Successful business leaders are quick to point out that behind every good company — and chief — is great talent.
That’s the word from the heads of organizations who participated in Atlanta Business Chronicle’s CEO roundtable discussion about growth, challenges, motivation and leadership.
Continuing to hire the best employees is a common thread in the participants’ expansion plans this year, and is both a goal and a challenge.
Karen Lawton, president of SJ Technologies Inc., a company focused on successful delivery of Oracle services; Ashish Mistry, president and CEO of premier performance gaming gear brand KontrolFreek; Michael Rogers, president of Dorsey Alston, Realtors; and Brett Waits, president of athletic flooring company PLAE; discussed growth expectations and best practices that keep their companies moving forward.
Q: Do you plan to expand your company this year? If so, by how much? Will it be revenue growth, employee growth or both?
Lawton:“I would say right now, we’re looking at growth between 10 and 15 percent. That’s on both the staff side and on the revenue side. Last year was a big year, we grew 147 percent, but invested heavily in the business to support some strategic initiatives in 2016. We understand that the smaller you are, the easier it is to achieve those types of growth numbers. Even so, it was a flagship year for SJ. The forecast is showing a 10 to 15 percent increase, but we may even exceed that.”
Mistry:“KontrolFreek is in high-growth mode and we plan to expand all key areas of the business this year. In March, alone, KontrolFreek added five new staff members to the team, as well as 2,000 square feet of office space. As far as revenue is concerned, we’re up 100 percent year over year and see that continuing to trend higher as we head into our busy season during the holidays.”
Rogers:“Dorsey Alston, Realtors has been serving the Atlanta area residential real estate market for more than 65 years. We have grown over 400 percent over the last seven years both in terms of deal volume and in terms of Realtors choosing to join our team. We expect that momentum to continue through 2016 with revenue growth being our primary focus. As more people choose to make Atlanta home and as families, many of whom have relied on Dorsey Alston for several generations, seek to sell and purchase homes, we forecast that the increase in productivity of our current team will outpace the growth of the team itself.”
Waits:“Yes, we are going to expand our company this year by 25 percent [in revenue]. We will be hiring 8 to 10 new employees and creating new divisions/products to target specific niche markets to continue driving innovation in our industry and beyond.”
Q: What’s the biggest impediment to growing your company beyond what you expect this year?
Lawton:“I would say the biggest obstacle is around finding the right talent for the organization. It’s always a challenge. We can find people, but we want to have the right people and we’re trying to build a certain type of culture. I guess that’s more of a challenge; I wouldn’t say it’s an impediment. We deal a lot with the federal contracts, and there are certifications around quality control [ISO and CMMI] that we’re investing in, but we do not yet have them. While we’re working on getting them, that could be something that impedes our growth. My goal is to have both by Q1 of 2017. It [getting the certifications] is kind of like the next level of maturity for SJ.”
Mistry:“KontrolFreek is always looking for great people, and finding great team members is certainly a challenge to our growth. We are very deliberate in our hiring process. Beyond a candidate’s job skills, their cultural fit within the KontrolFreek crew is immensely important, and we look at that very closely before making a hire. People aren’t a commodity in our company and we tend to make room on the team when good people show up, even if we’re not currently hiring.”
Rogers:“Our growth has been a direct result of attracting and retaining the top Realtors in Atlanta. Atlanta and the metro region has some of the most beautiful homes in the country, but at the end of the day home buyers and sellers choose Realtors who operate with integrity, discretion and professionalism. My challenge as CEO is to continue to seek out these talented, ethical individuals and to make the case for Dorsey Alston.”
Waits:“Finding the right people is always the biggest challenge. We’re always recruiting and interviewing what we feel are the most talented people in our industry and market. We believe that to be an extraordinary company, we need to be made of extraordinary people.”
Q: What’s the biggest challenge your industry is facing this year? How are you overcoming that?
Lawton:“Cost competition is always a challenge. It requires continued focus on where and how we spend our resources. Recruiting great talent that fits our culture and being able to offer competitive benefits — that costs money. But because of that, we have to strike the balance between competitive benefits to our employees and our ability to stay cost competitive in the market. We feel strongly about taking care of both our customers and our employees.”
Mistry:“KontrolFreek operates at the intersection of some hot areas including eSports, video games and performance gaming gear. Each market is rapidly evolving with lots of investment dollars and new entrants, so keeping pace, staying focused and continuing to innovate is essential to our brand’s success. Keeping our leadership position in these markets involves investing in product development, marketing and our people, which is seemingly obvious, but often overlooked when growing rapidly.”
Rogers:“Our challenge is being patient as supply catches up with demand. Real estate is different from traditional businesses in that we are not making widgets. We are helping families make the most important decision in their lives, ensuring they receive maximum value for the home they are selling, and ensuring their next home meets their wants and needs for the foreseeable future. As the metro region has continued to grow, attracting 500,000 new residents over the last five years, we are experiencing a dearth of new homes in sought-after neighborhoods.”
Waits:“Innovation. It’s our job to help athletes perform better and to create safe, high-performance environments and dynamic training spaces. We’re pushing beyond industry standards to create training spaces for both indoors and outdoors that inspire a higher level of wellness and active living for everyone.”
Q: What’s your best advice for motivating employees?
Lawton:“I would say one is providing well-designed and thought-out professional development plans to help them achieve their goals, [which involve] understanding what their goals are, really asking the question to see if they know, and if they don’t, helping them carve out what they’re career path may be and aligning it with what their strengths are. Outline the clear requirements of what they need to succeed so it’s not ambiguous. Ultimately we want to set them up for success and make sure they understand what success means to them and to us.”
Mistry:“I spend a lot of time thinking about keeping my team motivated. Beyond the standard company benefits, I try to be attentive and creative about individual things I can do for team members. I believe that doing something small and extremely relevant, like calling a restaurant and picking up an anniversary or birthday dinner, can go a long way and make me feel just as good as my team members.”
Rogers:“My experience is that most individuals are motivated by and for their primary source of support. I always pushed myself harder and was more successful in athletics when I had a coach that believed in me. That feeling of empowerment motivated me to succeed for my coach more so than for myself. Many firms provide the tools for success, but I believe the magical motivator is sincerely caring for you team members.”
Waits:“Be passionate and love what you do. If you don’t enjoy where you work or what you do then go find something or a place where you’ll be happy. I can’t force an employee to work hard, that comes from within. We also aim to create environments that make employees want to come to work. I want employees that are motivated for Mondays instead of dreading them.”
Q: What is the best advice you’ve gotten as CEO?
Lawton:“I’ve been told on many occasions, slow and steady wins the race. I tend to be very eager to jump into opportunities, but the seasoned people who have been in CEO positions will tell me, it’s OK to take risks and be ambitious to but to focus on honing my ability to quickly assess situations and make decisions accordingly.”
Mistry:“The best CEO advice I’ve received is that it’s critical to surround yourself with a great team and support them in every way possible. As a CEO, you’re there to lead the organization by acting as a servant to the organization and what happens thereafter will pleasantly surprise you.”
Rogers:“Listen to your team. We were recently honored as one of the best places to work in Atlanta. That is an honor that makes me especially proud because it means we have created a work environment that balances success and achievement with pleasure. We listen and respond to our Realtors, and as a result, they enjoy being here.”
Waits:“Stay laser focused on who you are as a brand and never veer from your best business practices.”