Small business lending is up, capital spending by businesses has increased, and unemployment is finally heading in the right direction. With a mild recovery predicted for 2012, small business owners finally have some cause for optimism.
Yet leaders remain cautious, especially about planning for growth—and the toll anxiety can take is tremendous. What are the leaders who experienced growth in 2011 (and who forecast more of the same this year) doing differently? We talked to four members of Vistage, a peer group organization for C-levels, to find out.
Mostly, it seems they’re channeling others’ anxieties into new opportunities—and filling gaps their competitors have left behind. Chalk it up to the post-recession new normal. Leaders who move faster, seize opportunities when they arise and execute ultimately see the biggest wins.
Here are five ideas to help you drive growth:
1. Close the gap by moving faster on new initiatives
For Larry Shalzi, president of dcVAST Inc., a company providing IT management, consulting and services to company data centers, that meant focusing on a single growth objective this year—and accomplishing it faster than ever.
"In the past, we would do a three- or five-year plan," he says. "Whatever goals we had three to five years out, we said let's cut them in half. If we can do it faster, before our competition does, that’s going to put us that much farther ahead.”
2. Capitalize on core strengths to spur new growth
Rob Hale, president and owner of United Controls International, a company that provides engineering and testing services for the nuclear industry, has seen massive growth in both the nuclear energy industry at large and his own business. But because the industry is so closely regulated, there are significant barriers to entry.
He recently started a new venture called the Nuclear Training Institute. It provides training for his own staff—and staff from other companies. This adds credibility with his suppliers, opens up new opportunities with the companies he trains, and provides unusual opportunities for face time—both with potential hires, and with clients who tour the facility.
“It’s a great networking opportunity. It’s a revenue stream. We continue to learn more as we teach. Some may ultimately become competitors, but it’s good to know your competitors as well. We see a lot of win-wins with this,” he says.
3. Put relationships and strategic alliances before rules
By strategically building new relationships and partnerships, Dan Dickinson, owner and chairman of G.A.S. Capital, Inc. and chairman of INAV Group LLC (an umbrella of aviation-related companies that buy, sell, broker and lease aircraft, engines and parts), has started several new companies under the INAV umbrella—right through the recession. “I’m a master networker. I’ll meet somebody and I’ll instantly find out where the commonalities are and where they’re not. Two plus two equals five if you do it right.”
Gregg Fisher, president and chief investment officer of Gerstein Fisher, a New York investment advisory business, opened The Gerstein Fisher Research Center in 2009 with the support of several leading strategic academic alliances. The center is designed to produce research that benefits the end investor.“I thought that a tight collaboration with the world’s leading universities on financial risk management at the bottom of the financial markets was a very good partnership to create,” he says.
4. Provide good service at a good price
Leaders aren’t just optimistic—so are customers. Even if customers aren’t hiring yet, many are looking for more efficient ways to invest the money they do have. “There’s a lot of money sitting on the sidelines,” says Shalzi. “If you can provide value, I think that there’s definitely an opportunity for companies to grow and make money.”
To adapt to his clients’ new reality, Shalzi decided to add a new business unit offering managed IT services. In doing so, Shalzi is helping existing customers save money (by bundling services), and giving them time to focus more energy on their own businesses—thereby increasing the chances of their success and profit, as well as his own. Shalzi’s focus on delivering value to customers is working; the past two years have been the best in dcVAST’s history in terms of gross profit margin dollars and back-to-back years of operating income.
5. Find ways to jump in when competitors are cutting back.
All four leaders made new hires. Hale hired 32 people last year—in effect, almost doubling his staff. He also purchased a state-of-the-art building, which also houses the new training institute. Fisher tripled his staff during the past seven years, and moved his offices from Wall Street to Midtown Manhattan—doubling his office space.
Both found that it was easier to attract top talent and negotiate better prices at the bottom of the crisis. Says Fisher, “What we learn from good, smart business and investment decisions is, the greatest opportunities often exist during challenging times.”