Thursday, 25 October 2012 16:29

NACE Keynote Speech Focuses on Thinking about Business

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During his keynote address at the 2012 International Autobody Congress & Exposition (NACE) in New Orelans, LA, last month, former CARSTAR CEO Dick Cross offered his corollary to a Mahatma Gandhi quote by telling a crowd of 800 attendees, “A business is but the product of the CEO’s thoughts. What she thinks, it becomes.”

It’s a concept NACE organizers themselves may need to keep in mind as they acknowledged that while this year’s show offered “some big wins,” it also was down slightly in terms of both exhibitors and attendees.

Twenty minutes, three times a week
Cross kicked off the event by saying that although the business successes that he’s had that were cited in his introduction are true, his career has not been a “charmed path.”


“I have probably over two-and-a-half decades made every business mistake that everyone in this audiences has made, and maybe even some of them that you would never make,” Cross said. “Unintentionally, I have made decisions that have hurt business performance. I have failed to create circumstances that would allow everyone to make their contribution to the cause. I have terminated people that I have wondered in the aftermath whether it was the right thing to do. There were times in my career when I hesitated to lay my job as CEO on the line, to stand my ground for what I knew was right. But as painful as all those things are to remember and think about, they are the things that drove my obsession to understand and to become very good, at the job at the top.”

In addition to leading CARSTAR from 2005–10, Cross has been brought in by private equity firms to run a half-dozen other under-performing companies, and through his consulting firm, he said he’s helped more than 150 other CEOs improve their company’s performance. He said one of the biggest failings he sees among many business owners and CEOs is not regularly setting aside time to just think about the business.

“For most of us in this room, thinking is the hardest work that we have to do,” he said. “If there’s anything else to occupy our time besides thinking, we’ll generally be doing it. My observation is that about 90 percent of the time, most of the CEOs in the United States are doing things that have nothing to do with this job at the top. But thinking helps you understand what the possibilities of your business could be, and helps you to understand generally how to make it happen.”

He offered several “big picture” ways that CEOs should think about the business. For example, he said that businesses are like products in that they have a lifecycle; they begin with an idea, an embryo, and then some go on to grow and mature. Whether they go on to continued success or wither and die, Cross said, is often up to the person at the top, who can either get complacent and coast—usually leading to the company’s demise—or who can restart the cycle by finding a new set of customers for the business or by finding other ways to serve the needs of existing customers.

Cross said good CEOs also recognize the difference between leadership and management. Leadership, he said, sets in front of others very enticing goals and helps make them want to help achieve those things. Management is only about assembling the resources needed to execute on that vision.

At CARSTAR, he cited as an example, he worked to help everyone in the organization realize their purpose wasn’t to just fix cars.

“The purpose of CARSTAR became: We help people though a crisis in their lives,” Cross said.

The kind of thinking that makes companies succeed, Cross said, can be accomplished by those at the top who set aside 20 minutes a day, three days a week, to tune out other day-to-day distractions and just think about the business.

“Running a business is not a full-time job,” Cross said. “You probably spend most of your time doing other stuff, stuff that others ought to be doing themselves rather than having you do it. But you can do a great job running your business 20 minutes, a day three days a week, thinking about those things.”

Show leaders offer their view
Two years after shifting away from holding NACE in Las Vegas each fall, event organizers cited a number of reasons attendance may have been down this year, from the still-slowly-recovering economy to the New Orleans location, which has fewer shops than Orlando within an easy-to-drive distance.

“Attendance at all the key (show) events was up,” Lindsay Roberts of Hanley Wood, who manages the show for its sponsor, the Automotive Service Association, said just hours before the show closed. “We had some major players who hadn’t exhibited at the show for a while. We got some of the paint companies back. We got some of the OEMs back. But we are a little disappointed. Total attendance is going to be down. It’s pretty hard to compare to the Orlando last year where we up over 20 percent from the 2010 event.  We had really hoped we would see that growth through to this year. We’ll release final numbers probably within the next five to seven days. But we do think we’re going to be slightly down over last year.”

But Roberts chiefly cited a continued decline in the number of companies exhibiting at the show, which is down about 17 percent from as recently as 2010.

“What we need is more product, more exhibitors on the show floor,” Roberts said. “We need to give attendees three days worth of product and people to network with. We need the executives from these major companies who were here walking the aisles to have booth space on the show floor and to support the show.”

She did say that more than 40 companies have already signed on for next year’s event, up one-third from the number who had signed contracts for this year’s show during the 2011 event.

But NACE organizers have also given themselves the added challenge of holding the 2013 event in Las Vegas next October 16–19—in the same city just two weeks before SEMA, which has been working to attract collision repair industry exhibitors and attendees.

That may have been one of the reasons NACE organizers took the unprecedented step of also announcing that two years from now NACE will again be on the east coast, returning to the city that hosted the very first NACE back in 1983: Nashville, TN.


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