After 25 years in the foundry and diecasting industry, my Dad, Dick Laney, had this crazy idea that metalcasters needed a unique information system to effectively manage and grow their business. He started B&L Information Systems, and nearly 40 years later that idea is still valid. Of course, there have been revolutionary changes in information technology over this time period; but along with those changes, there are some principals and ideas that have stood the test of time.
One of the challenges for second-generation managers, or succeeding leaders at any time, is to figure out what things to keep and what things to let go. This is a list of business principles that Dick instilled in the organization, and that continue to guide us::
“The customer isn’t always right, but he does write your paycheck.” In other words, serve the customer as best as you possibly can and you’ve got a fighting chance to keep them for life. The latest analytic for this concept is ‘Customer Lifetime Value’, and it’s good to know the data. But first, you need an organization in place that believes and acts like they will keep that customer for life. Handling the customer always takes priority. Meetings, suppliers, administrative tasks, even some employee matters are secondary to customer service.
“Stay focused on what you do best.” I remember asking my Dad, “What happens when we have sold to all the foundries in the country?” He replied, “Let’s just focus on having a good year and not borrow problems from the future.” Forty years later our market percentage is in the high teens. There is plenty of opportunity for our products and services in North America. Distractions have presented themselves along the way, like pursing other ‘material conversion’ industries, e.g. plastics, fiberglass, etc. I’m glad we didn’t go after those things, because it would have consumed resources and detracted from our core competency: metalcasting ERP software.
“Stay away from hardware.” B&L has always been a software company, and we’ll remain a software company. Dad somehow knew that computer hardware would evolve into a commodity business, best left to the big guys. There are opportunities to sell computers and related hardware through a ‘Value-Added Reseller’ model, with decent short-term profits. But we never took that on and with so much data moving to the cloud, the idea of selling a server to a business is becoming even more outdated.
“A manager needs to dip into the details every so often.” Many managers will over-delegate without much oversight. A good manager understands the details of what goes on in his/her department or his/her company. You may not actually do the work, but you need to understand the business process to create an effective solution for the (internal or external) customer. Dig into the details every so often to keep yourself aware of the process and changes that will occur. We encourage our managers, when setting up a new business process or procedure, to do it themselves first so that they understand fully the mechanics of the process before delegating it to employees.
“You can’t forget! Have a good follow up system.” Dick’s system was all manual, but it worked. He had an accordion file with slots market 1-31, a spot for each day of the month. Every morning, he would go to that day’s slot, pull out his notes and get to work on them. Whether manual or computerized, follow-up systems don’t need to be fancy, they just need to be reliable.
“Three people all businesses need: a good banker, a good lawyer and a good accountant.” Don’t skimp on your business partners. If you’re in it for the long haul, get the best partners you can afford.
Put Yourself in the Customer's Shoes
“Put yourself in the customer’s shoes.” Too often, when an issue arises between supplier and customer, the supplier begins defending their position because their myopic world-view. Dad always encouraged us to stop thinking from the software developer’s perspective and think from the software user’s perspective. It doesn’t always change or resolve the issue, but it’s an excellent practice that we keep doing. When you view a problem from a different angle, it can help you realize maybe you need to change your perspective.
“Stay humble.” Admit you don’t know it all. Nobody does. Dad was from Terre Haute, his father was a WWI veteran and local businessman, running a motel and cider stand in the front yard off US 41. From those humble beginnings, he learned to work hard, serve the customer, and respect all those you encounter.
Our present time seems to have forgotten the importance of humility. I remember when I would get bullheaded or cocky he would say, “Phil, you need a big slice of humble pie.” Of course, there are many other examples of how he shaped the company, but those are the ones that leap out to me.
I think it’s important for first-generation owners to allow their successors freedom to implement new ideas. Some start-up entrepreneurs have a difficult time allowing this; that’s why it’s sometimes best if the founder backs away, semi-retires, or sells off the business. Dick, however, allowed me to implement some new projects.
He was consistently supportive of the new directions, but he also provided stability and scrutiny when needed. He remained chairman of the company for 11 years after I took over as president. He was a welcome addition to any meeting, providing his unique, experienced perspective. I’ve built on what I learned from my Dad, but I’ve also brought my own perspective to the company.
“Technology moves fast. We’d better be prepared for this race.” B&L is a software technology company. We offer products and services that enable metalcasters to know what’s going on at their business, but it’s all based on technology. We have business consultants, software trainers, customer support staff, but their jobs are based on that software technology. Know the technology and you’ll succeed — and B&L will succeed in the marketplace.
“Don’t get to use to things, because change is just around the corner.” B&L started on IBM midrange computers and stayed there for 25 years. In the past 15 years, we’ve moved to client/server architecture, cloud computing, and now a new, browser-based User Interface (UI) that is completely reshaping how we deliver products and services. I like what Mario Andretti said: “If you think you’ve got things under control, then you’re not going fast enough.”
“Everyone is a salesperson.” Everyone at a company represents the image and energy of that organization. Doesn’t matter if you’re the accountant, programmer, or janitor, you are projecting what the company stands for and how it interacts with customers, suppliers and the community at large. Sell the brand in a positive light.
“Happy at home equals effective at work.” We strive to maintain a positive work/life balance at B&L. The technology industry is full of companies that press employees to work long hours at the expense of personal/family time. Often, that leads to burnout and high turnover, which carries a huge cost to the company. Balance is the key: Sometimes extra effort is required on the job. Other times, an employee may need some personal time.
“This isn’t a social club.” We use this phrase every so often to counter complacency. We’re running a successful technology company and that takes a certain amount of hard work and dedication.
“Praise in public, critique in private.” Recently, I witnessed a business manager aggressively criticizing an employee for something, in front of me and several other customers waiting in line. Performance evaluations, especially informal ones, should be handled one-on-one, manager-to-employee, with plenty of discussion about how to improve the next time around. Conversely, good performances — team and individual accomplishments — should be celebrated with as many people as possible.
“None of us is as smart as all of us.” Teamwork is critical to the success of any organization with more than one person. At B&L, designing, developing, marketing, selling, implementing and supporting the finest metalcasting ERP software in the world requires a tremendous amount of cross-departmental teamwork. In the end, we’re all in it together.If one person or department succeeds and the other doesn’t, then we’ve all lost. Fortunately, we’ve built a fantastic team that understands and believes that helping each other out is just a better way to work.