The Inc 500 Conference

Apr 07, 2003

Fred White, Claire Keerl, and I just got back from the 21st annual Inc 500 Conference at the Westin Rancho Mirage Resort in beautiful Palm Springs, California, held March 27th-29th. It has been a few years since we attended the event so it was good to be back once again with a group of highly energized, motivated, and in some cases cantankerous privately held firm owners, each of whom is working for a high-growth company. Beyond the fantastic weather (what a great place for a vacation… it rains less than two inches a year!), the great parties they held (one of ‘em in an air museum filled with WWII and earlier planes), and the other business owners and managers we got a chance to mingle with, here’s a quick rundown of what I got from some of the speakers: Scott Cook, co-founder and chairman of Intuit. Intuit is the creator of Quicken software and QuickBooks, among others, and if you’ve ever used one of their programs you would know that they are a smart company. Cook focused on how to keep your company fresh with what he called “game-changing innovation.” He said when you start out, you get into a groove. The groove turns into a rut, and then the rut turns into a trench. Then you don’t see opportunity that is right alongside you. That made a lot of sense to me. His firm dominated the accounting software market for small business after only one month! Their discovery? Accounting software was written for accountants, yet in most small firms, non-accountants are the people doing the accounting! It makes complete sense yet no one thought of it. Cook emphasized the importance of talking with your clients. He said that they didn’t even think their original product (Quicken) was useful for business until they found out that’s what half of their customers were using it for by talking with them! Rob Adams, partner in Austin Ventures and author of A Good Hard Kick in the Ass: Basic Training for Entrepreneurs, was fairly disappointing. He had to quote Scott Cook three times (that’s always a bad sign!). One of his big ideas was to hire people out of the same role and industry and that’s how you would get a high-performing team. Nothing new in that idea. The problem with it, in my opinion, is that that when you do that you may also never break out of the rut that we all get into by working in one industry! George Zimmer, founder, chairman, and CEO of The Men’s Wearhouse. Zimmer is the guy you see on TV wearing a suit and saying you’ll look good and that he “guarantees it!” Based on that limited exposure, I didn’t think I’d care for him. But in real life and with a little more than 15 seconds of exposure I changed my mind. He’s a great guy and a very smart businessman. He took his company from nothing to $1.3 billion in sales with some simple ideas. His most prominent one is the entrepreneur as “servant leader.” That idea is not a new one (we’ve seen design firms who advocate this as their management philosophy), but Zimmer explained it better than anyone else. He said when you make a decision you should be looking to benefit multiple groups of stakeholders. Those include customers, suppliers, management, and ownership. The more of them who benefit from any decision or action, the better it is. He went on to talk about how they pay a socialistic bonus to everyone in a store that beats its quota every month they beat it. They are also an ESOP company that distributes shares evenly to those who make over $50K per year. And Zimmer chastised other CEOs like Michael Eisner for being too greedy. He said he makes no more than 10 times what an average Men’s Wearhouse employee earns and that ought to be enough for anyone in his role! There were many other good sessions and insights gained at the conference. I attended a session for CEOs and the topic of where they turn for advice was pretty interesting. Outside board members were VERY low on the list… the group felt that their BODs in general weren’t too helpful. Neither was there a tremendous amount of support for business coaches who may themselves not be all that successful and who CEOs may not respect as a result. A suggestion that I brought up that was well-received was to start sharing ownership and managerial responsibility a lot earlier than many of the entrepreneurs there did it. That’s the best way to have other “partners” who care about and understand your business. And everyone there seemed to agree that mentors they sought out on their own provided invaluable advice and insight. While at the conference, I sat next to a fellow from Georgia who happened to go to the same Illinois university I went to. Of course, while I had the chance, I recruited him for a possible slot on our College of Business Advisory Board. It’s amazing how things work like that. What a small world! Originally published 4/07/2003.

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Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.