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'Just say yes' philosophy is among finalists tactics

By: Andrew Tellijohn

ADDING TO THE bottom line isn’t all about numbers. Each of the best practices by the finalists in the Finance and Operations category involves people.

Whether it’s training them to engage customers or getting them to work with partner companies for the satisfaction of a client, these companies prove that there is more to making money than cutting expenses and keeping good books.

Collaboration is key
On projects in its core areas such as aviation and retail, Architectural Alliance is generally the lead partner. But — as pointed out by its name — the company is perfectly capable and willing to work as part of a team if that’s what it takes to make a client happy.

The Minneapolis-based Architectural Alliance has worked as the local architect on the Guthrie Theater and the Minneapolis Central Library, and was recently recommended by the University of Minnesota and selected by the lead architect to serve in that role as the school plans its new football stadium project — despite having little background in building athletic venues.

“That gives us the perspective of knowing what it’s like to work with other entities,” says Eric Peterson, a principal with the company. “You check that ego and assume whatever role is necessary for the satisfaction of the client.”

On the first two of those projects, the $125-million Guthrie and $138- million library, the company met with Paris-based Jean Nouvel and New Haven, Connecticut-based Cesar Pelli, respectively, to define each firm’s roles and set up communications systems to bridge communications gaps.

The company was founded almost four decades ago on the idea of working together both internally and externally. Even the name represents teamwork.

“That was very purposeful,” Peterson says.

The strategy appears to be working for the 80-employee, $15 million firm.

Collaboration and innovation, both inside and outside the company, are principles that have become the key to growth. And they allow the company to add projects with a minimum investment of dollars in marketing.

“We have a core philosophical value of collaboration that really cuts across our organization,” Peterson says. “People are seeking us out.”

Focus on earnings
When Jim Masterson joined LightEdge Solutions three years ago, many employees were spending their time playing golf and waiting for the other shoe to drop. It was a tired company that “on the surface didn’t seem to have much of a future,” says Masterson, CEO.

But he took his own energy and began using it to focus and inspire existing staff. He peeled back the layers and found a niche for the firm, offering voice and data services for small- and medium-sized companies.

Today 95 percent of the company’s revenue comes from those businesses. Three years ago, he says, “the first thing I needed to do was give them something to do.”

Many people didn’t have the stomach for the changes. They left, allowing Masterson to bring on some hungry workers. The first goal was to become EBIDTA positive, he says, referring to the approximate measure of operating cash flow: earnings before interest, depreciation, taxes and amortization. “They accepted the challenge,” he says. “Two years later, we had an EBIDTA party.”

The next goal is to get to positive cash flow. That should happen early next year.

While the rebuilding was going on, the company launched a next-generation technology product and began better negotiating processes with vendors.

“We had to rebuild this thing while we were fully steaming ahead in the ocean,” Masterson says. “The best practice we’ve found is pumping passion and attitude back into” the company.

LightEdge is headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa, and has a regional office in Minneapolis. The company’s current financial position is strong enough that when executives set out to raise $5 million to $10 million for acquisitions, they ended up with $12 million.

One of the secrets is empowering employees, Masterson says. Despite aggressive growth through acquisition, LightEdge Solutions has maintained a corporate infrastructure with just two C-level and two vice president-level executives. The flat structure has encouraged an ego-free environment that is conducive to growth, he says.

No excuses, please
No matter what happens in a given day at Permac Industries, customers will never hear a word of complaint or the hint of an excuse. Work can get stressful at times, but Burnsville-based Permac’s employees are trained not to pass the buck. Instead, they are instructed to ask enough questions to discern a client’s absolute needs and find ways to get the job done.

“We don’t waste our time explaining to a customer why something didn’t happen,” says Darlene Miller, president and CEO. “Nobody wants to hear the negativity. Nobody has time and nobody cares.”

Miller believes that explaining when, what or how Permac can help a customer shows strength, resilience and determination — and shows the customer that the given employee is a problem solver who can handle difficult situations.

“We all have these daily dilemmas,” she says. “It’s all in the presentation of what you can do.”

The machining industry, the company says, is generally cyclical. But Permac isn’t. The company has grown so consistently and steadily that while competitors were shutting down during the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Permac expanded its customer base and became more flexible by offering just-in-time delivery to even smaller customers.

The positivity has contributed, Miller says, to gaining more business, and to keeping employees happy.

“Even when we have bad news to deliver we stay positive,” she says. “Customers soon realize you are a problem solver.


12/01/2006



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