Kelly Tomkies

Monday, 27 September 2004 11:56

Technical dependency

New hardware and software can save companies a great deal of money and improve efficiencies -- there is no doubt about that. Technology firms are producing more and more programs that can help businesses, and firms should certainly take advantage of them.

But are we relying too heavily on technology to solve our problems? What happens when the technology fails, as it sometimes can? Companies have disaster recovery plans, but what happens if the computers crash or the power goes out? Do employees know how to function in the absence of technology?

I recently visited my local video rental store. The check-out lines were long, and I soon discovered why - the computers were down.

The manager was on the phone trying to restore functionality, but in the meantime, customers waited and the cashiers stood looking dismayed and confused. All business stopped while the computers were down because the cashiers had no system in place to conduct business without them.

An employer can lose a great deal of money when a critical computer or server goes down for even just an hour. Yet computers are not 100 percent reliable, and no one can guarantee that a computer will never go offline, especially with so many viruses and worms seeking to infect our systems.

No company should be so vulnerable that it loses money when a computer goes down. And no customer should have to stand and wait because a computer system isn't working.

Before computers, people transacted business. Maybe it took a little longer, but it can be done. Employees need to know how to manually record transactions, open cash drawers and keep records so that business doesn't come to a screeching halt if technology hiccups.

At the video rental store, more than one customer left, tired of waiting. I asked the manager if there weren't some way to conduct business while the computers were down -- and the answer was no.

Don't let your company fall into this trap. Evaluate your dependency on computers, and have a back-up plan in place.

Your technology costs you too much money already. Don't let it cost you more.

Tuesday, 31 August 2004 05:07

Global engineering

Today, business is all about speed of delivery, says Charles Rodenfels, senior vice president of URS Corp.'s Columbus office.

"Our clients' expectations are to do it quicker," says Rodenfels. "It" refers to the company's bundle of design, engineering and project management services. Rodenfels says clients' expectations have changed because of the Internet and the ability to serve clients electronically. But the design and engineering process still takes time, so meeting clients' expectations can be a challenge.

"There is a lot of information to process," says Rodenfels.

The Internet has also enabled the Columbus office of URS to take advantage of opportunities outside the region. The San Francisco-based firm has offices worldwide, giving Rodenfels international resources to draw from. For example, when COTA invited the firm to bid on its new terminal, Rodenfels brought in associates from Minneapolis who were the best in the company in that market.

The company's worldwide network offers an additional advantage.

"We are able to keep up with changes in our clients' industries because we have very definitive markets we pursue," Rodenfels says. "We have offices in 100 cities, like Tampa, Seattle and Philadelphia, and we continually discuss what's going on. Usually that keeps us not just aware of the changes but ahead of them."

Smart Business spoke with Rodenfels about the global aspect of his industry.

What impact has the Internet and other technologies had on URS, and has that caused you to re-evaluate the way you do business?

There is no doubt our business today is about speed of delivery, and that has been brought about predominantly -- if not exclusively -- by the Internet. Our day-to-day communications, drawing and production are driven more and more by our clients' expectations.

Those expectations are fostered by the entire global Internet environment, but that is no different than any other business. A lot of people very quickly get the impression of our resources and abilities by looking at our Web page. It is our brochure.

The Internet has caused us to understand our clients' expectations have changed, requiring us to be responsive to met them. We also need to educate our clients because there is still an inherent process that has to take place. We are working to make it more efficient and faster, but we will not compromise the success of the project by letting inappropriate client expectations drive the process.

Much of the Columbus office's business is located outside the state, even outside the country. How do you attract these clients?

We are blessed to be one of the nation's largest architecture, engineering and planning firms. We didn't just appear, it took years of experience and successful project execution.

It is that experience that brings clients to us. They see similar projects and want to work with the best or leaders in that industry, such as health care, education and air transportation. We are recognized by our peers as being the largest provider of services in these areas. That brings us business more than anything.

When we were invited to bid on the new COTA terminal project, we reached into the network to Minneapolis, where the staff there can do it better. We supplement our team when we need to by importing others in the company.

What challenges do you face when working with global accounts, and how do the engineering standards in other countries differ from those in the United States?

There are obvious cultural differences that are an element of any engagement, but after you get through those preliminary differences, the nature of our profession is not terribly different. There are some different business parameters that can shape our doing business in other countries.

For example, we in the Columbus office worked on a large air terminal in China. The Chinese approach to compensation is different than in the United States. We normally invoice the client each month based on a percentage of the work completed, and we expect to be paid. In China, we can ask, but clients pay when given a deliverable, such as schematics, which can be eight to 10 months down the road.

But after those differences are addressed, the nature of the business is fundamentally the same. We have done a lot of government work, which has to be designed in metric measurements, but the advantages of computer-aided design are that those conversions are much quicker. We have offices in international locations, so we are also supported by the local office.

In Columbus, what are URS' most profitable services, and do they differ from your most popular services?

We're rich in the diversity of services we offer. Other firms tend to be either architecture or planning or engineering firms or subsets of those, like civil engineering. In that aspect, we have a greater value because we have it all, and we have it all in Columbus.

We can bring in all disciplines when calling on companies in the market. ODOT (Ohio Department of Transportation) thinks we're the best transportation firm in the state of Ohio, but we can say that we are also strong in the health care industry and air transportation.

Our profitability rests in our own execution of the project. When we can lead the project successfully, the client is happy, and URS has made money at the end of the day.

What strategies do you use to grow business in Columbus?

Within Columbus, most of our growth is organic. We're not reaching out to acquire other companies.

We have a clear definition of who we are and how we present that to our clients. We clearly communicate the fundamentals to companies in the markets where we are successful, and we identify and target markets that are growing. We can pull in all of the URS resources to strategically pursue a project or market.

We are known around the world for our work on airport terminals. We can pursue projects outside our geographic region. In light of Sept. 11, we have done a lot of work in the area of threat assessment.

Our markets change; for example, eight years ago, we were the leaders in juvenile detention centers.

Who are your largest local competitors and what differentiates you from them?

That's a tough question. We are so diversified that it depends on the project. If you're talking about air transportation design, there are three or four firms that we bump against routinely.

When you're talking about health care, there's a different three or four firms. In West Virginia, there are no Central Ohio firms competing against us. There are a lot of firms that have defined their niche, and we'll never compete with them -- for example, one firm does fast food site selection, and they've developed that market for 45 years; we don't pursue that business and don't compete.

What are your biggest personal challenges in managing the office?

I find the leadership and management component exciting. I get a tremendous amount of reward in participating in others' professional growth. It is challenging because our profession has a long, drawn-out incubator.

You don't come out of school at 21, and at 25, hit your prime. It's a 20- to 30-year cycle. It's a journey, and one that I enjoy.

I love to see people develop, but I've wanted them to move along sooner than they do. You don't just get it one day, it takes time. HOW TO REACH: URS Corp., (614) 464-4500 or

Wednesday, 21 July 2004 11:27

Comfort zone

Gordon Zacks was 32 years old in 1965 when his father died and he was named president of comfort footwear manufacturer R.G. Barry Corp. in his place. But despite his 10 years of experience at the company's corporate headquarters in Columbus, Zacks was unsure of how to adequately take on his father's role.

"I had no illusions about my ability to fill his shoes," Zacks says. "I didn't know how I could create a high-performance culture within the framework of our business."

Now senior chairman of R.G. Barry Corp., Zacks says his father had a passionate commitment to the business and was an inspiration to the company's employees.

"My father was a charismatic leader who gave us all unconditional love," he says. "We achieved high output per hour with very high quality because of the trust and respect the people had for my father."

To ensure that the company didn't lose anything during that transition from his father to him, Zacks turned to Bob Woodruff, at the time the manager of the company's North Carolina facility, for help.

Zacks knew that his father had a lot of respect for Woodruff and his management techniques.

"Bob gave me a dozen books to read on participative team management and how to tap into the creative energies of employees," he says. "The bottom line was that we pioneered a new system of managing the factories that pre-dated the Japanese quality initiatives."

That new system provided a 40 percent improvement in output, a decline in turnover and absenteeism, and improvement in the company's profitability. Further, the employees enjoyed the fulfillment of their creative ideas.

With the system in place, Zacks grew R.G. Barry substantially. When he took the reins, the company posted sales of just under $10 million with earnings of $300,000.

"In five years, we had $25 million in sales," Zacks says.

By the late 1990s, R.G. Barry had added three manufacturing facilities in Texas, one in Mexico and a sales office in New York City, and employed nearly 1,900 people. Zacks had led the company through countless industry changes and unstable economic and political environments. But things weren't exactly rosy; by the end of the decade, the company faced large operating losses, employed a system that had become cost-heavy and was saddled with debt that consistently outweighed its income.

Simply put, the processes that Zacks had used to build the company into a success were now creating millions in losses each quarter.

So last year, just as he did nearly 40 years earlier, Zacks looked outside his office for help. His goal was the hire a business consultant and charge him with two tasks -- find a way to increase sales and find areas where Zacks could cut costs.

But that didn't create the overall results Zacks and the board sought. Instead, they agreed, the company's problems went much deeper. Explains Zacks, "I brought in business consultants to help us improve the existing business model. But what we didn't realize was that it was broken and we needed to throw it out and start over."

Along came Von Lehman

By the end of 2003, R.G. Barry was in serious financial trouble. Although year-end net sales were $123.1 million, the company still announced losses of $21.7 million. The board agreed with Zacks that it was time to bring in a turnaround specialist and hired The Meridian Group, an investment banking firm that specializes in turnarounds.

Tom Von Lehman of The Meridian Group immediately recognized the company's flawed business model.

"We did an analysis and realized there were a core group of clients that represented 70 percent of the company's sales and 80 to 90 percent of its profits," Von Lehman says.

In the company's efforts to increase sales, it had created new product lines that were not as profitable as previously existing ones. Von Lehman proposed that the company simplify its product line and outsource all of its production, dramatically reducing costs and increasing profits.

"The company has a product offering of about 570 styles of slippers," he says. "It will go down to 170."

As part of the restructuring, Von Lehman says the number of customers the company serves will also be drastically reduced.

"We have more than 800 customers currently, but when we get done, that number will be in the range of 30," Von Lehman says.

Despite how it looked on the surface -- that R.G. Barry could potentially cut off longstanding revenue streams in an attempt to better streamline the company -- Zacks says he and the board of directors saw merit in Von Lehman's strategy and hired him to lead the implementation of the new model, which began in March.

"The board recognized that, in order to effect change, it would take a dramatic change of thought processes," Von Lehman says. "Gordon loves the growing process. It's asking a lot for him to lead the dismantling."

As part of the change, Von Lehman assumed the role of interim president and CEO and will lead the company until the changes are complete. At that point, he says that Zacks will undertake an executive search for a new president and CEO with deeper industry experience.

Zacks says he is confident that Von Lehman's strategy will succeed where previous strategies have failed.

"If I could change anything, I would've brought in a turnaround consultant in 1999," Zacks says.

He says the management team is disappointed that it didn't recognize the need for a turnaround specialist sooner.

"We asked why we didn't see this ourselves. Everyone's disappointed that we didn't, but we are glad we have Von Lehman now," Zacks says.

Zacks says that after the changes, R.G. Barry will emerge as a very different company than the one he took over in 1965.

"We'll be leaner, faster and more profitable," he says. "We're also doing what is best for our customers."

Von Lehman agrees that by focusing on the customers that are the most profitable, the company can further enhance existing relationships.

"This strategy actually reduces our risks because we won't be diluting our resources," Von Lehman says. "And we will still have 30 large customers -- with not one of them too dominant."

Looking ahead

Part of the strategy to reduce costs and outsource many functions is to close of all of R.G. Barry's facilities in Texas and Mexico, which will reduce the total number of employees from 1,900 to 200.

"We will be outsourcing 100 percent of our products," says Von Lehman, adding that most of that outsourcing will be to companies outside the United States.

Zacks, who is a member of President Bush's Advisory Committee for Trade Negotiations and chairman of the U.S. & Foreign Commercial Service Advisory, says outsourcing is not to blame for the country's current trade situation, which he claims is unfair to the nation's suppliers.

"We do not have a level playing field," Zacks says. "And the political reality is that it is unlikely to become fair."

Zacks says instead of focusing on the outsourcing issue, business leaders should focus on educating their existing work force.

"In our company, we have so many good, long-service people that have made a lifetime investment with us," he says. "That will be rare in the future. People are changing careers, working in multiple industries, and they need to be flexible, adaptable and able to learn new skills at an advanced age. That is our biggest challenge -- to figure out how to re-educate the work force."

Despite Zacks' and Von Lehman's positive outlook about R.G. Barry's future, the company's has received more bad news. Early in June, the New York Stock Exchange delisted R.G. Barry from public trading. Zacks and Von Lehman are taking the delisting in stride.

"We do not believe the NYSE's decision has any bearing on our ability to move forward with implementation of our new business model," Von Lehman says. "And we have no plans to challenge their decision."

Von Lehman explains that 2004 is a difficult transition year, and he does not expect the company to turn in an operating profit. But he does expect to see positive results in 2005.

In the meantime, the company's common shares will be traded on the Over the Counter Bulletin Board, and Von Lehman continues to be optimistic about R.G. Barry's future.

"The employees are hopeful now," he says. "And our biggest risk this year was customer defection. But we have gotten the commitment from our biggest customers for the big holiday season."

Plus, he says, the comfort footwear market is expanding, and R.G. Barry is well-positioned to take advantage of the new casual trend in the nation.

"Consumers like comfort footwear they can go run errands in, or take out the trash," says Von Lehman. "They're not strictly for house wear anymore. We are expanding the definition of comfort footwear."

Von Lehman also points to R.G. Barry's solid foundation as insurance for the company's turnaround.

"R.G. Barry has a very sound foundation of products, brands and customer relationships, which are all very important," he says. "A company can't turn around unless it has a reason for being -- does it provide value? If the answer is no, no amount of re-energizing will help.

"But the answer here is yes. The company has good products and good people." How to reach: R.G. Barry Corp., (614) 864-6400 or

Friday, 16 July 2004 09:42

On the right path

Clarian Health Partners president and CEO Daniel Evans Jr. starts each business day by talking with the night maintenance workers.

"I receive management reports, but you can't taste and feel the atmosphere from them," Evans says. "I also visit the volunteer in the surgery waiting room. She can tell me when it's been a good day."

One reason for his personal involvement is that when Evans officially assumed leadership of Clarian Health Partners Inc., a hospital system that includes Methodist Hospital, Indiana University Hospital and Riley Hospital for Children, the industry was wrought with distrust.

"My biggest challenge when I started was dealing with relationships that were strained and creating an environment of trust," says Evans. "I spent as much of my time with internal constituencies as I could, basically managing by walking around."

Evans assumed the top spot at Clarian in November 2002, after holding that position on an interim basis from July of the same year. But Clarian wasn't new to Evans, a former senior partner in the law firm Baker & Daniels and former chairman of the Federal Housing Finance Board. He has served on Clarian's board since the organization was formed in 1997, and was its chairman from 2000 to 2002.

The Clarian system that Evans oversees employs more than 11,000 people, operates more than 1,300 staffed beds and generates gross patient revenue in excess of $2 billion each year. The system dominates the Indianapolis-area marketplace, staking claim to a 31 percent market share.

Despite this, when Evans was named full-time CEO, he says he believed there was still a lot of work to do to both maintain and continue to grow Clarian.

"The industry itself is in a high state of change and tension," he says. "I knew we had to come together as a team and confront the tension. I reached out to the physicians and nurses and the rest of the staff to create an environment of trust. It is a continual process."

Drawing the road map
Karlene Kerfoot, Clarian's chief nursing executive, says its hasn't taken Evans long to put his stamp on the organization.

"Dan has a wonderful ability to get us all driving in the right direction," she says.

And she should know. As chief nursing executive, Kerfoot's been tackling one of Clarian's most difficult problems -- a shortage of nurses -- since 2001, when she adopted the AACN Synergy Model for Patient Care.

Kerfoot says one reason for the problem is that there are not enough nurses graduating from Indiana schools to supply the state's demand, and y, Clarian suffered because of it.

"We developed programs to become a magnet and attract nurses," Evans says. "We wanted to become an exciting place for nurses to work. It's all about patient care."

The Synergy Model matches patients' needs with the skill levels of their nurses. Patients who need more skilled care are matched with nurses who have those skills. Kerfoot says this allows the hospital to best utilize its existing resources.

"The system improves patient care, and both the patients and the nurses are happier," she says.

There are other benefits, says Evans. "There's no reason for them to leave," he says. "They (the nurses) work together as a team. It has made a difference to the work atmosphere and the patients."

In the three years since its initial implementation, the results have been impressive.

"Nursing turnover was 25 percent when Karlene started the program; now, it is 3 percent," Evans says.

That's important, says Evans, because Clarian employs more than 3,000 nurses, and high turnover quickly leads to increased recruiting and training costs.

But nursing turnover is not the only issue on Evans' plate. All three of Clarian's hospitals are located in downtown Indianapolis, and there are no other hospitals in the inner city.

"We have a high Medicaid population, a high number of charity care patients and a high trauma population," Evans says. "It is an intensely busy place."

Add to this an aging population that requires more services, and Evans says the result is a high demand for patient care.

"We're [patients] also not paying anymore for this care," Evans says. "That is the dichotomy at play. There are more services needed, but we're not paying for it."

To combat this growing trend, Evans is working with the board and his staff to develop new strategies for attracting more paying customers to the downtown hospitals.

"We are doing that by providing care that is second to none," he says. "That's our mantra."

One benefit in Clarian's favor is that it is the fourth largest transplant center in the United States. Explains Kerfoot, "We are a national draw for patients with transplant needs. The acuity of care gets higher and higher, and we provide highly sophisticated care. People want to come here because of that."

Even so, Clarian has also established a strong outreach program to extend its reach. The organization maintains working relationships with the Center for Occupational Health in Terre Haute, Decatur County Memorial Hospital in Greensburg, Dunlap Occupational Health Centers in Elkhart County, Rehabilitation Hospital in Indianapolis, Tipton County Memorial Hospital, Union Hospital Health Group in Terre Haute and West Central Community Hospital in Clinton, all of which help Clarian build its brand and diversify its client base.

None of the work, however, happens in a vacuum. If patients aren't happy with the care they receive, all of Evans' work will be for naught. So Clarian publishes its basic patient satisfaction number on its Web site so current and prospective patients can make educated decisions about where to receive care.

"You know more about your car than you do your doctor," Evans says. "We provide transparency so you can make a decision. We have a vision of being the best, but we also have the underlying facts to support it. And we put them in your hands."

The journey is underway
Clarian, says Evans, is an organization that constantly re-evaluates itself as part of its strategy of continuous improvement.

"Our main tactic is evidence-based health care," he says. "We are delivering the best care to patients based on science. All procedures are done differently. We have empowered the physicians with knowledge, and there is a lot of technology behind that."

Kerfoot says this technology includes embedded alerts in Clarian's computer system.

"When a patient is admitted, his or her chart is encoded with any special concerns, such as blood pressure," she says, adding, "It is impossible for nurses to remember everything."

A vital part of evidence-based care is research.

"Something like 20,000 medical journal articles are published each year," Evans says. "It's not possible for a physician to read them all. But our system gets an important article to a physician in real time when he or she needs it."

Another part of the strategy is to maximize efficiencies and get the most of Clarian's existing resources.

"We have a duty to husband our assets and drive out needless expense and waste," Evans says. "This means driving down incidents (mistakes in medication, etc.) and achieving the best results we can."

The final piece of Evans' strategic plan is to attract patients on a national level. Clarian is building a cancer hospital to leverage its strength in that treatment area.

"This is where Lance Armstrong was treated," Evans says. "And he found Clarian on his own."

Clarian is a leading breast cancer research center as well, and Evans says the plan calls for drawing more referrals from a broader region and, eventually, from across the nation. Currently, 65 percent of the hospital system's patients are residents of the Indianapolis nine-county region. Thirty percent come from the remaining 83 counties in the state, while only 5 percent come from outside Indiana.

Clarian is also building full service hospitals in two high-growth suburbs and cities near Indianapolis -- Carmel and Avon.

"Carmel is one of the top 10 growth counties in the country," says Evans.

Establishing full-service hospitals in these areas will help foster growth within the downtown hospitals, Evans says, because "there will be some patients that will need to be referred to the central hospitals."

While all of this is happening, Evans does not let long-range strategy divert his attention away from the personal needs of his staff or his patients.

"I visit a patient every day," he says. "I stay involved in the details. I am personally involved in the health care business." How to reach: Clarian Health Partners Inc., (317) 962-2000 or

Tuesday, 22 June 2004 12:51

The Clark file

Born: April 30, 1953, Cleveland

Education: Undergraduate degrees, physiology and government, Ohio University; master's degree, public administration, Ohio University

First job: J&L Steel, as a laborer in the steel mills in Cleveland

Career moves: Summer jobs for then Cleveland Mayor Ralph Perk; managed a restaurant after college; Ohio Legislative Budget office during grad school; after college, Senate Republican Caucus as chief financial analyst, promoted to chief operating officer; left for private practice as a lobbyist in 1986

What is the biggest challenge in business you've faced?

The biggest day-to-day challenge is to position our company ahead of the competition if we want to stay on top.

Whom do you admire most in business and why?

I admire Alan Greenspan because he has survived the test of time. He's been consistent, and is rarely, if ever, influenced by others. He has truly stayed the course.

> What is the greatest lesson you've learned in business?

It's nothing personal. It's business.

Thursday, 29 April 2004 13:04

The George file

Name: Anton "Tony" George

Born: Indianapolis, Dec, 30, 1959

Education: Bachelor of science degree in business administration, Indiana State University

First job: Cart boy at Brickyard Crossings, the Speedway's golf course

Career moves: Vice president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway Foundation; executive vice president Indianapolis, Motor Speedway, then president and CEO; president, Hulman & Co.

What has been your biggest challenge in business?

The greatest challenge I have had is establishing the Indy Racing League. Developing team sponsors and drivers, building continuity year after year and generally growing it has been very challenging.

What is the greatest lesson you've learned in business?

You can't be all things to all people. You need to do what you think is best, knowing that you can't make everyone happy.

You have to make those decisions, even though not everyone will be happy about them.

Thursday, 29 April 2004 06:35

The people side

Executives and managers are inundated every day with the latest book, theory and technologies that promise to improve a company's bottom line.

Some books tout a new twist on customer service; others innovative ways to cut costs and improve efficiencies. All of these facets of your business are important, and in today's economy, they should be taken seriously and considered.

But before you jump on the latest business craze bandwagon, don't forget that at the end of the day, your company's success hinges on the performance of your employees.

The best technology in the world won't improve customer service if the people using it are careless, ill-trained or unhappy with the company and/or their jobs. Cutting costs might improve that side of the financial picture, but if your sales drop off because of unhappy sales reps, it won't make a big enough difference in the long run.

Companies that rush to embrace new trends and technologies without first considering improvements in developing employees and creating a positive work environment may be left wondering why these investments didn't produce the expected results.

After speaking with dozens of CEOs and executives of successful companies, I have discovered a common thread: they all value their employees. They consider keeping those employees happy and developed one of their biggest -- and most important -- challenges. These business veterans have learned through experience that it's always a challenge to find and retain highly qualified, talented workers, because people's needs are constantly changing.

But it is a challenge that successful CEOs make a priority to meet, every day. Yes, these executives also seek to improve the efficiencies in their operations and keep pace with industry trends and technologies, but they keep employee relationships and concerns foremost in their minds.

So before you seek a cure-all for what ails your firm in the latest business book or methodology, make sure you are starting out with satisfied employees, people who are growing professionally and are happy with their jobs. Then you might find that any other improvement you make is like icing on the cake.

Wednesday, 17 March 2004 11:24

A successful formula

William Mays possessed three things when he started Mays Chemical Co. 24 years ago -- integrity, an innovative spirit and a passion for the business. And the successful combination of these elements has helped him survive and thrive ever since.

What began as a one-person operation in 1980 is today one of the largest minority-owned firms in Indianapolis, with $166 million in annual revenue and nearly 200 employees. Mays Chemical Co. serves as a source for chemicals, related raw materials, formulated products, outsourcing services, cleaning and sanitation systems and chemical management expertise.

Its clients are businesses small and large, in industries including beverage, food, pharmaceutical, automotive, personal care and electronics.

"My philosophy is we're more than just a business," says Mays, president and CEO. "Because we are family owned and controlled, we can set high standards."

Mays, an Indiana University-trained chemist, acquired his passion for the business when he served as president of another chemical distributor, Specialty Chemicals. He left that job to launch Mays Chemical with $60,000 in start-up funds, and his new company grossed $2.2 million in sales the first year.

Mays' success hasn't gone unnoticed. He is considered one of the region's top power brokers, and his company landed at No. 22 on Black Enterprise's 2003 list of the top 100 Industrial/Service companies.

Mays says his biggest challenge is attracting and retaining quality employees. But he's found that, as a minority-owned business, he has an edge in attracting minority employees. And he's also found success in that area because he approaches it through the first of his three key elements -- integrity.

"You have to do business with integrity," says Mays. "Pay your bills on time. We try to do it right the first time."

But, he says, the biggest attraction for potential employees is that the company encourages their input from Day One.

"In today's business environment, you need everyone's input and ideas to stay cutting edge," says Mays. "We pride ourselves on thinking outside the box."

And, says Mays, his employees have the ability to help mold the company and make decisions.

"I allow senior managers to run their areas," he says. "I'm here for guidance and direction, but they run their areas."

And while the company offers competitive salaries and benefit packages, that's just part of what keeps employees happy on the job.

Says Mays, "We treat everyone like family. Our hourly employees don't punch a time clock. We get better results when people don't feel that they are being watched."

And Mays allows employees to work at home when they need to, due to a child's illness or other family emergency.

"We've never had a serious attempt at a union here because the employees are happy," he says.


Element No. 2: Innovation

Ranked among the top 20 chemical distributors in the country (No. 13 on's list), Mays Chemical faces fierce competition.

"We are competing for the same business as $3 billion companies with branches in 35 cities," Mays says.

But it's not easy, he says.

"If a company wants to do business with Mays Chemical, and wants us to service a plant in California, we are at a distinct disadvantage," he says.

Current operations adequately service clients throughout the Midwest and on the East Coast, but Mays says it takes extra planning and effort to do business on the West Coast. To overcome that operational disadvantage, Mays has developed innovative collaborations, forging both formal and informal alliances with independent distributors nationwide.

"If we call on Pepsi in Rye, New York, and they offer us a contract for 40 Pepsi plants, some of which are in California, with the alliance, we can do it," Mays says. "We all handle the same products. The other distributor delivers to the California plants, and we bill the client and split the profits with them."

It's an innovative strategy that keeps Mays competing for major contracts without having to build or acquire new properties, trucks or personnel to fulfill the contract needs.

"The alliance benefits both companies," Mays says. "The California distributor couldn't have gotten the contract in New York. And it's better to get half the loaf than none of it. It makes more sense and is a better utilization of the resources that exist."

Mays points to another competitive advantage he's developed -- agility.

"The large national companies have their own problems," he says. "They have several layers of decision-makers. You smack it on the tail and it takes awhile to get to the head."

At Mays, decision are made much more quickly.


Element No. 3: Passion

Mays' passion for excellence means that the company is always looking for ways to get better.

"There's always room for improvement," he says, noting that he's charged employees with looking at continuous improvement opportunities. "More efficiency means higher productivity. We should not have to replace person for person when employees leave."

Areas targeted most often are in quality control and product inspections. Mays says it takes a lot of attention to detail and more sophisticated technology and employees to meet today's customer demands.

"I would rather have the shipment arrive one day late but absent of mistakes than one day early and there is a problem," he says. "And we have to have the ability to pay attention to detail -- ship the correct product the first time."

This is not always easy, considering the complexity of the chemicals needed by customers and the added security requirements in the post-Sept. 11 environment.

"We have to know who's driving every truck and keep licenses on file," Mays says.

Because of the sophisticated needs of its customers, the company requires a highly educated work force.

"Two-thirds of our employees need to have a degree in science and a significant number have graduate degrees in chemistry," Mays says. "We serve more technical industries today. There's a big difference between a product that is formulated to go into a food source for Kellogg versus a waste water treatment facility."

And with the complexity of the business, communication with the employees is vital.

"Keeping people at all levels of the company communicating can be a challenge," says Mays. "It takes open and honest communication, talking about the good and bad. You don't sweep the negative stuff under the rug until it smells."

While Mays, 58, doesn't plan to retire any time soon, succession planning is on his mind. His daughter and son-in-law work for the company, but he insists that whoever leads it in the future must have the same passion for the business as he does.

If that isn't a family member, he isn't opposed to going outside the family to find that person.

"This business was my passion 24 years ago, but it may not be their passion," Mays says. "And it takes that passion to be successful. It may make more sense for them to sell the company to senior managers to fulfill their own passion." How to reach: Mays Chemical Co., (317) 842-8722 or

Thursday, 11 March 2004 12:05

Livin' it

I've seen it all too often. Companies -- often very large ones -- dictate and train one culture and live another.

For example, a valued employee at a very large company was asked to take a management training class. He was pleased to participate. However, he was soon astounded by what he was learning.

He was being taught how to communicate with, listen to and show appreciation of the employees that he would be managing. What surprised him was that this methodology had never been employed in his part of the company.

Quite the contrary. Supervisors and managers were encouraged to push employees to do more, to be tough, and if employees were unhappy, they were expendable. This employee felt the company's corporate culture began and ended in a training manual.

No matter how large or small a company is, it is very easy for those in charge to lose sight of the ideals and culture the company wants for its employees. When you preach one culture and live another, you are sending confusing messages to your employees and undermining trust and morale, even causing some people to look elsewhere for work.

With the costs of employee turnover and recruitment continuing to rise, the last thing a smart manager wants is to lose quality people. Here are some steps you can take to make sure your company doesn't fall prey to this potentially dangerous pitfall.

* Hire managers who share your management philosophies. As simple as this sounds, it can be easy to overlook this factor when you are considering so many other facets of a person's qualifications.

* Advertise your culture. Does every employee know the company's mission, goals and philosophy? Ask employees -- a different one each day in various positions throughout the company. If they cannot answer your questions, you need to do a better job of communicating your culture. Make sure your culture is reflected in all company materials, policies, procedures and training materials.

* Are your employees happy? Are they motivated? When you have an effective corporate culture that is communicated and lived, it shows in employee morale and turnover rates. And the old adage that a happy employee is more productive has never been truer.

So don't just talk the talk. Live your culture, and make sure everyone else is living it, too.

Thursday, 26 February 2004 08:35

Timeliness is everything

It's almost become a cliché -- the world is a smaller place, and we're moving faster than ever before, thanks to the World Wide Web. Then why is it still taking weeks or even months to complete some customer service transactions?

We can order an item, and post sales and banking transactions electronically. Today, if a transaction takes more than a few days to complete, there is something wrong. As consumers, we are more sophisticated and spoiled, and because we can often get immediate results, we want immediate results in every aspect of our lives.

Executives of large companies are spending more money on technology to increase the speed and accuracy of processes. If your business doesn't keep up with this dizzying rate of change, it may get left behind in a cloud of cyberdust.

I've recently experienced two examples of companies lagging behind that frenetic pace, and as a customer, it hasn't been pleasant. A large, well-known delivery company delivered my daughter's stereo to the wrong apartment. The person who signed for it tried to keep it, and when my daughter demanded its return, the person destroyed it.

That was in September. To date, I have not been reimbursed for the stereo, even though the package was insured. I don't intend to use that delivery service again.

It also took months for an account I closed to actually "close." I kept receiving statements every month and making phone calls asking why it hadn't closed. It is frustrating as a customer to be the victim of slow processes. And it is getting harder to understand why any problem cannot be resolved within a matter of days or weeks.

If your company has any process that takes more than a week or two to complete, you'd better look for ways to improve it. Like me, your customers may be frustrated enough to take their business to a company that can turn around a transaction or solve a problem almost immediately.