Tuesday, 30 November 2010 06:14

Creative minds

Nancy Ruscheinski lives in a world where effective communication and messaging isn’t just part of the job, it is the job. To that end, Ruscheinski, president and COO of Edelman U.S., is always looking for ways to continuously improve upon existing methods and explore the cutting edge.

Ruscheinski was named one of the 2010 Smart Leader honorees by Smart Business and U.S. Bank. We asked her how Edelman has approached change in the media industry.

Q: Give us an example of a business challenge you and your organization faced, as well as how you overcame it?

Several years ago we recognized that although Edelman’s Digital division was growing rapidly, approaching 10 percent of our revenue and headcount worldwide, the “digital demands” on the rest of our organization were threatening to overwhelm us.

We recognized that we were at a real inflection point, a moment in time when the lines between “online” and “offline” and traditional and social media were blurring. We knew that we needed to scale our social media expertise well beyond the confines of Edelman Digital; in fact, we needed to “digitize” the entire organization and raise the social media IQ of everyone in the company.

Enter the “Social Media Belt System,” a rather ingenious and sophisticated desktop training system that’s designed to bring every Edelman employee from social media novice (“white belt”) to digital black belt, using approximately 60 training modules that employees can take at their own pace.

The program has been extraordinarily impactful and arguably the most successful training initiative in the firm’s 58-year history, with well over half of all employees proudly boasting about their belts. And today, Edelman enjoys the industry’s lead position as the agency that best “gets it” when it comes to social media.

Perhaps most gratifying, a number of clients are seeking to license the system as their own, so we even opened up a new revenue stream for the firm.

Ultimately, we were able to overcome a challenge and turn it into a competitive advantage because we did three smart things:  we redeployed our own digital experts away from billable client work so that they could develop the belt system, and we made training – and employee education – a strategic priority for the firm. And we made it fun.

Q: In what ways are you an innovative leader, and how does your organization employ innovation to be on the leading edge?

I’ve had the good fortune in more than 23 years at Edelman to drive innovations both large and small, from the creation of Edelman Digital (launched as “Edelman Interactive Solutions” in 1995) and the establishment of Edelman’s creative services division, to the creation of Edelman Studios (a matchmaking service for brands and creatives) and the launch of Edelman’s mobile offering, to the Edelman Escape program, offering mini-sabbaticals that give employees the chance (and the money) to realize a dream or ambition.

This is a company that celebrates what we call “Whitespace,” and empowers employees at every level to share ideas, and to find new, better ways to do things.

We’ve just formalized a new Innovation working group, bringing together eight innovative leaders from around the world, to advise our CEO and to ensure that we are continuing to re-imagine the business of public relations by inventing new tools, products, and services that work across geographies. I’m excited that I’ll have the opportunity to lead this group for the next 12 months.

How to reach: Edelman U.S., http://www.edelman.com/

In October 2010, Smart Business and U.S. Bank recognized nine business leaders for their commitment to business excellence and the impact their organizations make on the regional community. Treated to a keynote address by Middleby Corp. Chairman and CEO Selim Bassoul, these nine leaders composed the honor roll:

Nancy Ruscheinski

Bill Skeens

Dave Brittsan

Amanda Lannert

Scott Morey

Joel Fruendt

Jason Beans

Jim Signorelli

Larry Neibauer

Published in Chicago
Wednesday, 24 November 2010 09:12

Family affair

Emens & Wolper Law Firm opened its doors less than one month after the low of the Great Recession, so co-founder and partner Bea Wolper and her associates knew that many of their clients were facing difficult times.

“We asked what we could do to help them,” says Wolper. “Their answers gave us the blueprint for our firm. We heard what they wanted, and built our practice to fit their needs.”

Wolper was named one of 2010 Smart Leader honorees by Smart Business and Blue Technologies. We asked her how she delivers for clients, innovates and impacts clients.

In what ways are you an innovative leader, and how does your organization employ innovation to be on the leading edge?

By leaving downtown, we were able to reduce our hourly rate 30 percent, and had the flexibility to be more creative in our billing. Our firm, Emens & Wolper, quotes fixed fees for a variety of transactions, and also provides annual checklists for family businesses and estate checklists at no charge.

Like so many people, we do not venture out without the BlackBerry…and so we are extremely responsive-day or night – weekday or weekend. We give our cell phone numbers as well as home numbers so that our clients know they can always reach us.

How do you make a significant impact on the community and regional economy?

Family businesses are the backbone of the business community in Central Ohio and we help with their succession and business planning, including leadership training. We contribute countless hours to The Conway Center for Family Business , which has as its mission helping family business owners get to the next generation.

How to reach: Emens & Wolper, http://www.emenswolperlaw.com/

The Smart Leaders class of 2010

In August, 2010, Smart Business and Blue Technologies recognized 14 business leaders for their commitment to business excellence and the impact their organizations make on the regional community. Treated to a keynote address by TechColumbus CEO Ted Ford, these 14 leaders composed the honor roll:

Published in Columbus
Wednesday, 24 November 2010 08:49

Strategic growth

During the first quarter of 2010 – still in the midst of a questionable economic climate – CEO Neil Mortine and his staff at Fahlgren remained disciplined and true to their growth plan.

“We worked to identify, target, pursue, negotiate and complete two strategic acquisitions that have positioned us well for the future,” Mortine says. “These purchases strengthen our service offerings for our clients, allow us to meet the changing demands of the marketplace, and provide increased opportunities for our associates.”

This strategic foresight has allowed Fahlgen Mortine to sustain more than 100 jobs regionally, and remain focused on growing its clients’ businesses and further impact the local economy.

Mortine was named one of 2010 Smart Leader honorees by Smart Business and Blue Technologies. We asked him about how he faces challenges, innovates and gives back to the community.

Give us an example of a business challenge you and/or your organization faced, as well as how you overcame it.

After completing the deals, the challenge came in quickly integrating two different cultures and ways of doing business into ours. To help welcome the more than 30 new people to the Fahlgren family, we formed an integration team and implemented their recommendations, which included – among other activities – developing an internal blog that allowed everyone to learn about their new co-workers, improving our teleconferencing abilities to better connect with our new locations, setting up telecommuting stations for our new associates to spend time working at headquarters, upgrading everyone’s computers to ensure platform consistency, and providing additional training to ensure maximum use of all of our tools and resources.

In what ways are you an innovative leader, and how does your organization employ innovation to be on the leading edge?

It’s not a new concept, but I believe passionately in building a strong culture – one that attracts professionals who want to grow their careers at Fahlgren. We work in a challenging, deadline-driven, creative business, and so as a leader it’s my responsibility to help release the pressure valve from time to time. We hire smart, driven professionals, and if we provide them with the tools they need to be successful, trust and empower them to do what’s right, and make sure they’re happy and fulfilled in their jobs, they produce great work that is innovative and leading-edge and in turn attracts great clients. So, to decompress we take our associates to a movie at least once a quarter, celebrate crazy holidays such as Groundhog Day with a breakfast that involves catching tossed pancakes, have quarterly all-agency meetings when we share business progress, referee highly competitive eating contests, and so much more.

How do you make a significant impact on the community and regional economy?

In addition to providing more than 100 jobs regionally, all of our work is focused on growing our clients’ businesses which further impacts our community and local economy. Additionally, I am a former chairman of the board of trustees for the Franklin Park Conservatory, and I serve as a board member for The Ohio Historical Society, Columbus Symphony Orchestra, Columbus State Community College Development Foundation, and McConnell Arts Center. I believe strongly in giving back to our community and our industry, and as a result I encourage and support our associates who want to get involved. Fahlgren staffers impact our community by supporting many great causes including the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central Ohio, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Donate Life, The Buckeye Ranch, and so many more.

How to reach: Fahlgren, http://www.fahlgren.com/

The Smart Leaders class of 2010

In August, 2010, Smart Business and Blue Technologies recognized 14 business leaders for their commitment to business excellence and the impact their organizations make on the regional community. Treated to a keynote address by TechColumbus CEO Ted Ford, these 14 leaders composed the honor roll:

Published in Columbus

You won’t find Steve Christian hiding in his office avoiding a problem that needs to be rectified. That philosophy wouldn’t be good for anybody and certainly not the organization.

“Don’t avoid confrontation,” says Christian, managing director of accounting and consulting firm Kreischer Miller. “A lot of people don’t like confrontation, but it’s really an opportunity to make an organization better.”

It’s similar to being handed lemons and making lemonade. You take a problem or a mistake, and you find opportunity by breaking it down until you understand what went wrong. You determine how you can fix the problem and how you can avoid it in the future.

Christian says two characteristics of being a good leader are confronting issues and maintaining a constant focus on the good of the organization. Well, those go hand in hand, and that’s how Christian chooses to lead the firm and his 200 employees.

Smart Business spoke to Christian about how to effectively deal with company problems.

Don’t avoid confrontation. Not many people, in my opinion, welcome confrontation. I happen to be somebody who doesn’t mind confrontation because I think it’s an opportunity to make things better.

If somebody has let the organization down, has let me down, they’ve done something wrong, they didn’t serve a client right, well, the easiest thing is just to ignore it. But that’s not what you’re supposed to do. You need to look at it as an opportunity to make that person better, make that situation better, make the organization better.

When you sit down to have these discussions or confrontations, which is sort of a harsh word, it’s really how do you handle it. Do you handle it constructively? Or do you handle it destructively?

If somebody performed less than stellar client service in our business — since we’re a consulting firm, an accounting firm — does it do a lot of good for me to sit there and scream at them, ‘Don’t ever do it again. What were you thinking?’ I’d much rather say, ‘John Doe, what happened here? This is their perspective. Why is it happening? What do you think? What are we going to do differently? We’ve all done that before. Just try to help the situation not recur. We can’t have it back.’

The easy thing for anybody in life is to just ignore it.

Prepare before the conversation. First of all, you have to tell yourself no matter how much I don’t want to have this conversation I have to have it for the good of the organization.

Then you just have to find the best way to communicate. What are you trying to communicate? What do you want to accomplish in this meeting with this person? You have to ask yourself that and then come up with a game plan or an action plan to communicate that.

Take the emotion out of the meeting. Perhaps it’s something that has very much upset me. I may not meet with that person right then. There’s maybe a cooling off period of some sort ... so there’s not a lot of emotion at the end of the day.

But you have to remind people what they need to be doing differently.

Communicate the need to improve. One sign of a good leader is ... you don’t throw people under the bus. When things happen, it’s all about, ‘How are we going to improve our organization?’

The fact that it was John Doe that did it really isn’t relevant to anything. In fact, it’s sort of good that John Doe did this because we’re going to be a better firm for it at the end of the day.

If I see something happening with an individual or individuals and I think it’s something that I worry could be pervasive or I can give people a heads up, be careful of that, I will then communicate, ‘Hey team, we’ve had a couple situations where this has happened. Obviously it doesn’t put us in the best light with people or clients. Just be sensitive to this issue.’

Offer openness in bringing up problems. They have to trust you. I encourage everybody here whenever they have issues or problems, they don’t have to come talk to me, they don’t have to go to HR. But they have to find somebody they’re comfortable talking to because often they have to be part of the solution to whatever the issue is.

If you treat people fairly and they know you have their best interest at heart, and you don’t harm them in any way, make fun of them or criticize them, they’re going to feel comfortable because they trust you. It’s all about trust at the end of the day. You have to be consistent. You have to treat them with respect. You can’t be up and down — up one day, down another.

Admit your own mistakes. We acknowledge that we’re wrong or I acknowledge that I’m wrong. We do two things: We try to right this ship and go another direction whatever that means. What I always do personally is I very rarely dwell on something that already happened. What I want to do is take away from it what can I learn and how could I (make) the process better or my decision-making better the first time around.

I acknowledge it in a meeting, I acknowledge it in writing, if I think we should have done something. I don’t try to justify it. I don’t try to rationalize it in any way. I am comfortable that people make wrong decisions.

You may have evaluated it properly but it turned out to be wrong. If you only look at it, as I said, for what’s the good of the organization — forget me politically in the organization, forget somebody else — but if you only care about the organization and its best interest, it’s easy to admit mistakes.

How to reach: Kreischer Miller, (215) 441-4600 or www.kmco.com

Published in Philadelphia

Toni Pergolin had heard her organization’s name was confusing. As she thought about that, she realized she never heard people use the tagline. She never used it. And the logo — the logo was a decade old.

Pergolin, president and CEO of then Bancroft NeuroHealth, realized all signs pointed to rebranding.

The nonprofit came out of the process with the simplified name of Bancroft and a tagline of “One World. For Everyone.” Part of the success, Pergolin says, is due to the involvement of employees in the rebranding effort. From start to finish, they were asked their opinions.

“We had an open-door policy, and we encouraged people to speak up about it. Ask questions: Did it resonate with them? Is it powerful? Is it meaningful to them?” Pergolin says of the follow-up after the unveiling. “It was really educating, having them be a part of the process and then allowing them to give feedback.”

In 2009, Bancroft had a $95 million budget and 1,950 employees.

Smart Business spoke with Pergolin about how to involve employees in rebranding.

Educate your employees. We went out with the thought in mind that we have to educate them to make sure that they understand the vision of the organization and why it’s so important to them, why our mission is important to them. And what they do every day relates — how that links back — to everything that we do here. So the first thing we did was really educate them.

I think it’s important [that] it’s face to face. What we tried to do was link what they do every day, how they make a difference, to the end result. It’s different for every position and every program, so I think it was important that we could talk to the AP clerks and say, ‘Here’s what you do, and that’s why you make our organization better.’ We could talk to teachers and say, ‘Here’s what you do, and that’s what your link to the organization is.’

I continue to do that. Every time I speak within the organization, I always try to give an example of something that just happened last week or somebody needs this ‘One world. For everyone’ just to keep them very involved.

Be the one to educate. We went through a lot of discussion about it, and we did think it was important that the CEO went out because then you knew it was important to me.

It shows if it’s something that I would put time and energy into, that I think it’s important enough to spend my time on, then it certainly should be something that they should think is important enough for them to spend their time on.

I think that’s a key point. If they hear about it (from somewhere else), I think it’s an easy thing for rumors to start around, ‘Why are they doing this; why are they doing (that)?’

We didn’t really allow for any of that. We were very clear. We were excited about it. It wasn’t because we were trying to hide anything. It was very clear from the beginning what our focus was and why we were doing it.

Involve employees. We actually had (employees) be a part of the process, and I think that’s extremely important. When we rolled it out to them, (we could say), ‘This came from you guys. This is what we heard from you. You are the ones that decided what the brand was.’

They were part of the focus groups and the discussion; they were a part of the rollout.

That, I think, is extremely important, to get buy-in and their commitment toward it.

We would specifically ask questions like: Did you think the brand was powerful? What did it make you think of? How do you live the brand? How do you make this ‘One world. For everyone’? We would ask them pretty specific questions.

Reach out to everyone. We really take the initiative to invite anybody who wants to be a part of it. We do that in a couple of different ways, and we do this throughout the organization on anything we’re going to communicate.

Sometimes I’ll send an e-mail out saying, ‘I want your ideas,’ so I can touch a lot of people that way. I have regular lunches with the CEO for people who want to come and talk about their specific issues or their concerns or their ideas, so they can come through that way.

At the end of the day, as long as you give everybody the opportunity, people feel they’re a part of the process. Even if they don’t want to be, they don’t want (to share) an idea, at least they felt like if they wanted to, they could. That’s important. I would think it’s hard to say, ‘We’re only going to ask the managers, and we don’t care about the opinions of the other people.’

It’s good just to have them feel a part of the process. If they don’t connect to it, I think they’ll just not even care about it. If they see what they do, like, ‘Wow, I actually made a difference today. I made the brand; I made it one world,’ I think they’ll really connect with it and really talk it up.

Provide follow up. I talk about the brand everywhere I go to employees and outside stakeholders. I’m always making sure I say the words, and I’m giving examples about how we really live it.

We got just a ton of feedback unsolicited from those families, employees and donors. Anytime everybody would say something about it, I would immediately call back and talk to them about it. It was almost engaging them in it, as well.

I think that it is the CEO’s role to keep it going. If I never said the words, it would go away. It’s really part of my job to keep the excitement going. Everywhere I go, I talk about it.

Really engage them like, ‘Oh, what did you think about it? Did you think it captured it? Why did it hit you? What was so exciting to you about it?’

How to reach: Bancroft, (856) 429-0010 or www.bancroft.org

Published in Philadelphia
Friday, 25 June 2010 20:00

Offering insight

Tim Thornton finds his employees’ motivation for their work makes his job pretty easy. But every once in awhile, the Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale PC president is confronted with a challenge.

The economy has caused most companies to make tough decisions, and the Greensfelder law firm is no different. For Thornton, part of the process has been calming employees’ anxieties and maintaining motivation.

“There is a natural tendency in troubled economic times to want to cut back, but it may not be the time to cut back; it may be the time to actually invest and seek out opportunities,” Thornton says. “With that kind of outlook, there may be some anxieties that may need to be calmed.”

You can ease minds by providing thorough information and recognizing employees for their contributions to the company. Those are two keys for Thornton who has 289 employees, 171 of which are attorneys.

Smart Business spoke with Thornton about how to keep employees calm and engaged during tough economic times.

Maintain employee morale. The starting point is open communication.

Telling folks within the organization where we are, where we’re headed, what we’re confronting and how we’re confronting it, I think, is essential. Within any environment, not being told anything is a lot worse than being told bad news.

If you say nothing, that rumor mill is going to fill the void, and typically, what the rumor mill fills in won’t be good.

You have to be open, explain where you are, what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. If there is some piece of information, and there always are pieces of information that you can’t share for whatever reason, be open about that. Simply say there are certain things that you can’t share. Explain to them why that’s not information that is going to be released within the organization. Generally, I’ve found that people are satisfied with that. They simply want to be told, and they want to be treated like any of us would want to be treated. If you do that, that helps create a positive environment.

The second thing, I think, beyond open communication is recognition of employees, giving credit to them where credit is due, valuing their contribution. Those are all things that I think motivate employees. They make them want to do a good job for the organization.

If they understand where we are and what we’re doing and they’re being recognized for their efforts, I think that’s a pretty good combination.

Explain in person. One of the things we do — and have done since I’ve been president — is on an annual basis we have an open forum. I meet with the groups of employees within the organization. That might be one group is administrative staff, another group might be the paralegals, another group might be associate attorneys.

I meet with them, and I roll out for them whatever issues are on the table. It’s not completely formal, but it’s kind of a state of the firm discussion about: Here’s what we did last year, here’s what we hope to do this year, here’s how we’re going about doing things. As a part of that, I always try to open it up for discussion, questions and answers. There was some reluctance by some employees to actually engage in that dialogue early on, but I think as we do those every year the exchange increases and I think it’s a good back and forth.

I frankly love those days that we do that. It certainly gives me a chance to connect with everybody in the organization. It helps for me to communicate that, on behalf of the firm, I respect what they’re doing, I want them to know what we’re doing — that is kind of a broad way of communicating.

The other thing I try to do, I try to convey both in that meeting and every other time that I really do have an open-door policy, so please if you have any thoughts or ideas or questions or concerns, please come talk to me. A surprising number of people have become comfortable enough to do that, and that’s another way of communicating.

Engage in dialogue. It would depend on every organization and how they operate, but I think the smaller groups do lend themselves to more personal connection. They do lend themselves to more discussion.

If you’re sitting in a room and there’s 100 people in there, there may be some reluctance on the part of somebody to ask a question that they wouldn’t necessarily have if they were sitting around a table with five or 10 people.

To the extent you have the ability to have that dialogue in a smaller setting, it’s probably more conducive to back-and-forth communication. Can everybody do that, probably not? In an organization of our size we can do that, and it’s effective when we do.

One of the things I mentioned a moment ago is to recognize people. Say, ‘Thank you.’ When people do a good job, it’s nice for somebody to say, ‘Thank you; job well done,’ and to give them credit, to be positive and constructive as opposed to negative or destructive.

(Getting employees to participate in dialogue is) a kind of thing that really, truly I believe takes time. You need to be yourself and communicate who you are.

If you are the sort that is open and interested in having that kind of dialogue, over time that will begin to stick, and people will begin to accept that you really are what you say you are, and you’re open to that dialogue. It doesn’t happen overnight.

As long as the employees know what it is you’re doing and why and why you believe that this particular action that you’re engaging in will make the institution stronger, I think that that helps give everybody a sense that we have a purpose, we’re headed in a particular direction and an ability then to sign on with that purpose.

How to reach: Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale PC, (314) 241-9090 or www.greensfelder.com

Published in St. Louis
Wednesday, 26 May 2010 20:00

Client engagement

Customer service isn’t a one-person job. So while Laura K.T. Schriver pushes a culture of customer engagement, she includes herself in the equation.

Schriver, president and CEO of Language Services Associates Inc., contacts all new clients with information on how they can reach her personally and an outline of intentions for both parties.

“Customer service is the line of the future,” Schriver says. “If you sell widgets, several manufacturers can make widgets and they’re all the same. What’s going to make the difference in the client buying from you versus somebody else? It’s going to be that personal relationship, that attention to their needs, and I think if you don’t have customer service in whatever industry you’re in, you’re at a loss.”

To survive today you must stay connected with customers and on top of their needs, which means thorough communication. Schriver stresses the importance of engagement to her 140 employees at the foreign language communication solutions provider.

Smart Business spoke with the LSA founder about how to connect with customers throughout the relationship.

Engage customers. That starts in the selling process.

When you’re selling the client, you’re really gathering all of the information that you’re going to need from the client. Then maintaining from the installation part — sometimes we have to go to a hospital for instance and install all of the systems for them, you really get to know what they’re doing, so you (develop) somewhat more of a personal relationship with a client.

Selling yourself first is more important than selling the product. They have to believe in you and trust you before they can really buy your product. Showing a true interest in what they do and showing that you really care and know about what they do makes them a better client, a better customer, and they trust you more.

Be involved. Once the client has a contract or an agreement with the sales team, I send them a welcome letter. I tell them how they can reach me directly, to please let us know of everything that is happening in their company, to please let us know of all new initiatives that they have, and let us make suggestions so that we’re not just a vendor to them, so that we’re actually a partner with them. So that they feel that whatever input we have and the knowledge that we have … we will share that information with them.

Of course, I welcome them to the group of clients and assure them that everything will be resolved. That’s what I do. And every time that there is an issue, I get the comment on it, and I get a copy of the complaint. If I feel that more direct contact from me is necessary, I will do that.

That’s what makes the difference in a company that is just a job for somebody and the difference between a personal interest of the CEO or president or owner of a company to be involved — you’re going to care more. I want to make sure that all of my folks are in fact instilled in the same caring process that I feel for my clients.

Maintain the relationship. I would say the most important thing is keep in touch.

Don’t just assume that once you have the client that you’re going to have them forever because you don’t. You want to, but the client has to stay engaged.

It’s like any love relationship, you can’t say, ‘Oh, I have a girlfriend,’ and go visit her once a month. You really have to have a daily enamored feeling with your client so they know that you’re there, they know you care and that you’re responding to their needs.

There are also times when you have to follow your client on Twitter or on Facebook or on LinkedIn just to find out what they’re talking about, what they’re doing, things that maybe even after you’ve signed the contract with them to make sure that you maintain a live connection with all of the changes that they may not think of telling you but really would make a difference in us helping them.

Solve problems. Everybody has a problem once in awhile with their service or product. It’s not so much that you have the problem; it’s how you resolve it that makes the difference. Everybody understands that nobody is perfect, nobody can sell perfection, but you can say, ‘Hey, listen, if you have a problem, don’t wait to get mad, come to us and we’ll resolve it in the most satisfying way necessary for the particular issue.’

We give them absolutely the chain of command in resolution and how their problems are going to be taken care of, and we give them a report of what we did to take care of the problem. Whether it is an interpreter issue or a hardware issue or anything like that, we have an absolute resolution plan so that they know what we’re doing.

It’s not like they complained and nobody heard. We give them a response and an action to every single complaint or issue.

We don’t like to have many, believe me, and we learn every time we have an issue. We learn how to avoid these other issues that come up.

Making sure that when you have an issue that they feel comfortable that their issue was resolved in a proper way that you don’t say, ‘Well, this is what we can do,’ and if the customer isn’t satisfied with you saying, ‘This is what we can do,’ then you go and never give them (what they need).

Just say, ‘Are you satisfied? Is this what you wanted to see? We have learned from this issue with our resolution, we’re going to see to it that this isn’t going to happen again.’ Just reassure them.

How to reach: Language Services Associates Inc., (800) 305-9673 or www.lsaweb.com

Published in Philadelphia
Wednesday, 26 May 2010 20:00

Finding value

David Abraham had the solution — a video tour. Send a video tour of Accel Inc. to potential clients to spur growth.

More people would see the value that the fulfillment, distribution and contract packaging company could offer. It seemingly worked, Accel signed 15 new clients.

“Well it was a big mistake,” says Abraham, co-founder, co-CEO and chief operating officer.

Accel has seen its best years since the endeavor six years ago. Revenue in 2008 surpassed $20 million. But Abraham and his wife, Tara, who shares CEO duties, learned you can’t chase dollars. Now they’re more selective with whom they partner.

What it comes down to is, before contracts are signed, you need to determine how you can add value and whether the new client adds value for you.

“It should be black and white, and you understand exactly what you’re trying to accomplish,” Abraham says. “Any gray area in there is just going to prolong the goal and the timeline to get to your goal.”

Smart Business spoke with Abraham about how to find the right clients.

Prescreen others and yourself. Our marketing manager in business development goes out, and we have a list of customers that we know about. There’s a deep dive in the information on there that they can obtain for us and, at the same time, create more for that list that we can explore.

I don’t like using the word list because we’re not looking for 50 new clients — that’s not our business. Our business is to find companies that want to partner with us, and then we will grow with them throughout their organization.

A lot of companies use lists. I think lists are a waste of time. You have to do trial by error. You just need to be so focused on who you are and what value you bring. Then you go use that to explore what the opportunities might be that you can marry up to that.

I don’t want to be something that we’re not. That’s very important as a CEO, as a company, that we stay focused on what value we bring to our client and not trying to sell something that we aren’t. That prescreening is all about understanding who we are. If we don’t understand who we are, then we have no chance in going out and finding out how to prescreen anybody else. It starts with your own company.

Have exploratory conversations. Our first meeting with any potential client is an exploratory one, which gives our potential partner an opportunity to present what their needs are without feeling like they’re being sold.

Once we’ve identified or they’ve identified us as a potential partner, typically what will happen is the client will visit our facility. Way before they visit us, we will have an itinerary put together (of) what they believe they’re looking for so we have some structure for the meeting.

Again, I think the most important part is at that point in time we’re not chasing dollars, we are just exploring, whether we listen to them, we identify what their needs are, and then see if we can add value to that. In the first meeting, at no given time, are we trying to pick up their business because we don’t know yet, we don’t know if we can add value. To have a pure partnership, you have to add value.

Think about it from both sides. If you’re a customer walking in and you don’t know who Accel is and my chief sales officer and everybody else is trying to sell you, how are you going to accomplish anything in that meeting?

When you go shopping, you take a look and you see what you need. We’re doing the same thing. We want our customers to come in and shop and see what they need and share what they’re shopping for. Then we tell them what we have, and we make those decisions. It’s the most important thing; you can’t sell on the first day because you don’t know that you want to buy it.

Listen to potential partners. Especially in this day and age, I will tell you I have very few potential opportunities that come into our facility that are trying to sell me. They’re coming in because they have a problem that they want us to help solve. They’re there because they have a need. You can find out pretty quickly if that customer is really there to solve a problem and they really want that problem solved by sharing what their critical issues are, what their own customers need.

You find out if you have the right partner sitting across from you by how they’re presenting their challenges.

We’re not here to tell them about us yet; we want to hear about them. By how they share that with us, you can pretty much determine somebody who truly wants to be a partner and solve our challenges together.

We’re very upfront and honest with them that we don’t think you should come in here because we want to be your supplier. We want you to come in here because we don’t know if we should be your supplier, so we’re asking you to take the time to share with us what your needs are, and we would like to take the time after that to show you what we do. If those dots connect, then it’s magic.

Justify turning work down. We make sure that our infrastructure is structured for worst-case and best-case scenario. You have to be. You have to build a flexible organization that can prepare for both.

We can pick up 20 new clients right now and not bat an eye. And we can lose 40 percent of business and still manage today. That’s the key to any business plan that you have, any infrastructure that you have. When you do that, you can say no. Even during these economic times, you can say no. If you don’t do that and you have to take care of a lot of things — you didn’t build in there that flexibility — then you will start chasing dollars. You will end up with a lose-lose situation.

How to reach: Accel Inc., (740) 549-0606 or www.accel-inc.com

Published in Columbus
Sunday, 25 April 2010 20:00

Lasting results

Edward Kaloust couldn’t believe it when his named was called to receive Medi-Weightloss Clinics’ Brand Man Award.

Kaloust, the founder and CEO of the franchised weight-loss centers, shakes off the award as a bit of a joke the company’s president pulled at the annual conference, but it has deeper meaning.

“When you get up in front of an audience and it’s all your peers and all of your employees, and they name you the brand man, you have to feel like you’re doing the right thing as far as setting the vision for everybody,” he says.

Being able to clearly share the company plan plays a vital role in execution. But you first need to build the plan on a strong foundation and adjust where needed.

The process has helped Kaloust grow Medi-Weightloss Clinics even during the recession. The company had 73 locations at the end of 2009 and more than 500 employees work under the MWLC brand nationwide.

Smart Business spoke with Kaloust about how to build a plan and get employees to live it.

Create a plan. My advice to other CEOs on how to maintain growth — and even in a down economy maintain growth — is to follow a business plan that is written. It’s sort of like a goal.

I recall one of my sons wanting to become a lawyer when he was in high school. I challenged him and said, ‘Look, if you can get on the National Honor Society and you can finish high school on the honor roll, I will purchase an automobile for you for college up to a certain amount of money.’

We took a picture of that automobile. He looked at that every day. He not only made the National Honor Society, he made the honor roll at the high school. Then he became not only a lawyer, he went on to get a master’s degree in taxation.

That’s a really simple explanation, but that was all a goal-oriented thing. There was a plan there. The plan was ‘Look, if I do this, this and this, I’m going to achieve this.’

To me, if you’re a CEO, that’s the thing you should do. You should actually have a written plan, you should follow your plan, you should make adjustments when you need to. You need to have faith in the plan and, more importantly, the employees. And you have to lead them by example.

The business plan is made up pretty much by the sales organization submitting their budget and their thoughts … all of the department heads submitting their budgets and their thoughts. And besides thoughts, they have to tell us what new employee they will need during the year and why.

Then we take all of that information together, we meet with them separately and we build the plan for that particular year.

Every single department is involved mainly from the department head.

Communicate your plan. When you develop your brand and you create your vision, you’ve got to be realistic and you’ve got to do the research and the development. You’ve got to understand and study the industry, the historical trends. You’ve got to present the economy, the social conditions.

You’ve got to develop an attitude and you’ve got to keep the vision in front of everyone and keep them aware of that vision.

It starts at the top and filters all the way through the organization right to the smallest position in the company. If you came into this company without me even talking to you, I think you would recognize (the vision) and be able to pinpoint it just by walking around and talking to the individuals and see the attitude in which they’re all working.

We do constant training on the vision. We challenged our (marketing director) and said, ‘Look, we need to keep the brand working.’

The marketing director came up with this thing called ‘Brand Jeopardy.’ We broke up in groups and we established this Jeopardy game. You got points if you could answer the question properly about the brand and we awarded the team that did the best job.

You know what happens there? Everyone got excited, they all got involved, and if they didn’t know before they got in the room, they knew when they left more about the brand. I think it’s constantly reminding the team that the brand is this. They have to believe in it and they have to drink the Kool-Aid on a regular basis.

Review your plan. A good business plan covers all facets of your company, and we review the plan. I would like to do it more, but we do it semiannually.

In a difficult period where a company might be experiencing some difficulties, we would actually do it on a quarterly basis.

We’ll sit with our plan in six months and we’ll check every area. How are we doing in sales — that’s the most important thing —how are we doing in customer service, are we maintaining the clinics that we started, which clinics are difficult, how are we going to manage those difficult clinics, and then financially, where are we according to our budget?

Our budget tells us that we should be at $10 million in revenue by the end of six months, are we there? If we’re not there, what do we need to do? If we’re there, how do we increase it perhaps in the second half of the year?

These adjustments come through logic, actual experience and real planning.

There’s nothing you should not look at within your company. The minute you don’t focus on something that’s the minute that things can start turning on you.

There is probably an eight- or 10-pronged list that CEOs, at least in my industry, they need to be aware of. If there’s anything wrong, they need to get in and fix it soon because one thing goes wrong then it’s another thing and another thing.

There are forces outside that can cause it like an economy or not having discretionary income, those you have to deal with but you certainly should be able to manage the ones you can manage and the ones you can manage are your own internal operations.

How to reach: Medi-Weightloss Clinics, www.mediweightlossclinics.com or (877) 633-5677

Published in Florida
Sunday, 25 April 2010 20:00

An operating procedure

Euan S. Thomson understands the opportunities that growth brings and, well, the challenges.

In eight years, the president and CEO grew Accuray Inc.’s employee base from 50 to 450 and the number of customers from five in the U.S. to 200 in 20 countries.

“As you grow, and as you grow that fast, it’s inevitable that you get cultural challenges,” Thomson says. “Managing a culture change as well as managing a company at each level that it happens to be at, I think, is probably the biggest challenge.”

Changes such as growth can mean needed adjustments to your company culture. Accuray reached a natural evolution of moving from technology-focused to customer-centric.

Getting those changes across to your employees means you, as the CEO, need to live the culture and communicate the culture. Explain the reason for the changes in a positive light and involve employees where possible.

The developer of the robotic radiosurgery CyberKnife System reached net revenue of $233.6 million in fiscal 2009.

Smart Business spoke with Thomson about how to deal with changes to the company culture.

Start at the top. Any culture has to start at the CEO. It has to be something engrained in them. Quite frankly, if that culture isn’t part of their personality, then they’re probably not the right person for the job.

It has to start with the character of the CEO. Then I think as the management team develops, as the management team comes together, you have to be able to choose and select people who also epitomize that culture and believe in that culture and get behind that culture.

Then it has to permeate its way through the organization and it has to be represented in all aspects of the business. Everything from customer relations to human resources to the way the company presents itself to investors and the outside world.

After awhile, you tend to find that when the culture becomes obvious that the right people are attracted toward the company. Employees who fit with that culture tend to want to join the company and they want to stay at the company. People who don’t fit well tend to leave. It tends to feed upon itself.

Communicate to permeate. The one thing that is important is consistency. Today, in particular, there are so many ways of communicating, and it’s impossible to generalize exactly what the formula for communication would be, but ... whatever form of communication you use, I think the key is consistency.

There’s also some positive reinforcement there that has to be done. You have to recognize when people recognize that culture and praise them for it.

Also if you see examples that are counter to the culture, you have to explain to people that’s not the way you want the company to be represented. Again, consistency and time are the most important aspects I think.

Manage changes. Really never get too entrenched in what is being set up. We have something we say to ourselves very often inside Accuray, which is, ‘Because it was right yesterday doesn’t mean it’s going to be right tomorrow.’

What we really want to get across is making a change doesn’t mean the decision we made yesterday or last year was incorrect. It just means it was right for where we were then, but it’s not right for where we are now.

Try to encourage people not to feel a need for change somehow implies a previous failure; that it’s just changing priorities and being open-minded to that change.

A lot of that (open-mindedness) comes from just generally open communication with people, making people feel comfortable with discussing things and discussing their challenges and finding solutions together. I think that’s a real key.

You can’t have a culture where people aren’t afraid to bring up the need for the change of moving priorities, and they must feel encouraged about identifying things that need doing and need changed in the organization.

Nobody should feel defensive about it. You have to encourage people to not get defensive if the need to change is brought up.

One of the keys to (embracing change) is not being critical during the change process, always focusing on the positive aspects of change: where it will lead you, what it will bring to you and the employees of the company if we make a change in a certain way.

Not criticizing where you’re coming from but being focused on where you’re going to so that people don’t feel the change process will naturally be accompanied by some form of criticism.

It has to be a very positive thing for everybody and you have to maintain a positive atmosphere around the change. I think in that way people naturally adapt.

Include employees. We were actually successful at selling and maintaining growth in an era when many companies failed. The way we did that, the way we maintained sales momentum was we brought many more people than just the salespeople into the sales environment.

We recognized that our customers were much more concerned; they had a level of fear, if you will, on spending large sums of money. Our equipment costs $3 million to $4 million.

We analyzed the situation, we recognized there was a need for it, and we brought people in. We brought in technical specialists who could explain the technology, we also reached out to our customers and we involved our customers as part of the team in talking to prospective customers.

It’s natural that, as a company grows, certain silos develop because when you’re a small company everybody tends to know what everybody else is doing and everybody tends to be somewhat involved in everything.

As you develop as a company it becomes natural that you move away from that model and people’s tasks and jobs become more specific.

In that process, there’s a risk that silos develop. Any CEO needs to be proactive in recognizing that and working hard at ensuring cross-company communication and teamwork.

It’s probably something all companies face and a problem in which CEOs have to face up to.

How to reach: Accuray Inc., (408) 716-4600 or www.accuray.com

Published in Northern California