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Michael König plans the next move

Feature, Perspective | March 1, 2013 | By:

Michael König focuses on business planning and growth—every week.

“You have to know where you’re going in business. You have to have a plan,” says Michael König, president of OFPANZ, New Zealand’s branch of IFAI; and owner and president of Sunshade Group NZ Ltd., incorporating Rainbow Shade Products, 0800 Sunshade and Douglas Auto & Marine Upholstery, all based in Hastings, New Zealand. “It doesn’t have to be a 10-page document but you do need to set some goals—simple goals that you can refer to on a regular basis to let you know if you’re still on track.”

After years working in senior roles in the international pharmaceutical and food industries, and most recently as chief executive officer for a large fruit processing company, Mike decided to leave corporate life. “I wanted to try something else,” Mike says. “There was too much travel and too much corporate politics.” He spent a year using his business experience to mentor and coach young business people, while looking for a small business to purchase. Mike eventually came across a small group of companies in the outdoor fabric industry; one that operates as an importer and distributor and the other two as fabricators. He and his wife Sandy purchased the group at the onset of the recession—on April Fool’s Day 2008.

A step back to plan

Though Mike knew little at first about fabricating shade products, he knew quite a bit about how to run a business. He concentrated on the business side of things, asking himself the same questions he would put to his mentees: Where do you want to be in three years’ time? In order to achieve that, where do you need to be in one year’s time? And in order to achieve that, what do you have to accomplish in the next three, six and nine months? “People put a lot of effort into planning their annual two-week vacation—they know where they are going, how they will get there and what they will do once they arrive,” Mike says. “Should they not put the same level of effort into planning the future of their business?”

To learn some of the manufacturing specifics, he looked to employees and other manufacturers and suppliers. “The learning curve is still very steep, but we’ve got very good people on our team,” Mike says. “For technical details I rely very heavily on our production manager, who has been in the industry 30 years.”

On an ongoing basis Mike now tries to take one day a week to work from home—removing himself from the day-to-day responsibilities of running the business so he can focus on business improvement and growth. “You need quiet time to think about things,” he says. “Last week I spent most of the day writing down a whole lot of ideas regarding what I think we need to do with one of the businesses. At the end of the day when I pulled it all together, I had a rough-cut business plan for the year for that company. I would not have been able to do that in the office with the phone ringing and people walking in.”

Expert input

The next step for Mike is always to take his thoughts to the rest of the team to get their input. “Some of the best ideas come from the floor rather than the corner office,” he says. “I extract the main points and present them and ask: What do you make of these? What will work? What haven’t I thought of?”

Mike and his production manager also conduct weekly shop floor meetings during which each person is asked to raise something they have learned in the last week, or something they are proud of or feel badly about. “The more consultative and inclusive you become the more you are able to harness all the intelligence, experience and ideas of the team,” he says.

At the weekly meetings one person is also tasked with presenting a learning point on processes, procedures or health and safety, and Mike talks about where the business is at, based on measurements he collects. Among those measurements are cost summaries for each job, including an itemization of material used, costs, standard labor and actual labor. “If there’s a big discrepancy I go back to the team to talk about what happened and what we might have learned from the job,” he says. Mike also collects weekly management reports that reflect the bigger picture. “Because we keep a finger on the pulse of the company, the results shown in the detailed monthly profit and loss statements are generally not a big surprise.”

Strategic shade

One important focus for Mike and his companies is providing shade for schools, since New Zealand has the highest per capita rate of melanoma skin cancer in the world. To help address that problem, 0800 Sunshade has partnered with the Cancer Society of New Zealand’s SunSmart Program to present on UV-preventative shade options to schools and conferences.

Mike’s company also goes into schools and preschools and conducts shade audits to help the schools decide if they need additional shade and what would best fill those needs—and the school’s budget. They first assess what is already on the grounds in the way of shade, such as trees. Then they look at the number of people using the grounds and the traffic flow. “You have to keep in mind the safety of the kids as well,” he says. “You don’t want to have too many poles that kids might run into. And it’s no good putting up an expensive structure in an area not well used by children or teachers.” One of the factors frequently overlooked, Mike points out, is that UV is strongly reflected from surfaces. “You have to consider that reflective UV as well as that directly from the sun.”

For Mike, customer service drives all his business decisions—whether he’s planning for the company’s future, or problem solving a project. “Excellence in customer service and workmanship is our key competitive advantage in a highly competitive industry, and we have to deliver on that each and every time—from the way we greet the customer and respond to their inquiry, solve their problem right through to delivering on their expectation,” Mike says. “Do the right thing by the customer—even if it costs.”

Sigrid Tornquist is a freelance author and editor based in St. Paul, Minn. She is also the associate editor of InTents magazine, a publication of the Industrial Fabrics Association International.

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