Business

Have you checked your company’s cholesterol?

Riding into the new year.

I’m not great with New Year’s Resolutions, but I do like to be reflective this time of year and try to think about what I have learned, how I can improve, and whether or not I need to adjust my sails. Earlier this past summer, my wife and I went in for our every other year annual physical and it turned out to be a learning experience. While regular checkups are a good idea, we are incredibly healthy and just don’t make many visits to our friendly family doctor.

This year, our doctor suggested we include a new blood test from a local company, Liposcience. It’s called an NMR LipoProfile test. I have some family history of heart disease and this is a new way to look at one of the culprits, cholesterol. My first reaction was to pass on the test, especially given that my levels have always bordered on being too low – with my last check being somewhere in the 120 range. Not bad for someone that bakes cookies with butter for a living. (FYI – my grandparents ate fried pork, eggs, and biscuits with redeye gravy at LEAST once a day and lived to be 86 – go figure).

But our doctor is very well read and a great guy who is not into the latest ‘pharma fad’, so I opted to give them an extra vile of my blood to check. The theory behind this test is that it is not necessarily the level of cholesterol that really matters. But rather, it is the number and size of the lipoprotein particles that carry the cholesterol in my bloodstream that are the real determinate of whether or not I am at risk for developing plaque in my arteries.

He explained that the interior walls of the artery are not really solid, but have small pockets or holes that allow molecules to pass through. Their theory, and it seemed logical, is that if there are a large number of small particles carrying the cholesterol, they can easily become lodged in these openings, building up, and eventually leading to hardening of the arteries, blockage, and all the ugliness that comes along with stoppage of blood flow to the heart.

When Debbie went for her physical a few weeks later, she also opted for the test. We were anxious to get the results, given that her cholesterol level has always been on the high side, north of 200, long before we ever started the cookie business. Would the test results shed any new light on our health profiles?

I received my lab results back first and it was indeed a surprise and right in line with Doc’s thinking. My cholesterol, although very low (<150), was being carried in a high number of small particles, putting me in a higher risk category. I’m not sedentary, have been practicing yoga three times a week for the past 6 years and am well within my weight range. No pills or diets, just a life of moderation. Debbie’s results came in shortly thereafter and sure enough, her cholesterol level was above ‘normal’. However, the LipoProfile showed her particles were fewer and very large, putting her in the lowest risk category. This is exactly the opposite of what traditional thinking might render. If you’ve stayed with me this far, you must be wondering ‘What in the world does this have to do with business?’ As we just put to rest what will most likely be recorded as one of the most disastrous years for the economy in my lifetime, I’ve been thinking about what really lead us up to these seemingly unfathomable problems. After all, just a few years ago we were ticking along nicely, knowing that we are always prone to economic cycles, but not fearing death of the likes of American Home Mortgage, Lehman Brothers, Wachovia and others. I’m thinking we might want to examine the patient from a new perspective, challenging the ‘traditional thinking’ of what causes these types of major problems. Perhaps we should be looking at the quantity of small, almost microscopic problems that have become so systemic in business today, as the real killer. Maybe these silent, almost imperceptible issues that go on every day in all types of operations are the catalyst that eventually leads to this type of economic myocardial infarction. Risk may very well come, not from the big problems that everyone sees and talks about, but rather from these smaller issues that embed themselves slowly over time, leading to serious and sometimes fatal consequences for a business. I’m certain that virtually every one reading this post can recant stories from your workplace or other businesses, where issues were ignored, overlooked or just plain dismissed as not that important. It goes on everyday, in small and medium businesses and especially in the larger companies where operational and ethical problems are easy to hide. Earlier this spring, Debbie and I strolled in to our local bank branch to refinance our home equity line of credit and lower the interest rate. We had not been in the branch much before and had never met the loan officer. We walked in, introduced ourselves, sat down, signed the paperwork that was already prepared, and re-indebted ourselves. When we finished the transaction, I asked the loan officer why she never asked for any ID. How did she know it was really us? We never provided any proof of ID, income, address, or anything. In our case, this was clearly a legitimate transaction, but I’m wondering how my times over the past years these transactions happened where perhaps things were not in order. At banks, at insurance companies, car manufacturers, technology companies – the list goes on and on. Business now moves almost at the speed of thought, and it might be that very thing that has helped put us at risk for serious problems. By moving too quickly, businesses and ultimately the people that run them, ignore the details, allow decisions to be made that are not right, but easy to let go, and create what will ultimately be fatal outcomes for many institutions in our economy. “So Doc, how do I fix this small molecule problem?” Fortunately, it was a fairly simple solution. I need more aerobic exercise and to increase my intake of omega-3 fats. So I’m back on the fish oil pills with a vengeance. And, while it has taken some effort to consistently roll out of bed and hop on the bike for my morning ride, it has given me a fresh perspective on life and business. I’m afraid the solution for businesses and our economy might not be that simple. To begin with, you have to recognize the problem and I fear that our leaders, execs and many individuals are still too busy pointing fingers instead of getting to the root of the disease. Despite the wave of ‘change’ that has swept through our electoral offices this past November, I’m not convinced the bureaucrats understand the problem, the intricacies of running a business, or how to craft a real solution. There is no simple fix, but here are a couple of ideas that might help:

  • Embrace creative thought. If you have ever worked in, or created an environment where, creative thinking is squelched, then you’ve been in a business with carotid arteries. The flow of ideas is the lifeblood of business. Ask more questions. Eliminate ‘No’ as a first response. Put on a different pair of eyes. Avoid complacency. You never really know where the solution to a problem or the next million dollar idea is going to come from.
  • Think it through. I have a copy of ‘Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff’ on my bookshelf and understand the pain of micro-management, but I believe it is critical to examine processes, decisions and actions in detail. Think through the ramifications. Small issues and problems can be cumulative and have catastrophic consequences. Take responsibility. Take time. And as Thomas Watson said, ‘THINK’.
  • Do the right thing. Early this past fall, I went back to my alma mater, The Fuqua School of Business, to facilitate a day of reflection for the returning students on their summer work experience. The focus of the event was to talk about decision making and courage in the workplace. The courage to do the right thing in what professor Joe Leboeuf called, ‘moments that matter – when no one is looking’. Stop protecting your ego. Remember the Golden Rule. When you do the right thing consistently, you develop mental toughness and set a benchmark that helps keep your life, your career and your business healthy.

Focusing on small problems might be a hard sell for those who only look at the world from the thirty thousand foot level, but Doc has me sold. So I’ll be cycling down the road, swallowing a fish oil pill, and thinking about managing my life and my businesses so that I avoid what Fred Sanford comically referred to as ‘The Big One’. It might be too late for Lehman and many others, but there are plenty of businesses out there that might want to get a thorough physical, change perspective on sweating the details and come out for a ride.

Could Lagniappe be a Solution?

The Big Easy

Last year about this time, a customer and friend, Renee from Uptown Endodontics in New Orleans, introduced me to a new word that has become one of my favorites when I think about Anna’s Gourmet Goodies and our business, ‘lagniappe’ (pronounced lan-yap). It’s Cajun and means, ‘a little something extra’. When we filled one of her large orders last year for their clients, we sent her the same basket to try. No charge – just a little something extra. She thanked us for the lagniappe.

We actually love to do this with clients throughout the year. We sometimes send out thank you gifts to our clients in August, at a time when most folks least expect them. And we’ve been known to ‘accidentally drop’ a few extra packs of cookies in someone’s order. It is such a great feeling to do something nice for someone when they are not expecting it.

One of my favorite restaurants in Raleigh is The Duck and the Dumpling. Chef David Mao has been a long time customer of ours and if you have the chance to dine there you might just find lagniappe in the form of his delicious carrot ginger soup, or some other culinary surprise before or after your meal.

When I step back a few feet and look at our business, that’s really what Anna’s Gourmet Goodies is all about – doing something nice for someone when they are not expecting it. It’s an attitude with which we approach our business and our life. Some of our most successful clients in the automobile, insurance, mortgage, financial services and other industries have embraced this philosophy and made it a part of their business. One of our customers that sends cookies to their employees as birthday gifts and has them delivered to the office on Saturday mornings, recently surveyed their staff about what they liked most about the company and you guessed it, our cookies ranked up there in the top five. Small gesture – big impact.

I’ve been thinking about this lately, especially in light of all the negativity of the elections and the economic implosion that dominates virtually every major media outlet. It seems that all we hear about is ‘cutting back’. There is no doubt in my mind that we are in this mess because of greed and excess at all levels of government, business and individual lifestyles, and a little trimming is in order. The focus on ‘what’s in it for me?’ as opposed to ‘what can I do for someone else?’ has definitely tipped the scales to the former.

However, could lagniappe be a solution to some of the economic and societal challenges we face? Maybe. I guess it depends, like most anything, on how it is used. From my perspective lagniappe doesn’t mean thinking that if I just put this extra package of cookies in a box, that I immediately expect something in return. It’s not about spending big bucks to impress or bribe people. It’s about doing something nice that brings a smile to someone’s face, to make them feel good – just because. If this sounds a little sappy, stop and think about the last time someone did a little something extra for you and how it made you feel about them and/or the company. Talk about making your business stand out in a crowd – it’s really a ‘no-brainer’.

When I see people and companies trying to ‘dig their way out’ of a hole, I’m wondering if the real solution is to stop digging and focus on what you can do to help someone else. In return, you’ll find it easier to take a step up and climb out, when someone inevitably reaches out their hand in turn, to help you.

We’re about to enter the season of the year when Anna’s Gourmet Goodies will be busy sending gifts for companies and individuals. I’ve been getting questions from people who pay too much attention to the news, about our business and whether we see everyone cutting back. While we have had a few companies decide to forgo what they consider to be the ‘extras’, I’m also finding just as many new folks that understand the value of lagniappe, calling us with their holiday gift orders. I am certain that at the end of this storm these individuals and companies will be standing on top of the sand dune, rather than being buried with those who focused totally on ‘hunkering down’ to wait it out.

I know Renee will understand that while I truly appreciate their business, I am hopefully not in the market any time soon for any endodontic (aka root canal) work. But if I were, it might just be worth a trip down to The Big Easy. I’m absolutely confident that in addition to superior service and a comfortable procedure, there would be lagniappe just for being a patient. And of course, I’d bring along a pocket full of cookies.

Recycle your cardboard

Our vanilla supplier, Nielsen-Massey, just switched to using all recycled corrugated containers for their shipping. Does that really matter?

Here’s a quick factoid:

For every ton of corrugated cardboard that is recycled, this preserves 17 trees, 463 gallons of oil, and 3 cubic yards of landfill space.

If a ton sounds like a big number – remember – you have to start somewhere. So instead of tossing that box in the regular trash next time, drop it in your recycle bin. Little pieces eventually add up to a big pile!

A New Perspective on Going Green

The Business of Living & Working Green

I attended a seminar on October 1 titled “The Business of Living and Working Green”. It was put on by a local group called Chix in Business and hosted at McKinney, a world-class creative agency headquartered in Durham, NC. My friend, business associate, and former coach, Susan Maravetz is in charge of special events and Anna’s Gourmet Goodies was again happy to sponsor a door prize at this event. We have always incorporated elements of ‘green’ into our company and I must admit, I walked out of this seminar with a renewed interest in making sure that Anna’s Gourmet Goodies does everything we can to conduct business in a manner that demonstrates respect for the world in which we live.

There were three presentations on the agenda; Renee Jarvis, Office Services Manager at McKinney, Jane Norton of ReSourcing Solutions, and Greg Messer, founder of Palladium Homes along with Marsha Burger from the Green Building Council.

McKinney’s office is in the restored tobacco district in Durham and is absolutely one of the coolest offices I have ever visited. Their ‘green’ initiative runs throughout the company and touches many areas of the business. From the selection of their facility, to the products they consume, McKinney has been thoughtful in looking at how they conduct their business.

I think that many times when business people initially think about the word ‘green’, they may think first of increased costs. From Renee’s presentation and the other panelists comments, it was clear that being ‘green’ does not always mean higher costs and totally changing your business. It is really more about having an awareness of what you do, how it affects our environment and a willingness to look for ways to make better use of our resources. While some products may have a higher initial cost, savings and other benefits often offset the cost and are worth the investment.

As this movement enters the next phase of going beyond a fad or buzzword, I see it opening up a new opportunity to connect with businesses and customers. Tim Sanders has a new book, “Saving the World at Work”, and is coming to the Cary, NC on October 29 to speak on the topic of how to make a difference, not just a profit. If you think about it, wouldn’t it be more enjoyable to do business with people and companies that have a increased level of respect for the world around them? Absolutely.

So the green movement is not necessarily about spending lots of money or totally overhauling your business. It is about taking small steps to look at how you operate and what can be done to lessen the impact on our supply of natural resources. There are things that each of us can do, today, that collectively will make an impact.

Here is a list of ideas to help get you started (mostly from Renee’s presentation – thank you McKinney):

    1. Start by doing research. Sit down with your favorite search engine and use the power of the Internet to educate yourself. (Google is my friend)
    2. Make a list of things can do. Prioritize the list by what is most feasible right now and the cost to implement.
    3. Talk to your suppliers. Find out what they are doing to lessen their impact on the environment. (Our vanilla supplier just switched to using 100% recycled cardboard for their shipping boxes!)
    4. Have your home or office audited by a Member of the Green Building Council. Visit their website to find someone in your area who can make suggestions on how to improve the efficiency of your building.

Here’s a list of websites to visit:
www.ecoproducts.com
www.seventhgeneration.com (we use their plant based dish washing soap)
www.cellphonesforsoldiers.com
www.gaiam.com
www.usgbc.org
greensource.construction.com
www.ecologue.com

Here are a few simple things we do at Anna’s Gourmet Goodies:
1. Use biodegradable packing peanuts in all our boxes. Made from starch and completely biodegradable.
2. Switched to CFL lights in our production area.
3. Use gift boxes made from recycled materials.
4. Electronic billing and receipts – we don’t print packing slips or send out paper invoices.
5. Re-use paper. For all our internal notes, we use the back of paper for notepads whenever possible.
6. Our website is our catalog. We ask our vendors not to send us catalogs when we can easily find what we need on their website.

Hopefully this has given you an idea or two about things you can do to make a difference at home and at work. More ideas? Please leave your comments below!

Holiday baskets in the warehouse?

On Saturday, Anna and I made our weekly trek down to the ‘warehouse’ store to stock up on supplies for Anna’s Gourmet Goodies. I’ve noticed displays of those ‘cookie tins’ (the ones that stay fresh for months or even years) showing up over the past few weeks, but they have now rolled out the gift packs in quantity. I guess the early season for holiday shopping has begun – I spotted a large center isle display of those shrink wrapped gift baskets with candy canes in them. Is it really time to see this in stores?

Like most companies in the gift business, we are already taking reservations for the holidays. Everything we do is baked to order, so we reserve ‘oven time’ to bake and ship our gourmet cookies for customers. We plan ahead, we just don’t bake ahead. Our family gave up foods with chemical additives and preservatives when we went on the Feingold Program and had our cookies certified. We use no ingredient that contains any petro chemicals, dyes or preservatives, and we simply don’t make anything that can be left out for weeks, let alone months. The holiday season is a crazy time for us, but we think the results are worth the effort.

The financial upheaval we are all watching unfold will most certainly have an effect on our economy and spending over the coming months and years. I expect retail businesses will start the push earlier than ever this year and it will be interesting to see how this season shakes out. I guess I’m okay with candy canes in September, but if I see a Valentine display of any kind, I’ll know we’ve gone a holiday too far.

The Whole Foods Indicator

Anna and I spent Sunday afternoon at the 27th annual Greek Festival in Raleigh. We saw some friends, listened to upbeat Greek music and of course, sampled the goodies from this part of the world. It was a great father-daughter afternoon.

On the way home, we stopped at Whole Foods Market to pick up a few items, and I was simply amazed. We don’t shop there all that often since it is a bit of a hike to get there from our home. This place was packed! Every cashier line was filled at least 3 people deep. Is it always like this on Sunday afternoons?

If you picked up a paper or looked at the news on TV or the Internet last week, you are sure to have heard of, or read about, the massive financial debacle that we as taxpayers are now adding to our tab. It will take weeks or months (years?) for the enormity of this crisis to fully sink in with the public. The scale of this definitely falls into the category of ‘Big Scary Numbers’. And when those retirement statements hit the mailboxes over the next few months, I expect that Main Street will begin to stir even more.

I won’t begin to try and predict an economic bottom to this swing, or a six-month direction for the stock market. As some of you may know, I’ve been helping my good friend and business associate Scott Andrews from MasterTheGap.com focus on a very short period of time to trade – what happens to the futures market first thing in the morning.

I do however believe that I may have stumbled upon a very interesting economic indicator – I’ll call it the ‘Whole Foods Indicator’. Even with the economy in financial disarray, consumers still flock to quality products and a superior purchase experience. Everything simply moves down the ladder a rung or two. Instead of spending more money for a night out, spend a little less at Whole Foods and get great, healthy food. Why is this important to Anna’s Gourmet Goodies? Because I sense that people and companies will do the same thing when it comes to their gift giving this holiday season.

For years we have been providing incredible gourmet cookies (yes, I have tried almost every major competitor and ours are the best IMHO) and customer service that simply cannot be surpassed. We’ve kept the business laser focused on what we do best, providing gifts for individuals and businesses and shipping them direct to the customer. From the organic, locally milled flour to our environmentally friendly packaging, our cookies and brownies simply make you feel good. And, we’ve kept our price point at a very attractive level by avoiding the overhead and leverage that so often sinks a business (ala Mrs. Fields, now filing for Chapter 11). We’re booking holiday orders now and looking forward to another record holiday season. For those people and companies used to spending $50-100 on a basket of ‘stuff’, we have a very tasty solution – gourmet cookies!

In June of this year, I responded to an article by Sue Stock in the News & Observer about this very issue. They published my response in the Talk Back section of the paper. While I believe that we are in for a bit of a shake out in our economy, I choose to focus on seeing the opportunity as opposed to lamenting over the loss. No, my glasses don’t have a rose colored tint. I’ve simply found that what you focus on most certainly shows up in life and in business. And I see our business thriving as individuals and companies look to reduce their spending, but still want a gift experience that is truly outstanding.

As with any market swing, some businesses will not survive, while others grow and thrive. There will be no shortage of opinion over the coming months as to what might and might not happen with our economy. I do read that Warren Buffett is out there with his checkbook, snapping up bargain priced companies. He certainly knows a thing or two about the economy and where we are heading. I wonder if I could interest him in a large quantity of incredibly delicious chocolate chip cookies?

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