A giving attitude is worth celebrating

I’m writing this column just over a month before this issue publishes, and it’s fitting that it’s Giving Tuesday — a refreshing change from the commercial nature of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday.

Once again, Smart Business is honoring organizations that set the standard for philanthropy through the annual Medical Mutual Pillar Awards for Community Service. We even have a new award, Philanthropist of the Year, to round out an exceptional group of winners for the 10th anniversary of these awards in Columbus. (It’s the 21st year overall in Ohio.)

What you may not know, though, is that Smart Business, Medical Mutual of Ohio and our other judges had the unenviable job of winnowing this group of 20 down from 80 nominations. This is the most nominations we’ve ever received for the Columbus awards. Central Ohio truly does have a big heart.

It also reminds me of something from ASPIRE 2018. Drive Capital’s Mark Kvamme was asked about the difference between Silicon Valley and Columbus. His answer wasn’t about the amount of venture capital, startups or technology-focused companies and institutions.

He said, “The interesting thing I think about here in Columbus — and it’s an asset that we all need to continue to use — is to continue to talk to each other, pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, how can I help you? How can you help me?’ And that sort of attitude and collaboration, I think, to some degree has been lost in many other parts of the country.”

From my perspective, attitude and collaboration are why the corporate and nonprofit communities in Central Ohio are so closely tied together.

But that doesn’t mean there still isn’t a lot of work to be done. Opioid use continues to devastate families across Ohio. The demand for services from the Mid-Ohio Foodbank is up. And a Columbus Dispatch article by Theodore Decker pointed out that Columbus still hovers at an annual per capita homicide rate of 12 homicides per 100,000 people, despite efforts to change that after a spike in 2017.

So, I challenge you to apply collaboration to your individual efforts to help the community this year. Keep a giving attitude all year long, and ask, over and over, “How can I help you?”

Seeking the personality behind the role

Lately, I’ve started asking executives how they’re involved in their communities. We are so much more than our jobs, even though that may be where we spend most of our waking hours.

I want to get to know the person behind the executive role and asking about their activities outside of the office is one way to do that.

For example, this month’s cover story is with CEO Chris Keller of IPEG Inc. He’s involved with Community College of Allegheny County’s Educational Foundation.

While it seems like a likely choice because workforce development, manufacturing and a community college all seem to go hand-in-hand, IPEG doesn’t actually have employees in Allegheny County. IPEG’s headquarters are in Butler County and the manufacturing companies that it owns are further away.

Even though there’s no direct recruiting correlation, Keller does have an interest in education and workforce development. He likes understanding the role of a community college in the scheme of education, training and workforce development, while also contributing something that goes beyond giving a donation. He enjoys seeing how he can help the college be more successful and effective.

It was nice to peel back the curtain and learn more because my first thought when I read about Keller’s involvement with CCAC on his LinkedIn page was, “Of course, yes, that makes sense.” But it’s actually more nuanced than it appears.

As I learn more, it’s also interesting to see how all of the relationships work. Connections are everything, and I think this only gets more important in today’s digital world.

That’s why when I meet someone who is a natural connector — someone who seems to know everybody and has a hand in many different arenas — it’s important to cultivate them.

In the digital space, you often hear about influencers. But there are influencers in the real world, too. They are the points of connection in your industry, in your community, and sometimes even within the walls of your company.

Evolution is a cornerstone of business

The ability to adapt is critical for longevity. The ability to adapt is critical for growth. The ability to adapt is critical for success.

CEOs have iterated this to me time after time, and it struck home again when I spoke with Carol Jackson of HarbisonWalker International and Mike Wagner of Target Freight Management.

HWI coasted for more than a decade. While the company (ANH Refractories at the time) was financially stable, it wasn’t growing. About four years ago, new leadership and a commitment to invest for growth jumpstarted the business. Since then, change has permeated throughout the company.

To manage this, Jackson says it’s critical to first have clarity on what you want to accomplish. Your goals have to be simple, compact and in bite-sized pieces as they’re articulated to employees.

“We’re also doing change management work,” she says. “We’re teaching our managers and leaders how to have critical conversations and how to deal with anxiety over change and feeling overwhelmed with the workload. And so, at the same time we’re setting out ambitious business goals, we’re supporting our people and our leaders to ensure that they feel like they have the right tools at their disposal.”

In Wagner’s case, his company adapted when the logistics industry changed its rules.

When customers were billed for rule violations, his company often had to eat the cost. He got tired of it and decided to build software that wouldn’t populate a rate if a customer violated the carrier’s rule of cubic capacity or linear feet. That way, quotes were 100 percent accurate.

“It allows customers to accurately quote their freight at the time of shipment, which was impossible to do for anybody in that stretch when these rules started changing,” Wagner says.

First, he tried to outsource the software, but it was a debacle. So, Wagner hired in-house programmers. Today, he has people constantly building software, which he hopes to license or sell to others.

“You have to know your business, and you have to evolve and make changes. You see so many businesses, or I have, for years, and then markets change and they don’t change. And their businesses become obsolete,” he says. “My business is totally different today than when I started it.”

Real results from a cutting-edge concept

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of the Columbus Collaboratory. It’s on the cutting edge of business models: more cooperation to pursue the nascent technologies of analytics and artificial intelligence, which are uncertain and expensive, and coming together to fight common enemies through cybersecurity.

The term collaboration is thrown around a lot, but businesses leaders don’t always put their money where their mouths are. In this case, the seven founding companies — American Electric Power, Battelle, Cardinal Health, Huntington, L Brands, Nationwide and Ohio Health — have bigger budgets than most to work with, but it’s easy to see they got to be large corporations in the first place by playing smart.

It wasn’t until I spoke with President and CEO Matt Wald, however, that a nebulous concept came into focus.

To solve a problem, the Columbus Collaboratory brings its founders together around a topic, such as sharing threat intelligence to identify future cyber attackers. After hearing about best practices and challenges, the Columbus Collaboratory’s technical staff develops a prototype, a minimal viable product, which can be operationalized to drive value. It goes into a shared intellectual property library to be packaged for the commercial market.

The company also applies advanced analytics to data sets to generate insights. It has identified network traffic anomalies, classified customer complaints more accurately, optimized marketing offers and automated helpdesk interactions. In addition, the OhioHealth app’s “find care now” feature gives an estimated wait time for urgent care. That’s a Columbus Collaboratory predictive model.

In collaborative cyber offensive exercises, attackers and defenders simulate attacks. With a library of attacks, the Columbus Collaboratory is now focusing on the 80/20 rule: What are the 80 percent of attacks being observed by businesses today that are the most likely to cause harm?

One fortuitous synergy has been the opportunity for data scientists to work directly with cyber engineers. They apply analytics to cybersecurity problems.

Another boon has been the influx of talent. An out-of-state cyber leader was talked into relocating. Newly minted analytics Ph.D.s are being molded into professionals. A successful cyber job-feeder program, where computer science graduates rotate around the seven founders, is no longer just drawing from Midwestern schools.

Learn more about the Columbus Collaboratory here.

A top class of Smart 50 winners

Every year when I see our class of Smart 50 honorees, I think, “This one is definitely the best.” This year was no different.

These top executives run some of the 50 smartest companies in the region. But what’s special this year was the diversity of the class. And by diversity, I don’t just mean gender or race.

There was a strong mix of industries, including some from Western Pennsylvania specialties — oil and gas, artificial intelligence — and a range of company sizes from startups and small businesses to large corporations. We’re also honoring five nonprofits and two business accelerators/economic development incubators. You can learn more about them by click here.

I encourage you to register today for the Smart 50 event on Thursday, Nov. 29. It’s a great place to network — you’ll see familiar faces and make some new connections.

I’m always so impressed with the passion and drive of these executives, and I’m sure you will be too, as you read about them and meet them. While this year’s judging day — where we hear directly from many of the winners who compete for three specialty awards — was after our print deadline, I want to leave you with a few comments from last year’s judges:

It was so impressive. I love to hear directly from the CEO or the president — to hear the story behind the success, to hear and feel the passion they have for the growth of their business.

I think it’s great to see a mix of people — different ages, different kinds of companies, men and women. I think it’s exciting to see the top talent that we have here in Pittsburgh.

We’ve seen everybody from CEOs to presidents to maybe some of their admin people who are filling in for them, but one thing that’s a common thread across the whole thing was just the energy that everybody gave off.

You come to something like this and you think, ‘Well, I’m going to meet a lot of great people.’ But the sky was the limit today. Some of these companies, I didn’t know they existed, and you come down and you meet some of these people and you think, ‘I’m in a good spot here in Western Pennsylvania.’

A bold goal is worth the work

The Mid-Ohio Foodbank has an ambitious goal — ending hunger. That’s not going to be easy, especially since the requests for help have increased, even as Central Ohio’s economy strengthens.

President and CEO Matt Habash says in the organization’s early days, it focused on food for today — getting food to people who are hungry. Now, the focus is on tomorrow.

As a result, Habash doesn’t just run a food bank that provides enough food for about 155,000 meals each day. He also talks with people about affordable housing, the future workforce and the community’s health.

“At the end of the day, if you want to end hunger, you’ve got to move people out of poverty, and poverty only has one measurement and that’s called income/household size,” he says.

A few years ago, in 2011, Habash led a summit about getting fresh produce out of the fields and into the 200 food banks. Then, Toyota did a lean exercise, which revamped Mid-Ohio Foodbank’s distribution from a push system to a pull.

“We call it right place, right time, right food, and do it in small quantities,” he says. “We can distribute food in a couple of hours, get fresh food to people.”

Now, Mid-Ohio Foodbank wants to connect more people to fresh food and measure the impact with health care partners. (Read more about this by clicking here.) This is particularly important because 84 percent of Mid-Ohio Foodbank’s clients say the only reason they don’t buy fruits and vegetables is they can’t afford it.

Habash also says we’re all conditioned by the appearance and size of produce. But a plum the size of a nectarine, a broccoli head that gets too big, or ugly or deformed fruit is perfectly fine.

“We should be creating markets to sell less than grade A product across the entire community, not in the inner-city neighborhoods, so that more people consume fruits and vegetables,” he says.

So, yes, it will take a lot of work to end hunger. It’s more complex than just trying to find food.

“But we believe if we’re going to end hunger, if we’re trying to move people out of poverty, we’ve got to take a much more holistic look at this,” Habash says.

Connecting low-wage jobs to public transit riders

I recently came across an interesting article from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, “A Long Ride to Work: Job Access and the Potential Impact of Ride-Hailing in the Pittsburgh Area.” (While the content was interesting in itself, it also made me think about a column in our magazine this month by Aradhna M. Oliphant. She provided a few highlights from her TEDx talk on the parallels between cities and leadership.)

A Long Ride to Work found that while Allegheny County residents typically have shorter commute times than other regional counties of its size or the nation as a whole, approximately 20 percent of transit commuters experience commute time of more than an hour each way.

What’s even more alarming for employers is that the study found that four of the top 10 employment centers have access to less than 5 percent of the county’s workforce within a 60-minute transit commute — places like Carnot-Moon, which has the highest concentration of low-skill jobs.

This is a continuing problem for many cities. Columbus, which doesn’t have a light rail system, has struggled with the same thing. The local social enterprise EmpowerBus, for example, charges employers a weekly flat rate per bus to provide transportation for employees. The organization provides the bus, the driver, organizes routes, handles logistics, insurance, etc.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland’s study of Pittsburgh’s environment explores another possible avenue for increasing job access: using ride-hailing services to supplement public transit. I thought this was a great idea for Pittsburgh, which has unique challenges, due to its geography and city layout, adding to its public transit system.

However, the study found that “the difference between commute times with ride-hailing and without ride-hailing, tend to favor workers with higher wages and higher educational levels.” Obviously, ride-hailing isn’t the only answer to help connect low-wage workers to jobs, but it is something to think about.

Click here for the complete report, A Long Ride to Work: Job Access and the Potential Impact of Ride-Hailing in the Pittsburgh Area.

Am I going to be living in a sci-fi novel soon?

I had fun putting together this issue of Smart Business — and I learned a lot, too. Many of the business executives were doing interesting things with technology.

The Germain Automotive Group took a gamble on an automotive subscription service, Drive Germain, that works like Netflix. For a monthly fee, you can switch cars as often as you’d like.

Hiten Shah of MES Inc. shared how his supply chain logistics company is very intertwined with technology, which it uses to communicate across the globe and find efficiencies. The company even converted every one of its Chinese engineers to iPhones, so it only has to support its quality control app, MESH-Quality®, on one operating system.

Pillar Technology’s Bob Myers is very connected with the development of autonomous and electric vehicles, including receiving a $2 million grant from Ohio to help build an autonomous vehicle research center. His company is also building the operating system for Smart Columbus.

“We eventually will be tapping into connected vehicles, and we’ll be communicating in the winter where there are slip zones,” Myers says. “So, if there’s a certain place, say on 71, where there’s a slip zone and an accident, we have several cars put on their anti-lock brakes. It will communicate that to a smart city infrastructure and we’ll know to go salt that area, versus just salting in the routes they do today, which are just pre-determined routes.”

While Myers couldn’t talk specifically about a lot of the technology his company is working on, he says the development will happen faster than most people realize.

“We build technology because it’s inevitable that this technology is going to be built,” he says. “We might as well build it. But there’s some social issues that we also have to be concerned about.”

Myers has spent time talking with people, including government officials, about how to equip the workforce of tomorrow. He’s also aware that cybersecurity will continue to be a huge issue as systems become increasingly connected.

So, in spite of my fears that come from reading “1984” or watching the “Matrix”, I find myself more excited than not about the society we’ll be living in a decade from now.

Good, sustainable growth requires careful analysis first

You’ll be reading a lot about growth in this month’s issue. While most of it is strategic growth — related to our ASPIRE conference that will be held Sept. 25 — A Kid Again is growing organically as the nonprofit scales into a national organization.

President and CEO Oyauma Garrison, a 20-year veteran of the insurance industry, says if you’re expanding, there’s a lot of similarity between the for-profit and nonprofit arenas. It requires careful thought to make sure you’re entering into a sustainable market, which means looking at market analytics and data.

With some help from others, A Kid Again has identified five key metrics, and weighted them, to help determine the most viable markets.

“We’re using the rankings of the top national children’s hospitals to give us some barometer of their level of success, the quality of care and their connection to providing services for kids who are facing life-threatening illness,” he says.

Another example, Garrison says, is looking at the city’s dynamics and what kind of amusement can be found within a one- to two-hour drive radius.

But not everything is the same in the nonprofit space.

“When I think about it from my for-profit world, it comes really down to what makes the most business sense, and does the data support our ability to enter into the market?” he says.

However, a number of nonprofits that have grown nationally have told him they’re constricting in and creating mega-regions because they oversaturated the market.

“Unlike an insurance environment, or any other franchise environment, where you would probably want your brand on almost every corner, that is not how we’re designed,” Garrison says. “We’re not looking to open up multiple chapters in a constricted space.”

Another key variable is the availability of corporate, foundation and donor support. It’s a slightly different dynamic than in the consumer world where you’re selling a product, he says.

But as Garrison learns the ropes of the nonprofit space and A Kid Again starts helping more children and families, it’s easy to see the excitement. Companies, individuals and hospitals are all raising their hands to help. Read more about A Kid Again in the Building Stronger Communities feature.

A case for organic growth

Aires is an interesting company. When Smart Business last spoke with CEO Bryan Putt for a cover story, it was 2012. The corporate relocation company had not only made it through the recession, it found new ways to grow despite a shrinking market. Five years later, it’s a different story.

Putt says the uptick in the economy over the past 18 months has been very beneficial for the downstream service provider.

“When business is good for the major industrials and the different sectors, they need their people moved,” he says. “We see the mobility programs grow in terms of volume as well as in terms of some of the benefits that are offered in it.”

The company’s market also has shifted. Today, the domestic business outstrips the international.

While most companies start in the U.S. before heading overseas, Aires was the opposite. The international aspect tends to have more moving parts, so as the business grew, it took that level of expertise and stepped into the domestic side that is typically less complex to manage.

But all that growth, whether here or overseas, has been organic.

“We are heavily biased in our thinking toward organic growth. We tend to feel that that is the healthiest way to move forward,” Putt says.

While there has been a continuing trend of consolidation, Aires believes two merged organizations have a either a neutral or negative affect on customers.

“It tends to be a forced environment where you’ve got two organizations that are merging for market reasons that aren’t always positive — and very rarely is it driven by the customer and creating a better solution for the clients,” he says. “They tell you that’s what it’s for, but we tend to see organizations merge and there’s a lot of fallout from that. We haven’t seen a better mousetrap being built that way.”

While those organizations might tell you a different story, Aires hasn’t seen a reason to change its strategy yet.

“We’re about controlled growth. We don’t want to have our business outstrip our services ability, and we target 15 percent annual growth, which basically doubles us every five years. At that rate we can ensure the quality of service that we’re delivering, and that’s paramount to what we do,” Putt says.