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Steve Davidson wanted to do a better job of listening to his franchisees at Robeks Corp. It was the biggest complaint he heard upon taking over as president and CEO of the smoothie franchise chain, which has 116 stores around the world and nearly 1,000 corporate and franchise employees.

Franchisees were frustrated that the previous leadership regime didn’t take advantage of the depth of knowledge they gain each day from interacting with customers across the country.

“You have a lot of very bright, talented and creative people in your franchisees with lots of great ideas,” Davidson says. “They like to implement those ideas, and they are businesspeople. The challenge is to channel those ideas in the right direction to make them productive and utilize them as best as we possibly can.”

Davidson wanted to give franchisees an outlet to share their bursts of inspiration. But any system he put in place needed structure so that the great ideas could be researched and implemented and the suggestions that wouldn’t work could be gently turned down.

“There are so many ideas that, in order to be cohesive, we can’t implement them all,” Davidson says. “There are disappointments for some franchisees if they have a great idea that they think will work in their particular store in a particular part of the country; it just may not be something that works universally.”

If he chose to do nothing, turning a deaf ear to the ideas that were out there, Davidson risked damaging the Robeks brand.

“The franchisees will implement these things on their own and then you find different stores all going in different directions, which is not good for a chain,” Davidson says.

Davidson wanted to make it work and wanted to make franchisees feel like the valued part of the team that he believed them to be. He felt the best way to do that was to go out and share his thoughts face to face.

 

Be a good listener

Davidson has seen companies hold conventions for its franchisees where everyone in the organization converges on one location for a few days to talk about how great their company is.

“There is a big dog and pony show in Las Vegas or Chicago or wherever,” Davidson says. “I’ve done a number of those in my life with other companies, and I find them to be much less intimate. There are opportunities for about three days for everybody to get excited and then everybody goes back into their old routines again.”

Davidson thought a better approach would be to hit the road with his executive team and make personalized, less formal visits to various Robeks locations across the country.

“They were much smaller, much more intimate meetings, and they were in much smaller rooms so we had more one-on-one contact with people,” Davidson says. “It was much less dog and pony show and much more direct communication.”

When Davidson and his team of four to five people would visit a location, he wanted to make it clear that it wasn’t a site review. He wasn’t going around with a white glove trying to nail people for petty mistakes.

“It was about the franchisees,” Davidson says. “It was about us being out there. We did some presentations to talk about what the company was doing, but we spent a lot of time just listening. Our Q-and-A sessions were quite long.”

Davidson wanted to set the tone that even though these franchisees weren’t technically his employees, they were part of the Robeks team. And just as he was making himself available to the leaders of each location, he wanted to impress upon those leaders how important it was that they do the same with the people who reported to them.

“I wasn’t the only one up there,” Davidson says. “I got members of the various departments up there as well. They learned from the very beginning that not only was I open to direct feedback and sometimes attack, particularly in the early days, but I also expected every member of the team, the department heads, to make themselves available in the same context.”

A big part of Davidson’s approach was the priority he gave to listening. During his first 90 days on the job, listening was pretty much all he did when he came into work or went on his road trips across the United States.

“I sincerely took their input, took copious notes and made it clear that I wasn’t going to make any decisions and wasn’t in a hurry to make any changes, if I was going to make any at all, until I had an opportunity to meet as many stakeholders as I could,” Davidson says.

When you step into a situation where employees are calling for change, the easy thing to do is often to respond with change. But if you implement change without a real understanding of how things work in the organization, it could easily come back to haunt you.

“I stuck to my guns and said, ‘OK, I recognize that there are urgent matters, but I want to make sure I fully understand the issues and how any decision I might make may impact the whole organization,’” Davidson says.

 

Build the respect

As Davidson seeks to build relationships with his franchisees and learn more about the organization, he also seeks to build trust. He takes the approach that his people want to accomplish the same thing he does, which is to position Robeks to be successful.

“My approach to empowerment and to get the best out of people is to trust them immediately,” he says. “If we communicate clearly in terms of what the strategy and direction is, after we’ve spent as much time as we can listening and making sure we’re moving in the right direction, we believe we’re going to be followed.”

He does offer a caveat, however, to this philosophy.

“You’re not going to give someone so much rope that they can take risks that would bet the farm,” Davidson says. “You give everyone a tremendous amount of latitude, but you check in with them. I guess it’s called delegation.”

He wanted to continue the dialogue that had been established through his road trip meetings, so Davidson began forming committees to give people a clear voice in what happened in the company. There was a tactical marketing committee, a strategic marketing committee, a supply chain committee and an IT committee, just to name a few.

The committees were populated with people who Davidson felt could serve not only their own best interests but those of their direct reports as well.

“These various committees deal with key areas in our business where the key indicators tend to lie,” he says. “We have a supply chain committee, and we schedule that meeting once a month. If we have issues that are important to talk about, we set the agenda and we meet. If there is nothing going on, we cancel the meeting because we don’t want to have meetings just for the sake of having them.”

If you cancel meetings when there is no business to be conducted, you don’t send a bad message to your team. You actually send a positive message that you’re cognizant of their time and doing what you can to maximize it.

“That assures that meeting is a meaningful meeting and will be held if we clearly have issues,” Davidson says.

The IT committee is a prime example. When Robeks was implementing a new point-of-sale system, there were a number of issues that needed to be resolved.

“Now that we have resolved most of those and things are fairly routine, we disbanded or at least suspended that committee,” Davidson says. “We could always reinvigorate it at any point in time if some issues started to crop up again.”

The message he has focused on conveying is that he is there to help his franchisees make the business better, whether it’s meeting one-on-one or forming a committee to solve a problem.

“It opens up the communication, and you find fewer people are intimidated by, ‘Oh my gosh, this guy is the CEO,’” Davidson says. “I still get that to some extent from franchisees who will call me and they’ll say, ‘Hey, I know you’re busy. I don’t want to take up too much of your time.’ I’m always very careful that I let them know right up front that their issues are my issues. Don’t ever apologize for calling me about anything.”

As Davidson looks at Robeks today, he sees a company that is much more collaborative and empowering. Contests have been held for new product ideas and have generated a lot of enthusiasm, giving customers curiosity about what they’ll find on the menu the next time they come to the store.

“Once we’ve listened and got that input, the key is getting back to the franchisees and telling them where their ideas are and what we’re doing with them,” Davidson says. “If they don’t get answers back, they stop giving us ideas. We want the ideas because they are the lifeblood of our business.” ?

 

How to reach: Robeks Corp., (310) 727-0500 or www.robeks.com

The Davidson File

Born: Sun Prairie, Wis., a town just northeast of Madison.

 

Education: Bachelor of arts in social psychology; MBA, University of Wisconsin

 

What was your very first job?

I was 14, and I went to work in Lake Mills for the summer. I worked on a feeder pig farm.

 

What did you learn from that experience?

When you’re 14 living in a mobile home when you’d rather be visiting your girlfriend, it’s a very lonely place to be. But aside from that, even at 14, they trusted me a great deal and gave me a great deal of responsibility. I was impressed by that. It had a strong impact in terms of my views on trust and where that fits in the work world.

 

Who has been the most influential person in your life?

Francis Sheehan. He was a chemistry teacher at the senior high school in Sun Prairie. He was also the coach, but he was responsible for managing the city public swimming pool. For whatever reason, he came up in my life many times. When I needed a job, he would find me a job. Whether it was the only bicycle cop Sun Prairie ever had for the kids who rode bikes in the summer, to being a manager and lifeguard at the swimming pool, to taking care of athletic facilities at the senior high school. He just kept popping up in my life at various places. It was almost like he was a guardian angel. He seemed to be there whenever I, as a kid, needed some male adult direction and supervision and guidance.

 

Takeaways:

Don’t act before you have the facts.

Give your people a chance to prove themselves.

Don’t waste anyone’s time.

Published in Los Angeles

It was a bitter pill for Robert Pasin to swallow.

Radio Flyer Inc. had spent decades producing millions of its iconic red steel wagons for children across the United States. The children who grew up with them had bought them for their children and those kids bought them for their kids. It was a tradition that could go on forever, or at least that’s what the company had let itself believe.

But as the 1990s began, a new wagon, one made out of plastic, had begun appearing in stores and was an instant hit with consumers.

The part that was most painful to accept for those who worked at Radio Flyer was that they had not made this new plastic wagon. Even worse, as they looked at the way their company was set up, they weren’t even capable of competing by making a plastic wagon of their own.

“We were a manufacturer, a steel stamper, and that’s what we were really good at,” Pasin says. “The way we were running the business was we were looking at what we could make in our factory and then figuring out if we could sell it.”

This mindset led the company to start a line of wheelbarrows and garden carts in the 1950s to go along with its wagons, all of which were made out of steel.

“We weren’t in touch with the external environment as much as we needed to be or should have been,” Pasin says. “So we weren’t talking to consumers. We weren’t asking moms what they wanted in a new wagon. That’s why we were really caught off guard.

“If we had been doing those things, we would have known that this is something that consumers wanted.”

This was the challenge that faced Pasin, grandson of company founder, Antonio Pasin, less than a year after taking over the company as its CEO.

“There was justifiable fear,” Pasin says. “We were scared that we weren’t going to stay in business.”

 

Accept the challenge

The fear was palpable around the offices of Radio Flyer. Complacency had played a role in where the company now found itself, but Pasin and his team had to find a way to get past that. They needed to act quickly if they were going to save this company that had become such a symbol of 20th century Americana.

“We had to come out with a plastic wagon if we were going to stay in business because this was where the market was going,” Pasin says. “The challenge was that we really never had sourced a product before. Everything we had ever done, we made it ourselves. We didn’t have anybody in our company who knew anything about plastic, and we didn’t really have a product development team.”

Pasin didn’t try to sugarcoat the daunting challenge that Radio Flyer faced.

“We were just really honest, and we said, ‘Here are the facts, here’s what we’re going to do, and we’re going to keep treating people here as well as we possibly can,’” Pasin says.

It was an urgent time, no doubt about it. But Pasin didn’t feel it was time to panic, and he wanted to make sure his people didn’t feel it either. Plastic wagons were on everyone’s mind, but Pasin was also thinking about mission, vision and values. These things would play a big part in the company’s approach to making plastic wagons.

“We went through a process that included everyone in the company,” Pasin says. “The best way to achieve change is to involve everyone in the change as much as possible. In our case, we were changing the culture, and we asked everyone a lot of questions over the course of a year.

“We had a companywide discussion and it started with, ‘What was the company like on the first day you started?’ We got vastly different answers from people who had been here for 40 years and people who had been here for months. But while the answers were different, there were these recurring themes that kept coming out.”

Those themes were integrity, passion and excellence. Radio Flyer had indeed dropped the ball by not staying in touch with its customers as their needs and desires changed. But the products the company was making were as well-made and strong as they ever had been. And that was something to build upon.

“It just became very evident that we had this great bedrock of a culture to build on, and it was really powerful,” Pasin says. “No matter what, there’s got to be some gem in a business or hopefully more than one gem. Otherwise, you’d be out of business. There’s got to be something good in there. The task of the leader is to find that gem. Figure out what’s unique or different about it and then build on it.”

Pasin saw how strong his team was and the talent that each person brought to the table. He just needed to figure out how to take all of those pluses and use them to build a process to make plastic wagons and then stay in touch with consumers to be more proactive and less reactive about the next big thing.

“If the leaders can go through in a very methodical and thorough way and unearth all that information, it becomes very clear what needs to be done,” Pasin says. “It doesn’t mean what needs to be done is easy. It’s very difficult or it already would have been done.”

Set clear goals

Pasin wanted goals to be much more structured and clearly stated at Radio Flyer. It would help the company make a great plastic wagon, and it would ensure that, decades later, the company would not find itself in a similar situation of being out of touch with its consumers.

“Everybody in the company has five goals,” Pasin says. “Those five goals line up with the team goals and the team goals line up with the company goals. So there’s tremendous line of sight and alignment throughout the company for what we’re working on. ‘Here’s what I’m working on and here’s how it’s impacting the success of the business.’”

As a business, when you set goals, it’s critical that they align and that they be meaningful. Otherwise, what’s the point?

“They have to meet the SMART criteria,” Pasin says. “S is for specific. M is for measurable. A is for achievable. R is for return on investment. T is for time-bound. We work really hard to make sure everybody’s goals are smart in that way.”

There were some people in the company who provided evidence that they weren’t a good fit for what needed to be done going forward.

“I had a couple of guys say, ‘OK, now that we’re going to have these goals, how much more am I going to get paid?’” Pasin says. “I said nothing. These goals are not above and beyond. They are not extra. This is the most important stuff you’re supposed to be doing in your job. Those people aren’t in the company anymore.”

Make tough decisions

As the company got into the details of making plastic wagons, Pasin gradually began to realize that a big change was going to have to be made: Radio Flyer was no longer going to be a manufacturer.

It happened over a period of years, but it was clear if the company was going to make plastic wagons and branch out into tricycles and scooters too, something had to go.

“There is no way a company our size can be great at all those things,” Pasin says. “One of the questions we asked ourselves to help us get clarity was if we weren’t doing this today, would we start doing it? And the answer was so clearly no.”

Pasin wanted to build relationships with design firms and have product development teams that would have their fingers on the pulse of consumers. In order to do that the right way, manufacturing would have to be cut.

“What are we passionate about?” Pasin says. “What can we be best in the world at? What drives our economic engine? Those three questions are huge questions. We decided that what drives our economic engine is profit per product. Not profit per product line. We had a lot of products we were losing money on.

“We decided we’re not going to do that anymore. We’re going to be much more rigorous on making sure that here’s a revolutionary idea for the business. We’re going to make money on everything we sell.”

Twenty years after the company faced its demise, Radio Flyer is flying high. Sales that were only $20 million in 1992 now top $100 million and the 70-employee company’s debt is minimal.

Pasin credits the success to a methodical approach that has the company positioned better than it’s ever been to continue growing.

“I would just sit down and list out on paper what I thought all the biggest problems in the company were and then I would do a ranking of what are the biggest problems,” Pasin says in offering advice to other leaders who find themselves in a tough spot. “Usually the biggest problems relate to the biggest opportunities. Then I would go to my team and say, ‘Hey guys, here’s what I think are our biggest problems and how we can make them opportunities.’” ?

How to reach: Radio Flyer Inc., (800) 621-7613 or www.radioflyer.com

 

The Pasin File

 

Born: Chicago

 

Education: Bachelor’s degree in history, University of Notre Dame, MBA, Kellogg Graduate School of Management, Northwestern University.

 

What was your very first job?

My first job was working on the packing line in the factory. I was 18.

 

Did you see yourself becoming the CEO?

I would say no. I was starting to get very interested in the business, and I saw myself working in the business, but not necessarily as CEO.

 

What one person would you like to have met in the world and why?

The first person that comes to mind would be my grandfather — I could have lunch with him and talk to him about what’s happening in the business and ask him questions about his early experiences. I never got a chance to do that while he was alive. I think it would be fascinating at this stage of my life to be able to do that.

 

Pasin on building a good team: The most important thing is are the people committed to where the company is going and are they highly committed to doing a great job. If I were ever to go into a turnaround situation, that’s the first thing I would do. For the ones who aren’t, move them out of the company as fast as possible. It’s the best thing for the company and it’s the best thing for those people. If they are not committed and into their jobs, they are just dying a slow death of meaningless work. I’d much rather have them do that somewhere else or find meaningful work that will make them happy.

Published in Chicago

Effective communication is the vehicle to bring board meeting decisions, annual strategies and initiatives, and support programs for your constituents to fruition in business.

Without a plan to communicate their importance and implementation, time spent participating in daylong retreats, creating charts, finalizing objectives and enduring the wearisome budgeting process are a waste of your time — and who has time for that?

Today’s technology has created myriad options for sending messages across varied time zones and locations inexpensively. I don’t know any business leader or CFO who doesn’t love to see expenses cut, including me. The challenge for all business leaders is to evaluate your communication approach, considering your audience, budget and desired outcomes using the following four topics.

Media

I love my iPad, and in fact, that statement is included in my email signature. Skype is another way I try to tackle communication when my schedule is filled with frequent travel, days with back-to-back meetings and a to-do list with more items than hours in the day.

I appreciate the iPad’s mobility and Skype’s two-way video capabilities to stay connected when I need to.

At the same time, if I have an important point to make or am communicating a new change from an expected direction or have bad news to share, I prefer to pick up the phone or visit the person directly rather than send an email. The immediate connection allows a more substantial exchange with the other person, allowing us both to have a clear understanding of the message, its expectations and to discuss the outcome.

Use a variety of media to ensure the business-building information your team sends is well received.

Frequency

Service Brands International has three home-services franchise companies under its umbrella. Each brand creates six-to-eight annual objectives agreed to by the home office team and its franchise advisory council during a series of planning sessions. If those initiatives were communicated only once, the opportunity for success is small.

A communication is like a marketing message — the sender or the brand will tire of it long before the audience does. If you’ve invested the time and resources to put a plan into place, keep your audience engaged by sharing it at a consistent frequency and with progress updates.

Simplicity

Whether it’s the technology you select to communicate or the written word itself, don’t lose your audience by overcomplicating the message. Use words that are clear, concise and memorable.

I have sat through hundreds of meetings, and I have received thousands of letters and emails throughout my career. I am most impressed by the well-prepared speaker or writer who shares their key points and leaves out unnecessary data and words.

Call to action

A fabulous message that you share across many media channels is not yet complete unless you consider what you’re asking your audience to do with the information. As the leader, it’s your job to create the map to success and make sure your team has a copy of it, understands it and knows what to do with it.

During your strategic planning session, it’s likely you identified specific, desired outcomes of your initiatives. Consider each communication carefully, and decide on your purpose and end result before you begin writing or speaking. Your personal call to action is to measure your results to ensure your communications are being well received and to adapt to your audience if they are not.

These techniques have helped me and my leadership teams manage businesses across state lines, country’s borders and a wide range of tenure and experience. What legend will your vision create?

David McKinnon is the co-founder and chairman of Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Service Brands International, an umbrella organization that oversees home services brands, including Molly Maid, Mr. Handyman, 1-800-DryClean and ProTect Painters. To contact him, send email to davidm@servicebrands.com.

Published in Detroit

In a way, John Myers is not unlike the guy who paints the foul lines at the local baseball field. He defines boundaries.

The president and CEO of Rentokil North America, the regional wing of Rentokil Initial — a U.K.-based facility management company that provides, among other things, pest control services — has been tasked with integrating a company that has changed dramatically over the past decade. At one point, Rentokil’s North American footprint consisted of about a dozen operations sprinkled throughout Ontario, the Mid-Atlantic States and Florida.

Then, over the span of two years, Rentokil acquired a trio of pest control companies. With the acquisitions of Ehrlich, Presto-X and Watch All between 2006 and 2008, Rentokil’s growth exploded. The company expanded to nearly 80 locations in 35 states.

But with those acquisitions came differing cultures, policies and processes. Myers had to get everyone aimed in the same direction.

“Most people will tell you that acquisition plans and models fail because the integration wasn’t done as defined,” Myers says. “But it can be really hard to do. You have disparate businesses with long histories and a strong belief in their culture, and there is either a reluctance to integrate or companies integrate too quickly and kind of throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Myers had to figure out a way to balance the best practices of the acquired companies with the need to create a uniform set of objectives and values under the Rentokil umbrella.

“When I first started here, I was new to the business and rather agnostic toward each of the brands,” says Myers, who took over the company at the end of 2008. “What I saw was that everyone agreed that we needed to change, but when I started making changes, they all said, ‘No, what we meant was, you need to change those guys over there.’ Everybody wants to change; they just don’t want it in their area, because change is hard.”

Myers solved the challenge by starting at the top, with his own leadership team, and working his way down.

Identify the themes

Myers needed to simplify things. With bits and pieces of varying cultures, processes and objectives fluttering around the company like pieces of confetti, he had to vacuum everything up, sort it out, keep what was relevant and discard the rest.

It’s a process that requires a set of ground rules. And those ground rules are formulated on the management level.

“It’s tricky, because these have been successful businesses in their own right, and they’re used to doing things their own way,” Myers says. “The natural tendency is to say that you’ve been successful using the techniques you already had in place, so why would you want to change?”

To combat that type of resistance, Myers gathered his leadership team and tasked them with helping him set the strategic vision for the company  —  a long-range vision to serve as a set of end goals for every business unit. Any goal or strategy that existed among the acquired companies needed to help Rentokil progress toward its strategic vision. If it didn’t, Myers’ team would discard it.

The strategic vision sessions also helped identify areas of the acquired companies that aligned along common themes, giving Rentokil an area of strength to leverage.

“The good news is, we really looked at our businesses and realized they had some very common elements in their cultures that we could rally behind,” Myers says. “For example, we believe in providing the highest level of customer service in the marketplace, and not everybody believes that should be a part of their strategy.

“As an example, you can compare a small hardware store to Home Depot or Lowe’s. The small hardware store will give you personalized service. Home Depot or Lowe’s — while they’re both very successful companies — might provide a different level of service while trying to compete more on product selection or price. We are more like the smaller hardware store in that we’ve made customer service part of the culture of the business.”

Customer service became one of the five strategic thrusts for Rentokil, as outlined in the plan formed by Myers’ team. Along with customer service, Rentokil also formed objectives around organizational capabilities, operational excellence, operating at the lowest cost possible while still maintaining high service standards and delivering profitable growth.

The development of the five strategic thrusts was critical for Rentokil and any other company trying to define its future strategy and goals. Once the pillars of the strategy are defined, you have to allow the company to be guided by those principles over time.

“The reason these themes are important is, as we work on tactics, if we can’t easily slot something we’re working on under one of these, we shouldn’t be working on it,” Myers says. “That is why it’s important to maintain those thrusts.

“In a change management environment, you can’t change the themes every day. You can’t have a flavor of the month, because people will start to get confused and question whether your strategy and objectives are real. We just finished the third year in which we’ve operated under the same five strategic thrusts.”

Roll it out

With the playing field outlined by the strategic pillars you have constructed, your next step is to tell the entire organization how it will accomplish the goals related to those pillars.

Myers began by rolling the plan out to everyone on the management level of the organization, followed by a rollout to the organization at large.

“First of all, we have an annual management meeting where we present our key tactics under each of the strategic thrusts,” Myers says. “I present the thrusts, then I present the initiatives that we are going to implement in the coming year to support the strategic thrusts. We stand in front of our entire management team and tell them what we are going to do.

“The second thing we do is we then have regional meetings in which every colleague in the company attends, and we make the same presentation. Every technician, every sales representative, every office manager, from front-line colleagues all the way to the top, are all hearing the same message, and they’re hearing it from the executive leadership team.

“Usually, I have a vice president on my team go out and present this material to every colleague, face-to-face.”

After the initial rollout, you have to perform frequent maintenance in the form of direct communication from the top. Myers reinforces the strategic thrusts and tactical initiatives through monthly CEO messages, delivered to the entire Rentokil organization throughout North America.

“I’d say nine of the 12 messages I have each year relate to a strategic thrust and one or more of the initiatives associated with it,” he says. “So I will say simple things like, ‘As you know, we believe in delivering outstanding customer service. So today I’d like to talk to you about a new initiative that was launched just last week. We talked about it at our recent company meeting, but I want to give you an update.’

“It’s the old idea that you have to tell them and tell them again, because people are busy in the day-to-day world. You need to reinforce the idea that there really is a plan and you are following it.”

The message needs to come directly from you as the head of the organization. The further down the ladder you delegate your reinforcement communication, the less impact it will have. That’s not to say communication involving a department head or direct supervisor is irrelevant, but on matters that involve the direction of the whole company, your words carry the most weight.

“There are two main reasons why this kind of communication has to come from the top,” Myers says. “First off, I go back to the fact that everyone is busy and working hard, so getting a reminder of what the top boss thinks is important helps to refocus what you work on. It’s like you always hear about finding out what’s important to your boss and working on that.

“The second thing is, it’s reassuring to the organization to be reminded that there is a plan, and we’re sticking with it. You’re not trying to figure out what you’ll do each month.”

Myers’ unification plan has taken root and helped propel Rentokil’s growth. The company generated $350 million in North American revenue during 2011 and continues to maintain a strong market share in its space.

“Ultimately, people are motivated to buy in to a plan when they know three things: What are the expectations, how are we doing against those expectations and what are we going to do to get better in the areas where we’re not delivering at the level we want?” he says. “When there is clarity around the plan, there is greater opportunity to implement the plan in a timely and effective manner. By reinforcing the message from the top level, it does those things better than just hoping it happens.” ?

How to reach: Rentokil North America,

(610) 372-9700 or www.rentokil.com

 

The Myers file

Education: B.S. in marketing, University of Vermont; MBA, Mercer University, Atlanta campus.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

I’ll give you two. The first one is to share the risk as well as the reward. I’ll never forget a job I once took in sales management. I was new to the company where I was working, and I decided I would negotiate a deal with a customer myself. It didn’t go well. My dad told me that I wanted to show everybody that I could do it myself, but it’s not about that. It’s about the team delivering the desired result. That should have been the goal, not me trying to ensure that I’d deliver the result myself. I should have brought other people onto the project.

The second thing is knowing that everyone wants to do a good job. Your role is to ensure that everyone knows the expectations, knows how they are performing against those expectations and knows how you’ll work together to improve the things that aren’t working out.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

I get asked that all the time by college graduates. The first thing I always tell them is to lead with humility. My view is that our frontline colleagues and customers know what is needed in the marketplace, and it takes humility from the leadership team to remind yourself of that fact. You have to have the humility to ask for insight and advice from the people closest to the customers.

What is your definition of success?

Success is utilizing really strong methods to deliver strong results. We use a phrase here that I like in our leadership training: Success versus excellence. If the concept of your methods is robust, the predictability of your success is better.

It’s like in golf. You can hit a good shot once in a while, but you can’t repeat it if your swing isn’t good. You can sometimes find success with bad methods, or you can consistently find success with good methods.

Published in Philadelphia

Peter Kellett is an attorney. He’s also the chairman and CEO of his firm, Dykema Gossett PLLC. But Kellett will be the first to tell you that he is more than just an attorney leading attorneys.

Behind Dykema’s approximately 400 lawyers in 11 nationwide offices is a support staff that interacts with the firm’s clients on a daily basis, handling administrative tasks, billing and accounting, and other tasks essential to prompt and comprehensive client service.

If those employees aren’t engaged in providing an excellent client experience, it can damage the relationship before an attorney has a chance to sit down with a client.

Since becoming CEO a year ago, Kellett has made it a point to recognize the important role each person plays in the client experience, and he has focused his efforts, along with the efforts of his leadership team, on uniting every person, in every position in the firm, around a common goal: serving clients with the highest possible standards.

“It is a work in progress, but I am deeply committed to improving all of our levels of client service,” Kellett says. “That is not to suggest that they have been deficient, but in this environment today, it is really important to distinguish any service — whether it be a legal service or any other type of service — in how you deliver service to your clients and customers.”

Driving that level of customer service throughout Dykema — which generated $174 million in revenue during 2011 — has required Kellett and his team to remain vigilant in listening to customers and maintaining a dialogue with employees, as he continually gauges the needs of clients and works with his staff to figure out the best way to meet those needs.

Look outside

To start promoting a comprehensive client service philosophy, Kellett had to broaden the firm’s concept of what it means to serve clients.

“I believe, and our management team believes, that the notion that the only service a law firm provides to clients comes from the lawyers is mistaken,” Kellett says. “Survey data would show you the average client has more interpersonal contact collectively with the nonlawyer staff than with the actual lawyer who might be representing them in a given matter. There is so much support that goes into the client relationship. It could be making sure an invoice for services is properly formatted or making sure a communication is properly delivered. If a client wants to see something by email, we have to make sure it’s delivered by email and not snail mail.”

They are matters that might not be directly related to the actual legal work done for a client, but if the firm fails to handle the support tasks in an efficient and effective manner, it will eventually have a negative impact on business.

“The services delivered by people who aren’t lawyers comprise much of what the client sees, and quite frankly, you can fall down in that regard if you aren’t careful,” Kellett says. “It’s so important to the client’s overall feeling regarding how they’re being served by the firm.”

With that in mind, Kellett went directly to Dykema’s clients, soliciting feedback on the service experience that the firm was delivering. Representatives from Dykema interviewed many different clients, asking questions related to a number of different client service areas. The firm representatives brought the feedback gleaned from the interviews back to the leadership team, which then used the feedback as a component of a firmwide client-service training initiative.

“We report the information back to the membership of the firm in a way that is understandable and teaches different lessons about what we do really well, as well as the areas in which we can look to improve,” Kellett says.

“We have also brought in specialists to do client service training workshops — in fact, we recently had an officewide session for all our nonattorney staff, which was moderated by an expert in client service delivery. The goal of the session was to try to raise consciousness on everything related to client service.”

The feedback and the client service training workshops produced a set of client service standards that all staff members at Dykema are expected to know and promote. Kellett and his team fashioned the standards into a set of basic statements that clearly outline, in a straightforward fashion, what the firm will deliver to clients.

“It’s nothing that is high-level, but it is straightforward and understandable, and it transcends different practices and offices,” he says.

Kellett’s initial information-gathering process finished with a follow-up component. Late in 2011, firm representatives conducted a series of follow-up interviews designed to gauge the process that the firm had made in improving its approach to client service.

“We went back to the first group of clients we interviewed and talked to them again,” he says. “We asked them to honestly grade us. How did we do in responding to some of the things you wanted to see us implement on your behalf?

“Then we go back to the office and hold people accountable to that feedback. If someone here at the office is in charge of managing a client relationship, you are expecting them to lead on this issue of improving, responding to and being attentive to the things your client wants to see you deliver.”

Motivate your employees

Providing excellent client and customer service is important not only to the people you serve outside the organization but also to the people you employ internally.

A focused company is a healthy company with employees centered on a set of common goals. That, as much as improving the client service culture, was a motivating factor for Kellett.

“I would tell anyone in leadership that it is important to develop a comprehensive customer service plan, not just for the value proposition but also for the health of the organization,” Kellett says. “You’re trying to do more than just motivate. You’re trying to excite.

“If you are in a service business, you want to get your people excited and feeling very positively that they know what is expected of them. Because if folks in a service organization don’t know what is expected of them, they won’t always do what is optimal for service delivery.”

By training your people to deliver the best possible customer service experience, you’re investing in them. The end goal is to please your customers, but the entire process of customer service training is focused on allowing your employees to perform their jobs at a higher level.

“It is important that you are sending a loud message to your entire organization that you see value in your people,” Kellett says. “You are investing in them for a reason, and that is a powerful message to send. I found our staff has been very receptive and appreciative of the fact that management thinks they are important enough for management to invest time and resources in them.”

It’s especially important if you run an organization in which one group of employees often basks in the spotlight, while others toil in obscurity. With that type of setup, it can become extremely easy for resentment to build if those behind the scenes feel underappreciated.

Kellett prevented that at Dykema by ensuring that he crafted communication specifically aimed at the nonlawyer staff in the firm.

“When I’m communicating with the nonlawyer staff, it is certainly tailored more toward the likely activities they will be engaged in and the community they’re likely to be serving,” he says. “In fact, some of our internal staff’s client base is composed of their own co-workers.

“When it comes to our IT staff at the firm, a big part of who they serve is made up of users within the firm. That’s a really big part of the message, telling them that no matter what they do, they’re involved in client relations.

“If your service is internally focused, you’re still helping those who are externally focused to provide excellent service to your external clients. You are as important as anyone in that broad chain of client service delivery.”

Ultimately, the behavior you exhibit toward your employees is the behavior they will exhibit when dealing with clients and customers. If you communicate frequently and thoroughly with your people, they will do the same with your customers. And that leads to a stronger, more positive relationship between your company and the people who purchase your products and services.

“You can’t communicate enough with your people, and they can’t communicate enough with your clients,” Kellett says. “They want to be kept updated more often, rather than less often. You can never assume that they know what is going on just because they’re sophisticated or have been through the process before.

“Tell them more, when in doubt. Or you can always ask them to tell you when to stop talking and start listening. That is something we have learned collectively as a firm: Your people want to be kept apprised of what’s going on, as do your clients. And they want to know sooner rather than later.” ?

How to reach: Dykema Gossett PLLC,

(313) 568-6800 or www.dykema.com

 

The Kellett file

Born: Detroit

Education: B.A. in history, University of Michigan; Juris Doctor, Wayne State University Law School

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

I’ll give you two: One is to not try to do everything, or you’ll risk getting nothing done. You have to try to set priorities and not try to do everything at once. The other is something that I was once told: It’s amazing how much an organization can accomplish when no one cares who gets the credit. We’re trying to build teams that are focused on client service, with a shared-credit approach to that, and it has been really beneficial for us. Credit will fall where credit is due, but let’s not worry about that. If you have that type of environment, you won’t have people insecure or worried about getting their due.

What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?

First and foremost, it’s honesty. You also need to be a good listener. That doesn’t mean you have to listen to everyone ad nauseum, but you do have to be a good and fair listener. And ultimately, you have to be decisive. Admit your mistakes, learn from them and move on. If you can package all of that, you’re well on your way to being successful.

What is your definition of success?

Achieving a reasonable performance from a financial and business-goals standpoint, which preserves the culture and integrity of the organization. It requires a balancing act. Businesses are in business to do well right now, but you need to preserve the long-term integrity as well. If you’re chasing the top dollar, it can’t come at the expense of the culture.

Published in Detroit

PricewaterhouseCoopers was biding its time. Like many other professional service firms, the recessionary years of 2008 and 2009 kept the company’s leaders conservative in their people strategies, but they were also waiting and ready for growth to resume. Because when it did, they were ready for it.

“During the recession, we were really focused on retaining the people that we had across the firm, expecting that when things started to turn around and client demand increased, that No. 1, we’d want to make sure that we kept as many folks as we could by avoiding reduction in force during the recession — a big investment,” says Jim Henry, who was PwC’s U.S. client and industry leader before becoming the managing partner of the San Francisco market in 2010. “And then No. 2, coming out of it, we knew that we’d need to significantly build up our resources to match client demand.”

As the new managing partner, Henry walked straight into the hiring blitz. In just 24 months, he helped PwC San Francisco grow its head count from 1,000 to 1,400 people, all while retaining a top team in one of the most competitive talent markets in the country — the Bay Area.

Here’s how Henry builds a team of talent that can serve the needs of PwC’s clients.

Expand your search

At PwC, building a top-performing team starts with the hiring process.

Historically, the firm has been a big recruiter of entry-level employees, using local campus hiring as a primary source of new talent. However, as other Bay Area businesses have rebounded, it’s been more of a struggle to attract enough local students to build out the firm’s advisory, assurance and tax business lines.

“To meet the demand, we’ve really expanded our recruiting network to bring in people from schools outside of the Bay Area,” Henry says.

Today, about half of the firm’s entry-level hires come from outside the Bay Area, a significant change from the past. Companywide, PwC has also opened its campus recruiting programs, which used to target only local accounting graduates, to students from a variety of backgrounds — information systems majors, engineering majors and MBAs.

The firm has also put a greater emphasis on acquiring experienced employees from other companies to help broaden its capabilities in strategic and high-growth areas. And again, it’s achieved better results by taking the search national.

“It’s all about us having the right capabilities to serve clients in the areas of their growth strategy, their operation effectiveness, and making sure that they’ve got efficient and effective risk and compliance processes,” Henry says.

“We prefer to find local people, but given that the Bay Area is a really attractive place right now, how vibrant the economy is and that it’s a very desirable place to live, it’s becoming a bit easier to attract people here from out of the area. So we’re really approaching it as a national search in most of our experienced hiring.”

Today, the company utilizes a combination of internal recruiters and outside search firms to identify experienced hires who would be a good fit with the firm. Still, whether these efforts are local or national, the best recruiting leads tend to come from the firm’s existing employees.

“We’ve asked them through our internal communications, and then offer recruiting referral bonuses to help them identify talent that they think would be a good fit in the firm,” Henry says. “As a result, we’ve had more than 40 percent of our experienced hires come through employee referrals. That’s absolutely the best source.”

Offer helping hands

Just because someone makes it through the screening process doesn’t mean that he or she will have immediate success at your company.

As PwC has hired more people in entry-level positions and management roles, Henry has found that many people need help and support as they integrate into their new job and corporate culture.

“It’s critical that both the new people who join the firm and our existing employees have very clear and frequent feedback about how they’re doing and get the support they need to make sure that they’re successful,” Henry says.

One way the company helps employees adapt to the new environment is by plugging new hires into teams where they can quickly understand what’s expected of them. Working in teams allows people to seek guidance and feedback from more experienced peers, who can also serve as coaches and mentors.

“That’s really key to success,” Henry says. “As people are working in teams they better understand how their background and experience fit together with the rest of our people when they are out serving the needs of our clients.”

It also provides opportunities for different teams to learn about each other’s activities. For example, as it began adding more new people from other companies, the San Francisco office began holding a monthly “meet and greet” for its experienced hires.

“They bring their own lunch and meet at our office in a conference room,” Henry says. “It’s an open door thing for whoever is interested and available just to talk about their backgrounds and share some of what we’re doing in PwC.”

New teams are also encouraged to get to know other teams and find ways to complement their efforts if possible. The company’s new national sustainability team recently visited San Francisco to share its goals and learn how it can incorporate them throughout the firm.

“They’re getting their goals and priorities aligned and then trying to understand how they fit into the rest of the firm, someone who might be doing supply chain consulting or tax advice on moving operations,” Henry says. “Just about everything else that we do in serving our clients could have some element of sustainability. And that can be brought into making sure we’re creating the most value for our clients.”

Give people success models

Of course, offering competitive compensation is an easy way for employers to show people value when they bring them on board. However, long-term retention requires that companies show people an ongoing commitment to their financial and professional sucess.

As more people integrate into the company’s culture, Henry and his partners have looked for new ways to connect them to the goals of the business. One way is by helping diverse talent excel in the organization by having each partner sponsor three diverse individuals in the firm who represent strong leadership abilities.

“The sponsorship piece of it originated in our diversity programs, looking at the goal of trying to have the same diverse mix of talent at our leadership levels as we do at the entry levels,” Henry says. “What we find is with all the best work and coaching and development, we still have attrition for different groups at different career points.”

The sponsorship relationship goes beyond coaching. Each partner serves as a personal advocate for their sponsees, whether it’s by creating opportunities for advancement or nurturing their professional growth.

“That’s reflective of the work that we’re doing to make sure that we’re creating opportunities for people who really demonstrate the leadership abilities,” Henry says.

In addition to prompting positive feedback from clients, PwC’s diversity efforts have earned it the No. 1 spot on Inc.’s Top 50 Companies for Diversity in 2012.

Establishing a “milestone rewards” program is another innovative step the firm has taken to show employees their growth potential. The rewards program gives employees special incentives as they rise to different levels within the firm. So a promotion to manager is now accompanied by a large cash payment or an employee who reaches the level of director is rewarded with a brief sabbatical.

“So when you’re promoted, there’s actually something that’s unique to that promotion on top of the normal compensation and reward system,” Henry says. “It’s those kinds of things that change the conversation from comparing dollars to dollars with one job to another to really understanding what people need and value at different points in their career.”

Build a rep

One of the chief reasons that PwC is able to entice experienced hires and new grads to its ranks is its reputation as an enjoyable and attractive workplace. In 2012, the company was named on Fortune’s top 100 best places to work for the eighth consecutive year.

“The really important aspect of people retention to me, aside from all the programs and different focus areas, it’s got to be an environment that people feel connected to, that allows room for innovation and that they can have fun,” Henry says.

Creating an enjoyable workplace requires leaders to be responsive to their people’s needs. Companies that consider options such as flexibility and work-life balance in addition to compensation will have an easier time keeping employees happy long-term.

“Flexibility seems to be the No. 1 issue that comes up as we talk to people in our surveys and direct feedback about areas that they think we can support and help them in their personal and professional career development,” Henry says.

Ask people what they need to be successful in their jobs, and then look for ways to support that, Henry says. PwC has each team work closely with its members to plan for their desired flexibility as they organize client service work. The firm has also adapted certain company policies, such as the flexible summer Fridays program, to account for the way employees want to work.

“Instead of telling people what day we think would be good for them to take off, we’ve now changed it to just say summer ‘flex days,’” Henry says. “Each week everyone should be working with their team, determining what flexibility they would like to have in their work schedule and building that into their team plans. For one person, it might be that they need a Tuesday afternoon off to do something, and for others, it may be a Friday. But that’s got to be something that’s very individual-based.”

Henry knows that another key ingredient in an attractive workplace is an atmosphere where people can let their hair down from time to time. So when it comes to having fun, he is happy to lead by example.

“We’ve done a lot of things here to just put a little humor into work and allow time for people to get together and hear the strategy but also have some celebration and some fun in the process,” he says.

For the firm’s Promotion Day celebration in June, Henry coordinated a celebration at San Francisco’s Port Mason entire office, emceed by an employee who works as a part-time comedian. And when the Giants made it to the World Series several years back, he showed his team that he was more than game for a practical joke.

“Someone got the crazy idea of the Giants wearing beards,” Henry says. “Therefore, I had to have a beard. Even though I didn’t grow one, because I can’t grow a good one, any time I sent out a memo with my picture, my assistant would Photoshop in a beard on it. And then I started wearing fake beards to meetings with our people. We had some real laughs with that.”

In just two years, Henry’s office has added more than 400 new employees, a clear sign that these people strategies are working. But, of course, the number that says the most about the firm’s success is its employee turnover rate.

“Studies generally show that people don’t leave companies, they leave their bosses if they go somewhere else,” Henry says.

“We are at record low numbers right now in San Francisco as well as in PwC for voluntary turnover. That’s maybe the best indication considering, in most cases, people vote with their feet.” ?

How to reach: PricewaterhouseCoopers, (415) 498-5000 or www.pwc.com

The Henry File

Jim Henry

Managing partner

PwC San Francisco

Born: Pontiac, Mich., and grew up in San Diego

Education: Bachelor’s degree in accounting from San Diego State University

What would you do if you weren’t doing your current job?

Working in an emerging technology company.

What is one part of your daily routine that you wouldn’t change?

Working out in the morning — after my first cup of coffee!

What would your friends be surprised to find out about you? 

I enjoy surfing.

What do you do for fun?

My wife and I entertain a lot at our house, and she is teaching me how to cook.

What are best pieces of advice you’ve gotten in your career?

First, as a leader you’ve got to have a clear vision of what’s important. And by that I’d start with what really are your values. What are you really trying to accomplish from a broader mission perspective? Then agree with your team on a few things that for the next year are most important that you are trying to accomplish. Consistently reinforce that in communication and monitor progress. The other thing I’d say is always be thinking about creating opportunities for people who may be your successor down the road.

Published in Northern California

As the U.S. housing bubble started to burst in late 2006, Bill Darling monitored the situation from his home base in Dallas with deep concern. Homebuilding markets were collapsing around the country — first in California, then in the Southwest, then in several other economically vulnerable pockets around the United States.

“We first heard about it happening out on the West Coast in 2006,” says Darling, chairman and CEO of Darling Homes, which today employs 190 and generates $176 million in annual revenue. “Then we heard about it in other markets. Our own sales didn’t really start to slow until six to nine months after we’d first started hearing about it around the rest of the country.”

In fact, says Darling as he recounts those dark days, the “slowing” of sales that Darling Homes experienced was actually more like a dead stop for his company, which builds homes in the Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston areas.

“It was like the faucet shut off in our sales offices,” Darling says. “Sales stopped in Dallas first, and then about 90 days later in Houston. Obviously, we weren’t totally shocked by these developments because we’d been seeing this happening elsewhere in the country. But we didn’t have any idea how severe it would be until ’08, when the larger financial crisis started impacting the whole economy. That’s when we started to realize we were in for something maybe a lot deeper than a typical housing downturn.”

There were no maybes about it; it would go a lot deeper indeed.

“Our main metric that we use is housing starts,” says Darling, who co-founded the company with his brothers Bob and Steve in 1987. “In our markets, we determined that by 2008 both of them were off 75 percent. Obviously, we had a huge challenge on our hands. We had to figure out how to guide a 21-year-old company with responsibilities for our 250 associates’ families through the most difficult housing market in more than 60 years. From the CEO’s standpoint, I had to figure out, first, how do we survive this? And then, eventually, as we began to see that we actually were going to survive, how do we start thriving again?”

Set benchmarks

As Darling Homes’ sales started plummeting in 2007, the company’s leadership team pulled itself together to decide how to address the unfolding crisis. They quickly determined that it would be critical for them to be realistic in their assessment of the situation and forthright and transparent in communicating with their staff about the gravity of the problem — and how they planned to get the company through it.

“One of the most important things was that, as a CEO, I knew this was significant, and it was going to be deeper than other downturns in the past,” Darling says. “So it was going to be very important for me and the rest of our management team to be realistic, not just your typical optimistic executive management team.”

Darling and his team put together a multipart plan based on a series of benchmarks, with actions to take depending on how deep the company’s sales plunged.

“We had action plans outlined to execute if we saw our results tick to certain levels,” he says. “The way it worked was if we saw sales fall off and margins start to get eroded, and we found ourselves missing budget by a certain percentage, then we would implement the first part of the plan, which would consist of various cost-cutting measures. We didn’t go super-deep with these benchmarks at first because we didn’t know how deep the downturn was going to get.”

Ultimately, Darling Homes’ leaders found it necessary to create a series of action plans for four declining benchmark levels — four levels of “Defcon,” as the company referred to them internally.

“As the market took us to each of these levels, we executed some operational types of restraints to measure up with those kinds of results,” Darling says. “Those restraints would be, first of all, cost-cutting measures internally — operational costs, belt tightening. Then, after that, as it got deeper, it went to cutting benefits, unfortunately. As it got even deeper, we had to get into some personnel issues.

“And it even went as far as the remaining employees having to take a cut in salary for a period of time.

“Here we were, from one end of this downturn to the other. We started with 240 employees, and we eventually went down to 140. And those that were left were making less money with fewer benefits.”

Retain key people

Two other crucial elements of Darling Homes’ survival-and-turnaround plan were clear communication, both internal and external, and keeping the company’s management team intact.

“A real key in the whole downsizing plan was communication,” Darling says. “Communication internally, communication with our vendors, communication with our developer friends and partners. There was no way we could communicate too often about what was going on.

“Our executive management team and leadership team needed to do the same with the rest of the Darling Homes team. We did some all-hands-on-deck conference calls for the bigger issues and written communication for some of the updates in between those bigger calls. On a regular basis, we kept the executive management and the leadership teams on their toes to offer guidance to any of their associates who wanted to know what was going on.”

Retaining key management personnel was important because Darling Homes’ executives felt it would make it easier for the company to spring back quickly once its markets began to recover.

“We wanted to make sure to keep our management team in place because we knew at some point in time the markets would turn around for us,” Darling says. “Going into this, we knew there were going to be some companies that weren’t going to survive this downturn, but we felt that we could, and if we did, we wanted to be able take advantage of our two platforms in Dallas and Houston.”

The management team’s clear, forthright communication with staff benefited Darling Homes in several ways.

“As some people left that had been with the company for a long time, as difficult as that was, we got responses from them saying that they appreciated the openness and the caring attitude and that we kept them as informed as possible,” Darling says. “And they said they’d be ready to come back when things turned around. And it was certainly appreciated by the rest of the management team, because they were well-prepared and knew how to address their associates’ questions.”

As a result, some employees indeed have returned as Darling Homes’ fortunes have begun to turn back around.

“We’ve started hiring again this last 12 months, and a good percentage of people have come back,” Darling says. “We have a special culture at Darling Homes. It was special going into the downturn, and it’s only been strengthened during the downturn because of the way we handled it, particularly being upfront with our communication. So not only have we attracted past employees back, we’ve also maintained our subcontractor base, and we’ve maintained our developer relationships and taken those to another level.”

Keep it real

Darling says if he were to offer a few key pieces of advice to CEOs facing a similar challenge, they would be to avoid excessive optimism, to see and call things exactly as they are, to create a solid, well-thought-out plan, to follow through with the plan, and to communicate the plan clearly and openly to everyone involved.

“Most of us CEOs are very optimistic people,” Darling says. “We always think that things are going to get better. But you’ve got to be realistic first and optimistic second. Also, it would be a mistake to just take the problem into the boardroom and work it from there. If you do that, no matter what type of plan you come up with, you run the risk of coming across as secretive. You can scare people and lose their confidence by not being upfront and communicative with your operating team. There’s a real danger there.”

But the plan itself is the most important element, according to Darling.

“The benchmark plan we came up with was invaluable to us,” he says. “It’s a document that we put together as an executive team. And we executed it step by step as we hit each benchmark. If the results were there, we implemented the part of the plan related to it. You’ve got to stay true to your plan and make the difficult decisions as they become necessary. Be realistic, put a plan in place, stay true to the plan and communicate it clearly.”

Darling Homes’ executives knew they had turned the corner about a year ago when credit facilities came back into play and banks started lending them money again, enabling them to start building and hiring again.

“At that point, we knew the worst was over for us and we could start planning our growth and take advantage of the platforms that we’d been able to enhance during the downturn,” Darling says. “We knew then that it was time to move from our heels back to our toes. We have a surplus of credit lines available to us now. They wouldn’t be here if we weren’t doing things right.” ?

How to reach: Darling Homes, (469) 252-2200 or www.darlinghomes.com

 

THE DARLING FILE

Bill Darling

Chairman and CEO

Darling Homes

Born: Tucson, Ariz.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in marketing, University of Arizona

Looking back over your years in school, what business leadership lessons did you learn while you were there?

I played baseball in college, and football, basketball and baseball in high school. I think I learned a lot about my leadership abilities through sports. I’ve always seen myself as a quarterback.

What was your first job, and what important business lessons did you learn from it?

My first job was as marketing director and promotion director of the Dallas Tornado soccer team in 1975. My first two bosses — in the Dallas Tornado job and in the real estate business right after that — were two of the best marketing people I’ve ever been around. I learned from them how important marketing and promoting your service is.

Do you have a business philosophy that you use to guide you?

Surround yourself with people smarter than yourself, and treat people the way you want to be treated. Those philosophies have built one of the finest cultures a company could have at Darling Homes today.

What trait do you think is most important for an executive to have in order to be a successful leader?

Optimism, because you go through goods times a lot more often than you go through downturns. Of course, if you just keep doing things the same way during downturns, you’re going to struggle. There has to be a balance on that optimism during difficult times.

How do you define success in business?

When a team comes together and executes a plan and grows as a team while the members grow as individuals at the same time.

What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Keep your nose clean. You’ve got to be able to wake up every day and look at yourself in the mirror and feel good about yourself. That was from my dad.

Published in Dallas

About six years ago, Doug Dunn and some his peers at other bus dealerships around the country began to sense that their industry was undergoing a significant shift. So a group of them sat down to take stock and talk things over. They concluded that while their market was quickly maturing, their branch of it — the dealership sector — wasn’t keeping pace.

“I had gotten into this business back in the 1980s when it was just getting started,” says Dunn, CEO of Atlanta-based Alliance Bus Group, a company that today operates seven dealerships in the southern and eastern United States and generates annual revenue of $120 million. “Transportation needs were starting to explode in a lot of cities, and most people bought buses that were converted school buses or they just ran 15-passenger vans. Transit budgets were starting to really catch some wind, and the commercial needs around airports were exploding. It was a good business to be in.”

By 2007, however, the bus industry was starting to grow up. Most of it was, anyway.

“We started seeing some consolidation on the manufacturers’ part,” Dunn says. “And the customers started getting a lot more mature too. They started knowing a lot more about buses than they did before. As a dealership, you needed a lot of infrastructure to keep up with these changes.

“One of my favorite sayings has always been ‘Volume speaks volumes.’ You need a lot of volume and a lot of product to catch the attention of manufacturers, from the areas of support and pricing. It wasn’t easy operating as independent, single dealerships.”

It was time to get bigger or get out.

Unite the colonies

Dunn’s company at that time was simply called Bus Group. It operated dealerships in Atlanta, New Orleans and Jackson, Miss. Those dealers operated almost as if they were separate companies, with outdated software systems, too much overhead, inadequate service facilities and no centralization of business functions to achieve efficiencies.

Getting bigger wasn’t going to be easy. While several other dealers had shown an interest in joining forces with Bus Group, the company saw that it would need to integrate these outposts into a more smoothly functioning unit first.

“We began to see that we wanted to make the transformation from a locally owned and managed dealership into one more national in scope, with all of the benefits that come from that,” Dunn says. “The synergies would make a lot of sense: being able to consolidate inventories, to have better training programs for our salespeople, to achieve the economies of scale of insurance consolidation and things such as that. All of this made a lot of sense, so we decided we wanted to pursue it. But, first, we would have to lay the groundwork and get organized.”

The key elements to achieving this expansion plan were centralizing the company’s operations by creating a corporate office in Atlanta, investing in a dealer management software system, expanding and upgrading the dealerships’ service facilities, and then, after all of that groundwork was laid, leveraging buying power by expanding and acquiring new dealerships.

“We designated Atlanta to be the corporate office for functions such as accounting, finance analysis, HR and legal,” Dunn says. “We reached out and used some different sources to add an assistant controller, some other accounting people, an HR manager and some financial people to help us run the business as an ongoing, larger organization.

“Getting the right people on the bus — pardon the pun — was a major focus for us.”

The task of centralizing the company’s operations and making the outposts operate more uniformly forced Dunn to change his management style.

“This is one of the things that has been a challenge for me,” he says. “I had to almost completely change the way I operate. I had always been very hands-on with my dealerships: everything from parts inventory all the way up to dealing with the largest fleet customers. As you start getting larger, though, you need to start assembling a different kind of team.”

One of the toughest challenges Dunn faced was taking the dealer principals he had been working with — “the lone rangers,” as he calls them — and showing them how to work within the framework of a large corporate entity.

“It was a difficult transition, and it took time to get it working smoothly,” Dunn says. “To go from basically running your own shop for many years to becoming part of a team running an integrated auto distribution business in a more corporate environment, with all of the associated checks and balances in place, has been a challenge for all of us. But these guys have been wonderful to work with. All along, they’ve had the right attitude to make this happen. And I’m very proud of where we are right now.”

Consolidate data

The dealer management software system proved to be a challenge to install and get running smoothly. The system, which centralizes all of Alliance Bus Group’s data and operations and is accessible 24/7 from any computer with Internet access, enables Alliance’s personnel to address customer service questions immediately with reference to any of the company’s departments.

“We launched the software system in 2010,” Dunn says. “It’s a complete dealership management system, similar to what automobile dealers use. It drives our entire process.”

The software system has a wealth of features. It has a contract manager for Alliance’s sales force. It interfaces with the company’s website so that as employees add and delete inventory items, the information is immediately uploaded to the site.

On the parts and service side, the system handles all of the company’s shop tickets and parts orders. It also manages Alliance’s service work orders and its accounting functions.

“One the best things about it is that it’s all in the cloud,” Dunn says. “The information is on the software company’s server, and we can connect to it through the Internet from anywhere. It has completely changed the way we do business.”

In the two years since Alliance centralized its corporate operations and installed the dealer management software, the company has acquired dealerships in Lewisville, Texas, Carlstadt, N.J., and Orlando, Fla. These acquisitions bring Alliance’s total number of business locations to seven.

Blending the new dealerships into Alliance’s corporate system, especially with regard to the dealer management software system, has been problematic, but it is growing less so as the company gets accustomed to the process.

“The integration of the new dealerships is getting less difficult as we do each one,” Dunn says. “With the first one, you know, you almost want to kill yourself, the second one, you just get real sick, and the third one, you sort of catch it in stride. That’s the way the process has gone for us.”

Dunn says conviction, clear communication and decisiveness have been keys to Alliance’s ability to successfully integrate the new dealerships into the company’s corporate structure.

“You can’t lose the faith,” he says. “It can be lonely at the top, and it’s easy to get discouraged, but I’ve learned that when you start feeling a little uncertain, you need to start communicating more. Get out and really research the situation, and then go at it with everything you’ve got.

“Gather as much data as possible, analyze it quickly, decide what’s important, follow up expeditiously, and then make the best decision you can. And once you make a decision, go for it. Don’t back off.”

That last point — not pulling back from decisions once they’re made — was especially important to Alliance as it moved through the process of acquiring the dealerships and assimilating those organizations into the company.

“If you make a decision and then you back off from it, everybody will start to question all your decisions,” Dunn says. “It can make it difficult to pursue an effective course going forward when people … you know, they may not necessarily lose confidence in you, but they may start to think you’re not as committed to something as you should be.”

With seven locations in six states spanning from Texas to New Jersey, Alliance Bus Group has expanded its reach from what was once a group of small, loosely connected “lone ranger” dealerships to a large regional bus distribution network. The greatest advantage Alliance has gained as a result of this expansion is its ability to offer more interesting and potentially lucrative opportunities to its employees.

“This is a different game now,” Dunn says. “I have the ability to take a good sales manager in Texas and promote him to be the general manager in New Orleans or Orlando. I’ve never had that opportunity before, and when you start talking about a company and the opportunities for people inside it, you know, that’s pretty special.

“As I’ve gotten older and seen things, what gives me the greatest pleasure is to see people that have come on board in the organization, worked hard and developed, and then benefited from it, for themselves and their families. That’s what gets me fired up most nowadays.” ?

How to reach: Alliance Bus Group Inc., (866) 287-4768 or www.alliancebusgroup.com

 

THE DUNN FILE

Doug Dunn

Chairman and CEO

Alliance Bus Group Inc.

Born: Atlanta

Education: Mercer University, bachelor’s degree in political science; Vanderbilt University, MBA

What was your first job, and what business leadership lessons did you learn from it?

I was an intern for a natural gas company my second year at Vanderbilt, and the senior vice president made me an offer to stay and fill a hole, which was director of personnel for a 600-employee utility. One of the first things I had to do was negotiate a contract with a pipefitters’ union. So I went from the academic world down to the front line about as fast as you possibly could go. I got instant management experience, immediate personnel experience, and more legal stuff than I cared to know about. That worked out well for me. It was a great springboard into what I’ve done since.

Do you have a central business philosophy that you use to guide you?

I try to rally the troops constantly by staying in communication with them, and I strive for clarity to make sure people understand what I want. Also, I’ve always been a data hound. I try to stay on top of as much relevant data as I can get.

What trait do you think is most important for an executive to have in order to be a successful leader?

I think it’s perseverance. Staying with it; staying on top of the important things. Deciding what’s important and what’s not. You don’t want a dollar chasing a dime.

What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?

That would be from my father, who has passed away. He was an executive for 48 years with Delta Airlines. His advice to me was, ‘Decide what you want to do, do what you like and never worry about the money, because it will always come.’ That has always worked for me.

Published in Atlanta

When Affiliated Computer Services Inc. was acquired by Xerox Corp. in 2010, Natesh Manikoth saw an opportunity to utilize the resources and talents of one of the most innovative companies around and apply that innovation toward solving transportation infrastructure problems.

The acquisition of ACS, a $6.5 billion company, created Xerox’s Transportation, Central and Local Government Group, where Manikoth serves as chief technology officer. The 6,500-employee division provides system solutions for tolling, parking and transit.

“Xerox has a rich history of innovation,” Manikoth says. “One of the first business units to take real active advantage of that wealth of innovation talent within Xerox was transportation.

“We became very active partners with the research community in Xerox to tap into their brainpower to say, ‘You guys have been doing wonderful work with document management and producing world-class printers. How do we take that talent and apply it to solving problems for cities?’”

The division has developed roughly 50 percent of the tolling systems in the U.S. and parking systems in areas all over the country, and it provides public transit systems globally in more than 30 countries.

Here’s how Manikoth is using innovation across divisions to create better solutions in the transportation arena.

Solve the real problems

A lot of large technology companies have started to realize that technology becomes commoditized over time. Business becomes a harder game, and growth begins to stagnate. So Xerox made a conscious choice to supplement its technology offerings with services in order to grow.

“That was the rationale for the acquisition of ACS,” Manikoth says. “Now we are probably a 50/50 company between technology and services. The offerings we have solve real problems that our customers have.”

In transportation, throughout the last 10 to 15 years and going forward, the biggest challenge is more and more demand. The problem is you cannot grow infrastructure fast enough to deal with that increase in demand.

“You cannot build your way out of the problem,” he says. “So you are looking for how you can use the existing infrastructure more efficiently. What we help do is one way of saying, ‘I have this fixed asset called the road with five lanes. I’m only able to transport X number of vehicles through there. How do I now make it X plus 10 percent more?”

Xerox’s transportation group was at the forefront of electronic toll collection, which was a simple way of improving the toll process and increasing traffic flow. The combined forces of ACS and Xerox allows some of the best minds to contemplate those problems.

“All that talent has really been focused on document management and improving information flow,” Manikoth says. “ACS, on the other hand, used to be the people who did the work and built products to solve a particular customer problem but was not necessarily helping our customers think about what happens 10 years from now. That is what Xerox did extremely well.”

Do some thinking

Xerox thought about document management and information flow and what the offices of the future might look like. Now those researchers have the opportunity to sit down with stakeholders in cities to think about what the cities of the future are going to look like.

“Seventy to 80 percent of GDP in this country is generated from urban centers,” Manikoth says. “So if there is one problem we can help solve which will have the maximum impact, it is to make those urban centers more efficient.”

In L.A., Xerox is helping to modernize parking infrastructure. The key component there is real data analytics to predict parking availability so that people don’t drive around looking for a parking space. Xerox used a dynamic pricing engine to optimize parking availability.

Also in L.A., Xerox implemented a dynamic pricing mechanism to let people use high-occupancy vehicle lanes, which have been exclusively for buses and other high-occupancy vehicles. Now you can pay a toll and use the HOV lanes. It’s an example of a slightly underused infrastructure now being used to improve the traffic conditions in the area and having people pay for the privilege of doing that.

Think innovation, think savings

Xerox is also looking at how it can improve the systems it creates for infrastructure. One of the research things that Xerox is working on is power saving.

“The idea is these pieces of equipment consume a lot of power, but they might be sitting idle a lot of the time,” he says. “So how do you reduce the power footprint?”

The transportation group is working with Xerox around the technology it uses in printers to save power and is applying that to systems in transportation.

“To do power consumption in an intelligent fashion is an art and a science and they have tons of research surrounding that,” he says. “The same thing applies to the transportation infrastructure.

“There are lots of places where we have equipment, which is powered on 24/7, but people show up at peak times and use it heavily, and at off-peak hours, it probably isn’t used at all. So there’s potential for energy savings in those environments, and we are applying that in our devices in transportation.”

Over the past couple of years, there has been a significant shift in the research stemming from technology to the services market.

“You have to adopt innovative practices that are successful in your other lines of business,” Manikoth says. “The common theme I see is people ask the researchers, ‘What are the solutions you have?’ The ones who I see being more successful are the ones who have conversations about the problems.

“You cannot draw the connection between what was your domain and research by looking at what the researchers are capable of. The connections start becoming apparent if you look at the problem a little more deeply.”

To make these kinds of connections, Xerox brought researchers from three different labs into conversations with its business units and didn’t say which problems were going to be solved. They asked businesses to articulate their customers’ problems with questions such as, “If the customers had a dream that they got fulfilled, what would it be? What particular problem of their customer would they love to solve?”

“When the problem is posed appropriately, the solutions seem to match things which we have solved before,” Manikoth says.

“... The first step is to really understand what the problems are and what the customers want to solve. What is their desire? What is their dream and what problems would they like solved in a picture-perfect scenario and then bridge that gap. Figure out whether you have offerings or whether your partners can bring something to the table to solve those problems.”

The reason Xerox asks questions up front is to make sure the problem is being broken down to its essence and that the wrong problem isn’t being solved.

“In the Xerox world, we’ve split research into things where we are partnering very closely with customers and then we have really exploratory research as well where we think about what some of the big ideas might be over the next four or five years,” he says.

“... For the foreseeable future, we believe making these cities more efficient in all modes is going to be very important. We think we can make a profitable business there and at the same time help cities improve their infrastructure and services.” ?

How to reach: Xerox Transportation, (312) 529-3284 or www.acs-inc.com/transportation-new.aspx

Published in National
Friday, 30 November 2012 19:40

Roger Slade: Saving the holidays

Imagine that you are sitting at the holiday dinner table with your family — aunts, uncles, cousins and distant relatives from out of town. Someone at the table cavalierly brings up the November election. Next thing you know, World War III breaks out, as your family members debate the merits of the candidates and the future of the country over turkey and mashed potatoes.

Now, imagine that these same people are shareholders and employees in your family business. If these people cannot agree between the two politicians, how will they be able to agree about the joint management of their financial affairs? The answer is only with great difficulty. This is one reason why so many family businesses, and so many families, end up in costly litigation.

Here are some observations from someone who has litigated many intra-family disputes, about what might have been done to avoid a nasty and expensive lawsuit.

Sign a contract

It may seem elementary, but the fundamental concept of a contract is often ignored by people in business. Should you really sign a contract with your brother about the maintenance of a family business? After all, isn’t this the person that you grew up with, shared a room with … your best friend? Of course, you should.

The interesting thing about the negotiation of shareholders’ agreements among family members is how absolutely divergent the views are of different family members about how to run the business and make it profitable. These views often manifest themselves in the negotiation process.

Imagine, however, that there was no negotiation process, and instead, the business began without a written agreement. The likelihood is that chaos would ensue, profits would dissipate through disagreements and nothing of a material nature would be accomplished. Thus, this basic point — the execution of a contract — is a fundamental and necessary component to founding a family business.

Establish a hierarchy

Someone has to be the boss. Historically, it has been Dad. However, in “modern families,” other people can be asked to assume the mantle of leadership. Generally, it is wise to choose the person with the most business experience, the best education, and the most obvious leadership skills.

In any family, the appropriate candidate should be obvious. If the parties cannot agree on this, it is generally a bad sign. Leadership is essential to any business; and a family business is no different.

Treat it as a business

The family business is a real business. The family business should not be run like a family. The conversation between the leaders in the family business should not mimic the conversation at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Rather, family businesses should conduct regular meetings, where notes are taken, minutes kept and tasks assigned. It is a good idea to retain an outside lawyer to help administer the affairs of the business.

You should also be able to judge the potential success of your family business by determining how easy it is to apportion tasks among family members after the Thanksgiving dinner is concluded — who will wash the dishes, the pots, clean the tables, fold the linens, and take out the garbage?

If the parties cannot agree, following dinner, how to clean up, how will they be able to run a business?

Establish an advisory board

Working with a family member during the day and then having Thanksgiving dinner with that family member the following weekend presents some challenges. Issues regarding the family business are more likely to arise at inappropriate times — during holidays, on weekends or after work hours.

If Dad or Mom is in charge of the business, this is even more likely to occur. One suggestion for taking Dad or Mom “out of the loop” would be to establish an advisory board. These are individuals you’ve retained for the purpose of dealing with sticky business issues that place Dad or Mom in an awkward position.

Let the “advisory board” take the heat for a difficult issue. That way, you can explain that the controversial decision — which may negatively impact a family member — was made by the advisory board and out of your hands.

Roger Slade is a partner in the law firm of  Boyd & Jenerette, P.A. and chairman of the firm’s Commercial Litigation Department. Reach him at rslade@boyd-jenerette.com.

Published in Florida