April issue has something for everyone

The 2018 Smart Women award winners were particularly impressive, and it’s nice to read some good news in the wake of the #MeToo movement. I was inspired — and a little envious — by the great things these 16 women, two men and two organizations are doing.

I also want to encourage our readers, both men and women, to attend the breakfast event on April 17. Not only will we recognize our winners, the panel discussion should be thought provoking.

This year’s theme is about what it means to be an authentic leader — someone dedicated to building and fostering a strong culture for women in the workplace. How do women in business get to a place where they are comfortable in their own skin, no matter what their industry or position? How can executives build a workplace culture that provides opportunities for everyone? How can you be a leader who is authentic, yet still culturally conscious?

One of the most inspiring leaders in this issue is Nancy Kramer.

I caught up with her to discuss what she’s been up to since selling Resource/Ammirati to IBM. She may no longer be the top decision-maker, but she’s gained new insights through different experiences. As part of IBM iX, she now has access to exciting new technologies like machine learning, quantum computing, artificial intelligence and blockchain.

Kramer also spoke specifically about two global studies by IBM, which may be useful for your business. One looks at the importance of brand belonging, and the other examines how established companies can digitally transform their organizations to stay competitive. You can find links to those in the story.

On the subject of transformation, exciting things are happening in Columbus’ restaurant scene. It’s not just a hub for restaurant corporations, so don’t miss the Uniquely, which explores some of the area’s strengths.

In addition to restaurants, Columbus has traditionally been a retail powerhouse. ELOQUII, featured on page 18, has a different take than most, as it’s an online retailer adding brick-and-mortar locations.

I also recently saw a statistical databyte by Thoughtwell (formerly Community Research Partners) on this very subject for the Columbus metro area. Check out “Brick & mortal retail: Are reports of its death exaggerated?”

Hard work + discipline = success

Last month, hundreds of area dealmakers — business owners, private equity investors, entrepreneurs and service providers — came together for Smart Business’ first ASPIRE conference in Pittsburgh. Experts talked about buying and selling businesses, raising capital, and liquidity events, including the trends they’re seeing in the market.

It was an educational and exciting day. However, if you missed the Pittsburgh event, don’t worry. We’ll be holding ASPIRE events in Cleveland in May and in Columbus in September, and I know some Pittsburgh attendees will be heading out to those, as well.

Merger and acquisition activity remains high, which is part of the reason why I asked John J. Engel, chairman, president and CEO of WESCO Distribution Inc., about his advice on the subject.

WESCO has completed more than 40 acquisitions since it spun out as a standalone company in 1994, and Engel says it’s an important topic for him and his team.

WESCO’s largest acquisition, EECOL Electric Corp., a Canadian company, was finalized in 2012 and cost more than $1 billion. WESCO, however, worked on its relationship with EECOL for well over five years before the deal.

In general, Engel says the majority of acquisitions never close because even if the deal makes sense strategically on paper, the cultural and integration aspects get in the way.

“I’ve seen other companies that don’t spend the time on that pre-acquisition close,” he says. “They worry about the financial model. They worry about the strategic rationale and all that stuff, how to finance it, but they don’t spend the time getting to know the talent and then figuring out exactly how will this talent integrate in. And will it even fit culturally?”

It takes a lot of hard work and discipline behind the scenes before an announcement is made.

One organization that isn’t afraid of hard work is Fort Ligonier, featured in the Uniquely. The fort is at the tail end of a renovation with new exhibits, more hours and an education center. Executive Director Annie Urban says the fort’s staff got it all started by putting together their ultimate wish list for what an optimal visitor experience would be like, and then stuck with it to make much of the list a reality.

Bring the walls down; bridge the divides

Nine years ago, when Creative Director David Brown founded the Harmony Project, his idea of Columbus was not very diverse — mostly white, affluent and educated. But that only scratches the surface.

Brown says diversity isn’t just about race or religion. It encompasses education, socioeconomics and life experiences. Harmony Project connects all types of people through the arts, education and volunteer community service.

“We have to figure out how to connect people across those divides. The divides are not going to go away. We’re not about trying to get people to vote the same way or even to agree on political hot button issues,” Brown says. “We’re about setting those to the side and saying, ‘A playground doesn’t care if you voted for him or her. A community garden doesn’t care if you believe in God or don’t believe in God. Meals that need to be served don’t care if you have a doctorate or if you didn’t graduate from high school.’”

If everyone rallies together, more gets done, and if you work with people who are different, your fears naturally decrease, he says.

Brown sees this, too, with the business leaders who are part of the organization.

When Harmony Project paints a community mural, he says a CEO of a major Fortune 500 company could be on one ladder, while the next ladder holds someone who just got out of prison. They have no idea who the other is, but they’re both there helping. And if they happen to have a conversation, it’s not forced or guided; it’s organic.

Developing a true community where everyone buys in — whether throughout the city or within your office — means getting out of your comfort zone.

“It’s important that you get out of your company. It’s important that you get out of your own neighborhood. It’s important that you get out of the schools that are familiar with you, and the communities that are familiar with you,” Brown says. “And it’s important that each organization and each company find ways for the mail clerks and the janitorial staff and the senior VPs to interact.”

Learn about M&A from the experts

Dealmakers who have experience with mergers and acquisitions typically enjoy the challenge. They’ve learned how to navigate the negotiating table, deal terms, integration and more, and are always looking for their next big deal.

Business owners and entrepreneurs, however, may only go through this process once or twice throughout their entire career.

That’s why it’s so interesting to peel back the curtain of M&A, with insights from those who know it best. The cover story in this issue does just that with an array of perspectives from Pittsburgh investors, business executives and dealmakers.

The elements of a successful business deal seem to be similar to what makes a strong business — knowledgeable, enthusiastic, hard-working people; a culture where everyone is going in the same direction; a well-thought out and clear strategic business plan; and innovation and creativity to inspire new directions for the company.

In addition, if the cultures don’t align, too much energy can be expended debating and resolving conflict. That’s energy that’s better spent executing the strategic plan and providing the products and services that are central to the business.

I learned a lot about what makes a deal successful, what missteps to keep an eye out for and the key ingredients to try to replicate — and I hope you do, too.

However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Our daylong ASPIRE conference on March 8 will include even more experts, and the attendees will have the opportunity to ask questions. So, even if you’re not attending this year, please watch the magazine for future opportunities to learn from the best.

One of the highlights of ASPIRE 2018 will be a lunchtime panel discussion on the state of Pittsburgh’s technology sector. That’s why I asked three experts to name their top five hottest startups in the region as part of this month’s Uniquely. Imagine my surprise when I received 15 different answers, with no repeats.

It goes to show that the technology and startup scene is booming, and there will be a lot to talk about at lunch on March 8. I hope to see you there!

Seeing both sides of the situation

The business leaders in this issue have dealt with major changes in their organizations. Some of it was out of their control, while other changes were driven by them. But in either case, they didn’t freeze. They focused on the opportunities, as well as the challenges.

Vector Security President and CEO Pam Petrow is leading her company through major changes in residential and commercial security. Everything is about automation — hooking your house or business up to one infrastructure.

Petrow remembers selling $5,000 residential systems in high-end neighborhoods 35 years ago. Now, residents use their cameras for things like seeing when the dog sitter arrives so they can remotely unlock the system, let that person in and know when he or she leaves.

She and her team at Vector are embracing these changes and working hard to find their place in the new dynamic. They’ve even led a national effort in 911 facilities across the country, promoting the adoption of an Automated Secure Alarm Protocol in municipalities and public agencies, while working with their competitors on implementation. The system automatically transmits data to dispatchers to improve response time.

Vector isn’t the only organization to see the possibilities. Steve Smith, CEO of Plus Consulting, had some experience working in global markets, but he got a crash course in Australian culture after acquiring a company down under. He had to utilize a lot of communication as a result, and has since applied his lessons learned to other potential acquisitions.

Every situation has its pluses and minuses, and time and time again, I hear executives say that you’ve got to see both. No matter how challenging something is, there may be a way to turn it into an advantage, and the rosiest of situations can always be improved upon.

Editor’s Note: Please join us on March 8 for ASPIRE 2018, presented by Metz Lewis Brodman Must O’Keefe LLC, where we will bring together the region’s entrepreneurial, dealmaking and investor communities for a daylong event filled with dynamic keynote speakers, engaging panel discussions and power networking opportunities. Reserve your seat today.

A business discussion about the Franklin Park Conservatory

This month, part of my conversation about the new Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation Children’s Garden at the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, featured in the Uniquely, focused on the business behind the nonprofit.

Over the decade that Bruce Harkey has been president and CEO, the organization has transformed. Its annual revenue grew from $5 million to more than $10 million as both earned and contributed revenue increased.

While Harkey studied horticulture, he also knows business and worked for Honda for 18 years. He uses both skill sets in his job.

“One of the characteristics of this organization that is different compared to other botanical gardens is our earned revenue is 65 percent,” he says. “The typical industry average is about 35 percent.” (The conservatory can be compared against the 64 large botanical gardens across the country, which have budgets of $3 million and above.)

Ten years ago, the conservatory’s percentage of earned revenue was in the high 40s. Harkey says the change has come from a significant growth in education, event rentals and starting a catering business.

“We have worked very hard to ensure that the conservatory continues to strengthen its financial foundation so that we can be sustainable — to grow in a reasonable, responsible way to make sure that we’re debt free and that we’re growing our earned revenue,” he says.

Another focus is innovation, and part of that innovation is balancing art and horticulture, which started with the Dale Chihuly glass exhibition in 2003.

“A lot of botanical gardens do art installations, but I don’t know that they are as integrated into the DNA of the organization as they are here at the conservatory,” Harkey says.

Art is even one of the organization’s three pillars, which are botanical gardens and beauty, community outreach and education, and broad inclusion of the arts. The horticulture and exhibitions development teams, which Harkey has combined into one, work hand in hand. That way, horticulture works with the artists on staff to ensure visitors have a comprehensive, fulfilling experience, he says.

A resolution for more resolutions

It’s that time of the year. We make resolutions to improve ourselves. We self-assess to find weak spots. We want to be better, stronger. We hope to be kinder, friendlier. Or, at least a little lighter.

January may be cold and dark; it’s also a time for renewal. It’s a time to gain ground. The possibilities abound for new choices. I always hear about continuous improvement. CEOs stress this again and again. January puts that front and center — for our organizations and our lives.

We could forget our good intentions. We might slide into old habits. Our resolutions often fall away quickly. The potential, however, is always exhilarating. Turning change into routine can happen. We know that it’s not easy. But it is always worth trying.

This year, I’m setting up reminders — a calendar alert on my phone. This should make it stick longer. I hope my resolution becomes habit.

One week in, I’m usually good. Two weeks in, I start slipping. But the alerts will keep coming. I hope the reminder isn’t annoying. I hope to beat the odds. But if I don’t, don’t worry — there’s always next year (Cleveland joke).

I will keep trying to change. But I need to remind myself: January is one month of 12. Resolutions can be made all year. Continuous improvement is like it sounds. It’s continual, constant and always present. Progressive, smart companies work on themselves. Progressive, smart people do the same.

It’s that time of the year. But that time shouldn’t be limited. Change is not just for January. Improvement is always worth our time, especially when it betters the world.


This month’s Uniquely is with recent Columbus transplant Larry Smith who created Six-Word Memoirs® a decade ago. In honor of his national movement that is almost like an edgier version of “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” I wrote most of my editor’s note in six word phrases. It wasn’t easy, but as I just wrote, easy is not always best. And like New Year’s resolutions, it was worth trying.

Entrepreneurs take center stage in Pittsburgh

Being an entrepreneur wasn’t always as exciting. Until your name was on the outside of a building, the average Joe or Jane didn’t know who you were as you toiled away in a garage or basement. That’s starting to change.

Just like how the Food Network shed light on the exciting profession of chef, media has made entrepreneurship cool. TV shows like “Shark Tank” and Silicon Valley success stories like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, who each got their own movies, inspire people who want to create startups and invent the next big thing.

Innovation Works is doing its part. President and CEO Rich Lunak calls its Demo Days, which are held twice a year, “a rock concert for entrepreneurs.”

Just like a sporting event or popular artist, Demo Days at Stage AE draw a big crowd. It’s a time to honor the people who have more of an impact than an athlete or musician, he says. These entrepreneurs are risking everything to build companies, create jobs and make our lives better.

Another chance to shine is the AlphaLab Gear International Hardware Cup. Early-stage hardware startup teams are selected to pitch in six regional semifinals. They then join teams from other countries like Japan and South Korea to compete for $50,000 in investment funds and more than $50,000 in software, cash and other prizes.

“That program is continuing to grow. What that’s done is help build international awareness around not only AlphaLab Gear, but also what a fabulous place Pittsburgh can be to launch and build companies,” Lunak says.

Just by coincidence, Innovation Works isn’t the only organization in this month’s magazine that is turning entrepreneurs into household names in the business community. The Idea Foundry just celebrated 15 years of investing and working alongside entrepreneurs to transform business ideas into commercial activities and jobs. You can read more in this month’s Uniquely.

Now is a good time to be an entrepreneur, especially in Pittsburgh.

A long-term look at life and business

E. Maxine Bruhns, 93, has had her job for more than 50 years. Not only is she just the second director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Nationality Rooms, she’s likely the oldest employee at Pitt.

She also shows few signs of slowing down. When I spoke to her, she’d just gotten off her treadmill and happily spoke of creating many of the rooms as if they were favored pupils.

Before her time in Pittsburgh, she had a multi-cultural life, visiting more than 80 countries and meeting famous people like Albert Schweitzer. Her husband, who she met at The Ohio State University, warned her if she married him, they’d have to travel. He worked for the United Nations.

She shared more about her leadership of the Nationality Rooms in the Uniquely feature.

In an issue that partly focuses on business longevity — where I queried senior executives of companies at least 50 years old about how they’ve adapted to internal and external conditions for long-term success — it’s interesting that Bruhns has a similar tenure.

Bruhns has the ability to accept change, too. She said she’s discovered over her life that anything can happen, so she tries not to think too far ahead.

The executives, on the other hand, were all about looking to the future. Some common themes were continuous improvement, never getting complacent and keeping a check on your ego. Most spoke of accepting market or industry conditions in order to evolve the company to fit those.

When I asked how they decided to take the risk when it came time to pivot, they felt the risk of not doing something was higher. They looked to the horizon for the next challenge or opportunity, weighed the current realities and made a judgement that it was time to change.

It may have been a bit of a leap of faith, but I guess sometimes that’s what it takes. The courage to choose and stick with it.

You can’t have one without the other

Three features in this month’s magazine are either directly part of The Ohio State University or have some connection to it. It truly is a town within a town.

Ohio State relates to nearly everything in Columbus in one way or another. It doesn’t matter if you’re an alumnus or not. It doesn’t matter if you plan your Saturdays around Buckeye games or not. It doesn’t matter if you grew up in the area or not. Ohio State most likely touches your life in some way.

It was nice to learn more about the latest president, Dr. Michael V. Drake, who is a very different leader than his predecessor, in this month’s cover story. I also heard from a former Buckeye football player, Roy Hall, who is doing his part to give back to the community.

While Jack Hanna is only an honorary Buckeye, he will be celebrating 40 years at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in 2018.

I grew up watching Hanna on television, but I don’t think I realized how great his impact has been until I put together this month’s Uniquely. Hanna and the Columbus Zoo have become synonymous. It’s hard to think of one without the other.

It’s incredible how one man — and his keen understanding of public relations, education and entertainment — can help spark such change and progress. Hanna is someone who made himself into his own brand. When you think about him, an image of khaki and wild animals immediately springs to your mind. It’s no coincidence that all of his television shows use his name as part of the title.

Sometimes, I forget just how influential Ohio State has been and will always be to not just the Central Ohio community, but all four corners of the state. As Drake said in a video after he became the 15th president, you have to appreciate the pride and emotional connection that people have to Ohio State, as well as how central the university is to the community.

You really can’t have one without the other, just like Hanna and the zoo.