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When building a business, success can be in the details, Skokie entrepreneur helps owners of firms get handle on chaos.

“I was mired in everything that was not about architecture,” he said. “I had bales of mail all over the place and nothing was standardized.” While Joel Berman’s business is all about architecture and design, that focus kept getting lost in the shuffle.

When a client asked to see his insurance papers Berman had to spend time looking for them. The chaos amounted to lots of stress and less time spent focusing on what Berman knows best–designing commercial and residential buildings.

Like a lot of entrepreneurs who are skilled in a specialty other than business organization, Berman, president of 3-year-old Joel Berman Architecture & Design Ltd. in Chicago, knew he needed a system but didn’t know how to develop it.

Then he met Michael Kramer, a CPA-trained entrepreneur who had created a multimillion- dollar pharmaceutical business later sold to another firm. In the process Kramer invented a way of organizing his small business that would support its growth.

Now Kramer, president of “Think Small. Win Big,” a Skokie-based leadership consultancy, is offering his system to other entrepreneurs.

“It takes years of hard pain to learn the hard lessons that structure comes before the success,” Kramer said. “Most entrepreneurs are more creative than organized,” he said. But when it comes to building a business, success is in the details.

A lack of infrastructure can limit a firm’s growth, Kramer said. All small-business owners, regardless of their industry, “need management practices to support and sustain the success of their business,” he said.

Kramer, who last year won an award for most innovative program from the Duman Microenterprise Center at Jewish Vocational Service in Chicago, spent more than two years creating standardized systems for small-business owners.

He identified 13 areas requiring management, such as internal processes, accounting and finance, sales and marketing, and employee relations. Then he came up with six step-by-step tools, providing templates and decision trees for process standardization, project management, marketplace analysis and strategic planning, among others.

Still, the hard part is convincing small-business owners to set aside time to put the systems into action.

Berman spent 16 hours organizing his office, putting his most important files in one easy-to-manage box, streamlining his process for writing proposals and contracts and standardizing production of construction drawings.

“I stopped what I was doing, organized and pushed my work back at night,” he said.

The effort was well worth it, he said. With a better-organized business, Berman is less stressed out. “It’s the craziness and chaos that I’ve really stepped away from,” he said.

Now when he meets a potential client, he brings his standard proposal information form and knows exactly what questions to ask and how to write it up. “It saves me lots of time,” he said.

In the year since Berman established the systems, he said, he has cut the time it takes to produce drawings by 55 percent and now can write a complex proposal in 90 minutes, instead of the four to five hours it used to require.

What’s more, he has doubled his project load and increased his monthly income by about 75 percent, he said.

With his back office in order, Berman has time for strategic planning. He has made a strong effort to look for more commercial work and residential clients who aren’t looking for just the lowest, commodity bid.

“I’m able to focus and concentrate and deal more with providing much better designs and higher levels of service to my customers,” he said.

Small-business owners often “need to take a break to strengthen the infrastructure to make sure their high level of quality can be sustained as they bring on new business,” Kramer said. “It’s something that is learned in the school of hard knocks.”

After expanding to three locations in three years without putting standardized operating procedures in place, Glenview-based North Shore Pediatric Therapy Inc., which provides occupational, speech and physical therapy, was growing faster than founder and chief executive Deborah Michael could manage.

In early 2004 her husband, Dr. David Michael, took time off from his medical practice to help as the business’ chief operating officer. But getting on top of the situation proved challenging.

“You’re attending to the fires,” without making real headway, he said.

Just staying on top of the supplies for the three offices “was a constant problem. We were always running out of this and that,” he said.

Since adopting Kramer’s concept of detailed systems nearly a year ago, however, the situation has improved, David Michael said. Michael has put in place standard operating procedures for ordering supplies, cleaning rooms and other routine tasks, improving work flow.

Ultimately, every business task becomes easier when it has a documented and verifiable system, he said. Since doing a marketplace analysis, Michael knows what the 5-year-old company’s strengths and weaknesses are and has an idea of what types of marketing initiatives will work best.

He has beefed up the company’s Web site, after research showed it was luring a significant number of clients.

And hiring and training workers is easier once procedures are written for how duties should be performed. “Orientation is a snap,” he said.

“I’ve actually put the brakes on growth this year,” he said. Once all systems are in place, he said, “It’ll be a strong company that’s ready to grow and can grow quickly because I’ve done all my homework.”

02 May 05  By: Joel Berman

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