PROFIT 100: Growth solutions

Written by Annette Bourdeau

Cash flow – Carmen Creek Gourmet Meats – 2
Few things are more frustrating than missing an opportunity because you’re short of cash. Pieter Spinder ensures that doesn’t happen at Calgary-based Carmen Creek Gourmet Meats. The president and resident numbers geek at the bison-meat processor meticulously updates his Excel workbook several times a day and sends cash-flow updates to staff every two or three days. He also distributes weekly margin reports so that the firm can quickly trim spending if rising costs eat into margins. Being truly on top of its numbers gives Carmen Creek enviable flexibility. Key client Whole Foods Market recently asked the firm to service an additional U.S. region — starting the following week. That meant boosting output by 25% and incurring hefty upfront costs. “But we knew right away we could do it,” says CEO Kelly Long. She and Spinder also knew they could handle the financial strain of acquiring a rival. Long says Spinder’s zealous bookkeeping helped convince their banker to boost their line of credit to cover extra expenses due to the buyout, which gave Carmen Creek a vital distribution network in Europe.

Sales – Camilion Solutions – 23
Ross Orrett figured if he could land a really big fish — a top-five U.S. insurance company — as his first client, others would soon follow. But how to get a bite? The president and CEO of Camilion Solutions Inc. instructed all 45 staff at his company, which crafts product-management software for the insurance sector, to get to know the giant players’ challenges inside and out. “By focusing on a small number of customers, you have an opportunity to truly understand their business problems,” says Orrett. It helped that his Markham, Ont.-based firm’s sole target is insurers — which Orrett chose, he quips, “because they have lots of problems and lots of money.” His “Gimme 5” program paid off. After countless cold calls and painstakingly detailed customized pitches, Orrett’s team secured meetings with a few whoppers. Avoiding tech jargon, they spoke to executives in their own language about how Camilion’s software could help solve key issues such as the slow pace of new-product rollouts. Three of the big five signed deals, and today 13 of the world’s 50 largest insurance companies are Camilion clients.

Hiring – Simply Audiobooks – 48
Job postings with headlines such as “We have all the cookies you can eat” might seem a bit loopy. But such recruitment ads from Simply Audiobooks Inc. are part of an adroit strategy to solve the challenge of attracting Generation-Y employees with not only the right skills but the unconventional mindset to fit in at the Oakville, Ont.-based firm. “We start with a unique proposition from the get-go,” says CEO Sean Neville of the job postings by his audiobook rental and downloading service. The firm is keen on applicants who craft creative cover letters worthy of its offbeat job ads. And during interviews, it tests candidates’ social skills and inventiveness by having them roam its offices soliciting one word from each of 10 employees to use in a story featuring all 10 words. Neville later asks the employees for their gut feelings about each candidate, and puts a lot of weight on this group verdict. This has helped weed out applicants whose condescending attitude screams, “I’m above doing this dumb test” — and who’d be out of place in a fun, laid-back environment.

Retention – Panacis – 67
Steve Carkner knows the risk of losing key employees to rivals who promise fatter paycheques. It’s especially tough to hang onto engineering talent in Ottawa, where salaries paid by heavyweights such as Nortel and Research in Motion outstrip those offered by his firm, Panacis Inc. So, the producer of custom medical devices makes up in employee engagement what it might lack in its compensation package. Central to this are monthly town hall-style meetings at which executives give a full rundown of key issues facing the firm, from account losses to growth strategies, and take even the most sensitive questions from staff. “If we had mentioned at the last meeting that we were quoting with a new customer, this time an employee might ask how we then lost the business,” says Carkner. He also uses the meetings to show the team how they contribute to Panacis’ growth, so they don’t feel like cogs in a machine — a feeling that led him to quit a high-paying job at RIM. The payoff: just two staff in a workforce of about 20 have left over the past four years.

Collections – Tricon Technical Services – 82
How do you whip a slow-paying client into shape without damaging your rapport? It’s a fine line that Calgary-based IT consultancy TriCon Technical Services Inc. mastered after unpaid receivables cut into the cash it needed for growth. One key to getting paid sooner was to ask clients how they handle accounts payable. This revealed that many have online procurement systems to which TriCon can submit invoices electronically so they don’t languish on someone’s desk. Doing so has slashed payment times from 65 days to 30. When a bill is unpaid after 60 days, president Cristal Kawula follows up personally, dedicating an average of two to four hours to each invoice. Consistently late payers are offered prepaid blocks of consulting time, provided they first clear what they owe. And if they can’t? TriCon gently says goodbye. “Fire them with respect, and don’t burn any bridges,” says CEO Dave Kawula. A few fired customers have returned after a financial turnaround, and many still provide valuable referrals.

Marketing – Waterstone Human Capital – 124
Standing out in a densely populated industry isn’t easy. So, when Marty Parker founded Waterstone Human Capital Ltd., he focused on a niche that would help his Toronto-based executive recruiter rise above the crowd: gauging job candidates’ fit with the hiring company’s corporate culture. But how to become well-known for a lesser-known specialty? A media-savvy member of Parker’s advisory board thought the firm’s research into the link between corporate culture and financial performance might interest the business press. This instinct proved to be bang on, and Waterstone teamed up with Canadian Business on an annual “Canada’s 10 Most Admired Corporate Cultures” program. The alliance gave the young firm profile and credibility — and calls from prospective clients keen to learn more. Parker says the program, now with the National Post, “aligns perfectly with our value proposition.” Now Waterstone is seen as the recruiter that “owns” the corporate-culture category.

Recruitment – S.i. Systems – 165
Derek Bullen was struggling to find the sales talent his firm needed. Part of his solution was to target sales reps in other sectors. But the CEO of S.i. Systems Ltd., a Calgary-based IT staffing service, went a step further by also targeting people who are born to sell but lack sales experience. S.i. runs a link in its job postings to a custom questionnaire that assesses assertiveness, sociability, urgency, attention to detail and behavioural adaptability. “We’re looking for someone who’s fun to deal with, but knows when to get down to business,” says Bullen. S.i. interviews those with the ideal characteristics — about 12% of respondents. Bullen figures anyone with these traits can, once hired by S.i., learn everything else during a rigorous 10-week training program. Typically, three out of four trainees pass the training and join the sales team. Bullen’s hires include a former garbage-truck driver and a cosmetics-counter clerk. Had S.i. hired based on resumés alone, he says, it would have overlooked both of them.

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com