Each Year, Inc. magazine makes headlines by choosing the 500 fastest-growing private companies in America. These small, agile companies are leading the way in American industry, bringing innovative products and services to market and driving job growth. Just to give you an idea of the numbers: The average three-year sales growth among the 2005 winners was a stellar 769 percent.
We spoke with four Inc. 500 winners — Jets International, Clear!Blue, Cold Stone Creamery, and National Fidelity Mortgage. Although their businesses could not be more different, each has used meetings strategically to communicate its message and brand to customers, employees, and franchisees.
THIS PAST JANUARY, as Nate McKelvey, chief executive officer of Jets International (No. 66 on the Inc. 500 list), entertained 350 attendees and exhibitors from the most recent National Business Aviation Association Schedulers and Dispatchers Conference in San Antonio, he couldn't help but think back six or seven years, when a meeting or event at his fledgling company meant sharing a sandwich during a lunch break.
This relatively rapid change of fortune for Mc-Kelvey's company has also included a name change. Formerly known as CharterAuction, the company officially revealed its new moniker during the San Antonio affair, an event that was designed to shape the company's image and develop brand awareness.
Jets International, which began as a home-office startup, now has more than 30 employees and hit a revenue figure of $14.6 million in 2004 (the fiscal year used to determine the 2005 Inc. 500 winners). Headquartered in Quincy, Mass., the business is a luxury jet charter company that books jets for all sorts of high-flying clients, ranging from top Wall Street executives to the likes of former President Bill Clinton.
What sets the company apart is its online technology, which was developed by McKelvey. A centralized, real-time database provides clients with information on a jet's external features, internal amenities, and safety reports (on both an aircraft and its pilots). Flights are booked through a reverse online auction. Aircraft operators (Jets International has put together a network of 250 of them) are able to provide instant cost quotes on any point-to-point trip. The reverse auction gives clients the opportunity to book their flights at market-driven rates, and allows aircraft operators to use their aircraft more efficiently, thereby lowering costs and prices while increasing profitability.
While Jets International has made its mark with its online technology, it still relies heavily on the human touch. Its suite of offices in Quincy is filled with a constant buzz of activity from its sales, concierge, and fulfillment staff, many of whom have been hired within the last three years.
For McKelvey, the transition has been dramatic. In the early years he had his hands on everything, but those days are long gone. With 30-odd employees, he realizes that what the company represents “is no longer just my vision.” Yet it is more critical than ever, he maintains, that everyone in the company “is on the same page” — which is where meetings come in.
Whether electronic or face-to-face, meetings have become more frequent and strategic as the company has grown. On the sales side, he tapes sales calls and shares them in training meetings with other sales representatives and department managers. On the operational and customer service side, he holds departmental meetings to “get the company message across.” There are also holiday celebrations. And on the outside, the company has learned to use events to develop its image.
Jets International participates in several, the most important of which are those of the National Business Aviation Association. McKelvey and staff will attend the NBAA's annual convention in the fall as well as the dispatchers and schedulers conference held during the winter. In the early years, he viewed these conferences as a way to grow the business. He would rent the 10-by-10-foot booths, scout for vendors, and make deals. But as the company grew, he realized that these meetings offered him a different kind of opportunity. “We decided it should really be about developing image awareness,” he says.
Starting with the 2004 meeting in Las Vegas, McKelvey began hosting events at the shows. That year his company, along with a safety audit company, held a reception at the Hard Rock Cafe Las Vegas. “It was wildly successful, attracting a large number of attendees. We still have vendors talking about it,” he says.
Developing brand awareness became even more crucial with the decision to change the company's name. While McKelvey feels he did a good job developing awareness for the CharterAuction brand, he believes “there is a stronger, more immediate, and more universal understanding for the name of Jets International.” The challenge for him was to make sure that the name change was extensively publicized in his industry.
With more than 2,000 people attending January's NBAA Schedulers and Dispatchers Conference in San Antonio, he decided to use an event to announce the long-anticipated name change. The company booked Swig, an upscale martini bar in downtown San Antonio, expecting to attract 200 guests. Instead, they were swamped with 350 — a sizeable percentage of the total number of attendees at the conference.
The event was a huge success. Everything was geared toward publicizing the name switch to Jets International. Displays containing the new name were scattered about on tables and around the bar, while company employees mingled with the crowd, talking up the new name.
With the success of the San Antonio event, McKelvey has started to re-evaluate the way in which his company plans meetings and events. As in many small companies, meeting planning has been delegated to his assistant. The planning involved for San Antonio took an intense and time-consuming six weeks — much more than McKelvey ever could have imagined.
That was an eye-opener, he says. “It [meeting planning] all looks so easy from the outside. But when you think about all the time spent, and the resources used, it takes a lot of effort.” Eventually, he says, “a meeting planner may be appropriate.”
— MICHAEL BASSETT
WHEN CHRYSLER GROUP Chief Operating Officer Eric Ridenour drove a 2007 Jeep Wrangler through a plate glass window during January's International Auto Show in Detroit, Ralph Nader said the stunt showed a “high level of juvenile delinquency.”
For Chief Strategy Officer Mike Rosenau of Clear!Blue Communications (No. 287 on the Inc. 500 list), the company that designed the event, Nader's words were high praise indeed.
Not that the Michigan- and Chicago-based communications company consists of a bunch of prank-playing slackers. Clear!Blue was founded in 2000 by six refugees from the automotive andworld. Starting with one client, the company now has 56 employees and lists 21 current clients, including Chrysler, Best Buy, and Compuware. The founders were determined that they could operate a company that combined creativity with strategic thinking and still enjoy themselves. It's working: Revenues in 2004 were $19.9 million, and Clear!Blue reported 438 percent growth between 2001 and 2004.
According to Rosenau, the company was built on a foundation of five core values — inspiration, intelligence, integrity, innovation, and fun — that guide the company through any project it undertakes. These core values also extend to how Clear!Blue conducts its internal meetings and events.
“Any kind of social interaction we have, whenever we sit together and talk, for example, about how we are going to execute a strategy, we work around these values,” Rosenau says.
In what seems appropriate for a company that has made its mark designing and implementing eye-catching events, Clear!Blue “places a lot of value in getting our people together,” Rosenau says, “particularly when we have 17 or 18 different projects going on at one time. It's vital.”
While the focus of most internal meetings is on ideas relating to business growth and development, Rosenau says, they always take time to acknowledge “our mutual success and the pride we all have about the work we're doing.
“It's a way to smile with each other — on a nonproject basis,” he says.
Team meetings, held each month, also give Clear!Blue the chance to focus on that fifth core value — fun. Whether it's a wine-tasting event, a couple of hours spent playing boccie, or simply getting together to share some beer (the office has beer on tap), it gives employees “a chance to exhale,” Rosenau says. It also adds to a creative atmosphere that has landed the company a place on Crain's Detroit Business 2005 “Cool Places to Work” list.
Another fun favorite for employees is Camp Clear!Blue, a two-day event held each year at the Brook Lodge Hotel and Conference Resort in Augusta, Mich. A casual shorts and T-shirts kind of meeting, it brings together every Clear!Blue employee from the company's offices in Chicago and Birmingham, Mich. “We sit down during the days and focus segments of time on how we can better live out our core values, whether it's with our clients or our coworkers,” says Rosenau.
— MICHAEL BASSETT
AT COLD STONE CREAMERY (No. 424 on the Inc. 500), an ice cream shop franchise based in Scottsdale, Ariz., the Big Idea is that customers should have an experience: It's not just ice cream. It's ice cream made fresh daily, decadent mix-ins added on the spot. It's not just a cone. It's a fresh waffle cone, chocolate trim optional. It's not just service. It's service with a song and dance — literally — from front-line employees who actually have to audition for their jobs.
Taking a page from the genius of companies such as Starbucks that are turning simple commodities into premium brands by focusing on quality and the buying experience, Cold Stone has created a business model that is attracting franchisees like, well, kids to ice cream. The company has made the Inc. 500 list in three of the last four years, growing from 100 stores in 2000 to 1,240 today, including one in Japan that opened last November.
The heart of the Cold Stone franchise is a company culture that is passionate about ice cream, about people, and about success, says Kathy Heasley, founder and principal of IMS, a Scottsdale-based communications company that has worked with Cold Stone since 1999. But can a franchise company growing at record speed really pass on a distinct company culture to its franchisees?
It can and it does, says Heasley, and Cold Stone's annual franchisee meeting is one of the keys. “We call it the most important four days of the year,” she says. The annual franchisee meeting is “one of the most important initiatives this company does.”
Heasley ran her first Cold Stone franchisee meeting in 2000, with about 125 attendees at the Radisson Resort in Scottsdale. She moved it the next year to Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, and then down the street to the Bellagio in 2003. It has been there ever since, most recently in January with more than 1,700 attendees, and the group will return in 2007. It's evolved into a sophisticated event, with two days of setup, two days of rehearsal, and attendees coming in Sunday through Wednesday. Franchisees pay for their own airfare and hotel rooms, as well as a registration fee, and it is Heasley's job to make it all worth it — for them and for the company.
The event, she says, provides a place for Cold Stone to get out its news and information and for franchisees to network and attend workshops, but “more importantly, it's a place where the company can bring its culture to life.” And Cold Stone, she says, is a company that “understands the power of heart within a company.” And “heart” and passion are values they want to convey at their event.
Heasley says a company culture is built in the “heart and soul moments” of a meeting. Like the performance by the team from Canon City, Colo., that won “No. 1 Crew in America.” The crew — Cold Stone lingo for the front-line employees — starred in a video, then did a live rhythmic routine (a la “Stomp”) involving cups, and ended by performing a song that tied in the meeting theme, “Rise Above.” Another “moment”: the video created by IMS and Sterling Productions on the opening of the first Japanese franchise, which included a pop song written and recorded by a young crew member.
That video was just one of 10 that IMS produced for the meeting that helped to get attendees into the Cold Stone spirit. Another, which wrapped up the opening evening expo, went over big: a video of people simply enjoying ice cream, lick after lick, smile after smile. “They're in the making-people-happy business,” Heasley explains.
“Our awards ceremony is another culture builder,” she says, describing erupting applause, music, lights, photography, a professional master of ceremonies, and an infectious enthusiasm that gels into a not-to-be-forgotten boost for the community. “It's bigger than the Academy Awards,” she says, with only a hint of hyperbole. “They are the stars. We're truly honoring them.”
Highlighting Cold Stone Creamery's ongoing relationship with the Make-a-Wish Foundation, an organization that grants wishes for children with life-threatening medical conditions, is another way that Heasley creates emotional moments that make franchisees feel connected to the values of the company.
Last year, Cold Stone raised $750,000 for the foundation through in-store events, and a young painter named Shelby, a former Make-a-Wish recipient, took the stage during the conference to speak about her experiences receiving and granting wishes, and to award one of her paintings to the Cold Stone store that had raised the most for the cause.
Another Make-a-Wish tie-in was 8-year-old Cole, the 2006 Cold Stone Creamery Wish child. For the past few years, a Make-a-Wish child has been invited to create a new ice cream and mix-in concoction that is offered in stores during the company's annual Make-a-Wish month. Cole was a special guest at the meeting, donning an official “tastemaster” lab coat, with his chocolate-intensive creation available in freezers around the ballroom.
Heasley's moment-filled meeting philosophy is ambitious, but it seems in synch with this franchise company's high-reaching goals. “We want to create life-changing experiences,” she says. “We never shoot for anything less. Events are a huge opportunity to do that. There's no better opportunity.”
Writing in the online edition of Inc. magazine last September, Cold Stone's CEO Doug Ducey discussed his company's approach to business: “Joseph Pine and James Gilmore wrote a book a few years back called The Experience Economy. In it they say that people don't want great products or services anymore. They want experiences and they want them not just in four-star restaurants. They want them everywhere. At the dry cleaner, at the sub shop, at the ice cream store.” With his company's annual franchise event packed with emotion-filled moments, it's safe to say that Ducey includes meetings on that list as well.
— SUSAN HATCH
DAVID SILVERMAN, PRESIDENT and chief executive officer at Baltimore-based National Fidelity Mortgage Inc., knows that success needs to be cultivated. One of the ways that he is preparing for future growth is through meetings.
From 2001 to 2004, the company's revenues skyrocketed 416 percent to $15.9 million. About a year ago, Silverman established a franchise division at the 8-year-old company to set up retail branches. Since then, 20 branches have opened along the East Coast from Mass-achusetts to Florida.
When the company (No. 317 on the Inc. 500) first started, meetings were pretty much confined to sales. However, as NFM grew and departments and directors were added, executive meetings were put in place as a means to chart the growth of the company. In its next phase of growth, NFM has just created a semi-annual conference for its new branch managers, the first of which was held in December.
Silverman views these meetings as “a great avenue for both corporate and branch offices to bring issues to the table.”
The inaugural conference was a forum for NFM to train and educate these branch managers on everything from customer service to budgeting so that they can run their businesses better. “We want them to be successful,” he says. “If we pass on information that helps them in even one area of their business, then it was a successful meeting.”
The conference also gives the branch managers a chance to network and to share information and ideas. In addition, NFM executives update them on new products and services.
Attended by about 30 branch managers and NFM executives, the conference was a one-day session held at the Sheraton International Hotel in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. “From a unity standpoint, an educational standpoint, and an informational standpoint, it was very effective,” says Silverman. “They left wanting more.”
The next conference is slated for June. In part because it was so well-received, but also because there is a lot of ground to cover, it will be a two-day affair. “There were some areas we probably could have spent nine hours on alone,” says Silverman.
Instead of trying to cram everything there is to know about running a branch into one day, they plan to narrow the topics so that more time is spent on fewer subjects. As the company adds retail outlets around the country, the branch manager conference will likely move from Baltimore to a more convenient and centrally located site for attendees.
The December meeting was followed by NFM's holiday party, in keeping with the company's tradition of having some form of entertainment after all off-site meetings. In the past, employees have been treated to such post-meeting activities as happy hours, bowling, and ball games. “These are all quasi-meetings in a way, because you're getting an opportunity to bond so that when stresses or disagreements come up, you have a better understanding of that person,” says Silverman. “They build morale, create unity, and expand on our culture,” which he describes as “young” (the average age is under 30) and “close-knit.”
Silverman is a big believer in the power of face-to-face meetings — more so than memos or phone conversations — to communicate strategic change as his company grows. “When you're rolling out change and communicating where things are and where they're headed, they're an absolute necessity. When you come out of them, there's clear direction.”
— DAVE KOVALESKI
CUSTOM INK, NO. 55 — Sells customizable products, primarily t-shirts, sweatshirts, and baseball caps. www.customink.com
EAST WEST CONNECTION, NO. 458 — Makes customized gifts and promotional merchandise for corporations. www.eastwestconnection.com
IBAHN, NO. 253 — Provides secure wireless broadband access in hotels. www.stsn.com
NETSPOKE, NO. 300 — Provides Web conferencing with handy features. www.netspoke.com
SIGNATURE WINES, NO. 351 — Sells personalized wine bottles, primarily online. Customers choose from an assortment of wines and design their own labels. www.signaturewines.com
TEAMWORLD, NO. 397 — Makes corporate apparel and promotional items. www.teamworld.com