InForum May

Posted on May 1, 2009 :: Features
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Cheryl Perkins, Innovationedge, Founder & President

Obstacles to business success are everywhere today. Nobody has all the answers – but successful leaders in the New North have found innovative ways to profit and thrive.

To share the best advice with our business-to-business readers, Insight magazine has teamed up with Innovationedge to launch InForum: A conversation on a provocative topic designed to connect you with thought leaders for insight on innovative ideas that work.

A champion of “disruptive innovation” for Fortune 500 companies worldwide, Cheryl Perkins, founder and president of Neenah-based Innovationedge, led our first InForum on March 30 at Insight magazine’s offices in Appleton. Excerpts of her conversation with four regional business leaders appear on these pages and online.

Go ahead, take away key nuggets of advice you can use in your own business in the quotes on these pages. Or go deep, and listen to the resulting audio slide show and video excerpts online at

Q: How do you innovate in challenging economic times?

InForum takeaways
Several themes resonated in the recent conversation among our gathering of leaders, according to Innovationedge President Cheryl Perkins.

“In these economic turbulent times, customers, consumers and businesses are behaving more cautiously and carefully evaluating purchases down to core benefits and values, and delaying decisions whenever possible,” Perkins says. “History shows that when the economy stumbles badly, innovative companies use this as an opportunity to create and deliver breakthrough innovation. Our panelists were willing to rethink the way products and services are created and delivered resulting in value-driven innovations, increased productivity and reduced costs.”

Perkins suggests businesses can innovate in this economy by:

Staying Innovative. The economic turbulence today creates vast new opportunities for those bold enough to pursue them. It’s more important than ever to listen to your end users and search for those unmet needs that are easier to identify during economic difficulties. Surprise your customers or consumers with even more value. We know they are using greater discretion in their purchasing decisions. If your products or services are not meaningfully differentiated, your customers will be more likely to use their checkbooks to purchase your competitors’ products or services.

Building partnerships to create a balanced portfolio and leveraging the capabilities, knowledge and experience of others to realize economies of scale or expand offerings. Also, energize business development strategies by utilizing social media connecting and increased networking. Use the power of inspired user groups to accelerate innovation while utilizing virtual volunteer consultants. When other companies are focusing solely on keeping their current base business, make it a priority to generate new business.

Strengthening your corporate culture. Continually foster a culture of innovation that creates competitive advantage through your people. There is no better time to do so. Make it clear to your team that your culture supports innovation and growth. They’ll likely see this as a strong leadership focused on long-term direction, showing no evidence of short-term panic. Top management can help by challenging employees for ideas that address the key – but clearly articulated – issues.

Communicating, communicating and communicating. This is not the time for cutting back on communications with employees, customers and consumers but rather the time for finding creative ways to increase communication to deliver a message of value and of hope.

InForum facilitator
Cheryl Perkins launched Innovationedge in 2007. With more than 20 years of experience directing growth and innovation, she most recently served as the senior vice president and chief innovation officer for Kimberly-Clark. She ran the company’s innovation and enterprise growth organizations, including research and development, engineering, design, new business, global strategic alliances, environment, safety and regulatory affairs, and oversaw innovation. She has 10 U.S. patents and several more pending. In 2006 BusinessWeek magazine chose Cheryl as one of the Top 25 Champions of Innovation in the world.

Michael Nowak “We don’t have the nebulous consumer out there buying our product that you can’t measure; we sell business-to-business, so we know that those people are coming back every month or every week ordering or re-ordering and when there’s a problem, it shows itself fairly quickly. We do surveys and things like that to make sure that we are where the customer wants us to be, but in general it’s more of that personal touch – the service people, the salespeople staying in touch with them and making sure that their experience has been good.”

Michael Nowak is president and CEO of Coating Excellence International, a flexible packaging manufacturer which was founded in 1996 in Wrightstown and now employs 350 people.

Mark Skogen “We feel our product is a commodity. You can get the groceries that we’re selling anywhere, so why will people shop with us? We continue to hammer home it’s because we have better people who are willing to take care of customers unlike anywhere else. We want to make sure that when people are sitting around talking about customer service and where they’re treated well, we really need to be top of mind. That’s how our model works. There are other ways to do it. You can focus on price as your main objective, or size of store or variety. And those things do matter to us as well, but the top priority is how much the shopping experience can be better at our store. I think that stands the test of time.”

Mark Skogen is president and CEO of Festival Foods, a retail grocer with 13 stores employing 1,300 people. He is based in Green Bay.

Catherine Tierney “Our people are getting feedback continuously. On a bi-monthly basis we do a significant sampling of our member owners to see if they feel comfortable enough about the way we serve them to recommend us to other people. If a member has any kind of an issue, a compliment or complaint, my direct e-mail and phone number is published, and they take advantage of it! But I have a lot of them say, ‘Where else can you do business with a billion-dollar plus institution and pick up the phone and talk to the president?’ I consider those calls, as difficult as they are sometimes, a real gift, because people can vote with their feet and their wallets and not have to tell us why they’re walking away.”

Catherine Tierney is president and CEO of Appleton-based Community First Credit Union, a $1.3 billion, full-service financial institution with 22 locations throughout Northeast Wisconsin.

John Toussaint “The urgency (in health care) is clearly there. We’re sort of on the verge, in my mind, of a crisis at this point because of the cost. The thing we’ve done over recent years is to begin to really look at the waste that exists in the industry. There may be as much as a trillion dollars of waste in health care in this country. We believe that, in a $2.3 trillion industry, if you could take a trillion dollars of waste out it would have an impact on our cost. From an American perspective it’s certainly making us less competitive globally.
…”The reality is we’ve all got to change. So using a different design methodology, we actually value stream things out; we take waste out, we change peoples’ roles and responsibilities and we reduce costs.”

John Toussaint is the CEO of the ThedaCare Center for Healthcare Value. Formerly CEO of ThedaCare, an integrated health care delivery system based in Appleton, his new role is one of national scope, working to address issues of cost control, transparency and payment systems in health care.

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