Author Archives: Ken Garner

About Ken Garner

Epicomm President and CEO Ken Garner joined the Association of Marketing Service Providers in November 2008, after a 33 year career in the printing industry – all with the same company. He joined United Litho, a heatset web magazine printing company, after receiving his undergraduate degree. Working his way up the corporate ladder from janitor/delivery driver he held a variety of jobs including V.P of Operations and V.P. of Sales and Marketing. He spent the last 12 years of his printing career as United Litho’s president. In 1994, he engineered the sale of the company to the Sheridan Group and became a member of its Leadership Team. Most recently Ken led the successful re-positioning and rebranding of his association to increase its relevance to the members it serves. AMSP is a member of the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service. Ken is a member of its Executive Committee. Ken is a frequent speaker at industry events and has authored numerous articles for a variety of trade publications. He has also been a featured guest on Fox News. Ken has an extensive background as a volunteer leader serving as a Director on the Boards of the Printing Industry of Virginia, the National Association for Printing Leadership, and the Graphic Arts Show Corporation. He served as chairman of the Environmental Conservation Board, PIA’s Executive Development Program, the Graphic Arts Education & Research Foundation, and NAPL. He is a member of NAPL’s Walter E. Soderstrom Society. In 2002, he received the Walter E. Soderstrom Award. He lives with his wife Mary in Fairfax Station, Virginia and spends much of his free time following his daughter’s collegiate basketball coaching career.

What You Need to Know About “S Curves”… No, it’s Not about Baseball

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We can all debate about what the most important goal in business should be. It’s always been my opinion that the most important goal is to “create a sustainable competitive advantage”. From that point, all things follow. The problem is that of all the goals and objectives you can identify creating a sustainable competitive advantage may be the most elusive and most difficult to achieve. However, understanding the concept of “business cycles” and where your company sits in the cycle can provide you with a powerful tool to help you avoid the dreaded “stall point”.

First, let’s understand what the “S Curve” and why “Stall Points” need to be avoided at all costs. Every business begins, develops, and disappears along a consistent pattern sometimes referred to as a business cycle. This business cycle follows the pattern of an “S”, thus the term “S Curve”. The lowest point on the S Curve represents the start-up position as the enterprise searches for a value proposition that is desired by customers and that differentiates it from the competition. Assuming the start-up phase is successful the business then moves into the growth phase. This part of the cycle is characterized by “optimization” as management focuses on leveraging the success of the value proposition. Typically, the growth phase involves significant investments in equipment and staff. Often debt begins to grow. Management is totally focused on harvesting the profit potential of the original value proposition without understanding that without developing a fresh, updated and more relevant value proposition their competitive advantage is quickly disappearing. They are headed to the last part of the business cycle, the crown of the S Curve, the must be avoided “Stall Point”.

Why be so concerned about hitting a Stall Point? In their book, Stall Points, Matthew Olson and Derek Van Bever talk about the insidious nature of Stall Points. They point out –

  • That Stall Points are hard to predict; most come as a complete surprise to management.
  • Most organizations’ growth actually accelerate into a Stall Point.
  • Recovery must come quickly or recovery may not come at all.
  • Only 7% of the companies they studied were able to return to growth.
  • The average company they studied lost 74% of its market capitalization in the decade following the Stall Point.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to avoid falling into this trap, and there are steps you can take if you hit a Stall Point… both of which I am happy to share… on the following condition. I only ask that you respond to this blog. Write a comment. Let me know if you would like me to follow up with more information. It’s as simple as that. If I don’t hear from you I will assume this blog has reached its Stall Point.

CEO’s – Stay Connected to the Shop Floor

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Through my career I have worked for various CEO’s who have allowed themselves to become disconnected from the realities of working on the shop floor. Sometimes this happened by “accident”, while in some cases the CEO purposely worked to avoid developing and maintaining a relationship with those who executed the work orders and got the work out. In my opinion, this represented a lack of leadership sense and typically resulted in an organizational culture needing frequent repair. And if the chasm between senior management and shop floor workers grows too wide the results can bring a business to its knees.

I’ve heard all the excuses… “I’m too busy. There’s just not enough time”. “I hire supervisors to handle the workforce”. “If I get too close, I won’t be able to make the hard decisions about who stays and who goes”. Like most excuses, it’s not justifiable and likely represents either a lack of leadership experience, a lack of understanding, or a blatant disregard for the organization’s most valuable asset. As CEO you are responsible for creating and maintaining a positive and constructive organizational culture. This is not a responsibility you can delegate or outsource.

Some of you who lead small organizations that require your daily presence on the shop floor may think this message is not for you. Not so fast. Some of the CEO’s I referred to above actually started out being “owner operators” dividing their time between managing and operating shop floor equipment. But, as the company experienced success and grew more of their time was spent with “strategic” responsibilities until the time came when they no longer understood the challenges encountered by those who “get the work out”.

Like all critically important things, staying connected requires diligence, commitment, and a plan. Part of that plan should include the responsibility for managing the internal messaging required to keep all employees informed. Does each of your employees know the reason why your company exists, what makes it unique, why customers come and why they go, and how what they do impacts the company’s success or failure? How often do they get updates regarding the company’s performance? Do birthdays or service anniversaries get recognized? Are there celebrations to recognize individual and organizational achievements? All of this can be captured in a company newsletter, but that still falls short of what you need to do. You need to regularly communicate all this information, and more, in face-to-face periodic company-wide meetings that you organize and lead.

Here is a typical agenda for a company-wide meeting that should take place at least once a quarter and can be accomplished in 90 – 120 minutes –

  • Review of company mission, purpose, goals and objectives…
  • Review of progress against all goals and objectives –
  • Review of simplified P&L, balance sheet, and cash flow (this represents a great teaching opportunity).
  • Review of new customers and lost customers with explanations about why they came and why they left.
  • Review of critically important initiatives and projects being introduced in the coming quarter.
  • Introduction of new employees.
  • Recognition of service anniversaries.
  • Q&A.

This represents an investment of 8 hours of communication and connection time over the course of a year. Few commitments will provide a greater return on investment. What should you expect? How about higher morale, higher productivity, less employee turnover, and higher levels of customer satisfaction?

Wait, you’re not done. Paying attention to employee communication and education should not only happen four times a year. Get up from behind that desk and spend some time on the shop floor. Be seen. Talk to folks during breaks and in between shifts. Try and learn a little about their families and interests away from the plant. Show your “human” side. Let them know they are more than just cogs in a wheel.

Does it make the tough decisions about staffing easier? No. But that’s why you get paid “the big bucks”

Feeling Like An Underdog? It Might Be A Good Thing!

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It’s easy to understand why so many feel like underdogs in our industry. Challenges seem to exist wherever we look. We often feel like David getting ready to take on Goliath. Well, take heart because Malcolm Gladwell is providing us “underdogs” with reasons to think differently in his most recent book, David and Goliath – Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.

The book predictably begins with a detailed review of the famous confrontation between the over-powering Philistine warrior and the diminutive Israelite shepherd who possessed a unique talent. I have to admit that up to the point of reading Gladwell’s book I always thought the story of David and Goliath was a parable. So for me it was a bit of a revelation to find out that the story is rooted in historical fact. Apparently, in the days of the Old Testament it was not unusual for warring parties involved in a stalemate to select a soldier from each side to settle the battle with individual combat. In this case the Philistine’s chose a giant of a man (6’9”) clad in full body armor with weapons designed for close combat to be their representative. I’m quite sure the captain of the Philistine army was pleased with his choice and confident in the outcome. I’m also sure that the Israelites were stunned when they got a view of Goliath moving to the location where things would be settled. Only one Israelite volunteered and he wasn’t even a soldier. Seeing this apparent mismatch how would you have wagered on the outcome?

As Paul Harvey used to say, “now for the rest of the story”. We all know the surprising outcome, but do we fully understand how David was able to “smite” the mighty Goliath without breaking much of a sweat? In fact, the fight was indeed a mismatch but all the advantages were owned by David. The selection of Goliath was based on the preconceived notion that the combat would be close order. Why not choose a giant of a man with incredible strength clad in full armor with weapons ideal for hand-to-hand combat? However, David had a different strategy in mind. As a shepherd David had developed a unique skill as a “slinger”; that is, the ability to ward off predators with the use of sling that could propel a stone with tremendous velocity and incredible accuracy –from long range. David skillfully substituted speed, stealth and the ability to accurately launch a “long range missile” to turn the tide in his favor. The lumbering giant never had a chance.

The point of all this? Gladwell points out that often apparent sources of strength are also sources of weakness. In my previous life I managed a “midsized” magazine printing company. We often competed with the largest magazine production companies in the industry and we won more of those competitive battles than we lost. Why? How? We certainly couldn’t match up with all of the “big boys” capabilities illustrated in their promotional brochures. However, just like Goliath their size was also their weakness. They tended to be slow to react; often overconfident, even arrogant; overly bureaucratic; and overly formal. We didn’t possess all of their impressive fire power but we were very responsive, quick to respond emphasizing lots of personalized service, grateful for every piece of business we won.

Gladwell says that, “…being an underdog can change people (and organizations and industries) in ways that we often fail to appreciate: it can open doors and create opportunities and educate and enlighten and make possible what might otherwise have seemed unthinkable.” So, underdogs take heart. We may be better positioned for combat than we thought.

Food for thought…