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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Reflection time

Alberta's Calibre Group has built a successful painting business -- but along the way, it had growing pains. Nevertheless, this corporate history is inspiring.

Many people find it stressful -- and frustrating -- to spend nine hours in planes and airports to meet someone face-to-face for three hours. I (mostly) enjoy the process. While our employee hiring system is not big on conventional interviews, I think it important to have eye contact with candidates who make it through all the hoops and are about to be offered employment with us. This interview connects the dots, and allows me to gain insights into the potential new employee that wouldn't be possible earlier. However, it is important that the prejudices and perceptions created by the visual cues and 'instinctive reactions' be mediated against the various measuring and screening tools to get to this stage.

We still have two more things to do before offering employment: Validating references, and preparing/sending the employment contract. But I'm now confident that our newest potential employee in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, will be successful -- and help the business grow to the next stage (as she grows in a career matching her personality and skills.)

Still, to complete this interview, I had to get there and back. A regional airline Bearskin offers direct service between Ottawa and Sault Ste. Marie in tiny planes but (rightfully) charges 'business-use' prices for the convenience. But my "only on weekend and Tuesdays in January and February" Air Canada flight pass allowed me to fly 'free' -- (the modest flat fee for the unlimited use pass quickly can be recovered if the pass is used efficiently) -- and I could even feel like a First Class passenger with my credit card lounge access.

I don't waste my time in the planes and airports, however. I take reading material to catch up on new ideas or review concepts -- and sometimes scan and read 'off topic' magazines for additional inspiration. But most importantly, away from everyone, I think and reflect, and my main thoughts yesterday related to growing pains, and the challenges of ensuring we take a prudent and thoughtful approach to the business expansion now occurring.

Prudent thinking is essential with the external economic backdrop of looming recession. We haven't really experienced a nasty recession since the early to mid 1990s -- even the high-tech meltdown in 2000 and 2001 terrorism proved to be modest blips economically for the construction industry. This downturn will probably be tougher especially since the overall problems can be tracked an issue directly relevant to the construction industry -- the sub-prime mortgage crisis,which resulted in massive overbuilding because of easy and misapplied credit.

As a publisher selling marketing and advertising services, I'm well aware that the early stages of a recession are good for our business -- potential advertising and marketing clients who had a backlog of work and didn't need to promote themselves now suddenly have to find new business, and spend money on marketing, promotion, and advertising (often wastefully). This of course is good for us only until they run out of money!

So what should we do? Well, we need to treat our clients with respect, deliver real service and value, and realize that even in the worst of times, the best-run businesses will survive and thrive; and we are there to help.

My other challenges right now are systems and process deficiencies caused by years of economic decline (our own internal recession lasted from 2004 to 2006). As things deteriorated, I cut all kinds of costs for non-essentials; resulting in (just like the real world) an infrastructure deficit. Old computers, poor records and circulation administration, and limited accounting and management systems operated at a basic level, and allowed us to meet essential obligations (without draining cash for overhead expenses). But now these need to be replaced, upgraded, and maintained -- and of course cash flow lags in a growth situation.

We'll manage, of course, I can work around the inefficiencies, weaknesses and problems here -- and the risk of hiring a properly qualified and tested sales representative, even with a generous salary guarantee, is low: Incremental sales, even while the representative is not 100 per cent effective -- more than pay the extra costs.

Interesting times, indeed.

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