How Jack Kahl has grown Manco Inc. by taking the best ideas from big companies

The way he's clutching the piece of mail, you'd think John Kahl had just been served with a subpoena. Without so much as a knock, the 28-year-old marches into his father's office and interrupts a meeting. He tosses a postcard onto the middle of the round wooden table. "Look at this," he orders.

Jack Kahl, president and chief executive of Manco Inc., which markets a line of tapes, weather stripping, and mailing supplies, picks up the card and studies it. As an earnest look consumes his face, he passes it on to Tom Corbo, the company's 38-year-old vice-president of marketing and research and development. Corbo, a former all-American wrestler with a passing resemblance to Robert DeNiro, looks at it, frowns, then cups the card in his palm and thumps it down on the table. "I've never seen this," he says. As his hand drops away, the postcard becomes visible. It's there for anyone to see.

Few, however, would appreciate the card's greater significance. It looks an awful lot like every other coupon from Domino's Pizza.

By now John, who has inherited his father's enthusiastic and absorbed manner, has begun detailing the coupon's origins. He explains exactly how his life has reached the point whereby the next time he orders pizza, he will receive two free Cokes. Corbo leans forward and begins scribbling on the yellow pad that is practically an appendage. Jack Kahl fixes his blue eyes on his oldest son, Manco's national sales manager. Stumbling into the room, you might think you had interrupted a self-help group for pizza addicts.

In reality, you would be venturing into the heart of Manco. For no sooner has the younger Kahl finished his story -- the pizza was late, so Domino's gave him $3 off, then unexpectedly mailed him this bonus -- than the analysis begins. Why, exactly, does Domino's believe it must do more than give its standard discount? "Domino's knows it costs six times as much to get a customer as to keep one," says Corbo. How do customers react to getting the surprise coupon? "I'm not going to order again because I get two free drinks," confesses John, "but I'll order because Domino's thought to send the coupon." Soon everyone will take a swipe at solving the central mystery: What can Manco learn from the Domino's approach?

There has to be something; that much Jack Kahl knows. A detective of sorts, he makes it his business to trail other companies, untangling their motives and learning as much as he can from their moves. "Business is easy," says Kahl. "If you want to be a smart company, you study the smart companies."

Kahl doesn't mean keeping a watchful eye on competitors. And he's not talking about tracking entrepreneurial enterprises like his own. When Kahl says smart, he means big. CEOs who neglect to systematically scrutinize big companies through such available sources as annual reports, magazines, and books, he argues, are missing out on the most helpful database around.

What makes him so sure? Since 1977 Kahl has transformed the company from a $4-million distributor of industrial tape to a retail supplier with sales of $60 million. And he's done it, he'll openly admit, thanks to the help of some very effective teachers. He readily rattles off their famous names: The Walt Disney Co., Wal-Mart Stores Inc., and others. "You've got to keep your eyes on the giants all the time," Kahl says. "Our eyes are focused up."

On the surface, it seems presumptuous for Kahl to think that Manco could possibly borrow ideas from, say, PepsiCo Inc. Sure, big companies might face some of the same problems that small ones do, but their solutions could be less than instructive. Having trouble motivating your people? Hurl giant bonuses their way. Product lines faltering? Time to take a write-down. R&D lagging? Have your headhunter scare up some talent. Fine ideas if your company happens to be drenched in resources.

Kahl doesn't deny that big companies often solve -- or at least obscure -- their problems by dipping into deep wells of people and money. But he avoids that trap by carefully stripping big-company methods down to their fundamentals. "We see Pepsi promoting its product as a lifestyle, showing happy people using it," he says. "We know we can do that with duct tape. We don't have to spend what Pepsi spends to advertise it." Furthermore, established, older companies can point to something that younger role models usually can't: results.

What's more, Kahl doesn't copy ideas; he replants them. His most diligent work has involved creating an atmosphere in which ideas can grow. It's no coincidence that Manco's headquarters looks like a college campus; a three-quarter-mile jogging and walking trail stretches around trees and lakes. And there's no shortage of inspiration. The walls are lined with the thoughts of philosophers ranging from Socrates to Ben Franklin to Greg Klein, the company's vice-president of finance. Each Manco executive selects one quote to be tacked up outside his or her office, etched on a green sign with yellow and red stripes. Kahl tapped Socrates: "One thing I know, and that is that I know nothing."

In every way he can, Kahl reinforces the importance of learning. The company's Spirit Award, its highest honor, recognizes curiosity. And that famous Greek interior designer, Plato, influenced Kahl's thinking about office geography. Manco's eight vice-presidents don't occupy the window offices; instead, their offices are clustered in the middle around the room where new merchandising ideas are discussed. Action Alley, as it's called, is modeled on the Greek city-state, where brainpower emanated from the middle. "To learn anything, you go right to the center of this company," says Kahl, who is 50.

But finding good ideas is only half the process. Driven by Kahl's own relentless need to understand, the company hungers to put ideas into practice. A kind of creative dissatisfaction roams the halls of Manco's headquarters, in Westlake, Ohio. It has a library crammed with books and a classroom that everyone calls Manco U.

Manco also conveys an almost overbearing openness. Wander into the cafeteria, and you can't help but partake of the company's financials. On one wall, different colors of duct tape trace sales growth over the past three years. Next to that, a chalkboard breaks out daily sales as compared with last year's. Above the vending machines, in green, a bar graph tracks the per-share value of the company's employee stock ownership plan since 1985 -- it's calculated by an outside firm, since Manco remains private. Concerned about efficiency? The writing is on the wall. Productivity? Stats on percentages of orders completed on time can be found next to the entrance to the production floor. If you still harbor doubts about the company's viability, seven LED displays throughout the company provide an up-to-the-second account of the action in sales. On one recent afternoon, when the signs flashed the news, "We cracked a 750-store drug chain," all 170 or so employees burst into applause.

Kahl also reviews the company's profit and loss statement at monthly partnership meetings, which include all employees. He will admit that, on occasion, it has hurt him a little to be so open. But it's better for an executive to make himself vulnerable than to act in a more typically defensive manner, he insists, since that leads only to rejecting outside ideas. "We need to constantly bring ideas to one another," says Kahl. "We don't have any choice. The world doesn't make exceptions for small companies. Nobody says, 'You're a nice little guy, you should survive.' "

Certainly nobody who knew Manco from its earliest days would have predicted much more than survival for the company. When Jack Kahl joined the business as general manager, in 1963, it was strictly an industrial distributor of tape, bringing in all of $80,000 a year. Over the next eight years, he built sales up to $800,000 by expanding into five states. But, says Kahl, who now owns the company, "I wanted the romance of retail."

There was nothing especially dreamy-eyed about his vision for Manco. Stores sold tape in different sections -- masking tape resided beside paints, electrical tape with small appliances, and so on. Kahl envisioned a display that consolidated all the tapes. But he figured it would take years to make it happen. Giants like Mystik and Arno dominated the business. Then an unexpected opportunity creaked open in 1977, when an energy crunch, combined with arctic temperatures, sent demand for weather stripping soaring. Kahl committed himself to pushing his way into the business. At a trade show late that fall, he stuck around even after the lights had been dimmed. Then he was approached by a buyer for Wal-Mart Stores. That night, they shook hands on a deal for $80,000. It was Manco's largest order ever.

Five or six other major accounts -- hardware chains, home centers, and convenience stores -- soon scrambled to climb aboard. "The dam broke, and we got in everywhere," Kahl says. In 1978 he found himself running a $5-million company with "windfall profits." After so many years of struggling, he knew exactly what kind of company he wanted to build.

To articulate that vision, Kahl and Corbo wrote a 10-page booklet that set down Manco's goal of becoming a high-quality retail supplier. As evidence of their big thinking, they hired an ad agency -- for the first and only time -- to produce the tome, which cost $20,000. They sent it out to customers, suppliers, and employees. Now all they had to do was convince people they were serious.

It wouldn't be easy to do. For help, Kahl found himself devouring business books and exchanging them with Corbo. Case histories piled up on Kahl's desk. Magazines took over the front seat of his car. Stacks of books grew at his bedside. "He began to know that he didn't know," says Bob Dorfmeyer, who heads Manco's advisory board, a group that Kahl decided to form one morning at 4:00, after reading a magazine.

The bookworms soon lifted their heads and began exploring the outside world. Kahl and Corbo visited Cooper Hand Tools, in Raleigh, N.C., a big company they admired for the way it merchandised its products. "I realized you can learn a lot just by talking to these companies," says Kahl. "They are doing things in a bigger way, but you can see the quality, and it sinks into your bones." He also joined the Conference Board, mingling with some major-league CEOs. "It was like standing among the redwood trees," he says. "But I figured if you need to learn, you should learn from the best."

Kahl doesn't pretend that his list of role models is comprehensive. Some he got to know in the course of business. Others he uncovered in his research. Then there are those, like Domino's Pizza, that slipped into his consciousness via more pedestrian routes: his taste buds, for example, or other aspects of his daily life as a consumer.

The lesson from the Domino's coupon? "Domino's is always trying to exceed the customer's expectations," declares Corbo. How can Manco apply that lesson? Maybe the company can give customers whose shipments arrive late a 1% discount on their next order. Jack Kahl vows to bring the matter up at the regular Thursday night meeting, at which employees bat around their discoveries.

"This is our biggest competitive weapon," admits Kahl. "We learn from everyone -- and we learn faster than anyone else."

Here are some of the big-company role models he has found most useful and their major areas of influence at Manco:

The Walt Disney Co.: Merchandising and Marketing

Since Kahl believes retailing is show business, he decided to study a company that had a commanding grasp of that world. So around 1979 he got hold of some books about Walt Disney.

An art book alerted Kahl to the emphasis Disney put on color. Kahl himself had studied color in college, having researched the use of it in greeting cards. With Manco profitable, he decided to hire a designer to come up with a color that would unify and draw attention to Manco's products. The designer proposed a shade of blue; Kahl preferred green. When they opened the argument up to employees, "everyone loved the green," brags Kahl. A retailer later suggested a Sea of Green theme.

Seeking to get closer to Disney's thinking, Kahl and Corbo even hired a former Disney executive for a day -- Kahl persuaded him to accept only $4,000, about one-quarter of his usual take. What particularly struck Kahl was the one question that Disney had posed about every marketing move: "How can we engage the five senses?" A product as boring as duct tape rarely brought any people to their senses.

But the way to engage a customer's emotions, the consultant stressed, was to animate the company -- create a personality for it. Those words spurred Kahl to hatch the "webbed warrior," as Manco's corporate symbol is sometimes called. Around 1980 he began experimenting -- very tentatively, at first -- with the Manco Duck.

Kahl couldn't help noticing that consumers, in their letters, mistakenly referred to his main product as "duck tape." (Actually, they were more correct than they knew; the tape was originally made from a tightly-woven material called duck cloth.) So, he wondered, why not use a duck to sell the tape?

There were good reasons, according to some market researchers Kahl hired. With roughly 20% of consumers, they predicted, that would be one dead duck. Best not to incite negative feelings with such a large portion of the market, the experts advised. To Kahl and Corbo, however, 80% of the market sounded big enough. "We believed in the duck," says Kahl. Not overwhelmingly, though; for a few years, Manco simply affixed a small, lifeless drawing of a baby duck to its packaging. Sales soared from about $8 million in 1979 to $11 million in 1980; by 1982 Manco was grossing nearly $25 million.

Eventually, Kahl, studying the development of Mickey (né Mortimer) Mouse, set off to explore the greater potential of his fine-feathered friend. To make the duck come alive, Kahl worked with a designer, endowing it with soft features and big, round eyes. "The look in the duck's eyes is slightly vulnerable," he explains. "It says, Take care of me. With their protective instincts aroused, consumers feel warmly about the company."

From there, the duck seemed to develop a wardrobe of its own. The do-it-yourself duck, for instance, carried a hammer and wore a painter's hat; the weather-stripping duck donned earmuffs and a scarf; the duck promoting CareMail, Manco's line of mailing and shipping goods, lugged around a mailbag. There was a three-foot duck at trade shows, an eight-inch cardboard duck for point-of-purchase displays, and stuffed ducks to hand out to buyers and send to ruffled consumers. There are even humans who don duck costumes, waddling through personal appearances and occasionally bursting into a song about "duck tape," as Manco now labels it. So protective is Kahl of his company's symbol that he once sent back 3,000 ducks because, he claims, "the eyes looked mean."

Disney, though, helped Kahl with more than creating his alter ego. Mindful of the need to engage all the senses, Kahl also made changes in packaging, switching to a sturdier cardboard and a thicker polyethylene bag. Manco began shrink-wrapping its tape so consumers could separate the rolls without using an ax. And Kahl added such tiny details as a history of duct tape on the back of the label and a brightly colored design on the inside core. It costs an extra quarter of a cent per roll, but "it has a subliminal effect. It's part of an image," Kahl insists. He even gave special attention to the sound of duct tape, the scrunch that it makes as consumers unroll it. Kahl chose all-natural rubber adhesives, as opposed to reclaimed or synthetic rubber, and added a special chemical coating for extra resistance. "People equate that kind of toughness with strength," he says.

Given Manco's growth, it's no wonder that Kahl refers to the duck as "Dale Carnegie in feathers." He adds: "A big fuzzy friendly duck says, Buy me. And the duck conveys that this is a company that cares about what it does. After all, we went to the trouble of creating it."

Wal-Mart Stores Inc.: Communication and Leadership

Kahl and Corbo set a new direction for Manco in 1978, when they composed their manifesto. They understood exactly where they wanted the company to go -- away from industrial customers and onto the retail floor, away from shoddy products and toward quality -- but they had a hard time getting their 35 or so employees to sign on. "The company wasn't knit together," admits Kahl. Nerves were getting more and more frayed. At one point Kahl's anger drove him to smash his fist into a wall, shattering two of his knuckles.

Kahl's frustrations didn't come from dreaming about a better way. He witnessed firsthand a company that worked "as one great, exciting team" every time he was invited to a Saturday meeting in Bentonville, Ark., where Wal-Mart, Manco's top customer, is based. At those meetings, says Kahl, "all the walls came down and people could slow down, dress in jeans, and see the bigger picture." He tried to describe the feeling to his employees, but, he says, "everybody was running so fast, all I could do was grab one person at a time."

Until 1982 he hesitated to institute such a get-together because he feared his employees would quit rather than show up. But when he went ahead with the company-wide meeting, some did appear, and attendance has stabilized at about 45 people now that Kahl has switched the meeting to Thursday night.

At noon on the day of the big meeting, Manco's six-member executive committee meets for two or three hours. "We learn everywhere," says Kahl. "At the meeting, we collect that learning." And they act on it. Four years ago one executive reported that Wal-Mart seemed interested in carrying shipping materials like boxes and bubble wrap. Within two weeks Manco had conceived its CareMail line; four months later it was in the stores. CareMail now represents nearly 25% of sales.

Kahl sometimes invites guest speakers, ranging from chairmen of Fortune 500 companies to an inspirational race-car driver. Kahl himself has been known to carry on at length. His sons -- aside from John, 26-year-old Bill serves as national accounts manager -- planted an hourglass on the table in front of him. But Kahl just stops talking long enough to flip it.

The larger meeting begins shortly after 5:00. Anyone can attend. Salespeople give reports on their territories. "We tell employees everything," says Corbo. "We don't hold back." Someone may bring in a magazine or newspaper article that merits discussion. On one recent Thursday, Kathleen Matkovic, a telemarketer, brought in a photo of one store's special CareMail display. To spark ideas, Kahl may ask everyone to watch a film; he recently screened the 10 best TV commercials, leading to a talk about humor and emotion as selling tools. The meeting ends by 7:30. Often, though, employees retire afterward to nearby Getty's Bar. "A real bond develops," says Kahl.

So enamored has he become of this idea swapping that -- inspired again by Wal-Mart -- he completely reorganized his 10-member sales department. About five years ago, explains John Kahl, Manco unexpectedly lost a major piece of business, causing the company to reexamine the quality of its communication with its salespeople. Though most were supposed to file weekly reports, few actually did. Looking toward Wal-Mart, Jack Kahl noticed that most of its salespeople were based in Arkansas, flying out to their territories. Soon Kahl had all his people right where he wanted them: Cleveland. "Now," says John, "ideas spread quicker."

At 4:15 every Monday, all the salespeople who aren't out on the road meet at headquarters. They share ideas -- for instance, about seasonal promotions. Recently, one salesperson told the others about a successful promotion that involved selling two packs of duct tape at a special price. "They all got out there and got their plans set with other retailers before our competition even caught on to it," says John. Because salespeople are at the company -- as opposed to being represented by faceless faxes -- they have a much easier time pushing through custom orders or especially important customer requests. "It's the conviction in their voices," says John. "The urgency comes across."

Even though salespeople have to travel out to their territories, the system isn't as expensive as it sounds. Because they have limited time, they plan their trips more efficiently. The company also saves money by buying nonrefundable tickets, and there are no company cars. Last year, with sales of $60 million, Manco spent only $155,000 on travel and entertainment for its 10 salespeople. The benefits, though intangible, are real. "If I were just in my territory," explains Steve Janas, a national account manager, "there's information that I might not get back to the company for a week."

But Kahl doesn't want employees to hold back on any of their ideas. He urges them to be fearlessly innovative, even at the risk of looking silly. And he's perfectly willing to look foolish himself. In 1984 Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton embodied this daring spirit by performing a hula dance down Wall Street. Last October Kahl demonstrated his own prodigious wiggling skills.

It was, by all accounts, quite a sight. There was Kahl, clad in a Manco green sweater, brandishing a Manco bath towel, and trailed by the West Lake High School band. On the shores of the small lake out front, he peeled down to a microscopic black bathing suit, which, when he bent over in a particularly unflattering way, read "the $60-million plunge." Kahl had promised that if sales hit that number, he would literally jump in the lake. During the last two days of the fiscal year, some salespeople worked round the clock, pushing sales to $60.09 million. "People wanted to see the big duck in the water," says John Kahl.

After his brief but frigid dip, Jack Kahl scampered to the company cafeteria, where he handed out bonus checks. "It was outrageous," recalls Donna Rae Smith, a sales consultant who was among the invited guests. "But there was a real sense of fun, joy, and accomplishment. He was saying to his people, I want you to do risky things."

Indeed, says Kahl, it's crucial for companies to create "a language and a culture that allows failure," as Wal-Mart has done. He has tried. Four years ago Manco brought out a specially treated double-sided tape aimed at painters and other contractors. The product's selling point, allegedly, was that it left no adhesive residue. It made no mark on consumers, either. "It became what is known as a genuine dog," concedes Kahl. Wal-Mart, in fact, had to mark it way down just to get rid of it. The venture cost Manco some $200,000, plus "slight damage in reputation," he says.

Nevertheless, Kahl behaved gracefully. "I didn't beat up on my marketing guy," he says. "We all felt bad, but what can you do? You cut bait and you laugh about it."

To no one's surprise -- least of all Kahl's -- Wal-Mart didn't fire its buyer, either.

Rubbermaid Inc.: Measuring Innovation

"All I know," says Jack Kahl, "is that if I study excellent companies, I come up with excellent ideas."

Not all of those ideas are as broad or as sweeping as the ones Kahl has adapted from Disney and Wal-Mart. In 1987 he and Corbo were attending a trade show when an executive from Rubbermaid happened by. He said he had heard about Manco through Wal-Mart. Some insiders believe that Rubbermaid may have been interested in acquiring Manco. In any case, Kahl left the show with an invitation to visit sometime soon. "I take every opportunity to see a good company," he says.

When Kahl and Corbo made the trip, Corbo immediately spotted all the charts that served as wallpaper in the office of the vice-president of R&D. The graphs seemed to track atypical activities, such as creating new molds. "What really struck me was the idea that innovation is something you have to measure and focus on," says Corbo. "They innovate by plan." When he asked about it, the executive handed Corbo a book to study. Returning to Manco, he worked on figuring out just what vital signs he ought to chart. He had the measurements up on his wall within two weeks.

Corbo's wall now features charts that measure, among other things, the number of new customers so far this year, the number of quality improvements, the number of new products introduced, gross margins by product category, and the number of million-dollar ideas since 1986 (there have been seven). At the start of each year, Corbo sets goals in these areas. "American car companies say they are working to improve," he explains. "Then you go to Japanese factories, and you see that they have 20 systems to make sure they are working to improve." Last year, for instance, Manco landed at least 50 new customers and kept gross margins stable.

The company's goals for this year include selling $3 million worth of additional products into existing accounts. "If you just sit down and pound out commodities, you can watch your gross margins disappear," says Corbo. "Goal setting works. By keeping these goals visible and focusing on them, we force ourselves to make the innovation happen."

PepsiCo Inc.: Recruitment and Hiring

Kahl feels a kinship with many of the companies he watches. Just as Domino's has to fight Pizza Hut, he must constantly outmaneuver 3M, his corporate nemesis. But the scrappiest of underdogs, as far as he's concerned, is PepsiCo.

Owing to his careful reading of books and annual reports (he even bought stock in PepsiCo and knows someone who knows someone on its board) Kahl can recite the company's every parry in its match against Coke, going back to 1939. He argues that Pepsi's success rests largely on one skill: its ability to optimize the talents of young people.

There was a time, in 1982, when Kahl believed that to grow, Manco needed to hire big-company veterans. "We brought them in from number one companies," he recalls, "and we found out that they had been motivated by fear and coercion. They were teaching our people the wrong methods." Salespeople, for instance, routinely irritated dealers by overloading them with inventory -- a tactic that became clear only as retailers and brokers began computerizing. And many salespeople did just about anything to bring business in, creating what were essentially kickback schemes that exploited loopholes in Manco's systems. "They'd screw their own company to make a deal," says Kahl. It was only when son John joined up, in 1985, that those shenanigans came to light.

Inspired by Pepsi, Jack Kahl found a better way. There, he learned, an $800-million division could be in the hands of a 24-year-old. He set up internship and recruitment programs with colleges. Manco now has a well-defined fast track. It's not unusual for a fresh recruit to be taken to a trade show, then invited to dine with a big-name buyer. "You have to bring people there to experience it," says Corbo. "You teach them and be a role model for them so they can grow into their roles." One young salesman -- with only six months under his belt -- recently went along on a visit to K mart, an important customer.

There exists, among the best and brightest junior staff members, a coveted invitation: one to sit in on an executive committee meeting. Kahl trusts them to stay mum about such matters as prospective acquisitions. He may even ask them to make a presentation to the group, outlining a new benefits plan or dissecting a competitor's product. "They get to improve on their speaking skills," he says. "The secret is to give young people an opportunity to grow."

The fast-trackers apparently repay the favor. "They constantly challenge us," says Corbo. "We have to go out and get enough new accounts, find enough new opportunities, and come up with enough new products to keep them from getting bored."

Jack Kahl is leaning against the doorjamb of Tom Corbo's office, his head lowered in thought. Son Bill rests against the opposite wall while John fidgets in a chair. Corbo broods over a yellow pad. No one seems to notice when Sam Walton, complete with trademark cap, walks by.

It's not really Walton, of course. But employees have dressed up for Halloween: there are at least two Draculas and a dour-looking frog. One employee decided to become Walton for the day, having heard so much about this particular role model.

Just now, though, another big company is dominating the thoughts of Manco's managers. A valuable bit of information has come in from the sales staff: a major discount chain is changing its home-improvement department. The Kahls and Corbo are busy dissecting. Why would the chain make that move? The do-it-yourself stores are eroding margins, someone suggests. Someone else thinks other chains may soon follow suit. "Well," says Jack Kahl, lifting his head, "we'll have to figure out what this means."

That, as he sees it, is Manco's main business: collecting information and making sense of it. Forget whether the duct tape sticks or not; if it didn't, competitors would long ago have drowned the Manco Duck. In an era of overcapacity -- not just in retailing, of course, but in industries such as trucking and car making -- and fickle consumer habits, a company must pin its survival on such intangibles as a knowledgeable and motivated work force. Finding and trying ideas keeps everyone connected and committed. "We just keep learning from one another," says Kahl.

Manco has even incorporated its quest for ideas into a marketing image. For the past two years, Kahl has been producing "Duck Tales," a newsletter he sends to 8,000 people. In it, Kahl -- using the voice of the Manco Duck -- relays information about retailing and about business philosophy in general. He talks about trends he's picked up in Fortune or by reading books or by attending the speeches of big-time CEOs. He never mentions duct tape. Similarly, Kahl sends books to customers: Sam Walton, for one, has received The Next Economy and What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School, among others. "It creates business because people want to be associated with somebody who is doing something other than just peddling," says Randall Root, president of the publishing company that helps Kahl edit the newsletter. "People are drowning in promotion but starved for perspective."

And Kahl's perspective is ever widening: these days he's interested in learning from the technological leaps of Toys "R" Us and The Limited; he wants to know more about how the retailer The Body Shop uses education in its point-of-purchase materials; he's intrigued by Ralph Lauren's singular approach to merchandising. Following this group of role models may help Manco achieve Kahl's latest goal. He aims to build a $1-billion business within the next decade.

Should Manco hit that figure, Kahl may find himself starved for useful role models. Whom would he look to for ideas about running such an enterprise? "I'll study the same people that all the big guys study," he says. "When the