Abby Cymerman

Friday, 24 November 2006 19:00

Team effort

How was your day?’ might be a simple dinner table question, but at the Testa home, it often leads to a meal-long discussion of business issues.

Paul Testa is CEO of Cuyahoga Falls-based Testa Cos., which includes construction, real estate, property management and land development divisions. His wife, son, daughter and brother also work at the company. “We have five employees for every one Testa so we don’t overwhelm them,” Testa says.

The company’s 38 employees have helped Testa grow revenue nearly 60 percent from 2003 to 2005, and he expects 2006 revenue to exceed $30 million.

Smart Business spoke with Testa about how he creates close-knit relationships with both customers and employees.

Q: How can other CEOs grow their company the way you’ve grown yours?

Concentrate on relationships and on repeat business, as opposed to new business. You’re not always going out, trying to advertise and create new business.

Try to help the organizations you’ve already done business with and hook up with companies that have continued growth. If you satisfy them, you’re going to be part of their growth.

Look at where the growth is in the industry: What expertise do you have, and what expertise do you need to meet their needs?

We’re comfortable in the size of our company now, and we’re really not looking for explosive growth. Growth is good, but profitability is better. You can lose control of growth.

Q: How do you know when a company’s growing too fast?

If you start to drop the ball with your quality and service, you need to take a look at whether or not you need to add staff to meet continued growth or be comfortable where you are.

I’ve always subscribed to the philosophy bigger is not better. I never had a desire to grow to the size we are, but it just sort of hap

How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate,’ by Gary Chapman. It’s based on relationships with men and women, but we can take this into the workplace and understand what motivates each person.

Where one person may want verbal affirmation that they’re doing a good job, somebody else may want monetary affirmation. Somebody else may just want a pat on the back.

We try to get a true understanding of what each person wants to be satisfied in their work environment and provide it, and it may be different for all 38 people.

Q: How do you establish team spirit?

If we create a product for a customer, and the customer’s happy, then the employee who helped put that product together feels a sense of pride. It’s not, ‘The company just built that.’ It’s, ‘We just built that.’

‘We’ is the most important word within a company. I don’t like the word ‘I’ because I don’t do anything alone; it’s a team effort.

Q: How does that benefit your customers?

I tell my employees, ‘I’m not the guy who pays your salary; the customer pays me to pass it on to you.’ You don’t need just to satisfy me, you need to satisfy all of us, clients included. That’s the key. The customer’s going to be happy to pay our bills, and he’s going to be happy to recommend us to others.

Q: What advice would you give other CEOs at fast-growth companies?

Your employees are your biggest asset, and if you take care of your employees, respect them and make them part of your family, they’ll respond in kind. As a team, you’ll build a better environment and a better product.

Money comes, and money goes, but if you want to leave a legacy for your family, [it comes down to] what did you do, what did you accomplish and were you right by people? As long as I’m going to have my family’s name on the company, I better bring honor to them.

HOW TO REACH: Testa Cos., www.testacompanies.com or (330) 928-1988

Sunday, 29 October 2006 06:55

King of the jungle

Jack Hanna is the kind of business leader more executives should emulate.

The director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium makes his own phone calls, personally responds to handwritten letters and prefers to deal with business issues immediately.

“I can’t stand it when somebody calls me and says, ‘I need to talk to you about something. Can we set up a lunch in a week or two?’ The answer off the bat is, ‘No,’” he says. “If you want to discuss something, whether it’s a TV show or a frog, that’s just how I operate. Is it time-consuming? Yes. Is it the best way to operate a business? Maybe not, but people have their answers real quick.

“I firmly believe that if there’s a problem in business, get it taken care of now.”

Known to fans as “Jungle Jack,” Hanna hosts “Jack Hanna’s Animal Adventures,” a nationally syndicated television series that reaches 95 percent of U.S. households every weekend and is viewed in more than 60 countries. Some may call him a celebrity, but he prefers to call himself an animal ambassador.

A dream fulfilled
Growing up in Tennessee, Hanna worked for the family veterinarian and spent Sunday nights watching “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.” As a student at Muskingum College, he always kept an eye on his goal of becoming a zookeeper and traveling the world to study animals.

“I never dreamed that I’d be able to go to every continent and go to Africa 50-some times,” he says. “I’m sitting here, hitting myself every day, going, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this.’”

His father, a real estate agent, taught him that hard work and enthusiasm are the keys to success in the business world, and although Hanna says school was difficult for him, he studied hard and says that no one could outwork him.

After short stints as a pet shop owner and as director of a Florida Zoo, Hanna arrived at the Columbus Zoo in 1978 to serve as its executive director and began promoting the institution to anyone who would listen. After a 1983 appearance on “Good Morning America,” the media blitz began, and Hanna became a regular guest on “The Late Show with David Letterman” and “Larry King Live.”

Today, Hanna says Columbus is home to the largest zoo in North America, with nearly 1.3 million visitors last year. Local voters passed a levy in 2005 that will bring in $190 million to the zoo over the next 10 years.

Leading the way
Hanna has adopted a leadership style akin to that of John McConnell, chairman and CEO of Columbus-based Worthington Industries.

“I’ve known Mr. Mac since I got here in 1978, and it’s the same Golden Rule: You treat other people like you’d want to be treated,” Hanna says. “That’s what I’ve always done. I don’t care if it’s the guy that’s picking up all the animal manure, or the person that does the flowers here, or the assistant zoo director — everyone should be treated the same at the Columbus Zoo. I would never ask anybody to do anything that I haven’t done.”

Hanna says business leaders can inspire their employees by working hard and loving what they do.

“If they see that, then they’re going to say, ‘Maybe I should start doing it that way,’” he says. “A leader is the kind of person who gets out there and works with employees. They watch you: Are you putting in an eight-hour day or an 18-hour day?”

Creating a legacy
In addition to his television show, personal appearances and his duties to the zoo, Hanna has recently adopted Rwanda as a special project.

“I’m now dedicating my life to helping turn around Rwanda, not just the gorillas and the animals, but helping the orphanages that we sponsor over there,” he says. “Paul Kagame — he’s the president of Rwanda and a friend of mine — has me working on the tourism aspect of the country.”

Hanna has joined with Bill Gates and other well-known sponsors to create opportunities in Rwanda, which he calls “the jewel of Africa.”

“I’ve met TV celebrities, presidents of countries and done all kinds of stuff, every kind of TV show there is,” he says. “That’s all great and dandy, but that doesn’t mean anything when it comes down to what you’ve accomplished. I hope I’ve had a part of making the Columbus Zoo not just one of the finest zoos in the country but a place where, in the future, millions of people can visit and learn something about our Earth’s resources and animals.

“That’s hopefully something I’ve left behind. That’s what drives me.”

HOW TO REACH: Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, (614) 645-3550 or www.columbuszoo.org

Saturday, 28 October 2006 20:00

Work in progress

 Fast growth is an understatement for what is happening at American Aluminum Extrusions of Ohio LLC.

Established in September 2001 with 10 employees, the company posted $1 million in 2001 revenue. Today, it has more than 130 employees, and sales have increased from $12.4 million in 2003 to $30 million last year. President and CEO Darius Szczekocki expects that growth to continue, with 2006 estimates of $43 million.

Canton-based American Aluminum Extrusions of Ohio provides custom and standard extrusion for the transportation, distribution, building, linear motion and electronic original equipment manufacturing markets.

Smart Business spoke with Szczekocki about how he supports his work force while managing rapid growth.

How can other executives grow their companies the way that you’ve grown yours?
A lot of our success is based in our people and our management team. We empower our management team to service the customers and make them part of our overall team. It’s more than just a job to them: They feel like they’re owners of the company, as well, and they’re very engaged in what they do.

How did you give your employees that sense of ownership?
We empower our managers to run their own business within their functional area. We communicate internally where we want the company to go as far as our strategic plans and try to get the buy-in and support from our managers. They’re involved at the higher level of the company, and they take ownership that way.

We filter it through the organization. During companywide meetings, we communicate the message from the higher level management to the rest of the company. We recognize and reward everyone’s hard work though direct compensation and having company picnics, holiday parties, luncheons and giveaways, like hats or T-shirts if we have record months. We do something special to get that team atmosphere going.

We’ve owned this business for five years, and from day one, we tried to instill that culture. As we grew and became profitable, we could do more for our people, and we get the benefits.

It is a circle: We treat our employees with respect, and that’s how we expect our customers to be taken care of. Ultimately, that helps you grow in the marketplace. Happy employees equal happy customers.

What are the principal qualities that executives should look for in the people they hire?
Find the skill set for each job, and make sure that the person has some talent and is capable of learning new and different things.

You want to see people who have grown in positions and have taken on more responsibilities and challenges in their career. You don’t want someone who’s had eight jobs in five years; that’s not a good sign.

We look for people with entrepreneurial spirit who will take more of a risk or chance. They will want to be empowered and think out of the box. It’s not possible to find it in every position — and you may not want that in every position — but in your leadership team and management, you definitely want that.

How does having an empowered management team help you do your job?
I don’t have to worry about the day-to-day for the business because I have the confidence that the daily issues are being addressed. It helps me focus more on the strategic planning and growth of the company if I’m not in the day-to-day battle.

You have to have trust and confidence in your management team. It takes time. You have to develop a track record. We have very open and honest communication, which also helps.

How do you recruit and retain good people?
We take the time to give a potential new hire a plant tour and let them see that we have a pretty challenging work environment — it’s hot and heavy work. We give them the good, the bad and the ugly about the job so they’re not surprised coming to their first day of work.

When we do hire someone, we try to assign them with an experienced operator to train them and help them feel a little more comfortable on the job. It’s a kind of buddy system that’s evolved over time.

It definitely helps reduce your turnover, and it helps improve safety of the work force. We try not to leave people out there by themselves; we support them through the whole training period.

What is the best advice that you’ve ever received about how to grow a company?
Hire the right people and take care of them. They’ll take care of the business, and you will get a return on that investment.

In the long run, it saves you money because people who are productive understand the business and pay for themselves.

HOW TO REACH: American Aluminum Extrusions of Ohio LLC, (330) 458-0300 or www.aaeo.com

Monday, 18 September 2006 20:00

Sticking to it

 Castle Aviation Inc.’s Web site lists five secrets to success, which Michael Grossmann says are loosely based on those of Walt Disney.

No. 4 on the list is “sticktoitivity,” which Grossmann, the company’s owner, founder and president, defines as “sticking to the mission and trying not to waver from it.”

Founded in 1986, Castle Aviation is an aircraft freight service based at the Akron-Canton Airport. Its revenue has grown to $7.2 million, up from $3.8 million in 2003.

Smart Business spoke with Grossmann about how he and his team work to make the company better.

How can a leader grow a company?
Empower your people to get creative. Reinvent the wheel. You constantly have to look for other sources of revenue because you never know when the sources of revenue you have today are going to dry up.

You have to be flexible. This is not a one person job; this is a company thing.

What are can prevent a company from growing, and how can business owners avoid it?
If a business owner is happy with the business he’s doing, and it’s got a little niche, that’s fine. But most business owners want more money, and they want to grow, and to do that, you have to constantly reinvent yourself.

You cannot have the attitude, ‘This is the way I do it, and I’m not changing.’ The person who thinks like that is not going to be able to grow very much because he’s in a rut.

You have to look ahead and be positive about everything all the time. I don’t care how bad things get. We all have doom and gloom, (because) businesses cycle.

You can’t stop spending money just because you’re not making any. You have to go after more business.

You can’t tell everybody, ‘Things are slow. Close the doors. We’re just going to sit here and wait for the phone to ring.’ If you wait for the phone to ring, it’s not going to ring, so you’ve got to get on the phone and start making calls. Find out from your customers what they want.

Business owners always have (their) sales hat on, but I also like to think of it as an ambassador hat. You’re the one who’s going out there and talking with your customers. They appreciate the owner coming out. If the owner doesn’t talk with them, they’re trying to figure out who runs your company.

All my customers have access to my e-mail and cell phone number. If they ever have a problem or an issue, they can call me.

You have to be available for your customers. If your people do something wrong, you correct the problem and use it as a learning tool.

Why is it important to ask your customers what they want?
How can you improve yourself if you don’t know what the customer wants or expects? When I sit down with a customer, I say, ‘How can I make things better for you?’

The vast majority of the time they say we do a great job, but every once in awhile, they say, ‘What about this?’ Many times, I have never thought of these things. You can learn a lot from talking with your customers.

What advice would you give other business owners?
Don’t be afraid to take the challenge. You learn by your mistakes. Get all of the information you can possibly get, make a decision and go for it.

If that course isn’t working, don’t stay there. Change course, change directions. You’ve got to be creative and flexible.

Look at how FedEx and UPS are constantly changing. They’re constantly reinventing themselves and trying to get a bigger share of the market and more business.

What stands you apart? What makes you different from your competitor? I respect my people, pay them well and give them uniforms. I do a lot more for the people who work for me than other cargo operators would, but I expect more out of them, too. It’s all about how you take care of people.

Never ever criticize (an employee’s idea). Take that idea and evaluate it. If I don’t think it’s a good idea, I will give my reasons and share that with the employee so they understand and get a little more educated.

Another piece of advice that I got a long time ago was walk the four corners of your building. Make an effort to see everybody who’s working in your building. Let them see the boss.

If they don’t see the boss and think he’s out playing all the time, then he probably is.

HOW TO REACH: Castle Aviation Inc., (800) 325-4703 or www.castleair.com

When the Federal Trade Commission passed legislation in 2003 for a National Do Not Call Registry, it could have meant the end for Akron-based InfoCision Management Corp., an inbound and outbound call center provider.

InfoCision CEO Carl Albright says his company invested more than $2 million in regulatory compliance in preparation for the legislation. Despite a slump in sales, InfoCision bounced back in 2004 when companies recognized they couldn’t afford to take risks with compliance.

InfoCision’s record was unmatched within the industry, and customers took notice. The following year, sales grew by more than $10 million, and the company created 271 jobs.

During the last five years, sales at InfoCision have increased by more than $40 million. The company has opened new locations and created more than 1,000 jobs.

Today, InfoCision is the third-largest privately held teleservices company, employing more than 2,800 people. It operates 27 call centers throughout Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, and Albright expects 2006 sales to reach $155 million.

Employees are the key ingredient in maintaining a profitable and growing company, and Albright strives to create a workplace where his employees can thrive. Among the employee benefits offered are medical and dental insurance, 401(k), paid vacation and periodic bonuses. This compensation philosophy and corporate culture has led InfoCision to be named the ninth-best place to work in Ohio by the state chamber of commerce.

InfoCision recently rolled out its new health and wellness program, which provides contests and resources to encourage a healthy lifestyle, including smoking cessation and weight-loss programs and subsidized fitness club memberships. It also installed on-site fitness centers at two locations, which employees can join for a fraction of the cost of other fitness clubs.

As part of InfoCision’s commitment to the communities in which it operates, it is a member of the chambers of commerce and Better Business Bureaus in each of its 12 locations. Its employees often participate in fundraisers for organizations such as The Salvation Army, American Heart Association and American Cancer Society.

HOW TO REACH: InfoCision Management Corp., (330) 668-1400 or www.infocision.com

Ray Dalton, president of PartsSource LLC, says that in an average hospital today, repair technicians spend 3.8 hours making seven to 10 phone calls to secure a single part for a piece of medical equipment.

He knew there was a solution to this inefficiency and saw secondary parts procurement and distribution as more than a necessary evil. In 2001, he founded PartsSource, a Twinsburg-based multimanufacturer alternative parts supplier supporting requests for hospital equipment. The company provides savings of between 25 percent and 75 percent on original equipment manufacturer pricing on nearly every order with one phone call.

Last year, PartsSource was named the 23rd fastest growing company in America by Entrepreneur magazine, and in 2006, it moved up to 19th.

PartsSource has grown its work force from 10 employees five years ago to 92 last year, and today has more than 125 associates on its payroll with a retention rate of more than 90 percent.

The company’s revenue also grew from $800,000 in 2001 to more than $30 million last year.

Being a successful supplier requires more than just providing parts for customers. PartsSource staff members use an internally developed software application, PartsFinder, to quickly and efficiently capture parts requests online, scan their warehouse inventory for available stock and, if unavailable in-house, go to the best vendors on the open market to secure pricing options for their customers.

Beating the industry standard of finding parts in six to eight hours, PartsSource is able to contact potential buyers within two hours with OEM pricing and a variety of used and refurbished parts options depending on the customer’s particular needs.

While other companies in the industry take an indirect approach to the marketing and selling of their products — trade shows, advertising in industry periodicals and direct mail — PartsSource employs nearly 90 full-time employees whose only job is to call hospitals and solicit parts requests from technicians working on the broken equipment. The company has changed a reactive buying event to a proactive experience by changing the functional responsibility of its sales force.

Dalton says PartsSource is positioned to continue its growth from the present $50 million run rate to more than $100 million in less than five years.

HOW TO REACH: PartsSource LLC, (877) 497-6412 or www.mypartssource.com

Sunday, 27 August 2006 20:00

Bridge over troubled waters

Neil Adelman likes to tell the story about the employee who messed up a big deal and got a call the next morning from his boss’ secretary. He rode up the elevator to the big guy’s office and said, “Sir, I know you’re calling me up here to fire me because I blew a $20 million deal,” and his boss says, “Why would I fire you? I just invested $20 million in your education.”

“People make mistakes,” says Adelman, CEO of Cleveland-based BlueBridge Networks. “And that’s fine as long as we learn from it and it becomes something that strengthens us and makes us a better company.”

BlueBridge, founded in 2004, secures its clients’ data and IT assets so they remain available before, during and after a disaster.

Adelman emphasizes the important role of collaboration with innovation. His company supports innovation in the region by connecting with all industries, companies and institutions of higher learning, which allows for growth due to common synergies and advancements.

He also welcomes employee input and implements their ideas on a regular basis. Rather than hand down rules, Adelman prefers to play referee.

“If somebody has something to say, they’re free to walk in my office, and I want them to tell me exactly what they think,” he says. “I don’t consider that to be insubordination. When people aren’t telling me what they’re thinking and something’s going wrong, then we’ve got a real problem.”

BlueBridge is Adelman’s fifth start-up, and he’s learned that micromanagement is counterproductive to creativity. He prefers to hire good people and stay out of their way.

“You have to let people run with ideas,” Adelman says. “If they can achieve their objective their way, then so be it. I hire them because they have a certain skill set. Why would I try to tell them how to do their job?”

HOW TO REACH: BlueBridge Networks, (866) 990-2583 or www.bluebridgenetworks.com

Sunday, 27 August 2006 20:00

Scary success

Edward Douglas talks fast — and it’s not because there’s work to be done to meet the demand of his company’s peak season.

It’s because he’s genuinely excited about his company, Chardon-based Entity Productions Inc., his band Midnight Syndicate and the projects that have taken over his world.

Entity Productions launched a decade ago as a film production company, but eventually it changed course. When the music industry didn’t understand Midnight Syndicate’s dark orchestral movie-style music blended with professional sound effects, Entity took over as the band’s record label.

“Everything we’ve had to do has gone against convention, to not be held down by the constraints of the system,” Douglas says. “It’s always about trying to keep an open mind.”

When Halloween grew to be the second largest retail holiday, and consumers had few choices for modern, high-quality Halloween music, Douglas discovered his company’s niche. Today, Midnight Syndicate’s original music CDs are sold worldwide, and the band supplies Halloween mood music to the haunted attraction and amusement park industries.

Midnight Syndicate’s music has appeared on national television shows, radio and regional television spots, horror films and as pre-concert music for a horror-metal band. Douglas teamed up with Hasbro Games and Wizard of the Coast in 2002 to create the first official soundtrack for the role-playing game “Dungeons & Dragons,” and Midnight Syndicate’s scores will be featured in two upcoming horror movies “Sin-Jin Smyth” and “The Rage.”

Networking with his new movie industry connections and having access to a larger budget, Douglas soon will be directing and producing a horror-suspense thriller, “The Dead Matter.” It’s a remake of a movie he directed and scored after he graduated from college, and, still fighting the system, he plans to film in Northeast Ohio with local talent.

“We’re always trying to find ways to increase productivity and be more efficient and all that other stuff,” he says. “But really, our livelihood is all about being innovative — finding new ways of getting our product out to the people who want it and finding new opportunities.”

HOW TO REACH: Midnight Syndicate Soundtracks, (440) 286-1494 or www.midnightsyndicate.com

Friday, 28 July 2006 20:00

The Rev. Robert Niehoff

 Managing a business and managing a university may seem vastly different, but businesses must produce successful products or services, and universities must produce successful students. That is just one of many challenges facing the Rev. Robert Niehoff as president of John Carroll University, which has an $80 million budget, and 665 full-time and 169 part-time employees. Smart Business spoke with him about how he established his leadership style and implemented changes during his first two semesters at the university.

Promote inclusion and communication.
Organizations do better when everyone is included in the conversations that lead up to strategic choices. Those people who are dealing with the issues and working in an organization every day have really significant input relative to their experience.

What I’ve done everywhere that I’ve been is created more open, inclusive and participative processes than have ever happened before.

What often happens in organizations is that decisions and consultation get siloed; you have a kind of hierarchy and separation — a kind of silo. Institutions make small, incrementally bad individual decisions that become colossally bad because they aren’t inclusive, and they don’t consider all the reality.

My goal is to broaden the conversation so every one of those committees and groups going forward will have a fuller appreciation of the global issues that impact the university and how those global issues relate to their specific task.

Listen to your employees.
One of the major issues for leaders is to create environments where they can actually hear from people.

People are reticent to talk honestly with me because they don’t know what the implications of that would be. That means I have to listen very well.

You have those talking who are doing it for political agenda, and then those who are trying to test to see if I’m really ready to hear what they believe is the open, honest or accurate view of the situation (or) event, or a reaction to one of my decisions.

Be a role model for employee performance.
Staff selection at every level is a critical thing, and then it becomes a question of encouraging the values and performance that you want from those really good people.

It’s important for me to have someone in Role X whom I can trust to do what seems best and what is consistent so I don’t have to worry about Role X. That cascades down through the organization.

The best thing (executives) can do is to model (values and performance) and talk about how important it is. Everything I do gets noticed. It is a huge amount of pressure in an organization where you have a person like me talking about respect, inclusion and participation, so I’ve ratcheted it up.

In a lot of other types of organizations, people would excuse some of that as the prerogative of leadership. I try not to create prerogative for me because I don’t believe that’s important, at least not as important as the other values.

In my early weeks as president, I told the food service employees I didn’t expect to be served first. It took them a little while to get used to it.

A few months later, I heard somebody comment on that as a sign that, ‘Gee, this guy might be real when he says these things.’ It’s difficult to be consistent all the time so that’s what makes some of the small stuff even more important as a way to underline and accentuate for folks what the values are and how they really are meaningful.

Approach change slowly.
The traditional advice is really good but very difficult to follow: Listen, pay attention and start keying in to the organizational values.

You can’t change an organization unless you understand it. You have to understand what motivates employees. I don’t motivate my employees; I have to be able to talk to the values — their goals, hopes and possibilities — and that will motivate them.

New leaders have to really pay attention, and they have to uncover what those values are, especially if they’re moving on toward change, you need to be able to demonstrate a vision. You’re creating opportunities for the longer-term employees to see things differently.

Take on the responsibility to do good.
I often say to people, ‘We have an opportunity to think about how we want this relationship to change. Are we going to make the choices today to make that relationship better or not?’

In every relationship, we have that choice every day, and often enough, we don’t pay attention to that. We’re not thinking that this simple choice about how I greet the person at the latte stand is going to make a difference in their day and mine.

Make the best possible hire.
Hire someone smarter and more talented than you because it makes more things possible.

When you’re dealing with someone you work with, you want that person to be more creative, more thoughtful, more deliberative, more able to do more with what you’ve talked about together so that you don’t have to do all the thinking, all the directing (or make) all the choices. This goes back to trying to empower everyone in the organization to do as much as they can to accomplish that common goal.

There are people, because of their skills and experience, who can do more than I can in some areas. I want them to do that here because that makes us better. I want the organization to be better than me.

HOW TO REACH: John Carroll University, (216) 397-1886 or www.jcu.edu

Monday, 19 June 2006 10:26

Larry Lanham

Posted on the walls of Polymer Packaging Inc. are signs that ask, “What is the good business reason for doing this?” Larry Lanham, founder, president and CEO of the North Canton-based business, wants his employees to keep this simple, thought-provoking question in mind throughout their workday. When a situation arises, if employees can determine a valid answer to this question, they have the power to pursue it. This corporate culture of empowerment has helped Lanham’s 110 employees make good decisions and enabled them to grow the flexible packaging manufacturer from $40 million in 2005 revenue to an expected $54 million in 2006. Smart Business spoke with Lanham about how he manages change and how he’s leading his company into the future.

Establish expectations.
It starts in the hiring process. The most important thing is communicating the company’s expectations of the employee.

Management here truly feels that if an employee is either terminated or doesn’t work out, it’s management’s fault, not the individual employee’s fault.

In the interview, if you explain the expectation levels you have for that particular individual within the company, then that normally sets the tone for that employee moving forward.

Challenge potential employees.
We want them to look at us as closely as we’re looking at them to make sure that this is the type of team environment that will fit their personality and lifestyle as well as ours.

We believe in having passionate people here who take ownership in their jobs, and that requires a special individual. We consider our company a club of sorts where membership is to be valued, and it’s not given nor received easily.

Create a team, not a family.
A lot of small companies call themselves a family, and we really don’t. We call ourselves a team because in a family atmosphere, it’s very difficult to make changes on your team if you have family members.

If everyone views everyone else as a team member, and if one team member is lacking a bit, it’s up to the rest of the team to help bring them up to speed. If they can’t be brought up to speed, it’s not nearly as difficult to make a change in a position if you’ve got team players as opposed to family members.

It doesn’t mean that we don’t love our employees; it means that’s the expectation level, and they’re going to be a contributor and a team player.

Have the right stuff.
People are starving for leadership, even bad leadership; they’ll take that in place of none. It’s critical that organizations have strong leadership and a strong belief system and philosophy — and that they ask their people to mirror that.

That’s what works for us. We have a culture here to which everyone subscribes, and we try to make sure that they do before we make the hire.

Handle problems.
One thing that separates you from your competition is how well you handle problems. Whenever you have a human element, you’ve got the opportunity for error.

We sometimes say, ‘Our products are made in Canton, Ohio, not Heaven.’ All businesses have problems, but what separates us from our competition is how we handle our problems.

So many times, people don’t take on the responsibility of their problem, try to blame the problem on other factors, and don’t stand behind what it is that they’re producing. Our first and foremost response is, ‘Mr. Customer, your problem will be taken care of 100 percent.’ Whether that means we take 100 percent of it back or replace 100 percent of it, whatever it is that should be done, will be done.

We do what we say we will do; that’s terribly important. There are so many people today who just don’t do what they say they are going to do, and we really hammer that home, particularly in the sales, follow-up and expediting functions. The result of that is confidence in the relationship between supplier and customer.

Deal with change.
That has a lot to do with whether or not you embrace change philosophically. In our company, we do. We actually look forward to change and constantly promote change.

We’ve always been a company that’s been extremely flexible. We’ve prided ourselves on our flexibility and attribute a lot of our success to the flexibility that we’ve been able to maintain. It’s difficult to maintain flexibility if you have an unwillingness to change.

Everybody from the top on down recognizes that if you want to stay on top of technology and have the latest innovations, that is going to require that you’re willing to embrace change.

We believe that if you’re standing still, you’re going backwards. If you really believe that, then you fully recognize that change is going to be an everyday occurrence, and you needn’t be fearful of it.

Make deliberate decisions.
We don’t want to confuse change with anything that’s considered to be flippant. On the other hand, there’s nothing worse in business than stagnation, particularly in the decision-making capacity. I would prefer to see a decision made that may even be a wrong decision, as opposed to no decision being made.

It’s been my experience that there are few decisions that you make that are 100 percent black and white, so that if you do make an error in your first decision, typically you have opportunities to make adjustments and massage it back into a right decision. When you have no decision, you’re stagnant. You’re standing still, and you have no opportunity to be flexible.

Get the right people on the bus.
There’s an adage out of the Jim Collins book, ‘Good to Great,’ which I absolutely love. To paraphrase it, the old adage that people are your most important asset turns out to be wrong. People are not your most important asset; the right people are.

In that same book, there was a whole analogy created around having the right people on the bus. If you’ve got the right people on the bus, the bus can take a detour, but you’re still going to get to where you want to go.

If you don’t embrace change, if you don’t have the right people in place and if you’re stagnant, you’ll never get to where you’re going.

Move forward.
You want to keep looking ahead, and the only way you can do that is if what you did yesterday is going to be good for tomorrow. That means our concentration of efforts is always focused on growth and future opportunities, as opposed to trying to make up for lost ones that weren’t proper from the beginning.

HOW TO REACH: Polymer Packaging Inc., (330) 649-6000 or www.polymerpkg.com