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The Formula for Business Success

Wednesday, August 1, 2018  
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Every entrepreneur with a dream to establish a successful business faces difficult odds. Once a business is up and running, the chances for long-term success are even more challenging. The most recent statistics from Bloomberg show the failure rate of all U.S. companies after five years is over 50 percent and more than 70 percent for those that remain after ten years.

A successful region must have a diverse base of successful businesses that provide jobs, investment and leadership. Once viewed primarily as a hub of manufacturing greatness, the Lansing region has been in the midst of a transformation that has seen tremendous growth in the number of successful businesses and a diversification in the industry sectors represented. Today, the region is recognized for business excellence in advanced manufacturing, technology, transportation, healthcare, education, insurance and financial services among others.

Employers in the region are not only recognized for their success on the bottom line, but also for being leaders in building organizations that have been recognized as great places to work and as leaders in driving the region forward.

FOCUS spoke with a handful of business leaders whose organizations have experienced success over the years. We wanted to find out what separates those that “make it” from others. A few themes emerged that shed insight into what it takes to achieve business success.

A Foundation Built on a Great Culture

“Culture is everything,” said Steve Curran, president and creative director at Harvest Creative Services. “It’s the foundation that nourishes and defines your brand and conveys how you think and show up in the world. Is your culture creative, intuitive, open, supportive, challenging, inspired, in action, nurturing and collaborative?”

Harvest Creative is a creative services agency that helps brands find their voice through creative strategy, concept and development, testing, copywriting, graphic design, digital strategies, video and motion design, original music and sound design. The company was recently recognized on the prestigious list of 50 Companies to Watch by Michigan Celebrates Small Business. A big part of their success according to Curran is predicated on a culture that challenges all 14 of their employees to think beyond the ordinary.

“We’re creative thinkers here, every one of us,” said Curran. “When someone new joins the team, we give them the opportunity to expand in time well beyond what we hired them to do. How can they take that position to a new place and surprise themselves in the process? It can be a wonderfully rewarding experience, but it takes a rare level of commitment and support to get there.”


Martin Thompkins, Kunz, Leigh and Associates

Kunz, Leigh and Associates (KL&A) provides custom software development, professional services and testing governance. The company has 120 associates located in three offices in Lathrup Village, Okemos and Columbus, Ohio. The KL&A culture requires associates to come to work in professional dress, but is paired with a fun, collaborative work environment that includes a ping pong table, Nintendo Wii and pour over stations. KL&A was recently named one of the 50 Companies to Watch by Michigan Celebrates Small Business.

“Another extremely important part of our culture is work, home and life balance,” said KL&A Director Martin John Thompkins III. “All of our associates work hard and some situations require long hours, but KL&A strives to limit the number of days requiring long hours. We also work hard to accommodate schedules and understand that with life come situations that require exceptions to the rules.”

KL&A has grown rapidly in recent years in large part by emphasizing hiring the right people, putting them in the right positions and providing them with self-motivational goals.

“With the right people performing the work that they love and want to come to work for makes having successful projects much easier,” said Thompkins. “We will always work to find the type of projects that we love and motivate our people.”

A Focus on Relationships

Organizations of all shapes and sizes understand that a key to their overall success is in how they serve their customers. The very best organizations also understand that building a culture where employees are as highly valued as the best customers results in the best customer service and a good bottom line.

Dean Transportation is one Greater Lansing’s most recognized brands. Founded in 1969 as Special Transportation by Lyle Stephens, Dean Transportation is a nationally recognized passenger transportation provider. Dean Transportation specializes in public-private partnerships for school, municipal and college transit, and private passenger transport throughout the state of Michigan. Based in Lansing, the company now employs 2,200 statewide with offices located in 41 cities throughout the state which provide more than 10 million individual rides annually. Dean’s vice president for business development, Patrick Dean, said the company’s values include a strong emphasis on quality and relationships.

“Professional relationships built around trust and accountability,” said Dean. “It is important to build relationships with stakeholders by understanding their needs and how you can support them. Business decisions come and go but relationships last.”

The most successful companies also understand the critical importance of building strong relationships with employees who are eager to develop their potential.

“We have always believed in providing our team with every tool to succeed,” said Dean. “Life is about creating opportunities for others. As an organization, providing a path for individual growth, development and a long career is a very rewarding accomplishment for the company. As a company, we strive to promote from within, seek development and educational opportunities for our team, and help individuals when life challenges happen.”

Lake Trust Credit Union is a prime example of an organization that has combined outstanding member service with a track record of being able to attract and retain industry leading talent. Lake Trust currently has 418 team members spread among its 20 branches across the state and $1.9 billion in assets. Lake Trust was named to Crain’s Cool Places to Work list in 2017. Lake Trust’s approach to talent includes total rewards programs that collectively define their strategy to attract, motivate, retain and engage team members.

“Lake Trust’s total rewards strategy showcases a menu from which the organization chooses to offer and align a value proposition that results in satisfied, engaged and productive team members who make our members lives better and enhance our communities,” said Kara Stuewe, Lake Trust’s executive vice president.

Adapting to Change

In today’s fast-paced and highly competitive marketplace, it is crucial for organizations to be flexible enough to change in order to remain profitable and up-to-speed. Curran said his team at Harvest Creative has been able to maintain growth and stability through an ever-shifting advertising landscape by continuing to learn, adapt and reinvent themselves and the business.

“It’s been said that change is nothing more than the same thing in a different package,” said Curran. “We recognized this early on, which is why we embraced the notion of transforming our business model over the years as we evolved into a creative services agency.”

Overcoming Adversity

Tough times, failure and inevitable hardships test the mettle of every individual and organization. How a team reacts to failure often determines whether they will be successful in the future. Failure can be viewed as an opportunity to reinvent and invigorate a team in ways that lead to new and exciting opportunities.

“One of our greatest difficulties in recent years was learning how to grow,” said KL&A’s Thompkins. “That included learning how to change our hiring processes to find the right people, how to on-board the new associates and how to manage a much larger staff.”

Harvest Creative experienced adversity in 1998 when two if its biggest clients left in less than 60 days. One folded due to a competitive shift in the market and the other fired its entire marketing staff of 40 and started over with new people.

“We suffered a few days of shock and paralysis, but quickly went into action by redirecting our creative resources and opening up a new market that quickly became more profitable than the one we left behind,” said Curran. “We’ve grown steadily ever since.”

Corporate Responsibility

Great organizations look beyond their own walls in recognition of the fact that the success of the organization and the growth of the community are linked. They also recognize the importance of giving back to the community in which their employees live, work, play and raise families.

Lake Trust Credit Union has focused on sustaining stronger local communities through partnerships with local organizations, outreach programs, grants, financial assistance and support for their community’s underserved people.

Since 2012, we’ve donated more than 150,000 meals to local food banks and given more than $137,000 in community grants and donations,” said Stuewe, noting the organization has partnered with the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce, LEAP, Impression 5 Science Center and Downtown Lansing, Inc. among others. “Our impact is both local, here in Lansing and throughout Michigan. This is important because we exist to make the lives of our members and the lives of those who live in the communities we support, better.”

From its earliest days, Dean Transportation has viewed itself as a community organization more than a business. Patrick Dean’s father, Kellie joined the company in 1986 and continues to serve as its president. Kellie Dean is a well-known community leader and strong supporter of many causes including the Special Olympics and the Lansing Promise scholarship program.

“Lansing Promise is a good intersection between community, education and business,” said Patrick Dean. “We support many organizations in the community that have a mission of supporting youth. That’s been a passion of ours whether its youth sports or youth education in STEM related fields or social services through non-profit organizations like St. Vincent Catholic Charities, Highfields and others that provide important services in our community.”

A Model for Success

Organizations like Dean Transportation, Harvest Creative, Lake Trust Credit Union and Kunz Leigh & Associates can be good models for others to emulate. Patrick Dean encourages those building a business to focus on doing something really well.

“Often, we are tempted as leaders to chase the newest ‘shiny object’ in hopes it will lead to success,” said Dean. “This can distract us from the true value our product or firm provides its customers. In our organization, our mission is to provide a quality safe transportation solution for our customers. While there is a lot that goes into this, our commitment must be laser focused on this mission.”

Curran encourages entrepreneurs to hire a mentor and a business coach. He also recommends readings Michael Gerber’s book The E Myth Revisited.

“It’s important to know your strengths and weaknesses, and equally important to be clear that you must build a diverse team with talent in areas other than your own,” said Curran. “You can’t do it alone.”

The journey to towards success is a unique experience for every organization, one that requires bedrock values including strong work ethic, patience, determination, passion and a commitment to excellence. The recipe also requires a focus on quality relationships with employees and customers, building a great culture, innovation, a willingness to adapt, change and transform as individuals and organizations, and a strong commitment to serve the greater good and build a better community. That is a proven formula that will lead to business success.

Click here to download the August issue of FOCUS.


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