From the July 1996 issue of Entrepreneur

Most businesses have an element of seasonality to them. When your business slows down, take advantage of that period to do things you can't do when you're busy.

"Do things that will make your business better when the slow time is over," says James Hahn, associate director of the Small Business Development Center at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. "Especially consider things that are typically disruptive of your normal operation."

Some of Hahn's suggestions:

Upgrade your computers and software.

Do necessary but noncritical repairs to your facility.

Conduct employee training sessions.

Spruce up your offices.

Schedule vacations.

Rearrange displays.

Clean out your desk.

Purge files.

Organize storage areas.

Prepare your next marketing campaign.

Keep in mind that some of these efforts may cost money during a time when revenues are down, so set aside the necessary funds in advance. That way, Hahn says, "you'll come out of the slow period at full speed."

Play It Safe

On-the-job safety is critical to every business. "The cost of even a minor on-the-job injury can be staggering," says Chip Curley of insurance agency Johnston & Associates in Winter Park, Florida. The good news: "Even though you may not be able to afford a full-time safety director, there are many low-budget ways to reduce the frequency of losses."

Curley advises beginning with pre-employment screening, including drug testing and background checks, to see if an individual has a history of filing workers' compensation claims. Once the person is on the job, address any issues that may increase the risk of accidents. Employees who are irritable, frustrated or dissatisfied may suffer from a lack of concentration that could cause an accident.

Identify the hazards specific to your business, and take steps to eliminate or reduce them. Conduct ongoing safety training and regular safety inspections; have a process in place to correct problems.

Finally, Curley says, recognize and reward employees for safety success. This doesn't have to cost a lot; T-shirts, a pizza party or award certificates can go a long way toward reinforcing your commitment to safety.

Make It Legal

The popular image of illegal immigrants is one of illiterate, poverty-stricken workers sneaking across the border to take menial jobs. The reality, however, is that many of them have the skills to work in a variety of occupations.

According to Linda Dodd-Major of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), as an employer, you are responsible for ensuring that both citizen and noncitizen employees document their identities and eligibility to work in the United States. Knowingly violating the provisions of the 1986 Immigration and Reform Act (IRCA) may subject you to fines and other penalties.

To comply with IRCA, you must have a completed Form I-9 on file for all employees and retain those forms for three years after the date of hire or one year after employment is terminated, whichever is later. You or your representative must personally review the documents that prove an employee's identity and eligibility to work in the United States.

You may reject documents that appear not to be genuine and ask for other acceptable documents. Be alert for obvious signs of fraud, such as cut-out and pasted photos, nonstandard paper, typed-in or other irregular insertion of information, and laminated versions of documents that shouldn't be laminated.

For more information, call the INS Employer Hotline at (800) 357-2099. Order I-9 forms by calling (800) 870-3676.

All For One

When it's your company, of course you care about delivering quality products and services. But how do you get your employees to feel the same way?

David Guidry, president of machine parts manufacturer Guico Machine Works Inc. in Harvey, Louisiana, says it's really not that difficult. "Problems come from a lack of knowledge, not a lack of trying," Guidry says. "Everyone here understands what we're trying to do, what we're up against." To make sure communication lines remain open and strong, the company's management team meets daily, the shop personnel meet three times a week, and Guidry meets formally with the entire company every two weeks and can be found on the shop floor regularly.

Recognition plays a critical role in Guidry's communication process. Positive performance is acknowledged and rewarded in front of the entire organization. Guidry also regularly invites customers and community members to tour the facility. "Our people are proud to be showed off to visitors," Guidry says.

Another key element of Guidry's strategy is providing clear and consistent opportunities for all employees to grow with the organization. "We always try to promote from within," Guidry says. "Employees can see the steps of succession. The workers who have been here longer set an example for new people-they are role models the newcomers can relate to."

To deliver quality, Guidry says people need to know what their job is and how to do it, and this can usually be accomplished through traditional training methods. Problems occur, he adds, not with what people either clearly know or don't know but with what they think they know. As part of the training process, Guidry creates an awareness of this issue and fosters an environment that encourages workers to ask for help whenever they are unsure.

"Quality is a clear identification of what you are trying to achieve," Guidry says. "Our people know what is expected of them, and they do it."

ClutterControl

If the clutter is getting out of control around your office, it may be time to set some boundaries for keeping work areas neat and establish policies for displaying personal items.

"In general terms, employers can establish nearly any rules or regulations in the workplace, so long as there is no discrimination or infringement on personal rights, and so long as those rules are fairly and consistently applied," says Philip Weber of Source One Consulting Inc., a human resources consulting firm in Atlanta.

There are a number of reasons for regulating the personal items employees can display at work. One is general aesthetics; what sort of image does your facility project? Another is to prevent workplace conflicts.

"By now, nearly every employer knows that allowing employees to display sexually suggestive material can be construed to contribute to a hostile workplace environment, which is a form of sexual harassment," says Weber. "The same follows for anything that might offend a racial or ethnic group. Even if the object or poster might not be found to create a hostile environment in the courts, it's bad policy to allow one employee to offend others."

You may also want to consider banning any potentially controversial item, such as political posters, religious images, and commentary on social issues.

The most popular approach to this issue is to establish a general policy expressing your objective for the overall work environment, then assume employees will be reasonable when it comes to specific issues. Weber offers these tips:

Explain your reasons behind the policy.

Keep policy statements on this subject brief and general. "The more detail you include, the more you'll need to cover all conceivable instances," Weber says.

Limit what employees can display by category. For example, you might prohibit "personal furniture" rather than listing individual items such as chairs, tables and lamps.

Set restrictions for safety reasons. You may need to explain that personal coffee makers or other cooking appliances cannot be used at workstations because of the risk of fire.

Going Places

If you feel like you've captured as much of the local market as you can, it may be time to move on. But before you leap into an out-of-state market, have a thorough plan in place.

"We don't go into a market unless we're committed to dominate that market," says Michael Glauser, president and CEO of Golden Swirl Management Co., a Salt Lake City company that operates more than 80 frozen yogurt retail shops in the Western United States and has a thriving wholesale division as well.

Glauser saw similar companies taking a shotgun approach to nationwide expansion and decided on a more focused method. To see the wisdom of his decision, just look at the numbers: The last 70 Golden Swirl stores were funded by operating capital and required no debt or equity financing.

"Our objective is to go into cities of 1 million to 2 million people, build a region of stores as quickly as we can, and not jump around," Glauser explains. By putting a large number of units in a particular area quickly, Golden Swirl is able to capitalize on economies of scale in distribution, management and marketing.

Before launching an expansion plan, Glauser advises, take a look within. "Seriously look at your reason for expansion," he says. "You typically have to grow to satisfy your employees, to offer them career opportunities, to have cash for research and development and those kinds of things." But, he cautions, you may not see a significant increase in your net earnings-in fact, during a strong push for expansion, your personal income may even decrease. "So know what your objective is, and be sure expansion is the way to make that happen."

Once you've made the decision, choose your market carefully. Consider distribution issues-how you will get raw materials and products to your new location, and how the cost of transportation will affect your service and pricing levels. Don't skimp on market research; you have to know the market you're going into as well as the one you're already in.

Consider who will be in charge of the new site. "Those who run that operation for you in the new area have to be as committed, hard-working and enthusiastic as you are," Glauser says. "They have to duplicate what you're doing in your present market. That means either you're in the new location a lot, or you bring in a partner, or you offer sufficient incentives for someone to behave like an owner in that new market. If you hire without creating that feeling of ownership, your operations will deteriorate dramatically as you move out of your state."

It's Party Time

Even in these days of downsizing, companies are still celebrating with annual holiday parties or summer picnics. Combined with the proper planning, the right perspective can make these gatherings more than just a good time.

"Seeing an annual event as just a party is shortsighted," says Clare L. Sullivan, owner of Clare L. Sullivan & Associates Inc., a corporate event production company in Houston. "There's a bigger picture involved. Events must be seen as part of a means to an end-the company's bottom line." This applies whether the event is a full family event that includes spouses and children or is restricted to employees.

Well-planned, coordinated events that are promoted in advance and include games and contests can boost employees' morale, improve teamwork, enhance interdepartmental cooperation and generally establish better working relationships throughout the company. "Employees who feel good about themselves and their employer are less likely to contribute to the millions of dollars lost every year to absenteeism, sick leave and turnover," Sullivan says.

The key to a successful event is thorough organization, which is why you should consider hiring a professional event planner-even if your company has a small staff or limited budget.

Keep in mind one important caveat: Don't burden your employees with planning. "This is the '90s," Sullivan notes. "We're outsourcing everything to people with the appropriate expertise."