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Archive for August, 2012

An Unfortunate Side Effect Of Late Retirement?

Friday, August 31st, 2012

Too Old To Be The BossIn Welding & Gases Today’s On The Edge column, we write about controversial, divisive and otherwise discussion-worthy topics. The topics come out of news and current events, or sometimes they come from a particularly poignant comment made in a conversation with a GAWDA member.

Such is the case with the recent article, “Too Old To Be The Boss,” which looks at the challenge of knowing when the time is right to turn the business over to the next generation. As one distributor put it, “It’s unfortunate that in some companies, the leaders just hang on to the reins too late.” Distributors at several companies had some very interesting things to say on both sides of the issue.

Undoubtedly, this is an issue businesses have struggled with for decades. But I began to wonder if maybe the issue has been exacerbated by the recent downturn in the economy. Last year, Welding & Gases Today conducted a survey of GAWDA members and found out that an overwhelming majority—77%—of GAWDA members have changed their retirement plans due to the economy. In other words, a lot of business owners are sticking around longer, and longer.

So is it at the expense of the next generation of leaders? The distributor whose comment spawned the recent On The Edge article would seem to suggest just that: “I came to the realization that I could actually hinder my company more than help it if I don’t make a change. We all have egos, but every leader reaches a point where fresh ideas aren’t fresh anymore.”

It may be hard to measure the right time for an owner to retire and let the next generation take over; and that number is one that shifts from situation to situation. But what we can measure is when GAWDA members say they actually plan to retire. In the 2011 survey, 0% of respondents said they could realistically retire before age 65. The greatest percentage was split between 66-69 and 70-75, while a few members said they would never retire.

The economy has been a setback for a lot of businesses in financial terms. But all of this leads me to wonder whether it could wind up being a setback in the development of the next generation of leaders. What do you think? Will the changing landscape of retirement have any lasting impact on the industry’s future leaders?

September Is Service Tech Month

Tuesday, August 28th, 2012

September is shaping up to be a busy and exciting month for GAWDA. First, we’re less than two weeks away from the Annual Convention, September 9-12 in Colorado Springs. But that’s not the only thing to be excited about for the coming month. Welding & Gases Today has declared the month of September as Service Technician’s Month.

Why dedicate a month to the industry’s service techs? Service techs play an incredibly important role for distributors. When a customer’s equipment goes down, the lost productivity can be very costly. In some industries, an hour of down time is equivalent to thousands of dollars of productivity. The experience a customer has with his or her repair is one that will have a lasting impact on a customer’s loyalty…or choice to take his/her business elsewhere.

Whether it’s welding equipment, a car or anything else in need of repair, great service from a service tech is something that people remember. As for myself, the experiences that stand out are those times when the technician took the time to listen, ask questions and then explain the problem and process of repair. The best techs I know are those who have taken a personal interest in my repair, going above and beyond the call of duty, and taking an unusual repair as a personal challenge.

Then again, I also remember the service techs who didn’t bother to call when my repair was done, or those who tried to up-sell me for unnecessary repairs. It’s also a bit jarring when a repair tech quotes you one price and then charges a very different number.

The bottom line is that a repair tech is perfectly positioned to solidify a customer relationship for life…be it through a timely repair that gets the customer back up and running, or a simple thing like knowing the customer’s name…but that same tech has the power to alienate customers.

So this September, GAWDA salutes the oft-unheralded service techs who keep customers happy and keep them running. Starting in September, we’ll have an honor roll of the industry’s best service techs. If you know a really good service tech, nominate them to honor their work and share what makes them so great. Plus, keep an eye out for a special contest involving service techs. I can’t reveal the details just yet, but needless to say, you won’t want to miss this.

Above I talked about my experiences and what stood out as good and bad service. Now I want to hear from you. What qualities in a service tech do you think make for a great customer experience?

Giving The Gift Of Training

Friday, August 24th, 2012

GAWDA's 2012 Gives Back recipients teach clients the skills needed for success.

While there are larger organizations than GAWDA, there are few who leave as great of an impact on the cities in which they gather. Through GAWDA Gives Back, association members have donated almost $1.2 million dollars to deserving organizations, saving lives and changing them forever.

In 2012, GAWDA has selected two charities in Colorado Springs to be on the receiving end of this incredible tradition of giving. Welding & Gases Today spoke with the directors of Partners In Housing and PEAK Parent Center to find out what these organizations are all about in “A Look Inside 2012’s GAWDA Gives Back Recipients.” When you have a few minutes, I strongly encourage you to read about the charities. They are doing some amazing work in the state of Colorado.

In referring to Partners In Housing, the article brings up the adage, “If you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime,” and rightly so. In fact, the same saying could be used to talk about PEAK Parent Center. What both organizations have in common is their mission to teach. Whether it’s helping homeless families or parents of children with disabilities, neither PIH nor PEAK offer their clients a handout. Instead, what they offer is education, training, resources…things to help them eat for a lifetime.

For me, this mission rings true with GAWDA as well. Whether it’s the Annual Convention, SMC, regional meeting, GAWDA University, Welding & Gases Today magazine or the GAWDA consultants, there is an incredible amount of education that the association offers members. In the end, training and education are worth more than any handout.

While the convention is just around the corner, it’s not too late to make a difference. If you’re thinking of supporting GAWDA Gives Back, get to know the organizations and people GAWDA’s leadership has selected for this year’s donations and go inside GAWDA Gives Back.

Where GAWDA’s Donations Really Went

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

GAWDA Gives BackGAWDA’s 68th Annual Convention in Colorado Springs is just around the corner. With it comes the culmination of another year of GAWDA Gives Back. But before we count up how much GAWDA members will add to the nearly $1.2 million already donated, it’s great to look back and see the amazing things accomplished with members’ donations.

Every year, Welding & Gases Today looks at how the chosen organizations plan to use the donations they receive. But often, the amount the charities receive is much larger than they ever expect. Some GAWDA members have been asking, how did they use the money? Did the recipients do what they said they were going to do with the money?

Well, here’s your answer. Recently, we called around to all of the great organizations GAWDA members have donated to over the past several years. The organizations were grateful and often overwhelmed by members’ generosity. They shared stories of lives saved and lives changed, and sent along letters and photos from people who have been impacted by GAWDA Gives Back.

The GAWDA Gives Back recipients have some amazing stories to share. Take a look at “How GAWDA Gave Back” to find out what happened with the money you’ve given over the years.

As we get ready for GAWDA’s Annual Convention, here are some GAWDA Gives Back fun facts:

  • The 2011 total was the largest GAWDA Gives Back donation to date. The previous highest donation was $193,162 in 2010.
  • In 2011 alone, GAWDA members surpassed the total giving from the program’s first five years combined. ($195,555)
  • 2011 was not the first year that GAWDA gave back to two organizations. In the program’s inaugural year, Maui Adult Day Care Centers and Hawaii Community Services Council shared members donations. And when the Convention was held in San Francisco in 2001, GAWDA members donated to the Lincoln Child Center and Beating the Odds.
  • Maui, HI, is the city that has received the greatest total donations from GAWDA members. The city hosted GAWDA in 2000, 2005 and 2010.
  • Even with only one year under its belt, New York City is now the runner-up after Maui.
  • After donating $971,773 in the first 11 years, GAWDA soared past the $1 million milestone in 2011.
  • The 12-year combined GAWDA Gives Back donations equal an incredible $1,174,483.

Where Do You Rank Among Your Competitors?

Friday, August 17th, 2012

Plastic tape measurePicking up on my blog last week about being accountable for good service (“How Do You Know If You Have Bad Customer Service”), it’s important to look at service through the customer’s eyes. When it’s products—be it a welding machine, a cylinder of gas, etc—it’s easy to know if you’re meeting your customer’s needs. But service can be more elusive and difficult to measure in a customer’s eyes.

Arguably worse than bad service is spending time and resources to provide unwanted or unnecessary resources. This is just another reason why it is so important to know and weigh the ways your customers are measuring you as a distributor…So how exactly are they measuring you?

According to Bill Moore, senior vice president with bearings manufacturer SKF, “Top-tier distributors can bring into play engineering assistance from their manufacturer suppliers to optimize the performance of components.” That service, Moore goes on to tell Industry Week, can help address problems like recurring equipment failure.

Another thing manufacturers like SKF look for is how prepared a distributor is to react to an emergency situation. Within the gases and welding industry, distributors have been tested over the last year and a half by numerous challenges ranging from supply shortages like helium and acetylene to weather catastrophes (tornadoes, blizzards, etc). Moore says an emergency response plan is a sign of a top-notch distributor.

There are countless ways to measure a distributor, and perhaps the best way to know what your customers care about is to ask. Whether you use formal survey, a personal conversation or even social media, your customer will appreciate the fact that you care what he thinks.

How do your customers measure you as a distributor? Share by leaving a comment.

This Welding Supply Embezzler Could Have Worked For You

Friday, August 10th, 2012

I’ve talked before about the risk email scams pose to industrial distributors; but sometimes the area of greatest vulnerability is within your own organization…and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a large company or a small business. Just ask the former owners of Colorado Welding Supply, whose bookkeeper was found guilty of embezzling more than half a million dollars from the business just this past month.

According to the Colorado Gazette, Michele Bratcher was found guilty of “an extraordinary pattern of embezzlement.” Facing up to a possible 12 years in prison, Bratcher was sentenced to 18 months in a jail work-release program and 12 years of intensive probation, and will be forced to repay the nearly $600,000 she stole, plus interest.

While the sentence may appear light when compared with a potential 12-year prison sentence, it was formulated to allow her to begin repaying her former employers as soon as possible. Even so, it’s hard to imagine any sentence that could make up for what the former business owners say helped put the company out of business. “She ruined my life,” former owner Eric Younger told the Gazette. “It was my dream to open up a welding supply business.” Younger says he since been forced to return to work as a long-haul trucker.

Embezzlement is a grave situation for any business owner, but fortunately there are precautions that can be taken to reduce the risk. CPA Edward J. McMillan shared his professional advice in “Is Your Company Ripe For Embezzlement?” He points out that many embezzlement cases have two things in common:

  • First, the embezzler was an employee above suspicion. In the case of Colorado Welding Supply, Bratcher was the daughter of a family friend, hired at that friend’s recommendation.
  • Second, the company was not audited by an independent certified public accounting firm.

McMillan adds that simple steps, like requiring two signatures on checks, can keep employees honest. He uses real-life case studies to show how each company left itself vulnerable, and how each embezzler was caught.

It’s easy to think that embezzlement is something that could never happen to your business; but the case of Colorado Welding Supply just goes to show that embezzlement can happen to anyone, and it is happening in this very industry.

How Do You Know If You Have Bad Customer Service?

Tuesday, August 7th, 2012

Customer ServiceLast month, I pondered where the industry may be headed, and I received an interesting comment from a distributor sales manager in response. Along with some really insightful remarks about automation and energy markets, I was really struck by his comment about customer service:

We are becoming a nation of complacency when it comes to customer service. We expect no service, therefore we get little in the customer service department. Our industry is not immune to this dilemma. As a matter of fact we may be just as guilty. Most of us think our companies have excellent customer service, when in fact, we don’t.

Keeping our eye on the “ball” when it comes to customers will be key to sustainable growth today and in the future.

GAWDA members take great pride in their service. Particularly with the lively discussions about industry consolidation that are taking place at Welding & Gases Today Online, the issue of service is brought up time and time again as the one thing that differentiates smaller distributors.

But how do you know if you have really good service? You can promise your customers top-notch service, but if even one employee within your organization does not buy into your service mentality, it can compromise the entire culture. So how do you make employees accountable for service?

I put the question out to the Welding & Gases Today group on LinkedIn and received some great responses. Here are a few of them:

Scott Smith says, “The best solution I’ve seen is to make service issues incentivized. Customer Service comes in many forms: shipping papers, billing, timely deliveries, not backordering product, etc. It’s a lot easier to define and track performance than people realize.”

Jacob Marion responds, “Financial incentives do play a part in encouraging good customer service among employees, but it is easy to over emphasize financial incentives. More than we want money, we want something to believe in. Good employees, who care about their work and their customers, believe in something.”

Tom Farley says, “What we in management do is more important than what we say. Your people will follow your lead.”

Now I extend the question to you: How do you hold yourself and your employees accountable for delivering on your customer service promise?

Distributors Are Feeling The Summer Heat

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

2012 Heat WaveIt’s a cool 91 degrees here in Syracuse today—cool, at least, compared to recent temperatures this summer, and cool compared to much of the country, parts of which are well over 100 degrees today. For some, the heat is merely a discomfort; for others it poses a serious safety risk. But could it also be bad for gases and welding distributors’ business?

After a strong performance out of the gate in 2012, several distributors I spoke with say that business has slowed down over the last month and a half.

Brad Peden, president at Arcmaster Supply in Fort Worth, TX (where temperatures are expected to reach 106 today), says, “Business was very good up until the first part of June, and then it tapered off. I don’t know whether it’s the summer heat or vacations or what, but everybody I’ve talked to in this area says the same thing.”

Further north in Madison, WI, Badger Welding Supplies Owner and President Scott Griskavich says the heat has likely been a factor. “Agriculture and construction have really been affected by the heat. The construction crews, roofing crews, they’re knocking off at noon on those 100-degree days. Nobody’s out in the fields. We had a 20-day stretch of 90-plus-degree weather. For Wisconsin, that’s insane.” He adds that shorter work hours mean workers are not consuming as much gas and other consumables.

Delta Gases (Maryland Heights, MO) VP Todd Linnenbringer has also seen a lull in business. He has heard some business owners say it’s the heat. “It’s been so hot, maybe customers haven’t been able to work full force on certain projects,” he says, adding, “I really don’t know what to attribute it to.”

At least in Tulsa, OK, where temperatures have been as high as 114 degrees over the past few days, news reports confirm that the heat is slowing down oil rig workers. Apache Corp tells The Oklahoman its employees are allowed to shut down the rigs and cool off whenever they need, for as long as they need. Most companies require employees to take frequent breaks.

If the heat is indeed to blame, is there anything distributors can do to battle the heat? “Pray for rain,” jokes Griskavich. More seriously, he says he’s adjusted his cylinder fillers’ schedules with their safety in mind. “We make sure to fill all the cylinders in the morning while it’s cool. If you start filling them in the afternoon, it could be 95 in the fill plant, and those things are radiating 130, 140 degrees.”

For distributors looking to offset the lull with new business, lightweight workwear may be a window of opportunity. At oil rig sites, OSHA requires workers to wear long-sleeved and long-pant flame-retardant clothing, heavy steel-toed boots and hard hats. Apache Corp VP Rob Johnston told the Oklahoman, “We’ve spared no expense trying to find the absolute lightest clothing available.”

However, the heat is only one suspect in this case. Another possible cause for slowing sales is the impending Presidential election. Says Linnenbringer, “Some people are saying it’s tied into the election, with customers waiting on projects to see who gets into office. Personally, I don’t see why that should change anything.”

If either the heat or the election is to blame, the good news is that both are temporary situations, meaning an end is in sight. As Linnenbringer puts it, “Hopefully it’s just a blip on the radar, and we can get back to being busy again.”

Has your business slowed this summer? How are you handling it?