Our CEO clients typically work in one of three types of companies:
- Closely Held or Family
Firms in which the CEO is often the owner and operator.
- Externally Funded firms
Venture capital, private equity or public whose CEOs are often the entrepreneur who launched the business.
- Professional Services firms
Law, accounting, IT services, etc.) whose CEOs rose through the ranks and now manage dozens or hundreds of professionals.
Read about how we helped the CEOs at these companies raise their performance:
Case Studies – Professional Services Firms
Helping Hanson Bridgett’s Chief Hone the Law Firm's Growth Strategy
Client Hanson Bridgett
As with most law firms, San Francisco-based Hanson Bridgett LLP’s partners have long focused on delivering advice to clients rather than on non-billable activities to increase the firm’s market visibility. But in a severely contracting legal market, focusing on the work at hand and while neglecting the brand can be a recipe for disaster. CEO to CEO has helped Hanson Bridgett’s top management strike the right balance in recent few years and maintain its revenue – all at a time in which a number of competitors have closed shop or merged with other law firms.
Since the recession of 2008, the San Francisco legal services market has been a brutal one. That year, one prominent law firm (Heller Ehrman LLP, which had revenue of $500 million in 2006 and had been around since 1890) went bankrupt and was liquidated. Another (Thelen Reid Brown Raysman & Steiner) dissolved shortly afterwards. Several other San Francisco law firms merged with larger law firms.
Yet Hanson Bridgett, a $70 million firm with 350 employees in five Northern California offices, held its ground, maintaining its size despite a shrunken market.
“In the last few years, there has been significant consolidation in the legal industry,” says Andrew Giacomini, Hanson Bridgett’s managing partner. “The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the most competitive legal markets in the U.S. – both on the client side and on the talent side. That makes for very challenging economic conditions, which means people outside our firm need to know who we are. And that requires a very strong focus on building of brand in our market. For every law firm, it’s change or die.”
For Hanson Bridgett, that has meant elevating the game of its partners in developing new business, as well as becoming more programmatic about how the firm raises the visibility of its brand and grows the business. That’s why Andrew brought CEO to CEO in, starting in June 2009.
Rob Sher’s first assignment was working with Hanson Bridgett partners to improve the way they develop new business. “My goal was to have people in leadership positions in the firm take on more responsibility for our leadership initiatives,” says Andrew, who has led the firm since 2001. “That frees me up to focus on the things I needed to focus on, as well as help develop leaders in our organization.”
Rob worked with a number of Hanson Bridgett partners to create business development plans. After assessing their writing, public speaking and relationship-building skills, he helped them define a year-long plan with activities that would get them in front of new potential clients. The partners set their own deadlines, and Rob provided coaching to help them stay on track.
By November 2010, Andrew felt his firm needed additional help to increase brand presence in its Northern California legal markets. “I’ve been here my whole career, so I have blind spots,” he says. “Even if I’m innovative, I don’t have fresh eyes. In addition, I didn’t have the bandwidth to run this project and the other things I needed to do. I felt Rob had the right skill set.”
The first order of business was creating a growth strategy for the firm. In the first quarter of 2011, Rob worked with Andrew to develop the strategy and get the firm’s six other management committee members behind it. The next step was to define clear responsibilities for management committee in executing the strategy. (Hanson Bridgett’s partners vest the seven-person management committee with the authority to make most major decisions.) Previously, the management committee’s role was to come to meetings and make decisions on behalf of partners. “Occasionally and on an ad hoc basis, members of the management committee would take on projects,” Andrew says. The arrangement was too informal, the responsibilities too ill-defined.
Rob helped Andrew and the six other management committee members define the scope of their responsibilities. Rob then showed them how to operationalize those responsibilities: pairing up with someone from the next level down in the organization. Each “leadership pair” took on responsibilities for issues that previously had been on Andrew and his executive director’s plate. (The firm’s executive director is effectively the chief operating officer to Andrew’s chief executive role.)
For example, one leadership pair (a member of the management committee and the chief financial officer) focuses on financial issues: developing the budget, determining fees, approving write-offs and discussing collection issues. Another leadership pair is devoted to business development. This pair is the marketing director and the committee member in charge of business development initiatives that span the firm’s practice areas. In 2011, they launched a client feedback program and revamped the firm’s website, something Andrew used to be in charge of while also running the firm.
All this has helped Andrew get the top management team more fully integrated into the firm’s key initiatives. “The more leadership that can be developed in the firm, the more I can free myself to focus on external matters such as building a brand in the marketplace,” he says. “In five years, I want us to have a robust leadership team that allows the managing partner and the executive director to do other things.”
A critical task is differentiating Hanson Bridgett as a regional law firm. “We do not want to be part of a consolidation,” Andrew says. “Most law firms want to consolidate into big firms. We’re bucking that trend and trying to create a sweet spot right below that by focusing on the region here.”
Andrew views the impact of CEO to CEO as critical to the firm’s regional growth strategy. “We’re in a much better place than we had been during the recession,” he says. “Rob has been a catalyst who has made invaluable contributions to our company. He has been an architect for this big shift that needed to happen and someone who is helping us implement it.”
It hasn’t mattered to Andrew that Rob and CEO to CEO aren’t experts in law firm management. Andrew sees the firm’s expertise as in teaching CEOs of any professional firm how to be better leaders of their business. “Dealing with lawyers is a pain in the ass,” says Andrew. “Rob is very patient but persistent. Some people here took to Rob’s coaching and others resisted. He didn’t take it personally. He understood it might happen, and we all persevered through it.
“We’re in a much, much better place because of it,” Andrew explains. “Now we’re taking what we learned from Rob and building on it ourselves.” Andrew says it is just one of several “dangerous missions” he sees assigning to Rob and CEO to CEO.
More recently, Andrew asked Rob to tackle the thorny issue of a major change in the job duties of section leaders (business unit leaders). A majority of their compensation come from their own personal business development results and from their own billable hours. The firm’s culture (as is true in many law firms) gave high respect to high individual producers. The firm needed more leadership hours, yet compensation and expectations for those hours was unclear. The result was a lesser emphasis on leadership, and that was impacting the firm’s growth. With Rob’s coaching, two Hanson Bridgett practice leaders in early 2012 crafted a document with a vision of the role, duties and compensation of section leaders that was met with excitement and interest. Implementation plans are being detailed, and discussions with the partner compensation committee have begun. One of the section leaders is executing on the vision as a pilot in 2012.
“I feel like I’ve got this right-hand person I can call on to come in and take on these dangerous missions,” Andrew says about Rob. “That’s really a great asset.”
Case Studies – Closely Held or Family Firms
Guiding A Pioneering Software Company Into A New Era
Silvaco, a Silicon Valley software firm, lost its founder and CEO when Dr. Ivan Pesic passed away in October, 2012. His wife, Kathy Pesic, became owner of the company, without a clear succession plan. CEO to CEO helped the Pesic family navigate the management transition and transform the business, from a centralized, “founder runs everything” company to a collaborative enterprise positioned well for future growth.
Kathy Pesic had worked as a process engineer at HP and done real estate investment, but had not been involved running Silvaco. She wanted guidance as the company faced the difficult transition.
Dr. Pesic, intent on beating cancer, had not made specific succession plans in the event of his passing. The COO by default moved up to CEO and the head of accounting took the CFO position. Mrs. Pesic took the role of Treasurer, and her son, Iliya Pesic resigned from a five-year position as a biomedical engineer to work at Silvaco, learning the business and the industry. Neither one had senior leadership experience.
Silvaco’s industry is Electronic Design Automation, creating software tools that enable engineers to design semiconductors. Ivan Pesic had been an early innovator and Silicon Valley pioneer, founding the firm in 1984. The Santa Clara firm had grown to 180 employees with offices in California, Massachusetts, and Texas, as well as the United Kingdom, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and Singapore. Customers include leading fabless semiconductor companies, integrated semiconductor manufacturers, foundries, flat panel display manufacturers and universities.
As Mrs. Pesic and Iliya Pesic learned the business and connected with employees and customers worldwide, they decided to set the company on a growth path to become an industry leader, which required transitioning to a professional management team that had already walked this path. The Pesics reached out to Robert Half Management Resources, looking for both interim leadership and help identifying a consulting firm that could coach them through the management transition. Steve Hall, Senior Director Client Services at Robert Half Management Resources partnered with Robert Sher, Founding Principal of CEO to CEO, given its specialization in midsized companies, to present a full solution.
Hall and Sher worked together to gain a full understanding of Silvaco’s needs in a series of interviews at Robert Half’s San Jose offices. They shaped a proposal that would ultimately be accepted by Silvaco as the best option for support during this critical transition.
CEO to CEO brought in principal David Dutton and together, Sher and Dutton led the engagement, laying plans for the transition day and beyond, coaching the Silvaco board (Iliya and Kathy Pesic,) and coordinating with legal advisors. The pair also helped the board evaluate interim leadership candidates presented by Robert Half. Steve Hall led the Robert Half team, pulling resources from Management Resources, Accountemps and the company’s Executive Search team. Dutton, with a long background in the semiconductor industry, was selected as the interim CEO.
Robert Half led the search for the interim CFO and HR leader, who were selected after a series of interviews in quick succession at an offsite location. Kathy, Iliya, Dave Dutton and Steve Hall interviewed as a group.
A transition day preparation list was built that included job descriptions for interim executives, a dismissal plan, a legal checklist, communications, interim governance plans, expected obstacles and risks, a financial review, and much more.
The weekend before transition day, the interim team attended a half-day orientation along with the Pesics and team members from Robert Half and CEO to CEO. An overview of the company was given, as well as the near term vision from the Chairman. Interim team operating principles and the Phase 1 team tasks were finalized. The transition day schedule was reviewed and rehearsed to help ensure flawless execution. The team decided on operating principles that included full transparency with owners and team members; maintaining honesty, integrity and respect for everyone; making hard decisions quickly; communicating frequently and focusing on key objectives.
On transition day, September 22nd, 2014, the minute-by-minute schedule that had been rehearsed proved key to success. It kept everyone on the same page, and when deviations arose, the team addressed the situation quickly. The day went according to plan as the CEO, CFO and VP Engineering exited, and interim CEO, CFO and Director of HR began. Executive Chairman Iliya Pesic says, “With the help of CEO to CEO, we planned very carefully for this difficult day. The planning paid off. The changes were made with respect and the company and our industry reacted well, and as expected. None of our fears were realized.”
During the first week, the interim team, CEO to CEO, and Kathy and Iliya Pesic met daily, identifying a list of critical issues and tackling them. Within a week, the stability of the organization was confirmed, and within two weeks phase one of the transition plan was complete. New leadership took firm control of the company.
As the engagement rolled forward, Rob took on the role of owner’s advocate, making sure the Pesics’ voices were heard, and that they understood and agreed with the rapid-fire decisions the management team made. Steve Hall also stayed involved, watching that the interim team he had placed was firing on all cylinders. He marshalled the resources of Robert Half in the search for permanent executives. Regular calls and meetings between Rob and Steve kept them in sync.
The second phase of the transition encompassed the fourth quarter of 2014. Key objectives included: Finding and retaining the permanent management team; installing a basic planning discipline throughout the organization such that always-precious engineering resources were deployed to the highest potential opportunities; confirming the financial record keeping of the firm; and if necessary, right-sizing the workforce globally.
In November, it became clear that Silvaco needed to increase its headcount in engineering, and decrease overhead spend. A small reduction in force, the first in many years, was made to allow the shift in resources. The new team handled it without any significant issue. The company completed a follow-on restructuring in Japan in early 2015 with the support of Robert Half consultants from Tokyo.
Throughout this time period, the team ensured that management’s actions were fully transparent, and that ownership could oversee all activities without infringing on the normal decision making latitude that management must enjoy. CEO to CEO instituted an oversight and communication cadence that allowed for this, with defined roles for the board versus management, and a board meeting and reporting process.
The search for the permanent team began as the dust started to settle from the changes. Ownership really appreciated Stan Jones, the interim leader of HR, and they made him an offer that he accepted in November, 2014. The interim CFO was a career interim not interested in a permanent position, so Robert Half conducted a search that brought a handful of top candidates from which ownership and Dave Dutton selected the permanent VP of Finance who began in mid-December. Finally, having seen Dutton’s high performance as interim CEO, Silvaco retained him as their permanent leader as of January, 2015.
In a crucial step, the new leadership gave Silvaco a more disciplined and effective approach to strategic and operational planning. By the end of 2014, just one quarter after the management transition, all functional areas had detailed operational plans. The engineering department rebuilt its roadmaps and engaged with product managers and the sales team more deeply, connecting customer needs with new products and features. Iliya Pesic says, “The teams are really excited at the heightened level of collaboration at Silvaco. The new leadership is truly inspiring and everyone feels that their contribution will impact the quality and value of our toolset.”
During the first quarter after the transition, the company’s leadership model morphed from centralized to collaborative and empowered. The team established current quarter plans and a first-ever annual operating plan, and turned a flat organization into a functional organization — allowing for clear decision-making, accountable execution, and strategic planning.
Dave Dutton says, “It was amazing how fast the leaders and internal people promoted to leadership shifted to collaboration, setting up a modern organization that is becoming competitive with top tier EDA competitors. We have seen immediate acceptance from customers who are willing to look at Silvaco with the new changes.”
Six months after the transition, the company released critical new products that had been failed projects previously, and completed a key acquisition that expanded the company’s design flow to include verification.
“Silvaco has a strong financial base, an experienced team. and leading products helping our customers accelerate electronic product designs to the market,” said Iliya Pesic, Executive Chairman. “We have an amazing future and I’m excited to field a team that can aggressively pursue that future.”
Helping GoGrid Jump on the Cloud
Since 1991 John Keagy has built and sold a number of successful Internet services companies. His most recent creation is GoGrid, one that he repositioned in 2007 even though its predecessor was healthy and growing. Four years later, John’s hunch appears right on the money. GoGrid finds itself in one of the fastest-growing sectors of the $3.3 trillion global information technology industry: cloud computing. And the firm has more than doubled its revenue.
Part of John’s story is a familiar one in Silicon Valley: a visionary, driven CEO who launches and leads his firm to rapid growth. But other parts are less typical. First, he put his own money behind his companies: he funded GoGrid and its predecessor (ServePath) without outside investments. Second, he realized that repositioning and managing a firm far bigger than any he had run before required him to raise his game as a CEO.
John’s instinctive grasp of the potential for cloud computing has certainly been on target. Cloud today is a $40 billion sector of the global IT industry that is projected to balloon to $240 billion by 2020, according to one respected industry market research firm (Forrester Research). Even Larry Ellison, the legendary founder and CEO of software giant Oracle, has had to backtrack on his skepticism about the cloud market. (He once called it so much “water vapor.”) In October 2011, Oracle announced it would pay $1.5 billion for a cloud company called RightNow Technologies. And while cloud services might not be as tangible as smart phones or notebook computers, rest assured that cloud is white hot – as hot among venture capitalists as any IT sector.
GoGrid has commanded a great deal of attention despite the fact that it lacks the funding of much larger rivals in the cloud space, including Amazon.com and a venture-funded and now publicly held firm called Rackspace Hosting Inc. In fact, GoGrid, a privately held based in San Francisco, is viewed as a market leader in one corner of the cloud market: infrastructure as a service.
John himself has been lauded by tough Silicon Valley technology sector watchers, including the highly influential GigaOM blogging site. “Under Keagy’s watch, GoGrid has been expanding in terms of scale, scope and capabilities at a fairly rapid pace – all without venture funding – and it has developed a reputation for quality performance,” wrote GigaOm blogger Derrick Harris in June 2011. (click here)
GoGrid’s growth has been stunning, and over the last five years Rob Sher has helped John improve the way he leads the organization. “When a business’s pain points come to the CEO level, that’s where Rob can really help,” John says. “Rob can bring multiple department heads to work effectively together. That saves the CEO from needing to be a Judge Wapner” (of the TV hit show ‘The People’s Court.’)
John readily admits that was the case at GoGrid and its predecessor firm for years. “I had bootstrapped the business myself and so, as you can imagine, everything unfortunately revolved around me,” he says. “The business couldn’t function without me, and that’s not healthy. It won’t let a business scale. It wouldn’t let me go on vacation.”
John has since been able to take peaceful vacations. The guidance he and his team have received from CEO to CEO has ranged from the strategic to the tactical. John’s first assignment for Rob was of the latter type: to help the firm attract hard-to-find tech talent by creating “sizzling” collateral that marketed GoGrid as a model place to work in the highly competitive Bay Area.
Soon after helping John and his management team wrestle with a number of critical decisions and tasks, Rob was asked to help the firm with its biggest strategic challenge: creating the business plan to reposition GoGrid from a managed hosting company to a cloud software vendor. While this may sound like two ways to say “IT services vendor,” it isn’t. Using its own computer hardware, a managed hosting firm typically maintains their hardware and stock operating software at the ready for customer applications. A cloud software vendor, in contrast, writes software and provides access to it as a service (SAAS) to run customers’ critical business applications and technology infrastructure.
The difference is similar to providing an airplane and access to a runway (the managed hosting firm) or engineering and building the plane and the airport (the cloud software vendor). A cloud software vendor must spend far more on research and development to ensure its software is flawless and its data center infrastructure is modern, secure, and fail-safe. “We went from a company that didn’t spend much on R&D to a company that spends a third of its revenue on R&D,” says John.
The shift in GoGrid’s business model required John to raise his game as a CEO. He is a creative “out of the box” thinker with tremendous passion and charisma. But coming up with new ideas – especially new complex software products – wreaks havoc on an executive team that is trying to implement the last idea. In terms of leadership skills, Robert taught John the importance of committing to a plan. To reposition GoGrid, John put the firm’s business plan on a large poster and kept it hanging in the executive conference room. John then signed the poster and had his team do likewise. The symbolism was big. It showed John’s team that he was fully committed to the plan and the transition to a cloud software vendor.
John also learned how to delegate better – entrusting his executives with executing their part of the strategy without lording it over their moves. They all learned to set and live by an office code of conduct: No one would be allowed to yell or display other forms of unprofessional behavior in meetings, including John himself.
In another key part of the transition, Rob helped John determine what skills his management team had to master in order to make the transition. “We had one guy who was a staff systems administrator, who had then had become manager of systems administrators, and then had become the director, and then a vice president,” John says. “Not only did he have to learn management on the job, he then had to learn executive management, and managing managers. We have several people like that who became vice presidents who had gained all their professional experience working for one company.”
Rob designed a training curriculum so that the rest of the management team could raise its game too. He worked with several GoGrid executives and brought in additional advisors with specialized skills (e.g., on running an R&D organization). The firm made several new management team hires as well.
GoGrid’s growth has been rapid. In the four years that CEO to CEO has worked with John and his team, revenue have more than doubled. Additionally, the firm has expanded globally. GoGrid has two data centers today (San Francisco and Ashburn, VA.), and clients across the U.S. and Europe.
In June 2011, John announced that a new CEO, Warren Heffelfinger, would run the daily operations of the company. After nine years as CEO of GoGrid and its predecessor company ServePath, John is now executive chairman. This new role allows him to focus on long-term strategy and relationships with key customers and business partners.
John sees Rob’s assistance as invaluable in GoGrid’s successful transition from managed hosting to cloud services firm. “Rob operates as a comrade and a peer for the CEO,” John says. “He knows so many CEOs and has been working on CEO pain points for so long that he’s not going to get thrown something that he’s unfamiliar with. He understands the CEO’s challenges. That’s his expertise, and that’s where he delivers optimum value.”
GSC Logistics' Top Team Chart Clear Path to Faster Growth
Client GSC Logistics
In 1988, Scott Taylor and Andy Garcia left their executive jobs at two San Francisco Bay Area consumer goods distributors to set up their own firm. They have never looked back. More than two decades later, Scott and Andy have steadily driven their firm, GSCLogistics, to become the largest logistics provider at the Port of Oakland.
GSC today handles in excess of 15% of the goods that come into the port, third-largest international gateway on the West Coast. The firm has come a long way from its early years shipping Gatorade to Northern California food and drug stores, and has gained a customer list that includes some of the biggest names in retailing: Target, Walgreen, JC Penney, Crate & Barrel and many more. Yet despite building GSC into a $35 million business by 2010, neither Scott (CEO) nor Andy (chairman)were satisfied with their firm’s growth. In fact, they thought GSC should have grown much faster, but by the end of 2010, their immediate concern was enabling the firm to better manage their existing business.
Scott, Andy and their 15-member management team had scrambled to manage the biggest third and fourth quarters GSC had ever seen in its business. Shipping containers were flooding into their Oakland cross-docking facility at 30% over plan because a key customer, in an impressive vote of confidence, shifted its business to GSC from another provider in a different port.
By December, Scott decided the management team should hold an off-site meeting to review what went well, what didn’t and – most of all — what the firm needed to do in the future to accelerate its growth. The question would be who should lead the meeting.
Earlier in 2010, GSC’s chief financial officer, Joel Lesser, watched Rob Sher moderate an Association for Corporate Growth (ACG) panel of CEOs with a deft hand and with confidence. After hearing good things about Rob from others in ACG, Joel envisioned Rob leading the GSC offsite.
But Rob first had to sell himself to GSC’s two owners. Joel brought Rob in to meet Scott and Andy. After an initial discussion, Andy, who is skeptical of the value of consultants, challenged Rob: “How do you think you’ll be able to make our offsite more productive when you don’t know anything about our industry or our company?” Rob described his approach: before the offsite, he would meet one-on-one with each management team member to understand their issues and ensure they would be discussed at the offsite. The second benefit of meeting with the team in advance was that it would help Rob know far more about GSC’s challenges going in. He told Andy and Scott that letting an outsider without a vested interest run the offsite would be to their advantage – particularly an outsider with insider knowledge. All of that resonated with both owners.
Scott was especially impressed and excited about having Rob run the meeting. “He had a great way about him,” Scott says. “Rob was very calming and very, very engaging — not a hyper guy. The personality came through strongly, and I really liked him when I first met him.” They agreed to let Rob facilitate the off-site meeting to be held in a local hotel that December.
The meeting went exceptionally well, bringing a number of current and future growth issues into focus. “It was a very, very effective meeting,” Scott says. “Rob found a way to solicit opinions and get everybody engaged – better than if we had tried to do it internally. He is such a good people person that he can bring the personalities together, disarm everybody, and make them feel comfortable and have equal voices. It takes somebody outside the organization to effectively lead this kind of meeting. He’s a very calming influence. Nobody feels like they better be careful about what they say. He puts you at ease.” The team came out of the offsite energized and organized, with a list of action items to work on in 2011.
By February 2011, Scott was convinced the firm needed more of Rob’s help to continue the momentum of the offsite and focus the firm on growth. Scott voiced his concerns to Rob about GSC’s ability to grow at a faster clip. Says Scott: “I told him that we had to start thinking outside the box with the way the economy was going and our challenges in this industry, which is low margin and very competitive. I said that we had to do some things very differently and asked Rob whether he could help us out.” At the time, GSC was pursuing an acquisition in the Pacific Northwest, but it was getting harder and harder to expand its core business.
Scott and Andy’s first request was for Rob to help with the firm’s sales plan. But after listening carefully and thinking about the offsite discussions, Rob suggested he help them and their management team create a three-year business plan. “At first, we didn’t see the value in that,” says Scott. “But Rob said he had a way to create a one-page business plan. We’re now knee-deep into that exercise with our top six people, both sales and operations. It’s been an extremely enlightening exercise because it has focused us and helped our team members become much more open and transparent with each other. We’re starting to see the fruits of our efforts already.”
One of the ways Rob has helped the GSC management team is in learning how to evaluate ideas for growth. Rob demonstrated a systematic way to vet ideas without dampening managers’ enthusiasm for volunteering them. For example, one GSC team member suggested that the company not only deliver goods imported through the Port of Oakland but also handle goods to be exported through the port. Rob taught the management team how to conduct disciplined research to evaluate the idea, including determining the investment to implement it. They quickly realized that the export business would require specialized equipment, personnel with skill sets the company didn’t have on staff, and other big investments. They abandoned the idea.
But they didn’t reject the idea of expanding to an adjacent market segment. While researching the export plan, they realized that picking up or delivering domestic trailers at the railheads was not much different than handling their current business of transporting international containers. They even found another synergistic area of growth at their own deconsolidation facility. “Once we had filled a trailer to be shipped across the country on rail, we handed it off to another company,” Scott says. “We realized, ‘Why hand it off? Why don’t we take it to the railhead ourselves?’”
In logistics parlance, this is called the intermodal business. It’s become a new GSC division and revenue source, one that didn’t require significant investments. “It was the first time that our company had really analyzed a market segment and developed a plan on how to attack it – i.e., the people we would need, the systems and other investments,” says Scott. “Rob taught us how to create a rigorous growth plan.”
Part of the plan covers the integration of their first acquisition, which closed in June 2011. GSC acquired a Pacific Northwest distribution company called Best Way Trucking Inc. That enables GSC to expand its business beyond the port of Oakland to the Seattle-Tacoma region.
GSC now brings in Rob once a month to help keep its three-year plan on track. “Rob has a good business mind. It doesn’t matter what business you are in –- he figures out what he needs to know very quickly. He does a great job of bringing teams together,” says Scott. “Some of it is his personality: He’s non-threatening. He’s there to help you, not to criticize. He helps you be creative and look at things in different ways. I’ve been doing this so long that I get stuck in my ways. He’s able to help you think outside the box.”
Scott says GSC’s three-year plan has clarified the path to growth — $80 million is the target for 2014 (double 2011’s revenue) –- and therefore made it more achievable. “I can see how we easily transition from Phase 1 to Phase 2,” he says. “I’m not sure what Phase 3 will be yet, but I’m sure that as 2012 starts to unfold we’ll get a better picture of the operational and sales changes we need to make.”
Guiding KBFA's Transition to the Next Generation
Client Kevin Barry Fine Art
In 2007, Kevin Barry Fine Art Associates was at a crossroads. The family-owned company’s growth had stalled as the economy was beginning to nosedive. Purchases of artwork to adorn the halls of company offices – KBFAA’s core business – had begun to slow, judged expense items that could easily be cut. The founder’s plan, to retire and sell the business to his children and another manager in about five years, was at risk.
But today, with the help of CEO to CEO, KBFAA has weathered the economic storm. KBFAA, now a $7.2 million and growing firm, clearly knows where it is going, who is going to lead it when the CEO retires in 2014, and how it must be led for future growth.
The 15-person company, based in Los Angeles, procures artwork for corporate, hospitality, healthcare, and residential placement. The firm’s galleries in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and San Francisco carry a full-line of work including original art, limited editions, sculptures, tapestries, and fine art reproductions.
The company is owned and led by Kevin Barry, who has been in the art business for more than 30 years and has operated a Los Angeles gallery for the past quarter century. KBFAA comprises a team of experienced art consultants and other professionals in the art industry. The team is rounded out by Kevin’s daughter Allison, who runs the company’s San Francisco showroom; his son John, who runs KBFAA’s Las Vegas operation; and Jason Fiore, a childhood friend of his children who serves as KBFAA’s marketing director and general manager.
Everyone in the company handles sales and design consulting. KFBAA almost always supplies the art that it specifies in its designs, often outsourcing the production work to picture framing factories and other contractors, and then reselling it.
Six years ago, however, Kevin felt that he and his team had reached the limits of their ability to adequately plan for the firm’s future. Since they were a small company, the team found much of their time was being swallowed up by the minutiae of daily operations. “We were growing, but in some ways we were so busy with the day-to-day stuff that we couldn’t see the forest for the trees,” Kevin says. At the same time, Kevin, who is 66, was beginning to think about retirement. “It became important to develop an exit strategy and figure out how my successors were going to carry the baton.”
Around this time both Kevin and Jason Fiore became aware of Robert Sher’s firm CEO to CEO and thought Robert might be of use to KBFAA. “Jason thought it would be a good idea to have an outside consultant come in to work with us, and maybe help us see the big picture in terms of what the future might look like and how we could grow the business,” Kevin says.
Kevin had actually met Robert 10 years earlier, when the latter was CEO of Bentley Publishing Group and KBFAA was a small customer of Bentley’s. Recalls Kevin:
“Rob came to the gallery in Los Angeles and we did business. We didn’t work very closely, but I remember being impressed with Rob. I liked the way he handled and presented himself. And I thought it was good that, as the CEO of his own company, Rob was out making the rounds and staying close to the streets, so to speak. A lot of CEOs who run small businesses get trapped into managing the business and lose that face-to-face contact. But Rob wasn’t like that at all.”
Kevin also enjoyed the fact that Rob already knew the art business. “We knew what was kind of in his wheelhouse,” he says, “so we had a couple conversations with Rob, and he came down and we talked some more.”
Kevin signed a month-to-month consulting contract with Rob with the initial goal of developing a one-page business plan. Immediately, Rob began to reach out to all five on the leadership team in the organization and met each one individually, either by phone, email or in person. According to Kevin, the results came quickly.
“It is advantageous for us that Rob had a good working knowledge of what the industry was about. But he is also a visionary guy with great organizational skills. He was able to see things more objectively because he wasn’t an employee. We had a lot of thoughts and ideas about where to take the business, but we were so busy chasing the day-to-day stuff to execute – we were a little like rats in a maze. Rob kind of put our feet to the fire in terms of what his own expectations were, and made sure everybody got on board with the same goals. Then he was able to galvanize a lot of our thoughts and ideas into a plan of action.”
Because Rob came from a family business himself, it seemed to Kevin that he had experienced many of the same bumps, hills and valleys that KBFAA had. “I think he had a little bit of an advantage because he came from the art business, but to his credit, this is not an easy industry to understand – there are a lot of nuances to the business,” he said. “In some ways, we are all square pegs in round holes, because we are all creative types, and yet it is still a business.”
It was fortuitous that Rob began working with KBFAA right before the most challenging time in the company’s history. After three decades in the business, Kevin says that 2008 and 2009 were the toughest years he’d ever seen.
Rob’s first goal was to help KBFAA draft a definitive plan for where the business would be in five years and how it was going to get there. The focus was on results. Said Kevin: “Rob taught us two things: how to be more productive, and how to look closer at the bottom line and your margins.” The plan was concise, and articulated not only a crisp vision and mission, but specific metrics to be watched every month, specific high-value projects, and a set of key strategies that would deliver growth. The team would know each and every month if they were focusing on the most important things, and whether that focus was delivering the results mandated in the plan.
To help steer the company through rough waters, Rob worked with Jason. According to Kevin, Jason has been with the company for more than 10 years and already had significant managerial expertise of his own. “In 2008 and 2009, we had to tighten those purse strings company-wide,” Kevin says. “Rob worked closely with Jason to develop better financial reporting that helped us all determine what should be cut, and what should not be cut.”
In the depths of the downturn, KBFAA was reaching a juncture where growth had all but stopped. However, Rob pushed Kevin and his team to think about nearby adjacent markets. “Traditionally we did a lot of business with hospitality and high-end residential designers. But now we have broadened our target markets to include senior living facilities and healthcare organizations. ” Kevin says. “Personally, I always wanted it that way – I didn’t want all my eggs in one basket. But Rob helped us actually make the move.”
Financially, things began to turn around as well. “Our business was flat during 2008 and 2009, but in 2010, things began to pick up and we had a 10 percent increase in revenues,” Kevin says. “In 2011, we’re on track for another 10 to 12 percent growth.” KBFAA also opened a second gallery in Las Vegas run by Kevin’s son, and a third gallery in San Francisco, run by his daughter. “We’re certainly not out of the woods economically,” adds Kevin. “But since working with Rob, we’ve expanded our business, our revenues are growing, we added three new employees, and we’ve increased our market share.” Rob’s role includes teaching the next generation what it means to be owners. “We’ve got a good, strong team of young people – our executive team is all in their mid-30s,” says Kevin. “Since working with Rob there has been a definitive maturation process among them.”
2012 marked a change in business ownership and scale. With Rob’s direction and coaching, a team was assembled to begin the transfer of ownership to John, Allison and Jason. The board was formalized, with regular quarterly board meetings and Rob was asked to be the outside board member. The focus of the firm was clear, sales rose by 42%, and net profit grew dramatically, more than enough to fund the gradual transfer of shares to the next generation. In 2013, the governance process continues with Rob on the board. What has for long been governed by the founder is slowly transitioning board-based governance. Plans have been laid for growth toward a target of $15 million revenues over the next few years.
Asked what makes Rob so effective, Kevin suggests it’s a number of factors – among them intelligence, accessibility, communication and experience both as a CEO and working with many other CEOs.
“Rob has great people skills – he knows people very well. That’s one of his most salient features,” Kevin says. “He’s also triple smart, and part of the reason for that is that he doesn’t sit still. Rob chairs roundtables with other CEOs and works with lot of different companies and with different executives. Everybody in business is scrambling to get to that next level, and the exposure Rob gets from working with so many innovative leaders helps him, and helps us.”
“Rob went over and beyond most of our expectations,” he added. “We’ve had some bumps along the way, and that’s part of business, but Rob was always there for us. Having a seasoned CEO who is participating in the company’s growth, serving as a mentor, and providing guidance is great. It’s given us a little additional edge to see the future. You certainly want to focus on tomorrow, but five years is always right around the corner.”