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There are thousands of different types of paint and wall coverings used in the painting trade; hundreds of floor coatings and finishes on the market. Andy Robbins, CEO of A&K Painting Company, Inc., has worked with a large number of them during the years since he rode the paint bucket on his father’s van as a teenager.
Today, he spends a lot of time standing in the brand new 10,000-square-foot Operation Training and Showroom Center—the pride of A&K Painting—which he owns with his brother Kevin, president of the company.
A&K Painting is a full-service commercial and light industrial painting company headquartered here inCharlotte. Started in 1994, the company has grown to be a highly respected painting contractor serving clients in North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Virginia,Tennessee and Pennsylvania.
“If you have the right size project and we can agree on terms, then most definitely—there’s nowhere we won’t go for the right job,” says Andy spiritedly.
With revenue exceeding $5 million, the company has enjoyed strategic partnerships with the likes of CB Richard Ellis, Childress Klein, Bissell Companies, Myers and Chapman, Harker Doerre, DSS and Choate, to name a few.
Projects range in size and scope within industry segments including up-fits, new commercial construction, commercial repaint, and multi-family rehab. The company has worked in office buildings, big box stores, banks, health care and fitness centers, car dealerships, university facilities, data centers and restaurants. National accounts include Target, Starbucks, Applebee’s, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Wilco-Hess and Burger King.
A&K Painting’s slogan—“A Relationship You Can Trust”—sums up the company’s philosophy. “We take a different approach to our projects,” says Andy. “We’re not followers. We don’t come to the job asking what to do. We come with a plan of action to review with the client and then get to work. To do that, we have to have their trust.”
Kevin is quick to point out, “That trust had to be earned. When we first came toCharlotte, nobody knew us. We had to earn our way, and that’s a big deal to us.”
Painting by the Numbers
One of the toughest and largest contracts for A&K Painting was a massive, multi-state repaint project for Wells Fargo Bank in the fall of 2010 through the fall of 2011.
“We did the first 23 branches in three weeks!” exclaims Andy, who describes the project as a great opportunity to showcase their talents. “They were so impressed with our work that they awarded us the contracts on 227 additional branches.”
The project was started in Florida, moving at a pace of 60 to70 seventy branches every six to eight weeks. While some of the project consisted of prep and paint, other parts of it involved removal of decades-old wall coverings from 100-year-old plaster walls. But the most difficult part was that, in almost all of the branches, they had to work during open hours of the bank.
“We had to leave the sites spic-and-span, everyday, while staying on schedule,” remembers Andy.
Last summer A&K worked on another project in Winston-Salem for Caterpillar, Inc. which required 23,000 gallons of dry fall material to be sprayed onto 900,000 square feet of ceiling space.
“We were working alongside people in other trades, which is difficult to do,” says Kevin. “Our products are applied wet and dry solid. Plus, the scheduling restraints were such that we had to do our work late at night between 6 p.m. and 4 p.m.—also quite a challenge.”
Last year A&K also completed a 750,000-square-foot interior and exterior paint project for Becton Dickinson in Cary.
“Last year was a very good year for us,” agree the partners. “Those projects were definitely catalysts for our boom in business,” says Kevin.
Creating a New Canvas
“We outgrew our old offices and operations space,” says Andy. “All this is new,” he motions around at his remodeled office and gestures towards theOperation Training and Showroom Center (OTS) just a short distance down the street. The company moved into the facility in November of 2011.
“Workers check in and out of the OTS and that’s where they gather supplies. We also hold monthly training sessions as well as foreman roundtable meetings there,” continues Andy. “Additionally, we wanted to create a space where clients could see how various products actually look when applied.”
“We are on the finishing end,” explains Kevin. “The operation time for us is usually fairly small, which doesn’t leave time for adjustments or changes. Preferably, we want to be brought in on the front-end, when choices of products are being made. We want to educate the client up front.”
The actual showroom is 1,600 square feet and displays over 100 types of paints, 40-plus different wall coverings, eight different types of floor coatings, faux finishes and a mural.
A&K Painting’s growth in core business and market share has spawned new hires. The company currently employs 80-plus employees. Eighteen of those are in office positions; the remainder are field personnel including foremen, project managers and estimators.
Keeping employees safe is critical. All field personnel have lift certification, 30-hour OSHA certification, and are certified for first aid and CPR. Workers are required to have all of their personal protection equipment—ear plugs, hard hat, safety glasses and boots—before going out into the field.
Foremen wear green shirts so clients know who’s in charge. Painters wear white shirts and white pants. All staff members are sent out with digital tablets, a colored set of plans, large paint samples to match against paint, and directions to the job.
“We are constantly looking for innovative ways to manage,” says Kevin, describing the company’s recently investment in a massive cloud-based job management system to handle purchase orders, bids, information about jobs and reports.
“We run our business the same way Well Fargo or other corporations run theirs,” says Andy. “We consider ourselves to be very professional and take pride in that.”
Like most businesses, A&K Painting had to make some changes to weather the economic downturn of the past few years.
“We’ve had to enlarge our operational radius to find the types of work and contractors that best fit our personality and philosophy,” says Andy. The downturn also drove segmentation changes. Whereas new construction had been plentiful previously, the downturn has led to more repaint projects.
Finding experienced workers is often a challenge. “Back in the day there used to be craftsmen and they had apprentices. They took time. They had time. Now the world has gotten itself busy,” says Andy. “We’re still painting with the same tools we used 50 years ago—so it’s very challenging to meet the lightning speed schedules and train an apprentice.”
The paint industry has also been impacted by the green movement with new products coming out with reductions in volatile organic compounds which produce off-gases and recycled products being added to the market.
“We feel like we’re one of the first [paint companies] to embrace the green movement,” says Kevin. “We make every effort to stay abreast of these issues so we can keep our clients informed.” That commitment is reflected by the staff, some of whom carry Green Advantage and LEED certifications.
Prepping for Painting
Andy and Kevin grew up in Rock Hill, S.C., the sons of a residential painting contractor. Seven years older than Kevin, Andy worked with his father from time to time and learned to paint. After earning a business degree from the Universityof South Carolina, Andy first pursued fitness and coaching, considering painting more seriously.
”My father was adamantly against being partners, but he made a call to a contractor friend who had two spec homes side by side. That’s where I got started. He let me borrow his van,” says Andy, officially starting his own company in 1994 at the age of 26.
His first big job came in the second year of business. Driving down the road from his old high school, he noticed a large construction project. He decided to turn around and talk with the contractor and walked away with a contract for the 475,000-square-foot West Marine Distribution Center.
Then he landed another large project in Spartanburg. “I had no experience with building plans, books or balance sheets,” says Andy. “Dad had taught me the application side of painting, but now I needed to learn the business side. But I was smart enough to realize what I didn’t know and started reaching out.”
Andy was fortunate to find a series of mentors in the industry and in organizations like the Painting and Decorating Contractors of America to help him understand contracts, bidding and estimation. Then, in 1998, Kevin came on board.
Kevin had attended Winthrop University and worked with U.S. Tobacco. He joined A&K Painting as vice president to fill the estimation and project management role. At the time Andy was doing new home construction but wanted to venture into commercial business.
“My job was to develop the commercial division,” says Kevin. “I discovered that there is a very big difference between being a painter versus an executive who owns a painting company.”
Kevin did learn and a year and a half after he came on board, the company went 100 percent commercial. The two partners moved their growing business toCharlotte in 2000. From an efficiency point of view, it made little sense to remain in Rock Hill. Most of the work was in Charlotte.
“Long term, it was the best decision we’ve ever made,” says Kevin. “Short term, it was difficult. We jumped out of our comfort zone in Rock Hill; now we were the new kids on the block.” The brothers understood that to reach their goals and be the company they wanted to be, they needed a strong Charlottepresence.
In 2003, Kevin left the company for seven years and went to work for PPG. “I wanted to see what it was like to work for a large corporation. It turned out to be a very educational experience. I learned how to manage a large, diverse group.”
Returning to A&K Painting in 2010 as a partner, Kevin now oversees the work of the department heads, manages finances, monitors negotiations with vendors and advances the company through operations and systems development. Andy focuses on sales and business and client development.
With roots in both Rock Hill andCharlotte, Andy and Kevin give back to both communities. Both Andy and Kevin are family men. Andy has three children and lives in Lake Wylie; Kevin has two children and lives in Indian Land.
A&K Painting is forging ahead with business development but the company is reasonably cautious.
“In this economy, it’s impossible to plan much further than five years,” says Kevin.
Commenting on their success, Andy says, “We are getting a lot of exposure now; our reputation is growing, but I prefer to stay very humble. As difficult as it is to reach the pinnacle, it takes continued hard work to stay there.”
The brothers express a lot of gratitude for the success they have experienced in Charlotte.
After Rick Cantwell graduated from West Point, he and his wife Becky made a deal: If she would support his choice of a military career, he would retire at the end of 20 years. So, in 1995, Lt. Colonel Cantwell wrapped up his distinguished career with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and retired from the military.
Cantwell interviewed with six companies. When he talked with Odell Associates inCharlotte about opening an international branch of the company, it was a good fit. Furthermore, Becky liked Charlotte. “The community embraced her,” says Cantwell.
So Cantwell began his second career heading Odell International, a program management firm with clients ranging from various U.S. Department of Defense agencies to foreign Department of State agencies.
His job was to make sure Odell International excelled at creating strategic planning, system development, operations, and infrastructure across a broad spectrum of client needs for a broad range of global clients.
“Whether the project is in healthcare, government, education, or transportation, we can plan it, estimate its cost, help complete it, commission it, and train the staff to make it sustainable,” says Cantwell. “We make sure the client gets what they want.”
Originally established as a company in which Cantwell and Odell Associates both held ownership, Cantwell now owns 100 percent of Odell International and completed the certification process making Odell International a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business.
As a Certified SDVOSB, Odell International is eligible to pursue set-aside and sole source government projects, including several for the Veterans Administration Medical Centers located in Salisbury, N.C., Columbia, S.C. andHuntington, W.V.
Experience Around the World
Cantwell was the oldest of five children in a military family. When he was in the fourth grade, his father was stationed at Ft. Hood in Texas. The five children shared two bikes, so when the school had a reading program that offered a new red bike as the top prize, Cantwell went after it. He read over 200 books and won the bike. Cantwell credits all that reading to his passion for global business.
“By the end of fourth grade, I knew I wanted to be an engineer,” he says. “I also knew I wanted to go to West Point and that I wanted to travel and see the world.”
Not only did Cantwell graduate from West Point in 1975, he also received a master’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Texas in 1983, and completed the Construction Executive Program at Stanford in 1987.
As the engineer program manager of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, Cantwell was responsible for the planning, programming, budgeting, design, and construction of all facilities. He commanded a 625-man combat engineer battalion in South Korea stationed on the 38th parallel of the Demilitarized Zone to plan for and prepare against aggression by North Korea.
He was a member of special operations teams that conducted threat and vulnerability assessment in dozens of countries around the world and has been called on to testify and brief Congressional committees.
Altogether Cantwell has traveled to 87 different countries, fulfilling his childhood desire to see the world. After 27 years of experience in special operations engineering, program management and security operations, Cantwell is a subject matter expert on counter terrorism procedures and methodologies.
Congresswoman Sue Myrick appointed Cantwell as the Chairman of her Homeland Security Task Force. Additionally, Cantwell co-chairs the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Homeland Security Working Group with Major General (retired) Wynn Mabry.
Odell International is consulted by leading corporations and government agencies on complex Command and Security Technology Management practices, including 2020 Imaging.
Altogether, the experience Cantwell gained from his 20 years with the United States Army Corps of Engineers has translated smoothly to his work at Odell International. In the position of MACOM Engineer for the United States Army Special Operations Command, he supervised the long range planning, environmental assessment and master planning for the command. He also supervised the preparation and submission of capital investment programs and project development brochures.
Odell International’s first project was a 2.6 billion upgrade to health care in the United Arab Emigrates. Cantwell was able to help determine the strategic plan and to develop a sustainable program.
“In this case, as in all our projects, I’m there to work myself out of a job,” says Cantwell. “Every Westerner who heads up a department has a National as his deputy to provide for the eventual transfer of the technology and the skills to manage it to the UAE.”
Intended as a 14-year project, the UAE venture came to an early end after 9/11 when the Arab world pulled back from partnerships with U.S. companies and the U.S. instituted more stringent regulations governing the working relationships of U.S. businesses and foreign states.
Nevertheless, Odell International has thrived. Its latest projects include providing mobile command units to Nigeria, developing global wellness clinics for a Portugal client, and continuing care retirement communities in Cypress andChina.
Additionally, Odell International has teamed up with Parsons on a $500 million project to help rebuild the health care facilities in Iraq. Parsons is a leader in many diversified markets with a focus on infrastructure, environmental, and defense/security.
Today Odell International is a leading program management firm with the resources and capabilities to manage multiple health care projects simultaneously as part of a comprehensive program. In an environment that involves numerous contractors, vendors, suppliers and agencies, Odell International ensures that resources and activities are integrated, synchronized, and efficiently employed, resulting in program success.
“We make sure the project happens within budget and on time,” assures Cantwell. “In today’s world it is all about optimization. You have to use the right amount of energy and use it appropriately.”
It is also about having the right people in the right place. Odell International is organized around a carefully designed project team that is unique to each client. The project team allows the firm, with its numerous skill sets and assets, to offer personal attention to clients while providing the widest range of professional expertise available. Not surprisingly, 90 percent of Odell International’s employees are veterans.
“They have great skills and great work ethics,” explains Cantwell “They’ve been in the area; they know the culture, the language.”
Contrary to traditional models of program management that involve simply executing a client’s plan, Odell International becomes involved at the earliest stages and participates in program identification, definition, and planning. Through the review and development of short- and long-range business plans, growth projections, organizational culture, and other reviews, Odell International is able to assist the client in creating a strategic plan that maximizes the business objectives. The strategic plan allows for purchasing needed services, materials, and equipment in sufficient time and quantities to insure on-time delivery and favorable pricing. Odell International then executes the program on time and within budget.
When Odell International was contracted to provide $71 million of medical equipment in support of the Buildings, Health and Education Sector of the Rebuilding Iraq contract, it managed the process from start to finish. This included working with the end user, the Iraqi Ministry of Health through the Project and Contracting Office and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Odell International was in charge of purchasing equipment that would be installed in 150 primary health care centers that were to be constructed throughout Iraq.
“We take on a challenge, like this project in Iraq, that the client himself is unable to do or has never done before,” explains Cantwell. “Then we bring in the expertise and the technology to help execute and sustain the project. But, in the end, the project is only sustainable if the nationals are trained in the technology and prepared to assume responsibility for it.”
Cantwell understands and appreciates the sacrifice made by the men and women who serve in the armed forces, particularly special operations units, and the stress their deployment makes on the families left behind. During his childhood his father was frequently absent and Cantwell himself was gone 230 days a year for 12 years straight while his own three children were growing up.
“That is nothing compared with today’s tours where some officers are making 15 deployments,” he asserts. “Nonetheless, while the country has come a long way in appreciating the service of these officers, it isn’t doing nearly enough to support their families.”
In 2006, Cantwell helped form the Military Family LifeStyle Charitable Foundation (MFLCF). MFLCF is dedicated to providing financial, physical, and emotional support for military members and their families. The foundation does this through donations, fundraising activities, and by sponsoring events. These include a variety of annual golf tournaments and other events such as their annual Charlotte “Honor the Warrior” Ride.
MFLCF then supports the existing charitable organizations that provide funds for military personnel who have been disabled in the line of duty; provide educational grants for children of military personnel, and provide other miscellaneous financial needs to the military families.
MFLCF has done everything, from buying a $1,100 exercise bike for a little girl with a brain tumor whose father was a member of special operations, to partnering with a resort facility to provide family reconnect weekends for military families.
“Eleven hundred kids have lost a parent who was in special operations since 9/11,” asserts Cantwell. “We can’t forget these kids or their parents.”
Odell International has also supported the marketing of new products, the sale of which contributes to MFLCF. One of these new products, VeteranShield 24, emerged from a new technology called GoldShield. The core formula for GoldShield, which was invented at Emory University in Atlanta, is water-stabilized and will bond to surfaces, equipment and textiles, providing long-term protection against disease-causing germs. VeteranShield 24 is a new alcohol-free hand sanitizer and antiseptic foam that shows evidence of 24-hour protection in the absence of hand washing.
Not only does VeteranShield 24 have the potential to provide funds for MFLCF, the VeteranShield formula has long-range implications for fighting germs at hospitals, day care centers, and schools. The American Journal of Infection Control published evidence in its October 2010 issue that one application of VeteranShield performed a residual disinfection action of 85 days. Unlike other antimicrobial agents that modify surfaces, VeteranShield is the first to be aqueous-based, non-toxic, mercury free and non-flammable.
While Cantwell missed a lot while his own three children were growing up, he is determined to make up for lost time with his seven grandchildren.
“Last weekend I went to eight soccer games,” he laughs. “I am there for my kids’ kids.”
Cantwell’s son, Rick, works for Odell International, managing information and technology matters. His wife, Becky, and youngest daughter, Emily, also play a big role in the company as well.
“They bring the same energy and intellect to the business,” Cantwell asserts. “It’s truly a family business now.”
Cantwell also depends on the veterans he has recruited to serve Odell International in its regional offices. He points proudly to Steve Bridgman, whom he convinced to return to the Middle Eastafter leaving military service. Bridgman, who heads Odell International’s operations in the UAE, is able to build personal relationships with national leaders through his on-going presence and experience in the area.
“Guys like Bridgman have the same resumé I have,” says Cantwell, “and the same global passion. They differentiate us from our competitors. As former special operations forces, they know the area, including the culture and the language. They understand how to deliver what the client expects.”
Cantwell believes the work being done by Odell International and similar companies abroad are also essential to the future economic growth and strength of the United States.
“While the United States has a lot to offer, particularly in the area of technology, participating in global projects also adds value to U.S. companies. Global business helps the U.S. form lasting partnerships and opens new markets for U.S. firms,” offers Cantwell.
It was another day at the office for Izzy Sanchez. He was in a training class for American Standard listening to the instructor carefully explaining how to use new software to a group of employees.
The employees were dutifully following along on their laptops; things appeared to be going well. But Sanchez’s job was to dig deeper than appearances.
During a coffee break, Sanchez asked the employees how the training will work for them. Their response is a resounding “thumbs down.” When Sanchez asked why, an employee pointed to the classroom.
“You see all those computers in there? Well, we don’t have those computers at work,” he said.
“The new software was useless without computers,” remarks Sanchez. “So I found a way they could accomplish the same thing using a pencil and a calculator. Sometimes it’s something that simple.”
Sanchez has a lot of stories like that. For some, the answers are simple; for others, much more complicated. But it’s stories like that and the problems that cause them that led to the formation of Lean Sigma Professionals, LLC.
Founded in 2007 as a partnership between Sanchez and Ian Cato, who are both managing partners, Lean Sigma Professionals provides business performance solutions through Sanchez and Cato’s extensive expertise in Lean Six Sigma solutions for business.
Borrowed from Manufacturing
“Lean Six Sigma is actually a combination of two business efficiency methodologies,” explains Cato. “Lean dates back to the Toyota assembly line. The purpose of Lean is to reduce waste, to streamline and add value.
“Six Sigma is all about reducing variation and defects. In a Six Sigma process, 99.99966 percent of the products are free of defects. Motorola was first to use Six Sigma in producing their pagers. But Six Sigma became well known when Jack Welch used it at General Electric in the 1990s.”
“Lean Six Sigma is a blueprint,” adds Sanchez. “It allows you to identify errors, find root causes and eliminate them. Mistakes can cost companies up to 30 percent of their revenue each year. That’s why this is so important. Lean Six Sigma transforms business processes so they deliver their intended results reliably and consistently.”
Both Sanchez and Cato first came into contact with the Six Sigma methodology while working in large corporations—Sanchez at Xerox and Cato at Johnson Controls—when both were picked as promising leaders and sent for Black Belt training. Each one is now a Six Sigma Master Black Belt and Certified Lean Master.
Lean Six Sigma skill levels are designated by “Belt” designations. The standard hierarchy is Green Belt, Black Belt and Master Black Belt. A Green Belt can handle most problems within a company, a Black Belt is an expert and a Master Black Belt is equipped to handle highly complex issues as well as train others in Lean Six Sigma.
Both Sanchez and Cato entered into training with a healthy skepticism. They were quickly persuaded.
“By the second week I was beginning to see sense in it,” says Sanchez. “I’d just finished grad school for mechanical engineering and realized that if I’d known Lean Six Sigma then, I could have written my thesis in half the time. That’s when I decided that this is really powerful and I turned into a believer.”
“I was sold after I learned about the transfer function,” Cato says. “The transfer function states that outputs are a function of inputs. Most companies focus on their outcomes, on their net incomes. A Lean Six Sigma company focuses on their inputs, on all the items that contribute to their net income. That’s the fundamental difference between companies who’ve implemented Lean Six Sigma and those who haven’t.”
“And it’s quantifiable,” Sanchez adds. “You analyze and quantify. It’s measurable at the end. You’re getting data from it. Lean Six Sigma was developed for manufacturing but it’s expanded into just about every industry now. It can be applied to anything that has a process.”
“But we mean something different when we talk about a process,” Cato points out. “For most people a process is a group of tasks. To us, a process is a foundation, an infrastructure. It has a measurement system and an owner. It tells technology what to do; it tells people what to do. That’s a process.
“We’ve found that most companies with a problem don’t recognize it as a process issue. They think it’s a people issue. So they go out and hire smart people and they expect the smart people to fix things. In many companies the people are constantly fixing things because the problem is about the process infrastructure, not the people. Companies invest massive amounts of dollars on people and technology and ignore their process.”
“What they don’t realize is that if you have a process problem, better technology will only create your problems faster. They’ll now manifest at the speed of light,” interjects Sanchez.
Sanchez, who has an engineering background, and Cato, who has a finance background, first crossed paths while working at Bank of America headquarters in Charlotte. Part of the wave of professionals with Six Sigma experience the bank hired to help refine their processes, Cato became Sanchez’s backfill when Sanchez was promoted.
In hindsight, they credit their partnership to serendipity. Often they would be leaving the bank, hours after the official end of day, and run into each other in the parking lot.
“We would stop to talk about issues and concerns,” Sanchez remembers. “We found we had a lot in common, that we had the same values.”
Those conversations and their mutual belief in the power of Lean Six Sigma principles were the building blocks that led to their startup of Lean Sigma Professionals.
The partnership had an unconventional founding. The two lived on different sides of Charlotte so when it came time to make the business official, they agreed to split the driving distance and meet somewhere in the middle to sign the partnership agreement. The middle turned out to be a dirt road of an undeveloped housing subdivision off I-485.
“We signed the papers on the trunk of my car,” Cato recalls with a chuckle.
The business is unconventional in other ways too. It uses only Lean Six Sigma methodology. That, coupled with their self-designed S.I.M.P.L.E. framework, provides practical and sustainable solutions customized to each client’s needs and objectives.
And unlike other businesses, the company, which they founded in December of 2007, didn’t launch until February of 2009.
“We kept our day jobs and took time to apply the Lean Six Sigma tools to building our own business,” Cato explains. “We built our strategies and got mentorship from another consulting firm. We developed the company on our values. In our careers we’d had experiences with business consultants, and there were things we wanted to do differently.”
A Different Approach
“First, we were determined not to go into a company and disrupt their culture. We didn’t want to be the type of consultants who set up tent, camp in the organization, and then hand down the ‘Holy Grail,’” says Cato. “Where other companies send in 10 or 15 consultants, we send in one really experienced and capable one. And our consultants are there solely to work; not to sell the company on additional work. We don’t allow our consultants to sell.”
“We also ask questions about the corporate culture before we get on-site so that we fit into the company environment,” adds Sanchez. “We’ve actually gone to a nearby Wal-Mart or Target to change clothes when it was necessary.”
“We wanted to use a softer approach when we come into a company,” Cato adds. “We ask questions instead of telling people what to do. We stand back and watch. Many times when we come into an environment, it’s the first time someone has directly asked the employees what’s going on.”
“If people feel that you have a true interest in their pain, they’ll talk to you,” says Sanchez. “But you have to demonstrate your interest. So when they say, ‘You won’t be back here at 3 a.m. when the real work starts,’ you show up at 2 a.m.—with coffee and doughnuts. You make them know what they do is important, because it is.
“We don’t sit in a conference room. You will find us on the manufacturing floor, potentially under a machine figuring out how it works. We’ll be offloading a truck to feel the weight, the girth. In a bank, we’ll be with the teller or loan processor making a connection with the person actually in the process.”
“We come into a project because a company is feeling pain,” explains Cato. “They know they have a problem but they don’t know the legacy of the problem. It’s up to us to figure out what the key driver of the problem is.”
The different approach has already yielded Lean Sigma Professionals success. Last year, they were awarded the Supplier of the Year Award from the U.S. Postal Service for their work with them in 2010. Only 13 companies out of the Postal Service’s 20,000 suppliers received the award.
“Price Waterhouse, Deloitte, Accenture and Booz Allen—all the big consulting firms—were in the mix, but we were the only consulting firm honored,” Cato says with obvious pride. “We may have been a small company without a big name profile, but we went in there and delivered $60 million worth of real money in savings for the Postal Service.”
In addition to custom-designed business solution programs to improve existing processes, Lean Sigma Professionals also designs new processes based on client specifications and allows companies to bring Lean Six Sigma principles in-house by providing flexible training in Lean Six Sigma for employees. Training ranges from a one day overview through Master Black Belt training.
“Another piece of our business is implementation,” says Cato, “and a key part of implementation is messaging. It’s not just about what we’ve done in a solution. We have to take the Lean Six Sigma jargon and translate it into something that makes sense to the client. If they don’t understand it, there isn’t going to be any implementation.
Experts for Charlotte and Beyond
Sanchez and Cato are proud of what they’ve built in only four years of business. They now regularly handle projects all over the country and internationally as well. Their goal is to grow by 100 percent every year and they firmly believe this is an achievable goal.
“We started this business with our personal money and credit cards,” Cato states. “In 2009, our net income was negative $60,000; a year later we were at $3 million. We’re doing things that are unique. We want to make this methodology available to small business. Lean Six Sigma could be especially helpful to small businesses and we’re working on strategies to get it into the small business community.
“We’re also working on a performance-based contract option in which companies pay us based on what we do. We’re putting skin in the game.”
“And we want to commit to being the Lean Six Sigma consulting experts inCharlotte,” Sanchez says. “Every week we see consultants flying into Charlottefrom other places to do what we do. Charlotte is our headquarters and it’s a great business city. We have a stake in seeing that Charlotte business thrives and we have the expertise and passion to accomplish that.”
For five days in early September, the eyes of the world will turn to Charlotte as the 2012 Democratic National Convention comes to town. It’s perhaps the most significant national event to ever come to the Queen City, with over 35,000 delegates, government officials, celebrities, media, and demonstrators expected during the week of Labor Day.
With all of this attention comes a host of challenges, not the least of which is providing for public safety and convention security. Thousands of demonstrators are expected, and as the nominating convention for a sitting president and vice president, the DNC will require an even larger security apparatus than the Republican Convention being held the week before in Tampa.
The point man for security is Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney D. Monroe. For the last three and a half years under Chief Monroe’s leadership, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) has seen crime rates fall to their lowest levels in decades. Now with the DNC coming to town, Chief Monroe has a whole new responsibility before him—ensuring a safe and trouble-free convention.
Accountability and Community Involvement
A native of the Washington, D.C., area, Chief Monroe is a 34-year veteran of law enforcement. After becoming a police officer in 1979, he served for 21 years with the D.C. police force before moving on to become the chief of police in Macon, Ga. In February 2005 he was named chief in Richmond, Va., where he served until he was appointed chief of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in June 2008.
In the three and a half years Monroe has been in Charlotte, crime has dropped by over 30 percent to the lowest rate in more than 20 years. The improvement is across the board, with all categories —homicide, robbery, rape, auto theft, larceny, aggravated assault, arson, and burglary—showing significant decreases. By comparison, other large cities have seen decreases in the 4 to 8 percent range. CMPD also boasts an 88 percent closure rate on homicides, compared to a national average closure of only about 50 percent.
Chief Monroe credits the improvements to a more accountable organization, new technology, and a concerted effort to get local communities involved as the eyes of the police force.
“When I first came to Charlotte, I attended a number of neighborhood meetings where the same themes kept repeating themselves,” he recalls. “People felt they didn’t see enough police officers and they believed we had strayed from a focus on property crimes.
“While violent crimes often get the most attention, the most common crimes are the ones that affect people’s homes, business, and vehicles. I wanted to bring more focus to those crimes and get more personnel back onto the streets,” the Chief continues. “We looked at every assignment in the department, did a lot of restructuring, and were able to put 100 officers back into the community.”
Monroe points out that key to managing crime is being able to measure it. “You have to know where and when it is occurring and who is committing the crime,” he explains. “So we created a robust crime analysis capability so we could get in front of crime rather than just responding to it.”
The department now has a predictive crime analysis system utilizing up to seven years of crime data that allows police to pinpoint locations, times and even weather conditions where crime is most likely to occur. Resources are then be deployed to the right places at the right times.
Monroe also wanted a greater sense of accountability at the community level. “Police officers work shifts, so once your shift is over you tend to forget about what has gone on until you come back in,” admits the Chief. “But we wanted somebody to be responsible for every piece of real estate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
To accomplish this, Monroe created 39 response areas and designated a Response Area Commander for each. Each commander is like a mini-police chief and is responsible for his geographic area 24/7. Weekly review meetings and monthly planning sessions ensure that everyone stays results-oriented.
This community-based approach has allowed CMPD to engage the local communities and solve cases more successfully, something Monroe credits for the high closure rate on homicides. “No case happens in isolation; somebody knows something,” he says. “If you can gain the community’s confidence they will come forward with information, knowing that you’re going to act on it and get that person off the street.”
Communities also must become more involved themselves. “If you are a community that comes home, pulls into the garage, shuts the door, and then gets back in the car the next morning, you’re going to have problems,” he suggests. “But if you know who lives in your community, who belongs and who doesn’t belong, and you call the police when you see suspicious activity—that is a community where a criminal can’t come in and arbitrarily prey. Someone is going to say, ‘You don’t belong here.’”
Ensuring a Safe Convention
When Charlotte was chosen as the site for the 2012 Democratic Convention, some questioned whether a city with little experience hosting large national events could effectively manage the high level of security required. Chief Monroe says that’s not an issue for Charlotte.
“As soon as the announcement was made in February 2011, we began reaching out,” he explains. “We reached out to other agencies and to our counterparts in the cities that have hosted a convention recently. There are plenty of blueprints across the country to help us position ourselves to handle just about anything that comes about.”
One of the first orders of business was establishing an executive steering committee to oversee security led by CMPD and the Secret Service. Other participants include the FBI, the Fire Department, FEMA, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the State of N.C., and many more. There are also 21 subcommittees covering everything from air support, to civil disturbances, to logistics, and dignitary protection.
As the DNC host city, Charlotte is receiving a $50 million federal grant to defray the cost of convention security. The money is being used for equipment and technology purchases and will also fund several hundred additional police officers traveling from around the state and nation to supplement CMPD’s existing force.
“We’ll have officers from Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and many others,” says the Chief. “You’ll see a national flavor to law enforcement inCharlotte.” The state legislature provided CMPD a one-time waiver to allow out-of-state officers to be temporarily sworn as North Carolina Peace Officers. Additional resources from the Capitol Police, governors’ details, and the Secret Service will supplement the force.
The grant also funded the department’s $1.7 million command center that was completed late last year. The new center will operate 24/7 during the convention and will house representatives from all of the local, state and federal agencies involved in convention security. A wall of video screens provides access to hundreds of video surveillance cameras and the center is equipped with a sophisticated communications system, allowing resources to be monitored and dispatched directly from the command center.
“We’ll be able to communicate with all of our partners and we will have a very robust group of decision-makers so we can get decisions made or resources assigned,” explains Chief Monroe. “We will have those resources right at our fingertips.”
CMPD will purchase an undisclosed number of surveillance cameras, but existing cameras will play a major role in giving the command center its eyes. “We have hundreds of private cameras already in uptown,” explains Chief Monroe. “Technology is evolving so we’re focusing on trying to tie into those existing cameras and in some cases to even be able to control the cameras. We already have the ability to monitor CDOT, CATS and government building cameras, so now we’re just trying to tie all of that together.”
Unlike most political conventions, DNC 2012 will use three separate major venues—Time Warner Cable Arena, Bank of America Stadium, and Charlotte Motor Speedway. Security needs will inevitably cause disruptions near each venue, but through a combination of one-on-one meetings and a variety of community forums, Monroe’s team has been listening to concerns and keeping nearby businesses informed.
“Things are going to be different,” says Monroe. “Streets are going to be closed, some areas are going to have limited access, and people may have to go through security checkpoints to get to certain places.” The highest level of security will be for the venues themselves, continuing on out to perimeters for pedestrians and perimeters for vehicles. No specific details are being released until much closer to the convention.
Accommodating Peaceful Expression
Political conventions always attract a variety of demonstrators, and the Charlotte DNC 2012 will be no exception. Whether it is a small group wanting to stand on a street corner with signs or a group of thousands hoping to hold a more formal parade, Chief Monroe says the security team wants to accommodate all peaceful expression.
“Other than the secure perimeters established for each of the venues, every other part of the city is open for individuals to express their First Amendment rights,” he explains. “They can’t block the thoroughfares and they can’t block the sidewalks, but other than that, it’s an open environment.”
Larger groups will be able to schedule formal parades to present their point of view, and CMPD has already received at least 25 or 30 inquiries from such groups. They will soon be asked to register for specific dates/times.
“We’ll close the streets down for a specific route and we’ll provide them with a speaker’s platform so they can get up there and talk about whatever it is they want to talk about,” Monroe says.
The security team is preparing for groups of all sizes with new training on handling crowds and civil disturbances. “It may take one approach to handle a group of 500 people who just want to peacefully stand and hold signs,” explainsMonroe. “It may take a very different strategy for a group of people who might want to try to do something a little more aggressive. In either case, we’re going to try to give the people the opportunity to express themselves, but we’ll also expect them to abide by the law and do things in a manner that does not cause harm or disruption to the convention.”
The Bank of America shareholders meeting last month attracted several hundred protesters to uptown, giving CMPD a preview of what to expect during the convention. The meeting was designated an “extraordinary event” under a new city statute enacted for the DNC, giving police expanded authority to ban certain items and search bags as needed. Protest groups such as Occupy Charlotte also say they plan to increase their visibility in the months leading up to the convention.
More Work to Do
Despite his success over the last three and a half years and the short-term focus on the DNC 2012, Chief Monroe believes more can be done to reduce crime.
“We need to do a better job expediting trials and we need more district attorneys, more judges, and more courtrooms to hold offenders accountable,” he says. “We need more police officers on the street and we need to do a better job with drug treatment because a lot of crimes still revolve around drugs. We also need more positive opportunities for our young people to counter the negative things they get involved with—drugs, gangs and guns. We have to continue to find ways to reach them.”
As each day brings it closer, Chief Monroe feels the scrutiny on the department and the mechanisms in place to ensure that Charlotte hosts a safe and orderly Democratic National Convention.
“I’m very comfortable that we have taken the necessary steps to be prepared,” he concludes. “There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done, but I’m confident we’ll be ready to handle whatever comes our way.”
When Harry Shapiro came to Charlotte from New York City two years ago, he was looking for a new home for his tattoo and biker magazine Skin & Ink—some place that would have a big-city entertainment feel like you can find in the Big Apple. The Queen City soared on his list of prospects when he walked into the NC Music Factory.
“This is it,” he said. “This is the spot!”
That instant emotional response is common among prospective tenants looking at the Charlottevenue for the first time. As a result, NC Music Factory office space is fully sold out, and its entertainment space attracts big-name tenants like The Fillmore, Wet Willie’s and Butter NC (run by the same innovators who made them sensations in New Yorkand Las Vegas).
At 210,000 square feet, with another 20,000 under construction, NC Music Factory boasts Butter NC, a high-end nightclub that attracts high-spending celebrities, Small Bar, a dive bar where folks can wear flip-flops and buy $1.50 beers, and Halo, a hip and happening nightspot with an edgy atmosphere.
For lunch and dinner, visitors choose from Osso, a lusciously designed Italian restaurant, The Saloon with down-home pub eatery, VBGB Beer Garden with 30 craft beers and brats, or locally inspired fare at Bask where the Johnson & Wales-trained chef offers a constantly changing menu. There is even Mattie’s Diner, an original New Jersey 24-hour diner relocated to the NC Music Factory.
Combined with live entertainment venues including The Fillmore, TWC Uptown Amphitheatre, and the Comedy Zone, plus Silver Hammer Studios housed across the street, the district delivers a powerful multi-purpose punch with something for everyone.
Filming of parts of The Hunger Games and hosting an episode of The Bachelorette barely make a ripple in the constant flurry of activity at the Factory, which includes the comings and goings of NW School of the Arts students (many of whom also apprentice in Richard Lazes’ onsite art gallery), nightlife and after work special events around the Fountain Plaza, and practice jams by any of the property’s several band tenants.
NC Music Factory represents yet another success for developers Noah Lazes and his father Richard Lazes. The two have been 50/50 partners in a long string of entertainment and restaurant ventures around the world. The NC Music Factory concept was founded on principles derived from their work in other highly successful entertainment districts including the French Quarter in New Orleans and Miami’s South Beach.
“What these districts have in common,” says Noah, “is they are a little off the beaten path, not in the center of the city but just slightly off-center, often right up against an inner belt. Usually they’re in older buildings with ground level access and some outdoor space—the more outdoor space the better.”
The off-center location allows for easier access and parking and attracts a wider array of traffic. Older buildings provide an ambience that is impossible to recreate in new construction. Ground level access encourages foot traffic and also keeps CAM (common area maintenance) charges low for tenants, removing the need for expensive common equipment like escalators and elevators.
The formula translates to a venue that attracts movie stars, athletes and other celebrities from around the world who think, as Harry Shapiro did when he saw the NC Music Factory, “This is it!”
Originally from Long Island, N.Y., Richard Lazes was living in a modest area of West Virginia at the time of Noah’s birth, working as a carpenter, remodeling kitchens to make ends meet.
“I learned the value of hard work,” says Richard, who discovered he a natural knack for solving problems in inventive ways. “I was diligent and disciplined and learned that not every project is a success, but if you stay in there and you believe in it, you can make it a success.”
Those qualities, combined with ambition and a wide-ranging mind, eventually led him to New Orleans where he began taking gigs as a concert promoter and then broadened to other promotional endeavors. His demonstrated success brought new business opportunities. So, when a friend approached him with a design for a digital oil pipe thread gauge, he immediately recognized its potential and promoted it to oil companies, quickly building a highly successful and profitable business around it.
The thread gauge success opened more doors for Richard in the oil industry, where he continued to invent and market new products, developing over a dozen patented products including AutoBoom, an oil containment device used in 45 countries for cleanup efforts after ocean oil spills. His knack for developing profitable partnerships multiplied the benefits of his efforts.
The income from Richard’s entrepreneurial efforts allowed him to continue pursuing other opportunities that interested him. In addition to concert promotions, Richard has become an accomplished artist with a body of sculpture and other art forms shown in galleries all over the United States.
“My eclectic career is rather unusual,” admits Richard, “But in general, business is business and you follow the same principles regardless.”
Those business principles formed a significant portion of the upbringing he offered his son Noah, who recalls keenly how open his father was about risk, reward and the financial ins and outs of business. As a result, Noah was imbued from a young age with a strong sense of what it takes to be successful.
When Noah began looking at colleges, his first thought was that he would become a civil engineer. He was good at math, had a bit of his father’s knack for invention, and it seemed like a logical path. Among his choices was UNC Charlotte, where he met with the Engineering School’s Dean Smith.
Smith asked a question that would change Noah’s life—and initiate his lifelong commitment to Charlotte: “Tell me something,” Smith said, “Do you really want to be an engineer? Or is there something else that you would rather be doing?”
Noah admitted that he wanted to be an entrepreneur like his father. Smith encouraged him to think about his college plan in that light. “Charlotte’s going to be a real city,” he said. “If you want to be where the entrepreneurial spirit and energy is, Charlotte’s the place for you.”
Coming of Age
Noah worked in the food and beverage industry throughout his tenure at UNC Charlotte. In his senior year, when the Charlotte Chamber turned Tryon Streetinto a weekend-long entertainment district called “The Street of Champions,” Noah took his savings with a matching investment from father, and opened a temporary version of the well-loved Fat Tuesday Restaurant that had closed down the previous year.
The Street of Champions weekend was an “out of the ballpark” success for Noah, whose Fat Tuesday venue grossed more than all the other venues combined.
The success was so great that the Fat Tuesday franchisor asked him to re-open the permanent venue in the restaurant’s old location. The deal called for a $100,000 investment, a fraction of what it would cost to start a restaurant from scratch, and just the amount Noah and Richard had in hand after the successful Street of Champions weekend. Thanks to the minimal investment, Fat Tuesday was soon profitable for Noah and Richard.
Basking in the enormous success of Fat Tuesday, Noah and Richard rolled their earnings into a new venture at City Fair in 1993. He was about to learn the most significant lesson of entrepreneurialism: failure. He converted the food court into a concert hall at night, with a temporary stage, lighting trusses, sound system, and roll-down murals to cover the food vendor stalls.
He called it World Mardi Gras and booked an entire year of big-name music acts out of New Orleans. The venue costs were low, only $375 a night, thanks to Noah’s inventive use of the space, and with their only significant investment in the bands, Noah figured he would be multiplying their money in no time.
But World Mardi Gras taught Noah a hard lesson—how it feels to lose $10,000 in a single night and, know that you will be losing another $10,000 week after week for the rest of the year. Turns out that Noah was ahead of the times.
“Charlotte was not a sophisticated music market at that point,” he explains. “Night after night people came to the door saying, ‘The Radiators? Who’s that?’ ‘The Neville Brothers? Never heard of them.’ And no one wanted to pay $10 a head for a band they’d never heard of.”
Noah turned to his father partly for sympathy and partly for advice, and distinctly recalls Richard’s unexpected response: “I’ll give you every dollar you’ve got in the deal—every dollar—if you want to go take your shot at being an engineer and working for somebody else.”
“Or,” continued his father, “you can honor your commitments, play the rest of these out, and then figure out how to make it work. Business ain’t easy. Nobody ever said it was easy.”
So Noah played out the year, and figured out the music that the Charlottemarket was willing to pay for—taking his cue from the bands that were getting played on the local radio stations. Noah booked a new year of acts, and with his low overhead, it did not take long to turn it around and become profitable.
World Mardi Gras had another lesson in hand for Noah: The rewards of sticking with it. Richard had trained Noah to constantly seek beneficial partnership opportunities because “50 percent of $20 is a heck of a lot more than 100 percent of $5.” Partnership is a big part of every Lazes project, and, as it turned out, one of their biggest partnership opportunities arose out of the World Mardi Gras adventure.
Noah explains that executives at Simon, the S&P 100 company that is the world’s largest real estate company, developers of Mall of the Americas and also SouthPark Mall, had seen the World Mardi Gras and were fascinated by his inventive use of the space.
They asked if he could do something similar for a new project they had in mind—they wanted a live music venue and food court in a new mall inIndianapolis called Circle Center.
After that successful completion, they offered him an opportunity to own and operate five entertainment venues and 50,000 square feet in another new mall with very minimal capital investment.
Noah credits that deal, and the Lazes partners’ ability to keep Simon happy, with jump-starting their rise to prominence in the food, beverage and entertainment industry. With Simon on their roster of satisfied landlords, nearly everyone wanted their services, and were paying for the privilege. Their various operating entities are referred to as ARK Group (yes, Noah’s choice!) and operate out of Charlotte.
The father and son team and other partners in ARK Group have been involved in numerous ventures including deals with celebrities like Prince, who shut down his nightclubs in South Beach allowing the Lazes partners to scoop them up and re-open them; Michael Waltrip, who had the Lazes partners help him build the huge interactive NASCAR shop in Cornelius; and big entertainment names like Live Nation and HBO.
NC Music Factory
“Working with Noah is a challenge,” admits Richard. “He’s fastidious, detail-oriented, and sometimes we bump heads. Nevertheless, the good outweighs the bad. We also share common goals and inspiration, and what distinguishes us from a lot of other developers is that we are long-term goal-oriented.”
Long-term goal orientation was critical for Richard and Noah when, in 2000, they purchased a large tract of land just inside the I-277 loop. A dilapidated old textile mill on the vacant property had once employed a few hundred people. The hardwood floors and exposed pipes were long abandoned and access to the sprawling building was limited by crisscrossing railroads and private property lines.
Twelve years and millions in investment later, the same complex—NC Music Factory—employs over a thousand people and entertains many thousands more, while also paying taxes on its estimated value of several tens of millions of dollars.
But when ARK Group purchased it, many people had a hard time believing the transformation could be possible. Walking through the undeveloped basement area (designated for the Mega Club LABEL to open in late summer), it’s easy to see why. The damp smell of hundred-year-old must infuses the air, gritty gravel crunches on the bare concrete floor, and ugly metal posts break the space into a hundred dreary sections. Five years ago, the entire property looked this way.
The building itself wasn’t even the biggest challenge. In order to make the Factory viable, it would need to be accessible from Graham Street, right off I-277. That access required negotiation with every stakeholder in the surrounding area: the city, county and federal governments; Norfolk Southern and CSX railroads; Arthur Daniel Midland (whose historic building would require demolition); Duke Power; and five private property owners. It was six years in the works.
Once the road was complete and construction crews moved in, rehab proceeded at a swift pace. The NC Music Factory debuted with a big bash concert in June 2009.
All venues in the Factory are constantly improved and upgraded, and new space renovated to grow the footprint. A covered patio is under construction for The Saloon, and LABEL in the once-dank basement will soon be transformed into a marquee venue never experienced before in Charlotte with lights, sound and video rivaling the best operations in major A markets.
Construction crews currently are hollowing out the floor and removing pillars to clear room for the two-story, 16,000 square foot nightclub that will feature a 28-foot-wide video wall and elevated performance stage.
Not Yet Finished
Throughout their careers, Noah and Richard have seen the poshest spots in the biggest cities. Both are convinced thatCharlotte is “The spot.” Richard describesCharlotte as a “city on the cusp of greatness,” and both men have faith in—and commitment to—its growing arts and business environment.
The NC Music Factory entertainment district with restaurants, pubs and clubs; a 2,000 capacity indoor live music venue and 5,000 seat outdoor amphitheater; office rentals and residential condominiums; as well as studios, parking and the 1930s Mattie’s Diner, is situated on approximately nine acres of what Noah and Richard are marketing as Uptown Village.
The property still has another 21 acres available for development inside the inner loop of Charlotte. Noah says it’s probably one of the only contiguous pieces of land its size available in any large city in the U.S.—and it is accessible by its own 4-lane entry drive and visible with over a half mile of road frontage from Charlotte’s most heavily travelled Interstate 77.
ARK Group plans an apartment complex and a hotel, both with stunning skyline views, plus 60,000 square feet of banquet room with ready access to Silver Hammer Studios. For the remaining acreage, they would like to attract a big name corporate campus, like Apple or Google, to Charlotte.
If all goes according to plan, that company will see all that the NC Music Factory has to offer and agree with Noah and Richard: “This is it. This is the spot!”
Alongside lawyers and politicians, car dealers feature as the villain in many a bad joke. But Dick Keffer has always had a knack for seeing potential where others haven’t. And to him, being a car dealer means an opportunity to make a positive difference in the world.
From promoting women and minorities into leadership positions, to taking underprivileged children to the beach, his successful automotive career has been accompanied at every step by quiet acts of benevolence.
Cranking the Engine
Like many young men, Dick Keffer always loved cars. Growing up in
It was September of 1961, in the midst of a promising career in insurance, that he announced that he was leaving his to pursue a job in car sales. His father was not a happy man. Keffer Jr. chuckles at the memory and adding, “He came around later though, when I started sending him a new car every six months.”
Whatever his father’s reservations may have been, Keffer knew from his first day at Ammon R. Smith Auto Company that he wanted to spend his life in a car dealership. He excelled there and moved up quickly through the ranks.
Ambitious and determined, he set about setting specific goals for himself and then striving to achieve them. He set a date by which he wanted to be managing a dealership, and a second date by which he wanted to own one.
He met his first goal on time when Ammon Smith offered him a management position.
As manager, Keffer immediately began looking for potential where others didn’t see it. He looked for talent and intelligence in people regardless of gender or position in life. One of his most important choices for management was a woman.
“You have to understand,” Keffer explains, “times were different. That was the early l970s. Lots of people thought women couldn’t handle management.”
Keffer was the exception: “I don’t care if you’re black, white, purple, male, or female,” he says. “All I care about is whether you can perform.”
And the person Keffer had in mind for the job had already proven she could. Her name was Bonnie Hunter. Keffer had hired her as a clerk after her father asked him, as a favor, to give her a job.
“She came in and started doing in half a day as much work as any two other clerks could complete in a full day,” he remembers. He knew she was capable of more, but at the time there was nothing more he could do about it.
He also knew it was time to start looking for his own dealership.
Navigating the Potholes
Keffer loved the Carolinas coast, and was pleased to find a buy-in opportunity at a dealership in
So Keffer packed up and moved to
In the new dealership, Keffer immediately began making changes. He called the office manager into his office and asked him for sales numbers. The manager informed him that they would be ready by the middle of the month, but Keffer wanted to see the numbers by the third of each month. The manager told him that if he wanted his numbers that fast, he would have to find a new office manager.
So Keffer did. He approached Hunter with the opportunity. She accepted and packed up and her husband and moved south to accept the new position.
Thanks to Keffer and Hunter’s management, the
As profits continued to increase, Reich, still the dealership’s majority owner, became increasingly aware of the potential of the operation. One day he called Keffer into his office.
He looked uncomfortable as he broke the news: Now that the dealership was turning a profit, he no longer wanted to sell more stock. He expressed regret and said he hoped Keffer wouldn’t hate him for the decision.
Keffer pauses in his retelling of the story, recalling the bitter disappointment. He hitches his hands into his belt loops, and gazes into the distance.
“Well,” he said to Reich, “I certainly am disappointed. But I don’t hate anyone and I guess you have your reasons. I hope you’ll understand that I’m going to have to look for another dealership opportunity.”
So in 1974, Keffer set his sites on
Hunter shared his confidence. Keffer told her that as soon as he had his dealership, she would be hearing from him. And it was just three months later that she did, packing up her family and following him to
Getting a Lift; Giving a Lift
The city lived up to its promise. In
Johnson also funded Keffer’s purchase of a dealership, allowing Keffer to pay him back gradually out of the profits of the business.
Keffer immediately welcomed Hunter into the dealership and within a few years, she had earned her way to the presidency, where she has continued leading the company ever since.
From the arteries of
All are known for quality and outstanding service, as one might expect from a company run by a man like Keffer, who has spent his entire career looking for opportunities to boost other people.
Keffer’s philosophy, and philanthropy, is unique—he seeks out promising individuals to train within his organization, and then helps them get set up in their own businesses. The process begins with identifying high-performing individuals within the company and gradually promoting them through the ranks. When he sees that they are ready, he helps them locate potential ownership opportunities.
Then, he purchases the dealership and puts them in charge, with the option to buy him out of the business gradually from profits.
Hunter says Keffer Management is unique in not being a consolidator but a finder of stores for managers who share equity as principals.
“We have had as many as 25 dealerships in the portfolio, but sheer growth is not our basic goal as much as profitable management. We do get a lot of phone calls, that’s for sure,” she says.
Over the years, Keffer has set up 10 individuals in this manner, with 10 others currently in process. In the same way, he started two of his own sons, who now own and operate dealerships in
“They are doing so well; I am really proud of them,” Keffer exclaims.
Keffer says that some dealers see this activity as a form of abetting the competition. Rather than train new owners, they might purchase multiple dealerships and hang on them. Keffer says that’s a fine way of doing business, but for him it’s more important to help others reach their potential.
Unfortunately, for all the success Keffer has seen in this community, he has seen his share of sorrows too. He doesn’t worry too much about the economy—he has seen it go up and down enough times to know how to get through it. But the collapse of General Motors was a blow.
“It crushed me,” he says, shaking his head. “I thought they had more money than God. I thought that could never happen.”
One of his dealerships, where he was training a manager to take over, was pulled by GM. Keffer knew the dealership was underperforming, but he wanted to give the manager more time and opportunity to prove himself—time that GM didn’t have to offer.
Giving Wings—and Wheels—to Dreams
Despite the sorrows and challenges, Keffer has never stopped reaching out into the community and looking for opportunities to help people. One of his best-known successes is the annual Beach Blast for underprivileged middle school children, organized through the Charlotte South Rotary Club and funded by Keffer.
Inspiration for the program came to him more than a decade ago while on a family vacation. He and his wife and children had watched a rickety school bus pull up, and a group of children descend upon the beach. It quickly became clear that these children, who lived 50 miles away, had never seen the ocean.
“Their eyes were as big as saucers,” he remembers. “I thought, ’Holy cow! There must be a hundred thousand children in
For two years, he organized and coordinated and overcame obstacles and with the help of the Charlotte South Rotary Club and several individuals, creating a program that takes more than 500 underprivileged children to the beach every summer. The total number of children served by the program now exceeds 12,000 over the last 20 years.
Keffer says he has watched every single one of those children get off the bus at the beach for the first time. “Their eyes just pop out of their heads,” he says. “The want to know everything: ‘How big is this pond? Why can’t we see
“Monday morning, they inundate their teachers with questions,” says Keffer, understated joy emphasizing his words. “‘Show us where we were on the map! Show us the cities we went through! Tell us more about jellyfish!’ Some of these kids were bumps on a log in class, and now they are asking questions.”
Although Beach Blast is one of Keffer’s favorite accomplishments, it is only one of the remarkable thing he has done. He originated Give Kids the World, a program that takes terminally ill children to
When asked what he will be doing next, Keffer pauses for a moment. “Well, I’m 78 years old,” he says. “Some people would say that if I had any sense, I would retire and stay at my home in
Keffer’s main dealership on
|Heather Head is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.|
Katie Tyler, owner of Tyler II Construction Company, believes her purpose in life is to inspire others.
Last September Tyler took her message to Russia. She was part of a team that went to Charlotte’s sister city, Veronezh, to help coach some budding young Russian entrepreneurs.
Going to Russia was important personally to Tyler. She had gone to elementary school in Atlanta in the days of the Cold War and remembers taking refuge under her desk during nuclear attack drills. Then her father took the family to Japan in 1963 where Tyler went to school for four years. On the way home in 1967, they traveled through Russia.
“I realized then that these are just people,” says Tyler. “Our governments may be different, but they’re people just like us. I always wanted to go back.”
Loren Lassiter, project director of the Charlotte Community Connections Program, says she was looking for a strong team to reconnect with the Russian business and non-profit leaders who had studied in the United States as part of The Community Connections / Business for Russia program. Launched in 1994 after a summit meeting between president Bill Clinton and Russian president Boris Yeltsen, the program funds internships for Russians to study in one of ten United States cities, including Charlotte. Since its inception, 99 Russians have come to the U.S. to study. Lassiter wanted the team to visit Russia to put on a two-day program of workshops and business seminars for as many of those former interns as possible.
The team Lassiter assembled included Willy Ratchford, executive director of the Charlotte Community Relations Committee and Gary Ferraro, Lassiter’s husband, who is a cultural anthropologist at UNC-Charlotte. The Russians actually requested these two because they had worked with the Charlotte interns before. Ratchford gives a seminar entitled “Strength and Diversity.” Ferraro talks about the cultural dimensions of doing business internationally.
Tom Flynn, assistant to the Charlotte city manager for small business development, joined the team to give a seminar on “How to look at the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities in your city.” Looking for a woman to round out the team, as well as a small business owner, Lassitor’s choice of Tyler was deliberate.
“She was the perfect choice,” says Lassitor. “She’s great.”
Tyler has not just built a successful company, she has done it in a male-dominated industry. Her story is one of believing she can do anything she sets out to do. It’s a story and a message she’s willing to share.
“Something about my story of turning $250 into a $15 million company helps others believe they can also achieve what they set out to do,” she says.
Tyler, age 49, grew up in a family with three brothers and a father who was a professional with the Boy Scouts. Since her family moved around a lot, her brothers became her best friends and she learned to play their games.
A self-professed tomboy, she rode motorcycles and loved to sail.
“I was never raised to think ‘girls don’t do that,’ ” Tyler says. “It never crossed my mind that I couldn’t do anything I wanted to do.” That ‘can do’ attitude took Tyler from a secretarial position in the Ivy Department Stores corporate office in 1974 to head of her own construction company in 1983. Today she leads a 25-employee company that specializes in interior renovations. Tyler says her greatest professional satisfaction is taking an existing building and turning it into something better.
The group flew to Moscow on September 7, 2000. They took the overnight train to Veronezh, about 250 miles south of Moscow, on September 9th, arriving in time to celebrate “City Day” with a Sister Cities tour. After a big party on Monday, September 11th, they held two full days of workshops.
While there, Tyler had an opportunity to visit several construction sites and was appalled at what she saw. “There is no code system at all,” she reports. “At one condo project, they decided to put in underground parking after the building was finished. New buildings look like they’ve been there for 50 years.”
Tyler stayed with a Russian couple with a six-year old daughter in an apartment project that was only a couple of years old. The elevator had 18 stops on it, although there were only 11 floors, because that was the only mechanism available. The power went out several times a day. The apartments were heated through a hot water system, and the government turned off the heat in the summer, so residents had no hot water in the summer.
“Yet, they cope,” says Tyler, who also saw some enviable things. At the high school or “gymnasium” she visited, there was a 10:1 teacher/student ratio, as well as a doctor and a nurse on staff. Students were neatly dressed and there were no discipline problems.
“So, they have no hot water in the summer, but their school system is far superior,” says Tyler.
Team members stayed with Russian families, and after a short taste of Russian life, Tyler says she rewrote her talk a half dozen times. “I was going to cover subjects such as writing a business plan, hiring staff, borrowing money and growing your business,” she says. “I realized that the concept of free thinking was completely foreign to the Russians. They were so used to people telling them what to do, they had no idea how to make decisions for themselves.”
Tyler said she couldn’t talk about borrowing money to people who don’t trust banks, or about how to interview employees in a culture where people are told what job they are going to hold. “You can’t talk about marketing because they want to keep their business a secret,” says Tyler. “If the Russian mafia finds out you’re in business, they’ll want a cut of it.”
Instead, she talked about personal attitudes and how to believe in yourself. One woman, who had just started her own landscaping firm, came up after Tyler’s presentation and said, “You fill me with energy.”
Tyler almost never turns down an opportunity to talk to people, especially young women. She has appeared before Rotary Clubs, Girl Scout Troops, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools’ Girls in Science program, the Mecklenburg Entrepreneurial Council, and spoken with countless individuals.
“Several years ago, when I was just starting to be involved in the community, Katie encouraged me to go through the Leadership Charlotte program,” says Janet Fortner, president of Hospice at Charlotte. “Her arm was always out to me.”
A graduate herself of Leadership Charlotte and now a member of the Board of Directors for Hospice, Tyler has stayed active in the Leadership program which helps to develop civic and community leaders. In 1998 she won its annual Schley R. Lyons Circle of Excellence Award. Tyler has also been president of Women Executives, a diverse group of women in senior business positions, who meet once a month to network and provide personal support for each other.
Tyler’s ability to understand other people, as well as herself, has contributed to her success. Fortner says Tyler is known for being willing to help her employees meet their goals, for nurturing them and ensuring their personal success along with the company’s.
“She’s a very spiritual person,” says Fortner. “She lives by her values.”
Tyler promoted one company secretary to a newly created position she calls “Lasting Impressions Manager.” It is this person’s responsibility to manage client relations. She calls the client at the very beginning of the project and again in the middle of the project. “That’s when we can catch something that’s going wrong and still correct it,” Tyler says.
The manager calls the client again when its time to go through the punch list and finish all the last-minute details, then, again 3 months and 6 months later, and finally, a month before the warranty expires. Tyler believes this kind of attention to details and to relationships is what distinguishes her company from its many competitors. “It’s what you do before and after the job that really makes the difference,” she says.
Six years ago Tyler became active with a group that rescues Schnauzers, her “breed of choice.” She has a section of her home kenneled off where she keeps dogs she is nursing back to health or who are waiting for a new home. She also has four Schnauzers of her own.
Tyler has also been active on the Charlotte Chamber’s Board of Advisors, its highest level of membership. She is the only volunteer to actually chair the Chamber’s fund raising efforts, and she did it two years in a row, setting all kinds of records.
Under Tyler’s leadership, the Chamber exceeded its $350,000 membership goal in 1997. The next year, it decided to revamp the way it raised money, by selling not only memberships, but also products such as advertising and sponsorships. With an ambitious goal of $1,500,000 for 1998, it needed an experienced chairman and turned, again, to Tyler.
“My big button is ‘It can’t be done, but…,’ ” says Tyler.
Bob Confoy, group vice president for sales and marketing at the Chamber, says “Katie’s successful because she’s extremely efficient and very goal-oriented. She’s also a very nice person who people like to be around. She’s good at motivating volunteers.”
When Tyler turned 40, she made a list of all the things she still wanted to do in life. These included learning to play the piano and to speak Spanish, riding a horse on a beach, and flying on a circus trapeze. She’s gradually crossing them off the list, having just bought a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and returned to an early love for horseback riding, but there’s still a lot left. She still wants to try sky diving, go on a safari, and visit South America.
“There’s just not enough time,” she laments. But, as she nears the 50-year mark, she knows she wants to be remembered for more than having been a trailblazer for women in construction or as business woman of the year.
“I want to be known as someone who is easy to love and fun to be with,” Tyler says. “I want people to say, “She made a difference in my life.”