Running the gamut of U.S. Marine to firefighter to paramedic to police officer to safety director for MGM in Hollywood, Hoffman has sampled seemingly every childhood dream but that of cowboy in a career riddled with danger and excitement. What's next for the man who has made sure actors, such as Bruce Willis in Striking Distance and Titanic's cast, didn't get hurt amid explosive special effects? Bringing safety to Pittsburgh.
Hoffman last winter launched The Safety Store, a Bridgeville-based consulting firm that aims to teach and sell fire safety to both the business and residential communities in Pittsburgh.
Public safety is certainly Hoffman's area of expertise, but sales isn't all that foreign to him, either. After all, as a salesman for Thom McCann in the early 1980s, he got the "shoe-tree award" for selling the most shoe-trees of any associate. It was a time in men's fashion history when glove-leather shoes were the big style. The shoes were notoriously prone to creases, so the young salesman told his customers that the shoe-trees would slow the creasing process.
Flash forward to the present (leaving shoe sales long behind him), a more mature Hoffman is using those marketing skills, though a little more finely tuned, to sell people peace of mind.
The Safety Store banks on Hoffman's experiences to offer safety consultations and educational services, as well as to sell fire extinguishers and other safety equipment. Hoffman says he holds a strong and very personal interest in safety. As a firefighter seven years ago, he says, he listened helplessly as a 12-year-old child and her grandmother burned to death in a fire.
"I started this company so that I could end my own nightmares," he says.
Hoffman says the concept came to him years ago, but he thought he lacked the education necessary to see the concept through to fruition. His hands-on education came to him gradually from his varied public-safety career.
"At MGM, in particular, I gained a lot of insight in business," he says. "I worked with talented people who weren't afraid to teach and who took the time to mesh that with my own ideas. The Safety Store has risen out of that."
The Safety Store officially opened for business in December of last year. Since then it has, true to its name, been selling safety in a variety of forms. The foundation of the business at this point is Hoffman's fire-safety assessments of residential and commercial buildings. All residential assessments are free. He does charge businesses for assessments, but he stresses that a safety evaluation is a valuable investment for every business.
"What's it worth to you as a business owner to lose your entire client file?" Hoffman asks. "The ones who get it have had a fire. We live in a society that is almost entirely reactive instead of proactive."
Hoffman says most individuals and businesses are not nearly as prepared as they should be. Even those who have installed an adequate number of fire detectors are not as prepared as they could be. According to Hoffman, the failure rate of supposedly working fire/smoke detectors in homes is roughly 60 percent.
Pushing the test button on the smoke detector isn't enough, he claims, to know that it's working. The eardrum-piercing scream it emits only means that the batteries are working. Hoffman cautions that the old-style smoke detectors are prone to "stuffy noses," meaning that dust and other debris have accumulated on its sensors, rendering many devices useless. The newer-style fire detectors that "see" smoke are also prone to failure. Hoffman says many of them get "goopy eyes."
"You buy a car you know won't last forever, we get into relationships we think won't last forever, but many people buy these things thinking they'll work forever," he says.
Such is the basis of his pitch to potential clients.
In addition to fire-safety assessments and equipment sales, The Safety Store offers safety training and provides Safe Haven Childproofing, a service that makes homes safe for babies and small children.
As the fire extinguisher side of the business grows, Hoffman says, he is all too aware that the business's customer-success rate must run at 100 percent.
"If we make a mistake, there is a very real potential that someone could get hurt," Hoffman says.
At this point, Hoffman has only one full-time employee, Teri Black, who does everything from public relations to sales, and two outside consultants. He stresses the importance of finding the right people for the job. It took him four months to find and recruit Black, but he's glad he waited. He says Black takes care of all the business functions that he's not good at, freeing him to do the things he excels at. She takes care of promoting the company, while he concentrates on safety and loss prevention.
"I must have read through a million press releases at MGM, but it's not my forte to write them," says Hoffman, who has turned over such duties to Black.
Sales and marketing strategies
Because of the limited life of the products and services he provides, Hoffman says he believes in forging lasting relationships with his customers by simply doing the job right the first time.
"At the end of the day, I have to go to sleep knowing that I, and everyone I work with, have done everything we could to protect a business owner or family," he says. "The byproduct of that is that we have very happy customers."
To help get an advantage over established competitors in the fire extinguisher business, and to show his customers that they are often being overcharged, Hoffman asks his customers to produce invoices for their previous purchases and service visits. Then his discounts his prices to 20 percent less than they previously paid.
To add a little drama to his sales pitch-and to emphasize the need for fire safety equipment-Hoffman always lights a fire in a metal dish on the dining room table of every house he enters. He sets a metal pie plate in the center of the table, squirts in lighter fluid, and throws in a match. While the plate is aflame, he calmly sprays a quick burst from one of his halon-gas extinguishers into a glass and prevents the gas from escaping by covering his hand over the glass. Then, while holding the glass near the flame, he moves his hand and lets a small amount of gas escape. The fire is completely out in a matter of seconds, thanks to the oxygen-sucking halon.
"People seem to respond to the way we do business," Hoffman says. "A sign that we're on the right track is how often we are referred."
Hoffman says The Safety Store doesn't advertise at all and instead relies on customer referrals and networking for most new business. In fact, he says, he spends 20 percent to 25 percent of his time at networking functions (such as trade shows), trying to get The Safety Store's name and message out.
"Our goal is to grow one house at a time, one business at a time," he says.
Hoffman says he financed much of his start-up costs out of his own pocket, using his savings, severance pay from his voluntary departure from MGM, and by "maxing out" his credit cards. He also tried to run things on a very lean budget in the beginning of his operations. Hoffman says he didn't even pre-buy inventory.
"I went out and sold products I didn't have and wasn't even sure I could get," Hoffman says. "That kept a lot of start-up costs down."
To save on overhead, he first opened shop in a small rental office in Bethel Park. He has since moved operations to a small storefront at 500 Bower Hill Road in Bridgeville.
Hoffman acknowledges, though, that to grow the way he wants and in the somewhat diversified areas he has targeted, he may have to seek outside financial assistance at some point soon.
Sales to date
Hoffman won't quote an exact amount, but he says sales have been "above average," and "above track for the first year." He adds that, money-wise, the company's growth w ill exceed his business plan, which set a $75,000 goal for the year. The revenue breakdown is about 70 percent/30 percent, commercial to residential customers.
Hoffman says he thinks market potential for The Safety Store is great and almost unlimited because of the sheer number of houses and businesses in the region. He concedes that The Safety Store hasn't even reached 1 percent of the market yet.
"That's partly because we're new and partly because, no matter how good your research is, you spend your first six months chasing your tail, trying to figure out what you do for a living," Hoffman says.
His goal for next year will be to top $1 million, a big jump from the goal he had set for this year.
The Safety Store offers such an extensive list of services that, while capable of drawing a large base of customers, Hoffman is trying not to become over-diversified.
Paul Petrovich, a technology consultant for the Small Business Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh's Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, cautions that one of the most important things when starting a business is to define a focus, or a core business strategy. If a business owner blindly jumps at every apparent opportunity, Petrovich says, he risks being pulled away from the original plan, which takes him off track and confuses the customer.
Petrovich does acknowledge, however, that a little wavering from the original business plan early on in the start-up is common. Being flexible, he says, is sometimes necessary so the business can find its market niche. Petrovich stresses that ultimately "you want to define that and deliver."
Outsourcing with a twist
How to free your company from the entire human-resource function.
By Corrine LaFata
Business owner Jeanne McNary had had enough of the mind-numbing, time-eating job of managing employee administration-from payroll to benefits management and taxes-so she simply stopped doing it.
But her staff of five still gets paid, taxes get paid, and, better still, employees are now able to receive the kinds of benefits usually reserved for Fortune 500 companies. And perhaps best of all, McNary says, she can now concentrate on her core business. Her solution: classic outsourcing-with a twist.
McNary, co-owner of Docu-Rom, is part of a growing trend of business owners who are turning over tedious human-resource tasks to outside organizations called professional employer organizations. Essentially, a PEO is an entirely outsourced human-resource department. The PEO contractually assumes and manages human-resource responsibilities and employer risks for the business.
McNary turned to YourStaff Inc., a Burgettstown-based PEO that serves clients in the tri-state region. So, instead of drudging through the weekly paperwork associated with payroll and decoding ever-changing labor compliance regulations, she now writes just one check to YourStaff, which then does all the work for her.
McNary says it has alleviated a giant administrative headache and freed her to do her other work, like running her North Charleroi-based document scanning company.
"This opens the door for me to do my tasks of the day," says McNary. "It's so easy."
"The main benefit of using a PEO is that the employer gains better control over his business," says Jeff McGraw, director of sales and marketing for YourStaff. "Instead of having to focus on payroll, etc., they can pay attention to the aspects that drew them into the business in the first place."
The U.S. Small Business Administration estimates that the average small-business owner spends between 7 percent and 25 percent of his or her time handling employee-related paperwork.
Using a PEO, McGraw says, business owners regain that much-needed time, which they can devote to the production, marketing, and other functions of their core businesses-but without losing control of their employees.
In a PEO relationship, the business and the PEO are "co-employers," McGraw says. The employees still report to the same job, at the same location, and to the same boss, but their checks are cut from the PEO's account, and their competitive benefits are the result of the economies of scale brought on by the PEO's wide employee base.
On the administrative side, the business owner and the PEO share such responsibilities as union contracts and negotiations and upholding the Equal Pay Act. The PEO, meanwhile, assumes full responsibility for tasks such as maintenance of employment records, workers' compensation, and compliance with federal, state and local tax regulations.
The regulations alone, McGraw says, can seriously distract business owners, given the constant changes in labor laws and regulations. Without a PEO, the business owner is responsible for complying with the changes.
"We insulate them from a lot of these risks," says McGraw.
Adds Marcia Sartori, founder and president of YourStaff: "We focus on being a professional employer, and they focus on being a good business."
Have you complimented your employees today? If not, consider the idea. Bob Nelson, author and consultant, says employees in todays workplaces need only some recognition and appreciation to boost their productivity and loyalty. Hes got suggestions, and a lot of them wont cost you a dime.In some companies, a rubber chicken is a coveted award. In others, a banana is a reward for a job well done.
Though it may sound as though management has gone to the clowns, these are real awards at two national companies, and according to Bob Nelson, they are good ideas that boost employee motivation.
And if anyone would know, it would be Nelson. As president and founder of Nelson Motivation Inc., a San Diego-based training and consulting company, he has dedicated a major part of the last 18 years studying management techniques and sharing his findings. Nelson is the author of 17 business books with titles such as 1001 Ways to Energize Employees and 1001 Ways to Reward Employees.
According to Nelson, the key to energizing employees is to acknowledge their achievements and to reward their successes. Positive reinforcementrewarding behavior that you want repeatedcan make all the difference in the productivity of your employees.
If that means presenting a rubber chicken to a star performer, so be it. KFC Corp. employees that go beyond the call of duty for are presented with the Floppy Chicken Award, numbered in sequence, a handwritten note of appreciation, and a $100 gift certificate.
Nelson says that if you can reward a person while also having fun, youll satisfy two important workplace desires: to be appreciated and to enjoy the workplace.
And money doesnt have to be a part of a reward. As Nelson points out, recent research shows that encouragement, recognition and support can be more important than financial incentives.
A study conducted by Dr. Gerald H. Graham, professor of management at Wichita State University, revealed that the most powerful motivator for employees was personalized, instant recognition from their managers.
Such is the case in Hewlett-Packard Co.s Golden Banana Award. The award had humble beginnings as an impromptu item fished from a supervisors desk to serve as an instant acknowledgement of an employees accomplishment. Though the employee was initially puzzled by the award, it evolved into one of the most prestigious honors to be presented.
Nelson travels the country, delivering speeches and giving presentations to thousands of business owners and managers. Last month, he came to Pittsburgh as part of WYNCOMs Lessons in Leadership series.
This month, we rely on Nelsons nearly two decades of experience for knowledge that will help boost employee morale, satisfaction and productivity.
How can an employer motivate and energize an employee?
I think the most important things that help employees be energized today are, for the most part, things that dont cost a lot moneymore a function of how people are treated on a day-to-day basis. Trust and respect, and that they understand what is expected of them, and that they are encouraged and thanked when they do a good job, and that they are involved in the decisions that affect them. That they are given a say in how they do their jobs, and are given a chance to learn new skills and those types of things that allow for a workplace to be one where people want to come to work....Or if youre not doing them, a place where people would rather not be.
What is the state of affairs in companies? Are they not praising their workers?
I think in most organizations, it just isnt happening enough. So the books are a reminder of their importance, and practical techniques for how to do it by showing examples from other companies that are doing it today.... So, I think, first of all, as a company, if you dont think about this stuff and you havent thought about what to do or how you want the place to be, you wont be doing it. This is the type of stuff that happens by accident these days. So you have to be intentional about doing these types of things, including thanking people.
I think there are a lot of things working against these seemingly simple activities, including the speed of business, the pressures of business, the competition, the stress, all those types of things focus most organizations on pressuring employees to work faster and harderand a lot of times, the things Ive talked about go to the wayside.
There are some people who just naturally praise. They are people people, but how can an employer who may not come naturally to the art of praise, adopt these practices without coming off as sounding phony or fake?
There are managers who are naturally good at this, they are more people-oriented, they are courteous, they have empathy, they think of others. And I think regardless of the circumstances, they would come back to those principles. I guess I believe that its no longer sufficient that we have managers that do this on their own volition, by chance. If you are in the role of manager, you need to know about the importance of doing this type of thing. And you need to have the skills and the tools to do them.
I guess weve adopted that these seemingly simple things have got to be a higher priority, that theyre an important part of every working environment. Or else, you are likely to lose your people and lose your business.
So you think that everyone is capable of doing this?
I think that its hard to change someone overnight. If you have a manager who has never done this, and theyre basically a grump and they have these high expectations and think these people are lazy, youre not going to be successful changing that persons personality. But you still have a system, if theyre willing to do this type of thing, if they want to be able to attract and keep workers who do the best job. And so you can still find things that the person can do that are to their abilities. Maybe that person isnt comfortable giving someone praise for doing a good job, for whatever reason. And so maybe you find something else that they are comfortable doing. Maybe you could get them to write notes of acknowledgement thanking someone, or maybe you could get them to attend department staff meetings. Just through their presence, it shows that they show an interest and showed that they are concerned. Theres a lot that goes into having a manager show respect of others. Inviting them (employees) to a meeting they have never been to before. Giving them an assignment that they know that person is interested in, special assignments. It could be giving them greater flexibility in their job, or instead of solving a problem for an employee, allowing them to give it their best shot. These books consider thousands of things successful managers have used. Of these thousands of possibilities, which ones could you do? Which ones couldnt you? There are personality differences. Which are you comfortable with trying and can you use that as a starting point to build on to make the work environment a little bit more like what were describing?
For business owners, how do you get your managers, who are the ones that really work closely with the employees, to recognize employee accomplishments? In other words, how can an owner motivate his or her managers?
The best way for a business owner is to do it themselves. Then they are modeling the behavior that they want the managers doing, and in so doing, it would be hard for them to get some of the physical objections that managers may raise about stuffthey just dont have time, theyre too busy. If an owner of a company has time in this system, then that sets an example that no matter how busy we are, we need to take time to sit down with peoples efforts and say , in a timely and specific manner, I noticed, and also discuss opportunities in their field.
What seems to be the biggest shortfall for employers when it comes to energizing employees
The biggest shortfall is probably that people recognize that this is an important thing to do, but still dont do it. Its kind of like exercise: Everyone knows they should be exercising, but it doesnt make it any easier to do, its hard to find the time, and the ones who do are the ones who are really committed to it. Its the type of thing where you say, Yeah, I know I should treat my employees right, and if I do so, Ill get a better effort from them, but then just dont do it. Youre too busy doing your own jobs, and you focus on problems and mistakes that are happening, the negatives. You might say that people are the most important asset, but unless were showing it in our behavior, after a while, theyll stop believing it.
Can you name your five favorite ways to energize employees, or to reward them?
The best, I think, are the simplest and most direct. The No. 1 is taking the time to personally thank someone for doing a good job, in a very specific timely manner. That could be as simple as, John, thanks for staying late last night to finish that report. We were really up against a deadline, and it means a lot to me to take it upon yourself, without being asked, to make sure that we met our deadline. Thats the type of commitment that can help us meet our goals. Something as simple as that, or to do a public thank-you, which would be at a staff meeting or a company meeting, or it could be something you put up on the bulletin board, or e-mail, or a wall of fame, or a pass-around trophy, or it could be a written note or letter in somebodys personal file. Those are some of the top ones. It can go up from there. It could be bringing in ice cream and having a five-minute celebration about the success of the department. It could be giving people time off, giving people passes to go check out materials from the corporate library. It could be getting a special parking spot.
Can you apply these concepts across a broad job spectrum? Will the same kinds of things that you can do in an insurance company, for example, apply to a manufacturing environment?
I think that you have to start wherever you are and build on that. Its hard to go from a place that has never done any of this, to overnight be a Disney or a Hewlett-Packard or a Starbucks or a highly motivated environment. But can you do one thing different that moves you in that direction? It can work in any environment. The things that are best to do would be a function of what you have done in the past involving the people, if you have. So the best management is what you do with people, not to them.
You mentioned Disney, Hewlett-Packard, and Starbucks. How do they treat their employees differently than the average company?
This is part of their culture. When I say this is part of their culture I mean this is ingrained into the practices of management, they have the tools and they deal with it at all levels. You take a place like Starbucks. They have a high value on trust and respect, they go from very simple, that interpersonal type thing, on up through employees being given the product as part of their job, and they get company stock and they get opportunities for training which help them be promotable. Theyre doing all of it to some degree. For an hourly paid job, that people do for a part-time job, or while theyre in school, they tend to get people interested in making it a career because they love the company and the company treats them right.
Take a place like Disney. People are hired for their attitude and service to others, and that is reinforced in training. At Walt Disney World, for example, they have 180 recognition programs, at all levels: individual, team-based, organizational, spontaneous, and formal, they are doing this all the time in the company and looking for new things to come up with because it really works.
What about a smaller company that may not have the resources that a larger company like Disney would have?
They have a lot of advantages that a large company doesnt have. They have frequent visibility with the owners. Thats worth a lot. They have the owners to talk about the vision of the organization and where they are headed. Small companies typically have people doing lots of different things to meet the needs that can be translated into a real excitement or flexibility. If someone has a specific interest in doing a certain type of work, or to work with customers, or to learn accounting, typical small companies can accommodate that. Because youre small, your ability to communicate is greater. Thats an important part of having people feel involved. So I think, given the choice of trying to do these things in a large organization or in a small one, Id always prefer a small organization. In a large corporation, peoples jobs get very narrow and specific. You get kind of rule-bound, with policy manuals telling you exactly how to do things, so individual initiative and autonomy goes way down. For a lot of people, its easier to feel like a cog in a machine, another cog in a wheel. And not to have your job be as fulfilling or valued.
Do you think its more important for a smaller business to recognize and reward employees?
I think its important in all environments to have recognition. It can be easier in a small business if the most powerful things are things that dont cost a lot of money, like individual respect and autonomy and flexibility.