Business can be a balancing act. And for three of Detroit’s inner city CEOs, success has come with the ability to juggle two seemingly opposite forces: change and consistency. The forces of change – including business growth and the pursuit of new entrepreneurial opportunities – must balance the forces of consistency – which hold certain core values and ideas as an anchor to each company.
Last week, Zafar Iqbal of PTI – Quality Containment Solutions, Perry Mehta of FutureNet Group and Tammy Tedesco of Edibles Rex gathered to discuss how their firms – each a multi-year winner of the Inner City 100 award – have leveraged these two forces as complementary tools for success. Each emphasized the importance of their company’s unique balancing act; even as their firms have grown and changed rapidly, they have deliberately chosen and maintained certain key principles as a guide.
The panel, co-hosted by Staples and ICIC at the TechTown business innovation hub, brought local entrepreneurs together to learn from these leading CEOs and discuss their own challenges. Also present were key members of the economic development community, including the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation.
Kevin Moss, Senior Vice-President at Staples Advantage, delivered welcome remarks and praised the emphasis that the panelists placed on employees, customers and the city around them. “You could tell that they create a great working, “we” culture,” he said of Iqbal, Mehta and Tedesco.
Moderator Dustin Walsh, a senior reporter at Crain’s Detroit Business, encouraged attendees to think about core values in the most concrete sense possible, avoiding empty platitudes and focusing instead on day-to-day actions. Among the panelists, the importance of flexibility and constant evolution emerged as a key driving force for business success, grounded in each case by a dedication to the human side of the business.
For Tedesco of Edibles Rex, the ability to identify and move into new opportunities without losing her company’s identity was essential. Originally a corporate and event catering firm, Edibles Rex shifted its focus after being approached by local charter schools 15 years ago, and now serves 15,000 healthy meals each day to schoolchildren in Detroit and beyond.
The shift allowed Tedesco’s firm to focus more closely on impact, not only providing inner city students with healthy food, but also providing their parents with jobs, particularly important in unemployment-plagued Detroit. In 2014, Edibles Rex drew most of its staff from the neighborhood surrounding its office. As her business became more closely connected to the ebb and flow of the school year, Tedesco became concerned about the impact of laying staffers off each summer vacation, so she sought summer programs as new customers. This move not only expanded the business but has also helped the firm avoid seasonal layoffs for the past five years and counting.
Working in the automotive supply chain industry, Iqbal of PTI – Quality Containment Solutions said he has learned to survive and thrive during economic upheaval, and that his firm’s focus on taking care of its staff has given it stability in even the most turbulent times. Many of PTI’s staff members have been with the company for over a decade, he said, and PTI’s emphasis on promoting internally helps motivate employees to constantly grow professionally as the company itself grows. Iqbal noted that PTI fills nearly all mid- and senior-level management positions with current employees.
Mehta of FutureNet echoed Iqbal’s dedication to employees, noting that the perennial problem of employee turnover should be addressed not only with higher pay and better benefits – someone else will always be able to offer more – but also with shared mission.
“Having your managers buy into your vision as an owner really leads to long-term commitment,” he observed.
The central values of flexibility and integrity have kept FutureNet, an $85 million security and infrastructure solutions company, grounded as it has expanded internationally and begun working with clients in new sectors and new countries.
Moderator Dustin Walsh emphasized the potential of high-growth firms like those of the panelists to impact the city of Detroit via job creation. He noted that over 70 percent of jobs within the city are held by residents of the suburbs, and that providing opportunities for inner city residents is both “for the greater good and greater for business overall.”