Home is where the heart is for Michael Armento and the tradition of customer service he wants to build at Torcon Philadelphia

Michael Armento, vice president, Torcon

Michael Armento, vice president, Torcon

When Michael Armento talks about Philadelphia being a tight-knit community, he speaks from the heart. As a young boy, he would often take a ferry across the Delaware River from New Jersey to South Philadelphia where his father worked for the U.S. Navy.

“There is some history and there are some good memories here,” Armento says.

This memorable locale from his childhood is now the place where Armento goes to work each day as leader of the Philadelphia market for Red Bank, N.J.-based Torcon.

That sense of belonging he has always felt for the area was front and center in Armento’s mind eight years ago when the construction management firm set up shop in the City of Brotherly Love.

“What we set out to do was hire only employees local to Philadelphia with deep roots in the region,” says Armento, a vice president in the firm. “Philadelphia is a very parochial community and we knew that for us to succeed, we had to base our Philadelphia office with Philadelphia-based employees.”

Armento and John DeFazio, Torcon’s project executive, felt strongly that potential clients in Philadelphia wanted to do business with people that they felt a connection to, people who understood what they were all about.

At the same time, Torcon was not a new company. It has more than 200 employees and is one of the most active construction management firms in the Mid-Atlantic region. Torcon has done more than $4 billion worth of construction in the past decade.

“The challenge for us was to learn how to introduce Torcon to the local Philadephia community,” says Armento, who has more than 30 employees in his Philadelphia office. “In the beginning, it was a lot of knocking on doors to visit with people John and I knew from years back working in Philadelphia. It was spending a lot of time out on the street, getting out there and introducing ourselves.”

The effort has paid off in the form of 3.5 million square feet of construction work in Philadelphia, amounting to $70 million in 2011 revenue and about $105 million in revenue for 2012.

Here’s a look at some of the steps Armento has taken to build a team that could make those valuable connections and ultimately drive growth.

Set clear standards

If you’re looking to establish a strong presence in your community, make sure your employees and everyone on your leadership team is up to speed with your expectations.

“Our strategy can be very complicated if it’s ambiguous,” Armento says. “We’re in the construction management business. The reality is it’s a customer service business where our client always and without exception comes first.

“I try to provide clear and candid communication with our employees on whether they are excelling or falling a bit short. I’m forever reinforcing the importance of Torcon’s core values so that any confusion is eliminated.”

The message is often conveyed through the prism of Torcon’s own strong history of close relationships. The company was founded by Benedict Torcivia in 1965 and is now run by his sons, Benedict Jr. and Joseph.

“As far as we are concerned, in every respect and in every level of service we provide, we act fairly, with integrity and with honesty,” Armento says. “Ben and Joe are the two brothers who run this organization and through an incredible amount of hard work, they have built a stellar reputation for the company.”

But without the constant reinforcement that helps drive smart decisions, a reputation that took several lifetimes to build can collapse in an instant.

“That is so true in our industry of construction,” Armento says. “It’s very competitive and you work hard to finally win a project for a client that you have been pursuing for quite some time. It’s not just winning the project. You have to work very hard to be sure you are providing the services that the client is expecting.

“All it takes is one little error or mistake and in five minutes, that reputation can be ruined. That is what I teach and profess all the time. Try to look at things from the perspective of your client.

“Then you can understand what is important to them,” he says. “Business is built on reputation and performance and we have to show that in everything that we do.”

Performance has to be strong at all levels in order to maintain your great reputation. If a project is late in being completed, exceeds its budget or doesn’t fulfill your customer’s expectation, it’s clearly not a success.

“The definition of success is when a client says to us at the end of a project, ‘You folks at Torcon delivered on every promise and every commitment you made from the outset of the project,’” Armento says. “That is when we know we were successful in executing the project. We want to be sure that everyone involved views the project as a success and not just the construction manager.”

It’s the difference between possessing a reputation based simply on knocking out projects as quickly as possible and one that is consistently focused on a high level of customer satisfaction.

Reinforce the team concept

One key to building a team that is of one mind and can make strong connections with your customer base is to empower them to do what they do best. Build confidence in your people so that they know you see them as the experts at what they do. Create an environment where they don’t need to check in with you every time a decision needs to be made.

“We try not to be dictatorial,” Armento says. “We believe very much in allowing our people to be autonomous, to allow them to express their opinion and tell us about their findings and what they think the solution is to a particular challenge. We want them to feel like they are an integral part of the solution to problems on projects. When they do, they take ownership in solving those problems.”

Teamwork is part of the culture of the construction industry from your earliest days on the job, no matter where you work.

“Most people who are educated in construction management or construction management-related curriculum understand that every project is performed and completed by a team of those core positions,” Armento says.

“If there is a particular portion of the project that is struggling and needs some extra attention, we would expect the other team members to jump in and help out. It’s understood in our industry that it’s a group effort.”

Teamwork can easily fall apart, however, if that commitment to your team begins to waver or if you begin to provide evidence that you value one group in your organization over another.

“The key is to be consistent with your message and spend as much time listening to your people as you do talking to them and providing direction,” Armento says. “It’s essential for us to reinforce our message and reaffirm our employees’ value to our organization.”

When employees come to you with ideas or suggestions about how to do something better, demonstrate that it hasn’t been a waste of their time to come up with this new idea.

“It becomes a matter of personal pride,” Armento says. “If an employee has an idea after living with a certain situation day to day, they want to know that the time they have spent thinking about how to improve our approach is valued time and that their opinion is respected by management.

“When you hear an employee or a staff member who has a good idea on how to do something better, allow them to act on it. Give them the opportunity to take ownership if it was their idea.”

Take the time

You work each day to build a stronger team that is focused on providing the best service to your customers. Armento felt that was a winning strategy to achieving customer satisfaction.

But to drive home the connectedness that he wanted customers to feel with Torcon’s Philadelphia operations, Armento strongly encourages participation in the community.

“I’m a newly appointed board member with the Delaware Valley Chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation,” Armento says.

He’s also involved with the American Heart Association and took part in the company’s effort to do a 9/11 memorial along the Schuylkill River.

“That was done gratis by Torcon along with a group of subcontractors,” Armento says.

These efforts were part of an overall push to show potential customers in Philadelphia that Torcon understood what they were all about and could relate to what it meant to be part of the Philadelphia community.

“The way we have overcome that challenge is one, to make sure everybody we employ here in the Philadelphia office comes from Philadelphia construction,” Armento says. “And two, to entrench ourselves as deeply as we can in the community and with community functions.”

How to reach: Torcon, (215) 271-1449 or www.torcon.com

The Armento File

Born: Camden, N.J.

Education: Construction management degree, Drexel University, Philadelphia, Pa.

What was your very first job?

My first job as a kid was working for a local concrete contractor who did replacement sidewalks and driveways. My job was to break up the old concrete in preparation for the new. If it did anything for me, it gave me an appreciation for the difficulty of laboring on a daily basis.

What is the best business lesson you ever learned?

This is a very challenging business. We rely heavily on the performance of others in order to make a project successful. When I say others, I mean our own people as well as other members of the team.

To the best of your ability, try to manage situations on a project without emotion. Treat people the same way you expect to be treated. And that is coupled ironically with the understanding that you can’t blindly trust everyone. Remain objective and keep the clients’ interests in mind at all times.

What skills are essential for a leader?

Be firm when you need to be firm. Listen to people as much as you talk to people. Recognize it’s not always about issuing directives and establishing policies. A good leader sometimes has to be a teacher, a cheerleader and sometimes a confidant. Be open to your people when necessary, but be firm when being firm is necessary.

Takeaways

Set clear expectations.

Promote a team concept.

Be civic-minded.

Jean-Paul Ebanga finds compromise and collaboration fuels success at CFM International

Jean-Paul Ebanga, President and CEO, CFM International

Jean-Paul Ebanga, President and CEO, CFM International

When Jean-Paul Ebanga looks up at the sky, he thinks about the more than 3 million people who fly every day on airplanes powered by CFM International engines. In fact, every 2.4 seconds an airplane departs under the power of a CFM engine.

“That means our role today is far beyond delivering engines to the industry; it is also making sure people are traveling in a very safe way at a decent price,” says Ebanga, president and CEO of CFM International, a $15 billion aircraft engine manufacturer that is a joint venture between GE here in the U.S. and Snecma in France.

CFM — which gets its name from a combination of the two parent companies’ commercial engine designations, GE’s CF6 and Snecma’s M56 — combines the resources, engineering expertise and product support of these two engine manufacturers to build engines for narrow body aircrafts.

“Today, in the air transport industry, the narrow-body segment is the main segment of the industry,” Ebanga says. “Looking forward for the next 20 years, there will be a need for roughly 30,000 new airplanes; two-thirds of those will be narrow-body airplanes and CFM is currently leading this market segment.”

If being the industry leader in engine manufacturing wasn’t enough of a challenge, Ebanga also has the challenge of leading a joint venture company where compromise and collaboration is the key to success.

“If you are taking two parent companies with two different cultures and you try to blend them, this will generate some difficulties,” Ebanga says. “But the net result, because you have to find compromise, because you have to work between different cultures, will be more sound ideas and a much more efficient organization.”

Here’s how Ebanga utilizes both GE’s and Snecma’s resources to keep CFM the industry leader in narrow-body aircraft engine manufacturing.

Compromise and collaborate

While a majority of companies are focused on streamlining themselves, CFM has to take a different approach to its business. Its joint venture means CFM has to work to find compromise above all else in order to properly function at its best.

“The problem with the JV is because you have two different constituents, you have to make compromise,” Ebanga says. “There is no one voice saying this is the way and the rest of the team just follows without asking questions. In terms of leadership, it requires some things to be a little bit different than normal leadership.”

The existence of this additional challenge makes this kind of partnership too difficult for some leaders and companies. But Ebanga sees the glass as half-full.

“If you are able to find the sweet spot between the two company cultures and then work around these difficulties, you enable a new space of opportunities and strengths,” he says. “This is the essence of joint venture success.”

CFM has been known for a long time by its superb engine family, CFM56. Now the company is looking to release its next generation of engines called LEAP, for which compromise and collaboration will be key to its success.

“This new product will be designed based upon a very detailed and comprehensive market survey,” he says. “We spend more than three years asking the customer what they are looking for in the next 20 years and understanding in a granular way how the dynamics of the market can evolve, and then we define the product, which is the answer and the solution to that.”

When you have two companies, the reading of the market dynamics will be different because each company has a different way of operating and a different culture, so they will analyze all the signals in a different way.

“Maybe the solution has some things shared, but the two won’t be exactly the same,” Ebanga says. “The whole key is how you bridge the two approaches. How can GE or how Snecma can make the necessary compromise to accept that the other guys also have a great idea and how can you work together to bridge ideas that make a great product.”

The trick is being able to step back from what you believe is the ultimate answer and being able to compromise with other ideas from another company that also thinks they have an ultimate answer.

“By bridging the two, you find out that some of what’s behind the idea of the other company you didn’t think about at first and vice versa,” Ebanga says. “At the end, the product you are putting on the market is far better than the one you could have done alone.”

Both GE and Snecma own their own technology. Snecma works on the front and back of the engine, while GE works on the middle of the engine. For LEAP, they both have been developing technologies for their respective parts of the engine, but the companies don’t unilaterally say, ‘Here’s our part of the engine.’ The other company has to accept and agree with the technology based on analysis. There are checks and balances that go into the process.

“Based on the other company’s remarks, you can improve your own part,” he says. “Snecma might make some comments about the core, which is the responsibility of GE and taking into account these remarks GE will improve its own part of the engine and vice versa. It’s a mutual cross-pollination.”

The level of compromise and collaboration that CFM has developed has been built up during more than 30 years and is now a major part of the joint venture’s culture.

“In our case, the different GE and Snecma leaders, over time, understood that CFM’s success is more important than their own success,” Ebanga says. “That is to say that if I’m trying to optimize my own interests rather than CFM’s interests, at the end of the day, I would lose the game.”

CFM and GE have been very successful at carrying out this approach even though the leaders have changed.

“One way to do that is we manage young leaders in the challenges of working in this strategic partnership environment,” he says. “If you are growing leaders in this environment, eventually when they are in the top spot, they will have the framework to deal with what makes up the success of this JV.”

A joint venture takes an investment in both people and process in order to make it work.

“In a strategic partnership, it is like being a couple — you could fall in love day one and it’s great for a couple of weeks, but if you are not investing in the relationship … it won’t be a great love story,” he says.

Plan for the future

One of the main challenges CFM has is that in the ’70s it was just a start-up company. Now it has become the leader of the aircraft engine industry, and in order to remain in that position, Ebanga and the company must be forward-thinking.

CFM has several matters it needs to focus on for the future of the company. No. 1 is executing on current commitments.

“This is a big deal because we are currently developing a new engine family called LEAP, and the start of this new program has been very successful,” Ebanga says. “We are the sole power plant for the next generation of Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, one of the two engine makers of the Airbus A320 aircraft, and we are the sole power plant of the new Chinese COMAC C919 aircraft.”

Beyond making LEAP the next engine of preference, CFM also has to ensure that whatever changes the market goes through in a decade or two from now the company will be able to adapt and reinvent itself to stay in the leading position.

“When you are in this top-dog phase, it’s difficult,” he says. “It’s about working on a short-term basis and, at the same time, articulating a strategy to change the way we are running to make sure we will still have the appropriate fit 10 years from now.”

Planning for what the future has in store is not an easy task. You need to address the situation in a very humble way.

“You are already overwhelmed by the shop-time challenges and to find time and perspective to think about the long-term is rather difficult,” Ebanga says. “Being humble helps you to engage in this journey. Along the way, you will have a lot of reasons to give up for a while and stick with the short-term. I think this is a recipe for failure. You need to stay humble on one end but also stay engaged and not let things go away.”

You also need to understand your market but not in the way you understand your market for your short-term objective.

“When you are looking at the market on a short-term basis, it is to make sure you have the appropriate marketing and value proposition to get yourself up and make your numbers,” he says. “When you are looking at the long-term perspective, it’s really the ability to elaborate scenarios about the change in your industry.” ●

How to reach: CFM International, (513) 563-4180 or www.cfmaeroengines.com

Takeaways:

Drive compromise and collaboration for best results.

Be able to reinvent your business to adapt to your market.

Develop plans for how the future of your market may unfold.

The Ebanga File

Jean-Paul Ebanga

President and CEO

CFM International

Born: Paris, France

Education: Graduated from École Nationale Supérieure d’Électricité et de Mécanique (ENSEM), France with a degree in engineering

What was your very first job, and what did you take away from that experience?

I was the leader of the photo club in high school. A lesson I learned from that time is that you can have some great ideas and be very fast in your head, but you have to have the ability to bring people up to speed. This is a great example of how a real organization works.

What got you into aviation?

It was the beauty and the exceptional achievement that this industry is all about. When I was in high school, I had two dreams—the first one was to be an architect and the second was to be an engineer to design great things. To imagine that I could generate some great things to enable this kind of achievement was absolutely fascinating for me. So I chose the engineering path and it still gives me great satisfaction. An aircraft engine is an absolutely amazing piece of technology, but also a piece of art.

Who is someone that you admire in business?

My first thought was the leaders and initial creators of Intel. Not only was this company able to start from nothing as CFM did and became the leading company in the microchip/microprocessor business. Initially they were the leader in the memory business and then they reached a point where they had to reinvent themselves. The reason Intel is the great company they are today is because they were able to reinvent themselves in the absolutely right way. So I admire this generation of Intel leaders.

Sway creates memorable characters and brands

David Walker, Vice President of Interactive and Tom Megalis, Chief Creative Officer, Sway

David Walker, Vice President of Interactive and Tom Megalis, Chief Creative Officer, Sway

Ronald McDonald, the red and yellow M&Ms, the Budweiser frogs and the Energizer bunny have all helped their respective brands to gain the attention of the consumer. These characters make content interesting, engaging, fun, and most importantly, memorable.

That kind of content is what Sway, a new Cleveland-area content and production studio, is helping companies achieve. David Walker, vice president of interactive, and Tom Megalis, chief creative officer, started Sway with the intent of helping companies make the connection between their brands and the content they produce.

“What we’re finding is a lot of companies that we go into have invested time to do social media and content and a year later they don’t have any Facebook followers, no one is going to their YouTube channel and nothing is happening,” Walker says.

“We go in and look at their content and it’s boring, uninteresting, and it’s not engaging. You have to think about how you create something interesting, engaging and fun that people want to look at.”

Examples of the characters leading advertising today are Flo of Progressive Insurance, Mayhem of Allstate and the Geico gecko.

“They market their stuff with humor,” Walker says. “Why? Because insurance is boring and no one wants to listen to a guy saying, ‘We need to update your policy.’ They create characters and brands, and we’re telling people that same idea whether you’re selling an industrial product or insurance. Sway is all about creating engaging, fun, dynamic content.”

Dos and don’ts

Today, in the world of social media it is all about generating your audience.

“In order for me to do that effectively, I’ve got to give them something they really will latch on to,” Walker says. “That’s where a lot of people have missed. You don’t have to go spend a lot of money, but you have to form an idea, form a brand, form a concept and then start putting that out there.”

When you create a brand — the colors, the typeface, the voice — everything about it has to match.

“I think where people are missing it is they’re not getting good writing, good concepts and good ideas,” Walker says. “There’s very little really good creative thinking and strong marketing execution behind it and part of it is some people just don’t get how to do it.”

When you produce content it has to have the effect that makes people want to share it.

“We put high premium where it really counts and why we believe we’re getting traction is because of ideas,” Megalis says. “The idea has to work for your business, its strategy and it has to hit your demographic with something that’s unique and stands out.

“Sure, anybody can take great pictures or shoot a video, but if there’s no substance it’s not effective.”

A lot of companies want to share education about their business or a particular product. The idea of sharing education through someone talking into a camera is no longer good enough.

“Instead of doing it that way you have to think creatively,” Walker says. “You want people to watch it. A lot of companies just push out content and it’s very instructional, institutional and industrial and we forget about it all. In today’s world, consumers are way too savvy. The old world stuff doesn’t resonate.”

Make it memorable

Today, we are bombarded with messages from all kinds of media. Everyone wants to send a tweet or post on Facebook, so how do you come up with something that is memorable? One of the best ways is with a mascot.

“Once you create that character it transcends to social media, print, broadcast and everywhere,” Walker says. “That becomes your voice because advertising is all about making impressions that stick whether it’s online or offline. Having that mascot or that character helps people make a connection with your brand.”

This isn’t really too different than how advertising has always been. It’s doing the research to understand who that target customer is and who that core audience is.

“What will best appeal to them?” Walker says. “What do you want people to know about your product or service? Who are you trying to get it to? You have to make sure the thing you create and the message that you’re putting out there will catch your audience.”

“If it’s just words being spewed without something attached to the message, people don’t remember it,” Megalis says.

How to reach: Sway, (330) 416-9768 or www.swayideafactory.com

Take a deep breath…and read how Trina Gordon sold her team on big changes at Boyden World Corp.

Trina Gordon, president and CEO, Boyden World Corp.

Trina Gordon, president and CEO, Boyden World Corp.

Trina Gordon looked at her company’s clients and could see that they wanted more. It wasn’t that Boyden World Corp. had done a bad job of meeting their needs. They just had more needs to be met.

“What we began to notice out of this downturn was challenges in the macroeconomic environment continued to persist globally,” says Gordon, president and CEO at the professional services firm.

“Clients, particularly global clients and emerging global clients all over the worldwide landscape were becoming more demanding about greater consistency and quality of service from their advisers,” she says. “What that meant was we needed to take a really hard look at what was an effective client advisory relationship.”

It can be a tough pill to swallow when you feel like you’re giving maximum effort to help your clients and then you find out that you could be doing it better.

“There’s a little bit of that in your psyche that says, ‘I want to hear the great things I’m doing,’” Gordon says. “I’m not sure I want to hear where I didn’t do as well or where I need to improve. But it’s the only way we’re going to get better at what they want us to do and deepen the relationship.”

Sometimes, you’ve got to set your ego aside, even when you’re a top 10 global executive search firm with 250 associates in more than 70 offices and 40 countries around the world.

“Sometimes partnerships tend to be more process-driven and internally focused and concerned with the practices and processes of how we do our work,” Gordon says. “In this case, we had to turn that perception completely around and push our organization facing outward at potential and existing clients. We had to build a foundation for how everything we did focused on what they told us they needed and how we performed against those needs and requirements.”

Get to the point 

In the simplest terms, clients were looking for more bang for their buck with Boyden.

“Clients were no longer saying we have talent or human capital needs in emerging markets and anybody sitting in an emerging market can help us,” Gordon says. “What they began to say was we want real sector expertise, sometimes even deep functional expertise. You need to understand our business in a unique way. We began to see as a board, as a partnership, a real tipping point in how clients look at the professional services sector.”

Gordon wanted to respond swiftly, but methodically to this change in the marketplace. It needed to be done, but it needed to be done right.

“The challenge for a firm like our’s is how do you respond to those trends in a way that really adds differentiating value to clients,” Gordon says. “How were we going to uniquely stand apart from our competition and ensure that we could meet those client needs at an increasingly and more complicated demand level?”

One of the first things Gordon did was meet with all Boyden’s global partners and her leadership team. It would serve as a foundational meeting to begin developing a strategy to transform the firm.

“The message was we have this opportunistic window in our own retained search business to drive this concept forward and lead it as a premier global search firm, the first to do so,” Gordon says.

One of the next steps was a global conference in Asia where many of the firm’s key leaders sat down and defined the things that they felt the firm needed to represent going forward. These leaders had spoken with clients and gathered feedback. Now it was time to lay it all out there so Boyden could begin to shape its strategy.

“Part of what clients have shared with us is we want to have a singular kind of experience with you,” Gordon says. “That means you need to understand who we are and what our business strengths are. Understand our business. Get under our skin. Be sector specific with us. You have to demonstrate a genuine understanding of who we are, which meant the difference between a robust client relationship and one that isn’t robust.”

Know what you don’t know

There is a word of caution that must be addressed for any firm that is looking to adapt what it does for its clients. You better have a good idea of what you stand for before you begin the transformation.

“When we stray from our core expertise and we stretch out and try to do something we’re not capable of doing, we’re no longer acting with integrity and it ultimately will affect the client relationship,” Gordon says.

“We have to be able to know what our strengths are, be true to them and have the courage to say, ‘This is how we can best help you.’ We also have to be honest with the client and say, ‘This is what we can do and this is what we can’t do well.’ We’re not going to risk our relationship for the sake of saying we can be all things to a client.”

If you don’t know what your core beliefs and expertise are, then how will you know whether the thing you’re being asked to do fits in? You have to be clear about it so that you can give your best effort and performance on the project.

“It’s one thing to stretch in an area where we have done some work and there’s expertise elsewhere in our firm to help us and guide us and draw upon and bring into the client equation,” Gordon says.

“It’s another when it’s completely further afield from the core expertise of the firm. That’s where you can get into trouble with a client. And it’s very hard to recover a relationship that you’ve damaged.”

Be methodical

Boyden is a big firm and so there was a ton of information and data to sort through as this transformation took place. It was incumbent upon Gordon to not let it overwhelm her team.

“It’s important to take a step back, center yourself and think through what’s really important,” Gordon says. “Prioritize and move in steps. You’ll overwhelm the organization if you try to do much too soon without a coherent message, without responsible buy-in and without a very clear approach to staying true to who you are. “We’re still evolving as an organization because change is not always an easy thing. What I’ve learned is to take a deep breath and make sure you’re confident in the people around you and confident in what your clients are telling you.”

You want to please your clients and that’s obviously the most important thing. But don’t let it affect your work and force you into a pace that will result in a substandard final product.

You also need to make sure you’re cognizant of your personnel resources. What skills can your people jump right in and take on and which ones will require some level of training?

“You can’t just assume you have a completely homogenous organization that all can move forward at the same time toward this enhanced approach with clients,” Gordon says. “One of the things I tried to do very early with our leadership team was reach out to those key voices inside our firm who embody this work already and who are our greatest client advocates.”

You undoubtedly have some people in your company who can be trainers and who can help their peers grow. Tap into that resource and put it to use. And for other people who need to learn some new skills, do what you can to help them.

“There’s a lot going on inside a complex organization,” Gordon says. “Not everybody can drink from a fire hose at the same time. So you need to be able to call upon your leadership, those individuals that people respect and know that already embody this expertise with clients and utilize their knowledge base and their talent to train, teach and enrich younger partners or partners that are new to the profession. That is a continual process.”

It’s a process that will likely never be completely wrapped up. There’s always more to learn and more to figure out and Gordon says they’ll just keep on trying to do the best they can for their clients. But this process has already put the firm in a better position to serve those clients.

“Our dashboard is built, our metrics are built, so all of it is now launched,” Gordon says. “We’re at this exciting period where you’re diving off the board hand in hand with your client into this brave new milieu. I see it as a continual evolution that our own firm and each and every one of our partners will sort of continuously travel together.”

How to reach: Boyden World Corp., (312) 565-1300 or www.boyden.com

 

The Gordon File

Trina Gordon, president and CEO, Boyden World Corp.

Born: Alliance, Ohio

Education: Bachelor’s degree, political science; master’s degree, public administration, Auburn University

What did you want to be growing up?

From the time I was little, I always wanted to be an equine veterinarian. So my interest in Auburn, at least prior to going there, was they have one of the finest equine veterinary schools in the country. When I went there, I fell in love with the philosophy of the university, the campus and the people. But I found that the pre-veterinary program, I didn’t have the constitution for invasive medicine. So my dream of becoming an equine vet versus the leader of a professional search firm is quite different. So I switched majors, I stayed and I loved it.

What was your very first job?

In the summer, my brother and I ran a custom car detailing business part of the day out of my parents’ garage. Then in the afternoons, I ran a daycare nursery school for kids in our area. I had about 10 to 12 kids at a time and they were ages six to 10.

Who would you like to meet and why?

I love history, so if I had the opportunity to sit down with anyone, it would be Elizabeth I. I would like to know how a woman who was the first leader of a powerful, yet fledgling nation was able to bring a divided country together and bring them to global prominence. How she was able to unify them behind an individual who heretofore in their history, had never been a woman and reign long and lasting over a very respectful populace. She was able to gain the credibility of all the men around her and win respect around medieval Europe.

Takeaways:

Be clear about your goals.

Understand your limitations.

Don’t rush just to get it done.

Donna Rae Smith: Are your messages getting lost?

Donna Rae Smith, founder and CEO, Bright Side Inc.

Donna Rae Smith, founder and CEO, Bright Side Inc.

Remember playing telephone as a kid? You would sit in a circle with friends and whisper a message into the ear of the child next to you. By the end, when the last kid would announce the message out loud, everyone would break into laughter: It never bore any resemblance to the original message.

Is that still happening to you? Are your messages getting lost in a modern-day game of telephone?

I see it in companies all the time. The CEO knows the message — in this case the business’ vision and strategies — but it gets terribly distorted as it gets passed along and it becomes no laughing matter.

There are reasons why messages get lost.

No. 1, managers often don’t understand or even hear the message or its importance. Its relevance to their work hasn’t been explained to them.

No. 2, the noise of stress can deafen the message. Today, employees are running at breakneck speed in order to stay competitive. The priority is on responding to immediate needs and putting out fires. Under stress, many managers can’t hear the message or can’t prioritize communicating it.

No. 3, competitive work environments mean personal job security comes first and the company’s long-term success second. We make decisions that are in our best interests, not always thinking whether they’re aligned with the company’s goals. When that happens, the message gets sidelined in favor of short-term gain.

In order for the message to stay intact, it needs to be communicated loudly and clearly over and over again, and everyone in the circle needs to be responsible for passing it on accurately. Don’t wait until the end to realize the message has been mangled.

Articulate the vision and strategy.

The importance of this can’t be overstated. The vision and strategies — your message — should be presented to people over and over again, not just in words but visually.

Visuals resonate with people and make the message stick. Develop a visual representation of the company’s vision and display it prominently throughout the organization.

Generate confidence and commitment.

In order for people to pass the message on accurately, they need to know, “What does this mean for me?” and “Why should I care?”

Today’s competitive work environments are making people incredibly anxious and concerned about the future. People want reassurance about their own futures and their company’s future. Perhaps more than ever before, they need inspiring visions for the future that they can take confidence in.

Give them a vision they can support and make it clear that the company needs them on board in order to succeed. Let them know how they will benefit if the company reaches its goals. Once they believe in the company’s future and their role in it, they’ll be committed to the message.

Accept accountability.

Leaders must accept personal accountability for communicating clearly. Each leader must commit to communicating in ways that align with the original message. No matter how tense things get, the message can’t get dropped or distorted at will by one leader. If a leader or leaders stray, the situation must be addressed immediately. Otherwise, the strategy has no teeth and will not be trusted.

Invest in management.

Commend leaders who communicate well and work closely with those who need more help. Remember that this is a process. In order for it to work, people will need mentoring and coaching.

Break it down.

Our high-pressure work environments mean that people will want to throw out long-term strategies when the going gets tough. In order to prevent that, work with managers to create daily, weekly and monthly priorities that meet short and long-term goals.

 

Donna Rae Smith is a guest blogger and columnist for Smart Business. She is the founder and CEO of Bright Side Inc., a transformational change catalyst company that has partnered with more than 250 of the world’s most influential companies. For more information, visit www.bright-side.com or contact Donna Rae Smith at [email protected]

Matthew Figgie and Rick Solon: Finding character and cultural fit

Matthew Figgie, chairman, Clark-Reliance Corp.

Matthew Figgie, chairman, Clark-Reliance Corp.

It is always difficult to find the right employees, not only people with technical skills but with other traits that will ensure long-term success for your organization.

Finding the right culture “fit” in terms of character and personality traits begins with the creation of the job requirements, preliminary candidate screening and the interview process. Preparation is critical before the interview to develop a series of questions designed to reveal the key traits desired of an employee.

At Clark-Reliance, our first hiring objective is to find candidates with superior technical qualifications and skills necessary to perform the tasks of a particular position. However, a candidate must also have the personal qualifications and skills to thrive in our corporate culture.

Identifying the major character traits that allow employees to fit comfortably into your organization and excel in their work allows you to create the appropriate interview questions. At Clark-Reliance, we have identified four major character traits necessary for an employee to have so that he or she will fit into our culture.

Self-awareness and personal accountability

Rick Solon, president and CEO, Clark-Reliance Corp.

Rick Solon, president and CEO, Clark-Reliance Corp.

Our goal is to find employees who have the ability to analyze and critique themselves. We want people to take accountability for their actions and success.

Continuous improvement

We want to find employees who are constantly seeking to sharpen their skills, which means either developing skills further or seeking skills they do not currently possess.

Passion

Simply stated, we want employees who have passion for their job and for our company.

Communication

We want employees who are willing to speak their mind as well as listen to other’s thoughts and ideas. A collaborative environment makes all employees invested in the development of the company.

In order to identify these traits in potential employees you should use behavioral type questions like the ones below:

Self-awareness

  • What are three accomplishments or significant successes that you identify with and take great pride?
  • What would your present or former boss say about you? What would he or she have liked to see you do differently?
  • Can you tell me about a mistake you made, either work or personal, that taught you a significant lesson?

Continuous Improvement

  • Where have you sought to improve yourself over the last three months?
  • How would a co-worker describe you?
  • What personal needs do you think this position will satisfy?

Passion

  • What has been your toughest job? How did you handle this job?
  • Has a job ever conflicted with your thoughts of what is right or wrong? If so, how did you handle it?
  • What work situations irritate you or make you angry?

Communication

  • If you were involved in a heated discussion with a fellow co-worker, would you be more comfortable in the role of the peacemaker or decision-maker? Why?
  • Have you taken the initiative to handle something that is technically out of your area of responsibility? Why did you choose to handle the situation that way?
  • How do you deal with your boss when he or she overrides a major decision that you have made?

 

Matthew P. Figgie is chairman of Clark-Reliance, a global, multi-divisional manufacturing company with sales in more than 80 countries, serving the power generation petroleum, refining and chemical processing industries. He is also chairman of Figgie Capital and the Figgie Foundation, a member of the University Hospitals Board of Directors, corporate cochairman for the 2013 Five Star Sensation and chairman of the National Kidney Walk.

Rick Solon is president and CEO of Clark-Reliance and has more than 35 years of experience in manufacturing and operating companies. He is also the chairman of the National Kidney Foundation Golf Outing.

Nicholas DeIuliis keeps Consol Energy Inc. on its toes by turning potential energy into kinetic energy

Nicholas DeIuliis, President, Consol Energy Inc.

Nicholas DeIuliis, President, Consol Energy Inc.

If you ask Nicholas DeIuliis about the state of the energy industry these days, he would tell you it’s the nature of the industry that keeps it exciting and evolving.

DeIuliis is president of Consol Energy Inc., a more than $6 billion, publicly owned producer of coal and natural gas and one of the leading diversified energy companies in the U.S. He and Consol have been focused on new technologies, new energies and, above all else, keeping Consol one of the leading producers in its region.

“Energy has always been a big issue within our regional economy, national economy and now the global economy within the last number of years,” DeIuliis says. “Consol Energy still looks upon those tried and true forms of energy, but what’s really changed in the last number of years is how we’ve evolved in deploying technology in both the coal and natural gas side.”

As the industry continues to push forward, the success of companies such as Consol depend upon its ability to keep employees safe, effectively communicating and remaining innovative.

“The most important thing we do is we establish what our values are and we literally numerate them for our teams,” DeIuliis says. “We say what our top values are and which is first, second and third. For us, No. 1 is safety. Second is compliance. And third is continuous improvement and taking a long-term view.”

Here is how DeIuliis is helping to drive those values at Consol Energy that, in turn, help drive the company.

Safety first

In the energy industry, there are all kinds of dangers that employees face while on the job. DeIuliis and his team take great pride in running a company that focuses on keeping its workforce safe.

“Safety has always been something that is critical to us throughout our history, and we’ve been around for about 150 years,” DeIuliis says. “So we’ve learned what works very well and also learned the hard way through those 150 years what doesn’t work very well when it comes to safety.”

DeIuliis wants to take the challenge of safety and turn it into an opportunity, which sounds simple, but it’s often very challenging.

“We first started with the philosophy of safety itself,” he says. “What is our culture going to be when it comes to safety? Is it truly going to be our top value that will not change during market swings? A value is something that is constant. So first and foremost, that is our most important top value.

“Secondly, if it’s our top value, what’s the expectation going to be? Are accidents part of the business of extracting natural gas or coal resources, or can we truly take an approach of zero accidents of any kind across the entire employee base as the expected outcome and expected goal?”

Consol has taken the latter approach and created an absolute zero program that says the only acceptable standard of performance is no accidents to the employees on any given day across the entire company.

“Anything that’s an accident no matter how small or slight is an exception to that rule and a violation to that philosophy,” he says. “So you have that philosophical change that needed to occur to turn a challenge into opportunity, and over the last three or four years, it has turned and evolved into the culture and philosophy.”

Now DeIuliis and Consol have to find the ways to further improve the company’s safety outlook.

“What are the tactical things we’re going to do to improve our performance?” he says. “How are we going to bring the science and technology to the table to get smarter about risk identification, hazardous mitigation and overall employee training? All of those things lead you to a better place on safety performance.”

Communication is king

In conjunction with safety performance, how well Consol Energy communicates its message relates to how easily and effectively it can improve the organization.

“Communication is the lifeblood of taking a concept or an opportunity and making it a reality,” DeIuliis says.

Consol Energy has nearly 10,000 employees and 6,000 to 8,000 contractors on top of that. So communication throughout the organization is critically important to furthering a concept, philosophy, a new technology or standard, and whether or not that comes to fruition — and when it comes to fruition.

“Sometimes the when part is just as challenging and just as important as whether or not it actually comes to fruition,” he says. “You can’t overemphasize the importance of communication, especially in a complex and large organization or a complex and large world such as what we’ve seen in the energy space throughout the U.S. and the globe.”

Saying that your company communicates is easy, but actually getting results from your communication is much more difficult. You have to utilize multiple communication tactics.

“We use what we call a portfolio approach to communication,” DeIuliis says. “We don’t put all our eggs in one basket, one means or one method of communication. We will utilize a range of those like you would in an investment portfolio.”

Consol uses everything from closed-circuit TVs that update employees on safety procedures, initiatives, technological breakthroughs, compliance issues and regulatory issues to training programs to make sure that employees are engaged.

“We look at that as an investment in communication that is going to get that know-how rate of return, which will be very good, not just for the shareholders of the company and stakeholders but, most importantly, for the employees themselves, because they will be in a more safe and compliant place,” he says.

“There’s a whole range of different communication tools that we use … that will put us in a better position to succeed in that communication challenge and opportunity.”

In order for communication to be most effective, especially in a company the size of Consol, there has to be someone who has ownership of the messages being spread throughout the business.

“The communication approach goes back to the messaging and the content of what you’re saying,” he says. “The ownership is across the entire company. In reality, it extends beyond the employees within the company. It extends to our partners and other stakeholders that touch or deal with the company in some, way, shape or form. It might be the customers downstream that we’re selling the coal and natural gas to; it could be our contractor partners providing services at our rig sites and coal mines or anyone in between.”

While everyone owns a part of the communication process, it’s also critically important that that communication process and the messaging behind the communication are viewed as owned by action, not just by words with the leadership of the company.

“The leadership of the company for us means many different people, not just our CEO and chairman,” DeIuliis says. “It’s our CEO and chairman all the way down to the mine foreman, all the way down to the employee working on the barge line or all the way down to someone standing on one of our rigs right now.

“It’s a group effort and everybody has a role and a responsibility. Your actions have to be consistent with what you’re saying.”

Create innovation

Just as important as safety and communication are within the energy industry, so too is the need to remain innovative. Recent substantial growth in natural gas drilling and advancements in clean coal technology are two areas driving energy these days.

DeIuliis and Consol look inside and outside the industry in order to bring the best innovation to the forefront of the company’s operations.

“There are two broad groups I look to over time for help and insight,” DeIuliis says. “One is the management team that we work with and around. They’re the best and brightest in the industry. Getting that comfort level and that trust level with the exchange of ideas and thoughts as time goes on is the lifeblood of any successful organization.”

The other broad group DeIuliis looks at is almost the mirror image of his leadership team. He looks toward entities and individuals with insights and experiences outside the industries Consol works within.

“It’s amazing how many already established processes, technologies and concepts are out there in entirely different industries that are being viewed as innovations and ground-breakers with the coal, natural gas and fossil fuel industry that we operate in,” he says.

“Every time we tend to look outside our box and outside our industries, we always come away with an injection of innovation that keeps us going.”

As the world of business and that of energy continue to evolve and change as time goes on, the success of a company comes back to its values.

“In the energy industry, we’ve seen a lot of volatility and a lot of peaks and cycles through the years,” DeIuliis says. “We’ve become used to a certain extent of the things that will enviably occur. But if you go back to the values, and those that are truly the values of your organization, and if you’re the safest and most compliant operator in that environment, you’re going to be the most successful or profitable whether it’s a market peak or trough.”

The key to managing through those kinds of ups and downs has been simplicity.

“The way we manage in those downturns is sticking to those values and as long as we’re pushing for better safety performance, compliance and continuous improvement, we will be fine in any market,” he says.

How to reach: Consol Energy Inc., (724) 485-4000 or www.consolenergy.com

Takeaways

Find ways to improve the processes of your business.

Implement communication tactics that allow your business to succeed.

Innovate through internal and external channels.

The DeIuliis File

Nicholas DeIuliis

President

Consol Energy Inc.

Education: Graduated with a chemical engineering degree from Penn State. He received a master’s degree in business administration and a juris doctorate from Duquesne University.

Career: DeIuliis began his career in Consol Energy’s research and development group in 1990. He became vice president of strategic planning responsible for optimizing the value of Consol Energy’s assets resulting in the creation of CNX Gas Corporation, where he served as president and CEO from its 2005 inception until early 2009. He has been the president of Consol Energy since February 2011.

DeIuliis is also director at-large of the board of directors of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, a director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Bituminous Coal Operators’ Association Inc.

Regionally, he is on the advisory boards of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation and the Catholic Foundation. He is a registered professional engineer in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and a member of the Pennsylvania Bar.

Tony Arnold: Effective leadership

Tony Arnold, Founder and Principal, Upfront Management

Tony Arnold, Founder and Principal, Upfront Management

As leaders, we understand that our actions, whether good, bad, positive or negative, are being continually examined. Our job as leaders is to create a vision, develop and execute strategic plans, define goals, and set objectives aimed at creating excellence through products and services that address the needs of the customers and markets we serve.

Accomplishing these tasks cannot be done in a vacuum; a team of highly skilled and dedicated leaders is needed to accomplish these goals. CEOs and business owners are constantly challenged to seek out the talent needed to build an effective leadership team. Though difficult, it is paramount to find talent that has a keen understanding of your organization’s market, vision, mission and objectives.

Building a team of talented leaders that share similar capabilities, traits, ambitions, and that are qualified to lead an organization is one thing, but getting this group to function together to lead a business effectively and efficiently requires special attention.

It is vital to have a leadership team that consists not only of highly skilled, functional leaders but also those who possess the ability to understand the broader picture. Members of this team must be willing to contribute, provide productive opinions and work as a team to reach consensus, and then collectively execute these decisions throughout the organization.

Leading strong leaders requires managing egos, resolving conflicts, balancing power and integrating opinions in a way that ultimately fosters a team that is aligned with your organization’s vision, goals and objectives.

Reflect for a minute on the qualities that have brought you to your leadership position. You are a visionary and you’re high on confidence. You likely have charisma and years of experience. You have a wealth of important contacts and you are a person that most would consider to be “plugged in.”

Now assume that those in your organization, technically your subordinates, share many of those same qualities that you possess. The possibility and likelihood of friction in these relationships is high if you don’t manage these relationships carefully.

Below are some action steps to take to enhance your leadership within your organization.

1. Set the expectation that leaders actually lead, be accountable, take risks and don’t wait for direction. If those around you are not willing to do the same, then maybe it’s time to make a change.

2. Spend quality time with leaders individually to understand their views on their role and their vision of how their functional area contributes to the mission of the organization. Are they thinking big, stretching their direct reports and delivering the results you expect?

3. Challenge the team and individuals to stretch their thinking and share their “big ideas.” Be clear and concise. Put things into context so they understand the meaning and possible outcomes of decisions.

4. Set clear expectations of leaders and the leadership team. Expect individuals to know the overall business and be able to separate themselves from their functional role and contribute to the enterprise by tackling complex issues.

5. Mandate open and frank dialogue between leaders while reiterating that these discussions remain confidential.

6. Expand their role by asking them to contribute by taking lead roles on enterprisewide matters.

7. Allow leaders to lead so they own their actions and decisions. It is your responsibility to identify and select high-quality talent with the knowledge and experience needed in order to contribute to the organization.

These steps are the beginning to a harmonious relationship with your top team members. Remember, the goal is the respect that you earn along the journey, not friendships or three people to round out a great foursome on the links. Your energy, vision, determination and drive are the active ingredients in leading by example. ●

Tony Arnold is founder and principal of Upfront Management, a St. Louis-based management and executive consulting firm. He can be reached at (314) 825-9525 or [email protected]

The power of optimism for Bert Jacobs and The Life is good Co.

Bert Jacobs, Chief Executive Optimist, The Life is good Co.

The Life is good Co.

Twenty years ago, Bert Jacobs and his younger brother, John, were looking for ways they could avoid getting typical jobs. Jacobs and his brother never agreed with the standard path for someone coming out of college. In fact, at that time, Jacobs was delivering pizzas and teaching people how to ski to earn a living. The brothers were looking for a unique path to live life how they wanted to live it.

“We wondered if we could create something that fit us better,” Bert Jacobs says.

That fit was The Life is good Co., an apparel and accessories company that spreads the power of optimism in its products and through its nonprofit organization, The Life is Good Playmakers.

Fast-forward to today and Life is good has 260 employees and saw 2012 revenue north of $100 million. Not bad for two brothers who wanted to maintain the fun in their lives.

Jacobs serves as CEO, or chief executive optimist, while his brother John serves as chief creative optimist. The two started their company 19 years ago aided by a drawing of a smiling character named Jake, who has become more than just a logo on the T-shirts but a symbol of optimism and the driving force behind the company and its inspiring message.

“Jake is our hero here at Life is good, and we like to say that Jake has superpowers,” Jacobs says. “Those superpowers guide our decisions.”

Simplicity, gratitude and humor are just a few of the 10 superpowers in total that help shape how the company does business. In recent years, the Jacobs brothers have had to do some self-evaluation as leaders and plan more strategically to understand where to go next with their company and its message.

“We’re 19 years in business and we’re really less about being a clothing company and more about the clothing being a vehicle for an important message,” Jacobs says.

Here’s how Jacobs has overcome the growing pains of leading a small private company into a larger corporation.

Find your direction

Since early in Life is good’s existence, the company’s inspirational message has been both a strength and a challenge for Bert and John Jacobs.

“Our message is so clean and simple that it applies to a tremendous array of different things,” Jacobs says. “So we have a lot of choices, which is a great place to be for a business, but it can also keep you up at night thinking about what we should do and shouldn’t do.”

Jacobs remembers one instance when the company was just above $1 million and he got a call from a large liquor company wanting to purchase more than $6 million worth of T-shirts from Life is good.

“We could have had 600 percent growth, and it was really, really tempting, but it really didn’t have anything to do with the reason why we liked the brand, started the brand or the vision of the brand,” he says.

“There has always been that pressure, and when you’re given an opportunity to go and hit the gas, it’s real tempting to do it.”

That call was the late ’90s, but in recent years, Jacobs says it’s too dissimilar.

“There are always people bringing ideas and opportunities, and I think we have to look and say, ‘How do those opportunities line up with our mission? How do they line up with our vision and with what we’re trying to do with our lives?’” he says.

Knowing what move to make next is one of the biggest challenges in any business. The way to attack that challenge and consider it an asset is to know who you are and act like it.

“That’s how we define branding internally at Life is good,” he says. “The mission of our company is simple — to spread the power of optimism. If we’re going to make a business decision that drives revenue, that’s great. But if it drives revenue and it doesn’t spread the power of optimism, it’s not so great.”

These business decisions come back to the company’s inspirational leader — Jake and his superpowers.

“These superpowers have to start showing up in the deals we do,” Jacobs says. “A big driver of these decisions is knowing our brand. We had good gut instincts back in the early days. Today, we can really line it up against criteria, and it’s pretty easy to take a look and see whether it’s a fit or not.”

Decisions regarding company direction take a great deal of focus. You must consider all that is at stake and who will be impacted by the decisions.

“You need to get away from the details of the business and ask what you want to do with your life,” Jacobs says. “If someone is trying to make a decision about their business and they’re not looking at how that’s going to serve their life, then they’re not going to make the right decision, in my opinion.”

Once you answer that, you have to look at who the stakeholders are of the business and what they want to do.

“You have to start with the highest priorities and who owns that organization and what are they trying to do and where do they want it to be,” he says. “A big part of that is including your customer base in those stakeholders, because a business can’t continue, it can’t thrive, and it can’t grow or do new things without your customers. Then make a decision based on that.”

Regardless of what decision you ultimately make, you have to ensure that you go through a process to understand why you’re making that decision.

“There have been times with this business that we didn’t go through that process, and those are the times that it stings you,” Jacobs says. “We’re lucky that none of those times we did things that sank the ship and we can still live our dream. But if you don’t watch those things, you can lose your dream.”

Enable autonomy

Just as understanding the company’s direction in recent years has been a challenge, so too has having to let go of some of the leadership responsibility both Jacobs and his brother have had in the past.

“Like many small businesses — the people who started the business play a very critical role,” Bert Jacobs says. “You can sort of kid yourself at some point that nobody can do something better than you can.”

The Jacobs brothers began reading about the struggles that companies go through and the mistakes that leaders make. One thing they saw over and over was that leaders have a tendency to place blame on others for issues in the company, but they’re afraid to have a self-evaluation.

“That was a big step for us,” Bert Jacobs says. “What we did was we created a task force at Life is good and we asked them to critique my brother and I and our other four partners. It was sobering. They were really honest and really candid. There were many areas where we weren’t doing a great job.

“The task force and the criticisms forced us to put some structure in place to reorganize the whole company and align on all our major strategies.”

Going through that evaluation opened doors and enabled autonomy to Life is good and its top management and general managers of its different business units.

“When we clearly paint the vision of where we want to go and we get out of the way, they’re not as good as us, they’re better,” Jacobs says. “That decision has been a real revelation and a breakthrough that a lot of small business owners sometimes never make or make too late.”

For Jacobs, realizing that taking an extra day skiing up in Maine isn’t a bad thing every once in a while has helped him and the business grow.

“The business might be better off without me on a given day,” he says. “Maybe by being around we can get in the way of things. Instead, if we put people in place and we trust the job that they can do, then unexpected things can happen.

“I can point to spots through the years where we probably could have grown stronger, faster and smarter if we did a little less. When something is your baby, you hold it white-knuckled sometimes, and I think we have gotten over that and we’re enabling more things to start happening.” ●

How to reach: The Life is good Co., (617) 266-4160 or www.lifeisgood.com

Rick Tigner carries on the legacy of Jackson Family Wines’ founder with a focus on lands, brands and people

Rick Tigner, President, Jackson Family Wines

Rick Tigner, President, Jackson Family Wines

While many companies would be like a ship without its captain after the loss of its illustrious founder, Jess Jackson, the Jackson Family Enterprises had a very capable successor in Rick Tigner — one who would continue the family-owned winery group’s reputation and make mom and dad’s favorite chardonnay into the favorite of their millenial children too.

In April 2011, Jess Jackson died of cancer at the age of 81. He was an individual whose vision, perseverance and work ethic helped transform the wine industry.

He started the Kendall-Jackson wine business with the 1974 purchase of an 80-acre pear and walnut orchard in Lakeport, Calif., that he converted to a vineyard. Nearly 40 years later, Jackson Family Wines is among the world’s most successful family-owned winery groups, composed of more than 35 individual wineries.

Jackson Family Enterprises is the company that oversees Jackson Family Wines, its global sales organizations and the Kendall-Jackson brand. Tigner was named president of Jackson Family Enterprises a year before Jackson passed away. A 24-year veteran of the alcohol beverage industry, Tigner has held positions at Miller Brewing Co., Gallo, Louis M. Martini and nearly 20 years with Jackson Family Wines.

“When I first became in charge of Jackson Family Wines three years ago, one of my goals was to actually get one team, one dream,” Tigner says. “If I can get all 1,200 employees going in the same direction at the same time, how powerful would that be?”

The company, its 1,200 employees and its more than 30 brands of wine, was solely in Tigner’s hands, and it was now up to him to keep the operation flourishing.

“Our company mission is to be the best wine company in the world,” Tigner says.

Here’s how Rick Tigner is taking Jess Jackson’s legacy and moving Jackson Family Enterprises forward.

Connect with consumers

In any industry, it is extremely easy to be hands-off with consumers. In the wine industry, many vineyards deal with distributors or trade partners and aren’t very tight with the consumer. Tigner says that isn’t the case at Jackson Family Wines.

“Innovation comes in different forms and fashions,” he says. “In the wine business, what you get is a lot of what I call the ‘sea of sameness.’ You look at a wine magazine ad and you see a bottle and vineyard, but it can be anybody’s bottle and anybody’s vineyard. The question is how do you connect with a consumer in different ways?”

Last January, Tigner was featured on the TV show “Undercover Boss.” He saw this as a new way for a wine company, especially a family wine company, to go on television and tell people about who the business is as a family, as a company and how it produces its products. The blogosphere gave generally rave review about Tigner’s TV appearance.

“The one thing that we’re always very, very focused on is quality,” he says. “We want to make sure that consumers know that whether it’s the Kendall-Jackson brand or the La Crema brand, quality is one of the foundations of our organization.”

To tell its consumers about its products, Jackson Family Wines is putting more focus on social media. The company recently hired a digital marketing team to make sure it has a presence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

“A lot of companies have pretty pictures,” Tigner says. “What we actually want is engaging content … versus the standard picture of a bottle in a Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast magazine.”

Being involved in social media is becoming increasingly important, but it isn’t enough to just have a Facebook page; you have to engage with your fans and potential customers.

“If you look at Facebook, a lot of brands have Facebook, but the question is do you listen to the people who are on your Facebook page?” he says. “Do you react to how they talk about you on Facebook? We listen, and we learn from that activity. These are our friends and family who actually went online and signed up on our Facebook page, because they’re looking for interaction.”

Tigner says this interaction can’t be boring or constantly the same old thing. You have to be looking for ways to keep your audience involved and engaged.

“The key for us in regard to capturing our consumer is actually listening to them,” he says. “We create content that they want to see on video or in photos. We’ve done a lot of recipes. A lot of people want to talk about food and wine pairings. We have spent hours and hours and hours putting together a recipe program for our website.”

Jackson Family Wines has a lot of pages on its website and on its social media because even if a consumer doesn’t go to them all, those pages are there and available to them. The same thing goes for YouTube.

“If you go to YouTube and capture that consumer and they see a training video or a wine education video or a food-and-wine program, the next time they go look at your YouTube, you better have new content,” he says. “It has to be ongoing engagement, intriguing and informative. If you don’t have that, then you’ll lose your consumer. Those are things we’ve done to continually engage the consumer.”

What this kind of engagement helps Jackson Family Wines do more than anything is reach a more diverse audience. Many of the company’s consumers are baby boomers and social media is helping the brand reach the younger generations.

“We want to keep the baby boomers like myself who’ve been drinking our brands for a long time,” Tigner says. “But we want to capture the millennials. Who is that 25- to 35-year-old out there who has disposable income to buy premium wine? We have to give them the messaging and the content.

“We’re going out and making it new and fresh for them so it’s not just their mom and dad’s favorite chardonnay, but it becomes their favorite chardonnay and then their favorite cabernet or pinot noir.”

Educate about your product

The wine industry can be very complex due to the sheer number of wine styles, brands and varietals that make each bottle different. For Jackson Family Wines, it is crucial that its staff and its business partners are knowledgeable about the company’s products.

“In our company, we have 1,200 employees,” Tigner says. “In our sales team, there are about 400. I would argue we have the best sales team in the world and the best fine wine team.”

Tigner makes this argument because the company has four master sommeliers on staff and nine more in training out of a total of 180 in the U.S., who help to educate the sales team.

“They educate our sales teams, our distributors and our internal staff,” Tigner says. “We want to make sure everyone who works for our company, whether in IT, marketing or finance, has knowledge about wine and a passion about wine.”

Transferring that knowledge outside of the company is the hard part. Jackson Family Wines has to work with its distributors, trade partners and, more recently, directly with consumers to educate them on the products.

“In this business, 20 years ago, manufacturers or wineries like us spent all our time selling our wine to distributors and educating our distributors who then sold to retail stores who then sold to consumers,” he says. “About 15 years ago, that was still important, but the next piece was actually us communicating with our trade partners.

“In the last five years, all that is still important, but now we’re talking directly to our consumer, whether it’s online, in our tasting rooms or our wine club program.”

One of the biggest things related to education that Tigner has to keep aligned is the messaging Jackson Family Wines spreads both internally and externally.

“We broke down our strategic initiatives into three simple buckets,” he says. “You want to keep it simple so everyone knows what the plan is. Our strategy is lands, brands and people. So that when people want to know what are we working on, you can break it down to land, brands and people, and then we have the initiatives below that.”

To aid in keeping this message aligned and helping to push the company forward, Tigner has implemented management meetings.

“In the last three years since I’ve been put in charge, I’ve had more senior management team meetings,” he says. “We really didn’t have those before.

“Every quarter, we bring in the top 50 managers of the company plus outside guests and visitors and we talk about lands, brands and people. We talk about the strategic initiatives. I want to make sure everything we put in place at the beginning of the process is still being worked on.”

While his management meetings are a new tradition, there are some things that Tigner wants to maintain, like the company’s culture.

“When I first took over being the president, we had a great training program, recruiting program and succession program,” he says. “I want to make sure we have that exact same culture. Culture doesn’t show up on a P&L, but culture is very, very important to the company.”

The culture is something Tigner wants to be identical whether it’s the IT, finance, marketing or production departments.

“I want to make sure all our employees are treated similar and fair throughout the entire organization,” he says. “I take it upon myself on a regular basis to check in with middle management, lower management, field workers and sales workers because I want to make sure everyone has the right communication and we’re all on the same page.

“I spend most of my time making sure the messaging of the organization runs wide and deep.”

Just like a generous pour of chardonnay. ●

How to reach: Jackson Family Wines, (707) 544-4000 or www.kj.com

Takeaways

Connect with your consumers using new channels of communication.

Keep your content engaging and new.

Educate internally and externally about your product or service.