. department. After the meetings, it was apparent they were extremely knowledgeable.

"They came in and spent three days here doing assessments. They basically tried to hack our system and discover areas of vulnerabilities. Two weeks later, they presented us with an impressive report. It showed where our problems were and what needed to be done. I was pleased that 90 percent of the problems could be handled internally.

"My fear was I would get a report that would show all the problems and that (VigilantMinds) would be the only ones who could fix it. But they've been very helpful in giving us guidance about how to fix the problems. There were no significant areas to be concerned about."

Like many companies, Delta Systems proved to be fairly secure from external breaches but was more vulnerable from internal ones.

"The things internally were things like making sure certain information was secure from other departments," says Billings. "Some of those types of things surprised me that they weren't secure, while other areas surprised me that they were extremely secure."

Once the report was made, Delta's I.S. staff put together a list of recommendations outlining suggested solutions and pinpointing which could be handled in-house and which would require additional assistance from VigilantMinds.

"We have completed the ones that put us at the most risk and have a plan in place to finish up the rest," says Billings.

Although the test didn't reveal any major security issues, Billings says it's important to be wary.

"I think at the speed technology is improving today, I would just be negligent if I don't come back in a couple years and test our systems again," says Billings. "We were only testing the capabilities that are out there today. If I don't do something to test our security in two years, then shame on me.

"My only advice to other businesses is don't just think about it, do something about it. Things happen where you aren't looking." How to reach: Delta Systems, (330) 626-2811; VigilantMinds, (216) 937-5151

Monday, 30 June 2003 05:44

Traveling new roads

In 1995, District 12 of the Ohio Department of Transportation didn't have a very diverse work force; a little more than 16 percent of the employees for the district were minorities.

"We never quite had the focus until we really started working as a team with the deputy district director to increase the percentage," says Tony Urankar, business and human resources administrator for District 12. "Sixteen percent for our urban area (District 12 serves Cuyahoga, Lake and Geauga counties) was not that good."

In 1997, the district began implementing a plan to increase the number of minorities in the work force to match the level of minorities -- 21.25 percent -- in the general population in the area the district serves.

It started by filling open mid-level positions from its existing work force, which opened up entry-level positions. A training officer was promoted to mentor new employees, and management started looking for people with soft skills -- such as a commitment to public service -- in addition to the hard skills necessary to do the job.

"We started looking at nontraditional recruitment," says Urankar. "We had reps at the Black Family Expo and went to events during Black History Month. We would go to Hard Hatted Women events. We might not always have openings, but we are trying to fill our files with qualified candidates and promote the department as a great place to work.

"We want everyone to know that we are doing this because we know it's important and that we care."

The district also established a program to recruit potential candidates from the Cleveland Public Schools. Students are mentored by the training officer for four months while preparing for their commercial driver's licenses. So far, the program has netted 14 successful applicants, 11 of whom are minorities and one female.

The results show the programs are working. The district now has a work force that is 22 percent minority.

"Our diversity balance continues to skyrocket," says Urankar. "There's a changing of the guard, and with it, a change in our attitude and culture." How to reach: ODOT District 12, (216) 581-2800

Top notch

The best job candidates aren't always the most qualified.

Just ask Tony Urankar, business and human resources administrator for ODOT District 12. In 1997, the district was ready to start hiring again and decided it would pursue candidates who had the necessary licenses to start immediately.

"The leadership at the time thought the best employee would be able to jump right in the truck so they wouldn't have to be trained," says Urankar. "What that yielded was 16 employees, two of which resigned the first week. Today, of the 16, there are four left."

The reason was that by targeting this type of employee, you typically ended up with someone who has 20 years of service with other companies and has multiple resumes out.

"These were people who had been laid off from other companies and had applications in all over the place," says Urankar. "If someone offered them $2 an hour more, they left. Most of them just went with us because we put food on the table.

"We were very happy thinking we were getting highly skilled workers, but we were getting resignations faster than we could bring them in."

That experience led to a shift in focus to training, mentoring and looking for a commitment rather than just a list of licenses and experience. The district now focuses on finding the right person and giving them the skills they are missing rather than just looking for candidates who already have the skills but aren't really committed to public service.

Thursday, 19 June 2003 13:40

Acquiring minds

Aggressive acquisitions enabled Medina-based RPM, a specialty coatings manufacturer, to grow from $3 million in sales in 1961 to more than $2 billion today.

Thomas C. Sullivan, the non-executive chairman of the company, followed his father's advice to achieve such exponential growth.

"At the time of my father's death in 1971, Republic Powdered Metals -- the company he founded and the forerunner to RPM Inc. -- was doing $11 million in sales," says Sullivan. "We formed RPM Inc. at that time to act as a holding company, using the philosophy in an acquisition strategy that mirrored his people philosophy: 'Go out and find the best companies in the industry, create the atmosphere to keep their management and then let them do their jobs.' This was very unique in our industry and, I am sure, the reason that our acquisition program has been so successful."

Unlike other companies that look to capture synergies through painful cost-reduction initiatives, RPM's successful mergers and acquisition track record of more than 90 transactions in its corporate history is attributed to its approach of leaving management in place.

"Today, RPM is organized into six platforms, three each in our consumer and industrial divisions," says Sullivan. "This allows us now to do 'bolt-on' acquisitions, where management does not stay with the operation. It also allows us to do acquisitions using our original philosophy."

For employees, this approach has created a motivating and empowering environment. Likewise, companies and their employees join RPM knowing they will have an opportunity to share in the success of a larger, more profitable business. For customers, it created a stable business partner with a broad range, offering of leading industrial and consumer brand-name products and led by seasoned management.

This approach to acquisitions has also rewarded shareholders with 55 years of record growth and 29 years of increasing dividends, placing the company in the top 1/2 of 1 percent of all U.S. publicly traded companies in terms of dividend increases.

Since 1971, RPM shareholders have received an annual compounded rate of return of approximately 16 percent with dividends reinvested. How to reach: RPM, (330) 273-5090

Friday, 30 May 2003 06:33

Split image

Seeing double is nothing new for Chris Skeeles, CEO of Canton-based Magic Picture.

The firm makes lenticular images, photos that have multiple images within them that gives the illusion of movement or passing time. These images are common in modern baseball cards, in which a card may show Cleveland Indian Omar Vizquel at the plate when tipped one way, but tipping it the other changes the image to show him swinging the bat.

Skeeles decided to turn the technology into a business when he became fascinated with aerial photographs while doing public-sector research.

"I was looking at aerial photographs from as far back as 1934 and comparing them to now," says Skeeles, who also has two other businesses that he runs from one location with 10 employees. "I needed to go from 1934 to now, and the obvious choice was the computer."

Skeeles started producing screensavers that showed a particular location as a farm field, then changed to show what's there today.

"The test cases really went crazy for it, but we needed to come up with a way to do it without sitting in front of a computer," he says.

After some research, Skeeles settled on lenticular imaging, a WWII-era technology that has been used for trading cards, cereal box promotions and trade shows.

"I was highly attracted to the idea of having an image where I could look back and see what roads and buildings were there from a long time ago," says Skeeles. "I recognized that it was not only something I was interested in, but others, too."

The possibilities started to flood in.

"I pulled out a couple of pictures of my daughter at 8 months and one at 7 years and put them together in a lenticular 8x10 image," he says. "It knocked everyone's socks off as she magically grows to her current self."

Then came the picture of his grandparents, one from their wedding day and one from their 50th anniversary. This was followed by a "before" and a projected "after" picture for his parents' kitchen remodeling business.

Prospects not only wanted the work done, they wanted the picture, too. People loved the idea.

Forget about seeing Barry Bonds, Peyton Manning or some cartoon character you can't even identify, Skeeles wants to make pictures of your kids, your parents or your fully restored 1966 MG Midget that transform before your eyes.

"They are perfect for tradeshows, but that's probably already been done," says Skeeles. "To my knowledge, never before could you order just one image. They take time to make, and most sign companies that have this technology would rather focus on items made in bulk that contain generic messages that anyone can use."

The equipment Magic Picture uses produces images that are of a higher quality than those on a baseball card. Up to 10 individual images can be combined into a lenticular image that shows motion as smoothly as a cartoon.

"The possibilities are endless, but I've learned from experience, focus is important," says Skeeles. "We have found that customized family-oriented images are what people are most receptive to of the things we've tried."

For now, Skeeles is developing a sales model based on consignment orders from gift shops. Magic Picture would handle the production process, with merchants getting a commission for the sale of the $99 8x10s. He's also working on custom displays for corporations.

"There is so much uncovered ground," says Skeeles. "There is a lot of this stuff around, but no one is taking the time to apply it." How to reach: www.skeeles.com/magic or (330) 455-7088

Friday, 25 April 2003 12:50

Salvage mission

The movie "Weekend at Bernie's" features two friends who trick everyone into believing that their dead boss, Bernie, is still alive.

Bob Cohen, president of the Centrus Group, has seen this same plot in the business world.

"It's a Bernie business," says Cohen. "It's a business that is dead but is still acting like it's alive. I've walked into a lot of Bernie businesses and the management is in denial. Their funding is typically with trade credit, and they are extending those lines further and further."

When a business reaches that point, there are three questions that will determine whether it can survive or whether it should be sold.

* Is there a core business? "Core means a product line or market worth saving," says Cohen.

* Is there a management team in place that can complete a turnaround?

* Are there adequate financial resources to complete a turnaround?

"If the answer to any of the three questions is no, then you may have a business that you may have to sell or liquidate and wind down to maximize the cash value for the company," says Cohen. "If you have a core business with not enough cash, you can often find a lender or equity investor that will contribute to the company. If you have a core business with inadequate management -- but you have money -- you can go and get better management. If you don't have the management, you can get the money to get it. If there is no core business, you are dead as a business.

"In the other two cases, you can either bolster the company with an investment or better management, or you can sell the business as a going concern and use the money to pay down creditors. If there is no core business, you are into liquidation."

Business leaders who find themselves in these situations are often led there by ineffective or nonexistent business strategies.

"A business strategy is all-inclusive," says Cohen. "It's not just a sales plan. It's not just who you are going to sell to and what doors you are going to knock on. It's not just about making the best product or the least expensive product. It's not just having the best people or cash plan.

"It's all of those things together. A good strategic plan takes a look at all these aspects and looks at what is likely to happen, as well as what-if scenarios. It also has an effective and frequent monitoring process to see if you are varying from the plan.

"Your management team has to have a good handle on those issues that impact a business internally and externally. Internal issues are things in the company, such as people, product and even competition. Then there are the external issues such as the economy or war that have to be taken into consideration.

"If your plan doesn't look at both internal and external issues, your plan is headed for failure." How to reach: Centrus Group, (330) 864-5800 or www.centrusgroup.com


Countdown to disaster

Bad financials can get executives worried about the future of their business, but the numbers themselves rarely hold the answers.

"The numbers are only a symptom of the problem," says Bob Cohen, president of Centrus Group. "You have to look at the root causes of what makes the numbers go to hell. There are three main things that let me know where a troubled company is at."

* Ineffective communication. "Either someone isn't communicating effectively or isn't listening effectively," says Cohen. "In all cases, it is management's responsibility to tell the employees what is appropriate to support the continued viability of the company."

When communication breaks down, Cohen says a company has one to two years before crisis mode will take over.

* Denial. "When you are to the point where the company is having serious problems, most people in the company will know it, but not the senior management," says Cohen. "Their attitude will be, 'We've been here before and made it through, we'll do it again.'"

When denial sets in, a business has about six months before hitting the financial wall and the numbers start looking really bad.

* Blame. "Blame is when they realize there's a train coming down through the tunnel," says Cohen. "They know they have problems and start looking for someone to blame. Senior management needs to find fault in someone other than themselves, and they often blame the bank or someone outside the organization."

When blame starts, a business has 30 to 90 days before serious financial problems arise.