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Kay Plantes is an MIT-trained economist, business strategy consultant, columnist and author. Business model innovation, strategic leadership and smart economic policies are her professional passions. A former Madison, WI resident, Kay now resides in San Diego, CA. The views on her blog are not those of her employer, IBM.

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May 12th, 2011

Best practices from mid-size gazelles with winning business models

Four fast-growing mid-size company CEOs shared success drivers at the recent Milwaukee Biz-Tech Conference-Expo. With rapid growth rates and distinctive business models, their advice is worth heeding.

The panelists

  • Mary Isbister, President of GenMet, a custom metal fabricator
  • Mike Malatesta, founder and president of Advanced Waste Services, Inc. a customized service provider that reduces customers’ risks and waste.
  • Sue Marks, founder and CEO of Pinstripe, Inc. a talent sourcing solution
  • Craig Schiefelbein, president and CEO of PDS. PDS architects, supplies and implements IT solutions for mid-size companies.  (See my PDS blog.)

Their advice

Never waste a downturn. Pinstripe invested in self-service infrastructure during the downturn that will speed throughput of candidates and allow its employees to do more work and higher-level work as the economy recovers. According to Harvard Business Review, market shares shift significantly during a downturn, a lesson Pinstripe capitalized upon.

Be absolutely clear about how you make your customers’ better off emotionally and rationally. During the panel, each leader distinctly stated his or her company’s value promise. PDS improves the quality of life of IT personnel and the agility of their companies, while also freeing operating costs for redeployment into mission-central activities. The emotional punch behind a “quality of life” value promise is vital.

Give up business to win business. GenMet is purposely choosy, working only with manufacturers that want to mutually benefit GenMet. The company educates its customers about how GenMet benefits them and avoids destructive competition. Pinstripe focuses on mid-market companies in vertical niches, a smart move that leaves competitors battling for giant customers likely to buy primarily on price.

Design innovation into your culture. Advanced Waste Services aims to transform an industry not considered innovative, and has made certain than employees that fail in attempting to be innovative are not penalized. “The last thing you want is to create a fear of failure,” Malatesta shared. “All employees set goals for themselves and I notice what people do that is not asked for” Malatesta added.

“You can’t buy creativity externally,” according to Isbister, “but you can feed it internally. And you need a process to take ideas and implement great ones. Otherwise gathering ideas becomes flavor of the day.” At GenMet, employees submit ideas on yellow sheets. Hershey Payday candy bars are given at all-employee meetings to people with the best ideas, such as a repositioning of machines that cut lead times by a week.

Schiefelbein recommends eliminating the “devil’s advocate” voice that can curtail innovative thinking. Constant judging pulls the creative juices out of even the most confident and enthusiastic talent.

Make sure that people know that they’re paid to think. Listening to all four leaders, I could feel the high expectations they set for their people. Marks hires professionals who fit Pinstripe culturally – who expect to have a lot expected of them; who love to set the rule book; who have a track record of success with their customers and who ask for forgiveness, not permission.

To unleash growth, understand limits to growth. Marks wisely asked, “We are a different company every 12-15 months because of our growth. How do we support and grow our people and bring in new talent to help us manage a larger company?” In Schiefelbein’s words, “There’s no such thing as the right strategy and the wrong people on the bus. You have to get the right people on the bus to succeed.” Malatesta honestly admitted to feeling his team at the top must be stronger. Isbister can’t train people fast enough. In their honesty, these leaders will surface solutions that fuel their companies’ growth.

Introducing the panel, Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce president Tim Sheehy commented that mid-size companies that export their products and services outside the region drive SE Wisconsin’s job growth and wealth creation. Malatesta and Isbister, both East Coast migrants, love Wisconsin as a place to do business. Marks fears that Wisconsin has lost some of its entrepreneurial swagger, an energy that gave birth to Kohl’s, Kohler, Harley Davidson and other Wisconsin stellar brands. If more companies followed the advice of these four leaders, Wisconsin would for sure regain its entrepreneurial spirit and job growth.

What’s keeping your company from gazelle-speed growth?

3 comments to Best practices from mid-size gazelles with winning business models

  • I may be looking at this from the employee’s perspective rather than the employers, but I find GenMet’s practice of giving candy bars to workers with the best ideas a bit insulting. I would presume an executive at GetMet would have a healthy monetary compensation in exchange for a good idea, rather than a candy bar and a pat on the head.
    Brian´s last [type] ..Can an LLC Have Employees

  • Good point, Brian, although I do not know if they have other mechanisms for rewarding ideas after they get implemented.
    Kay Plantes´s last [type] ..Best practices from mid-size gazelles with winning business models

  • Brian,

    To be fair though, this business of “handing out candy bars” probably just sounds a lot worse in writing than it is in actuality. I can imagine that in a company with a collegial atmosphere, it is looked at more as a “light-hearted” acknowledgement than as an “incentive” to be insulted by.

    Having said that, with constantly increasing health care costs, companies who also emphasize workplace wellness in all the little things may find some nuggets of reward in lower group health costs.

    Kay, thanks for a great post.

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