CEO's Notebook

How can we respond more quickly to problems that crop up?
At Stansbury Staffing Consultants, rather than letting problems fester, president Patricia Stansbury holds what she calls a "pop meeting" whenever a difficulty crops up. The people involved with the issue huddle together, swiftly identify the problem, and then brainstorm to come up with a solution. "We have to be able to move fast and make decisions quickly," says Stansbury, whose $3.7-million staffing service has offices in San Francisco and San Mateo, Calif. The meetings, which last 20 minutes at most, help improve processes and prevent issues from slipping through the cracks. For example, when a temporary employee sent in two time cards in one week and got paid twice for his work, someone called a pop meeting. Minutes later, Stansbury employees came up with a better system for logging and tracking time cards. --Stephanie Gruner

Up to your eyeballs in old files?

If your company is buried in paper, you may wonder how long you have to keep old records. There's no easy answer, according to Donald S. Skupsky, author of Recordkeeping Requirements. Here are some general guidelines, but Skupsky suggests checking the legal requirements of each state in which you conduct business and of any regulatory agency with which your company deals. --Cheryl McManus

Source: Recordkeeping Requirements, by Donald S. Skupsky, Information Requirements Clearinghouse, Denver, 1994.
How long must I keep this stuff?
Federal tax returns 3 years 6 years
Payroll records 4 years 6 years
Account ledgers 3 years 6 years
Sales receipts 3 years 6 years

What can I do to encourage employees to develop new skills?
Whenever Keith Lamb, CEO of the Lamb Group, has a job opening, he makes sure to invite interested employees to apply--even if they have almost no chance of getting the position. "They learn a lot in the process and get some honest feedback on where they need to develop careerwise," says Lamb, whose Chicago-based human-resources, consulting, and staffing companies have $3 million in combined revenues. One staff member interviewed for the job of national training director. She didn't get it, but Lamb changed her position to include more training, to prepare her for future opportunities. "It's a win for us because we would never have thought to get her involved in training," he explains. --Christopher Caggiano

I need to find new ways to recruit workers. Any suggestions?

  • Ask employees to help. David Riordan, co-owner of OOP!, a $1-million specialty-gift store in Providence, knows he'll lose a good chunk of his employee base every May. That's because half his workers are students from local universities. "Even if they're great, we have them only for two to four years," he says. So he asks his employees to agree when they come on board that when they do inevitably leave, they'll find and train their own replacements. This technique satisfies most of Riordan's hiring needs.
  • Target senior citizens. At John Greene's $4.5-million chauffeur service, Custom Transportation Service, in Braintree, Mass., about 30% of the company's 150 employees are retirees. Greene sends letters to human-resources departments at local companies, seeking soon-to-be retirees looking for extra income.
  • Search on-line. Mark Zweig, founder of Zweig White & Associates, a $3.1-million publishing and consulting company, doesn't just post job openings on his company's Web site. Zweig also logs on to America Online and visits the member directory. He selects cities and towns near his company's Natick, Mass., location, and then searches members' occupations by keyword. He sends E-mail to people with job descriptions he finds appealing. "It's much faster than a Sunday newspaper ad," Zweig explains. --Christopher Caggiano

I want to give customers memorable but inexpensive gifts. Any ideas?
Never underestimate the power of good food and a personal touch. Deborah Bass, founder of $5-million Bass & Associates, in Omaha, runs a 75-employee information-technology consultingbusiness whose consultants work at customer locations around the country. Each month, Bass sends batches of brownies to the attention of her off-site employees, who share the bounty with the customers' staff as a way of thanking them for their business. Needless to say, that policy makes Bass's consultants popular. "Competitors tease me for peddling brownies," she admits. "But clients love it. I've had many new clients call up and ask if we're 'that brownie company.' " --Mike Hofman

We'd like to have company lunches, but who has time to organize them?
Try rotating the responsibility among employees or departments. That's what Barbara Coplen, CEO of Printing Control, a $10-million commercial printer in Tukwila, Wash., does. Every other Friday, the company sponsors a staffwide lunch, but the job of planning the event rotates regularly among the company's six departments. Within a budget of $300, each department's staff can order any food they wish to feed Coplen's 70 employees. Departments sometimes get creative: for one lunch, the sales team chose a western motif and supplied everyone with sporty kerchiefs. --Christopher Caggiano

Hot Tip
Leegin Creative Leather Products, an $89-million manufacturer of leather accessories in City of Industry, Calif., took representatives of some valuable retail accounts along on a business trip to Asia last spring. At the airport, Leegin had pictures of the retailers taken and then had the photos quickly made into postcards. Then Leegin sent the cards to 2,500 of the retailers' best customers. Leegin scored points with both the retailers and their clients. "A lot of retailers said, 'My customers came in with the postcards,' and they set up special China displays, and several even held special workshops and seminars," reports Leegin marketing manager Judy Arnold. --Susan Greco

Off the Record
What entrepreneurs are telling Inc. about collections

"If I ever had any political influence, I'd use it to get big businesses to pay their bills on time. They'll sit on invoices for 60 days. If I paid 60 days late, my suppliers would cut me off. But there's too much incentive for big business in America to make money by delaying accounts payable." --CEO, $7.4-million California creative-services company

"The federal government is notorious for not paying on time. Twice last year, I was so delayed in getting a check from them that I put my own money into the company to cover paychecks." --President, California-based painting and construction business with more than $2 million in sales

"Our cash flow stinks right now. We're paying bills faster than we're collecting from customers. We start calling at 30 days. At 60 days, our drivers show up with invoices." --President, Rhode Island-based vehicle-maintenance company with close to $1 million in sales

Help! My business's schedule is ruining my personal life!
Let's face it: a small-business owner's work schedule can be taxing--and, worse yet, unpredictable. Have you tried giving yourself "comp time"? Admittedly, that's no solution if the demands of your business are causing you to miss special events like birthdays, anniversaries, and school plays. However, business owners can sometimes compensate for things like missed meals. Iris Harrell, owner of Harrell Remodeling, in Menlo Park, Calif., does just that.

Harrell has promised her mate that she'll be home routinely for breakfast and dinner and on weekends--or make up the time. When her busy $3-million design and construction business requires her to miss a meal or a Sunday afternoon at home, she makes up the time with her partner during a slower period in the workweek. "Why does the person you love the most so often get the least of your attention?" asks Harrell. "You need to treat that as a serious commitment." --Stephanie Gruner