Jim Hallett sees his termination as a CEO in a 2005 corporate shakeup as a very humbling experience.
“It was a good thing,” he says. “I needed to leave the company because the culture was getting so bad, and I needed to go away, but from the day I went away, I always knew I was going to try to raise the money and be able to come back.”
But that goal was not out of vengeance.
“There was no retribution whatsoever,” he says. “I was not interested in retribution; I was not interested in getting even. I was interested in getting the company back, getting my job back and putting people in place with the passion, experience and energy to run this company.”
The company, ADESA vehicle auction and its finance division, was doing well financially when Hallett was fired, but by 2007, times had changed, particularly with its culture. Unbeknownst to Hallett, the company had put itself up for sale while he was looking for backers.
“The building was not a very happy building,” Hallett says. “I would be taking over a company that was floundering ? a company that was not performing, a company that was bureaucratic, political, stale. People didn’t enjoy their jobs, people didn’t like to come to work, people didn’t talk to each other. They didn’t interact with each other.”
Hallett solidified a $3.7 billion deal with the help of private equity investors for ADESA, a finance division and a salvage auction division, named it KAR Auction Services Inc. and as CEO, set out to transform the culture in 60 days.
Here’s how he accomplished it in 30.
Lay the groundwork
Turning around a company culture takes analysis and effort. But Hallett had a position of advantage with his firsthand experience. He was familiar with the players in the organization, and even after his termination, he followed the company, tracked the stock and anecdotal information on the street.
He was faced with the realization that turning around the dysfunctional situation would be his biggest challenge.
Hallett would be the CEO, the cheerleader as it were, and he envisioned a loyal and passionate work force listening to his encouragement.
“A cheerleader is what companies sometimes lack,” he says. “They need that guy who can rally people, who can create a culture, create a vision, and then get everybody to line up and march in the same direction.”
Hallett told his new management team he would have the company marching in lock step in 60 days. By using his skill at getting people to line up and buy in to a common vision, it took half that time.
Evaluating the senior management was a critical experience, and it led Hallett to decide to clean house.
“I looked at everybody,” he says. “Every one from the old guard left. I brought some people back into the organization. I recruited some people into the organization. The most senior management completely exited the building. They did an ‘exit left’ and I entered right.”
The evaluation process was straightforward and involved a simple formula.
“I was really identifying people who knew and understood this business, who had experience, who were passionate about this business and loved what they do every day and then who were relationship-driven with our employees internally and our customers externally and with the industry,” Hallett says.
“Anybody who had any of those qualities was shoved aside when I got fired because the new chairman didn’t want to have anything to do with anybody who had dealt with me. If he thought they were somehow still speaking with me, they were history.”
The procedure requires a bit of intestinal instinct as well.
“You use your gut,” Hallett says. “Use your uncommon common sense, street sense, people sense and knowledge, passion and drive for the business. Know what the company needs and know what the industry wants.”
About three to four months in advance of the takeover, Hallett had the plan for his team in place.
“Know exactly who you want, know exactly what you want the organizational chart to look like,” he says. “Quietly and confidentially put the chart in place and have everyone show up on the first day.”
Spread the culture
Sharing the message among employees that a new culture is entering the building takes the skill of a negotiator and the charisma of a leader. Sometimes a bold statement at the beginning of the transformation shows it’s not business as usual anymore.
Hallett removed the main entrance reserved parking spaces for management executives on the first day, and the message was clear ? all employees were going to be treated equally.
“So if you get there first, you should pick your parking spot,” Hallet says. “That in itself says more about the culture without saying a word. You’ll hear, ‘Oh, my God. All this reserved parking’s gone. We don’t have to look at the expensive cars. We don’t have to go by these things when we walk into the building.’”
Next on the agenda was setting the frame of mind for management. Much as military forces have rules of engagement in dealing with the enemy, management alignment spells out standard operating procedures and rules.
“Then hold a management alignment meeting; it could take a couple of days,” Hallett says. “What you’re doing is aligning management and establishing the rules of engagement with your senior management team saying, ‘This is the way we are going to behave. This is the way we are going to talk to each other. This is how we are going to conduct ourselves, how we will handle conflict, how we will handle these different situations. This is how we are going to act with each other.’”
Management needs to commit to the program.
“If you can’t sign up, then walk out,” Hallett says. “Because you know what? The biggest thing we do as human beings is we need to know how to talk to each other.”
It’s important that the CEO and senior managers need to be secure.
“They need to understand what they do well,” Hallett says. “They need to understand what they don’t do well. They need to give everybody the opportunity to be able to express themselves and bring a good idea to you.
“Sometimes the best ideas come from the most unlikely sources. We just need to give them an opportunity to tell us. And I have to be willing to talk about it without feeling threatened or without feeling somebody’s overstepped their bounds or that someone’s taken over my job.”
Being direct needs to be the standard approach.
“When I want to say no, I need to say, ‘No, we’re not going to do that,’” Hallett says. “On the other hand, people have a hard time doing that. They want to beat around the bush, and they want to hem and haw, and they want to take days to do something that you can do in 10 seconds.”
Establishing the rules of engagement allows you to create a culture where employees feel that the door is open.
“They can walk in and we can agree to disagree, but we are always going to be respectful of one another,” Hallett says. “Have the rule in writing. So when senior management agrees to that, make sure you take that a level down, to your direct reports, and make sure your direct reports take it to their direct reports and all of a sudden, it filters through the entire company, and you’ve really created a culture.”
Along with the rules of engagement, Hallett created a mission statement and core values. “The first thing is, somebody said, ‘If you don’t stand for something, you stand for nothing,’” Hallett says. “So you’d better stand for something. We created our core values, such as honesty, integrity, customer service. So what do those core values do? You need to reference those whenever you’re making decisions. That’s how simple it is.
“When you have to think about whether you’re going to do something or not, whether something is within integrity or whether it has to do with employee relations or customer service, or if it has to do with one of the values of the company, you reference your values, and they’ll pretty much guide you as to what decision you ought to make.”
Build the success
Getting employees to engage in the new culture is a process that is accomplished a little bit at a time. It requires coaching, with frequent huddles to make sure everyone is on the same playbook.
By holding breakfast meetings every Friday with 20 employees from different areas of the company, Hallett got the chance to meet the entire company over a year and a half.
“I told them about me, the history of the company, the vision for the company and some of the things we wanted to do and where we’re going ? however we are going to get there ? and got them to tell me something about them,” Hallett says.
“I’d start those meetings with, ‘OK, let’s go around the room, and let’s tell the group something that nobody in the room would know about you.’ It’s amazing how people engage. Then tell them something they didn’t know about you.”
Gestures like that established employee willingness to buy in to the culture. To make the transformation less intimidating, managers should be aware that cultural learning experiences will be many, and at many locations.
“Culture happens in the hallways, culture happens in meetings, culture happens in the parking lot, in the coffee shop,” Hallett says. “Culture happens everywhere around you.”
Watch for red flags that could derail the infusion of company culture ? gossiping is a sign that there could be a problem.
“Nobody would ever walk into my office and complain about somebody else without bringing the other person with them,” he says. “When you feel people being political, people might be saying something but meaning something else and that’s just street sense — you know the guy’s full of it. He’s really making a statement about something else but he’s really trying to make a statement about himself. That just comes to bad street sense, right? It’s pretty hard to get that stuff past me.”
Hallett says that he must not only set an example for employees but set the pace.
“The speed of the boss is the speed of the game,” he says. “I know that everybody watches what I do, what I say, how I behave. I think that rubs off very quickly. I’ve gone to people and said, ‘Hey, you know what? I think you maybe need to not have sharp elbows — maybe you need to be a little more careful with the way you handled that situation or the way you spoke to that person.’ I’m not afraid to tell someone, ‘You know what? That probably wasn’t the best way to handle that situation.’ We are really a company that tries to focus on these values.”
Aside from the intangible aspects, tangible improvements such as upgrading technology go far in enhancing company culture.
Hallett realized that employees were becoming disenchanted with outdated computer systems and had to address the situation and those feelings. It meant spending enough to bring office technology up to speed.
“First of all, it really reinforces to your employees that you are committed to the industry, and you’re committed to them,” Hallett says. “Secondly, the customers absolutely feel it in the way that they do business and transact with you. If they’re not feeling the technology spend and the investment in technology, quite frankly, they’re not going to trust you to do business with you.”
The results of the culture change were dramatic, and business exploded at KAR Auction Services for its 13,000 employees. Revenue topped $1.8 billion in 2010.
“It was like hitting a light switch,” he says. “Customers were basically saying, ‘Where do you want me to send cars?’ ‘How can I help you?’ I mean, not every single customer, but our business took off like a rocket.”
If management is committed to employees, that fact will encourage a harmonious working relationship that leads to longevity — and low turnover.
“Make everybody feel like they’re loved, and they’re well-compensated and they’re fairly taken care of ? and yes, there will be challenges, like everybody else,” Hallett says. “But at the end of the day, nobody will be looking to get out the door.”
The Hallett File
Born: Kingston, Ontario, Canada, on the beautiful St. Lawrence River. My father was a railroader and my mother was a stay-at-home mom with three little babies. My dad died when I was 8 months old. So I never knew my dad and my mom never remarried. We were dirt poor. I lived in a house that burnt coal in the winter and had an outdoor toilet.
Education: I went to Algonquin College in Ottawa, Canada. I got a degree in recreation management. I was going to college because all my friends were going to go, and I didn’t want to have to study anything really hard.
What was your first job?
I mowed lawns and shoveled snow. Then I became a newspaper boy. If you’ve ever had a newspaper route in the country ? in the city, you can deliver 100 newspapers in 20 minutes ? in the country, it would take you an hour and a half.
What is the best business advice you’ve ever received?
A guy once told me, a great mentor, a great friend of mine, ‘You know what, Jim? There’s nobody better than you.’ And he elaborated, saying, “You’re no better than anybody else, but there’s nobody better than you.’ The same guy also told me, ‘You know what is the difference between you and the guy you admire or the guy that you look up to or the guy that you want to be?’ And his answer was, ‘One good year.’ And that’s the truest thing that’s ever happened in my life. It took me one good year. That’s all it took.
Whom do you admire in business and why?
I admire a guy by the name of Pat Butler. He owns multiple car dealerships and multiple RV dealerships in Canada. I admire him because, first of all, of his entrepreneurialism. He is very quick, very fast, very decisive, very agile — all those words that go with an entrepreneur. I’ve kind of modeled myself after that. I like the fact that on the outside he’s a crusty, rugged old character and on the inside he’s the most compassionate man I’ve ever met in my life. We talk every week.
What’s your definition of success?
Professionally, when everybody wins. Employees, customers, shareholders. And you know, that was really the big thing. When that management team was here for two years, there were some that took care of themselves and ran off with a pot of gold. When I’m done, there will be hundreds, thousands of people that will be taken care of. I think I can say that with a great deal of clarity.
How to reach: KAR Auction Services Inc., (800) 923-3725 or www.karauctionservices.com
Kim Shoemaker had a major dilemma in 2009.
Not only was her company, Acloché Staffing, trying to pull out of an economic recession, but its longtime CEO had died unexpectedly at the age of 56. Grief was high, morale was low, and employees needed to be reassured and inspired that the company was going to go forward.
Shoemaker, who previously held leadership roles in the company, had been named the new CEO and set out to overcome the heavy challenges.
“My first charge was to increase morale, to show appreciation and to really build on the staff,” Shoemaker says. “I think that’s extremely important to make your team feel appreciated, improve on that and lift their spirits up. There was a lot of uncertainty among our staff and the business community regarding the future of our company.”
As a first step, she found it effective to have one-on-one conversations with staff members to determine what they were feeling, what they needed and what they thought they were lacking professionally.
“Then, you need to deal with those individually to help them grow, to be stronger individuals and to be stronger team players,” Shoemaker says.
“We looked at our processes first and went through how we did things and redesigned them ? we streamlined them, made them more efficient,” she says. “We tried to help people with their day-to-day productivity.”
While proposing what to do to improve morale, Shoemaker hit upon the idea to redefine the company to reassure the market that Acloché was alive and well, ready to assist.
“We had been in business since 1968, and there had to be something that we could be doing to market ourselves better ? to let people know that we were here and that we were here to help the business community,” she says.
She brought in an outside consultant to work with the sales and marketing team to reinvent the company’s image, keeping the same branding but introducing the company again to its clients and embedding itself in each of the communities where its 10 offices are located.
When employees are encouraged to participate in the decision-making process when new ideas are formulated, successful results occur.
“Present the processes or procedures that you are going to consider to your sales and management team, get their thoughts, opinions and feedback; then take that information and fine tune it,” Shoemaker says.
When the final tweaks have been made, let the operations team review the proposal.
“This is very successful because staff members see that their managers are excited about this innovation or this new process and they’re getting their team members’ input before decisions are made that affect the entire team.”
As with many changes, there may be those a little hesitant to get on board. However, if they give their input regarding the change factor, it makes it a lot easier to accept and implement the change.
“They have a voice and an opinion in the entire process,” Shoemaker says. “I think people feel more at home with it. They feel more involved with it and part of the entire process.”
For Acloché , the approaches Shoemaker took to step in as the leader, improve morale and redefine the company continue to pay off. The next year saw $33 million in revenue, and the company is ranked among the 100 largest privately held companies in Central Ohio.
“Any time that you’re doing anything new, get the buy-in from your internal staff because it’s important for them,” Shoemaker says. “It’s important in order for the entire process to go well if they have buy-in on the decision-making end.”
Turning over a new leaf
Some say if you don’t make innovation a priority for your success, you’re bound to fail, and Kim Shoemaker, CEO of Acloché Staffing, can testify to that.
“Innovation is critical in any business,” she says. “In order to compete, you need to regularly redefine your strategies and reposition yourselves in order to continue to grow.
“The only way to stand out is by constantly offering new services and presenting new ideas.”
Client feedback is worth its weight in gold when it comes to innovation.
“Go in, listen to what their needs are, to what their challenges may be and what their successes may be, and redefine yourself to that specific client to help them so they can focus on their core business needs,” Shoemaker says.
Failing to keep fresh may lead to a loss of your place in the market.
“You would stagnate,” she says. “Employees would not grow to their potential to be able to service their clients.
“I think it’s an ever-evolving business community, and if you do not keep up with it and evolve and even try to stay a step ahead of it, you’re going to be losing market share,” she says. “You will not be the partner that people would need you to be.”
How to reach: Acloché Staffing, (614) 416-5600 or www.acloche.com
There’s no finish line in technology, and Brian Deagan loves it.
“Nothing’s ever done; something new is always being created and that just intrinsically creates opportunities to build companies,” says Deagan, co-founder and CEO of digital marketing services and software developer Knotice Ltd.
But along with that comes some growing pains. The company over the past five years has exceeded 500 percent growth in employees and annual revenue; however, the need to hire at a quick pace is not the only concern Deagan has.
“Keeping up with some of the basic changes and things that are going on in the market can be disruptive organizationally, but at the same time, you need to be able to stay ahead of everything, stay on top of it and stay at the pace you are at,” he says.
One of the keys is not just a business plan, but one that is derived from an operational model that is used and leveraged on a day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month basis.
“That is one of the key things to keep the business headed in the right direction and on track,” Deagan says.
The model should drive the plan, but it tends to be more operationally oriented than, for example, a 40-page business plan, which is used more as a communication tool.
“Don’t confuse something that is a communication tool versus an operational tool,” he says. “Have them related and driven by the operational plan but don’t try to have one be both.”
The business plan is important to be able to communicate the plan of the business to external and internal constituencies. The operational plan’s role is to be effective in defining growth targets, meeting those targets, and then modeling out what is needed to support that growth.
The operational model in synch with the business plan gives a one-two punch to fight threats to derail growth.
“That is one of the key things to keep the business headed in the right direction and on track,” Deagan says.
The term “on track” for Knotice means a five-year goal of going from $10 million in revenue to $100 million.
“The primary way to do that is just sort of keep your eye on the ball and build the company brick by brick,” Deagan says. “So often, when you are growing and you are building something, if you are not really focused on the here and now, you have to have an idea where you’re going.”
If you spend too much time worrying about the future and not just building the business the way it needs to be done today, you’re not going to go anywhere.
“There is a point when you are supposed to climb up to the top of the trees, get a good lay of the forest and understand where you need to create that path through the forest,” he says. “But at some point, you just need to get back down on the ground and start chopping down trees.”
Hire a complementary management team in terms of personal and skill sets, and it will serve you well over the years.
“It’s much different when you’re in a room with six people banging something out to take the company to the next level versus when you are closing in on 100 people and you need to take the company to that level,” Deagan says. “I think it’s important that as the company evolves, you are tapping the characteristics and qualities that are most important to company growth. I’m a firm believer that everybody can do that to some extent. You just need to be conscious and aware of it.”
How to reach: Knotice Ltd., (800) 801-4194 or www.knotice.com
Consumer trends rise and fall daily, and a company needs to be aware of huge shifts that may influence its long-term direction.
By evaluating customer feedback, it can help you sort out consumer behavior to see if it is a trend or just a fad.
“There may be a consumer behavior or a new technology that you need to address in the short term, and you work with your customers to understand how to help versus just reacting to a trend in a manner that might not be prudent or well-thought-out,” says Brian Deagan, CEO of Knotice.
Categorizing customers may involve some judgment decisions, but it is necessary.
“It’s critical to get feedback and engage customers that are both early adopters, as well as customers who aren’t, to make sure the things you are going to do have a broader appeal and don’t just focus on a specific niche,” he says.
Getting perspective from both is a key step.
“You may not necessarily want to do something for an early adopter ? and it could be indicative of the future, but it could also be indicative potentially of a niche segment,” he says. “Get feedback from different segments of early adopters and the majority users and balance accordingly.”
How to reach: Knotice Ltd., (800) 801-4194 or www.knotice.com
When Hittle Landscaping Inc. lost 30 percent of its revenue during the recent housing market crash, President Jeremy Hittle had some difficult decisions to make. The first one was how to bring the $10.4 million family-owned company out of the funk. That took teamwork and some painful choices.
But equally as tough was to decide whether or not to hire a pricey leadership coach who could teach the Hittle management team the skills needed for long-term prosperity.
“It was expensive and it was difficult to spend the money in times like those, but it had to be done,” Hittle says.
“When the housing market crashed, we had to react to it quickly. Getting the upper management team together to fight the fight was a lot better than me just fighting it myself.”
The decision to hire an executive coach often requires considerable discussion. A business must tie it to an analysis of expenses, how to increase revenue and how to increase efficiency.
“You need to discuss what’s a better way to manage your business, manage your people, manage your customers,” Hittle says. “The lists will get very long and very hard to manage. How can you ask the employees to work harder? You can, but what’s that going to get you? So better leadership skills are a great way to improve efficiency, morale and communications. That’s where efficiencies come from. Efficiencies don’t just come from working harder.”
Hittle asked consultants to suggest a coach, and he hired one who had also written a book on leadership. Weekly and biweekly sessions helped the management team set goals and provided different ways to think about situations.
“It really makes a difference,” Hittle says. “There is a lot of frustration today in leadership. Frustration just doesn’t help. It’s kind of like carrying around baggage when you’re trying to be a leader.”
The personal leadership development benefits can be significant.
“It’s been great. It’s fascinating when a person does decide to consider his own leadership style, develop upon that and grow on what he’s found,” Hittle says. “I know it’s been huge for me, and I have had several employees step back and say, ‘Wow, I better understand my job now. It’s not just to tell people what to do. It’s about being supportive. It’s about accepting better who you’re managing.’”
The term “supportive” is a key operative word that is stressed in the leadership sessions.
“Employees need to know how valuable they are to the organization,” Hittle says. “You don’t want them to feel like they are employees ? you want them to feel like business owners. They all should feel like they have their own small business that they run beneath them. They feel like those beneath them are the employees that they employ, that they support, encourage and direct.”
That support helped the company reclaim 60 to 70 percent of the revenues that were lost and racked up near-record profitability for 2010.
Compassion is another focal point of leadership training.
“Listening, understanding what they want, and giving it to them,” Hittle says. “It’s not being a leader by directive. That’s not what to shoot for. Shoot for trying to nourish their needs, and your needs become their needs.
“A lot of leaders don’t quite understand it because they just want to have the first and the last say-so, and they expect it to be done that way. I don’t believe that works very well.
“Usually people that excel to a leadership position are firm-minded thinkers,” Hittle says. “They don’t realize that you have to open up, be a little vulnerable, and ask for some help and do some self development ? to try to pass along the message that we can all be better.”
How to reach: Hittle Landscaping Inc., (317) 896-5697 or www.hittlelandscape.com
Trimming and pruning
With a significant portion of its business tied to the housing industry, when the market hit bottom in 2009, Jeremy Hittle and his management team had their plates full learning how to be better leaders while they trimmed and pruned Hittle Landscaping’s operations to weather the storm.
“It was my job to not give direction but to convey a message,” says Hittle, president of the 140-employee company.
“The message was that we are in trouble, and we need everybody's help. I spent a lot of time in 2009 making sure that nobody thought otherwise. I tried to make sure that they knew that the company’s challenges were their challenges ? that we were all in it together.”
The solution was plain and simple: Everyone needed to be in concert and do some brainstorming.
“The only possible way to get out of a downturn like that was to come up with 50 ways that would help,” Hittle says.
“Obviously we had to lay off some employees, and we changed things around,” Hittle says. “Nobody worked any overtime. We worked four days a week instead of five. We saved on travel.”
Steps taken to recover from the downturn are lessons that likely will be retained.
“We are constantly working on reorganization. Even today, it’s about how we are going to change today to deal with tomorrow, just like we did back in 2009.”
How to reach: Hittle Landscaping Inc., (317) 896-5697 or www.hittlelandscape.com
It was late May last year that David Forsthoffer was informed that two major customers had accepted his company’s bids to open on-site safety apparel stores at their manufacturing plants ? but there was one major concern.
Both companies wanted the stores opened by June 15. That gave Safety Solutions Inc. about three weeks to assemble and install what usually takes six to eight weeks. To top it off, they weren’t even close to each other. One was some 600 miles from the other.
The challenge was handed to the management team, made up of the CEO and three upper-level executives, and an existing group that handled these types of projects,
“We had to mobilize and get everything from the technology, all the computers and software designed as well as everything from the store fixtures to the racking plus inventory,” says Forsthoffer, president and CEO. “It was quite a challenge, and the way we accomplished all that was by pulling in all our resources.”
Here are some pages from Forsthoffer’s playbook on how to meet such tight deadlines.
The first concern is to have an implementation team. You’ll be ahead of the game if you already have one in place that slide right into action, but at the least, you’ll need people like the CEO, director of sales and director of operations in the group.
“I’m part of it,” Forsthoffer says. “When we have these deadlines, we all sit down and ask, ‘How are we doing to do this?’” This has to be systematically answered. Each department’s role needs to be defined.”
The customer service and sales departments can make a list of all the contacts needed at the customer’s site to ensure that communications get to the right people. The IT department can purchase the necessary computer hardware and program the customer-specific software. The procurement department will manage the acquisition of physical goods and fixtures. The operations center will need to handle logistics.
“From there, do a lot of delegating,” Forsthoffer says. “Delegation is key.”
Once the assignments are made, it’s a matter of constant monitoring so that each department meets its deadlines. That can mean overtime and weekends to get the work accomplished.
“We had a lot of people in the company involved in duties that they didn’t traditionally do to solve the challenge,” Forsthoffer says.
When the moment arrived to open the stores, all was in place.
“We ended up with very satisfied customers, and I think that’s the whole moral of the story,” Forsthoffer says.
Satisfied customers don’t happen by accident. Forsthoffer’s approach to providing exceptional customer service is a combination of attitude and culture.
“Service your customers with care, sincerity, enthusiasm and a passion, always giving them more than was expected,” he says. Find employees who want to do business and like to do business with people.
Always have a positive, “can-do” attitude. Never compromise on ethics or integrity. Treat associates, customers and suppliers with the utmost respect. Maintain a healthy work-life balance.
“That’s for everyone in the company,” he says. “Put the customer’s best interest first and you’d be amazed at what happens later.”
What happens later? For Safety Solutions in 2011, it’s being on track to sell $54 million in products.
While those five points solidify the mission, it doesn’t end there.
“To add to that, it’s one order or one person at a time,” Forsthoffer says. It is comforting to customers that the company cares enough about them to commit a specific person to their account.
“Understand what is important to them, all the details from products to packing slips ? become an extension of their company,” he says. “Do things their way. Provide exceptional customer service from the start to the finish.”
How to reach: Safety Solutions Inc., (800) 232-7463 or www.safetysolutions.com
Don’t sweat collections
An exceptional customer service approach needn’t be limited to the sales department. David Forsthoffer says even the accounts receivable department, traditionally cast in the role of bill collectors, can see effective results.
“Let them know they are part of the customer service process,” he says. “It’s never easy to collect past-due funds, but when you are collecting them, collect them with the attitude that you’re in customer service.”
One of the keys to customer service success is to be a relentless communicator.
First, send out a friendly reminder. Make it clear that it’s a reminder and not a notice.
The next step should the reminder not help is to make a personal phone call.
“The phone call again will be handled in a very respectful manner,” says Forsthoffer, president and CEO of Safety Solutions Inc. “Again, with a customer service flair to it.”
From there, continue to be patient, sometimes even to a fault. But if you stick with it, your collections, past-dues and write-offs can be minimal.
“It’s really a great way to maintain customer relationships because some customers, like many companies, have ups and downs,” he says. “Try to help see those people through those down periods again, treating them respect and again with that customer service mindset.”
How to reach: Safety Solutions Inc., (800) 232-7463 or www.safetysolutions.com
When McDonald’s Corp. bought Donatos, something new was added to the mix, and Jane Grote Abell remembers it well.
“I never knew what it was like working in fear until we were under the Arches,” she says.
Business was off in 2002-03. McDonald’s tallied a record low for its stock. Rumors hit the streets that Donatos would be sold off or closed.
Abell was senior vice president for development/franchising and human resource chief, having worked for the family business since she was 11 years old. And she wanted to continue to work at Donatos.
“I tried to maintain focus on what we needed to do in the restaurants to serve our customers and keep our doors open,” Abell says. “It was a very painful time in my life.”
One time at 3 a.m. she needed inspiration, so she turned to a copy of the poem, “Desiderata,” that her father Jim Grote had given her a few years earlier.
“I don’t know why, but a light came on,” she says. “‘Desiderata’ is about how to live your life. I remember sitting back in my chair saying to myself, ‘Wow. All of the times I had talked to our managers about not working in fear I was doing it myself.’”
Her human resource background was telling her that when the leader starts working in fear, the entire company picks it up.
“They feel it,” Abell says. “It’s intuitive. Everybody starts working in fear and you become paralyzed. You can’t make decisions, and you become paranoid. It became a fear of not being about to carry on our mission and promise the way that we believed we could. Unfortunately, although I should say fortunately looking back at it, I think it was a great learning experience for me.”
The next morning, she began to change her thinking so she could lead the company through tough economic times and onward, diversifying its portfolio and increasing the number of franchises. Here are some of the keys to Abell’s success to overcome the fear factor and get the 5,000-employee company back on track.
Communicate to alleviate fear
Any type of change can cause fear. To address those fears, it requires a lot of communication and being able to put the human aspect into the company.
“Employees need and want to know the people they are working for, so for me, it was about putting the face behind the brand again,” says Abell, now chair of the $189 million Donatos Pizzeria LLC. “I spent 90 percent of my time out in the stores with our people, putting the heart and the soul back into our business again. I think the most important thing you can do in these cases is be visible and be transparent as you possibly can.”
Not having a person behind the brand name can have a negative effect on employees. This perception needs to be reversed.
“People will be working for a paycheck instead of for their passion, a career, what they really wanted to do in life,” she says.
Communication needs to be rooted in the culture of the company.
“I think culture is the most important thing that you can stay close to or manage because it really is a shadow of your leader,” Abell says. “I was the chief people person, and you can imagine the shadows that cast.
“Unfortunately, if you don’t trust your environment, and you don’t trust the people that you work for, then it’s easy for good people to start working in fear.”
Let employees know that you hear their concerns.
“If people don’t trust that you’re really going to listen or that you’re looking out for their best interests as well as the best interests of the company, they’re not going to tell you where the pitfalls are,” Abell says. “They’re not going to say, ‘Oh, that’s a great vision. I’m going to work toward it. But here are all the obstacles in between.’
“They’re not going to tell you those things, so you have to have humility and be able to sit around a round conference room table so there is no power or authority and employees can really express themselves and trust the environment to say, ‘We can do this but here are all the obstacles.’”
Resolving the concerns about major changes pays big dividends. Among the first to voice support likely will be longtime employees who still believe in what the company stands for and still carry the torch for it.
Maintain open communication, even in hard times. Such was the case in 2002 when Donatos decided to pull out of the Atlanta market, closing 23 sites.
Being proactive in terms of helping employees helps put the company in the best light possible when eliminating positions.
“We set up a career fair and called other restaurants,” Abell says. “We had four or five companies at an expo, and all our managers attended. We had every manager employed by the end of two weeks. We also gave them severance packages. We had our hourly associates given severance packages, as well. We all spoke to our managers in a meeting before the restaurants closed so they could hear it from us and not hear it on the street.”
Lead through change
Donatos was bought by McDonald’s in 1999. Abell and her father bought it back in 2003. In both cases, the changes required strong leadership to keep the business going. Abell has identified the traits a leader needs to be successful: character, conviction, courage and compassion.
When you have a strong leadership corps, fear won’t become a problem.
“First, you have to have leaders in your organization that have strength of character ? honesty and integrity,” she says. “You can always do what you say you’re going to do, but doing it when you say you’re going to do it is important.
“Be a place where you can bring your principles to work with you, and that you can be yourself. That’s character, and it’s really being authentic with who you are, all the time, at work and at home. That’s a really important trait for a leader.”
The second trait, conviction, is about having passion for what you do and loving what you do ? or you may as well not do it.
“I tell our managers that if you really don’t love serving people, if you really don’t love coaching and teaching the hourly associates, then that’s OK; you can’t work here,” Abell says. “You have to love it. If you don’t wake up excited about your job, then this isn’t the right place for you. I encourage people to find what their passions truly are. You have to really love what you do in order to be successful.”
The third trait is courage, which can take many forms.
“Too often, people have character and they’ll have conviction, and they’ll have passion, but they don’t have the courage to do anything about it,” Abell says.
“I believe in having the courage to dream, the courage to act on that dream, the courage to confront others, and the courage to be confronted, which is a more difficult one sometimes.
“A really big one is the courage to see your current reality,” she says. “It’s being honest in where you’re at as a business. Have the courage to listen to people. Have the courage to love. We’re in the people business. If you don’t love people, then you really probably shouldn’t be in the people business.”
The last trait is compassion. Compassion is being able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, being able to be approachable and having the ability to listen to other people and their perspectives on an issue.
“One of the best pieces of advice that has been given to me over the years is that in business, you can take away a person’s job, but shame on us if we ever take away their dignity,” she says. “That goes back to making the tough decision, but doing it with a balance of your head and your heart and being compassionate when you do it.”
Treat other people the way that you want to be treated ? the Golden Rule.
“Whether they’re working for me or whether I’m working for them, I want to be in an environment where there’s trust,” Abell says. “That’s probably the most important thing about compassion.”
Once you are able to address the challenges that present themselves in managing people through difficult times, it’s critical to keep the rest of the ship on course through choppy seas.
“The wonderful thing about tough times is it makes you continue to improve and be innovative and to look as yourself differently and objectively,” Abell says. “When you’re an owner and you face tough times, you end up focusing on the long term, not the short term and an exit strategy. Then you’re going to make some decisions that help you for the long haul.”
Find new opportunities, perhaps even partnering with companies.
Donatos founded Jane’s Dough Foods during the recent economic recession to sell take-and-bake pizzas at Kroger’s. Some franchise partners took a different look and saw the products as competing with the restaurants. However, a solution was reached: Share the profits from the take-and-bake products with the franchise partners.
Jane’s Dough Foods is currently in 1,400 points of distribution.
“This is a wonderful and exciting opportunity ? so here we are running great restaurants, and I don’t say I’m running great restaurants, our managers run great restaurants, our people run great restaurants, and we also have the opportunity to expand our business through Jane’s Dough Foods,” Abell says.
“You have to be flexible with your plan,” she says. “You can’t just write a five-year plan and say this is where we’re going ? everybody charge ? without constantly taking a look at it. You’d like to say look at it every three months but in this state and environment, you’ve got to look at it every day.”
How to reach: Donatos, (614) 416-7700 or www.donatos.com
The Abell file
Born: Columbus, Ohio
Education: The Ohio State University, majoring in organizational design and communications
What was your first job?
Working at the Thurman Avenue Donatos at age 11. I can’t say I remember getting paid. My dad taught us to work harder than anybody else. We worked in the summers. We worked on the weekends, after football games. It was our life, and I loved it.
What’s your definition of success?
I think success for me is intertwined between personal and professional ? that we’re able to grow our business and fulfill our destiny with our mission and keeping our soul and the spirit of Donatos alive through growth. Any time we don’t feel like we’re able to do that, then we need to retract and make sure that we’re able to grow, keep the light shining, keep the spirit alive and keep the culture healthy. That’s success to me. And it’s not about numbers, it’s not about bigness; it’s about doing it the right way.
What was the best business advice you were ever given?
Hire people who are smarter than you are.
What is the best business advice you can give?
Don’t let fear enter the culture, and to be aware enough to know it’s there. Allow people to make mistakes. And have humility.
Mike Vinton was just venturing into the business world out of high school when he found his vision. There was a catch — he didn’t have any formal education on how to operate a business, much less on being a leader. However, it didn’t stop him.
“I knew at that time, there was no doubt in my mind that was the kind of work I wanted to do,” he says, after a stint on a tennis court project in Michigan inspired him to be a sports contractor.
“When you fall in love with doing something, you will know it,” says Vinton, president of The Vasco Group. “It’s just an overwhelming desire to get up and go do it. And somehow, some way, in spite of any circumstances good or bad, you’re going to make it happen. You become willing to do just about anything.”
Despite the obstacles faced, being relentless and doing the right thing along the way brought rewards. Vasco’s 2010 was the best financial year in its 44-year history.
“If the spark starts to burn inside any man ? if it truly is a passion, a vision ? he will go to just about any length to explore that to make it happen,” Vinton says.
Once illuminated with a vision, the would-be leader would do well to seek out mentors.
“Watch other leaders ? what they are doing, how they act, how they treat people,” he says. “Just try to do what the winners are doing.”
People that are successful usually are willing to share advice.
“The big part is asking for help,” Vinton says. “Once you ask, I’ve found that people want to help. I’ve been blessed in that respect in that people have always taken me under their wing and helped me.
“Mentor other young people that want to be leaders. Read leadership books nonstop, and study leadership styles.
“I heard someone say a long time ago that if you want to keep wisdom and knowledge, you’ve got to give it away. That was always modeled for me and that’s what I try to do as a leader today.”
Pick a mentor that works in a different industry.
“Choose people that you came across in relationships,” Vinton says. “I had a commercial real state developer take me around and show me his properties. We would discuss what a leader would do in certain situations.”
Then as you develop your skills, the time comes for more specific mentoring. In a competitive field, it’s a reality check that no one is going to share tips to a possible competitor. But a suitable alternative can be found through associations. Securing a board position on an industry association puts you in touch with professionals from all over who are open to helping.
“I’ve never had people in the industry help me until I was part of national business organizations that did not include local contractors,” Vinton says. “I got many contacts that way.”
The camaraderie will help develop the principle to treat other people as more important.
“One of the most important leadership principles is servant leadership,” Vinton says. “Learn it, teach it and model it for young leaders that serving people in your area of influence is more important than yourselves. Give others the credit when things go well.
“As a leader, be intuitive and aware of the people around you and make yourself available to them on their time.”
How to reach: The Vasco Group, (800) 487-0422 or www.thevascogroup.com
When it comes to acquiring another company, there are two tips that shouldn’t be overlooked: Be patient, and see that synergy ? when a combination is greater than parts alone ? is a component of the decision.
“Make sure you have synergy between the two companies ? that the company fits with your core competencies,” says Vasco Group President Mike Vinton, whose vision included company expansion into other cities and states.
“Get your key people together and ask, ‘Does this create synergy or does this create division?’ That’s a huge thing in making sure that synergy is a part of it.”
Your management team needs to have complete buy-in that the two companies can work hand-in-hand, each pulling its own weight, with no negative feelings.
As the team gets on board and supports the decision, not just the leader’s edict, negotiations can go forward. Timing is everything in acquisitions.
“Don’t be in a hurry,” Vasco says.
Take your time, and be ready to cancel negotiations if a red flag appears.
“I walked away from a deal once. The fit was not good. Three months later, he called me back and said he was ready to start talking again. We did a deal within a month.”
How to reach: The Vasco Group, (800) 487-0422 or www.thevascogroup.com
Like many other companies and organizations during the 2008-09 economic downturn, HealthNet Inc. found it necessary to tighten its belt, and Booker Thomas was struggling with how to tell the staff.
“It really hit our bottom line in terms of providing services to so many people,” says Thomas, president and CEO of the $50 million organization.
“I knew that there would be a lot of ramifications throughout the organization,” he says.
The first step is to analyze the situation and lay the groundwork that the organization is facing some economic challenges.
“Try to be as transparent as possible with employees, and let them know exactly where the organization is financially at all times,” Thomas says.
This can be communicated at staff meetings and department meetings.
HealthNet’s 500 employees had looked forward to annual general wage increases as a type of reward for their dedicated service, but its leadership decided it could not grant the increases that year unless it laid off staff members.
By being upfront, contacting each employee with information and showing empathy for their situations, it can put a better perspective on the issue. E-mail may not be the most personal method, but it provides a timely announcement for all employees and can help forestall rumors.
“I sent e-mails out to each employee to explain our financial issues and that because of the economy, we have decided that we would not give the general wage increase in order to keep everyone working,” Thomas says.
Along with the matter of a wage freeze may come the issue of a hiring freeze. Employees will want to know the organization’s position on attrition. At this point, it should be stressed that the administrative team will review each case and decide if the position is critical to the operation or not.
“If we were able to hold back on support staff, we did that,” Thomas said. “But those direct patient care positions we continued to hire.”
Announcing a wage freeze, which many times may happen around the December holidays, is a tough call, and timing does little to help the matter.
“I don’t think any way is a good way,” Thomas says. “But at least they have time to plan and prepare and make other arrangements prior to Christmas if they knew of the wage freeze beforehand.”
Be prepared for reactions running the gamut of emotions. If you’ve worked your plan well, you may be able to get employees to see the situation for what it is.
“I was honestly shocked that we didn’t have more of our staff sending me e-mails how it had hurt them by not giving the increases,” Thomas says. “I felt sure that I’d get some. So after we made that announcement, I also sent an e-mail thanking employees for their patience.
“I did not get one negative comment out of all the employees. I was just elated because I expected a lot of people to go against that and have their own individual concerns.”
A leader still has a duty to put in a personal appearance to meet with employees, take questions and discuss the decision.
“I went to all of the centers ? we have nine sites now ? and explained to them why we had to make that decision,” Thomas says. “They looked at it and said, ‘We all have jobs, and we’re here to serve the needs of clients,’ and they were OK with that. That’s the dedication we have.
“I told them how I appreciated them and their patience and the support that they have for the organization and the mission that we share, and thanked them for it.”
How to reach: HealthNet Inc., (317) 782-2111 or www.indyhealthnet.org
The time when a new employee meets the leader of an organization is an important time to explain the culture of an organization.
“I speak to every new employee, try to set the culture for the organization, and let each person know what we expect of them,” says Booker Thomas, president and CEO of HealthNet Inc.
“It’s critical right at the beginning,” he says. “I try to give them a feel for the gut of the organization in terms of what we are all about.”
This is an optimum moment to explain that employees, especially those who deal with customers, are ambassadors for the organization. A client will see his or her point-of-contact person as the organization. The experience clients will have with employees will define the company or organization in their eyes.
This is also the ideal time to let new hires know they can voice any doubts they may have at a later date regarding the position. Let them know of the options.
“I will say many of you may work for us for a few weeks or months and see that this is not your cup of tea, this is not your niche ? and that’s all right because everybody can’t deal with clients,” Thomas says.
The employee needs to know that management will work with those who request a different position, as opposed to being in a situation that they didn’t like and in which they were having some problems.
In addition, the CEO has the chance at this time to make employees aware of an open-door communication policy. Describe the feedback channels, and stress that communication is important to the success of the operation. Underscore the fact that the organization wants and needs the employee.
“Each position and each employee is valuable to the mission of the organization,” Thomas says.
Steve Russell was feeling some serious pain. Not only had the economy taken a nosedive in the fall of 2008, but it was now January 2009 and he had to contend with a toothache as well as bleak economic news for his company, Celadon Group Inc.
Not one afraid of putting people on the spot, Russell, Celadon’s chairman and CEO, asked his oral surgeon after a shot of Novocain for his advice.
“I said, ‘I believe the true test of someone in life is not that someone can make a good into a better, but somebody who can make a bad into a good,” he says. “This is a bad ? pulling my tooth. What can you tell me you’ve learned in life to make this a good?”
Incredulous at the question, the oral surgeon took up the challenge.
“You know what I’ve learned in life, Steve?” he says. “And I’m not talking about your tooth. So what I’ve learned into life is, ‘Lean into pain; don’t run from it.’”
Russell says that sage advice ? to face the pain ? helped him and his senior managers figure out how to freeze salaries, scrap management bonuses and cut 12 percent of the trucking company’s nondriver personnel.
“We came through the mess better than, if not the best, of any truck company in America,” he notes. “Zero bank debt. Very healthy company.”
This year, Celadon Group is on track to top the $530 million in annual revenue it made last year.
Here’s how Russell keeps Celadon on track to new heights of success.
Keep the employees happy
As an elected official has a constituency to answer to, a company CEO often has more than that.
“There are three constituencies that my principal role is to keep happy,” Russell says. “No. 1 is employees ? if you don’t have happy employees, you don’t have a good company. No. 2 is happy customers ? if you don’t have customers, you can’t pay the employees. No. 3 is happy shareholders. We’re a public company. At the end of the day, those are the three priorities.”
Treat employees as a person, not a number, and they will feel better about the company.
“No other CEO in the top 100 fleets in America talks to new employees when they join, and I do it regularly.”
Such attention will help encourage employees to want to go to work in the morning and want to go home at night.
“If they don’t want to go to work in the morning, they won’t stay ? and you don’t want them to stay,” Russell says.
Happy employees means low turnover. The 4,000-employee Celadon Group turnover rate is about half the usual rate for the industry.
Russell encourages communication by citing mottos and aphorisms that he’s collected all his life.
“One of the best ways to communicate is to make sure employees understand, ‘Don’t get ulcers, give ’em.’”
Not voicing a complaint or grievance can lead to misunderstandings between employees and managers. An open-door policy so the two parties can help iron out issues on the spot can go far in reducing problems.
“Get it off your chest,” Russell says. “Don’t put your head on your pillow at night and say, ‘Why the heck didn’t I say that to Joe, to Bob or whoever?’”
While happy employees is one goal, another is healthy employees. In a company where the average age of a driver is 47 years old, it’s only fitting that steps be taken to make medical attention more accessible.
Russell knew it was inconvenient for a long haul driver to visit a doctor or clinic. So he brought the clinic to them. It’s at company headquarters in Indianapolis ? most drivers pass through the city two or three times a month so it was the logical location.
Not to be overlooked are nutrition concerns. A nutritionist on staff can help employees find the right diet and ways to lose weight if needed.
“We had a driver who’s been with the company four or five years ? he’s lost 180 pounds since he’s started his regimen,” Russell says. “He said his sense of self has gone through the roof, too. It’s a great program.”
Keep the customers happy
To keep customers happy, determine their most critical demand and measure results on how well you deliver on that.
“In regard to customers, if you can’t measure it, don’t do it,” Russell says. “That’s a philosophy I have in life.”
Measure the performance by customer. By being able to show that customer the numbers and statistics, it motivates the company to be accountable for and focused on service. Be sure to communicate to the customer any extenuating circumstances that might have affected the figures. It will help build customer relationships.
Since service is so important in all industries, it pays to be open and honest about matters on how state or federal requirements may limit what can be done.
Don’t overlook the fact that a number of companies are into green programs and are interested in supporting environmental-friendly campaigns. The fact that a company is introducing biofuel and is taking measures to reduce greenhouse gases and air pollution can have an impact in sealing a deal.
“It’s green from the cash flow standpoint and it’s green from the environmental standpoint,” Russell says.
Keep your equipment up-to-date. Impress this fact upon customers, emphasizing that it is thus less likely to break down. Set up an equipment retirement/replacement plan to support this policy. Offer the latest in tracking abilities for your product or service.
“Young equipment is less likely to break down and therefore, service is enhanced,” he says.
Keep the shareholders happy
With regard to shareholders, it’s easy to keep them happy by answering one simple question.
“We’re a public company, so the question is, ‘How is our stock performing versus our peers?’” Russell says.
Comparing company performance with that of its peers is a necessary rule of thumb. Economic challenges appear each day and shareholders will want to know how the company is managing them as compared to others in the industry.
“In other words ? manage; be able to demonstrate to your shareholders whether you’re doing a good job or a bad job,” Russell says. “And the reality is, they’ll measure you completely every quarter, every announcement, etc.”
Keep the balance sheet in the black, and hope that your stock performs better than others because you are doing the right things. That requires going to investor conferences on a regular basis, making presentations and having one-on-ones with investment advisers.
“It’s a matter of communicating with your shareholders so they trust you, believe you and want to own your stock,” Russell says.
Simple good business practices go a long way with cementing a company’s image with shareholders, as well as customers. So as an indication to shareholders that you’re performing well, don’t do business with customers who aren’t responsible for their bill.
“In fiscal 2010, a lot of people took between July and June a whole bunch of write offs, companies, customers going broke and stuff like that ? we did $530 million in revenue, and we had total write offs of $122,000,” Russell says. “Awesome. Truly awesome.”
Russell, who was once president of Hertz Trucks, founded Celadon in 1985 after he ran into a former colleague who needed to solve shipping problems to Mexico. He put up $30,000, leased tractors and trailers, called the company Celadon after hearing it was the prettiest word in the English language and grew the firm to one of the largest in the nation.
Along the road to prosperity, Russell discovered four ingredients of a successful business leader and put them into an acronym.
“L.I.D.S. You’ve got to have all four,” he says.
L is for leader. A good leader is not just someone who runs a company, but someone who will get people to follow him or her. A good leader must also have integrity.
“If you don’t have integrity, nobody will follow you,” he says. “I think integrity is inborn.”
I is for intelligence. A leader must have the intelligence to learn the roles of management, including how to delegate responsibilities. Not only do you endow your people with responsibilities, but measure their performance.
“And if you are intelligent, you can learn anything,” Russell says.
D is for drive, that motivational quotient that pushes you to succeed. It’s a work ethic that makes you want to put in long hours to reach a goal.
“You’ve got to be driven to success,” he says. “My father gave me that work ethic because as a taxi driver, if you’re not working, you don’t make any money. My father would work 14 or 15 hours a day.”
S is for street sense. You learn it from your environment, and you need it to survive.
“The S is the most important of all and it’s not taught anywhere ? Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell,” Russell says.
“Whom do you trust, whom don’t you trust. What’s wrong with something, what’s right with it. What’s negotiable, what isn’t negotiable,” Russell says.
Discontent or dissatisfaction by someone on the management team needs to be dealt with in respect to the larger goals of the company. The person needs to be taken aside and told to focus on improvement ? improvement of the company.
“If they have mother as the objective, and I’m defining mother as the company, that’s who they’ve got to be able to help, that’s who they have to focus on improving,” Russell says.
Post the department performance measurements, the benchmarks, the comparisons over time, on the walls. This helps employees keep those goals in their heads.
On the topic of task priorities, rank them in order, and then stick to it. Don’t get distracted by something that may seem urgent.
“In other words, a person who says this is one of our priorities ? we’ve got to do this, this and this, but then just reacts to e-mails every day and doesn’t work on those priorities, it’s the wrong way to be,” he says.
Delegation is critical if you want to be a leader.
“I feel that you should always delegate as a CEO of a company ? you should delegate virtually everything. Now if your company develops a product and you have 30 people under you, the focus is developing that product. But if you are running a business, you should try to hire people who have LIDS.
“The key in delegation is to surround yourself with people who are as good as or better than you are,” Russell says. “Be secure in yourself to do that. You are only secure if you surround yourself with good people.
“This is what makes a great company because it’s not just the CEO, and I really mean this, it’s the senior management, the middle management. Both have to be very good. Don’t tolerate mediocrity. He or she in management, who tolerates mediocrity under them, is mediocre.”
How to reach: Celadon Group Inc., (800) 235-2366 or www.celadontrucking.com
The Russell file
Born: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Education: Master’s degree, business administration, Cornell University
What’s the best business advice you were ever given?
Don’t get ulcers, give ’em.
Who has been the biggest influence on who you are today?
That’s a tough question to answer. My father gave me a work ethic; my mother gave the realization that all you’ve got in life is time. My brother, a college professor, gave me the importance of getting the best education you can, and my older sister, who sort of acted like a surrogate mother to me after my mother died when I was 6.
What’s your definition of success?
I can’t wait to get to work in the morning; I can’t wait to get home at night. And be happy.
Russell on why he got into business: When I was 12 or 13, I wanted to be an astronomer. When I got into Junior Achievement, we had a little company. We distributed $40 to each person of us. Forty bucks doesn’t sound a lot today but that was in 1955. I decided, “Hey, I’d better go into business because I can’t make any money as an astronomer.” That’s when I decided to go into business.
Russell on having a beard: You know why I have a beard? Because I save five minutes a day by not shaving. I’m saving, say, a half-hour a week, over 52 weeks, that’s 26 hours a year that I’m doing something more productive, plus I’m saving money. My wife trims my beard every two weeks. That’s the definition of a good wife. Basically, that’s why I have a beard because shaving is a waste of time.
Tom Campbell’s business dream team has four simple parts: mission, vision and values, but most of all, an independent board of directors.
“The first place you should start is to put together a fiduciary board of outside directors,” said Campbell, CEO and principal shareholder of Quick Solutions Inc., the 190-employee Columbus information technology consulting firm. “That is absolutely No. 1. And then mission, vision, values.”
Campbell is not hesitant to say what he thinks about midsize companies operated by one or two people ? they’re dictatorships.
“It’s very autocratic, and it’s what they want to accomplish,” he says. “I don’t figure that works well in today’s environment.”
His solution is a strong board of directors, an actual fiduciary board just like a public corporation would have. All directors should be chosen for their levels of expertise. The company CEO and president would sit on the board, as well, making, for example, a total of seven members, five of which are from the outside.
“What that does is it brings outside perspectives ? they give you independent advice without fear of repercussion,” Campbell says. “You’ll get a lot of straightforward advice, and I think that is vital.”
The next step in building the dream team is to get employee buy-in.
“Everyone has to be on the same page, moving in the same direction,” Campbell says. “Mission is very important, vision is very important as is your core set of values.”
Mission is what you are, vision is what you want to be, and your values should include communication, people, character and accountability, among others.
“People need to know what is going on,” he says. “Communication is absolutely vital. You cannot overcommunicate.
“You’ve got to do it in small groups, you’ve got to do it in large groups, you’ve got to do it over and over again,” Campbell says.
Meet every Friday and talk about what was accomplished in the previous week, what’s on the table in the current week and what is getting done. Assign someone to take notes so everyone has a record.
“That way, you are continually making progress and everybody knows exactly what’s being done. It’s transparent,” Campbell says.
Employees should be involved in determining the mission, vision and values.
“Being able to really be an integral part of the team helps move things forward,” Campbell says.
He recommends finding people who will take on new challenges.
“You have to find those people who want to take on additional responsibility, and when you find them, you have to be very clear about what the work is.”
If you are not, the employee could not want to take on the load, and you’re back to square one.
“Once they take it on, it’s like teaching your kid to ride a bike ? you run alongside him for so long, but sooner or later you’ve got to let go and see if they can do it,” he says.
Pick them up if they fall and get them back on track.
“It is amazing when people are truly empowered; it’s amazing what they will do,” Campbell says. “They’ll rise up. The effort that they will put in, the sense of accomplishment, the pride ? there’s nothing better than that. It takes special people, but you’ve got to give them the opportunity to succeed.”
In the end, it’s the people that make the business.
“We sell intellectual capital in the marketplace, but our people, their character, dedication and drive is the essence,” he says. “That’s what you have: Your integrity comes first, your dedication and your ability to do what you said you’re going to do is really what makes a difference.”
How to reach: Quick Solutions, (614) 825-8000 or www.quicksolutions.com
If your company is ready to expand and wants to locate branch offices in other cities, the planning starts with a steering commission, say Tom Campbell, CEO of Quick Solutions.
“We created a steering committee, and then we went through and got a number of people involved,” he says. “We created a plan on how to go about that ? a specific plan on what cities we’re looking at and the work that needed to be done.”
Campbell says if you are fortunate as he was to have a company board member who was successful in launching branch offices, have him head the steering committee.
Once the research has been done and the site selected, the steering committee should draw up another plan to find the right person to head the new branch office.
“It’s a process that’s been used very successfully by some of the larger firms,” Campbell says. “It’s not like recreating the wheel, though. If you don’t articulate what it is you’re trying to accomplish, what everybody’s role is, and then assign that, get out of the way, let people do what they need to do, but give them timelines and have constant meetings set up for communication for results ? you’re not going to get anywhere.”