From the November 1998 issue of Entrepreneur

The winter holiday season is traditionally the busiest time of the year for most businesses, with parties, decorating, gift exchanging and year-end administrative requirements all competing with the seasonal demands of your customers and the general needs of your business. With all the distractions, how can you keep your employees on track?

The first step is to decide exactly how productive your employees need to be, says Peggy Isaacson, a human resources consultant in Orlando, Florida. "Think about what productivity levels are really necessary," Isaacson says.

Next, review previous holiday seasons to determine whether business suffered. "What were the hassles last year?" asks Isaacson. "Was too much time spent on party planning? Were you short-handed because too many people took time off? What did your customers complain about?"

With this information, you can develop a plan that allows you to maintain productivity and avoid repeating your mistakes. Make it a companywide effort; people are more willing to buy into a solution they've helped create. Isaacson says you may need to come up with a fair way to allocate vacation time, and you may want to set limits on gift-giving and parties.

Finally, be especially sensitive to your employees during the stressful time between Thanksgiving and the end of the year. Remember that as challenging as holidays can be in the workplace, they can be even more difficult on a personal level. Look for ways to help relieve stress, such as having lunch catered or paying for a massage therapist to come in and give back and neck massages to employees.

"Above all, talk to your employees frequently, and let them know how much you appreciate their efforts," says Isaacson. "This is something you have to do yourself--don't delegate it, and don't just write a memo. Walk around and make personal contact."

Once January arrives, provide your employees with feedback to let them know how well the plan worked--and start thinking about how you can make next year's holidays even better.

Power To The People

Do-it-yourself energy.

Astorm knocks out your electricity, or temperature extremes cause your energy bill to skyrocket. Are these necessary evils you just have to deal with, or can you do something to prevent them?

With a product recently introduced by Torrance, California-based AlliedSignal Power Systems, even small businesses now have an alternative to their local power company for electricity. The TurboGenerator is a miniature power plant that generates power for a variety of businesses, from small factories to retailers. Tony Prophet, president and CEO of AlliedSignal, says the TurboGenerator provides two key advantages: cost savings and reliability.

In many areas of the country, purchasing electricity is significantly more expensive than converting natural gas into electricity at your point of use. Also, having your own on-site power generator allows you to convert the extra heat the system generates from operating into free thermal energy. And because you own or lease the system, you're not subject to the power company's rate changes.

On the reliability side, with your own generator, you'll not only have power during utility company outages, but you'll also have a consistent source of power without brownouts or surges.

Although the cost to buy and install a TurboGenerator is a hefty $50,000, the equipment can also be leased. According to Prophet, the purchase cost will likely drop to around $30,000 in the future as product pricing matures. While that sounds like a significant investment, Prophet says at current pricing, the system payback time is 18 to 36 months; by 2002, that should drop to 12 to 24 months.

Follow The Leaders

Imitation is fair game when you're building a successful company.

Do you have trouble relating to billion-dollar companies? You shouldn't, says Patrick Kelly--and he should know. Kelly is co-founder and CEO of PSS/World Medical Inc., a billion-dollar medical supplies and equipment distributor in Jacksonville, Florida, and author of Faster Company: Building the World's Nuttiest Turn-on-a-Dime Home-Grown Billion-Dollar Business (John Wiley & Sons).

Kelly is quick to point out that PSS, whose 1997 sales hit $1.3 billion, began as a small entrepreneurial venture. "We didn't start this company to grow a billion-dollar business," Kelly says. "That was never our intention. I got fired and needed a job, so three of us started this company. Our goal was survival. But because we did so many things right, the company became extraordinarily successful and we got dragged along with it."

Just how did he know what to do? It was partly intuitive, based on his own experience and knowledge of human nature. But mostly, he says, he got his ideas from other companies--and he encourages other business owners to do the same.

"I stole everything I use," Kelly admits. "I attend seminars, I listen to resources, I read four to six business books a month, and I steal ideas. If you're going to remain good at what you do, there are certain things you can learn from other people and what they did to make themselves successful."

Kelly's book teaches readers to adapt his techniques to their own companies. He says the keys behind PSS' success include:

  • Structuring an open-book company so every employee knows exactly what's going on and what their role in the operation is.
  • Focusing on what customers value--what they're willing to pay for consistently over a long period of time.
  • Avoiding getting bogged down with policies and procedures that distract you from your company's real goals.
  • Giving employees the authority to do whatever it takes to satisfy customers.

"Build a structure that self-governs," Kelly says. "Set a clear standard of what it takes to service the customer and how to treat each other, and then in those parameters, people will make the right decisions." And when they do, your company is sure to grow.

Keeping Tabs

Sometimes being a know-it-all really pays off.

It's a business nightmare: A key employee is suddenly unavailable--perhaps due to illness, resignation or a family emergency--and you need to know what's happening with his or her work. Unfortunately, all that information left with the employee, and you're left floundering.

How can you prevent such a nightmare from becoming a reality?

At Bud Bailey Construction Inc. in Salt Lake City, the solution is a project database that tracks all client contact, from the initial meeting with a prospect through all the stages of a project until completion. Owner Bud Bailey says the system allows managers to track projects, measure sales and plan resources. It also means the information is available even when a key member of the team is not.

Use of the company's database is mandatory, and failure to do so is treated as a performance issue and addressed with appropriate discipline. "It's an expectation of the job," Bailey says.

Prior to creating the database, Bailey used a paper system to accomplish the same objective. "We had a standard form that listed all the information we needed to know about a client and project," he explains. "When that form was filled out, it was copied and kept in three different locations: with me, the business development manager and the secretary of the division. If someone needed to access information, they could go to one of those three people, pull the form on the client and review it."

Bailey believes such information sharing creates a stronger company, improves overall communication and makes a key contribution to customer service capabilities. Most important, it eliminates dependence on any single person, and that ought to help you sleep better at night.

Contact Sources

Allied Signal Power Systems Inc., 2525 W. 190 St., Torrance, CA 90504, fax: (310) 512-1561

Bud Bailey Construction Inc., 244 W. 300 North, Salt Lake City, UT 84103, (801) 521-0060

Peggy Isaacson & Associates, fax: (407) 290-6404, prtprsoff@aol.com

PSS, 4345 Southpoint Blvd., Jacksonville, FL 32216, pkelly@pssd.com