G.A. Taylor Fernley: How to be the leader people want to follow

G.A. Taylor Fernley

G.A. Taylor Fernley, president and CEO, Fernley & Fernley

No one said it was going to be easy. Managing others is, in fact, a very difficult process, especially when stress levels are high and you have 37 other urgent tasks to complete that day. No matter the scenario, being a great leader means being a great manager and that takes considerable time, forethought and dedication. Let’s also remind ourselves again that our associates are “the most valuable unlisted asset on our balance sheet.”

Here are a few little known factoids:

■ 71 percent of all workers feel stressed.

■ 40 percent of adults get less than seven hours of sleep during the weekdays.

■ 34 percent of lunches are eaten on the run.

■ The average person receives 156 emails per day.

Despite these statistics, the bottom line is that you can get more than these 37 tasks completed and still lead your team to success if you know how to manage them effectively.

The key is finding the time — and the discipline. Time is something we can never get back and is more important than money itself. Here are 10 steps to becoming the leader your associates want to follow:

1. Make the time.

Don’t use time as an excuse or a crutch. Prioritize your calendar to be in alignment with your goals and those of your company. Set two hours each week for strategically “managing” your schedule.

2. Provide direction.

Clearly articulate, in writing, tangible deliverables to your team, complete with timelines. Review those tangibles on a regular basis to hold your associates (and yourself) more accountable.

3. Run effective staff meetings.

Meetings are the bane of our existence — you can’t live with them; you can’t live without them. Keep them focused (one hour or less), keep them interactive and keep them content-rich.

4. Set stretch objectives.

Set high (yet reasonable) goals. Limit the number of homework assignments you assume during a meeting. Again, delegate to allow you, as the leader, to focus on high-level initiatives. By doing so, you will empower those around you.

5. Evaluate your style.

Is it effective? Leaders must create an environment of trust and transparency. And, most importantly, spend more time listening.

6. Inspect what you expect.

Never delegate without management control. Challenge your team with tasks, but circle back to ensure they are getting done.

7. Promote risk taking.

Nothing stifles creativity and growth more than “the traditional leader.” Give your associates permission to push the envelope and to do things differently than you do.

8. Get out of your comfort zone.

Surround yourself with people unlike you. And, with people who have the self-confidence to challenge traditional thinking.

9. Step away from your desk.

Limit the number of meetings in your office; make “house calls” and go to your associate’s office or even the conference room. It will foster open and positive communication.

10. Do what you say you will do.

“Walk the talk” is vital to obtain and retain the trust and respect of your colleagues. You have enormous influence, and it is pivotal to understand this enormous influence you have on people. It all starts with trust and respect.

Managing a team is challenging, but it’s profoundly rewarding if done right. When you find the time to focus on your associates, remember:

■ Engaged employees are 3½ times more likely to stay with your company.

■ Empowered employees are more productive, creative and resourceful.

■ The more you trust your team to do great work, the less stress for everyone.

■ The higher the morale, the more fun for everyone.

Once you’ve developed an empowered team you can trust, you will be well on your way to being that leader they will follow.

G. A. Taylor Fernley is president and CEO of Fernley & Fernley, an association management company providing professional management services to non-profit organizations since 1886. He can be reached at [email protected], or for more information, visit www.fernley.com.

Joe Takash: A plea from your audience to think before you get up and speak again

Joe Takash, president, Victory Consulting

Joe Takash, president, Victory Consulting

Dear CEOs, managers, sales presenters and meeting facilitators:

My name is Y.A., (short for Your Audience). You may think you know me well, but you probably would be surprised at how little you do. See, all those things you do incorrectly when you make a presentation or run a meeting are not fair to me. Yet, I’ve come to realize that while you’re not being fair to me, I’m not being fair to you either. I mean, how would you know where you could do better unless I tell you?

The things that make me pay attention, influence my decisions and help me perform more effectively are what can make you successful when you speak, but you’ve got to inspire me to stick around to listen to you. So, it’s time to give you the gift (seven gifts actually) that will help you become a much more successful presenter. After all you’ve put me through, it’s the least I can do. So here you go:

■ Identify who you are and why you are here so I’m not asking myself these questions while you are moving on to the next point. Create alignment right from the start so we’re on the same page.

■ Explain up front what you hope to accomplish in two to four points because if you think I want to listen to pointless rambling tangents, I will fall asleep with my eyes open right in front of you. Keep it simple and none of us will be stupid.

■ Look at me when you talk because when I feel included and valued, I’m less likely to drift off and more likely to want to listen. Comfortably move your eyes and body throughout your presentation and I will stay engaged.

■ Explain how I benefit because I want to know “what’s in it for me?” Like you, I operate out of self-interest first. Even if there’s not a direct return on listening to you, at least let me know how I play a role in the topic you address.

■ Speak with genuine passion because falling asleep in my drool is not fun for me and certainly doesn’t build you a group of loyal followers. By speaking loudly and with enthusiasm, you become contagious, and I want to hang around and listen to what you to say.

■ Remind me what I should be doing before you leave because I’m more likely to retain your message. Even better, if you can provide action steps for me to put into practice, your message might stick around and make our organization a better place to be.

■ Be confident when you speak. If you want me to believe in you, you must believe in yourself. The biggest heckler in the room is not me; it’s you. Own your value and think positively even before you walk in the room to greet me.

I certainly hope you consider these suggestions because I want nothing more than for you to succeed when you present to me. If you do, it’s a win-win for everyone involved.

Good luck!

Your Audience


Joe Takash is the president of Victory Consulting, a Chicago-based executive and organizational development firm. He advises clients on leadership strategies and has helped executives prepare for $3 billion worth of sales presentations. He is a keynote speaker for executive retreats, sales meetings and management conferences and has appeared in numerous media outlets. Learn more at www.victoryconsulting.com.

Andy Kanefield: Why you can’t ignore social needs in the workplace

Andy Kanefield, founder, Dialect Inc.

Andy Kanefield, founder, Dialect Inc.

When significant change is on the horizon for your business, it is important to recognize how people react to the unknown.

In an article by David Rock, the co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, two broad themes are discussed.

The first is that each of us is driven by an “overarching organizing principle of minimizing threat and maximizing reward.” Those immersed in the drama of an acquisition are biologically driven to wondering and worrying about what will happen to the existing social order.

The second theme is that there are parallels between the way we respond to how well our social needs are met and how we respond to the meeting of our physical needs. He cites a study indicating that it hurts just as a much to be left out as it does to experience a hammer meeting our thumb.

Rock proposes a model, SCARF, which includes these two themes as a way to help us navigate what can trigger reward or threat behaviors in social situations. The model, in short, is as follows:

Status – This refers to how important we are or perceive we are within a particular group. When a company is acquired, employees may believe they will be viewed as lower on the totem pole than employees within the acquiring company.

What can you do?

Promote a culture of respect in which everyone’s opinion is valued in ways appropriate for their areas of expertise. When discrete events occur (e.g., promotions, acquisitions, etc.), be proactive in communicating how and why personnel decisions have been or will be made.

Certainty – Certainty refers to the need our brain has to respond to recognizable patterns. When we can’t, error messages akin to a “flashing printer icon” go on.

What can you do? Be clear. Be as specific as possible. For big projects, break them down into specific steps. In individual interactions, remember that the level of clarity necessary will be different for each person. When details are pending, promise that more details will follow, communicate a timeline for the additional information and deliver on that promise.

Autonomy – The third point refers to how much choice and control we perceive we have over our lives. As a leader, do you find yourself telling others what to do in their area of expertise? If so, you may be restricting their autonomy.

What can you do? Don’t micromanage. Enough said?

Relatedness – This refers to whether or not someone is “in” or “out” of your group. We’re all familiar with the student who doesn’t have an “in” group and sits by himself at lunch. His brain is firing the message that he’s on the outside looking in.

One way to promote relatedness is to encourage affinity groups. These could be either related or unrelated to workplace initiatives. Be a role model. Make an effort to relate to people that may be on the outside looking in.

Fairness – The fifth and final point refers to the belief that others aren’t being treated preferentially. Think executive elevators, executive washrooms, etc.

What can you do? Be clear about your reasons for decisions you make and changes that must be made. Be clear about the “why” and “how” of your decisions. There should be no hint that you’re trying to hide an unfair process by not being transparent about your reasons.

Andy Kanefield is the founder of Dialect, Inc. and co-author of “Uncommon Sense:  One CEO’s Tale of Getting in Sync.” Dialect helps organizations improve alignment and translation of organizational identity. To explore how to promote organizational sync by minimizing threat responses, you may reach Andy Kanefield at (314) 863-4400 or [email protected]

David McKinnon: Why great ideas mean nothing without effective communication

David McKinnon

David McKinnon, co-founder and chairman, Service Brands International

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

Call to action

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

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

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

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

Natasha Ashton on the art of managing workplace noise

Natasha Ashton

Natasha Ashton, co-CEO, Petplan

No matter what size your business, your employees probably rub elbows a bit in their workspace. It’s both a fact of life and of space limitations. If you create the right company culture, they’ll become more like a functioning family than a bunch of bickering siblings.

But even the most collaborative colleagues will wrestle with pet peeves from time to time. Whether it’s impromptu office social hours that are too close for comfort or phone chatter happening at a few decibels too many, noise pollution tops the list of many workers’ gripes about their neighbors.

At Petplan, we’ve tackled this topic head-on, as our employees share an open workspace that encompasses a call center, claims adjusters, a marketing and creative team, a sales force and managers alike (not to mention our four-legged office mates).

With so many people working for so many different facets of the business, it takes a delicate balance of tolerance and consideration to keep varying noise preferences in check. Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned — loud and clear — about sounding off at work.

If you love them, set them free

Setting up your staff so everyone has the option to “go mobile” will help ease tensions when exuberance reaches intolerable proportions for quieter folks. At Petplan, all of our employees have a laptop they can take to less high-traffic areas, such as meeting and conference rooms, if they need some serenity during the day.

Carving out a few quiet places within the workspace gives your employees the option to retreat when they need to nix the noise and get down to business.

Open Pandora’s Box

Streaming music or white noise can greatly reduce the stress of a noisy co-worker and help increase focus and concentration, so we’ve adopted a permissive policy regarding headphone use by employees.

Drowning out the distraction is sometimes enough to manage the situation and keep frustrations in check, and studies have shown that music in the workplace can actually boost motivation and increase productivity. If bandwidth is an issue and you need to block Pandora or other music-streaming sites, radios (with a headphone jack), iPods and CDs can still do the trick.

Communication is key

Create opportunities for regular social interaction among your employees, across all departments. At Petplan, we host a handful of employee outings throughout the year, but we also encourage everyday mingling, with perks like picnic lunches and Friday cupcakes.

Fostering friendships — or at least friendly acquaintance-ships — can help workers manage differing noise preferences themselves. After all, it’s much easier to ask someone you’re friendly with to keep it down than someone you don’t know well.

Practice strategic eavesdropping

At Petplan, being able to hear everything has at times been beneficial. Our marketing department overhears our sales force answering common questions, which has helped shape some of our prospect communications. Our claims manager can hear our “happiness managers” servicing policyholders with pending claims, which has given her better insight into the customer experience.

Never underestimate the power of strategic eavesdropping — mining the melee for useful information can often turn up gold.

As the saying goes, you can’t please all the people all the time, so no matter how you try to accommodate your employees, there are bound to be issues around noise levels in every office. Acknowledging and making allowances for varying preferences can help solve some of the discord, but if all else fails, consider adopting an officewide noise management policy.

As part of an overall approach to providing a positive working environment, an official policy can help make sure everyone’s noise concerns are — ahem — heard.

Natasha Ashton is the co-CEO and co-founder of Petplan pet insurance and its quarterly glossy pet health magazine, Fetch! — both headquartered in Philadelphia. Originally from the U.K., she holds an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business. She can be reached at [email protected]

How Andy Farbman plots his next moves at the Farbman Group

Andy Farbman

Andy Farbman, president and CEO, Farbman Group

Andy Farbman doesn’t want to fix everyone’s problems.

The president and CEO of Farbman Group knows his business — and any business with designs on growing — can’t try to be all things to all potential customers. It’s a recipe for strained resources, exhausted employees and ultimate failure.

So Farbman has led his real estate management firm with an eye toward smart, selective growth that emphasizes areas in which his firm has traditionally excelled.

“No matter what you’re trying to accomplish, you’re always looking to go downwind or down river,” Farbman says. “You are not trying to fight the current. You are trying to find a path of smooth sailing or places where you can leverage your natural inertia and not have to fight what is going on around you.”

In particular, Farbman focused his company — which generated $200 million in revenue from property rentals in 2011 — on receivership work for banks and real estate in the health care field.

“Those are the areas where we really tried to shift a lot of our focus during the recession,” Farbman says. “We have always been very well skilled in and out of the court system in the state of Michigan, and we are now in 11 states as a receiver.

“The other niche in Michigan has come about through its aging population and really strong hospitals. We have developed our presence in the [health care] industry over the last four years, to the point that we are now working with five of the 10 largest hospitals, focusing on their real estate needs outside of the hospital campus — areas such as office buildings and ambulatory services.”

Planning ahead for effective growth requires you to have an accurate read on the markets you serve and an accurate view of the strengths and weaknesses within your business. It also requires you to motivate your workforce, rallying your people around a common mission and a common set of goals that will allow your company to achieve that mission.

Identify your strengths

Over the course of the past five years, a large number of commercial real estate firms have purchased apartment properties. Due to several factors, residential space made for an easier investment, and easier return on investment, than commercial space.

“The adequacy of capital was more significant, and it was an easier industry to be invested in,” Farbman says. “As a result, a lot of firms have gotten into the apartment business over the past few years.”

But Farbman declined to place a large amount of resources into purchasing and managing residential properties. Despite the lucrative potential in an industry still trying to crawl out of the real estate market crash of 2008 and ’09, Farbman felt it wasn’t the right fit for his company.

“What we have done, really over the last 12 or 13 years, is remove that skill set,” he says. “We did not believe we were the best in the world at managing those types of properties, so we didn’t focus our efforts there.”

If Farbman does not believe a particular business opportunity will play to the strengths of his business, he does not pursue it. Even if you see money practically growing on trees for other businesses in a given space, you won’t achieve the same outcome if you can’t commit the right resources to your own venture into the space.

Farbman says you should readily recognize the strengths of your business. You can always try to find new ways to leverage those strengths, but you should never abandon those areas of strength and abruptly turn in another direction.

“I think your strengths pop out,” Farbman says. “You can study trends and figure out trends and try to adapt the resources you have to follow those trends, but organizations — and particularly organizations that have been around for 35 years, like ours — have a natural skill set. It maybe isn’t as obvious as a left-handed pitcher, where a kid just naturally picks up a ball and starts to throw left handed, but it is still pretty obvious. It shows itself.”

Remaining true to your strengths means remaining disciplined about what business you accept. Apartment properties don’t represent the only area where Farbman’s firm has turned down business. Every week, and sometimes every day, Farbman and his executive team are confronted by tempting, yet difficult, decisions regarding whether to take on a new business opportunity.

“There isn’t a day that goes by where we don’t turn down business,” he says. “We want to do a great job for our clients, but we don’t believe we are one-size-fits-all. We have been asked to expand some of our businesses into other marketplaces, and that might be an area where we have reached out for a bit of help.

“A client might want us to be a street broker or a property manager in a city where we don’t have a lot of history. In those cases, if we take the business, we’ve had to find a partner who knows the market and the lay of the land better than we do.”

But in order to steer clear of areas that might not play to your strengths, you first have to know your organization’s strengths. That requires you to evaluate your organization and develop an extensive understanding of what resources you can employ and what skill sets and areas of expertise your people possess.

“You have to look within your organization and see the assets that you have,” Farbman says. “You have to evaluate what your assets are. In our organization, our two primary assets are capital and brainpower. Whenever you are dealing with a distressed asset or a troubled asset, you are trying to find a kind of special sauce for operating it, something that might lead to more revenue or decreased expenses. Once you figure out that special sauce and are trying to sell it, it’s something that becomes natural and obvious because it is already being implemented.”

Farbman’s philosophy centers on a desire to utilize the resources already in-house before looking outside the firm to add more firepower. It’s an approach aimed at creating efficiency and minimizing waste. Acquiring new resources — be it more people, more capital, more infrastructure or anything else — requires the use of resources in and of itself.

“We spend a lot more time figuring out ways to utilize the resources that we have instead of looking outside to bring in more resources,” Farbman says. “The biggest internal struggle today is probably that the profitability and longevity of organizations often aren’t aligned. I’d say every CEO has to focus on the long term in addition to the short term, and how to keep their P&Ls in order.”

Lead your people

Farbman’s focus on his firm’s areas of strength would never yield results if the approximately 200 employees at the Farbman Group weren’t aligned on a common set of goals aimed at leveraging those strengths. Farbman routinely engages his team and reinforces the goals and mission of the organization so that when they interact with customers or think of new ideas, it’s all with the end goal of enhancing the Farbman Group’s position in the marketplace as much as possible.

“I would definitely say that is part of our special sauce as a firm,” Farbman says. “We have an internal committee that meets once a month.

“It is a place for anyone in the organization to step up and propose new ideas for how we can either run the business better, because we might have a skill set that we might not be utilizing, or it might be as simple as the way we are recycling paper. There might be a better solution, no matter what the question is.”

Farbman and his executive team reward employees who create ideas that are ultimately implemented by the firm. It is a simple step that has been taken by many CEOs over the years but a necessary one if you are to reinforce your messages to your employees.

“It’s a monthly competition, and we give rewards to people who create opportunities for the organization or just make us a better place to work. In some cases, we might reward financially based on the savings that take place.

“But it’s important for us to take these ideas that start on the ground level and hold them up for the rest of the organization to see. When you manage 28 million square feet of property, you have all of these employees doing these different things day to day, and there are amazing things that are found at smaller properties, which you can end up implementing at bigger properties.”

Farbman says you can never underestimate the impact of giving employees a voice within your company. You can set goals and fashion a mission statement, but if you give your people the means to discover new and better ways to realize those goals and achieve the mission, they’ll develop a sense of ownership in what you’re trying to accomplish.

“It’s an approach that empowers your people,” Farbman says. “One of the ideas that came out of our committee forums was a flexible work schedule. We have a lot of single parents who work in our accounting division, and our accounting division isn’t necessarily an area where our people need to interface with a bunch of other employees. They don’t need to keep consistent hours. A 10-hour, four-day-a-week workweek is quite advantageous to some people.

“So there are intangibles that might not pop out the same way that a money-based reward or a promotion might, but it is more focused on lifestyle. In all cases, it helps keep people engaged in what you’re doing, and it can help reduce turnover in certain areas.”

If you engage your workforce in helping to construct the policies and procedures that will help you achieve your goals and mission, it also paves the way for effective delegation of responsibilities. Engaged employees are more willing and able to take on new responsibilities and own them.

“My executive team does a really good job of empowering people throughout the organization,” Farbman says. “We want to give our people every opportunity to make their own decisions. It’s something that really has to happen by example. You can’t Monday-morning quarterback your folks in the decisions they make. You might evaluate the decisions and why they made them, but you don’t cut off their knees. If they made a commitment, we live up to that commitment as well.”

Ultimately, if you are empowering people to take on new tasks and entrusting them with an increased level of responsibility, you want them to make decisions. It might be a right decision or a wrong decision, but regardless, making no decision is worse than making a wrong decision.

“You can’t be afraid to make mistakes, because if you don’t make decisions, you’ll stagnate as an organization,” Farbman says. “With my little kids, I play a game called ‘this or that.’ It’s a game where you are forced to make a decision and not push it off until tomorrow.

“I used to be an athlete, and most of the great leaders in my life have been some kind of coach. So I strongly subscribe to the idea that if you’re running the football, you better hit the hole as hard and as fast as you can. Even if you take the wrong route or hit the wrong hole, it still gives you the best chance to succeed. You have your moral compass and your gut to follow, and I believe that your gut, for the most part, leads you in the right direction.” <<

How to reach: Farbman Group, (248) 353-0500 or


The Farbman file

Born: Royal Oak, Mich.

Education: I have two degrees from the University of Michigan, in social science and economics. I’m halfway through my MBA at U of M, and probably will be for the rest of my life.

First job: I had a bagel and newspaper route when I was 12 years old and my brother was 15. We sold warm bagels with cream cheese and The New York Times door-to-door on Sunday mornings. Even though it was a starch-oriented business, it was very fruitful for us.

What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?

If you buy it, you own it. Properties have many little intricacies that go into running them, whether it is utilities, cleaning or tenants that might be disgruntled. When you buy a property, you commit to managing all of that. It goes back to the fact that we turn down business every day. Because it’s not enough to just get a good deal. You have to be committed to everything that comes with it.

What traits or skills are essential for a leader?

You have to be confident in yourself. When you go to sleep at night, you have to be confident in the decisions you made during the day, because people have to know that you believe in the decisions you have made. But along with that, you can’t take yourself too seriously. Here, we have pingpong tables next to the offices, and there is always a football being thrown around somewhere in the building. So we try to remain playful and have a good time. It keeps the juices flowing.

What is your definition of success?

The ability to balance business and life. One of my biggest commitments I have made is that I will be home to tuck my kids into bed, and I can miss their bedtime for a maximum of 10 days a year.

How two friends turned their love of transportation into a successful business enterprise

Artur Wagrodzki, president, Artur Express Inc.

Tomasz Tokarczyk, president, Artur Express Inc.

Artur Wagrodzki and Tomasz Tokarczyk were surprised at what they found upon arriving in the United States from their native Poland. They were just teenagers, but they still had an image of what America was like, and Brooklyn wasn’t really matching up with what they had envisioned it to be.

“I thought it was going to be palm trees everywhere,” Tokarczyk says. “In Brooklyn, you have concrete going all over. That was my first impression.”

The childhood friends and future presidents of Artur Express Inc. grew up as neighbors and eventually went to work for a limousine company in the New York City borough. It was there that they found their love for the transportation industry.

“It was a black car service and they took bankers and people like that around the city,” Wagrodzki says. “We worked in different departments, but we basically were dispatching drivers, picking up phone calls and doing customer service. In some respects, it was a little bit similar to what we do now. We just move freight instead of people.”

The numbers show Artur Express Inc. does a very good job moving that freight. The transportation and logistics company was founded in 1998 and grew to $28.1 million in 2008 revenue. Revenue reached $54.9 million in 2011.

“When we started this business, we were really young,” says Tokarczyk, who serves as president along with Wagrodzki of the 50-employee company. “So maybe that gave us a big advantage. We took it upon ourselves to build the business, and we just did what we felt was right. We ran with it and did everything in our power to make it work and help the company grow.”

The business partners have led with a mix of instinct and collaboration. They don’t worry so much about what the leadership textbooks say you’re supposed to do. But they understand the importance of building a strong culture where employees are committed to doing their job to the best of their ability in order to satisfy the customer.

“A lot of the loads that we haul are for very important customers and it’s very time-sensitive,” Wagrodzki says. “You can give a driver the wrong ZIP code and he’s going to end up in a different state. It’s that crucial. So we need very accurate data and we need everybody to do their job.”

Here’s a look at how Wagrodzki and Tokarczyk work together to lead Artur Express and make sure their employees know exactly what needs to be done to keep the company on top of its game.

Share your responsibilities

One of the biggest changes at Artur Express in recent years has been the influx of technology into every aspect of the company’s business. Whether it’s tracking loads or the drivers who deliver them, technology has led to a different way of doing things in the company and throughout the entire transportation industry.

“The main key for our operation is to develop and use all the different technology that is out there to be able to perform and control the different problems that we have and give that information to the customer,” Wagrodzki says.

Everybody can benefit from technology, of course, but you’ve got to know how it can help you. To just implement something because everybody else is doing it or because it’s shiny and new is asking for trouble.

Wagrodzki says they are careful to incorporate technology that helps them and helps their customers. They have the advantage of having been with the company since the beginning.

“We’ve worked hands-on in the business from day one and we know the ins and outs of it,” Wagrodzki says. “We know exactly what we do on paper and then we just convert all those different ideas to our computer system. It’s not just bells and whistles. It’s something we can really use.”

That conversion process is handled by an IT department that is usually pretty tuned into what Wagrodzki and Tokarczyk are looking for. That type of connection is obviously important.

“All they need is an idea of what we want,” Wagrodzki says. “It takes a while to put it together, but once it’s in place, it becomes a very easy process that you can access any time, which helps gets us get the information to the people it needs to go to.”

It’s those connections that you have with your IT team and with your employees that make or break the integration of things such as technological tools to help you track volume and the status of deliveries.

If you’re not speaking the same language, you’re not going to get what you want or what your company needs.

So Wagrodzki and Tokarczyk make sure they are accessible.

“Employees know if they have an idea, they don’t have to put it out to us or management in some fancy form,” Tokarczyk says. “They can just shoot us a quick email and we react instantly. Every idea they send to us, we try to make it better. Some of the good things we’ve done, that’s how they have been developed.”

It’s that partnership that makes the difference between a business that can grow and one that is limited by the capacity of the entrepreneur. Wagrodzki says he and his partner knew enough to hand off some of their work as they grew to allow the company to gain more customers and take on more work.

“When we started the company, we did it all from accounting to billing to dispatching,” Wagrodzki says. “You name it, we did it. It’s helping us now to be able to meet up with the managers, meet up with the staff and give good pointers on how we used to do it. Maybe it was on a smaller scale, but the factors are still the same.

“If you have 50 trucks or 500 trucks, you have to apply those same rules. We try to treat our employees and our independent contractors on a very personal level. That definitely helps.”

Keep looking for talent

Hiring is always a challenge for any business because you just never know exactly what you’re going to get, Wagrodzki says.

“You’re going to take a gamble when you hire somebody,” Wagrodzki says. “They try to be perfect in the interview and you follow the rules and follow your steps of having them interview with multiple people. I would say 85 percent of the people we hire turn out pretty good.”

But it’s that other 15 percent that can cause a problem. It’s why Artur Express is always in recruiting mode to some degree. With the growth that the company has been experiencing, Tokarczyk says they can afford to bring in talent that has untapped potential.

“We try to find people who can grow with us and are motivated,” Tokarczyk says. “They do have management potential, but maybe that potential needs to be discovered a year or two years from now.”

If you’re looking for more experience in your new hires, it pays to keep tabs on others in your industry. In these difficult economic times, there are often companies that don’t make it or have to let people go whom they otherwise would prefer to keep.

“Sometimes we’re able to get those good people from different companies that were bought out or are no longer in business, “Tokarczyk says. “These people have been there for 15 or 20 years and they’re looking for another strong company where they can set their roots for a while. That’s how we were able to get a lot of the good people that we have.”

Whatever way you go, when you do bring someone in, give strong consideration to having more than one person interview the candidate if you don’t already do that. It will give you a variety of perspective that can help guide your decision.

“We try to have them interview with at least three or four different people,” Tokarczyk says. “This way, we have an idea where they would best fit in the company.”

One thing that Tokarczyk always asks candidates when he interviews them is why they like transportation.

“You can get all kinds of answers,” Tokarczyk says. “Sometimes, you get an answer like, ‘Hey, my father used to drive and he took me on a trip.’ Some of the customer service girls that we hire, those were the answers we got. So there’s always an aspect of transportation in our employees’ lives, one way or the other. That’s always good to hear. You have to be in it to love it.”

Manage your relationships

Artur Express relies on about 400 independent contractors to deliver freight for clients rather than its own employees.

“They are our partners in this business,” Wagrodzki says. “It’s a 50/50 responsibility. If they don’t make the delivery or if they don’t deliver on time, we’re not going to be able to use them again with this customer. They know it’s a one-time shot.”

One of the things Wagrodzki looks at to determine whether the company is doing well or trending in the wrong direction is the fleet of independent contractors.

“There are always guys who come and leave,” he says. “That’s normal. But once you see that nobody has left for a month or two, you can feel good that the company is doing well. We are providing the service that our customers need.

“You might have other times where something is not working and all of those independent contractors are leaving. Now there is something you need to react to.”

In an attempt to be proactive about relations with the contractors, Artur Express has created a team of people who check in regularly to address questions and concerns before they become a big problem.

“They are constantly on the phone with those contractors asking questions,” Wagrodzki says. “What are we doing wrong? What can we do better for you? That’s a key in this business. We match up contractors and customers, and we manage the process of them picking up the load on time and delivering it on time. Once we have those two parties happy, we’re happy.”

The recession has provided a bit of a challenge in this area as Artur Express has worked hard to help both parties understand what the other is dealing with.

“In some cases, customers don’t want to pay too much and drivers want a lot,” Wagrodzki says. “You have to talk to drivers. ‘Hey, this is the industry right now, this is the market.’ And if the market goes up, you have to go to customers and say, ‘We bid this business for the last two years, but we need an increase now.’ Most of the time they do understand because we move a lot of freight and we know from one customer to another there’s not that big of a difference.”

The key is approaching all relationships with a good attitude and not being afraid of a little conflict that is always going to come up from time to time.

“We never look for a perfect project or for a bulletproof opportunity,” Tokarczyk says. “We’re always looking to take some type of risk. But we’ve learned over the years that you can sit on the sidelines and play it safe or you can play the game. If you play it right, you usually end up on the good side.” <<

How to reach: Artur Express Inc., (800) 487-4339 or



The Tokarczyk and Wagrodzki Files

Tomasz Tokarczyk, president, Artur Express Inc.

Born: Kamienna Góra, Poland

Artur Wagrodzki, president, Artur Express Inc.

Born: Zielona Góra, Poland

Wagrodzki on managing through the recession: If we had to give customers little breaks on the business, we did it. We were able to convince our drivers that we will have the business, and it will be steady. We were lucky enough to make sure our business was diversified. We were working with retail, home goods and a lot of food companies.

Wagrodzki on word-of-mouth recruiting: We were able to hire more independent contractors because the contractors that we had, they talk a lot out on the road. Word-of-mouth is a big deal for transportation. The drivers drive and they talk and if you have good customers and you pay the drivers on time, they can’t ask for more. They just want to join your team and haul your freight.

Wagrodzki on bonuses: We have all different bonus programs set up for our employees and they are revenue-driven bonuses. Retention is a big factor in our business, so we have customized bonus programs for dispatchers and for load planners and all different types of tiers in our operation. Our employees feel that they own a piece of this company. If the company succeeds, we’re going to succeed as well.


Let your people help you run your business.

Don’t ever stop looking for talent.

Make managing relationships a constant priority.

How Neil and Gary Jaffe collaborate to solve problems and help Booksource serve its customers

Gary Jaffe, CEO, GL Group Inc.

Neil Jaffe, president, Booksource

Like any pair of siblings, Neil and Gary Jaffe each view the world very differently. While Gary is focused on people and the quality of dialogue he has with his leadership team at Booksource, Neil tends to look at things from a more strategic perspective.

“I think about the challenges we have faced as a company in the industry,” says Neil, president of Booksource. “A big one was our transition away from the bookstore market, which historically has been our largest revenue stream, and focusing on the school market.”

The brothers are looking to keep Booksource, which is owned by GL group Inc., in a position to drive maximum revenue. The move to the educational market is part of that, as is the integration of digital media and e-books.

Managing such a transition is not easy, and that’s where Gary’s biggest challenge comes in. When he took over as CEO at GL group a couple of years ago, it was important to him to have the right people in place to help him with the transition process. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

“They weren’t giving me any advice and guidance when it came to some of the decisions we had to make as a leadership group,” Gary says. “It was getting the proper feedback that I was looking for that those people weren’t giving me.”

As Gary viewed the situation, he was confident his leadership team knew what he wanted from them.

“We have a saying around here to give people explicit expectations,” Gary says. “Those people knew their role. They knew what we wanted. But for whatever reason, they just didn’t have the business acumen to give me the proper answers.”

Both Neil and Gary needed to find a way to solve their problems if Booksource was to perform to its full potential. The best course of action was to attack both problems and move ahead with a renewed sense of focus.

“If you have to do this and you have to do that and then you have to do this, why not just do it all at the same time?” Neil says. “People are going to be going through change. At the end of it, it’s all done.”

And so the brothers set out to make the changes they believed would put Booksource in a better position to grow.


Assess your team

Gary was very frustrated with his leadership team and the lack of feedback it provided. But despite that frustration, he still found himself questioning whether it was really a problem.

He got with his business coach and told her that one of his key people was doing his own job quite well. He just wasn’t offering much in the way of guidance to Gary.

“He’s just not giving me advice,” Gary says. “And she turned it around and said, ‘By all means, I feel like he is hurting you. You’re not able to get what you need from him, therefore he is hurting you.’ And I totally agreed with that. The person can be hurting you if they are not doing the extra that we are expecting them to do.”

Neil is quick to add that Gary is not lacking in the ability to do his job or make decisions on his own. Rather, it’s one of his strengths that he is eager to gather feedback and use that to make even better decisions.

“Gary always has a natural inclination to listen a lot,” Neil says. “Unfortunately, he wasn’t getting helpful answers. That’s where he recognized what needed to change. When he asked, he needed to get much better answers from people who were engaged or thoughtful or had different ways of thinking about things.”

Leadership is a very fluid process. If you’re not at least thinking about how you interact with your team, you’re not using that team to the best of your ability.

“You have to make changes with people who don’t listen enough or don’t lead from engagement among the staff,” Neil says. “You can either listen too much and not get the feedback and have a problem or you cannot listen enough and have great people giving you feedback, and you’re not moving things forward.”

In Gary’s case, it was the former and that needed to change. Once he made the decision that he had to replace some of his people, he had to determine what qualities and attributes the replacements would need to have.

“It’s the qualities that you are searching for that are most important,” Gary says. “Determine what those criteria are. That’s more important than having the person available that you’ve picked out.”

In other words, you can’t just pick a person who is different than the one you’re trying to replace. You’ve got to take time to know what qualities you are looking for and then go out and find that person.

“You’ve got to listen, you have to have this person meet other people and you have to get other people’s feedback and opinions to see if it’s really the right fit,” Neil says. “Get a lot of feedback from a lot of different people. Make sure you look at the criteria and go off the job description. Do all the things you would normally do when hiring.”

As he proceeded with his changes and found people who had the qualities he was looking for, Gary learned that he wasn’t the only one who had noticed a problem on the leadership team.

“One of the guys after he was terminated, one of the guys who worked on his team came up to me and said, ‘I knew it was only a matter of time. I’ve worked with you for 15 years, and I know you can only take so much,’” Gary says.

It’s OK to try to help a person to try to get them to provide you with what you need. But trust your gut when you think you’ve gone far enough and reached a point where it’s not going to happen.

“For me, it’s always a matter of, ‘Have I done everything to get this person to understand what I’m looking for when it comes to giving me feedback?’” Gary says. “If my gut is saying, ‘I’m not going to get them to understand,’ it’s time to make the change.”


Engage your team

As the personnel issue was being addressed, both Gary and Neil were assessing Booksource’s strategic direction. It was key that everyone be part of the changes that were occurring and be kept apprised of what was happening.

“If you’re strategically focusing on the right stuff, it’s going to make the staff better too because they will have less to worry about,” Neil says. “They are all focused and engaged and passionate about the right thing that is leading to good rewards. A busy facility is an energetic place and it creates a morale boost, a staff boost, an engagement and they feed off of each other.”

Booksource had always been open with its financial data and numbers, but Neil wanted people to feel like they had a real part in affecting those numbers.

“The first step is to get people engaged,” Neil says. “If you have the potential to get a bonus, you’re going to work a little harder to make sure that we as a team achieve that goal. ‘If we achieve that goal, I might get a little more money.’ It teaches the staff that a big order is a good thing.”

Neil says there is a lesson to be learned for management when incentives are introduced into an organization.

“It teaches the owner that that bonus and that engagement and showing them the number and giving them a goal and a target is a very positive thing for the organization,” Neil says. “People will work harder and faster and you need less people, and it all builds on itself.

“There are dozens of other ways to open the books to give people an opportunity to see what’s happening and to participate. Start small with opening it and providing some kind of incentive to people and then you’ll see the benefit.”

You’ve got to follow up beyond introducing incentives and sharing information. If you just do it once and let it fade away, your people will lose a lot of faith in you as their leader. But if you steadfastly follow up and stick to it month after month, year after year, you’ll earn strong loyalty.

The key is setting expectations and then meeting them.

“I want to know what the end result that is my expectation is going to be and try to figure out how to get there,” Gary says. “What would it mean? What would it look like? We do a lot of follow up to see if the decision we made is right or wrong. If it is wrong, what do we need to do to go back and get it on track and get to that desired end result?”

Meetings are held with management, and then quarterly with employees to provide updates with how the company is faring in meeting its goals.

“They can look and ask questions and say, ‘Oh yeah, at the beginning of the year, you said you were going to do 40 brochures, three new catalogs and this, that and the other,’” Gary says. “They know what we said we were going to do. The staff has to OK the plan from the managers.”

Getting your team involved in what you’re doing can only help you as an organization.

“It all goes back to that involvement issue,” Gary says. “Listening and taking feedback. We don’t feel you can make a better company if it’s straight from the top down. We need it both ways.”

Transparency also puts pressure on you to really think about the decisions you’re making for your business.

“You’re showing yourself so if you’re not doing everything right, people might realize, ‘Oh my God, they’re going to see my weaknesses,’” Gary says. “We all know we have weaknesses. That’s why we need the support of others to figure out how we can get over those weaknesses.”

As Neil and Gary look at Booksource today, they see a company that is much more focused on and much more engaged in what needs to be done.

“We’re having one of our busiest months in the history of the company,” Neil says. “And we’re renovating the big break room that we have, so there are tables out in the warehouse and a refrigerator out there, but it’s all tremendously organized. People don’t complain about it, people don’t grumble about it. They just have a tremendous amount of engagement and it’s because of the changes we made.”

Gary says employees feel just as much a part of the success or failure of the business as management does and that’s a good thing.

“By understanding it and getting people involved in reporting those numbers, I’m not responsible for the budget,” Gary says. “We all are responsible for certain areas of the budget and people have to watch it. They are accountable for it.” <<


How to reach: Booksource, (314) 647-0600 or

The Jaffe Files


Gary Jaffe, CEO, GL group Inc.

Neil Jaffe, president, Booksource



Gary: St. Louis

Neil: St. Louis



Gary: Bachelor’s degree, human development and family life, University of Kansas.

Neil: Bachelor’s degree in marketing, University of Illinois; MBA, Washington University in St. Louis


What was your very first job?

Gary: Camp counselor. It was a sports camp. This was their summer, and I needed to make sure that they enjoyed it. If the activity wasn’t engaging, we’d change that activity to find something that was fun for these kids.

Neil: My first real job was a busboy at a hotel restaurant. It taught me that you have to wake up early and work hard.


Who has been the biggest influence on your life?

Gary: No. 1 is my dad. I’ve been around him so long and I’ve listened to these stories and he’s preached these things over and over again, and I’ve had 30 years of training from him. It all boils down to character. He’s shown the character that Neil and I have taken not only in our jobs, but in our family life as well.

Neil: It would definitely be my father, but I would also say my older brother, Gary. He has taught me a lot about life and leadership.


Who would you like to meet, or have met from the past?

Gary: We spend a lot of time at Disney World and it was in the ’60s when Walt Disney had the vision of a place where families can go. I’d love to see what his reaction would be today.

Neil: George Washington. I’m reading his biography now.




Know what you want from your leadership team.

Get your people involved in meeting company goals.

Be accountable to your employees.

How Lee Thomas is maintaining the Ernst & Young legacy in Northeast Ohio

Lee Thomas, Cleveland Office Managing Partner, Ernst & Young LLP

Lee Thomas looks out his 13th floor window of the Huntington Building on Euclid Ave. and East Ninth St. and imagines the view he will have when Ernst & Young’s Cleveland office relocates to its new building along the Cleveland Memorial Shoreway.

Thomas, who is a native Clevelander and a 36-year Ernst & Young veteran, became the Cleveland office managing partner this past January. Ernst & Young, a global, 152,000-employee accounting firm, is the only company he has ever worked for and the legacy the firm has built here in Northeast Ohio is something significant.

As the new managing partner, Thomas plans to keep that legacy going, and the firm’s new office location, which will bear the Ernst & Young name, is a symbol of continuing that legacy here in Cleveland.

“We have a very strong legacy here in Northeast Ohio because back when there was the Big 8, Ernst was the only Big 8 firm headquartered in Cleveland,” Thomas says. “Protecting that legacy and making sure that we continue to provide the right kind of services to the franchise that we have and keeping the brand are the important things that we need to do.”

While Thomas and the firm are excited for a new building in downtown, it’s the firm’s 1,100 employees in Cleveland who will drive that legacy forward among its clients.

Attract and retain talent

In the services industry in which Ernst & Young operates, it’s all about people. The firm’s employees develop many sought-after skills, so Thomas remains focused on recruiting and keeping great talent.

“Attracting and retaining people and helping them get through a changing environment to develop a nice, strong career that they want to be at is the challenge,” he says. “We look for people who have very good social skills, can problem solve and work with teams. It’s a demanding profession so you have to understand how to balance your time, too.”

Thomas is always on the lookout for those talented individuals who could possibly have his job one day.

“No matter who the employer is, we are all looking for certain talents who are going to be part of the succession plan of that business,” he says. “Not everyone needs to be that, but they’re looking for that kind of talent because you don’t find it every day.

“When you do get it, it makes a huge impact on your organization. You grow those people and give them the opportunities and watch them develop because they have the attitude and the skill set to take it to the next level.”

Finding the most talented people for your business is a tough task, but once you have them and they keep getting better at what they do, retaining them in your company is even more difficult.

“Those skills translate very well outside the public accounting arena, and that’s part of the problem we have with retention,” Thomas says. “We lose people because they’re really good, and it’s a great training ground. We want this to be more than just a great training ground though. We want to keep them here, too.”

Ernst & Young prides itself on a good educational program, flexible work schedules and a positive work environment.

“We’re in a rapidly changing environment and making sure we have our people at the top of their game where their specialty is … [and] help continue to build that skill set is important,” he says. “The educational element is very positive in retention.

“We also offer things like flexible work arrangements. We have a lot of people who want to have families, and one of the biggest struggles that the profession has is that it’s very demanding and you never know when the next call is going to be from a client where you have to go do something that’s not in your schedule.”

The firm allows people to have flexible work arrangements where they can work a 70 percent schedule for a couple of years. With today’s technology, it has become much easier for people to also work remotely.

“Flexibility is pretty big today,” he says. “We’re everywhere, and we have to be mobile because our business is conducted where our clients are. So giving your people the flexibility to do what they can do effectively and serve their customer, whether it be internal or external, is really important.”

Another aspect Thomas focuses on to retain his employees is making sure they are challenged and receive new opportunities.

“When we lose people, sometimes it’s because they didn’t get the challenges they wanted,” he says. “That’s the big thing is giving people great challenges and letting them have their chance to succeed. That builds a lot of loyalty within the organization if it’s a challenge that they liked and they achieved and they were successful at.”

Be client-centric

As important as your employees are to your business, without clients a company wouldn’t be able to support a workforce. Thomas makes sure the Cleveland office is always client-focused.

“The real key is having a good listening ear to what our clients’ needs are and what do we have that could help them achieve those needs,” he says. “You have to corral it around the things you can do.

“We can’t do everything, and we have to be one of the first ones to say, ‘We can’t help you there,’ but it would be nice if we could know somebody that can help them there. You have to satisfy your client and they have to know you care what their issues are and want to help them solve them.”

The way Ernst & Young does that is with good people. The firm works with its employees on listening, hearing and understanding what the clients’ issues are.

“If you don’t have those listening ears and don’t understand what you do as a business, that becomes another challenge,” Thomas says. “We do so many things; do our people totally understand all the different things we can do? That’s why we continue to educate our people on that and have our different service lines work with each other and meet with each other and understand them better.”

A critical part of understanding your clients is developing a close relationship so you each have knowledge of one another’s business.

“If you go to a client, you can’t just pop ideas onto them without first understanding what their issues or concerns are,” he says. “It doesn’t work. We have a bunch of products we can go and sell, but that’s not the way you develop a relationship and develop trust and confidence. You understand what their needs are and then you say, ‘How can we help them?’

“It’s making sure our people build relationships and build connections so that those people and our clients feel open with us to talk about what their problems and issues are.”

Thomas doesn’t expect his employees to have a solution for every problem or issue that arises, but he expects that they know how to go about finding the answer.

“They need to understand, ‘Ah, here’s the issue. Where can I go to in the firm with that issue and say how can we help?’” he says.

It has been this relationship mentality within the firm that has helped Ernst & Young grow in Northeast Ohio and become the dominant practice in the area.

“I know our people are proud of that,” Thomas says. “Every day, I get ready for the day at Ernst & Young and on my mind is making sure that our people are challenged and satisfied and that we have clients that are happy with what we do. It’s kind of a simple approach, but if we do that, we’re going to have a very successful firm.

“I always want to make sure that we’re maintaining the legacy that we have here. When I started in 1976 at the firm, I walked right into these offices, and it was Ernst & Ernst world headquarters, and I remember that and would hate to let that down.” <<

How to reach: Ernst & Young LLP, (216) 861-5000 or www.ey.com

How Michael Siegal has fostered an environment of sustainability and growth at Olympic Steel

Michael Siegal, Chairman and CEO, Olympic Steel Inc.

Michael Siegal isn’t someone who is satisfied by achieving one goal — no matter how lofty. When Olympic Steel Inc. passed $1 billion in sales (it reached $1.26 billion in 2011), the chairman and CEO of the national metals service center set his sights on growing the company into one capable of reaching $4 billion in sales. To achieve that growth, Siegal has implemented strategies focusing on an environment that fosters sustainability and growth, as well as one that attracts and maintains the right kind of people.

“The challenge of Olympic Steel always is we’ve never been where we’ve been before,” Siegal says. “To a certain degree, everybody expects you to continue to drive forward, but every time we drive forward, it’s into an area where we’ve never been. “Therefore, strategy and buy-in is very important. It’s a lot easier to go from $20 million to $50 million in sales, although it’s a doubling of your business, than it is to go from $1 billion to $4 billion, because you’re dealing with different implications and risks.”

Those implications and risks are why Siegal places the spotlight on Olympic’s environment and its employees in order to succeed. “It’s all about people,” Siegal says. “There’s no other challenge. Have you hired the right people? Do you have an environment that can foster growth and motivate and retain existing employees? You have to balance the expectation between employees who want a great career and customers who continually want lower pricing.”

Here’s how Michael Siegal is doubling Olympic Steel through strategy and fostering an environment that supports employees and company growth.

Put people first

To achieve the strategies that will get Olympic Steel moving toward $4 billion in sales, Siegal put his focus on his 1,750 employees. The work environment has to be one in which employees enjoy what they do and where they work.

“We do what we have to do to try to foster the environment where an employee can succeed,” Siegal says. “You set a certain level of value structure and you adhere to it. You want to be consistent, reliable and living up to the value system that you have in your organization.”

The key to creating a positive work environment is having an established value structure and being accountable toward those values.

“If you’re accountable and you hold your managers at the highest level to the consistent level of performing at those values, then ultimately you create an environment where people can at least respect the environment that they work in,” he says. “If you have the commitment of the ongoing education of the employee, the betterment of the employee, the safety of the employee and you have growth, there’s no reason for them to go someplace else other than the money.”

Olympic Steel operates in a commodity industry that is very volatile and unregulated. The same value structure that the company applies to its employees is crucial for customers as well.

“We try to create a value structure for our customers that imbeds us with them regardless of the volatility of the marketplace,” he says. “By adding that value to the commodity we find ourselves to be better positioned to have a level of competitiveness, as well as sustainability with the customer in spite of the volatility of what goes on in steel pricing.”

To overcome volatility in the market you have to look at the customer you serve and the industry you’re in. You have to look at long-term sustainability and growth for your company.

“There’s never standing still in the marketplace — there’s going forward or falling back,” Siegal says. “You control your own destiny to a certain degree by the decisions that you make. You have to understand all business takes risk. You have to define the aptitude for your risk company by company and individual by individual. Are you always swimming upstream, or sometimes are you going downstream? You really have to look at the environment that you’re in and then say, ‘How do I differentiate myself from the pack?’”

When looking to grow your organization, there are financial metrics that are acceptable. It’s the CEO who ultimately decides what levels they are willing to go to in order to create leverage for growth.

“Some people are never comfortable with that,” Siegal says. “Some people are so risky that they ignore the financial metrics and go beyond what is safe just to roll the dice. Within a certain structure of what your outlook is for the future, people expect those in my position to be conservatively aggressive.”

Achieving growth within your business is what ultimately helps to create an environment where employees are excited to come to work.

“You have to create growth because employees want personal growth in their career,” he says. “If you as the company are not growing, it’s going to be difficult to promote your young talent into areas where they see a future for themselves as opposed to having to leave to get ahead. So you have to create the environment of growth. You have to create the environment of promoting from within, not to say that you can’t hire from the outside, but do you really have the environment where people are excited to come to work because they see the company doing well and the opportunity for them to be of significance?”

Create a growth environment

Establishing an atmosphere where your employees are happy and supportive of the company and its direction comes back to core values and not being hypocritical about them.

“If I said I am supportive of employee’s educational growth, I can’t turn them down when they come and say, ‘I’d like to take these courses that will better myself in the job,’” Siegal says. “Even though the financial environment may be difficult, you still have to be committed to the employee. You have to be consistent. You can do it within a certain degree of discretion, but for those who have been identified as high-performers within your own organization, are you really investing in their future as much as they are investing in their job?”

The consistency of being able to listen, create the environment in which education is valued and execute on those structural elements to the betterment of the individuals in your company is crucial.

“You have to do what you say you’re going to do,” he says. “If you say it and don’t do it, it’s hypocritical, and people will see that and they’ll lose hope and that’s when they’ll answer all the head-hunter calls.”

Olympic makes sure it has ways for employees to express themselves by bringing up issues or submitting ideas. The company has luncheons for new employees and regular gatherings where they’re allowed to share ideas. Olympic encourages ideas and rewards ideas through its FE Award of Excellence program. The company gives employees opportunities to come up with ideas that will help streamline the business, increase safety, work smarter, save money and be collaborative.

“We recognize it with a certain degree of reward, documentation and financial remuneration,” he says. “Within the whole organization someone can be nominated, including self-nomination, for going over and beyond their every day job by devising better ideas. We do that both on the corporate level and a local level as well. Some things are not great for all of Olympic Steel, but it may be great for your individual unit.”

These kinds of initiatives are important because they demonstrate respect for the employees.

“The hardest thing in America today, it seems, is, ‘How do I earn and get respect?’” he says. “So within the construct of what we try to do is not disrespect anyone. Most people just want to be heard. You don’t have to agree, but you have to give them the opportunity to be listened to. “We have a very personal connection with our employees. People here understand that if they have something to say most of my management will listen.”

Olympic employees take full advantage of opportunities to submit an idea or bring up an issue. From little things such as, “How do I burn the material a little bit better, faster or quicker?” to keeping processes in-house that will save money, employees are willing to be vocal to support the company.

“If you foster the environment where your ideas are listened to and respected, more ideas come from that,” Siegal says. “It is creating the environment where people are not threatened, disrespected or embarrassed by the fact that they may have an idea which won’t be accepted. You can’t say, ‘That’s a terrible idea’ or humiliate them by saying, ‘That’s stupid.’ You have to be sensitive to the fact that when people come forward that you give them the appropriate time to listen to their ideas even if the idea isn’t a good idea, because you don’t know if you don’t listen.”

Strategize for growth

Putting people first and creating a solid environment within Olympic Steel has helped the company and Siegal in the effort to become a $4 billion business. Having that reinforcement helps the buy-in stage when implementing new growth strategies.

“As we make decisions in management, we have to have more buy-in today from a bigger group of people to execute on those strategies than we did when we were smaller,” Siegal says. “The challenge is how do you communicate effectively to a broader group of people who may not have the full picture at hand and then expect them to execute well. Communication becomes more of a challenge as you get bigger.”

When communicating a new strategy, it is important to inform employees of how that new strategy will impact them.

“You’re always trying to look at the other side of the equation when you’re executing a strategy,” he says. “It’s the person on the other side of the table saying, ‘What does this mean to me? Does that mean I’ve got to work harder? Does that mean I’m going to be traveling more? Does that mean I’m going to get more money or more work for the same amount of money?’ ‘What does this mean to me’ is always an indication of fear and resistance. So what we try to do is understand that we’re not going to get 2,000 people to buy in. We need 20 people to buy in and that cascades down to the rest.”

It is nearly impossible to get a unanimous decision surrounding a new strategy, but leadership is about somebody ultimately having the final say and the responsibility.

“You want people to understand why we’re going this direction and answering the question of what this means to you,” he says. “I can answer what it means to the organization, but if that doesn’t somehow correlate to how I think it benefits me, maybe I’ll say yes, but I don’t mean yes. So we are always very sensitive to creating strategies on the expectation that this will be better for everyone if we do it. To make sure that everybody is on board to those philosophies takes a much longer time of communication and education to the change of strategy.”

Gaining buy-in for a new direction is crucial. While you don’t need everyone on board, you want to have a large majority behind your new direction.

“You have to keep everything pretty rational,” he says. “We’re going to go from here if we do these things and here’s where we’re going to get to. If we get there, this is what it means and this is why it’s better. Now you may not believe we can go from here to there, but if we go from here to there, isn’t this truly better? By and large, it’s about the destination.”

Siegal compares strategy buy-in to getting on a bus. When you get on a bus, you’ve got to know where the bus is going to take you. You choose to get on the bus to go to the destination because you’ve got to get off the bus at a certain point. If you just get on a bus and you don’t know where it’s going to go, then you’re just riding around all day hoping that something happens.

“We’ve got to be very concise in terms of where the destination is,” he says. “If you tell people, ‘Here’s the destination. Forget the journey. Here’s our starting point and here’s the destination.’ There may be different tangential ways in which we can get to the ultimate destination, but if we all agree that this destination is a better spot, I don’t find that people say, ‘No, that destination is going to be worse than where we’re at or it’s going to be too risky.’ If you tell them the destination, they’ll get on the bus with you.”

When planning a strategy Olympic typically looks out five years. Siegal says there isn’t necessarily a time frame that’s too forward-looking, but there are things that are too risky in strategizing and having a goal is vital.

“You have to have targets and goals in business,” Siegal says. “There has to be a way in which you’re trying to create the future. The goal is important to articulate. There can be lots of tactics to get you to the goal, and tactics may differ by location, process and customer. The tactics aren’t universal, but the goal has got to be. If you don’t have that same goal, you’ll be driving around in a circle.”

Siegal’s goal to grow Olympic to $4 billion is part of his strategy to double the business and then double it again.

“Outside of natural growth, there is always this construct in the back of your mind that says, ‘Double and then double again,’” Siegal says. “So if you’re at $50 million, you want to get to $200 million. If you’re a $1 billion company, you could say, ‘Let’s go buy a $3 billion company.’ But you don’t have the skill set to run it. The question is how do you get from $1 [billion] to $2 and from $2 [billion] to $4.”

Almost every CEO who doubles the sales would want to keep that growth going and see how far it can be taken. You have to ride that momentum in order to double business again.

“It will take you a lot shorter time frame to get to the second billion in sales than it took you for the first billion in sales,” he says. “Once you’re there, you understand how to maintain that level of business. It’s not hard to see the doubling. It’s hard to see the doubling again.”

Within the construct of the leadership, you have to keep everybody realistic. It’s not sensible to have an objective of going from $1 billion to $4 billion without getting to $2 billion first.

“If you have the strategies to get to ($2 billion) and you actually execute on those strategies, it’s going to propel you way past ($2 billion), because it doesn’t stop,” Siegal says. “Those things that you will do strategically to double your business will continue to foster additional growth beyond that. I find that to be a useful way to create a certain degree of momentum for growth.”

Over the last three years since the recession, Olympic has deployed a significant amount of capital into the marketplace for growth. Now the company has to focus on the execution of the growth initiatives that it’s begun.

“We’ve deployed the biggest capital that we ever have in the last three years over any 10-year period, and we have to make sure that we make that stuff work,” Siegal says. “To a certain degree, it’s about succession management. Are we populating the next level of management capable of running the organization? Do we have the good strategy initiatives and the balance sheet and capital structure to do that? You have a lot of headwinds in terms of your plans, and what you have to do is make sure that your foundation is secure based upon the things that you’ve done.”

Ultimately, it’s really about performance.

“As people look at Olympic Steel over the next couple of years, I think you’ll see a company that has positioned itself for growth, and now we’ll be executing on the growth initiatives,” he says.

How to Reach: Olympic Steel Inc., (216) 292-3800 or www.olysteel.com


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